THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

Image result for PHOTO OF BERLIN WALL
(Berlin Wall)

John Lawton is perhaps one of the best practitioners of the art of Cold War noir.  He has written two separate series that deal with historical events behind the Iron Curtain and other areas and each has a scintillating plot that reeks of historical probability.  The third installment of Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series, THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMEN is an excellent example of this successful genre.  The novel is set in the early 1960s with Nikita Khrushchev master of the Soviet Union in competition for the hearts and minds of third world countries with John F. Kennedy.  In England MI6 is growing concerned about Soviet nuclear capability as are the Americans.

The story unfolds with a return to post war Berlin when former MI6 operative Joe Wildnerness accidently shoots a woman who is involved with a plot to smuggle a nuclear physicist out of East Berlin to send her to newly created state of Israel.  Wilderness is arrested and is freed by the West German authorities through the intervention of Alec Berne-Jones, an MI6 fixture for years, who happens to be Wilderness’ father-in-law.  In return for his freedom, Wilderness agrees to rejoin MI6.  Further, Lawton introduces Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn, a British Squadron Leader who is shot down over Silesia in March, 1963, captured and finally liberated by the Russians.  The NKVD, never would never miss an opportunity, takes the body of Alleyn which they have recovered and use his identity and substitute an agent, Leonoid L’vovich Liubimov to infiltrate the British Defense establishment.

British Intelligence has its own plans to infiltrate the Soviet Defense apparatus.  It seems that their entire Russian operation has been rolled by a treasonous spy by the name of George Blake, who of course had ties to the Cambridge Five.  MI6 decides to develop an “out of the box” agent, Geoffrey Masefield, an expert in metallurgy who suffers from low self-esteem, but had delusions that he could be a successful spy.  The story that is concocted deals with idium, a rare metal that Masefield, posing as an industrial representative will try and purchase in Moscow.  The goal is to gain Soviet interest in Masefield which would allow him to visit certain sites that might be of interest.  Lawton’s development of Masefield’s character and spy ability is classic and his adventures in Russia become a core of the novel.  Masefield develops a relationship with Tanya Dmitrievna Tsitikova his “Russian watcher,” of course a KGB spy, as well as Professor of Physics Grigory Grigoryevich Matsekyolyev of the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, who also is a KGB spy, which makes for interesting scenes and dialogue.

Lawton’s novel is presented in layers.  First, introducing the major characters and their possible relationship to the world of intelligence.  Second, developing each character fully, and lastly tying them together in an intricate plot that attracts the readers complete attention.  While doing so Lawton integrates historical events, concepts, and figures that provide the novel with an air of accuracy when applied to the course of the Cold War.  Events that are easily recognizable are the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, the U2 Incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, trading of spies, among others.  The realism that is evident does at times seems at times to be a tad far fetched as is evidences by Wilderness’ meeting with Khrushchev on the western side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in late September, 1961.  But to Lawton’s credit his sarcasm papers over several situations as his somewhat dark humor presides.

Image result for PHOTO OF BERLIN WALL

Lawton presents all the clichés associated with the world of spies through the character of Masefield.  Further, the reader gets a sense of Moscow during the Cold War with the lines for poor quality goods, the black market, overcrowded and run down housing, and the ever present KGB which seems to be everywhere.  Other important characters play important roles.  Wilderness’s wife, Judy, a saucy BBC producer, and daughter of her husband’s boss tries to keep her husband on track.  Tom Radley is an incompetent British MI6 Station Chief in Berlin who makes a series of errors, Nell Burkhardt who was close with Wilderness after the war and finds herself running a refugee camp, the Marooned Centre in Berlin in the early 1960s, Frank Spoleta, a self-indulgent CIA operative who seems to alienate everyone he encounters, among others.

Image result for photo of jfk and nikita k

(President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev)

British intelligence chiefs are in a quandary as to how to further employ Masefield.  Wilderness is extremely skeptical in extending Masefield’s leash, so he can try and penetrate the Soviet Defense Ministry further.  On the other hand, Radley, the Berlin Chief wants to provide his agent carte blanche.  The result is that Radley’s view is put forth leading to disastrous consequences and his removal from his position.  At this point the novel takes on an exceptionally serious hue as M16 officials, Wilderness, and his father-in-law must change course in order to contain the intelligence gaffe, and deal with the fallout that may foster more drastic Soviet actions.

Lawton, as per usual has written an exciting Cold War mystery, with strong character development, the ability to integrate the unusual into his dialogue and story line, and take the reader back and forth from post war Berlin to the machinations of the 1960s.  For those who enjoy David Downing, Olen Steinhauer, Philip Kerr, or Luke McCallin, they will find Lawton to be equal to, if not a step up in his approach to Cold War espionage.  Lawton is a great read, no matter what book of his you might pick up, so enjoy.

Image result for PHOTO OF BERLIN WALL
(Berlin Wall, upon completion)
Advertisements

LIE IN THE DARK by Dan Fesperman

Image result for photo of sarajevo in 1990s civil wars
(Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Civil War-1990s)

The names Slobadan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Franjo Tudman probably have long receded from our minds.  Perhaps places like Srebrenica, Racak, Banja Luka, the sites of massacres during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war might jog your memory, if not Dan Fesperman’s novel, LIE IN THE DARK explores the terrors and murder associated with that dark time concentrating on Sarajevo.  The story will take you back to a period of intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and wonderment about the depths of evils that people succumb to.

Fesperman sets the tone of his novel from the outset as homicide investigator, Vlado Petric observes the early morning grave digging crew unearthing bodies that were victims of shelling and sniper fire the previous day.  His observations go directly to the absurdity of war as he describes grave digging during a period of genocide, the continuous cycle of snipers and shelling as almost normal vocations.  Sarajevo and its environs presented a universe of slaughter, death, and destruction which was the daily norm for the city.  It is a story dealing with human depravity, treachery, and ethnic cleansing among Serbs, Croats, and Moslems.  To what end was the glory of this national ideal, a belief resting on genocide with groups like the Chetniks, the Ustasha, and others committing murder daily.  In this environment Petric believed that what he did made a difference, but his rationalization did not always protect him from the reality of this brutal civil war.

