Memoirs and politics make good summer reads
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 20:09
One of the best things about the summer is the time that you have to catch up on all the reading that you weren’t able to do during the academic year. I found myself spending a good deal of time on my summer reading, whether it was on my daily commute into Manhattan or vacationing on Cape Cod. Out of the books that I read over the past three months, I chose five relatively different titles to review.
What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Scott McClellan (PublicAffairs, 2008)
Summary: As an insider account of the Bush administration by Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary, this book deals almost exclusively with the Valerie Plame affair, a political scandal involving the blown cover of CIA Agent Plame, and McClellan’s role conveying information on the scandal to the press. A particular prominence is given to the personal ethical challenges that McClellan recalls facing when he questioned the political information he was provided while trying to be an honest and reputable spokesperson for President Bush.
Review: The book comes across as a vehicle for McClellan to clear his name from ethical wrongdoing in the Plame affair. As a reader who was looking for a thoughtful monograph to consider the faults of the Bush administration, this was a major disappointment. Moreover, McClellan included others’ personal testimonials to him, which I perceived as purely self-serving. He makes some interesting points about Bush and his leadership style, but McClellan seems most concerned about his image and his own life, contrary to the book’s title.
Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century, Samuel C. Heilman (University of Washington Press, 2011)
Summary: Heilman, a distinguished professor of Sociology at Queens College in New York, has adapted a series of lectures given at the University of Washington into this comprehensive book. This is a broad survey of American Jewry as it has evolved from the 1950s to the 1990s, divided into sections by decade. Heilman touches on several topics of interest to American Jews, such as Jewish education, institution building and mixed marriage.
Review: As a reader with minimal background in sociological methodology or terminology, I found the book very accessible and thorough. Some points can be a bit dry, such as the number-filled section on population growth, but this should be expected in an academic book. Heilman is nonetheless able to create an overview of American Jewry that explains the group’s complicated development. The book is best read with a general knowledge of Jewish cultural practices, as he does not break down each Jewish ritual and tradition he discusses.
A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz (Mariner Books, 2004)
Summary: This is the memoir of Israeli author Amos Oz, in which he recounts his time growing up in Jerusalem during the creation of the Israeli state. The story primarily chronicles the suicide of his mother when Oz was 12, but also touches upon other themes of growing up, such as his personal relations with Arabs, the professional struggles of his father in academia and his one-on-one meeting with David Ben-Gurion while living on a type of communal settlement called a kibbutz.
Review: At over 500 pages, this book is very long and not exactly a page-turner but Oz offers a unique child’s perspective on growing up in war-torn Jerusalem and vividly conveys emotions of loss surrounding his mother’s suicide. Furthermore, he includes wisdom and insight based in his life experiences throughout the book that make it a pleasure to read. Several times in the story, Oz somewhat abruptly adopts the voices of relatives to convey stories about his parents or ancestry, and it can be difficult to identify exactly whom he channels. However, once the reader understands the voice through which he is speaking, Oz communicates the attitudes of those around him growing up quite clearly, and his very precise language paints clear pictures of his childhood.
Bringing up Bebé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman (Penguin Press, 2012)
Summary: Part narrative, part popular sociology, Bringing up Bebé reports Druckerman’s experiences as an American woman raising children in France. She discusses several components of French parenting, including attitudes towards food, French nurseries (crèches) and dealing with a child’s minor misbehaviors (bêtises). At the same time, she incorporates her personal experiences living in France, making French friends and assimilating into French culture.
Review: Druckerman’s book provides an exciting glimpse into French parenting culture through an American lens. She includes research from several sources in her book and clearly details, with personality and humor, informal fieldwork in crèches, doctor’s offices and friends’ homes. Druckerman starts to falter, however, with narratives unrelated to her fieldwork. These describe either mundane social anxiety or familial conflicts and have a whining tone. This not insignificant chunk of the story hampers the book’s overall quality.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, 2008)
Summary: Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin details the Supreme Court before the Obama term, analyzing the roles and characters of each individual Justice on the Court. He considers important topics that the Court has encountered, from social issues to the 2000 presidential election, and focuses on recent American history and the niches that each Justice has created for him- or herself.
Review: This excellent and highly engaging book breathes life and personality into the Supreme Court, which can be perceived as the quietest branch of American government. Toobin’s prose is engrossing, and he avoids complex “legalese,” making his book intellectually accessible. Furthermore, his biographical research, which reveals the distinct personalities of the Court, is very thorough and often humorous. Although the book is now slightly outdated, given the new makeup of the court with Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, it remains a highly recommended read to get a fuller understanding of the United States’ highest judiciary body. I’m looking forward to picking up his new book, titled The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, which comes out on Sept. 18.
Although this review provides several options for reading, many exciting books are coming out in September, such as alumnus Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper (which hits shelves today) and J.K. Rowling’s new novel The Casual Vacancy (Sept. 27).
Be on the lookout for these new publications, as there are several days off in September that can be used to do some reading for pleasure.