Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn

Concise might be the most significant word in this book’s title. Anyone looking for a detailed history of Israel will surely be disappointed by Daniel Gordis’ history; monumental events are summarized in a few pages of text (the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, for example, is reviewed in all of eight pages). At times, the almost casual handling of history feels similar to writing about the American Revolutionary War in a haiku.

To his credit, the author begins by admitting he is more interested in telling a story about Israel in the century after the Balfour Declaration than he is on analyzing historical details. And as a story, his book works very well — the narrative is fast-paced, the writing engaging, and the author allows the astounding history of this nation to speak for itself.

No single book about Israel could adequately represent all sides of the many controversies that have surrounded the country even before it was founded. Once again to his credit, Gordis openly admits his perspective — he views Israel as an imperfect but in the end honest and self-reflective nation, plagued by a seemingly endless struggle against its disingenuous and dangerous neighbors. In his Acknowledgments (well worth reading), the author states that many of his peer reviewers told him he had “given Israel a ‘pass’ in areas where much sterner critique was in order;” I’m no expert on this subject, but I agree with this sentiment. If you’re comfortable with a moderate yet partisan Israeli perspective, you’ll find Gordis’ book very readable — but if you’re looking for insights into the Palestinian or Arab perspectives, and particularly if you’ll be upset at their absence, you might want to look elsewhere.

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No Experience Required

Just returned from a two-week vacation in Israel and Italy, during which I was having too much fun (and, to be honest, was too worn out from all the walking and yes, EATING) to even think about blogging. Getting back on the saddle is always difficult after a long layover, so I’ll start by sharing some a pithy political satire from Matt S.

The Handmaid’s Tale

After a lackluster 1990 film adaptation, this 1985 novel appeared destined for the backroom shelves of the dystopian literary canon. Then a certain someone got himself elected president, and with him came a second-in-command with social and cultural beliefs even more extreme than his boss. Hulu’s television series, already in development at the time of the 2016 election, seemed less an homage to a literary classic than a warning shout to America.

But in addition to its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be recognized for its literary qualities. Offred is an engaging narrator, and the theocratic dictatorship in which she lives is fascinating in its brutal orderliness. It’s not a world we’d ever want, but could certainly become ours if we don’t fight against the darker impulses of our society.

The audiobook performance by Claire Danes is very good; Danes gives Offred a complex voice, one aware of the outrages performed against her but also proud of her own petty indiscretions. The novel’s epilogue is included, and in a wise decision is performed by actors other than Danes. Also included is an brief and informative commentary by Margaret Atwood, as well as a concluding academic essay which is unfortunately the driest and least interesting part of the entire audiobook.

Stalemate

Victory is a mirage for both of us,
the manic schemer
and his somber doppelgänger.

But the game can’t be stopped
and the only way we know how to play
is to imagine an oasis that could sate
our thirsty ambition for winning.

The brash schemer believes his coming triumph
is the destiny unjustly denied to him,
and knows it will be the start
of a life-long winning streak.

His quiet foe is confident
of a devastating conquest,
draining his opponent of the desire
to continue trying.

The game continues,
momentum flowing to one side while ebbing from the other
before shifting like the tide,
balanced in indecision.

The game tires both combatants,
Yet neither is willing to concede.

Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life

Sometimes it pays to stick with a book even when it turns you off at the beginning.

The opening paragraph of Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction concludes with a metaphor I found entirely self-indulgent, and as the first chapter continued I read many claims that seemed overly simplistic (“We’re limited by our point of view” — yes, and we’re also enabled by it), over the top (“The hardest part of writing creative nonfiction is that you’re stuck with what really happened” — reality is an opportunity, not a prison!), and just plain wrong (“when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie” — anyone who struggles with the truth shouldn’t be writing anything other than political speeches). If I hadn’t purchased the book as part of an online class, I might very well have stopped reading after the first chapter.

Fortunately, subsequent chapters are less egregious, and Gerard has a number of insights into the craft of non-fiction which I found very helpful. I especially like his claim that every story has both an apparent subject (such as the sport of fencing) and a deeper, more meaningful subject (the impact that fencing has on the lives of its competitors). Gerard encourages writers to discover what is meaningful to them, and allow those passions to direct their choice in both apparent and deeper subjects. His advice on interviewing, research, and outlining are also valuable.

Journalists probably won’t like this book, as it contains numerous criticisms (most of which I found appropriate) of mainstream reporting. But writers who believe in the aesthetic qualities of non-fiction writing will appreciate this practical guide to the genre — despite its less than inspiring opening chapter.