Image result for photo of sarajevo in 1990s civil wars

(Siege of Sarajevo)

Petric was Catholic and a Croat who had sent his wife and daughters to Germany to escape the civil war, a conflict where the Serbs were bent on leveling Sarajevo layer upon layer if they could not capture it.  Fesperman’s description of the morass of the civil war places the reader amid the carnage that was Sarajevo.  During the shelling Petric tried to maintain his sanity by painting miniature soldiers from diverse historical periods, an occupation that became his therapy.  Petric’s secondary therapy was police work, investigating murders amidst the war raging around him.  A world where the paucity of food, supplies and the necessities of life became a battle of scavenging, barter, and other strategies to deal with the black market on which their lives depended.

The novel centers on the murder of Esmir Vitas, the Chief of the Ministry of the Special Police.  Petric is placed in charge of the investigation as he is seen as not being tainted by the war, which made him palatable to United Nations bureaucrats.  Petric pursues a standard approach to his investigation, but he soon runs into road blocks forcing him to stretch police procedures to their limits.  Vitas’ murder goes deeper than meets the eye after Petric conducts a few interviews, and takes the investigation into Sarajevo’s underworld of gangs, war lords, and government and United Nations officials who have their own agendas and cannot be trusted.

Image result for photo of sarajevo in 1990s civil wars
(a woman risks her life for food in Sarajevo)

Fesperman presents a parallel track in the novel as he describes the dehumanizing nature of the war, and how the ongoing fighting affects people’s daily lives.  For the civilian population there is no such thing as a casual stroll.  If you went out for food, desperate from hunger you took your life into your own hands, and most likely you would become a target for a sniper.  Fesperman spends an inordinate amount of time presenting the lunacy of war, but he does provide glimpses into the bygone age when life was normal, but boys playing basketball off a bent rim with sniper fire all around is a bit disconcerting to categorize as normal.  Petric, like others has difficulty coping with the separation from his family as he realizes he does not know his daughter after two years of being apart following her first birthday.  He can speak by telephone for a brief time monthly, but this just heightens his anguish.

Perhaps Fesperman’s most interesting character is Milan Glavas, a white haired individual with a hacking cough who was an expert in Yugoslav art and antiquities from World War II to the 1990s.  Petric learned from Glavas about the lists of artifacts and other objects that had been stolen since the war.  The recovery of objects from the Nazis led to a black market trade that disseminated art works throughout Yugoslavia and other countries.  Glavas had gone to Germany at the end of the war to investigate and he became a wealth of knowledge concerning the location of these items.  A transfer file had been created which had been destroyed in a fire, but Glavas supposedly was the only source for that information.  The novel takes on a different tact as Glavas, “the curator of the world’s most scattered collection.  The shepherd, if you will, of all of [Yugoslavia’s] wandering lambs,” is introduced.   It seems the black market trade, the role of certain military officials, bureaucrats, and United Nations representatives is greatly involved, and the question is how does Vitas’ murder fit into the main plot. What results is a fascinating story were by a senile woman, a reluctant prostitute, and an English reporter play prominent roles.

Image result for photo of sarajevo in 1990s civil wars

Fesperman is masterful story teller with excellent command of the historical information that makes this novel believable.  Fesperman is not your typical novelist as he has constructed the netherworld of art seizures and recovery from World War II.  He explores how items are smuggled, and the lengths that some go to enrich themselves from this illegal trade.  For some the story might be far-fetched, but seen in the context of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, it is an accurate setting.  I have read a few Fesperman’s later novels including, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO and THE WARLORD’S SON, and LIE IN THE DARK begins a pattern of excellence that is followed in all of his later books.  Fesperman has become one of my favorite practitioners of historical “mystery” fiction, and his gripping style and character development should attract a wide audience.

Image result for photo of sarajevo in 1990s civil wars
(Sarajevo during 1990s Yugoslav Civil War)

FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward

Image result for photos of trump

What is one to think of a book whose closing line is a quote from John Dowd, who resigned as President Trump’s lawyer in March 2018, that states “the president is a fucking liar.”  The book in question is FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward, and like his other books it is based on his own reporting, extensive interviewing, gathering information directly and indirectly from other publications and news accounts.  Woodward’s narrative covers the Trump presidential campaign through the resignation of Dowd, and presents, perhaps the most dysfunctional White House in American history.

Recently, the public has been bombarded with books dealing with the rise of the Trump presidency.  What sets Woodward’s monograph apart is the author’s reputation and history of access to sources that others do not employ.  The book presents an administration that Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly describes as “crazy town,” and the former aide to the president, Rob Porter defines Trump as a “professional liar.”  Woodward’s command of the material is excellent and integrates all the characters discussed daily by cable news and the print media.  The plight of Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Hope Hicks, and many others is present for all to see as they try and protect the president from himself.

Image result for photos of Gary Cohn

(Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic advisor)

From the start outset the narrative Woodward presents a scary scene as Trump wants to withdraw from the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, an action which could have grave national security consequences in dealing with Kim Jong Un and North Korea.  The situation is offset by the head of Trump’s Economic Council, Gary Cohn who steals the letter telling South Korean President Moon of his intentions from the president’s desk.  This type of behavior is just the tip of the ice berg as Woodward recounts the daily machinations of the West Wing.

