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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel by Ari Shavit

Excellent book. Heavy emotional overtones, but the author never promised a straight-forward history. I've been fascinated by Israel for a long time but lately been more and more critical. The Wall is horrifying ( we're building a wall--even here in Texas--to keep the Mexicans out, but I don't like that either and believe both will go the way of the Berlin Wall). Shavit calls Israel now a colonizing power in a age when colonialism's light has gone out. 

The book begins with Shavit's Great Grandfather, a well-to-do English Jew, arrives in Palestine to "scope out" the land as a homeland for the Jews, for the Zionist movement. He and many others recognized that Jews were unwelcome in Europe and though he and many like him had done well in England, the only way to thrive going forward would be to assimilate as many Jews were doing all over Europe already. He foresaw that in a few generations they would intermarry and lose their Jewishness. A Jewish homeland was the answer. The problem was, the problem which started way back there in the 19th century, was that the visiting Jews did not "see" that the land was already occupied, any more than the Conquistadors did not "see" that Peru was already occupied.

It's a powerful image which Shavit comes back to again and again as he both celebrates what the Zionists made of Israel and recognizes that they will not survive unless they deal with the current problems. One is that huge numbers of residents don't contribute to the society. The ultra orthodox Jews who won't even serve in the military and maybe don't pay taxes either (I may be wrong about that). And the Arabs who are a subjugated people in their homeland but who with a different social and governmental structure, would have much to contribute.

What it seemed to me (perhaps naively) was that he seems to think (as any thinking person must) that Israel would work best if all its citizens were equal and contributed to the whole. No walls. No occupied and occupier classes. But at the same time, he can't quite give up the "Jewish state" idea, even as he recognizes that Arabs will outnumber Jews in a few years. I've always thought there was no hope for a two-state solution but one state without walls is another story. Not that Israeli political elite are likely to go in that direction.... Shavit writes this book partly out of frustration because he too sees that.

The Zionists didn't explicitly see The Third Reich coming, but they did feel at a crossroads. And while WWII gave their dream a reality, that reality was not a well-thought-out plan and only because of the utter chaos in Europe at the end of WWII, with millions homeless, and no one ready to step in with the solution, did it become a solution for the displaced Jews of Europe, most of whom would rather have gone somewhere else more urban, more "civilized" had they only been welcome.

Well worth reading.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

First of all I read it in English, The Infatuations, but could not find the translation in English. As contemporary novels go this one is excellent, primarily because it's different. It' said thoughtful, even philosophical novel, not that it's propounding a philosophy but that it encourages the reader to do consider doing so.

At first I thought this was a stupid book, maybe one more love story. 

Aside: I must say that I'm not into fiction that much these days, especially fiction by Anglo women. Clearly a prejudice. I used to think there couldn't be enough books by women. Now I think there are too many and too many alike. I find myself drawn these days, if to fiction, then to fiction of writers who are not Anglo (meaning from the US, Canada, UK or Australia/NZ though I recognize many of those are not Anglo-) A clever plot. Well written. So what?

Back to The Infatuations. Written by a man with a female narrator. A Spanish man.
Maria, the main character, begins by talking about the "perfect couple" she sees every morning as she sits in the coffee shop before going to work. They are both good looking and seem genuinely wrapped up in each other. Well dressed, the kind of people she knows. She doesn't really know anything about them but she envies them.

Then she finds out that the man (Miguel and his wife is Luisa) was killed in a terrible attack where he was stabbed many times and must have suffered considerably. 

A scene in Luisa's house where they go after they've introduced themselves in the coffee shop and Maria wants to be helpful to Luisa: While Maria is there some friends stop by, a professor and another man, Javier, to whom she is instantly attracted. He's introduced as Miguel's best friend and clearly he's trying to help Luisa recover and take care of her home and children.

Then Maria starts an affair with Javier who makes it clear he's always been in love with Luisa and intends to marry her when she gets over the death of her husband. Maria really cares about him but tries to remain detached because she's convinced he's "taken".

Up to this point I don't see much hope for this novel. Where can it go from here? Some domestic, romantic tale? I hope not. It's a book group book and I already feel guilty because I refused to read the selection before (and I'm supposed to the the group leader).

Back to the plot: Maria is at Javier's apartment and they've fallen asleep after lovemaking. The doorbell rings and Javier gets up, assuming she's still asleep. He closes the bedroom door but she's curious so, without letting him know she's awake, she overhears some of the conversation. Enough to assume that Javier instituted the murder of his best friend whose wife he adores.

