Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram, by Charles W. Johnson

9781611683967
ForeEdge, 2014
348 pp

hardcover

my copy from the publishers and the awesome people at Librarything's Early Reviewers program

Of all possible fields of history from which to choose, polar exploration in its heyday is my favorite subject. When I was a kid I was fascinated with explorers and would spend hours upon hours reading about them. In the realm of polar expeditions, I got my start reading Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth, a true account of about the rush to the South Pole, and what turned out to be a race between Amundsen and Scott to plant their respective country's flag. It was in that book where I first heard about the Fram and about Fridtjov Nansen, and I remember being quite impressed that Nansen had such foresight in building the perfect ship. In this current book, author Charles W. Johnson provides not only a look at Amundsen's expedition in the Fram, but also at the two other epic expeditions of the ship, its creation, the men who called it home for years on end, and its eventual fate. 

Regular readers engaged in histories of polar exploration who are already familiar with Fram's voyages will still find plenty to like about this book. The author picks up on some things Nansen glossed over in his Farthest North, the record of his voyage on the Fram. There are a number of original photographs as well as maps that the reader can reference. Interestingly, it was an article about a few remnants of the USS Jeannette expedition (the subject of Hampton Sides' current book In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette and a great read, by the way) that somehow ended up in a place far, far away from where they should have been that got things going for Nansen. An article written about the finds prompted another article by a Norwegian scientist studying polar currents. His article in turn caught Nansen's eye and after much scientific study, Nansen decided to build a "special ship" that could weather being frozen into pack ice. The idea was that the ship and its crew would be "carried by the same currents that carried the Jeanette's remains over the pole." As the author notes, the ship was to be a sort of "driftwood, of an extraordinary kind." With much careful planning, the Fram was born -- and she was to see two more major expeditions in her lifetime. Not only does the author detail these expeditions and the people who were involved, he also examines what else was going on in the field of polar exploration, north and south, at the time. So the reader ends up with a kind of general but not overwhelming or overdetailed history, also making it perfect for anyone with even just an interest in the field of polar exploration during the period which the author calls "the height of polar fever." 

Granted, there are probably people who will take a look at this title and think that a book about a ship has just got to be duller than dishwater, but there's way more than just the ship under discussion here. It's a wonderful book, and by the way, the hardcover copy is beautiful and would make a great gift to someone who is interested in the subject.

Thank you to the publisher, and thank you to Librarything's ER program! 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Disunited States, by Vladimir Pozner

9781609805319
Seven Stories Press, 2014
(originally published as  “Les États-Désunis,” 1938)
302 pp

paperback

"Life is service. The One who progresses is the one who services his fellow human beings a little more, a little better, by working a little more, enslaving themselves a little better all the time." (26).

"Beginning and end, and beginning again." 
                                       (248)

I've tried to write about this book three times here and it just comes across very stupidly to my ears. So I'm just going to offer a few insights into this book without really "reviewing" it.  You'll find  my favorite review of this book here at Words Without Borders, written by Scott Borchert who provides great analysis.

French author Vladimir Pozner was touring America in 1936,  and as he went from coast to coast and back again, he got a firsthand look at what was actually happening in this country at the time.  In his Les États-Désunis, published in 1938, he chronicled the time spent here along with his observations. His book is now published by Seven Stories Press in a translation by Alison L. Strayer.  After I read it, my immediate reaction was to think that in spite of all of the "progress" this country has made since that time, some things have barely changed -- a very discouraging  thought  if one considers the implications for a large number of Americans as this nation moves into the future.

Since I'm not really writing what I'd consider a "review,"  I'd like to point out a few parallels between Pozner's observations in 1936 and our current society in 2014.
  •  In 1936, the prevailing philosophy in America  ran somewhere along these lines, and should sound familiar to our modern ears:
"Every American, wretched though he may be, can become a billionaire or president, if he is frugal, industrious, pious, etc. If you are poor and old or young and unemployed, you have only yourself to blame."  
  • As Pozner traveled coast to coast, he discovered a nation in crisis -- a nation of people caught up in social, economic and class turmoil, racial prejudice and disparity, and a great deal of social unrest.  Sound familiar?
  • He  discovered  that the owners of  giant corporations had little to no disregard for the environment, worker health, worker safety, and the law. Case in point:  that of Union Carbide, which started work on a "thirty thousand-horsepower hydropower station at Hawk's Nest, West Virginia." The work would entail digging a tunnel (32 ft diameter) between Gauley Bridge, West Virginia and Hawk's Nest, with the added bonus of harvesting silica for other uses. After only a few months working underground, men who were happy to even have work started becoming ill, and when they went to the company doctors, they were told they had "tunnelitis," a non-existent disease, or "high blood pressure," even though the contractors knew the men were suffering from silicosis. Doctors were forbidden to use the word, and handed out pills that did no good. Workers began dying, new ones were brought in immediately to take their places.  When the company was finally sued by three hundred workers after an autopsy on a dead man revealed silicosis, the contractors in charge of the project lined up their own witnesses, gave jurors rides home each day, and ultimately settled after a hung jury.  White workers' families received more in redress than black workers' families, and of course, just like today, that was after the lawyers considered their own fees and handed out a sum of their own choosing.  To make matters worse, families who received settlement money (which was pretty much nothing) were threatened with being cut off from federal relief programs.   The company's political connections helped when its representatives were called upon to answer to Congress, and of course, they denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.  Its profits, by the way, skyrocketed. Sound familiar?
  • Another "sound familiar" moment: the author discovered that "gangsters" have their own capitalistic empires that reach far and wide throughout the country -- that "gangsterism is the crime industry in the era of monopoly, and its largest branch, racketeering, is nothing but the continuation of capitalist competition by other means." Gangsters had police, judges and other state officials in their pockets. More importantly, he finds that gangsters come mainly from "poor big-city neighborhoods," have had "no professional training," and that
"unemployment and its consequences -- enforced idleness, giving up the pleasures and necessities of life -- can lead certain people to a life of crime."   
Pozner uses  a wide array of different media to examine this America in crisis:  interrogations and testimony, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, songs, interviews, chats etc all serve to  illustrate this point. It also made me think that the forces put into place to protect  free-market capitalism and the flow of corporate profits to help stimulate the economy were (and still are)  in some large measure responsible for some of the nation's woes. Here's one further example at work:  one of the most intriguing parts of this book came from an interview with an unemployed shoemaker relating how the Pinkerton Agency (unbeknownst to him)  hired him  to get into a particular company and spy on other workers, often having him speak up about union organization, strikes and Communism  to see how other his fellow employees reacted. Arrests were made and people lost their jobs in the process, and worse.

In Boston, Pozner speaks with William H.L. Dana, grandson of Longfellow, who takes him on a tour of  an "itinerary of events" from this country's Revolutionary War period, then on to Concord, to Cambridge, and finally back to Boston, where Pozner wants to discover 
"What has become of the descendants of the patriots, the Minutemen who inscribed in the US Constitution the inalienable right of all to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Ironically, he finds that some of them have become members of the conservative establishment, now calling for area teachers to sign a loyalty oath or lose their jobs.  As he also learns, "From its glorious past, this crowd retains only the memory of witches burned near Boston two and a half centuries ago.”  But the good news, at least for Pozner, was that in "Real America," there were people who were trying in their own ways to actively protest against the system. 