Much of what Woodward writes has appeared in some form or another elsewhere for those who followed the 2016 election and the first 15 months of the Trump presidency.  For some the book may be repetitious, but Woodward has done an excellent job of integrating new material that he has uncovered with that of other accounts.  Woodward provides numerous tidbits that will make the reader wonder what is going on at the White House.  Gary Cohn plays a major role in trying to steer Trump toward economic policies that are sound and will not destroy trade with our allies, and China.  For Cohn, seen by his opponents in the administration as a New York Democrat and a “globalist,” believes that Trump had no basic understanding of how the US economy works.  Trump just wanted to print more money and had no concept of how the debt cycle worked.  For Trump, deficits worked as bankruptcies in his real estate businesses, and large deficits in the federal budget could work the same way – hence the massive tax cuts passed by Congress.

Image result for photos of Peter Navarro

(Peter Navarro)

Large swaths of FEAR are spent detailing tariff and trade issues.  For years Trump believed that China, South Korea and others had been taking advantage of the United States – as president he would rectify that situation.  Woodward provides interesting details dealing with the clash of Cohn with Peter Navarro, a Trump appointee over deficit spending.  Cohn lays out the arguments carefully for the president as if speaking to a ninth grader.  Ninety-nine percent of economists supported Cohn’s views dealing with NAFTA, the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization etc.  Cohn prepared a short paper to explain his position, but Trump does not read and did not accept Cohn’s facts concerning the service sector of the US economy.  Cohn asked Trump why to do you have these views, Trump replied, “I’ve had these views for thirty years.”  Rob Porter who supported Cohn against Navarro and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross as they tried to explain the interrelationship between American trade policies and American national security.  They, along with Secretary of Defense, James Mattis argued in the case of South Korea that the US had 28,000 troops along the DMZ with North Korea which served as a tripwire for American defense.  Trump was obsessed with the $18 billion trade imbalance with South Korea and wanted Seoul to pay for the THAAD missile system designed to protect our ally, which also protected our troops.  In fact, Seoul did pay $8 billion of the $10 billion cost.   Cohn and Porter repeatedly rehashed their economic and national security arguments to no avail as Navarro and Ross refused to accept the concept that increased tariffs would result in a tax for American consumers.  Navarro and Ross argued that the tariff increase would help Trump with big businesses and unions and would be good for the 2018 midterm elections.  Cohn believed he “was banging his head against the wall,” though he would not resign until the massive tax cut for the upper classes would be implemented.  Cohn had his agenda and he would swallow the events of Charlottesville and Trump’s response, to push through the tax cuts.

Image result for photos of Rob Porter

(Trump Chief of Staff, John Kelly and Rob Porter, former presidential aide)

Woodward spends a great deal of time examining the role of Rob Porter who was a restraining influence on Trump.  Once he left because he physically abused his ex-wife the leash on Trump became very loose.  Kelly and Tillerson tried to reign the president in, but both failed.  Tillerson was fired or quit, depending on who you believe, and Kelly remains at his post with little or no influence on the president.

Woodward reinforces the role of Jared and Ivanka Kushner who seemed to live in their own “silo.”  Woodward describes how Trump ordered the assassination of President Bashir Assad of Syria as he said, “let’s go in, let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” but was talked out of it.  Trump’s erratic behavior dominates the book from campaign rallies to Charlottesville, to reacting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his relationship with Steve Bannon, meetings with John Dowd, his theory that you must deny everything repeatedly no matter what the accusation and the facts are, his comments about Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, etc.  Trump comes off as the ultimate narcissist, a behavior that continues to this day.

For Trump, real power was based on fear, and Woodward captures this emotion exceptionally well in the president.  Woodward writes in his breezy newspaper style and makes the book, no matter how disturbing, an easy read.

Image result for photos of trump

THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ by C.J. Chivers

Related image
(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

Recently, C. J. Chivers appeared on Book TV/C-SPAN and describes how he went about writing his new book, THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ.  After 9/11 the US military mission was to root out and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Chivers, a New York Times investigative correspondent argues that the mission was accomplished in a few weeks, but after seventeen years, we as a nation still find ourselves supporting the governments in Kabul and Baghdad with thousands of troops.  During those seventeen years over 2.7 million soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with over 3,000 deaths and 10,000 wounded.  Based on our present circumstances in both countries it is important to understand the experiences of American forces and gain insights into their lives before, during, and after their service.  Chivers engages this task and the result is a powerful book that should be the standard in trying to explain what has happened to the American military and their soldiers during the last seventeen years.

Image result for photo of cj chivers
(author, C.J. Chivers)

Chivers’ approach is broad based.  He relies on interviews of the combatants and narrows it down to six to eight individuals.  They were chosen to represent as many areas as possible; he has chosen soldiers from different phases of the wars discussed; he focuses on the different enemies the US was confronted with; he explores different regions in the combat areas; the characters represent career soldiers from before 9/11, and those who joined because of the attack at the World Trade Center.  Further, he explores the individual MOS of each character, how each soldier readjusted to civilian life, and their views about the wars before, during, and after their involvement.  By using this approach Chivers can dig down and engage the human emotions involved, how combat affected his characters, and how the wars affected their families.

Chivers’ research rests on numerous interviews conducted over a six-year period, diaries maintained by the participants, newspaper accounts, and other primary materials that were available.  The author concludes that the men and women who fought represent only 1% of our country.  The American people do not know that 1%, and most do not know anyone that knows them.  This is important because that being the case the war does not touch most of us, therefore when decisions were made to fight the public debate was minimal.  Perhaps if we had a draft and more people had “skin in the game” the public would be more involved, and it would not be so easy to engage in warfare.  Chivers’ goal is an effort to remedy this situation “in part through demystification.”  In doing so he rejects the views of senior officers.  “It channels those who did the bulk of the fighting with an unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them too.”  Chivers is correct when he states that the history of warfare can be summed up with “too much general and not enough sergeant.”

