Saturday, December 28, 2013

Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel.

Sarah Crichton Books (FSG), 2013
256 pp


"When you have a solider of that caliber, you know when he's broken, and when he's broken, he's gotta be fixed."

Rarely in life does a book come along that has me telling everyone I know that they have to read it. I just finished  Thank You For Your Service, and if you have friends or family returning from military deployment, you may find this book to be an invaluable resource.  Yes, there are a number of books on PTSD out there on the market already, but trust me -- you will have never read anything like this one.

Mr. Finkel's prior book The Good Soldiers, had him embedded with men in an army battalion in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. Thank You For Your Service finds him embedded yet again, but this time here in the US, after the soldiers' deployments are finished.   As the dustjacket blurb states, "He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments"  in a period he calls the "after-war," as these men begin the process of trying to recover.  The book focuses on soldiers returning with "the invisible wounds of this war, including traumatic brain injury,  post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety," causing emotional, mental and physical scars, often  finding their outlet in spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse and sometimes suicide.  But it's not just the men --  the author also offers the viewpoints and voices of  wives or girlfriends who try to adjust to their men being home but broken.  In most cases, the women are simply not equipped to handle the changes and they often wonder what happened to the men they said goodbye to at the start of  their deployment.

The Army does offer some help for their men, but it comes largely in the form of medications -- often a high-powered combination of meds to control anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness.  There is also the possibility of entering Warrior Transition Battalions (WTB), but just getting in is a bureaucratic nightmare.  One man had to collect over 30 signatures in a given amount of time, only to find that some of the offices he had to visit were closed or manned by inadequately-prepared staff.  And although these soldiers have to sign a Contract for Safety, including a promise that if they are feeling suicidal they'll let someone know, the suicide rate continues to climb.  In Washington, at least one man, General Peter Chiarelli,  took the suicide rate very seriously, demanding accountability for each and every self-inflicted death at regular meetings.  However, his efforts were often at the mercy of senators and other high-ranking officials, whom he had to wine and dine and who sometimes had other things that were more pressing. In trying to put together "lessons learned from the cases," details revealed that it was "difficult to learn much at all."  Attempts to find patterns in the suicides remained elusive, and trying to get at a cause for both suicide and PTSD was nearly impossible:
"...could the cause have something to do with the military now being an all-volunteer force, and a disproportionate percentage of those volunteering coming from backgrounds that made them predisposed to trauma?"
or more importantly,
"Could it have nothing to do with the soldier and everything to do with the type of war now being fought?"

Have we asked too much of these men?  There are other treatment options but for men like Adam Schumann, the veteran whose story is central to most of  this book, it would mean, as his wife notes,
" weeks of no work and no pay. That's two missed house payments. Car payments, too. Electricity. Gas. Phone. Groceries."
The rehab treatment place where Schumann eventually  received help was saved from closing at the last minute by an anonymous donor.

The soldiers and their families who agreed to participate in Finkel's work did so knowing that everything would be public and on the record, and this openness is what makes this book so haunting. Sometimes I had to put the book down, regroup emotionally, and then come back to it -- and when a book can do this, the author has done an excellent job.  Most highly recommended; my favorite book of the entire year.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Girls Of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan

Touchstone, 2013
371 pp


If you are at all interested in women's history or in the history of America's nuclear program, The Girls of Atomic City should be one of those books that gets added on to and then moved up to the top of your tbr pile.  It is one of the most thought-provoking nonfiction books I've read in a long time.

Pretty much everyone knows the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who symbolized the women helping out the war effort during World War II.  When the men went overseas, many of the women left behind were called on to do jobs previously done by men, and their work amped up production lines to keep the war going.   The Girls of Atomic City explores some of the women who also kept things going in a project located  in a facility in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one that was geared toward putting an end to the war.

 The women were trained to do only very specific tasks without understanding the overall project that their labors helped to create.  They were not allowed to talk about their work, nor were they allowed to question anything, and they never knew who might report them if they did.  The project was so secret that wives couldn't talk to husbands about their work, dating couples couldn't discuss their jobs, workers couldn't talk to families or friends on the outside, and  violations of that rule often ended up with people simply disappearing, never to be heard from or seen ever again.    The women, along with the majority of men working at Oak Ridge, had no clue at all that everything they did helped to contribute to the production of the atomic bomb that was used first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.  It was only when the bombs were dropped that the news was released, and people finally realized what it was they'd been working on.  In The Girls of Atomic City, the author examines the personal and professional lives of some of the women who called Oak Ridge home for the duration.  It can get a little boggy sometimes with too much detail, and in some cases doesn't seem to go far enough in terms of questions that weren't asked, but despite these flaws, an overall look at the big picture makes this a history well worth reading. It also made me wonder whether or not something like an Oak Ridge might be possible today in terms of the sheer amount of secrecy involved, but that's a point I'll take up later.  The book is definitely thought provoking and also provides a look inside the America of the WWII years.

Across eastern Tennessee, residents in 1942 found themselves having to move away from their homes, their farms and their land, much of which had been in families for generations.  The US Government needed the multi-thousand acres of  space for construction of  a facility for enriching uranium, a project so secret that all but a handful of  people who eventually came to work there had no idea of what all of their work was for.  The place was known as the Clinton Engineering Works (CEW) , a place staffed mainly by women since men were off doing their part in the war.  That's not to say that there were no men there, but a lot of the women working at CEW were attracted to the idea that they would be contributing to bringing their men  home safely and sooner.  They were also urged to take the jobs because of the money they'd be making, and for some, it was a chance to get away from home and do something entirely new.  The book also examines how some of these women made the best of living their lives despite the crappy housing, the mud and the restrictions placed on them as women, both at home and in the workplace.  For example, if a married woman  or women with children came to Oak Ridge before their husbands could get there, they found that they were not considered heads of household without their men and had to take what they could get in the way of housing, which wasn't that great. It was worse for African-American workers, who were segregated in every way from everyone else, but needed the jobs for the pay that they could send home to families left behind. But despite the harsh conditions, people here managed to build communities of friends and settle in for the duration.

Some of the best parts of this book deal with how the vast amount of secrecy had an effect on day-to-day relationships -- by the time all was said and done, some 75,000 people lived and worked at Oak Ridge  under an all-pervading aura of secrecy where conversations, even those between husbands and wives, were limited to mundanities rather than what happened at work that day. People never knew who would rat them out -- one woman in Kiernan's book was asked to spy on others shortly after she got there, and in some cases, people who talked a little too much were there one day, gone the next and never seen again.  Signs were posted everywhere to keep things under wraps so reminders were ever present. The secrecy even made local outsiders wonder if Oak Ridge was some huge social experiment going on under their noses, since the people who frequented local shops wouldn't discuss what went on in there or gave flip answers to questions.

 Thoroughly researched, the author also discovered women still living who had actually worked there and got their stories, which gives adds an extra layer of authenticity to her work.  The book is organized in a compartmentalized structure, where you meet a character or two, then on with what's going on at Oak Ridge, moving to small sections about the science and what was going on in the world with atomic research. One of the best parts of this book is at the end,when people realize after Hiroshima exactly what their work had created, and the very mixed feelings this discovery generated.

