Anne Colamosca is a former staff writer at Business Week and has written for many national magazines and newspapers including Columbia Journalism Review, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, the New Republic, USA Today, Sojourners Magazine and Ms. Magazine. With William Wolman, she is coauthor of The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and Betrayal of Work and The Great 401(k) Hoax.
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Crank or Prophet?
EVEN AFTER 200 years, Henry David Thoreau continues to be a controversial (and, to some, annoying) figure. In a 2015 New Yorker article titled “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz eviscerates the 19th century author of Walden, describing him as “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self control.”
Schulz is not alone in her criticism. In Thoreau’s own beloved village of Concord, Mass., he was attacked for being a hypocrite because he would slip away from his hand-built cabin in the woods to enjoy hot meals and drop off his laundry at the family home. This after he had brazenly declared himself self-sufficient. To make matters worse, he thundered against alcohol, gluttony, and sex in Walden, just as many were happily putting Puritanism behind them.
Yet Thoreau not only endures but is thriving in today’s 21st century zeitgeist. He has “come down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope prickly with spines,” declares Laura Dassow Walls, author of a recently released biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life.
Walls writes of Thoreau set in a New England deep in the throes of change. Ever mindful of the worrisome new global economy, Thoreau sought out and wrote about those being left out and struggling. His subjects included Native Americans, Irish immigrants, and ex-slaves, who were living precarious lives along Walden Pond. Perhaps his interest stemmed from the fact that, for years, Thoreau’s own extended family lived a life of penury, according to Walls, before the small pencil factory they ran in their backyard prospered, making them comfortable during Thoreau’s adult years.
Roots and Relations
AFTER A CHRISTIAN missionary handed Mustafa Akyol a Bible on a busy Istanbul street, the Turkish journalist became fascinated with the many similarities between his Muslim faith, Christianity, and Judaism. As a moderate Muslim, Akyol had been studying the Quran with a group of friends for some time. He used his study group discussions as background to inquire about the other two religions.
The result is The Islamic Jesus, which takes the reader on a complex, winding journey, detailing many of the profound historical and religious bonds of the three religions. They “are like three siblings,” explains Fred M. Donner, a respected historian of Islam, in a University of Chicago lecture. He points out that there was quite a bit of fluidity and interchange among these “siblings” in the first few centuries after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632.
Akyol, who writes for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News and The New York Times International Edition, became engrossed early on with the different ways that Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament and the Quran. The New Testament, of course, describes Jesus as divine, part of the Trinity, and the son of God. The Quran is reverential toward Jesus, and he is seen as the last Jewish prophet, but not as divine. The Islamic view is that there is only one God, and no Trinity.
Ideologies and Idealism
FUELED BY DEEP economic insecurity, terrorist acts, and an influx of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing their homelands, a slew of bellicose, ultra-right-wing parties throughout Europe are gaining popularity in 2016. Some are reminded of the 1930s when fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and communist strongman Joseph Stalin all held power, along with dictators in several smaller states.
Today’s mostly democratically led Europe, of course, is a far cry from that bloody, disastrous decade, but the real angst that prevails still gives cause for alarm and analysis. In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, veteran journalist Adam Hochschild takes us back to what is seen as an important prelude to World War II.
In 1936, a broad coalition of mainly left-wing parties—liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists—narrowly won national elections in Spain. In response Spanish Gen. Francisco Franco, supported by the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini, launched a rebellion against the new government. The left-leaning government forces and its supporters became collectively known as the Republicans; Franco and his coalition of the military, landed aristocracy, and most of the Catholic Church hierarchy were known as the Nationalists. This conflict, a democratically elected government attempting to fight off a fascist uprising, became the focus of international attention.
Hochschild explores the passion, commitment, and dangerous “boots on the ground” actions by Americans who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain. Hochschild has excavated a rich trove of memoirs, letters, and unpublished books that these volunteers left behind.
A Gentle Life
WHILE OTHER Turkish writers choose to live outside the country, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk—except for short periods—still lives in Istanbul, Turkey, in the building where he was raised. It is not exactly a safe, secure life. He has already faced charges for making anti-Turkish remarks regarding the long-denied mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He fled the country for more than a year until charges were dropped (due in part to pressure from high- profile writers that included Gabriel García Márquez). And since then, numerous other writers and journalists have been arrested by the increasingly authoritarian government.
Pamuk’s newest and ninth novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, took him six years to write and release, as he has struggled against conservative forces who call him a “Western stooge.” Like Istanbul: Memories and the City, a memoir by Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind is a double portrait of the main character, Mevlut Karataş, and the city of Istanbul. It is a postmodern fairy tale, a mesmerizing odyssey, a coming-of-age urban fable.
Mevlut is a street vendor who sells a fermented wheat drink, boza, which became popular in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Through Mevlut’s prism we become acquainted with a city of 14 million—up an astounding 12 million people since Pamuk was born in 1952. Pamuk has described Mevlut “as a man of immense imagination ... he sees and feels things in the streets that no one else does.” He is a quietly observant Muslim, modest, shy, and with his own inner sense of holiness and of “strangeness.” Like Pamuk’s own character in Istanbul, Mevlut is a lonely dreamer, living outside of the mainstream, caught up in his own imaginary world, often being judged harshly by those around him.
An Ambiguous Political Prophet
The Kennan Diaries. W. W. Norton & Company.
Brothers in Faith and Defiance
No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State. New York Review Books.
The Party of Ayn Rand's Discontent
The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. Oxford University Press. Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, by Gary Weiss. St. Martin's Press.