Image result for photo of cj chivers

Chivers offers a critical indictment of American decision making and policies that led to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the errors that have ensued during the wars themselves.  The lies, political machinations, career enhancing decisions, and general stupidity of what has occurred over the last seventeen years is on full display.  The author presents six major characters, across numerous military fields in making his arguments.  Chivers begins with Lieutenant Layne McDowell, a combat pilot; he goes on to include Sergeant First Class Leo Kryzewski, a Special Forces team navigator; Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby; Chief Warrant Officer Michael Sebonic, a helicopter commander; Specialist Robert Soto, an eighteen year old radio operator in an infantry unit; and Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, an infantry unit commander.  Chivers allows the reader to get to know each character in a personal way, that when things go wrong they feel the pain that each soldier experiences.  Chivers describes numerous ambushes, mortar attacks, IED explosions, rocket attacks, remote explosions, suicide bombs, and how soldiers tried to cope, especially the after effects.  In effect, Chivers describes the “rawness of combat” and war itself and the difficulties endured by those who served.

Image result for photo of Dustin E. Kirby

(Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby after the war)

Perhaps the most poignant description in the book is when Petty Officer Dustin “Doc” Kirby spoke with the father of a soldier whose life he had saved, Chivers writes “The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you…. And if I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’  Kirby’s guilt began to lift.”

The military bureaucracy, “chicken shit” attitudes by higher ups, and poor decision-making where things that soldiers had to deal with daily to survive.  For those in combat it came down to the battlefield’s baseline mentality: “They looked after themselves, platoon by platoon, squad by squad, truck crew by truck crew, each marine having the others back, and staying wide of the higher ups.”  If one theme dominants Chivers’ narrative it is that each soldier saw his fellow soldier as a brother to be treated and cared for as they would wish to be treated and cared for themselves.

Image result for photos of george w. bush
(President George W. Bush)

All of these points are encapsulated in the description of Operation Mostar in one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand province as part of the 2010 troop surge in  Afghanistan.  Lt. Jarrod Neff must prove himself as a unit commander to his Marines having been transferred from an intelligence unit.  Neff’s experiences point out the number of important issues related to the war.  After spending billions on training an Afghan National Army, at the time of the surge they remained poorly trained, not trustworthy to the point many were suspected of being Taliban spies, and though they were to take the lead in certain operations, the Marines refused to allow it.  Chivers description of Marine training, readiness and peoperational planning provides a human element in contemplating the violence and death American soldiers were about to deal with.  As Chivers takes the reader through the assault on Marja one can only imagine how our troops can cope with what is happening around them.  The most devastating aspect of the fighting was an errant American bomb that blew up a civilian house resulting in numerous casualties with body parts strewn all around.  What made it worse is that the house contained women and children.  It would fall to Neff’s men to clean up and complete a “body death assessment.”  Chivers points out, that to this day the military has refused to release the investigative report about the incident.

Chivers has written a masterful work that describes the atmosphere that exists in combat and what life was like for those soldiers who returned home.  After reading this book the reader will become angry because of government policies, incompetence, and blindness when it came to American involvement in carrying out these two wars.  The book should now be considered the standard for anyone who wants to vicariously live the life of an American soldier today and understand where US policy went wrong.

Image result for afghanistan war photos
(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

Image result for photos of william l shirer

(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

Image result for photos of william l shirer

(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS by Karen Bartlett

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

Karen Bartlett’s new Holocaust work, ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS possesses a powerful narrative as it examines the German manufacturing firm J. A. Topf and Sons and its role during World War II.  The problem for the firm is that a few of its manufacturing products centered on ovens, crematoria, and the parts necessary to build them.  These products made up only 1.85% of Topf and Sons actual products, but these items were linked to Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration/extermination camps.

The monograph begins with Hartmut Topf, the great grandson of the firm’s founder trying to come to grips with his family’s past.  After the war, Hartmut wanted nothing to do with the family business as his true loves were theater, puppetry, and journalism.  When he was a boy during the war his best friend Hans Laessing, was Jewish and he would disappear into the Nazi abyss.  With questions about his family and his friend, Hartmut set out to learn the truth leading him to learn things he could not believe.  Bartlett’s approach rests on interviews with former workers, American and Russian investigators, and Topf family members.  She also relies on the works of historian Annegret Schule, the author of two books that encompass her topic.  The first, BETWEEN PERSECUTION AND PARTICIPATION: BIOGRAPHY OF A BOOKEEPER AT J.A. TOPF AND SOHNE; the second, INDUSTRIE UND HOLOCAUST.

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

(Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf)

What is clear is that “company directors Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, along with their managers, engineers, oven fitters, and ventilation experts, were not ignorant paper pushers or frightened collaborators – instead they willingly engaged with the Nazis, reaping the benefits, taking advantage they could, and pushing their designs for mass murder and body disposal further and further until they could truly be described as the engineers of the Holocaust.”   By the end of the war men like Kurt Prufer, an engineer who pushed his designs and came up with plans that were so outlandish that even the SS had to turn them down.

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

Bartlett provides a history of the firm, but the core of the book rests on the growth of Topf and Sons as a manufacturer of numerous products that would enhance the Nazi war effort.  There are numerous character portraits reflected the internecine conflict within the Topf family over control and which products should be made available to the Nazis.  Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang would take over the company in July, 1933, coinciding with Hitler’s rise to power and they immediately went down the road that would result in a loss of any moral decency or humanity they might have possessed.

In addition to building the ovens the firm employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.  Roughly 40% of their labor force was made up of POWs which contributed to their deal with the devil.  Perhaps the most important person in this process was Kurt Prufer who would distinguish himself as “the true pioneer of annihilation.”  His own experiences during W.W.I. allowed him to develop a low level of concern for human life.  He would take his engineering talents to become an expert on cremation sales and fixtures.  Beginning with manufacturing crematoria for civil use in Erfurt and other towns it was feasible to change nomenclature and develop new incinerators and ventilation to fit the needs of the Final Solution.  They would go so far as changing the name from crematoria in their catalogue to “incineration chamber.” The key innovation was the development in October, 1939 was the three single muffin ovens that would be used to build permanent crematoria at Buchenwald under the sadistic SS Gruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl as opposed to temporary ovens that were mobile.  As the war progressed after 1942 and the Russians moved west, these ovens could not accommodate the number of bodies the Nazis wanted to cremate leading to mechanical breakdowns and rancid smells surrounding the countryside where the camps were located.

