BOUND FOR GOLD by William Martin

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(1849 California Gold Rush)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A TERRIBLE COUNTRY by Keith Gessen

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

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

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

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(Vladimir Putin)

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

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

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(Soviet style apartment complex, Moscow)

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

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

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

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

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

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

INDIANAPOLIS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST SEA DISASTER IN U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND THE FIFTY-YEAR FIGHT TO EXONERATE AN INNOCENT MAN by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic

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(The USS Indianapolis)

In 1932 the USS Indianapolis was christened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet.  In the summer of 1945 it was chosen to complete the most highly classified naval mission of the war by delivering two large cannisters of material that was needed to assemble the Atomic bomb that was to be dropped in Hiroshima to the Tinian Islands.  Four days after completing its mission it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk resulting in over 1193 men either going down with the ship or being thrown overboard with only 316 surviving.  The result was a national scandal as the government pursued its investigation and reached a conclusion that was both unfair and completely wrong.

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(Captain William McVay III of the USS Indianapolis)

Vincent and Vladic’s incremental approach in developing the story is very important as it allows the reader to understand the scope of the tragedy, the individuals involved, and the conclusions reached.  The authors delve into the background history of the ship’s actions during the war, mini-biographies of the personnel aboard the ship, and the military bureaucracy that was responsible of the ship’s manifest and orders that consume the first third of the book.

After getting to know the important characters in the drama Vincent and Vladic transition to the actual delivery of the weapon components and follows the Indianapolis as she transverses through the Philippine Sea.  Capt. McVay asked for a destroyer escort which was standard for this type of operation but was denied, in part because of availability, and in part because he was informed by Admiral Nimitz’s assistant chief of staff and operations officer James Carter that “things were very quiet…. [and] the Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about.”  What Carter did not mention was that ULTRA intelligence came across the deployment of four Japanese submarines on offensive missions to the Philippine Sea.”  Later, Acting Commander of the Philippine Sea Front, Commodore Norman Gillette would characterize the same intelligence as a “recognized threat.”  In addition to presenting the American side of events, the authors follow Japanese preparations for the defense of the home islands, and zeroes in on Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which would sink the Indianapolis.

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(Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto of the Japanese submarine I58 that sank the Indianapolis)

The authors follow the movements of the Indianapolis and Hashimoto’s submarine the days and hours leading up to the attack.  Five minutes before midnight on July 30, six torpedoes were fired at the Indianapolis and three hit the ship. Parts of the book read as an adventure story as the authors review calculations dealing with location and speed as the possible target begins to become clearer and clearer.  After taking the reader through the attack and resulting sinking of the ship, the reader is presented with at times a quite graphic description of the plight of the sailors who died during the attack, those who jumped off the ship, and the others who abandoned ship under Capt. McVay’s orders.  This section of the monograph can be heart wrenching as the men fight for their survival.  The carnage and psychological impact of the attack is very disconcerting.  After enduring shark attacks, living with no water and little food they resorted to cannibalism, theft, murder, and suicide.  The conditions were appalling but others formed groups employing whatever could be salvaged from the ship to create islands of men linked together by netting, rafts, life jackets, or anything else that would float.  Apart from men who became delirious and suffered from hallucinations, others found their main enemies to be hunger, dehydration, and sharks who seemed to circle everywhere, and sadly, when it seemed that an individual might be saved a shark attack would take another life.

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The most chilling part of the narrative is the description of rescue operations that began on August 2nd.  At 11:18 am Lt. Wilbur Gwinn flying a routine patrol in a PBM Mariner noticed a huge oil slick below, and after careful observation noticed a 25-mile oil slick.  The spotting of the men below sends chills down the spine of readers as the authors details of the rescue as word spread that there were hundreds of men over an 80-mile area.  Sadly, many men would die even as rescue operations commenced as they had little reserve after four days in the water.  The question must be asked, when the Indianapolis went missing from July 30 onward no one was tracking the ship carefully to report that she had not arrived at her destination?  The navy would investigate and reach a conclusion that the authors would totally discredit.

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The last third of the book is devoted to the legal battle that surrounded who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and once the decision was reached the authors spend their time describing how a wrongful conviction was finally overturned.  The authors follow the investigation and different hearings and the final court martial and analyze the testimony, conclusions, and final reports that were issued.  They point out the inconsistencies and outright lies offered by certain naval officers as they tried to rest all the blame on Capt. McVay to cover their own “asses.”  In describing the conclusions reached by the navy Vincent and Vladic point out “what was not discussed was the string of intelligence and communication failures that led to something being amiss in the first place—failures of Carter, Gillette, and Naquin, as well as Vice Admiral Murray, a member of the court, were well aware.” (317)

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The authors dissect the report that called for McVay to be court martialed, especially the information that was left out.  For the navy brass that had two ships sunk in the waning moments of the war resulting in over 1000 casualties, someone had to be found responsible.  The materials presented reflect where the real blame should have fallen.  At Guam, failure to provide an escort for the Indianapolis.  Further, Guam took no action when Fleet Radio Unit Pacific intelligence indicated a Japanese submarine had sunk a vessel in the area that the Indianapolis was known to be present.  At Leyte, the Philippine Sea Frontier Organization failed to keep track of the Indianapolis and take action when the vessel failed to appear at its scheduled time when a Japanese submarine was located near its line of course.

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(70th reunion of USS Indianapolis survivors)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the weak defense put up by Navy Captain John Parmelee Cady who by this time had little interest in being a lawyer and was given little time to prepare a defense.  Cady’s approach is highlighted by the testimony submarine combat expert Captain Glynn Robert Donaho whose statement should have helped exonerate McVay, but did not.  The entire transcript of witness testimony is interesting particularly that of the man whose ship sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto.  Other fascinating components of the book are some of the heroes involved in publicizing and working behind the scenes to bring about justice for the McVay family and those of the survivors and men lost at sea.  Chief among them was Commander William Toti who stood at the helm of the namesake submarine the Indianapolis.  Another is Hunter Scott, an eleven year old boy who worked assiduously on the history of the disaster and in the end testified before a Senate Committee.  Without their efforts and numerous others, one wonders if the degree of closure that was finally achieved would have come about.