From this point on the story becomes a philosophical one, focusing on love and friendship and guilt and honor and loyalty. At this point I realize that we've moved from a plot driven novel to one that has another dimension, And at first I don't know what to make of it. Maria finds it hard to believe that Javier can actually have committed murder, or hired someone to do it, let alone such a vicious murder. But she doesn't know him that well.... 

So I'm hooked. At least it's not another so sincere but boring romantic tale. I recommend it. Not a long book. You'll enjoy it.

Harder to explain is this aversion I seem to have to most fiction these days. Maybe it's my age. I've heard so many readers  say that they read less and less fiction as they grow older, even though they still read a lot. That seems to be happening to me. Mostly I want to read history and let one book lead me to another, not read what the book groups want me to read. 

The best novels I've read lately (Chimamanda Ngozi's Americanah and Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son) take me into worlds I don't know, haven't experienced. I love the romance in each of them though romance is not the point of either. So I'm not down on romance per se and none of the novels I don't want to read would be classified as romance novels anyway....




Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My only complaint about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, is that it ends too soon. That's saying a lot for a 900 page book! But I'd have been happy for it to go on in great detail instead of wrapping up the lives of the major figures relatively quickly after the election of 1912

Goodwin has made a career about writing about American Presidents in the context of the people and ideas of their own time: FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and the homefront in WWII, Lincoln and his “team of rivals” and now the earlier Roosevelt and William Howard Taft as well as S. S. McClure, his magazine and the journalists who would become known as the “muckrackers” (originally a perjorative term used by Roosevelt himself but later a badge of honor for the first and maybe the greatest investigative journalists: Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White).

I was completely engaged by this book which is not a full biography of either President, though at the beginning Goodwin reviews their early lives and that of their wives, but by the end—which is really when the two ex-Presidents made up their quarrel after the explosive and nasty presidential campaign of 1912 where Taft, the sitting President ran for the Republicans, the progressive Wilson (maybe the next President I want to read a bit about) ran for the Democrats, and Teddy Roosevelt ran for a new Progressive Party which he founded—I wanted more. The “bully pulpit” story was over but I'd have listened to more than a single chapter wrapping up the lives of all the characters. (Indeed a whole other book has been written about Roosevelt's trip to The River of Doubt in search of the source of the Amazon.)

The title is significant because Roosevelt was the President who first used his office as a pulpit to raise and “preach” about issues of fairness and concern for all citizens. And “bully” of course was his signature comment on anything he liked. He wanted to break the power of the party bosses and institute popular primaries in all states and to control the power of monopolies like Standard Oil which were controlling their own costs by deals which left small business and the general public at a distinct disadvantage. Enter Ida Tarbell, a remarkable woman, now remembered primarily for her exhaustive study of how Standard Oil controlled the railroads and of course the price of oil. Born in Pittsburgh, with a father who worked in the industry, she made it her life's work to investigate and write about how big corporations used their power and influence to disadvantage everyone else. She was a talented writer who could tackle any subject, including a biography of Napoleon which McClure wanted.
She and her colleagues became allies of Roosevelt, first as governor of New York and later as President as he worked to control the power of corporations, even at the considerable risk of alienating fellow Republicans.

The Republican Party was the source of “progressive-ism” (which I theorize got passed to the Democrats maybe about the time of Wilson who defeated both Roosevelt and Taft in 1912 with a pretty progressive platform).

Taft was a president I knew practically nothing about: he was so fat he wouldn’t fit into the White House bathtub and his son, Robert Taft, was a presidential contender when I was a child and first paid attention to politics. In reality, Taft, who grew up in Cincinnati, was a very interesting man, likeable, hardworking, effective, and congenial. He trained as a lawyer and was 100% dedicated to the law, including how to use the law to benefit the people and predatory corporations. He had a successful legal career, was appointed to the Federal Bench for his district and eventually came to Washington to work in the Attorney General's office. That's when he met and became very close friends with Theodore Roosevelt who had similar political beliefs and aspirations.

Taft was an exceedingly nice person probably too nice Goodwin and many others before her have concluded, to be President. And he never wanted to become President. He was smart and ambitious, but his goal was the Supreme Court, not the White House and in the end that's where he ended up as a very successful Chief Justice, after a rather unsuccessful presidency. And he quarreled seriously with Roosevelt, or rather Roosevelt quarreled with him. Taft was not a contentious person.

