Bucket List Met! Normandy 1944-2019

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Last week my wife and I were part of a crowd of over 10,000 people that assembled at the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 that began the slow arduous process of defeating Hitler’s fortress Europa.  Our presence was part of a long sought after “bucket list goal” of visiting the Normandy beaches that I had hoped to achieve during an over forty-year career as a historian.  Our visit to France, which also included Belgium and Luxemburg encompassed the battlefields of World War I and II, but the highlight for us was speaking with and watching the countless D- Day survivors (about 35) who were on the stage during the June 6th ceremonies.

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(The spot where the Battle of the Bulge was launched by the Germans)

We spent over two weeks on our journey which began in Paris and Giverny visiting the home of French Impressionist, Claude Monet’s garden and numerous paintings.  From that point on we transversed the battlefields of World War I with our historical guides Rich Yoder and Dave Wall of Military Historical Tours out of Woodbridge, Va.  Though I was familiar with much of the history, our guides excellent commentary made what I had studied and taught come alive.  We visited sites that included the Oie-Aise American Cemetery and Memorial where 6,012 Americans are buried who lost their lives in the vicinity in 1918, and Chateau-Thierry, scene of two critical battles in 1914 and 1918.  The First, the Battle of the Marne was one of the opening campaigns of the war that blunted the German drive on Paris,  and the second marked the turning point of the war as the American Expeditionary Force with 250,000 troops played key roles resulting in the death of 30,000 American soldiers.  Next, was the June-July 1918 battlefield at Belleau Wood a “mecca” for US Marines whose victory possibly saved Paris and proved to the Germans America’s tenacity on the battlefield.

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(Cliffs scaled by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc)

World War II was next on our agenda as we traveled through the beautiful French countryside that once was a shell-scarred wasteland crisscrossed with French and German trench lines.  After the Great War the French constructed a fortification known as the Maginot Line to provide a defense against any future German invasion.  The problem was that it only ran up to the Belgium border and the Germans had no difficulty marching around it.  One of the highlights of our visit was spending a few hours inside the Maginot Line at the Hackenberg Barracks and seeing how the 1000-man French garrison lived and prepared to offset any German penetration.  From there we moved on to Batstone, Belgium which served as our focal point for our study of the Battle of the Bulge which was Hitler’s last attempt to defeat the allies as the Nazis engaged in a last-ditch effort pouring through the Ardennes Forest in December 1945.  If you have watched the HBO film, The Band of Brothers you witnessed the tenaciousness and brutality of the fighting that finally resulted in the American victory led by General George S. Patton.

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(Omaha Beach)

The highlight into our foray into World War II was the visit to Normandy.  We were exposed to all the beaches that comprised the allied invasion that included over 23 million acres of material transported across the Atlantic Ocean, 6939 vessels, including over 4000 landing craft, over 200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  The tour focused on Omaha Beach which suffered the greatest number of casualties on D-Day as compared to Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches that included our British and Canadian allies.  For the men who took part, it seemed to be a “suicide mission” that included gliders, C-47 transports for paratroopers, and the armada that filled the English Channel.

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We arrived at Omaha Beach and our first reaction was awe and emotion as we could not fathom how men landed on the beaches knowing full well that the odds of survival from German artillery and fields of fire were almost nil.  Their bravery and fortitude can only be imagined until you see the cliffs.   Pointe du Hoc was key as the 2nd Army Ranger battalion scaled the 100-foot cliffs to eliminate the guns that threatened Utah and Omaha Beach.  Ste Mere Eglise was amazing as it was portrayed in the film “The Longest Day,” and is the site of the American paratrooper who hung from the church spire.  The many museums were a history buff’s dream including the Airborne Forces Museum, the Batstone Barracks Museum among many.  The historical reenactors were everywhere providing a realism that was hard to imagine.  There was no aspect of the trip that could be improved, except perhaps more time at certain locations.  As a historian, the lessons are clear, allies and a shared belief to fight tyranny are the key to success, and a sense of history that must be conveyed to succeeding generations are of the utmost importance.

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(American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach, June 6, 2019)

 

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CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: HOW THE WORST TEAM IN YANKEE HISTORY LED TO THE ’90S DYNASTY by Bill Pennington

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(Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte, the “Core Four”)

Bill Pennington describes his new book as a story of “resurrection and rebirth.”  It is the story of a once proud dynasty, the envy of sports franchises worldwide, so why use the terms just mentioned.  Pennington’s book, CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: HOW THE WORST TEAM IN YANKEE HISTORY LED TO THE 90S DYNASTY begins with a bad omen.  Yankee pitcher, Andy Hawkins, a career journeyman who was about to be released pitches a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox.  However, an asterisk is called for because he lost the game 4-0, an occurrence that had never occurred in baseball history.  Such was the plight of the Yankees; attendance was down 35%, the farm system was bare, from 1989-1992 they had the worst record in team history, and the owner, the bombastic George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball.  At a time when the gloried franchise has returned as a major force it is interesting to turn the clock back and see how it emerged from its doldrums to become the last dynasty of the 20th century.

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(Gene Michael)

Pennington is on the top of his “game” throughout the narrative.  A former beat writer who covered the Yankees, and sportswriter for the New York Times he had unparalleled access to the organizations executives as well as the players.  He engaged in hundreds of interviews including the major characters including George Steinbrenner, Gene Michael, Buck Showalter, Don Mattingly, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, and Andy Pettitte.  Pennington takes the reader on a year by year journey in Yankee history culminating in their resurgence winning the World Series in 1996 against the Atlanta Braves.  During that journey the major issues that confronted the franchise are presented in detail concentrating on how the team fell into the abyss of the 1980s and early 90s.

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(Buck Showalter on Seinfeld)

Pennington does a great job setting the scene of how far the resurgence traveled by exploring the depths of the 1980s.  It seemed the Yankees did well in the 1980s, but in reality they were on a slow decline as its petulant owner, George Steinbrenner constantly interfered in “baseball” decisions; signing over the hill expensive free agents, trading away numerous prospects, and firing managers at the rate of one per year, in addition to rehiring and firing the same people multiple times.  Pennington provides biographical sketches of the important individuals involved including Major League baseball officials, executives of the Yankee organization, and numerous players.  In so doing the reader acquires insights from all points of view and gains an understanding as to what went wrong, and later what went right.

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(George Stiernbrenner)

The key factor in the Yankee resurgence involves the arrogance and stupidity of George Steinbrenner.  The Yankee owner who had previously been suspended from baseball because of illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon found himself in hot water once again in the early 90s.  Steinbrenner had been at war with one of his high-priced free agents, David Winfield who he felt had lied about his contract and did not measure up to the standards that the Yankee owner expected.  The disagreement involved donations to the Winfield Foundation, the paying of hush money to a convicted felon that Steinbrenner hired, and in the end Baseball Commissioner, Faye Vincent banned the Yankee owner for life, though it would be reduced to a two-year suspension after a year.  During that time Steinbrenner was prohibited from being involved with major decisions involving the team.  This allowed General Manager Gene Michael, Manager Buck Showalter, and the rest of the organization to set the Yankees on a new path.

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(Paul O’Neill)

The change in strategy including the early use of analytics, keeping their own prospects as the farm system began to blossom, creating a new culture in the clubhouse by acquiring certain types of players, and developing a consistent organizational philosophy that would be implemented  throughout their minor league system up through the major league level.  As Brian Cashman, then Assistant General Manager has pointed out, the success the Yankees would achieve in 1993 and 1994 while Steinbrenner was away from the team allowed for the implementation of the new approach.  Once Steinbrenner’s suspension ended, he came back and allowed his baseball people to make decisions rather than himself.  The key point is that if Steinbrenner had not been exiled the success of the late 1990s would not have occurred.

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(Bernie Williams)

It is one thing to change philosophies it is another to have the management and players to implement it.  Pennington is correct in arguing that Michael knew how to deflect Steinbrenner’s urges, as Cashman would also do once he took over as General Manager.  Further, Pennington describes how effective the scouting department was uncovering players like Bernie Williams, and the core four of Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte.  These players were supplemented by many others, but a climate of winning and accountability was created, that proved successful.

