CAMELOT’S END: KENNEDY VERSUS CARTER AND THE FIGHT THAT BROKE THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY by Jon Ward

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(Former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy)

Today we find ourselves at the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign even though the Iowa caucuses are eleven months away.  It seems that each day another Democrat announces their candidacy, and President Trump does what President Trump does. Talking heads on cable news programs ask each candidate why they are running and what sets them apart from the competition.  For me, it brings back memories of watching a 60 Minutes program in 1980 where Roger Mudd interviewed Ted Kennedy and asked him why he was challenging President Carter for their parties’ nomination.  Kennedy’s response went along way in destroying his candidacy as his rambling response lacked coherence, and in no way answered the question, leaving the American electorate in the dark as to why he was running.

At a time when the Democratic Party seems split between its progressive and moderate wings it would be a useful exercise to examine a similar split that played out during 1980 election campaign.  Jon Ward’s new book, CAMELOT’S END: KENNEDY VERSUS CARTER AND THE FIGHT THAT BROKE THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY successfully takes up the task and provides numerous insights into the politics of seeking the presidency considering today’s budding Democratic Party fissures.  One could also make a similar argument as the more establishment wing of the Republican Party appears to be growing tired of threats, government shut downs, “wall” politics for the base, that even President Trump might be challenged during the primary season for his parties’ nomination.

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(The Kennedy brothers…the legacy Ted Kennedy had to cope with)

Ward’s book is in large part a dual biography of President Carter and Senator Kennedy tracing their personal roots from their upbringing, their political careers, as well as their distaste for each other.  The scope of Ward’s narrative encompasses the politics of the south that Carter emerged from, in addition to the Kennedy legacy that Senator Kennedy had to cope with his entire career.  Ward raises important questions that effected the course of the Democratic Party after the 1980 election that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency, as well as the country at large.  Ward explores why Kennedy challenged Carter’s re-nomination, and what impact that challenge had for American political history.  Further, the author contemplates how Kennedy’s challenge impacted the two men on a personal level.

Ward argues that in part Kennedy was driven by the cost and state of health care in America in the 1970s.  A witness to one family health crisis to another; the death of two brothers and a sister, and his son Ted Jr.’s battle with cancer, apart from his own surviving a plane crash that immobilized him for six months, the Senator sincerely believed it was not fair that a rich family like the Kennedy’s could afford the medical bills from such tragedies, while most American families could not.  Secondly, Kennedy opposed Carter’s fiscal conservatism that produced budget cuts to basic social programs.  For the senator, “sometimes a party must sail against the wind.”  Further, 1979 was a terrible year for President Carter.  The Camp David Accords seemed to be unraveling, unemployment remained high, inflation was rising, gas prices were increasing, and events in Iran led to the overthrow of the Shah and the taking of American hostages.  For Kennedy and establishment types within the Democratic Party, the president with a 37% approval rating was so weak he could be defeated.  With the scandal involving his Director of Management and Budget Bert Lance, and Carter’s “Malaise Speech,” a vacuum seemed to appear that could be filled.   Finally,  Kennedy would seek the presidency that seemed to be his birthright, hoping that Chappaquiddick had receded far enough into the background of the American electorate’s collective memory.

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(Senator Kennedy confronts the press after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick)

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Carter was a very driven man.  Ward states that he appeared to be a soft-spoken individual who had evangelical glow about him,  however, inside he was very competitive and was made up a steely disposition that hated to lose or admit he was wrong.  In addition to the persona he presented Carter viewed politics through a Niebuhrian lens, combining a belief in his divine calling, juxtaposed with a competitive politician.  Peter Bourne, one of his advisors and a biographer has written, “increasingly be conceptualized politics as a vehicle for advancing God’s kingdom on earth by alleviating human suffering and despair on a scale that infinitely magnified what one individual could do alone,” that individual was Jimmy Carter.

Ward argues that the turning point in the relationship between the two men occurred in May 1974 at the Law School Day speeches at the University of Georgia where both men where scheduled to speak.  Kennedy gave a traditional democratic values speech, but Carter who had decided to run for president resented Kennedy’s presence and as Governor of Georgia treated him rather shabbily that day.  Carter believed that Kennedy was pushing him around and he would not tolerate it.  Ward goes on to describe Carter’s successful race for the presidency in 1976 in detail and accurately points out that it was clear that the seeds for his 1980 defeat were already being planted.

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(Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s top aide and the president)

Carter and his people believed that they were not beholden to the Democratic Party establishment and Messrs. Jordan, Powell, Lance and others knew what was best.  Further, Carter alienated the journalistic community with his “refusal to give a plain answer to a plain question,” converting every act into a political morality play.  Carter’s insular group played hard in their personal lives stretching certain boundaries which conflicted to the holier than thou attitude that Carter preached to the press.

Ward dissects the 1980 race, and the book moves smoothly, but does not neglect scholarship relying on secondary works, memoirs, and numerous interviews.  Carter and Kennedy’s complex personalities are fully explored, including what causes drove them, and what they were most passionate about.

The events of 1980 had important implications for American politics for decades to come.  First, Kennedy was able to remove “presidential” fever from his system and go on to serve in the Senate for 47 years and become one of the most prolific legislators in American history.  Second, it launched the most successful post-presidency in American history as President Carter through the work of the Carter Center and other organizations has impacted world peace, helped cure disease, and reduce poverty, programs that continue to this day.  Lastly, With Carter’s defeat, Ward correctly argues that the coalition that Democrats relied upon since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 had splintered apart.  Reagan was able to split the combination of “union members and ethnics in the big cities, poor rural voters, racial minorities, Catholics, and the South” that had formed the Democratic Party voting blocs.  This coalition was fractured so badly that it has not and may never be put back again.  This chasm in Democratic party politics is ongoing and it will be interesting how it plays out in the coming presidential election.

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(Senator Ted Kennedy’s snub of President Jimmy Carter at Madison Square Garden, NY after Carter was renominated by the Democratic Party in August, 1980)

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MAD BLOOD STIRRING by Simon Mayo

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(Dartmoor Prison)

Simon Mayo is one of England’s most well-known broadcasters who began a writing career six years ago with a bestselling children’s trilogy.  The radio disc jockey first attempt at adult fiction is his new book,  MAD BLOOD STIRRING set at the conclusion of the War of 1812, a war that lasted three years and for many historians is considered America’s second war for independence.  The book begins as the captured crew from the American ship, Eagle is marched to the notorious English prison, Dartmoor.  Once inside the prison, the sailors led by Joe Hill interrupt a boxing match were a black boxer, on the verge of winning his match is beaten with a wooden plank.  As the match ends Hill announces to the hundreds in attendance that the United States and Britain have signed a peace treaty and the war is over.  The response from a group of black prisoners named Habakkuk (Habs) Snow, Ned Penny, and Sam Snow who were taken from their ship, the Bentham, eighteen months before is one of skepticism and disbelief.

Dartmoor housed over 6000 American prisoners during the War of 1812 of which there were roughly 1000 black sailors.  Using the captured sailors as his main characters, Mayo has written a five act play that somewhat mirrors a Shakespearian tragedy.  The core of the story revolves around the life of American prisoners of war seized by the British during the fighting.  With the conflict over, the POW’S where be released, however, the American Congress needed to ratify the Treaty of Ghent as the British Parliament had.  During the interim the prisoner’s life would continue in the seven cell blocks that made up the prison as they had for the previous eighteen months.  Murder, physical attacks, nasty personal confrontation, poor food, little freedom, and of course segregation of whites from blacks was the order of the day.  Block number four housed the black prisoner population and was led by a former Maryland slave who was six feet eight and commanded great respect.  King Dick, whose real name was Richard Craftus ran a tight ship, but had a soft spot for Shakespeare and his men.

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(Richard Craftus, King Dick)

There is a high degree of historical accuracy in Mayo’s presentation.  Block four did stage Shakespearean productions, including Romeo and Juliet, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent did not produce the immediate release of the prisoners, and the hostility between rival prisoner groups did explode into violent bloodshed.  Mayo builds upon the historical backdrop to produce a novel that  that wreaks of loyalty, doomed love, and a series of dashed dreams.  The themes are numerous from British haughtiness, blatant racism, the role of theater in assisting prisoners to deal with their daily plight, the fear of smallpox, human relationships, and the daily monotony of prison life.

Mayo has created an interesting template for his novel juxtaposing a theater group of black prisoners performing Shakespeare as a major construction for the story, that can be considered its own play.  The constant references to the Bard, be it Othello and other plays and the rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet within the confines of Dartmoor is surprising and it seems to carry much weight throughout the novel.