I absolutely loved this book, and I will add that  Pozner's observations should not be disregarded simply because of the point of view from which he writes.  Highly, highly recommended. 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Childhood: The Biography of a Place, by Harry Crews

9780820317595
University of Georgia Press, 1995
182 pp
with drawings by Michael McCurdy

hardcover

"Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people."

In the opening pages, author Harry Crews  offers his readers one reason why he started writing this book -- it was because, as he says, "I have never been certain of who I am."  He goes on to say that he's "slipped into and out of identities as easily as other people slip into and out of their clothes;" that by the "third or fourth tape" of interviews he's done, he's  noticed that his voice would "become almost indistinguishable from the voice of the person" with whom he'd been speaking.  But he knows for an absolute certainty that whoever he is "has its source" in Bacon County, Georgia, and that
"... what has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old." 
He also notes that in organizing  a "search" for those six years, he needed to rely not only on his own memory, but that of others as well. What he's put together here, he says, is "the biography of a childhood which necessarily is the biography of a place, a way of life gone forever out of this world."  With an old shoebox full of photos by his side,  Crews goes on to tell of a hardscrabble first six years of life first on a farm in Bacon County, his "home place," then in a brief move to Florida, and finally back again to Georgia.

I haven't had the pleasure of reading any of Crews' novels yet -- I wanted to read this book before opening  the one book I bought to try him out (Feast of Snakes), but my guess would be that themes that will be found in any of his writing are probably found in here as well.  Here are a few I've discovered:  the power and art of storytelling,  poverty,  family, "courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives," fantasy/myth as an integral part of survival, alcoholism, women, and fathers.  And then, of course, looming over all of those likely candidates, there's the American South, which is why whether or not all of the events depicted here in Harry Crews' young life are true isn't really an issue here.  It is, after all, a "biography of a place," and somehow, he manages to pull it off without roaming into the usual poor-South stereotypes, and does it in such a way that humor manages to come through the worst of harsh and tragic. I come from Southern stock on one side -- and the people in this book are about as realistically described as anyone my grandparents ever told me about from their own lives, which also started out under some of the same conditions as the people in Bacon County experienced in this book.

The only thing left to say, since this is a book best experienced on one's own, is that the quality of the writing drew me in pretty much immediately. I know it's cliché and even trite to say this, but frankly, I was just spellbound all the way through it.   Reading this book was an experience on its own -- it was so very easy, even without the help of McCurdy's drawings, to imagine it all in my head, as if Crews was writing and illustrating all at the same time. It was also very easy, once I got the reading rhythm going, to see just how his small  world made sense to him.  As just one example, take this scene of young Harry looking through the Sears Catalog with his friend Willalee Bookatee:
"I first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect. Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn't have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and toes and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much of in the faces of the people around me.
Young as I was, though, I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world. And more than that, at some previous, unremembered moment, I had decided that all the people in the catalogue were related, not necessarily blood kin, but knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off and on, violence, and hate between them as well as love."  (58)
 When I read this, something clicked inside of my own head about how well Harry understood his universe, even at such a young age. It's probably likely that at the time he wouldn't have used those words or even been able to describe his thoughts in those terms, but the feeling that he fully comprehended the unreality of the people in the catalog as juxtaposed against his experience comes through loud and extremely clear. The entire book is written like this, sucking you in to this childhood of his along with all of its scars, its violence, and the love of his family he could always count on no matter what.  Very highly recommended.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Daphne Du Maurier Companion, ed. Helen Taylor

9781844082353
Virago, 2007
424 pp

paperback

In the introduction to this book, editor Helen Taylor notes that the goal of this volume is to
 "demonstrate the scope of her concerns and achievements -- hopefully to quell for ever the myth of a humourless, Cornish cliff-walking upper-middle-class recluse who wrote only one good book."
And while it is true that a very large section of this book consists of introductions to other works by du Maurier (all of the Virago editions),  it seems to me that the work most fully written about here continues to be her most famous book, Rebecca, sort of thwarting that goal. 

The Daphne du Maurier Companion is divided into five different sections. The first part, "Daphne du Maurier, by the People Who Knew Her," begins with an interview with her children, moving into a couple of pieces by an editor, Sheila Hodges, who worked with du Maurier for just under fifty years.  Part two is all about Rebecca's "lasting reputation and cultural legacy."  Part three (in part) takes on the other novels, but it only consists of introductions to Virago's editions of du Maurier's books. There is also a look at her short stories by collection (again, introductions to Virago editions)  but to be really honest, there are only a few out of her rather large selection of short stories that are discussed in any sort of  breadth. Part four, "Daphne Du Maurier in Adaptation" focuses on the movies made from her books -- again, with more written about Rebecca than any other novel or short story. Part five introduces a "rediscovered short story" entitled "And His Letters Grew Colder."

Considering that this book was published in the "centenary year of Daphne du Maurier's birth" (what would have been her 100th birthday), as a  "commemoration"  of her incredible output over the years, it's a pretty good general guide to her work, and there is much to glean from its contents.  It's a good book to have around while reading du Maurier as it does offer some insight into the woman herself, i.e. where she was coming from at different stages of her life as her writing career progressed.  I suppose you could argue that it does draw attention to her work outside of Rebecca, but because there is so much focus on that very well-read and well-loved book, my own opinion is that it actually does the opposite. My favorite part of the book was in part one,  where the interviews with her children and the articles by her editor made du Maurier more or less come to life as a real person rather than just an author.

I read one review that stated that it seems like The Companion is a sort of "make-book" for the occasion, and well, that's obviously true considering what I noted in the preceeding paragraph about the centenary. However, even though you're not going to get a lot of depth in this volume,  it's still a great place to start if you're considering reading any of du Maurier's work. I'd recommend it with the caveat that it's  more of an overview rather than a book that actually goes into great detail. But what is there is both interesting and insightful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead

9780062202475
Harper, 2014
384 pp

arc - from the publisher, thank you!

"Parallel to the map of Vichy is a map of decency." 

Now here's a book definitely worth every second of time I put into it. It's also one that stayed with me for some time after finishing it.

In the author's Foreword to this book, she notes that  in 1953 an article appeared in Peace News about a pacifist pastor named André Trocmé in the French parish of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon who "helped save some 5,000 hunted communists, Freemasons, resisters and Jews from deportation to the extermination camps of occupied Poland."  According to this piece, Trocmé had instilled his belief in non-violent, peaceful resistance among his parishioners, and it was in this spirit that they were led to take in, hide, and sometimes get people whose names "appeared on Nazi death lists" safely over the Swiss border.  Over two decades later, in  1988,  Le Chambon was designated by Yad Vashem as the only village in the world to be  "Righteous Among Nations," an appellation that  in combination with a number of articles, documentaries, and memoirs about this remote village in the Massif Central, perpetuated an ongoing  "myth" about Trocmé's role and that of Le Chambon as well.  But there's a problem here:  by focusing solely on this small, remote village and this peace-loving Protestant pastor, over the years that "myth" has ignored a lot of other people -- those from other places, of other beliefs, and even a number of  humanitarian authorities who literally risked everything to help save people designated for the camps.

