This Week’s Hot Reads: Feb. 3, 2014

From a look at the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of the American poet E.E. Cummings.

Karate Chopby Dorthe Nors

When describing many works of Danish art, adjectives like unnerving and disturbing often come to mind, but these are far from criticisms. It is precisely because of how unsettling Dorthe Nors’s stories in Karate Chop are that leave her words festering in the mind long after reading their four or five pages. Aside from “The Heron” (recently published in The New Yorker and included here), Nors’s work has gone largely unnoticed in America. Now, with her first collection translated into English, we experience more fully how she subtly probes the deep insecurities and troubles churning behind a facade of peaceful domestic life. Not dissimilar to the melancholic interior scenes painted by Vilhelm Hammershøi, numerous films by Thomas Vinterberg, and even the churning sounds of composer Niels Gade, these stories look underneath deceptively quiet surfaces, finding undercurrents that may never fully express themselves but repetitively hint at their constant presence. “I felt something go wrong inside me. It was as if [the coffee] tasted too big,” the narrator of “Flight” says while trying to cope with her husband’s sudden decision to leave her. This statement could just as well describe the experience of reading Nors’s sparse, though not minimalist, prose: the material seems ordinary, but ingesting it is fraught with difficulty. Peppered with themes of memory, violence, loss, and separation, these pages quietly announce a confident and valuable new voice in translated fiction.

Charles Shafaieh

E. E. Cummings: A Lifeby Susan Cheever

You know E.E. Cummings as the poet of strange punctuations, the favorite of a few of your most unconventional literary friends from high school. But Cheever’s biography stands as a welcomed introductory attempt to understand Cummings’s impact, and it is even one of the best efforts to situate a Modernist inside the larger historical context. The question that haunts this book is: what made Cummings, the son of a distinguished Harvard professor and Cambridge minister, into the avant-garde heretic that he became? The answer is best understood by comparing him to his contemporary Robert Frost, who became popular by crafting American verses to fit the classical mold, while Cummings exploded the possibilities of meaning, including making new forms and structures part of the message. For Cummings, who was born within an uptight intellectual haven, it was no wonder that he would grow out of that shell. Cheever is well placed to sympathize with that pedigree, and we are treated to chapters of anecdotes as if it were John Cheever telling them, but filled in with entertaining research and deep thinking about the lives of artists.

—Jimmy So

Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflictby John B. Judis

This occasionally insightful, frequently aggravating, and ultimately exhausting book by New Republic senior editor John B. Judis, explicitly states its objective: “This book is primarily about what Americans can learn from the failure of the Truman administration to resolve the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism.” Surprisingly, a study of Truman only fills half the text, a pity considering it contains Judis’s most insightful observations. Describing Truman as a Jeffersonian Democrat who “disdained religious sectarianism,” Judis argues that the president’s susceptibility to pressure, particularly from domestic politics and an increasingly domineering American Zionist lobby, constantly motivated actions that contradicted his own moral philosophy. Ultimately, this weakness, manifesting itself during the 1947 establishment of Israel and countless negotiations working toward an agreement between Zionists and Palestinians, facilitated the repetition of conditions which “trampled on the rights of the Arabs who already lived” in Palestine (a pattern that persists to this day). Had this argument been the book’s sole concern, Judis would deserve more praise. However, the surrounding material—a supposedly evenhanded account of Zionism and the Palestinian resistance to it—is too often couched in language codified by pro-Zionists. Apparently unversed in the writings of Frantz Fanon and other revolutionaries, Junis creates a gross equivalence between the violence committed by Zionist colonists forcefully expelling a land’s inhabitants and the reactionary violence committed by Palestinians. But this bias is already evident in Judis’ stated goal. As Joseph Massad rightly observes, all other instances of anti-colonial resistance have been termed “liberation” struggles, not “conflicts.” Yet Judis uses this problematic word in his title, thereby endorsing language which, as Rashid Khalidi and others argue, is Orwellian in its veiled intentions of favoring Israel alone. That Judis then argues that the supposed “conflict” is between “Zionism and Arab nationalism” erases the stark reality of thousands of victims of violence who value their frequently limited access to water far more than nationalist ideologies. Judis consistently demonstrates his attention to language when analyzing the various proposals put forward during Truman’s era; it’s unfortunate he doesn’t examine his own prose with equal scrutiny.

—Charles Shafaieh