THE NIX by Nathan Hill

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(Police riot at 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago)

What does one look for in a first novel?  Perhaps an unusual beginning, then a scenario that immediately draws one in and makes you want to continue with great expectation as you are presented with a balance of sarcasm, humor, and seriousness.  These criteria are met in Nathan Hill’s thoughtful new novel THE NIX, which opens with an innovative approach by a woman who leaves her husband and son, followed by a scathing introduction to a Roy Moore type character, a former governor of Wyoming, whose evangelical conservative credentials are impeccable, one Sheldon Packer.  Packer seems to have been attacked in Grant Park in Chicago provoking a satirical YOU TUBE presentation as it shows a CNN type of approach to reporting about “Terror in Chicago.”

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(Poet, Allen Ginsberg)

This is the tip of the iceberg for Hill as he develops a series of fascinating characters ranging from Hill’s main protagonists, Professor of Literature Samuel Andersen-Anderson who is abandoned by his mother Faye Andersen-Anderson at the age of eleven.  It seems that Faye is the one who attacked former Governor Packer with a handful of gravel and is painted as a 1968 hippie type of radical who was being charged as a terrorist under the aegis of the post 9/11 Patriot Act.  Other characters include, Faye’s father, Frank, an intolerant factory worker, Bethany and Bishop Fall, twins, one of which is a violin progeny, and a brother who is abused by his school headmaster and winds up fighting in Iraq.  Laura Pottsdam represents America’s quintessential college student enrolled in Samuel’s literature class, but has difficulty carrying out the most basic assignment without cheating, but once caught she sees her duty to destroy her literature professor’s career.  Mrs. Schwingke is a Home Economics teacher that offers an interesting perspective on the role of women, particularly in light of the recent sex scandals that have emerged nationwide.  Pwange, divorced and lonely, and one of Samuel’s gaming partners.  Charles Brown, an undercover cop during the Chicago riots that witnessed the Democratic National Convention in 1968 who later becomes an embittered judge confined to a wheel chair.  Alice, a woman who settled along the banks of Lake Michigan who was close with Faye during the summer of 1968, and of course the poet Allen Ginsburg of 0mmmm fame.  Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, and the famous journalist, Walter Cronkite make their appearances as do many others.

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(Chicago Mayor Richard Daley)

At times THE NIX reads like a John Irving novel with its irreverent approach to society, power, and politics.  Samuel Andersen-Anderson is very unhappy in his position at a university outside of Chicago.  It is here that Hill offers the first of a number of insightful views on America – academic life, administration of, and student participation in university life.  What we witness is the paper chase for tenure, administrators who bend to the will of students, who are not overly interested in education, but more of a free ride through the stepping stone to a successful career.  For Samuel, who had the potential of being a major literary figure earlier in his career, finds himself facing economic ruin if he does not deliver a manuscript that he has been paid for earlier.  The publisher, represented by his agent Guy Periwinkle, wants Samuel to write a book about his mother who in addition to attacking Governor Packer with gravel was supposedly a 60s radical who was arrested for prostitution.  The problem is that Samuel has not seen Faye for over twenty years and she refuses to cooperate with him to fill in the blanks in her life.

In addition to comments on academia Hill integrates views on the role of Hollywood memoirs, the publishing industry, Chicago traffic, high end suburban housing tracts with names like Venetian Hills, elementary school rules and regulations, life in a nursing home, the typical 1950s Home Economics education, life on convoy patrol in Iraq, and a wonderful critique of Disney world among other commentaries.  This approach apart from having a John Irving tinge, also has the feel of Kurt Vonnegut.

Hill offers a detailed description of Faye’s life and how it evolved, then turns to Samuel.  The pivoting point in their lives are clear, for Faye it is when she is eight years old and does not keep the secret of her father’s newly built bomb shelter from the neighbors.  For Samuel, it is when his mother, trapped in a conventional life that she never wanted, runs away from home, offering the advice that “the one you love the most is bound to cause you the worst pain.”  Samuel needs a crutch throughout his life and it becomes a “gaming habit” entitled, “Elfscape,” a vehicle to fill the time gaps in his life and maintain his anonymity at the same time.

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Hill creates numerous witty scenes that are quite entertaining, but some of those scenes could be left out reducing the bulk of this rather lengthy novel.  As far as Hill’s grasp of the history of the period he is quite accurate.  His portrayal of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the violence caused by Mayor Daley and the Chicago police is accurate in the confines of blending the history of what actually transpired, and Hill’s artistic license.  To get a true sense of what really occurred see Lawrence O’Donnell’s recent book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF POLITICS.*   Hill moves seamlessly between 1968 and 2011 throughout the novel even integrating the Occupy Wall Street movement, the lost idealism of “boomers,” and the emergence of millennials.  The multiple story lines are juggled nicely, and the author has the ability to write so effectively that there is not a boring scene or sentence in the entire book as he journeys back and forth from 1968 and 2011.