In Village of Secrets, the author begins her study with the coming of the Nazis to France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy government under Pétain. At first, early measures of repression against certain targeted groups ("foreign" Jews, Freemasons and Communists) were accompanied by propaganda that targeted these groups as "dark forces of the 'anti-France." However, as time went on, it became clearer that the government was expected to play a role in helping the Nazis  implement their own policies against the Jews -- not just the foreign-born, naturalized citizens, but eventually the French-born Jews, who'd mistakenly believed that their status offered some modicum of safety. As the author points out, not everyone was willing to stand by and watch this happen -- a number of organizations and individuals stepped in to save as many people as possible, especially the children. Networks were created to put their plans into action, and the remote, inaccessible-in-winter Plateau Vivarais-Lignon was one location where these volunteers were willing to leave those they'd managed to save from the camps.  Pastor
Trocmé had told his Le Chambon parishioners that it was their duty to ""resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the order of the gospel" --  and the people took his message to heart, taking in new arrivals. Many of the people on the Plateau were members of various sects that practiced quietness, so there was little chance that they'd open up to strangers who might come looking for those in hiding.  But, as Ms. Moorehead states, it wasn't just the villagers in Le Chambon, nor was it just those of the Protestant faith who helped save lives on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. Members of the Catholic, Quaker, and Jewish faiths also contributed, as did agnostics & atheists. There were other villages where community co-operation helped save lives, and most surprisingly, she tells of some of  the local authorities and policemen who turned a blind eye to what was going on, often providing warnings of impending Gestapo visits. As time went on, members of the Resistance were taken in, as were young men who refused to report for the national Service de Travail Obligitaire -- a national conscription for forced labor in Germany. And it was in this mountain area that "more people, proportionately, were saved than anywhere else in France."






While the accounts she relates are intriguing, heroic and often heartbreaking, one very important issue this book touches on is history itself. Right after the war, as she notes, the French

"were encouraged, not only by DeGaulle but by all the political classes, to believe that Vichy had been the work of a small number of traitors, more misguided than evil, drawn into treachery by the Germans."
That view would change some years later in the 1970s, as authors such as Robert Paxton and Michael Marcs "meticulously pulled the myth apart," to show that the big players in Vichy actively sought collaboration with the Nazis, with the goal of "carving out a new role for France in Hitler's new Europe." Their work brought on debates that are still part of the French political scene, and they also brought out the long-neglected story of the Jews in France during the Holocaust.  But this period of history is still debated among people throughout  the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, the result of a contentious trifecta:  1) the publication  of a book based on Trocme's autobiography by an American historian looking for "proof that pacifism could successsfully counter violence," 2) a documentary that used some of the material in that book, and 3) a lecture given by the book's author that came across to the people who had lived it as "a mutilation of historical truth by revisionists." 

Village of Secrets is a most excellent book that, as its bottom line, examines how ordinary people responded to very extraordinary circumstances during this terrible period.  It is also an examination of  the realities behind the myths and the changing discourses evolving from this historical period.  It is an incredibly well written and  meticulously-researched narrative that uses first-person accounts of people who lived to tell their tales due of the help they received from others, as well as accounts from some of those who helped them to survive.  What really struck me here were the stories of those who were brought into hiding and ultimately stayed safe through the war - these are interspersed throughout the narrative and for me were the most powerful parts of the entire book. For some of them, the aftermath of living in hiding wasn't all positive and led to issues they had to overcome later in life. Every time one of these stories came up, I put down my note-taking pen because I wanted to catch every single word. I can't even begin to imagine what they lived through.

I don't often find myself reading World War II European history, so a lot of things were totally new to me here, but I have to say that I was never once bored, nor did I ever feel like I was on information overload.  Reader reviews have been much more positive than negative,  and it seems to me that the naysayers have wanted everything given to them without wanting to take time to understand the overall history of this place in this time period. One reviewer referred to it as "a slog," which is absolutely not true.  If you're a lazy reader, that's your problem -- it's certainly not the problem of the author.   Village of Secrets is a much-appreciated addition to my history library, and I can't recommend this book highly enough.  

*********** 
My many thanks to TLC book tours who brought this book to my attention, and to the publishers for my copy of the book!

There are many more people reading Village of Secrets for TLC; if you want to follow other readers' opinions, you can find the schedule here

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

9781492408702
Gotham, 2014
384 pp

Kindle version, from the publisher via netgalley - thank you.

Some time back I was asked if I would like to review this book. As it happened, it was already on my ever-growing wishlist, so I agreed.  One - I'm actually quite fascinated with the history of medicine in this country -- far from being a dull topic, sometimes it gets pretty interesting. Two - The Mütter Museum has been on my list of places to see for a long time now, but somehow, whenever we're in Philly, we never have enough time to get there.  After having finished this book,  I'll definitely make time. Dr. Mutter's Marvels offers not only the personal life story of Thomas Dent Mutter (1811 - 1859)  which is interesting in and of itself, but it also examines the state of the medical profession both in America and abroad during the early 19th century.  Mutter remains largely unknown to this day, known mainly for the museum that bears his name, associated with medical oddities.  The author of this book wants to remedy that and bring her subject out of obscurity to reveal the contributions he made to the American medical profession.  It's a good and very readable book -- maybe running to the tangential here and there,  and lighter on source materials than I would have expected, but then again, to be fair to the author, Mutter himself proved to be quite an "elusive" subject.

Thomas Dent Mutter was sickly as a child, and the attempts at healing him were pretty primitive in today's standards. He remembers
"being bled by lancet or by leech, fed tinctures and bitter weeds, left to sweat it out alone in his bed or soaked in a special bath,"
and as he got older and started his studies, he became
"perhaps too familiar with other nonsurgical branches of medicine,  where recovery was often a guessing game." 
But in the long run, Mutter came to understand the importance of  surgery --  rather than being a "guessing game,"  he realized that it was really an "art," a way to provide relief to the suffering.  He also came to realize it as his life's calling. The author discusses how he was highly influenced by his time in Paris, where he was most fascinated with and inspired by those patients referred to as "monsters," those who "hid their faces when walking down the streets," or who
"took cover in back rooms, excused themselves when there were knocks at the door. They saw how children howled at the sight of them. They understood the half a life they were condemned to live and the envy they couldn't help but feel toward others..."
and who were willing to risk death during surgical procedures in hopes of living a better life.

Aside from Mutter the man, Dr. Mutter's Marvels also provides a look at the state of American medicine during this time period -- on the whole,  it wasn't a good time to be sick; god help you if you were.   When Mutter returned to America and started working in  Philadelphia, he started out teaching before joining the Jefferson Medical College as an instructor and a rather compassionate surgeon. He also developed several surgical techniques and instituted new standards such as doctor hygiene, post-op wards and using anesthetics during surgery -- the latter a definite improvement over having the patients down wine or other alcoholic beverages to help ease their pain.  The author also builds her story of Mutter and the medical profession as a whole by highlighting some of his contemporaries  in the medical profession who weren't so keen on Mutter's suggestions --  most notably, his rival Dr. Charles Meigs, who felt that allowing the use of anesthesia for patients was kin to anathema.

