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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2017

by Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, with Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017)

I, who very rarely buy books and almost never buy them before I have read them (or have at least read an extremely positive review of them), stumbled on this one on a table of new releases at my local Barnes & Noble. The extraordinary coincidences that the narrative is built on are so compelling that I couldn’t resist it. Zahed Haftlang, one of the thousands of Iranian “child soldiers”, and Najah Aboud, a 29-year-old Iraqi soldier, tell their stories in alternate chapters. Thirteen-year-old Zahed, fleeing an abusive home, becomes a medic at the front and witnesses unspeakable horrors. Najah, unhappy to be called up again for the army just when his falafel restaurant is starting to do well and he has just fallen in love, barely sees any action before he is grievously wounded in the battle of Khorramshahr. He comes face to face with Zahed, who is searching the battlefield for wounded Iranians. Miraculously, instead of finishing Najah off, something inspires Zahed to spare him. He then hides him, stabilizes him, and protects him from harm as long as he can, and finally gets him to a hospital. After that, he keeps the strange encounter in his mind for a long time; he prays that the Iraqi will survive his wounds and be able to return to his family.

Najah survives, but he spends seventeen long years in various Iranian POW camps, long past the end of the war. Meanwhile, Zahed spends some time back in his home town, falls in love with a young nurse and plans to marry her, but loses everything when her home is bombed on the day of their engagement party and she is killed along with her entire family. Crazed with grief, Zahed re-enlists and spends several years as a sniper, trying hopelessly to avenge his loss by killing every Iraqi he can. He is captured just before the war ends in 1988, and he spends a couple of years in an Iraqi POW camp, where he is treated brutally by a sadistic commander. But he too survives, returns home, gets married, and starts a family.

Improbably, both men end up in Vancouver, Canada, where they meet again, and Najah is able to pay his debt to Zahed by saving him from his own self-loathing and depression. At the end of the book, each man sums up the impact that their experience had on them. Zahed writes, “Najah, you are the other half of my heart. . . . We saved each other not once but many times over, . . . Your smile turns a light on inside me, and I thought of you often during my captivity to help me survive.”  Najah writes, “Some force beyond human comprehension drove Zahed and me to be in the same place at the same time during the war. It is the greatest and most humbling mystery of my life. Zahed, I thank you in my heart every day for removing your finger from the trigger. You may not be my brother by blood, but you are my brother in humanity, which is indestructible.”

Seven hundred thousand lives were lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Through a twist of fate, these two enemies were destined not only to survive the war but to save each other’s lives and to love each other as brothers. A miracle?

Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on April 12, 2017

by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books 2017)

For twenty days during March and April, I posted my thoughts on all twenty lessons in Timothy Snyder’s little book, one per day, in FaceBook. They are copied below:

Lesson 1: Do not obey in advance. (March 21)

When citizens adapt to authoritarianism without being forced to, they are teaching those in power what they can get away with. Snyder calls this “anticipatory obedience” and considers it “a political tragedy.” He supports his claim with the example of Hitler and Austria, blaming the fate of Austrian Jews on the anticipatory obedience of the Austrian people, who looked the other way when Austrian Nazis captured and mistreated Jews. He also cites psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose research into human behavior showed that people “are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority.” (Milgram’s research was carried out on Americans because he could not get permission to do it in Germany, showing that the Germans did not have a special propensity for evil.)

Lesson 2: Defend institutions. (March 22)

Snyder advises us to defend the institutions that we care about, because if we do not, they will not survive the assault of people bent on their destruction. He gives the example of German Jews who believed that the Nazis would never dare to take away their constitutional rights, shut them up in ghettos, or encourage mob violence against them because European powers did not do such things.

Some of the institutions I hold most dear are the U.S. Constitution, in particular Amendments 1 and 4 (against unreasonable searches and seizures, which has already been eviscerated in the age of mass incarceration) and 13-15 (abolishing slavery and granted citizenship and suffrage to all; and the free media, in particular PBS, NPR (both under financial attack by the Trump administration), the New York Times, and the Washington Post; and the Separation of Powers of our government, set out in the Constitution but under attack at various times in our history, such as during the Nixon Administration and obviously, now when our President disrespects and denigrates judges for doing their jobs and Republican legislators bow and scrape before the president even when he insults them.

I am wondering how best to defend these institutions that make me proud to be an American. What do you think?