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One of the more interesting analogies that Hill proposes resonates today.  During the summer of 1968 Hill argues that protesters and the police need each other equally.  Both groups need an enemy, someone to hate, so they can validate their own actions and beliefs and gain further support.  This is much like today’s politics. Trump and his supporters constantly point to their opponents as un-American and crooks, while Trump’s liberal opposition sees the president as mad, a threat to the constitution, and the implementing the deconstruction of the government.  Each side needs the other to validate their own beliefs and behaviors.  Only when this cycle is broken can the American people move forward.

The question must be asked is THE NIX presenting a tragic-comedy of American contradictions that fostered the election of Donald Trump?  I am afraid the answer is yes, and through Hill’s dialogue and characters we can gain insight into a president who emerged from a career in New York real estate that brought his emotional baggage and personality flaws to the White House.  THE NIX is a wonderful book, so sit back in a relaxing chair, with gentle music in the background, and enjoy the ride.

*Recently reviewed in http://www.docs-books.com

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(Rioting outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago)

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It’s Aaron F****** Boone as the new NYY manager

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NYY GM Brian Cashman has placed his own career on the line by investing in Aaron Boone, a great communicator and baseball lifer as his new manager.  Boone has the DNA and/or pedigree to accomplish the task, but will be be successful?  Things he might consider:

(1) Maintain Tony Pena as the experienced bench coach that is needed who can also continue the development of the “Sanchize.”  Or perhaps return him to a first coaching position and bring in an experienced pro like Eric Wedge.

(2) Allow Larry Rothstein full control of the pitching staff.  He has done a wonderful job since 2011 and I am certain with the relationships he has established he will continue to be successful.

(3) Carlos Beltran would make a strong hitting coach and it would bring him under the NYY fold for the future, particularly if Boone falters down the road.

(4) Hopefully the fact he does not speak Japanese will not hinder him with the quest to sign Ohtani.  I wonder does Boone hable espanol?  It would certainly help.

(5) I would try and sign Chris Woodward as the third base coach.  I realize that would create a staff of most of the people who interviewed for the managerial position, but they all bring different strengths to their perspective positions and could facilitate Boone’s growth.

All of this may become academic if the NYY do not start off fast next March, but they have too much talent not to.  If they add a returning C C Sabathia or an Alex Cobb, along with Shohei Ohtani things will take care of themselves.  Boone is not that far removed from the game since his switch to an analyst position with ESPN – his combnation of a strong baseball IQ and communication skills exhibited will stand him in good stead.  All the best of luck – but remember the division over the Boston Red Sox, at least a wild card, and possibly a World Series appearance will be the measure of success.  Bring on Gleyber Torres, Chance Adams, Justin Sheffield and the next wave of talent and see what it brings.  The bottom line is that the 2018 NYY baseball season will be one to watch carefully.

Boone celebrates game winning home run : News Photo

MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968, AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS by Howard Jones

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From the outset of his new book MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968 AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS notable historian Howard Jones argues that the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 killing 504 Vietnamese villagers “laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life; America had lost its moral compass.”  .  When it comes to examining American opinion on My Lai one finds that it is split.  On the one hand, during his four month trial Lt. William Calley argued that he was innocent and that he was just following orders.  However, at the time Americans were polarized and the massacre fed opposition to the war, which addition to the Tet Offensive, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State shootings helped unite Americans against the carnage in Southeast Asia and for many it had turned our young men into “baby killers.”  On the other hand, many saw Calley as a scapegoat for a war gone wrong, with a flawed military approach that hindered the prosecution of the war correctly.  Calley’s conviction would harden support for the war and no matter what one’s point of view is the fissures in American society were exacerbated by events at My Lai.

Jones is to be commended for attempting to produce the most balanced and accurate account of the massacre and its aftermath as possible.  He employs all the tools of a good historian by exploring all documentation available, secondary sources on the topic, interviews, and film to present a fair representation as to what happened.  As historians we are aware that total objectivity in reporting and analyzing historical events is almost an impossible task, but Jones comes very close in achieving his goal.  What sets Jones’ effort apart is the availability of Vietnamese accounts which are skillfully integrated into the narrative that were not available for authors who have previously engaged this topic.

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(Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, President Richard Nixon, Lt. William Calley)

Jones does an excellent job in setting the scene of the area known as “Pinksville” where the My Lai villages were located.  It is clear that events leading up to March 16th were fraught with booby traps, land mines, snipers, and other obstacles that resulted in the death of many soldiers.  Jones captures the mindset of men who were ordered to take part in the sweep that targeted the 48th Viet Cong Battalion that dominated the area.  Men were told that Vietnamese civilians would be absent in large part as they usually walked to the market in Quang Nai City, and that the Vietcong force would be double the size of the American units.  The instructions given to American troops by Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley, and other higher ups was poorly conceived and left a number of gaps for troops to deal with.  Jones stresses the relationship between Medina and Calley as a major issue as Medina held a very low opinion of his Platoon commander and often humiliated him in front of the troops.  Jones further stresses the weak intelligence that was provided and orders that zeroed in on a “search and destroy” mission that applied to anything that could possibly be used by the Viet Cong (anything, including civilians who supported the VC).