Ms. Aptowicz  writes in a way that is accessible to pretty much any reader without overloading her work with a lot of scientific jargon and explanations that could make her book a chore to read. There are a few interesting patient illustrations here and there throughout the book that added a nice touch to the text, and it's very obvious that she is quite enthusiastic about her subject. Most importantly, though, her focus is that Dr. Mutter should  be seen not just as the man who gave his name to a museum but also as a respected doctor and an innovator in the medical profession.  To be truthful, it's not as lively a narrative as, for example,  the work of  Eric Larson or Hampton Sides, but non-science readers such as myself who are  interested in the history of medicine and the history of science will find the book to be very user friendly and above all, very informative. Both reader and professional reviews of this book are already quite positive, and I think Ms. Aptowicz has done a good job here.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

a rollicking good yarn that happens to be true: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides

9780385535373
Doubleday, 2014
454 pp

hardcover

It wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that I devoured this book:  it was about 1 pm yesterday when the book arrived and I stopped what I was doing to open it;  it was 9:30 a.m. this morning that I finished it.  I actually read it throughout the night, and turned the last page during breakfast.  a) It's about polar exploration,  probably my favorite nonfiction reading topic in the universe,  b) it's by Hampton Sides, who has not let me down yet with any of his books, and c) it's just so engrossing that I couldn't stop reading it. I'm pretty tired and cranky right now, but what the hell -- it was so worth it.

Once again Hampton Sides has proven that he is not only a master of his topic but also a master of storytelling.   In the Kingdom of Ice recalls the story of an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole that began in 1879, commanded by George Washington DeLong and  backed by New York Herald  publisher James Gordon Bennett, who had some time earlier sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa as a major press stunt. Along with a number of scientists of the day, both Bennett and DeLong were proponents of a widely-circulated, widely-believed theory about the  "open polar sea," an idea postulating that a warm-water current flowed through the Arctic:
"The weather wasn't especially cold at the North Pole, at least not in summer. On the contrary, the dome of the world was covered in a shallow, warm, ice-free sea whose waters could be smoothly sailed, much as one might sail across the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. This tepid Arctic basin teemed with marine life -- and was, quite possibly, home to a lost civilization."
This open polar sea was "routinely depicted" on cartographer maps, and labeled as such across the top of the globe. Never mind that no one had actually seen it; as the author notes,
"Fixing it on maps had fixed it in people's minds. Like Atlantis or El Dorado, it was a beautiful vision based on legends, rumors, and tenuous scraps of information. Layer by layer, decade by decade, scientists and thinkers had contributed to the plausibility, the probability, and finally the certainty of this chimerical notion." 
While the open polar sea had its skeptics, De Long believed that if he could only find a "portal," a "gap in the ice" that ringed the "warm-water basin" right about the 80th parallel where other explorers had faltered, he would have no problems getting to the North Pole.  Bennett met with and received "a full set of charts and maps of the Arctic"  from Dr. August Petermann, a cartographer in Germany who had himself never been to the Arctic, but who believed that the "thermometric gateway" could be reached by approaching the Pole via the Bering Strait -- and that by doing it this way, the Pole could be reached in one summer.  Thus began the

from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Jeannette_with_crew.jpg

voyage of the USS Jeanette, which left San Francisco in 1879 with the backing of the U.S. Navy and a crew of some thirty-plus people with  DeLong as the commander, and which within only a very short time got stuck in the polar ice off of Wrangel Island and forced by nature to drift  in the ice floes for nearly two years.  The book details the journey of the Jeanette, along with all that the crew had to endure not only as they sat stuck in the ice, but also afterwards when they were forced to abandon their ship -- which would make the two-year ice drift seem like good times in retrospect.  In and around that harrowing story, the author also provides a look at America approaching, at, and just after its 100-year mark as a country, the use of  journalistic sensationalism, the people left behind once the Jeanette left on its mission, and ultimately, the efforts to provide a rescue for the icebound crew.

I seriously can't do this book the justice it deserves, but In the Kingdom of Ice is an absolutely phenomenal story told by a master storyteller, and it deserves as wide of a reading audience as possible.  Even readers who might not  normally be excited about the history of polar exploration would love this book -- the story is harrowing enough, but Mr. Sides highlights the humanity and the sheer bravery of these heroic men facing the unendurable in one of the most unforgiving environments in the world.  The book literally reads like a novel, complete with cliffhangers, moments for rejoicing, and above all, page-turning scenes making it impossible to set the book down.  It's an ultimate true "rollicking adventure" story, one that should be on everyone's reading list.  To answer other reader criticism, yes, there's a lot of detail involved, but none of it is wasted space or used as padding as so often seems to be the case. I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- on the favorites list of 2014.

 someone should get in touch with Ken Burns -- this would make a fascinating PBS special.

Friday, July 25, 2014

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, by Thomas Beller


9780544261990
New Harvest, 2014
192 pp

hardcover

Writer Thomas Beller has put together this small volume which is not so much a biography but a book that reads like a series of meditations on JD Salinger. He has gathered a number anecdotes  by some of the people with whom Salinger lived and worked, combed through boxes of correspondence, visited places and people where Salinger spent time while growing up, and even used small bits of Ian Hamilton's court-blocked, unauthorized biography of the writer, which Beller had obtained on loan from a friend.  All of these parts are quite good, and while not as analytical as one might hope, they do offer a little more of a peek into the reclusive Salinger's earlier life.

As I got deeper into this book though, I discovered that it's also a blending of Beller's own story in terms of his love of Salinger (and the English teacher who turned him on to the author), and also in terms of how and where his own family's path crossed those of Salinger and his family in the past.   Some years back I read Mark Christensen's biography of Ken Kesey called  Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the politics of ecstasy, where the author did pretty much did the same thing, and as with this book, I was not amused.  I also think that considering that Mr. Beller set up a model for understanding more about Salinger's writing  in a "tryptych" divided into three time periods, he moves around too freely through time and sort of throws that model out the window. For example, while speaking about events in the 1940s, the next chapter moves to Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger for about nine months in the 1970s, then we're back to 1945.  Not only is it confusing, but it made me wonder why he would leave his own investigative framework to veer off this way.  The whole approach is also rather informal, not what you'd expect in an examination of such a famous person, and it has a sort of unfocused, kind of airy feel to it.

While the insights into Salinger via the letters, the interviews, the examination of his Jewish heritage and the tours around New York were interesting and kept me reading,  a) there wasn't a lot there and b) I was not at all impressed with the author's attempt at  "biography as a work of art" here. It comes across as a little more  artsy than informative, and it just wasn't something that left a huge impression or added more to the mystery life of this reclusive man.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Another excellent Crown release: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird

9780307889751
Crown, 2014
448 pp

arc from the publisher, thank you!

Crown Publishing is definitely on a roll with great books -- first with Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends (which comes out in July) and now Kai Bird's The Good Spy.  I can't wait to see what nonfiction they come out with next.

In his Art of War, the Chinese strategist and general Sun Tzu once offered some very good strategic advice about knowing your enemy, something like "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." (from Wikiquote).  In The Good Spy,  Robert Ames is presented as a man who understood that logic in his work in the Middle East -- he spoke fluent Arabic, had an in-depth knowledge of the area's history,  and understood the people and where in their minds they were coming from. He knew & understood the differences among various peoples in the region, and didn't lump them all (as modern people are prone to do) into one group simply known as Arabs.  He also loved his work, and was a major player in the practical ops arena, making contacts whose knowledge was invaluable to American policy makers, even though the folks in DC didn't always follow his advice or had their hands tied because of past promises made. He was a the kind of agent who believed that up close and personal was a much better tactic for cultivating sources and gathering information than the buying of informants or later, the dependence on surveillance provided by gains in technology.  Ames was also a man who understood grievances and how past history continues to play a major role in the present, probably the most valuable lesson of all which sadly to this day often goes unheeded.  The author notes about Ames that
"He fell in love with the Middle East, its language, its rhythms, and its deep sense of history and place."
His "sense of human empathy" eventually opened up a number of vital intelligence channels that provided the US with critical information.  As an example, he was in long-term contact with Ali Hassan Salameh, one of Yasir Arafat's trusted men who headed Force 17, the PLO's intelligence agency, and through him, with Arafat himself.  Ames' communications with these men was often crucial to the protection of US interests in the area  at a time when American policy officially forbade contact between US diplomats and the PLO, but not always well received  because of the school of thought linking  U.S. interests and its "rote support of Israeli behavior."  To their credit, however, many of the higher-ups in government understood the necessity of keeping Ames' PLO channel open. Ames was also active behind the scenes after the overthrow in Iran of the Shah.  Along with an agent from the CIA, Ames targeted more "moderate" members of the Khomeini government as possible channels for information, sharing  U.S. intelligence with these people as a show of American sincerity -- but of course, that was all made moot with the taking of the American hostages by militants in 1979.