Lesson 3: Beware the one-party state. (March 23)

Snyder reminds us that “any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person who is casting the vote.” He means the last free and fair election, where candidates from more than one party have a real shot at winning. We’ve all heard about the “elections” in authoritarian states where voter turnout is 100% and everyone votes for the dictator, because they have to. This could be us, if we are not vigilant. Before this election, it looked like the Republican Party was in a death spiral. On Election Day, the death spiral party turned out to be the Democratic Party, which lost the presidency, the House, and the Senate, and is now in real danger of losing its impact on the Judiciary branch as Trump hurries to fill positions Pres. Obama was prevented from filling (not to mention Supreme Court seats) with conservative Republican judges.

Either way, a viable opposition is a crucial aspect of a true democracy, and we need to make sure our elections are safe from tampering, free and fair. Snyder calls for paper ballots, which “cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” He warns that the 2018 elections (“assuming they take place”–gave me a chill down my spine) will be a real test of the system we were so proud of and confident about such a short time ago.

This lesson also reminds me that right now, our electoral system is rigged against urban voters (rural states, with their relatively small populations, can influence the Electoral College vote), and with corporations given the same “free speech” right as individuals to donate to political candidates and campaigns (due to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision), individual voters are finding themselves at a severe disadvantage when they try to oust the GOP from its position of power.