The telling is not without its flaws, though.  Sometimes the book bogs down with a lot of details.  For example, how many times did we need to hear about all of the shoes that were lost to the mud? If it wasn't high heels, it was saddle oxfords or shoes that cost their owner a lot of money -- I mean, seriously, once is enough for readers to get the point. And other than human interest, why did we need to know about one woman's  interactions with prospective in-laws in New York? There are a number of little stories like this one, and while they help to make these people a little more real for modern readers, they become cumbersome and irrelevant  after a while. Then there are places where I felt the author could have done more follow up. For just one example, there's the story of Ebb Cade, the African-American man whose legs were broken in an accident. He was put into an Oak Ridge hospital where he received injections of plutonium even before his bones were reset -- Kiernan gives us a little bit of that story, including the pulling of his teeth, then fails to follow up in any more detail on what happened to him, as previously discussed in Ellen Wellsome's The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War or in James H. Jones' most excellent Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.    

Overall though, The Girls of Atomic City is an incredible and eye-opening book, not just about the people who lived there and what they were doing, but about a time in America when this sort of secrecy on the part of the government was rarely questioned and was accepted as vital to national security.   I think the big question I was left with at the end of it all was whether or not a project involving so much secrecy on the scale of Oak Ridge could ever occur again in the U.S.  Highly unlikely, but then again, maybe there are things like this going on right under our noses that we don't know about.  I definitely and most highly recommend this book to anyone interested in women's history,  Cold War history or the history of the war effort in the United States.

If you're at all interested in this topic, there's an entire website with pictures documenting the  history of the CEW during the 1940s.  The book has pictures, but there are many, many more at this website.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Ballantine/Random House, 2013
456 pp

 Empty Mansions is a book that proves the old axiom that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and,  I would add, just as captivating.  The centerpiece of this book is Huguette Clark, a privileged, incredibly wealthy woman who chose to live her life happily by staying hidden. Huguette's story may seem to some to be the stuff of madness, but the the authors disagree, calling her  a "modern-day 'Boo' Radley," someone who shut herself away  in order to remain "safe from a world that can hurt."    Huguette died in 2011, at the age of 104, two weeks shy of 105, but her death isn't the end of this story.  As of yesterday, according to a report from one NPR station, jury selection began in the trial to decide who gets what from her estate.  Empty Mansions takes you from the wide Montana prairies to the smaller world of the privileged elite; from a beautiful mansion topped with a golden tower on Millionaire's Row in New York City  to a hospital room next to a janitor's closet in this strange but well-told and thoroughly-researched story.

The book takes the reader through the life of  W.A Clark,  former senator from Montana and self-made multimillionaire known as the "copper king," and his family -- his wife Anna La Chapelle, daughters Huguette and older sister Andrée.  Clark had other older children from a previous marriage, but lived with his second family on New York City's Millionaire's Row in a six-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-seventh street.  The sisters grew up in opulence and lived privileged lives, all before tragedy struck with Andrée's death at the age of 16. After having lost her sister and best friend, Huguette was sent alone to a school for the "daughters of elite," where her dance teacher was Isadora Duncan.   In 1925 her father died, but due to the terms of his will, Anna and Huguette moved to an apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue. Huguette married in 1928, but it didn't last, and she was divorced by 1930.  As time went on, Huguette began to stop seeing visitors, becoming reclusive, and eventually stopped leaving her apartment.  Anna died in 1963, and Huguette "throws herself" into her art -- which consisted of painting and meticulously furnishing dollhouses, or more accurately, storyhouses where she could move her dolls (a massive collection) through the rooms, having them do different things, and studying cartoons frame by frame. She spent tons of money on these projects, and was also very generous with her money among friends and supporting worthy causes (along with paying for upkeep of the "empty mansions" she'd inherited) from her "fairy-tale checkbook,"  but above all valued her privacy, trusting in her attorney and her accountant to handle all business transactions.  But Huguette had also been getting treatment for skin cancer, and when her doctor died in 1990, she didn't look for another one, and all the while she was getting worse. A friend persuaded her to go the hospital for treatment, and she ended up at Doctors Hospital,  a "treatment center for the wealthy,"  in New York City.

The story of the Clarks, the author says, is also  "like a classic folk tale" in reverse, with

 "the bags full of gold arriving at the beginning, the handsome prince fleeing, and the king's daughter locking herself away in the tower."
Now, as if the dollhouses weren't weird enough, this is where the story starts getting just plain strange and even worse,  just plain sad.   At the age of 85, within two months of  Huguette's surgeries, she becomes an "indefinite patient," at Doctors Hospital,  choosing to remain there for the rest of her life, never telling family where she was, ordering everyone to respect her privacy at all costs.   According to the authors,  within a month, one of her doctors alerts the hospital's powers-that-be Huguette is the daughter of a multimillionaire, and that he'd be willing to help develop an "appropriate cultivation approach." Behind her back, they made fun of her, but the hospital officials hold meetings to figure out how to get her to give up some of her money.  The president of the hospital, again according to the authors, boldly says that
"Madame, as you know, is the biggest bucks contributing potential we have ever had."
The doctors go all out trying to get her to cough up in a number of measures that can only be described as coercive.

[As an aside, I'm a notetaker when I read, and going through them now, I see I had a "holy sh*t" moment that I noted in the margins when I came upon a scheme to get her to sign over her assets in a "charitable gift annuity"  scheme --

that carried much more risk than benefit for this 98 year-old woman.]  

It wasn't just the officials or her doctors who got part of her money, either, one of them outright blackmailing her into loaning him  an extra $500,000 on top of the million she'd already given him.  Her private nurse/companion is Hadassah Peri who also came to benefit from Huguette's generosity, as Huguette gave her and her family several "gifts" of cash and property, coming to over $30 million dollars.  Every now and then Peri would just happen to mention some monetary issue she was having, and Huguette would take care of it.  For example, Peri once told Huguette that her kids have asthma and there was a flood in the basement.  Huguette tells Peri she should really move, and hands her $450,000 for a new house. Christmas gifts came in the form of tens of thousands of dollars, she paid for Peri's children's schooling, their summer camps, back taxes the family owed to the IRS, a new house for Hadassah's brother and family to use when they were in town, and the list goes on and on and on.  She was being taken advantage of by pretty much everyone, including Citibank, who'd earlier lost millions in jewelry she'd had in safety deposit boxes, and only allowed her to settle for a maximum amount, playing on her need for absolute privacy and knowing she'd never take them to court.  By the time of her death, Huguette was cash poor, and had been selling off extremely valuable possessions  to pay for the little "gifts" she gave out as well as the taxes attached to the gifts. 

The empty mansions of the title refer to the places that had been acquired by the family over Huguette's lifetime, and then rarely, if ever used, and the chapter headings carry the names of the properties. Each one, including Woodlawn Cemetery, had been kept up by Huguette as places to preserve memories, and were left frozen in time with orders to the caretakers not to be disturbed in any way. 