However, I have to say that the most eye-popping part of this book, for me, was the link between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and rise of fundamentalist Shi'ites in the Middle East.  According to the author,  Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the horrific Sabra and Shatilla massacre that followed in the wake of the pullout of the PLO was a defining moment as far as understanding current events in the Middle East.  Prior to this moment, a promise had been made by the Reagan administration that when Arafat and the PLO left Lebanon for Tunisia, American peacekeepers would be left behind to guarantee the safety of the Palestinians left behind in refugee camps. But Caspar Weinberger decided they weren't needed, so ordered them to pull out.  Within hours, despite Israel's promise to the US that they would not be moving into the "heart of Beirut," the Israelis came in, violating an existing cease-fire agreement.  Then began the "relentless slaughter" by Christian Lebanese forces in the refugee camps while the Israelis stood guard.


The current secretary-general of Hezbollah states in this book that had it not been for the Israeli invasion, he doesn't believe that Hezbollah would exist today. The invasion, according to the author, "created a new political force called Islamic Amal, an organization that later morphed into what we know today as Hezbollah, the Party of God."  Literally thousands of Lebanese people were killed, and people who before this event just wanted to live in peace as much as they possibly could under the circumstances took  the radical road. One CIA analyst notes that "the Israeli invasion unleashed the Shi'ites," one of whom was an Iranian with contacts with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the "Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution." I'm starting to get a glimpse of why these people hate Americans so much. Seriously.


Ames' life and work, the glimpses behind the scenes at politics and policymaking are all very well portrayed here, and while I'd never heard of Robert Ames before, there may be some small merit in the author's thesis that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, a sizeable chance for peace in the Middle East died along with him. He had the both the ear and the confidence of valuable players,  he worked tirelessly to help put out flames before they became raging fires, and gave up much of his family life in the interests of peace.  However, there are just way too many other factors in play, extant even before 9/11, besides the death of this man that may have killed the hopes for peace and stability.  Nevertheless, A Good Spy is a most excellent read, and it is definitely a book  that  a)I'll never forget b) I urge everyone who has an interest in trying to understand the current situation in Middle East to get a copy of and c) has definitely spurred my interest in further reading.  Kudos to the author, and my thanks again for my advanced reader copy from the publisher.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

So, you don't know who Randolph Stow is? Neither did I, but I still liked this book: Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, by Gabrielle Carey

9780702249921
University of Queensland Press, 2013
228 pp

A few months back while blurb-reading through the longlist for Australia's Stella Prize, the blurb of Moving Among Strangers caught my eye. I have no idea why -- I had absolutely no clue who Randolph Stow was, so really, my interest probably shouldn't have been so piqued.  But it was as if this book somehow managed to exert some strange, weird pull on me and all I know is that I had to have it.  While Randolph Stow, his writing, and his feelings about being a writer in Australia are all  certainly a big part of this book, it is also a very personal sort of memoir of the author who, because of her interest in Stow, comes to understand more about her mother and father, and finds herself reconnected to long-absent members of her extended family.  It is indeed a little gem of a book that combines her own family story to the story of this writer who penned the line  "we are here as shipwrecked mariners on an island, moving among strangers, darkly." As I read through her memoir, this line out of Stow's The Girl Green as Elderflower (one of two epigraphs) came to take on a surprising amount of meaning in both lives.

The author had been (and still is) a long-time admirer and devotée of Stow's work. While Joan (Ferguson) Carey, the author's mother, was dying from cancer, Gabrielle sent author Randolph Stow a card to let him know.  He and Joan Carey had known each other  a long time, since his "age was in single figures." In his return note that arrived after Joan's death, he mentions her nursing job at Geraldton, her marriage to Gabrielle's father Alex, her favorite ballerina, and the time Joan "met Alex again (accidentally on a park bench)." Gabrielle realizes that in this brief note, he's told her things that she herself did not know about her mother. For example, he notes that when he was a schoolboy and later an undergrad, Joan's letters "from London were like a window on the world."  While pondering why her mother would write to "a young man, an adolescent thirteen years her junior, who wasn't a relation," she also comes to the understanding that Stow knew much more about Joan than Gabrielle did -- maybe he knew more about her family than she knew as well.  He'd left a phone number, but because of her mental state after the death of her mother, she never called him, and  he died about a year later.   In 2010, while attending a memorial event for Stow, she is reunited with cousins from her father's side of the family, who ultimately became instrumental in helping her  make some incredible, previously-unknown and  personal discoveries about her parents.  As she notes,
"If my mother had not died I wouldn't have written to Stow. And if I hadn't written to Stow and received letters in return, I might not have felt so compelled to attend his memorial. And if I hadn't attended that memorial I would not have rediscovered my relatives and found a clan I truly belonged to. And if I hadn't rediscovered my family, I would have had no reason to visit White Peak and no one to accompany me to Geraldton. And if I hadn't visited White Peak I would never have gone on to uncover the part of my father's life that he always kept secret. And his life, and my mother's, would have remained mysterious and obscure." 
In the process of  revealing her discoveries about her parents, Carey also writes that  "family stories are full of secrets," and makes the point that whoever is the "trusted narrator" owns the "official version" of those stories. In her case, as she was to realize, there was another "completely different story."  She finds the same is true with Stow -- especially when she traveled to Harwich, England, where he had lived out his final years, finding "two versions of Stow ... in one small pub."

All through her own personal and family narrative, she inserts bits and pieces of Stow's story, talking about his writing, and how his life experiences, the landscape and the people helped not only to inspire his work, but how parts of all of these came to be included in his books.  She also notes that critics and readers were "bothered" by Carey's "search for spiritual meaning" in his books, because "Australian critics were not receptive to the exploration of religious ideas in fiction."  While English critics found much to admire in his Tourmaline (1963) for example, Australian critics rejected his "gift -- of fable and poetry combined with realism."  One scholar later stated about Tourmaline that at the time of its publication,  it was "too austere, too truthful, ... too much in opposition to a whole set of beliefs and attitudes by which Australians had come to domesticate the outback." His writing also reflected his fascination with the tragedy of the shipwrecked Batavia, seeing in it "something very significant about Australian history and mythology," .... images of Australia both as a prison and as Eden, themes that were reinforced in his work.   Stow eventually moved to the  UK as a sort of self exile, and never came back.

