There has never been a better time to get lost in a book, but that can prove harder than you think with a pandemic at the door. Six Haaretz writers select the books that are getting them through the summertime, when the living isn’t easy...
I’ve only recently made peace with audiobooks. Though still on the fence regarding consuming fiction through my ears, I’ve discovered that the medium works like a charm for nonfiction. Even the longest and most tedious tomes are remarkably congruous with headphones – like having a history professor read you to sleep. And yes, while reading quasi-academic books by anyone who isn’t Yuval Noah Harari tends to be exhausting, listening to nonfiction works can turn even the most detailed historical analysis into a thing of entertainment.
‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany’
Initially published in four parts, William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” clocks in at over 57 hours of audiobook. This is one of those books that everyone’s father claims to have read in college. However, the more I delve into the annals of internal Nazi politicking and power struggles between the SS and the SA, the harder I find it to believe that anyone ever finished the print version. (Disclaimer: I am part of the MTV generation.)
Shirer’s book came out 15 years after the war ended and was one of the earliest attempts to provide a detailed account of Hitler’s rise to power. Oh, and how detailed it is. A journalist by profession, Shirer’s account of the Nazi infrastructure seems quaint when recited – if not some relic of a long-gone news era. He uses dog-whistle terms such as “pervert” and “deviant” to describe the sexual orientations of some Nazi party members, giving the reading an air of old-timey radio – like a homophobic version of “A Prairie Home Companion” but with Nazis.
Over 25 hours in, I’m glad to report that despite what some political commentators might say, the political realities of the Weimar Republic look nothing like our current political landscape, and I’m struggling to find any political lessons beyond not trusting people who, early on in their careers, promise to cancel democracy. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that Nazis should be taken at their word.
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‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’
I lied earlier – I can’t stand Yuval Noah Harari. I’ve read all three of his books and, though I enjoyed the first one – which I also saw in its original format as an introductory course at the Hebrew University (you can still see it online in Hebrew) – I found his second tome to be mediocre at best and the latest a new-age self-help book that should have been titled “21 Lessons for Making YNH Richer.”
A bit tedious at times, and a bit too dedicated to a rigorous academic form of argumentation, Jared Diamond’s personal excitement at the field of human history is nonetheless infectious. From tales from his own expeditions to Papua New Guinea to his accessible explanations on everything from microbiology to the origins of writing, it’s no wonder ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ started a new genre in the late ’90s and laid the groundwork for YNH’s success.
‘Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right’
As a liberal born in the late ’80s, I’m old enough to remember a time before identity politics but young enough to feel I’m generationally required to be woke – or at least strive to be. Angela Nagle’s “Kill All Normies” has long been considered an act of heresy among the latter crowd – and it’s for this reason I’m finding it so interesting. A critique of both the alt-right and the new left from within contemporary internet culture, the book and its author are considered part of a new group of anti-PC left-wingers known informally as the “dirtbag left.”
Interesting but far from perfect, the book lays out strong arguments regarding identity politics’ place within the culture wars of the digital age. For all its flaws, it’s a thought-provoking and at times brave political and cultural reading that, at least for me, felt like a breath of fresh air from much of the debate happening today – be it on Twitter or the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times.
Love it or hate it, Nagle’s book attempts to navigate nuances few today are even willing to admit exist.
DAVID B. GREEN
Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” has been the pleasant literary surprise of my summer. That title is not a typo; in an epigraph, the author quotes scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who tells us that the names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” were “entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.”
In O’Farrell’s novel, Hamnet is the son of Agnes and her unnamed husband, who met when he was tutoring her step-siblings in Latin, in Elizabethan-era Stratford. Agnes is 26 and the tutor 18 when they meet, but he is enchanted by this woman whom other suitors have steered clear of because of her unnatural powers of healing and clairvoyance.
After Agnes becomes pregnant, the couple’s families arrange a hasty marriage, following which they move in with his parents. The young man’s father, a glovemaker, is a bully and is especially cruel to his “useless” son, who seems more interested in words than work. Agnes, sensitive to her husband’s suffering and intuiting a reservoir of untapped potential within him, encourages him to move to London to work, even though it will separate their young family. At one point, he tells her that living with her, “someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself,” can be “both a joy and a curse.”