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(David Cone)

Perhaps the best chapters in the book deal with the relationship between Michael and Showalter and how they built the Yankees and dealt with Steinbrenner.  As in all relationships there is a watershed moment that alters the course of history.  Pennington does a superb job describing the events of 1994 and how the Yankees felt robbed by the baseball strike when they were on the cusp of winning a championship, and the loss to Seattle in the 1995 playoffs.  At the conclusion of that series Michael and Showalter did not return as General Manager and Manager for 1996 and Don Mattingly retired never to appear in a World Series.  Later, Steinbrenner admitted that not bringing Showalter back was his greatest mistake, and on a positive note it taught him to leave the team to his baseball people for the remainder of his life as he morphed into the realm of a benevolent patriarch.  It is ironic that in 2001, Showalter would be attending game seven of the World Series as an ESPN analyst where the two teams he helped build, the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks would play for the championship.

Old Yankee Stadium From the Upper Deck Behind Home Plate

As a Yankee fan since the 1950s I have witnessed a great deal of Pennington’s narrative from my own observations and reading newspapers on a daily basis.  The author hits all the major points, develops the most important personalities, and reaches the correct conclusions in explaining the remaking of the New York Yankees from a declining power to a constant force in major league baseball over the last three decades.  If you are a baseball fan you will love this book.  If you are a general reader it presents a story of redemption and change that has benefited millions of people and shows if you take a thoughtful approach to an endeavor and leave out impatience and bombast you can be very successful.

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SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D-DAY by Giles Milton

(US troops waiting to leave southern England)

Next month will be the 75th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.  As with most major historical commemorations people will flock to the beaches off the French coast.  In addition, the anniversary has produced a plethora of new books to go with the classic works that have been written in the past, including;  Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  John Keegan’s SIX ARMIES IN NORMANDY, Carlo D’Este’s DECISION IN NORMANDY, Anthony Beevor’s D DAY and Stephen Ambrose’s D DAY:JUNE 6TH 1944.  New books published in the last two months include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  For this review I will focus on Milton’s new narrative.  What sets the book apart from the others is that he approaches events from a different perspective by focusing on the stories of survivors from all sides including; a teenage Allied conscript, the crack German defender, and the French resistance fighter among many others.  It is important to remember that each book mentioned has made an important contribution to the growing historiography related to the allied landing in June 1944.

(US troops bound for Omaha Beach)

Milton’s approach is very anecdotal as he introduces numerous characters.  Some are important historical figures like General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Omar T. Bradley, the most senior American commander at D-Day, and Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who Hitler placed in charge of preparing and thwarting any allied invasion across the English Channel.  The strength of Milton’s book is how he conveys the experiences of allied soldiers who bore the brunt of the carnage and eventual success of the invasion, but also French civilians who were caught in the crossfire between allied bombing and German artillery.  In addition, Milton gives voice to many individuals who have not been heard before; the Panzer Commander’s wife, the chauffeur to the General Staff, women who worked in in Southwick, the nerve center for Operation Overlord, and those teenagers forced into service as nurses at Portsmouth caring for German prisoners of war.

(German plane, Omaha Beach)

The narrative explores the difficulties in organizing such a massive undertaking that involved transporting 23 million acres of material across the Atlantic, 6939 vessels including 4000 landing craft,  200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  Milton has an excellent eye for detail be it weather forecasting, the personalities involved, the strategies employed by both sides, and in particular those stories that we do not necessarily think of when examining the insanity of war.  In this case Milton describes the experiences of paratroopers behind German lines who wound up caught in trees serving as a shooting gallery for German snipers, the mission of Howard Vander Beek who commanded an LCC 60, a small boat designed to lead American safely toward the beaches, or Wally Blanchard, an eighteen year old frogman whose job was to defuse the minefield that Rommel’s forces laid in front of Gold beach.

(The British landing at Juno Beach)

Milton’s work is chocked full of stories of heroes, individual acts of courage, and remarkable examples of bravery on the part of allied soldiers as they confronted Rommel’s Atlantic Wall as they hit the beaches and were subject to German artillery and mortars.  It was of immense importance that the German guns be knocked out so the landing zones could be built up to support the invasion.  Men like James Rudder, and his unit would be successful in knocking out the big German guns situated on top of Pointe du Hoc where six 155mm cannon could lob huge shells a distance of 25,000 meters covering Omaha and Utah beaches.  Others include  General Norman “Dutch” Cota and Colonel Charles Canham would help break the deadlock that existed on Omaha Beach, or Simon Fraser, a Highland Chief and the 15th Lord Lovat, “the mad bastard” would lead his men to link up with John Howard, an Oxford shire policeman’s unit to save the Benouville Bridge that was a key to allied advance after the landings.  The stories that Milton conveys are chilling as events unfolded on June 6th, as death became a game of chance.  The author points out that “for most the landings were petrifying, for a few it was intoxicating.”  The vivid description of death is difficult to deal with at times and in the end 37,000 allied soldiers died with 209,000 casualties and roughly 17,000 deaths in the air.

(Canadian troops on Juno Beach)

The German side of the invasion is also covered in detail as Milton introduces the reader to German soldiers like Franz Gockel and Josef Shroder whose weapons would meet the allied invaders.  They could not believe the bloodshed they were causing as they were picking off allied soldiers as they hit the beaches.  The arrogant and exceptional Panzer Commander Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski is introduced as he tries to drive a wedge with his tanks as he saw an opening between British troops on Sword Beach and Canadians on Juno. Rommel’s headquarters is also explored in addition to his surprise when the invasion took place – he was visiting his wife in Germany.  The disagreements between Nazi higherups, Hitler, and commanders on the ground is related and if they would have been in better sync with each other, the task for allied soldiers would have been much more difficult and the resulting casualty figures much higher.

(American troops on Omaha Beach after the landing)

Milton has skillfully woven a very complex narrative that allows the general audience to understand the violence and utter devastation that occurred on June 6th.  He has written a remarkable account through the eyes of the participants providing the reader with insights and an experience that is not always conveyed as well by historians.  After reading Milton’s account one but one cannot escape the fact of the willingness of so many on both sides to fight to the death. In the end despite the the difficulties involved, the importance of the allied success resulted in ultimate victory against the Nazi war machine.

(June 6, 1944, D-Day)

MAD ENCHANTMENT: CLAUDE MONET AND THE PAINTING OF THE WATER LILIES by Ross King

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(Claude Monet)

The work of artists who enter their declining years is not usually positive fodder for biographers, but Claude Monet’s later years is one of the exceptions as depicted in Ross King’s book, MAD ENCHANTMENT.  King who has written a number of interesting books dealing with art history, including, BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME, MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING, and LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER begins his narrative by pointing out that once Monet reached his sixties and seventies, he had achieved great wealth, notoriety, and produced numerous career defining works.  For years rejected by conservative critics and the new Avant Garde Cubists, Monet would find himself producing his Grande Decoration, consisting of eight waterlily murals during the World War I period.

King does an exceptional job reviewing Monet’s life and career up to 1914 when the French artist decided to return to painting after a four-year hiatus due to a series of tragedies.  First, his loving second wife, Alice passed away in 1908, then in 1914 his son Jean died, in addition, he began to suffer from cataracts and in 1912 his vision began to decline. During this period a group of his friends also passed, including; Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Pissarro, and Cezanne.  Monet still had a number of friends remaining who he could lean on, chief among them was Georges Clemenceau, the French journalist, politician, and man of letters.  Clemenceau would support Monet emotionally throughout his life and encouraged him to renew his painting after a visit in early 1914.

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(Water Lilies, Water Lilies)

One of the most important components of the book is King’s quasi-biography of Clemenceau within the larger narrative of Monet’s life.  The later French Prime Minister nicknamed “the Tiger” helped lead France to victory in World War I and would become their voice at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.  King uses Clemenceau as a vehicle to integrate French history with Monet’s life story and career and provides the reader the context of how major events affected Monet, how he responded, and their results.

There are a number of turning points in Monet’s life that King delves into.  The first is the purchase of Le Pressair in the village of Giverny in 1890, a transaction that did not go over well with local farmers who resented his plan to divert the River Ru and purchase adjoining land to create the large pond on which to plant his water lilies providing him with his subject to paint. The locals saw no commercial benefit in these paintings and resented him as an outsider.  Monet’s cantankerous personality also did not endear him to the locals.

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(The Studio Boat, 1874)

The second turning point for Monet was his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair in 1898.  Up until that point, Monet’s paintings depicted rural France, deemed as a patriotic message through his art.  Along with his friends, Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, and other Dreyfusards he rejected and criticized the rise in right-wing French anti-Semitism throughout the 1890s, as well as the unjust conviction of Captain Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army for spying for Germany.  Monet decided he would no longer paint rural scenes that could be interpreted as patriotic and concentrate on developing his gardens and canvases.

