Category Archives: Reading with my father

About books that my father and I read and discuss

The Lemon Tree: Confronting conflict, striving for peace

Our church book club read The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan, in January. The book tells the true story of the decades-long interaction between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who share a sense of place – a home in the city of al-Ramla.

As usual, my dad started reading the book first – I had put off reading this book about a troubled conflict that I know little about in favor of a few easy-to-solve mysteries. One day my dad commented that he was going to stop reading The Lemon Tree. “It’s just so sad,” he said, “and there is no solution.” I’m not sure he was true to his word about abandoning the book, but his comment reminded me that I had better confront reality and start reading the book.

The story

The Lemon Tree explores the relationship between Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian attorney Bashir Al Khayri. In July 1967 Bashir travels to al-Ramla and the home from which his family was exiled in 1948. Dalia, a young college student whose family now lives in the home, meets Bashir at the door and allows him to visit her home and to see the lemon tree Bashir’s father planted long ago. Later Dalia visits Bashir’s family, and the life-long discussion between two unlikely friends begins. Their views are never fully reconciled, but trust and understanding grow throughout the years. Many years after their first encounter they establish a center for peace and coexistence among Israeli Arabs and Jews in the house with the lemon tree.

The history

Tolan provides a detailed historic backdrop for the relationship between Dalia and Bashir.
We learn how Dalia’s Bulgarian family immigrated to Israel in 1948 and how families like the Eshkenazis populated Palestinian towns and homes. We learn of the Khayri family’s long history in Palestine and their abrupt exile from their ancestral home. We see their painful walk to a camp in the city of Ramallah and subsequent lives filled with want and longing for home.

In our book-club discussion, several people voiced their frustration with the extensive historical information about the Zionist movement, the Israeli War for Independence (or the Catastrophe, as it was known to displaced Palestinians), the six-day war in 1967, and various political events that came after it. It seems as if each act of violence produces a corresponding violent act, over and over again. Tolan’s meticulous documentation of the conflict shows us the human consequences of each act of violence – over and over again. Dalia is often consumed with fear of Palestinian attack; Bashir faces torture, prison, and long separations from his family as a consequence of political activism.

The stalemate

My sense is that after meeting Bashir, Dalia recognizes that a terrible injustice was done to the Palestinian people; it is up to her generation to confront that injustice. The injustice of the occupation is Bashir’s focus in life; he insists that his family’s land and the home his father built will be returned to him someday. Bashir tells Dalia that her people should return to where they came from, but Dalia already lives where she came from: She came to the house with the lemon tree when she was an infant, and there is no going back. Even these two friends who have known only one place in the world cannot resolve the twin issues of freedom for the
Palestinian people and self-preservation for Jews in Israel.

Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel

The day after our book club discussion of The Lemon Trees, our church welcomed a guest speaker on Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel. Presbyterian minister Dr. Fahed Abu-Ackel is the son of Palestinian Christians. (Most of us were not aware that Christian Palestinians were displaced along with Muslims.)

Dr. Abu-Ackel gave us his perspective on Zionism and the need for peace in Israel. When questioned about what we can do to further peace, he said that we must have steadfast hope, we must pray, and we must act to let Palestinian Christians know our concerns. When questioned about the political solution, Dr. Abu-Ackel said that the answer is to establish one secular government in Israel. Several members of our congregation pointed out that Israelis, even those sympathetic to the plight of displaced Palestinians, are not likely to accept a solution that would dissolve the Jewish state. Others suggested that until the cycle of violence ends, the Israeli government is not likely to consider a secular state. I didn’t feel Dr. Abu-Ackel had a clear response to these comments, perhaps because there is no clear answer.

Biases in the story

One criticism of The Lemon Tree is that it is biased toward the Palestinian perspective, and that same bias seemed built into Dr. Abu-Ackel’s talk. Dr. Abu-Ackel suggested that we Americans have embraced the Israeli side of this story – the building of a Zionist state from the ruins of the Holocaust in Europe – and we need to educate ourselves on the Palestinian perspective.