In London, the plan is for him to sell his father’s products, but he quickly moves from providing theater companies with leather goods to acting and writing plays for them.
When the couple’s twins come down with bubonic plague, back in Stratford, it is the one who’s supposed to be indestructible, Hamnet, rather than the frail Judith, who dies at age 11, and O’Farrell’s description of the pain caused to the family by his death is exquisite and unbearable. (Her account of the journey of a lone flea from Alexandria to Stratford, in order to carry the pestilence there, is particularly poignant today, and not without humor.)
You’ve probably figured out who the husband is. To O’Farrell’s credit, she focuses on Agnes, while her husband’s life and playwriting career proceed mostly off the page. Who, after all, could reasonably explain William Shakespeare? What we do learn is that Agnes’ husband finds solace for the loss of his son in the writing of a play – a tragedy, in which it is the son who loses his father and not the reverse. The play is called “Hamlet.”
‘Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust’
It is by now common knowledge that in much of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Holocaust education and commemoration have become highly politicized and contentious fields. Countries that became independent only 45 years after the end of World War II suddenly were asked to confront the fact that some of their national heroes – whose reputations were based on their opposition to communism – were also enthusiastic collaborators with the German occupiers following 1941. As archives opened up in the ’90s, historical events long forgotten or distorted in memory could now be reconstructed, but the locals didn’t always want to know what they revealed.
In countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, Efraim Zuroff, an American-Israeli Holocaust historian and war crimes investigator for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has attempted to get governments to prosecute surviving war criminals, and their school systems to teach uncomfortable truths about their recent national histories – thus becoming a much-reviled visitor in a number of states. In 2015, he joined popular Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite for a tour of many of the sites where more than 96 percent of Lithuania’s 220,000 Jews were murdered following the Nazi occupation in summer 1941.
Vanagaite, an enlightened and educated woman, had grown up knowing that her paternal grandfather had died in a Russian prison camp, where he’d been sent in 1945 for his anti-Soviet activities during the war. He was a national hero. Only as a mature adult did she learn that Jonas Vanagas also helped compile lists of local Jews for murder by the Nazi occupiers in 1941. She had only a vague knowledge of the Holocaust and didn’t personally know any Jews.
What made her extraordinary was that, at her own initiative, she began to learn about Lithuanian Jewry, and to organize educational programs on the subject for young people. This is what brought her to Zuroff, and set them and their tape recorder off on a journey to dozens of overgrown forests and fields that hide the mass graves in which Lithuania’s Jews were shot and covered up.
In the book, Zuroff and Vanagaite – both of them feisty, contentious and ironic – share what they each know and have learned, allow us to eavesdrop as they make a genuine effort to understand what could have caused “normative” people (as Israelis call them) to participate in the torture and murder of their neighbors. Vanagaite has a bit more empathy for the “ordinary men” of her parents’ generation, and Zuroff (who is named for his maternal great-uncle, who was one of the Lithuanian Jews murdered in 1941) has more moral outrage. But mostly, both are struck dumb by the stories and numbers they encounter, and shocked by an ongoing societal refusal to come to terms with a shameful chapter in Lithuania’s past. This story is not finished.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve only read one work of fiction in 2020 (Jonathan Freedland’s “To Kill a Man” – highly recommended for fans of cerebral thrillers), but fully intend to rectify that this summer. The three at the top of my list are “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and “All Adults Here” by Emma Straub. And, with my TV critic hat on, I’m finally hoping to read the six novels in Mick Herron’s “Slough House” spy saga before Gary Oldman stars in the Apple TV adaptation next year.
Still, it’s not like I haven’t read any books this year. Here are three standouts.
‘Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul’
We always tend to think that the next election is going to be the most important, era-defining one ever. I thought the stakes had never been higher for Americans than this November – until I read A.J. Baime’s astonishing “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The title refers to perhaps the biggest newspaper gaffe in history – even worse than the time Haaretz mistranslated rimon as pomegranate instead of grenade. But then, President Harry S. Truman’s triumph in 1948 was, much like that pomegranate, hard to see coming.
The parallels between 1948 and 2020 are staggering: allegations of Russian interference, Zionist lobbying over the “Palestine issue” (which Truman described as “loaded with political dynamite”), progressives threatening to split the Democratic Party, a fight for racial justice – except here it’s racist Democratic Southerners fighting to deny Blacks the right to vote, and an inexperienced president who’s been written off by everyone. Oh, and the small matter of apocalyptic tensions with other superpowers.