Roosevelt and Taft and SS McClure and the journalists on his magazine shared a set of common beliefs: the need to provide protection and benefits for all citizens, including the working people and the concomitant need to control corporations on behalf of all the people. Goodwin tells their story brilliantly. The book is a biography of all seven, the two presidents and McClure and his four main investigative journalists, how they worked for each other and sometimes against each other, how the journalists communicated with and aided the President on significant issues that paved the way for important legislation in their own time and later: lowering tariffs, controlling corporations, instituting an income tax and eventually providing what we call today a safety net for all citizens.


It's a timely subject with the Republican party, at least its progressive wing, supporting many of the issues we associate with the Democratic party today and with the progressive Republicans working against their conservative wing, even to the extent of splitting the party and creating a third party. Had it been anyone other than Teddy Roosevelt who was not really interested in a party per se but in getting elected so he could continue his work, that third party might have been successful. It was joined by many of those who felt disaffected by the current establishment, including among others those agitating for women's sufferage.... But Roosevelt was virtually out of control and though his causes were worthy ones and he attracted many followers, he was, in this compaign, mostly bombast and rhetoric (his slogan was “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”) He did nothing but use the “bully pulpit” and when he failed, the party did. But that's another story....

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A. D. 381 by Charles Freeman

When I was reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I admit I haven't finished), I was struck by the fact that before Christianity, the Romans were completely tolerant of different religions. Every area (city) had its own religion and no one tried to "convert" anyone. And no one claimed that their god ( but there were usually gods—plural) was the one and only and that you'd go to hell if you didn't believe. Freeman shows how Christian leaders in the early centuries fought over doctrinal issues and more or less invented heresy to the extent that the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD made church doctrine into state law for which those who disagreed could be punished, paving the way for religious wars, heresy trials, the Inquisition, etc. The doctrinal issues themselves often seem like how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin issues, issues that were passed on through the centuries, led to the dark ages (where scholarly inquiry and freedom of expression were gone)' and weren't even questioned much by Protestant revolutions.

I think I want to read Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Nuremberg Trial by Ann Tusa and John Tusa

Published in the 80ies, with access to huge archives which included films of the proceedings, this may be the best general interest book on the subject. Not sure. I've only read one other and this was much better. The Tusas are British, he a Czech immigrant who became a BBC news reporter. At first I was a bit put off with the Britishisms (like the "curate's egg") but also because they criticized the American prosecutors and lauded the British...but after awhile I decided they were right. The book is long and detailed and attempts to understand the people involved, the 22 defendants (including Martin Bormann who was never found and presumed dead)  the prosecutors from the US, Britain, France and USSR, the defense attorneys, the witnesses, the judges from the four powers, as well as many others--the jailers, the doctors and psychiatrists, the military officers and men, etc., altogether an enormous cast of characters. And don't forget the press. Inevitably I was having to look up who even major players were and many just faded into other defendants, or other prosecutors, or other judges. 

The US organized the effort and paid for all the facilities, including building a courtroom in the former Nazi Palace of Justice, at a time when building materials were hard to even find in a severely bombed out city. The physical and procedural details were as interesting as the people. Early on there were "Ashcan" and "Dustbin" the two prisons for potential defendants  one of which was in Luxembourg in a former luxury hotel which lead to  news stories about ex-Nazis living in the lap of luxury until the head of the prison organized a visit for the press.  IBM provided the first version of the simultaneous translation system now so critical to the UN and other organizations. A document center wrestled with the HUGE amount of documentary evidence, authenticating documents and getting them copied (photostats I think, there not being other copy technologies available) and distributed, in the correct language (English, French, German, Russian) to often huge numbers of participants.

Because the Germans documented everything and because the Allies captured records on a huge scale, the documents were the main evidence in the trial, witnesses accounting for relatively little impact. There were many legal and philosophical issues to deal with: law procedures that were similar in the US and Britain, but different on the continent. The US wanted to convict the whole gang on "conspiracy to conduct aggressive war" but conspiracy was not a usual charge in the other countries. Each country had pet issues they wanted to prosecute specifically, as did the occupied countries who were not directly represented. Russia wanted to prosecute the Nazis for the Katyn Forest massacre, even as most in the West were pretty sure the Russians had done it themselves.

