Don Hosek - Recent reading

I tend to be a voracious reader, and I read widely. This list has its origins in an old signature file which I would update periodically with the current book that I was reading. That gradually transmogrified itself into the current massive archive with brief reviews.

What I've been reading lately
Number of books read and reviewed each year
1995* (28)
1996 (47)
1997 (74)
1998 (61)
1999 (62)
2000 (27)
2001 (51)
2002 (60)
2003 (37)
2004 (36)
2005 (32)
2006 (46)
2007 (109)
2008 (78)
2009 (65)
2010 (68)
2011 (98)
2012 (129)
2013 (114)
2014 (101)
2015 (88)
2016 (82)
2017 (13)
* Partial year
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
[Finished 20 February 2017] I suspect that the editing that was done on the manuscript was more than claimed by the editor in the preface (although some cursory internet research indicates perhaps not). No matter, while the language is high-Victorian in style, the story itself is fascinating, providing an often grueling account of the life of a “privileged” slave who, while never flogged, faced a life of continual sexual harassment by her owner and a desire to be owned by no one. She ultimately escapes to the north (after spending seven years(!) cramped in the secret attic of a storage shed), and even once she has custody of her children, finds that she is still not safe once the fugitive slave act is passed.

Perhaps most startling is how much of the book feels relevant to modern race relations with so many white people’s views of blacks being not much changed between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. It’s books like this that make my decision to strive to have at least 15% of my reading be by non-white authors feel like a wise choice.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction by J. D. Salinger
[Finished 19 February 2017] See my commentary at dahosek.com

The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich by Gonda Redlich
[Finished 14 February 2017] Redlich was a member of the Altensrat at Terezin and had a sort of high-level view of what happened at what was originally to be a model ghetto and instead was largely a transit camp where Jews were sent before being sent to the death camps in Poland, a fate that Redlich himself eventually shared with the other inmates. Copious footnotes throughout give a good deal of helpful background. Overall a useful reference for getting a sense of day to day life in Terezin.

After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany by Michael Brenner
[Finished 10 February 2017] Another look at the DP-period (and beyond) of Jewish life in Germany after World War II. Brenner provides a fair amount of information, but the section with the interviews was perhaps a bit disturbing in that the only woman interviewed is interviewed to give her husband’s story. Women’s stories are completely excluded.

Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945: The Landsberg DP Camp Letters by Irving Heymont
[Finished 9 February 2017] A look from the army side at the running of the biggest DP camp in the American zone. This is easily one of the most important primary source documents available from the period.

The Wild Place by Kathryn Hulme
[Finished 4 February 2017] Hulme was part of the UNRRA (later IRO and currently UNHCR), the organization charged with caring for and placing the thousands of displaced persons in the wake of World War II.

The account here covers from the beginning of her time, part of a multinational group of people who were going to end up responsible for thousands of refugees in their one camp alone through her moves to other camps as the UNRRA resources were spread increasingly thin and ending with the repatriation efforts which were frustratingly slow and bureaucratic for those hoping to emigrate. While Hulme is determined to put a bright face on things and sees the humor in many of the incidents including a case where a group of DPs managed to sneak a stolen cow into the DP camp by putting special boots on the animal’s feet, there is still a sense of some of the tragedy surrounding the fate of the DPs.

Hulme had little contact with Jewish DPs and it seems that when she did finally have to deal with one such group as they moved into a new camp in Bavaria, she found herself positively impressed by their organization and state of being. I’m not sure how much of this was her inborn optimism and how much was that she met them late in their journey when they had had time to recover from the problems they faced in the concentration camps. It’s also likely that a great deal of those she met were not concentration camp victims, but rather Jews smuggled from Eastern Europe by Brichah who used the Jewish DP camps as a way station in the emigration path to Israel.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 edited by Laura Furman
[Finished 31 January 2017] I didn’t use to get the O. Henry anthology because the overlap with Best American was so high that it felt redundant. This year, there is no overlap at all. As always, there’s a mixed bag as the anthology attempts to be all things for all readers. For me, my favorite stories were the more speculative in the batch. A sort of magical realist account of specimen collection and delivery by envelope by Geetha Iyer, “The Mongerji Letters,” was my favorite. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” seemed simultaneously brilliant and sterile. Ron Carlson’s “Happiness” was my least favorite in the bunch, but Carlson seems to be a taste that I am unable to acquire.

All But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein
[Finished 28 January 2017] One of the sad things that I hear agents say is when they have to reject people’s memoirs is that their story just isn’t interesting or different enough. Sure, you recovered from cancer, but so did thousands of other people. What makes you special? Weissmann Klein has something special in her story but doesn’t seem to have really fully understood it herself. The interesting part of her story is less her experience under the Nazis (although that has a lot to commend it regardless), but instead her anti-love story: As a young woman, there was a young man who fell in love with her just as the Nazi restrictions on Jews were falling into place. Unfortunately, she could not bring herself to return his affections, a situation which did not deter him in the least. He spent a great deal of time attempting to woo her and engaged his family in trying to help her, help which she found a way to decline in order to not encourage him unfairly. Ultimately, he has himself transferred to a harder more dangerous work assignment in order to be closer to her, and it’s then that he finally realizes that she will never return his affection. If Weissmann Klein had centered her memoir more fully on this tragic story, this would have been a five-star book.

Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 by Elissa Mailänder
[Finished 24 January 2017] I’m pretty sure that this book began as someone’s graduate thesis. It has that advanced-student academic vibe to it. That said, the book doesn’t fully live up to its promise, of giving details on the work and lives of female SS guards at Majdanek. Part of this is due to the lack of reliable records and testimony. Much of the necessary documentation was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War II and the guards themselves were generally not terribly forthcoming with their roles, doing their best to dissemble, disguise or simply lie about what they did. Mailänder does her best with the materials she does have, supplementing her information with information about the better documented Ravensbrück camp as well as information about the male guards and some general information. For my own needs, the book was adequate, giving some of the vital information that I need for my work in progress, such as information about the guards’ uniforms and how they were to be addressed by inmates and what interactions looked like.

Sex, Class & Culture by Lillian S. Robinson
[Finished 13 January 2017] I first encountered Robinson in an anthology of post-structuralist theory I read for one of my undergrad theory classes. I don’t remember why I decided that this book was going to be essential reading for me, but I kept my eyes open for it and managed to stumble upon a used copy at my local used bookshop.

And then the book sat unread on my shelves for 26 years.

Robinson’s writing is clear and beautifully argued. The key essay here is probably “Who’s Afraid of a Room of One’s Own” which is a seminal work in Marxist-feminist criticism, but other pieces are also brilliant, including “The Critical Task” and “The Keen Eye… Watching: Poetry and the Feminist Movement.”

While some portions feel a bit dated (the world, particularly for women, has changed a great deal since the late 60s/early 70s), there is still a lot that is relevant in today’s world. It’s a pity this book has gone out of print.