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

(Museum and Memorial for those who perished because of the work of J.A. Hopf and Sons)

The author provides a brief history of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but her most important contribution is going through the documentation that the Russians and Americans uncovered as they liberated the camps and seized the Topf and Sons facilities.  Bartlett takes the reader through interrogations of workers and others, most importantly Prufer and three other important engineers.  There excuse was that they delivered the same products to the Nazis as they had to municipalities in the form of civil crematoria, and if they hadn’t sold the products, the SS had other firms that would provide them.  Ludwig Topf would commit suicide at the end of the war, but his brother Ernst Wolfgang continued to make his case and eventually was able to avoid any punishment for his actions.

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

(Kurt Prufer)

The only suggestions I have for the author is that there seems to be too much replication of war crimes documentation in the text.  Perhaps they could have been placed as an appendix at the end of the book.  Secondly, there seems to be an overreliance on certain sources.  Otherwise, Bartlett has done Harmut justice in that she has produced the entire story of his family, a family that he admittedly feels ashamed of.  To his credit, Harmut has spent a great deal of his time and resources on restitution and remembrance that have culminated in the Topf and Sons Memorial in Erfurt for those who have perished.   Hopefully by educating visitors and publicizing its work the Memorial Museum will make another genocidal tragedy less likely to occur in the future.

Image result for photos of the J A Topf family

 

HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger

Image result for photos of trump and putin

(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump)

When I began reading Craig Unger’s new book HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA, I did so with great anticipation.  Unger’s previous monographs, HOUSE OF SAUD HOUSE OF BUSH and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH immediately captured my interest and developed themes that were strongly supported by documentary evidence and interviews.  In his newest effort, Unger has not totally measured up to preceding works.  First, if one has followed the news the last twelve months the material should be very familiar especially if one thinks about news accounts on cable television, newspaper articles, and exposes in magazines like The Atlantic.  Second, a good part of the book reads like excerpts from a Russian version of “Goodfellahs,” as Unger describes the development of Russian mob influence and wealth accumulation following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and tries to link Donald Trump to every Russian oligarch he has come across.  Third, the book promises to deliver the untold story of the Trump-Putin relationship, but it seems to rehash what is already in plain sight in the media.  Lastly, the book‘s focus is predominantly about the spread of the Russian mob, the rise of Putin and the Russian autocrat’s strategy to undermine the west, and though it presents a strong case for the Trump-Russian nexus Unger could have developed this component in greater depth.

Related image

(Trump with Agas and Emin Agalarov)

Unger’s goal as outlined in his introduction is very bold and I thought that I was about to read a book that would replace Michael Isikoff’s and David Corn’s RUSSIAN ROULETTE as the preeminent work on Trump and his Russian connection.  Unger states he will tie Trump to 59 individuals with alleged ties to the Russian Mafia; the use of Trump’s brand to launder billions of Russian mob money; Trump’s providing an operational home to Russian oligarchs in Trump Tower; the significant role the Russian Mafia plays in the Russian government; Russian intelligence targeting of Trump as a possible source for over forty years; how the Russian mob used American groups such as K Street lobbyists to gain influence and intelligence; how Russia took advantage of Trump’s $4 billion debt to coopt him, whether willingly or unwillingly; a description of Trumps relationship with Russian mobsters like Felix Sater; and how Trump became an intelligence “asset” for the Russians.  This is quite an undertaking, a puzzle whose pieces do not always seem to fit, resulting in a narrative that too often does not make a concrete case. Everything Unger states may be accurate, but he does not present his arguments without raising a certain amount of doubt.   In Unger’s defense, at this point it would difficult for any author to write the definitive account of the Trump-Putin/Russian relationship.

Image result for photos of russian oligarchs

(Putin and Oleg Deripaska)

Unger develops his narrative on two parallel tracks.  First, he describes the development of the Russia Mafia (or Mob) and how they have made inroads in the United States and countries abroad.  He correctly points to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in a 1974 Congressional Trade bill that called for allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave Russia.  In doing so, the Kremlin let out many Jews, but also many criminals, rapists, and other unsavory characters.  Many of these Jews and their lesser types migrated to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn and set up the “new Odessa” as they turned the neighborhood into a Russian enclave.  This provided an area for the Russian Mafia to dominate, set up businesses to launder money, and carry out extortion and other nefarious activities.  Unger goes on describe how the Russian Mafia plundered and came to control much of their country’s resources and corporations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and followed the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s career.  Unger will detail the actions taken by numerous individuals like Semion Mogilevich, the “brainy don” of the Russian mob, worth billions derived from illicit trade in weapons, women etc. and Serge Mikhalov, the head of the biggest crime gang in Russia, and how their relationships with Putin, who employed his own cunning, and manipulation of earlier politicians allowed him to develop his own personal kleptocracy.

