Wednesday, December 9, 2015

High on my favorites list for this year -- Josephine Tey: A Life, by Jennifer Morag Henderson

Sandstone Press, 2015
426 pp


Sterling, superb, and all manner of superlatives -- this book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Josephine Tey.  She is one of my all-time favorite mystery novelists, but her career and her life go well beyond just that of a few books.

As writer Val McDermid notes about Tey in her introduction to this book,
"Biographical information has always been scant, mostly because that's the way this most private of authors wanted it. The brief details on her book jackets reveal that Tey was born Elizabeth MacKintosh and that she also enjoyed success under another pseudonym -- Gordon Daviot, author of the West End hit Richard of Bordeaux, the springboard that launched John Gielgud to stardom.
Sometimes they mention that she was a native of Inverness who lived most of her life there. But until now, Josephine Tey was herself the greatest mystery at the heart of her fiction." (xviii)
Well, that's all changed now with the publication of Jennifer Morag Henderson's  Josephine Tey: A Life.  Henderson has done an invaluable service to Tey fans everywhere through her meticulous research:  as McDermid reveals, Henderson has been through Tey's family papers, as well as material that's never been published before to produce this simply amazing biography that
"gives us the chance to understand what shaped Beth MacKintosh into the writer she became." (xix)
 As the author explains, the book "aims to present the story of Beth's life -- of her many different lives.." and to set her "full body of work" in terms of Tey's life and within "the context of the literary canon."   It seems to me that Ms. Henderson has deftly and most thoroughly accomplished what she set out to do here. Tey was not just an amazing novelist (as most readers of her work like myself consider her), but a well-established, well-respected playwright whose performances featured such actors as John Gielgud, a screenwriter (which I did not know), a devoted daughter who helped take care of the family business and then her father and their home when he became very ill, and through it all, she continuously shunned the limelight, preferring her private life over her public one. The book is structured into three parts:

  1. 1896-1923: Elizabeth MacKintosh
  2. 1924-1945: Gordon Daviot
  3. 1946-1952: Josephine Tey

although as you read it, you come to realize that these divisions are not so cut-and-dried or as rigid  as they look here.  In fact,  there's so much here about this woman's life that frankly, if you're a Tey reader, you will not want to miss a single word.

I'll leave the serious discussions about specific content, etc., to those far more wiser than myself who are skilled in analysis or to those who know much more about Tey than I ever will. Speaking from the vantage point of an avid Tey fan,  sometime after I'd read this book I reread her A Shilling For Candles, and I wrote the following about the experience on the crime page of this online reading journal:
"Having just recently finished Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography of the author,  Josephine Tey: A Life ...  I find myself completely in agreement with her -- the more a Tey reader understands about her life, the easier it is to appreciate  and to understand her work.  I wish the biography had come out sooner; now I feel like I ought to go back and reread more of Tey's crime novels for better perspective."
I genuinely mean what I wrote there -- once I'd read this biography, it really opened my eyes as to just how much of MacKintosh, Daviot, and Tey went into her books.  Josephine Tey: A Life should be a must-read, cannot-miss part of any serious Tey reader's library; it's a book Tey fans will come back to over and over again.  It's a flat-out stunner of a biography, and Ms. Henderson deserves all of the praise that I'm sure will be coming her way because of it.

Thank you once again to Keara at Sandstone for the heads-up.  I absolutely loved this book, and very, very highly recommend it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

real-life Law and Order: Crooked Brooklyn, by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2015
255 pp

hardcover (my copy from the publisher, thank you!)

The Rackets Division of the Brooklyn DA's office was where the author (Michael Vecchione) of this absorbing memoir "always wanted to be."  With co-author Jerry Schmetterer, Vecchione invites his readers to join him in a look back at his career.  Vecchione headed the division for over a decade, and was involved in several very high-profile cases that "struck Court Street like an earthquake."  I have to say that it took me longer than normal to read this book, not because of the book itself but because as I started to become more absorbed in his story, I grabbed my iPad and spent quite a bit of time finding more info on these big corruption cases as I read.

To whet potential reader appetites, here's just a very brief preview of a few cases that readers will find in here, most of which had repercussions that spread outward like a ripple in a pond:

  • the crooked ADA known as the Undertaker, "the nephew of a community political leader"  
  • a judge who held up the disbursement settlement in the case of a "permanently brain-damaged" baby by demanding $250,000 from the family's attorney before signing any papers
  • another judge who ruled on the side of whoever would pay him the most, took bribes and gifts from attorneys (this one just killed me -- a woman's custody of her children hung in the balance)
  • a huge case that brought down the "corrupt Democratic county leader and number three man in the New York State Assembly," which Vecchione notes would expose "the dirty political machine that ran Brooklyn politics -- a huge eye opener for me as Vecchione reveals how things worked in Democratic party politics at the time (and face it, probably still works on some level in the same way even now) 
  • two "Mafia cops," NYPD detectives who were "carrying out hits for the Mafia" 
  • the case of the theft of bones from a funeral home used to build a doctor's fortune
and more.  Personally,  the corruption doesn't surprise me -- I'm sure that these sorts of things continue to happen on a daily basis in cities throughout the United States.  

Crooked Brooklyn makes for compelling reading.  Some of the cases in this book would also make for great movie material.  The downside is that I found it to be a little disorganized in the writing itself -- for example, Vecchione would be talking about a particular case and then in the middle of the story, would go back in time, most of the time talking about something in his personal life that would bring us right up to where he'd left off.  To be very honest, from a reader point of view, when he would do that it was a bit distracting when all I wanted to do was to get back to the cases that to me were the high point of this book.

I have to say that I disagree with the reviewer who wrote about this book in Kirkus Reviews, who stated
"However, the author’s focus on courtroom maneuvering and investigative procedures can become tedious without greater context regarding New York’s labyrinthine government and history of corruption."
I didn't find this to be the case -- a) he does briefly touch on the Tammany machine in this book, b) it is certainly not at all tedious; in fact, the opposite is true, and c) "New York's labyrinthine government and history of corruption" are not the focus of this book, so I don't think that the reviewer is playing fair here. The dustjacket blurb says that this book is "perfect for fans of television shows like Law & Order, readers of true crime, and those hungry for details about the system that keeps us safe." Having watched hundreds of hours of Law and Order  in my day (the original -- not the spinoffs), and cheering on Jack McCoy in his long-running crusade for justice, I'd say that the blurber gets it right.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
441 pp (followed by photos)

Paul Theroux has written some incredible travel narratives -- my favorites (of the ones I've read) are his Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster, but there's something to enjoy about all of his books. In Deep South, it's the author's ability to a) reflect the beauty of the southern landscape through his writing and b) encourage strangers he meets to open up about their lives that really made this narrative work for me.

Theroux has traveled all over the planet, but in this book he's changed directions and stays in his own country -- more specifically, he makes several tours through the "deep south," discovering and examining the paradoxes that exist there. Making his way through South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta area by car, he spends four seasons visiting some of the poorest rural areas in this part of the country. He takes to the "proud highway, the rolling road," starting from Cape Cod with no specific destination in mind, at least on the first trip.  What he discovers (among many other things) is that, as Faulkner noted in his Requiem for a Nun, "the past is never dead. It's not even past."  I will leave it to others to find out why and how this is true, because I could go on at some length about what he encounters on his various sojourns -- there's a lot packed into these pages.  

