In the Foreward to Anne Enright’s chronological collection of her short stories entitled “Yesterday’s Weather” she is surprised at the female characters meanness toward each other. She remarks that it is not her personal experience, because she has very dear female friends. In my recent review of that collection I noted how sex is a theme throughout all her writing. “The Gathering”, Ms. Enright’s Man Booker Prize Finalist novel, was chronologically written in between her early short stories and her later ones. The novel retains a literary tic of Ms. Enright that is a peculiar cross between a dramatic direction, or a 1950s or early 1960s documentary or newscast. “Here’s Ada and Charlie in bed a year later.” “Here is …” It is a small criticism considering Ms. Enright’s skills, but she must like the style as her editors have not corrected it. At times I think I can hear Edward R. Murrow reading the lines.

Sex, biological not erotic; predatory not love runs throughout this novel as it does in her short stories. It is an external and internal club of self-hating. Veronica a middle child in a large Irish family are coming together for the wake for Liam, her alcoholic, troubled brother, with whom she was close. There are strong and weak forces within the nucleus of this dysfunctional family. It is as if too much emotion, leaves no emotion at all. The Gathering is of retained pettiness, perceptions, quirks, and ghosts that have lingered in the Hegarty’s family closet. Veronica is an electron trying like her brother to break free from family suffocation and stability to find a life or love that she thinks she has missed. It is a cold story that Virginia Wolff would appreciate.

Her grandmother, Ada, modeled a cold pathway through life, that only a presumed reformed prostitute could. Not uncommon in the era, children were ornaments that would be smashed and broken, even if they could survive death. Ada’s wake has a genetic route to Liam.

“Ada with her suitcase, the day her mother died. How she turned and carried the suitcase out of the house. Any everything that seemed impossible was possible after all. She had the gift of feet, that placed themselves one after the other so that she could walk out of there, and she had the gift of her hands, to make her way through life, and she did not look back.”

Veronica is luckily or unfortunately not so blessed.

“Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things, and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

If good writing stems from writing about what you know, I am a little fearful for Ms. Enright because there is deep coldness in her work. If great writers can capture characters and relationships independent of experience, Ms. Enright is a talented writer.

“The Gathering” is a fictonal tale about one Irish family, as are the Irish characters in Ms. Enright’s short stories. Ms. Enright does not flatter the Irish, even though I suspect she is fond of her heritage. I would like to have her use her talent to move beyond this realism or caricature and if only to prove capability, to embrace some love and joy. Veronica’s child offers a morsel of this, so perhaps Ms. Enright can draw from her own life.

“The Gathering” is memorable and worth reading.

Eleven Days


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The Bibliography to Lea Carpenter’s first novel, “Eleven Days” in part reads as follows:

“Admiral McRaven oversaw Operation Neptune Spear, the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, that killed Osama bin Laden. According to public record, eleven other raids were conducted that night. The story is inspired in part by that coincidence. We don’t know about those other raids and likely never will.”

Ms. Carpenter in her Acknowledgments recognizes the Admiral’s 1995 book “Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice”. Her quote from that book is reflected in the novel’s Dedication:

“For the one who said, ‘only tactical competence, and humility, impresses me.”

The Note about the Author is Spartan. The author lives in New York with her husband and her two sons. The Acknowledgment at its end is more revealing. “Edmund N. Carpenter II: soldier, scholar, father.” Mr. Carpenter was a World War II veteran; a recipient of the Bronze Star, a law partner; and at 17 the author of an essay “Before I Die” which achieved some acclaim, having been published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Carpenter read the essay at her father’s funeral in 2008, and it likely influenced this novel which is Long Listed for the 2014 Women’s Prize for Fiction (aka Baileys Women’s Prize).

The story is about a Navy Seal from the perspective of his single mother. Her son, Jason (from the Argonauts), asks her to distinguish myth from fiction. Her answer is “A myth is a fiction that matters.” I think Ms. Carpenter was aiming for myth, but “Eleven Days” is fiction. It is informative about Seal training, but it is more movie script or formulaic in the genre of heroic spy novels and thrillers. She does not impart perfection to Jason, but he is the traditional stand-out: scholar; perfect son; soldier. His Dad, David, who abandoned his son and his mother, Sara, after Jason’s birth, for clandestine work abroad, is tarnished but exalted. Sara understands and still has feelings for David years later. David is the operative that all aspire to be.

