What I’m reading: Historical memory edition

My mind has been restless this week. Though I’ve never been a morning person, I’ve been waking at 5 a.m., thoughts churning in my head like flotsam. Recent events in news and politics float among reminders to buy Christmas presents, book doctors’ appointments and confirm play dates — the usual chaos of life as a parent and journalist, turned up a notch or two.

Thank goodness for novels. Giving up control to a narrator and focusing on someone else’s fictional thoughts lets me take a break from my own real ones.

Right now that’s “The Maid,” by Nita Prose, in which a maid at a five-star New York hotel discovers a body, then becomes the main suspect in the ensuing murder investigation. Molly, the titular protagonist, has an obsession with order and cleanliness that is mirrored in the tidy structure of her observations about the world around her. But although she notices things that others miss, she also struggles to understand other people’s motivations and to read their demeanors, which makes her an interesting character to guide the reader through an unraveling mystery.

Next up is “Scorched Grace,” by Margot Douaihy, which I couldn’t resist after The Times’s crime columnist recommended it for its wonderful protagonist, Sister Holiday, “a queer, tattooed nun in New Orleans, trying to re-establish equilibrium after blowing up her life in Brooklyn.” I’m sold.

My other reading lately has been less likely to settle my fevered thoughts. “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” an essay by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, explores the politics of memory in Europe and its implications for current events in Gaza, tracing history back via the lens of their own Jewish family, which was shaped by antisemitic violence for generations.

Gessen had been scheduled to receive the Arendt Prize for political thought this week, but the ceremony was postponed following outrage over the essay’s comparison between Gaza and Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Heinrich Boll Foundation, which co-sponsors the prize, said that the prize would be given “in a different setting.” The irony of that was glaring, considering that the essay also contains a lengthy discussion of Hannah Arendt’s criticism decades ago of an Israeli political party, Tnuat Haherut, which she found disturbingly similar to the Nazi Party in its philosophy, methods and organization.

Gessen’s discussion of historical memory pairs well with “Let Us Not Hurry to Our Doom,” by Seth Anziska in the New York Review of Books. Anziska, a historian of Israel, considers the lessons that the country’s 1982 war holds for the present day, but wonders if anyone is interested in heeding them: “Historians are always trying to look backward to make sense of the present, but when do we sound the alarm? What can understanding the past achieve when there seems to be an insatiable drive to repeat it?”

Whenever I am thinking about such things, I like to go back to “The Insistence of Memory,” by Kate Cronin-Furman in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which weaves together her work on the memorials to atrocities in Sri Lanka with other research on the politics of monuments and mass graves around the world.


Teresa LaBella, a reader in Nova Scotia, recommends “Good Night, Irene” by Luis Alberto Urrea:

Of the novels set against the horrific backdrop of World War II that I’ve read, this story stands out as the best. I read the description and almost put it back on the shelf. How many more retellings of humanity’s worst atrocities do we readers need?

We need this one. We need to know who the Red Cross “Donut Dollies” were, the vital role they played in soldier morale, the PTSD likely inflicted on volunteers who were near, on their way to or at the front lines.


Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!

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