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(Captain William Toti)

As one reads the narrative, you grow angrier and angrier at the US Navy for its malfeasance and outright culpability in ruining a man’s life and providing false information for the families of the victims of the disaster.  As the authors press on with their account the redemption that is finally earned it does not reduce the uncalled for actions of so many in the Navy and the US government. The authors do a nice job ferreting out those responsible, but that does not detract from the fact that the lies were seen as truth for decades.

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(The USS Indianapolis)

THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA: AN ILLUSTRATED NOVEL by Umberto Eco

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(Fascist propaganda)

For the longest time I have wanted to tackle one of Umberto Eco’s novels.  I knew they were unique so I have digested his fifth work, THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA.  To say the least the book was different from anything I have ever read before.  Eco introduces the main character a Giambattista Bodoni, with Yambo as a nickname suffering from memory loss due to a heart attack.  He lives in Milan and is fifty-nine years of age and he is crushed by the fact that he can remember things from the distant past, but nothing more recent.  He does not even know his name and it takes his wife Paola, who is a psychologist, and his physician, Dr. Gratarolo to introduce him to his identity and certain pathways of his life.  For Yambo familiarizing himself or relearning almost everything was similar to being Adam or Eve.

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(Josephine Baker, singer and actress)

Eco offers numerous ruminations on memory; its depth, how difficult it is at times to retrieve its contents, and how hard it is to move forward without the knowledge that is buried within.  For Yambo his memory is nothing but frustration.  The brain is an amazing instrument as he can remember four stanzas of Dante’s poetry, but can’t remember if he ever had an affair with Sibilla who is his assistant at his antiquarian bookstore.  Yambo’s heart attack has erased all memory of his own life while leaving every scrap of every book, comic strip, song, movie that he has ever experienced intact.  The most interesting part of the novel is the first part as he confronts his medical issue and tries to recapture his memory.  Eco incorporates sarcasm, and humor to relieve some Yambo’s tension, but his stress is evident.  The solution that is reached is that Yambo should visit his grandfather’s retreat at Solaro where he spent much of his childhood.  Since his grandfather was also a bookseller it is hoped that what is stored in the main house will stimulate Yambo and restore his memory.

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In examining the attic of his childhood Yambo feels like he is an intruder in a forbidden kingdom.  He travels from one section of the attic to another, and one crate or bookshelf to another trying to locate clues of his previous life.  In doing so we witness a man rummaging through the attic and study in a Piedmontese country house in search of his past.  Yambo reads for the first time, or rereads countless books from his past, many of which he recognizes along with listening to numerous records.  He comes across Sherlock Holmes, Flash Gordon, Jules Verne, among many titles by Italian authors.  Eco provides numerous illustrations to highlight Yambo’s findings.  Included are tins, cigarette cases, toys, calendars, dolls, soldiers, record cases, stamps, and of course numerous book jackets from his grandfather’s library.  For Yambo the mystery of Solara was that at every turn he would approach a revelation, and it would come to stop on the edge of a cliff, the invisible chasm that kept him in a fog.

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The book itself is not really a novel, but more of a revisiting of Eco’s past reading life.  The book’s illustrations are interesting, but not really necessary, perhaps they were thrown in to embellish the story.  The strong suit are a series of what appear to be essays on such diverse topics as Mussolini’s influence on children’s literature, his schoolboy notebooks depicting the exploits of Il Duce, Black Shirts, and colonial triumphs, then listening to a radio as the war turns to songs of bravery and coming defeat at Anzio, the landing at Sicily, bombing of Milan, all of life’s reality as the family had left the city to wait out the war in Solara.  Yambo would learn a great deal about his grandfather’s past in Solara as he searched for his own.  Particularly important were the reasons his grandfather turned from journalism to buying an old book shop.

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(Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire)

The most important episode of Yambo’s adolescence turned out to be a teenage crush on a girl named Lila Saba.  She would become an obsession for Yambo even after her family moved to Brazil.  He would grill his friend Gianni who knew her also as he continued his quest to remember her face well into adulthood, to the point when he learned her real name was not Lila, but Sibillia.

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(Fascist Italy stamp honoring Hitler and Mussolini)

In summation, Eco has presented a popular history of the 1930s and 1940s through his meandering approach to recapturing his childhood.  In doing so Yambo provides a narrative of World War II and its effect on Italy through the eyes of a boy.  For Yambo he becomes caught between listening to the messages of national glory and daydreaming about the fog in thinking about London and Sherlock Holmes.  In the end he would realize that he had rediscovered things that he and countless others had read, and aside from stories about his grandfather he had not relived his childhood, but he had relived the life of a generation.

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(Rita Hayworth)

Eco’s effort does not flow evenly.  One page is a narrative about family and life.  Another deals with the war.  The next might deal with the temptations that religion does not permit.  Moving on you are following Yambo’s reading history, then his opinion of film, stamps, and what not.  Then on to developing his sexuality and his obsession with Lila.  At times fascinating, at time engrossing, but also at times fantasy that can lose the reader’s attention.  Eco’s humor, sarcasm, and didactic knowledge reflect a fascinating author, but be prepared to concentrate fully because if you do not, you will get lost.

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POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY by Steven Zipperstein

(Victims of the Kishinev pogrom, 1903)

At a time when American society is confronted with pictures of immigrants incarcerated at the US border with Mexico it is a good time to step back and try and understand why people choose to flee their homelands and come to America.  In the case of people arriving on our southern borders their motivations are diverse from economic hardship to fear of death.  These reasons are in a sense universal when examined from a historical perspective.  Earlier in American history we witnessed a flood of Jewish immigrants, roughly two million from Eastern Europe and Russia between 1890 and 1914.  This has had a tremendous impact on our history and growth as a nation.  This mass migration was due in large part because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Tsarist government that resulted in years of persecution, and violent acts against Jews.  Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century these acts, labeled “pogroms” seemed to occur on a regular basis fostering the need for Jewish families to begin a chain of migration to America and other areas of the world.  Perhaps the most famous pogrom occurred in 1903 in the provincial city of Kishinev located at the edge of the Russian Empire which is the subject of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fascinating and informative new book POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY.