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The most important relationship that emerges from the story is that of Joe Hill, the sixteen-year-old white sailor and that of Habs Snow, a black prisoner.  Their friendship is a testimony to their survival and its greatest test revolves around a kiss that takes place in a scene from Romeo and Juliet as Hill portrays Juliet, and Habs plays Romeo.  It is a test of the mores that exist in the prison but also in society at large.  There are other sideshows to the main plot; the affair between Dr. George Magrath, the prison physician and the wife of the prison commander Captain Thomas Shortland; the actions of Horace Cobb and Edwin Lane two members of the “Rough Allies,” a thuggish gang that despises black prisoners as much as they do the British; in addition to many others that exist throughout Dartmoor’s seven cell blocks.

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The story culminates with a nasty prison riot that upends several important relationships and leads one to believe that Mayo has written a novel that should be the basis for a film script.  The book could be enhanced with greater character development and depth of story, but it is a satisfying yarn, that should attract the reader’s interest as Mayo brings his plot to conclusion with several twists and turns.  If the book is turned into a movie script, a a good production staff can enhance the storyline and create a moving experience for a possible viewership.

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(Dartmoor Prison)

A COVERT ACTION: REAGAN, THE CIA, AND THE COLD WAR STRUGGLE IN POLAND by Seth G. Jones

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Today the Polish government is ruled by the Law and Justice Party (abbreviated to PiS).  It is a national-conservative, and Christian democratic party, currently the largest in the Polish parliament.  In the last two years the party which is extremely nationalistic, has created controversies on several fronts.  It is a country where hateful language is pervasive leading to the murder of the mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz on January 13 of this year.   Last February the government passed a new amendment to the Law of Remembrance making it a crime to refer to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish,” further it threatens legal punishment for anyone who publicly implies Poles’ involvement in Nazi crimes against the Jews.  Further, a few days ago on January 27th, Polish far right nationalists gathered at the Auschwitz concentration camp to protest, at the same time as officials and survivors marking the 74th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in an annual ceremony.  Lastly, Poland’s “New Populism” has led the PiS to be more critical of the European Union as the country has become more nationalist and Euro skeptical.  Andrzej Duda, the PiS supported Polish president, recently referred to it as an imaginary community.  Today’s current version of Polish democracy and economic growth began in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, rests on the success of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s.   However, one must return to early 1980s for one of the key reasons for Poland’s transformation from a Soviet satellite to a free country.  The events of the period is the subject of Seth G. Jones’ new book A COVERT ACTION: REAGAN, THE CIA, AND THE COLD WAR STRUGGLE IN POLAND which describes the little-known story of the CIA’s operations in Poland  which resulted in a major victory for western democracy which raises questions in the minds of many as to where the Polish government is taking its people domestically and the world stage and do the principles that so many believed in and fought for at the time still persist.

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(Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa)

Jones’ account of the events of the 1970s and 80s that spawned Solidarity, Poland’s flowering democratic movement, is concisely written, analytical, and reflects a great deal of research.  The narrative, in part, reads like a novel as events and movements  travel quickly and build upon each other.  Jones reviews the Cold War decisions that created Poland after World War II, from Yalta to the crackdowns against democracy in Poland in 1970, the strikes and demonstrations against Soviet domination, culminating in the Solidarity movements birth in Gdansk to the declaration of martial law by the Polish government in December 1981.  The usual historical characters from Joseph Stalin, Wladyslaw Gomulka, Edward Gierek, Jozef Klemp, appear to set the stage for the 1980s crisis.

Jones’ theme is clear-cut – his story is the CIA’s effort to strike at the heart of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.  President Reagan wanted a clear break of Soviet control  and with his support the CIA built a program that took the Cold War to the Soviet’s backyard.  The program, code named, QRHELPFUL, was one of the “most successful American covert action programs ever developed, yet also one of its least well known and appreciated.  The CIA would provide money and resources to organize demonstrations, print opposition material, and conduct radio and video transmissions that boosted opposition support and morale while simultaneously eroded Soviet authority.”  In addition, it was also very cost effective as the total bill was about $20 million.

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(Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski)

Jones develops chapters on the leading figures in one of the most important movements of the Cold War.  Chapters include those encompassing Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, a worker in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, Pope John II, President Ronald Reagan, CIA head William Casey, Richard Malzahn in charge of CIA covert operations against the Soviet Union, are all presented in detail and help explain the actions of each of these individuals. Lesser figures that include the United States’ most important spy, Lt. Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski of the Polish General Staff who fed Washington important documents pertaining to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact; assorted smugglers who were part of the ratline that smuggled printing equipment, money, and other sorts of aid that kept Solidarity alive are also discussed in detail.

Previously, historians have argued that Ronald Reagan imposed economic sanctions to thwart the repression of Solidarity and confront Soviet pressure on Warsaw.  Jones has dug deeper to find the full scope of America’s role in the crisis, particularly that of the CIA.  The author affords Reagan a great deal of credit because of his obsessive focus of defeating the Soviet Union, and along with-it communism.  Jones discussion of the evolution of American national security policy toward the Soviet Union through the prism of events in Poland are well thought out.  Jones presents the changes in National Security Decision Directives as the crisis in Poland evolved culminating in NSDD-75 written in 1983 reflecting American objectives of “reversing Soviet expansionism by competing on a sustained basis in all international arenas, promote change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system, and engage in negotiations with the Soviet Union which protect and enhance US interests.”  The US would apply a broad panoply of military, economic, and other instruments, including psychological ones with emphasis of Eastern Europe as the essential battleground.

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(President Ronald Reagan)

American policies including economic sanctions, blocking Poland’s needs from the International Monetary Fund, and other restrictions had a tremendous impact on a reeling Polish economy, but Washington’s most important role was conducted by the CIA.  William Casey was the catalyst for confronting the Soviet Union with “active measures” and covert operations which they argued had fallen by the wayside under the Carter administration.  For Casey and other members of the Reagan administration the Polish crisis presented the perfect opportunity to employ these methods.  After martial law was imposed the CIA developed sources in Sweden, West Germany, France, and Turkey to funnel needed equipment into Poland so Solidarity could continue to get its message out and keep the hopes of its members (over 10 million) alive.  Jones’ stories of people like Stanislaw Broda (code name, QRGUIDE) who was an important asset in press, books, papers, magazine distribution and trainer of printers, in addition to another fascinating character, Jerzy Giedroye, one of many Polish emigres in Paris who worked on dissident publications and their dissemination.

Jones is very perceptive, but at times overly sensitive to the position that Jaruzelski found himself.  The Polish Prime Minister was constantly caught in the middle by the repressive demands of the Soviet Union, especially Lenoid Brezhnev and his Kremlin cohorts, the economic sanctions of the United States, the demands put forth by Solidarity, and the desires of the Catholic Church.  Moscow repeatedly became frustrated with Jaruzelski as he refused to crack down on Solidarity further, though it must be said that with the imposition of martial law they carried out arrests, torture, disbandment, imprisonment, surveillance, and harassment of the independent trade union that was the beginning of an organized political opposition that spread throughout Poland and had support within the Catholic Church.  Jaruzelski realized if too much pressure was applied a full-scale civil war could ensue and he did want a Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland backed by the Soviet Union.  By 1983 when he concluded the Soviets would not resort to military invasion, he was relieved, but with the Papal visit to Poland in July 1983 and a Papal meeting with Walesa he was caught in a vise.

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(CIA Director William Casey)

In 1984 the situation grew worse as Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain for many Polish steel workers, a friend of Pope John II, and an outspoken critic of the Polish government whose commentary was received throughout Eastern Europe by Radio Free Europe was assassinated by the Polish SB (Secrete Police).  The result it provided the CIA the opportunity to perpetuate outrage against the Polish government and the Soviet Union allowing it to continue its global ideological propaganda war in support of Solidarity.

One of the most interest points of conjecture was the relationship between the Reagan administration and the Vatican.  Jones points out that some journalists have argued that there was a “Holy Alliance” between the two, but the author effectively refutes this line of thought that this was not the case as their views did not always correspond.  There were profound disagreements between the two sides over the maintenance of American sanctions against Poland, and the American goal of achieving some sort of regime change in Moscow in the long run.  When opportunities presented themselves to act in concert, i.e., smuggling goods and equipment into Poland, and support for a clandestine group of priests to assist Solidarity members.