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

Jones describes what feels like a minute by minute account of the slaughter that took place.  The actions of certain soldiers receives greater attention as they were actively involved in the killings.  Jones has mined trial transcripts, Army reports, and interviews and with a historians eye for detail and lays out that happened on March 16, 1968 in a cogent fashion.  He explores the command structure, personalities involved, as well village life for Vietnamese peasants.  Captain Medina is center stage whose orders were to kill any Vietnamese present, because if they were in the villages they must be Viet Cong.  For Medina “search and destroy” meant burning the villages and killing its inhabitants.  Since the troops were told no civilians would be present, for the soldiers once the killing started it could not be controlled.  For Platoon One under Calley another component was his need to prove himself to Medina.  For Calley the way to impress Medina was the body count.  Taken with racism and fear infused in the men, and Calley’s psychological needs it was a disaster waiting to happen.

At times the reader will become sickened by what Jones describes.  Wanton murder, gang rapes, sadism are all present as Jones relates the actions of deprived men like SP4 Gary Roschevitz, PFC Robert T’Souva, PFC Paul Meadlo and numerous others, a list that is too long to reproduce.  Calley as the officer in charge saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner.  Eventually a number of men refused to continue to take part or refused from the outset.  Men became concerned as Stars and Stripes reporter Jay Robert and photographer Ronald Haberle were present and creating a record of events.

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

One of the most important characters that Jones introduces is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who flew over the battlefield, landed and confronted the perpetrators, and even got into an argument with another officer that almost turned violent.  Once the massacre ended Thompson would report what he witnessed which takes the reader into the second part of the book entitled “Aftermath and Cover up” which is exactly what took place.  Jones does a good job following the trail of “investigations,” written reports, denials, and collusion that was designed to cover up the actions taken by those in charge.  Men like Colonel Frank Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson, and their commander Major General Samuel Koster are seen pursuing an investigation with blinders on.  First, trying to discredit Thompson; Second, obfuscating and fabricating as much as possible in the hopes that the evidence would not produce war crimes; lastly, arguing that 128 Viet Cong were killed, however it could never explain why only 3 weapons were captured, which made no sense and reflected their disparate reasoning.   Jones pinpoints the strategy used to white wash events and zeroes in on the lack of accountability taken by those in command from General William Westmoreland on down.

Perhaps the most important person in pursuing the truth was helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour who came in contact with PFC Charles “Butch” Gruver who was present at My Lai in April, 1968.  Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened which conformed to what he saw on the ground during a fly over of the region.  Ridenhour would continue to run into men who were at My Lai, but fearing retribution would wait a year before sending out a five page description of what really occurred to military, administrative, and congressional leaders.  This would finally lead to a series of contacts within the government, one of which was the Inspector General’s Office.  Colonel William Wilson was charged with investigating Ridenhour’s allegations.  Jones follows Wilson’s journey across the United States and as he interviewed a number of former soldiers who had been present on March 16, 1968.  Based on his information General Westmoreland directed Chief Warrant Officer Andre Feher of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an inquiry as to what happened in My Lai.  Jones reproduces important aspects of his conversations with Calley, Thompson, Meadlo and others as well as the Army’s attempt to keep the charges against Calley out of the media.

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Throughout the narrative Jones’ presentation is impeccable and it continues as he presents and analyzes the results of the Peers Commission which found that American troops had massacred between 175 and more than 400 Vietnamese civilians.  The commission blamed Major-General Samuel Koster for suppressing information, falsely testifying, and initiating a conspiracy to withhold facts.  Further, it found evidence that Medina and Calley were guilty of war crimes.

The role of the Nixon administration fits the pattern of illegal actions they were engaged in at the time.  Nixon personally became involved as he tried to discredit witnesses to the massacre and believed that Calley was “getting a bum rap.”  Nixon set up “Task-Force My Lai” under H.R. Haldeman to undermine negative press reports.  Nixon’s strategy was to reduce opposition to the war as My Lai was causing the opposite.  He would pressure Senator Mendel Rivers, who headed the Senate Arms Services Committee investigation to discredit witnesses, and the Sub-Committee headed by Senator F. Edward Herbert which zeroed in on Thompson and Colburn.

Jones follows the legal trail that led to a series of trials, though fewer than recommended.  Since many witnesses were unavailable or refused to cooperate, in addition to the defense argument that you could not convict someone for obeying an illegal order held sway making it very difficult to obtain convictions.  The result was that the Army dropped the charges against numerous individuals.  The trials that receive the most attention are those of Calley, Henderson, and Medina.  Jones has carefully examined the trial transcripts and reconstructed the courtroom scenes of each, in addition to the public and military reactions to the verdicts.  In Calley’s case many saw him as a scapegoat for a war no one wanted to fight.  For President Nixon, the verdict was superfluous as he decided to “commute” the sentence before it was even imposed.