Lesson 4: Take responsibility for the face of the world. (March 24)
What is “the face of the world”? Snyder is talking about symbols here, like a Nazi swastika or a hammer and sickle, which represent tyranny and hate. Snyder explains that symbols become shortcuts to freedom from oppressors, like a business which displays a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign, hoping to avoid drawing negative attention from the authorities (Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless). Havel suggests that if the businessman refuses to play the game–if all people refuse to play the game–the game cannot exist.
In our Internet age, memes are added to signs and symbols. All of these contribute to negative stereotyping and make oppression possible. Remember the Star of David controversy during the 2016 campaign?
Snyder enjoins us not to look away from, and not to become accustomed to, symbols of hate and otherness. He advises, “Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
This reminds me of Martin Niemöller’s little story that ends “Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.” And that reminded me of some signs I saw at the rally against Trump’s first Muslim ban: (Some versions were more vulgar, but you get the idea.)
Lesson 5: Remember professional ethics. (March 25)
Hitler could not have committed the atrocities he committed without the cooperation of lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and civil servants who overlooked their professional ethics in order to murder, torture, steal, and enslave. Had these people felt more of an obligation to their peers and their professions, they would not have done the terrible things that they did.
Of course, I always imagine that refusing to cooperate with the Nazis would probably have resulted in imprisonment or death. I have always marveled that doctors, who take an oath to “first, do no harm” could have been convinced to carry out the “ghastly medical experiments”. (I am not forgetting the American doctors in Tuskegee AL who watched their patients with untreated syphilis die.) Those who did resist were considered traitors to the Reich and treated as such, so it would have taken a great deal of courage to say “No”. I don’t know if I would have the courage to say “No” under these circumstances, and I hope my courage will not be tested.
Lesson 6: Be wary of paramilitaries. (March 26)
In this chapter, Snyder explains that “the quiet business of government” (democratic elections, trials, making and implementing laws and regulations…) can be done only if the government has a monopoly on force. Once non-governmental groups have begun to use violence to achieve their ends, government as we wish it to be cannot function. Snyder lists many World War II and Cold War examples of paramilitary groups that terrorized people (the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the German SA and SS) and points out that the U.S. use of mercenaries in warfare and corporate prisons means that in America, the use of force is “already highly privatized”, which should give us pause. He adds that Donald Trump’s unusual use of a personal security force to expel opponents from his rallies during the presidential campaign echoes Hitler’s use of Nazi storm troopers to “clear the halls of Hitler’s opponents during his rallies.”
When “emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion. . . [are] incorporated into the training of armed guards. . . .[, they] first challenge. . ., then penetrate . . ., and finally transform the police and military.”
(I am reminded also of the crackpots who invaded the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Described as “armed militants”, they advocated that federal land be ceded to private ranchers. See The insistence on “Second Amendment rights” to stockpile and carry around weapons, including those designed for use by the military in warfare, just feeds into this mania for paramilitary activity. I believe that we are not safer when citizens go around armed with deadly weapons; on the contrary, we are much less safe.
The entire text of On Tyranny will be printed on posters to be displayed next week in London:
Lesson 7: Be reflective if you must be armed. (March 27)
This chapter concerns police and military personnel who carry weapons because of their jobs. Snyder urges these people to be ready to say no if asked to do anything “irregular”. Authoritarian regimes routinely use special riot police to prevent citizens from protesting the regime and secret police who spy on, detain, torture, and murder dissenters. These special units depend on regular police and soldiers to carry out their evil missions. Regular police were subordinate to the NKVD during the Soviet Union’s Great Terror of 1937-1938, and the biggest Nazi massacres (33,000 near Kiev, 28,000 near Riga) were carried out by regular German police. Snyder says, “In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, policemen were not punished. Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out.” In other words, the urge to conform was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Lesson 8: Stand out. (March 29)
In this chapter, Snyder reminds us that in the years leading up to the Second World War, most Europeans and Americans did not actively oppose Hitler and his Nazi movement. Those who did were considered “exceptional, eccentric, or even insane”. Many European nations had right-wing authoritarian governments (Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria). When Hitler annexed Austria and divided up Czechoslovakia in 1938, and invaded Poland in 1939, the great European powers looked on and did nothing to stop him. When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, England was at war with Germany because it had a treaty with Poland, but Snyder points out that Churchill could easily have chosen to accommodate Hitler as Chamberlain had done in 1938. Instead, he chose resistance, helping “the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil.” In so doing, Churchill forced Hitler to change course, attacking the Soviet Union before removing all Western resistance. The USSR became a British ally, and after Pearl Harbor, the US entered the war, thus forming “a grand and irresistible coalition” that won the war–but if Churchill had accommodated Germany in 1940, it would never have happened. Today, we look back on Churchill’s decision to resist as inevitable, but at the time, it was anything but inevitable. “At the time, he had to stand out.”