The term “pogrom” enters the western lexicon toward the end of the 19th century in Russia as violence and scapegoating of Jews proliferates.  It would be invoked in numerous towns and villages reaching a crescendo between 1918 and 1920 as 100,000 Jews may have been victimized as they were thought to be Bolsheviks.  Jews were supposed to be wealthy, but the vast majority lived in poverty.  They were thought to be well educated and involved in commerce, but what the Russians resented the most was their secrecy and refusal to be absorbed into the larger society.

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The accusation against Jews that seems to have been the foundation of many pogroms was that of the “ritual killing of Christian children” during the Passover holiday under government sanction.  For an interesting novel that highlights this topic see Bernard Malamud’s THE FIXER which presents the major issues that Zipperstein discusses in a fictional format.

The Kishinev pogrom was seen as shorthand for barbarism, “for the behavior akin to the worst medieval atrocities.”  It would become the only “significant event embraced by all sectors of the severely fractured Russian Jewish scene.”  However, as the author argues throughout the narrative, though agreement was reached concerning the horrors that took place, it became an agreement wrought with myths, half-truths, and outright distortions.  The strength of Zipperstein’s presentation is the dissection of the myths and other components by explaining what occurred in the spring of 1903 in the Kishinev district.  The author carefully examines all aspects of the tragedy from its causes, the persons responsible, the victims and survivors, and the implication for Jewish history in the future.  Kishinev would become the epitome of evil in the west, a jarring glimpse of what the 20th century would hold in store.

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The theme of book rests on how “history is made and remade, what is retained and elided, and why.”  The author examines how “one particular moment managed to chisel onto contemporary Jewish history and beyond that it held meaning even for those who never heard of the town, know nothing of its details, and nonetheless draw lessons from it.”

Forgeries and myths surround the history of the pogrom that greatly impacted how people who participated and survived viewed what they experienced, what had actually transpired, as well as how it was perceived years later.  For example; there was supposedly a letter from the Russian Minister of the Interior, V.K. Plehve instructing the local authorities not to intercede once the massacre began.  This is untrue, no letter existed, though a forgery may have appeared.  Another example revolves around who wrote and was responsible for the dissemination of the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION which accused Jews of a worldwide conspiracy to dominate all people and their lives.  It was said to have been a creation of the Russian secret police, the Okhrana in 1897, when in fact it was most likely the work of Pavel Krushevan, a publisher, novelist and owner of the newspaper Bessarabets which made the scurrilous lies of the PROTOCOLS available to the public.

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Zipperstein’s sources have been mined thoroughly ranging from the literary works of Alexander Pushkin to Serge S. Urussov, the Governor-General of Bessarabia’s diaries.  The two most important sources are Hayyam Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national poet who wrote, “In the City of Killing,” describing the massacre; and Michael Davitt, an Irish revolutionary and a reporter for Randolph Hearst’s New York American, who would go on to write WITHIN THE PALE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE ANTI-SEMETIC PERSECUTIONS IN RUSSIA, published in 1903.  Zipperstein examines the lives of these two important figures, how they went about their research and who they interviewed.  Excerpts of their work dot the narrative as Zipperstein dissects what occurred hour by hour and both men reach a controversial conclusion that Jewish men were weak and cowards.

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Bialik’s poem, “In the City of Killing” has impacted Jewish history up until today and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to it in his speeches.  Zipperstein argues that Bialik conflated his entire life experience, particularly his childhood with the plight of Jews – one of helplessness.  His “rage leads him to construct the Jews of Kishinev as abject, and in the process to reshape and reconstruct his own identity.”  The poem recreates the violence, rape, and plunder perpetrated against the Jews, but the core of the poem is a devastating conclusion concerning Jewish male cowardice.  The appearance of the poem would overshadow what had transpired as it focused on the moral failings of Kishinev’s men and soon it became “shorthand for the utter vulnerability of the Jewish people, their devastation of soul and body alike.” Zipperstein examines the poem line by line and concludes that Bialik’s approach is literary poetry, while Davitt ‘s account is accurate as a whole and is first rate journalism, in addition to being reliable history.

Zipperstein asks why did the pogrom occur in Kishinev, a town that was on the outskirts of the Russian empire.  He concludes that a number of events, thought processes, and socio-economic relationships are responsible.  First, though day to day relations among the population seemed amiable, the peasants felt exploited by Jews engaging in a significant amount of commerce.  Second, in the spring of 1903 agricultural prices were on the decline reducing the supply of money.  Third, right wing elements were obsessed with Jewish visibility in the town.  Four, the supposed “ritual killings” in Dubossary, a town near Kishinev a few months before the pogrom.  Five, the fanning of anti-Semitic flames by Pavel Krusheran and his newspaper.  Lastly, Pogroms were seen as a reasonable response to a pariah people as rumors of ritual killing swirled.  Keeping in mind that in 1897 the population of the Kishinev district was 280,000 of which 54.910 were Jewish; and of the city’s 39 factories, 29 were owned by Jews could help explain people’s exacerbated feelings reactions once the violence spread.

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Zipperstein also dissects the political implications of the pogrom.  He explores how it was used by different political factions for their own ends be they Zionists, socialists, Labor, Bundists etc. Many saw the pogrom as an opportunity to foster immigration to Palestine, others were resigned to trying to survive in Russia as they hoped the violence was spent.  The pogrom also touched off a nasty debate in American politics as the pogrom was compared to the lynchings of blacks in the south.  The American left used Kishinev as vehicle to make Americans aware of the treatment of blacks.  This also created a schism within the black communities because of its response to Kishinev and dealing with their own issues.  Interestingly, as Zipperstein describes at the end of the book, the uproar in the United States and its link to lynching’s helped push for the creation of the NAACP in 1909.

