BIRDMAN by Mo Hayder

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Mo Hayder’s, BIRDMAN introduces us to her new character Jack Caffery, a Detective Investigator with the London police department.  Almost immediately Caffery is confronted with a strange murder as a body is found in the Millenium Dome in southeast London.  Once the police respond and excavate the site they locate four more bodies, and the possibility they are dealing with a serial killer.

 

Jack Caffery is a very complex individual who is haunted by the childhood disappearance of his brother, Ewan.  When he was eight he and Ewan were playing in a tree house when they got into a fight and his brother ran away never to be found.  A pedophile lived in their neighborhood, but nothing could be proven that he was involved.  Jack’s mother blamed him and their relationship was ruined.  Later as an adult Jack’s parents were happy to sell him his childhood home that brought him close to his neighbor, John Ivan Penderecki, the suspected pedophile.  Even in adulthood Jack carried the guilt of his brother’s disappearance with him each day.  His work as a detective always seemed conducted with Evan in the background.

 

In addition to his guilt over Evan, Jack is involved with a woman named Veronica who is in remission from Hodgkin’s disease, but after six months he wants to call it quits, when she tells home the cancer is back.  She uses the disease as a ploy to keep Jack until one day he learns the truth.  With all of this baggage, Jack is trying to solve multiple murders.  Jack is convinced that the murderer is white with a medical background.  Since the crime scene was near a hospital it all seemed to fit in place except for the fact that a racist colleague pushes a black drug dealer as the perpetrator.  Jack is now in a race with an incompetent colleague for evidence and wastes a great deal of time.

 

Hayder does an excellent job developing her characters, particularly Toby Harteveld, a former medical student who has inherited an enormous amount of wealth from his parents.  His problem is a sick mother who mentally abused him as a child.  Another important character is Rebecca, an artist who rooms with Joni Marsh who knew all of the victims.  The problem is that Jack becomes emotionally involved with Rebecca which influences his investigation.

 

Hayder builds her plot very carefully and about half way through the story she recalibrate her approach drawing the reader further into to her web.  Out of the blue a neighbor begins to hear things, but she is the type who complains to the police each Monday morning so she is ignored.  Jack continues his race with a colleague who is bent on prosecuting an innocent man.

Hayder does an exceptional job integrating Jack’s private life and his own demons into  the story.  She has a very empathetic approach that makes her characters very real as they try and cope with everyday issues as the hunt for the killer progresses.

 

When all seems to be coming together, Hayder introduces a diabolical twist that at once brings disgust, but also a curiosity of how two murderers came together as partners in a pact of perversion, and how their crimes would finally be solved.  I must warn that there are a number of scenes that are not for the squeamish and can be very troubling.  Their inclusion is important in understanding the murderers and what the police were up against.

 

Since this is Hayder’s first Jack Caffery novel which captures the imagination in a crisp and somewhat harrowing manner I am looking forward to others in the series.  Hayder’s provides a chilling narrative at times, but also a sensitivity to the plight she places her characters in.  For me Mo Hayder is now on my watch list.

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THE WILD INSIDE by Christine Carbo

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)

During the Fall, 1987 fourteen year old Ted Systead is camping with his father at Oldman Lake on the lower eastern corner of Glacier National Park when the unthinkable occurs. So begins Christine Carbo’s first suspense novel, THE WILD SIDE as Ted’s father is dragged away and killed by a grizzly bear as Ted escapes with his life. We soon learn that it was a difficult recovery for Ted physically and emotionally, leaving scars in adulthood as he became a special agent for services Eighteen Eleven for the Department of the Interior. He is one of the agents in charge of homicide investigations in the western national parks from their Denver office. Solving murders is his job, but at the same time, despite his teenage experience he develops an emotional and passionate attachment to Ursula arctos horribilis  – Grizzly bears.

Ted is an emotionally damaged person whose character is the product of a stunted childhood caused by the death of his father. Carbo develops Ted’s character slowly as the mystery unfolds. We witness the failure of his marriage after his wife, Shelly who did all she could to save their relationship, sees it collapse once she suffers a miscarriage. Carbo effectively integrates Ted’s story and personality flaws into the murder plot she constructs and brings in a number of interesting characters, particularly Monty Harris, his new partner, Joe Smith, Chief of the park police, and Smith’s family to make her story work.