This is truly an incredible story, and I've thrown it into the book group mix this year.  I will say that the first parts of the book that went back to the days when W.A. Clark was making his fortune and building up a tarnished reputation as a Montana senator were pretty dull, and that I almost put the book down.  Once the early history was finished, however, the story picked up with a vengeance.  There were parts that shocked, parts that made me downright angry, and parts where I couldn't tell whether Huguette was mentally disturbed, easily taken advantage of or coerced,  or whether she was just exercising her right to spend her money the way she chose to. I just wanted to know her story and how she got to the point where she chose to stay in a hospital for twenty years, but it turned into much more than that.  There are some really good points raised  in this book, but in the end, I discovered that it actually raises more questions than it answers.  That's not a bad thing, and there are probably things that will never be known, even when this upcoming trial gets underway.  

Definitely recommended, and while not all reviews have been positive, I don't really pay attention to them when I find something I've really liked reading.  If you are looking for something beyond the ordinary, you'll definitely find it here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, a memoir by Michael W. Clune

 (reposted from the main page of this online reading journal, 2013: The Year in Books )

Hazelden, 2013
260 pp

my copy from the publisher -- thank you! 

At the time the author wrote this book, he'd been free from his heroin addiction for ten years. White Out is his story of his addiction and then how he came to kick it.    I won't got into great detail about what he wrote per se, because this is a book that actually has to be experienced --  it reads like he sat down at his computer and just let everything pour out of himself.

While a grad student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore,  starting at age 21, Michael Clune lived the life of a heroin addict for years, until he got to a point where on a visit to his parents in Chicago he was picked up by the police, thrown in jail and then given a choice of prison or recovery.  In between those two times, his experiences and his feelings often flow here in stream-of-consciousness-like prose, where he also reflects on memory, addiction, and time.  The book gets into his introduction to heroin, his addiction (and the denial that he's an addict) and his ongoing relationships with his demons. In fact, other than the central metaphor of "white," one of the themes that runs consistently through this narrative,  he spends a lot of this book talking about "the first time."  As he tells his readers, the first time is "dope's magic secret."

"Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It's the first time I've ever seen it. I know I've seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. I know I've had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it's the first time I've ever seen it."
“It might seem like I’m kind of obsessed by the first time I did dope. No shit. If you’re writing a book about this, and you don’t use at least this much space writing about the first time, you’re not being honest.”
Well, honest is what you get in this narrative, written in a style that can often come across as repetitive, but one which tries to convey what it was like for the author during the addiction years. His writing style seems to mirror his inner unraveling, but it makes sense and coheres in a bizarre, offbeat sort of way.  Through it all he reminds his readers that the heroin  is still "right over there" which, if you think about it, is pretty frightening. 

I liked this book.  I'll probably never really gut-level understand what Mr. Clune went through, and for someone like myself who picks up a personal account like this, I don't think it's fair to say that his experience can be entirely comprehended within the scope of a couple of hundred pages.  That's not a negative -- this is his unique story, a way for him to try to relate his unique experience which was pretty frightening,  even considering the positive outcome.  But I think this book is probably best suited for readers who are close to someone who is an addict and who may want to try to glean some insight from Mr. Clune's experiences. It's definitely an account I'd turn to in that situation.

my thanks to TLC book tours

Friday, July 19, 2013

*Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker

Harper, 2013
399 pp


"If the victims had been from middle-class homes in gated beach communities, the response, they assumed, would have been different." 

Five young women are the central focus of this excellent book, five "lost girls" who went to work one day and never returned.  All worked as escorts, advertising their services on Craigslist; four of them ended up as bodies wrapped in burlap hidden near the main road of Jones Beach Island (NY),   close to the small gated community of Oak Beach.  The body of the fifth young woman was located almost a year to the day after the other four.  Lost Girls offers no solution, no grisly details of how these murders were committed, or any of the usual true-crime components, because as the title reveals, the mystery behind the deaths of these young women has not yet been solved.  Instead, the author reveals a) the lives of these  women up to the very moment when they were last seen alive, b) some speculation about some of the residents of  the small, gated community of Oak Beach where one of these women was last seen running through the streets, c)  the events behind the discovery of the bodies and the lax attitudes of the police and other officials who ran the investigation, and finally, d) the aftermath of the girls' disappearances among the families and friends they left behind, as well as the crazy media circus after the discoveries of the bodies.  Most pointedly, however, he examines how each and every one of these "lost girls" and their families were failed by the system due to officials' indifference toward them, primarily based on what they did for a living.  Lost Girls is simply one of the best works of  true crime/reportage I've ever read.  Once I picked up the book, I stayed buried in it for the entire day until I'd turned the last page. 

The book begins with a prologue that starts with the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, who  was last seen running through the streets of the Oak Beach community  in the wee hours of  a May morning in 2010. Evidently,  something had scared her enough to bolt from her client's home screaming, after the client had come to get her driver waiting outside in the car.   Shannan had called 911, but couldn't give a precise location.  The next call to 911 came from an elderly man  whose door Shannan had come to but left after he told her he'd phoned the police. Another neighbor calls, but it's still 45 minutes until the cops show and by then, Shannan has disappeared. Police take a report, but that's about it. Seven months after this bizarre incident, four bodies were located about three miles away from where Shannan had last been seen, and the police figured that one of them was probably her.  They were wrong.  As he notes, the bodies belonged to 
"Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last seen at Penn Station in Manhattan three years earlier in 2007, and Melissa Barthelemy, lsat seen in the Bronx in 2009.  There was Megan Waterman, last seen leaving a hotel in Hauppange, Long Island, just a month after Shannan in 2010 -- and, a few months later that same year, Amber Lynn Costello, last seen leaving a house in West Babylon, Long Island." 
Kolker examines the lives of these women through interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances in the first two sections of this book. Their home lives as young girls are detailed under short chapters (one for each girl) revealing very different backgrounds -- some of these girls had no father figure, some had tempestuous and negative relationships with their mothers, one of the girls had been raped at a young age, drugs were a factor in many homes, etc. -- but in most every case, financial hardship was part and parcel of their background. While some of these girls had dreams -- one wanted to be a singer, for example, -- things just didn't end up the way they planned.  In another set of short chapters, this time headed by their street names, the author looks at how they came to work in the sex industry and to use Craigslist as well as its competitor, Backpage,  and what it was that made them go out on their own that one last and final time. The personal focus is the best part of this book, but what follows also makes for compelling reading, especially the speculation by locals and others interested in the case as to who may have been guilty for at least one of the deaths, and the way in which these girls were written off by police just because they were prostitutes.

This work draws on conversations from family, friends, pimps and co-workers in the sex trade, boyfriends, police officers and others, and it's obvious that Robert Kolker has spent an immense amount of time doing his research.  Pulling it all together, he doesn't rely on simulated dialogue, nor does he try to sensationalize any parts of this story or pad it with the sort of titillating tidbits so prevalent in modern true crime books.  He has a writing style that hooks you on the first page and keeps you invested until you find yourself speculating along with the others about all the theories he lays out pertaining to Shannan's disappearance -- and the deaths of all of the others as well. He goes through several possibilities, leaving room for doubt, never claiming to have an answer -- because there isn't one yet -- but in an effort to be thorough,  he interviews some of the people who others feel may have been responsible.  Best of all, he does all of this without ever becoming judgmental about these women and what they do for a living.  Au contraire -- no matter what anyone else may think, he points out that these were young girls with lives and people who cared about them -- and that their deaths deserve to be taken as seriously as anyone else's, with just as much official attention as would be given anyone else. As he notes,
"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist.  That, after all, is what the killer was counting on."
This is such a haunting book -- and the fact that this stretch of island was also the dumping ground for other prostitutes' bodies (and a toddler)  makes the reality  even more sad. Even worse -- these bodies had been there for some time, and no one came looking for them.

