Sunday, August 28, 2011

#62: Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years by Michael Esslinger

San Francisco, Ocean View Publishing 2003. 450 pages

I am coming to love the city of San Francisco, and have resolved multiple times to learn more about it. I bought this book at the Alcatraz gift shop, as it portrayed itself to be definitive and had loads o' pictures. It is definitive at that, and some of the pictures are spooky.

The Good:
The coverage of the escape attempts is outstanding. While the depictions of the inmates can be somewhat shaky (see The Bad), Esslinger relies not only on official reports but also interviews with former inmates and guards to re-create the mindsets and plans of the would be escapees. Alcatraz was billed as "Escape Proof" but Esslinger documents 14 different attempts. The last, in 1962, saw John Paul Scott wash ashore directly underneath the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, suffering from hypothermia but very much alive. Esslinger reproduces the Warden's escape report and maintains that Scott did not "Swim" but "was carried by a three knot current" (410)

The most well known attempts (the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz and the ingenious Frank Lee Morris and Anglin brothers attempt (June 1962) are covered in minute detail. This dovetails with the intertwining of popular culture and Alcatraz, which is well done by Esslinger. The author nicely contrasts the portraly of Robert Stroud by Burt Lancaster with the real McCoy; if anything, the real Stroud was even more fascinating and brutal than in the film.

Esslinger includes a section about some of the more notorious inmates (Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Stroud and Henri Young). He also takes the movie Murder in the First to the woodshed. In the film Kevin Bacon plays Henri Young, "sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister" (197). Esslinger quotes Young's own autobiographical writings that quite literally cover the movie in a thick Cloak of Bullshit. Well, it's Hollywood.

Lastly, the pictures and diagrams, taken from the Alcatraz archives, are second to none and exhaustive. It is nice to be able to reference a map on the previous page when Esslinger describes escape attempts. The care put into the physical description of the prison bears fruit when the history is discussed, especially for readers who have never been there.

The Bad
Esslinger is quick to point out that the inmates on The Rock did something to get there, and is downright dismissive of mental or environmental factors that landed them in prison. I can understand that, but after reading Public Enemies, Esslinger's depiction of Ma Barker (among others) is flat out wrong. Esslinger tends with the 1930s inmates to parrot official FBI dogma. It is a small complaint, but it gets tiresome in certain sections of the book.

The Ugly
Want to have some fun? Starting on page 453, Essligner reprints the Inmate Regulations from 1956 which include 6 count bells every afternoon, a limit of 12 books and two shelves. Esslinger describes conditions in "The Dungeons" which spawned the Henri Young trial in 1941. Warden Johnston decreed that the "inmate receive only bread for the evening meal if the lunch meal had been full" and prescribed "bread, water and salads" otherwise. (93)

This would be a major league pain in the ass, as here is the menu for March 13, 1956: 2 grilled frankfurters, hot chili, parsley potatoes, sauerkraut, buttered carrots, banana pudding, bread and tea. (115) Alcatraz had the reputation of having not only one of the best menus in the prison system but also one of the best libraries.

The AIM takeover of the Rock in 1971 and the pre-pen years of the 1850s to 1920s are treated in a cursory fashion, but the book is about the Penitentiary years. Esslinger provides an exhaustive bibliography if you are interested in these other time periods as well. If you have an interest in Alcatraz as a prison, this book is the place to start.

#61: Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre

New York, Harmony Books: 2010. 321 pages

I saw the movie The Man Who Never Was when I was a kid, but did not appreciate that it was based on a true story. Here it is in skeletal form:
1. Allies need to keep the Germans from bulking up defenses in Sicily
2. British spies plan to utilize the ol' false documents approach
3. All we need is a corpse, fake documents, something to keep the body from decomposing and a submarine to place them all in Spanish waters.
4. We also need a coroner with the name Bentley Purchase, who when making appointments with people at the morgue suggests that they can take a cab "or be hit by one" to arrive at the same destination.
5. A cool name for the operation, which is not Operation Dead Welshman in a Can. Or, Operation Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can?

As you may guess, the hunt for a suitable body and the preparation of the documents is where the strengths of this book lay. It has it all, right down to the model of "M" from the James Bond films. Ian Fleming, author of the books, is involved on the periphery. The description of the impact of the documents is somewhat anti-climactic, leaving the last 100 pages or so of the text a little dry. With the exception of one of Hitler's Intelligence officers who knowingly passed false info to the Fuhrer there are none of the characters who drive the first half of the text.

Why are spies just inherently cooler than anyone else? Even the German guys are downright fascinating (this takes me quite a bit to admit). What is it? Ability to speak 14 languages, shoot people, play cards, golf and be chock full of idiosyncrasies? Yeah, I guess that's it. I am idiosyncratic, can't speak my native language 2/3 of the time, hate playing cards and believe the only golf that exists includes large Hippos, Windmills and ice cream at the end,. Hence, I am not as cool as a spy.