To be very honest, there were parts of this book that were repetitive that I didn't care for much -- the repeated visits to gun shows and the discourse on why there are so many Patels who own seedy motels in the South are just two examples of overkill here  -- but if you can get past that, he does have some very good points to make in this book.  Most eye opening to me is the idea that many of the poorest areas in the southern United States are that way because of the ongoing legacy of the South's racist past combined with the loss of industry (moved to foreign countries after NAFTA was passed) that put huge numbers of people who had decent, steady jobs out of work and into the margins of society. There's another thread running through this narrative about how the US Government spends way more money on helping people in third world countries with housing, etc., while ignoring its own people; the upside, however,  is that there are a number of people in these small pockets of rural poverty who are there to help the locals through various programs supported by grants and other sources of funding. It's not enough, but it is definitely a move in the right direction. Here, as he notes,  the poor are "less able to manage and more hopeless than many distressed parts of Africa and Asia," and that the United States, "singular" in its "greatness," "resembles the rest of the world in its failures."   

Maybe Deep South isn't perfect, but I've been on some of those roads in Alabama when we did an African-American  Heritage Trail roadtrip and I have to say, he's captured the landscape, the poverty and the racism that I witnessed for myself along the way. He has also captured the cautious but overall warm attitudes of the people he meets on his travels that I  experienced as well.  Let's just say that whoever says we're living in a post-racial society hasn't seen what I have during my own travels.  There is at least one professional reviewer who sees this book as reopening "Deep South cliches,"  and there are several naysayers among readers who complain about Theroux's "agenda", but this is a book a reader must judge for himself or herself. To me it was a real eye opener of a narrative -- strengthened  by the stories of people who live the realities of the Deep South on a daily basis. 

Recommended but watch out for the ongoing repetition that just sort of needlessly weighs this book down.  And maps would have been helpful -- but the photos at the end of the book are just amazing. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire, by Shane White

St.  Martin's Press, 2015
360 pp

hardcover -- my copy from the publisher, thank you!

"Jeremiah Hamilton took New Yorkers on at their own game and beat them at it." -- 317

It's very interesting that Shane White would choose Jeremiah Hamilton as the subject of his study, since there is very little information on this man to be had. Even though he was "Wall Street's First Black Millionaire," "sui generis, typical of nothing," almost nothing is known about him, which seems quite odd -- after all, in the 1850s, an African-American man with the kind of wealth Hamilton had amassed was unusual; given that he was also a "Wall Street adept, a skilled an innovative financial manipulator," it seems to me that there would be a LOT of material out there from which White could pick and choose.  But it didn't turn out that way -- Hamilton, in White's words, "became all but invisible" for over a century, even though he'd lived and worked in New York for more than forty years. No dissertations, no articles, and not even a mention in the African American National Biography completed in 2008 to be had about this man.  So Shane White had to rely on New York City's public records for his study -- "Newspapers, court cases and government files," as he notes, but there is pretty much nothing directly from Hamilton himself.  I mention the lack of documentation here because it is important to remember this fact as you go through the book.  It is important for the reader to understand that while there is certainly plenty going on in Hamilton's orbit that White carefully puts together, sometimes the book ranges off into looking at other, more influential people of the time rather than staying focused on White himself.  What really sold me on this book though was the combination of what little could be found on the man and the background history of the attitudes of antebellum white New Yorkers toward African-Americans.

from find a grave,  Jeremiah Hamilton, sans the long flowing wig he was known for wearing

Just briefly, Jeremiah G. Hamilton starts in this book as an enigma.  Even his birthplace is unknown -- he either came from somewhere in the Caribbean or from Virginia, both of which he claimed as true on various census reports.  In Haiti he was involved in a huge counterfeiting scheme as a very young man, but managed to escape imprisonment and come to New York, and the people behind the whole criminal enterprise remained a mystery while being grateful.  Hamilton began borrowing cash left and right (spawning several interesting lawsuits since he decided he'd much rather not pay back the money and really pissing off a lot of people), but the kicker came with Manhattan's 1835 "Great Fire" when a number of records were destroyed and Hamilton decided that with nothing legal linking him to anything, all he had to do was to deny that any transactions had occurred, walking away with the cash. This is how he ended up being known as "The Prince of Darkness."  He "never believed in turning the other cheek," was the instigator of several lawsuits himself, using "the fine print in legal documents as a razor." He was also a  man that a person never crossed without some sort of retaliation, as one judge found out the hard way. His eccentricities included wandering the streets wearing a long, dark, flowing wig, but people were used to this.   Hamilton was married to a white woman with whom he had children and lived well; this fact came to a head only during the Draft riots of the early 1860s when a mob took issue with the mixed marriage and stormed his house looking for him. But on the whole, he was a lucky man -- White notes that
"To a considerable extent, money insulated from the worst of the city racial problems. He could live in his nice house on East Twenty-Ninth Street, looking back down to the city, and feel that he and his family were relatively safe." 
Hamilton didn't really socialize with other African-Americans, and actually at one point had to declare bankruptcy.  Interestingly enough, as White notes, in the census reports of 1850, 1860 and 1870 he "was counted as a white individual;" even when he died of pneumonia in 1875 the doctor failed to fill in the entry for Color. According to White,
"it seems that, neither for the first nor the last time in American history, money lightened the color of an individual's skin." 
Hamilton was indeed lucky -- as White points out, racism was rampant in New York City of the time, and segregation akin to what would later become known as Jim Crow was everywhere.  The background history of racism in New York was actually my favorite part of this book -- a definite eye opener since I'd always thought that  so many freemen and slaves came North and had been welcomed.   And while there was no slavery in New York, white people were still on edge because of the independence of Haiti -- White does an excellent job linking the overthrow of Haiti's colonial masters to the rising fear of African-Americans in the United States of the time, both north and south.

While I enjoyed this book for the most part, the problem with White's account lies in the very fact that there's very little real information about the guy outside of the public records and newspapers and he seems to want to make up for it by adding in more than is technically necessary.   As a result, along with the history of race relations of the time (which as I've stated was quite good and definitely a much-needed part of this book), he tends to expand sections by telling his readers about the growth of the newspapers, the lives of other prominent people in New York (both white and African-American), etc., and sometimes I found myself sort of skimming through hoping to get back to Hamilton.  I'm someone who can sit down with books of history that are not meant for the general public and love them, so I don't think it's my attention span.  

Overall, I don't know if I'd really classify this book as a work of history for the general public, but it is definitely well worth reading on many levels.  If nothing else, just the  fact that Hamilton was the first African-American millionaire but he's not even listed  in the African American National Biography begs the question of why he's been ignored for so long and why historically, he's a forgotten figure. And considering that Mr. White spent years of his life trying to find out who this man really was and had very little to go on, I'd say he's done a fine job here and gave his subject as much life as he possibly could.  You really can't ask for much more.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, by Justin Gifford

Doubleday, 2015
265 pp

hardcover, sent to me by the publisher. Thank you!

I'm really liking my new idea of picking up a book about someone I know absolutely nothing about and letting it speak to me.  Two days ago I'd never even heard of Robert Beck/Iceberg Slim and now I'm beyond eager to read his work; two of his books should be arriving at my house this week.  Street Poison is in a word amazing.  