Overall the book is quite comprehensive and incorporates a great deal of information that is knew, i.e., Zipperstein’s acquisition of Krusheran’s teenage diaries among other sources.  If you would like to try and understand what occurred in Kishinev, with its historical implications, POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY is an excellent resource.

Chișinău  ~  Кишинев  ~  Kishinev

  Kehilalink Search

List of Victims of Kishinev Pogrom of 1903

The list below is the result of merging information contained in 2 published documents:

Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, Michael Davitt, London, 1903

Davitt was an Irish journalist who visited Kishinev after the pogrom, and reported on it for two New York newspapers. The list there is an early one and is incomplete, but does have the genealogical benefit of often including the patronymic names.

Ha-Pogrom Be-Kishineff – Pesach 1903-Pesach 1963, Tel Aviv, 1963

This book, published on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom includes a copy of an original incomplete list (in Hebrew, awkwardly translated by a colleague and I).

Some of the other details here are either from Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, and excellent book written by Edward H. Judge (New York University Press, 1992; recently published in paperback as well) or from personal correspondence with Judge.


There were apparently 49 Jewish victim who died during or as a result of the pogrom (38 male, 11 females, including several children). According to the chief surgeon of the Kishinev Jewish Hospital, 37 were dead when they were brought to the hospital during the pogrom, 4 died at home following the pogrom, and 8 died in the hospital as a result of injuries received during the pogrom.

My list has only 46 people (including 6 females and one child of unknown gender). It is possible that I have listed someone as dead who was only injured, or that I have listed a single person twice due to a confusion of names. Clearly, not all those who lost their lives due to the pogrom are mentioned in the two lists I have located. Nevertheless it is a start.

I hope to get additional information from Prof. Judge and a colleague of his in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova) who has done extensive pogrom research. If I ultimately have additional information, I will integrate it.

In some cases, the sources have additional information about how the person died (often a very ugly story).

Where the different sources yielded several names for the same person, I have included both (as in “Mordechai/Mottel”).

Alan Greenberg: alan.greenberg@mcgill.ca


I have added the 47th victim based on the article provided by Rosemarie Cohen (see article Morris Cohen Keeps a Promise)Ariel Parkansky


Kishinev 1903 Pogrom Victims

First Name(s) Surname Gender
1 Benja/Benjamin Shimenov Baranovitz M
2 Isaac/Yitschok Belitzkah/Byeletsky M
3 Itlia/Itel Berger F
4 Hosea/Joshua Abramovitz Berladsky M
5 Hirsch/Tsvi Chaimov Bolgar M
6 Aaron Isaacov Brachman M
7 David Abrahamov Charidon M
8 (sister – age 12) Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz F
9 David Nissleov Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz M
10 Abraham Router Cohen/Kogan M
11 David Drachman M
12 Chaia Sarah Abramovna Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
13 Eiss/Zusya Davidovitz Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
14 Simeon/Shimon Fishman M
15 Ben-Zion Leibov Galantor/Salapter M
16 (child) Golder ?
17 Chaim Leib/Leibov Goldiss M
18 Joseph Hirsch/Tsvi Danilov Greenberg M
19 Mordecai/Mottel Greenspoon M
20 Kopel Davidovitz Kainarsky M
21 Joseph Abramovitz Kantor M
22 Rose/Raiza Falikovna Katzap M
23 Kaela Kaza/Konza M
24 (husband) Keigelman M
25 Chaia Leah Keigelman F
26 Moshe Samuel/Tsvi Kiegel M
27 Beila Leiserovna Kodja? F
28 Idel/Jehudah Krupnik M
29 Isaac/Yitschok Krupnik M
30 Shmuel/Michel Shaev Lashkoff M
31 Hirsch/Tsvi Yankelev Liss M
32 Moses/Moshe Chaskelov Makhlin M
33 Mottel/Mordechai Davidovitz Menduk M
34 (man) Newman M
35 Chaim Nissinov Nissenson M
36 Isaac/Yitzshok Yankelov Rosenfeld M
37 Israel Leiserovitz Selstein/Shalistal M
38 Michel/Yachael Josiphov Seltzer M
39 Pinya Isaacov Spivak F
40 Jacob Elchunov Tounik M
41 Israel Yacoblewitz Ulmer M
42 Samuel/Shmuel Baruch Urrman M
43 Feiga Voulyar/Wouller F
44 Leinha/Simcha Voulyar/Wouller M
45 Abraham Yitschok/Router Weinstein M
46 Kalman Wolowitz/Volovitz M
47 (Rabbi) Mordecai Alpert M
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(Damaged Torahs used at funerals for Kishinev pogrom)

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ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST by Justin Vaisse

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor)

When one thinks about the most influential people in the conduct of American foreign policy since World War II, the term the “Wise Men” comes to mind.  Historical figures like Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, and Averill Harriman helped direct US policy during the Cold War but by the 1960s a new foreign policy elite began to replace the establishment.  The opinions of the wise men were still consulted but a new generation of individuals emerged.  Contemplating the new elite, the name Henry Kissinger seems to be front and center as the dominating force under Presidents Nixon and Ford, but a person with a similar background story hovered in the wings, Zbigniew Brzezinski.  There are numerous biographies written about Kissinger, but up until today none of Brzezinski.  Justin Vaisse, who directs the policy planning staff in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a workmanlike translation by Catherine Porter has filled the void with the new biography, ZBIEGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST.

Vaisse’s book is more than a biography of his subject. It does review and assess Brzezinski’s private life as a traditional life story might do, but places its greatest emphasis an intellectual survey of President Carter’s National Security head’s ideas and how they affected his policies and America’s interests around the world.  The book is sure to be considered an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain and assess America’s strategy and impact in the foreign policy sphere during the Cold War, and is certain to be the most important book that encapsulates Brzezinski life’s work to date.

