OUR TEAM: THE EPIC STORY OF FOUR MEN AND THE WORLD SERIES THAT CHANGED BASEBALL by Luke Epplin

(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)

Spring has arrived, at least in our minds up in New England, and with it the sounds and hopes generated by a new baseball season which hopefully will not be affected by Covid as it was last year.  At the same time, we are experiencing the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, in addition to the tumult that fostered the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement and its continuing relevancy.  Based on time of year and the impact of race on the news on a daily basis Luke Epplin’s new book, OUR TEAM: THE EPIC STORY OF FOUR MEN AND THE WORLD SERIES THAT CHANGED BASEBALL seems like an excellent choice to navigate the role of race in baseball history and its impact on our current view of the sport.

Epplin’s focus is on four individuals who greatly impacted baseball history apart from the Cleveland Indians magical run to the pennant in 1948.  Playing in the cavernous Municipal Stadium its owner Bill Veeck, part showman, shrewd businessman, and baseball lifer introduced a number of changes as to how owners approached their teams.  The second impact individual was Bob Feller, an Iowa farm boy who became one of the best pitchers in baseball history, though by 1948 he was on the downside of his career.  The last two individuals Larry Doby and Satchel Paige have a special place in baseball history when it comes to the integration of the sport.  By the time Paige arrived in Cleveland he was in his early forties and had played in the Negro League for years.  Possibly the best pitcher, black or white since the 1930s Paige would make significant contributions in 1948.  The last person Epplin focuses on Larry Doby became the first negro player in the American League. 

In 1947, Jackie Robinson who was groomed to be the first negro player in baseball by Branch Rickey made his debut.  When one thinks of the integration of baseball. Robinson and his experiences dealing with racists in out of the game comes to mind, and few think a great deal about Doby.  The young Cleveland outfielder was playing in Newark in the Negro League when he was called up in 1948 and did not undergo the “grooming” process that Robinson had.  Despite this handicap, after a slow start, Doby, along with Paige and a few other Indians players are responsible for the amazing 1948 season.

(Satchel Paige)

Epplin explains how the Cleveland Indians and these four individuals captivated the American people in 1948 as baseball had recovered its fan base and put their best product on the field since before World War II.  In addition to the economic impact, these men focused on  social issues facing the American people as the country was moving closer to the civil rights revolution.

Epplin gives justice to the legends and myths relating to Bob Feller and Satchel Paige dating to their confrontations on the diamond beginning in 1936.  The pre-1947 era was dominated by barnstorming players competing with each other during the off season to supplement their salaries which were kept low by owners due to the reserve clause.  Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis realized that if negro teams defeated white teams on a regular basis, it would be difficult to justify segregation, so he implemented new rules to limit the barnstorming.  He wanted people to see them as exhibitions to prove that negro players were inferior to whites.  Despite Landis’ attitude players like Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and Carl Hubbell all believed that Paige belonged in the major leagues.

Satchel Paige Bob Feller Comparing Baseballs : News Photo
(Satchel Paige and Bob Feller)

The author effectively integrates the history of Jim Crow laws, and the overt and covert racism that existed in American society throughout the narrative as he focuses on the role race played in these individual lives in addition to the personal competition between Feller and Paige.  The subject of race is key.  Paige obviously was one of the best pitchers of his generation, but he never had a chance to exhibit his talent because of baseball’s color barrier enforced by its racist Commissioner Judge Keneshaw Mountain Landis who ruled baseball as a dictator after repairing its image following the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and Landis learned he would sign negro players he blocked it.  When the history of baseball integration is told writers tend to focus on Jackie Robinson and leave out the trials and tribulations highlighted by the demeaning behavior and outright racism suffered by Larry Doby who a year after Robinson broke the color barrier took the field in the American League.  Epplin has thoroughly researched his topic and the racist comments by Feller concerning Paige who repeatedly bested him on the mound during the off season are presented clearly and reflect the true character of the Cleveland fireballer.

The key figure in integrating the American League and bringing a World Series championship to Cleveland in 1948 was Bill Veeck.  Epplin zeroes in on the essence of who Bill Veeck was – his optimism, ingenuity, and ability to convince others of his viewpoints.  Ever since I read Ed Linn’s VEECK AS IN WRECK as a boy I have been fascinated by Veeck and his ability to transform baseball franchises be it in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Chicago.  In effect through his desire to sign negro ball players, his promotional creativity, and his willingness to sacrifice his personal life and health Veeck became a sort of “mad scientist” conjuring up new ideas in his baseball laboratory on a regular basis.  As Epplin develops his narrative it is interesting as he notes that following World War II part of the reason Veeck signed Paige at the age of forty four was due to the decline of Bob Feller as a pitcher. 

It was Feller who epitomizes baseball during the era he played.  He was baseball’s dominant pitcher in the late 1930s until World War II.  Feller was a selfish individual who had difficulty accepting the lost wages because of his four year service in the military.  After the war he was hell bent on recouping the money and incorporated himself as RO-FEL Inc.  The barnstorming was the key, but his star status meant he had to pitch almost every day, make all arrangements and his commitment to earning as much money as possible and confronting baseball’s hierarchy meant he shortened his career as there are only so many pitches in a person’s arm during the pre-Tommy John surgery era.  Feller’s decline and views on race, and his selfishness as viewed by other players detract from his overall reputation as a baseball great.  As Epplin correctly points out, “Feller’s swoon, in a sense, facilitated Paige’s rise.”

