Monday, November 19, 2012

The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir, by Domingo Martinez

Lyons Press/Globe Pequot Press, 2012
441 pp


"Yo sé bien que estoy afuera ..."

-- José Alfredo Jiménez (from "El Rey")

 The above song, translated and quoted in its entirety in the prologue of this book, was, according to author Domingo Martinez,  "an unofficial anthem for the Mexican farming class in the 1970s and 1980s, a song which was popular on the Texas/Mexico border, and "the paean of machismo, the topographical map of the rural Mexican male's emotional processing." The song was "the source code" for all that Martinez, who himself was always on the outside (afuera),  was hoping to escape -- a long list of ills, all "wrapped in a deep, all-consuming appeal to be accepted, protected by an ever-ready defensive, fighting posture." 

The Boy Kings of Texas is its author's first book, and was nominated for this year's National Book Award for nonfiction. It  captures Martinez's experiences growing up in Brownsville, Texas in the 1970s and 1980s,  then goes on to his life after leaving Brownsville.  The author details his upbringing in a family in this border town where cultures can't help but collide, and where the ever-present culture of machismo -- which in Martinez's case isn't limited just to the males in his family  -- came to have a huge impact on his life. Later, as an adult,  this would be most evident in his relationship with his brother Dan, who, as the oldest, was brought up to be the main 'boy-king' in charge of protecting the family's honor as well as his siblings.   What is striking is not only the book's unflinching honesty and its rawness, but also the way in which Martinez tries to understand what lies underneath the way he and his brothers and sisters were raised.  His story goes back in time to when his grandmother was young, then into his father's childhood where he too was raised to be a "boy king" and how place, circumstance and culture helped to shape his mom and dad as individuals and as parents.  As he weaves their stories into the picture, Martinez also adds some heartbreaking, but often funny tales of his childhood and adolescence, where he realized pretty early on that he didn't exactly feel like he fit into the macho world of the barrio, an acknowledgment that would follow him throughout his life.

Unlike most memoirs or autobiographies, Boy Kings of Texas is not a straight point A to point B account of his life; it tends to read like a series of short stories that move around in time. Sometimes the author starts out with a thought,  is then reminded of something else, and then moves backward or forward eventually getting back to where he started. The book's pages are filled with multiple fights that see blood being drawn,  but the violence is somewhat tempered by his insights, with his sometimes funny anecdotes, and by his affection toward his extended family that is there even as he's presenting his readers with their faults.

While it's obvious that Martinez is a fine writer, there are plenty of times where the book sort of drags as you wait for him to get back to finish up his tangential discussions and return to the main thrust of whatever it was he was talking originally talking about.  He has this habit of taking a roundabout way of getting to things much like he's sitting across from you telling you a story, and has to throw something else in to explain what he's eventually going to tell you.  I was well into the first 100 pages or so before I became comfortable with his storytelling style, so it does take a bit of getting used to.   Also, while the story is set squarely in the barrio, its surrounding environs or even across the border in Mexico, it's energetic, crazy, and really filled with life, but once he moves to Seattle, it's much less vibrant. In Brownsville Martinez lives in a world that readers like myself who didn't grow up there have likely never experienced and that's part of the allure of the book.

I liked it with only a few reservations, and although the reader reviews seem mainly positive, I seemed to have enjoyed it much more than a number of readers did.  I've seen a quite a few reader reviews calling it "whiny," and one Amazon reader seems to have missed the point of the book altogether slamming Martinez for writing about his family trying to be white.  Well, let me say this: Boy Kings of Texas didn't at all come across as whiny to me; and while there is quite a lot of airing his family's linen in public, that's not the overall thrust of this book.   If you don't want to read about fights (another complaint that probably lowered the book's star rating for some people) or drugs or about a hardscrabble life of wearing hand me downs or about growing up in the barrio, then obviously this one isn't for you. If you want something very different with a lot of color, and you're at all interested in a unique way of life, then give it a try. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested; I mean, seriously ... everyone's got a story to tell and this one is not only engrossing but entertaining as well.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam, by Andrew Wiest

Osprey Publishing, 2012
376 pp

(ARC from the publisher -- Thank you!!!)

I have been forever fascinated  with the Vietnam War -- most especially with the politics and behind-the-scene machinations behind America's involvement, but also with the growth and outright explosion of US opposition to the war, and the aftermath, as the soldiers came home, or did not.  But what really gets to me are the compelling stories of the people who were actually there.  The Boys of '67 briefly but powerfully examines the lives of a group of men from Charlie Company in the US Army's 9th Infantry Division -- from the time they received their greetings from Uncle Sam through their individual returns home and beyond.  It is a fine addition to the already-existing collection of personal histories of the war, focusing largely on the special bonds forged between these former strangers throughout their year in Vietnam.