King accurately points out a number of contradictions when it came to Monet as an artist.  First, he wished to work in warm, sunny, and calm conditions, yet much of his career his place of choice to paint was Normandy whose weather was cool and damp for long periods of time.  Second, he loved to paint, yet he claimed to find it, “unremittingly torture.”  But this torture, friends pointed out was the key that drove him to perfection.  King does a wonderful job describing Monet’s methodology and philosophy of painting throughout the narrative, I.e. Monet would paint twelve separate canvases at a time while preparing his Grande Decoration and rotate them on wheels  according to the light in order to capture what he hoped to represent.  Monet’s health greatly impacted his work in his later years as he was a victim of fatigue and neurasthenia even though to outsiders, he appeared hale and hearty most of the time.  His maladies were greatly affected by the weather, which many times he refused to give into resulting in a negative impact on his health.

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(Rouen Cathedral, 1894)

King approaches his explanation of Impressionism very carefully arguing that Impressionist artists  “conspicuously called attention to their brushes and paints.  They fragmented their brushstrokes into flickering touches of color that seemed to dissolve their painted worlds into shimmering mirages.”  Canvases were not meant to be viewed at close range.  King’s discussion of Monet’s painting of the Rouen Cathedral in 1894 with the proposed commission by the state of France to paint the damage caused by German shelling to the Cathedral at Rheims is illustrative of this point.  Monet’s Impressionist approach would not be the best way to depict the savagery of German artillery on the cathedral for a government which wanted to heighten French distaste for the “barbaric Germans.”  But, for Monet who always wished to receive a commission by the government this was not an acceptable argument, despite the “fuzzy envelope” that seemed to surround the objects that were represented.

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(Monet’s Gardens at Giverny)

The most important event that impacted Monet’s later years was World War I.  Monet’s travel and work would have to consider the effects of the war.  Art supplies, food, petrol was all rationed and in short supply.  A further reason for a state commission would allow Monet to receive coal, food, and materials for his canvases that others could not obtain.

King takes the reader to the Louvre which housed many of Monet’s and his fellow Impressionist friend’s paintings.  He reviews the political and economic considerations involved and how German bombardment of Paris, and at times fears of a German attack on the city affected these artists.  King provides a unique description and perspective  of Paris during the war.  Interestingly the fighting produced a war of words between German and French intellectuals over wartime accusations of barbarism.  Monet was even recruited to lend his name to these efforts as French intellectuals produced a book entitled, THE GERMANS: DESTROYERS OF CATHEDRALS AND THE TREASURES OF THE PAST.

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(Haystack Painting 1890/91)

The war also impacted Monet’s personal life, particularly his anguish over his paintings and his family.  Monet refused to leave Giverny during the war as he stated he would rather die among his canvases and life’s work than depart.  He also feared for his son Jeanne-Pierre who was in the army as was his son-in-law Albert Salerou.  His son Michel would not enter the army until later in the war and would participate in the fighting.  It easy for the reader to follow the course of the war as King describes Monet’s life and his interactions with his close friend Georges Clemenceau, I.e., the two battles of the Marne, and the Battle at Verdun, along with its overall impact on Monet and France in general.

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(Portrait of a Painter)

The war also galvanized Monet, with a friendly push from Clemenceau to complete the Grande Decoration which according to Kathryn Hughes writing in The Guardian (3 September 2016) there was nothing remotely optimistic or even particularly French about the massive painting that stretched to over 300 feet.  It is as Deborah Solomon points out in the New York Times (December 2, 2016) among art history’s greatest last acts as “the water lilies dispense with contours and boundaries and veer toward abstraction.”  It is important to note that the subject of Monet’s painting was a garden and pond that was man made and contained hothouse cultivars from South America and Egypt and not a natural outcrop of rural France.

King introduces an important discussion of how tastes in art changed because of the war and the impact of the death of over 300 artists.  According to art historian Kenneth Silver, the public and the painters would turn their backs on daring innovation.  For many Frenchmen, Cubism and other forms of pre-war art were wild experiments and adventures that were seen as specifically German, and therefore, not to be replicated after the war.  At the end of the war Monet offered to donate some of his paintings to the people of France and eventually the lily paintings were installed on specially constructed, curved walls at the Musee de l”Orangerie in Paris. The donation and the negotiations exacerbated by Monet’s need to control how the building would be prepared to receive and maintain his paintings are an integral part of the narrative as King relates his subject’s state of mind and physical health, particularly issues with his vision that led to a number of painful operations.

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(Monet’s close friend and supporter, Georges Clemenceau)

Solomon sums up her review by arguing that “the book is short on analysis and fails to definitively explain the role played by Monet’s illness in the development of his late style.”  But overall King has written a useful book that shatters the myth that Monet painted his Grande Decoration in seclusion when in fact people surrounded him.  A staff of gardeners, his granddaughter Blanche, and others all impacted his life, and no one can take away anything from the gift that Monet has produced for posterity.

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(Monet working on his Grande Decoration)

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

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This morning I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the MUELLER REPORT.  It is not my purpose to recount what was divulged, but what concerns me most is the dysfunction that exists at the pinnacle of our government.  What does it say about us as a people, and what does it say about the man who is responsible for trying to block American citizens from learning about Russian penetration of our elections, his refusal to even accept that it occurred, and the fact that his administration refuses to take any action to secure our elections for the future.  Denial is one thing, but outright deception and overt lying is another.  So, one must ask what type of individual would use the American electoral process as a “branding opportunity,” and upon learning of the appointment of the Special Counsel from then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions responds that “Oh my god, this is terrible.  This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”*  The answers to these questions are provided in Michael D’Antonio’s book, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP.

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To D’Antonio’s credit his narrative is based on thorough research and he even had access to Donald Trump  until he started interviewing people who were critical of him.  He has written an entertaining and fair biography and has created the foundation for several books that have followed his publication which repeatedly cite his work.  Whether you have read TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, or TRUMP NATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD, by Timothy L. O’Brien they all tell similar stories and anecdotes and all seem to agree on their characterization of Trump’s early life, career, business practices and philosophy, personal life including his marriages and affairs. However, what sets D’Antonio’s book apart is the detail provided and his ability to integrate the political and economic history of New York City and its unique personalities like Mayors Ed Koch, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay as well as Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn among many other fascinating characters throughout his narrative.  In addition, the author places the Trump family and wealth in the context of American history, going as far as comparing the post 1980s to the Gilded Age of the 19th century as he discusses Trump’s life in the context of broader social, psychological and technological trends throughout the 20th century.

As part of his discussion of New York’s economic crisis of the post 1960 period, D’Antonio describes the urban decay and blight that began to affect Brooklyn, the home base of Trump’s father’s wealth and operations.  Trump was very perceptive as he witnessed white flight to the suburbs, civil rights violence, and the poverty endemic to New York’s economic collapse.  Trump realized that this situation depressed real estate values and that a move to Manhattan could be very profitable.  Trump would be at the forefront of trying to displace the poor and middle class in Manhattan who lived in rent-controlled apartments as he sought to turn buildings into expensive condominiums which he will accomplish over a period of years greatly enhancing his wealth into the 1980s.

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(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

If there is a failing in D’Antonio’s approach is that in addition to the amount of detail pertaining to Trump’s lifestyle and accumulation of wealth are his constant tangents.  The author will be describing any one of many complications associated with Trump’s business dealings and other affairs and then will turn to a full accounting of the lives of other individuals’ attendant to the original discussion I.e., Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, Ed Koch’s biography, or discussing what made a man sexy in the 1980s according to Playgirl magazine or any number of other seemingly  irrelevant digressions.

One of the more interesting aspects of D’Antonio’s methodology is his dissection of Trump’s financial dealings, the creation of his fortune, his dance with insolvency and bankruptcy, and his economic recovery.  D’Antonio delves into various financial transactions dating back to Fred Trump and how he took advantage of Lehrenkrouss and Company, a Brooklyn Mortgage Company in the 1930s; Donald Trump’s manipulation of New York bankers, politicians, and others to acquire various properties including the Commodore and Plaza Hotels; how Trump was able to wedge himself into the casino industry in Atlantic City and the fallout from those  transactions; and his success in branding so many buildings with his name.  Other interesting chapters deal with Trump’s battle with author Tim O’Brien over his book TRUMPNATION that argued that “the Donald’s” wealth was far below what Trump stated.  What follows is a detailed description of the legal battle that ensued.  In similar fashion D’Antonio relates the battle over Trump University that would lead to a financial settlement for many of the students that were fleeced.