Much of what Jones has written reads like a “Grisham” type novel as rape, murder, deceit are all on full display inside and outside the courtroom.  My Lai was the worst massacre in American military history and it deeply affected American politics and society for the years that followed.  One must ask the question was My Lai an aberration or one of many atrocities American troops engaged in.  The answer based on available evidence is no, as there are numerous examples of this type of behavior, but were not on the level of My Lai because of the numbers involved – over 500 dead, a result of the actions of at least 40 American soldiers.  Jones brings his study to a conclusion by talking about the lives of many soldiers including Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and many others and how it affected their lives following military service.  The conclusion that can be drawn is we still do not know why allows why people that appear to be normal commit such acts of horror.  Jones has written the penultimate book on My Lai and its historical implications and it should be read by all considering a military career and those civilians who are in charge of the military and are involved in the conduct of foreign policy.

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PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)

THE SCARRED WOMAN by Jussi Adler-Olsen

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(Copenhagen, Denmark)

Anne-Line Svendsen is a very unhappy individual who is entering the mid-life doldrums.  She is employed in the Danish Social Security office and has developed a tremendous hostility for the clients she deals with on a daily basis.  She does not have any empathy for the people she is supposed to help, in particular a woman named Denise Zimmermann whose grandfather had been a member of the Nazi SS during World War II, a mother who is totally without any redeeming qualities, and an abusive grandmother.  At the outset of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s seventh installment of his Department Q of the Danish Police Department series, THE SCARRED WOMAN, Anne-Line begins to contemplate what it would be like to murder some of those who are taking advantage of the Danish social safety net.   As the plot develops Adler-Olsen’s usual panoply of characters appears; Detective Carl Morck of Copenhagen’s cold cases division; his side kick, Assad, a refugee from Syria who is slowly becoming a competent detective; Gordon Taylor another assistant, and Rose Knudsen, Morck’s administrative assistant, who after an earlier breakdown is still struggling to deal with the reemergence of her past.

What makes Adler-Olsen’s latest effort so inviting is that the complex web that he creates making it is very difficult to figure out a series of murders over different time periods.  There are a number of candidates aside from Svendsen and a plethora of scenarios are presented to confuse the reader further.  Along with the mental exercise that is presented, there is a great deal of comic relief.  Every chapter or two there is a scene involving Assad who’s English and/or Danish leaves a lot to be desired.  Morck continuously corrects him leading to much laughter.  Morck’s feud with the Head of Homicide, Lars Bjorn begun in previous books is continued, as is the dysfunction of his command, and the lack of competence among certain detectives.  In addition, a number of characters seem to reemerge, the most important of which are retired homicide detective Marcus Jacobsen, Morck’s old boss, and Tomas Laursen, an investigative technician.

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(Copenhagen policemen at a crime scene)

Adler-Olsen does a wonderful job developing a number of plot threads that converge at times.  First, there is Anneli Svendsen who is determined to be rid of women who are soaking the Danish social welfare system.  Second, is Denise Zimmermann who supports herself through a number of sugar daddies and finally resorts to robbery with Jasmine Jorgensen, another woman approaching thirty who is concerned that she can no longer rely on her body as her chief means of support as she continued to get pregnant in order to collect more money from social services.  Third, is Morck’s valiant attempts along with other members of Section Q to solve the murder of Denise’s grandmother Rigmor, and a cold case that is twelve years old that appears similar.  Fourth, and most distressing for Section Q is the condition of Rose.  She has a checkered past of psychiatric care, a father who mentally abused her and her three sisters.  Rose’s diaries are discovered and they are a cry for help as she recommits herself to a psychiatric hospital.  For Morck and company this is all a revelation and their relationship with Rose takes on new meaning after being kept in the dark concerning her mental condition for a number of years.

As the story evolves Morck’s priorities become confused.  He has the twelve year old murder, a three week old murder, Rose’s condition, and a number of breaking issues, and he is torn as to what he should concentrate on.  Adler-Olsen plays on his dilemma, but also creates a plot that in some way links all of these disparate elements by the end of the book.

In THE SCARRED WOMAN Adler-Olsen displays a great deal of empathy and personal emotion that is much stronger that previous Section Q tales.  We see a more mature Assad, and a Carl Morck who seems to review previous relationships and faces up to a number of personal mistakes.  If you have read previous renditions of Section Q, or about to try Adler-Olsen’s craft for the first time you will not be disappointed.  Adler-Olsen is a master story teller and his latest is difficult to put down until the last sentence.