The book is the result of  author interviews with several surviving members of Charlie Company, as well as their families and the families of some of those who went to Vietnam and never returned.   Wiest begins with the men themselves, talking about the lives they led prior to their time in the army, so that by the time these boys go off to boot camp, the reader is already somewhat familiar with them as real people.  Basic training at Fort Riley brought these men from different backgrounds together, and they were kept together by a decision  made by the powers that be.  Rather than taking the normal route, where the men went through basic training and then specialized advanced individual training (AIT) and afterwards were sent off to different units, the officers in charge realized that in keeping these men together, 
"They would know the men intimately—understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. Not only would the experience weld those men into a cohesive group of soldiers but also it would form a strong bond between the units’ officers, non-commissioned officers, and the ranks, forging a common brotherhood of war unique in the Vietnam era."
Arriving in Vietnam, the men of Charlie Company went on to prove command's assumptions to be correct.  They became a first-class fighting force, proving their mettle when caught up in horrifying and often surreal situations in the Mekong jungles, and they also became a very tight-knit group of friends bordering on family. They also showed concern for the welfare of the locals, especially the children.  But during their missions, documented by the author,, the inevitable casualties began to take their toll on the group. In the field, they would lose friends; as time went by and  the situation got worse, they would begin to question why they were even there.  As one soldier wrote to his parents, 
"My radioman died of the head wound he got on the 29th of July (he was shot by a sniper as I stood about 18 inches from him), another friend of mine lost one leg below the knee to a booby trap, and one of my men, who his from Minneapolis, lost an eye.  Every time one of our men gets hurt or killed I wonder a little more whether or not this country is worth it. Being in the infantry is the best way to become a pacifist.  I suppose that if I were not so close, so personally involved in the war, I would have no doubts about it all; but from where I stand the view is a little different. Men I have lived with for a year and a quarter are not easy to lose. It is difficult to keep working when a friend dies. I've been on the line since 18 January, and I've seen enough..."
As more men died, replacements would be rotated in, but as the author notes, it was tough for these new guys to fit in well with Charlie Company.  Emotionally, the boys of '67 couldn't take getting close to them because of the losses they'd already suffered, and they found that they couldn't talk about losing their friends to relative strangers.

As the men began to return home, they discovered that the America they left wasn't the same America to which they were returning.  They were shocked and stymied by the protestors at the airports and adjusting to life after what they'd been through in Vietnam was proving more difficult than they realized.  One man wrote to his wife while recuperating from wounds in Japan that she should "see all the scars I am going to have," referring to the ones from the battlefield and subsequent operations, but as it turns out, their experiences left scars on the soldiers' psyches as well. While the men went through their own postwar hells, the wives and girls left behind also suffered as their men dealt with their post-traumatic stress, unable to put into words exactly what they were feeling.  As some of the remaining Company members began to make contact with others, they realized that their experiences could only be understood and shared with each other because they were there and knew what they had all gone through.

The personal accounts of these men or their surviving families  -- the letters, the interviews, etc., -- are what make this book.  The author presents these people not only as the fine soldiers they were, but also as human beings who suffered from serious psychological trauma both in Vietnam and afterwards. While highly personal, there is also insight into just what types of situations these men faced there via several accounts of the battles they fought, complete with tactical maps that give the reader a harrowing visual perspective on what these soldiers faced during their missions.

The Boys of '67 is emotionally powerful and if you're at all interested in the Vietnam war and its personal aftermath  from the points of view of the soldiers who were there, this would be a great reading choice.  Definitely recommended.

-- I purchased a regular copy of this book for my library;  if you would like this ARC, and you live in the US, I'll be happy to pass this one along and I'll pay postage.  Just be the first to leave a comment that you'd like the book.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land, by James McClintock

Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
256 pp
(arc from the publisher -- a huge thank you!)

 James McClintock, Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham,  is a scientist with thirteen research expeditions to Antarctica under his belt.  His research interests lie in "invertebrate chemical ecology, reproduction, nutrition and physiology, particularly in marine invertebrates," according to his website at UAB.   His book offers readers brief glimpses into the various types of research that are going on in Antarctica, some of his own experiences while working there, and a number of observations he has made over the course of several years, most importantly the  "ecological impacts of rapid climate change on the marine life of the Antarctic Peninsula," which, as he notes,  are "inseparably linked with the environment and geography."  In Lost Antarctica, Dr. McClintock simultaneously presents some of the wonders he's discovered in working on this continent  and provides a very readable, easily understandable narrative about the present realities and possible future effects of climate change.

While engaging in some personal anecdotes about working in Antarctica from time to time, his primary focus is on the connections among life down there and the change in climate.  For example, he notes how receding sea ice is playing havoc with the Adélie penguins, who depend on the ice as a platform for catching krill.  As the ice recedes, the Adélies have to go farther offshore to find their food, causing them to have to expend much greater amounts of  necessary energy to do so.  The warm temperatures and humidity that comes with warmer air also causes unseasonable snowstorms which bury the penguins and worse -- when the snow melts, the runoff often drowns the eggs, causing a substantial drop in numbers in the overall Adélie population.