I loved this book from beginning to end, so I have pretty much nothing negative to say about it, but there are a couple of issues.  First (and this is a very minor one), Sanibel Island is not part of the Florida Keys, although the author states this.  Second -- where the heck are the photos? I mean, photos to give the victims a face instead of having to rely on descriptions would have been the perfect touch -- I sat with my Ipad on my lap to get visuals of these "lost girls."  It's a stunning book, and I most highly recommend it to anyone who may be interested.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

*The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean, by Philip Caputo

Henry Holt, 2013
320 pp

arc via LibraryThing early reviewers and Henry Holt
(but I bought one, too!)

"Hope...Isn't that what it's always been?"

My many thanks to LT's early reviewer program and to Henry Holt for my review copy.

When I started reading this book, I was explaining to my erstwhile spouse that it was a book about a guy and his wife who took to the open road with an Airstream in tow to go from the southernmost point to the northernmost in the US.  I told him that it sounded like a really cool trip, and that I was a little jealous that people can just pick up and go where they want to when they want to.  His response was something along the lines of "well, after we retire..." and then I heard the words "a year" and "RV" and that was as far as I let that conversation go.  A) it's forever until retirement,  B) I couldn't be uprooted that long away from home, and  C) my daughter gave me two conditions for disowning me as a mother: starting to wear  Christmas snowman sweaters and hopping in a motor home to tour the country when I get old.  Still, reading about someone else's adventures on a very long journey is always interesting, especially when it's tied up neatly in such a tale as this one.  The Longest Road is not just another travelogue; it's an exploration of America's backroads and more to the point, its people.   Aside from only a few minor issues I'll get to shortly, it's a very good read.

The author's father once said that there was nothing like being "in a car with everything you need, nothing more, and an open road in front of you." Jack Kerouac wrote "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is so ever on the road." When Caputo's father, who loved being on the road himself, died, the author realized at age 69 that a lot of his own life was behind him, and he pondered about life ahead. He came up with this crazy idea to go from the southernmost point in the United States (Key West) to the country's northernmost point in Alaska, not "purely for the adventure" but rather to discover what people across this country think holds us (as a nation) together in a time when we are so torn apart on several issues. His intention is not to "take the pulse of the nation," an impossible task, but to ask his question to the people he meets along the way. His vehicle of choice for the journey is a leased, classic Airstream trailer, "wanderlust made visible and tangible." With his wife and two dogs in tow, he made his long journey, choosing to mainly follow America's backroads and highways, following the journey made by Lewis and Clark as much as possible to the west coast. Along the way he meets a wide variety of people, visits places and does things he's never before experienced.

As someone who also loves to travel America's backroads and smaller highways, camp, stop in at mom-and-pop eateries and start conversations with perfect strangers I meet, this book definitely appealed to me. I would love to retrace Mr. Caputo's footsteps/tire tracks someday, but since that's probably not ever going to happen, reading about his journey is almost as good. His descriptions of places I've been are right on the money, but it's the people he meets that keep things really interesting. "Listening" to them and hearing what they have to say about America, their communities and themselves is an eye opener. There are funny parts to this book and some where you just want to cry. I'd love to hear this as an audio book with the author doing the reading.

Just a few minor niggles: a) while I happen to share many of the author's points of view, I can see how his political musing might be a turnoff for some people who don't -- I felt the emphasis should have been more on what other Americans thought, considering the premise of his adventure; and b) a map would have been extremely helpful -- I had my Ipad on my lap looking at each highway, each road, each town, etc.where a map could have provided a one-stop visual representation of the trip.

All in all, The Longest Road is an enjoyable read, and I've selected this book for one of my book group's choices for the fall. Definitely recommended; try not to let the politics get in the way of the rest of the journey.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Price of Justice: A True Story of Two Lawyers' Epic Battle Against Corruption and Greed in Coal Country, by Laurence Leamer

Times Books/Henry Holt, 2013
448 pp

(arc: thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program  and to the publisher for my copy)

"A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a fundamental constitutional right...That means not only the absence of actual bias, but a guarantee against even the probability of an unfair tribunal." (334)

When I first requested this book from LibraryThing I thought it sounded interesting, and once I picked it up, I didn't realize just how blah a word "interesting" would come to be in this case. That cliché about not being able to put the book down was absolutely true for me. I'll get right to the point and say that this is one of the most outstanding books I've read this year. Coming on the heels of Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, you can believe that The Price of Justice was a powerful read.  It reads much like a legal thriller, but this story of corporate greed, judicial and political corruption, and sheer, unmitigated disregard for human life in return for one man's drive for greater profit in the coal industry is all too real.

While there are several issues covered in this work of investigative journalism, at the heart of this story is the question of whether or not corporations should be allowed to fund the very court justices who are involved in rulings involving the corporation, by the question of correctness in allowing the justice in question to remain as a judge. In this instance, it all started with a verdict handed down by a West Virginia court in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company. Mr. Caperton had sued Massey because it had canceled its contract with Harman Mining to supply Harman with needed coal. Caperton, the owner of Harman, was severely affected by Massey's fraudulent cancellation, and his company went out of business.  He found himself in huge trouble and a mounting pile of debts including miners' pension funds.  His attorneys, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, worked hard to get Caperton an award for damages;  Massey, headed by Don Blankenship, appealed the decision and the case was set to be ruled on by the West Virginia Supreme Court.  However, before the judgment could be appealed, an election of a new WV Supreme Court Justice was underway, and Blankenship set up a nonprofit through which he was able to contribute millions to eliminate the incumbent (Warren McGraw) and bring in someone he knew would take his side in the case. Although legally not allowed to directly support his candidate of choice (Brent Benjamin), Blankenship used the money to pay for a slur campaign against McGraw.  Even though Blankenship's participation in the campaign against McGraw came to light, the appeals trial continued with Benjamin as a justice, and ended up in Massey's favor.  Later developments would take the case right up to the US Supreme Court, but as Leamer notes, the battle was far from over. In the meantime, Massey (and Blankenship) was allowed to continued its fraudulent practices while the utter disdain for following mandated safety and environmental measures led to tragedy among many mine workers and their families.

For several reasons the topics involved in this  book struck a personal chord. I wish I could say that I was surprised at some of the blatant misdeeds going on in the courts and among politicians as outlined by Mr. Leamer in this most excellent book, but frankly, I'm not. Aside from those issues, I was also deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard that this one man in the coal industry showed for his workers and other human beings whose lives were turned upside down, ruined or extinguished by his unscrupulous business & political practices. His absolute control was backed up by threats, intimidation, money and protection from court officials and politicians who looked out for their own financial and political interests, rather than for the interests of the victims. Had the above-mentioned subjects been all there was to this book, it still would have been good, but Mr. Leamer also examines the price paid in personal terms by everyone involved on the side of obtaining justice, including the dedicated attorneys fighting this man for over 14 years.

