Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Books I Couldn't Put Down

Some books I have enjoyed lately:

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

We all want to be remembered when we die. As human beings, one of our greatest fears is not leaving a mark on this world, not contributing to it in any significant way.

Krauss’ unlikely protagonist, Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor who is living an isolated, lonely life in New York City, commits outrageous acts on a regular basis to make sure that he is noticed. When the Chinese deliveryman brings him dinner (four nights out of seven) Gursky makes a big point of finding his wallet. When he’s in a crowded store, he drops his change, and makes a production of crawling on the floor to pick up his nickels and dimes. He even poses nude for a drawing class.

Gursky acts like this because every previous act of his life has been erased. His family was wiped out in the Holocaust. His son thinks another man is his father. And his manuscript was lost in the turmoil of post World War II Europe.

Or was it? It turns out that Gursky’s book was published – but under someone else’s name. This is the central mystery of Krauss’ book. So Gursky has made his mark on the world, although he doesn’t realize it. The History of Love tells his journey of discovery, his search for significance.

The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon

Set against the turbulent background of the 1960s and told through a series of modern-day e-mails, Gordon’s book explores how the decisions of our past shape our future and those around us. Jason Sinai, a member of the Weather Underground, abandoned his six-year old daughter Isabel and went into hiding. Now in the 1990s, he has resurfaced and is trying to explain to his daughter the events of his past. Sinai’s former colleagues also send e-mails to Isabel, presenting a Rashomon-type explanation for why well-educated, dedicated student activists turned to violence to protest the Vietnam War.

This is a page turner, particularly if you are fascinated with that era, as I am. I liked it so much I read another of Gordon’s books, The Sacrifice of Isaac. I was very disappointed with that one. He is the literary editor of the Boston Review.

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

This was probably the best book I read last year. I’m not the only one who thinks this, because it won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I learned so much from this book. I thought I was well educated on the difficulties African-Americans faced after the end of slavery. I knew about Jim Crow, lynching, the difficulty that blacks had in voting. But I didn’t realize how deep the antipathy toward integration went, and not that the north was as culpable as the south in repressing blacks.

Boyle tells the story of Ossian Sweet, the grandson of a slave and an up and coming black doctor in Detroit. Sweet had been born in the south and had overcome numerous hardships to become a doctor, and didn’t view himself as overtly political. He married, had a child, and did what most Americans want to do – buy a house.

But Sweet bought a house in a white neighborhood and on the first night of his occupancy in 1925, a white mob gathered outside. Sweet had asked a group of friends and business acquaintances to keep his family company that night, and protect them from violence. The situation escalated, and someone inside the house – not Sweet – fired into the mob, killing one man and injuring some others.

Sweet, his wife, and his friends were put on trial for murder. None other than Clarence Darrow defended them – and turned the trial into an indictment of race relations in the United States. Sweet was acquitted, but not before his family fell apart and his life was ruined.

Boyle does an excellent job of capturing the tensions in American society in the 1920s during the Jazz Age. He describes the competing ideologies that existed in the NAACP, and why whites were so fearful of integration. He documents how the rise of the Ku Klux Klan influenced big-city northern politics, particularly in Detroit. Boyle is a historian at Ohio State University, and in Arc of Justice he has managed to write a fascinating, important book.

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