GRANT by Ron Chernow

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Recently Ron Chernow was asked on the CBS morning news program if his new biography, GRANT could become a Broadway musical as his previous book HAMILTON had.  His response was clearly no, but he left open the possibility of a movie.  Whatever the case, Chernow has written the most comprehensive biography of the man credited with changing the course of, and winning the Civil War, then went on to support Lincoln’s reconstruction program, and assumed the presidency.  The book is quite long, to the point that Chernow dedicated the book to his readers, as he stated in a New York Times interview he himself would have difficulty dealing with the length of his own books.  As far as a film is concerned it is easy to contemplate such a complex life story that experienced numerous successes and failures.  Before the Civil War his private life was riddled with failed businesses and depression.  He had to deal with a father-in-law who thought very little of him, and a father who was rather intrusive.  Troubled by alcoholism he would lead the North to victory over the Confederacy, was a proponent of civil rights for freed slaves, and guided the United States through the perilous years following the Civil War.

Every high school student is taught that there was a great deal of corruption linked to the Grant administration, but in truth noting ever involved him on a personal level.  The historiography dealing with Grant’s life and career beginning with William A. Dunning at the turn of the twentieth century has been rather negative, but Chernow’s effort has continued the new strain of thought reflected in recent biographies by Ronald C. White and Jean Edward Smith who argue that Grant was a great military leader and a better president than he has been given credit for.

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Chernow’s portrait of GRANT is all consuming beginning with a boyhood that witnesses a grandstanding father and a stubbornly private son.  Along with his over-bearing father, Grant had to cope with a painfully retiring mother resulting in a young man who kept a world of buried feelings locked inside, a trait he would carry his entire life.  Chernow follows his subject through his formative years and West Point until his marriage to Julia Dent, a southern woman who lived on a plantation.  Since the Grants were rabid abolitionists it created tremendous pressure on the young couple, particularly Ulysses who could never measure up in terms of wealth to his father-in-law.

Chernow is a wonderful writer of narrative history, but he also centers on the motivations and consequences of people’s actions.  Employing his analytical skills to Grant’s intellectual development in dealing with American expansion during and following the Mexican War, and the problem of Texas we witness a man who realizes early on that the war incited by President James K. Polk could only exacerbate domestic tension by adding territories that the south would try and turn into slave states.  Grant’s pre-presidential views are in a constant state of evolution; whether dealing with military strategy during the Civil War, his dealings with Union generals such as George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Henry Halleck; how to deal with the problem of “contraband” slaves and whether they should be employed by Union armies against the south; what approach to take against Robert E. Lee; and his developing relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

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Chernow’s Grant has a facile mind who was able to control his emotions and weigh his decisions.  Grant realized that his reputation was one that stressed his problem with alcohol and the fact that casualties under his command were very high.  Chernow spends a great deal of time dealing with the alcohol issue and concludes that Grant was the type of drunk who could control when to start and stop drinking.  The evidence presented reflects the belief that Grant never drank during periods involving the preparation of and actual combat.  The stress of battle needed an outlet, and when Julia was not around or his Chief of Staff John Rawlins was not present to manage him, Grant did resort to alcohol.  As far as casualties were concerned, Grant unlike McClellan and George C. Meade did not pursue an offensive approach to war.   Once Grant experienced success in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, his relationship with Lincoln was solidified as the president finally found a general who wanted to destroy the Confederate army, and not just concentrate on acquiring territory.  Another major point that Chernow develops is that historians tend to concentrate on the Army of the Potomac and events in the east, with Grant’s life story the west comes into focus particularly its strategic value during the Civil War.

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(Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

Grant’s relationship with Lincoln was the key to victory.  The strength of their bond can be seen with all the “presidential talk” surrounding Grant as the war wound down as he assured Lincoln he had no presidential aspirations.  In dealing with the social issues that emerged with the Emancipation Proclamation we witness the further evolution of Grant’s thinking as he proposed what would come to be known as the Freedman’s Bureau to take care of freed slaves.  Lincoln’s assassination hit Grant very hard, as he lost his partner in trying to bring the south back into the union without the former Confederates loosing total face.  Once Lincoln was gone, Grant as General in Chief had to deal with Andrew Johnson, an avowed racist who went to war with radical Republicans in Congress.  By wars end the “erstwhile goods clerk” from Galena, Illinois was in command of over one million men which could compete with any army in the world.  For Grant that army would be reduced appreciatively, but was to be used to control southern rejectionists who committed numerous atrocities against freed blacks, and wanted to reinstitute the status quo ante bellum.

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(General William T. Sherman)

Chernow provides a historically accurate portrayal of the Reconstruction period.  Beginning with the presidency of Andrew Johnson the author dwells on the former Tennessee governor’s blatant racism and goal of restoring Confederate ideals as soon as possible.  Grant, then General in Chief and temporary Secretary of War with Johnson’s suspension of Edwin M. Stanton challenged the new president on issues ranging from the Freedman’s Bureau, constitutional amendments, racist inspired riots and murder in Memphis and New Orleans, and the impeachment process.  It is clear from Chernow’s analysis that Grant became the foremost protector of persecuted blacks in the south as his disgust with Johnson continually increased.  With this process his world view moved closer to Radical Republicans.  Grant believed that Johnson “had subverted the will of Congress in a way that bordered on treason.”(589)  Grant grew very uncomfortable as he found himself in the middle between Johnson and the Radical Republicans over the interpretation of the Tenure of Office Act.  For Grant military rule in the south should be terminated as soon as possible, but also believed that withdrawal should take place without sacrificing the welfare of blacks.

