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It always seems there’s a little more leeway in our reading choices in summer, when things slow down just enough to let us think big. Not that there’s less news; as always, July and August are some of the busiest times in the news cycle, and this month is no exception, with Congress rushing to finish two years’ worth of business, primaries setting the pieces on the board for fall midterm elections, and dire predictions of geopolitical crisis in Taiwan.
And why does the news drive on this way, winter and summer, catastrophe after catastrophe? Could it be just—human nature? In two of our summer book reviews, Robert Siegel and Carlin Romano each grapple with a version of the same phenomenon: some of the most depressing and infuriating qualities in human behavior, stubbornly reasserting themselves. They’re not trying to ruin your summer; people are just people, after all.
Siegel, Moment’s special literary contributor, reading two books about resurgent autocracy, reflects on another August that seems so far away now: the August in 1990 when, in the culmination of a year of democratic revolutions, the Soviet Union collapsed. “For advocates of democratic government, the 20th century concluded on a triumphant note. Today that note is a distant, barely audible signal from a bygone era,” Siegel writes in his review of Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman and The Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman.
What a long way we’ve come from that triumphant moment! Each book catalogues and analyzes the varieties of strongman and proto-dictator that have emerged since the end of the Cold War, from Russia’s Putin to Hungary’s Orban to Turkey’s Erdogan to our own homegrown wannabes. The question today, Siegel concludes, is not whether autocracy is rising but whether democracy is strong enough to withstand it: “It is a sad business, being stripped of the illusions of a hopeful worldview; the world imagined by policymakers in the aftermath of the Cold War was a happier place.”
(During his long career at NPR, Siegel covered the Wall’s fall and the aftermath; for more about his memories of those days, read here.)
Romano, Moment’s critic-at-large, finds people not living up to their possibly high-minded intentions in a book with a very different setting: on the tourism circuit through, of all places, World War II concentration camps. Yes, believe it or not, there’s a thriving tourist economy in Eastern Europe and its environs, schlepping busloads of the reverent and the merely curious through the region’s haunted lands with stops at Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. Author Jerry Stahl takes one such trip and is outraged by what he finds: not solemnity or thoughtful respect but an onslaught of entirely ordinary mass-tourist behavior. Reviewing Stahl’s Nein, Nein, Nein!, Romano quotes the author’s perplexed outrage as his fellow tourists continue to act like normal people, even waiting in line to tour Auschwitz:
People laughing, texting, talking, staring off, doing what people do. All of it seems wrong. Where is the impact of the moment?…Is any venue even partially packed with large Americans sucking the nipples on their water bottles inherently de-gravitased?
Stahl, rather like his travel companions, refuses to take a conventionally sepulchral tone in writing of his travels; he’s biting, sardonic, potty-mouthed and hilarious. Romano thinks that’s perfectly OK. The book, he says, “thrusts back into one’s mind soul-searching puzzles that demure treatments of the Shoah sometimes muffle.”
Ready for a more light-hearted pilgrimage? Check out Gloria Levitas’s ode to Zabar’s, the iconic food emporium on New York’s Upper West Side, newly immortalized in a memoir by the founders’ granddaughter. Despite the wonders of refrigerated mail-ordered lox packaging, no one who has lived near Zabar’s is ever truly happy to move away. (I speak from experience.) Author Lori Zabar gives the back story and the challenges—legal, financial, interpersonal—that her immigrant family faced in the course of becoming a legend.
Finally, our columnist Fania Oz-Salzberger writes a touching account of the human side of A.B. Yehoshua, known to intimates as “Bulli,” a longtime friend of her family through his close association with her father, Yehoshua’s fellow novelist Amos Oz. One of the biggest shocks in their friendship, Oz-Salzberger writes, was the day Bulli confided to her that a character in his novel A Journey to the End of the Millennium was based on her. That novel’s worth a read even for those of us who don’t appear in it—as, of course, are Yehoshua’s other classic works. For those starting out, Oz-Salzberger recommends Mr. Mani and the novella Three Days and a Child, and there are many more. (You can find more about them in our archives.)
If August means more time to read, check out our taster’s menu of summer novels to read for your own pleasure and Erika Dreyfus’s fabulous assortment of the best new Jewish books for children, which, as she notes, these days go far beyond just the traditional “Holocaust and Holidays.”