McIntyre is a distinguished author of "true operations" stories, and his style is excellent. His bibliography is detailed (listing several other books that sound worthwhile) and the afterwards section, detailing the fate of the major players in the story, is well done. Overall, a great first 230 pages followed by a weaker 100.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

#60: Brothers, Rivals, Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe by Jonathan W. Jordan

New York, NAL, 2011. 672 pages

Yes, 672 pages. I blew through this book in three sittings. Jordan has a lot of experience in writing about all three of the above men, and he brings his expertise to bear in this book. My only complaint about this text is the overuse of phrases like "cut to the bone" and "pot boiled over"; this is a minor quibble of style, The substance in the book is fascinating

Here are ten things I liked about the book.

1. The author's use of diaries and personal communication. Ike, Bradley and Patton all come across a little differently in private, most of all Bradley. Ike and Patton had by 1941 been friends for going on 25 years. Bradley and Patton knew each other somewhat, Ike and Bradley were classmates at West Point but had not been together much in years. It is remarkable to see how their opinions and views of each other change throughout the war, and how pre-conceptions can work to undermine relationships.

2. The pacing of the book is excellent. It is difficult to weave one story together let alone three, and Jordan does this quite well.

3. Ike is not handled with kid gloves in this book. For a lot of Americans, he was the Conformity loving, golfing, avuncular bald man who was president before the guy with the haircut and Boston accent. Ike served as the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe, and it is a job that NO ONE in their right mind would want. Ike said many times "If some other sonofabitch wants my job, he sure as hell can have it."

4. My favorite lines from Patton's diary:
--"am amused at all the envy and hatred I wasted on him (General Mark Clark) and many others. Looking back, men seem less vile" June 1942 (158)
-- "He (Bradley) fails to see war as a struggle, and not an educational course" March 1945 (488)

5. The relationship between Eisenhower and General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery is sort of like watching two high school girls fighting over a boy. They snipe, one smacks the other down, apologies are given, and then one writes in his diary "Ike has no competency for war or anything else. He has all the popular cries but no skill." (422). I disliked Montgomery before I read this book, and am now convinced he is one of the more overrated commanders of World War II.

6. Hell, Patton and Bradley are just as bad. At least Bradley didn't travel around wearing a silver helmet with ivory-handled pistols (Patton) or a chauffeur who most likely doubled as a mistress and who arranged for room on a ship for his ping pong table while Patton's tanks needed gas (Eisenhower).

7. SHAEF stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. For many GI's it stood for "Should Have Army Experience First".

8. Ike and Patton's debate over de-Nazification is short, but well done. Patton did not have a lot of time for Jews, Communists, Gypsies or Eastern Europeans...in short, everyone who "was rolled over by the Germans". (522)

9. More on Montgomery: Ike smoked like 700 packs of cigarettes a day (if you worked with these arrogant pricks you would also) and at one point during a strategy meeting in North Africa he asked "Who is smoking? There is no smoking when I am speaking." Like I said, what a dick. In 1944, as his offensive in the Low Countries floundered, Monty railed against Ike, his commands, Patton, Bradley, the Moon and blamed the weather, shortages, the Pope and Marlene Deitrich for his failures. Ike patted his knee and replied "Steady, Monty. You can't speak to me like that. I'm your boss." (398)

10. Bradley and Patton both labeled Monty as an SOB in their diaries. If there is a lot of Monty bashing going on, he deserves it. Of course, no one is perfect. Bradley is petty and sometimes judgmental, Ike is short tempered and Patton is a flaming egotist with a big mouth. But they did their jobs well.

Extra Point:
11. I cannot believe the pressure that Eisenhower was under from both sides. It is a wonder that the alliance stayed in place; after reading this book, it is not out of the realm to argue that had anyone else been in charge, it would not have. This was an excellent read.

#59: Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World by Nicholas Guyatt

New York, PS Press. 2007. 294 pages

Nicholas Guyatt begins this "jaunty report" as the cover calls it, waiting for Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins who are signing copies of their bestselling books. These books are the Left Behind series, in which the Rapture leaves a group of people behind on earth to fight the Antichrist, in a person named Nicolai Carpathia. Nutjobs, you say? Not so; Guyatt's investigations into eschatology are unnerving, sometimes hysterical and compelling at all times.

Throughout the book, Guyatt addresses the schisms in mainstream Protestantism in the United States. Much of the furor over the End Times is created by nonacceptance of the Dispensationalist theory of Revelation, which portrays the Book of Revelation as a prophetic text. Most mainline scholars view it as a description of the revolt and final destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In any event, if you have never read it, do so. It is jaw dropping. For those who think the Christian Right is a monolithic entity bent on the destruction of Secular Liberalism, this book is an eye opener to what a small portion of that group is really thinking. This is the unnerving part. Having grown up with an uncle steeped in this tradition, and more than willing to ram it down anyone's throat, this was not new. It's been around since the 19th century.