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D’Antonio describes Trump’s early years, most importantly the impact his father had upon him and how he wanted to mirror Fred’s business tactics.  Another important component of Trump’s upbringing was his experience at the New York Military Academy, where under the auspices of Major Theodore Dobias cadets were instilled with a feeling of confidence that would propel them through life with a sense that they deserved great success because the academy made them better than everyone else.  Trump took his father’s lessons and his experiences under Dobias to heart to create the foundation of the narcissistic personality that would dominate his adulthood that emphasized winning at all costs and avenging those who were critical of him.  Further lessons were learned from Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer for many years who believed in stalling, duplicity, threats, law suits, and never admitting that you made an error.   In dealing with the origin of and later manifestation of Trump’s need to be the best at everything, no matter how insignificant, D’Antonio is correct in arguing that it is not important that Trump lies per say, but he actually believes the lies that he tells and then acts upon them – the mark of a truly disturbed personality.

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What is clear from D’Antonio’s biography and numerous other books pertaining to Trump’s journey in life is that he spent a lifetime constructing his personal image.  When that façade is threatened by a negative comment or something or someone, he perceives to be untoward he goes ballistic and seeks revenge employing the “Roy Cohn/Roger Stone” strategy.  What is interesting today as Trump fumes and derides people who worked in his administration who testified for the Special Counsel, the White House is filled with fear from presidential retribution.  If one compares his behavior today with the collapse of his casino empire and fear of bankruptcy in the early 1990s it is the same, even to the point of blaming his financial debacle on three of his executives who were killed in a helicopter crash who had helped administer the Atlantic City hotels and casinos.

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Trump is the master of self-promotion and much of his wealth is tied to his brand not his ability to make “deals.” Trump figured out that fortune and fame go together, and superficiality is more important than substance, the result is that he is the epitome of both concepts.  As other authors have also argued D’Antonio is clear that Trump is a classic case of narcissism.  Narcissists enjoy conflict and will exaggerate or obfuscate to gain the upper hand, a strategy that Trump has pursued in political, business, and personal conflicts that he has either caused or exacerbated when the opportunity presented itself as he views publicity whether good or bad, as good.

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No one should be surprised at the type of President Trump is, the signs were clear long before he ran for the White House and we are now experiencing the fallout from the admonitions of authors, reporters, and Trump associates  about before the 2016 election. Perhaps D’Antonio is correct as he portrays Trump in the context of what Christopher Lasch developed in his 1979 book, THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM: AMERICAN LIFE IN AN AGE OF DIMINISHING EXPECTATIONS – “Trump represented….the pathology of our age.”  Our society, in part may be responsible for the creation of a Trumpian character as it evolved over the decades, now we reap its benefits!

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METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr

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(Berlin, 1928)

Sadly, last March British author Philip Kerr passed away.  Kerr was a prolific writer of over thirty books, including works of adult fiction and non-fiction, in addition to writing children’s books under the name, P. B. Kerr.  At the time of his death he had just completed his last novel entitled, Metropolis, the last iteration of his successful Bernie Gunther series that dealt with German history from the 1920s through the Cold War.  Kerr, one of my favorite purveyors of historical fiction consistently laid out his view of Nazism, its effect on Germany, and how Germany navigated the Cold War through the eyes of Gunther.  METROPOLIS  is the 14th book in the  series and the reader has experienced the progression of Gunther from his time as a Berlin detective, a reluctant member of the Gestapo, and the course of his career in and out of law enforcement during World War II and the Cold War.

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(Reichstag Building, 1928)

The series is not presented in chronological order as we witness the rise of Nazism, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, German’s defeat in World War II, and how Germany fits into the post war world.  Despite the lack of chronological continuity, Kerr makes it easy for the reader to follow German history through Gunther’s experiences.  It is interesting that the final volume is set in Weimar Berlin in 1928, a city that resembled Babylon which according to Gunther “was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be.”

Metropolis begins with Gunther’s promotion from the vice squad by Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal  Police to a position on the Murder Commission.  A move that will change Gunther’s life in that from this point on everyone he meets has the capacity to commit murder and he must size them up.  The first case deals with the murder of three prostitutes by a serial killer nickname “Winnetou,”* and the investigation reflects the underside of what Berlin has become – a dichotomy of rich and mostly poor who will do anything to survive.  Kerr has an excellent command of history as he weaves events and personalities throughout the novel.  In this case, it is the stirring of the Nazis as a political party, worker unrest exacerbated by the Communist Party,  the inflation of 1923 and what it has done to the savings and daily cost of living for the people of Berlin.

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A major theme that permeates the story is the effect of World War I on the soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches and the battlefield overall.  Today we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, after WWI it was called shell shock for which over 80,000 German soldiers were under medical treatment in 1928.  For eugenicists of the period, Berlin was infested with crippled combat veterans who survived in their “cripple carts”, crutches, and severe pain.  They are paralyzed, suffer from anger issues, flashbacks, survival guilt, and as Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who specializes in surviving extreme trauma has pointed out, deal with the loss of self as they try to cope each day.  For those living in Berlin in 1928 their lives offer a version of some sort of trauma daily; i.e., the violence pursued by Nazis and Communists, the lack of food, homeless in shelters, thousands living on the street, unemployment etc.

Kerr’s theme is carried forth as the Murder Commission learns of a series of murders of disabled veterans perpetrated by a man referred to as Dr. Gnadenschuss** by the press, who are killed by one bullet to the back of the head.  Some argue that the murderer is doing society a favor by doing away with the constant reminder that Germany lost the war.  For these eugenicists, the Weimar Republic must be cleansed for Germany to recover her strength, and the weak must be weeded out.  These views are accepted by many including Doctors, Konrad Biesalski and Hans Wurtz who administer the Oskar-Helene rehabitation facility for veterans whose ideas on medical care and social integration are at best, Neanderthal.

Philip Kerr, 62, Author of ‘Gunther’ Crime Novels, Is Dead

Philip Kerr at his home in London in 2016. At his death he left behind a Gunther manuscript titled “Metropolis.”CreditNina Subin/Putnam Books

The scars that have infected Gunther’s soul come to the fore throughout the novel.  As in other books in the series, Gunther’s daily existence is a battle in dealing with his past, the moral choices he makes, and what he has become.  Gunther’s sardonic and sarcastic commentary is a defense mechanism to cope with what ails him.  He is aware of what the war has done to him, but he is able to compensate for his feelings and thoughts through his firm belief in what he is accomplishing as an officer of the law living in Berlin under the aegis of the Weimar Republic, a seedy, sexy, and cosmopolitan edifice that is out of step with the growing fascist threat to the rest of the country.

Kerr pursues many strategies in conveying his material.  One approach stands out the best, the soliloquies that Gunther has with himself, particularly when he enters an imaginary conversation with Mathilde Luz, a young Jewish worker who was the first victim.  At the suggestion of Bernhard Wiess, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police, Gunther is encouraged to place himself in the shoes of the victim as a tool in solving the murder.

Taken as a whole METROPOLIS is detective story and a nasty murder mystery that will maintain the interest of the reader throughout.  It is a tale of vice and horror that works and lives up to the standards that Kerr has developed in his previous novels involving Detective Gunther.  As Adrian McKinty writes in The Guardian the book is “wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.” (The Guardian, 4 April 2019)

*fictional Native-American hero from the novels of Karl May. The term means “burning water.”

**mercy bullet.

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FUNNY MAN by Patrick McGilligan

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(Mel Brooks)

Recently I read ROBIN by David Itzkoff, a biography that described the comic genius and troubled life of Robin Williams.  The book was thorough and replete with explanations of why Williams turned out as he did, and the role comedy played in his life.  There are few people who can approach Williams’ ability to transform themselves into different characters and employ improvisation.  One who might approach Williams’ talent is Mel Brooks, the subject of a wonderful new biography by Patrick McGilligan entitled, FUNNY MAN.

Brooks’ background and early life stems from the wave of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.  Thousands would pass through or remain on the lower east side of Manhattan or move across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn as Brooks’ family did in 1917.  McGilligan describes his subject as a pampered child as the youngest of four brothers and his role in the family seemed to be to make everyone laugh. All was not laughter as at the age of two and a half, Brooks’ father passed away, leaving a void in his life that would affect him throughout adulthood.

