The books we read as children stay with us for life, settling inside our skin in ways we barely realise, ready to provide, whenever we need it, instant access to our childhood selves, when life felt simpler, more enchanted, and rich in possibility. Yet, looking back now on the stories I loved so much, it's clear that many of them were also quietly providing me with templates for how to live.
Growing up as the child of a wealthy Czech-born industrialist in Caracas, Ariana Neumann wanted for nothing — except mystery. Her parents, luminaries of Venezuelan society, doted on her. She had the run of their house with its modern art collection and lush garden. But she dreamed of being a detective, and when she was 8 formed a spy club with cousins and friends devoted to investigating puzzling occurrences: an incongruously placed cheese rind, say, or a suspiciously misfiled LP. One day, their play led her to a box in her father’s study that contained an identity card. On it, a Hitler stamp, a photo of her father as a young man and a name and date of birth that didn’t match his.
In “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains,” Neumann unravels the mystery of that identity card. The story she uncovers is worthy of fiction with hairpin plot twists, daredevil acts of love and unexpected moments of humor in dark times.
A few weeks ago, after I told one of my favorite students that I was reviewing a book about Bella Abzug, she scribbled something in her notebook. “What are you writing?” I asked. “Bella Abzug,” she said, smiling shyly. And then a pause. “You teach us the best things to Google.”
The student, who considers herself a feminist, meant it (half) as a joke. But I tell this story less to complain about Gen Z than to note how the history of the second wave of feminism has faded. The student’s reaction alone is enough to make me campaign for Battling Bella, the first full-length biography of a leading figure of second-wave feminism published by a major academic press, to be required reading for every freshman. Every politician. Every woman and, of course, every man.
What I am saying is that, 50 years after the second wave, the movement’s history is mostly kept alive by the feminist historians who blurbed this book. We should be talking every day about the rights women have because of these towering heroines with clay feet. We should be complaining that women still don’t have equal pay or reproductive rights, despite these heroines’ efforts. We should memorize moments like the heartbreaking 1971 prediction of the National Women’s Political Caucus that, in 2020, half of the members of Congress would be women. In fact, roughly one-quarter of the current members are.
You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.