INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel

Wehrmacht convoy in Minsk, 1941 Stock Photo

(German occupation of Minsk during World War II)

Over the years many books and memoirs have been written describing the imponderable experiences of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.  The story line that I have found most unbelievable involves those individuals who escaped the Nazi imposed ghettoization of villages, towns, and cities into forests that adjoined their homes.  The latest narrative, INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel is a poignant description of eight hundred people who escaped the Belorussian village of Zhetel in August 1942 into the Lipiczany forest who by August 1944 was reduced to about two hundred.  The resistance/survival genre of the Holocaust was popularized in the 1980s with the publication of the book DEFIANCE and a film of the same name which told the true story of the Bielski brothers who defied the Nazis, built a village in the forest, and saved about 1200 Jews.  These stories reflect the tenacity and will to live by so many as is shown in Frankel’s description of the plight of the Rabinowitz family as they survived in a primeval forest near their home.

Frankel immediately captures the attention of her readers as describes a 1953 wedding in Brooklyn, New York attended by Philip Lazowski, a Yeshiva student who attended classes at Brooklyn College.  We soon learn that during the war that Philip left his home in Bilitz as the Nazis were massacring Jews and was protected by a woman and her two young daughters as the Nazis had moved on to the village of Zhetel.  While attending the wedding Philip recognized a woman named Miriam Rabinowitz, the same person who had saved his life.  This story and numerous others are recounted by Frankel as she delves into the many horrors that the Holocaust wrought to so many people.  Frankel’s monograph is a story of how people react to certain death and the triumph of the human spirit.

In telling her stories Frankel blends the course of the war and the Holocaust in a concise manner and its impact on the Rabinowitz family, Morris, Miriam, and their two young daughters Rochel and Tania, in addition to other relatives and people that they came in contact with.  Morris had been a businessperson who had acquired an intimate knowledge of forestry which would assist him and his family in their quest for survival.  Miriam had owned a medical shop that sold alternative remedies for injuries and disease, again her knowledge would later come in very handy.

Frankel explores the distinction between Nazi and Soviet approaches in dealing with Jews particularly after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, and the invasions by both countries dividing Poland in half.  Everyone is aware of the Nazi approach to the “Final Solution” of the Jewish people, but the Russians in many instances let their anti-Semitism block any cooperation with Jewish partisans who wanted to fight the Germans.  Once the Rabinowitz’s escaped into the forest the author describes the hardships they faced and how they went about surviving.  They would link up with Chaim Feldman’s family who were able to smuggle a wagon load of supplies into the forest and the two families were able to dig shelters and smuggle food into the forest through their friendships with Christian families forged before the war.

Rebecca Frankel, author of the book “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love."
(Rebecca Frankel, author)

The book points to a myriad of rules and mores that were broken.  The forest would produce its own socio-economic structure that created friendships but also a degree of hostility as the woods created a society of have and have nots.  Frankel describes in intimate details how human relationships became tools of survival for women.  It was clear to many that the only way a woman might survive was if they had a relationship with a man for protection.  If these relationships happened to produce a pregnancy, abortion and allowing babies to die became the norm as any sound, i.e.; a crying baby could give away a position and result in another Nazi Selektion that would massacre the Jews.  Frankel delves into the fears, the highs and lows of living in the forest with death facing them each moment, the preparations to fight, and the interactions with others with the result that the reader should develop a high degree of empathy for victims of the Nazi genocide.

Many historical events and characters appear.  The Bielski brothers resided in the same forest as the Rabinowitz’s.  SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Oskar Direwanger who had the reputation as “the most evil man in the SS” leads the the killing squads that resulted in the death of over 10,000 in the first months of 1943 appears.  Herz Kaminsky, a man who lost his wife and child took in seventy people and protected them and acquired the nickname of “the father of all children.”  Numerous other personal stories are told each rendering the reader to ponder how they may have fared in this situation.

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University.

(Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University) (Courtesy Lazowski Family)

By the start of 1944, the 150,000 Russian partisans had taken control of the forests and the Soviet army began its march toward Berlin.  The Jews who lived in the forest had to navigate being caught between the surging Russian forces and the retreating Germans.  By September of 1944, the Rabinowitz’s and others were told by the Christian farmers that the Germans were gone, and they soon walked for weeks to return to the village of Zhetel which they found was occupied by the Soviet army and their homes and possessions gone.

The 1953 wedding is evidence of the randomness of survival and reconnection that followed European Jewry after the war.  Frankel’s extensive research based on interviews of survivors and their descendants tells a story of struggle and resilience and it will captivate the reader and in many instances bring forth thoughts of how people treat each other in desperate situations and what they will do to overcome and save themselves and their families.  This is a gripping story with a satisfying ending, which I recommend to all.

