A House of My Own: Stories from My Life (Cisneros)

In Susan Shillinglaw’s On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, she advises readers to dip into her book for a bit and then the Steinbeck and to repeat the cycle. I probably should have done that with Cisneros’ extensive collection of short pieces and my recent re-read of The House on Mango Street. This is a much longer book than Mango, and this one, despite several apparent attempts to do otherwise, is in date order (and therefore in contrast with Mango). Hence, it becomes kind of long. At times, Cisneros comes off as arrogant, both in the pieces themselves and in the introductions she wrote for each for this collection. Still, there are enough gems to make the collection worthwhile. I am still not sure whether I can consider Cisneros more than a one-hit wonder (did anyone read and like Caramelo? I couldn’t get through it), but this collection does suggest she has more to contribute.


Seeing the Better City (Wolfe)

I heard Mr. Wolfe talk before I picked up the book. At the talk, he seemed interesting enough for me to read the book both because of my interest in cities and because of my interest in looking at neighborhoods  as we study The House on Mango Street. It’s pretty good, a bit more extended than it needed to be, and a bit less revolutionary than the language would have you believe. Still, there are a few practical elements I’ll use moving forward for the purposes of school. I’d listen to him talk again, but I don’t think I’d read another one of his books. I do want to tell him to stay away from ridiculous comments about Charles Dickens, though.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Thompson)

Before I read this book, all I knew about Attica came from Dog Day Afternoon. In other words, I didn’t know much. The only reason I bought this book is that it won the Pulitzer, so I was curious. And what an unbelievable and all-too-believable.

The conditions at the prison and the retaking of the prison cannot be easily dismissed. Here we have the very definition of man’s inhumanity to man. How in the world could people let other people live under certain conditions? How could they treat them the way the prison employees, the way the prison doctors, treated those prisoners? I don’t want to gloss over any part of this.

But the way the state of New York then fought so desperately to change the narrative, to hide the narrative, to punish those who’d been punished too much and to ignore those who deserved so much more (and here I mean both the prisoners and the hostages) was just astonishing. To read this book is to look into the face of cold, calculating meanness. To send the families of the employees who’d died a check, a very small check, a very much needed check, as a way to guarantee that they couldn’t pursue other legal means of being compensated. . . I mean, who thinks like that?

And the way it all stretched out – for years and years and years. I’d be reading and Thompson would mention the date, and I’d find myself shocked at how long it took to even begin to right even a few of the very many wrongs that took place at Attica.

This is an amazing, well-narrated, powerful and necessary book.

The Yellow Wind (Grossman)

I have to give Grossman credit here. He did simply pontificate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He makes the conflict human by talking to those it impacts directly. At times, it seems like he must have taken incredible risks to do so, but he does not call attention to his efforts. Instead, he lets the people speak. There are few digressions in history or whatever might be called the bigger picture. He simply lets the people speak and positions himself as a recorder or perhaps interviewer (at most). And the picture, and this book was published in 1988, is not only not good, it is complicated and not good.

Part of the argument here reminds me (in both its content and its truth) of the argument made about slavery. We know (within limits) what being a slave did to people. What did being a slaveholder do to a person? We see here what being occupied does to individuals. The men and, it seems, teens sleeping in a warehouse because they can’t deal with the border on a regular basis, will haunt me. And what, Grossman asks (and I took myself as a part of the audience for this question) does being part of an occupying force do to a person?

Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl)

I mean, you can’t really argue with a Holocaust survivor when he writes about suffering, can you? And much of what Frankl says here makes sense, and his examples are compelling. Still, when he extrapolates a form of theory based on his experiences, I had more questions. Still, this thoughtful book packs a powerful punch, and I’d be interested in re-reading it and discussing it further. Unlike the others I took on a recent trip, I hung on to this one.

Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace (Wright)

Perhaps it’s because I remember when this happened that I found Wright’s book very compelling. As in The Looming Tower, Wright creates a strong and balanced narrative. It is quite a thing to provide depth and nuance to public figures like Carter, Sadat, and Begin, but Wright does just that. He also incorporates a good balance of history to enable the reader to understand the origin of the points of dispute. Just a remarkable story of a remarkable accomplishment. Normally, I’m no fan of psychological arguments about historical events, but I think it works here.

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.