 
Obviously there's much more about this book that I could write, but it should suffice to say that it is truly a wonderful little book. I was surprised to learn, after having read this book and looking up Stow's obituary,  that he'd won the Australian Literature Society's (ALS) gold medal for his collection of poems entitled Act One published in 1957,  and that he'd also won the Miles Franklin award as well as another ALS award for his novel To the Islands, published in 1958.  I don't think that this info came out in Ms. Carey's book. But,  considering that I had no clue who Randolph Stow was when I first picked up this book, by the time  I got to Ms. Carey's  description of  coming upon the location of the original merry-go-round by the sea in Geraldton, I was actually compelled to buy a copy of Stow's book of the same name.  Moving Among Strangers is  a lovely book that has a bit of a painful personal edge throughout that a reader can't help but to notice, offering a much more in-depth experience than say a straight-out biography of Stow would have.   Ms. Carey also expresses herself in a straightforward way so as to make her book extremely reader friendly and accessible.  I am not a big memoirs person, but truthfully, given that I was unfamiliar with the subject of this book,  I was completely engrossed in this book the entire time I was reading it. It is definitely a book I can most highly recommend.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A true story that reads like a spy thriller: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

9780804136631
Crown, 2014 (July)
352 pp

hardcover*

"Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive..
But when you've practised quite a bit
You really get quite good at it."
(14)
 
My very grateful thanks to Crown and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program for my copy of this book.  There is a not-so-funny (and rather expensive) story about this book that I want to share:  I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, but couldn't get started on it right away so I set it aside to be picked up later.  When I was ready to read it, which was like 2 weeks ago, I went to find it, and it was nowhere. It had just disappeared.  I looked through each and every bookshelf and each and every book to find it (which in my case, is like looking for a needle in a haystack), and it didn't turn up.  I went to find one on Amazon and to my horror discovered that the book is not scheduled for publication until July.  Then I went into full-on panic mode because I had committed to reading this for LibraryThing's early reviewers' program for April so I bought a new copy from the UK* (Bloomsbury, 9781408851722).  Considering the pound to dollar conversion rate, I ended up paying about $40 for my stupidity.   But I will say this: it was worth every penny I spent on it and more.  I have been a huge fan of Ben Macintyre since I read his Operation Mincemeat; I've devoured every book he's written since and have never been disappointed. And once again he delivers with his newest book, A Spy Among Friends, which is, in his words, "not another biography of Kim Philby," ... "less about politics, ideology and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before." Macintyre notes also that the "book does not purport to be the last word on Kim Philby," but rather "it seeks to tell his story in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship..." and his work succeeds on every possible level: impeccable research, the very-well developed investigation of Kim Philby's dual character, and frankly, despite the fact that it's nonfiction, it reads like a highly-polished, top-tier espionage novel,, making it reader-friendly  for anyone at all interested in the subject. 

By now the Kim Philby story may seem like old news. There have been a number of nonfiction accounts about him, as well as fictional;  John Le Carré notes in a most excellent afterword that he'd "already covered the ground in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."  Macintyre's account, though, brings new life to this very old and well-covered story:  he sets Philby's story among friends, most notably Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Jesus Angleton (who had met Philby in London at the age of 24, and for whom Philby right away became "an elder-brother figure),  who ultimately became an ultra-high ranking member of the CIA. Both men trusted Philby implicitly and both refused to believe that he was a spy the first time he came under suspicion after the defections of Maclean and Burgess. As Macintyre examines the respective careers of the three high-level spies, their social interactions,  their proximity to each other over the course of their work as spies, and their ties to upper-class British society with its private clubs, the best schools, etc., he also establishes how easy it was for the trusted Philby to carry away much highly-secret information and hand it over to his Soviet contacts.  As Macintyre notes, one of the "weaknesses" within the intelligence community was how natural it was to trade information, since agents are not able to share it with anyone outside of their small circle.  Philby, a big drinker, boozed it up with Angleton, for example, during lunches in Washington DC when after being transferred there as MI6 chief (selected by Angleton himself); Angleton and Philby exchanged info while drinking bourbon, eating lobster, and having cigars at the end.  In one particular Albanian operation that ended in possibly hundreds of deaths, Macintyre notes that "Lunch at Harvey's restaurant came with a hefty bill."  Philby's relationship with Elliott was one of even stronger ties and a stronger long-term friendship; Elliott would have never in a million years banked on Philby, with whom he shared his secrets, as putting those secrets to "murderous use."  "The bond with Philby was unlike any other in his life." As the author notes, 
"Elliott hero-worshipped Philby, but he also loved him, with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated." 

Macintyre notes that "no one understood the value of friendship better than Kim Philby," and these friendships, all betrayed in the long run, were what Philby counted on -- that, and the upper-class, scandal-hating, old-boy, old-school-tie  MI6 -- to provide the perfect cover as he also betrayed his country.  Throughout this entire book, Macintyre focuses on Philby's "two faces," his dual nature as a "double-sided man,"  where "One side is open to family and friends and everyone around them,..the other belongs only to himself and his secret work."   As much as friends and family thought they knew him, the real truth was that
"Philby was spying on everyone, and no one was spying on him, because he fooled them all."
Among other things, Macintyre also examines  the effects on the friends and family left in the wake of Philby's betrayals, the divisions between MI5 and MI6, and the results in human terms of Philby's work in passing along info to the Soviets.

While people might think that they know pretty much all there is to know about Kim Philby,  A Spy Among Friends  offers a chilling new look at this enigmatic man who used his friends, betrayed his country, sent thousands upon thousands to their deaths and betrayed the people who cared about him the most, all without even a small flicker of remorse. It is so very well written, and even though it's a work of nonfiction, the story kept  me on edge up until the last minute.  In fact, one of the most eye-opening sections of this book is at the point where Philby's been outed in 1963, and Nick, Philby's biggest supporter, takes it upon himself to be the one to get him to confess.  If this conversation hadn't been recorded, one would think it was the work of a master spy novelist.  Then, when Macintyre has written his last word, the reader comes upon a short, but wonderful afterword by John LeCarré that the reader should absolutely not miss.  In fact, anyone who's even remotely interested in Kim Philby, or anyone who has enjoyed Macintyre's previous work should not miss this book -- it is simply stellar.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

High times: The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son and the Golden Age of Marijuana

9780385533461
Doubleday, 2014
249 pp

hardcover


In many ways, the era of piracy and the era of pot are an uncanny match. Both the pirates and the marijuana smugglers cursed and cussed, sang bawdy songs, gambled, whored, profaned the holy days, gave in to lust, reveled in uncleanliness, and were greedy for life, liberty and merriment, which they gulped down to the last.

The Last Pirate is a wonderful book, very entertaining but at the same time very serious. It charts both the rise and fall of a man whose career generated millions but whose addictions ultimately left him living under a bridge in Miami.  It also examines how the author's life was affected by The Old Man's highs and lows, leaving him without a dad throughout his childhood.


When the author, "Little Tony" Doukoupil  was six,  "The Old Man" walked out on his family.  In the author's first  six years, Big Tony may not have qualified as father of the year (leaving his kid alone in a Disney hotel, doing heroin while his son had a bout of serious croup), but all the same, Little Tony adored his dad. Before Big Tony left, the family lived off the proceeds of Big Tony's wide-ranging, and very profitable dope-smuggling enterprise, which lasted more or less over a 20-year span of time. His crew consisted of a very small group of trusted friends, but their cleverness & caution fed the big machine of sellers and users in the U.S. After Big Tony's departure, the money started to dwindle, and when needed most, Big Tony was in such a cocaine and heroin-addled state that he couldn't remember where he'd buried the coolers of cash he'd stashed from New England to New Mexico.  It was a big step down in the author's life -- going from one of the top private schools in Miami to becoming the poor kid was only part of how his father's absence affected his childhood.   The author grew up from age six on without his dad, who in his mind's eye would become an  outlaw and a pirate, engaging in the same sorts of renegade activities as pirates and smugglers of earlier times. Just recently, though,  Tony Dokoupil the younger became a dad, and haunted by his absent father,  set out to find out what he could about him. According to the author, it was his first Father's Day card that made him "terrified of the genes I carry and the man I may become." It also prompted him to discover his father's story so as to find some loophole in the account of his "father's rise and fall,"  something that would tell him that genetics aren't everything.