Other reviewers of The Price of Justice have correctly noted that this book reads like a legal thriller, and while I'm not a huge fan of that genre, the book kept me turning pages until the very end. Definitely and highly recommended -- absolutely one of the best books I've read this year. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 2013
430 pp (including index & bibliography)

Once in a while you pick up a book that just literally blows you away, and for me, Going Clear is one of these.   From the first words through the last, I have to say I was completely mesmerized and well entrenched in this page turner of a book -- even missing a day on a Maui beach to finish it -- some of the stuff in here is so unbelievable that you just know it has to be real.   If you're an ardent Scientologist, you probably won't want to read this book, but for anyone who's interested in looking at this group's origins, the life of its founder, its beliefs and the goings on within, it's a definite must read.  Now added to  my favorites list for 2013, Going Clear is an outstanding work of investigative journalism, made even more believable by the author's focus on maintaining a balanced presentation, including comments from the Church of Scientology's leaders, attorneys, and meticulous fact finding and fact checking.  I'll skip to my usual ending and recommend it highly right up front. 

The author was, in his own words, "drawn to write this book" based on a number of questions many people have regarding Scientology: what makes it so "alluring;" what its adherents gain from it; how "seemingly rational people" can subscribe to beliefs that most people would see as "incomprehensible;" why celebrities and other "popular personalities" get themselves involved when the end result is a "public relations martyrdom;"  etc.  The book starts out with a look at the life of L.Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who ultimately became the founder of this religion/cult/organization whatever you want to call it, the beliefs it is founded on and espouses,  and its growing popularity.  Then Wright spends some time on just how Scientology came to acquire religion status with the IRS -- an ugly story that  will cause you to shake your head in total disbelief, -- and how even the FBI couldn't shake down this organization despite its illegal maneuverings and activities because no one would speak up.  He also examines the Hollywood celebrities and other well-known people who embraced Scientology and how the head of the organization came to woo them for monetary gain and as a lure for new members, and finally, he examines why people are reluctant to leave the organization and the experiences of those who managed to "blow."   Throughout the book he also examines "the process of belief," not just in terms of Scientology, but in other religions as well. He's done an amazing amount of meticulous research, and his narrative is based partially on people who got out of Scientology and had plenty to tell, although as I noted above, he gives equal time to Scientology's array of attorneys, some of the organization's own documentation, and to the people high up in the movement.

There is no adequate way to summarize what's in this book's definitely one you must read for yourself. All I can say is that you will likely be blown away by its contents and by Wright's magnificent reportage.  Granted there are a few tedious spots centering around Tom Cruise which probably could have been left out because frankly, he's just not that interesting of a person, but overall, it's one that should not be missed whatsoever.  Definitely prizeworthy, it will keep you absolutely astounded throughout the entire book.  I'm still shaking my head thinking about it!

South Park, Season 9, Episode IS exactly what Scientologists believe!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Nazi Seance: The Strange Story of The Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle, by Arthur J. Magida

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
269 pp


first: a thank you to both the LibraryThing early reviewers' program and to Palgrave Macmillan for my copy of this book.

To summarize the wildly out-there autobiography of Erik Jan Hanussen, born Hermann Steinschneider in 1889, his life was just one amazing feat after another.  It's pretty obvious that a reader shouldn't  depend on Hanussen's exaggerated account of his life, so in The Nazi Seance, Arthur J. Magida  has tried to discover the realities behind the man.  From humble beginnings as the son of poor Austrian Jewish parents, Hanussen not only remade himself into a wealthy mind reader, psychic and hypnotist under the not so modest title of "Europe's greatest oracle since Nostradamus," but also into Danish nobility.   Sadly, the psychic failed to predict his own death in 1933 at the hands of the Nazis.  The author of this book first heard of Hanussen while reading a book about the famous Indian rope trick; with his interest piqued, he started researching this colorful character, leading to the publication of Nazi Seance.  While Hanussen takes center stage in this book, around his story Magida also, albeit somewhat briefly, explores the cultural scene in Berlin, "primed for someone like Hanussen," as well as the economic and political climate which would allow for the rise to power of the Nazis.

Hanussen is certainly a strange subject, one who would make an interesting character in an historical novel.  Yet as Magida shows, he was all too real, going through his career with a number of critics who challenged his psychic credibility.  After a brief period away from Europe (leaving New York, for example, before he could be prosecuted)  he returned to Europe, where after being found not guilty in a fraud case in Czechoslovakia in 1930, he boarded a train for Berlin.  The Czech case had garnered Hanussen a lot of fame, and in Berlin, he found a ready-made audience for his  "telepathic acts." As the author notes, the modern age that brought forth "speedy trains, miracle medicines, inexpensive goods, mass production..." also produced people who were "anxious and adrift," who, having "lost their way," often turned to the spirit world for help.  Hanussen soon
"became a magnet -- for pretty women; for the lost and confused who paid large sums to know their future..."
taking advantage of their fears and becoming very rich in the process. He also started a newspaper, had plans to open a healing spa, and made a lot of enemies.  Soon he began cultivating the friendship of Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, who had turned to the Nazis after his economic problems led to a bankruptcy,  became the head of the Sturmabeteilung (SA -- Storm Troopers) in 1931, and  according to Magida, "had the confidence of the highest levels of the Nazi machine," by 1933.  Keeping the fact hidden from Helldorf that he was a Jew, Hanussen loaned him large sums of money in return for Helldorf's protection and clout.  He also began avidly promoting Hitler and the Nazis in his newspaper, and held on to several IOUs from Nazis who borrowed money from him -- which would, along with the events of a seance the night before the Reichstag fire, lead the psychic down a path that even the great Erik Jan Hanussen could not foresee.

In terms of historical value, the book is helpful for anyone who might want a barebones outline about the interwar years in Berlin, offering a very brief look at the cultural, economic and political circumstances in which the Nazis were able to assume power and later set aside any pretense of a democratic government. As a Jew cozying up to Nazi acquaintances during this time, Hanussen's story is intriguing and definitely worth examining, but it is difficult to feel much sympathy for this con man/huckster except where his daughter is concerned.  The author's presentation is also a bit waffly.  For example, it's difficult to decipher here whether or not Hanussen actually even met Hitler -- the author is less than clear on this issue. In examining different sources that put the two together or deny they ever met,  the author uses phrases like "It's improbable," or "slightly more probable," or "this version has the ring of truth;" after examining one account by a "left-wing German editor who had waged a campaign against Hanussen in 1932,"  stating that Hitler and Hanussen never even met, the author notes "That should settle the question..." then in the next sentence, "It doesn't," summing up this entire chapter by saying "If it was true that Hanussen and Hitler met..."   There is a lot of this type of meandering theorizing that goes on, even as far as whether or not Hanussen actually did or didn't have real psychic powers, and I must say it didn't inspire a lot of confidence on my end in this author.