Guyatt himself is Jewish, which he is at pains to hide from the more vocal of these folks. The state of Israel is at center stage in this text; it is one of the requirements of the End Times that the Jewish people return to the Holy Land to claim what was given to them in the Covenant. What of the Palestinians? Ahhhhh, fuck 'em! Guyatt's writing of the coverage of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in these circles is again unnerving. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli; in some cases, the people Guyatt interviews are far more sympathetic with the assassin than Rabin.

For all that, Guyatt writes that "for my part, I believe non-Evangelicals have been harboring severe misconceptions about right wing Christians" (291), going on to say that from their point of view (filtered through an understanding of the approaching Armageddon), their point of view is quite rational. I agree completely; the question becomes what to do to reconcile opposing viewpoints. Guyatt also puts his finger on the Original Sin of most Progressives, "Liberal dismissal". (292)

Nothing fires people up like some asshole saying "You're/he/she/they are an idiot/idiots/nutjobs/freakshow" because their "religious views are crazy/out-of-date/wrong". I engage in this all the time (see any quote about Michelle Bachmann or Rick "I wasn't in Journey" Perry), but this is a reflexive action. Most Progressives don't know shit about the Bible or religion, yet they flap their gums about both. Of course, most Progressives think that Buddhism is at best a series of helpful relaxation exercises. They are dismissive because Progressives engage in "reason" and "analysis". In a discussion where both groups are

1. Convinced they are correct, and
2. Convinced that the other side is going to destroy the Known Universe, it leads to
3. A bunch of shouting that solves nothing but who can shout the loudest and elect the most empty suits and heads that agree in that knee-jerk fashion we all love to hate. Except Fascists, who will break your knees if they don't jerk, and who are always wrong. They are perhaps the one group I will say that about...maybe also Toe Freaks.

It always pays to know what the other side is thinking and where they are getting their information and what is influencing their worldview. That is how to create meaningful debate and discussion instead of senseless shouting past one another. This book is a good starting point.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#58: The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, And the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever by John Feinstein

New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2002. 352 pages

I have liked John Feinstein's writing for a long time, and enjoy his commentaries on NPR. This book covers a fight at the LA Forum on December 9, 1977 involving the Houston Rockets and LA Lakers. The combatants were originally Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Kevin Kunnert (an Iowa alumni). In the melee that followed, Kermit Washington swung wildly and hit Rocket's forward Rudy Tomjanovich (Yes, that Rudy T.) who went down in a heap.

Tomjanovich's upper jaw was fractured in multiple places and displaced from his lower jaw by nearly an inch. All of his sinus cavities were compromised, and his skull was fractured when he hit the floor. The book follows the career of these two men after "The Punch". The book is repetitive, and you get the feeling that many of the people involved (Kunnert, Tomjanovich, Jabbar) really did not want to talk about it. There is anger here, 20 years after the fact. Feinstein does two things very well in this book:

1. He paints a picture of the NBA in 1977. Thugs, assholes and fights were everywhere. When Jabbar and Kunnert started to fight, most of the press box groaned. One of the writers said "Damnit, another NBA fight." And this was not the usual NBA fight now, where multi-million dollar athletes wave at each other like little girls at a lemonade stand. Check out this tale of the tape:
K Washington: 6'8, 230 lbs.
K. Kunnert: 7'0 230 lbs

These were large men looking to do damage, and in this way the fight did change the NBA. As Feinstein points out, the prospect of two very large men swinging at each other was not like a football fight; those large men were wearing helmets. It is not like a hockey fight, which is unstable because of the ice. Washington's role was as an enforcer, there to do the dirty work inside for Kareem. The NBA was/is full of them (Mo Lucas, Charles Oakley, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman), and after Rudy T's injury the league finally decided something needed to be done to curb the violence. Washington was fined $10,000 (which may not seem like a lot, but that amounted to nearly 3% of his salary. 3% of LeBron's salary in 2011 would be $435,000) and suspended for 50 days. These were new rules, and paved the way for more stringent rules about fighting.

2. Feinstein does a commendable job of writing up Washington and Rudy T trying to come to terms for being known for one thing. This has to be the most difficult part of being a celebrity, especially in sports. Feinstein correctly uses the example of Bill Buckner, a player who:
-- won a batting title and led the NL in doubles twice
--is 59th on the career hit list since 1876
--and is known for making an error on one ground ball.