From various sources, the author has recreated as much of his father's history as possible, trying to form a better picture of who this man was and what he did.  All he knew about his dad before starting to research this book had come to him only in "scraps."  He goes into his father's  family and childhood, then looks at the early days of his dad's dope experiences and how from there he became the head of one of the biggest pot-smuggling operations in American history.  It's often funny, and at times eye opening, revealing for example,  just how close America came in 1970s to totally decriminalizing marijuana, or a drug-related scandal in DC starring Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter's chief drug policy adviser, or  how DEA agents in South America would  turn a blind eye for their own cut of the business.  But on a more personal level, the story is much more on the troubling side, as Big Tony's family gets caught up in his decline primarily because of Big Tony's addictions, his "passion."  The book also reveals, among other things,  a brief history of  the early days of marijuana legislation, and how the golden years of pot smuggling started to decline later on due to a) Reagan's policies and the War on Drugs,  and b) the rise of less-risky homegrown, better-quality marijuana. 

There's so much more to this book, and I've only briefly touched on it here.   It's very honest, so much so that at times it's downright painful to read, but at the same time, some parts of this book are actually funny.  When it comes right down to it, he says, it's all about the choices people  make in life -- and he's absolutely correct.  What a good book! Definitely recommended.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

9780670025817
Viking, 2013
404 pp

hardcover

"They weren't just nine guys in a boat; they were a crew."

Considering that I'm not at all a sports person, it seems odd that I would even be reading a book about the University of Washington crew team.  I didn't know what to expect, but after reading the first chapter I was totally hooked.  It only got better from there.

It's probably a given that almost everyone is familiar with the fact that at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Jesse Owens walked away with four gold medals, throwing the Nazi ideal of the Aryan supremacy right back in Hitler's face. Another thing about that year's Olympic games that most people are familiar with is the call for a boycott of the games, as rumors were circulating about what was really going on in Germany and the repressive measures of the Nazis. But it's very unlikely that anyone other than sports historians or people who are really into the history of the Olympic games know about the crew team from the University of Washington who literally battled the odds and not only made it to the games, but went on to win the gold medal.  The Boys in the Boat not only takes the readers through the crew's efforts in getting there, but also goes into great depth about the crew members, especially the central figure in this book, Joe Rantz.  His story lies at the heart of this book, but the author also includes stories about the other members of the team, a look at the Depression in the US, and what was going on in Germany at the time. He also examines the sport of crewing itself -- especially the prominence of the teams from elite Ivy League universities.  As he notes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis."

Joe's story is the best part of this book.  As an infant, his mother died and his father remarried a much younger woman who for some reason didn't get along with Joe, especially after she and Joe's father started having their own children. At age ten, Joe was told that he wouldn't be living with the family any longer, and he watched as they took off in a car for somewhere unknown.  He pretty much had to fend for himself although a few people stepped up and helped him out. Joe was always good at school, and his older brother offered to take him in during his last high school year so that he would have a good shot at entering a good university, and he was accepted by UW, where he made it into one of the crew boats as a freshman. However, as a poor student in the university's "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters,"  Joe had to work for every penny he needed to stay in school, and he was often the target of students much more fortunate than himself.  However, some of the students who looked down on Joe had to eat crow as  they tried and failed at the crew team tryouts,  leaving mainly the sturdy farm boys to take the seats in the boat.  Crewing was not easy and there were a number of  mental factors keeping Joe from reaching his absolute best, but with the help of  some brilliant mentoring from the coaches, wisdom from the man whose boats were prized throughout the crewing world, support from an entire city and for Joe, the love of a good woman, he was able to surmount all of his obstacles and go on to become part of an extremely devoted team.

It's already known in the prologue that Joe and his team went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics, but it's the getting there that creates the drama and tension in this book. The way this story is put together is creative  and keeps the reader beyond interested. The author splits scenes between Joe's story, the effects of the Depression in America, what was going on in Nazi Germany and the leaders'  goal to create a fake reality for the rest of the world to see for PR purposes, the sport of crewing, and the team's story.  When all are combined all of these elements  not only firmly situate the book in historical time and place, but also make the reading much more rounded and compelling.

I have to say that I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not been for an online reader friend who raved about it (thanks, Trish),  and that would have been a shame. There's only a couple of niggly things that I didn't care for. First comes the gushing descriptions of love between Joe and Joyce (okay -- we get it -- but not every time), and there was one spot when the team went to Poughkeepsie (p. 257) and the author notes the following in talking about where they were staying:
"In command of the cookhouse was the imposing figure of Evanda May Calimar, a lady of color and, as it would turn out, an awe-inspiring cook."
The fact that the cook was "a lady of color" has absolutely zero bearing on anything here at all. This kind of usage is one of my all-time biggest pet peeves that really rankles.  But in the big scheme of things, looking at the overall picture, I was really into this book, the research was extremely impressive, and The Boys in the Boat turned out to be one of the best reads of this year for me.  I've added it to the book group lineup to fill November's slot.   I HIGHLY recommend this book -- it's so good that I hated every second I wasn't reading it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo -- And the Evil That Swallowed Her Up, by Richard Lloyd Parry

9780374230593
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
464 pp

paperback


I'm not a huge fan of the run-of-the-mill true crime genre with all of the gory details hashed out for reader titillation.  To me it's the stuff of tabloids, sleazy, sordid, and quick-to-press exploitation, designed to appeal to a voyeuristic audience.  So when I come across a journalist whose writing isn't motivated by the sensational, or who has taken years to research his subject before publishing, I'm generally not disappointed.

Such is the case with People Who Eat Darkness, a very intelligently-written book that moves far afield of the usual mish-mash of true crime.  The book is about the disappearance of a young woman, Lucie Blackman, a young woman from the UK who worked Tokyo in a small club as a hostess, left on a drive to the seaside with a man, and was never seen alive again.  While this description  sounds like it could be fodder for a true-crime writer, there is so much more to this book than any average crime writer would even attempt.  As Parry leads the reader through this compelling story,  you begin to see that he's forming an intensely cogent account not just of an horrific crime, but an exploration of  cultures within a culture, families, Japan's legal and justice system, its history, and the conflicts that arose because of this case.  Although its page count nearly reaches the 500 mark, it moves very quickly, and it's another one of those books I stayed up to read because I couldn't put it down.