Image result for photos of russian oligarchs

(Roman Abramovitch)

The second track follows Donald Trump’s career dating back into the early 1980s when he was a target of interest for Soviet intelligence.  The story is a familiar one as Unger takes us through Trump’s trips to Moscow in the mid-eighties and nineties as he tries to put together a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow.  Unger describes how Trump went from debt of $4 billion due to the collapse of his casino empire in Atlantic City to solvency as he learned to trade on his name, and brilliantly made his own name a trademark that Russian oligarchs seem to crave in business deals and high rise condos (a problem in that it provided the Russian mob a place to launder about $1.5 billion as they used shell companies to pay for condo apartments throughout Trump’s real estate empire).  Trumps relationships with men like Felix Sater and others comes to the fore as more and more Trump develops relationships with Russian oligarchs for investment capital, and business projects.  The author tries to unscramble the web of relations surrounding Russian oligarchs and mobsters with ties to Putin and Trump throughout the book, and in many cases the links are solid, and in other cases less so, but the arcane world he is describing is really difficult to totally nail down.  Unger will then take these two tracks which encompasses about two thirds the book and turns to their nexus – how the Russians used their investment in Trump to interfere in the 2016 election, and reap the rewards of a Trump presidency.

Image result for photos of russian oligarchs

(Putin with his oligarch colleagues)

Perhaps in Unger’s strongest presentation he develops the concept of non-linear warfare as a Russian strategy to overturn western gains that included moving the Ukraine closer to the European Union.  For Putin, this was a red line that could not be allowed.  The key to this new approach as put forth by Vladislav Surkov and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia was to create a false reality consisting of fake news and alternative facts for both within and without Russia.  Putin and his cohorts set out to destroy the truth and create a never ending conflict about perception that helped the Russian autocrat to control and manage his country.  Hybrid warfare and active measures were employed to weaken the U.S., Britain, NATO, and the European Union and roll back the gains they had made since the Cold War.  Money would be poured into pro-Russian parties in former Soviet states, as well supporting right wing candidates in the U.S. and Western Europe who wanted to dismantle the Western Alliance.  There were spies, hackers, and informational soldiers who carried out sophisticated attacks on social media.  The Russian Mafia was just one weapon in Russia’s arsenal.

Once the strategy was developed Russian intelligence zeroed in on Donald Trump who had years before established a relationship with the Russian mob.  The story of how Trump’s candidacy announced in June, 2015 gave Putin his candidate and allowed him to wreak the benefits of his penetration of K Street, white collar law firms, the Republican political establishment, and former justice and senatorial figures has been told elsewhere and Unger may strengthen details, but the overall storyline remains the same.  The Russian cyber warfare campaign against the U.S. and Hillary Clinton is now well known, but at the time the government did not seem to have a full grasp of what was actually occurring.

Image result for images of felix sater

(Tamir Sapir and Felix Sater)

Unger digs deep into the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, analyzing who participated, and what agendas they represented.  It is clear that the Trump campaign was now in bed with the Russians, even if the Trump people did not realize how deep, or maybe they did.  Meetings between Trump officials and Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives abound in Unger’s account, as do the role of leaked emails receiving undo attention as opposed to warnings of Russian hacking and penetration of the American electoral process.  As disconcerting as Unger’s account is, we will have to wait until the Mueller investigations concludes to learn the truth.

In summation, Unger has done prodigious research into what is available, but much of what he uncovers is not new.  However, he has done a service by unraveling the role of Russian organized crime, the Putin regime, and its links to Donald Trump and his circle.

Image result for photos of trump and putin

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: A LIFE by Willard Sterne Randall

Image result for photo of alexander hamilton

(Alexander Hamilton)

If one wonders why a biography of Alexander Hamilton did not stir Lin-Manuel Miranda to write his Broadway musical before Ron Chernow’s bestselling work all you have to do is look at Willard Sterne Randall’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: A LIFE written a year before Chernow’s monograph.  Randall’s effort is a clear narrative written by a traditional historian that lacks many of the details, insights on a personal level, and coverage of the most important aspects of Hamilton’s extraordinary life that Chernow presents.  Randall, who has written biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before tackling his present subject seems most concerned with who was right about America, Jefferson, or Hamilton.  He concludes that Jefferson was correct for the 18th century, Hamilton, for more modern times.  Randall’s study is reliable and readable and mostly rests on primary materials.

Other than the depth of coverage that Randall provides my major criticism is how he attributes his material to sources.  His chapter endnotes are not complete and he makes it very difficult to ascertain where he gets his material.  There are too many examples of; “One family historian recently observed,” or, “As one historian put it,” or, “One historian’s description,” is annoying and not the way most historians present their sources.

Image result for images of hercules mulligan

(Hercules Mulligan)

In terms of Hamilton’s private life, Randall seems certain that Hamilton and his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church were lovers.  His writing is crisp, but in terms of Hamilton family relations it is very speculative, particularly the description of Elizabeth Hamilton and her relationship with her husband.  In other areas Randall is on firmer ground.  His discussion of Hamilton’s early years where he was fueled by the writings of John Locke and accepted the ideas of “free will” as opposed to Calvinist dogma is excellent.  Randall concentrates on a number of individuals that have not been detailed by most historians.  The individual that most comes to mind is Hercules Mulligan, a merchant who initially served as Hamilton’s guardian when he arrived from the Caribbean.  Later, Mulligan would become a valuable spy against the British in New York during the American Revolution as well is becoming a peer of Hamilton, and one of his most important confidants.  Randall will also spend a great deal of time with the back and forth between Samuel Seabury’s “True Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” v. that of Hamilton’s “A Full Vindication,” which is important because it juxtaposes the loyalist and anti-loyalist positions visa vie the British, and the formulation of Hamilton’s basic political and economic philosophy.

Image result for photo of george washington

(George Washington)

Important areas that Randall reviews include the Washington-Hamilton relationship, where one can see how mutually dependent each would become on the other through the revolution and leading up to Washington’s presidency.  The machinations surrounding General Horatio Gates’ attempts to replace Washington during the revolution and actions taken by the general and his supporters after the revolution also receive important coverage.  Randall will dissect the needs of the Continental Army and spares no criticism in his comments on the incompetence of a number of members of the Continental Congress.  Randall stresses the importance of Hamilton’s relationship with John Laurence and the Marquis de Lafayette, particularly as it affected his actions during the revolution, and importantly, develops the ideological abyss that consumes Hamilton’s relationship with James Madison, especially after the Constitutional Convention.