Rudy T is "the guy who got hit" until he wins the NBA title with the Rockets in 1994. Washington says at one point he thought his name was Kermit "The Man Who Nearly Killed Rudy Tomjanovich" Washington for a decade. It is incredibly difficult for both of them, and others involved think that they never got over it. In some ways, the press is indicted for this, as TV will not let them. Whether or not they come to grips with this is up in the air, and Feinstein allows the reader to make his or her own decisions.

But, the book is VERY repetitive. There are at least 3 different treatments of "The Punch", Roshomon style. This is not necessarily bad, but certain phrases are even repeated in different chapters. If you are interested in the thuggish NBA of the 1970s, take a chance. If not, pass.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#57:When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball by Seth Davis

New York: Times Books, 2009. 323 pages

I loved this book and could not put it down. Here it is in 15 short bits:

1. This book concerns the impact of the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship. This game featured Michigan State against......the mighty Indiana State Sycamores! Well, Michigan State had this 19 year old kid named Earvin Johnson and the Sycamores had this 22 year old senior named Larry Bird.

2. Larry Bird dropped out of Indiana in 1974 and wound up driving a garbage truck in French Lick, Indiana for a year.

3. Seth Davis does not spare some of the sportswriters of the time who were terminal assholes. Bird did not want to talk to the press for a multitude of reasons, and his coach Bill Hodges did not make him do it. David Israel of the Chicago Tribune wrote "I guess Larry Bird does not owe anything to his race" and "One fact about this season is that Larry Bird, a pretty good player from someplace called Indiana State does not talk to reporters" (Italics mine) (126). Even after the Sycamores won their first 22 games (they lost only one time all season) the guy did not back off. When Bird accepted the Naismith Player of the Year Award in New York, he asked is Israel was there. He then said "I wanted to see what a real live prick looked like."

4. If you read this book, you finally get to find out where Earvin's nickname "Magic" came from. It wasn't from him.

5. The 1978 and 1979 NBA Finals were shown on......tape delay. The league was hemorrhaging money despite the presence of players like Dr. J, Pistol Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bird and Magic would literally save the NBA. This is no exaggeration, and Smith makes the case for what must be the 10000th time.

6. The Final Four (a phrase which entered use in 1976) was in Salt Lake City. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "Hail to the Victors" to the Michigan State team. This is, of course, the fight song for Michigan. At Michigan State, the student section sings a version that goes "Hail to those prick cocksuckers/Hail to those Motherfuckers/Hail, hail to Michigan/The cesspool in the East"

7. One forgets that Magic was only a kid until you read this book, but Magic's future is there in its glory and more sordid states. During one interview, he repeatedly has to answer the phone. When he does, it is invariably "Lisa? Lisa who?...Marie? Marie who?" One of his teammates said "Earvin didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't gamble. But Earvin loves women."

8. For those who never got to see Magic or Bird play, this book is an excellent intro to their prodigious talents. Neither one of them could run fast, jump very well (Bird especially) but they were still the best. Why? They played constantly; Bird left a graduation dinner in high school to shoot baskets alone in a gym for 2 hours. Magic was never without a ball when he was a kid. Secondly, they were insanely competitive. They shared this with the other of the three headed Monster of Awesome that dominated the NBA, Michael Jordan. That's what made them great; they would beat you however they could.

9. For those who don't know anything about Big 10 Basketball and think the sun rises and sets on the Big East, read this. Read the list of 1980s pro players these guys ran into on a nightly basis. The Big 10 may be a lesser basketball conference now, but then it was not.

10. This book is as much a short history of the NCAA tournament as anything else. This game took place 32 years ago, and the Sycamores, who entered the final game undefeated at 33-0, had been on national television twice. This is unthinkable in this current age of ESPN and ESPN The Ocho. The tourney was small and the book describes it as somewhat amateurish.

11. It also includes some stories about the players involved and their lives after the game and season, some of whom have great stories. Not the least of these is the coach at Indiana State, Bill Hodges.

12. This book is solidly written. The game recaps can get somewhat repetitive, but this is not a simple "this happened and that happened" book. The cultural impact of the Bird-Magic match up is well developed, crisp and effective.

13. The racial element of this book is right at the top, because it was at the top in 1979. Most of the country was convinced Larry Bird was black until he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was, in a sense, the Great White Hope. The "Hick from French Lick" persona played that up.

14. One gets some idea of the pressure of today's tournament from the description of this one. Many of the games were not televised nationally, there was not NEARLY the money involved, but the players still felt the pressure from their universities. Good Lord, it must be oppressive now.

15. When I was a kid, you were either a Magic guy or a Bird guy. Showtime or Blue Collar. I was a Magic guy, and he remains my favorite basketball player. I respected Bird for his game, but he was a prick. He is by turns a prick, gentleman, competitor and genius in this book. That is not an easy task for an author to make a character so, and Davis succeeds.