LARRY DOBY – BASEBALL’S OTHER PIONEER
(Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby)

Epplin follows Veeck’s quest to buy the Indians in 1946 in detail.  He delves into the roadblocks he faced, his interaction with fans and his promotional ability, and finally deciding to sign Paige and integrate the team with the signing of Larry Doby who after a poor start became one of the dominant sluggers in baseball at that time.  Epplin makes the important point that Robinson’s almost immediate success with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was due to this preparation in the minor leagues for what he was to expect once he stepped on the field as a Dodger.  Secondly, Robinson was used to the publicity surrounding his athletic prowess at UCLA, his maturity from serving in the US Army during the war, and the strategy employed by Branch Rickey.  On the other hand, Doby, only twenty three, was forced to change positions, had no seasoning in the minors, and was a quiet introverted type who had never been exposed to the type of racism he would confront once Veeck signed him to a contract.  Interestingly, according to Epplin, Veeck developed a wonderful relationship with Doby, but Paige and Doby always seemed to be at loggerheads.

BILL VEECK – OWNER, SHOWMAN, INNOVATOR
(Bill Veeck)

The book will take the reader through the 1948 season and Cleveland’s ultimate victory in the World Series.  Epplin does bring his focus on others aside from his four major characters to reinforce his views, but it is the role of Feller, Paige, Veeck, and Doby and his focus on the Negro Leagues that allows him to develop a narrative that is both interesting and timely as we confront the same type of covert and overt racism today.  It is clear that if Veeck had not signed Doby and Paige the Cleveland Indians quest for a pennant and World Series championship would have come up short in 1948.

Overall, Epplin has written a fine baseball history of the Cleveland Indians and their quest for a World Series in 1948.  However, apart from some interesting ”nuggets” that the author has uncovered, much of what he explores has been presented by other baseball historians which he acknowledges.  Despite this minor flaw Epplin writes well and he has produced an interesting read that should satisfy baseball fans of every generations.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium, former home of the Cleveland Indians
(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)

THE BOMER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Malcom Gladwell


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)

THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER by Bradford Morrow

Cover art

Will is a reformed rare book and manuscript forger who has spent the last twenty years on the straight and narrow living a placid existence with his loving wife, Meghan and two daughters Nicole and Maisie.  This idyllic life will be upended as an old enemy of Will has aggressively confronted the eleven year old Maisie in their Hudson Valley, NY home and forced a package upon her that was to be given to her father.  Will fervently believed that he had settled all accounts and claims from his past but now in Bradford Morrow’s exquisite sequel to THE FORGERS, entitled THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER he is faced with a decision that could upend his family and their way of life. 

Morrow is a talented novelist who in 2014 decided to write a thriller that depicted the underside of the rare book and manuscript world, a world in which Morrow was well versed.  His readers will be quite satisfied with his latest effort as he continues to impart the seamier side of his protagonist’s avocation.  After his daughter is attacked, Will is confronted with Henry Slader who has reappeared after being released from prison having served a sentence after brutally attacking Will with a meat cleaver while he and the family were living in Kenmare, Ireland severely damaging his right hand when he refused to go along with Sadler’s demands.  Lingering in the background throughout the novel is the murder of Meghan’s brother Adam Diehl, another practitioner of literary forgery twenty years earlier, and Will’s own sordid literary  past.


(author, Bradford Morrow)

Morrow’s approach to preparing and writing a mystery thriller is intellectually satisfying with his repeated references and excerpts from the works of numerous literary figures including, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and W.B. Yeats.  As in the first novel, Morrow’s obsession with anything related to Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes character pervades the story.  Morrow places Will in a very tenuous position as Slader demands that he reproduce a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s first book TAMERLANE which with only twelve known copies in circulation is considered the holy grail of American letters.  The story unfolds carefully and selectively as Will and Meghan co-narrate the story telling the tale through alternating chapters.

The novel travels evocatively from upstate New York farmhouses to Manhattan auction houses, and there’s an aptly gothic tinge to the tense drama that ensues.  Will does not realize how dangerous Slader’s request and threats pose to his family as to complete the task he must coopt his twenty year old daughter Nicole who he has trained and imparted his knowledge and calligraphical skills over the years. 

Shops in village of Rhinebeck, New York, USA Stock Photo

(Rhinebeck, NY downtown)

Despite his misgivings Will proceeded as he felt a weird kinship with Slader who he realized was his equal in the dark craft of forgery.  While he mistrusted Slader he was somewhat envious of him as he concluded that the two of them had survived the machinations against each other and had shattered each other’s lives in significant ways as they had been extremely competitive even before they formally met.  Will concluded that Slader was no worse a transgressor than he was himself and started to accept the idea that had they been collaborators instead of competitors, God knows what satanic masterpieces they might have produced.  But what Will most regretted was that he would have to involve Nicole in the project.   