I have not read any of the other books that have been Long Listed for the Folio this year, but “Eleven Days” is not a book that I would Long or Short List. It is unfortunate because I believe Ms. Carpenter has passion for the subject, and imparted scholarship along the way. For my taste, the characters were too lightly drawn.

There are passages that I liked. Some conveyed a timely message:

“If it be now, ’tis not to come;
If it be not to come, it will be now;
If it be not now, yet it will come;
The readiness is all.”

Jason, like many young men his age in the U.S., is a product of 9/11. There is community and commitment among those who so serve. There are no heroes, only practiced discipline and preparedness. This is Ms. Carpenter’s theme, but the myth is regrettably subsumed by the mystique.

Yesterday’s Weather


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Sex runs through Anne Enright’s short story collection “Yesterday’s Weather”. This is not erotic sex. It is biologic. The emotion of one night stands. I described Ms. Enright’s collection as Irish Women’s Literature to a writer friend of mine who thought Ms. Enright’s writing was mean. There is some man bashing, but it is more critical in its description of Ireland’s adult Irish population. My friend having a little fun with my categorization, ask me what I thought of Irish Man’s Literature. She wanted to know if there would be a Woman Booker prize.

I should note that I have begun Ms. Enright’s Booker Prize finalist novel “The Gathering”. In the early stage of the book, it does not seem to have the sexual theme that this short story collection does. What is interesting about the collection, is that it is arranged chronologically from latest to earliest. Ms. Enright states she found it interesting to reread her earlier stories, which she would write differently today. I would be interested to see a current version of those stories to see how her perspective and style has changed. She views her earlier works as being unduly critical of middle age. She recants having reached it. She admits that an author shouldn’t revisit history. It reflects who they were at the time. I found a few of the earlier stories, more interesting than her more recent ones.

One of the earlier stories is “Mr. Snip Snip Snip”. While the plot concerns the an infidelity of a video projectionist wife, the theme is editing we do in life. “Frank sometimes wondered where it all went, the stuff he threw away; smiles, swear-words, faces that slid out of focus. There is a parallel universe, he thought, in “Star Trek”, made up of all the out-takes; the fluffs, blunders and bad (worse) acting that never made it to the final cut. A world where Captain Kirk says ‘shit’ and Spock’s ears become detached. Perhaps the story is better over there. He thought of a universe made up of all the different silences that are nipped, tucked and disposed of. The silence of a hospital at night, the silence when a woman forgets what to say, the silence of a politician. They have to go somewhere. It is a terrible crime, Frank thought, to throw away a silence.”

“Luck Be a Lady” is also an earlier story. The plot is a happily married Irish woman who has a gift for numbers that has earned her the hatred of her community because she wins all the Bingo money. She ultimately forgets how to count when she wins in adultery.

How adulterous affairs are handled differently. In “Yesterday’s Weather”, the younger other woman is killed in an accident. The husband is crushed. The wife indifferently accepts the affair as part of marriage. In “Revenge”, an earlier story, the wife seeks revenge through swapping. What is most interesting about this story is the misdirections to get to the plot. It begins: “I work for a firm which manufactures rubber gloves. There are many kinds of protective gloves, from the surgical and veterinary (arms-length) to industrial, gardening and domestic. They have in common a niceness. They all imply revulsion. You might not handle a dead mouse without a pair of rubber gloves, someone else might not handle a baby. I need not tell you that shops in Soho sell nuns’ outfits made of rubber, that some grown men long for the rubber under-blanket of their infancies, that rubber may save the human race. Rubber is a morally, as well as sexually, exciting material. It provides us all with an elastic amnesty, to piss the bed, to pick up dead things, to engage in sexual practices, to not touch whomsoever we please.”

The older stories take more risks than the later ones. In this class I would put “Men and Angels”. Some newer stories have captivating first lines. “Wife” begins: “There was a new woman behind the counter in the news-agent’s and it took Noel a while to realize that her throat had been slit. …. With a scar like that, you’d want to be careful about throwing your head back in case the damn thing fell off… He wanted to see her do it. Idiot that he was.”