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(General Philip Sheridan)

It came as no surprise that Grant was easily elected to the presidency, a job he never really sought, but once in office seemed to enjoy.  The problem was that Grant tended to view rich businessmen through rose colored glasses leading to weak and corrupt appointees.  Grant, who during the war had a knack for choosing superb talent proved to have lost that skill as president.  Men like Jay Gould and John Fiske tried to corner the gold market; Orville Babcock spied for whisky distillers within the administration along with General John McDonald, the Supervisor for Internal Revenue in Arkansas and Missouri; Secretary of War William M. Belknap made money selling trading posts that provided goods to Native-Americans; and of course the Credit Mobilier – all personified the looser morals of the Gilded Age which greatly detracted from his presidency.  Grant was a victim of the disease of patronage as he repeatedly handed out positions to family and friends.  Many of his problems resulted from the lack of a true civil service system.

In his defense, Chernow argues that Grant was the first president to oversee a continental economy which led to the rise of big business, particularly the expansion of railroads that required government assistance providing fresh opportunities for graft.  “With the federal government bound up in new moneymaking activities, there arose a gigantic grab for filthy lucre that affected statehouses as well and saturated the political system with corruption.”(645)  Grant had to cope with a strong Congress whose powers had been amplified as the death of Lincoln and the actions of Johnson greatly reduced the power of the Executive branch.  Overall, Grant’s problem was that after the Civil War the Republican Party evolved from a party of abolitionism to a more business oriented one.

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(General John A. Rawlins)

Chernow stresses the role of John Rawlins in helping Grant become the hero of the Civil War, but with his death a vacuum was created that no one could fill.  Without Rawlins to help Grant control his drinking problems, act as a sounding board for decisions, and choosing the proper person for a position, it became easier for people to take advantage of Grant.  The result was once Rawlins died, Grant’s presidency became a victim of “crafty, cynical politicians for whom the credulous Grant was no match.”  Later in life Grant would admit his character flaws and blamed himself for choosing and working with individuals that helped contribute to the negative view of his presidency.

Despite the corruption that hovered around the Grant presidency there are areas to admire.  During his administration Grant faced a clandestine Civil War in the south.  Remnants of the Confederacy morphed into the Klu Klux Klan and other racist groups that reigned murder and violence against blacks or any whites who supported them.  Grant used the newly created Department of Justice and the military to prosecute offenders and safeguard possible victims.  Though he could not totally eradicate the violence and hatred by 1872 he had destroyed the Klan in the south.  However, by his second administration acts of violence against blacks in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi increased culminating in the Colfax massacre and others.  When Grant sought to use federal troops to protect black voting rights he ran into northern opposition that had grown tired of Reconstruction.

Another area that Grant should be commended for was the negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Washington that settled the “Alabama claims” issue with the British dating back to the Civil War.   As a result Anglo-American cooperation would replace years of controversy and ill-feelings.  Further, it allowed for the influx of British capital which greatly enhanced American industrial development.

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(Grant working on his memoirs right before he died)

It is interesting to note the current manipulation of the “Civil War Monuments Issue” by politicians in light of Chernow’s analysis.  The author explains Grant’s resentments against those who argued that he was only successful because of superior resources and men as opposed to the strategy he employed in defeating Lee’s army.  Further, it vexed him that after the Civil War “the North denigrated its generals while southern generals were idealized.”  Grant remarked that Southern generals were [seen as] models of chivalry and valor—our generals were venal, incompetent and course…Everything our opponents did was perfect.  Lee was a demigod, Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.” (516)  Grant is probably turning over in his grave today as statues of the treasonous Lee are used as a vehicle to exploit the feelings of many individuals who still refuse to honor the 13th,14th,  and 15th  amendments to the Constitution.

Chernow’s work is masterful, well written, and the epitome of how history should be presented.  Chernow does not miss a beat; from Grant’s military career, family life, battle to overcome alcoholism, to the trust in mankind that led to so many financial losses.  If you have the time, GRANT is a major commitment, but if you choose to accept the challenge of engaging a book that weighs between two and three pounds you will not be disappointed.

