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.