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The case involves the death of Victor Lance, a meth user, blackmailer, gambler, among his many shortcomings. At first it appears that Lance was mauled by a bear, but once Ted begins his investigation he realizes that Lance was shot and tied to a tree before the bear finished him off. Ted’s state of mind and investigation are heavily influenced by his childhood memories concerning his father’s death. Since Ted grew up in the West Glacier area many people from his past became part of his investigation. Especially hard for him is working with the Park Superintendent, Eugene Ford who had investigated his father’s death who now had his own agenda for solving the Lance murder. Since Ted’s life is integrated into the plot and we get to know as much about him as we do about the crime.

The infrastructure of the meth trade is on full display including the corruption within law enforcement that allowed it to proliferate. Ted finds himself in a bind as higher ups want the bear that mauled Lance set free which fits the Park’s agenda, but does not facilitate his investigation. Ted believes the bear has swallowed the bullet that killed Lance and hopes it will “expunge” the evidence. Lou Shelton appears to be the perfect suspect, but Ted believes that despite the evidence that points to him, the case is much more complex. Carbo creates a number of surprising twists and turns as Ted finally gets to the bottom of the crime as well as his own emotional issues. Carbo’s ending will both surprise and create a moral dilemma in terms of when is murder justifiable.

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Ted Systead is a wonderful character and the way Carbo brings her first novel to a conclusion it is obvious that this will be the beginning of a new suspense series that centers in Glacier National Park. Another important aspect of the novel is the beauty of Glacier that is on full display. Having visited the park two years ago the images presented by Carbo brought back the amazing views my wife and I experienced. I enjoyed her first effort and I look forward to MORTAL FALL her next book.

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

Senator Paul Simon, left, adjusts comedian Al Franken's bow tie on June 5, 1991, as they rehearse for a Citizen Action dinner honoring Simon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

(Before)

In the current political climate with congressional hearings, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he were a godfather it was good to read a political manifesto in the form of biography that drips with sarcasm and humor.  When one thinks of Al Franken, Saturday Night Live (SNL) comes to mind, and the “serious” laughter his writings, i.e., RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT, and appearances produced.  His new autobiography is in the same vein as he uses his life story as a clarion call for a progressive agenda and a fight against alternative news and/or reality and the lies that are perpetrated regularly by certain politicians and supposed news outlets.

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE describes the evolution of a belief system that began at an early age, particularly as a young teen reacting to Lyndon Johnson’s work to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law.  From that point on we witness Franken’s intellectual growth using his comedic sense through high school, college, a career on SNL, and a second career in the United States Senate.  As Franken matures emotionally and politically his commitment to a progressive agenda for the American people (as well as Minnesota!) emerges.  But make no mistake for Franken to be successful he had to suppress his public humor to avoid political pitfalls

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

The key event in his career was the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone; his mentor, teacher, and intellectual role model.  For Wellstone “politics was about improving people’s lives.”  Franken presents a wonderful chapter encompassing Wellstone’s life’s work and positive goals for the American people.  Franken explains the type of person he was and how he was influenced by his progressive agenda.  Once Wellstone and his family are killed in a plane crash he was replaced in the Senate by Republican Norm Coleman who stated “I am a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone.”  For Al Franken it was “game on.”  Franken believed in Wellstone’s core, that “we all do better, when we all do better,” a mantra that Franken has worked for since his time in the Senate.

Franken explores in detail his campaign against Norm Coleman.  Faced with Republican obfuscation, distortion, and outright lies Franken was welcomed to the wonderful world of what he calls the “Dehumorizer,” or how his opponent would do or say anything about his opponent’s past and present be it fact or fiction, in the 2008 campaign, mostly fiction.  Franken would defeat Coleman by 312 votes, but it took over eight months to finally join his Senate colleagues as Coleman’s team dragged the results through the courts and in the end never really conceded.  Fast forward, eight years later Franken was elected by a 10% margin.  It is interesting how the Obama people did little to assist Franken, no matter what he did even Democrats could not wrap their heads around a former SNL comic becoming a serious politician.