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(Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman)

McGilligan goes on to describe Brooks’ life in minute detail as he ponders his future leading up to World War II, a turning point as he will wind up as an “entertainment specialist.”  Though he passed through areas of combat with the US Army as it made its way toward Germany, Brooks was considered a “barracks character” throughout the war.  McGilligan does a workman like job describing Brooks’ transition from a grunt who entertained his comrades to scheduling touring entertainment for the USO, hosting programs, and even taking the stage with his comedy act.  By 1946, Brooks found his enlistment extended an extra year where he continued his “entertainment” responsibilities.

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(A scene from Blazing Saddles)

McGilligan’s narrative is replete with numerous watershed moments that altered the course of Brooks’ career, personal life, attempts at psychological analysis to explain Brooks’ actions, and a careful rendering of each of his films.  McGilligan’s approach is fascinating though at times the constant entrance into the world of “psychobabble” can be annoying.  Important turning points are many and the key to Brooks’ career is his association with Sid Ceasar dating back to the late 1940s.  Brooks would become an integral part of “Club Ceasar,” a group of writers and later directors and producers who wrote for the Show of Shows and the Ceasar Hour in the 1950s.  The group includes Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tonkin, Lucille Kallen, and Howard Morris.  McGilligan takes the reader inside the writer’s room (called “the jockstrap”) for the Ceasar’s programs and the mayhem which was a daily occurrence.

He explores the relationships among the writers and how Brooks fit in on a personal and professional level.  We witness Brooks’ obnoxiousness, crudeness, temper, rudeness, but also his overwhelming comedic talent.  Kallen would describe “writing scripts was like throwing a magnetized piece of a puzzle into a room with the other pieces racing toward it.”  Reiner would always play his straight man and try and keep him out of trouble and their friendship would last for decades as he always indulged Brooks’ outbursts.   Of course, McGilligan launches into an explanation of how Ceasar was a father figure for Brooks, who was trying to fill the void in his life.

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(A scene from Young Frankenstein)

The author follows Brooks’ career carefully from the Catskills, early television, and finally film pointing out how he was able to navigate the “comedic writing world” and the roadblocks that he had to overcome.  But the key to McGilligan’s narrative in dealing with the Show of Shows and Ceasar Hour apart from the insights into the writer’s relationships was how the history of comedy was shaped by them for decades.

Brooks’ personal life receives extensive coverage particularly his two marriages.  The first to dancer, Flora Baum provides insights into what kind of character Brooks really was.  During their marriage and relationship Baum readily gave up her own career and the couple would have three children.  Once the philandering Brooks found himself in a failed marriage, he did his best not to own up to his financial obligations toward his soon to be ex-wife and children.  Brooks would miss alimony and child support payments on a regular basis and when he finally made it big with films like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein his duplicitous nature came to the fore as he was able to avoid sharing his new found wealth with his first family through the approach taken by his lawyers.  His second marriage to actress Ann Bancroft followed a different pattern.  They had one child, but Bancroft was a stronger person who did not let Brooks run roughshod over her as Baum had.  She had an exceptional career of her own and was equal to her husband in talent and wealth.  They did have a happy marriage and they were able to pursue separate careers which is probably why their marriage was so successful.

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(A scene from History of the World, Part I)

McGilligan digs down into Brooks’ personality issues.  For years he was afraid of dying before the same age as his father had passed.  He was a hypochondriac who really was never sick.  But he would use his hypochondria to learn all he could about illness and diseases from books and medical journals and freely offered medical advice to friends.  His own psychiatrist, Dr. Clement Staff diagnosed him as having “anxiety hysteria,” a phobia where the mental aspects of anxiety are emphasized over any accompanying physical symptoms.  His overly aggressive personality and sometimes crude comedic impulses sprang from defense mechanisms as he desperately tried to please his absent father, getting even with those who had rejected him in his past, and resentment for having been born short, poor, and Jewish.  Brooks himself would explain the choice of some of his characters from a Freudian perspective, i.e., in the film The Producers Leopold Bloom would be considered his ego, and Max Bialystock his id!

The strongest part of McGilligan’s narrative is his review of the history of comedy in the 1960s and 1970s.  The program, Get Smart is a good example of how comedy was evolving, and the role Brooks played.  Perhaps an even more important component of the narrative is McGilligan’s dissection of Brooks’ film career.  The constant reference to “Springtime for Hitler” an idea that Brooks worked on for a decade and its evolution into the film The Producers is fascinating.  The description of the actual shooting of the film with the novice director Mel Brooks was eye opening as his insecurities concerning a project that was so much a part of his life are completely exposed.  One of Brooks’ best decisions was to cast Gene Wilder as Leon Blum in the film and for the next few years Wilder would become Brooks’ alter ego and the two would emerge as the key to the success of several future films.

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(Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, married for 41 years)

McGilligan digs deep into the origins of Blazing Saddles which emerged from the novella Tex X written by Andrew Bergman.  Brooks loved westerns, wanted to skewer the genre, and told his writers to “write the craziest shit.”  McGilligan’s details are marvelous especially how Brooks cast the film.  His first choice for the black sheriff was Richard Pryor, but the comedian was too controversial for Warner brothers, so the part was taken by Cleavon Little, then an unknown singer-actor.  The substitution of Gene Wilder as the “Waco kid” at the last minute was genius and proved to be the key to the film’s success.  These were lucky breaks and Brooks knew it.

McGilligan will unravel the production process taking the reader behind the scenes of Brooks’ approach to directing and finally starring in his own movies, including how the films were edited and distributed.  He will continue the process with all of Brooks’ major films including Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Space Balls, Silent Movie etc.  Though some where more successful than others and reflected Brook’s obsession to be accepted by the critics they will reflect an evolution away from more crude dialogue and offensive scenes.

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(Scene from the film, The Producers)

If there was anyone who competed with Brooks during the proliferation of his films it was Woody Allen, who McGilliigan brings up several times as he compares the critiques and popularity of the work of both men, especially when Allen’s Sleeper and Annie Hall were so successful.  A major difference between the two according to Milligan was that Allen invited audiences into his semiautobiographical fictions, in which his lead characters often behaved as variants of himself.  Brooks’ films had little or nothing to do with his private self.  Perhaps Brooks success as a director and comedic actor was due to his marriage to Ann Bancroft as it appears it was no accident that his career took off after their marriage.

Brooks will branch out with the creation Brooksfilms in the early 1980s.  Brooks will develop into a shrewd producer-director; however, his main successes were the films, Elephant Man and My Favorite Year. Brooks will shift back to the bad taste excesses that had made earlier films a success with History of the World Part I.  McGilligan analyzes the film in detail and the result is a series of skits that spoof historical events with song and dance routines which are hysterical, i.e., “The Inquisition” and others.  The critics were split on its quality which did not approach the popularity of his earlier successes in the United States but did well in foreign markets.  Brooks’ last major accomplishment was bringing The Producers to Broadway for a six-year run.

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(Carl Reiner, Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca from the TV program, The Show of Shows)

Overall, McGilligan describes the differences of the “nice” Mel, and the “bad” Mel throughout the book.  This dichotomy is a useful tool in understanding Brooks, and McGilligan handles it well.  McGilligan is a veteran show business biographer and has written a monograph that reflects enormous research and extensive knowledge of the industry.  The main drawback to the book is that there is so much detail at times plowing through the narrative can become cumbersome, however it is an interesting book that explores American comedy, focusing in large part the role that Jews played.

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TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

Before each presidential election cycle the staff at the Washington Post engages in extensive research of the candidates to determine what can be expected should they take up residence at the White House.  2016 was no exception as they dove deep into the background of Donald J. Trump and the result is a deeply informative book entitled TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher.  The narrative joins the plethora of books on Trump ranging from THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio to the more recent ones since he assumed the presidency that focus on the role Russia played in the last election including COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN  by Luke Harding, RUSSIAN ROULETTE: THE INSIDE STORY OF PUTIN’S WAR ON AMERICA AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, THE APPRENTICE: TRUMP, RUSSIA AND THEW SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY by Greg Miller, and HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger.  Others deal with the Trump White House like FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward and FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff.  Recently, the Trump children have been the subjects of new books, BORN TRUMP: INSIDE AMERICA’S FIRST FAMILY by Emily Jane Fox, KUSHNER, INC.: GREED. AMBITION. CORRUPTION, THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY PF JARED KUSHNER AND IVANKA TRUMP by Vicky Ward, and lastly the focus shifts to Trump’s relationship with women in GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN by Nina Burleigh.  What is clear in all these narratives is that Trump possesses a flawed personality that dates to his dysfunctional upbringing that has created character traits that have pushed him toward actions and policies that are all to familiar with people who have paid attention the last two years.