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(Brzezinski playing chess with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David)

The author follows the trajectory of Brzezinski’s career from a rising academic at Harvard University to a distinguished professorship at Columbia, a career move that was in the end a disappointment at not gaining tenure in Cambridge, but more importantly it brought him into the New York foreign policy community nexus that led to his association with the Council of Foreign Relations and its publication arm, Foreign Affairs.  The late 1950s saw Brzezinski evaluating US policy through numerous articles and trying to gain access to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson offering ideas and policy recommendations which included some domestic insights.  By this time he realized that he did not want to rely on an academic career for his life’s work, but sought to have a major impact on actual policy and events. During the Johnson administration he became a member of the Policy Planning Staff and his views coincided with Johnson and McNamara’s on Vietnam.  He offered views on the Third World, East-West relations, and the importance of China which he grew interested in to broaden his reputation and not being pigeon holed as only a Sovietologist.  By 1968 the foreign policy establishment underwent change and Brzezinski was at the forefront as the new elite began to emerge.

Kissinger and Brzezinski were the masterminds of the new elite.  They knew how to build on the capital they had accumulated in academia, the media, society and politics, resulting in public visibility, networking, and political status as advisors to both Republicans and Democrats.  As Vaisse traces Kissinger’s career one can see early on, i.e., the 1968 presidential campaign, what a duplicitous egoist Kissinger had become.  As David Habersham described him. He was “a rootless operator in the modern superstate.”

 

Brzezinski’s ego was quite developed, but nowhere near his former colleague.  Brzezinski’s greatest asset was his intellectual brilliance.  By 1968 he had joined the Humphrey for president campaign as the main foreign policy strategist and advisor.  This association allowed him to be perceived as a universal expert as he helped form, along with David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission, taking residency in Japan for a year to enhance his portfolio, and warning Democratic Party leaders to be careful of the leftwing movement of the party that would result in the McGovern debacle.  By this time Brzezinski was an excellent tactician and part of his strength was his ability to build on his academic research to implement policy recommendations.

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(President Carter, Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance)

The author dissects Brzezinski’s intellectual impact through his writing.  I remember reading the SOVIET BLOC:  UNITY AND CONFLICT years ago in graduate school, which he had revised to add a section on the developing Sino-Soviet conflict and its impact on US strategy.  In addition, his BETWEEN TWO AGES: AMERICA’S ROLE IN THE TECHNOCRATIC ERA argued that the Soviet Union was in gradual decline as it was missing the train of the technetronic change, where the US was coming aboard fully, which would allow Washington to meet the needs of the Third World.  Many have argued that Brzezinski’s views on the Soviet Union stemmed from his Polish heritage and Catholic faith.  But when one examines his views, it cannot be denied that his family history influenced his intellectual development, but his ideas and recommendations were too nuanced to be hemmed in by any obsession with Moscow.  His goal was to be objective and allow any perceived prejudices as an advisor to cloud and diminish his credibility.  Vaisee argues for the most part he was able to accomplish this despite being labeled by many as an anti-Soviet hawk.  A case in point is his view of Détente, negotiated by the Nixon administration in 1972, but by the time Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Advisor it was clear that Moscow was pushing the envelope in the Horn of Africa, Angola, and Cuba and he advised Carter to take a more adversarial position.  This brought him in conflict with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who rejected this hard line approach, particularly when Brzezinski wanted to manipulate the “China Card” in dealing with the Soviet Union.

There are many aspects of the book that are fascinating.  These areas include a comparison of Kissinger and Brzezinski’s rise to prominence; Brzezinski’s excellent relationship with President Carter; whether Brzezinski can be considered a neo-conservative; and an analysis of Brzezinski’s predictions of a period of twenty years-discussing those that turned out to be accurate and those that did not.  What is clear is that Brzezinski’s view of the Cold War remained fairly consistent for decades.  He always favored the preservation of a strong military.  Second, the role of nationalisms and divisions within the communist bloc which led him to endorse policies that would exacerbate those issues, and finally, the role of ideology, which led him to support the actions of American radio broadcasts aimed across the Iron Curtain.

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Vaisse argues forcefully that Brzezinski worked hard to restore America’s leadership in the Third World, especially trying to reach an accommodation in the Middle East, normalize relations with Latin America, and push for a rearrangement in Southern Africa.  The Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaty, the opening with China, and emphasis on human rights went a long way to achieve these goals.  Many point to the uneven policy with Iran that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Soviet Brigade in Cuba, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as Carter’s legacy.  But one must remember that American policy toward Iran was dysfunctional and based on a false premise dating back to the overthrow of Mohammad Mossedegh in 1953 which the Carter administration continued.  Further, many accused Brzezinski of creating a trap that lured the Russians into the quagmire of Afghanistan which in the end helped bring down the Soviet Union. Whatever the historical record, the collective memory that deals with the Carter administration’s foreign policy is the humiliation at the hands of Iran during the hostage crisis, and one of projected weakness overseas.

For those who argue that Brzezinski was responsible for starting the new Cold War after Détente failed, Vaisse points out that the Russian archives dealing with the period reflect that the Soviet leadership had “become sclerotic, and a prisoner almost of the institutional dynamics of their own system.”  In fact the disastrous decision to invade Afghanistan was made by a small group in the Politburo which ignored the opposition of the military, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and those in the embassy in Kabul.  As far as disagreements and controversy surrounding the Vance-Brzezinski relationship, the author provides details and analysis of their policy differences and its effect on overall American strategy.  The key for Vaisse is how President Carter managed their conflict and at times he could not make overall strategic judgements which led to confusion inside the administration and how our allies and adversaries perceived us.