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(1980, Lech Walesa addresses workers as they try to register Solidarity as a Trade Union with the Polish government)

The United States had to walk a fine line in its covert operations over Poland.  If the Soviet Union publicized proof over CIA actions it could have domestic implications only ten years after the Church Committee, in addition to how it would play in the international sphere.  The CIA was very clear in promoting “plausible deniability,” and Moscow, had strong suspicions as to what was occurring, but they could not nail down CIA actions.  The CIA was careful to avoid allocating any type of weapons for Solidarity, and stuck to propaganda equipment, money, and other necessary commodities.  By creating layer upon layer to obfuscate what they were doing they kept the KGB sufficiently in the dark.

Following Reagan’s reelection in 1984 the CIA with the complete support of the president embarked on a new strategy to assist Solidarity – the use of technology. In the 1980s television sets and VCRs proliferated in Poland despite the weakness in the economy.  The CIA provided technological training and equipment to take advantage to disseminate the message, i.e., clandestine programing, overriding government messaging.  The CIA leveraged the evolution in communications technology to infiltrate videocassettes, computers, floppy discs, and communication equipment using many of its traditional ratlines.  It must be kept in mind that throughout the struggle to assist Solidarity the CIA was not the only one offering aid and support.  Many subsidies were offered by the AFL-CIO and other organizations as well as several US government agencies apart from the intelligence community.

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(Pope John II visits Czestochowa, Poland in 1992)

Events outside Poland would soon have an impact on the issue of repression as Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union who would shortly realize the true state of the Soviet economy, and soon after the disaster that was Afghanistan.  In the United States, the Reagan administration was confronted by the Iran-Contra scandal, which eventually Reagan was able to put past him.  It was soon becoming obvious that the Soviet Union was in decline, and with a second Papal visit to Poland in June 1987 and an open-air mass in Gdansk where for the first time the Pope completely identified himself with Solidarity openly challenging the Jaruzelski regime, fostering the labor movements return.  When the Jaruzelski government raised prices in February 1988, the resulting strikes and demonstrations his government teetered on the edge.  Jones takes the reader through the final negotiations that brought democratic elections to Poland and the accession of Walesa to the presidency in 1990.

The key to Jones’ successful narrative was his command of primary material especially his melding of interviews with CIA principles and now unclassified documents into a fascinating account of the how-to of a covert action.  In conclusion, though Jones describes an amazing description of the fortitude of the Polish people against Soviet oppression, and the gains made since the collapse of the Russian regime, recent events lead one to question where the Polish government and society are evolving.  Is it a type of populism that discredits their past and reinvigorates the type of racism that plagued Poland for centuries, or is it something less sinister, but against the principles that Solidarity fought for?

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LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI: THE EPIC STORY OF THE CHINESE WHO FLED MAO’S REVOLUTION by Helen Zia

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From 1931 onward, the Chinese people were confronted with continuous Japanese aggression, humiliation, occupation, and inhumanity.  In Helen Zia’s new book, LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI: THE EPIC STORY OF THE CHINESE WHO FLED MAO’S REVOLUTION the author seems to begin here story in 1937 when the Japanese launched their invasion of China, however as she develops her story it is important to realize that the Japanese had their eyes on China as far back as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, the Twenty-One Demands of 1915 during World War I, and their incursions into Manchuria in 1931.  By 1937 the situation had grown worse as Japan launched a large-scale invasion.  Japanese brutality has been well documented by the “Rape of Nanking,” and numerous other atrocities, including a policy of torturing and killing civilians.  After eight years of fighting the Japanese were finally defeated in August 1945 and what followed was the no longer dormant civil war between the Communist Chinese led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek that resulted in the Maoist victory in late 1949.

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Everyone was not enthralled with the arrival of communist troops closing in on Shanghai.  During the World War II Shanghai was divided into a Chinese section and an international one with a French concession where Chinese, Europeans, English and others were safe from the Japanese for a good part of the war.  Rich foreigners and native Chinese members of the middle class who had cooperated with the west, Christian missionaries, and those educated during at that time feared for their lives.  The city of Shanghai was the symbol of Chinese westernization and the focal point of escaping the mainland from oncoming Communist soldiers.  According to Zia , a child of two refugees, there is nothing written in English on the plight of those who attempted to flee in 1949.  Her new book is designed to fill that vacuum.

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Zia’s narrative traces the lives of four people, beginning with Benny Pan, the privileged nine-year-old son of an accountant and an officer in the police auxiliary who will become Police Commissioner in Shanghai; Ho Chow, the thirteen year old son of a land owning gentry family; Bing Woo, an eight year old girl who has been given away two times by her blood family and the first family that accepted her; and Annuo Liu, the two year old daughter of a rising Nationalist leader.  Zia will follow the lives of these characters and members of her family well into the present. In all instances in dealing with these characters deference was paid to Chinese traditions as a dominant theme.  Whether issues dealing with family relationships, key decision-making, or dealing with outside threats the opinion of women gave way to those of men despite the danger it might create for family members.  Another constant in the lives of these four characters was the fear of the Japanese to the point that several individuals discussed had to take on new identities to survive, especially those who had to travel back and forth into the interior of China to be with fathers, or escape arrest.

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(Mao ZeDong)

Zia does a masterful job explaining the origin of western control of the international section of Shanghai where people sought refuge and escape from the oncoming Japanese.  In doing so, Zia integrates the history of western imperialism in China dating back to the First Opium War, 1839-1842 that produced the first unequal treaties that gave first England, then other countries extraterritorial rights in China.  Outside of Shanghai, Chinese peasants lived a life of poverty, and the dichotomy emerged of “abject misery coexisting with unabashed opulence.”  The author employs the family histories of her main characters to describe the racist and ethnocentric attitudes and actions taken by foreigners in China.

As Zia presents her narrative many important historical events and occurrences are discussed.  Among the most interesting is the fact despite the danger and violence of Japanese occupation, roughly 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews were accepted in Shanghai and escaped the Holocaust.  By early 1943 over 7600 allied nationals, mostly American, British and Dutch were sent to internment camps which Zia points out were not as accommodating as those created in the United States for over 120,000 Japanese-Americans.  After the Japanese surrendered the issue of collaborationists raised its ugly head affecting family members who were arrested for their work with the Japanese.  Interestingly, as soon as the Pacific war ended, the Japanese continued to fight the Communist Chinese in the northeast under orders from the Americans and the Nationalists.  This angered the residences of Shanghai, but the burgeoning civil war between the followers of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek took precedence over everything.

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(Chiang Kai-Shek)

The difficulties of displacement and reorientation following the Japanese defeat is on full display through Zia’s protagonists.  Issues of legitimacy in all aspects of society emerged, i.e.; students who had left for the interior during the war v. students who remained in Shanghai and were educated at universities.  Demonstrations, some rioting were all part of the landscape of Shanghai between the end of the war and the arrival first of the Nationalists and then the Communists.

Zia spends a great deal of time discussing the Nationalist seizure of Taiwan after the Maoist victory and the harsh dictatorship that was imposed by Chiang Kai-Shek and his forces.  She follows American domestic politics and its impact on Bing and Ho as they tried to renew their lives in the United States and deal with immigration authorities as the Cold War evolved.  The McCarthyite period, the outbreak of the Korean War, and other events impacted all of Zia’s subjects greatly.

As the narrative unfolds, Zia introduces several interesting characters that have important roles to play in the lives of Benny, Bing, Ho, and Annou.  Chief among them are Betty Woo, Bing’s adopted sister who seems to be able to support her family through her charm and savvy as she arranges marriages, money, and whatever needs that must be met.  Annou’s father is a disaster as he “hates” his youngest daughter, and Benny’s father, a Nationalist insider who is eventually captured and imprisoned by the Communists.  His father’s background became a source of his own suffering as Zia describes his treatment by the Maoist government through numerous campaigns including the Cultural Revolution.

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(People fleeing Shanghai, circa, 1949)

At certain points in the narrative the book devolves into a description of a series of human waves to escape oncoming tragedy.  First, the Japanese in 1937, then the Communist Chinese in 1949.  In each case massive numbers of refugees are created in Shanghai and later Taiwan, Hong Kong, and parts of Southeast Asia.  The mass exodus of 1949 produced an estimate of 1.5 million of Shanghai’s 6 million residents scattering anywhere governments would accept them.  Zia’s protagonists and their families are part of that exodus and she follows their stories to the present day.  What is clear is that the suffering of refugees during that period in history was a catastrophe for those people as are the refugee issues faced by survivors of the current Syrian Civil War, events in the Sudan, Yemen, Darfur, as well as migrants currently seeking entrance into the United States.

