§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: June 2014

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Venice:A New History by Thomas F Madden

Picked this up on a whim and was initially bored: too many dates, not enough people. But I really got into it. The author argues that Venice was not the oligarchy most have assumed because there were no hereditary rulers but an elected Doge whose sons could not inherit his position. Elections were carried out by an elaborate series of committees working one after another, organized in such a way that no one person could either dominate or or form a clique to so. Furthermore there were multiple ways in which common people could work themselves into the governing bodies so Venice was not just a rich man's empire. And there was no nobility.

Venice, which during much of its existence  was an empire including much territory in what is now northern Italy, land across the Adriatic, islands like Crete, even Constantinople at one point, was primarily a business and made decisions deliberately and with both eyes to the future. Venice's business was ship building and trading, mostly around the Med. But you remember Marco Polo? He was the younger son of a wealthy Venetian merchant to traveled to China and later when he languished in jail during one of the wars with Genoa, he wrote about it.

Venetians were sailors and businessmen who governed themselves without a King or Sultan and whose government lasted longer than Rome. It was Napoleon who shut it down in the name of the ideals of the French Revolution and demanded it release all its political prisoners (there were now). 

This is a very upbeat history  (biog.)  of an empire and a city and it ends with a plea for preservation (and hopes for fewer tourists and cruise ships). I'm no specialist in the history of this region, but I enjoyed the book enormously.

The book is pretty new, published in 2012.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Truly a book which straddles the fence between a novel and a memoir,and succeeds brilliantly in my opinion. A memoir doesn't always have a central idea or theme and this one really does: his mother's suicide and coming to terms with it, a process in which I suspect this book played an important part. We learn relatively early that his mother committed suicide when he was 12 and that as soon as he could get away, he left his father and joined a Kibbutz to be another kind a Jew in Israel, not a bookish, intellectual ultra observation with roots in Eastern Europe but an energetic, liberal agricultural worker, the kind who, it seemed to him, was really going to build the new country of Israel. After all his was born in Israel, lived as a child through the war for independence and played on the borders in Jerusalem as a growing boy. He considered Hebrew his native language. He doesn't  say whether he learned Russian but it seems his parents could talk in that language when they didn't want him to understand.

One of the most interesting parts of this European backstory was his mother's school days in a Hebrew school in Rovno, which was first Poland then then Russia (Ukraine). (The government evidently encourage the Hebrew schools, hoping that the Jews would immigrate.) This part is told from the point of view of her younger sister Sonia who almost becomes the author/narrator in this part and brings the reader much closer to this part of Oz's heritage than any other. I found it brilliantly managed.

The early part of the book lays out that Eastern European background which was his heritage, the writers, the intellectuals, the books, the ideas as well as the places and the people. Both sides of the family were Zionists who watched and waited and then immigrated to Israel in the 30ies. One brother of his father chose to stay in Vilnius because he had a good university position and hoped for advancement but then he and his family disappeared in the Holocaust. The family were all relatively poor in Israel and like so many immigrants stuck to their own kind in the new country. (I found the descriptions of Jerusalem and to some extent Tel Aviv where his mother's sisters lived, interesting too since I've never been to Israel.)

Gradually the mother is mentioned more and more but the reader never really understands what happened to her until the very end which is carefully plotted and very emotional—brilliantly sustained suspense and emotion, much more like a novel than a memoir.

I've never read any of Oz's fiction but I probably will now. By the way, in rebelling against his family, he changed his name from Klausner to Oz because it meant powerful, I presume NOT like the Wizard of Oz.