In addition to the Churchill example, Snyder tells the story of Teresa Prekerowa, a young Polish woman who refused to sit by and watch as Polish Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettos. She visited the Warsaw ghetto many times to help Jews (some that she knew, and others she didn’t know), eventually helping one family to escape the ghetto and certain death at Treblinka. Again, she stood out among those who acquiesced to evil.
It takes real courage to stand out and be seen as different, as swimming against the tide. If it comes to that, I hope I will have the courage of Winston Churchill, Teresa Prekerowa, Antonina Zabinska (The Zookeeper’s Wife), Raoul Wallenberg and others.
This lesson reminds me of a short (3 minutes) 2010 TED talk by Derek Sivers, How to start a movement. It is not necessary to be the first person to stand out; in fact, it is the second person who actually gets the ball rolling.
Lesson 9: Be kind to our language. (March 30)
Snyder advises us not to let others select the words that we use, and he cautions us that if we substitute images and screens for books, we will not have the words that we need to make sense of the world we live in. “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media,” he warns, “we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading.” He recommends “any good novel” and proposes several, and he includes a reading list of books about history and politics as well. Finally, he recommends that Christians read the Bible (“the foundational book”), reminding the reader about the camel and the rich man; what will happen to “whosoever shall exalt himself”; and what the truth shall make him who knows it.
Snyder also draws parallels between the way Hitler used language and the way Donald Trump uses it. Donald Trump’s use of language has been variously compared to that of a third-grader (Jack Shafer, Politico), a fourth-grader (John Prager, Addicting Info), less than a sixth-grader (Justin Wm. Moyer, The Washington Post), and a middle-schooler (Word Counter). Of course, what they are analyzing is Trump’s spoken language, not his reading level. Most people (if not all) use simpler language when they speak than when they write, or than what they are capable of reading. But what seems apparent is that to a lot of people, a president who speaks with the vocabulary and syntax of a child is more appealing than one who speaks like a lawyer (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama). America has a history of despising intellectuals,to our shame.
I am nevertheless reminded of The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess (by Leonard Shlain), in which the triumph of books over images results in the loss of women’s rights and prestige within a society. I must confess that the opposite seems to be happening here.
Lesson 10: Believe in truth. (March 31)
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Snyder cites Victor Klemperer, author of The Language of the Third Reich: The attack on truth takes four forms: (1) open hostility to reality (think: how often Trump’s statements are outright lies); (2) shamanistic incantation, such as the repeating of nicknames and other phrases over and over (think: Lock her up! Crooked Hillary; Little Marco); (3) magical thinking (think: universal healthcare plus tax cuts for all); and (4) misplaced faith (think: “I alone can solve these problems”).
Snyder says that what we are witnessing today (“post-truth”) is nothing new. George Orwell called it “doublethink”. Klemperer and Ionesco would recognize it as “the fascist attitude to truth”. Like the Trumpists of today, the fascists of the 20th century “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths. . . to history or journalism. They used new media. . . to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Scary indeed.
Lesson 11: Investigate. (April 2)
Snyder urges us to educate ourselves about the issues. It’s easy these days to believe what we see and hear from our chosen sources of information (people, media, websites). We assume that they are telling us the truth and that the people/media/websites on the other side are lying. I get a slew of emails every day from progressive organizations with subject headings like “Trump destroyed!”, so I know they aren’t all being truthful (it’s just wishful thinking, and of course they are trying to get my attention).
Snyder says we need to read more in-depth books and articles and “take responsibility for what [we] communicate to others.” He thinks we should spend less time on the “two-dimensional” internet and more time reading or listening to serious thinkers and writers who can help us to gain insight into what is happening. Reading about issues is different from watching them unfold on a screen, ever ready for the next scandal to take over because “actual journalism . . . is edgy and difficult”, requiring as it does “traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and rewriting drafts. . . . The work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.” As with plumbing and auto repair, Snyder reminds us, we get what we pay for, and we should not expect to get information for free; he advocates subscribing to print media as a form of subsidy. (I am happy to say I am a subscriber to The Washington Post and a supporter of public TV and radio.) When we have identified trustworthy sources, he says, we can share what we learn from them. But we need to verify in order to “avoid doing violence to the minds of unseen others on the internet.”
So researching with Google may be easy, but we have to remember to verify what we find. All sources of information are not created equal.
Lesson 12: Make eye contact and small talk. (April 3)
