I was sitting in a busy cafe at lunchtime, waiting for my croque monsieur to arrive. It’s just a ham-and-cheese sandwich, but the dish has always held a mystique for me in the way that only French food can, even when it’s nothing more than French comfort food. I see croque monsieurs on menus from time to time in the US, but I never let myself order them in my home country, holding out for when I’m in Europe. And since I was now sitting in a cafe in what technically was Europe, I let myself indulge. My sandwich arrived, I bit into it, and it tasted absolutely delicious. And then after I’d devoured it, the bill came: $25.
Welcome to Iceland.
This thought kept blinking through my mind, like a neon sign on a dark street, as I read These Truths, the newest book by Harvard professor and The New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. A 900-plus page tome, it is a full history of the United States, a country I was born in and soon after left. I was raised in a much younger country, Israel, which was handed over by a colonizing force to a people desperate for a home, back in the days—not so long ago, really—when colonizers could simply gift the land they’d taken as if it were theirs to give. The history I was taught from the ages of six to eighteen was both condensed and elongated, the history of a fledgling country full of war but also of an ancient people once enslaved and long persecuted.
But I was born in the U.S., which makes me a citizen. I didn’t have to pass a test, or learn about this country, or understand any more of it than any non-American understands about the place that gave us McDonalds, the internet, the iPhone. I moved back here easily, when I was 19 years old. My birth certificate sufficed, my ignorance was never questioned or corrected.
What are the myths the United States has it built itself on? Lepore’s question—the one the book explores—is more honed, adopted from statements by Alexander Hamilton: “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?” Lepore’s answer is something like: Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no, and, in the past few decades, it kind of depends on who’s being asked.
George Nagel was a loner. Although he was unfailingly polite in his interactions, interactions were limited to mealtimes, and he clearly had no interest in socializing. He was unobtrusive and studious, a phantom who had been living under the name George T. Nagel for over 40 years. His real name was Yechezkel Taub, and he was the scion of one of Poland’s most illustrious Hasidic dynasties, having inherited his father’s title at the age of 24, along with a thriving Hasidic “court” and a sect numbering thousands of loyal followers.
In fact, although no one at CSUN on that hot day in 1975 knew it, George T. Nagel was none other than the once-acclaimed “Yabloner Rebbe,” the founder of a unique village called Kfar Hasidim near Haifa in what is now the State of Israel, to which he led hundreds of his loyal followers from Poland before the Holocaust. What not even Taub realized on the day of his anonymous graduation was that a process had started that would see the Yabloner Rebbe reunited with his past and reconnected with the unique project from which he had desperately tried to escape, but with which he would forever and unavoidably be identified.
It began quietly enough. I could have sworn I heard muttering among the boxes I’d never unpacked — the ones in the house I’d fled to on the way to ending a marriage. The grown children let me know they no longer needed designated bedrooms or their old yearbooks. Then my BFF since college, who manages senior care in Florida and has therefore seen the future, told me right out loud: You need to move before you need to move.
Got it. That meant downsizing.
Every year, 30,000 tons of cosmic material passes through the atmosphere and drizzles down to earth. Only in the Arctic, or at the bottom of the deepest seas, can it be found unadulterated: a powder of asteroid and comet particles. Everywhere else this stardust mingles with the earth, with us. We wear it in our hair, carry it in our pockets.
“Shall we take dust as the founding metaphor by which to broach the unruly topic of the essay?” the British writer and critic Brian Dillon asks in his new book, “Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction.” Like these extraterrestrial particles, he says, essays drift and disperse. They are an ever-changing form, ancient and otherworldly. “Touch them however and they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing.”
Ben Macintyre’s wonderful The Spy and the Traitor complements and enhances Gordievsky’s first-person account. It reveals the dramatic role played by MI6 in recruiting and cultivating a serving KGB insider – and keeping him alive against the odds. Gordievsky’s British contacts were a colourful bunch. Some were upper-class cold war adventurers. Others were gifted working-class linguists recruited from Oxbridge. Women played a crucial part. All realised Gordievsky was unique.
There is a resonant truth at the heart of this book, and it soars above everything else, however distracting; it has to do with life, and all the loneliness it involves.