Of course, any comparisons between Truman and “45” are ridiculous – one is a noble man putting country above all, the other is Donald Trump. And while Trump might say that “the president has to look out for the interests of the 150 million people who can’t afford lobbyists in Washington,” Truman actually meant it.
This is a classic underdog story that works brilliantly regardless of any nods to the present day. And even though its end is known, Baime still manages to create superb tension as Truman takes his message to the American public from the back of a railcar ahead of Election Day. Someone buy those screen rights.
And while we’re on the subject of political books, I strongly recommend you keep a copy of Ben Shapiro’s “How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps” at home – just in case there’s another toilet paper shortage.
‘House of Glass’
One of the most reliable signs of any artwork’s true worth is how much it stays with you, haunts you even. I first wrote about Hadley Freeman’s “House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” in March and nothing else this year has remained lodged in my mind so much.
You’ll read novels with more plausible storylines than “House of Glass,” but the fact it’s all true gives this book its devastating power. In Freeman’s hands, it’s a beautifully recounted tale about one seemingly ordinary group of siblings and their extraordinary lives. As the cliché goes, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry – but mainly you’ll cry.
It’s remarkable to see how different family members react in different ways to the Nazi threat in occupied France: One takes up arms, one escapes (against their will), one lies low, one places their trust in good overcoming evil. (No prizes for guessing how that turns out.) You’ll also involuntarily put yourself in their shoes and ask, “Which member of the Glass family would I be?” You may not necessarily like the answer, but you’ll love this book.
And while on the subject of great Jewish memoirs, I also loved Bess Kalb’s love letter to her grandmother, “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story.”
‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’
I’m not the biggest fan of the Beatles’ music, barely knowing my Mr. Kites from Mr. Mustards, but I’m a sucker for stories about them – encapsulating as they do Britain’s transformation from depressed postwar backwater to nerve center of the ’60s cultural revolution.
Craig Brown’s book feels like being bombarded with stories about the band by someone who’s read all the biographies and autobiographies, but only remembers the best bits. As well as presenting us with a scattershot tour through the band’s crazy ascent – it’s remarkable how quickly they go from Scouse no-hopers to the most famous people on the planet – he also delivers a withering assessment of the modern-day Beatles “industry.”
This is an extremely funny book, with stories about the band’s scummy early days in Hamburg particularly entertaining – though John Lennon’s goose-stepping antics on German stages would surely kill any nascent musical career today.
The level of detail is phenomenal, whether recounting a plot by antisemites to kill Ringo Starr (“The one major fault is that I’m not Jewish,” said the bemused drummer) or discussing the forgotten entertainers sharing the bill with the band on their sensational “Ed Sullivan Show” debut back in 1964.
Brown’s tome also mocks the numerous biographers who offered up “omniscient” accounts of behind-closed-doors moments in the Fab Four’s lives. Instead, he presents a full gamut of possibilities, recognizing the sheer impossibility today of being able to “gimme some truth” about this most legendary of groups.
ALLISON KAPLAN SOMMER
As a journalist, I feel grateful that I’ve been working harder than ever in the coronavirus era, instead of suffering from unemployment or underemployment like my friends in hard-hit sectors like restaurants, travel, entertainment and retail.
But this also means that even during lockdown, I’ve been glued to the keyboard without much time for bread-baking, bingeing Netflix or otherwise breaking free of my social media feeds and trying to keep up with news in Israel and around the world.
It also makes it more difficult to lose myself in a good book. Still, I have been trying my best to make reading time a high priority. Here are three recommendations of recent publications – one a nonfiction “must-read book of the moment,” related to current events; the second a “just for fun” escapist beach read. The third, meanwhile, falls somewhere in the middle: absorbing literary fiction, but deeply connected to the politics we’ve been living through for the past decades.
‘Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man’
I felt I had to read Mary Trump’s book, given that our world is being rocked daily by this “most dangerous” figure – and no one as close to him as his niece has been able to give us a glimpse at the man behind the curtain, the roots of his dysfunction and the big lie of Donald Trump’s success in business.