There were personality clashes. Some lawyers and judges were more interested in developing international laws and precedents—in other words, theory, while others were better at practical matters, say, cross examining the witnesses. The Americans were preoccupied with theory while the British were better prosecutors—in general.  The trial lasted from November 1945 to the end of September 1946. The hangings took place in October (can't remember date; the book could have used a reference timetable). They all lived in nearby makeshift accommodations. They socialized together and lived in a world separate from the bombed out city. Even in long recesses, few could go home. The Americans did not usually travel home though occasionally wives came over. Travel was difficult on the continent so mostly only the Brits got much time at home.

One issue, though, predominated. While Göring sneered that whatever conclusions came out, it would be just "victor's justice", in fact, most agree now that it was a legitimate trial (no show trial). Three (Schacht, von Papen, and Fritsche) were acquitted altogether while five got prison sentences from 10 years to life. The rest were hanged—they even hanged Göring's body after he'd swallowed a cyanide capsule that even today no one is sure where he got. Many Germans were angry that they were not all hanged!

Altogether a very interesting book about a very interesting legal experiment. I highly recommend it.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I didn't read Oscar Wao but I really liked this one. I listened to it read by the author who's voice was pleasing,  Much better than the average author reading his or her own work . It's the story of a father and two sons who are inveterate womanizers. It didn't anger me particularly because the narrator at least seems to really love women, even though he just did't get how to sustain a relationship. And that's basically what the book is a out, how he learns, or begins to learn that lesson. Yunior,the main character, came from Santa Domingo at a pretty young age, speaking  no English, in the winter. The father had no clue how to help his family assimilate, and advised  the mother to just stay inside with the kids, even once in a snowstorm when he called to say he was stuck in the storm (clearly with another woman) and left them home alone with their fears. What's charming (probably the wrong word; maybe "arresting" is better) is the nonstop vernacular with more than a little Spanish coloring the English. Fast talking. I'm tempted to get Oscar Wao from audible because it's not narrated by the author, but by two people with Anglo names.... I'm not quite sure how much Diaz' reading performance influences my high opinion of this one. Great performance. Good book.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Churchill: The Last Lion Volume III Defender of the Realm 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid

I read the first two volumes years ago and was awaiting the third, but as Manchester got older and older I was afraid he would never finish it. Evidently he was afraid too and finally enlisted journalist Paul Reid to finish it. Manchester had done most of the research. The book finally came out last fall.

Manchester is, in my opinion, one of the best writers on contemporary history, well history written for the general public at least, though his books are wide ranging including a biog of Mencken and The  World Lit Only By Fire (about the Middle Ages). His memoir of the Pacific War, Goodbye, Darkness, is excellent. I'll never forget  his saying at the end that he and his fellow soldiers welcomed the atomic bomb as a savior because they assumed their next task was the invasion of Japan which they assumed would be more deadly than the invasion of Normandy. He wrote a biography of MacArthur which I haven't read and a history of the US from 1932 to 1972 called The Glory and the Dream and of course The Death of a President which I've recently discovered is out of print which seems wrong somehow. That one I haven't read but do, luckily, have a copy. You might remember also The Arms of Krupp which made a big splash when it was published.  Haven't read that either.

Obviously much of Manchester's  oeuvre  is focused on WWII, but he writes primarily about people, rather than events, and his genius is getting into the skins of the people he writes about and bringing to the reader the details that make the people real and the events understandable in human terms. In the first Churchill volume his treatment of Churchill's childhood was extensive with its focus on his playing with wooden soldiers and striving for the attention of his parents (which he rarely got) as well as the love and care he got from his nanny who gave him what the parents did not. Childhood takes up a good portion of that book. No other biographer that I've read does more than narrate the bare facts of Churchill's childhood. But obviously childhood is critical to understanding the man who was literally written off by his parents as dumb and unpromising.

But to this final volume. In 1940, Churchill became the war leader. [Read Lukacs' June 1940 for a detailed account of how that happened.] Churchill had served in WWI (and in The Boer War), in the field but also at the Admiralty, but he was best known for the disastrous events at Gallipoli which he championed but was not really responsible for the execution of. After the war and throughout the 30ies, he was seen as a warmonger, especially as the rise of Hitler caused him to champion the need for Britain to rearm. He continue to serve in Parliament (to which he was first elected during the reign of Victoria.  In June of 1940, he was already 65 years old.