This is the shortest lesson so far: one page. Snyder says that looking people in the eye and acknowledging their humanity is one way that we (and they) can figure out who can be trusted. In the cultures of denunciation that existed in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and other places in the 20th century, survival meant having people you could trust. Ordinary gestures of friendship, such as a handshake or a smile, become very important in such cultures, and if we reach out in a friendly way to everyone we encounter, we will be acting to lesson the fear and alienation felt by at least some of those people.
In our country today, there are many who are feeling threatened: immigrants (the undocumented, green card holders, and citizens alike) and those who look like immigrants to white supremacists; gays, lesbians, and transgender, bisexual and queer people; African Americans and other people whose skin is darker than Northern Europeans’; atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. . . . The list goes on.
This is something easy to add to our daily routines. A smile, a kind word, a handshake when appropriate, a brief conversation about the weather or whatever, is all it takes to present yourself as a fellow human being who is not out to do harm to anyone.
Lesson 13: Practice corporeal politics. (April 4)
“Nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” Snyder is saying that it is not enough to sign online petitions, to rant on social media, even to donate to the right causes. We have to get off our butts and march! He recommends going to unfamiliar places and making new friends. (I am happy to say I have been following this advice! I have demonstrated at the White House, visited senatorial offices, and huddled with neighbors I had never met despite living in this neighborhood for over 30 years. I’m looking forward to more marches, meetings, huddles, and new friends in the coming months and years.)
Snyder’s example for this lesson is the Solidarity movement in Poland (1980-81). People from different walks of life and of different political persuasions came together to support striking workers. Although it took almost a decade, in the end the free labor union that they created was responsible for the elections of 1989, which Snyder calls “the beginning of the end of communism in Poland, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union”.
More recently, we can reflect on the demonstrations of the Arab Spring, most of which did not achieve their desired ends; the worst possible outcome, the civil war in Syria, continues to shock us daily with new stories and images of atrocities visited upon the Syrian people by their so-called government and its allies. Only today, there was a horrific chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, reminding us that in many countries, political protests are met with cruelty and violence on the part of the state. At least in America, we have not yet reached this point. So we must march, and we must protest, because we can. While we can.
Snyder ends the lesson with an enigmatic paragraph, which perhaps someone can help me understand: he writes, “The choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.” Is he warning us that once we have lost our privacy, we can no longer choose to take to the streets? Or simply that once Big Brother (Google, Facebook, the FBI, the NSA…) is watching us, we are no longer free? In which case, how does that relate to today’s lesson?
Lesson 14: Establish a private life. (April 5)
In this lesson, Snyder takes on the slippage of personal privacy that we have come to accept along with the conveniences of the Internet. He reminds us of how strategically released “bombs” of hacked emails distracted both the media and the public from the real issues of the 2016 campaign. Although we should know that emailed communications are inherently not private, we should also acknowledge that the “theft, discussion, or publication” of someone’s emails “destroys a basic foundation of our rights. . . . Whoever can pierce your privacy can humiliate you and disrupt your relationships at will.” We are all vulnerable to this, yet we are drawn to the exposure of others’ secrets like bees to nectar. And the belief in conspiracies that is engendered by the exposure of communications that were meant to be private (and were written at another time and in another situation) works to distort political reality even when the emails reveal nothing incriminating (think: John Podesta’s emails). Snyder writes, “When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order”; we become part of the “mob”.
To avoid demolishing our political order, and to protect what little privacy we have left, Snyder suggests regular deletion of malware from your computer; using the internet less and communicating face-to-face more; resolving any legal problems in your past;and supporting human rights organizations. “Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”
Lesson 15: Contribute to good causes. (April 6)
In this lesson, we learn that being able to choose those we associate with is a key element of freedom that is curtailed in totalitarian societies, which prefer to use charities and NGOs as instruments to control the people. Dictators are suspicious of people who gather in groups, despite their benign goals.
Snyder encourages us to support not only political organizations but any organization which engages in work that we enjoy or want to see accomplished. He calls this “a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good”.
Every day, my email inbox is crammed with thirty or more emails imploring me to “chip in” $1 or $3 or $5 to this or that cause or campaign. Obviously, I can’t donate every time I am asked, and I don’t always feel comfortable with the methods of online payment. I’ve started a Google sheet to keep track of my contributions (which I don’t itemize on my taxes because up until now, I never gave enough to make it worthwhile) so that I won’t inadvertently give twice. And I’m considering just donating to the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC, rather than to the campaigns of individual politicians, in the hope that these political committees will send my dollars where they can do the most good. I’d welcome your input on whether you think this is a good strategy.