 And then there are the king crabs who are moving closer to the shelf up the Antarctic slope.  While there have been king crabs living in the deep-sea regions of Antarctica, as the climate  warms, they are moving into an area where much of the marine life has faced little threat from invading predators.   He also discusses the potential impact of the ice melt and the acidification of the ocean, all written in a very straightforward way so that the reader doesn't have to be familiar with or have to tackle scientific jargon to understand what he's trying to say.  

McClintock notes that his observations in Antarctica have served as a "wake-up call to a rapidly changing climate."  He notes that by the end of the century, the disappearance of the sea ice of the central and northern areas of the western Antarctic peninsula will lead to the disappearance of the Adélies and krill, the food on which so many species are dependent, will be gone as well.  The "seafloor organisms" will be in jeopardy from the crab invasions and the acidification of the oceans.  The chemicals that are these creatures' first line of defense will also be affected negatively, which could  mean a loss of  biomedical research potential in treatment of diseases. 

Lost Antarctica is an interesting look at Antarctica and the work that is going on down there; it's also a fine introduction to the hazards of rapid climate change. Sadly, I think that although it's quite good, it's going to be another example of preaching to the choir.  If you're already on the skeptic side of the global-warming fence, it may not change your mind,  but if you're one of those people who want to skip the heavily-jargoned and technical stuff and get right to the point of the potential effects, this book is a great place to start.

ps/I am buying a hardcover copy to keep for my home library; if someone in the US would like this ARC, I'll be happy to send it to you! Just be the first to comment below stating you'd like the book. I'll pay postage.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, by Kate Summerscale

Bloomsbury USA, 2012
303 pp

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is written by Kate Summerscale, whose book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher  provided me with hours of entertainment.   It dealt with a Victorian-era detective involved in the famous case of Constance Kent, who was accused of murdering her young stepbrother in 1860.   Remaining in the Victorian period, the author takes on another case that made the headlines back in the day and caused a huge and scandalous stir -- the case of Isabella Robinson, whose husband discovered and read her private diary and then sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery on the basis of its contents.  The diary, the ensuing trial and Isabella's inner turmoil are discussed in depth, as are changes in Victorian England that are starting to challenge the period's status quo.  The book is also filled with details that fill in what's going on outside of Isabella's life and her trial. It's a good read, but sometimes the details are a bit too thick when you want to get back to the meat of the book and the author's analysis.

Isabella Robinson grew up in a well-to-do family.  She was born in 1813, married young and had her first child before she lost her first husband in 1842.  Two years later, she married Henry Oliver Robinson, a businessman with whom she had two more children. Henry and Isabella lived well; before moving to Edinburgh they lived in Blackheath Park; Henry's business prospered and by marrying Isabella, he also gained money her father had settled on her.  But Isabella was not happy -- Henry was away a lot on business and  he also had a number of extra-marital affairs, and Isabella came to believe that Henry wanted her only because of her money.    In 1849, Isabella started keeping a diary, her "friend in loneliness and in sickness, a companion and confidant." She

"used her journal as a place in which to confess her weakness, her sadness and her sins. In its pages she audited her behavior and her thoughts; she grappled with her errors and tried to plot out a path to virtue."

But as it turns out, the story that took shape in her diary, "a serial in daily parts, in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine,"  turned out to be her undoing and the seeds of her own disgrace.  It was there where her unfulfilled romantic and sexual needs would be reworked and translated into passionate, flowery prose just like one would see in a romance novel of the time, as she set down her accounts of her strong attachments to and romantic involvements with various men.  Her record of her time together with Dr. Edward Lane at first consisted of innocent details about the two families and her trips to his hydrotherapy establishment. Then she started writing down descriptions of the first instances of mutual attraction between them,  their clandestine meetings, and the first kiss when suddenly  “something extraordinary happened: the fantasies that Isabella had nurtured in her diary crossed into life.”  Isabella also documented a possible sexual encounter with Lane, when she writes that “I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed.”  Unfortunately for Isabella, while she was sick one day, Henry found her diaries, along with other papers Isabella had held on to, became furious,  and in 1857, he and Isabella were legally separated.  England's laws were changing, so that now it was becoming easier to obtain a full divorce; by 1858 Henry filed for his own divorce from Isabella, wanting nothing less than Isabella's complete ruin.   He would keep the two children from their marriage as well as the money; Isabella would have to fend for herself.  But first, he had to go to court.