It took author Justin Gifford over ten years to research and put together this book, and right up front he says that at "first glance" writing about a guy who'd been a pimp for twenty-five years might seem to be "an appalling choice for a biography," since we're talking about someone who "abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime;" he also describes him as "one of the most influential renegades" of the past century.  On the other hand, even though "he is practically unknown to the American mainstream," Beck went on to write a number of novels as well as his autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life.  Robin D.G. Kelley, an historian whose work I respect, also notes in the New Yorker that it's not just in the mainstream where Iceberg Slim's work remains relatively unknown -- he states that he's "amazed" that "well-read people" are unfamiliar with Beck's writing as well.

As Gifford notes, Beck is a "mess of contradictions," --
"student at Tuskegee Institute, Chicago pimp with connections to the black mafia, amateur scholar of psychoanalysis, pulp paperback writer, family man, Black Panther Party sympathizer, Hollywood darling of the blaxploitation era, and godfather of hip-hop...all these things and more..."
 and that this  book "attempts to make sense of these seemingly incongruent identities." I will say I think Gifford does a very good job at trying to make his readers understand what factors went into the making of Iceberg Slim in each of these roles, and he uses Beck's writing to get to the heart of why his life took the path it did.  Two important factors Beck cites in his becoming "street poisoned" and turning pimp are sexual abuse at a very early age and his relationship with his mother after she'd split up with Beck's stepfather, who was the closest thing to a real father  providing the only stable family life he'd had up to that time in his life.

Gifford moves chronologically through Beck's life, using Beck's writings as well as other primary sources to present his readers with a picture of this man,  at times testing what Beck writes about himself "against the historical record."  Readers also get a view of the huge number of  challenges faced by African-Americans  in America's cities from the time of the Great Migration up through  1992 and the Rodney King Riots; the author also takes his readers into the growth of African-American activism and politics in general, but more importantly, directly into how events shaped Beck's politics and his writing, which ultimately inspired and greatly influenced a number of rap/hip-hop artists, blaxploitation films in Hollywood, and most importantly, a huge number of readers of his work. 

Let me tell you here and now that if you want nice-nice and sugar-coated life story, you are NOT going to get it here. Nor is it exactly "true crime," as I see that some people are regarding it.  It is downright gritty, mean  and in a lot of places, just plain ugly -- not solely in terms of the abuse of women, but also in white America's racist policies and tactics that kept segregation and the realities of Jim Crow an ongoing reality.  I'm also walking away with a huge desire to read the work of Iceberg Slim, who as I noted earlier, I had no idea even existed before picking up this book. As soon as I got past the preface and into his childhood, I couldn't look away no matter what, and I did an all-day readathon until I'd finished.  Highly highly recommended; this is the sort of book I just love.

 Please do visit Kelley's  New Yorker article about "The Fires That Forged Iceberg Slim", which is just downright great, in my opinion, and gives Iceberg Slim and this book a much more thorough examination than I ever could. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Meet a good husband and make a good life" -- Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The story of women in the 1950s, by Virginia Nicholson

Viking, 2015
with index, 526 pp


"Be a good girl
Lead a good life
Meet a good husband
And make a good wife." 
                           ---- (169)

My memory is a bit hazy about how this book came to my attention, but when I first saw the dustjacket cover, it reminded me a bit of the women of the 1950s that Anne Taintor uses as a backdrop for her sarcastic brand of humor that all too often hits home.   However, there's nothing Taintor-ish or humorous at all about Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes, which focuses on the lives of women in the UK from both working-class and privileged backgrounds during the 1950s.   Using a number of different sources -- diaries, interviews, memoirs, archives, newspapers, periodicals, the web etc., -- Virginia Nicholson offers her readers a very up-close and personal look at how women dealt with "some of the conflicting pressures and strains under which they lived" during this decade. For some women, it was a time of "ambitions, dreams and fulfillment," while for others, their stories combine to present a "narrative of fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness."  It is a spellbinding read; I hated having to put this book down for any reason. 

Nicholson examines the "tug of war" that was the "daily reality" of life for women during this decade. As she notes, it was 
"between society and the individual, prohibition and permissiveness, conformity and independence, passivity and ambition. Between identity -- and the empty shell."
It is through most of these stories of "fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness"  that the author skillfully finds a connection between these women -- from factory workers to debutantes presented at court to Princess Margaret -- that of being hemmed in by their family backgrounds or  the expectations of society. These women faced a number of "conflicting pressures and strains," encountered through sexism, class pressures, the reality of married life based mainly on the expectations of their spouses,  and in the case of an immigrant from Jamaica, the realities of racial prejudice. Another problem was education: since "society had determined that woman's place was in the home," and that "getting your man" was mattered most, a great deal of emphasis in a young woman's education went into preparing them in skills appropriate to their married futures.  While better-off girls were schooled  in such things as "poise and deportment," many pupils sat through classes in  "dairying, horticulture, cookery, dressmaking, mothercraft, and housecraft."  In one case, the girls were responsible for cleaning a "school flat... where they were expected to entertain the Headmistress to tea, prepare the meals, and to wash up afterwards."  Some girls from "segregated working-class communities" such as mining villages in the northeast,  were lucky if they could overcome their parents' ideas that education was wasted on girls, since "They only get married."  As the author notes, for these families,
"Educational deprivation was cyclical; stay-at-home mums lacked the vision or understanding to see how better schooling might advantage daughters otherwise fated to follow in their footsteps." 
Yet, even for those who managed to make their way through university, the prevailing point of view was that educated women were "NOT sexy," or even perhaps "spinsters or (whisper it) lesbians."  And speaking of gay women, Nicholson also touches on these women who had to fly "under the radar" because of the "almost pathological fear of lesbianism" that existed during these times.  In one case, a woman was committed to an "insane asylum" where after having confessed that she "had feelings for women," was sent for "aversion therapy," that "wrecked her for months."  Another big issue during this time were single girls who became pregnant and the sense of shame that their condition brought to their families; one woman in nursing school  who grew up totally ignorant of sex because her mother never told her anything got pregnant as a young teen and was sent to a home for unwed mothers to have her baby.  On her return, no one talked about where she'd been although most people in her small town already knew she hadn't been away "nursing" as her mom wanted her absence explained.

Many women, having been through the war years and having learned how to be independent,  now faced an entirely different set of standards. A number of women in this book dreamed of having a career, and some did go on to become "illustrious," but as Nicholson points out, "It took luck, talent and a different kind of ambition to break the mould and fashion your own life" in this decade. However, many successful women were often viewed as "misfits," since either they were unmarried (or as seen by society as unable to "find a husband,") or because of their independent natures that left them "unwilling to conform."   Some experienced  a sense of powerlessness and of isolation.   Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes also reveals a decade full of women's angst and emotional turmoil from the highest echelons of British society on down the ladder. The author quotes widely from several women she interviewed (and from other sources, many of these interviews and diaries) and adds in her own commentary to build a picture of the decade.  She makes it clear that while some women seemed happy with their marriages and their lives, there were plenty of others who were not. She also manages to incorporate how communities were built among women for friendship and for support. But, as Nicholson also reminds us, the sixties were right around the corner, and things were on the verge of looking up --  and many of these same women laid the  groundwork for a better life ahead for the next generation.