The novel progresses as Will and Meghan narrate chapters sharing their emotions and misgivings about what Slader had roped Will into doing. Through Will and to a lesser extent Nicole the reader will be exposed to the mechanics of preparing forgeries and the emotional toll that it takes.  Further, Morrow relates how the avocation of bookselling was carried out and the numerous steps involved in preparing, pricing, and selling books to book dealers, private citizens, or the general public.

As is the case in all of Morrow’s novels he is a master in creating meaningful characters.  In THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER they include Henry Slader, a narcissist who is the source of many of Will’s demons; Nicole, Will and Meghan’s perceptive and talented daughter; and Atticus Moore, Will’s rare old book compatriot who reemerges after twenty years.

After spending most of the novel in upstate New York in their Hudson Valley farmhouse Will and Meghan will return to Manhattan and make a spectacular discovery in their bookstore.  The discovery will lead to an unexpected turn in the plot line that produces a wild finish to the novel.  You do not have to be an obsessive book devotee to enjoy THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER as it stands alone as a wonderful literary thriller.

THE FORGERS by Bradford Morrow

Lighthouse at Montauk point, Long Islans Lighthouse at Montauk point, Long Islans. montauk stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

(Montauk, LI lighthouse)

After reading Bradford Morrow’s PRAGUE SONATA I knew that I had to move on to another of his novels.  The choice I made, THE FORGERS, is an excellent and absorbing story that delves into the corrupt and invidious nature of the rare book collector’s world in addition to a murder mystery that is dominated by love and obsessions.  The novel begins in the upscale community of Montauk, NY, a town located on the eastern most tip of Long Island where the postman on a routine delivery enters a beachfront cottage and discovers the body of a local resident with its hands cut off.  The scene is littered with manuscripts by political and literary figures from an earlier era with other rare books splayed on the floor.  Book inscriptions were torn from works on Lincoln, Churchill, Twain, Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  Many of the books were torn to shreds and the victim, Adam Diehl, a book collector seems the subject of a ruthless and senseless murder.

The narrator of the novel is named Will, though for some reason Morrow does not divulge his name for the first half of the book.  The murder seems rather odd as many valuable books were not taken or damaged.  Will is dating Diehl’s sister, Meghan and never really got along with her brother.  Meghan operates a bookstore in the East Village and Will and Adam had been book forgers which is the only thing they had in common.  Morrow delves into the emotional attachment that rare book collectors share as Will points out the eroticism, emotion, and true happiness that forging a manuscript or inscription gave him.

East Village Books, 99 St Marks Pl, New York, NY. exterior storefront of a used bookstore in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Stock Photo

Will is a complex character whose forging career ended abruptly when an unknown source turned him into the police.  He was convicted and given probation ordering restitution to his victims and he served his time and thought it was all behind him.  Trying to live on the straight and narrow was difficult because for Will, forging was an addiction that he could not share with Meghan who he deeply loved.  The murder itself will soon become a cold case though Will had come across an invoice from a Henry Slader when they were cleaning the cottage after the police had wrapped up the case.  Slater seemed to have purchased some of Adam’s books and forgeries and was receiving monthly installments from Adam.  Will suspected Slader but had no proof.

Will shared the forger’s life with Adam but also a love of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes in addition to any letters or manuscripts that dealt with the author. Will’s obsession with Holmes began in childhood and he had purchased a number of Holmes materials from a dealer in Providence, RI.  The materials were a fraud, but Will admired the forgery as the finest he had ever seen reflecting his love of his craft and his admiration for others  who pursued the same avocation as he did. 

Will had begun to receive threatening letters in a forged Henry James script at the time he started dating Meghan.  He assumed they were from Adam, but after his murder the letters continued.  Will was haunted by the letters and was afraid that their author would turn him into the police as Adam’s murderer.  At the same time Will was convinced that the author of the letters was the true murderer.

Best Kept Small Town 2017
(Kenmare, Ireland)

After marrying, Meghan and Will decide to sell off all their possessions and move to Ireland.  Will took some of the proceeds from selling his valuable collections to pay Slader off, hoping the letters would stop and he would be able to begin a new life with his bride in Ireland.  Will’s wish was not to be granted as new letters arrived as they were moving, and he was convinced that he was being stalked by Slader after their relocation.

Morrow is a superb novelist, a teacher at Bard College, and the editor of the distinguished literary magazine, Conjunctions.  He himself is a serious book collector with a particular interest in books inscribed by their authors to notable friends, or volumes that once belonged to other famous people.  As the novel unfolds it is obvious that Morrow has a particular love of rare books and when he has Will add inscriptions that are perfect forgeries to the front-end papers.  Will is extremely talented  and states that “when I am finished copying a warm personal epistle to one of the author’s friends, for instance, a part of my soul merged with Doyle’s.”  Will prided himself on fooling the experts.

Morrow’s writing has almost a lyrical quality to it be it a mundane conversation or references to poets or masters of fiction.  As Morrow proceeds, he periodically turns to the past as Will acknowledges his artistic mother who taught him his calligraphic skills, and his wealthy father who taught him about collecting rare books and the pleasure that it brought him.  When Morrow returns to the present, Meghan and Will are in Ireland trying to escape the past, but the past seems to rise up as they cannot escape Adam’s death and the threats against Will.