Emotionally I liked “Della”. It was about a widow and widower, the former who while their spouses were alive hated the crude neighbor who in a Fall romance she learns was just trying to gain her attention.

Ms. Enright is a capable writer, but a collection of relationship stories grounded in cold sex and bitterness is a bit wearing. At times I wondered if they were written just because sex sells and it would gain publication. She writes well enough not to make it mandatory. I am interested to find out if “The Gathering” takes a different path.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane


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Pure joy is the high-pitched giggles of toddlers at a playground. The universe for children is immediate and small. A big bang in their social fabric unleashes an expansion of imaginary fears that parallel reality. Subsumed in a black hole of adulthood, memories are rekindled upon a return to the childhood home.

This is the case in Neil Gaiman’s novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” A middle-aged man returns to his English countryside childhood home and visits the Hempstocks, neighbor’s farm where he found comfort and mythical protection from real and imagined forces when he was a boy. The list of Mr. Gaiman’s other works at the outset of the book categorizes his works as “For Adults” and “For All Ages”. I would place this novel in the latter category, although he might not. The novel shares the wonderful imagination of well written children’s literature. It could be scary, but not as dark as Grimm. As an adult retrospective of the childhood period of the narrator’s life, it transforms childhood imagination into philosophy about the universe that might border on the “Twilight Zone”. This would be lost on readers before late elementary school, but could invite worthwhile questions. It would have loved to have this book illustrated.

The story is namelessly told in first person. A lonely bookish boy of seven has a birthday party to which no one comes. His parents are having an economic downturn and take on borders. The boy loses his room to a border, who soon is found dead. The boy is taken to the Hempstock’s to stay while the police investigate. The Hempstocks are 3 generations of well-drawn women who live alone. The youngest, eleven year old Lettie, befriends and protects him like an elder sister. She introduces him to the pond on the farm, which she says is an ocean. At home, the boy’s life is unsettled by a live-in nanny with extracurricular activities, while his mom is at work. He wants his parents to replace her, but his father demands otherwise. Her evil is more than human, altering the relationship with his father. The Hempstocks are goddesses as old as time who become his protectors. Upon returning to their farm as an adult, he asks after Lettie, who still has not returned from Australia after having been put in the ocean.

Mr. Gaiman possesses a child’s mind. Untethered by adult constraints, he fashions a work that can be read by readers of all ages. Water seeks its level. Readers will do the same with this enjoyable novel.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self


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I am not sure where the dividing line is for middle class is anymore. I probably never knew where it was for black middle class. Mt. Vernon New York is a working class suburb of New York City. While diverse, it divides north and south, with the former being predominantly white and the south, which borders the Bronx, being mostly black.

“Virgins” takes place in Mt. Vernon. The characters are African-American teenage girls, but the tension is one that all teenage girls face. Should they or shouldn’t they. Who has lost it, who is pretending. These girls have protection. A male friend who is truly just a friend. A school principal who allows them hangout by his private pool. Unfortunately they are intentionally and accidentally drawn toward the vaginal badge of presumed adulthood. There is nothing wrong with the story, but I was leery that the rest of the collection would be more of the same. I was wrong. Danielle Evans’ voice is more distinctive. It is African-American and universal, with a middle class bent.

“Snakes” reminded me of the Maurice Sendak quote. “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” He had a miserable childhood. Children are often physically and emotionally abandoned by their parents. Their calls for help go unanswered. The monsters that haunt them are not what their parents think.

Danielle Evans graduated from Columbia University. She drew her stories from personal and family experiences. “Harvest” is about eggs and racial and economic class at an elite college. Some sell their eggs, some take it to term. Those from the “wrong” side, often sacrifice themselves for those who are more sheltered, or who may be moving out. This is the theme of “Robert E. Lee is Dead”. Being smart does not get you accepted, but a valedictorian grows with the help of a street smart girl.