Lesson 16: Learn from peers in other countries. (April 7)

Snyder recounts how the Russians tried to influence the Ukrainian election with fake news, and how Ukrainians immediately recognized what was happened and fought back, unlike us Americans, who thought it couldn’t happen here (until it did). Snyder urges us to travel and observe what is happening abroad and to make and maintain relationships with people from other countries, because they have much to teach us, if we are only open to learning from them.

I am thinking of my Venezuelan friends, Evelyn Izquierdo and Miguel Mendoza, who warned that Americans should act before it was too late–before a tyrant came to power. We can learn from the Venezuelan experience, even as we hope that our institutions are stronger than theirs and will save us from their fate. (See also Lesson Two: Defend institutions.)

Lesson 17: Listen for dangerous words. (April 8)
Snyder focuses on the words ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ’emergency’, and ‘exception’ in this lesson. These are words which tyrants use to convince free people to exchange their liberty for what they believe is security. He points out that we need not sacrifice liberty in order to be safe, and that “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” He reminds us that the government’s responsibility is to increase both freedom and security. Voting for a fascist is like entering an abusive relationship, where we agree to sacrifice both freedom and safety. But we can choose to leave the relationship, and we can choose to leave the country (if another country will admit us).
For a tyrant, an ‘extremist’ is just someone outside the mainstream. This language permits the tyrant to persecute the person that disagrees with him. In truth, it is tyranny that is actually extremism.
Snyder also warns us against “the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary” (“Make America great again”?).
Lesson 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. (April 9)
For me, this lesson is the most shocking of the 18 lessons I have read so far; this is because it explains certain historical events (the Reichstag fire of 1933, the terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, the siege of a Russian school in 2004) in a way that I have never heard before. He also includes events I was totally unaware of, like the takeover of a French TV station by Russian hackers pretending to be ISIS in 2015 and the false accusation of the rape of a Russian girl living in Germany by Muslim refugees in 2016. (I should verify these events before posting, I know! Lesson 11, Investigate: “Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.”)
Modern tyrants are terror managers, he says, and terror management is “the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.”
The essence of this lesson is to protect our institutions even in times of terror and grief. Do not let a would-be tyrant destroy our system of checks and balances or take away our fundamental rights in the name of “homeland security”. Courage, he says, “does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing the resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
I feel in my gut that this is the most essential lesson of all, and it must be promulgated now, before it is needed–because when “the unthinkable arrives”, it will be too late.
Lesson 19: Be a patriot. (April 10)
This lesson consists mainly of a long diatribe about what does NOT constitute patriotism: essentially, things that Donald Trump stands accused of doing (e.g., not paying his taxes, admiring foreign dictators, asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails…). Snyder calls Trump a nationalist, not a patriot. Nationalists obsess about power, winning, losing, and taking revenge but are uninterested in actual events. Their only truth is the resentment that they feel. Patriots, on the other hand, love their country and want to continually make it better. Their values are universal, and they are concerned with reality. “A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.” Snyder calls on us to be role models for future generations.
I love my country, but there are many things about it that I do not love or even like, and there are things we have done as a country that I feel very ashamed of. Still, there is much to love and be proud of, and as Snyder says, a true patriot is always striving to make his/her nation better. Thanks to Donald Trump, I am receiving a crash course in activism and good citizenship this year. I hope I will continue to raise my voice against what is wrong and for what is right and good.
Lesson 20: be as courageous as you can. (April 11)
There is no lesson in this lesson, only one sentence: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
This is followed by an Epilogue, in which Snyder considers how we have arrived at a point where a book such as this seems necessary after Americans had come to believe that our democracy was so secure that we need not execute the responsibilities of citizens (how many of us are too busy to inform ourselves or to vote!). “We lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”
The Politics of Inevitability: At the end of the Cold War, when the Communists’ teleology of “an inevitable socialist utopia” came crashing down, we continued to believe in our own teleology of “expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity.” We thought we were different, special, and right; after all, we had won. We believed that our vision of the future was inevitable. This belief resulted in a cessation of debate and a binary system in which one side defended the status quo while the other totally negated it, calling for “disruption”. This concept “assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess.” Snyder calls this “A naive and flawed sort of democratic republic” and compares it to being comatose.
The Politics of Eternity: National populists practice the politics of eternity. They are nostalgic for moments in a misunderstood or misconstrued past. They imagine enemies that attacked the nation’s purity. Today’s national populists yearn for the decade of the 1930s, when Fascism was on the rise and democracies had failed or were struggling. The British who wanted the U.K. to leave the E.U. forget that the U.K. was not just an independent U.K. before the European Union; it had an empire. Similarly, France “has never existed without either an empire or a European project.” Fantasizing about a mythical past means we cannot contemplate what might actually happen in the future. Politics “becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.” Trump is quoted as saying that “when the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster” will solve our problems. (I do not remember this quote, but according to, he said this back in 2014. ) Snyder calls this “a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy” and compares it to being hypnotized.
Snyder suggests that the study of history allows us to understand and evaluate what is happening–“to be responsible. . . for something.” He puts his faith in young people, who must begin to make history or the “politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it.” But in order to make history, they will need to learn about history.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

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Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2016

by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)

Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books,  his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.

What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.

When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Some things I did not realize about Galileo:

  • He was in poor health for most of his life.
  • He lost his sight in his old age.
  • He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
  • Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
  • Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).

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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2016

by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)

From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.

To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.

To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and  a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.

The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.

In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).

Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:

  • Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
  • Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
  • Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
  • Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
  • Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
  • Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
  • Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
  • Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
  • Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was  the reduction of graphic symbols from  thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
  • Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
  • Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
  • Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
  • Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
  • Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
  • Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
  • Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
  • Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
  • Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
  • Taoism/Confucianism  (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
  • B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
  • Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
  • Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
  • Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs.  more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
  • Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
  • Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
  • Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
  • Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
  • Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
  • Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
  • Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
  • Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
  • Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
  • Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
  • Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])

In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!

I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.