Zia’s work is to be commended as she presents a history of western imperialism, Shanghai, the diaspora of many Chinese as they disperse to Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere after 1949.  She narrates Chinese history through the eyes of her subjects and provides the reader excellent insights into events on the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.  Zia writes well and is sensitive to the experiences of her subjects and how they were impacted by historical events.  It is interesting that New York will become an area that all four of Zia’s subjects find common experience and lastly, she should be commended for her  presentation of the Shanghai diaspora.

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IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN by Lindsey Hilsum

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(Marie Colvin in the Chechen Mountains, 1999)

“Why do I cover wars…. It is a difficult question to answer.  I did not set out to become a war correspondent.  It has always seemed to me what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in war—declared and undeclared.” (Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2001)

 

Lindsey Hilsum’s new biography of Marie Colvin is a stark reminder of the plight of journalists in our ever-dangerous world.  According to the Washington Post at least 43 journalists were killed in 2018 with another 12 deaths whose causes are not totally clear.  The role of a journalist is to report the news as accurately as possible so citizens can make intelligent judgements about world events.  The life of Colvin presented in IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN reflects that dedication and commitment to that truth.  Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News in England is the perfect candidate to write about Colvin’s life as she herself covered wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and Africa.  The recent murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government reflects the danger journalists face.  The evidence points to the murder being ordered by the Saudi Royal Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman because of Khashoggi’s negative reporting of Saudi policies.  In this case a journalist was not killed on the battlefield, though in a sense he was.  In Colvin’s case she would give her life reporting from Homs, Syria district of Baba Amir, killed by an artillery attack in 2012 during the civil war that continues to this day.

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(Colvin in Cairo during the Arab Spring, 2011)

Colvin was raised in a comfortable middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, a lifestyle she would totally reject after studying with legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale and move on to a dangerous yet rewarding career as a war correspondent.   Hersey was one of the first individuals who impacted Colvin’s life and work.  Another, her role model, Martha Gellhorn whose work during World War II was exemplary.  Hilsum meticulously chronicles Colvin’s relationships and how they affected her love life and career.  Perhaps the most important being Sunday Times correspondent, David Blundy.  This bond was less sexual and more of a lifetime friendship as they shared the same approach to their work, humor, and the way they approached the world.  Hilsum details other important relationships pointing out their importance to Colvin’s life and work which both seemed conceived as a war zone.  Colvin was married twice to husbands who repeatedly lied to her, had her own series of affairs and one-night stands, suffered miscarriages, and would resort to alcohol to deal with her pain.

Colvin’s big break came in 1985 as a UPI reporter she was sent to Morocco with other journalists to witness the celebration of King Hassan’s twenty-five-year reign.  This morphed into an assignment in Libya as its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the self-declared revolutionary and supporter of terrorism decided to engage the United States in a manner that could only bring President Reagan to respond with overwhelming force.  During their relationship Colvin was able to score several interviews with the Libyan strong man, and while avoiding his sexual advances enabling her to explore his rogue ideology and what he might do next.  Hilsum delves into how Colvin conducted interviews and developed her approach to revolutionaries, terrorists, or as they described themselves, freedom fighters.   For Colvin, her reporting was designed to focus on “the role and feelings of the individual in the collective violence of war.” (56)

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Hilsum’s approach reflects Colvin’s dedication to her craft and the dangers she faced on a regular basis.  Be it confronting Muammar Gaddafi, her special relationship with Yasir Arafat, or interviewing other individuals who rebelled against existing power structures.  The reader is presented with an inside look at the pitfalls and obstacles journalists like Colvin faced each day in Libya, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Afghanistan, and finally in Syria over the last three decades.  Hilsum relies on over three hundred journals maintained by Colvin, interviews with her peers, and impeccable research to construct a fascinating picture of Colvin’s private life and career which she had difficulty keeping separate.

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Hilsum does a nice job presenting the background history of each conflict area Colvin explores.  The author tries to explain the myriad factions in Lebanon as Beirut is divided at a green line with Maronite Christians, Amal,  Palestinian groups, bourgeoning Hezbollah all backed by different powers be it Iran, Russia or Syria.  In dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hilsum bores down deep to explain its origins, the constant explosion into violence be it the Intifadas, the wars against Hamas, and the attempts at peace.  Hilsum describes Colvin’s approach to reporting as other journalists would file from the relative safety of Paris and Cyprus when covering Middle East tension, Colvin would get up close and want to experience events before she reported.  Danger be damned, as her journalism was distinguished  by her personal experience and she would become part of the nomadic group of journalists who wandered the landscape of the Middle East.

For Colvin the Middle East held a tremendous fascination which explains many of her stories.  She was able to develop a trusting relationship with the elusive Yasir Arafat and interviewed him over twenty times.  Hilsum describes the arcane nature of Palestinian politics and the reclusive nature of the Palestinian Chairman.  Arafat is the perfect example to study as Colvin had the uncanny ability to get people to speak to her.  Colvin’s reputation was secured as she was able to sneak into Basra in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, Beirut during the 163-day siege of the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in 1987, and her reporting helped create world pressure to get the Syrians to force their surrogates to stop the fighting.  The following year her stories describing the first Intifada against Israel reaffirmed her status as a war correspondent.  Colvin was not known for her stylistic approach to writing, but she got the facts and the human-interest component, at times leaving it to her editors in London to fit the puzzle of her reporting together in a more coherent whole.

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(Homs, Syria where Colvin was targeted and killed by Syrian intelligence in 2012

The years 1998 through 2001 found Colvin moving from what area of conflict to another with seemingly no time in between.  1998 saw her in Kosovo reporting on the devastation caused by Serbian nationalists. 1999 revolved around Indonesia as rebels in East Timor declared their independence.  Later that same year Colvin moved on to Chechnya as the new President of Russia, Vladimir Putin decided to crush Chechen rebels who had broken away from Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Finally, becoming involved in the Sri Lankan Civil War where she was shot trying to leave a Tamil rebel held area, resulting in a loss of her eye, and a deep depression as she tried to recover physically as well as emotionally.

Hilsum chronicles Colvin’s eventual psychological spiral as she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for which she received treatment.  But her developing alcoholism was never treated.  As Hilsum vividly explains, “She could not unseen what she had seen, and he [a colleague] feared she was losing her ability to distance herself from horror.”  (Washington Post, December 21, 2018)  As Colvin describes herself in a November 12, 2010 piece it was difficult to distinguish between bravery and bravado. (294)

Colvin was a remarkable woman who had many irreconcilables demons within, but she found herself to a large extent as a war correspondent that made life, at times tolerable.  She witnessed and personally suffered a great deal of sadness and joy in her life, but her work is a testament for what journalism can accomplish, and the hope that those in power will care when reporting reaches the newspapers, websites, or television.  Hilsum has done an excellent job capturing the essence of who Colvin was and how she made her life meaningful.

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(Marie Colvin on assignment)

THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING, A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES by Jerome Charyn

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(Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands)

In Jerome Charyn’s last book I AM ABRAHAM the author presents an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War.  He boldly narrates his story in the first person and mixes his brand of humor with Shakespearean like tragedy.  In his current effort Charyn takes on the character of Theodore Roosevelt,  entitled, THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING: A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES. As he has done in the past, Charyn speaks in the first person beginning with Roosevelt’s relationship with his father, “Braveheart” as a boy during the Civil War and follows his career as an Assemblyman in the New York State legislature, serving as New York City Police Commissioner and Governor of New York, organizing the Rough Riders, to the precipice of the presidency.  As in most of his books when he resorts to a first-person narrative, Charyn possess the uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his protagonist and speak in very accurate historical terms, adding a dash of humor and sarcasm, in conjunction with an exceptional imagination.

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Charyn’s first book was published in 1964 and he has not lost any of his verve for writing, particularly entertaining, but meaningful historical fiction.  There are numerous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt ranging from Edmund Morris’ trilogy, single volumes by H.W. Brands, Kathleen Dalton, David McCulloch, and of course Roosevelt’s autobiography.  Reading a novel about Roosevelt is like riding an unbroken horse.  It usually proceeds at a gallop, then a canter, resulting in a full sprint.  Numerous characters appear, and thankfully Charyn has prepared a “Dramatis Personae” at the outset delineating all the major and secondary characters with a brief sentence or two for each. This is a great tool for the general reader who is not familiar with the Jay Gould’s, Roscoe Conklin’s, Dr. Leonard Wood, William Winters-White, Boss Thomas Platt, J.P. Morgan, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Josephine, Roosevelt’s pet cougar among the many historical figures that are recreated that appear in rapid-fire fashion throughout the novel.