Relationships are plowed in “Someone Ought to Tell Her There is Nowhere to Go”,”The King of a Vast Empire”, “Jellyfish” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. The first is a “Dear, John” story, only the vet knows his girl has left him before he ships out, and still cannot accept it upon his return. He is a better person than his ex, but she was honest. Her boyfriend, a friend of the vet, manages a KFC and helps support the ex’s daughter by her former husband. They are all trying to do the right thing, but the right result is a matter of perspective. Upon returning home from Iraq, you feel for the vet, when the KFC manager greets him: ” ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘I’ve been holding it down over here while you been holding it down over there. Glad you came back in one piece.”

Accidents cause scarring, you just don’t know who is injured. “The King of a Vast Empire” explores the impact of a car accident on a family. Those who survive, are not necessarily alive. Identity theft becomes a force for healing.

“Jellyfish” is about parental love. A father loves his daughter and continues to try to comfort and protect her through adulthood. Love is not recognized in “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” A former and intermittent lover reluctantly travels with her niece to the wedding of that boyfriend. Puberty has taken hold of the precocious and difficult young cousin who postures, but has no understanding of sex. “She’s dropped the diet stuff, at least, but if you’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating a Reese’s Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you’ve explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don’t want to hear about it.”

I liked “Snakes” the best. There is a twist to it. While reading some of the other stories I had the feeling I get on the subways. Those who least can afford it give. Ms. Evans is the recipient of a number of prizes for short stories, and this collection is worth a read.



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Susan is the mother of Casey, an independent handicapped daughter who is mother challenged. Casey’s father Hal goes in search of Casey’s boss who is lost south of the border. Hal learned that Susan is an adulterer just before leaving. Adultery is part sport, part addiction for Susan. Her husband does not return and for a quarter of this novel by Lydia Millet, Susan refers to herself as a “murderer”. Apart from this excessive repetition of guilt, the novel begins to work when Susan inherits her uncle’s mansion. The house is filled with taxidermy. Susan finds life through the dead animals.

Narrated by Susan, “Magnificence” reflects a point of view about men from the vantage point of an un-grounded woman. Susan is a good person who cannot say “no”. The interesting aspect of the story revolves around the origin of the taxidermy. During the course of her discovery, a gaggle of elderly women dispossess Susan of her privacy and give Susan an exoskeleton to forestall replication of their chronological disintegration.

The book is a fast read and is entertaining. Ms. Millet’s short story collection “Love in Infant Monkeys” was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.

The Death of Artemio Cruz


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Carlos Fuentes wrote his celebrated novel “The Death of Artemio Cruz” before The Who wrote “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” He dedicated the book to C. Wright Mills, the sociologist author of “The Power Elite”. The son of a diplomat, and a diplomat himself, Fuentes’ socialist politics was developed from privilege. There is a cynicism to this work born from realism about Latin American politicians and institutions.

The story is told through the death-bed memories that diary Artemio Cruz’s life from impoverishment to patrician. A revolutionary who is metamorphosed to manipulating elite. A life stage and not a mutation, the powerful and powerless, the rich and the poor, are the same. It is a transposition of power and wealth, not of beliefs.

Artemio Cruz is not caricature of egoism or megalomania. He is a complex character whose materialism and power is real. He is not evil, if indifference is not evil. Power is ceded or taken from the weak. He plays or manipulates to his advantage. What is lost, is his gain. He despises the sycophants. A scene at his New Year’s Eve party (the feast of St. Sylvester) at the enormous residence he keeps for his young but aging mistress is price-less. The dialogue is of overheard one-line remarks of his rich guests who believe he is too old to hear. It is a ploy Mr. Fuentes uses throughout the novel, to draw the other characters and their relationship to Mr. Cruz.

Artemio Cruz’s character is fully drawn; as in life, personalities are carved from loss. Mr. Cruz’s loss is love: his first love, and the loss of his son. The latter, although in volume a small portion of the novel, is the essence of this fatalistic story.

The novel is also about Mexico. It is both a historical review and a sociological study.

” Take your Mexico: take your inheritance.

You will inherit the sweet, disinterested faces with no future because they do everything today, say everything today, are present and exist in the present. They say ‘tomorrow’ because tomorrow doesn’t matter to them. You will be the future without being it; you will consume yourself today thinking about tomorrow. They will be tomorrow because they live only today.”