Friday, August 12, 2011

#56: The Suspicions of Mister Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Walker and Co, New York: 2008 357 pages

If you like Jane Eyre, Jane Austen and the rest of the overwrought Victorian authoresses, you may like this book. I do not like either, but found this text mildly entertaining. Summerscale tells this true crime story as it is an 1860s crime novel, and it works to a point. It is in some ways too busy.

Th action occurs in the Road Hill House neat Bath in 1860. A person is found murdered, and the investigation ensues. During its course, Detective Whicher is dispatched from the newly formed Scotland Yard to investigate the case. The case nearly discredits not only him, but also the emerging science of criminology.The case lends itself to multiple books (Detective Whicher was known to Dickens and several other authors), a few oddball crimes and much swooning over men with names like Thornhurst and Brockington. Well, that's not true. But it should be. There is always swooning, and Heathcliff and whatever other "man with dark secrets" usually turns out to be kind of a dick. In this book, it is William Kent, probably known to the if-I-don't-marry-him-I-will-be-a-spinster women as Mr. Kent. And, there are spinsters. Ohhhhhhhh are there spinsters. Two sisters in their late 20s; old hags!

Of course, "criminology" is a term used loosely, and why I hate most Victorian literature (Thomas Hardy and Dickens get a pass, as they tended to write about people who did not matter one jot, not one tittle, to Jane Austen) is summed up in a quote by a police inspector. At first suspicion falls on Miss Gough, the Nanny, who was thought to have been seduced by (wait for it) Samuel Kent, a factory inspector.Of course, Samuel Kent, a true and honest man, had gone through close to 100 servants in a little over 3 years at the house. That is nearly three a month. Dick! After Kent protests his innocence, suspicion turns to the man who found the body, one William Nutt, a shoemaker. But this cannot be, as "Miss Gough is a superior girl for her station in looks and demeanour, while on the other hand Nutt is a slovenly, dirty man, weakly, asthmatical and lame." (128)

Well, well, Inspector Tallcheese, brilliant detective work! Superior girl for her station in looks; give me a fucking break. Sometimes this proper facade is less than maddening, as when a local magistrate starts his own investigation without talking to The Yard or the local constabulary. He is soaked in brandy and yells at the court "Women, HOLD YOUR TONGUES!" and "Anyone with squirrelous babes should leave." High fucking comedy, that. The poor folks of Road village make fun of him for any number of inane questions and high-handed outbursts. This was the high point of the book for me, and Summerscale treats him as the "drunk Uncle at Thanksgiving" character. Things start out well, but they never end well.

I love true crime stories, and this crime spawned a near craze for true crime in newspapers and books. Summerscale seemingly has a quote from a work of fiction for each of the characters in the text; while this scholarship is admirable and well done, it leaves the book a little more dense than it needs to be. As one of my more-disliked professors told me about a paper I wrote, "there is too much foreplay here and not enough, you know." I think he meant fucking, but I am not sure. This certainly is not the worst book that I have read, but it is sort of like a tasty cupcake. I like it at the time, but begin to have remorse over the fat and sugar.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

#55: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

New York: Doubleday, 2010. 399 pages

I normally don't read memoirs, because I am damn frightened that it will prompt me to write one. The prospect of a 38 year old writing a memoir is somewhat sad; what, nothing else is going to happen in the next 35 years? I picked this one up for the following reasons:

1. I love libraries, having worked in four of them.
2. I love books. I tend to go in bursts where I devour the damn things.
3. This seemed to good to pass up. A Jewish kid gets a job in Boston's South Bay Prison as a librarian. One of the cons wants to be in a cooking show when he gets on the outs, and is going to call it Thug Sizzle. The cons take to calling this Jewish kid "Bookie". I'm glad I picked it up.

The book is in two intertwined parts. One is the prison, the other the authors attempt at "finding himself". One is excellent, one is too familiar to be called good, to well written to be called bad. The stories that Steinberg writes about his grandmother (he calls her "an Alchemist of Misery") are great; the rest of the bits about him, his girlfriend and his family made me think and occasionally say "What about Too Sweet? What about Chudney? What about that asshole guard?"

One item that Steinberg does point out is the incredible incarceration rate of this country. The US Census reports in 2008 that 2.3% of the population of this country was either on parole or incarcerated. That same year, 2.2 million people were in jail in this country.

For perspective:

1. This a population higher than 15 states and the District of Columbia.
2. It is roughly the size of the population of the state of New Mexico. If you would group all of these cons into one enormous jail, it would instantly become the 5th largest city in the United States, roughly equivalent to the population of Houston.

Steinberg rarely mentions the race of the cons; he does not need to do so. In 2007, 11.7% of black males between the ages of 25-29 were in jail, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project. According to a 2002 Human Rights Watch study, more than 10% of African American men were in jail in 12 different states. Oh, that same study found out that even though blacks and Latinos made up 25% of the US population, they made up 63% of prison populations.