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(Franken on SNL)

The most interesting aspects of Franken’s story rests on the legislative process which is bound in hyprocracy by both major parties, though perhaps a bit more by Republicans.  He cites a number of examples dealing with the 2009 Stimulus package which finally passed despite Republican opposition which led to a slower recovery than was necessary.  This allowed Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to blame the slow recovery on President Obama.  This is the same Senator who stated once Obama was elected in 2009 that it was his primary purpose to make sure that the new president would not achieve any successes.  It is also fascinating that certain congresspersons who voted against the stimulus took credit for it when it created benefits for their own districts.

Franken takes the reader behind the scenes as the Senate votes on legislation.  In particular a “disclosure bill” designed to offset the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The cavalier attitude of a number of Republicans is offered in their own words, of course funded by the Koch Brothers and their “Federalist agenda.”  Franken goes on to eviscerate Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a chapter entitled “Sophistry.”  Franken is proud of the fact that he hates a colleague who in two short months managed to turn almost his entire party against him.  As is Franken’s methodology throughout the book his comments are sardonic, humorous, and sarcastic, but below the surface the Senator from Minnesota is seething.

A major theme of the book is a clarion call for Democrats to turn out and remove Republicans from power.  If it is not done soon, Franken argues President Trump will continue to dismantle the achievements that Obama was able to attain.  Franken tries to be upbeat throughout as he rests on his comedic talent.  But, after watching the Senate Intelligence Hearings and Trump’s response congressional hearings televised on what seems to be a daily basis, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he was “the godfather” it was good to read an uplifting political manifesto in the form of a biography that the past few days we all must be careful because what we are witnessing cannot be good for our country, which seems to be what motivates Franken each day-what is good for our country.

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THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL by Timothy B. Tyson

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

At a time when the “Black Lives Matter” movement continues to gain momentum it is interesting to contemplate what the turning point was for the Civil Rights Movement.  In his new book THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL, Timothy B. Tyson argues that the lynching of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, by two white men in rural Mississippi was the tipping point.  It appears their actions were in part motivated by the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision outlawing “separate but equal,” a landmark case that lit a fire under white supremacists in the south.  Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Birmingham, AL and events began to snowball.  Tyson reexamines the murder of Till and explores what really happened that night.  The author includes new material gained from his 2007 interview of Carolyn Bryant who was supposedly the victim of some sort of offensive behavior that violated Mississippi’s unwritten code that existed between whites and blacks.  It seems that Bryant’s memory of what transpired after fifty years has changed, which makes it even more disconcerting in exploring the plight of Emmett Till.

In her interview Bryant changed her story from the testimony given in the trial of her husband Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. “Big” Miam who were accused of murdering Till.  Her testimony “that Till grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities” was not true.  Till did not grab her, but the all-white jury acquitted both men of the murder.  Till a fourteen year old boy and his cousin, Wheeler Parker who lived in Chicago’s south side were visiting their uncle Reverend Moses Wright who was a sharecropper on the G.C. Plantation in the Mississippi Delta.  Both boys were not ignorant of the mores of white-black relations in Mississippi, but what is key to the story is what actually happened when Till entered the Milam country store and interacted with Mrs. Bryant.  That night Till was seized from Wright’s house by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and was severely beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in a river twelve miles from the murder scene.  Tyson provides detailed accounts of August 28, 1955, the return of Till’s body to Chicago, the arrest and trial of the two men, the effect on American society, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the world wide reaction to the verdict which played into the hands of the Soviet Union in the heart of the Cold War.