This is an audacious novel with intricate details ranging from the Irish countryside, the shape of letters and the type of ink used to scribe, to unpacking a complex story that may move slowly at times, but the language is precise and at times beautiful.  Obviously, I greatly enjoyed the book and if you do, we are in luck because after seven years Morrow has just published the sequel, THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER.

Montauk Lighthouse and beach aerial shot Montauk Lighthouse and beach aerial shot, Long Island, New York, USA. Beach Stock Photo
(Montauk, LI lighthouse)

THE VIETRI PROJECT by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

Rome's incredible skyline needs to be seen to be believed
(The skyline of Rome)

Nicola DeRobertis-Theye’s debut novel THE VIETRI PROJECT is a well-conceived and imaginative work of historical fiction that presents an intimate portrait of a complex young woman trying to evade her uncertain future that will lead her to discover a great deal about her family, her own life, and the pitfalls we all face.  The story revolves around Gabriele, a young woman who recently graduated college and works in a bookstore in Berkley, California.  Immediately, Gabriele tells the reader about a man named Giordano Vietri who lives in Rome and orders fifty somewhat obscure books which she is put in charge of locating and shipping to Italy.  Once the order is filled it is followed but a series of new ordersfor hundreds of books which in the “Amazon era” seemed surprising.  Gabriele becomes fascinated by Mr. Vietri, though she knows nothing about him.  By coincidence it appears that Vietri’s address is located near where her mother grew up and not far from where Gabriele spent a number of summers during her teen years visiting relatives.

Gabriele becomes obsessed as the book orders keep appearing at the same time, she is approaching her twenty-fifth birthday and as she begins to reevaluate her life, she becomes upset.  Her solution is to leave the bookstore and travel the world finally winding up in Rome in search of Mr. Vietri. As her search for Vietri proceeds she is given a box that contains a book by one of Vietri’s neighbors and she hopes that the book will provide a road map to locate her target.  As her search unfolds Gabriele renews her relationship with her cousin Andrea who tries to assist her in her quest.

As the novel unfolds it becomes more and more personal for Gabriele in that her 25th birthday holds tremendous significance as when her mother reached the same age she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic which provokes a great deal of guilt.  Gabriele learns details of her mother’s life before she turned twenty-five and blames her birth on the development of her mother’s disease.  DeRobertis-Theye writes with a great deal of sensitivity as she expertly explores Gabriele’s inner thoughts as she searches for meaning to her life and how she fit into the larger world.  Gabriele’s fear is that as she reaches the same age as the onset of her mother’s sickness she too will suffer from mental illness and be institutionalized.

(Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III, and high officials of the Italian military photographed in Ethiopia in 1936)

A stolen electric bill offers Gabriele information which she is convinced will lead her to Vietri, so she decides not to abandon her search and remain in Rome.  DeRobertis-Theye introduces a number of important characters which will reorient Gabriele’s life.  One of these, Ianucci Loredana, a seventyish widow who lives in an expensive part of Rome rents her a room in her apartment which will begin a relationship that will force Gabriele to learn a great deal of her mother’s past as Ianucci is the mother of Gabriel’s mother’s best friend while growing up.

DeRobertis-Theye creates a sense of realism throughout the novel as she integrates contemporary events into the story, i.e., the Amanda Knox trial, the death of Muhammar Qadhafi, refugees caused by the Arab Spring, Silvio Berlusconi, and the reign of Benito Mussolini.  Mussolini’s fascist reign in Italy is explored through the eyes of an author who has written a biography of an Italian artist who was arrested in 1935 for articles written for an anti-fascist Italian newspaper.  It seems the artist came from the same village, Aliano as Mr. Vietri and wrote a memoir that recounted his time in the Vietri home village; a widow whose husband served with Vietri in World War II; and a journalist who wrote a story about a pottery company named Vietri.  However, what is deeply important is Italy’s uncomfortable history that includes the brutality of an Apennine village that the author presents in the 1930s along with the atrocities perpetrated by Italian troops in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) during its occupation and the murder of Jews under Mussolini.

Gabriele’s search for Vietri unfolds very slowly at the same time she uncovers a great deal about her own family.  The key is whether Gabriele finds Vietri, but in reality, does it matter in the larger dilemma of Gabriele’s life.  The novel itself relies on the nature of identity, personal and national, along with the dangers of secrecy.  For Gabriele she has come of age in a broken world, along with a family that seems to have been broken for generations.

THE VIETRI PROJECT is a strong first novel with an absorbing story line that focuses in large part on how one survives in a world rife with violence, destruction, and madness.  The dominant theme is Gabriele’s need to be defined only by her true inner self, even if she was unsure who, or what, that was.

Rome

(An aerial view of Rome, Italy)

THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS by Judy Batalion

(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)

The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should.  Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS.   In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide.  Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising;  Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius.    There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.

Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.  They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future.  Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions.  Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.

Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944

(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)

The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history.  While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946.  Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree.  The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat.  This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.

The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos.  These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists.  The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves.  In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.

Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts.  She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly.  She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities.  German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families.  Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation.  The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.

Judy Batalion
(Judy Batalion)

Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos.  She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities.  Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone.  The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own.  Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.

The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies.  Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization.  The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against  the Nazis.   Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.

Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide.  Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming.  Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal.  They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.

Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)
(Zivia Lubetkin)

At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis.  This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals.  How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.

Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis.  On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death.  A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz.  Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.

Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long.  She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.”  It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished.  I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.

(Warsaw Ghetto, 1942)

THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

REDLINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD vy Joby Warrick

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Yahoo News in this handout picture provided by SANA on Feb. 10, 2017.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

In his presidential memoir A PROMISED LAND Barack Obama does not reveal much about his thinking when it came to events in Syria other than that “our options were painfully limited…and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.”  This was the conundrum the US faced as it approached how to deal with the slaughter that was Syria since the Arab spring in 2011; a president who was seemingly obsessed with the fear Washington could be drawn into another war in the Middle East, and who if any of the rebel groups the US could rely on and not face blowback if Assad were overthrown.  Eventually President Obama announced his “red line” warning that if Assad continued to employ nerve agents in the Syrian civil war it would be a game changer for the US.  The warning that was issued on August 20, 2012 did not deter Assad and the American response was marginal at best.  With twenty-twenty hindsight this was one of the worst decisions the Obama administration made in relation to the carnage that was Syria and its results have been catastrophic.  In Obama’s defense had the US bombed Syria and taken out most of Assad’s chemical weapons would it have altered the war – we will never know.  The decision-making surrounding American “red line” policy its impact, and the attempt to destroy Assad’s chemical “stash” throughout 2014 is the subject of an informative new book RED LINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick which takes a microscope to American decision-making and the diplomatic and military policies pursued to try and obviate the horrors that the Assad regime was perpetrating.

Warrick’s effort is more than a narrative history of events sprinkled with keen analysis of the players and policies involved, but more a true to life thriller with a cast of characters that includes world leaders, physicians, weapons hunters, spies, and a number of heroes and villains.  Warrick’s account begins with the introduction of a CIA spy whose nomenclature was Ayman, “the chemist,” a Syrian scientist who informed his handlers that Damascus had constructed an efficient manufacturing center with a network of laboratories that had produced 1300-1500 tons of binary sarin, VX, and mustard gas.  Warrick lays out the issue of nerve agents produced by Syria and its implication for US policy makers.  The author’s approach is methodical as he examines all areas that impacted the Syrian weapons cache and what the US should and could do to mitigate the problem.  Once Assad employed nerve agents dropping three canisters on the city of Sarageb held by rebels who fought for overthrowing the Syrian regime on April 29, 2013, President Obama response had done little to deter Damascus.

(Timothy Blades’ “Margarita Machine”)

By 2012 Syria had become the most dangerous place on earth and after the April 2013 attack the US and the UN began to work on providing evidence for Assad’s WMD crimes.  Warrick introduces a series of important characters into the narrative who are pivotal to his story.  UN Team Leader Ake Sellstrom, who had experience hunting WMD in Iraq in the 1990s was sent to Syria and found evidence that military grade sarin gas had been used.  The list includes Andrew C. Weber, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs who feared that should Assad be overthrown his 1300 nerve agents could fall into the hands of the al Nusra Front and its ally al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would soon morph into the Islamic State). Timothy Blades, an ingenious individual who headed the US Civilian Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team developed a process referred to as “hydrolysis” and the machinery to carry out the task of breaking down and making Assad’s nerve agents inert should the US come into possession of them.  Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, also known as “Chemical Hazem,” as he prepared areas of Syria for possible chemical attacks and worked to save victims of those attacks.  Samantha Powers, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who worked tirelessly to hold Assad responsible for the atrocities he ordered but she was up against Russian and Chinese vetoes, but her work cannot be ignored as she was able to create the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons headquartered in the Hague.  By 2017 JIM’s work continued as it investigated another Syrian nerve strike against the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  Lastly, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.  McGurk was the last American official to witness the Syrian conflict in its entirety,” from the earliest pro-democracy uprisings through the rise of ISIS; from the regime’s first experimental use of sarin to the dramatic; if incomplete, mission to destroy Syria’s stockpile; from the hopeful declaration that ‘Assad must go’ to the despairing reality of an entrenched Syrian dictatorship propped up by Russian and Iranian protector’s intent on reshaping the region in their own image.” (303) There are many other important players in the narrative, many of which must be given credit for the eventual destruction of much of Assad’s nerve WMD, and those who were a hinderance and supported Assad outright.

Warrick description of a UN investigation led by Sellstrom and Scott Cairns his Canadian Deputy reflected Syrian obstructionism.   However, while in Damascus their group witnessed the results of a chemical attack that killed at least 1400 in the Ghouta suburbs.  Warrick’s connections and knowledge allowed him to describe in detail the components of the WMD, its impact on the civilian population, Syrian governments obfuscation, and what the world was prepared to do about what was occurring in Syria.  Everyone points to the Obama administration for its almost “feckless” response to Assad’s actions.  Warrick correctly points out that the Obama administration in part placed itself in a bind in its response.  Obama, keen to avoid a major military commitment in the Middle East decided that he needed Congressional approval for any military response.  After the events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 there was little or no support in Congress.  Further, Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Obama that the US should not act and wait until the UN investigation had run its course.  In England, Prime Minister David Cameron could not convince Parliament to support military action, and lastly many feared what could happen to the UN team still in Syria.  Facing congressional humiliation Obama was saved in part by the Russians who agreed to force Assad to turn over his nerve agents to UN authorities.