I’m not sure I agree entirely that Americans are completely unaware of the plight of the
Palestinians. Many of us, like my dad, see the problem but no clear solution. Whether or not the book is biased, it presses one point upon us: No matter how much we would prefer to turn a blind eye to the sad stories of history, citizens of the world must confront those stories if we want peace to prevail.

The mystery that is music

A comment on Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul

Last month my dad and I led a book-club discussion of Frank Conroy’s 1993 novel Body and Soul, the coming-of-age story of a musical prodigy. This is a sprawling novel with a Dickensian cast of characters. Conroy begins with a poverty-stricken child whose circumstances seem to doom him to failure. But kind benefactors, hard work, and innate musical genius change his fortune, and he becomes a world-renowned concert pianist and composer.

About the novel

Poverty stricken and neglected by his mother, Claude Rawlings lives in a basement in 1940s New York. From the beginning of his life he perceives the world in musical terms: As a young child he peers out the basement window and feels the “ever-changing rhythms and tempos of legs and feet moving across his field of vision.” The narrator comments that “much of his thinking, especially when he was alone, went on without words, went on beneath the level of language.”

Claude is rescued by a series of benefactors who teach him about music – and about life. As a child he is too self-absorbed to give back to those who befriend him, but in adulthood he learns to value those who have given him insight into life and those who patiently guided him toward the mystery that is music.

Conroy’s in-depth discussions of Claude’s apprehension of musical harmony, tonality, and structure are impressive. The author says that he “had to go back and re-educate” himself on the theory of music, particularly the atonal music Claude masters as a young man. The author uses these discussions to show us that Claude is not like most people – he understands the language of music much better than he understands the nature of relationships or things of the body.

About the author

The book is semi-autobiographical. Conroy was born in 1936 in New York City. His father was mentally ill and institutionalized. His mother was distant and cold. He escaped from the loneliness of his childhood by reading and teaching himself to play the piano. Unlike Claude, he did not have a benefactor who provided him music lessons. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Conroy said that Body and Soul is in part a fantasy whereby he invents a father and
a music teacher – two things he never had. Despite early neglect, Conroy became a successful writer, jazz musician, and teacher.

In 1967, at the age of 31, Conroy published his critically acclaimed autobiography Stop-Time, in which he recounted his miserable childhood. In 1993, he became director of the famous
Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and published the novel Body and Soul. Expectations were high, reviews mixed. Some critics said the book was too much like his autobiography; others seemed to feel it was not enough like the autobiography. To some Claude was a flat character, the narrator’s comments were intrusive, and the book was poorly written.

Conroy seemed to think of himself as a teacher more than a writer, and at that he was very successful. He died in 2005 of colon cancer.

What I learned

When I lived in New Mexico, particularly years that I was alone for the holidays, my parents
sent me a Christmas package that always included a book. This was one of those books, and I enjoyed reading it. When we chose it as a book-club selection, I was worried that I wouldn’t
enjoy it quite as much the second time around. Sometimes when I reread a book I loved I’m disappointed. But I enjoyed this book even more at second reading. On first reading Body and Soul I skipped over the discussions of music theory and focused on the plot. This time, I thought more about the music.

I have the experience of starting college as a piano performance major. It took a few years to realize that I was more interested in listening to music than playing it, more interested in writing about music than performing it. My favorite music class was music history, where I learned about the organization of music during different periods. But I was an abysmal failure at music theory, especially the contemplation of harmony and tone, and in the end, I decided to study literature instead of music.

Body and Soul taught me that I’m still pretty much a failure at theory. This time, though, I didn’t skip over the discussions of theory, because I saw them as integral to the story. In presenting the evolution of musical genius, Conroy seems to be showing the reader that there really exists a “music of the spheres” – a kind of fusion of metaphysics and mathematics that can thrill the composer, the performer, and the audience.

Another thing Conroy shows is that it takes a lot of luck – and even more hard work – to realize your potential, even if you are a genius. Pages and pages of text are devoted to Claude’s single-minded, sometimes ecstatic pursuit of musical perfection.