For Tyson, the key to the reaction to Till’s murder was the behavior and strategy pursued by his mother, Mamie Bradley.  Once she learned of her son’s kidnapping she decided that “she would not go quietly” and began calling Chicago newspapers as she realized there were no officials in Mississippi she could appeal to.  Sheriff Clarence Strider of Tallahatchie County was put in charge of the investigation despite the fact the murder occurred outside his jurisdiction.  For Strider and other county officials the goal was to bury Till as soon as possible and let the situation blow over.  Bradley refused to cooperate and demanded that her son be returned to Chicago for burial.  Once that occurred Bradley’s only weapon to make sure her son’s death had meaning was his body.  During the viewing and funeral she made sure that the casket was open so the public could learn the truth of how her son was tortured and then murdered, and learn what Mississippi “justice” was all about.  Because of the new medium of television and newspaper photographs of the mutilated body the entire country was now a witness to the results of the lynching.

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(J.W. “Big” Milam, Roy Bryant and their wives)

Tyson does an excellent job bringing the reader inside the courtroom and explaining why the two murderers were acquitted.  He digs deep into Mississippi’s historical intolerance of African-Americans and how they should behave and be employed.  Tyson reviews the plight of Black America through World War II and touches on the hope that returning black veterans who fought for democracy would be treated differently after the war.  This did not occur nationwide, particularly in Mississippi.  However, as the Civil Rights Movement shifted its strategy toward enforcing its voting rights and employing the economic weapon, Mississippians grew scared and became even more violent towards African-Americans, and with the Brown decision men like Bryant and Milam were exorcised to the point of lynching Till.

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(The mutilation of Emmett Till)

Tyson presents a concise history of intimidation, violence, and murder that African-Americans confronted each day in Mississippi.  As the NAACP grew and demands for voting rights and desegregation expanded the powers that be in Mississippi grew worried.  They relied on people like Thomas Brady, a Mississippi Circuit Court Judge and occupant of a seat on the state’s Supreme Court to create the “Citizens Council Movement” to espouse the propaganda of race mixing and the threat to southern womanhood as the gospel of the white south.  In fact, the defense in the Till trial leaned on the threat of southern womanhood in its argument that gained the acquittal.  The fact that the trial itself took place only twenty days after the murder in of itself reflects the lack of proper investigation. Further, the threats and coercion to prevent witnesses from testifying is testimony to the lack of justice.  In fact, a few who did testify for the prosecution, uprooted their lives in Mississippi and moved to Chicago for fear of retribution.

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(Carolyn Bryant, then and now)

The person in this drama who should feel ashamed of themselves is Carolyn Bryant whose lies contributed to the acquittal of Till’s murderers.  It is a shame that there is a statute of limitations for perjury because she was certainly guilty.  Her show of “conscience,” for this reader is fifty years too late.

Reading this book can only make one angry about America’s past and one would hope that race would no longer be a factor in our society.  But in fact it is.  We witnessed race baiting throughout the last presidential campaign and as a society we have not come to terms with the idea of “equal justice under the law.”  Tyson’s book should be read in the context of history, but also as a vehicle to contemporary understanding.  As Tyson aptly points out, the death of Emmett Till “was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.” (208)  One wonders if the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO will be as transformative an episode as the death of Emmett Till.

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

The title of Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, the 12th in the series is PRUSSIAN BLUE, a title that is either the antidote for a nasty odorless and colorless poison or the color of Prussian Army coats worn during the Great War.  The novel that includes the usual array of Nazi historical figures takes places rotating between Nazi Germany in October, 1939 and France during April, 1956.  Kerr deftly moves back and forth between the two time periods as Gunther must weave his way among Hitler’s Nazi henchmen and East German Stasi secret police.  The mysteries in two separate time periods seem disconnected for part of the novel and then hints emerge and finally the two time periods come together.

Gunther learns about “Prussian Blue” at a dinner on the French Riviera from General Erich Mielke, a Nazi era acquaintance who happens to be the Deputy Head of the East German secret police – the Stasi.  It is October, 1956, and Mielke has a simple proposition for Gunther, kill another old acquaintance, Anne French who is living south of London.  If Gunther chose not to cooperate the Stasi head would arrange his death, by hanging, which is used to convince him take on the task, or by other means.  Supposedly, once the mission is accomplished Gunther would be assigned to West Germany setting up a neo-Nazi organization that would desecrate and vandalize Jewish sites in order to discredit the Bonn government.  Gunther, always a resourceful individual finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  However, Bernie being Bernie, decides to escape from his Stasi chaperoned train ride to Berlin and make his way into the French countryside.