During the somewhat complicated legal proceedings, Lane, of course, denied everything, citing Isabella's words as “a tissue of romances from beginning to end."   Isabella's own lawyers came up with the defense that  that their client was suffering from some sort of uterine sickness that was linked to nymphomania, causing her to write down what virtually amounted to romantic and sexual fantasies to use later.   How degrading --  at the time, many doctors believed that masturbation was the "chief symptom" of nymphomania, and that the scenes in her diary were written for the purpose of personal gratification.  The author notes that

"The medical witnesses in the Divorce Court suggested that Isabella had become mired in a circle of desire and excitement, recorded and created by her diary: her lascivious thoughts, translated to paper, took on an apparent reality that gratified her erotic impulses."

Not only did Isabella have to sit through this testimony day after day and have her space and personal life invaded by the reading of her private journals, noting 

 “That men, mere strangers, no ways authorised, should have considered themselves at liberty to pry into, to peruse, to censure, to select from, my private writings, with curious, unchivalrous, ignoble hands, I cannot understand,"

but the newspapers had a field day reporting some of the excerpts from Isabella's diary as they were read aloud in court, with only a few reprieves:  sometimes the court was cleared of women and reporters when the day's topics were deemed as too delicate or too indecent.  And after all of the legal proceedings were completed, after the trial and  Isabella's private thoughts dragged her through the very public mud, Robinson failed to get his divorce. Their marriage, however, would end some years later, interestingly enough when Isabella was caught in the act with one of her children's former tutors. 

While Isabella's story is fascinating, the book works on different levels. First, the diary reveals Isabella's inner turmoil as a middle-aged, married woman, desirous for any male affection, but with little or no accepted outlets for expression of her sexuality.  At the same time, the author explores a changing Victorian period, one where traditional ideas and established conventions were being challenged.   For example,  the changes to the existing  divorce law started in 1858 when the secular divorce court was established.  This change made divorce easier for the middle classes to obtain, and as the author states, Henry Robinson's divorce was one of 302 cases to go before the court within the first fifteen months.  Out of those cases, only six were denied, including Robinson's.

I got really involved in Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace -- the author has done an amazing amount of research, all duly footnoted.  Not only does she present Isabella's court case in the context of a changing society, but she takes the time to establish the lives of the major players, going into deep background, for example, with Dr. Lane's family and their relationship to the Robinsons.  There's also a bit of a who's who with people like Charles Darwin, whose own work was also upsetting the established scientific and religious applecarts, causing him a great deal of stress that had to be relieved with the new practice of hydrotherapy.  And the revelation that Isabella was caught with one of her children's old tutors made me wonder if in fact, there may have been some measure of truth in her diaries. Seriously, one of the things that kept turning over in my head the entire time was the question of "did she or didn't she?"  The double standard that existed for men and women is also a topic of discussion that pervades this book.  Aside from the positives, however, there is so much detail embedded in the book that there's a great temptation to skim, and I must admit I did this in a few places, especially in places where so much background started to feel a bit boggy.  And as much as I liked this book, it wasn't as personally appealing to me as her Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which I think was the better of the two. 

All the same, I'd definitely recommend it if Victorian history is your thing; I'd recommend it to readers who are interested in women's history as well. Overall I found it to be a good book, a bit weighted down with an abundance of detail but still very interesting.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, by Amy Reading

Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
290 pp.

My thanks to Davina at and to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.  Just a minor point of personal interest: Davina's name appears in the acknowledgements for this book!

Amy Reading's account of con victim J. Frank Norfleet would make a really good movie.  Back in 1919, 54 year-old Norfleet, a rancher from Texas, was the victim of a large-scale con run by a crook named Joe Furey that ended up with Norfleet  losing about $45,000 and landing him twice that amount in debt.   Norfleet, as it turns out, never had a chance.  He was the perfect mark, and although he didn't know it, he had just entered onto the set of a perfectly-tuned, nine-act theater production, a routine so perfectly honed that the con men knew what exactly what lines Norfleet was going to say when. This routine works so well, and is so perfectly staged that it is nearly impossible for the mark to know  that he's actually being swindled until it's too late. In the aftermath, unlike some victims, Norfleet wasn't so much embarrassed about his own gullibility or worried about others' contempt; on the contrary, he was very public: he contacted the police, went to the newspapers, and told his wife what had happened to him. In his autobiography he tried to explain why he was so gullible:
 "With us of the Plains country, a man's word was his bond. Our cattle deals, our land sales -- transactions running into many thousands, frequently -- were often completed 'sight unseen,' the whole agreements being based on verbal representations and verbal understandings...If I was gullible, I was simply following the reasoning habits I had acquired in my lifetime of experience." 

Not to mention, Reading continues, that if these understandings didn't work out, shooting or hanging were likely end results.