Other resources:

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics

Posted by nliakos on August 27, 2016

by Daniel James Brown (Penguin 2013 , ISBN978-0-14-312547-1)

If you enjoyed Chariots of Fire, you will love this story of the University of Washington crew who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, to the dismay of Hitler and his Olympic organizers who did their best to put the American (and British) crew at a disadvantage while favoring the German and Italian crews. You will also learn a lot about rowing, shell construction (the long, narrow boats are called shells), the Depression, the rise of the Nazis and their calculated use of the Berlin Olympics to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world, the rowing coaches, and the young men, undergraduates at the University of Washington, who powered the Husky Clipper to victory in Berlin despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Brown focuses his attention on Joe Rantz, a young man who grew up motherless and in poverty and was abandoned by his father and stepmother when he was fifteen. The story of how Joe managed to finish high school and then put himself through college is truly amazing. He never lost sight of his dreams: of marrying his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, of making the U of Washington rowing team and later of making it to the Olympics, and of graduating from the university. Brown was able to interview Rantz at length before he died in 2007, with the result that he could accurately describe Joe’s thoughts and the emotional highs and lows of eighty years ago.

Brown’s description of the race for the gold in Chapter 18 had me on the edge of my seat (reading in the Metro on the way home from the Shakespeare Free-for-All, where we had seen a wonderful performance of The Tempest). There were so many strikes against the Americans during that 2,000-meter race that it seems impossible that they could have won it; yet win it they did. What a story! No wonder this book has been on the Washington best-seller list for many weeks!

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The Secret Chord

Posted by nliakos on May 30, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2015; ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0)

If only Geraldine Brooks could write her historical novels as fast as I read them! I have now run out of Brooks’ novels (but am looking forward to sampling her nonfiction, especially Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, which was recently recommended by a librarian at my local library).

The Secret Chord is the story of David–of David & Goliath fame, yes, King David, the writer of psalms–narrated by Natan (Nathan),  who has divine visions of what will be (and sometimes what is or what has already been) and serves as an advisor and confidant to David. An aging David has authorized Natan to interview people from his past about his life and to record the story; Natan, having finished this task, refers to the securing of the manuscript in “the high, dry caves where [he] played as a child”–perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility that such a manuscript might someday be unearthed.

Brooks/Natan portray David as a gifted musician and poet, a charismatic leader, and  a military and political strategist, whose abundance of love for his sons leads him to spoil them outrageously, thus sowing the seeds of his downfall. His seduction (or rape?) of Batsheva, wife of the faithful general Uriah, ends in tragedy for all, but eventually Batsheva (now a favorite wife) will bear the child who will become David’s successor–Shlomo (Solomon).

It makes me want reread the story of David in the Bible, because I am curious as to how much Brooks fabricated and from what actual references. (I did the same after reading The Red Tent.) I also guess that the songs and poems quoted in the novel are actual psalms, although I did not recognize any of them.

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Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2005; ISBN 0-670-03335-9)

I guess most American women have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at some point; I know I did, but it wasn’t a favorite that I reread over and over, and my memory of it is quite vague, despite having seen the 1994 movie based on it. Basically, I remembered that the main character was named Jo, and that was about it.

Jo had three sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy), a mother named Marmee (which I took to be an odd spelling of Mommy, but according to this, it was her nickname), and a father who wasn’t there. It was set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and he had gone away to minister to the Union troops fighting to end slavery. Master storyteller Geraldine Brooks tells Mr. March’s side of the story in this amazing historical novel.

In the fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she based her Mr. March’s character on Alcott’s own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who, like Mr. March and his wife, was a fervent abolitionist. Alcott was a teacher; Mr. March is a minister (albeit an unconventional one) who becomes a teacher to runaway slaves (so-called “contraband”) on a northern-run cotton plantation in Virginia while the war rages on in other parts. (One of his pupils will use the literacy skills he taught her to save his life later).

March is a strict vegan (again, Brooks based this trait on Alcott’s father, who founded a commune whose members eschewed not only meat but also wool, and who refused to fertilize their fields with animal manure or to kill agricultural pests that were ruining their crops) and very dedicated to pacifism and abolition. The horrors of the war sorely test his values, and during a horrific attack on the plantation by a rebel militia, his survival instinct will not allow him to sacrifice his life for his friends, leaving him a changed man, one who is overcome with guilt and self-hatred. March feels doubly guilty because the war has brought him back into the presence of Grace Clement, whom he had encountered as a young man when she was a slave on her father’s plantation, and with whom he had a dalliance.

Several chapters told from Marmee’s point of view, when March is hospitalized in Washington, DC and physically unable to write his own story, explore the shock and pain experienced by the wife as she realizes that her husband has not been completely faithful to her.

Like all of Brooks’ novels, this one pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters and teaches about the period and the events they are living through in a fascinating way. (I feel inspired to reread Little Women.)


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