Back to the book. Steinberg is generous with the cons and, refreshingly, does not judge them. In some instances, it is incredibly hard for both he and the reader not to. Steinberg approaches each con as having a story worth telling, something that not many people do anymore, being wrapped up in their damn phones and other trappings of self-centeredness. Language, and Steinberg's excellent ear for it, drive this text. You can picture these men and women by listening to them in a way that mere physical descriptions do not match. To hear a con named Fat Kat say "Man, you don't understand. You can change where you going but you can't change where you from" without the tears that would adorn this statement in a movie is new. Steinberg finds that in working in prison, the bull shit, pseudo-gang culture cultivated by wanna be white kids from coast to coast lacks two things: experience and respect. The kids have no respect and they would be scared shitless by the experience. Of course, they probably would not wind up inside.



Monday, August 8, 2011

#54: Ten Days to D-Day: Citizens and Soldiers on the Eve of the Invasion by David Stafford

Little, Brown and Co., New York: 2003. 377 pages

David Stafford is the director of the Centre for World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He weaves a dispirit group of tales together in this text, producing a tapestry of hope, fear and sorrow.  Stafford's text covers not only civilians but also military men (and women) on both sides. It is the covering of the "normal" or "unimportant" that makes this an important text. As is so often the case, the stories of those caught up in history make the best tales.

Stafford is even-handed, paying respect to not only the Allies but also the regular German soldiers. The soldier in question, Walter Schwender, is a 20 year old draftee stationed in France. He spends most of his time before the invasion swimming and eating fruit. He also ogles the local girls, a common practice in both armies. He seems totally harmless.

On the Allied side, Schwender's alter-egos are two people. The first is a Canadian, the second from Boston. Both are in the front lines on D-Day, and the text does an excellent job of displaying their fears, hopes and judgments as the operation approaches. Stafford does take care in covering the well-known folks (Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Rommel) but these people are not where the meat of the story is. The meat lies with the ordinary folks, as it often does. De Gaulle and Churchill, in particular, come off as babies in this text. Eisenhower emerges as a level-headed, decent man. This is no surprise to those who know anything about Eisenhower.

The true greatness of this text lies in the stories of the French Resistance leading up to D-Day. Stafford incorporates many first person interviews on that score. The discussion of Garbo (the Allied deception expert) and the Resistance is first rate. Garbo is the star of this text, feeding the German High Command false info all the while being suspected on some level as a double agent. Fascinating stuff, even more so because it is true. I had no idea that the British infiltrated women into France because women were less suspect than men. This text follows the actions of several women, which makes a good story The author does not forget Norway, fake landing place of the second part of the Allied invasion.

If you are interested in World War II, this is an excellent book. If you are interested in the effects of war on "ordinary" people, this is the book for you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

#53: The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans by Mark Jacobson

Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010. 348 pages

I have never read a book quite like this, nor seen anything quite like it. The plot centers on a lampshade bought in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bought by a character named Skip Henderson at a garage sale. He asks "What's this thing made of, anyhow?"

The man answers "That's made from the skin of Jews." (44). He winds up buying the thing, and gives it to the author to find out what he can. The book that follows is extraordinary. Each chapter more or less has a focus, the first being Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald" who supposedly turned inmates into lampshades as gifts for her husband. Along the way Jacobson tries to meet Koch's son and winds up meeting the actress who played her in the film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. 

It is these strange meetings that make this book so memorable. One could easily get bogged down in the characters that appear in the text, but Jacobson never allows the reader to lose sight of the reason he is meeting these people: the lampshade. It literally hangs over this book like a ghost. It is terrible in so many ways, but an incredible monument to both cruelty and urban legend. Is it real? Is it a myth?

The lampshade is the main character in the text; if anything, post-Katrina New Orleans shares this role. Jacobson was a one-time resident of the city and still has multiple friends and connections there. The man who sold the lampshade told three different stories about how he got it, the guy who bought the thing runs his own krewe for Mardi Gras, Dr. John makes an appearance. The prologue involves a Dominican spiritualist telling Jacobson "fate has delivered this to you, and it is good...you are all he has now." (3-4) Hell, even David Duke shows up. By this time he is living in Bavaria (where else?).