(UN chemical weapons experts will use a battery of analytical techniques)

Warrick clearly explains how the deal came about and its implications for the future.  The Russians would go along with practically everything assuming that Blades’ “Margarita Machine” was a fantasy that could only fail thereby embarrassing the US.  Warrick’s account of how the “Blades’ Machine” was built, tested, and deployed is well conceived and easy to understand.  He follows the politics behind the strategy, the actual obstacles overcome particularly those set by the Syrians, and its ultimate deployment. This section of the book is perhaps the most important for the reader as Warrick builds the tension as if writing a novel that in the end would produce a mission at sea where the machines were bolted to the decks of the ship Cape Ray, deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to receive the nerve agents from the Syrian port of Latakia, run the nerve agents through Blades’ process, and then deliver the waste to cooperating countries.  Warrick employs a reporter’s eye to describe the political difficulties, delays, and roadblocks on the ground as the UN Mission tried to secure the nerve agents and even after the mission was a success one wonders how it was achieved.  For Blades and others, it came down to ingenuity, sheer guts, and a great deal of luck.

The entire process became a race to keep the nerve agents out of Islamist hands.  This became an even greater problem when on July 14, 2014, the day the ship sailed into the Mediterranean, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from Mosul the creation of the Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Raqqa its capital in Central Syria deep into Iraq.  ISIS would miss out on Assad’s nerve agents, but began a developing a process of their own, particularly when Assad set the example by dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas which is less toxic than sarin on his subjects.

Samantha Power during Barack Obama’s first presidential election campaign, in 2008. Photograph: Hirolo Masuike/New York Times
(US UN Ambassador Samantha Power)

Graeme Wood is dead on when he writes in the February 19, 2021 edition of the Washington Post:  “Overwhelmingly, Warrick’s emphasis is where it should be, on Assad, for whom chemical weapons were a highly developed and strategic program of terror. “Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries,” Warrick writes, “but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches” — this was “a different order of savagery.” Lacking any legitimate military purpose, Assad’s chemical weapons existed to terrorize civilian populations by killing as indiscriminately as possible. Eliminating his arsenal was therefore a top international priority.”

It is clear today that the Syrian Civil War continues to torture millions of Syrians in Syria and in refugee camps in the Middle East and Turkey.  While the US concentrated on ISIS for the next two years its policies would allow Russia and Hezbollah, Syria’s Iranian ally to route many of the rebels and keep Assad in power. According to Warrick Assad would engage in over 300 chemical attacks over the next four years.  It does not take a serious imagination to believe that Assad, who turned over tons of nerve agents to the UN kept a secret stash somewhere.  Once the Trump administration came aboard and abruptly ended aid to the rebels and abandoned our Kurdish allies to be destroyed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanit it was obvious that Putin had won and Iran’s goal of a “land bridge” across the Levant was in reach – Assad had won.

Brett H. McGurk (2).jpg
(US Special Envoy Brett McGuirk)

Warrick is to be commended for his research, clear and thoughtful writing, and describing for all to see what the truth is concerning Assad’s nerve gas war on his own people. Perhaps someday he and his enablers will be held accountable by the world community – but I doubt it.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, pictured in December. His office said he would isolate at home with his wife for two weeks.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY by Nev March

Bombay, India, late 19th century
(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

When a new historical mystery earns the “First Crime Novel Award” by the Mystery Writers of America it will always spark my interest.  This was the case with Nev March’s first novel, MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY.  Set in India in 1892 during the height of British rule, the book centers around the death of two women who at first seemed to have committed suicide, but after careful examination the cause of death does not make sense.  The chief protagonist who comes to that conclusion is Captain Jim Agnihorti, a recently retired soldier whose cultural background is half English and half Indian.  Agnihorti is a fascinating character as he evolves from a soldier with twelve years of experience, Dragoons, and Bombay Regiments to either a journalist or a detective.  He was injured in the line of duty in Karachi in 1890 and nominated for the Victoria Cross, but since he was not a full blooded Englishman, he earned the Indian Order of Merit.

At the outset Agnihorti is lying in a hospital bed in the Poona Military facility recovering from a wound suffered in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier.  While resting he read a newspaper article from which he learned about a supposed double suicide where two women fell from a university clock tower in broad daylight.  For Agnihorti the case did not add up especially when three men charged with the crime were acquitted.  After his release from the hospital the retired soldier contacted the husband and brother of the two victims, Mr. Adi Framji.  Looking to his future Agnihorti obtained a job as a journalist at the Bombay Chronicle.  But when Framji hired him to investigate the death his career as a journalist ended, and his new avocation as a detective began.

March’s first novel is more than a murder mystery but a thoughtful beautifully written examination of the Indian caste system, the intense poverty that existed in the Raj, the virulent racism and condescension by the British, and the dangers of tribal and frontier fighting in India and Afghanistan. Since Agnihorti is of mixed blood, at times he is a victim of British self-righteousness and the Indian upper caste.  March provides the reader with the texture of Bombay as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.  The street urchins, the enslaving of young girls for sex, and the extreme wealth of the Franjis and other families are on full display.

