Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (Shipler)

I very much enjoyed David Shipler’s The Working Poor, so I figured if anyone could explain the Middle East to me, then he could. And he does in this, his revised and updated version of his Pulitzer Prize winner. To judge by his additions and footnotes, though, not much has changed. This is a thoroughly discouraging book. The centerpiece of this comes about halfway through this almost 700-page book. (The only reason it’s hard to read because it’s bleak; Shipler is a good writer.) An Israeli mother (and even that term comes up for discussion) laments to Shipler that there are two Arab children that have joined her son’s kindergarten and she wants them out. She’s alarmed that if her own children say they want to play with the Arab children that her personal feelings will weaken her political resolve. At that point, I may have screamed, “Isn’t that the *&^^%( point?”

Shipler tries to find hope in such encounters. He cross cuts a narrative of an organized encounter session with his commentary on current events (and there are some promising elements in the medical field), but this too, because of the lack of support for the program and – and this seems to be the key – Israel’s requirement for military service – ends up leaving Shipler (and the reader) hopeless.

I’ve long since abandoned the notion of peace talks. I know “co-existence talks” don’t have the same ring, but I think that is the most we can even think about trying for, and that, like this book, makes me sad.

Shipler tries to be balanced, and I think he does a fairly good job. But as a Jewish reader, I place more of the responsibility on Israel. We’ve allowed ourselves to become that which we loathed, and that’s more than sad – that’s a disgrace.

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American Hunger (Wright)

I didn’t know until recently that there was a sequel, or continuation, of Black Boy. It mainly focuses on his conflicts with the Communist Party, which is interesting when you consider the presentation of communism in Native Son. It seems like he was working on it around this time. Wright is commenting on his life more than living it, so this one lacks the unique power that makes Black Boy so compelling. I didn’t find much insight here. His comments about his interactions with the Communist Party are predictable. The limited day-to-day stuff, especially about his experience working in life insurance, is more compelling. It’s only 135 pages, so it seems like Wright may not have had much enthusiasm for the project. I think it’s necessary to read, though not necessarily enlightening.

The Orchardist (Coplin)

This was the book I needed now. I’m always grateful for a book that takes place outside of a city I know, outside of a life I know, outside of a time I know. The Orchardist does all of this and somehow Coplin makes it recognizable for an outsider like myself. The main characters are all decent people who have collided with some awful and fully realistic circumstances. They try to negotiate their lives but perhaps it is that people, unlike fruit trees, require more and different kinds of attention. Also unlike the fruit trees, the people who inhabit Coplin’s world may stay in one place, but they cannot stay still. We are all haunted, this book seems to suggest, or at least living with choice,s both made and unmade, both in our control and out of our control. We are forever chasing these choices, somehow, not as obsessively as Ahab, but with a kind of quiet and urgent persistence.

I fell into this book, wanted to meet the people and see the places. I cherished every soft and quiet moment; I think we all need more of these now. And I ached for the pure humanness of the people I feel honored to have met.

And Coplin makes the most of small moments. The purchase of a hat. The lonely decency of Caroline Middey. The intricate design and texture of a gun. The taste of an apricot.

Apparently, it took Coplin 8 years to write this book. I don’t want to rush her, but I’d like another one soon.

Moments of Reprieve (Levi)

I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.

These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.

The Argonauts (Nelson)

This book is difficult to describe or to even categorize. The back of the book calls it “Memoir / Criticism,” a combination I’ve not seen before. At times, it felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation, but that is probably more of a reflection of a lack of experience and knowledge when it comes to the language and issues of gender and sexuality. I was definitely struck by Nelson’s observation that to use language, as she does, is to name and names, indeed words, no matter how many you use, are limiting. And when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, it seems like writing on these issues is akin to trying to lasso the wind. This prompted Nelson’s title:

I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections whick will be forever new.”

I thought he passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

I also appreciated the way Nelson questioned the priorities of the queer community when it comes to the military and marriage. She writes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.” It was not deliberate, but it felt relevant to read this on the same day the White House announced its absurd and vicious intention to ban transgender people from the military. If I am going to enter that conversation, I need to make sure I enter appropriately, and Nelson has opened the door for me a bit. I need to enter without limits and without limiting anyone else.

Much of the book also centers on Nelson’s experience with pregnancy and her “fluidly gendered partner,” Harry. Their attempts, eventually successful, to have a child are juxtaposed with the need for both of them to deal with their respective mothers, both of whom are dying. And for a time, Nelson has a stalker.

Even if I did not always understand the conversation here, I found Nelson’s writing electric. And funny (see above). I look forward to reading more.

About Love and Other Stories (Chekhov, trans. by Bartlett)

I’ve had the good fortune to see a great deal of theatre in my time and one of the first playwrights I swore off of was Chekhov. (The second was Noel Coward.) I just felt like, “Okay, I got this. Enough already.”

Then along came my book club with the suggestion that we consider him first as a short story writer because he’s known as “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived.” And this, from Raymond Carver, not a bad one himself.

I think I only knew of one story before I started in on this collection and that was “The Bet,” which I like. This collection? Not so much. A recipe emerges –

  1. Two people, sometimes known to each other, sometimes not, meet
  2. They talk. A lot.
  3. They talk about Russia, religion, how to live. They tell stories.
  4. End.

I’m not obsessed with plot, but I think something has to happen. Whatever it is people are seeing in this guy, I’m just not getting it.

The Periodic Table (Levi)

I am no chemist. My efforts in high school were absurd (and so was my teacher). But I understood enough to see the chemistry here not just as chemistry – because it was still that. Levi clearly has a high regard for his own vocation as a chemist. But it’s also (and this element was more accessible to me) chemistry as metaphor. The ability to control, transform, analyze, indeed to be rational, when all around you is anything but (i.e., WW2). Science, here, in contrast perhaps to any sense of a deity, is dependable, both in the form of its sometimes monotonous practice and in content. There are rules, laws here – not even a fascist can deny them. Therefore, there is freedom, at least in the mind.

It’s a tough book to classify, which is okay by me. Levi considered it a “micro-history.” I don’t have that category, and since I don’t think it would fit anything else, I did the best I could.