Despite my misgivings, and in and around the waffling, there's a good story here that piqued my own curiosity enough to want to learn more.  If you want a straight point A to point B kind of biography, this book might be a little challenging but otherwise, the story of this "Jewish Psychic" is worth reading.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

Penguin, 2013
286 pp + photos

"... it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America's city. It was the vanguard of our way up just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again."
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a combination of gritty reportage and personal memories punctuated with a  vein of dark humor that tells the author's story of his attempt to understand what has happened to this city.  Detroit is where Charlie LeDuff grew up and after some time away, where he lives now.  The book is an uncompromising account of  a city that was once the richest in America and the forces, both external and internal, which have led Detroit down a steep path of decline. At the same time, it's also the story of some very resilient people who continue to work and live there despite the challenges they come up against each and every day. 

LeDuff opens his prologue with the discovery of a dead man nicknamed Johnnie Dollar  found in an abandoned building "encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft..."  All that could be seen of him were his feet, covered in white socks and black gym shoes.  LeDuff notes that anywhere else, this sight would have been tragic, "mind blowing," but not in Detroit -- and he wonders what has happened  while he was gone.  He sizes up the situation in a holistic sort of way, noting that
" come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals it to you.

The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm -- and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn't give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else's problem. And the foot bones -- well, they're sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about."
And, as he notes, "we're all standing at the edge of that shaft."

LeDuff is a very hands-on, no-fear, outspoken investigative reporter who cares.  For example, while tackling the question of what's happened to his city, he embeds himself with a local fire squad struggling to keep up with multiple fires with bad or broken equipment (down to holes in their boots); in one case he discovered that a firefighter's death when a house collapsed was due in part to equipment failure.  He also tackles the corruption of the city by following the money and paper trail of misallocated funds and discovers outright theft and an appalling lack of accountability.  Worse, when he prints his findings, nobody cares -- there are no investigations, nothing.  But imho, the best writing in this book comes from his accounts of the people living in the city: good people who learn to endure, as they are often stuck where they are, unable to leave; others are too poor to afford heat for their families; there are victims of violence whose families can't afford to bury them; he reveals unresponsive ambulance and police services; and his story of  a one year-old baby playing in the detritus of an abandoned house just about did me in. These stories are not only sad, but alarming and downright shameful.   Including his own family's experiences in the city adds a very personal feel that is also just plain gut wrenching at times. 

I loved this book -- I love LeDuff's crazy personality and most of all I like his dogged determination in getting to the root of the problems facing his city. A lot of people talk the talk -- this man walks the walk and reports what he sees in an unflinching manner.  At the same time, parts of this very serious book made me laugh  out loud.  He's definitely got the knack of being serious and entertaining at the same time as he examines why people in many cases don't even have access to the basic services a city should provide. Unlike many reviewers, I don't live in Detroit, nor do I have a connection to it unless you want to count our American-made cars.   I chose to read  this book for the human story which LeDuff tells and tells well, becoming interested in it some time back when  I had read a brief excerpt where LeDuff mentions schoolkids in the city having to supply their own toilet paper, which stuck a chord. A couple of years back I had read a story about the items people were being asked to supply for their children's school year and I was frankly appalled. Well beyond the crayons, pencils, and the other supplies one might consider normal,  also on the list were paper plates, plastic silverware,and  toilet paper, and that was right here in the state where I live.  I remember telling a friend about this and asking where is all the money going that is allocated for schools?  And just recently, a company whose name I won't mention set up shop here in my area and somehow was allowed to sidestep the normal investigative process because local politicians received places on the company's  board of directors or other perks (some financial, as it turns out) for looking the other way.  People who were hired for jobs in this company moved their lives to come here only to find that shady business practices and greed sent the company into bankruptcy while these new employees were still traveling to get here.  Then there's the costs to the city -- millions and millions of dollars just gone.  And that's only one example right here in my neck of the woods.  Somehow, things have just gone appallingly wrong. LeDuff is right -- this kind of thing is happening all over.  He  is a guy worth listening to.

03/01:  imagine my surprise -- NOT:  Detroit in state of emergency

Monday, February 25, 2013

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration, by David Roberts

W.W. Norton & Company, 2013
368 pp

Having been a long-time devourer of books on polar exploration, I was more than interested when I saw that a new book on the topic had been recently published.  Alone on the Ice focuses on the story of Douglas Mawson, an Australian who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) from December, 1911 to 1913.  While Mawson's name might be recognizable from his time serving under Ernst Shackleton, his work was eclipsed largely due to the other Antarctic expeditions under way at the time, especially the race between Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Robert Falcon Scott to be the first to the south pole during what is now referred to as the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration."  Based on science, the expedition would prove arduous at best, but when tragedy strikes Mawson and his small sledging party of three,  things go from bad to worse in a very short amount of time.  Mawson's incredible feat of survival is documented here, but it is not the entire story.  Author David Roberts has quite obviously put in a lot of time and energy as far as research; not only does he explore Mawson's background and what led him to the Antarctic in the first place; he also examines what it was like for the entire group of  men  (some of whom had never even seen snow before) living in such a forbidding environment, isolated from the rest of the world. He then provides an epilogue as well as notes and his sources.  I read this book in one sitting because I was unable to put it down until I'd completely finished it.

Douglas Mawson, Australasian Antarctic Expedition leader

 Unlike other Antarctic explorers of the time, Mawson had no interest at all in reaching the South Pole; the AAE was primarily a scientific expedition and one of Mawson's intentions was to fill in some of the "terra incognita," comprising a "2,000-mile-long swath of ice and land" in the part of the continent due south of Australia. He also wanted to  The expedition members left Australia on the Aurora and  first reached Macquarie Island in December, 1911, where a five-person contingent was left behind  to a man a wireless relay station to be used for communication with Mawson's group. Originally Mawson had planned to split the remaining men into three groups, but time, ice and weather permitted only two.  Mawson and one group were dropped at Cape Denison, while the other, under the command of Frank Wild, were brought by the Aurora further west to a point on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. 

map from
Both  groups had several scientific missions scheduled and split into mini-expedition parties; at Cape Denison, Mawson formed "the Far Eastern Party" sledging/exploration group to begin exploring the "terra incognita"  which included himself, Swiss explorer Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis, a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. Each party not remaining back at their respective bases had a firm return date so as not to miss the Aurora and the journey back to Australia.    It was during Mawson's "Far Eastern Party" enterprise that tragedy struck:  first in a crevasse where much of the group's supplies (including tent) were completely lost, and second, a slow, lingering death when the expedition was already down to only two people. These catastrophic events   prompted a harrowing  solo 300-mile journey back to Cape Denison in beyond-adverse conditions  -- but would it be completed in time to eventually make it back home?

Alone on the Ice is an intriguing and compelling read that brings to life some of the hazards faced by the expedition members.  Mr. Roberts details the tough conditions both on the ice and inside the huts where the men lived in probably the windiest place in all of Antarctica.  While being outside had its own set of problems, sometimes the safety of the base hut was compromised as well.  For example, one of the most interesting stories is that of Sidney Jeffryes,  who served as the Cape Denison radio operator.  Jeffryes was the only member of the crew who knew how to use the radio, but during an overwinter his mental condition started to deteriorate.  While "polar madness" was a known malady at the time, Jeffryes' condition was unlike anything the rest of the crew had ever experienced -- he began to exhibit signs of paranoia, convinced that the men were talking about him or plotting to kill him, and worse.