Image result for photos of angelica and elizabeth schuyler

(Angelica Schuyler Church)

As opposed to other authors Randall does not provide a great deal of detail of Hamilton private life and career after Washington becomes president.  The majority of the book deals with Hamilton’s early life, the revolution, and the period leading up to and including the writing of the constitution.  Randall analyzes issues like the assumption of debt, the National Bank, the need for public credit in detail.  Further, he explores foreign policy implications of Hamilton’s domestic economic agenda, but does not develop the ideological and personal contradictions with Thomas Jefferson fully.  The relationship with Aaron Burr also does not receive the attention that it warrants because that relationship spanned Hamilton’s entire career.

To enhance the monograph Randall should have balanced Hamilton’s career and influence on historical events more evenly and not given short shrift to the Washington presidency where he served as Secretary of the Treasury and the events that occurred following his retirement from office.  Randall has written a useful biography of Hamilton, but in no way does it approach the level of Ron Chernow’s later effort.

Image result for photo of alexander hamilton
(Alexander Hamilton)

BOUND FOR GOLD by William Martin

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush

(1849 California Gold Rush)

William Martin remains one of the most accomplished purveyors of historical fiction today.  In his new novel, BOUND FOR GOLD, the sixth in his Peter Fallon series, the Boston book dealer and his girlfriend Evangeline Carrington become caught up in the search for a lost journal that will transport them to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush.  Employing his traditional approach of alternating historical information from a specific period with the present Martin has written an engrossing novel that is based on sound historical research and a novelist’s eye for fine detail.

Martin begins his tale with James Spencer, an eighty-three year old scion of wealth confronted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fire.  Scared, Spencer races to his office as the fire approaches to save his journal and other personal papers that recount his and his wife’s role in building California. As Spencer travels to his office he witnesses the devastation that the earthquake and approaching fire have caused.  Martin effectively describes the damage to historical buildings and sites through Spencer’s eyes.  What separates Martin from other writers is that each page of his novels wreak of history, no matter the plot line, character, or any given situation.

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush

The corruption, greed, and lawlessness of 1849 San Francisco is on full display.  As Martin takes the reader into the river beds and mines that men explore for gold as the most negative aspects of human nature come to the fore.  Martin’s creation of James Spencer’s journals provides a vehicle to disseminate his story and introduce numerous characters, many of which are unsavory, naive, and somewhat honest as they set out from Boston for the gold fields of California.

The Sagamore Mining Group headed by Samuel Hodges hires the “William Winter” captained by Nathan Trask to transport his men west.  Others are included, especially Jason Willis who would like to set up a mercantile trade using California as his base of operations instead of panning for gold.  James Spencer, hired by the Boston Transcript to provide coverage for articles about the discovery of gold bears witness to all events and machinations as they sail around the Cape of Good Hope and arrive in San Francisco.  Upon their arrival Martin shifts his focus back to the 21st century to Peter Fallon’s son LJ, who is a lawyer for a major San Francisco law firm travels east to inform his father that he was overseeing the liquidation of the Spencer estate for his law firm.  He asks his father to appraise the Spencer rare book collection and a number of manuscripts.  The problem is that among the papers is Spencer’s journal describing his observations of the 19th century gold rush which have gone missing.  Spencer’s great-grandaughter placed a codicil in her will that stated that before the estate could be liquidated, all seven original sections of the journal, scattered among his heirs had to be gathered and digitalized.  Each of the heirs had their own agenda and Maryanne Rogers, the great-granddaughter had been killed in a hit and run accident in a crosswalk as she was crossing the street to meet LJ’s boss, Johnson Barber.

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush

Martin introduces numerous characters from the 19th and 21st centuries to carry out his plot.  Janiva Toler, Spencer’s wife; Samuel Hodges the head of the Sagamore Mining Company; Michael Flynn, an Irish waiter, who resents Bostonian wealth will become Spencer’s partner; Cletis Smith, late of the US Army, another Spencer partner; Manion Sturgis who owns a winery in the gold region; Wei Chin, a member of the anti-Manchu Sam Hi Hui who escaped China for America are among the 19th century contingent.  Mary Ching Cutler, LJ’s fiancé; her father Jack Cutler; Chinese gang interests in San Francisco; Johnson “Jack” Barber” LJ’s boss; and William Donnelly, a retired Kern County detective are among the 21st century notables.  The dominant figure of course is Peter Fallon who as in all Martin’s previous historical renditions is a solid figure who employs a sarcastic and somewhat humorous approach to life as he works to solve the mystery of the stolen journal that documents Spencer’s quest for fortune and alludes to a mythical river of gold.  The diary supposedly reveals the location of an actual river which could set off a modern gold rush, and Fallon is up against present day elements ranging from the Hong Kong Triad, winery owners, Chinatown thugs, and even people with an environmental agenda who want to control any new discoveries.

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush

Martin effectively intertwines his historical saga with a contemporary story.  His work follows on two tracks one reaches back from 1849 toward the present, and the other works toward the past from the present.  The key is when the two tracks meet.  Martin introduces numerous powerful men in the novel as well as explores San Francisco and its multiethnic citizens.  BOUND FOR GOLD is a story of racism, rough justice and occasional kindness, and if you enjoyed any of Martin’s previous Fallon adventures, his latest will not disappoint-as Martin remains a superior story teller.

