Review: My Life by Golda Meir

 “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”

When I first discovered My Life, my excitement regarding this book was sky-high because I had this urgent need, seemingly out of nowhere, to find out everything about Golda Meir, known as the “strong-willed, straight-talking, gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people.”

This is Golda Meir’s long-awaited personal and moving story of her life. For the first time, we experience through her own words how it happened that this amazing woman, born in Russia and brought up in Milwaukee, became Prime Minister Israel and one of the political giants of our time, without ever losing the warmth and informality for which she is justly celebrated.

I nearly ran to the library in my excitement and frenzy to know all about this grand pioneering woman. And as I was about to start my reading, holding this whopper of a book in my hands, I had a passing thought that whispered: “this will be something special.”

Thankfully the book started off on a great note as it read like a memoir of her family life. From her radically opinionated sister, Sheyna, who “did what her principles dictated,” to snapshots of Golda Meir’s politically charged adolescence, featuring debates on Zionism, literature, women’s suffrage, and more. To put it mildly, “I hung on their words as though they would change the fate of mankind.”

But then the narrative started jumping around in time, which had me confused as ever trying to keep up, at which point I had to pull up Golda Meir’s Wikipedia page to get a coherent sense of the events being described. And adding the fact that the main focus of the book was being shifted to center less on her personal life and more heavily on the politics set in that period of time. All these combined elements made my initial excitement subside by a landslide, and I had to rearrange my expectations for the following two-thirds of the book.

The only saving grace by this point was when Golda Meir dared to talk about feminism and “the inner struggles and despairs of a mother who goes to work.”

“Naturally women should be treated as the equals of men in all respects. But, as is true also of the Jewish people, they shouldn’t have to be better than everyone else in order to live like human beings or feel that they must accomplish wonders all the time to be accepted at all. On the other hand, a story — which, as far as I know, is all it was— once went the rounds of Israel to the effect that Ben-Gurion described me as ‘the only man’ in his cabinet. What amused me about it was that obviously he (or whoever invented the story) thought that this was the greatest possible compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government!”

Had the primary focus throughout the first half of the book been on chronicling Golda Meir’s life, without adding on her many accounts of traveling and talking overseas to crowds and diplomatical figures about X and Y, would’ve made My Life a real tour de force in my eyes.

Like, this paragraph below about her father’s father who died long before Golda Meir’s parents ever met:

“He had been one of the thousands of ‘kidnapped’ Jewish children of Russia, shanghaied into the czar’s army to serve for twenty-five years. Ill-clothed, ill-fed, terrified children, more often than not they were under constant pressure to convert to Christianity. My Mabovitch grandfather had been snatched by the army when he was all of thirteen, the son of a highly religious family, brought up to observe the finest points of orthodox Jewish tradition. He served in the Russian army for another thirteen, and never once, despite threats, derision and often punishment, did he touch treife (non-kosher) food. All these years he kept himself alive on uncooked vegetables and bread. Though pressed hard to change his religion and often made to pay for his refusal by being forced to kneel for hours on a stone floor, he never gave in. When he was released and came back home, he was nonetheless haunted by the fear that inadvertently he might somehow have broken the Law. So to atone for the sin he might have committed, he slept for years on a bench in an unheated synagogue with only a stone at his head for a pillow. Little wonder that he died young.”

It’s passages like these that stayed with me long after I closed the book.

By the time I rolled around to the end of chapter six (‘We Shall Fight Hitler’) and the following chapter (‘The Struggle Against the British’), the pacing had picked up a bit more and settled on issues that I understood and cared for profoundly. And then, of course, there was ‘We Have Our State’ a phenomenal chapter that lifted my spirits with the signing of the proclamation after all the emotional turmoil and unprecedented loss endured beforehand.

So even though it took me some time to get my bearings, to find my way around this heavy read, My Life by Golda Meir is certainly a book I’ll think about for a while to come, for better and for worse.

4/5 stars

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Review: Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman

It was one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young soldiers–the author among them–charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that changed them forever and foreshadowed the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

“The idea was not “death before dishonor,” “no surrender,” or anything like that but rather “let’s get through this.”

Pumpkinflowers brought out the most physical and emotional reactions I’ve had ever since I started reading books. I was so awash in feelings that I tried to desperately shut down, but with every few pages, especially in part one, my eyes welled with tears that would just fall with the blink of an eye.

The traumatic war events exist in such a brief moment on the page but linger for so long in my mind, sometimes so intensely that I found myself fighting off silent tears long after the book was closed.

My eyes felt utterly exhausted and dried out by the time I reached the second part of the book. This feeling of complete mental and physical fatigue was something I’d only experience before with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Having tragic event upon tragic event upon unprecedented loss, with no warning or breather in between, left me depleted.

There is one moment that stands out, however, where the author tries to lighten the text. That moment when a soldier named Jonah stood guard in the turret:

“…and by this time Jonah was spooked, but he kept reciting the poem as he moved his head back and forth, and that was when he heard a rustle next to the tank and saw the shape scuttling on the ground, and it was real, not his imagination, and his heart stopped and started racing at the same moment, like three heart attacks all at once, and it was a plastic bag. That is a real Pumpkin story, and I wanted to tell it here because I realize that isn’t how most of my stories end, but it is how most ended in real life.”

