Tag Archives: books

Armistice Day 100

So many truly moving ceremonies this morning, in so many countries. I thought the service at the Arc de Triomphe was particularly lovely. I am from the generation that read The Guns of August in school, and while it is an excellent book, I think a much better book for anyone who wants to understand (in as much as one can) the origins of World War I is The Sleepwalkers.

I think this article is worth a read, though it is painful. It is about animals who die in war. I know my uncle wrote frequently about animals during his training period in the UK, and also fondly about the dogs “adopted” by his regiment. Please do continue to visit this website, where I am posting my uncle’s letters home from World War II (as well as his poems and family photographs and documents).

V.S. Naipaul, RIP

He wrote four masterpieces: A House for Mr. Biswas; Among the Believers; Guerrillas; Miguel Street. That is many more masterpieces than many of us will write. He was, apparently, a cantankerous fellow, but what I loved most about him was this interview he gave about his kitty (oddly, the kitty is not mentioned in the headline). He understood the love of a cat. His feelings about Augustus are the feelings I had (and have) for all the cats of my life.

Israel at 70

I just finished Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War and am convinced she was an even better war writer than A. J. Liebling. Her essays on the Six Day War and its aftermath are not to be missed. I love this quote, and post it for the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.

Her neighbors oblige Israel to waste resources and time on military strength. Israelis are not fond of being warriors; they have no choice. But Israel is far more than a bulwark. It produces funny wine and good books, scientists, musicians and formers of genius. It may have the highest I.Q. per capita in the world. It is brave. It is there to stay.

Note: several Israeli friends have pointed out that Israeli wine has improved a great deal over the years. (The above quote is from 1967.) At any rate, Gellhorn is insanely perceptive about the “work” of UNRWA, among other things, and rather than go over all of that I will simply link back to a piece she wrote in the Atlantic in 1961, in which we see that where the Jews are concerned, the thinly-veiled anti-Semitism that governs much reaction to them has always been around and sadly, may never disappear. Along the same plus ca change lines, please check out James Michener’s letter to The New York Review of Books, written shortly after the Six Day War. (And no, Michener was not one of the anti-Semites in question, but rather, someone who, like Gellhorn, saw through such nonsense.)

I’ve written about this many times, of course, but it remains distressing to me that I have relatives of the “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Zionist” or “Zionism is racism” variety. I even have one relative who tried to calibrate by asking me to define Zionism when I pointed out that equating Zionism with racism was, in fact, anti-Semitic. It was as though she were trying to suggest there were different definitions of it and that some were indeed racist. Nonsense, of course, but to paraphrase Swift, you can’t reason someone out of a belief into which they were not reasoned in the first place.

It seems to me that for a great many people, mostly on the left, Israel’s most unpardonable offence is not only having survived 1967, but having triumphed. Israel will never be forgiven for this, in the same way the Jews will never truly be forgiven by those same people for having survived the Shoah.

It’s a shame the anti-Semites on the left can’t see Israel for what it is: the answer to millennia of systematic oppression, discrimination and state-organized mass murder. I don’t see it as an anachronism and I don’t believe for a second that those past horrors will stay in the past. (Please see the aforementioned paragraphs about many of my relatives.) I also believe that if the ideological left weren’t leading the anti-Israel charge, aligned with Hamas and Hezbollah and so many odious others, there might by now be a two-state solution. The result of this demonization of Israel is the impossibility of fair and realistic negotiations.  

I just hope Israel will never be fully abandoned, despite the attempts of ideological “progressives” to cast it as an ideological depravity or to assert that 
the very idea of a Jewish state is a crime or racist.

The Inner Life of Cats

Readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me, won’t be surprised that I am recommending a book called “The Inner Life of Cats.” It was written by Thomas McNamee and if you are an animal lover or a friend to the felines, you will enjoy it. I particularly appreciated that the author, like me, seems enamoured of Rome and her various cat colonies. (Some links here to my photographs of Rome’s cats, as well as other cats.)

But what I loved most about — or perhaps needed from — the book was McNamee’s opening up about the grief he felt when his beloved cat, Augusta, died. I sobbed reading some of it. Those of you who followed my old website might remember when my senior cats died (within six months of each other). What I appreciated about McNamee’s writing is that he was able to express what the loss did to him in a way I never could. I wrote a sort of detached piece here about trying to scatter Orloff’s and Pushkin’s ashes – I made sure it was written in a way that was almost a travelogue, with little snippets of humour, because I feared the waterfall of tears that would ensue if I were honest about the depths of my grief. (I still have their ashes, fyi.)

This passage from McNamee’s book reflects far more accurately my experience:

It will tear a hole in your life. Her love was unconditional. When you stayed away too long, she didn’t sulk when you came home, she welcomed you with gladness. She was so innocent. So naive. No human being ever loved you with the purity of her love. Did you tell her things you never told anyone else? Did she purr just because you were there — because you existed? His stuff is going to be all over your house. What are you going to do with his bed? His toys? You’re going to listen and listen for the bup-bup-bup of his paws on the floor as he comes trotting to greet you, and you won’t hear it. You’re not going to be able to sleep. You’re going to eat too much, or not enough. You’re going to  wonder if there’s something wrong with you. A lot of people stay home just so they won’t have to hear people say, “Come on, it was only a cat.” Somebody’s going to tell you to get a kitten, and you’re going to think, No! No kitten could possibly replace her.