Ken Russell: The Teddy Girls

If you look at some of the reader reviews of this book written by women or men who lived during the 1950s, the majority praises Ms. Nicholson for capturing what women's lives were like at the time.  Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes is a captivating read.  There are parts of this book where the author sort of rambles, and I felt several times that it could have been pared down a bit, but overall, it's a really good, well-written social/cultural history that I couldn't put down. I'm not from the UK,  but the book held my interest and kept me turning pages.  

definitely recommended.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meno male che Silvio c’è: Being Berlusconi, by Michael Day

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
274 pp

hardcover; my copy from the publisher. Thank you!

"His only value is money and his only objective to save himself."

My introduction to this "Teflon tycoon," believe it or not, was through reading the Salvatore Montalbano novels  of Andrea Camilleri, one of my all-time crime-fiction novelists. I've been reading him for years;  he's another crime-fiction writer who integrates social and political commentary into his work, and Berlusconi has been a target of his for some time.  Then in June 2011 (I just plowed through my back issues to check the date) I was reading my New Yorker and I found an article called "Basta Bunga Bunga" by Ariel Levy which perked up my interest in this man even more,  and I've been following his antics ever since. And trust me, he is a man worth watching.  When I first got this book in the mail, the cover made it look like a tabloidish sort of thing so I was a bit hesitant, but as things turned out, I didn't need to worry at all -- not Day's style.

The subtitle of the book, "The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga" is an apt descriptor of what this book covers. Author Michael Day has tracked Berlusconi's rise from his first inroads into his multi-billion dollar empire (reputedly with money from the Mafia)  through his being banned from ever seeking political office again and the sex scandals which became very public  --  a) a colorful story to say the least and b) a reminder of exactly what can happen when one man (and his cronies) abuses his power of office.    Just to set the record clear, in answer to one reader-reviewer's comments, Being Berlusconi is not meant to be the ultimate biography of this Italian former prime minister; rather, it is exactly as stated in the title: it is the story of Berlusconi's rise as a businessman (through real estate and sleaze TV)  and politician and then his decline and fall from political grace. Day takes the reader through his subject's  three terms as prime minister, clearly evoking the high levels of corruption emanating from his office ( For example, in the face of legal trouble, Berlusconi's parliamentary supporters simply came up with laws designed to make it nearly impossible for any decisive court action to touch them, or they bought off magistrates), but also examining the hot-ticket items (taxes, especially) that would convince voters to keep this man in office, despite everything he's done.  Day also puts Italy's politics and culture into perspective, explaining why people were so taken with Berlusconi.  He explains  the existence of Italy's "all-pervasive" culture of
 "partisanship and cronyism -- with family, friends and tribe doing everything in their power  to keep their their grubby grip on social financial advantage,"
and how Berlusconi "exploited Italians' adherence to the creed," taking "its grip on the country to a whole new level," causing him not to work "in the best interests of the nation," but rather to keep alive "the friendships and loyalties" he needed to sustain his "business interests, runaway libido and legal battles."

 While most people probably are aware of Berlusconi for his sex-related scandals with young girls (including the notorious "Bunga Bunga" and Rubygate scandals), Day clearly shows that there's more to this guy than just being a lecherous politician  -- while he certainly delves into Berlusconi's amoral side,  he reveals exactly how intelligent and savvy this guy really was, literally stopping at nothing to increase his political and economic clout. While "Bending the rules and benefitting (sic)  from friendships, acquaintances and associations is endemic to Italy," Berlusconi clearly made it an art form.  As Day states, the reality was that  Berlusconi "simply -- and very skillfully -- exploited ambivalence toward the rule of law that was already there."    At the same time, the author shows his readers a Berlusconi who is plainly an idiot. As just one example, he showed up uninvited at a Holocaust memorial ceremony held in Milan,
"...which marked the opening of the commemorative site at the city's Central Station.It was from this forbidding fascist-era structure that thousands of Italian Jews were sent in trains to the death camps" 
Berlusconi snoozed through the entire ceremony, then when it was over, took to the press to say that Mussolini "hadn't been that bad -- apart from those slightly draconian race laws -- and had done some 'good things.' " Or then there's the time, after the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake where he said something along the lines of how people made homeless because of this devastating quake should look on it as an adventure -- a sort of camping trip.  As one person summed up Berlusconi so nicely, "His only value is money and his only objective to save himself."

at the Milan Holocaust ceremony from The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2013 (photo by Daniel Dal Zennaro)
Being Berlusconi is a fascinating look at this "trash-TV mogul" who over the course of three terms as Prime Minister "left Italy to economically stagnate, morally decay and in some cases, physically fall apart."  If you have to ask who is Berlusconi, it is either not the book for you OR it is a great place to start if you're at all interested in the people behind the scenes of international politics.  It is in no way boring -- and seriously, every time I'd turn a page I'd wonder just what this guy was going to do next.  To answer reader's criticisms of this book, it is definitely not meant to be a tabloidish sort of exposé or a trashy beach read, so if that's what you're expecting, forget it.  This guy, plain and simple, is a living example of the perils of letting personal interests come before the needs of a nation.

my thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for my copy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, by Emily Bingham

FSG, 2015
369 pp


 I rarely, and I do mean rarely, ever pick up a biography about someone I've never heard of before.  Normally I have at least some sort of fleeting knowledge of the subject, or  I choose books where I'm quite familiar with the person under study, but not in this case.  Had it not been for the little blurb about this book in The New Yorker,  I probably would never have even known this book had been published.  As things turned out, I was totally captivated by the story of this "wealthy, charismatic lesbian debutante from Kentucky."  On the other hand, sometimes I wasn't as enthralled by the writing (more later), but Bingham's story kept me up reading through the night and on into the entire next day.  I seriously couldn't put it down.

Just briefly, Irrepressible is written by Emily Bingham, a great-niece of Henrietta Bingham's, and she literally tries to "unpack" Henrietta's story as the book moves along. She'd always known about her great-aunt, the one the family called "an invert," but in an attic of the family home, Emily Bingham discovered quite a treasure trove of  Henrietta's belongings (including letters) that set her on the path to discovering for herself just who this woman actually was.

 Henrietta was born in 1901; her family at the time was quite socially prominent, the Bingham family achieved quite a raise in status and financial circumstance after father Robert's second marriage to Mary Lily Flagler, widow of Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler.  But I'm a bit ahead of the story here.  Henrietta's mother, Babes, was killed in a horrible car accident when Henrietta was only twelve; coming up on a railroad crossing, the driver of the car (Henrietta's uncle) took a moment to wipe the dust off of his glasses, and somehow failed to notice the oncoming train.  Henrietta was there when it happened; her father wasn't, but ever since that horrible and traumatic event,  her father (often referred to as "The Judge") came to depend on Henrietta for emotional support even after he married Mary Lily and then again when he married a third time, on which occasion, the author notes, Henrietta spent five hours vomiting in reaction to the news.   As the author notes, 
"Her mother's death before her eyes left an open wound -- an an opening for an unusually close partnership with her father that both empowered her and made her weak."
This strange sort of interdependence between father and daughter had a beyond-huge effect on Henrietta's life, a point that the author returns to time and again throughout the book.  As one reviewer puts it, she became "an emotional surrogate" for the Judge's "adored dead wife" even through his two marriages, right up to the time of his death.