It was Sir Edmund Hillary who labeled the survival story in this book "the greatest survival story in the history of exploration."  I don't know if that's exactly true, but the book makes for great reading.  It  highlights the career of Douglas Mawson,  a polar explorer I'd only heard of on the sidelines as part of Shackleton's 1907 - 1909 Nimrod expedition. The author has also included some fascinating photos by expedition member and Australian photographer Frank Hurley, whose picture of Shackleton's Endurance stuck in Antarctic ice is famous.    I've seen Alone on the Ice described by one reviewer as "dry," but that is definitely not the case.  If you are already interested in expeditions to Antarctica, especially during their heyday in the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration," this book is one that should not be missed.  I have only two  issues regarding Alone on the Ice: first there are two and only two maps throughout the entire volume, one of the Aurora's journeys between Australia and Antarctica, the other a very undetailed map of the area of the Far Eastern Party's exploration trek.  While reading about the various expeditions taken by the sledging parties, it would have been quite helpful to have maps of their respective forays to gain a better feel for where all of this action was taking place.  There is a map of the journey of the Far Eastern Party, but when I wanted to know more about the locations mentioned by the author,  I had to go online so as to get a better picture in my head mapwise and featurewise. Second, there are a few places where the author repeats himself in terms of one of his sources, a work known as Vixere Fortes, a memoir written by the son of one of the expedition members.  Each memoir reference is accompanied by a statement along the lines that it was written by the son, and must be considered as unreliable.  One time would have certainly sufficed; I take it as an error in editing.  But heck -- these are such minor little niggles that they're almost negligible, considering how well written this book is overall.  I certainly gained a lot of information that a) added to my understanding of Antarctic exploration and b) prompted me to start looking up other sources of information on Mawson and the AAE.  As I've so often said, when a book can do both of those things, most especially encouraging me to dive further into a topic, then it's definitely one I can  recommend.

Friday, February 8, 2013

My Journey as a Combat Medic: From Desert Storm to Operation Enduring Freedom, by Patrick Thibeault

176 pp
available format: PDF, Kindle

There are two items of business I have to conclude before I can move on with my discussion of this book.  First, I absolutely have to thank Osprey Publishing and Teddy Rose from Virtual Author Book Tours for my copy of this very insightful and personal account; second I must apologize to the same people along with the author, Patrick Thibeault, for being a week late with my post which was supposed to have been on February 1. Somehow in my muddled mind the 1st got transposed to the 11th on the calendar and well, to all concerned, mea culpa, and I sincerely apologize for the lateness. 

As Patrick Thibeault notes, "The combat medic is the warrior healer, someone who provides lifesaving medical care during operations in a combat zone. He or she is a warrior by trade and a healer by choice..., "  "... one of a few people who brings compassion and humanity to the field of battle." My Journey of a Combat Medic is, in part, the author's story of his role as a combat medic in Desert Storm and in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Much more than that, however,  it is a record of his personal journey from training to coming home, an eye-opening story of the arduous and demanding preparation not only to be a soldier but to become a full-fledged combat medic. It is an eyewitness account that details part of his time in the Middle East, a record of his homecoming and readjustment to regular life, including his ongoing struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is also a section for would-be combat medics where he offers advice based on his own personal observations and experiences.

I think I misjudged this book at first, thinking that I was about to read about the author's experiences as a combat medic, expecting it to be  about trauma suffered on the battlefield and how the author as a combat medic dealt with what he came across in the field. As the author started getting into his Army training days, it slowly dawned on me that his account was not limited solely to what had happened with him in the combat zone: this is actually the story of how a man dedicated to "compassion and humanity" came to take the road leading him to places where those two qualities are as necessary as the bandages and syringes of morphine in his medical bag. While his training and his later experiences in the field (along with open discussions of personality clashes and other issues that give the book more personal depth) make for a fascinating read, even more compelling is his treatment of coming home, especially his struggles with PTSD.  Point by point he gives an honest assessment of the components of his own PTSD as well as triggers he's come to recognize that might set it off.  He also offers some very good advice here: 
"There is a million dollar question that Joe Public likes to ask a combat veteran: have you killed
anyone? Don’'t ask a veteran if they killed anyone; that is a can of worms that does not need to be opened." (136)
I've been appalled in reading several accounts of returning soldiers that this is one of the first questions people like to ask -- as if that's all they care about.

My real issue with this book is that I think the editing/proofreading could have been a bit tighter. Sometimes it's a bit distracting for a reader when you're really into what the author is saying and up pops a poorly-edited paragraph or a typo or 2 or 3. Aarrgh.  Otherwise, I'm always amazed at other people's lives -- why they chose to do what they've done in life, what they did, and how it affected them afterward, and I was definitely not disappointed here.  Do not let the simplistic style of the narrative fool you:  there is an important story here, one which should be a welcome addition to the growing number of personal accounts from those who've returned from  serving their country during  the conflicts in the Middle East.  Unlike many of these works,  there are no literary flourishes here, it is not a book designed to question the whys or rightness/wrongness of these operations, and it is not a story that highlights every tragedy the author may have witnessed during his various tours of duty.  Any personal story is a story worth telling, especially one that takes place in a situation that no one can really understand unless you've been there.  

My thanks to Teddy Rose, for the offer to join his book tour at Premier Virtual Author Book Tours. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

*Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris

University of California Press, 2011
336 pp

Violette Nozière was the only daughter of Germaine and Jean-Baptiste Nozière.  At age 18, in 1933, she gave her parents each a glass of water "laced with poison," killing her father and sending her mother (who only drank half) into a deep, drugged sleep.  Then she went off and bought new evening wear with money she stole from her parents and hung out with a friend at the La Coupole cafe in Montparnasse, "on the lookout for interesting encounters." While this opening sounds like a prelude to a work of historical true crime, Violette Nozière goes deeper,  examining the crime from the points of view of people living in France (especially in Paris) at this time as well as the sociocultural forces at work during  the period.  At the heart of this study is the question of justice -- in Violette's case, her motivation rests entirely on an accusation that no one at the time really wants to hear, one that actually increased public opinion against her. During this time, the crime that would cause so much sensation, as the author notes, couldn't be pigeonholed into "neat ideological packages," or "familiar scenarios," and left a great deal of uncertainty, an "ambiguity" within which the "meaning of the case for contemporaries" was to be found.  The book is interesting and provides a wealth of detail, not only about Violette and her parents, but also about changes in society as a whole during the interwar period that may have had a bearing on the case.   Looking at this period through various resources (including interviews with people who were there at the time), what the author reveals is that young women like Violette  tapped into the public's anxiety regarding changes in the roles of women, especially in terms of a class system and conventions that were rapidly changing and challenging traditional structures.   At the same time, she examines how the crime, the press coverage and the trial  led to the formation of an entirely new set of sociocultural and political questions that would a) find voice in various ideologies and b) have lasting effects even after the events were over. As the public became glued to the case, Violette came to represent "a sad and lovely ode to perversity...the inverted muse of youth, the scarred idol of a capsized world, the flower of evil of our age,"(163) a celebrity in her own right about whom even songs and poem were written.