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THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

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(Prague, Czech Republic)

At the end of World War I Jaromir Laska is killed on the battlefield leaving an orphaned daughter with his most prized possession, an old music manuscript.  The daughter, Otylie was packed off to live with an aunt in Prague where she remained until 1939 when the Nazis seized control of her country.  So begins Bradford Morrow’s brilliant new novel, THE PRAGUE SONATA where the music manuscript became the centerpiece of Otylie’s memory of her father.  Its origin and composer would become an obsession for Otylie and her husband Jakub who owned a small shop that was a mishmash of Jewish and Czech culture.  Otylie feared that the manuscript/sonata would be lost to the Nazis, and to save it she would disperse it in three parts; one to herself, one to her husband Jakub, and the final piece to their friend Irena Dorfman. The story line will begin at what appears to be an academic search, but it evolves into a mystery that will grip anyone with a sense of hope.

Morrow presents a remarkable story within a larger narrative.  The key character is Meta Taverner, a musicologist who lives in New York who years later comes into contact with Irena Dorfman.  Meta was quickly taken by Dorfman who was ninety years old when they met.  Dorfman tells Meta the story of the missing sonata pieces and gains a promise from Meta that she will try to track down the pieces and reunite them.  Meta’s search and life form the core of the novel, but the characters past and present are also of extreme importance.  For Meta the sonata is an authentic 18th century work, hauntingly beautiful, and the work of a master composer, but the question is which composer.

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(The north-western, Old Town side of Na Příkopě Street)

Morrow exposes the reader to a panorama of Czech history; from the end of World War I, the Nazi occupation, the Allied liberation, the arrival of the Soviet Union and its repression, to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and finally freedom.  Each character is placed in the proper course of events and their reactions become part of the accurate historical flow of the novel.  Morrow has an excellent grasp of history and the scenes he creates conform nicely to the historical record, except for one minor error in dealing with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

The most important characters include Jakub Batos, Otylie’s husband who joins the Czech resistance against the Nazis; Daniel Hajek who would make Otylie’s life whole again, Paul Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor at Columbia University; a pair of Czech musicologists, Professors Petr Wittmann and Karel Kohut who appear to have their own agendas that are ego driven; Tomas Lang whose sister Johana had part of the sonata in her possession; Johana herself who seemed to despise everyone; Gerrit Mills, a newspaper stringer who develops a personal interest into Meta’s work and person; and a number of others.  All characters are well developed and have their own specific identities and needs, particularly Meta who appears to be going through a severe identity crisis at the time that Irena Dorfman provides the story of the manuscript.  For Meta, who was training to be a concert pianist before an accident severely injured her right hand, Irena’s request provides her with an opportunity to provide meaning to her new career as a musicologist, as well as solving a very important question that deals with music, and the legacy of a family that was broken apart by war.

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(End of Charles Bridge leading to Old Town Prague)

Morrow follows Meta’s quest in detail and integrates a great deal of Czech, and in general European music history and their composers, throughout the novel.  Further, Morrow takes the reader on a wonderful tour of Prague featuring local flavor, neighborhoods, and succeeds very nicely in examining human memory, music, and need.   If you are familiar with Lauren Belfer’s AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL Morrow’s work will be just as satisfying, but on another level it is more of a humanely epic tale.

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(Prague, Czech Republic)

STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

CALL FOR THE DEAD by John Le Carre

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(the author)

Listening to David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carre on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago was fascinating.  It raised questions about his life and how much of his own experiences in the British intelligence community is replicated in his novels.  From the interview, like the good spy, it was difficult to ascertain what Cornwell’s life was and what was fiction.  Whatever the truth, it peaked my interest and after having avoided Le Carre’s work for decades I decided to take the plunge with his first novel, CALL FOR THE DEAD.

The story begins with a description of George Smiley by his ex-wife and a few others, a character who is at the center of many of Le Carre’s books.  He is described as boring, short, fat, and possessing a quiet disposition, and a person who spent a great deal of money on “really bad clothes, which hung about that squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”  The perfect non-descript person who could excel as a spy.

Smiley appears unconcerned about his divorce, and as an intelligence officer, according to the narrator, his job provided him access to the mystery of human behavior and an outlet for his strong deductive reasoning abilities.  Le Carre provides a great deal of background concerning Smiley’s life that provides much insight into his behavior and thought processes throughout the novel.  Before World War II Smiley had been a weak student at Oxford, but was recruited anyway by the British intelligence service, which was attractive to Smiley who liked to work alone.

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Smiley began his career at a German university recommending certain students for the “secret service.”  After World War II he became the Minister’s Advisor on Intelligence at the Cambridge Circus.  A number of years later the issue at hand was one, Samuel Arthur Fennan of the Foreign Office who committed suicide shortly after being interviewed by Smiley.  It appears that Fennan may have been denounced as a member of the Communist Party, which he had been in the 1930s when the world seem to be unraveling.  The central focus of the novel is the investigation into Fennan’s death.  A number of important characters emerge that include Sparrow Inspector Mendel, who Smiley works with on the case; Matson, a career bureaucrat at the “Circus,” a man Smiley despises; Elsa Fennan, the widow; and Dieter Frey, who may be an East German spy master.  After a number of killings and an attempt on Smiley’s life the novel becomes more interesting as the plot comes into clearer focus; was Fennan a spy, was Mrs. Fennan a spy, and if they were, what damage did their work do to British national security?