Oh Lord, how I remember the silly people who said that to me — it was only a cat. What idiots. Why didn’t I just tell them to f**k off?

This next passage also rings true:

Augusta’s death paralyzed me for two months at least, and I’m not ashamed of that. Excessiveness is in the eye of the judge, and in this matter only I can judge. I did find myself defending myself sometimes, sometimes against myself, more often against someone mystified, whose mystification as time passed shaded into annoyance, or just distance. You are as alone as you have ever been. You hoard your grief. You stay home. Friends ask you out to dinner, you find a lie for declining. Work? You can’t focus on anything, except this one thing. In the loss is the life you shared, Wiman says. Now you’re supposed to see the joy and the light in it, somehow to be in that life. How is that supposed to be possible? The fucking cat is dead.

And this – the hours of guilt I have experienced thinking about Orloff and Pushkin, the times I wasn’t patient with them, the times I left them with sitters, and above all, their deaths — did I wait too long? Did I not give them enough time – did they still want to live in spite of their illness or pain?:

“I could have loved you better,” I sang the Tom Paxton song back through time to Augusta. “Didn’t mean to be unkind/You know it was the last thing on my mind.” Maybe not the last thing, but bad enough. I wasn’t paying attention, Augusta. How did you feel when we went away? I didn’t even think. You were glad to see us when we returned, which was enough to fool ourselves into believing it must have been all right. You were only a cat. We didn’t mean to be unkind. She loved us anyway. What choice did she have? Who else was she going to love? Augusta had love inborn. She had to do something with it.

McNamee and his wife did eventually get another cat. I have yet to do so. I tell people that it is because we travel so much, et cetera, but in reality, I don’t know that I want to feel that kind of love — and therefore the inevitable loss that will follow down the line — again. Oh, I imagine that one day there will be another cat in my life, in my heart, but for now, I am sticking to working with the street ferals in Toronto and enjoying books about cats. So glad I found “The Inner Life of Cats.”

Robert Caro’s LBJ Books

Currently reading Robert Caro’s books about Lyndon Johnson (link here to the first in the series). What a life; what a life force Johnson was. I’m laughing. I’m crying. I’m in awe of the good and the bad and the ugly and the beautiful of the man – the hate, the love, the pain, the whole damn thing.

Most of all, reading these books has confirmed to me something I’ve always thought: hippies are evil.

Finnegans Wake

Update on my New Year’s Resolutions — yes, I am reading Finnegans Wake. And it ain’t no piece o’cake. Ulysses was rather easy to read, and not only by comparison. It was actually a linear story. Finnegans Wake is not and there is an awful lot of made-up language (puns, portmanteaux and the like) in it. Still, one can follow. Book One was easy. Book Two a good deal more opaque. Book Three I am finding readable and quite funny.

In fact, I would suggest the key to reading Finnegans Wake and not letting it intimidate or frustrate you is to simply realize it is comedy — dark, at times, slapstick, vulgar and, on occasion, deeply literary. It reads as if someone had written out their dreams upon waking.

It also helps to be half-Norwegian, or know something of Norway and its culture. References to Ibsen and Norwegian words are strewn throughout the book and the story features Norwegian characters, as well.

Finally, it helps to know the song (especially for Book One).

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Many moons ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I went to Poland to visit a friend of mine. Her name was Eva (Ewa) and she had been a classmate of mine at the Sorbonne. We always got along well at school. But that all changed in Warsaw, when she asked me what I hoped to see in Poland. Well, I told her, Auschwitz, of course, and also the Warsaw Ghetto.

Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a small plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. She then said I should not go to Auschwitz. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Poles died there too. By “Poles” she meant Catholics. She did not consider Polish Jews to be Poles. I was stunned. She went on to say that it was wrong to think it was mostly Jews who died in Auschwitz and that it was really all about the suffering of “real Poles” and so on. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing of the suffering of Jews. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. But back then it was new and I was shocked.

I insisted, though, and I went to Auschwitz without Eva. She was mad. She was beyond mad. After I left Poland and went back to Paris our friendship was pretty much over. Once — when I had returned to Canada — she sent a Christmas card, but that was because she was trying to get information on how to immigrate to Canada. She had married a Lebanese man (another piece of the puzzle!), she wrote, and he spoke French so Canada would be perfect.

I could not help her and that was that. That trip to Poland was a disturbing experience for me. I was so naïve (now that I am less so, I hope I will be able to visit Auschwitz again). I regret that I did not call her out more. All I did was say, “Well, mostly Jews died there” and “I am going to visit, even if you don’t want to go with me.”

All of this has never left my memory (which is freakish) but it came back in even more vivid colours when I recently read these two books. The first is about a particularly odious Polish hate crime against Jews, the second is about the intense envy that feeds so much anti-Semitism.

Today we say “never forget” and “never again.” The problem is that so many who want it to happen again don’t care or will not admit that it happened in the first place.

Update: It occurs to me I should link here to one of my favourite novels, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. It takes place in Auschwitz, though in the 1990s, and among its themes is Polish anti-Semitism.