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(The Rough Rider)

The Roosevelt family is accurately portrayed, particularly the roles of Bamie, his sister who became his mother, overseer, and confidante after the deaths of his mother and young wife Alice.  Whether it is conversations within the Roosevelt family or “Robber Barons,” political hacks, or other important historical figures Charyn’s dialogue and commentary reflect the author’s knack of gaining entrance into Roosevelt’s thought process.  It seems as if the author has obtained an intimacy with Roosevelt’s mind that allows the reader to feel as if he is in a private conversation with “Teddy.”  The reader can touch Roosevelt’s emotional pain as his beloved Alice and mother pass away the same night or the reemergence of his relationship with his childhood friend Edith Carow who he goes on to marry.  The emotional torture Roosevelt deals with as he must decide to forgo widowhood as its implications for his sister Bamie and his daughter Baby Alice is on full display and is indicative of Charyn’s ability to present the emotional torture that Roosevelt experiences, but at the same time exhibit the talent to describe it in a sensitive and meaningful manner.

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(Edith and Theodore Roosevelt)

Charyn is correct that Roosevelt was never without a cause, and once he was committed it was full speed ahead be it the corruption he dealt with as New York Police Commissioner, trying to push the United States into war with Spain as Undersecretary of the Navy, or his formation and financing of the Rough Riders for the war over Cuba.  In all these situations Charyn’s descriptions, scene recreation and dialogue are priceless as Roosevelt confronts the corrupt Pinkertons as Police Commissioner, his approach to training men for war, and the Battle for Kettle and San Juan Hills during the Spanish-American War.

Charyn’s Roosevelt is an obstreperous, emotional, and generous person who cared about those stricken by poverty, his soldiers, and it seemed anyone down on their luck.  We gain insights into the family man and his softer side.  However, this is not a hagiographical approach to fiction as Roosevelt’s flaws are readily apparent from his temper, racism, and intolerance for those who opposed him.  Overall, an entertaining read and a remarkable success as it could not have been easy writing a fictional account of a man whose actual  life fostered so many examples that seem made up.

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THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe; translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

 

Image result for photo of the gate of auschwitz(The approach to Auschwitz)

The horrors of the Holocaust are well known and the figure of 6,000,000 is imbedded in our memory.  However, another figure that emerges that is just as repugnant to human consciousness is 1.5-1.6 million.  This is the figure associated with the number of children who perished in the Holocaust.  The Nazis had no compunction about killing children be it for ideological reasons that made them a danger to the 1000-year Reich or the fact they were unwanted.  Some were killed in retaliation for partisan attacks or others were part of the Action T4, the eradication of children with disabilities.  No matter the cause of death; Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments, clearing ghettos, the Nazis deemed that children needed to be eliminated.  Of the 6,000,000 that perished over 1,000,000 lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, of that figure it is hard to determine exactly how many were children.  Whatever the figure their existence at Auschwitz left them vulnerable to medical experiments, hard labor, and the constant fear of death.  To survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.  In Auschwitz a small school with a tiny library was allowed for children which becomes the focal point of Antonio Iturbe’s wonderous book, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. Translated by Lilit Thwaites.

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(Dita Polachova [Kraus])

The book is reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF for the tone that it sets.  The book is based on the experience of Dita Kraus who along with her parents was deported to Terezin in 1942, later in December of 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz where Dita was separated from her parents.  She would serve as the librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch, a sports instructor from Prague ran the children’s block, and he along with a handful of teachers filled the children’s time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.

“In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died. In May, Dita and her mother were sent to Hamburg, Germany, where they were put to back-breaking labor. From Hamburg, the two women were transported to labor camps, and then in March 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated several weeks later by the British Army.” (www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/archive/2014/torchlighters/kraus.html)

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(Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments)

Kraus describes Iturbe’s work as being based on extensive conversations with her, along with other research and sources.  “It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author.”  Though the narrative mirrors what Kraus experienced it stands on its own as literary witness to what she, her family, and so many others had to cope with each day, and the final toll it took on its victims.

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(Dita Kraus)

For the children who attend Alfred Hirsch’s school in Block 31 the question that dominates their world is why they should study when there’s little chance they will leave Auschwitz alive?  Hirsch’s rationalization is that Block 31 should be an oasis for children as they had little hope each day.  The reality is that 521 children received somewhat of an education in Block 31, but they live in constant fear of becoming a specimen in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s morbid experiments.  For the children, the location of Block 31 is on the path of deportees walking from their transport to the showers and their death reinforced their plight.  For the teachers, how do you teach children when they can hear the noise attendant to victims who will shortly be gassed?

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(Dita and Raja Engländerová-Žádníková, Hagibor 1941)

Iturbe presents many characters who either suffer from tortured relationships or they torture themselves through anxiety and fear of what the future holds.  The author has a nose for detail and the sensibilities of his characters. Each character has their own way of coping.  For Dita, the protagonist it is being a librarian for the inmates and the danger that is part of her existence.  Dita treats her library which consists of eight paper books and six living books as if she is a doctor, perhaps a surgeon as each time a book needs repair, she stitches them back to life. For Rudi Rosenberg, who is the camp registrar, exposing him to the numbers associated with death he begins a relationship with Alice Munk, a young desperate Jewess.  Then there is Victor Pestek, a member of the SS, who develops a friendship with Renee Neumann.  For Fredy Hirsch it is to allow the children to focus on something other than their situation, for him when a child smiles it was an act of defiance.  For Ota Kelle, it was to teach children about Palestine and the future.  For Liesl Adler, Dita’s mother she must deal with the void that the the death of her husband has caused, and poor Professor Morgenstern, it was to act like a fool. As Iturbe develops these characters he integrates a historically accurate picture of what transpired in Terezin and Auschwitz, and brings along important historical figures like Mengele, Adolph Eichmann, Johann Schwarzhuber, Elisabeth Volkenrath, and Rudolf Hoss.  The language and behavior of the Kapos and SS, the description of the clothing and work of the inmates, the Wagnerian music in the background are all true to history.

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(Ota B. Kraus)

For Dita to survive, Iturbe describes her relationship with books that she treats as if they were sacred texts. She immerses herself into H.G. Wells’ A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and Jaroslav Hasek’s THE ADVENTURES OF GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK in order to understand the world in which she lives, and as a means of surviving each day.  As Dita communes with the book’s characters she questions many things including who she can trust in a world where rumors and lies dominate.  One of the survival  tools that Dita develops is creating a photo album in her head, something the Nazis could not take away from her as they worked to deprive children of their childhoods.

Aside from telling Dita’s story Iturbe engages in several philosophical aspects of life and survival, particularly in a concentration camp.  The human capacity and spirit for overcoming all obstacles emerges as does the importance of books in our everyday lives.  The book’s audience should be wide, and I encourage all to invest the time to experience it.

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(The gate to Auschwitz)

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS by Stefan Zweig

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(Mary Queen of Scots)

The other day I went to see the film, Mary Queen of Scots  and as I do with most historical films, I wondered how historically accurate it was.  I vaguely recalled the biography of the Scottish Queen written over forty years ago by Antonia Fraser and it seemed there was a great deal of artistic license employed.  Since the most recent biography of Mary was written by John Guy it seemed like the best choice to read, however the film was based on that monograph. I decided to read an older classic account of the Queen written by Stefan Zweig in 1935 which has withstood the test of time.

Zweig, a prolific short story writer has written several biographies of major historical and literary figures that made him one of the most popular European writers in the 1920s and 30s.  Zweig delivers  a solid biography that encompasses her life begun during the time of Henry VIII who tried to pressure Mary’s father, James V to reject Catholicism and accept Protestantism.  James V would die six days after Mary’s birth (though Zweig seems to say they died on the same day), resulting in the ascension of Mary to the Scottish throne at birth.

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(Lord Henry Darnley)

What is clear about Scottish history is that it was very difficult for any monarch to rule Scotland effectively due to the marauding and jealous clans, led by lords who had difficulty projecting fealty to any monarch.  These lords were arrogant and greedy and were part of a somewhat narcissistic nobility.  Any wealth the monarchy might posses apart from sheep herds were gifts and grants from the French king or the Pope.  Historically Scotland was a pawn in the battle between France and England, and when war would break out, the English would land at Normandy, and the French would foment problems with their Scottish allies in the rear.