As you read Kranish and Fisher’s work William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech comes to mind as Trump comes across as obsessed with money, wealth in general, his self-created brand, and gold.  The authors present a detailed account of Trump’s life and career beginning with a discussion of the immigration of his paternal German grandparents and Scottish mother, through his childhood, ending with the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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(The Trump siblings)

His early years are catalogued tracing his family’s “immigrant” background reaffirming Trump’s  refusal to give credit to his grandmother, Elizabeth Christ who inherited a significant sum from her husband, who died at 49, and eventually would set up the Trump Organization.  Donald gave full credit for the ensuing financial success to his father Fred Trump and down played the role of his grandmother.  This would be a pattern in his life as his attitude toward women seemed set at an early age as is argued by Nina Burleigh in her recent book GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN.

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(Trump’s mother and siblings)

As the authors recount his life, we come across few close friends or humane interests.  Apart from reading about himself, he opens few books and is unconcerned about literature, history, or the arts.  He will exhibit little interest in foreign cultures or travel abroad, unless of course it can enhance his business interests.  The result is a man who exhibits little empathy for others, except perhaps for immigrants who were “the proper white European ethnic stock” as his grandparents were.

Fred Trump receives a great deal of attention because of his impact on his son’s life emotionally and financially.  A distant father he ran a tight ship at home, and was absent making money in the Queens, NY real estate market during the depression and post-World War II period.  His business techniques relied on bombast, publicity, beautiful women, and government programs would be copied by his son whose quality time with his father was spent at his Coney Island office.  A womanizer and at times distant man, Fred Trump would always be there for his son even though he disagreed with in his approach toward the real estate market in Manhattan, and the development of casinos in Atlantic City.  Despite their philosophical divergence, Fred would always co-sign loans, guarantee payments, and have his son’s back.  Despite Donald’s denials his father provided him with a $1 million trust fund, as he did with all his children, which allowed him to begin his career.

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(Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

The Donald Trump that is portrayed in the book emerges as the person we see in the White House each day.  It begins with his education from elementary school onward with early signs of attention deficit and behavioral issues that are attendant to the malady.  Donald disliked reading and listening to teachers and counselors.  His attitude towards classmates was one of a bully for which the authors provide evidence from his teachers.  Fred decided to send Donald to the New York Military Academy where after a nasty beginning, he learned the ropes and did well.  He would go on to Fordham University for two years, then transfer to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for business for his junior and senior year.  Trump constantly points to his Ivy league education to promote his brand and assuage his ego but comments like “perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials….the other important thing I got from Wharton was a Wharton degree.  In my opinion, that degree doesn’t prove much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously” is evidence of what type of person he is.

The authors do a good job integrating Trump’s own statements and those of others who impacted his life throughout the book in deriving an accurate picture of his personality, approach to business and people, and events surrounding his career.  Donald’s relationship with his father is key as in 1971, Trump is made president of Trump Management and his father remained as Chairman.

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(Paul Manafort and Roger Stone)

A major turning point is developed in a chapter that deals with Fred Trump’s unscrupulous approach to government housing programs and racial bias in his properties.  Though Fred would escape any prosecution after Senate and New York State investigations, the Justice Department filed one of the most significant racial cases of the era against the Trumps in October 1973 with United States of America v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump, and Trump Management, Inc.  This came at a bad time for Donald as he was about to enter the Manhattan real estate market, but the result is important as the family decided to fight the federal government and not give in even though the Justice Department offered an extremely lenient settlement.  The key in the process was the beginning of the relationship between Roy Cohn and Donald Trump.  Cohn, a notorious figure who earned his spurs chasing after Alger Hiss, serving as counsel for Joseph McCarthy and escaping numerous federal charges dealing with tax evasion and other unscrupulous activities would become Donald’s surrogate father, a mentor who he would learn from and mirror during his career.  Cohn preached, never settle, always threatened lawsuits, never settle a lawsuit,  and employ the art of the counter attack.  The authors take the reader through a detailed analysis of the case and its importance in Donald’s development – a mirror into his tactics on the news each night.

A second prominent individual who influenced Trump was Norman Vincent Peale, the Protestant minister who in 1977 officiated at his first wedding.  Peale was the author of the 1952 bestseller THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING and predicted that Trump would become the “greatest builder of our time.”  Trump saw Peale as another mentor, who taught him “to win by thinking only of the best outcomes.”  As one engages the narrative, no matter what difficulty Trump found himself in, particularly in business he would always spin any outcome in a positive fashion, and to his credit in the end he would emerge on top, usually employing unethical tactics that I do not believe Peale would approve of.

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Trump makes much of his wealth and the authors point out his ability to manipulate the media and develop his own “brand.”  As early as 1973 the New York Times put out a description of Trump which was a publicist’s dream, but it also stated that Trump’s net worth was $200 million at a time when his income was reported to be $24,594 paying taxes of $10,832.  Despite the “lies” told about his income and wealth, Trump’s bombast and manipulation of the media which was in the midst of tabloid wars in New York, “the Donald” was able to feed the public any information he desired, even acting as his own publicist, John Barron a totally fictitious character that Trump mimicked in phone calls to reporters.  I find it fascinating that he named his son, “Baron!”

Trump is addicted to publicity and name recognition, his focus has always been to get his name on products, buildings, and news stories.  His obsession with his wealth is well documented whether it is $200 million or the $3 through $9 billion that Trump has reported depending on his mood, and other factors. For decades he would begin his day reviewing stories about himself that appeared in the previous days news cycle and if he was not satisfied with what he read he would threaten to sue the offending newspaper, magazine, or author.  All told in over thirty years, Trump and his companies filed more than 1900 lawsuits!

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(Trump in his office at Trump Tower.  Notice the magazine in front of him with his picture on the cover!)

The author’s follow Trump’s acquisitions of real estate thoroughly from his purchase of the Commodore Hotel, Bonwitt Teller’s building in Manhattan, developing casinos in Atlantic City, raising the Trump logo on all his properties, i.e.; Trump Tower etc.  They delve into how he financed his real estate empire in detail and what emerges is “New York City sleaze” as a lack of enforcement and corruption falls easy prey to bullying, disingenuous tactics, being in bed with organized crime, all facilitating Trump’s rise.  Trump has an insatiable appetite for loans with little collateral and the accumulation of debt, but banks continually support him even as it reaches a point when he is nearing bankruptcy over his three Atlantic City casinos in 1990.

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(Trump owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant for years)

Perhaps the author’s best work is reported in the chapters dealing with Trump’s entrance into the Atlantic City casino market which says all we need to know about the president’s approach to business, negotiations, and the accumulation of wealth to maintain his image and brand.  Seen as a savior by the Atlantic City political establishment and bureaucracy that approves casino licensing through tax relief and funding, Trump was able to cajole, bully, bullshit, coerce, blackmail his way into building three casinos, one larger than the next in a market that could not support his financing.  Trump had Atlantic City leaders believing the mirage of “bait and switch” compounded by fabrication and outright lies and deception.  The use of junk bonds, and threats against the Casino Control Commission were effective in getting approval of his next projects.  It was clear, despite his self-created image based on his version of publicity that he was in deep trouble by the late 1980s.  His need to feed his ego by controlling all gambling on the east coast meshed with Atlantic City politician’s belief that he was the economic savior of their downtrodden city helped created this catastrophe.  By 1990 he was unable to pay his debts which amounted to $3.2 billion, most of which was owed to seven major banks.  They would restructure the loans and allowances for Trump because he was worth more to them “alive, rather, than dead!”  There were others that Trump stiffed, contractors who either did not get paid or were paid very little as compared to what was agreed to – a number of which were family businesses that eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

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(Notice Trump’s name has been removed from his casino!)

