Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Measure of My Year: Recommended Reading

As 2012 came to a close, I took the measure of my year, not too unlike that annual self review I used to write for my former employer. While the approach may be similar, the nature of the goals has changed. I must confess that I am still number counting as if to reassure myself of my productivity. Now I count books read, blog entries written, paintings completed, web sites created, videos edited. How many exhibitions, talks and projects and how many people did I reach through those efforts? How many hits on this blog you are reading? Number counting, a tangible measure, occurs against a larger more subjective backdrop that is often harder to measure. Did my work touch others, did it make them think? Conversely when I read a book or did an interview, did it give me food for thought, move me along a path that prompted something new. Did I meet others through my work that triggered new ways of thinking? Did each step I took lead to the next step being more thoughtful, more creative, more productive. Am I living my life in a meaningful way?

This path is less charted and that very lack of definition is often challenging. How does one define success when there is no annual bonus or raise to validate one’s work? How does one move past inertia, get unstuck when unsure what comes next or ride out the process to find new energy.

What I do now is very much about inputs, process and output. Inputs are most often books or interactions with people. Those inputs are typically processed through the filter of my observations through the act of painting or writing and in turn result in written or artistic outputs. For me reading is often a critical input, offering new perspectives and ideas, helping to move me forward. I usually read 30-40 books a year and while not all of them are life altering, I read a significant number that are exceptional and feel important to the work that I do. With that preface, there are a number of books that I read in 2012 that I found particularly noteworthy and relevant to family history and Jewish heritage. I also have read some wonderful books that are not on that theme which you can follow on Goodreads.

One of my tests of an extraordinary book is whether I retain the threads of the plot and the characters some months later. There are many books that I find entertaining, but if you asked me about them months later I would be hard pressed to tell you the plot. So part of my test for whether a book makes this list is whether it was memorable. The other is whether it adds to my personal body of knowledge, both in facts, but also in my sense of human experience as lived among those facts.

Some of the books I read and recommend from 2012 reading were addressed in an earlier blog. You can read more about A Day of Small Beginnings, Too Jewish and The List in that earlier entry.

Others which I would add to the list are the following:

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

At almost 800 pages this is a commitment, but one which you will be glad you made. I began this with some trepidation knowing the Holocaust loomed ahead in the history of the times. As much as I have read on this topic, I always have a bit of dread upon approaching it. And yet while the Holocaust acted upon the lives of the characters, their lives were sturdy and well developed before it made its appearance and thus didn't overshadow them. Set in Budapest and Paris it follows the life and family of Andras, a young Hungarian Jew as he goes to Paris to study architecture. There he meets Klara, a former Hungarian with a dark history. Together they are buffeted by world events as they seek to build a life together. When I went to Budapest I learned much about the experience of Jews there during WWII. This book put a human face on it and introduced characters about whom I began to care deeply. It also deepened my knowledge of the events of that time in this region as they affected the people caught up in their web.

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

This book bears some similarities to The Invisible Bridge. Both are first novels and sagas. The book explores the life of a character who was based on the author’s grandmother. I was especially interested in this book because my grandmother too came from the Ukraine, an area known as “Little Russia” from which the title derives. I also loved that the author details her very comprehensive research methodology in a blog entry.

The story is a saga that follows the life of Bertha Alshonsky in early 20th century Russia, her marriage to a man who is active in the Bund and smuggles arms to shtetls and her ultimate efforts to cross Russia to find her husband in the United States. The political backdrop is that of pogroms and the dangers associated with being Jewish that forced many of our ancestors to emigrate to the United States. As I was reading this book, I was interviewing Jewish elders and actually did an interview with a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant. She recounted her father’s experience of witnessing his parents’ murder in a pogrom and searching during the winter for an orphanage where he and his siblings could reside. The two stories merged effortlessly and the visual imagery was easily supplied from Sherman’s narrative.

Behind Enemy Lines by Marte Cohn

This memoir was quite extraordinary and gave me a perspective on the French experience during the war. I was heading off to the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Paris and picked it up in my search for topical literature. Cohn shares her experience as a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine, a region that is on the border between France and Germany. As a result, she grew up speaking fluent German. The family was evacuated to Poitiers as the threat of German invasion increased. They continued to live their lives as that threat became a reality. For a time Marte is employed by the Germans as a German-speaking interpreter with her blonde hair allowing her to pass. When she announces her Jewish background, she is quickly fired. The story relates how the family escapes to temporary safety in unoccupied France. With false papers they were able to survive even after the Germans occupied France. Following the execution of her fiancée, Marte joins the military where she ultimately is employed as a very successful spy behind enemy lines. The book is very much a thriller based on the life of an unusual woman who tells a compelling story.

Other books of interest include:

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

This book is composed of two stories, one based in Germany during the war, one in El Paso, Texas. The first was far more compelling, but the common theme was how one decides what is the right thing to do. What I found interesting was the view of life within the embrace of the Nazi culture. The main character was engaged to a Nazi and her sister participated in the Lebensborn program. Ultimately she hid a young Jewish boy despite these associations.

The Forgetting River by Doreen Carvajal

I picked up this book because while I have read widely on the Jews of Eastern Europe, I know just the broad outline of my Sephardic brethren. Carvajal, a NY Times journalist, explores her heritage as a hidden Jew emerging from the Inquisition’s history. She returns to live for a time in the town of Arcos de la Frontera in the Andalusian region of Spain while she researches her family’s past.


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