Zweig writes in a pleasant literary style that most historians can not match.  He writes with a scent of sarcasm whether discussing dynastic politics or diplomacy, and his monograph reads like a novel.  A prime example are the negotiations between Henry VIII and the Scots to marry his son Edward to the six-year-old Mary.  However, even after the negotiations are successful, she is spirited away by the French King Henry II to marry his son Francis.

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(Elizabeth I)

The basic problem is that Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne once Henry VIII died and his heirs Edward and Mary died.  The Scottish Mary was the great grand daughter of Henry VII of England, and Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was deemed a bastard.  Henry II would paint the English coat of arms on Francis and Mary’s blazon in 1559 thus fostering the enmity and creating a rival for Elizabeth I.  For the remainder of her life, Mary was seen by Elizabeth as a threat to her throne and eventually it would not end well for Mary.

Zweig will lay out the history of Mary’s short marriage to the sickly Francis and describe in detail her unwanted departure from France and return to Scotland.   Zweig effectively relates Mary’s emotional state as she departs France.  Zweig integrates Mary’s state of mind throughout the book and incorporates Mary’s own writings and words into the narrative.  When Mary departs for Scotland on August 14, 1561, she is traveling to a country that is totally strange and foreign to her.  She faces several obstacles before she arrives that will dog her for her entire reign.  She is to rule over a poverty-stricken country, she must deal with a corrupt nobility that seems to make war at the slightest provocation, she must confront a clergy that is equally divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, and must deal with foreign neighbors who are waiting to benefit from the fratricidal disputes that seem to occur regularly.

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(Lord Bothwell)

Zweig lays out the barriers that Mary must face when she assumes the throne.  She is poor as her mother; Mary of Guise left no inheritance.  Further, she must deal with wars of religion where the towns support Protestantism, and the countryside Catholicism.  In addition, she must deal with fanatical priests and foreign powers, and lastly nobles who convert to Calvinism as a means of seizing Church wealth.  Mary learned fast and decided that perpetual warfare was the way to preserve her Stuart heritage.  The question that dominants is how does one rule when more than half of your kingdom believes in a different religion.

Several important figures emerge that influence the course of Mary’s reign.  Her half-brother James Stuart, the bastard son of James V was her Prime Minister, and a Protestant.  A patient practitioner of the Machiavellian arts, he would have made the perfect king of Scotland.  James was wealthy in his own right and was always willing to accept subsidies to carry out the desires of Elizabeth I.  Another major figure was John Knox, the fanatical Calvinist preacher who refused to accept Mary as the legitimate ruler of Scotland.  His merciless antagonism and demagogic speeches designed to spread his dictatorial religious beliefs was a threat to Mary her entire reign.  When they finally meet for the first time, Zweig presents a wonderful description of their debate that demeaned Mary, who stood up to Knox but realized the difficulty that he presented.

Throughout Zweig allows the reader to experience Renaissance culture through the poets and their poetry of the period.  Mary who grew up during the French Renaissance was a cultured individual who did not fit in Scotland.  Zweig shifts his narrative to the social and cultural mores and norms whenever the situation warrants, and it is a pleasant change from the constant lack of decency and back stabbing that dominates Mary’s reign.

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Any biography of Mary must concentrate on her relationship with Elizabeth I.  Zweig
does an exceptional job and his narrative is based on facts presented or debated with a scholar’s enthusiasm.  There is a psychological dimension to the relationship between the two Queens and Zweig does his best to explore it and reach his own psychohistorical conclusions.  He possesses a deep admiration for Mary and her refusal to give into a destiny that she should have been able to predict.  Reading this monograph at a time of the “me-too” movement one must not take out any sexist frustrations one might feel in regard to Zweig’s comments, i.e.; “In spite of their superlative traits these two women remained women throughout and were unable to overcome the weaknesses inherent in their sex.”  The narrative concerning the monarchial cousins centered on their differences that led to the ruin of Mary and victory for Elizabeth.

Zweig correctly points out that the Treaty of Edinburgh was at the center of their inability to reach a rapprochement despite the flowery letters between the two.  Mary would not sign the treaty recognizing Elizabeth’s reign until Elizabeth had accorded the succession to Mary – but to Elizabeth that would be signing her death warrant.  Zweig points out the strengths and weaknesses of the cousins as well as their similarities and differences.  Mary possessed a madly heroic self-confidence that led to her doom.  Elizabeth suffered from a lack of decision making, but she would still be victorious.  Mary was the champion of the old Catholic faith and was a character out of the Middle Ages believing in chivalry which was dying out.  Elizabeth was the more modern monarch who was defending the reformation.  The approach to their individual kingdoms also sets them apart.  Mary’s kingdom belonged to her on a personal level and she was interested in territorial expansion of her realm, only if it would benefit her personally.  For Elizabeth everything she did was to expand her kingdom and add to the glory of England, not her personal possessions.  The resulting engagement in wars, colonial expansion, and spreading England’s influence around the world was the result.

Perhaps Zweig’s most fascinating chapters deal with marriage diplomacy between the two Queens.  The narrative is priceless as negotiations between the two go back and forth and characters like Lord Henry Darnley and Robert Dudley become pawns between the two women.  Zweig’s presentation is almost like a comedic sketch resulting in the secret marriage of Darnley to Mary that has grave repercussions as Elizabeth and James Stuart are shunned to the side and the result is war that at first Mary is victorious, but in the end creates tensions that could only result in her defeat.

Zweig constantly offers a lens into the human condition throughout the narrative.  He delves into the psychological imperative that drives Mary and provides a wonderful soliloquy encompassing her infatuation for Lord Bothwell and the repercussions of the murder plot to kill her husband and her almost immediate marriage to her husband’s murderer.  Zweig’s analysis is deep and carefully thought out and certain historical scenes are presented as if  from a Shakespearean play as there are constant comparisons to the Bard’s characters.  The result is that Mary’s psyche has deteriorated to the point that she is unable to face what she has done and how dark were her deeds.  A major component of the book is the decline in Mary’s psychological well being as her behavior is detrimental to her political position and her own happiness resulting in her self-inflicted downfall.

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(The execution of Mary Queen of Scots)

This decline is readily apparent as Zweig describes the negotiations between the cousins once she leaves Scotland and is “detained” in England in 1567.  Elizabeth wanted Mary to renounce her rights to the English throne and retire quietly.  Further, she wanted Mary to be cleared of involvement in the regicidal plot involving Bothwell and the death of her husband, Lord Darnley.  Zweig reproduces a great deal of documentation of the Westminster Conference which investigated the murder.  As in several cases dealing with Mary the results were not clear, but no matter the result Mary once again let her pride stand in the way of her safety as she lamented her situation and refused to give into Elizabeth’s demands.  The situation could easily have been resolved had Elizabeth, who at times had difficulty making major decisions just had Mary found guilty and executed in 1568 and not let the situation drag on for years with the same results.

As an aside, if one compares the film, Mary Queen of Scots to Zweig’s or other historical monographs it becomes clear there are several inaccuracies.  First, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face as takes place toward the end of the film.  Second, the brutal murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s confidante does not take place in front of the Queen as is shown in the film as he was dragged into another stateroom for the deed to transpire.  Third, it is debatable to assert that Darnley and Rizzio were lovers as is reflected in the film.  Fourth,  Mary did not have a Scottish accent as reflected in the film as she was raised in France, and lastly Lord Darnley probably raped Mary the first time they had sex.  The film overall is well done with a diverse cast, which of course did not exist in the 16th century, but the gist of historical accuracy does come across and one must remember a film is made to make money – not bring true history  to the screen.

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(Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I as portrayed in the film)

Zweig has written a somewhat entertaining and literary biography of Mary Queen of Scots.  In reading the book one must realize the time period in which it was written and Zweig’s background as a writer.  It may not meet the criteria that today’s historians might call for, i.e.; a full bibliography and endnotes, but it is a legitimate work of history and I would recommend it for those who seek clarification, those  who have seen the film, or those who are just curious about one of the most enigmatic figures in history.

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(Mary Queen of Scots as portrayed in the film)

 

GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

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“Americans don’t do grand strategy.”

(Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the United States, 1953)

From the outset of his new work, GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 Derek Leebaert puts forth the premise that the idea that the British were about to liquidate their empire because of financial and military weakness after World War II was fallacious.  Further, that the United States was fully prepared to assume the leadership of the west and would do so while creating an American led international order that we’ve lived with ever since was equally false.  Leebaert’s conclusions are boldly stated as he reevaluates the historical community that for the most part has disagreed with his assumptions over the years.  The author rests his case on assiduous research (just check the endnotes) and uncovering documents that have not been available or used previously.  Leebaert argues his case very carefully that American foreign policy in the post war era was very improvisational as it tried to develop a consistent policy to confront what it perceived be a world-wide communist surge.  Leebaert argues that it took at least until 1957 at the conclusion of the Suez Crisis for London to finally let go of their position as a first-rate power with a dominant empire, allowing the United States to fill the vacuum that it created.  No matter how strong Leebaert believes his argument to be I would point out that events in India, Pakistan, Palestine, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the American loan of $3.75 billion all of which occurred before 1948 should raise a few questions concerning his conclusions.

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

Despite the assuredness with which Leebaert presents his case there are merits to his argument and the standard interpretation that has long been gospel deserves a rethinking.  His thesis rests on a series of documents that he has uncovered.  The most important of which is National Security Document 75 that was presented to President Truman on July 15, 1950.  Leebaert contends that this 40-page analysis has never been seen by historians and its conclusions are extremely important.  NSC 75’s purpose was to conduct an audit of the far-flung British Empire concentrating on its ability to meet its military commitments and determine how strong the United Kingdom really was, as men including John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze, David K. Bruce, and Lewis Douglas feared what would happen if the British Empire collapsed.   All important agencies in the American government took part in this analysis; the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury and State Departments and reached some very interesting judgments.  The document concluded that “the British Empire and Commonwealth” still had the capacity to meet its military obligations with an army of close to a million men.  Leebaert argues that “there had been no retreat that anyone could categorize, in contrast to adjustment, and no need was expected for replacement.  Nor could American energy and goodwill substitute for the British Empire’s experienced global presence.  As for the need to vastly expand US forces overseas, that wasn’t necessary.  Instead the United States should support its formidable ally, which included backing its reserve currency.” (234)  For Leebaert this document alone changes years of Cold War historiography.

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(President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Harold Evans points out in his October 18, New York Times review that Leebaert offers other persuasive points that mitigate any American take over from the British due to their perceived weakness.  First, British military and related industries produced higher proportions of wartime output than the United States well into the 1950s.  Second, Britain was ahead in life sciences, civil nuclear energy, and jet aviation than America.  Third, England maintained the largest military presence on the Rhine once the United States withdrew its forces at the end of the war.  Fourth, British intelligence outshone “American amateurs.”  This being the case Leebaert’s thesis has considerable merit, but there are areas that his thesis does not hold water, particularly that of the condition of the English economy, dollar reserves, and how British trade was affected by the weakness of the pound sterling.

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(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin)

Leebaert’s revisionist approach centers on a few historical figures; some he tries to resurrect their reputations, others to bring them to the fore having been seemingly ignored previously.  The author’s portrayal of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin is a key to his presentation.  As the leader of the Labour Party, Bevin held leftist anti-colonial beliefs, but once in power the realities of empire, economics, and politics brought about a marked change particularly as it involved the Middle East, London’s role in any attempt at a European federation, the devaluation of the pound sterling, the need to create an Anglo-American bond, and numerous other areas.  Leebaert goes out of his way to defend Bevin in several areas, especially charges that he was anti-Semitic in dealing with the situation in Palestine.  Other individuals discussed include John Wesley Snyder who had strong relationships with President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall, who as Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the transition of the US economy to peacetime and was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan.  The American Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis Douglas also fits this category as does Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald, who oversaw British policy in the Pacific from his position in Singapore, the hub of British Pacific power.

Leebaert’s narrative includes the history of the major Cold War events of the 1945-1950.  His discussion of the situation in Greece and Turkey including Bevin and US Admiral Leahy’s bluffs in negotiations that resulted in the Truman Doctrine and $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.  The Berlin Crisis, the Soviet murder of Jan Masaryk, Mao’s victory in China and what it meant for Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Korean War are all presented in detail.

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(George of Kennan, Ambassador to Russia; Head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff)

Perhaps Leebaert’s favorite character in supporting his thesis is Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who had difficulty deciding whether the British were using the United States as a foil against the Soviet Union, or as a vehicle to fill any vacuums that might avail themselves should England retrench.  But eventually Lippmann concluded that Washington believed that the British Empire would contain the Soviet Union all by itself, not the actions of an empire that was about to fold and pass the torch to the United States.

Leebaert is not shy about putting certain historical figures on the carpet and shattering their reputations.  Chief among these people is George F. Kennan, who was Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff among his many diplomatic positions.  For Leebaert the idea that Kennan was a “giant of diplomacy” as he was described by Henry Kissinger is a misnomer to say the least.  He finds Kennan to be emotional, careless, impulsive, and “frequently amateurish.”  Further, he believes Kennan was often ignorant about certain areas, particularly the Middle East and Japan, and lacked a rudimentary knowledge of economics.  But for Leebaert this did not stop Kennan from offering his opinions and interfering in areas that he lacked any type of expertise.

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(British Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald)

The situation in Southeast Asia was crucial for the British as seen through the eyes of Malcom MacDonald.  He firmly believed that if Indochina fell Thailand would follow as would the British stronghold of Malaya.  British trade and investment would be cut and wouldn’t be able to strengthen their recovering European allies, thus ending any American hope of a self-reliant North-Atlantic partnership. According to Leebaert, it was imperative to get Washington to support Bao Dai as leader of Vietnam and MacDonald made the case to the Americans better than the French.  If nothing was done the entire area would be lost to the communists.  Leebaert interestingly points out that in the 1930s when it appeared, he might become Prime Minister some day he backed Neville Chamberlain at Munich, now in the early 1950s he did not want to be seen as an appeaser once again.

At the same time disaster was unfolding on the Korean peninsula and Washington kept calling for British troops to assist MacArthur’s forces at Pusan.  The Atlee government did not respond quickly, and with British recognition of Mao’s regime and continued trade with Beijing, along with its attitude toward Taiwan, resulting in fissures between the British and the United States.  With Bevin ill, Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State argued that London could not be spread too thin because they could not leave Iran, Suez, Malaya, or Hong Kong unguarded.  Interestingly, Leebaert points out at the time the only real Soviet military plan was geared against Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The difference between Washington and London was clear – the British had global concerns, the Americans were obsessed with Korea.  Finally, by the end of August 1950 London dispatched 1500 soldiers, a year later 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers would be involved in combat operations.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

Leebaert’s premise that the British would not forgo empire until the results of the Suez Crisis was a few years off.  By 1951 strong signals emerged that the empire was about to experience further decline with events in Iran and Egypt taking precedence.  If Islamists focused on anti-communism in these areas the British were safe, but when they began to turn their focus to nationalism London would be in trouble.  Domestically, Britain was also in difficulty as financial news was very dispiriting. Due to the Korean War and the US demand for industrial goods the total cost for imports shot up markedly.  This caused a balance of payments problem and the pound sterling plummeted once again.  The cold winter exacerbated the economy even further as another coal shortage took place.  It seemed that the British people had to deal with the rationing of certain items, but the defeated Germany did not.  Further, by 1952 Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began to take their toll causing London to face another external challenge.

The British strategy toward the United States was to stress the anti-communism fear in dealing with Egypt and Iran.  In Egypt, King Farouk was a disaster and the British feared for the Suez Canal.  In Iran, the English fear centered around the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had been ripping off Teheran for decades.  An attempt to ameliorate the situation came to naught as the company was nationalized and eventually in 1953 the British and American staged a coup that overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh.  In Egypt nationalism would also become a major force that London could not contain resulting in the 1952 Free Officers Movement that brought to power Gamel Abdul Nasser.  In each instance Washington took on an even more important role, and some have argued that the CIA was complicit in fostering a change in the Egyptian government.  In addition, Dwight Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State.  Despite newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hope that the World War II relationship could be rekindled, Eisenhower saw the British as colonialists who were hindering US foreign policy, in addition the relationship between Dulles and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was at rock bottom.  It became increasingly clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid being perceived as acting in concert with Britain in dealing with colonial issues, except in the case of Iran which the United States is still paying for because of its actions.

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(British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

Regarding Indochina, the United States and England could not reach any demarche as regards the plight of the French visa vie the Vietminh, particularly as the battle of Dienbienphu played out.  Leebaert does an excellent job recounting the play by play between Dulles and Eden, Eisenhower and Churchill as the US and England saw their relations splintering as negotiations and the resulting recriminations proved fruitless. This inability to come together over Southeast Asia would have grave implications in other areas.