Of the many components of Trump’s life and career presented his attitude towards women is fully played out from his three marriages, purchase of beauty pageants, his affairs, and in general treatment of the opposite sex.  What emerges is a carefully crafted image designed to enhance his brand as he will become, in his own mind, the arbiter of what is beautiful in a woman. For him “as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass” that was all that was needed to maintain your celebrity and brand.  Trump wrote the script and he protected it with prenuptial and non-disclosure agreements that maintained the silence of any female who had a relationship with him.  For Trump women are nothing but pawns to his ego and his brand.  His wives, girlfriends, mistresses etc. had to measure up to a certain image or they were not worth his time and interest.

 

According to the authors a major turning point that led to Trump’s run for the presidency was the reality television program, The Apprentice.  Trump’s character would become his bridge to Middle America as his popularity with average citizens was enhanced.  He was a person who turned from a “blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through the most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up.”  The program sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident who quickly achieved results. The transition to politics was easy and it served as a stepping stone to the White House.

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The authors venture into Trump’s repeated dabbling with politics until he finally goes down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015.  The primary campaign is covered in detail until he gains the Republican nomination.  There is a great deal of information in the book, much of which is now known by the public.  But at the time it was written it should have been an eye opener for those people who read it.  The Donald J. Trump that is presented is the mirror image of the occupant of the White House.  One must ask the question, based on the last two years and the background presented by the authors is what will become of the American political system if he is reelected, because it is obvious that he will not change as his personality and attitudes originated in his childhood.  But what is clear is that Trump’s real estate career evolved into what can only be described as the “huckster-in-chief” as he figured out how to profit from branding, whether or not projects succeeded as long as he made a profit, even to the extreme detriment of others.

Kanish and Fisher’s work is remarkable due to the three-month time table they were working under.  Relying on numerous interviews representing a cross section of Trump’s life the authors have prepared an insightful and at times scary portrayal of a man who holds the destiny of the American people for the foreseeable future in his hands.

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by Anthony Beevor

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(June 6, 1944, D-Day Landing)

Anthony Beevor is a prolific historian.  His works include; STALINGRAD, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM, ARDENNES 1944, THE FALL OF BERLIN, 1945, THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN, and CRETE, 1941.  His works have achieved critical acclaim by military historians and the general public and one of his earlier books, D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY written in 2009 is very timely today.   On June 6th the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion will be held on the northern French coast and after reading Beevor’s account of the allied crossing of the English Channel one has to marvel at the logistical achievement and the courage of allied soldiers as they would land on the Normandy beaches and face the brunt of the Nazi military machine.  Beevor, a former commissioned officer in the British Army’s account encompasses more than just the invasion of Normandy which is covered in half the narrative, but the author continues with the breakout from Normandy, the opposition to Hitler and the July 1944 attempt on his life, the closing of the Falaise Gap through the liberation of Paris.  There are many books on D-Day from Cornelius Ryan’s classic, THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  the works of John Keegan, Carlo D’Este, and Stephen Ambrose, and the latest book on the topic, Giles Milton’s SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY all of which Beevor’s effort compares quite nicely.

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(Allies unloading at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)

Beevor’s approach is quite simple; provide the reader with the experience of being a witness to the daily decision making by allied strategists, and to a lesser extent what the Germans were planning.  He takes the reader inside the thoughts of SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Generals Omar T. Bradley, George S. Patton, Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, among many others.  We are exposed to their opinions of each other as well as their approach to warfare.  There are many candid comments be it President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s low opinion of French General Charles de Gaulle, or the views of American generals concerning the lack of progress due to Montgomery’s poor leadership.  Beevor’s comments are very insightful particularly labeling Montgomery as suffering from an Adlerian inferiority complex and his description of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. is priceless.

Beevor begins his narrative with a careful analysis of the allied approach to launching D Day.  Weather evaluation became the key to success and when it was not cooperative it caused a one-day postponement.  Later, Eisenhower would be extremely thankful when 110-mile winds buffeted parts of the French coast on June 19, lasting to the 22nd which caused massive destruction and incalculable damage to the beaches which had been transitioned to a supply base and center for further action.  The resulting delay hampered the evacuation of casualties, hindered air operations, but the allies would recover and take the key port of Cherbourg by June 26th.

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The author is at his best when describing the preparation and resulting battlefield action.  His description of the preparation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne as they trained and were about to land behind German lines before the invasion commenced is fascinating.  Beevor focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat from facing German Panzer Tiger Tanks and 88 mm. artillery, actual paratroop jumps, the need to dig fox holes quickly, the “black humor” soldiers resorted to as a coping method, and the terrain they had to navigate, i.e.; the bocage or hedgerows that dominated the French landscape as allied troops broke out into the French countryside.  He concentrates on the obstacles that allied troops would face preparing for the landing as well as the fighting that resulted i.e., the weight of their packs and the amount of equipment that they carried.  For some over 100 pounds which made it difficult to wade in the Channel without drowning, jump out of airplanes, or marching to the next engagement with the Germans.

Beevor provides maps of the battlefield and statistics that make the reader in awe when thinking about what took place in June 1944.  Beevor’s intimate knowledge of daily occurrences reflects an inordinate amount of research from interviewing allied survivors of the war, immersing himself in the work of unit historians as battles took place, traveling to 12 countries and examining 30 archives, as well as consulting many primary and secondary materials.

Perhaps Beevor’s best chapters come early as he deals with what appear to be scenes from the film, “Saving Private Ryan” as he describes what occurred on Utah and Omaha Beaches.  Beevor provides numerous stories of bravery and fortitude as chaos reigned on Omaha Beach in particular; “a mass of junk, men, and materials,” as well as the damage inflicted by the proliferation of German land mines on the beaches.  His evaluations are extremely accurate as he states the British army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations, and the poor preparation of the Germans which allowed the allies to remain on the beaches.  Beevor also spends a great deal of time dissecting the attempts to take the city of Caen and the final success in doing so.  He accurately points out that the initial failure to take the city created a rift between American and British commanders as it seemed they both had their own agendas.   Beevor’s evaluation of battlefield tactics are exceptional as well as the commanders involved.  He describes numerous lost opportunities on both sides pointing to the German ambush of British Cromwell tanks on June 14 at Hill 213 outside the village of Villars-Bocage.  In the end the RAF would flatten the village after earlier being greeted as liberators.

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The key to success was American organization as within a week after D Day, Omaha Beach “resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday.”  The Omaha Beach command was made up of 20,000 soldiers, the bulk of which were from the 5th and 6th Engineer Brigades.  But there were many problems that arose as the battles proceeded.  What to do with German POWS, shoot them or send them back to England?  How to transport casualties at the same time transporting POWS on the same LSTs.  What approach should be taken to thwart Hitler’s savior, the V-1 rockets as they began to reign on London and the English shore line?  How should commanders deal with combat exhaustion, more commonly known today as shock or PTSD?  What allowances should be made because of troop shortages and the lack of training of replacements?

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(SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley)

Beevor is very concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the war.  The death of French civilians due to allied bombing is well covered as is the French resentment against the British who they blamed for most of the Allied bombing errors.  As Beevor points out the French villagers paid a hefty price for their liberation.  Speaking of bombing errors, Beevor recounts more incidents than I was aware of pertaining to allied friendly fire.  Be it American, British, Canadian, Polish or French soldiers they all paid a hefty price for pilot or intelligence errors throughout Beevor’s narrative.

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(Over 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed)

The German high command receives a thrashing from Beevor as he points out that they did not have a central command in France at the time of D Day.  They relied on a ridiculous system of sharing command between General Field Marshall Edwin Rommel and General Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.  Hitler’s over reliance on his “Atlantic Wall” is covered in detail and his micro managing that only impeded the German war effort.  The frustration would boil over after Rundstedt is relieved of his command and a group of officers realize they are losing the war resulting in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of the Fuhrer.  Amazingly 20% of German forces in France in 1944 were made up of non-Germans, mostly Poles and Russians.

Beevor should be commended for showing his readers the heroism of the Soviet Army.  What the Russian people and soldiers experienced on the eastern front was horrendous, but Beevor is correct in arguing that Soviet propaganda put out by Stalin that Normandy was a side show to events in the east was wrong.  The battle for Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the eastern front.  The Germans would suffer over 250,000 casualties during the 90 days of summer in 1944 and lost another 200,000 as POWS captured at a rate higher than on the eastern front.