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush(1849 California Gold Rush)

A TERRIBLE COUNTRY by Keith Gessen

Image result for photo of kremlin moscow

(The Kremlin, Moscow)

At a time when Russia, Putin, conspiracy, and collusion dominate the news cycle it is wonderful to escape into a work of fiction that is absorbing, appealing to human emotion on many levels, and sadly, a comment on the reality of Russia today.  As useful and engrossing as Keith Gessen’s new book A TERRIBLE COUNTRY is, it creates the anxiety and frustration that one associates with Putin’s Russia.  Gessen is a Russian translator of poetry and short stories, but also of Nobel Prize winner Svertlana Alexievich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL. Gessen like his sister Masha Gessen the author of A MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN was born in Russia and raised in the United States, has an affinity for the Russian people who he believes are suffering from the Putin bargain, “you give up your freedoms, I make you rich.  Not everyone was rich, but enough people were making do that the system held.  And who was I to tell them they were wrong?  If they liked Putin, they could have him.”

Gessen, like his main character Andrei Kaplan seems to be in a permanent state of semi-exile, somewhat naive, and in search of something-an academic position, a sense of who he really was perhaps.  He writes in a somewhat John Updike style as he describes Andrei as a person who cannot seem to achieve the academic success that his peers have attained.  He has a PhD in Russian literature, but cannot earn a faculty position at the university level.  As a result he earns a living by teaches online courses, communicating through his blog.  Since the money is not sufficient to live in New York, and his girlfriend Sarah has just broken up with him he accepts his brother Dima’s request to return to Moscow to take care of their aging grandmother.  At the same time, Dima left Russia under strange circumstances for London, the reason of which becomes clearer later in the novel.

Image result for photo of putin

(Vladimir Putin)

Upon his arrival in Moscow, Andrei learns that certain promises his brother had made were not true, but he resolves to try and learn as much from his grandmother, Baba Seva Efraimove Gekhtman about the Stalinist era as a basis for a journal article.  The scent of Stalinist Russia is put forth through his grandmother who suffers from dementia, much more so than Dima had let on, but despite this affliction the reader is exposed to aspects of Stalinist Russia and how it evolves into Putin’s Russia.  The same housing crisis that existed during Stalin’s regime remains.  We witness the uneven distribution of wealth and the Putin kleptocracy.  The FSB, much like the KGB in Soviet times seems everywhere among many examples.  It is interesting how Gessen uses the location of Baba Seva’s apartment, the center of Moscow, close to the Kremlin, Parliament, and FSB headquarters to explain the daily plight of Russians.

The novel takes place in 2008 as Andrei arrives at the time Russian troops are supposedly withdrawing from Georgia.  The 2008 financial crash is introduced and one can see how the Russians believe that the effect on Russia’s economy is the fault of the United States.  Andrei is miserable in this setting and his life seems meaningless.  He has no wife or children, he feels helpless in caring for his grandmother, he suffers from a lack of sleep and exercise, constantly searching to play in hockey games, and is forced to deal with the inane comments from students on his online blog.

Image result for photo of soviet style apartment complex in moscow russia

(Soviet style apartment complex, Moscow)

For Andrei Moscow seems quite boorish as he is rejected by women, fears FSB types, and a bureaucracy that results in long lines for himself and his ailing grandmother.  The transition from Stalinst tactics to that of Putin are clearly portrayed as his uncle has lost his life’s work as a geophysicist to Russ Oil, a conglomerate run by Putin’s cronies.  Russ Oil will also reappear as an enemy of Andrei’s brother Dima as they create a monopoly for gas station expansion on a new highway.  Putin’s mastery of the media emerges clearly.  “The world may see him as a cold bloodied killer, a ruthless dictator, a grave digger of Russian democracy.  But from the Russian perspective, well, he was our cold blooded killer, our ruthless dictator, our gravedigger.”

The book begins rather pedantically, and as the story develops the style grows from one of simplicity with little to challenge the reader mentally to a substantive view of Putin’s Russia, and the personal crisis that Andrei is experiencing.  This is accomplished as the author introduces a number of new characters; hockey goalies, oilmen, academics, and oppositionist writers.  However, the most important character remains Baba Seva who embodies the complex nature of Russian politics and society.  She lost her country home to capitalism, but received her apartment thanks to her work on a Stalinist propaganda film of course due to the removal of another family from their home.  Bab Seva had been a historian at Moscow State University, but as a Jew it appears she lost her position because of Stalin’s Doctor’s Plot in 1953.  Perhaps the best line in the novel is when Andrei refers to living in an apartment so close to the KGB/FSB, it “was like living down the street from Auschwitz.”

The question that Gessen asks through a female who rejects Andrei’s advances, is his main character really cut out to live in Russia?  The remark haunts Andrei as he tries to fit in somewhere in Russian society.  It seems he does so finally when he catches on to a losing hockey teams and plays games six nights a week.  More importantly he will make friends on the team.  Those friendships and the return of his brother Dima shift the focus of the story.

Andrei will finally acquire a subject to write a paper and publish, one of his motivating goals upon returning to Moscow.  The subject is in the form of Sergei an intellectual who has a theory concerning the development of capitalism in Russia and its links to Putin’s kleptocracy.  Andrei hopes an article might lead to an academic position.  He develops a strong friendship with Sergei, in addition to beginning a relationship with Yulia, another member of “October,” a small opposition group to Putin that Andrei has become part of.

Russia is a complicated topic. But Gessen combines sharp analysis with Updike type writing style.  This approach belies a deep knowledge of Russian history and literature.  The book is an important contribution as it allows its reader insights and a glimpse into a country that is very impactful for America and the world.  Election hacking has been occurring in the United States and Europe for at least a decade, as have killings of people who oppose Putin outside Russia, murderous actions in Syria, and the list goes on and on.  What is clear is that the United States must play close attention to Putin’s Russia, because their machinations are not going to end (particularly with the current administration in power) and we as a society must come to grips with that fact and pressure our government to take action to mitigate what has and will continue to occur.  Gessen’s contribution to this task is a wonderful novel that describes Russia as a country that constantly wore down its people as they went along with their daily pursuits.

Image result for photo of kremlin moscow

(The Kremlin, Moscow)