Richard Lloyd Parry, the  author of People Who Eat Darkness, was on the scene as this story slowly unfolded over the course of several long years. As he notes about this case,
"The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years. ... Lucie's story brought me into contact with aspects of human experience tht I had never glimpsed before. It was like the key to a trapdoor in a familiar room, a trapdoor concealing secrets -- frightening, violent, monstrous existences to which I had been oblivious."
Lucie Blackman had been working as a flight attendant for British Airways to help pay off her debt, but when her longtime friend Louise told her about a way that she could make much more money as a bar hostess in Tokyo, Lucy quit her job and went out to Japan. She worked in a small bar in Tokyo's Rappongi district, part of the "water trade" (mizu shōbai) that ran the gamut from hostesses paid to keep men happy while they drank at a bar to prostitution.  Part of Lucie's job was to keep the customer coming back, and one method of doing this was the dohan, or "date," where the girls would go out with their customer, usually for dinner, then make sure the man returned to the club for more drinking. The hostesses would get a commission, and could be in danger of losing their jobs without x-amount of dohan outside of their regular job. It's not prostitution, but more like being an escort.  It was on one such "date" that Lucie disappeared, only a couple of months after arriving in Japan. She already had plans for the Saturday evening of her disappearance, but she'd phoned Louise to let her know she was driving to the seaside and that she'd be back on time.  When Lucie didn't return, Louise started to worry, and after failing to find out anything about Lucie's whereabouts, went to the local police station on Monday. Going there was risky -- both Louise and Lucie had been working illegally, coming to Japan on tourist visas. The police weren't interested, so Louise contacted the vice-consul who also called the police station, thinking that Lucie may have been abducted.  Then the weirdness began: Louise received a call saying that Lucie had decided to make a "life-changing decision" and join a religious cult. Louise notified Lucie's mother, who notified her ex-husband Tim, who flew to Japan and helped to change the course of the non-existent investigation.  What was eventually uncovered was beyond imagination  -- especially when the police had already dismissed the claims of other women who came close to meeting the same fate as Lucie.  

In writing this book, Parry notes that he hoped to restore Lucie's "status as a normal person, a woman complex and lovable in her ordinariness, with a life before death," and he does this very aptly. However, before the book is over he's also examined Japanese culture, its police, its legal system and even the life of Lucie's killer.  Another part of his book that really stands out is how Lucie's killer, Joji Obara,  might have been apprehended years earlier, when Lucie was thirteen,  if the police had not been so quickly willing to categorize victims by type -- as he states, "an institutional inability to think other than in clichés."   He also goes into the lives of Lucie's family and how each family member tried to cope with the aftermath of Lucie's disappearance, the investigation, the trial and ultimately the loss of their beloved daughter and sister.  

Obviously there's way more to this book than what I can capture in a few paragraphs, but the long and short of it is that it's one of the most compelling, well-written and intelligent  true accounts I've read in a very long time. The author has gone above and beyond in terms of balance, and it's obvious how much this case and the people involved have haunted him.  The story itself may seem beyond belief, but it's one of the most frightening things I've read in a long while, the more so because it's true. And that brings me to a final thought:  while scrutinizing reader reviews, I came across one on goodreads that literally made me do a double take:

"And why would you read this endless, rambling, researched-to-the-point-of-exhaustion book when you can just watch the entire story on Dateline on YouTube and be done with it in an hour?"
-sigh-

 While I could reply with a comment that would say something sarcastic about why read anything at all if it's been televised, Hollywoodized, or put on YouTube, the reality is that  this account would not have been nearly as thorough or as compelling without the cultural, historical and sociological facets the author brings into the book.  If this isn't your thing, well, you're always free to stick to the mass-market output. If you want something intelligently written, balanced and just plain excellent, then this book is well worth your while.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

9780307962959
Knopf, 2014
596 pp

hardcover

 "There are certain points in history where a society goes so wrong, and there are certain people who will say, 'I won't stand for that...I will risk career, life, limb, family, freedom...And I will take this risk, and I will go and do it.' "
                                                                   -- David Kairys (538)


A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV  interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time.  When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.  Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book.  Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone.  It's that good.

It's not that  J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several  very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same.  However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again.  Ms. Medsger  starts her work from an entirely different place.  Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door"  of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI."   It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized)  that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures.  These files revealed that
"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI.  This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties  in the context of a free and democratic society.

America in 1970 was an "extraordinary time in the life of the country."  Nixon had let loose the news about the US invasion of Cambodia after the secret bombings there, setting off another wave of antiwar protests, more "than ever before, including in towns and on campuses where antiwar protests had never taken place." Kent State was put under martial law, and four peacefully-demonstrating students were shot  by National Guards who had been ordered onto the campus, "the first time Americans were killed while protesting the war."  Unarmed African-American students in Jackson, Mississipi also met their their deaths at the hands of law enforcement; then shortly afterwards, a number of students were beaten with crowbars and other tools by "hundreds of construction workers" during a noontime vigil for peace.  Onlookers who tried to help were also beaten; the construction workers were "honored" by Nixon at the White House later for their "patriotism." When the future organizer of the Media break in, William Davidon, learned that the American government was "suppressing Americans' right to express dissent," he realized that there was a major problem here: 
"how could a government that claimed to be fighting a war for people's freedom in another country at the same time suppress its own people's right to dissent?"
Davidon felt that he had to have some sort of evidence of active suppression of dissent, and after Hoover made some powerful but unsubstantiated accusations about antiwar dissenters Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and Congress quickly supported the Director when his actions were challenged, Davidon realized that he'd probably find the evidence he needed in an FBI office. Gathering other individuals, he organized a nonviolent break in of the small FBI station in Media, PA, timed to coincide with the upcoming Ali/Frazier fight, "the most anticipated heavyweight title fight" since 1938's Louis v. Schmeling bout.

The book takes the reader through the burglary and through what each of the burglars interviewed went through in the aftermath as the FBI pulled out all the stops to find out who'd committed this act;  the author also examines the history of J.Edgar Hoover and the building of his empire within the FBI and his own unchecked growth of power; she examines what kinds of information the burglars found and publicized, including a word not seen before by the public: COINTELPRO and then the journalist who waged a years-long battle with the FBI to get to the root of exactly what COINTELPRO was; the post-publication call for investigation into the Bureau and into Hoover, especially after his death;  she also questions and tries to understand  the long period where there was virtually no oversight by Congress or anyone else for that matter.  Later, Ms. Medsger delves into the problems of a modern FBI whose bureaucratic structure is largely dominated by people of the same minds as Hoover -- and how our current politicians are using this agency and others to swing the pendulum back to a focus on domestic spying once again, especially against ordinary citizens whose opinions may not match with those who run our government.


Above all, much as in Tim Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI, the point is driven home that while there clearly is a need for national security, there comes a point when people have to understand that there's a fine line between protection of natural interests and the abuse or potential loss of civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.  And before anyone says "yeah, well, I've got nothing to hide so I don't care if these agencies know everything about me," think about another point raised in this book:  perhaps there may come a time in the future when, as Ms. Medsger notes, some form of tyrannical government forms -- and then the seemingly benign information that our intelligence-gathering agencies have gathered can be used against citizens with unlike minds.  I'm seriously NOT a conspiracy nut by any stretch of the imagination, but it is really good food for thought.

Obviously, there's much more to this book than I can possibly set down here so it's one that people must read for themselves to experience the full wham! this book delivers.  I hope it's not simply a matter of preaching to the choir, because The Burglary deserves the widest audience possible.  Ms. Medsger has done a most thorough job here, and is fair in her assessments of how and why Hoover could get away with what he did for so long.  Reader response so far has been very favorable, and like most people who've come away very impressed, I highly, highly recommend this book.

 as an addendum, I somehow bought two copies of this book, so if you live in the US and you'd like my extra copy, be the first to leave a comment here on this post saying you want it. I will pay postage; all you have to do is to email me with an address.