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As in all the Bernie Gunther novels, Kerr’s command of history is impeccable and he does a wonderful job integrating accurate events and figures into the flow of the story.  This is evident when Kerr introduces Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, also known as “the butcher of Czechoslovakia” who summons Gunther to a meeting in April, 1939.  Gunther is told that he is being dispatched to solve a murder that has taken place in Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s Berghof retreat.  It seems that the Fuhrer’s birthday is only a week away, and the murder of Dr. Karl Flex, a civil engineer has put a damper on the coming festivities.  In true Kerr fashion, Gunther must work with Martin Bormann who sees himself as Hitler’s right hand man.  Upon meeting Bormann, Gunther is told he must solve the murder within seven days or else.  If the Fuhrer will not visit until the murder is solved, and if Gunther fails, Bormann could lose his esteemed position in the Nazi hierarchy (which would make his rival Heinrich Himmler very happy!).  Despite Bormann’s seeming power, Heydrich wants Gunther to spy on Bormann while he is conducting his investigation, in addition to gathering dirt on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the SS Head in Austria who is in the midst of a number of extra-marital affairs, something Hitler frowns upon.    As in the first story line, Gunther is once again caught in the middle and though he has always been a resourceful detective, a Social Democrat and not a Nazi Party member, he may not have the skill to navigate these situations.

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Kerr creates a number of characters to augment his Nazi/Stasi types.  Friedrich Korsch is a good example, a clinical assistant to Gunther in 1939, by 1956 he is a Stasi agent in charge of making sure that Gunther carries out his mission to London.  Through this character Kerr describes how Nazi training before the war was put to good use by the Stasi in East Germany in the post war world as the skill set to be successful in the two organizations are quite similar.  Kerr employs Gunther’s sarcasm as a tool to show the continuity between the Nazis and the Stasi, in addition to cutting remarks about the lack of French bravery and the immorality of Nazi society.  Kerr also explores the byzantine world of Nazism and the political rivalries within the Nazi hierarchy as he unveils the egoism, corruption and cruelty of the likes men like Heydrich, Himmler, Bormann, Kaltenbrunner and others.

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(Hitler in his Berghof study)

It appears that Kerr has read the new book that describes drug use among Nazi security services and the military, BLITZED by Norman Ohler that describes the use of meta-amphetamines before and during World War II.  As Bormann gives Gunther the drug pervitin he becomes more alert, productive, and while on the drug he seems to lack fear.  As the plot evolves Gunther discovers that meta-amphetamines are being diverted from civilian to military use as part of the run up to the war which seems to have a great deal to do with his murder investigation.

As in all the Gunther novels, Bernie is the ultimate survivor who has committed acts in the past that weigh on his conscience, and in his own intrepid way manages to move on.  As is evident in previous installments Kerr has a strong handle on historical research, character development, and the ability to surprise and capture his readers.  PRUSSIAN BLUE should be added to the list of successful Bernie Gunther novels, and hopefully number 13 will follow.

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

Netflix film: WAR MACHINE directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt

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The Netflix film “War Machine” has drawn a series of negative reviews criticizing Brad Pitt’s portrayal of General Glen McMahon, I guess a stand in for what appears to be the real subject, General Stanley McChrystal who was fired by President Obama in 2010.  Though the movie has not been well received by critics I believe it has a number of redeeming traits.  It is obviously a satire of America’s approach to war in Afghanistan, a war which we are not winning and have no business committing more troops to as President Trump has strongly hinted he is considering.  As a member of the German parliament offers in one fascinating scene in the film as she deconstructs America’s position and strategy; she states, what should be considered the ultimate reality of our position in Afghanistan after sixteen years of fighting, “Please leave now!”

