Los Angeles

Diana Abu-Jaber’s review of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane [“London Kills Me,” Oct. 20], took me back to my early childhood in and around that very same Brick Lane, in the heart of London’s East End. Before the area became “Bangla Town,” it was haven to immigrant Jews escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Today’s mosques were yesterday’s synagogues, and Blooms drew lines of customers for its salt-beef sandwiches. When I visited recently, I was stunned to find the building that once housed the soup kitchen being converted to high-priced condos, tureen and ladle and Hebrew lettering still carved in stone over the portal! Back then, just before World War II, it wasn’t drugs that parents feared. Young rebels turned their energies against Oswald Mosley and his black-shirted fascists–and my grandmother locked her sons in the bathroom to keep them out of danger. The story goes that they climbed out the window and joined the fight anyway.



Great Barrington, Mass.

I rise to the defense of Erica Jong–not that she needs defending. What Claire Dederer omits in her interesting assessment of Jong’s career [“She’s Gotta Have It,” Oct. 6] is that Erica is (was) also a wonderful teacher. I was her student in a poetry workshop in the 1970s, during all the Fear of Flying brouhaha. I found her to be outstanding, knowledgeable, focused, intellectual, funny and respectful of others’ work, and with a sharp, well-honed critical sense, she was far and away one of the most liberating (in the sense of empowering others to write) teachers I have had. Although she will be remembered best for Fear of Flying–one of the groundbreaking books of the twentieth century–she should also be remembered for the two fine collections of poetry that preceded it: Half-Lives and Fruits & Vegetables. They established her as an important poet, destined to become a major one had she not chosen instead to write fiction.



Amherst, NH

Photography may, indeed, be “a kind of parasite on…war, [depending] on its ability to deliver reality,” as Peter Wollen says in “Shooting Wars” [Oct. 6], but it may also shape a person’s perceptions and sensibilities for a lifetime. Some forty years ago, I was taken to a bookstore to select my own bar mitzvah present. Among the books I picked was a Life collection of World War II photos. Two photos are still as clear to me as if I were looking at them now. One shows a Russian soldier at the very moment of being fatally hit by a bullet, his body arched as if he were being suddenly yanked skyward by an invisible rope attached to his chest. The other shows a few gnarled fingers poking out from the sand (Normandy Beach?), presumably attached to a young soldier’s body partially buried by the tide.

These two photos made my 12-year-old self understand, in my gut and heart as well as my head, what war means in the world of real people, not TV or newspaper headlines. Whoever those photographers were, I thank them for their ability to capture the reality of war. Any advocate of war will have to erase those photos from my memory before convincing me to support, or acquiesce to, mortal combat.



Olney, Md.

Lynne Viola loses me when she suggests the gulag’s stories are best not dragged back into the light–especially, apparently, by foreigners, since she also argues it’s “perhaps best left to the family, to the nation, to come to a reckoning” with it [“The Gray Zone,” Oct. 13].

“As we have seen in Eastern Europe,” she writes, “the ‘rediscovery’ of the past and the search for culprits can open up a Pandora’s box, revealing much more than the human heart can absorb, as husbands, wives and friends are ‘unmasked’ as former government agents or informers.” By that logic, a husband who embezzles from a charity should never be “unmasked” because it’d be too painful for his wife. If I was thrown into a labor camp because a “friend” ratted me out to the KGB, I doubt I’d agree the needs of my “friendship” require my KGB file stay secret. The list of those who could be unmasked, by the way, is longer and darker than “former government agents or informers.” What of mass executioners, or sadistic prison camp guards? What of schemers who used dishonest testimony to get “inconvenient” neighbors and relatives hauled off to the camps?