Claude’s relationship with music is his primary relationship. His personal relationships with other people are self-centered and romanticized. One critic points out that Claude takes but never gives back. It is as if his stunted childhood makes adult relationships difficult; music alone saves him. This book underscores the concept of mystery – there are aspects of music and of human relationships that remain mystery, even for those souls who do hear the music of the spheres.

Remembering Civil War Chattanooga

Our book club has read a few books about Chattanoogans. One such book was the memoir of Thomas Hooke McCallie, a Presbyterian minister and patriarch of a prominent Chattanooga family. Our club discussed the book with THM’s grandson, physician David McCallie, who edited and annotated the book. I wrote the following review for the Rivermont Presbyterian Church newsletter.

In THM: A Memoir, Thomas Hooke McCallie (THM) chronicles the McCallie family’s immigration from the lowlands of Scotland and move to Chattanooga, and her recounts his own experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

THM was anti-slavery and anti-secessionist, but he believed that secessionist states should not be forced to return to the Union. His unorthodox views on slavery were shaped in part by his religious experience. A player in a great religious awakening that swept across America before the Civil War, THM attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he heard in person such imminent speakers as Henry Ward Beecher and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He also gained a new perspective on slavery from his fellow seminarians, who sought out Southerners to “assault with argument” about slavery.

THM and his family stayed in Chattanooga during the war, witnessing battle and enduring the siege of Chattanooga. The memoir offers much comment on the war, including the character of each army (Confederates were polite but not inclined to hard work, Union soldiers rude and uncouth but disciplined and hard working). In the Presbyterian Church, he preached sermons to locals, Confederate officers, and Union officers—on different Sundays, of course.

The memoir reflects the role of the church in American society during the 19th century: Faith sustained family and community and helped people deal with the very real presence of death. In one moving passage THM describes his prayers for the recovery of his dying child and his uncertainty over whether those prayers were at odds with Christ’s calling the child home. Though THM emphasizes the joy of salvation, he never turns away from the internal questioning that is central to the Christian experience.

What it means to be free

Memorial Day musings

Recently I watched PBS documentary Death and the Civil War, based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book The Republic of Suffering. I learned at last why there are so many confederate cemeteries throughout the South. National cemeteries did not honor confederate dead, so survivors, particularly women, formed organizations to bury and honor their dead. After World War I, localized memorials became an inclusive, national holiday, Memorial Day. Somehow, despite lingering divisions caused by civil strife, our nation can come together to honor all war dead.

Last month our book club read the novel Freeman, by Leonard Pitts. It seems to me that in this novel Pitts explores the ways in which a culture can build community, even in the face of brutality, hatred, and death. This well researched book is not all about war, but rather its aftermath. Pitts focuses on the effect of sudden emancipation on individuals and communities. He presents us with the many different ways that former slaves, former slave owners, and northern abolitionists understood – and misunderstood – the concept of freedom.

The cost of freedom

Sam Freeman is looking for his wife, Tilda, after 15 years of separation. Sam escapes slavery and survives service in the Union army. As soon as the war is over, he sets out to find Tilda, whom he had left behind, walking thousands of miles through a dangerous Southern landscape. The odds are against him. Tilda has been sold to a brutal owner who cannot comprehend the loss of his property to emancipation. After having been terrorized for many years, Tilda is unable to leave her former master, and she reluctantly follows him west to become the slave of a militia intent on rekindling the war.

Another character in the book, Prudence Cafferty Kent, is a headstrong abolitionist who celebrates union victory by travelling from Boston to Mississippi to establish a school for former slaves, with disastrous results. She is left with a profound sense of guilt that gives her purpose, just as Sam’s guilt at abandoning Tilda to escape slavery gives him the will to continue the search for Tilda despite tremendous odds against finding her.

For both white and black members of Southern communities, freedom was a difficult concept to grasp. In an NPR interview Pitts comments: “Freedom was not just this automatic thing that came because somebody came and read a notice that said you all are free now.” Former slaves often had little idea of where to go when they were set free. White Southerners viewed slaves as property, and they did not part with their investment lightly. White and black Northerners grossly underestimated these slave owners’ desperation to preserve their former way of life.