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The film was inspired by Michael Hastings book, THE OPERATORS an incisive and somewhat funny look behind the scenes of American military commanders and how they conducted the war in Afghanistan.  Director David Michod has created a commentary on General Stanley McChrystal who was placed in charge of the war in 2009 and because of comments in an interview with Hastings for “Rolling Stone” magazine was relieved of his command.  The McMahon character is the epitome of the macho military figure who has the loyalty of his men and is treated as hero by all as they defer to him.  Despite his limitations, McMahon does project a degree of empathy toward the Afghani people, but in the end for him it is about winning, a dogmatic attachment to some pretty dubious ideas, and like many of his type, he knows how to succeed where many have failed before.  McMahon is chasing a victory that it seems has passed the American military and politicians by long ago.

Other characters in the film are a bit over the top in terms of their comments and actions.  However, two in particular, Hamid Karzai, portrayed by Ben Kingsley, fits the “over the top” description, but it also reflects the corruption, egoism, and incompetence of the former Afghani president.  According to A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film, the second individual, General Michael T. Flynn, portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall may provide insight into the man President Trump appointed, fired, and now misses as his National Security Advisor.

Overall, the film is funny in spots but the reality of what it represents is maddening.  I agree with the flaws that other reviewers have pointed out, but I am still glad I spent the two hours and two minutes watching it.

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THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME by Sally Mott Freeman

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(US soldiers after liberation from Japanese POW camp outside Manila)

Sally Mott Freeman’s first book, THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME is an interesting study in family dynamics and how military strategy and policy was implemented during World War II.  The somewhat dysfunctional family is made up of its matriarch Helen Cross, her second husband Arthur, and their three sons and one daughter.  The story revolves around the experiences of the sons, the first two of which are children of Helen and her first husband.  The sons are Benny Mott, an officer on the USS Enterprise, a graduate of Annapolis, who witnessed a great deal of action during four years of combat duty in the Pacific; William (Bill) Mott, also a graduate of Annapolis, plagued by weak eye sight who winds up as the head of the White House Map Room where he observes and distributes war information to the Franklin D. Roosevelt and military leaders; lastly, Barton Cross, the son of Helen and Arthur who does not measure up to the Annapolis type, enlists and becomes a prisoner of war taken by the Japanese in the Philippines.

By carefully examining the Mott/Cross family, Freeman is able to analyze its dynamic, in addition to the strategy pursued in the Pacific War.  Her approach is unique and provides an alternative means of studying the plight of American POWs in the Pacific, the politics in Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s command, how military decisions were reached, and the Anglo-American relationship.  However important the war is, it is the family that dominates the story.  Helen is an overprotective mother who obsesses over her third son, Barton who she views as evidence of a strong marriage after her first was a failure.  Barton is the favorite, and the pressure from his mother at times is overbearing.  Her other sons seek her love and attention and make do with how she parses it out.  What is fascinating is that the two elder brothers do not seem to resent their younger brother and will do anything to support him. The key element in the narrative is how family members react to the seizure of Barton by the Japanese and how they go about coping with wartime information that is directly related to his situation.  The entire family is concerned with what Barton is going through and how they can assist him, and perhaps facilitate his quest for freedom.

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Helen’s psyche is on everyone’s mind throughout the book.  Helen is the type of “helicopter” parent who will write the commandant of Annapolis as Barton withdraws from that institution, she will also write President Roosevelt, and military commanders.  Further, when Bill learns of the treatment of the POWs from a number of escapees, he withholds the information from his mother as long as he can, not to upset her.

The strength of the book is how Freeman alternates chapters taking the reader back and forth from the USS Enterprise through the experiences of Benny as it leaves Pearl Harbor, participates on the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, finds itself in the midst of the Battle of Midway,  the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the taking of Saipan.  Next, we are taken inside the White House as Bill witnesses the decisions being made that effect the conduct of the war, or later when he becomes the Flag Officer aboard the USS Rocky Mount.  The plight of American POWs is described in detail including the Bataan Death March, and a number of other forced marches as American soldiers are moved from one prison cite to the next.   What is particularly disturbing is how unmarked Japanese ships transporting US POWs were sunk by American planes during the last year of the war.  In addition, Freeman focuses on the inhuman treatment of the POWs and how they reacted, and why some survived.  Another strength is her discussion of the planning and actual invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two battles that did not go the way military authorities had hoped.  Heavy casualties were predicted, but not to the level that eventually resulted.  In part the problem was the Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots that invasion planners could find no solution to counteract.