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(Henry Kissinger)

The strength of Vaisse’s effort lies in his assiduous research and careful analysis of Brzezinski’s books and journal articles, be they purely academic or writings that targeted a more general audience.  The author examines all of his major books and opinions in journals and his conclusions and insights are based on this approach.  Vaisse does not get bogged down in family issues, but concentrates on career developments and why certain life decisions were made.  No matter what you think about the life and work of Brzezinski, one must agree that his impact on US foreign policy was just as, or almost as important as that of Kissinger, the difference being that Brzezinski stayed in the background more, though he was not shy about seeking the bright light of publicity at times.  For Vaisse the key to understanding Bzrezinski’s staying power was an enduring legacy of strategic vision and political independence which is evident throughout the book.  Apart from a somewhat trenchant style the book should be considered the preeminent work on Brzezinski and will be sought out by those interested in his life for years to come.

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TIGER WOODS by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

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(Tiger Woods)

Undertaking a biography of Tiger Woods is a daunting task.  First, there is the coterie of secrecy surrounding one of the greatest, if not greatest golfer in history.  Second, Woods himself.  Having been burned by interviews early in his career for years refused to interact with the fourth estate and maintained an aura of separateness from everyone but his inner circle.  However, there is enough information about Woods that includes books by Earle Woods, Tiger’s father, former coaches, documents, professional medical opinions, in addition to numerous articles by respectable journalists to produce a superb in depth study of Woods.  This being the case Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s effort in their new book, TIGER WOODS is to be praised as they have relied on information plied by others, but have introduced new material by culling newspapers, interviews, and other sources to create a book of surprising quality.

Tiger Woods was on top of the world having dominated the sport after becoming the youngest player to win the Masters in 1996.  For the next two decades golf revolved around his success and he became his own mega corporation as wealth and victories were seen as everyday occurrences.  This would all come to an abrupt end on November 27, 2009 when Woods crashed his car into a neighbor’s tree.  How did this come to pass and why did Woods’ life spiral out of control because of the accident?  In addition, how did Woods, after divorce, injury, scandal etc. seemingly turn his life around?  These questions and Tiger’s life story leading up to that fateful day form the core of Benedict and Keteyian’s new monograph.

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(Tiger Woods’ parents)

In trying to understand how Woods evolved as a person and an athlete all you have to do is examine his early childhood from birth onward as he was surrounded by an attention grabbing father and an authentic “tiger mom.”  The authors describe a childhood that was different from other children as instead of toys his prized possession from a very young age was a sawed down golf club.  Woods would not interact with other children, and his father, Earl made it clear that golf was paramount, not making friends.  The key to Woods’ career is his father.  He became his confidante and role model and Woods’ behavior up until later in adult life can be explained by how Earl trained Tiger in a rigorous military fashion, instilled in him how unique he was, and created expectations that were outrageous to say the least.  Woods’ mother, Kultida, known as Tida reinforced her husband’s approach to child rearing and even after her divorce from Earl would dominate her son and instill in him that he was always right and he did not have to give in to anyone.  What separates the authors approach is that they integrate the opinions of medical professionals throughout the book applying psychological principles to help explain Woods’ behaviors and outlook on life.  For Woods, as a gifted child he would be more attuned to his parents’ expectations and would do whatever it took to meet them, even if it meant ignoring his own feelings and needs.

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(Tiger Woods and his ex-wife Elin Nordegren)

The authors take the reader through Woods’ career in minute detail ranging from how his amateur career was funded, how he put out the fires of his father’s incendiary remarks and heavy handedness when it came to his career, and finally becoming a professional golfer.  Throughout we witness a Tiger who lacks any sentimentality and personal connections with others which can be traced directly from his mother who stated, “I am a loner, and so is Tiger.”  Tida reinforced the concept of “killing” the opposition on the golf course, and taking the opponents “heart.”  Woods’ evolution as a golfer and a person should be seen in this parental context as the authors describe throughout the book his extraordinary focus, commitment to winning, his inability to trust others, resulting in a very insular person who has repressed his true emotions and feelings.  Woods’ became a person who did not take responsibility for his actions and let his “inner circle” fix any errors.  “From the time he was old enough to walk, Tiger was told by his parents he was different, special, chosen, a genius—and he had been treated accordingly.”  His lack of praise for others, ignoring handshakes on the golf course, blowing off special events that meant a great deal to others were all part of his persona.

There are a number of surprising aspects to the narrative that provide further insight into Woods.  The authors detail his many victories, training regimen, the fear he struck in opponents because of his demeanor, and his sense of entitlement.  Perhaps more insightful is his interest and participation in the military, from video games to actual training with Navy Seals.  Woods could relate to these elite soldiers because he viewed himself as elite.  Woods’ own training agenda was so strict that later in his career he paid for them with numerous injuries and surgeries, but he felt comfortable with the Seals and how they went about their business because in his own mind he did it the same way.

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The standard stories of Woods’ private life are recounted from the many mistresses, his insularity, and how he was treated as a celebrity.  Further, the authors examine how Woods became his own “corporation,” how he was managed by IMG, and how the different personalities or handlers dealt with him on many levels.  But more importantly the authors analyze the results of this private Tiger and his life style supported by his corporate handlers, as opposed to the rectitude he presented to the public, and the image that his corporate sponsors like Nike portrayed.

The authors take the reader through Woods’ entire golf career.  From major, celebrity, and PGA tour tournaments pointing out the importance of each, his achievements, and the implications for his overall career.  Along with the career highlights the reader is exposed to the seamier aspects of his behavior; his sense of entitlement, and utter lack of taking the feelings of others into consideration when he acted.  The authors and others constantly blame his boorish behavior on his childhood which is true, but that does not take away from the fact that he was a despicable character.

Woods’ career was phenomenal and the few friends he made are recounted as are the lives of the many golfers on tour with him.  His lack of insight into others is discussed reflecting his lack of interest in anyone, but himself.  This would all come crashing down the day before Thanksgiving, 2009 when he crashed his car into a tree in his neighbor’s yard.  This would result in divorce from his wife Elin, an unmitigated scandal that fed the National Enquirer type press, the loss of his inner circle, and a public apology for his sexual addiction and other errors that he had made.  In the end he would overcome dependencies on pain killers, participation in treatment centers, and would emerge with a clearer understanding of what he had become, and what he wanted to become.

