Spies in Palestine — James Srodes’ Account of Early Jewish Settlers Who Spied on Behalf of Britain During World War I

James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine — Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn is a concise account of a relatively obscure bit of Israeli history — the spying activities of Sarah Aaronsohn and her family during World War I.   Sarah Aaronsohn stands out as a liberated woman from birth.  Her confidence and initiative were strikingly uncommon for women of her era and made her an unusually placed and fascinating feminist hero.  A very active horsewoman, Sarah  roamed widely with little apparent regard for convention.  The book recounts her relationships with various men in her life.  Although it does not appear that she and T.E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an affair, Lawrence keeps wandering in and out of Sarah and her family’s milieu.  In comparison to boisterous energy of Sarah and her family, Lawrence comes across as a bit of an ineffectual wimp, not at all like the strong, gorgeous hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The Aaronsohns were Romanian Jews who settled in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire in the 1880’s.  Sarah was born in Palestine and lived there most of her life, except for a short, unfortunate marriage that took her to Constantinople.  Her family was based in Zichron Ya’akov and was relatively well known.  Indeed, Sarah’s eldes brother Aaron developed an international reputation as an agricultural expert and used that to leverage international contacts and ultimately to begin spying on behalf of the British.  The Aaronsohns’ spying effort were inspired by the Turks’ oppression of Palestine’s Jewish settlers during World War I.  As it happens, the intelligence provided by the Aaronsohns  through their spy ring was largely unsolicited by the British and sadly lacked discipline.  In fact, it was almost comical how difficult Aaron and his family found it to help Britain.  The Aaronsohns aggressively acquired information on Turkish positions in Palestine in order for the British to plan an effective invasion, but the British did not particularly trust the information and were not particularly interested.  Even when the British decided to accept the Aaronsohns help they showed little concern for their safety and their military efforts were ineffectual.

Sarah become involved after she fled her marriage in Constantinople and returned to Palestine.  On her way home she had observed first hand the Turks’ outrageous treatment of Armenians, and her entire family was appalled by the Turks’ treatment of Jews.  Her brother Aaron had left Palestine to engage in efforts elsewhere, and so Sarah assumed leadership of the spy ring upon her return to Palestine.  Although the information provided the Aaronosohns was good, the group’a execution was amateurish, particularly since the British mixed their lack of interest with a healthy dose of incompetence. They were easily betrayed, and tragedy ensued.  

This is the story of successful espionage, but rather the story of an unbelieveably brave woman who voluntarily led a major effort to gather intelligence for Britain.  Although it did not end well, Sarah’s heroic efforts deserve to be known and honored.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  It was well-written and kept a good pace.  More importantly, I learned about an early Jewish feminist who played a significant part in the early history of Israel.  The historical backdrop of early twentieth century Palestine, Turkey and Britain, combined with the presence of the international Jewish community and a fantastic cast of characters made this a compelling read.

Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

What’s the Matter with Kansas — Thomas Frank’s 2004 Book is All too Timely

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing.  Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens.  In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich.  The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find.  Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest.  It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding.   Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre.  I checked:  Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party.  Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment.  Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.

This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right.  Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party.  This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve.  Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.

Dwight Eisenhower’s Surprising Civil Rights Record

I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Eisenhower, primarily because of his deft and resilient military leadership during World War II and his careful Cold War leadership during his presidency.   The major flaw in Eisenhower’s career has generally been seen as his lackluster support of civil rights.  In A Matter of Justice:  Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, David Nichols challenges this traditional view and presents Eisenhower as both a reluctant and determined champion of civil rights.  (Please note that Nichols’ book was published in 2007, and I don’t pretend to have followed all the scholarship since.)  The Eisenhower who emerges in this book about his civil rights record is the same leader who ordered that the horror of the German concentration camps and their victims be photographed when they were liberated because he knew that some day people would try to deny their existence.  

By temperament Eisenhower was not the cheerleader type, and he opted do do much of his civil rights work under the radar when he could.  He wasn’t particularly happy with the glare of publicly that characterized civil rights in the 1950’s.  Still, even before he became president he was on record as supporting an integrated military and took steps in that direction at a time when the rest of the military leadership was not so inclined.  Once he became president, Eisenhower steadily directed the integration of the military.  True, he didn’t do it overnight, but he steadily pressed until it was accomplished over a period of about two years.

Another Eisenhower success was to get rid of the Jim Crow practices in Washington, DC.  This wasn’t a particularly popular move with a lot of southern politicians, but here again Eisenhower didn’t let up until it was accomplished.  It is too bad he isn’t around today to put the kabosh on newly energized racist behavior in our nation’s capital and elsewhere.

Much has been written about Eisenhower’s at best ambivalent feelings about the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  At the end of the day Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce that ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He was always undeniably unhappy about the prospect of sending troops into American communities and he greatly feared that the southern reaction to integration would be to close schoools.  Sadly his fears were  justified.  Here as in other civil rights areas, Eisenhower preferred to work behind the scenes, but he did the right thing when it came to the show down in Little Rock.