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(The Jersey Brothers left to right; Barton Cross, Benny Mott, Bill Mott)

The major wartime personalities are integrated throughout.  MacArthur is dealt with in detail. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, a man who was beloved by his men and was a strategic genius.  President Roosevelt is presented as at times a warm and sympathetic leader, but also a harsh decision maker dealing with the realities of war.  Other important characters include Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Task Force, known as Operation Forager designed to defeat Japan in 1944, a command and strategy larger than and as complex as the Normandy invasion; Steve Mellnick and William Dyees who escaped the Davao Penal Colony and along with Filipino guerillas sought to launch a rescue mission of the 2000 POWs left behind, as well as a host of other major historical figures.

Importantly, Freeman goes into depth in presenting the jurisdictional battles between the army and navy for control of the Pacific Theater which was rooted in the struggle between Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur.  MacArthur does not fare well in the narrative as Freeman portrays the Pacific Army Commander as a self-serving egoist who only cared about his own place in history.  This characterization is quite accurate especially when discussing the strategy to invade the Japanese home islands, which MacArthur favored, or employ a blockade and massive bombing to save the lives of American GIs.  It seemed whenever anything did not go as planned, instead of accepting any responsibility, MacArthur blamed the Navy.

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(Later in his career William Mott’s promotion!)

What is clear throughout the book is that Bill did his utmost to try and learn the plight of his brother.  He traveled, wrote letters, and pressed friends, all in an attempt to learn the truth.  The author, Bill’s daughter makes excellent use of the memories of family members, in addition to diaries and other documents.  She has mined a tremendous amount of material and it is reflected in her strong narrative.  Her investigation into what happened to her uncle provides insights into how families were forced to deal with their missing sons, and for far too many the grief that followed.  Overall the book paints a fascinating portrait of a family’s plight during World War II.  It may get bogged down in family details at the outset, but once Freeman takes up the wartime experiences of Helen’s three sons the reader will become immersed in the detail and the heroic nature of what they experience and the actions they take.  The Cross/Mott brothers, were truly “a band of brothers,” and Freeman’s efforts reflect a strong effort for a first book!

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(American GIs after liberation from a Japanese POW camp near Manila)

MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by Greg Iles

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When I finished reading Greg Iles’ THE BONE TREE the second volume of his Natchez Burning trilogy it was clear the third installment would be equally suspenseful and the type of book that I would not want to put down.  I was not disappointed as MISSISSIPPI BLOOD drew me in, grabbed my attention, and would not release me.  Iles begins the conclusion of the trilogy by using old newspaper articles as a vehicle to review or present material from the first two books.  It is 2006, and Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi is dealing with the murder of his fiancé, and is deeply troubled by his father’s refusal to talk about his past, and defend himself at his upcoming murder trial.  Compounding his father’s actions is the effect it is having on the Cage family.  Lurking in the background, soon to reemerge as one of the keys to the novel is a KKK offshoot, the Double Eagles, led by Snake Knox, a racist sociopath who will stop at nothing to keep his actions and past secrets hidden.

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A number of characters from the previous novels reappear; Shadrack Johnson, the District Attorney who prosecutes Cages father as a means of furthering his career and reputation; Dr. Tom Cage, Penn’s father; Walt Garrity, a retired Texas Ranger who fought with Tom Cage in Korea; Sheriff Billy Byrd, who hates Penn and is in bed with the Double Eagles; Quentin Avery, the diabetic attorney who defends Dr. Cage; Lincoln Turner, Cage’s half-brother from Dr. Cage’s affair with his nurse, and Penn’s mother Peggy, eleven year old daughter Annie, and a number of others.  As the novel progresses Iles integrates material from the first two books refreshing the memories of those who have read them.