Freedom to behave imprudently

In our discussion, most readers felt that Sam and Prudence both jumped the gun by setting south so soon after the war ended. Prudence in particular seemed naive and rash, and her actions during the course of the book caused great harm and even death in the African American community she tried to help. There is a lot of discussion of guilt in this book. Both Prudence and Sam take on mantles of shame for their rash actions, and both have to learn that they do not bear the burden of guilt for slavery, or for the death and destruction caused by whites who could not bear to see their way of life change.

This very powerful novel portrays a reality about the aftermath of Civil War that I hadn’t really considered carefully until now. For many years, so many people roamed the American landscape seeking to reunite with their families. I had to ask myself what I would endure to be reunited with my family – would I have had the fortitude to face the danger that Sam and others faced as they sought to mend ties long broken?

Freedom in a war-torn world

Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald columnist, but I think he is a novelist at heart. I’m impressed with his exploration of the themes of guilt, responsibility, and endurance, and with his development of characters that readers really care about – even if those characters, like us, are sometimes reckless and unwise.

We have read several novels set during the Civil War, including the provocative The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a book that explores the idea of slaves owning slaves, and Widow of the South, Robert Hicks’ narrative of the true story of a confederate widow in Franklin, Tennessee. Freeman offers up yet another perspective on the meaning of freedom in a war-torn world.

Fun with Feynman

My dad and I recently led a book-club discussion of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. The book contains the edited reminiscences of physicist Richard Feynman. Both my dad and I read and enjoyed this book in the 1980s when it was released, and we thought it would be a fun book for our club to review.

In the book Feynman discusses his early life as a “curious character,” including some of the funny and sometimes lucrative experiments that he conducted as a boy in his homemade laboratory. He attended MIT and Princeton, worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, then taught at Cornell and Caltech. Along the way he picked up a Nobel Prize for his work in physics, learned Brazilian drumming, became an artist, and famously demonstrated the Challenger O-Ring failure as a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the shuttle disaster.

Feynman died in 1988, three years after Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman was published. In this and other popular works, including audio and video talks, Feynman conveys the sheer pleasure he took in studying the physical world.

The importance of popular science

I taught a Sunday school class on what seems to be a conflict between science and religion in our culture, and to prepare I read Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. In it the authors comment that though some scientists believe the public is disinterested in science, we are actually positive about it; we’re just removed from it most of the time. And we shouldn’t be. Impending discoveries from creation of new microbes in the laboratory to the artificial retardation of human aging will have profound legal, political, and social consequences to our society and the individuals in it. Scientists know what’s coming and they discuss the issues regularly among themselves, but they aren’t always talking to the rest of us. The authors suggest that positive, engaging scientific communication is essential to renewing the general public’s understanding of scientific issues.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum mention Carl Sagan as an example of someone able to communicate science effectively to the public. I think that Richard Feynman was another example. His books and lectures effectively show how life can be enriched by just thinking about the physical world. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman gives you the sense of the enthusiasm with which Feynman approached life and his work as a physicist, and it helps the reader see how someone like Feynman approaches scientific questions and discovers solutions that shape our world.

Solving life’s puzzles

The editor inserts a lot of exclamation points into the Feynman transcripts, and I suspect that is because Feynman’s life was a series of exclamation points. Feynman characterizes his musings about science in one word: Fun! He comments that from an early age he had what he calls “puzzle drive. It’s what accounts for my wanting to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, for trying to open safes.”

For some reason everyone in our reading group enjoyed Feynman’s story of observing ant behavior during his time in graduate school at Princeton. He wanted to know how ants found things (like sugar) and if they had a sense of geometry. He knew the answers had already been discovered, but he wanted to find them for himself. He performed a series of experiments with string and sugar. Among other things, these simple experiments determined that ants are not directed by an innate sense of geometry, but that they leave a trail and follow it back to wherever they came from. Interestingly, Feynman performed similar experiments on Brazilian leaf-cutting ants when he visited there much later in life and on ants around his bathtub when he worked at Caltech, proving that his sense of curiosity, about ants at least, was life long. This story also shows the reader how to go about observing things that happen in the physical world and how to draw logical conclusions from what you observe.