Stylistically, Mr. Fuentes writing is not what I would normally prefer. It is voluble with adjectives; recursive with synonyms; and the flashbacks slowly secrete the relevance of new characters. Nonetheless, I am captivated by his writing and would read this book again. I can’t help feeling that there is something I missed, because there is depth to his writing. The latter I noticed when reading the first lines of other books that he has written. I intend to read these other novels. I suggest you read this novel. It is great literature.

The Messenger


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jan-karski-wystawa-nowy-jork-2013-01-16-002 (1)

If you go to the Polish Consulate in New York City there is a statue of a man sitting on a bench. Other cities have similar statutes. The statute is as gaunt as Jan Karski was in life. I see him, Old World, patrician in physical demeanor, ramrod erect, sometimes smoking a cigarette holding in the old fashion Eastern European manner. Jan Karski: a name de guerre. The Christian name was Jan Kozielewski. A Polish diplomat by training. By circumstance a prisoner turned courier. A messenger between the Polish Underground and the Polish Government in Exile and its Western allies during World War II. I knew this man. I never knew him.

I visualize him from memory. I hear his high-pitched, snorted laugh. I remember nothing about what he said. The laugh lingered. It always made me feel that this man had been abused. He was my professor in college. The laugh was a source of ridicule among his students. He taught was one of those comparative “something” classes that you were required to take at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He never spoke about himself. Never about the War. It was only after leaving Georgetown that I learned who he was. A man who bore witness.

“The Messenger” is an odd book. As a biography it reviews Mr. Karski’s participation in the film “Shoah”. It reveals that only a few years after I graduated Mr. Karski was coaxed to participate in the film. To tell his story again. His silence since the War was not reserved to his students. He chosed to stay quiet after the War.

The second part of the biography, is a summary of Mr. Karski’s memoir “Story of a Secret State” that was published in 1944. It was a best seller.

The last part of the book is fiction. The author conveys what he believes are Mr. Karski’s thoughts through a first person monologue. This is the most interesting part of the book, because he universalize the Holocaust. In the monologue Mr. Karski presumably rejects the Poles as being more anti-Semitic than people of other countries: the Soviets, the British, the French, the Americans. Purportedly they are demonized as a distraction from Western complicity. Historically he stands apart. He has been honored at Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous among the Nations.” He had been in the Warsaw ghetto and gained entrance into one of the camps to accurately report to the Allies what was happening. He had been caught and tortured by the Nazis and escaped. He feared the Soviets, as he feared the Nazis. The monologue raises the Katyn massacre by Stalin’s NKVD during early 1940. Four thousand of Poland’s intelligentsia were taken to the forest near Smolensk, executed and dumped in a mass grave. This message is not meant to detract from the horror of the Holocaust. Mr. Karski was virulently anti-Communist. A purpose is to address the human condition. The commandment from the Holocaust according to Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer is:

“Thou shalt not be a perpetrator.
Thou shalt not be a victim.
And above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

The latter is Jan Karski’s message. Its historical retelling is more powerful than fiction. Ad advertisement in the February 16, 1943 edition of the New York Times is quoted. It is in the fiction part of the book. It reads:

” FOR SALE to Humanity
70,000 Jews
Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece”

The copy in part says, “Romania is tired of killing Jews. It has killed one hundred thousand of them in two years. Romania will now give Jews away for practically nothing”. The text notes that American politicians have done nothing and that Romania upon payment will deliver the 70,000 Jews in concentration camps to Palestine.

I figure this is dramatic license and research the purported event. It is not fiction. Romania had approached the U.S. State Department in advance of publication, but the State Department did not choose to do anything. Karski had already met with the British in 1942 and met with Roosevelt in July of 1943. What was transpiring was known. The ad was published by Ben Hecht, a non-religious Jew, turned Irgun supported and anti-Zionist, to dramatize the plight of European Jews. The American Jewish Congress (and similarly The Jewish Agency in London) responded at the time “The American Jewish Congress, dealing with the matter in conjunction with recognized Jewish organizations, wishes to state that no confirmation has been received regarding the alleged offer of the Romanian Government to allow 70,000 Jews to leave Romania. Therefore no collection of funds would seem justified.” Who knew what and when remains in question, although Mr. Hecht, in his book “Perfidy” claimed complicity of established Jewish organizations in intentional inaction.