Perhaps one of the least appreciated aspects of Eisenhower’s presidential legacy was his refusal to appoint segregationist federal judges.  Earl Warren and many distinguished lower court judges ensured that Brown and its progeny were upheld and enforced.  This judicial legacy was crucial, and it proved to be very unfortunate that John F. Kennedy failed to continue Eisenhower’s stringent policy.  One of the book’s more interesting themes is the complicated and not particularly friendly Warren/Eisenhower relationship after Warren’t appointment.   I was also fascinated to learn that Eisenhower, a non-lawyer, actively reviewed and commented on his Civil Rights briefs filed by his administration and that he was keenly aware of linguistic nuances.  He understood the strategic importance of legal briefs and opinions.

The author does not give Eisenhower an unvarnished civil rights report card.  Eisenhower reportedly said some things that indicated ambivalence about full integration and, most famously, advised the Black community to be “patient” at some point.  For the oppressed, “patience” is unacceptable.  These comments and Eisenhower’s failure to be a public cheerleader for civil rights  aren’t good.  Context is nonetheless relevant.  Eisenhower, who managed to get two watered-down Civil Rights Acts passed, battled the intensely political Lyndon Johnson and other, overtly racist, southern senators throughout his presidency.  Engaging in open battle over civil rights, while morally and ethically the right thing to do, wasn’t going to be an effective strategy in the 1950’s.

Finally, the context of Eisenhower’s civil rights performance has to be considered in the context of all the issues facing his presidency.  This was the era of the Bomb, when school children were being taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves.  Eisenhower necessarily spent a great deal of his presidency trying to control the arms race and deal with foreign aggression.  That would have been a full plate for many presidents, and presidential history is replete with presidents who good at foreign policy and failures at domestic policy and vice versa.  While one can always argue that Eisenhower could have done more, his civil rights achievements need to be understood, and this well-written book cautions that Eisenhower’s relative public reticence on the subject is belied by some very impressive accomplishments.

This book is well worth reading.  In addition to the author’s interesting take on Eisenhower’s civil rights record, it provides a fascinating look at the United States in the 1950’s.

  

The Clancys of Queens — A Beguiling Memoir

I loved everything about The Clancys of Queens, Tara Clancy’s warm and funny memoir of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens as the only child of a divorced Italian mother and Irish father.  As a child Tara seems to have spent more time figuring out how to stir things up than she did pondering her unusual family circumstances.  She doesn’t seem to have been a sad or particularly introspective child.  Instead, she happily careened around her family’s various homes and hangouts.   Presumably not everyone  appreciated some of her more daredevil efforts, but the book’s prevailing theme is of a group of adults who loved her, raised her, accepted her quirks and tried to help her find her way.  Oddly none of these otherwise caring people seems to have been particularly focused on her formal education.  Clancy clearly picked up a great deal just from hanging around adults, but she also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Only in her late teens did she stumble upon a copy of King Lear and get excited about literature and interested in higher education.  At that point, the same extended family that had paid little attention to her academics stepped up to the plate and helped her with college expenses.

This book is a wise, funny and non-mushy book.  I really recommend it.

In the Land of Invisible Women — A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

Quanta Ahmed’s memoir In the Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is an absorbing tale of Dr. Ahmed’s two years spent as a physician in Saudi Arabia.  The author, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, was educated in Britain and trained in the United States.  Her decision to go to Saudi Arabia just two years before 9/11 came about when she had to leave the United States at the end of her training.  Ahmed was a modern Muslim, who had never covered herself or been subject to male domination, so being enveloped in a stifling abbayah and losing her freedom of movement outside her apartment and the hospital in Riyadh was a considerable shock.  At times Ahmed got plenty mad, but fortunately she also got curious.  She used her time well and met and spoke with as many Saudi women as she could find during her time there.  

Ahmed was continually horrified by Saudi women’s lack of freedom and their vulnerability to the dangerous bullying of the religious police.  At the same time, she grew to appreciate the women’s devotion to their religion and their country and their insistence on enjoying their lives, no matter how circumscribed.  The female-only parties Ahmed attended sound like great fun and proved excellent opportunities for her to observe and speak with an impressive number of Saudi women when they literally had their hair down and their abbayah’s off.

The book is a huge mix of good and bad times.  Ahmed was tremendously moved by making the hajj to Mecca and reminded of all the things she treasured about Islam.  On the other hand, she hated and feared the religious police and was troubled by the extent to which her Saudi colleagues meekly accepted their abuse.  To some extent, the hospital provided a safe haven and rewarding opportunities to practice medicine, but even there Ahmed noted how hyper-strict religious observances and male supremacy often prevailed.  Sadly, there was a particularly jolting event at the end of Ahmed’s stay, but I won’t spoil it by divulging it here.

So the book convinced me that I won’t be going to Saudi Arabia unless they have an unforseeable turnabout on human rights in my lifetime.  At the same time, I loved the book and appreciated all Ahmed had to say.  Much of the book involved her sitting down and posing thoughtful questions to many different and very interesting Saudi women.  At times there is a bit of awkwardness to prose because of all the Q and A, but Ahmed asked the questions I wanted to know.  Her genuine respect and curiosity shines through.  In the end, I learned a lot and came to appreciate these Saudi women and their perspectives even as I thought of Charles Grodin’s immortal line to Kevin Kline in the movie Dave:  “Get out.  Got out as fast as you can.”

Ahmed currently practices medicine in the United States and is frequently seen on CNN.  I really recommend this book.

Lady of Yaddo — The Remarkable Philanthropy of Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century.  Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir.  After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others.  The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York.  The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day.  Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga.  To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo.  This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.