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(Woods after being arrested for DUI May 29, 2017)

The key to the success of the book is that the authors do an excellent job transitioning from one period of Woods’ life to the next, highlighting each with the events, relationships, and hazards that exist in each.  Overall, we witness the consummate narcissist exceling at his given profession, and finding it difficult to have empathy for anyone.  After the scandals, injuries, personal loss he seems to have evolved into a much more caring person, in touch with his feelings, and a dedication to his two children-a caring component of his personality that had been buried.

Benedict and Keteyian should be commended for producing an excellent study of an important life that greatly influenced American culture.  It is more than an examination of a professional golfer but an in depth study of a conflicted individual who was placed inside a psychological prison resulting in personal loss and humiliation that allowed him to break free.

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THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS by Jon Meacham

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

Reading Jon Meacham’s latest historical work, THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS at the same time as the federal government is separating immigrant families into “relocation centers” reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during World War II is extremely disturbing.  It is not a stretch to label the Trump administration’s immigration policies as racist when one considers the language and comments of those like Steven Miller and company, especially the president.  However you describe the facilities that parents and children are separated and housed in together, it is un-American for the media and members of Congress to be barred from investigating what is going on behind those chain linked fences.  President Trump may tweet his racist rationalizations and comments that have little or no basis in fact all he wants, but what is clear is that he has a different agenda than the majority of the American people.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Meacham’s overall thesis is that the current political turmoil we find ourselves in is not unprecedented and as a nation we have survived worse.  Let us hope that he is correct but after events like Charlottesville, talk of Mexican rapists, vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with the administration, the Mueller investigation, the fecklessness of Congressional Republicans, and President Trump’s admiration for dictatorships around the world, at the same time as he is exhibiting disdain for America’s democratic allies, I fear that Mr. Meacham may be overly optimistic.

For those who have read Meacham’s works on Roosevelt and Churchill, Andrew Jackson, George H.W. Bush, and Thomas Jefferson his current effort should not disappoint.  Meacham’s monograph is well written and researched as are all his previous books.  He has the ability to expose the reader to a useful overview of American history that assists in our understanding of events. The author points out that he has not written his work because past presidents have always risen to the occasion, but because President Trump rarely, if ever does.  A major theme of the book is that America will usually choose the right path when encouraged from the top.

Meacham’s discussion of the historical roots of fear in our history are apropos as in today’s politics as President Trump seems to rest each statement and policy on ginning up his base through the application of fear.  We must remember that “fear divides, hope unifies.”  Meacham concentrates on the twin tragedies in our nation’s history, the subjugation of people of color, and the justification of policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens justified through the concept of the “expansion of liberty.”  The creation of the presidency by the Founding Fathers was “an act of faith in the future and an educated wager on human character.”  The problem is that throughout our history such hopes have not always been realized.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
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After reviewing a number viewpoints dealing with the presidency, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson sum it up best; “in a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” not just those who voted for him.

Meacham delves into the philosophical foundations of America’s creation in detail.  He explores the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams concluding that the president is a reflection of the needs and wants of the American people.  The character and temperament of the Chief Executive are of paramount importance when trying to unite the general population behind a program that is supposed to meet the needs of all.  By discussing the approaches taken by men such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson it makes it difficult to accept the demeanor and character of the current occupant of the White House.

The author does an excellent job introducing each case study at the outset of each chapter.  He places events and characters in their proper historical context and allows the reader insights into the issue at hand, and creates continuity for the examples he puts forth.  This is evident in perhaps Meacham’s best chapters dealing with immigration and white nationalism.  He makes the important point that to understand the resurgence of white nationalism today, furthered by Trump’s “dog whistle” approach to race one must return to the immediate post-Civil War period and the failure of Reconstruction.  The parallels with the latter part of the 19th century, the 1920s, and today in terms of racial issues and hatred, are very discomforting.

Many white American feared a post slavery society in which emancipation led to equality, and they successfully ensured through lynching’s, denial of equal education and voting rights, that no such equality would come to pass.  Immigration has also been seen as a threat to white Americans as millions arrived between 1890 and 1910.  The reaction that produced the Ku Klux Klan is important to contemplate because some of the issues that prevailed in America are similar to today.  For the post-Civil War period that produced the first Klan, and the 1920s that produced the second Klan we witness massive industrialization and urbanization which transformed the old agrarian world.  The Klan promised racial solidarity and cultural certitude.  The issue of jobs, neighborhoods, religious rights, immigration all affected how Americans felt about the future, a future where whites believed that they were losing their country to non-whites.  The Klan and men like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s gave their adherents a social and political program that spoke to their fears at the moment and to the “mythology of identity.”  The 1920s sought a wall against southern Europeans, today Trump wants a wall against Mexicans and Central America.

Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the tactics, character, and temperament of President Trump is Senator Joseph McCarthy.  While Trump wishes he had his own Roy Cohn, McCarthy actually had him.  Cohn, a New York lawyer who advised McCarthy and later worked with Trump describes McCarthy; “he was impatient, overly aggressive, and overly dramatic.  He acted on impulse.  He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had….He would neglect to do important homework and consequently, would on occasion, make challengeable statements.”  McCarthy was a master of the news cycle and probably the author of “fake news “as he dominated politics between 1950 and 1954, and caused so many who were accused as being soft on communists or communists themselves to lose their jobs and place in society, but as Meacham might argue we as a nation overcame his negative impact and moved on.  Since Cohn’s description fits Trump to a tee, hopefully once he is out of office the same thing will occur.