The main question in this book is "What do we do with the past that shames us?". This is the question that binds the lampshade and New Orleans, the Holocaust and neo-Nazism. Do yourself a favor and find out what answers Jacobson finds. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, August 5, 2011

#52: Plane Insanity by Elliott Hester

New York, St. Martin's Press: 2001. 236 pages

Elliott Hester is a flight attendant. He does not name which airline, but seems he was based on mostly Caribbean and South American routes. This book is mildly entertaining, but I expected a little more. I expected to be shocked by the rudeness of people, fistfights between passengers and the factory like food. What shocked me most is that celebrity animals are seated in first class and do not need to be in kennels. (37)

Hester's honesty, that flying in coach is like being on an Amtrak with wings, is refreshing. He does write that "we too ask whether or not that piece of gristle was once part of a cow" (119) and that well fed passengers are happy passengers. What I did not know is that the flight attendants actually eat the leftover food, partly because the airlines make no arrangements to feed them on the job. Usually, "this amounts to what is called a Snack Attack, which includes a main course of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich". (121) Airlines suck, and this book proved it in spades.

It is much like the government; the people who make decisions that we deal with everyday are not accountable, as we never get to talk to them. Or beat their collective asses with chairs. This was the high point of Hester's text, that you can almost feel the anger underneath his polyester uniform whenever his ass is chewed because someone in corporate fucked up. There are multiple instances of this, but then the book devolves into tawdry tale telling of sex in the bathrooms, sex in first class, blow jobs in darkened coach seats. Which is what sells the book, obviously, that and the tales of people with body odor so strong they can be asked to leave the plane. Yes, the airlines can ask you to leave if you are too stank. And, good. Take a bath you smelly bastard.

Meh, I've read better. Good for a few laughs, especially if you work in any customer service capacity.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

#51: What's Gotten Into Us?: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins

New York, Random House, 2011. 303 pages

This book scares the living shit out of me. I have long been of the idea that Joe Jackson back in the 1980s was right (Everything gives you cancer, there's no cure, there's no answer) and that my long term health is generally dependent upon the Genetic Roulette Wheel that is my family. But that is no cure for the endless line of knee-buckling, cringe-inducing, staring-at-my-rubbermaid-hamper-which-has-developed-murderous-intent paranoia as this text. GOOD GOD!!!!!!! WE ARE ALL DOOMED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My Top Five "Holy Shit!" Moments in this book:
1. Americans burn close to 800 million gallons of gasoline.....in their lawnmowers each year. (171)
2. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a staff of 400 people, roughly 1/2 of its staff in 1985. The people that monitor imported goods....well, as Jenkins writes "monitoring the conveyor belt of goods coming into this country every year (in 2007 it was worth $614 billion) is a staff of --wait for it-- 15 people. (115)
3. Researchers from the Harvard School of Health went  to Maine in 2007 and "went looking for 71 toxic chemicals in 13 people, none of whom lived in major cities or worked in heavy industry. They found 46; "on average each person in the study harbored 36 chemicals in their body...all had traces of chemicals used to make Teflon cookware and Scotchguard treatments for stain resistant fabrics." (29-32)
4. While lead is illegal to use in paint on kids toys, it is still legal to use lead as a stabilizer in certain plastics. Most of these are used in, you guessed it, children's toys. (116-117)
5. Teflon is found in the following products: grease-proof pizza boxes, linings of microwave popcorn bags. The bags "are a concern...as it is present in hundreds of times the concentrations as in cookware, and the intense heat of the microwave can cause it to leach into the corn." (47)
6. OK, here is one extra. There are more towns and cities in the United States that mandate the use of chemical lawn treatments than allow citizens to hang their laundry out to dry. (188) Christ. If my neighbor bitched about my underpants being up an a laundry line while that jack ass spread fertilizer on his lawn, I would beat him with his weed whacker, then run him over slow-like with his John Deere. Prick.

The book is broken into chapters called The Body, The Home, The Lawn, The Tap and The Big Box Store. This is not your usual bitch fest about how Wal-Mart is ruining the known universe; it is more a question of how exactly the ubiquitous chemicals we are in contact with everyday effect us. Jenkins is a journalism professor from the University of Delaware who got interested after his doctor found a tumor in his hip. Luckily for Jenkins (and for his wife) the tumor was benign; Jenkins has never smoked, drinks moderately and is an accomplished cyclist. He segues into his investigation by talking about the Titanic.

He mentions the Titanic because of a comment by a French minister in charge of returning relics from the wreck to the families of the victims and survivors. He said "What struck me most is that in such a long list of day-to-day objects, there was nothing made of plastic. This was only 95 years ago." On the same page, he points out that consumption of synthesized chemicals in the US alone has increased by 8200 percent since 1980. (12)

The book includes tips to make your home more friendly for your health (get rid of deodorizers and air fresheners is a BIG step) and lists of websites that rate household products for chemical levels and testing. Read this book and prepare to be frightened. Jenkins gives you places to go to find out how to fight back.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#50: Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con that is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi

New York, Spiegel and Grau 2010: 252 pages

I went to the library yesterday after Wormer (here played by President Obama) dropped the proverbial big one. For once, I agree with Krugman: that wasn't a compromise, it was a capitulation. Here are a few quotes from this book that pretty much explains everything:

1.The Democrats' response to Wall Street excess was similar to their attitude to the Iraq War--they were against it in theory, but in practice, they weren't going to do much about it. (245) Ohhhh, Democrats. Lovable, fuzzy centrists that they have become. Many of us have been saying since 2007 that "we are tired of fighting the good fight." Maybe it is because our party leaders don't want to fight anymore.

2. Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas: "With the right hand begging for bailout money, the left is hiding it offshore." This after Goldman Sachs paid $14 million in taxes in 2008 on a reported profit of $2 billion, a nice 7% rate. (224) That was 1/3 CEO Lloyd Blankfein's salary of $42.9 million

3. This from a January 1973 NY Times: "It's very rare that you can be as unqualifiedly bullish as you can now." The stock market was over 1000 on the day that phrase was published and by 1974 it was at 571, a loss of 46%. Who said that? Alan Greenpsan. (46) BTW, my high school government teacher described Greenspan as the most powerful person in the country; little did I or maybe even Mr. Hibbs know how right he was.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone; normally that would discount him from getting anything good from me. But, he writes about politics and the giant screw job that was the TARP bailout and does it well. In fact, this book is the kind of thing that I wish to write. Witty, profane, logical, entertaining; in 2008, he writes "I found my attention dominated not by interjections into the commodities market but by a seemingly endless series of made up controversies." (127) While he mocks Palin and McCain and Obama and Clinton, he is smart enough to pick up that Palin is quite the symbolic speaker. Taibbi's ability to not only call someone a douchebag but also point out what they do well is what separates good political writing from screed writers such as Palast.

Taibbi makes the point that the US political system is high theater, boiled down to what he calls "T-Shirt politics" for the left and right. You know, pithy things that would fit on a t-shirt. But that is not why I picked up this book. I picked it up because chapter one of the text is titles "The Grifter Archipelago; or, Why the Tea Party does not matter." (3)

After the President fell on his sword again over the weekend, I was shocked to see this, even in a book a year old. The interesting thing is that Taibbi may be right. It is not the Tea Party that is the enemy of Progressives in this country, but corporate power. How many former Goldman Sachs CEOs are working in the Obama Administration? Taibbi's writing and reporting on Goldman and the TARP bailout were ahead of the media curve. This is not all that hard to do, especially if you work at CNBC or Fox. The one fault I have with this book is that Taibbi does not know what to do about his anger, or the anger that his book creates. In a sense, none of us do. Therein lies the problem in American Politics; want more than a soundbite? You won't get it. Read this book and get pissed, or get more ammunition for 2012 if you are already mad.

Monday, August 1, 2011

#49: Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich

New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 404 pages

Pox focuses on the rampant smallpox epidemics in the United States from 1900-1903. From a medical standpoint, the book is fascinating and gives an excellent shorthand history of vaccination and the disease in American life. Michael Willrich's prose is reminiscent of a disaster novel, with good pacing and excellent characters. The description of C.P. Wertenbaker, the leader of vaccinations for the U.S. Marine Hospital service, burning his cap and respirator after examining children is chilling. (75-76).

All in all, if Hollywood gets hold of this, it will focus on the fear of the pox. Wertenbaker (no doubt played by some man who will appear shirtless for no reason) will get in fights, expose corrupt local health boards...wait a minute, he actually did that. But Hollywood will turn him into some Kung-Fu master, turn his wife into some late 19th century Uber-hottie and then supply Wertenbaker with some "Chocolate Fantasy" on the side. Sleazebags.

That would ignore the really good history in this book, which dominates the second half of the text. The U.S. was hip deep in the Spanish American War, The Philippine Insurrection and immigration during this time, and many of the people involved fared differently on vaccination. The government stepped in to force certain segments to be vaccinated, creating multiple court cases and key questions about government's role in public health. In general, African Americans and recent immigrants were targeted by health boards as "causes" of the outbreaks. Factories throughout the country would routinely simply shut down if one of their workers came down with the pox, causing families to loose money and sometimes their houses. (218-224). Indeed, smallpox was termed "Nigger Itch" by many in the south (44-45).

The meat of the text is this question of governmental influence on individual rights. "A man of progressive temperament is an advocate of organization, the man of conservative temperament is an individualist...real liberty for the laborer requires labor organization." (306-07) Willrich includes excellent discussions of the Slaughterhouse Cases, which found that the 14th Amendment did not apply to states, only to the federal government, dissents for which influenced arguments against mandatory vaccination. All in all, this book is topical and highly recommended. We seem to be engaged in the same discussion of individual rights vs. collective responsibility; this text gives a good synopsis of both sides of the issue through the prism of anti-immigrant and racial bias.