As the author notes, "Joe Furey didn't know whom he was dealing with when he fingered J. Frank Norfleet." He probably also didn't figure on Frank deciding to take matters into his own hands to go after the five people responsible for fleecing him.  Frank's quest is a wild story, and using some of the techniques employed by the con men, involves his own brand of theatrics and disguises, some cloak-and-dagger moments and even a wild chase or two. Reading's research is based on several sources  including police files, newspapers, court records, and Norfleet's two autobiographies (1924, 1927).  Yet the author poses the question of whether or not it's Norfleet's readers who are being conned, and ultimately the readers of her book in regards to Frank's years in pursuit of vengeance. Setting her other sources against his own writings, she points out a number of inconsistencies between the man who reportedly lived by the "cowboy code of honor," and what may have really happened during his long years of journeying for justice.

Around Norfleet's story, the author examines how the "confidence-man" became a regular fixture in America, as well as how the industry of con artistry developed alongside rapid economic US expansion since the 19th century.  The swindling business not only tried to keep up with what was happening as the economy became stronger, but always looking for opportunity, sought to  "fill in the uncharted terrain that opens up when business innovation gallops ahead of legislation."  Speculation and even counterfeiting, she notes, actually helped the American economy to grow; corruption in the policing agencies and turning a blind eye here and there allowed the illegal activities to continue. She also notes that we as Americans are people used to being conned, and often pay for the privilege, citing the crowds of people who thronged to see P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" for example.

While Norfleet's story is captivating in its own right, around that wild ride the book gets a bit bogged down in detail that is frankly, a bit boring.  So many parts of the narrative could have been presented in more of an encapsulated summary format rather than going on and on with lengthy exposition that has to be sifted through slowly.   But these "skimworthy" parts are offset by small glimpses of American life as the country's economy began to boom and expand.

Overall, this book does have a great deal of appeal  -- there's the big con, the quest for revenge, and the moments of payback that make it especially readable and interesting.  For the most part, it managed to capture my attention, despite the s-l-o-w and periodically sloggy details.  With people still reeling from events like the Bernie Madoff fraud case, and opening their emails daily to a number of potential con scams, the book is a timely read. It is a bit more detail oriented with a lot of historical interest; it's not really a book club kind of read or something that might attract the attention of the casual nonfiction reader. I liked it, and would say that if anyone is at all interested in the history of fraud and con artistry in the US, Reading's book offers its readers an interesting perspective on the topic.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner

Random House, 2012
537 pp
(hardcover ed.)

My many thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program as well.  It is an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed  history of the FBI in  its role as a "secret intelligence service." The book examines how the Bureau has long been operating outside of the rule of law -- "the foundation on which America was built", and offers its readers a look at the ongoing struggle between national security and civil liberty. Although I may not personally agree with the author's final conclusion, it's still a very well-written book.

It's impossible to give this book the justice it deserves in a short span of time, so I'll only offer a brief rundown.  The Bureau of Investigation was founded during  Teddy Roosevelt's administration; originally Congress had voted down its creation, concerned about the existence of a "central police or spy system in the federal government.”  As would later become a regular pattern between presidents and the FBI,  Roosevelt came up with a way around the decisions of Congress:  he appropriated money from a “special expense fund” to start hiring agents.  There was no formal charter at the time of the Bureau's inception, nor is there one today.   It should come as no surprise that  a major  portion  of this book deals with J. Edgar Hoover, since in effect, Hoover was the FBI until his death in 1972.  There's also another reason: as part of his research  for this book, Weiner was able to obtain 70,000 plus pages of newly-declassified material, including Hoover's intelligence files, in which J. Edgar noted down his thoughts or reactions to each matter at hand.

Hoover had a definite view regarding America and the preservation of the American government and way of life.   His earliest work was aided largely by legislation enacted during Wilson's adminstration, such as  the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act  of 1918, which afforded  Hoover a great deal of power as the head of the Radical Division of the Justice Department to which he was appointed in 1919.  Answering to A. Mitchell Palmer, by the age of 25, Hoover was already responsible for the roundup of thousands of people he considered to be subversives and potential enemies; he had planned and directed the Palmer raids of 1920.   But in the wake of the raids, he found himself in a defensive position because almost none of the people rounded up warranted arrest and the arrests were made "without warrant  or any process of law." Hoover played it cagey when asked about his involvement,  disavowing any role at all -- learning about the importance of "secrecy and deception" in the process and leaving Palmer to pick up the flak.  He was also very good throughout his career at instilling paranoia about an America under threat of attack from its enemies, both foreign and domestic, and extremely adamant that the Bureau should never be embarrassed.