It’s no surprise that he seems to have treated the family members he was supposed to care for as badly as he treats the country he is supposed to serve. What is a surprise: how well written the book is. Mary Trump is a student of literature, and it shows – particularly gripping is the spy novel-esque description of how she secretly handed over her family’s financial records to The New York Times.
I gobbled this one down in a single day – a total escape from bleak reality. From her first novels, Jennifer Weiner has been the fun read of choice for women of a certain age, background, religion and dress size. Or, as Vogue put it: “Elevating size-16 women from lowly sidekicks to triumphant stars of their own stories, with ambition, sex, and love.”
The heroine of this one is a plus-size Instagram influencer, whose relationship with a privileged frenemy brings her to the center of a murder mystery (what else? It’s a summer novel), with a story packed with plenty of Weiner-esque observations on the dynamics of female friendship and romance.
It’s not an understatement to say I’ve been writing about Hillary Rodham Clinton my entire journalistic career – from Bill Clinton’s national debut in the early ’90s that made her first lady, to her stints as senator and secretary of state, until the fateful 2016 election.
It actually has felt odd over the past three and a half years to NOT be covering her. So reading the novel “Rodham” was like having a fascinating reunion with Hillary – with a major twist. The book provides a fantastically detailed alternative history recounting what might have happened, in Hillary’s life and American politics, if she had made the fateful choice NOT to marry Bill Clinton.
One of Sittenfeld’s earlier novels, “American Wife” – inspired by Laura Bush’s life – was a fictionalized version of a real story that pretty much stuck to the facts. “Rodham,” however, opens up a unique world of “what ifs” that insightfully confront our world’s dynamics of gender and power through alt-Hillary’s observations.
In a way, its themes harken back to Mary Trump’s book. We see clearly how the charisma and deep human failings of overconfident alpha males like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump not only transform the lives of those around them – they also change history.
I’ll start with a confession: I’m a die-hard fan of Joyce Carol Oates and will read anything, absolutely anything, she writes – I don’t even need to know what the book is about. So when her latest novel “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” came out in June, I naturally stopped what I was doing and ordered it.
Usually, I can zip through an Oates novel in a matter of days or weeks (depending, of course, on how much spare time I have). For me, they’re the ultimate escape – and boy, did I need an escape this summer.
But this particular book is going slowly, that is, slower than usual for me, and I’m trying to figure out why. Since I’m not done with it yet, it’s early for a final verdict, but having reached the halfway mark I feel comfortable saying this: It’s a good book, even great in some ways, but for whatever reason it’s not having the usual effect. I’m not getting lost in it – certainly not to the point where I can forget about what’s happening in the real world for a few blissful hours, as I would’ve liked.
The McClarens, the protagonists of Oates’ latest novel (set in upstate New York), have all the makings of the perfect American family. That is until “Whitey,” the family patriarch, unexpectedly dies, and everything in the lives of his grieving widow and five adult children begins to unravel. The book opens with a rather dramatic scene: A dark-skinned man, driving his car along the highway and minding his own business, is suddenly stopped by police and subjected to harsh verbal and physical abuse. It’s clearly his skin color that bothers the police.
Oates began writing this book long before the death of George Floyd sparked a nationwide protest movement, but I couldn’t help wondering whether my immediate association with that event was part of the problem I was having with this book: I had come to it yearning for a break from reality, not a stark reminder of it.
Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout are two other favorites of mine, and thankfully their latest novels did not disappoint. Patchett’s “The Dutch House” is an extraordinarily beautiful tale of sibling love, told over the course of nearly half a century. For Olive Kitteridge fans, Strout’s “Olive, Again” is a collection of short stories devoted to the prickly, yet lovable-in-her-own-way character, which is also sure to provide some pleasurable reading and diversion in these challenging days.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether my disappointment with two other books on my summer reading list had to do with all the hype surrounding them. Sorry, but I really don’t get all the wild praise for Sally Rooney’s bestseller “Normal People.” Is it a generational thing? A cultural thing? How come everyone but me seems to love this book about what seemed to me a pretty boring relationship between two millennials? Neither did Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” do it for me. Maybe it was those children who kept bursting into flames. The first time it happens, I’ll admit, it’s a bit scary. By the second time, somewhat less so. By the umpteenth time, meh already.
