BOOKS: Vegans, spies, librarians and big bad pharma – for your reading pleasure

AVIVA LOWY makes the most of her free time under lockdown to sample six recent books by Jewish authors or otherwise relating to Jewish themes

AS COVID CONTINUED to darken our horizons, 2021 brought us even more “free time” – or “caged time” – for reading. In case you missed them, here are six recent books by Jewish authors or otherwise relating to Jewish themes, which will fruitfully fill that yawning space. Most have been published this year, but a couple are laggards from the end of 2020 because, well, it’s been that sort of strange period where book launches haven’t received their rightful fanfare.

Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism – Richard H Schwartz (Lantern Publishing & Media)

Richard Schwartz is on a mission. The co-founder of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians brings together his two driving passions, Judaism and veganism, to save the world.

A retired New York professor of mathematics, the 87-year-old Schwartz now lives in Israel, which he claims is the world capital of veganism and has the greatest number of adherents per capita. It also has the best plant-based substitutes for animal products, which have the look, taste and texture of the real thing, he says.

Schwartz’s publisher describes him as “the best kind of zealot”, and indeed there is a proselytising fervour to Schwartz, who believes that veganism is essential for the future of humanity. He makes some compelling arguments about how veganism will help avoid a climate catastrophe, stop pandemics, and feed the hungry.

For example, the wastefulness of animal-based diets sees 70% of the world’s grain being fed to animals; we are ‘swapping’ healthy foods such as oats, which are high in complex carbohydrates, for foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol.

The Jewish injunction of tikkun olam, to repair the world, is evident in this book, from caring for animal welfare and concern for our fellow humans, to conserving the environment. As it turns out, the pairing of Judaism and vegan/vegetarianism is a publication sub-genre, including such titles as Oy Vey Vegan, and Rav Kook’s Vision of Vegetarianism & Peace.

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads)

There’s nothing like incorporating the word ‘Paris’ into your title to guarantee a slew of sales. Add the word library, which is also having a moment, and you are on your way to a best-seller.

This novel tells the story of Odile Souchet, a young woman enjoying her dream job working at the American Library in Paris at the start of WWII. Her father is a police chief and her boyfriend is a handsome police officer, so Odile seems to have it all . . . but when the Nazis enter Paris and their control over the city intensifies, she begins to question, and then to fear for all she holds dear.

Odile puts herself in danger by secretly taking books to Jewish patrons who are banished from the library, and along with her fellow librarians, she joins the French Resistance.

The book is based on real events. There was (and still is) an American Library in Paris which was established in 1920, ironically, the outgrowth of the library war service started in WWI to bring books to US soldiers stationed abroad.  The librarians did hand=deliver books to Jews, negotiate to retain censored volumes, and remained open for business throughout. Their heroic story is a paean to the importance of the book. 

Temporary – Hilary Leichter (Allen and Unwin)

When her book was named the best Jewish debut novel by the Jewish youth culture site, Hey Alma, Hilary Leichter tweeted: I have been dying for someone to call me a Jewish writer for YEARS.

Already an established short story writer with pieces appearing in prestigious publications, Leichter’s first full-length work has been described by the New York Times as like “Alice in Wonderland set in the gig economy”.

Telling the story of a young woman with a can-do attitude who takes on increasingly bizarre temp jobs (swabbing the decks on a pirate ship, playing a ghost, opening and closing doors on the hour), Temporary shines a spotlight on our prevailing work culture that offers little stability to “disposable” employees.

Make no mistake – this is a surreal caricature of that culture, and our protagonist floats through her experiences as if in a dream. But an authentic hunger for security and permanence resonates regardless.

This may be because Leichter is drawing on her own experiences in the job market; she says that even until her late twenties, she was leading a haphazard existence and saying yes to whatever crappy job came her way. Lucky for the reader, she has turned misery into something very funny.

As she says: “This book is very Jewish, without once mentioning Judaism. Jewish humour tends to come from deep wells of pain and rage. If you can’t sense the anger underneath it, then it’s probably not Jewish humour.”

Unstoppable: the true story of Siggi B Wilzig – Joshua Greene (Insight Editions)

This is the ultimate rags-to-riches story of a teenage Holocaust survivor who goes on to live the American Dream. But while Siggi’s tale is an extraordinary one of human triumph, he never fully escaped the horror of his early life. As he once said, “I am not liberated yet. I live in Auschwitz every day.”

Siggi managed to stay alive in the camps by pretending to be skilled in trades that were useful to the Nazis. He survived two death marches and near starvation before being liberated, and went on to help the US army hunt Nazis, which gained him a visa to America.

In his new country, he promised himself that he would never go hungry again; he would support Jewish people; and he would speak out against injustice where he saw it.

From labouring in sweatshops, he worked his way up to Chair and CEO of a New York Stock Exchange listed company (“. . . a little oil company. I bought it piece by piece by piece.”) and he grew a commercial bank to over $US4 billion in assets (“I was only the second Jew to become the President of a bank”.).

Greene, his biographer, describes him as “a volcano of a personality”.

Winner of LA’s Best Holocaust Book award, this book is  a sad realisation that there needs to be such a category because of the great number of individuals who have reason to contend for it. 

Agent Sonya: The Spy Next Door – Ben Macintyre (Crown Publishing)

This ripping yarn from last year sneaks into our list because it was reprinted in ‘21 with a tweak to its original subtitle ‘Mother, lover, soldier spy’.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, her neighbours in the sleepy Cotswold village knew her as a mother of three, whose husband Len worked in the nearby aluminium factory, and that she baked an excellent scone.

They did not know that the woman they called Mrs Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, a dedicated communist, a decorated Soviet military intelligence officer and a highly-trained spy who had conducted espionage operations in China, Poland and Switzerland. And they didn’t know her children had been fathered by three different men.

As Macintyre says, “if you stuck her in a novel, people would be like, ‘Nah, come on that’s much too far-fetched’. . . It seems so outlandish and yet it is all true. It’s all in the records.”

Perhaps the greatest female spy of the 20th century, Agent Sonya managed, in her long career, to evade detection and capture by the intelligence and security forces of six countries, including the Gestapo, and MI5 and MI6. Macintyre believes that, apart from being technically proficient at her craft of espionage, she had the perfect disguise: she was a woman. Everyone ignored her.

This is the latest in an impressive body of work by  Macintyre on the world of spies, which  has garnered praise from the maestro himself, John le Carre.

Empire of Pain – Patrick Radden Keefe (Pan Macmillan)

It was marketed as a wonder drug, a pain-killer like no other. But the highly addictive OxyContin became a different kind of killer, fuelling an opioid epidemic that  swamped many communities across the United States. 

According to award-winning journalist, Patrick Radden Keefe, responsibility for the disaster can be laid at the feet of the Sackler dynasty, the multi-generational family behind Purdue Pharma. 

Better known for their generous endowments to prestigious institutions, such as Harvard, Oxford, The Louvre and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sacklers wielded enormous power behind the scenes of the pharmaceutical industry. They funded ruthless sales campaigns and constantly denied the addictive nature of their “star performer”.

An insider in the Food and Drug Administration who turned a blind eye to its dangers was later made an executive director at Purdue. And even when taken to court, strings were pulled and prosecutors’ findings and recommendations were ignored.

In the end, three of the company’s executives pleaded guilty to misleading and defrauding physicians and consumers. They were handsomely rewarded by Purdue for “taking the hit”. None of the Sacklers were criminally charged. Keefe says that the government was “so deferential toward the Sacklers that nobody even bothered to question them”.