As  the author states, Enemies is also a record of "break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping and bugging on behalf of the president."  FDR  came to the White House in 1932;  in 1936, after a warning from Hoover that Communists were clearly a major threat not only to the unions and the press of America, but also that they were "boring into the government,"  Hoover received from the President the authorization to investigate and to proceed with intelligence operations "against American enemies."  Nothing was ever written down (except on Hoover's side) and Hoover took FDR at his word,  using FDR's go ahead as the authority to continue this work throughout the rest of his career.  He was now at liberty to use various means at his disposal --  as the author notes, wiretapping (which Hoover believed was legal as long as the fruits of the eavesdropping was not used in court), "bugging and break-ins became a holy trinity for FBI intelligence operations from the 1930s onward."  Hoover was ready to do whatever was necessary "against all enemies, foreign and domestic;" he would later have a vision of himself as the head of a world-wide intelligence agency with total control.  If the Constitution got trampled on in the process, well, let's just say that in protecting the American nation, Hoover was never too concerned about rights or civil liberties.  For him, the President's word was the law and the basis of his continued power.  Hoover disliked Truman, who voiced his concerns about the FBI as an "American Gestapo,"  but in 1950, after the beginning of the Korean War, Truman expanded Hoover's power even more. And when  Truman broke the news that the Soviets had the bomb, Hoover's paranoia seems to have been justified.  The "national security establishment" started expanding and continued to do so into the Eisenhower administration.  Ike's Executive Order 10450 focused on tightening internal security, and it was FBI agents who were put in charge of carrying out this order. The order, beyond anyone associated with communism, denied employment to "homosexuals, drunks, and other social aberrants" who might constitute security risks.  One FBI officer committed suicide, realizing what kind of "false charges" might be brought against him; multiple careers and lives were ruined.  Enemies goes on through the Hoover-era presidents JFK through Nixon,  then examines the FBI and its relationship to the US presidency after J. Edgar's  death, bringing the book up to date with Barack Obama.

Even though the FBI had many successes, there were also  many mistakes throughout its history.  Weiner also spends some time on critical errors that he believes led up the events of 9/11.   For example, the deep rift between the CIA and the FBI, going to back to Hoover's hatred of Bill Donovan, led to a respective refusal to share crucial intelligence information.  Information was out there, but it was just in many pieces and in many hands, sometimes even overlooked. In many cases, the FBI's right hand had no clue what its left hand was doing.   Informants were not taken seriously, there was a lack of translators; the list goes on and on. Other contributing factors in the Bureau's poor handling of intelligence are the "individual experts" who had "no institutional knowledge" --  the 56 field offices of the FBI worked as agencies unto themselves in isolation, FBI agents also rarely talked to the analysts, and  bureaucratic oversight was often nonexistent or very poor.   Also, in 2000, the computer capabilities of the FBI were so bad that the a normal teenager had more computing power. Add to all of the above political friendships and poor judgment in appointments that hampered, rather than helped the FBI as an intelligence service, and you've got a very costly (in terms of lives)  situation than cannot afford to stand uncorrected.   Things have changed now, according to the author, and he discusses some of what's new with the FBI since the appointment of Mueller as director.

There's a great deal more than what I've outlined here, since I'm trying to be as brief as possible. Throughout the book, woven in and around the FBI's history, Weiner examines the tension that has existed between our civil liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution and the expanded powers of the government during a time of national crisis that may cost citizens some of their Constitutional rights.   It's also a look at how democracy works in a modern surveillance state where we've become "inured to the gaze of closed-circuit cameras, the gloved hands of airport guards, and the phalanx of cops and guardsmen in combat gear."  According to the author, we may not necessarily love Big Brother, but he's "part of the family now." He also notes that the FBI's manual of operations vis-a-vis counterterrorism is a sign that the government is trying to strike a balance between liberty and security, but yet the FBI continues to work without a charter.

Personally, I liked this book, although I do have reservations about Weiner's faith in the present FBI and the present government where our civil liberties are concerned.   Enemies is  incredibly interesting, fleshing out bits and pieces of history with which I'm already familiar, and it offers anyone remotely interested in the topics he covers a great deal of fodder for further reading.  It's very reader friendly, and despite some reviews I've read about it being snooze material, it will grab the attention of anyone who's interested.  What you won't find here are any juicy pieces of speculation about Hoover and his sex life, which is just as well -- it's all hearsay anyway and it's also irrelevant.  I also think Weiner might be looking through his rose-colored glasses  -- an FBI manual of operations is all well and good, but  time and again, and he shows it himself, when push comes to shove in a matter of national security, the government can exercise greater powers that don't always mesh with our constitutional rights. 

for more on this book, professionally speaking, read the reviews from The LA Times and the New York Times, and don't miss NPR's interview with Tim Weiner.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

Penguin, 2012
(first published by Penguin Australia, 2011)
259 pp
(hardcover ed)

[note: for a more visual approach to this book, don't miss the author's website.]

