No matter how heavy the topic of the following books any one of them can be a temporary departure from the world around us, helping us better understand the seeds of today’s chaos .
Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust and the Music of Remembrance by Jeremy Eichler, longtime classical music critic of the Boston Globe, is a deep dive into how music carries the message of history and culture forward for all times, and how the emotional truths of cataclysmic events are embedded in our hearts and brains long after the plenitude of facts have faded in the history books. Such is the power of music to bear witness to culture.
In the 1820’s, Beethoven’s unparalleled Ninth Symphony and its Ode-to-Joy fourth movement spoke to a great hope for humanity. Two hundred years later, Eichler notes how the great works of Richard Strauss (Metamorphosen 1945), Arnold Schoenberg (A Survivor From Warsaw 1947, Dmitri Shostakovich (Babi Yar 1962), and Benjamin Britten (War Requiem 1962) help us experience the catastrophes wreaked upon humanity by 20th century horrors, the Second World War and the Holocaust. The dark solemnity of these pieces can make the music difficult to listen to, but that only speaks to the anguish one feels in remembering the depths to which humanity sank in those unspeakable events. This book is not a walk in the park, but Eichler’s passionate and scholarly presentation touches deeply and informs.
A Fever In The Heartland by Timothy Egan, the journalist/historian who wrote the stellar book on the 1930’s The Worse Hard Time, has written this equally compelling book about growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s. Much of the focus is on Indiana, the state with the greatest saturation of KKK members and co-option of government officials at all levels. Indiana was by no means unique. White supremacy was a powerful force – anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and, above all perhaps, anti-black. Voting rights were suppressed, property ownership was limited, schools, stores and restaurants were segregated, and violence against these minority groups was a way of life, from cross burnings to beatings and lynchings. Lip service was given to family values, and certain Protestant clergy were persuaded, some bribed, to praise the KKK in their sermons. Eugenics was in vogue, even in acceptable social circles, reinforcing white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as the “true Americans.” The most outrageous and dissolute Klansman was Grand Dragon (of the Indiana Realm) David C. Stephenson, whose corrupt financial enterprise and control of local and state governments in Indiana and across the Midwest was eventually undercut by his own licentious, predatory and murderous behavior in a case that reads like a Netflix horror film. It’s hard for a reader not to make comparisons with attitudes evident among some right-wing MAGA types today.
We don’t know ourselves: a personal history of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole is a detailed and thoughtful story of Ireland from 1958, the year the author was born. A journalist by profession, O’Toole digs deep into the hold the Catholic Church exerted on the way children were raised (or, as in the children’s schools, abused) and on the body politic. The values the Church insisted upon influenced the public positions taken by the predominant politicians of the day. Neither the Church nor the politicians adhered to the moral codes they were preaching, prime examples being John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin and Charles Haughey, three-term taoiseach (prime minister). Their transgression were widely understood but “too sensitive” to pursue accountability.
The modernization of Ireland – in loosening strictures against contraception, abortion and gay marriage – simply recognized what people were doing anyway, without talking about it. O’Toole takes his personal memoir from rural poverty to the modern period of Ireland’s economic development, which he ascribes to foreign investment. The author takes us from Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes through the Good Friday Accords. He also digs down into what it means to be Irish-American, bringing Irish culture to the United States, and the impact of American culture on Ireland, from TV westerns to country music. O’Toole’s writing is masterful, enriched by his deep knowledge and dynamically illustrated by his personal experiences.
Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser by David Kalis is not in the must-read category of the above three, but written well enough to check out. It’s a coming-of -age memoir of a 22-year-old young man from my home town (his father was my periodontist when I was a young mother) who left home as a recent college graduate to live in Russia just as the Soviet Union was coming apart. Uncertain what he wanted to do with his life, capable of school-taught but not conversational Russian, he set out to master the language and immerse himself in Russian culture.
It was a fascinating time to be there. I had spent time in Moscow a year before Kalis did, just after the Berlin Wall fell, and hopes were limitless about the potential modernization of Russia and the opportunities of the free market. By the time he arrived, the kleptocracy had emerged, corruption was rampant, and so was the Russian mafia. Kalis was a first-hand witness to Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power, supplanting Gorbachev and his perestroika philosophy. Kalis started out in St. Petersburg but soon moved to Moscow, got a job with an American company seeking to expand there. By the time of his departure 2 ½ years later, he had borne first-hand witness to a military attack on Yeltsin’s seat of power. Brash enough to put himself repeatedly in harm’s way, this adventurous but naïve young man partook regularly of the vodka-soaked and clubbing culture. But he also traveled to Ukraine to visit what was left of his grandfather’s hometown. The old synagogue was still standing. What was once a Jewish population of half a million was down to a small handful. The experience was a turning point for Kalis. He returned to his hometown, went to graduate school, started a family and became an important part of the community, where he now sits on the City Council. Published in 2014 and simply but colorfully narrated, this book is an entertaining and informative read.