Henrietta's story is compelling -- from her romantic affair with her English professor at Smith (Mina Kirstein) at the age of 21 until her death in 1968.  Emily Bingham has done an amazing amount of research about her great-aunt; sadly, information about her later life is rather lacking in terms of documentation.   She takes us slowly through Henrietta's life as she charmed and romanced members of the Bloomsbury set in 1920s London, started a long-term course of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, initially at Mina's behest (Kirstein hoping Jones could "cure" her of her own homosexual tendencies).  As it turned out, Jones became someone in whom she could confide about the "seductive ambivalence" toward the Judge, which ultimately would add to Henrietta's emotional and mental burden, even though the psychoanalysis "did not banish the anxiety and depression that stalked her."  We are privy to her various affairs with both men and women, her desire not to constantly be at her father's beck and call so that she could have some measure of freedom,  her unflagging support of her father when he became FDR's Ambassador to Britain just prior to the beginning of World War II (a position which was later taken over by Joseph Kennedy) and then her life, at least what's known about it  through the Judge's death and beyond.   One of the key ideas in this book is that while Henrietta had a large measure of freedom in terms of same-sex affairs as a young woman as long as she didn't flaunt things (her father even gave his tacit approval to her lesbian relationship with a tennis star with whom she lived while he served as ambassador), but as times changed, shifting morals,  homophobia, and Henrietta's status vis a vis her family's prominence in Kentucky  added to her already-overburdened mental state and ultimately contributed to her mental deterioration.

While I loved the subject and while I was cliche-ingly glued to this book, there were times when I kind of did the odd eyeroll or two over the author's writing -- very minor quibbles, to be sure, but still a bit annoying. Sometimes when she was describing people in the Bloomsbury group, there seemed to be much more about them personally than about Henrietta's relationship to them until she turns things around and gets back on track again, steering things back toward relevance to Henrietta.  She tends to do this quite a bit in other places as well with other people in Henrietta's orbit.  Two other stylistic examples stuck in my head. First, when discussing Henrietta's doctor in the mid-1940s starting her on prescription drugs, she writes
"That fall, Dr. Ackerly prescribed Henrietta the barbituate secobarbital (or Seconal) to assist with her withdrawal from alcohol, but probably also to ease her anxiety and depression."  
That certainly isn't problematic, but then she goes on to note that "These were the 'dolls' made famous in the 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls."  Necessary point? I don't think so. Later, again in a section about an overdose, she writes
"She found stimulants such as Dexedrine and Dexamyl, which Henrietta took to face life each morning and to control her appetite, along with sedatives -- Seconal, Dormitol, and Dormison -- which she needed to close the world down again,"
followed by this: "Pharmaceuticals have their own cold poetry".  Huh??

I will say however that the things that make this such an intense and compelling novel -- Henrietta herself, her family's history, her ongoing desire for the freedom to be who she wanted to be and the obstacles that so often got in the way, as well as her later tragedies -- far outweigh my niggles with the occasional writing issues, making for one hell of a good book.

Get a copy. It's amazing.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, by Glenn Kurtz

Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
413 pp


Three Minutes in Poland is a stunner of a book that anyone even remotely interested in the Holocaust should read.

David and Liza Kurtz returned from a six-week European vacation in 1938.  Seventy-one years later, their grandson Glenn discovered some old film cans in his parents' closet.  Luckily, some of those films had been transferred to video, and Glenn starts to watch one labeled "Our Trip to Holland Belgium Poland Switzerland France and England." He discovered three minutes of footage shot during the grandparents' time in Poland, a place that his father and his aunt named as Berezne, where David's grandmother was born. These three minutes show "a vibrant Jewish community in the summer of 1938," but by the end of the war, only 150 Jews out of 3,000 from Berezne had survived.   The original film, badly deteriorated,  was handed over to the Holocaust Memorial Museum where it was sent out for restoration.  With a copy of a DVD of the footage in hand, Kurtz went to visit a distant cousin of his grandmother's, who watched the film and "within a second," revealed to Kurtz that the segments in Poland had not been shot in Berezne.  Glenn realizes that the film was more likely shot in Nasielsk, his grandfather's home town thirty five miles northwest of Warsaw.  The Jews in this town had their lives turned upside down in 1939, just one year after his grandparents' visit; the majority of them met their fate in Treblinka in 1942.  Only eighty of them survived.  A conversation with one of these survivors led to a positive identification of the town as Nasielsk, and Kurtz began a thorough search for any information about the people who had lived there.

While he is spending time in libraries, museums, archives etc., someone else who is digging through historical records comes across Kurtz's film online at the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archive.  He sends a link to family members and one of them, while watching the footage, recognizes her grandfather as a boy.  From there Kurtz meets Morris Chandler, who became invaluable to Kurtz. Not only does Chandler have his memories, but Chandler also provides Kurtz with connections to survivors who are still living. From that meeting on, Three Minutes in Poland becomes a story of how Kurtz begins to piece together people's lives in Nasielsk, his grandparents' visit in 1938, and what ultimately happened to the Jews who lived there, as their last days approached starting in 1939.   As Chandler says,
"It's looking back and saying, Yes, there was a world. Other than what we have lived all these years, knowing what happened. It was a real word there. I mean, people were going about their business. Kids were running, and doing all the things that kids do. And here I look at myself, and I see it was a happy face."
But he also notes
"I was never a child. I mean, right after this, the whole thing started, and I became an old man of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen."
 If you watch the film, Kurtz comments there that this three minutes of footage and Chandler's memories, "brought the town into memory again as a place of life instead of just a place of death." Considering what happens only one year after it's shot, it's a beautiful and fitting sentiment. Three Minutes in Poland is filled with survivors' stories -- and every time another connection was made, it became
"a small remnant of the web of interrelations that exists in any town. Before its destruction, the town itself -- its culture, its gossip, its physical life -- had held these connections."
The film becomes "the medium that brought the pieces together, unexpectedly creating a new kind of community," and as the blurb notes, this three minutes "became the most important record of a vibrant town on the brink of extinction."

It is a stunning, beautiful and eerie book, to be sure, and I am already thinking of a number of people to whom I'm going to give a copy.  It is a detective story of sorts, one that takes its readers back to a time of great loss, but also into the vibrant lives of real people. The author's passion shines through on every page, and it is so well written that even without the photos that are scattered throughout the book, I could visualize things in my head very clearly. When you read a book like this one, you will never forget it.

I won't.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovály

Holmes & Meier, 1997
originally published 1973 as Na vlastní kůži
translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein, "with the author"
192 pp


Finding this book was a stroke of luck, actually.  After having read Kovály's novel Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street (Soho, June 2015), I realized that the crime component of that book wasn't the entire story there.  The time, the place, and the people are what really stuck out for me, and it hit me that the story going on all around the mystery was much more important than the crime itself. I decided that I absolutely had to know more about this woman, and bought this book. What better place could there be to find out what motivated her than her own memoirs?  Under a Cruel Star is a short but very powerful book, one that you won't forget after you've finished it. It is a story of a woman who managed to survive during two extremely repressive regimes; it is also an examination of human nature and the moral choices people make under these circumstances.