Part history, part cold-case mystery, Midnight in Peking began literally as a footnote the author happened to read in a biography of Edgar Snow,  an American journalist and author who may likely have been the first western journalist to interview Mao Zedong. As the author notes in his "The Writing of Midnight in Peking," a brief piece added to the book after the main story, mention was made of Snow's wife Helen, who was nervous due to the discovery of the body of young Pamela Werner not too far from where the Snows lived.  The footnote also indicated that Pamela's father was a former British consul in China, and that the murder of Pamela had remained unsolved.  With only these few facts to go on, and an inability to stop thinking about Pamela Webster, French started tracking down the long-forgotten story.   By chance, one day at the National Archives at Kew, French came across an uncatalogued file in one of several boxes of "random correspondence sent from Peking  during the years 1941-45," where he realized that he'd discovered details of the private investigation made by Pamela's father, E.T.C. Werner, who'd tried to solve the case on his own after authorities failed to do so. As it turns out, Werner's inquiries would provide a key that would unlock what may have really happened that fateful night back in January of 1937.  While the mystery of who may have killed Pamela Werner unfolds in this book, the author also unravels Peking's social and political history, which  helps to place into context the events surrounding  and following her untimely death.  

On January 8, 1937,  Pamela Werner's  body was discovered near the city's Fox Tower. Although there was little blood at the scene, Pamela had been severely beaten & cut, and her internal organs had been removed.  The motive was not rape -- there was no evidence of sexual assault, nor was there any evidence that her death was the result of a robbery, since she was wearing a very expensive watch when she was found.  The night before, Pamela  had failed to return home, and her father had been out looking for her into the wee hours of the morning.  After going home to get some rest,  Werner was back out again on the streets looking for her as the  day dawned.  He started at the edge of the Legation Quarter, followed the Tatar Wall toward the Fox Tower, and seeing a crowd gathering, went to see what was happening. It was then he discovered that everyone was standing around a corpse, who as fate would have it, turned out to be his missing daughter. 

Pamela's death was no ordinary murder case -- au contraire -- it was a very high-profile investigation since Werner had been a British diplomat up until some twenty-plus years earlier when he was recalled to London and his career had come to an end.   His wife had died under mysterious circumstances when Pamela was five; since that time, he and his daughter had been living in a neighborhood just outside the Legation Quarter. Werner had a reputation as an outsider and recluse, preferring his books and scholarship to the company of others in the expat community inside the Quarter.  He was widely disliked, especially by the British consul, which tended to complicate the investigation into Pamela's murder.   The inquiries into Pamela's death proceeded immediately, but it was hampered from the outset.  The two chief investigators, Colonel Han Shih-ching,  of the Peking Bureau of Public Safety South East Section,  and DCI Richard Dennis, brought in  from Tientsin’s British Concession as an envoy to monitor the investigation, found their hands increasingly tied.  Many witnesses refused to say anything or just vanished; others who might have had connections were never questioned.  They received a number of fake confessions, and  some native Chinese believed that her death was the work of "fox spirits."  Han had no authority inside the Legation Quarter, and when Dennis requested permission to conduct searches there, he was turned down -- it seems that the Administrative Commission of the Diplomatic Quarter, the British Legation and the current British consul felt that a "search of Chinese Peking would be sufficient."  Han pursued enquiries in an area near the legation known as "The Badlands," a veritable district of iniquity,   home to other another class of foreigners, many of them White Russians serving as pimps, prostitutes, owners of gambling dens, and other shady goings on.   It was a  place where " peroxide-blonde White Russians past their prime raised their sketched-on eyebrows and offered ‘business’ to the semi-comatose, the paralytic, the close to broke."  And it was also where Pamela was likely murdered before being dumped at the Fox Tower.

But with the Japanese moving closer to Peking, some scant nine miles away, the city became "obsessed with its own survival," in the face of daily assassinations, and among other things,  a "guerrila war...being fought on the streets of the city."  Leads in Pamela's case were growing scarce; links DCI Dennis had  made between possible suspects couldn't be linked directly to her murder, and in July, 1937, the Japanese finally entered Peking,  ending the official search for Pamela's killer.  Unofficially, Pamela's father never let go of the case; he hired his own eyes and ears, emptying his bank account, but ultimately he did get answers.  It is Werner's story and his conclusions that really grab the reader's attention, woven in and among the social and political history of Peking up through the Japanese occupation. 

It is very obvious that French has done an immense amount of research, doggedly pursuing police reports, newspaper articles and correspondence to reconstruct this brief episode. He writes that he "rechecked every false scent and misguided trail, every officious injunction from the British authorities" in putting together this book about Pamela's death, in the hopes that  "some sort of justice, however, belated, be awarded her."  At the same time, it is no dry history that has to be slogged through -- his writing brings old Peking alive and gives life to a murder case that began as a mere footnote.  And while the book may not actually read like a fast-paced thriller as some have noted,  the mystery of who killed Pamela Werner, and especially her father's dogged determination to find her killer are enough to keep anyone from setting it down for any length of time.  This book goes well beyond the usual "true-crime" sort of novel to become a compelling read in terms of a crime, a city, and the devotion of a father to his daughter.  