Belarus

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

ARCHANGEL by Robert Harris

The eBay seller of this “perfect condition” Stalin statue says it was auctioned off by the Czech town of Litomerice “many years ago.”
(Stalin Statue)

It is obvious that Robert Harris is one of the best purveyors of historical fiction who can be found on the shelves of any bookstore.  Whether exploring the Munich Conference, the German missile campaign during World War II, a trilogy that explores the struggle for power in ancient Rome, the machinations of a Papal conclave, or the Dreyfus Affair are among his fourteen bestselling novels.  The depth and varied subjects of his writing reflect the breadth of historical knowledge and his commitment to producing historical fiction that is readable and interesting for everyone while creating stories that are made up of actual events and characters among those that he develops as his plots evolve.

I decided to return to one of Harris’ earlier books, ARCHANGEL a story that centers on the possibility that Joseph Stalin may have prepared a notebook with a number of fascinating commentaries.  The story begins with the death of Stalin early in the morning of March 3, 1953, and the gathering of the Soviet leadership who are trying to decide what to do about his death and succession.  Immediately, Harris shifts his focus to a conversation between Papu Gerasimoch Rapava, a guard in the compound where Stalin died who had access to his body and the “notebook,” and Fluke Kelso a former Oxford professor who gave up his academic position to move to New York and concentrate on his writing.  The conversation takes place four decades after Stalin’s death with Kelso plying Rapava with alcohol as he tried to gain access and knowledge of the missing notebook.

Map of Russia and Arkhangelsk

Harris has firm control of historical events and offers keen insights into the motivation and actions of key personalities.  A case in point is his treatment of KGB head Lavrenty Beria who was convinced he was next in line to replace Stalin as leader of the Soviet state.  In actuality he had rubbed Malenkov, Zhukov, Khrushchev, and company the wrong way and was dead within three months of Stalin’s passing.  Soon Rapava becomes a KGB target as he is suspected of possessing the “notebook,” and Harris details his torture, imprisonment in the Gulag for fifteen years, and his survival.  It is interesting how Harris portrays the “new” Russia of the 1990s through Rapava’s eyes once he is released from prison.  His shock at the changes that have taken place in Moscow where remnants of Stalin have been removed along with other observations of his country as it becomes an oligarchy of wealth under Boris Yeltsin and later  Vladimir Putin.

Kelso finds himself in Russia at a historical conference at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism which was attended by Rapava.  Kelso will meet the Russian and try to uncover truths about Stalin.  Frank Adelman another historian believes that Rapava is setting Kelso up to gain money and that his fellow historian is too bent on journalism and publicity as opposed to meaningful  history.

Harris paints a damning portrait of Moscow in the late 1990s with dust and soot in the air, frozen puddles, sullen people, among many negative characteristics. .  Harris is able to integrate historical treatises to his plot reflecting his knowledge of Russian historiography and a wonderful description of the Lenin Library and the Central Library of the Russian Federation.

Kelso is  described by Adelman as “a fattening and hungover middle aged historian in a black corduroy suit,”a damning appraisal of the former Oxford historian.  Kelso’s circle of acquaintances includes Vladimir Mamantov, a former KGB operative who remains a true Stalinist and wants to protect Stalin’s memory and wants to find the “notebook,” and use it as a means of returning Stalinism to power in Russia. Through Mamantov Harris portrays the remaining Stalinist enclave in Russian society who still admire Stalin, and the fact that the former KGB agent was arrested in 1991 in the plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev tells a great deal.  It seems Rapava has a daughter, Zinaida who gives the “notebook” to Kelso and a Satellite News reporter named O’Brian.  Further it appears Stalin may have had are relationship with Zinaida’s mother Anna Safanova, a house cleaner who may have produced a son, an heir to Stalin.

Arkhangelsk, Russia from above, photo 1

(Cathedral of the Archangel Michael)

As Harris weaves his web the novel centers on the quest for the notebook that involves a Russian SVR agent, Feliks Suvorin who tracks Kelso and O’Brian to the north country and a run in with “Stalin’s possible heir,” that may not end well. The northern city is Archangel which remains a hotbed of Stalinism and produces a perilous adventure for all concerned as the SVR and Spetsnaz soldiers may have met their match with the son of Stalin. 

As Harris continues his web he makes a number of important historical observations the most important of which focuses on Russian workers and peasants, who under the Tsar had nothing while the nobility owned the country.  Later the workers and peasants owned nothing, and the Party owned the country.  Later, the workers and peasants still owned nothing, and the country’s is owned as usual, “by whoever has the biggest fists.”  Today it is the oligarchs and Putin.