I listened to this book on tape and either the reader was good at doing Churchill's voice or they used actual recordings of Churchill (unlikely) and a marvelous portion of the book is Churchill's own words which, during the war, inspired the Brits to endure and resist in the face of what looked like a complete takeover of Europe by Hitler. Shortly after Churchill became PM, he presided over the the marvelous evacuation of soldiers (not only Brits but some Poles and French) from Dunkirk after which he reminded the people that in spite of the success a retreat is not a victory. Then France collapsed and the whole world expected Britain to go pretty quickly. That was the time of the "We will fight them on the beaches...." speech.

I'm not going to tell the whole story. You know it but will love reading it again, sprinkled with Churchill's rhetoric. He was fearless. There's nothing else to be said. Though he knew the odds, he was determined and passed his determination to a whole people. You remember the "finest hour" speech  where he said we will resist in the face of huge odds so that if the British Empire last for a thousand years (as Hitler expected his empire to last) all will say, "this was their finest hour."

Churchill traveled the world, uncomfortably in unheated, unpressurized Liberators to meet with his generals and allies. Roosevelt traveled to the big conferences (granted it was harder to him to travel and he sent Eleanor to rally the people at home and in the field) but that's all. Churchill traveled far and wide, often ill with pneumonia or heart problems. Stalin barely left his domain (afraid probably). Tehran was as far as he would go to meet with the allies though Churchill traveled twice to Moscow. Yalta was in Stalin's own territory. Other top level allied meetings were Churchill and Roosevelt only.

Gradually Churchill realized that he was becoming the junior partner in the alliance, though he was older than both Stalin and Roosevelt (and outlived both). As allied victory became inevitable (long before the war was won), it also became clear that the US and the USSR would eclipse Britain in the post-war world. Roosevelt particularly wanted to rid the world of colonialism and had no sympathy for the old Victorian's goal of holding on to as much of the empire as possible. In retrospect, Roosevelt seems naive, as he was naive in thinking he could work well with Uncle Joe. Interestingly, this is a tale of war from the British POV and neither Roosevelt nor Eisenhower come off as well as they do in American versions.

The war (1940-1945) takes up more than three quarters of this book which extends until Churchill's death in 1965. In 1945 Labour wins the election and Churchill leaves the Potsdam Conference, though his influence continued to be felt. You'll remember his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri (to which Truman had invited him to speak at the Commencement ceremonies of Westminster College) he warned that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

I can't compare this volume easily with the others since I read them years ago, but I enjoyed it. The words may not all have been Manchester's, but he did the research and the focus is his. Thanks goodness for Paul Reid for this final chapter in the story.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson


This was a joy to read. The author has a light-hearted voice and an arbitrary but unfailingly appropriate sense of organization. She surveys, not what humans eat, but the technology used to prepare food. Her main focus is on how it's done in the home, but she also explains those old kitchens with warm hearth and the hanging pots as where the servants sweated (sometimes naked) to produce the meals their betters ate. She segways into restaurant cooking now and then too, particularly as it influences the home cook. Her organization is tool-oriented: spoons, forks, knives, pans, heat sources, freezing, not forgetting peelers and whisks and Cuisinarts, even Sous Vide machines and Aeropress espresso makers.

On the way she touches on a wide variety of topics, mixing historical research, expert opinion and her own feelings on a wide variety of topics, all without ever losing the focus on food technology. I was entertained as well as informed. Nothing stuffy or academic here. She's British, by the way, and that informs her opinions but not too much. She's very knowledgeable about US food tools and habits too, and jumps around Europe with her examples, with France and then Italy coming next, though there are also sections on people who don't use spoons and forks—on chop sticks and on eating with one's fingers for example.
 
She's quite good on the current rage for the perfect kitchen, with space and provision for every possible tool. She hates islands. She also points out that kitchens usually contain features and tools from a wide variety times, historically as well as within one's own life, which is part of her objection to the "kitchen renovation" concept. I think she thinks one should "collect" one's kitchen over the years. (She thinks reproduction anything is silly. To recreate a room from the 1940s you don't just fill it full of everything made in the 1940ies....)

She's interesting on futuristic kitchens from the past too: a 1940s kitchen designed to excite American women to put up with the last years of the war (she very gently suggests American women weren't all that deprived by the war). And the Frankfurt kitchen designed by a woman not taken seriously because she was a communist (http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/counter_space/the_frankfurt_kitchen), but which was actually very good. And the model kitchen of the Nixon-Khrushchev "kitchen debate".