Iles does introduce a number of new characters who help bring the state of excitement to new levels.  Serenity Butler, writer, college professor, native of Mississippi, and an Iraq war veteran; Terry “Toons” Teufel, the muscle behind the VK (Varangian Vindred or Viking Justice) a racist biker group somewhat aligned with the Double Eagles; Dolores St. Denis, whose fiancé was murdered by the Double Eagles at the “Bone Tree” in 1966; Cleotha Booker whose son Sam was murdered by the Double Eagles in 1966; Aaron and Roosevelt Harvin the older brothers of Keisha Harvin, a reporter who was brutally attacked by a woman acting for the VK, and a few others.  What is clear to everyone that Penn questions as he tries to figure out what his father is hiding is that if you went against the Double Eagles you would die.

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As the plot develops Iles takes the reader into the seamy underworld of racist terror from the Civil Rights era and the present.  What emerges is the depravity of southern racism that in many ways still remains today.  Through the relationship between the VK and the Double Eagles we see their world view and are exposed to the legal and political corruption that existed in Mississippi and Louisiana.   As Iles’ narrative progresses he provides the social texture that was Mississippi in the 1960s and some of which is contemporary.  Iles provides a number of important insights into southern culture by employing a realistic and engaging dialogue between his characters, particularly involving Penn, his father’s supporters, and those who want to convict Tom Cage and bury the past.

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The problem that dominates the novel is that Penn’s father is hiding important information about his life and how it impacts his trial.  Further, his close friend and lawyer Quentin Avery refuses to disclose his strategy that seems remarkably weak.  It grows worse as Doris Avery, Quentin’s young wife and Penn come to the conclusion that perhaps there is a pact between the two men, that in return for making sure he is found guilty, Dr. Cage will provide him with a painless death and release from the diabetes that has already cost him both of his legs.  For Cage it seems likely his father wants to be convicted in order to save his family from the Double Eagles, or assuage his own personal guilt.  As Doris states; “I think we’re all hostages, even though we’re walking free.  Annie, you, me…all of us.”  In response Penn states; “You mean literally?  Hostages to the Double Eagles?”  They conclude that most of the world has moved past the racist hatred that permeated Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, but not the Double Eagles and too many others.

Once the plot is laid out, the reader is taken on an imaginative, but realistic ride where it seems that the intensity of the narrative increases as you turn each page.  The events of the novel are put forth through, at times, intense dialogue, conversations, newspaper articles, and courtroom testimony that is conveyed in detail. The book is an ode to Natchez as Penn tries to overcome the city’s past and provide optimism for its future.  The book is riveting and can be tackled on its own, but I would recommend reading the three books in order.  No matter how you approach Iles’ trilogy, which is quite an achievement, you will not be disappointed.

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The Desert Queen – A Film by Werner Herzog

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(The Real Gertrude Bell)

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2014 film, the “Desert Queen” staring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell whose impact over British policy in the Middle East during and after World War I was quite impactful.  Hers was a rich life that reflected her work as a historian, archeologist, and later as a politician or pseudo diplomat.  The film is rather slow moving and dull in spots, however the cinematography is nicely portrayed.  The scenes with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence were poorly done, though we do get a sense of their egos.  Devoting over half the film to Bell’s love life as opposed to her research and work with the Bedouin and her influence over British policy is a misuse of time and “the Desert Queen’s” gifts.  Nicole Kidman masks a strong effort to accurately portray Bell, but overall the film could have learned a lesson from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” though Herzog’s musical score does measure up.

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(Picture is replicated in film, with Churchill, Bell and company)

One watches the film, and follows Bell/Kidman travel the desert and after two hours, she finally meets with the Sharif of Mecca’s son’s Faisal and Abdullah and she sees them as future kings.  Though true, this could have been presented in a bit more greater depth, though their pet falcons were a nice touch.  If one is looking to learn about Gertrude Bell and I would steer toward two books, GERTRUDE BELL: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SHAPER OF NATIONS by Georgina Bell, and DESERT QUEEN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL: ADVENTURER, ADVISOR TO KINGS, AND ALLY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Janet Wallach.

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(Gertrude Bell)