Painting of  Sepoy Mutiny, 1857
(Sepoy Rebellion, 1857)

Of course, in any novel there must be a love interest and March does not let the reader down.  Agnihorti falls for Diana Framji, Adi’s sister but since he is of mixed blood, and does not fit into the Indian caste system his hope for a lasting relationship seems destined to fail.   Burjor, Diana’s father warns Agnihorti that he would not be an acceptable husband even though the family thinks highly of him particularly since his investigation is designed to protect the family.  In addition, Burjor is trying to arrange a marriage for Diana to a person of the proper caste. There is a great deal of drama within the family with the murders, but also it appears that they are hiding something and Agnihorti has to pull information out of them very carefully.

There is also a political component to the story as two characters emerge.  Rani, the Queen of Ranjpoot and her nephew Nur Suleiman especially when Suleiman is caught burglarizing the Framji mansion by Agnihorti.  It is also possible that Suleiman is Akbar, one of the men acquitted of the murders.  If Agnihorti identifies Prince Suleiman who was next in line to become regent of Ranjpoot the British could use it to take over the princedom along with hundreds of estates.  It appears that the murders are a pawn in a political power struggle between the British Raj and the Rani for control of Ranjpoot.  When Agnihorti is attacked it is evidence he is a threat to Suleiman and his family interests.

March does not shy away from exploring the poverty that is endemic to 19th century India.  An excellent example are the scenes depicted as Agnihorti disguised as a tribal fighter travels from Bombay to Lahore to investigate a possible link to Kasim who used to live and work for the Framji family and his investigation.  Along the way Agnihorti buys a young girl, Chutzki out of slavery and as they travel together, they are joined by three young boys and a baby who are refugees from the tribal warfare.  Agnihorti brings them to Simla where the Franjis are spending the summer.  Soon the children are left behind as Agnihorti is pressured by a British commander to pursue a mission to Lahore while his investigation continues.  It is an extremely dangerous undertaking but Agnihorti takes Raza,  one of the boys with him who knows the frontier region along with a British escort, Subaltern Ranbir Singh.

Image result for India map

March possesses an excellent command of the history of the British Raj in 19th century India.  Her integration of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against British rule is spot on as is her approach of weaving the uprising into the overall flow of the novel.  As the story comes to a head the Framji family history during the rebellion becomes a bone of contention that becomes a major threat and helps explain March’s plot that she develops over hundreds of pages.**

india1857

March effectively builds tension as the novel unfolds particularly as Agnihorti departs the British base and tries to carry out his military mission and find evidence against the killer he seeks.  Throughout the novel an overall concern is that Agnihorti suffers from PTSD with the attendant nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, fears because of what happened in Karachi in 1890.  As he pursues his missions his guilt about the past continues to resurface and he must learn to overcome them to continue.

Agnihorti is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and throughout the novel there are constant references to Conan Doyle’s hero’s techniques.  Agnihorti himself is a fascinating character.  A bastard who did not know his father, a personal bridge between British and Indian culture, and a sense of honor and pride that carries him forward.  March has done a magnificent job in introducing the Captain James Agnihorti character and it is clear that she is a superb storyteller and I look forward to her next literary effort.

** For further information regarding the Sepoy Rebellion see THE GREAT MUTINY INDIA 1857 by Christopher Hibbert and THE GREAT MUTINY by Richard Collier.

(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY by G. J. Meyer

(Cesare Borgia)

One of the most fascinating families in history are the Borjas/Borgias; a family that produced a series of controversial characters from Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia.  The story that encompasses the Spanish family that would dominate the Italian Renaissance is said to involve barbarity, rape, misinformation, political and religious machinations, and possibly incest.  The questions surrounding the family have baffled historians for centuries and it appears that much of their reputation can fall into the category of myths.  Historian, G. J. Meyer has taken on the task of unraveling these myths in his family biography, THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY as he argues that the Borgia problem began in the early 16th century as Reformation propagandists depicted the papacy in less than positive terms and blamed the Borgias for every conceivable crime.  Meyer’s approach is to ask, “long neglected questions” and a refusal to accept judgements that appear to have little basis in fact, and when evidence is missing not to accept the “ugliest hypothetical explanation of a puzzling event.”  The author’s goal is clear, to try and “lift the Borgia story out of the realm of fable and turning it into history.”

The book is more than a family biography but more so a history of the Papacy focusing on the Holy See dating back to the 13th century and its development into a powerful pseudo monarchy and the opposition it wrought, i.e., the Babylonian Captivity, Avignon Papacy, Conciliar Movement, through the rise of Savonarola in the late 15th century.   Meyers main protagonist is Rodrigo Borgia as he slowly rose through the Vatican bureaucracy serving four Popes and finally assuming the Holy office as Alexander VI, and later in the narrative Cesare Borgia.  Meyer reviews the history of Renaissance Europe and the Papacy for the first quarter of the book pointing out the political dysfunction that existed in the Italian peninsula and its environs that existed before Alexander VI assumed the Papacy.  The groundwork for the corruption and power politics of the region is carefully played out focusing on Popes Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV Innocent VIII along with the likes of the della Rovere, Orsini and Colonna families.  The use of nepotism, poisoning and other tools make the period known for its culture one of grief and blood.