Kovály's memoir covers a span of time from 1941 to 1968.  The author found herself part of the  "mass deportation" of the Jews from Prague that began in 1941, where, along with her family, she was sent to the Łódź ghetto.  They joined "close to one hundred thousand Polish Jews living in unimaginable conditions," but  Kovály found herself transported to Auschwitz before the end of the war and taken to do labor at another work camp.  As the Russian troops were advancing and were "so close to our camp that we could hear the rumbling of battle," the Nazis evacuated the camp, making the prisoners walk under heavy guard from Poland into Germany.  During this journey, the author and a small group of women decided to make a break for freedom and made it back to the Czech border.  Upon arriving in Prague, she discovered that trying to find food and shelter, even from friends, was not an easy task. Even her very best friend who had promised her family that he would do anything he could for them, reacts with horror when she knocks on his door.  After asking her what sense it would make "to risk one life for another," he admits that he's driven by fear -- after all, on the streets, columns were posted with lists of names who had been "executed for crimes against the Reich," which often meant entire families had been killed for trying to help, as she writes, "someone like me." Luckily, Kovály was taken in and helped by the Resistance up until the end of the war, when it was safe to return from hiding. During this time she married her husband Rudolf.

Yet, as she writes,  survivors were always not welcomed home with opened arms -- they'd often find themselves coming back to no home, or to trusted friends who'd kept their property and who now denied anything had been left with them.  Even worse, when they tried to get legal help, they were often scorned:
"It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in the corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer's sonorous voice would boom through the crack, 'You would have thought we'd be rid of them finally, but no, they're impossible to kill off -- not even Hitler could manage it. Every day there're more of them crawling back, like rats..."
The survivors -- the Jews, partisans, returning political prisoners -- also had to contend with black marketeers and former collaborators who turned the Nazi defeat to their own advantage. Bureaucracies forced the returnees to jump through near-impossible hoops to get their lives going again.   Kovaly notes that she didn't find it surprising that people would turn to Communism, due to the "sheer despair over human nature which showed itself at its very worst after the war." Other factors (including the failure of prewar democratic ideals, the forsaking of the country by Western Allies, and the liberation of Prague by the USSR, plus blatant lies of citizens who'd lived in the Soviet Union) helped to set the stage for the rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia.  The author also states that "the most eagerly embraced belief of the time was that no national or racial oppression could exist under Communism."  While true that not everyone joined the Communist Party, Heda and her then husband Rudolf Margolius did, buying into the idea that building socialism would result in "peace, in an industrially-advanced country, with an intelligent, well-educated population."  But, as she goes on to explain, by the early 1950s these ideals had been largely forgotten and things had decidely turned for the worse, even though her husband had a high-level position in the new government. Arrests were being made under the "direct guidance of Soviet advisors whose task it was to purge the ranks;" ironically, as she says, those who had never joined the Party actually enjoyed a "temporary respite." Her husband, sadly, became a victim of the purges, despite his high Ministry position, he was arrested and eventually  executed as part of the Slanksy affair which resulted in other arrests, a series of show trials,  and state-ordered executions in 1952.

The bulk of this book is in how Heda survived after her husband's arrest, his official ouster from the Party, and his death. For her, it was a time in which she lost everything but her son.  Her name was enough to deny her even the most basic necessities -- for example,  once while at death's door she was turned out of a hospital when they discovered who she was. Her work was terminated and she was left wondering how to make ends meet. Only a few brave people would continue to even associate with her and even some of her son's friends were no longer allowed to play with him. She spares nothing in describing how all-encompassing life under the Communists could be -- the regime reached down into every aspect of life, controlling seemingly ordinary people through brutality and fear. Ironically, while the average citizen on the street finds his or her life sliding into chaos, the powers-that-be led altogether different lifestyles.  Her account ends with a brief Prague Spring under 1968 before the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; she herself left the country shortly afterwards.

There were times while I read this book that I was appalled, but quite frankly, there were times when I could seriously understand why some people made the choices that they did. While Under a Cruel Star is a very personal story, it can also be seen as an exploration of human nature under the most arduous and extreme conditions.   You can also read it as an understanding of how the best of idealistic intentions can often result in a nightmare.  It is also a study in the effects of totalitarianism on everyday, average people who, because of the need  to survive in an atmosphere of complete fear, often feel compelled to choose self-interest over the welfare of  fellow human beings,  keeping their heads down and getting on with their lives. Thankfully, there were others who chose not to go that route, or the author and countless others like her might never have survived.  I don't often read memoirs but as difficult as this one was to get through at times, I'm very happy I did. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 6, 2015

coming soon to a bookstore near you: Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, by Stanley Meisler

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
238 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

Shocking Paris, according to the author Stanley Meisler, a "story of the foreign-born immigrant painters in Paris in the 1920s and the 1930," who collectively became known as The School of Paris -- "not a school or a movement in the usual sense ...simply a phenomenon of history."  He also notes that the story of the School of Paris is
"part of a much greater story of mass migration from the Russian empire because of religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship." 
Meisler discusses the School of Paris artists both individually and as a whole.  As a group he states that
"The artists of the School of Paris came to France in a mass and rare migration, honed their art in the schools and museums of France, ignored the styles of French painters as young as themselves and produced a host of exciting and unique works of art. A good deal of great art would have been lost if they had come to Paris and did nothing more than mimic the bland work of young French painters."
--  individually, he looks at artists such as Modigliani, Chagall, and Jules Pacsin.  But the "key artist" in this group, the man who gets the bulk of the attention here, is  Chaim Soutine.  This may be because when Meisler graduated from college in the early 1950s, he discovered a family connection to the artist, and as he notes, whenever he saw a Soutine painting in a museum afterwards, he gave it extra notice. The anti-social, anti-hygienic, often downright bizarre artist most definitely has an interesting story, especially once his work was discovered and people started trying to acquire his paintings and he literally went from rags to riches.  And while Soutine's life and work is definitely the main thrust of this book,  Shocking Paris also reveals much more:  a brief examination of Russia and the anti-Semitic policies that drove many artists to find a haven in France, a look at forces inside Jewish orthodoxy that also had an impact on some artists' emigration to Paris, a look at the changing art scene that had moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse, French anti-Semitism, the effects of outside forces (the Depression, or luck in finding a patron to support one's work) that had the potential to make or break an artist's career and set up rivalries among the artists, and then there's the exploration of the Nazi occupation of France that sent huge numbers of foreign-born Jews to the camps and sent some of the artists in this book into hiding. Moving chronologically through 20th-century French history, he intertwines these outside events with the stories of some of the artists of the Paris School, although I've already said, it is Soutine's work and life that is the main thrust of the book, so perhaps the title is a bit misleading.

Personally speaking, if he had just made this book about Soutine, it would be much more reflective of what Meisler's actually accomplished here than what the title makes the reader think is going to be in this book.  Even the paintings by artists of the Paris School he's chosen to illustrate this book are dominated by Soutine's works, and his "Aftermath" chapter is given largely over to discussions about Soutine.  At the same time, Soutine's life was anything but dull and makes for really good reading -- especially his life in hiding after the Nazi occupation.   As part of his focus on this artist, Meisler also points out the problems with trying to get a handle on the man from the biographical standpoint, and even from criticism of his works. For example, he notes how Jewish critics have come up with some "convoluted theses" about him by looking for Jewish content that isn't reflected in his work.

When all is said and done, the book is very reader friendly, interesting from an historical standpoint, and even if the reader knows absolutely nothing about the School of Paris or any of the artists that composed this group, Meisler makes the information accessible and interesting from the standpoint of human interest.  However, the focus on Soutine, while incredibly interesting, detracts a bit from what is seemingly implied by the title.  Still, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who may have an interest in the topic -- even though it's a bit top heavy on the Soutine side, it's still a good introduction to the Montparnasse art scene and the history of the time that helped to shape this group of incredible artists.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

Spiegel and Grau, 2015
366 pp

"There were pictures of three colored men wanted in Mississippi for murder. That meant they had killed a white man because killing a colored man wasn't considered murder in Mississippi."  

-- Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem, 36


The above quotation is something I happened to come upon recently in my reading, and it feels more than appropriate in connection with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside.   Ms. Leovy reveals in her book that African-American men have been "the nation's number one crime victims," only six percent of the population, but a staggering "40 percent of those murdered."  Her book focuses on the area of Los Angeles formerly known as South Central; more specifically, she zooms in on the Watts area, and part of her thesis is that more often than not, "the idea that murders of blacks somehow didn't count."  "Black-on-black" murders in Watts are rarely reported since the media prefers to focus on "the spectacles" -- "mass shootings, celebrity murders" etc.; in the recent past, the police would even report these kinds of killings as "NHI - No Human Involved."  Ms. Leovy's book reveals that despite popular opinion, the victims in this neighborhood weren't just druggies, gang members or people from dysfunctional families -- a number of innocent people from good families, with no history of breaking the law or gang membership also found themselves too often caught up in the violence that plagues this area.  She believes that for the most part, the LAPD failed in its job to keep these people safe; she cites a number of factors that underscore her idea that the scarcity of resources (including policemen that actually care about the people in the community they're supposed to watch over)  that should be afforded to these neighborhoods and to the law-abiding people who live there is, in fact, one of the factors that actually helped to perpetuate the violence, leading to the rise in gang-administered "justice."   As she notes, "The system's failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap," and the failure of the system to "respond vigorously to violent injury and death" paved the way for homicide to become "endemic."

 In examining the epidemic of violence that plagued Watts, she focuses on the case of Bryant Tennelle, an innocent, non-gang affiliated African-American and the youngest child of the family.  Bryant's father was a detective out of Robbery and Homicide, and he had made the decision years earlier to raise his family in the area. He had a nice home, nice neighbors, and the people there felt some measure of safety knowing that there was a cop in their midst.  His decision to live there contrasts the choice of many LAPD officers who opted to live in more distant neighborhoods or out of Los Angeles completely, for example in Simi Valley (where I used to live, and where there's an LA cop in every neighborhood).  Ms. Leovy's in-depth examination of all facets of the investigation into Tennelle's death reveals a multitude of problems not only in the context of the community (the crisscrossing of  rival gang territories, reluctant witnesses, etc), but also the problems in the LAPD -- unconcerned, unmotivated policemen,  the lack of resources (especially desperately needed overtime to tackle the sheer volume of cases still unsolved as well as those ongoing), problems in finding and training just the right people to work in the neighborhood ... and this list goes on.  Ms. Leovy also reveals that in fact there are those rare individuals who actually care -- and will go to great lengths not only to solve their cases, but also to help people when they can. One of these people is John Skaggs, "the antidote" who refused to believe that any life was cheap -- and went well out of his way to provide some measure of justice for the victims' families, and in the case of Tennelle's death, protection and help for the witnesses.

Jill Leovy has walked these streets for years; she was also embedded at the Seventy-seventh Division of the LAPD -- and in 2006, she started "The Homicide Report" at the website of the Los Angeles Times,  an attempt at providing  a "comprehensive, day-by-day accounting of every homicide in the county." When she started working on her book in 2008, she embedded herself yet again, accompanying the detectives of the Southeast Bureau as they made their way to "crime scenes, court hearing and interviews;" she also spent evenings and weekends with the families of victims, attending funerals and just walking the streets.

This book's publication coincides with recent events that have raised awareness of racism and the abuse of police powers, especially in connection with African-American communities.  It is an issue that is (I feel) of immediate concern and one which has crucial implications for everyone in this country. Not everyone will agree with Ms. Leovy's idea that more policing is necessary in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates; not every cop has the potential to be another John Skaggs or his devoted/caring colleagues in the LAPD.  In fact, while I was researching Ms. Leovy and her work on "The Homicide Report," I came across an article relating an "open letter" to the Madison, WI, police chief from the Young Gifted and Black Coalition calling for NO policing in their communities in the county:
"Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing."
Ghettoside has indeed been an eye-opener of a book, and while I don't agree with everything Ms. Leovy says here, the biggest idea that every reader of this book ought to come away with is that discounting or ignoring the violent deaths of African-Americans -- just because they're living in troubled communities and because they're not white --  under any circumstances is just wrong and should absolutely not be tolerated.   Discounting or ignoring the problems that affect lives in these communities  is also untenable.  Obviously, this is not a new problem that is limited to the neighborhoods in South Central in modern times; the quotation I started with shows that in 1957, writer Chester Himes was aware that black lives had no value as opposed to the lives of white people, and this attitude has been perpetuated (especially in the context of the criminal justice system)  from the beginning of our nation's history.   That's the real problem -- an even bigger one is how to solve it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

simply unputdownable: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Crown, 2015 (March)
448 pp

(arc - thank you, LTER and Crown Publishing)

My huge thanks to Library Thing's early reviewers' program for selecting me to read this book. I figured I had the proverbial snowball's chance in hell to win this book, since there were hundreds of people requesting only 15 or so copies.  I had even preordered the book betting that I wouldn't win. I'm not cancelling that order now; I know this is a book I want to read again.  

On May 7th, 1915 at 2:10 pm GMT, a single torpedo fired from a German U-boat slammed into the passenger liner RMS Lusitania; by 2:28, the ship was completely gone.  Okay, so that's old news -- everyone who's ever taken US history in school has at least been introduced to this information, normally related as one of the events leading up to neutral America's entry into World War I. [That's not quite the case, as it turns out -- America wouldn't start sending ships and troops over to Britain until two years later.]   So if this is a story that's already been told, why read about it again?  The answer is simple: it's written by Erik Larson, and it is darn-near perfect. And although I will always rank his Isaac's Storm my favorite of all of his books, this one comes very close. 

Mr. Larson sets up his account on a day-to-day basis, covering not only what's happening on board the ship during its voyage from New York to Liverpool,  but he covers what's going on in London, Washington DC, and occasionally Berlin. He also presents the unique perspective of the commander of the U-20, who ultimately gave the order to launch the torpedo that sunk the Lusitania.  He brings together and explains a "chance confluence of forces" that led to the sinking, beginning in New York the day of the Lusitania's departure.  He also reveals the story of the very hush-hush "Room 40," and how this secret "holy of holies" run by Winston Churchill had information regarding U-20 that somehow failed to be provided to the Lusitania's captain, which in hindsight would have saved hundreds of lives.  All of this is related in an account that grabs the reader's attention from the very beginning, then in Larson's very capable hands, builds little by little, gaining in suspense and tension all the way through to the end.  I mean, come on ... we know the ship sinks ... it's the getting there and the unfolding of all of the "confluence of forces" that kept me hanging onto each word.  Larson also discusses the events that came afterwards from the points of view of the Germans, the British and the Americans, up to two years and one day after the Lusitania went down along the coast of Ireland.   And if the historical parts fail to impress,  there are the personal stories of the passengers who survived this ordeal -- some of whom actually saw the torpedo coming straight at them while they were out on deck. 

