Escape from politics into books

News that a huge (4’ deep and 190’ long) sinkhole has opened up under the I-90 Big Dig Tunnel seems to be a metaphor for how our political leaders continue letting us down. Summer hasn’t provided much respite either. That August is well underway, with kids returning from camp and the nighttime chirping of crickets getting louder, is a reminder that we still have several weeks left for the pleasures of summer reading. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed in the last six months include:

In the Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, the story of Berlin in the 1930’s from the perspective of American Ambassador William Dodd, a professor of history who wanted to be anywhere else, and his daughter, Martha, who partied and slept indiscriminately with Nazis, a Soviet spy and author Thomas Wolfe. The ambassador, by contrast, eschewed the pomp and lavish style of the diplomatic corps, ran afoul of many in the State Department, and was unable to persuade Hitler to tone down his vicious treatment of the Jews. Dodd’s first goal was to get Germany to repay U.S. debts, however, so initially his attitude toward Hitler verges on conciliation. A fascinating account of a highly placed family being swept along in the tide of history.

The Invisible Wall is a remarkable memoir by Harry Bernstein, writing this first book at the age of 96 years old. (There’s hope for us all.) It’s told from the perspective of Bernstein as a small child and recounts life in before the Great War in a Lancashire mill town. The “invisible wall” is the cultural divide running down the middle of the street, separating Jews from Christians. It’s a remarkable story of a boy, a family, and a culture of poor people on both sides of the street, brought together by a forbidden marriage, against the backdrop of WWI.

Unbroken, another non-fiction book by Seabiscuit author Lauren Hillenbrand, is the remarkable story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic miler from California who joins the military during WWII, becomes a bombadier on a B-24, gets shot down and, with a buddy, survives more than 40 days in a raft in the South Pacific, only to be rescued……by the Japanese. He spends the rest of the war in a POW camp, the target of sadistic Japanese guards who subject him to unbelievable tortures and degradation. He emerges, as the title suggests, unbroken (or barely broken). This book is hard to put down.

A Ticket to the Circus is another memoir, this one by Norris Church Mailer, a hippie, sculptor, writer, teacher and beauty from Arkansas, the sixth (and last) wife of Norman Mailer, a fascinating if lurid author and one of the most distinctive American writers of the late 20th century. This memoir is not great writing but is compelling for being such an interesting story. Among Norris Church Mailer’s love affairs (albeit a short one) was one Bill Clinton. The Mailers spent much of their marriage in Provincetown, which makes reading this all the more fun.

Strength in What Remains if you haven’t read this quasi sequel to Tracy Kidder’s book about Partner in Health’s Paul Farmer (Mountains beyond Mountains), it’s not too late to do so. (It came out about two years ago.) Kidder tells the story of a medical student named Deo who escapes war-torn Burundi and Rwanda and somehow manages to get to New York, where he lives on the street until taken in by a nun (Sharon McKenna happens to have been a college classmate of mine). She finds him a couple to live with in Manhattan. He gets a degree at Columbia, goes to Dartmouth Medical School and returns home to Burundi to build a clinic there. It’s a moving story, very well told.

Speaking of war-torn nations, To the End of the Land by David Grossman is a fictionalized account of a family in Israel, mother, father, two grown sons of military age, and the traumas and tensions of living lives of uncertainty and peril. It’s about how the pain of their environment poisons their everyday life, and how a mother strives to protect her sons. A worthwhile reading experience.

Fictionalized stories about real people holds a special interest for me. In March, talented author Geraldine Brooks writes about March, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” As a young man, March got work as an itinerant salesman in the South, learning first-hand about the treatment of slaves. He marries, becomes a minister and settles in Concord, where he and his wife become involved in the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, he returns to the south as a chaplain for the troops (his absence having been recorded in Little Women). March’s politics are decidedly radical for the times, and his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau enriches this work of fiction, which is written as a journal. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and her research and writing are outstanding.

Two other historical novels that are enjoyable reads are The Women, T.C. Boyle’s book about the four women (wives and mistresses) in the life of towering architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Hemingway. Boyle’s book is well written, weaving the stories in and out, starting with the most recent woman in Wright’s life and ending with the first. There is much overlapping. The Paris Wife is much more linear and interesting mostly for its weaving of the Hemingways’ lives with greats like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. Both books provide insight into some of the challenges of living with a great man, a creative genius, totally self-referential and absorbed, but T.C. Boyle’s book does it much better.

Finally, The Believers, a novel by Zoe Heller, about the family of a radical New York lawyer named Litvinoff (think William Kunstler as a prototype). Early in the book, about to begin a major trial, he has a stroke and goes into a coma. While he is in a coma (from which he never recovers) his family learns that he had had an earlier affair that had produced a son. Each member of the family copes in a different way, and story lines evolve with biting humor and self –discovery. A fast read but worth the trip.

I’ve taped the Iowa Republican debate from Thursday night, but frankly, I’d rather cling to the vestiges of August and indulge myself in the pleasures of summer reading.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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