Viola warns against portraying the cold war as a pure moral struggle, but she oversimplifies in the opposite direction: “Perhaps one can [claim the cold war was about human rights and Western values] if…one’s list of modern tragedies includes the gulag, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, the Nanking massacre, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian war and the Bosnian wars, but does not extend to encompass the Atlantic slave trade and US race relations, Dresden, Hiroshima and the Vietnam War, to say nothing of the postcolonial tragedies unfolding in Africa.” This is an oddly random list. (Why Dresden and Hiroshima but not the Warsaw Uprising or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Why the Vietnam War but not the Soviet war in Afghanistan?) If it is offered to suggest America and the USSR had equally sordid rap sheets, it fails. Cold war America, with all its problems and injustices, its Vietnams and Bays of Pigs and, yes, crimes, was never a totalitarian dictatorship; never had a gulag.




I am sorry I “lost” Matt Bivens. I see he is lost enough to have incorrectly supposed that I suggest “the gulag’s stories are best not dragged back into the light.” This supposition could not be further from the truth. In fact, I am currently writing a book on the experience of early gulag prisoners, exploring the fate of the peasants, so-called kulaks, deported to the hinterlands in the first half of the 1930s. Bivens unfortunately missed the point of the review–that the history of the gulag should not and cannot be told as a cold war morality tale, a tale of black and white between the forces of good (the US) and evil (the USSR). It is truly a pity that Bivens is “stuck” in old cold war dualities (“If it is offered to suggest America and the USSR had equally sordid rap sheets…”–it is not so offered!). The history of the gulag is too tragic and too complex to be reduced to a competition of virtue between the US and the USSR.




Randall Kennedy, in his review of John D’Emilio’s biography of Bayard Rustin [“From Protest to Patronage,” Sept. 29], omits an important phase of Rustin’s life: the 1950s, when he worked with the War Resisters League. I first knew Bayard when I was a young activist in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. After he was eased out of FOR following the California sex scandal, I was happy to work with him again in WRL, which welcomed him. He became WRL’s eloquent spokesperson, traveling around the country (and singing–his voice was extraordinary and poignant) encouraging groups of war resisters to keep the faith and resist militarism, poverty, racism and all forms of bigotry. In subsequent years, as he sought acceptance in powerful neocon circles, he downplayed his nonviolent stance as he added his name to ads for jets to Israel and befriended the Kristols, Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick et al. When I last saw him, Bayard joked with me, ambivalently and a bit guiltily, and we hugged. I couldn’t help loving the old devil.



New York City

I was delighted that after 100 years a Nation critic has finally awarded Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life the praise it deserves. Michael Bérubé’s “Written in Memory” [Aug. 4/11] offers a welcome corrective to the Nation review of April 30, 1903, when the book was first published, which asserted that “literary sincerity is so entirely absent from it that the subject spills over from the domain of literature into that of ethics.” Aside from raising interesting questions about the nature of identity and learning, the twenty-first-century review rightfully allows Keller to retain her imagination, thought and self-awareness–qualities that so many other critics denied her throughout her life. I agree with Bérubé that her story is “worth committing to our collective memory.” While most people are familiar with the incident at the well, few realize that for more than forty years she championed the rights of the disabled. That legacy must not be forgotten either.

American Foundation for the Blind



I set down my horn and my Nation to respond to a phrase in your review of Daniel Barenboim’s books [“The Unrepentant Modernist,” June 16]: “interests in literature and art (interests many musicians surprisingly don’t have).” You have obviously not been on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra. A few years ago we were in Madrid with only three hours free before our concert. In that short period about half the orchestra visited the Prado. The appreciation of art has had a clear influence on my interpretation of music. I state with confidence that many musicians do have an interest in literature and art.

Third horn, the Cleveland Orchestra


Portland, Ore.

Your Spring Books cover [June 16] sports a literary, pipe-smoking tweedy type swinging an ax to cut down a big tree. Apparently he’s thinking of the books that will come from the wood, since there hovers in his thought cloud a venerable-looking tome. But here in the Northwest we know that the timber beasts felling our trees don’t work with literary intent. The only book they think of is the checkbook.