RMS Lusitania. From
There's just something about the word "Lusitania" that has stirred the public imagination for years. It's been widely written about,  and its sinking has sparked long-standing controversy over what was in its hold or whether or not the British purposefully failed to protect it as a means to force America into the war.  Larson has picked a great topic here and he makes it very easy for anyone to understand not only the sequence of events both before, during and after the Lusitania went down, but also the significance of this event on the wider world stage.  He has done a tremendous amount of research for this project as revealed by his sources both primary and secondary, and provides notes in the back of the book for easy reference. He also mentions the help of Michael Poirier, who himself has done immense amounts of research on the Lusitania and other ocean liners, a name I was quite happy to see cited here -- if anyone knows his stuff, it's Poirier.  The reader does not need to have any sort of background in history nor does he or she need to know anything at all about the Lusitania to enjoy this book -- everything is so well explained here that you could absolutely hate history before going into Dead Wake, and come out a huge fan of this little slice of it. My biggest issue with this book is that I don't understand why he felt the need to include Woodrow Wilson's ongoing courtship of second wife Edith, a topic that took up way too much space and almost made Wilson's role as president superfluous until the events of 1917 that ended American neutrality.  

I am so happy to have read this book -- and it certainly was an eye-opener for me.  There is so much going on here, but as always, Larson keeps tight control over the material making it flow like a novel.  I am also happy to recommend it to anyone who is a regular Larson reader or anyone even remotely interested in the topic.  To use an old cliché, I could not put this book down -- it's that good. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

turning history on its head: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson

Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014
317 pp


Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back.  The idea that someone would write about the severed head's significance in the history of  "the civilized West" appealed to my fascination with the strange so I knew I had to read it.  After finishing the prologue about the history and fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, I knew I'd found something deliciously different here -- and that I had to finish this book in one go.

Sadly, the spectacle of  beheadings has come back into our lives full force with the public executions by radical terrorists in the Middle East after 9/11.  In her chapter titled "Deposed Heads," the author notes that only a month after the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the video made by his captors started circulating on the internet, and four months later the Boston Phoenix published a link on their website. When in May, 2004, engineer Nick Berg met the same fate, it only took days for the "unedited" video to be made available -- this time by Reuters, then picked up by US news networks. The online footage of the actual beheading
"remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week, and the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to 'American Idol.' "   
Even worse, the Dallas Morning News printed a photo of one of the terrorists holding Berg's severed head (although thankfully with face not visible),  saying that their decision followed "interest generated in the blogosphere," and that "not one of the 87 letters"  they'd received about it "called for these images not to be printed."

And now with the advent of ISIS,  beheadings are once again in the public sphere, "a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear" with "maximum visibility, maximum resonance" as well as its power to encourage "maximum fear."   The author notes that
"by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play."
As someone who didn't follow that herd, while it's hard for me to believe that in this day and age there are people who freely choose to watch someone's murder online, it is a known fact that audiences have been  drawn to executions for centuries, "ready to enjoy the spectacle."

But even outside the sphere of public beheadings and executions, the author uses her book to draw the reader's attention to the very human fascination with human heads.  Over the course of several chapters, she chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.

Ms. Larson writes very well and immerses the reader right away. Sometimes it's obvious that she's adopting a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny attitude toward her subject, but most of the time she's quite serious. The book is easily accessible, very reader friendly and each chapter includes not just facts, but strong analysis as well.  I think a chapter on "decapitations in literature" to go with her chapter about art would have been a strong addition.  My only complaint is that the first time she made a statement and I went to look for endnotes, there weren't any.  I'm one of those readers who enjoy noting down sources as they appear -- and even though she has a sizable bibliography at the end of the book, it was incredibly frustrating not to know an exact source of information as it was given in the text.  I was also a little disappointed at her disclaimer at the beginning of her section on sources where she writes that she intended the book as a "popular account" so did not cite names in the text.  She also notes that "detailed notes" are available at her website, but jeez -- stopping my reading to go look online (even with Ipad next to me) is a lot to ask a person to do. Other than that  not-so-minor quibble,  it's definitely a book worth reading on what is to me a fascinating and sadly relevant topic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and his Daughter's Quest to Know Him, by Mimi Baird

Crown, 2015
272 pp

arc -- my thanks to LibraryThing and to the publisher for my copy

Mimi Baird was just a little girl of six when her father, Dr. Perry Baird, a successful physician with a thriving practice,  was taken away by two state troopers while having lunch at a country club one day in 1944.  He wasn't under arrest, but rather the police were there to escort him to Westborough State Hospital in Westbourough Massachusetts.  Dr. Baird was no stranger to "mental institutions," having already "been held" at three others before Westborough, and he suffered what was then called "manic breaks," now recognized as serious bipolar disorder.  Using a combination of hospital/medical records, statements from Baird's friends, her own recollections and a treasure trove belonging to Dr. Baird, including his own manuscript that he wrote while hospitalized, Mimi Baird has put together a book about her father and his illness, relating how it affected her and her family especially since 1944 was the year he stopped coming home. Her father had always meant to publish someday, and now Ms. Baird has been able to fulfill his wishes some decades later. 

Since this book hasn't even been released yet, I won't be going into any great detail here about its contents, leaving that for interested readers to discover.  I will say that the very best parts of this book come from Dr. Baird's own writings while hospitalized at Westborough and later Baldpate, a private hospital in Georgetown, MA. In many ways, what he describes while in Westborough begs a comparison to the action in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (complete with his own Nurse Ratched) both in terms of "treatment" and in the idea that the most important priority of those in charge is to get the patients to conform. He writes about being bound in straitjackets (from which he constantly attempted to escape), wrapped in cold wet sheets, and other standard regimens for the mentally ill that were extant at the time.  Even more interesting though is how the reader can actually witness Dr. Baird's deterioration, not just in his worsening handwriting as described by his daughter, but in how his accounts of what's going on with him do not even come close to matching what his medical records say. As his conditioned worsens, he becomes delusional, and just how much so becomes quite clear while reading through his writings. But the book goes well beyond the medical aspects to reveal just how much stigma mental illness in the 1940s carried in normal society, and even in the personal sphere, where in this case, Dr. Baird's wife Gretta was told to "try to forget him", and in so doing, would never talk about her husband's condition, not even to her children. 

As much as I enjoyed reading Dr. Baird's personal account, considering that this book is in part a daughter's "quest to piece together the memoir and the man," her narration can sometimes come off as kind of cold and detached.  There's a particular line in here where Ms. Baird talks about her mother naming her "the ice queen," and sometimes that iciness comes through onto the page. While there are a few moments of pure admiration and love that come shining through, sometimes I think the tone is  much more matter-of-fact  than one would expect from the feelings of a daughter devoted to her recovering her father's life story. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. I can't actually speak to being in Ms. Baird's shoes, but I appreciate the fact that it must have been extremely tough for her to have to relive what her father suffered. On the flip side, I'd say that having people who remembered him so positively and with such affection must have been a blessing to her.    I do have to comment about the fact that Ms. Baird is very open and honest about the editing of her father's work to make it more readable and concise. First of all, perhaps it might have been a more honest and gutwrenching account if even small portions could have been left unreadable, so that readers might have a better feel for Dr. Baird as his mental state eroded at times; second, I am always a little uncomfortable when I read that editors mess with primary documents like Dr. Baird's manuscript, since I'm of the opinion that these types of sources should  always stand on their own with no alteration whatsoever. 

Definitely recommended -- this book is already garnering some pretty high ratings and readers seem to be loving it.