Le Carre writes in a sarcastic literary style, if one such style actually exists.  His description of the mundane is entertaining as his view of mankind.  Le Carre has created an amoral universe for Smiley to function in and his philosophy of life seems to meander throughout the novel.  I am glad to finally discover Le Carre and I hope to continue to do so.

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THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG , GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC by Richard Sandomir

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(Lou Gehrig)

After reading Richard Sandomir’s THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG, GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC I cannot decide whether I have read a sports book, or a critique of how the film “Pride of the Yankees” was created and finalized.  I guess Sandomir has elements of both, but I wish he would have chosen one path rather than moving back and forth between the two approaches.  The book itself is informative and presents a number of surprising and interesting details of how Samuel Goldwyn, Eleanor Gehrig and others went about the conception of the script, how it was be transferred to the screen, and the diverse group of people who were involved.

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(Gary Cooper in the film, “Pride of the Yankees” making Gehrig’s farewell speech)

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(Lou Gehrig making his Farewell Speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939)

Sandomir provides background on all the major characters.  We witness the courtship
and marriage of Lou and Eleanor Gehrig and the stresses in their marriage.  The main problem was that Lou was a “mama’s boy” and he had difficulty separating from his mother.  Eleanor describes her marriage as a triangle between her, her husband, and her mother-in-law.  This difficulty would continue after Lou’s death as his mother sued to contest Lou’s will.  A great deal of biographical information is presented dealing with Gary Cooper and Theresa Wright the stars of the movie which are interesting and a number of career insights are brought forward.  Samuel Goldwyn whose studio produced the film is presented as a man who cared mostly about profits from his film.  He did have a soft spot for Gehrig, particularly after Gehrig’s July 4, 1939, “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech given at Yankee Stadium shortly before he died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

For Goldwyn the story revolved around patriotism and capturing a shy, decent, selfless, and sincere individual who possessed the character traits of what the American male stood for.  The year 1942 when the film was released is very important.  World War II was not going well, and Goldwyn saw the film as a means of entertainment, profit, but also providing American society an uplifting experience.  The story about a man who was struck down in the prime of his life by an insidious disease is heartwarming.  Gehrig’s own response reflects a brave individual who could be held up as a role model for the World War II generation.  What makes Sandomir’s new book, and Goldwyn’s film so effective is that they are able to translate Gehrig’s life through the prism of film and how that film has preserved his legendary career and his personal integrity for seventy-five years.

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(Lou and Eleanor Gehrig)

The chapter on teaching Gary Cooper to become a “passable” baseball player was one of the most interesting in the book.  Sandomir does a fine job introducing former major leaguers like Lefty O’Doul and Babe Herman, baseball stars in their own right, and how they went about teaching Cooper how to appear realistic as a player on film.  The author provides surprising detail on how this was accomplished.  Especially interesting in the discussion on how the right handed Cooper could play the left handed Gehrig.  The analysis of how film techniques i.e., camera reversals-Cooper would run to third, but on film he ran to first, or uniform names and numbers were reversed were especially interesting.

Sandomir is correct in arguing that the film itself has created a conundrum in that it is difficult to ascertain what is real in terms of Gehrig’s life story and what is a Hollywood creation.  It is fascinating that Goldwyn, Cooper, and others knew very little, if anything about baseball and yet they created a classic film on the sport.  For Goldwyn baseball was tangential to how he wanted the film presented.  The film was to be about Gehrig and Goldwyn “craved commercial success, not fidelity to a sport he had no affinity for.”  Goldwyn’s main problem was one of authenticity-how would the film convince its audience that what they were viewing was historical accurate.  Goldwyn’s staff employs artistic license repeatedly raising questions as to how effective the film was in replicating the truth.

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(Gehrig and Babe Ruth following his Farewell Speech)

A major issue is whether Sandomir delves into issues he uncovers as an investigative reporter or are they dealt with in a superficial manner, for example, Eleanor’s relationship with Lou’s mother; the Gehrig-Ruth relationship; the Gehrig marriage; and the background for each character in the film.  The feeling emerges that this is more of a sports book about Gehrig’s life and how a film was made to glorify it, rather than a study of filmmaking that lacked the cultural and social components of the period.  Sandomir is correct in arguing that in the end “the film left people to accept the truths that were created, which did not stick too many of the facts.”

The book is a comprehensive study of Gehrig’s life on film and the problems that arose from that undertaking.  However, at times the book lacks flow as it becomes somewhat tedious as the author seems to over analyze each aspect of the film, i.e.; chapters dealing with Gehrig’s Farewell Speech, and training Gary Cooper to replicate Gehrig.  If you are interested in this topic I would suggest viewing the film before reading Sandomir’s narrative.  It would create context for the reader and might produce a more positive result once the book is digested.

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(Lou Gehrig)