We are all bystanders to atrocities. It is not that we don’t care, it is self-preservation and the absence of shared condition. On a micro-level it occurs in our daily lives. On a macro-level, nations find political reasons to avoid relief. The Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, recently Syria- the messenger is now real-time electronic, but the result continues to be Jan Karski’s nightmare.

This book is not as good as its subject.

Crusoe’s Daughter


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There is a quote from Maureen Corrigan of NPR on the book cover of “Crusoe’s Daughter”: “Gardam is the best British writer you’ve never heard of.” She is the recipient of many literary awards: twice awarded the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) for best novel of the year (“The Queen of the Tamborine”; “The Hollow Land”); short listed for the Booker Prize (“God on the Rocks”); a finalist for the Orange Prize (“Old Filth”); various New York Times Notable Book of the Year awards, among others. What drew me to read this classic work of British literature, was that it did not receive any awards. It was the author’s favorite work.

It is an old fashion tale, not now in vogue. On one level, it is the life story of child orphaned to her spinster aunts and relatives in the Midlands of England during the first half of the 20th Century. On another level, it mentally parallels the vicissitudes of Crusoe’s marooned existence. Polly Flint, a sheltered child of a Yorkshire seaman, finds company in literature. Her faux realism and rejection of romanticism is due to absence not experience. She gravitates from agnosticism to religion, following Crusoe’s pathway and seemingly replicating the life of some of her aunts. Ms. Gardam drew Polly Flint’s character from her mother’s life, but the novel has a third level. Through Polly Flint, the book is a review of the English novel. Daniel Defoe’s novel was mass market literature of its day and was not considered to be literature in the classical sense. Ms. Flint is an ardent defender.

Jane Gardam is a fabulous writer. The characters are as well drawn as Dickens. The language is descriptive without excess. For me the latter is a problem for many writers. Ms. Gardam has perfect pitch. It is vintage writing that compares favorable with George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Dickens, although for a different era. Ms. Gardam plots a story-line along diverging paths that avoids sentimentality. There is realism in her choices that parallels history and Ms. Flint’s perspective.

While an excellent choice for anyone who cherishes good writing, it might particularly appeal to those who read women’s literature. It most certainly can be read by children from Middle School onward, although it may be too uneventful for those not interested in period pieces. The book can be funny at times, but it would be a suicidal choice for young boys who do not have a literary bent.

Specifically I would recommend this novel to those who want to learn how to write well. If you are not in this category, read it anyway. I am adding it to my short list of best reads.

O Jerusalem


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To read the epilogue of this book about the siege of Jerusalem during the war that created the State of Israel one would almost think it was written today. Unfortunately, it was written in 1972.

“The Arab states displayed no haste to succor their suffering brothers. The Lebanese, afraid that the predominantly Moslem refugees would upset their nation’s delicate balance between Christian and Moslem, persistently refused them. The Egyptians kept them crowded into the Gaza Strip. Syria and Iraq, whose resources made them the countries best equipped to receive the refugees, turned their backs on them. Only Jordan, poorest of the Arab states, made a genuine effort to welcome them into its ranks.”

The balance in Lebanon is today mostly historic. As with the Syrian refugees today, the Jordanians were relatively welcoming. The same cannot be said for Europe’s and the U.S.’ acceptance of Jewish refugees. In 1946 Congress permitted only 4,767 Jewish refugees. Israel was a convenience. Ironically, it is part of Hitler’s legacy.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre at the outset of “O Jerusalem” quote from Hebrew Psalm 137, Christian Matthew 23:37, and The Hadith of Mohammed. Each sanctified Jerusalem as an inseparable core of faith, culture and history. It is a pawn in a continuing global power play.

