Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel (Shapira)

When our daughter asked me who Ben-Gurion was, I showed her the subtitle of the book and she said, “Wow. That couldn’t have been an easy job.” And she is right. Based on Shapira’s well-focused biography, Ben-Gurion not only faced remarkable challenges in terms of establishing the state of Israel, but also in terms of developing as a leader. Though I don’t agree with Shapira’s rather abrupt contention that Jewish people have some sort of unique inclination to “schism,” dealing with internal factions – a warning George Washington offered the U.S. that we’ve failed to heed – seems to have taken up a great deal of his time. And he did not appear to have been blessed with tremendous interpersonal skills. This could be why his best work was accomplished during a time of crisis. He was unafraid of controversy and contributed to the establishment of the country in such a wide variety of ways. As long as I’ve introduced the comparison to the founding of the United States, I’ll say that he brought Benjamin Franklin to mind, at least with respect to his number and range of contributions.

As I mentioned, I was almost always pleased with how well-focused the biography was. I sensed innumerable times when Shapira could have been tempted to digress for many, many pages. Still, her paragraph, yes paragraph, on how easily Ben-Gurion abandoned his principles when it came to the treatment of Arabs seemed too casual for a topic that has had such long-lasting implications.

This book is part of the Jewish Lives series. I am not sure who should be next – Levi, Brandeis, Marx. Groucho Marx, that is.

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The Missing File (Mishani)

This is a tense novel, in part because it’s partly about the act of writing a mystery by an author who specializes in detective literature. I turned the pages because I was really hoping that I wasn’t right about the whodunit, and I wasn’t (I rarely am) The resolution of the story is disturbing on several levels, because of the assumptions that I made, because of the assumptions the police make, and because of what started the whole problem in the first place.

I think, though, that I am more likely to remember the wrong path I traveled than the details of the ending. Mishani has created a red herring for the ages.

Don’t Call It Night (Oz)

We are all kind of stuck in some way, aren’t we? In our roles, on our jobs, in a place, in a relationship. Oz’s carefully observed study of a relationship demonstrates what happens when things fall apart, not all at once, but slowly, around the edges in places where you don’t always notice or care.

This is small town Israel, but Tel Aviv is encroaching. A student has died due to drugs and the apparently simple act of giving him a pencil has drawn Noa into his father’s plan to build a treatment center in their small town. Theo, her partner (she’s careful to remind others that they are not married) tries to figure out first how to discourage her, then how to involve himself, then how to withdraw himself, and finally how to proceed once he is involved, not just in the plans for the drug rehab clinic but in the life of his cleaning woman and her erratic relatives. Noa moves on to another student determined, I think, to pay her more attention than the student – who was apparently in love with her – who died.

In the end, the relationship is not over, but something has shifted and it’s clear that the equilibrium between them cannot be restored.

Oz’s writing is magnificent. His eye for detail, his deliberate control and lack of control of his prose – all of these elements are magnificent. This novel is dense and economical; I definitely fell into it.

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City (Hoffman)

I enjoyed the first two sections of this. Just as there continue to be battles (of all kinds, including the recently re-ignited one) about what Jerusalem is supposed to be like, there have been battles over competing visions for its development. Hoffman traces the struggles of two architects to impose their vision on the city, a city in which hiring a person or choosing a certain kind of material is seen as a political act.

But the book really takes off in its third part. Here we see more of Hoffman the scholar, as she tries to find traces of an architect named Spyro Houris. I enjoyed the way she switched between her struggles to piece together the mystery and her commentary on what she could learn from related sources and the buildings themselves. She briefly considers the prospect that Houris may be invented (which I had been wondering about myself) but dismisses it (perhaps too quickly?). The other alternative I would have liked to see considered is that ‘he’ was actually a collection of people who used that name as a kind of cover like people used fronts during the McCarthy era. Maybe I’ve just read too many books. Or maybe even thinking about Jerusalem just does that to me.

The House on Mango Street (Cisneros)

For some reason, when I started this blog, I made it a rule not to review books that I teach. Most of the time, they are books I’ve already read. Does the world really need another review of Of Mice and Men, for example? But having just finished Cisneros’ book again, I am reminded of one of my definitions of a classic. Her book hasn’t changed; I have.

If you’d asked me prior to re-reading it, I would have described it as a series of seemingly random vignettes, arguably autobiographical, about growing up as a Mexican-American in Chicago. In my memory, it was a sweet coming-of-age story. Maybe I just missed things the first time around, or maybe I’ve changed and recent circumstances have made it so my eyes are wide open.

The treatment of girls and women in this book is just brutal. Cisneros or Ezperanza’s passion for, a house of her own (the echoes of Woolf were screaming at me), makes perfect sense. Even if the Fates tell her that she’ll always come back to Mango Street, that it’s a part of her, she needs the independence and the safety that come with a house of her own.

The stuff about the vignettes is still true. Cisneros’ figurative language is playful and wonderful. But. . .  wow – a girl getting sexually assaulted repeatedly in what was once a fine garden? Wow.

Maps (Freeman)

My only objection to this wonderful collection is that it’s a collection and not, in my view, a book. Freeman has traveled a great deal. Thus, the more literal definition of maps. But for reasons I could not pick up on, unless it’s to present us with an anti-map approach, he alternated these poems with some deeply more personal ones, maps dare I say, of the human heart. So poems like “Barbers” and “Maps” and “Bomb Shelters of the Oligarchs” are all amazing, but the collection never develops the momentum it deserves.

The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)

Though I am no fan of genres, I did find myself flipping to the back cover of this book more than once because I kept wondering: What is this? Apparently, the author called it a “factless autobiography.” Elsewhere, it’s listed as fiction.

It’s a non-linear meditation. Part-philosophy, part character study. It’s presented in fragments that were, I believe, re-ordered posthumously. But order, I suspect, did not matter much to Pessoa. There are elements of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” here. The ‘character,’ if the author’s persona can be called such a thing, is a clerk who seems to manage accounts. There are parts that I annotated heavily, parts that I found repellent, and parts I didn’t understand.

Though Pessoa would probably reject the notion of reading the book and then discussing it with others, this book definitely proves that it is not good for a reader to be alone.