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The last third of the book is spent on the rush to liberate Paris, which was not part of the original D Day plan.  Bevor takes the reader through a series of operations and what stands out is German doggedness, particularly the Waffen-SS’s refusal to make life for allied soldiers any easier and the vengeance they meted out to French civilians, Resistance fighters, and Jews.  Another aspect that dominates is Montgomery’s constant attempts to assuage his own ego by launching and/or suggesting certain operations which would be counterproductive.  Another final component deals with internal French issues be it how collaborators were treated, De Gaulle’s battle with the Communists and the role of the Resistance.  Beevor joins Max Hastings as producing one of the most thorough accounts of D-Day and it should be read by anyone seeking the experience of what occurred, the personalities involved, and its effect on civilians caught in the cauldron of total war.

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THE BORDER by Don Winslow

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(The US-Mexico border)

After completing THE FORCE, the second installment of Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG trilogy that encompasses the narco-drug world that resides in Mexico, but also a symbiotic relationship with areas of the United States, I looked forward to seeing how his fictional account with elements of fact would resolve itself.  The concluding volume, THE BORDER has just been released and it will not disappoint as it maintains Winslow’s breadth of knowledge of the purveyors of the drug trade, the intricacies of how it operates, the violent battles among the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican and American governments, and how corruption and death pass back and forth over the Mexico-United States border, themes that seem to overlay each chapter.

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(Mexican border with El Paso, TX)

Art Keller is once again the main protagonist and he maintains his ability to make enemies among key characters in the cartels, as well as members of the American government whose job it is to create and enforce drug laws.  In THE FORCE Keller’s ability to create enemies reaches new heights as he manages to alienate his own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the United States Senate, the Mexican drug cartels, and the President of the United States.  It seems Keller has triggered a scandal that results in an investigation that spreads from Mexican poppy fields to Wall Street, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Keller has been fighting the drug war for decades, but his focus was across the border in Mexico.  When he shifts his strategy the war on drugs will be impacted inside the United States as it rolls up several interesting individuals.

The key event takes place in Guatemala on November 1, 2012 at a supposed peace conference involved rival cartels, the Zeta and Sinaloa.  However, instead of peace it turns into a bloody shootout that results in the death of the Zeta leadership, and Adan Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, a man whose history with Keller goes back decades and as delineated in the first two books of the trilogy.  Barrera’s death cannot be confirmed for over a year, but once it conclusive the question that dominates Keller’s mindset is who will replace him, how that individual or individuals will carry on the cartel’s drug empire, and what are the implications for a drug trade with the United States that sees the volume of drugs arriving in the United States expanding, and the resulting explosion of deaths from drug overdoses.

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(The wall that separates El Paso and Juarez)

Keller’s imprint on the events in Guatemala are a well-kept secret, an operation that was rogue within American drug enforcement, though it had the President’s approval.  Keller, who will be appointed the head of the DEA because of the machinations of Texas Senator Ben O’Brien wants to radically change the DEA’s approach but he must deal with Washington’s bureaucracy, an assistant head of the DEA who opposes him and wants his job, and a presidential candidate for the 2016 election who wreaks of Donald Trump.  Further, the prison system in the United States  has a privatization component, therefore if policy is changed it could cost people in high places billions.  For years the American approach was to try and deal with the drug problem inside of Mexico.  Since the Mexican government was in bed with the cartels, with Washington’s pseudo cooperation, in order to maintain political stability, it is not surprising that the DEA and other agencies made little headway.  Keller’s new strategy is to focus on what was occurring inside the United States which leads to numerous roadblocks and an approach that had not really been implemented previously.

As in all of Winslow’s books there are layers to the overall story, and THE BORDER is no different.  Once the cartels decide to shift their export focus to heroin resulting in a major increase in drug related deaths Keller decides to do something to curtail demand in the United States and make it unprofitable for Americans involved in the trade.  The key for Keller is how does the cartel launders its drug money which leads Keller’s investigation to Wall Street.  Keller’s work is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, an operation designated “Agitator” that calls for an undercover agent penetrating America’s finance system at a high level, and trying to implement much of his strategy in secret, away from elements in the DEA and other agencies who have a separate agenda from what Keller is trying to achieve.

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(Don Winslow, author)

As Winslow unveils his diverse plot lines characters from previous books reappear, but he also creates new ones who have a major impact on the course of the novels.  First, Dr. Marisol Cisneros, badly wounded in a previous cartel attack and the love of Keller’s life; Ignacio Esparza, Barrera’s brother-in-law; Elena Sanchez Barrera, Adan’s sister; Sean Callan and his wife Nora, Sean a former hit man for Adan Barrera and Nora his mistress; Raphael Caro, a Sinaloa god father figure who wields a great deal of influence and other narco types from the two earlier books.  Next, we meet John Dennison, who might as well be Donald Trump, candidate for president; Jacob Lerner, the second coming of Jared Kushner who is Dennison’s son-in-law who has major real estate investment issues.  The cartel figures abound, Tito Ascension, known as El Mastin who at one time was head of Esparaza security and now heads the New Jalisco cartel; Belinda Vatos, La Fosfora, in charge of security for the Nunez faction of the Sinaloa cartel; Ricardo Nunez, the head of the Sinaloa cartel; “Little” Ric Nunez, Barrera’s godson who tries to step into his empty shoes; Damien Tapia and the Renterias brothers who also try to take advantage of Adan Barrera’s death; and Darius Darnell, a black ex-con who is trying to carve out his own nitch in the drug trade centered in New York.  Keller’s allies include; Hugo Hidalgo, the son of a murdered DEA agent and assistant to Keller; Brian Mullen and Bobby Cirello, NYPD detectives working on Operation Agitator; and Admiral Roberto Orduna, Mexican Special Forces, an ally of Keller.   Chandler Clairborne is a different type of character, white collar, a syndication broker for the Berkley Group, who has links to money laundering; and Denton Howard, assistant head of DEA who supports Dennison and wants Keller’s job, among many others who impact the story.

Winslow repeatedly brings out the inequities in the war on drugs and changes that are needed as a disproportionate number of poor Hispanics and African-Americans get ensnared by the mandatory minimums endemic to the legal system.  Winslow’s views are brought out through Keller’s appearance before a Senate Committee and other avenues.  The number one reason for the increase in the heroin trade that has reached epidemic proportions is the poverty in the United States that has moved from large urban areas to small towns and rural regions. Keller, a.ka. Winslow argues the real source of the opiate problem is on Wall Street.  Corporate America ships out shops overseas, closes factories, which destroys people’s hopes and dreams resulting in pain for significant numbers of Americans.  For Winslow what is the “difference between a hedge fund manager and a cartel boss?”

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Winslow provides numerous descriptions and insights into the narco culture as he describes family life, education, funerals etc.  He takes the reader inside the US prison system and explains the daily existence of inmates  and the socio-economic hierarchy that exists and how the cartels are run from prison and how the narco types outside the prison influence what happens behind its walls.  Winslow creates characters like, Jacqui as an example of how a little girl grows up to be an addict, providing gruesome details of her acquisition of and use of drugs.  This is played out in Staten Island, NY, not Mexico.  He also creates the characters of Nico Ramirez and Flor, a nine and ten-year-old who escape Guatemala and make their way through Mexico to the US border.   The entire political culture of the cartel’s places Keller in a double bind situation.  The Sinaloa cartel is the key to the heroin trade.  If he destroys the trade the Pax Sinaloa for Mexico will end resulting in chaos and instability in the daily lives of Mexicans.  However, if he does not destroy the trade, the heroin epidemic in the United States will continue to explode.  Further the US bureaucracy is split on how to deal with the situation; the CIA and State Department collude with the Mexican government in dealing with the drug trade, while the DEA, Justice Department want to take the cartels down.

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The back story that exists throughout the novel apart from Keller’s war against the cartels are the cartels themselves.  Once Adan Barrera is dead the wars to control the Mexican drug trade recommence and the results are brutal as individuals try to make a name for themselves, and others try to recapture reputations and territory that they had previously lost to Barrera’s cartel.

The degree of financial and moral depravity described by Winslow is beyond the pale.  The inroads of the cartels into American politics and power is how the author derives his title.  The financing of the drug trade was usually in Mexico, now it has crossed the border.  By reading Winslow’s trilogy, three books in quick succession made me feel I was partaking in a penetrating journey – a voyage to many dark places that produce horror, depravity, disgust, and shame.  But the trip is one of necessity as Winslow has educated the reader, and at the same time he has produced a narrative that is a compelling view of reality even though it is supposedly a work of fiction.

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(US-Mexico border [El Paso and Juarez])