While the book is balanced and does not shy away from the Irgun’s crimes against humanity at Deir Yassin, it is predominantly told from the perspective of the Jews. The Arab sources are principally government and military, without direct narratives from Arab villagers. Both sides suffered from internal infighting and lack of organization. Each were reasonably adept as terrorists, and less so as a military force. In most cases each seem to snatch defeat from victory. The authors consistently attribute the Arab failure to the irregular Arab forces who were more intent on looting then on achieving their intended goal. The Arab leaders were incompetent. Substituting hyperbole for planning. The Arab Legionnaires, substantially backed by the British, are comparatively well-regarded. The Israelis also had their issues with the terrorist Irgun and the Stern Gang. Unlike the more disciplined Palmach, their interest was supplanting the Haganah. This ultimately led to a battle between the two, when Menahem Begin sought to displace Ben-Gurion.

The politics in “O Jerusalem” is the most interesting. The British aligned with the Arabs. They shared a history and oil reserves and the Suez Canal held more sway than Jewish refugees from concentration camps. The U.S. was split. The State Department was against the establishment of Israel. It too had less interest in refugees, particularly given it historic negativity toward Jews. President Truman was indecisive, but as history spun from personalities and accidents, Truman ultimately favored support after meeting with his Jewish partner from his Missouri haberdashery. The U.S. in the end leaned on the British, who at a critical time for the Arabs,agreed to a cease-fire between the combatants and withheld munitions when the Israel was being replenished from desperation to dominance. King Abdullah ibn-Hussein el Hashimi, the King of Transjordan, was not adverse to the State of Israel. In part, because he wanted to consolidate his holdings and obtain a port, and in part, because he did not believe that the other nations (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq) had the capacity to win. Golda Meir and the King met in secret before the war to try to negotiate a settlement. Having successfully raised vital funds for Israel to buy munitions, she could not achieve an agreement, in part due to the Jerusalem issue.

Fiction is often dwarfed by history. In the book the irony and strength of the human condition is illustrated numerous times. The Jewish inhabitants in the Old Quarter, survivors of the death camps, come to Israel for salvation, but during the siege have their rations cut to that which they lived on in the camps. The refugees who sold everything they owned to come to Israel, without knowledge about where they are being sent, and without military training, are sent unprepared into battle to be slaughtered.

The book conveys interesting facts. General Walter Bedell Smith, General Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff during WWII, and other U.S. military officials volunteered to go to Israel to aid it. The Defense Department vetoed the trip. General Smith had been Ambassador to Russia, and was later Director of the CIA and Under-Secretary of State. A traditional Catholic, it is hard to imagine him volunteering without some operational reasons. The authors’ source for this fact is not stated in the notes.

Given the right of return issue, how many Arabs left Jerusalem in the first weeks following partition remains in dispute. The numbers range from 350,000 to 1,000,000. Ben-Gurion had agreed to the return of 100,000 upon the signature of the peace treaty. Some who left were upper and middle class, who went to Lebanon believing it to be temporary and preferring to avoid the fight. Like them but for religious reasons the Orthodox Jewish community had no interest in fighting. They did not, and many still do not, believe Israel is the Jewish State and were relatively comfortable living with their Arab neighbors. Several times they were intent on surrendering Jerusalem and were told by the Haganah they would be shot if they tried to do so. These tensions with certain elements of the Orthodox community still exist. It provides some support to Iranian distinction between Zionism and Judaism from a cultural vantage point.

There is a certain cynicism that comes from reading this history. Is the conflict a mere convenience for States in need of political distraction and markets for weaponry. Can the Arab States afford to have Israel not exist? Will the instability of the Arab States erode the Faustian bargain to the Arab masses?

For Israel the next few years may be its most treacherous. It knows that it cannot rely on any other country, including the U.S., upon which it is dependent. Europe and China need Iranian and other Middle Eastern resources and have no natural lobby for Israel as the U.S. does. Israel’s military superiority while partly a strategic decision of U.S., Europe and Russia is less accountable for its success than the lack of discipline and infighting of the Arab States. It has a temporary reprieve in Egypt and Syria, but that could rapidly change. Demographics are against it. The occasional tolerance that existed between Arabs and the minority Jewish population will likely not return between Palestinians and Israelis. When war is local, the family hatred becomes generational.

“O Jerusalem” is an interesting read and brings perspective to current events.


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