History is often best revealed through the personal stories and relationships of individuals. So it is with these non-fiction books I’ve read of late.
An Invisible Thread is a deeply personal memoir of two lives brought together by one small act. Laura Schroff was a successful ad executive in the go-go 1980’s who brushes past an 11-year-old black child panhandling at 56th and Broadway, less than two blocks from her Manhattan apartment. Something, some “invisible thread” as described in a Chinese proverb, stops her short, and she returns to him. “I’m hungry, lady. Do you have some spare change?” She takes him to McDonald’s. Lunch becomes weekly dinners and involvement in different aspects of Maurice Mazyck’s life over many years. From that first act of kindness, both lives are changed.
Maurice’s life, which otherwise would probably have meant chaos, despair, drugs and jail, became a story of education, well-paying job, wife, family and love. Through Maurice, Schroff is able to confront her own father’s alcoholism and abuse, an unexpected bond with the boy. Her life was made more meaningful by understanding, awareness and human connection. It is a moving story, a reminder of the need not always to brush by strangers who make us feel uncomfortable. An emotional read, highly recommended.
Anthony David’s An Improbable Friendship is a remarkable story of the 40-year relationship between Ruth Dayan, wife of charismatic Israeli military commander and eventually Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, a militant Palestinian peace activist whose daughter married Yasser Arafat. Ruth Dayan, who was also the sister-in-law of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, divorced Moshe Dayan after 36 years of marriage because of his womanizing, but seems to have stayed in touch with him. She and Tawil, both feminists seeking roads to peace, worked tirelessly for human rights and, when they could, used their connections to convey back-channel messages at the highest levels of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jewish press has condemned the book as anti-Israel, but it remains an interesting portrayal of parallel, if intersecting, lives against a complex backdrop of seemingly insoluble conflict.
Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hick, tells the story of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. Lovers, companions, colleagues, counselors, they lived together (Hickok had a room at the White House for more than a decade), traveled together and relaxed together. This intimate book is not great writing but is well researched, enriched by excerpts from the pair’s letters to each other (oh, where will history be in the next, email-only generation?). It’s a compelling account of the prodigious work of the woman arguably this nation’s most extraordinary First Lady. Because Roosevelt’s and Hickok’s work unfolded during the Depression, the book sets the stage for the portrait of Appalachia in Hillbilly Elegy.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has become a necessary read for many struggling to understand how Donald Trump connected with a wide swath of our nation, those feeling left behind, taken for granted, enraged. Vance’s family moved from West Virginia to Ohio; its portrait typical of post-industrial Appalachia: searing poverty, poor to no education, alcoholism and drug abuse, family dysfunction (he was raised by his grandparents) and a tendency toward violence. Economic insecurity was a constant, along with low expectations. Yet Vance’s grandmother’s insistence on his getting a good education and his stint in the marines spurred a self-discipline that enabled him to succeed, get a college degree, a Yale law degree and entry into the world of investments.
Some left-leaning readers will fault his critique of welfare and insistence on boot-strapping toward upward mobility as too dismissive of social programs, but the authenticity of his narrative makes his a voice to be heeded.
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: the 400-year Untold History of Class in America is a good companion book, but, as you can tell from the title, it’s told more from the top down and in a more scholarly fashion that Hillbilly Elegy, which, because it is so very personal, is more gripping. (Another companion piece is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a UC Berkeley sociologist who traveled the country for five years getting to know the “others” in a deeply empathetic way.)
As we all struggle with trying to understand what is happening in our country, why people do what they do, their lack of understanding of each other, how we can get out of the morass we’re in, I look forward to your recommendations of books that illuminate and inspire.