I can't critique the author's view since I know little to nothing about this time period in France, but the book is thought provoking, well researched and filled with intricate details down to what someone at a steak house might be ordering for dinner, and it provides many points of departure for those who might want to learn more.  My issues are two: first, there are long, drawn-out discussions that while interesting, also detract from the main points of the book.  For example, the examination of the culture's fascination with crime leads to questions about "what sorts of crime and which criminals draw attention in a given period," and how "murder and mayhem" are "sold and consumed," all very interesting and relevant, but then a highly detailed investigation of the "fait divers," -- "miscellaneous happenings"  ensues, and it is about twenty pages later that we get back to the matter at hand. Iin short, I found an inconsistent quality in the writing that just sort of bothered me.  My second issue is that while I'm always happy with endnotes, there is no actual bibliography here.  There were a few times when I went to the endnotes only to find that the source had been referenced earlier, so I had to slog back through the ones preceding to find the first mention.  That is more time consuming than you might think and frankly, downright annoying.

Still, after having thought about this book, overall, I found it to be interesting and the author posits many points that reflect on our own society as well, in terms of societal/cultural change. I will say that this book is aimed at an academic audience rather than a broader public readership, so you should consider this aspect if you are considering reading it.  Otherwise, it's a good read and for the most part, the author's work is impressive.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith

Ferrar, Strous and Giroux, 2012
464 pp


"One cannot help but see that we, the people of the present century, are paying for the sins of our forefathers, and particularly for the institution of serfdom with all its horrors and perversions."
                                       --- Prince Vladimir Mikhailovich Golitsyn

 Face it -- the way history is related can either be boring enough to use as a sleep aid or it can be vivid and leave a lasting impression or at the very least, a desire to go deeper and find out as much as you can about a certain topic.  Former People belongs in the second camp. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.  For some people it might be just another dry account of something that happened in the distant past making them wonder why we should care, but for me it was a stunning chronicle of an entire group of people whose way of life came to end. That's not to say that there weren't other people in Russia whose lives weren't completely transformed or lost during this time,  and it's not to say  that anyone should care more about the nobility  any more than the lives and fates of every other living human being caught up in this maelstrom;  the last days of the aristocracy just happens to be the topic of Smith's most excellent book.  

At the center of this book are two families,  the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns.  Count Sergei Sheremetev (1844-1918) descended from a line of aristocratic nobles who were very close to Russia's imperial throne,  dating back to the 1500s.  Sergei, a devoted patriarch and  a "pillar of mindless Russian conservatism,"  firmly believed in autocratic rule and did not support the introduction of Western European institutions into his beloved Russia. He and his wife Princess Yekaterina Vyazemsky had seven children who grew up along with and were friends with the children of Nicholas II, and they had a number of servants, estate managers, governesses, valets and tutors.  Prince Vladimir Golitsyn (1847-1932), known as "the Mayor,"  could trace his family's lineage back to the 14th-century founder of Lithuania.  Much more liberal minded than Sergei Sheremetev, Vladimir was "ambivalent toward his own social class, preferring what he called 'an aristocracy of culture and intelligence, an aristocracy of lofty souls and sensitive hearts' ".   Former People takes the stories of these two families through the period of Stalin's Great Terror and examines how they (and others of their class) came to be known as "former people, " and how being determined as such affected their lives.  It also looks at how they coped -- sometimes leaving Russia altogether, but more often than not staying in their homeland and trying to rebuild their lives in order to survive. Around the stories of these two families, the author examines the historical events leading up to their downfall.

The rulers of Russia, the  "isolated islands of privilege in a sea of poverty and resentment," really never cared about the plight of the poor, and under Nicholas II, events would come to a head.   Nicholas was an inept tsar, and even a great many of the aristocrats who would attend the lavish palace balls were often horrified at how he was ruling Russia. With the Russo-Japanese war bringing defeat to Russia,  strikes by workers, revolutionary agitation, and events like Bloody Sunday in 1905 where innocent people were fired on by Nicholas' Imperial Guard, resentment that had long been simmering started to boil.  Even Nicholas' promises of reform were not enough since he was bound and determined to maintain autocratic rule.  Russia's entry into World War I was also a losing cause, once Nicholas took over as supreme commander.  In the countryside, peasants who only wanted some say and stock in the land they worked were frustrated and angry as well. Add in the strange relationship between the Imperial family and Rasputin, the economic downturn due to the war and other factors -- a revolution was pretty much inevitable, and its main targets were the privileged classes.  As the author notes,
"the violence of the February Revolution represented an attack of the masses on privileged Russia, those marked with the word burzhui, was a term of scorn used for all of privileged Russia. Extremely malleable and with a long history, the term "burzhui" could denote the cultured elite, the rich, the intelligentsia, Jews, Germans, or even the revolutionaries themselves. It had nothing to do with a specific social class but stood in the eyes of the downtrodden for "the enemy" and, particularly from 1917 on, the enemy of the revolution.  The people stood in opposition to the burzhui in the sense of "us versus them" or "the masses verses the classes."  In the countryside, the peasants used the term to refer to all their enemies, especially the gentry and the monarchists."
There was also a sense that with revolution came freedom, but only for the "poor and the marginalized."  Anyone who might be viewed as trying  to limit this newly-found freedom was an enemy of not only the revolution, but the of "the people" as well.  A number of aristocrats were arrested, many of their estates were taken over by the poor or by the Bolsheviks, and even members of the privileged classes who were sympathetic to the promises of the revolution were considered enemies. House searches were common occurrences as were multiple arrests and even executions stemming from baseless charges. As Trotsky noted later, " There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing; that is its right."

As the Revolution moved on into a civil war, as Lenin died and Stalin took his place, as Stalin cemented his leadership through purges and other repressive measures,  Former People follows the fates of the Sheremetevs, the Golitsyns and other "former people" in their efforts to survive and to come to terms with their new lives.  While the aristocrats are the main area of study here, the author makes it very clear that they  were certainly not the only people who suffered, especially under Stalin.  Concentration camps arose, large numbers of  the workers and peasants who had earlier been active in supporting the Revolution now found themselves victims of a ruthless regime and were brutalized, starved, put into prison, executed or simply vanished.

There's obviously much more to this story than I've mentioned here -- Lenin's own (ignored) background from the nobility;  the unofficial countryside wanderers who helped fuel the flames of already-existing resentment among the peasant class; the heist of the century where the Bolsheviks looted banks, the treasury and private art collections; a more in-depth look at the Russian civil war, revolutionaries and later officials who often helped others escape fates that could have been much worse than they were -- there's a wealth of information in this book that tells the story of the end of one era opening into another.   These stories are all related in a way that puts human faces on tragedy, never verging into a boring account.   Using a wide variety of primary sources including diaries kept at the time,  along with secondary works, the author has put together this amazing and fascinating book that is literally impossible to set aside.  There are family trees of the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns that are helpful; I copied them so I wouldn't have to keep flipping back and forth each time I needed them as a reference.   It is a fantastic book that will appeal to people who have any amount of interest in this time period and I most highly recommend it.  And perhaps while it's easy to feel that the aristocrats brought a lot of their future woes on themselves,  and that their fate as a class only scratches the surface of  the suffering that people endured under  the Romanovs and the Soviets,  it's also difficult not to feel sorry for them as human beings along with the millions of others who lost lives and loved ones in this tumultuous time period.