Feynman’s “puzzle drive” led him to learn about everything from how to solve complex physics problems to how to effectively pick up women in bars. In Los Alamos he developed communication codes to evade censors and he made bets with buddies about what information would and would not make it through the censors. He experimented with ways to evade security systems and pick the locks on cabinets holding top-secret documents. With lock picking his purpose was instructive, but he retells the story with glee. Even when he was serious, Feynman took great pleasure in solving a mystery. This book describes, from start to finish, a man who took joy in solving puzzles of the physical world and appreciating the puzzles of the social world. He was a teacher, a dancer, an artist, a drummer, a husband, a father, and a friend.

Note: You can hear Feynman talking and learn more about this “curious character” at a creative and enjoyable website, Feynman Online, at

Reading with my father

Like many members of the Greatest Generation, my dad started a career and family in the 1950’s. But he was not a Mad Man. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. He didn’t work overtime at his job as a time-study man at the local aircraft manufacturing plant. He didn’t go to business dinners or cocktail parties. He did, however, putter. And read. He still spends time in the public library, reading history books, biographies, books on economics, mysteries – anything that strikes his fancy. Here’s what my dad taught me about reading:

Always read the instructions.

Puttering for my dad involved learning how to do something he had never done before. I learned from him that you should always read the instructions. If you do, you can learn how to build your own stereo system, how to operate and repair your lawn mower, how to build a birdhouse, how to assemble a radio-controlled model airplane.

There are always mishaps, of course. Every summer my sisters and I went on the train with our mother to visit our grandmother in South Carolina for a week while my dad stayed home, went to work, and puttered. Sometimes we’d come back to a brand new item – like an iron – purchased when his attempts to fix the old one failed. We also came home to the faint smell of cigars in the back yard – but that’s another story.

Some of his projects involved making pieces of art. He was always interested in art: We went to the High Museum in Atlanta regularly, and our big trip to Washington D.C. was marred for him when the National Gallery was shut down by an inconvenient visit by the Queen of England. He has never been to France but at 91 he still thinks about going to Paris for a visit to the Louvre.

Once he decided to learn how to print using wood blocks. I’m not sure about my memory here but I think this is the same project that involved making silhouettes. I remember sitting very still sideways in front of a sheet. With a special light he adjusted the size of my silhouette and made a paper pattern. He then transferred the pattern to the woodblock, cutting the silhouette into the woodblock. Finally he inked and stamped the silhouette onto paper for the finished piece of art.

Another time he decided to experiment with bookbinding. It seems like this task involved glue and clamps, and it was messy. Now you can Google instructions for making silhouettes and binding your own books – I did and found some very interesting how-to instructions on these subjects. But back then, you had to rely on a book for your instructions, and I’m sure that’s what he did.

Nonfiction can be fun.

This is not a lesson that I learned easily. When I read for fun, I read fiction.

My dad enjoyed reading Robert Louis Stevenson adventures to us aloud and he does indulge in the occasional detective novel. But his focus seems to be on history, world events, psychology, and social and cultural topics of the day. When I was growing up, discussions of what my dad was reading could be lively, depending on what topic he had picked up, but the problem was that he was the only person in the family actually reading nonfiction. The rest of us were busy reading Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

I did pick up on my dad’s habit of researching topics of interest. In the 80’s, for example, I lived in Albuquerque, NM, and commuted daily to Santa Fe on a state van driven by a prison guard. I decided to read up on the infamous 1980 prison riot. That might have been a mistake, because what I read was horribly gruesome, but it did give me some insight on the need for prison reform.

For the most part, though, I did not read nonfiction much until I moved to be near my parents a few years ago. I started going with my dad to church, and we joined the church book club. This club is a no-nonsense, one-hour-a-month discussion of a book (not necessarily a religious one). The group reads history, biographies, fiction, and nonfiction, and I have read and enjoyed books that I never would have picked up on my own. Sometimes I’m not able to make it through a book and sometimes he can’t either, but we always read enough of each book to talk about it ahead of time.

Recently my dad and I were in charge of leading the discussion of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, autobiographical vignettes by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. In this blog I’ll talk about this book and some others that my dad and I read with our book club.