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas

W.W. Norton and Company, 2012
345 pp
(hardcover ed.)

The New Yorker is one of my favorite magazines, and inside  the March 12th issue I came across a fantastic article by writer Dahlia Lithwick, a review of Flagrant Conduct, by Dale Carpenter.  By the time I'd finished it, I knew I had to get my hands on the book -- I have a more than keen interest in civil rights history and the growth of social and political power in the nation's gay community. The book examines a case that started with an arrest in Texas in 1998 that ultimately led to a groundbreaking, decisive civil-rights victory in 2003, when the US Supreme Court decided that laws criminalizing sexual behavior between members of the same sex were  unconstitutional. It was a red-letter day for members of the gay and lesbian community; the Lawrence v. Texas decision also overturned an earlier decision made in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick in which  the Supreme Court had ruled that the constitution afforded no right to privacy or protection for homosexual acts between consenting adults in the privacy of the bedroom. It also stated that state legislatures were able to enact laws based on "notions of morality," laws that reflected "majority sentiments." Flagrant Conduct  is a compelling story that gets the reader behind the scenes of this momentous change in civil rights history, but even more, it is a very human story, detailing the determination behind the drive for this change that got the case to the highest court in the land.

The book proceeds chronologically, beginning in 1998, with the arrest of two men for sodomy in Houston,Texas.  On a September night, in a Houston apartment complex known for wild parties and other "shenanigans," a man in Apartment 833 says he's going to go out and grab a soda. Instead he dials 911, reporting that inside the apartment there's a black man “going crazy with a gun.” His aim may have been to separate the other two men, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner (his current partner), because of jealousy.  Sheriff's officers arrived at the scene, made their way into the apartment, and ultimately arrested Lawrence and Garner for sodomy. According to the arresting deputy and an officer who corroborated the story as a witness, the two were actively having sex in the bedroom while he was standing there, and did not stop even when they realized he was in the room. The senior officer, Joseph Quinn, had discretion in what to do: he could give the two men a warning and let them off, he could write them a ticket, or he could charge them for sodomy. Quinn wasn't feeling particularly charitable, Lawrence was being belligerent, and  ultimately, citing Texas criminal code law 21.06 (the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law) the sheriffs arrested Lawrence and Garner and took them to jail. But all may not be as law enforcement claimed: first, the two men denied that they were having sex, and stated that they were both wearing clothes at the time the deputies arrived; second, the  officers' account of events that night varied, none of them agreeing with the others. The case was eventually picked up by gay-rights advocates Lambda Legal, representatives of whom met with Garner and Lawrence, explaining to them  the necessity of taking a no-contest plea for which they would have to pay a fine, regardless of what really might have happened in that Houston apartment that night.  The plea was the entry point for Lambda to try to challenge not just the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, but all anti-sodomy laws that pointedly discriminated against gay people. Lambda and others realized that the Lawrence case had the potential to get to the US Supreme Court, and quite possibly undo the damage caused in 1986 with the decision made in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Flagrant Conduct examines not just the case itself, but also  the "peculiar corrupting quality of laws that target a class of persons for moral opprobrium," as well as cases based on these laws, the real influence of fundamentalist religions on politics in Texas,  the growing social and political power of the gay community in Houston (many of whom still remained in the closet due to workplace and other repercussions), and the stories of the individual people connected through this case, which ultimately would become a landmark moment in the history of US civil rights.  It also examines law enforcement and its attitudes toward homosexuals. There are also many memorable moments throughout the book, none the least of which are the arguments before the Supreme Court -- especially the differences between presentations by the unprepared, self-assured DA from Texas and the Lambda team, for whom the outcome of the case had a special, more personal meaning.  Also memorable is the day of the Court's decision, the protests by Christian groups including those led by Falwell, Robertson and the notorious Fred Phelps of Topeka Kansas whose slogan is "God hates fags."

Obviously there's much more to this book; I've just scratched the surface here.  Don't expect an Erik Larson kind of nonfiction read; it's just not that kind of book, but nor is it a boring historical treatise that will lull you to sleep or cause you to put the book down for long periods of time before returning. There are times at the beginning when Carpenter is analyzing his arguments where it necessarily gets a bit repetitious, for example, when debating what the arresting officer said what he saw versus the defendants relating their own account of events. It's a non-issue, really, because overall the book is well researched, well analyzed, flows well and is very well and fairly presented. There's no need to know anything about either case prior to starting this book; nor is there any need to be familiar with legal terminology: the author clearly and carefully spells everything out. His work is very approachable and reader friendly, easy to understand and quite frankly, a mesmerizing account of a life-changing event. Very highly recommended, especially for people who are interested in the history of civil rights in this country as well as the social and political history of the gay and lesbian movement and its opposition in the United States.

I am truly amazed at just how good this book is -- I couldn't put it down.