I’m back after a terrific Father’s Day weekend with Dunreith and Aidan in Rockport.
We played frisbee on the beach, took numerous trips to Tuck’s, a magical candy with all kinds of hip-widening morsels, indulged in lobster on both Friday and Saturday nights, and walked along the seashore and to the local quarry.
We also read.
Here are quick summaries of the books I got through this weekend:
Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Yet another gift by friend and reader Evan Kaplan, this collection of essays by MacArthur Award-winning anthropologist Behar are intensely and deliberately personal in nature. In the title essay, Behar pushes hard and convincingly against the idea of scholarly objectivity, arguing instead for people’s willingness to insert themselves into their work, and to do so in vulnerable ways.
Other essays explore her decision whether or not to return to her native Cuba, her time studying death rituals in rural Spain rather than returning home to be with her dying Jewish grandfather, her relationship with Marta, a Mexican woman who cleans her house, the impact of a childhood car accident, and a forceful response to two academics who are critical of the work of Renato Rosaldo.
Behar’s point about doing work that matters is well taken, she writes well, and her essays are engaging beyond the richness of her personal background.
David Piper’s I Am Well, Who Are You. Mr. Piper was father of my best friend Tom in England when Dad had a sabbatical and we lived in Oxford during the 1978-1979 school year. I did know that he was the head of Oxford’s venerable Ashmolean Museum and later was knighted for his scholarly contributions.
I did not know that he had been a Japanese prisoner of war for more than three years during World War II.
This book tells his story.
I am well has two parts: a reflective essay looking back at his wartime experiences at a distance of 20 years, and excerpts from his prison diaries.
Both are powerful and haunting in their own way. Piper’s detached way of looking at himself and understated writing style only bring out the horror of his experience in even starker relief. By the war’s end, the 6’1″ Piper weighed barely more than 100 pounds: the fact of his survival, and the gratitude that accompanied it, never left him.
Published after his death by his widow Lady Anne Piper, who I primarily knew as Tom’s mother, the book includes a time line, stark back and front cover images designed by Tom, who has gone on to become a very prominent stage designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a list of relatives and descendants.
Some of the most poignant parts of the book come at the moments of tenderness that Piper describes, whether listening to birds, hearing music by some of his beloved composers, or thinking of Anne, his intended who he met before he enlisted and whose image sustained him during all his deprivation.
These moments of affirmation are just one part of what this make this slender book a memorable and meaningful read.
Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World is a rich and full evocation of the little known (to me) world of Jewish Cairo. A Wall Street Journal reporter, Lagnado describes in vivid and sensual detail the vibrant culture that thrived before the post-World War II ascension of Gamal Adbel Nasser and the accompanying exodus of much of Egyptian Jewry.
Her father Leon is the book’s protagonist.
A dashing figure who reminds some people of Cary Grant, a self-made businessman who taught himself seven language, and a legendary womanizer, he appears headed for a lifetime of bachelorhood before meeting Lucette’s mother Edith.
A very brief courtship ensues in the book’s opening scene.
What follows is a tale that moves back to Aleppo and an exploration of Syrian Jewry, down into the activity that swirled around the neighborhood and Malaka Nazli, the family homestead, and forward in time to Lucette’s birth, the father’s debilitating accident, and the Lagnado’s departure first to France and then the United States.
There is plenty of heartache throughout the book.
Lucette’s mother Edith has a brother who is sold by her father because he says the family cannot afford to feed another mouth.
Lucette’s older sister Alexandra dies after just eight days.
Her father, a romantic if philandering presence, is diminished after the moves and never regains either full mobility or his sense of mastery of his environment in either of the two countries to which he moves.
Her mother is cowed and unable either to cut ties with her unfaithful husband or, in the United States, to break through absorbed gender limitations and take a job that could have gotten her out of the home and propelled the family to middle-class status.
And so on.
Still, as in both of the other books, Lagnado’s work has moments of deep connection, some of which are spent in silence.
The book also has useful supplemental materials, including the article she wrote for Father’s Day in 2004 about her father’s repayment of the debt he accrued while moving from France to the United States, a reflection about reader responses and a list of books that influenced her during her writing.
At times, Lagnado’s training manifests itself in single-sentence paragraphs whose brevity are intended to heighten the dramatic effect, but which at times interrupt the reading rhythm. This is a minor blemish, though, on a memorable and compelling work.