It’s true, most stories shared in this book didn’t end on an equal note. Which brings to mind the start of part 1 “about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi…”

The author, Matti Friedman, made the clever writing decision to not introduce Avi’s last name till the very end so that we couldn’t Google it prematurely and find out his ending. As soon as the last name was revealed, though, I had chills go down my spine. Since we spent nearly half the book with Avi, I naturally grew attached to him through his thoughts shared from the letters written during his military service.

“Everything here is a kind of illusion. Opposite the place where I am sitting, on a hill, is a beautiful villa with a large garden and red shingles. It’s a pastoral scene. But if you look closely, you see the bullet holes all over the house, and you see that the garden is neglected because no one dares live there, in such dangerous proximity to the outpost.
It’s very hard for me to put my finger precisely on the feeling I have when I’m here. It’s a kind of sadness mixed with longing so deep that sometimes it’s painful. And fear, of course. It’s strange, but the fear doesn’t bother me at all. It’s part of the sadness and the longing. It’s with me all the time, but not directly, kind of sneaking up on me. That’s how it appears when you’re alone. I mean not when you’re literally alone, but when I step away for a second and think about home, about my friends, or about a love story I haven’t started yet.”

“I have the feeling that everything is disintegrating, everything is falling, everything I know is changing inexorably and all of the principles of life are collapsing. I need to find some kind of definition for how to proceed, otherwise I don’t think I’ll be able to find any kind of way forward at all.”

My tears are struggling to fall, but I feel them. And so are his words anchored to my core. This irreplaceable individual will soar my mind for days on end.

I wish I had the ability to effectively capture his presence on the page, but I don’t. There’s only this:

“There is a special language used to describe our dead soldiers, a language that makes them all sound the same, not just because you can’t say anything bad but because most were so young that there isn’t much to say at all. What they really were was potential. So in this language they are always serious students, or mischievous ones, and loving siblings, and good at basketball, and there was a funny thing they did once on a class trip, and in the army they always helped their friends. And they are, forever, “soldiers,” though most thought they were just doing that for a while before their real life resumed. It is said in their honor that they were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the rest of us, but of course they weren’t, not most—they just thought it wouldn’t happen to them, and the lucky ones weren’t given time to realize they were wrong.”

By this point, I had lost the fight and was earnestly crying. Just the mere act of writing about this makes me ache. How can someone possibly live through the emotionally scarring horrors they witnessed and be expected to “move on” and return to life as they knew it?

Like, this passage that keeps resurfacing in my mind of Avi’s father, Yossi, who served in the Fighting Pioneer Youth himself:

“There is nothing military about Yossi. He’s a smiling man despite everything, compact like Avi. One day he was back from Suez in his kitchen with Avi’s mother, Raya, and older brother, an infant at the time. The baby’s bottle thumped to the floor, and the young family contemplated Yossi flat on his stomach with his hands covering his head.”

I can hear the fall in my head.

I felt like everything that would follow afterward in the book wouldn’t be applicable to the emotional turmoil that is part one. Plus, having read it from midnight till 3am wasn’t the brightest decision.

It hit me so devastatingly hard because this read was the first time I had a personal look into the lives of IDF soldiers while in combat, coming from someone who went through what he was describing and researching.

Avi Ofner hasn’t left my mind since, and I talk about him to anyone willing to listen. My thoughts just keep going back to how one minute he’s there sharing his thoughts and fears on the page, and the next he’s slipped out of our grasp into the abyss. It was hard to wrap my frantically upset mind around; it still is.Pumpkinflowers 1-- bookspoils

Reading then about Harel, the sole survivor from his platoon and company of seventy-three was all-encompassing.

“Once, in a television interview, Harel was asked how he did it—how he went back to the army after what happened. He looked at the interviewer for a moment. Here was a chance for an expression of ideology or faith, a love of country, all of those generations of Jews looking at him, depending on him not to give up. In the fighting in Jerusalem in 1967 some of the soldiers claim they felt King David himself pushing them through the alleyways. How did Harel go back? There might have been a flicker of disdain in his eyes, but otherwise he betrayed no emotion. “On the bus,” he said. It is one of the great lines.”

On that spot-on note, I think I’ll depart my review with saying that though this was a heavy book to digest, I feel like it was a must-read for me to understand.

“May their memory be a blessing.”

5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Pumpkinflowers, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

“Our differences are our superpowers.”

Starting and ending the day with a good read will never grow tired on me.El Deafo 6-- bookspoilsStarting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

This funny perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.

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El Deafo is filled with all the upheavals and self-questioning of Cece Bell’s early childhood, from experiencing crushes, pushy “best friends” and loneliness, to making many discoveries about lip-reading, including how it can create many awkward misread situations.

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I’d highly recommended this for fans of Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This graphic novel was the perfect blend between funny, realistic, and enlightening to keep me flipping rapidly from page to page.

It’s totally fascinating, and alarming at times to read through what the author went through in her school education, from dealing with “well-meaning” yet completely ignorant folks coming up and asking straight up rude questions to her face, to describing the many cues to notice to fully understand a conversation piece in real life or on TV.

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And to include a few other noteworthy moments:El Deafo 3-- bookspoils

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El Deafo 8-- bookspoilsWow. I feel utterly exposed by the above panel.

El Deafo 9-- bookspoilsThis brought to mind a similar exchange in one of my favorite episodes in Master of none season two.

Overall, I enjoyed this middle-grade graphic novel more than I expected with the months of waiting. So the anticipation to finally read El Deafo paid off quite well. Oh, and just throwing it out there: I’d love to see this story turned into a movie in the near future!

4/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying El Deafo, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!