Meyer does a workmanlike job of intertwining mini-history chapters in the narrative to explain certain issues and individuals in greater depth for the reader.  Chapters dealing with the evolution of the role of the College of Cardinals, the creation of the Papacy, the role of condottieri-mercenaries,  Cesare Borgia, and  the role of Portugal in the Age of Discovery are among the best.  Meyer develops a number of important themes throughout the work including the power struggle that existed between the Papacy and the College of Cardinals over limiting Papal power with the Conciliar Movement that was not that far in the rear view mirror for individuals who wanted to create their own power base.  Another important theme involves what historian Garret Mattingly refers to as “Renaissance Diplomacy” as the conduct of negotiations, warfare, and settlements is discussed in depth particularly marriage diplomacy, the ever shifting alliances that seemed to change almost on a daily basis in Italy, and the results that were fostered on the battlefield.  Particularly important is the role Rodrigo Borgia played in the unification of the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella, the French invasion of Italy led by a rather interesting character, Charles VIII in 1494, and how Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples tried to repeatedly overturn any existing geo-strategic balance.

Pope Alexander VI
(Pope Alexander VI)

Meyer’s writing style is conducive to unraveling all of the machinations just mentioned.  He possesses a firm grasp of events and personalities and his narrative and analysis to not fall into the trap of repeating myths that have stood the test of time.  One of the areas that Meyer explores are the supposed children of Alexander VI, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jorge.  After delving deeply coming dynastic history, previous historical writings etc. Meyer concludes they were not Alexander’s children, but nephews and nieces.  According to Meyer their father was Alexander’s own nephew Guillen Ramon Lanzol de Borja. 

Meyer’s writing is effective as he focuses on the dynastic issues surrounding Naples which centers around Spanish, French, and other claims to the kingdom.  Meyer spends a great deal of time describing Charles VIII invasion of Italy whose main goal was the Neapolitan throne and removing Alexander VI concludes that the French monarch’s great adventure changed nothing and everything as Naples remained in possession of the House of Aragon and under the protection of Spain.  Florence remained a client of France.  Alexander was not deposed, and a council of the church was not convened.  Another strength of the narrative focuses on Friar Girolamo Savonarola who would eventually fail due to his narcissism and ego but until he did, he helped bring about the end of de Medici rule in Florence and was seen as a grave threat to Alexander VI.

lucrezia borgia
(Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia)

Meyer’s depiction of the shifting European/Italian balance of power is of major importance to the narrative as the Italian City-States, Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire all have their own agendas that affect each other either dynastically or the need for “raw power.”  The sections that deal with the Turkish threat to Italy and Europe in general are key.  Popes and monarchs called for crusades against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who threatened Venice, Milan and other areas of Italy and are treated carefully and enrich the story Meyer is trying to tell.

Meyer’s recapitulation of the succession to the French throne following the death Charles VIII is an important example that highlights dynastic dysfunction during the period.  It involves the assumption of the throne by Louis XII and the marriage diplomacy involving Louis XII who needed a divorce from Alexander so he could remarry and that of Cesare Borgia who had his eyes on a French princess and a group of properties who sought to exploit.  In the end Louis XII got his wish, but Cesare had to settle for a lesser woman!

(Nicolo Machiavelli)

It takes Meyer until the last fifty pages of the book to focus on Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors surrounding her reputation following her marriage annulment to Giovanni Sforza.  The rumors about her private proclivities be they sex, power, or corruption may or not be true according to Meyer which is emblematic of his approach to the many myths he tackles.  First, he states in no uncertain terms that a certain myth is false, presents arguments and material to support his view, then seems to back track and accept that it is hard to tell if the myth is false or not.  A useful example involves Alexander VI’s goal of marrying Lucrezia to the son of Duke Ercoled d’este of Ferrara.

Meyer ends his narrative by describing the final down fall of Cesare Borgia.  After spending chapters recounting how he became a dominant figure in Italian power politics and gaining substantial wealth and influence he recounts that the death of Alexander VI, his benefactor in 1503 signals the beginning of his downfall.  Once Alexander is gone it becomes a feeding frenzy by Cesare’s enemies to take back properties and states he has stolen and acquire his wealth.  He will eventually become a fugitive from his many enemies and will finally die in battle which Meyer argues was somewhat of a suicide as he realizes that he would have to spend the reminder of his life as a prisoner, particularly as Cardinal della Rovere who hated the Borgias finally assumed the Papacy as Julius II.

There is so much in the narrative in terms of dynasties and personalities the book requires a careful read and it would assist the reader if they had some knowledge of the period.  But taken as a whole is a useful effort, that is surprisingly readable, particularly for those who have watched the Showtime cable series, “The Borgias” which when compared to Meyer’s depiction does not hold a great deal of historical truth.  Meyer’s claims to have written the hidden history of the Borgias, but in reality, one must ask; has he changed much of what has been written before?

Portrait of Cesare Borgia “Le Duc Valentin” kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, formerly thought to be after a painting by Correggio, now often attributed to Dosso Dossi, 1517-1519.:

(Cesare Borgia)