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(British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill)

In another region, the Eisenhower administration would embark on a strategy to create some sort of Middle East Defense Organization to hinder Soviet penetration.  This strategy, whether called a “Northern Tier” or the “Baghdad Pact” of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran or other nomenclatures created difficulties with Britain who sought to use such an alliance as a vehicle to maintain their influence in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iraq.  British machinations would irritate Washington as Eden and company resented American pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base and other issues.  The result would be an alliance between England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser in Egypt.  The alliance was misconceived and would evolve into a break between the United States and its Atlantic allies even to the effect of the Eisenhower administration working behind the scenes to topple the Eden government and bring about the Eisenhower Doctrine signaling that the British had lost its leadership position and was no longer considered a “major power.”

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(Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

I must point out that I have written my own monograph that deals with major aspects of Leebaert’s thesis, DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957.  My own research concludes that the United States actively worked to replace Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East as early as May 1953 when John F. Dulles visited the region and came back appalled by British colonialism.  Leebaert leaves out a great deal in discussing the period; the role of the US in forcing Churchill into agreeing to the Heads of Agreement to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base; the failure of secret project Alpha and the Anderson Mission to bring about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and its implications for US policy; the disdain that the Americans viewed Eden, the extent of American ire at the British for undercutting their attempts at a Middle East Defense Organization by their actions in Iraq and Jordan; the role of US anger over the Suez invasion because it ruined  a coup set to take place in Syria; and the Eisenhower administrations machinations behind the scenes to remove Eden as Prime Minister to be replaced by Harold Macmillan.  In addition, the author makes a series of statements that are not supported by any citations; i.e.; Eisenhower’s support for finding a way to fund the Aswan Dam after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal; attempts to poison Nasser etc.

Overall however, Leebaert has written a monograph that should raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades.  There are many instances where he raises questions, provides answers that force the reader to conclude that these issues should be reexamined considering his work.  At a time when the United States is struggling to implement a consistent worldview in the realm of foreign policy it is important for policy makers to consider the plight of the British Empire following World War II and how Washington’s inability  to confront world issues in a reasoned and measured way and develop a long term strategy fostered a pattern that has created many difficulties that continue to dog us today.

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THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

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(April 28, 1986 Los Angeles Central Library City Fire)

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.

It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93)

 

People can acquire many types of addictions.  Mine, happens to be books and libraries and it is a very difficult “affliction” to accommodate.  Despite the digital age, there are books everywhere.  New, old, they seem to proliferate mercilessly, the temptation seems to rise each day.  When I came across Susan Orlean’s new book, THE LIBRARY BOOK I knew that I once again had to confront my disease.  In the end, Orlean has written a wonderful ode to libraries and books.  Her subject revolves around the April 28, 1986 fire that destroyed about 500,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000 books, in addition to microfilm, special collections, and an unsettling amount of other materials at the Los Angeles Central Library.  Her narrative is a combination of historical fact, and a deeply personal emotional experience as she describes her own childhood visiting libraries with her mother and doing the same with her son.  Orleans provides a concise history of the Central Library and how the city of Los Angeles responded to the crisis the day of the fire, and how it tried to cope and rebuild from the loss.  As Billie Connor, a children’s librarian described after she and others entered the building immediately after the LAFD put the fire out; “they felt like they died and gone to see if Dante knew what he was writing about.” (34)

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For Orlean the motivating factor in writing THE LIBRARY BOOK was emotive as she realized she was losing her mother to dementia.  Her mother who had imbued her with the love of libraries is recognized as Orlean composes her narrative to try and preserve her memories of her mother from when she was a child.

Orlean’s approach is rather eclectic and comprehensive at the same time.  She provides wonderful character portraits which add to our understanding of the role that libraries play in our communities.  One individual stands out, that of John Szabol, the head of the Central Library system of Los Angeles who early in his career acquired the nickname,  “Conan the Librarian.”  Szabol views libraries as serving many functions in addition to the dissemination of books.  During disasters they serve as a community center to assist displaced people.  Libraries are one of the few places where the homeless are welcomed and given access to computers, the internet, and if they want “dally” all day.  Szabol dispatch of mobile bookmobiles to homeless areas are among the many programs to assist the public that went beyond the traditional library.

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Character portraits abound in the book.  Apart from Szabol is Orlean’s description of Charles Fletcher Lumis who became the head of the Central Library in 1905 because the library board fired his predecessor because she was a woman.  Lumis’ life is an amazing story in of itself.  Traveler, poet, historian, journalist his talents and life are a fascinating story.  Despite his unusual approach to administration he was responsible for many library components that exist today, i.e.; the photography and autograph collections; the California and Spanish history collections; among his many innovations.  Another library character that stands out is Glen Creason who began taking courses in library science in 1979 and is currently the longest serving librarian in the history of the Central Library.  He has become the library’s institutional memory and his career has spanned surviving the 1986 fire, the AIDS epidemic in which thirteen librarians died, the reopening of the building, and the adjustment to the internet.  Orlean’s approach is to discuss these somewhat obscure figures in a deeply personal manner and she gives them an enthusiasm and zest for what they have done and continue to do that is unimaginable.

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(The library today)

Focusing on a different aspect of her study of libraries, Orlean presents a history of book burning that appears to be the norm, rather than the exception throughout the centuries.  Orlean begins her discourse with a discussion of the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, carrying forth through the 20th century as the Nazis committed libricide with their Feurspruches and Brenn Kommandos designed to snuff out all Jewish learning.  It seems that Heinrich Heine was correct, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”  Hitler was not the only practitioner of libricide; Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam, and the Taliban who continue the practice to this day. Further, Orlean even tries to replicate burning books by trying to ignite her copy of FARENEIHT 451, a task that was difficult and painful.

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Before the fire the library contained over 2 million volumes.  Orleans’ initial focus is how so many volunteers and businesses responded to try and salvage the 700,000 damaged books.  She describes amazing people and procedures to save them.  From freeze drying the books, to packing them up and transporting them to freezers at the fish market, hotel kitchens, and other food warehouses in order to stop the spread of mold.  The city’s response was incredible. Human chains of hundreds of people were formed as strangers worked together to save “knowledge.”  The fire itself was deemed as suspicious from the outset, and in a short time it became clear it was arson.  Since Harry Peake, an actor wanna be, fit the profile of an arsonist; white male between seventeen and twenty-five; in addition to being present at the library at the time of the fire he was immediately considered a suspect.  A month later, when someone identified him from a composite photo it reaffirmed that suspicion.

Orlean does a wonderful job integrating American history and its impact on the Central Library’s own progression.  There are numerous examples to support that conclusion.  Some of the most interesting is how the library administration responded to the demographic growth of Los Angeles, particularly after World War II.  New programs were added to meet the needs of the people, i.e.; microfilm and microfiche, teen departments and other innovations.  The library also tried to meet the concerns of the government as Sputnik and returning veterans created concerns for the public that needed to be met.  Finally, Orlean’s history reflects the sexism that was dominant in all libraries.  For decades only, men were allowed top administrative positions. That began to change with the appointment of Mary Jones, Mary Foy, Harriet Wadleigh, and Althea Warren over the years.

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By the last third of the book, Orlean began to alternate chapters dealing with the library’s history and the case against Harry Peake. The investigation of Peake’s actions at the time of the fire  was drawn out over a long period as Harry was a fabulist who could not keep his story straight.  With seven different iterations of where he was the morning of the fire, investigators had a difficult time creating other than a circumstantial case against him.  The bizarre case resulted in Peake’s law suit against the city, and the city’s counter suit against Peake.  The result was inconclusive and to this day one wonders how the fire came to be.

If there is a theme that emerges from reading Orlean’s work, it is how the Central Library has maintained its relevance throughout the last hundred years or so.  The ability to reinvent itself to meet the needs of their community and constituency whether rich or poor, or even homeless is truly amazing.  Reading Orlean is to travel and immerse oneself in the problems faced by libraries, and how miraculously in the case of the central Library it has overcome disaster and continues to flourish to this day.

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Perhaps  the most wonderful aspect of Orlean’s narrative is how she navigates the Central library and its branches and explain how they operate. Along the way she imparts numerous pearls of information to acquaint the reader of the wonderful world of libraries.  Her observations are priceless as she states that a library is the perfect place to become invisible.  It also has its own rhythms and sounds that are unique.  The Los Angeles system is best described “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”  Orlean has written a wonderful book that should satisfy the interests for all who frequent libraries and wonder how they evolved, and how they are constantly working to meet our needs.

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(Fire damage from April 28, 1986)