I highly recommend this one. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Excellent book. Meacham sees Jefferson not only as the idealist and philosopher who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but as a man who learned from experience and compromised throughout his political career. In fact, at the beginning of his Presidency, the Federalists were frightened that the country fail because real democracy was too dangerous and at the end of his Presidency some of the Republicans were angry that he'd compromised with the Federalists to the extend that he compromised the who idea of democracy. Interestingly, there was talk of secession at both points, and in both instances the North was seen as leaving the union, perhaps to form a country with British possessions in North America (Canada) and to have a more "royalist" government, maybe even go back to British rule.
One of Jefferson's greatest fears was that the new United States would give up the democratic ideal and have a "president for life" or even a younger son of the British king as its king.

His relationship with John Adams was also interesting. The two were close when they were both abroad as diplomats but politics separated them as Adams became the head of the Federalist Party and Jefferson of the Republicans. Only in old age did they reconcile (as a result of a push by Abigail Adams) and carry on a correspondence after Jefferson had retired. Then, they both died on the 4th of July of 1826, Jefferson have struggled to stay alive until July 4th.

Interesting to me that I've always liked Jefferson and felt closer to his main ideas but never read very much about him. Lately though I've read biographies of Adams, Hamilton (Jefferson's Nemesis) and Washington so have understand the Federalist POV much better, but reading this book reminded me that Jefferson, IMHO, is the closest to the way I think.

The book was interesting on the Jefferson controversy (slavery--he didn't free his slaves at death as did Washington, Sally Hemmings--Jefferson promised his wife not to remarry/sleeping with a slave, who was in fact a half sister of his wife, was not unusual at the time).

I was also reminded that it was Jefferson who commissioned the Voyage of Discovery of Lewis and Clark and who made the purchase of the Louisiana Territory on his own without consulting Congress (thought he at first wanted a constitutional amendment to allow it). It would probably not have happened had he not acted quickly. Those two acts set the scene for American expansion into the west and were therefore far-seeing and critical decisions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin



I read this one because it sounded to me a bit like his Winter's Tale, the only other Helprin novel I've read and which I became completely immersed in and loved. Like Winter's Tale, this novel celebrates New York City, this time at a somewhat later period. The time is 1946 and the main character, Harry Copeland, is a well-to-do Jewish ex-soldier who's come home to run his father's leather goods business, his father having died while he was at war. (I couldn't help but note that  Swede Levov, Roth's main character in American Pastorale, was also a business man in leather goods.) Harry, now in his early 30ies,  had been in the special forces  and fought his way from Africa to Sicily and eventually to the Normandy invasion, undertaking hazardous missions alone or with an elite team, been seriously wounded and had not exactly expected to survive. In 1942 in NY, he had two significant problems: his want of someone to love and be loved by and the need to save his father's business from the "protection rackets" which were largely unchecked by police or government in the city. And those two are related in ways that define who Harry Copeland is and how he will live his life.

Visiting an aunt (his only relative and she not a blood relative) on Staten Island, he sees a woman on the ferry and falls in love with her before he even meets her. Their love story is the at the core of the novel and Helprin writes some downright purple prose in its praise, verging sometimes on sentimentality, but for me right on the edge with the focus of the horrendous need of human beings to love, especially after living through the nightmare of the century. The woman is Catherine, only daughter of a rich financier, engaged to marry the son of another rich financier; a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr she has been trained as a singer  and is in a promising Broadway show. She too was stuck by seeing Harry on the ferry.

Harry's business is threatened with ruinous protection payments, orders of magnitude higher than those his father had been paying or any other tenants of the same building are currently paying, enough to ruin the business within the year. There is no hope of help from authority. The mob rules in this kind of thing. But Harry's sense of honor and dignity and what he owes to his father's memory cannot just close the business down and leave, and eventually it becomes clear that the mob is taking orders from the ex-fiance who has also bribed the critics to ignore Catherine's talent and imply that her rich father bought her a Broadway debut.

Love and honor denominate this novel and speak loudly to a generation that's learned to accept that neither is really possible in a world where return on investment trumps all. I recommend it highly. It's a moving story, a page turner and a tear jerker, but nonetheless honest.

I rate it a 10 though I doubt the critics do. I think it might be time to read other Helprin novels since these this one and Winter's Tale have captivated me so completely. And if you're in love with New York, this one isn't to be missed. I'm not--London is the city I dream about--but I still respond to Helprin's obvious love.