Next on my summer reading list are two books in Hebrew. The first is “Menatzachat” (“Victorious”), Yishai Sarid’s latest novel. It’s about a female psychologist who treats soldiers suffering from shellshock, and since I’ve loved his other books I hope I won’t be disappointed. The second is not as new and hardly fiction: “Optimi” (“Optimistic”) is the two-volume autobiography of Uri Avnery, the prominent Israeli journalist and peace activist who died two summers ago. The recommendation comes from my husband, no less, who hasn’t been able to put it down.
After the Israeli election in March (the third in less than a year), I was planning to read mainly fiction. A pile of novels, some new, others long overdue, awaited. But as our days became dominated by the new and bizarre realities of COVID-19, fiction paled.
Over the months of lockdown, I drifted instead mainly toward historical biographies and other nonfiction encapsulating entire eras of the past, trying to put the present into perspective. Most of these tended to be written a while ago, by well-established authors, but this summer I’ve also managed to read some new books dealing with both historical and contemporary themes. These are two of the best.
‘The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society’
Journalist Emily Tamkin’s book on George Soros is an original attempt to try to understand the 21st-century phenomenon of the billionaire activist, and the effect capitalist philanthropists have on our age. As Tamkin makes clear at the outset, this is not a biography of the Hungarian-born American financier. His life and times, as both the manager of a hedge fund that savaged global currencies and economies, and founder of the Open Society Foundations that ploughed billions of dollars into causes around the world, are the book’s narrative vehicle. But Soros is just a parable for the last three decades in geopolitics – from the fall of communism to the rise of populism.
Tamkin ably demolishes the main conspiracy theories that have been constructed around Soros and his “Mephistophelian” influence (though one fears many believers of these theories will not be swayed by mere facts). At the same time, she doesn’t set out to portray Soros as a particularly sympathetic figure either. He emerges as a man with a preternatural ability to make immense sums of money in a very short time, but who simultaneously has the need for recognition and acclamation that money can’t buy.
The book’s title is ironic. As Tamkin makes clear, for all the billions Soros has poured into liberal causes across the globe, many have failed and those that succeeded would probably have done so without Soros’ influence. The image conjured up by anti-liberal leaders like Trump, Viktor Orbán and Benjamin Netanyahu, of someone using his wealth to subvert the will of nations, is a figure with an influence many times that of the real-life Soros. Indeed, in some cases – such as his early funding of the elite education of a cadre of young Hungarian politicians including Orbán – his political investments seem to have achieved the opposite of the intended result.
Another fascinating irony is that the Soros name, originally Schwartz, was changed by his father in the ’30s to avoid drawing attention to their Jewishness, yet has become a byword for 21st-century antisemitism. As Tamkin points out, Soros is neither religious nor particularly interested in Israel. Not that he is running away from his Jewish identity. “I was facing extermination at the age of 14 because I was Jewish. Wouldn’t that make an impression on you?” he once said in an interview. But for him, that identity – and his own Holocaust experience – mean working for what he sees as the universal goal of an “open society.” How ironic that in doing so, he has been cast as the eternal scheming, manipulating Jew.
‘The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom After the Holocaust’
Rosie Whitehouse’s book (out in September) is the story of another group of Jews from Soros’ generation who, unlike him, didn’t have the good fortune to remain protected with their families during the war. They endured the worst of the ghettos and camps, and, emerging from the war without families or belongings, decided to rebuild their futures in a new homeland.
Anyone who has interviewed survivors (or indeed lived with survivors) will know they’re often much more eager to speak of how they recovered their own agency and sense of identity once their lives were no longer in danger. How they stopped being survivors and became normal men and women again. Many times, they are much prouder of their resurrection than of what they faced before.
In her journalism in recent years (for Haaretz, among other publications), Whitehouse has taken upon herself a mission to tell the stories of the survivors after the war. She has written of how these survivors reemerged and came into contact with the “outside” world. In collecting the stories of those who sailed on the Wedgwood from Italy to Mandatory Palestine in 1946, she has produced a very different Holocaust book. Whitehouse follows the passengers on their live’s journey, from their birthplaces in Europe through the ghettos and camps (where she barely lingers), and to their present-day homes in Israel and elsewhere. She hears about their trials in a world where “the Holocaust, and everything they had survived, was now yesterday’s story.”
As the last of the survivors still with us bear witness, now more than ever we need to listen to their experience of coming to terms with a world transformed.