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The most important chapter in the book deals with Lyndon Johnson.  After not heeding the warning that he could lose the south for the Democratic Party for a generation he pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Further, Johnson, a white southerner led the fight that resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson’s work reflected an unusual character and temperament that allowed him to beat back the George Wallace’s of the age and show what the true “soul of America” could be.  As he stated in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, “For with a country as with a person, what is men profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Today, I wonder what the evangelical leadership thinks when they support Trump’s tweet and actions when they consult Jesus from the Gospel of St. Mark?

For Meacham, his book is one of optimism and hope arguing that after each period of reaction and racism it has been followed by elements of the good in our society.  He makes it sound like the business cycle and that it is inevitable that the evil purported by the Trump administration will eventually be replaced by what really made America great once he is out of office.  Meacham‘s work is an easy read, but do not mistake the substance that lies behind it.

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

 

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by Philip Kerr

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(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

In Philip Kerr’s thirteenth installment of his successful Bernie Gunther series we find the former Nazi/German detective living in Munich under the assumed name Christof Ganz working as a “mortuary attendant,” which Gunther viewed as an acceptable form of penance based on what he had done during the war.  Gunther’s soul had been poisoned between 1933 and 1945 and since that time he has done his best to maintain a sense of humanity by assuming different names and occupations.  GREEKS BEARING GIFTS is centered in Germany and Greece and has all the characteristics of other Gunther books including the protagonist’s sharp wit, sense of history, sarcasm, and a degree of empathy that one might not expect based on his background.  In the current rendition Kerr seems to go a bit further dealing with Gunther’s past to the point that at times it becomes a philosophical discourse on Nazism and what Germans can do to assuage their conscience.  Sadly, the author passed away on March 23rd, but the series will continue as number fourteen will be published posthumously sometime next year.

Kerr immediately involves Gunther in a convoluted plot encompassing a corrupt and somewhat sadistic “Criminal Secretary” in the Munich Police Department.  The man recognizes Gunther from his Kripo detective days in the early 1930s and coerces him to join him in a sting to steal a large political donation.  Gunther is able to disentangle himself from the situation and warns the “stings” victim, a lawyer named Max Merten about what was about to occur.  Merten is grateful and arranges a new job for Gunther at a large insurance company, Munich RE as a claims adjuster, a position that could maximize his detective skills as both types of positions involve determining whether people are lying.  Once Gunther begins his new job the plot begins to unfold.

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(Alois Brunner)

Munich RE, is the largest insurance company in Germany that in the past had insured concentration camps for the Nazis.  Headed by its Chairman, Herr Alois Alzheimer, and his assistant Herr Philipp Dietrich, both former SS members, two gentlemen whose only concerns are company profits.  They both take a shine to Gunther as he immediately solves a case whereby saving the company 23,000 reischmarks.  Having proven himself, Gunther is dispatched to Greece to deal with an insurance case involving a fire on the research boat, the Doris.

Throughout the novel, Kerr makes constant references to Nazi figures and crimes against humanity.  Employing Gunther’s sardonic wit, the author fills in a great deal of background pertaining to our protagonists Nazi past.  Kerr as usual presents numerous historical characters and events that are true to form.  His discussion of Konrad Adenauer’s background is completely accurate, as is his discussion of the port city of Salonika.  Kerr points out that the city held the largest Jewish population than any other area in Europe aside from Poland.  In 1939, Greece held  60,000 Jews, at the end of the war only 2,000 returned, one of which was Jaco Kapantzi a rich Salonikan Jew killed by the SD.

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(Max Merten)

Kerr effectively weaves a number of characters and plot lines in developing his story.  Gunther finds himself in the midst of a number of homicides once he arrives in Greece.  The first is the deaths of Munich RE policy holder, Siegfried Witzel, and Dr. Samuel Frizis, a Jewish lawyer.  Gunther’s presence at the murder scene creates an awkward situation as he is caught by Lt. Stauros Leventis, a Greek detective who is very sensitive about “former Nazis.”  The two agree to work with each other to try and figure out whether the killings and the boat fire are revenge killings by Jews for property stolen during the war or something more devious like the presence of Alois Brunner an escaped Austrian Schutzstaffel officer who worked as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant. Brunner is held responsible for sending over 100,000 European Jews to ghettos and internment camps in Eastern Europe and it seems Gunther may have run into him at his hotel.  Further, Leventis believes he murdered Jaco Kapantzi during the war.  With a “community of fate” the two detectives, one Greek, one German are forced to reach an accommodation and work with each other.

Kerr introduces an interesting group of characters, some true historical figures, some fictional; especially Alzheimer and Dietrich; Achilles Garpolis, a Munich RE employee in Greece who assists Gunther; Witzel who turned out to be a rather sour German; Elli Panatoniou, a government ministry lawyer, communist, and an enigma to Gunther; the lady from H’Mossad, known as the “bandit queen,” or Rahel Eshkenazi, a  Auschwitz survivor; and Lt. Leventis whose sense of morality is quite striking and believes that Gunther should help atone for German sins from WWII by working with him.  Gunther’s dilemma is that he is trying to stay away from his Nazi past because he was living under a false identity.

Kerr’s latest takes a number of twists and turns that will keep the reader fully engrossed.  Kerr proposes a number of possible plot lines as Gunther tries to determine the motives for the murders he has discovered.  From Jews seeking revenge from the Holocaust to the possibility that Greek and Egyptian antiquities were being sold to raise money for Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to purchase weapons to be used against Israel.  His entertaining approach to crime solving is on full display and this effort is one of his best.  As an avid reader of the Bernie Gunther series his death will deprive myself and his readers many hours of enjoyment.  There is one consolation, in that a fourteenth iteration is due out next year, and if it continues were the current story leaves off, it should be fascinating.

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(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes.  The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart.  I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents.  Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences.  When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled.  Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years.  Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy.   When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.

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(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)

Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.  The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive.  Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life.  From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them.  As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career.  His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.

The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary.  Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him.  The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.  According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.

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(Williams, live at the Met)

There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed.  Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother.  Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.”  Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda.  Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people.  Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again.  The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis.  Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control.  The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.

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(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)

Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached.  Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end.  When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he.  Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)