Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): A New York City family relocates to Australia in the 1970s, unwittingly renting a mansion-like residence in Sydney. The husband goes to work, the kids go to school, the wife tries to keep house. But the house is too big, with a staff that prefers to keep to the owner’s ways, and the babysitters the wife hires aren’t quite right—until she finds one that seems, well, too good to be true. A slim novel of careful character studies laced with lies and moments of humor, Claire Messud’s A Dream Life is a worthwhile short read. It is also one of the first books published by a new Australian press called Tablo Tales, as part of a series focusing on short works by women writers from around the world.
David Klion (newsletter editor): Last week I finally saw Reds, a movie I can’t believe I’d never watched before and also can’t believe got made. It’s remarkable that a three-hour historical epic about the love story of journalists John Reed (Warren Beatty, who also co-wrote and directed the film) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), culminating in their abandoning a comfortable bourgeois bohemian life in the Hudson Valley to become active participants in the Bolshevik Revolution, exists—all the more so since it portrays its leads as flawed but ultimately likeable and heroic, and given that it premiered in Ronald Reagan’s first year in the White House, to the delight of Reagan himself. Somehow, a movie about leftists that turned 40 last month is revered by everyone from Jacobin to National Review. That pan-ideological consensus reflects the undeniable quality of the writing, acting, and production, as well as the nuance with which Marxist ideas are translated to the big screen such that both supporters and opponents of Marxism can recognize them.
Reds is narrated by a Greek chorus of (then-)living participants in the pre-World War I American left, blending a bit of documentary realism with Hollywood spectacle. Before they witnessed the October Revolution and recounted it, respectively, in 10 Days That Shook the World and Six Months in Russia, Reed and Bryant were part of a Greenwich Village radical scene that also included Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). Roughly the first half of the movie is set in that world, and it’s striking how little the left has changed in over a century—still hanging out in dingy bars, still getting jealous over open relationships, still trying to reconcile earnest pro-labor principles with inherited privilege, still fighting over whether electoralism and the Democratic Party are worth engaging with at all, still ruining friendships over half-baked interpretations of faraway political events. In the film’s second half, there’s a stunning scene between Bryant and O’Neill, fueled by the latter’s unrequited affections, that functions as a confrontation between world-weary cynicism and blind idealism, and that should hit a nerve with anyone who’s ever participated in a left space.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): A few weeks ago, just as the Omicron variant descended on New York, my high school friend Marissa came to Brooklyn and stayed in my apartment for a weeklong visit. We watched a lot of movies and TV shows, and most evenings we worked on crossword puzzles together. I enjoy doing crosswords—puzzling out the wordplay, trivia, and sometimes cringey jokes—but it can feel like a self-indulgent way to spend time. What good does working on them do for anyone but myself?
The week that Marissa flew back to Portland, The New Yorker published an article that begins: “A grid has a matter-of-fact magic, as mundane as it is marvelous.” The author, Anna Schectman, traces her twin teenage experiences of becoming interested in creating crossword puzzles around the same time as she developed—and later recovered from—an eating disorder, and she explores the history of both phenomena. Now publicly known in the crosswording world as a woman creator, she reflects on her younger and diversifying cohort and rejects the idea that the puzzles are frivolous: “We are men, women, and nonbinary constructors who know that what makes for a ‘good crossword word’ is recognition, the pleasure of finding something you know fit neatly into the cramped corners of a newspaper grid. To see increasingly more of the world reflected in this admittedly specialized leisure-class activity is not just satisfying; it’s political.”
When Marissa and I were lounging on the couch, filling in the grids of crosswords I hadn’t yet completed from the back pages of old magazines, we came across one that felt particularly thrilling. We kept encountering clues that we enjoyed (two about Serena and Venus Williams; my favorite: “Housemate who never does the dishes?”—answer: “Cat”), and we’d say, “Who is this person?!” We eventually looked up the creator, Erik Agard, to find photos of a smiling, 28-year old biracial guy who once won on Jeopardy! and who is a bit well-known for his interventions in the crosswording scene. It felt unusually fun to finish his puzzle: our reference points and sensibilities were there, recorded, on the page. A week later, in Covid quarantine, I received a package in the mail: Agard’s spiral-bound book of culinary crosswords, Food for Thought Crosswords, now a nightly routine kept within easy reach on my bedside table.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I picked up Alexander Wolff’s family memoir Endpapers expecting to read an account of the publishing career of his grandfather, Kurt Wolff, whose German publishing house originally published Kafka. After fleeing Germany, first for France, then for the United States, and eventually for Switzerland, Wolff founded Pantheon Books and later had his own imprint at Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich. The book covers little of that; it is, instead, a gimlet-eyed account of his family’s history, one that included Jews and Nazis, a father who fought in the Wehrmacht, and a maternal family fortune—his mother was part of the Merck pharmaceutical dynasty—that grew, prospered, and was protected during the Hitler years.
Wolff’s book is in an odd way refreshing: he never hides the indefensible actions of his family members. Where no excuse is possible, he makes no attempt to concoct one. While his grandfather fled Germany with his second wife right as Hitler was taking power, he didn’t do so because there were Jews in his family tree, but rather from fear of imprisonment as a “cultural Bolshevik.” He left behind his first family, and his son Niko, the author’s father, served on both fronts in the Wehrmacht. While there’s no indication that he participated in any atrocities, Wolff does not attempt to downplay the crimes of the regular army, of its living high off the hog while the peoples of the occupied countries starved.
The key section of Endpapers appears midway through the book, in an epistolary exchange between Kurt Wolff and his daughter Maria. Maria, who survived the Allied bombing raids of World War II, condemns them bitterly and denies anyone who was not in Germany the right to pass judgment on the German people, going so far as to condemn Thomas Mann for his principled stand on the collective guilt of the German people. Kurt, to his credit, is not interested in any distinction between the German people and their government. He wrote his daughter:
“You describe the hell of [German life] of 1944 and ’45. Where was your conscience between 1939 and ’43? … In a metaphysical sense, the Germans brought their suffering upon themselves.”
Alexander Wolff is equally cutting about the conduct of his mother’s family in running the Merck factories and collaborating with the Nazis. But Endpapers is also a tribute to German society today, which has confronted its past and made an effort to act humanely. Woolff frequently quotes an essential recent volume, Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans, which deserves to be at the center of American discussions of dealing with our own murderous past. He closes his book by paradoxically explaining that “embrac[ing] my German roots was ...a way to signal that, for the moment, Germany is doing a better job of being American than America is.”