Harris’ plot line is farfetched, but it does lend itself to an interesting story leading the reader on to learn what the truth is and if the “notebook” actually is meaningful and what makes so many people willing to kill to acquire it.  A dominant theme that Harris develops is the memory of Stalin among the Russian people.  He remains quite popular as historically Russia has always had a father/Tsarist type leader who was tolerated as  all knowing.  Then came Lenin, Stalin, the Brezhnev types, and now Putin, all with similar autocratic tendencies. 

Though I would not call Archangel one of Harris’ best novels it is worth the read because of its subject matter and the author’s commentary on what Russia has become or still remains.

(Stalin Statue)

FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II by Daniel James Brown

During World War II the United States government violated its founding principles by incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in “internment camps,” a euphemism for “concentration camps.”  Families were separated, homes and businesses lost, and possessions  sold for little value as people were sent to live in barracks in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arkansas, and Utah.  Of those sent to the camps, two-thirds were American citizens.  Despite this treatment Japanese-Americans reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the same manner as their fellow countrymen with thousands either enlisting or being drafted into the US military.  The treatment of these American citizens domestically and the courage and defiance shown by Japanese-American soldiers in Europe is the subject of Daniel James Brown’s latest book FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II.  Brown the author of the award winning THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS has produced another amazing narrative history that focuses on the personal lives of the characters portrayed and provides the reader with intricate details of what they experienced, the emotions involved, and in the case of Brown’s current effort the quest to bring honor to their families and successfully represent their country on the battlefield.

Brown’s work is based on voluminous research that included interviews with many survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the camps and fought for their country in the European theater.  Brown’s effort has two major components.  First, he focuses on the reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its implications for Japanese-Americans.  The racism and fear on the part of the US government resulted in the round up of over 120,000 American citizens where they wound remain until President Roosevelt, after gaining his fourth term in the White House ended their incarceration in December 1944.  The second component of the book zeroes in on Japanese-American citizens, born on American soil who were known as Nisei who enlisted in the US Army.  These individuals made up two distinct groups that Brown describes; the Kontonks, Japanese-Americans who lived on the mainland, and Buddaheads, who lived in Hawaii.  The two groups were very different culturally despite

Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.

(Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the “Exclusion Area” on the West Coast of the United States and to move to remote internment) 

their common ancestry and did not get along well until they began to train together and deployed overseas.  

Brown introduces countless individuals in his presentation, but his main focus is on four men; Rudy Tokiwa and Fred Shiosaki who were members of the Third Battalion K Company, part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were from the mainland.  Katsugo “Kats” Miho, a Hawaiian was part of the 522nd Artillery group, and George Hirabayashi, a mainlander who refused to fight because of the racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans becoming a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker.  From the outset Brown describes the increasing racism and virulent rhetoric that the families of the Nisei had to deal with when they were rounded up, forced to give away and/or sell their possessions, and life in the internment camps.  Brown’s presentation is very sensitive particularly reflected in the excerpted letters between family members and their sons fighting abroad, including a series of letters between chaplains Hiro Higuchi and Masao Yamada and their wives.

Photograph of Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 1942, Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him, citing the “military necessity” of Japanese internment).

Brown carefully reviews the history of anti-Asianism in America dating back to the mid-19th century.  He traces Congressional legislation from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement, and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that set quotas for different ethnicities and their ability to immigrate to the United States.  Brown describes the conditions in the internment camps that the Tokiwa, Shiosaki, and Miho families were sent to, particularly Poston in Arkansas and Heart’s Mountain in Wyoming.  Brown explores their emotional state and how they and thousands of other internes were able to endure their situation and in most cases make the best of it as camps produced schools, theater, farming, among many examples of their flexibility in the face of virulent racism.

The author’s treatment of the Hirabayashi case is important as it reflects the racism in the American legal system and its refusal to conform to constitutional protections of its citizens.  Many soldiers were allowed to visit their families in the camps.  Their anger and frustration concerning what they witnessed did not take away their quest to honor their families and become the best soldiers they could be.

The 422nd and 522nd fought in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and were enveloped by the Battle of the Bulge and they developed a reputation of being among the best troops that the United States produced, evidenced by General Mark Clark’s constant requests for Japanese-American soldiers for his companies.  The bravery of these men is well documented as Brown’s excellent command of details of what the Nisei faced on the battlefield is portrayed, i.e.; German bombardment  on the outskirts of Italian cities and towns, their rescue of over 200 Texas soldiers pinned down by German artillery at the cost of hundreds of their own casualties in the Vosges, their constant volunteering for dangerous missions, and their sense of community as they fought as what historian Stephen Ambrose describes in dealing with the Battle of the Bulge, as “a band of brothers.”  They gained the respect of the Germans, and they came to fear “the little iron men,” as the Nisei fought through the forests of the Vosges, Anzio, and numerous towns and villages throughout Italy and Germany.

A replica of internment camp barracks stands at Manzanar National Historic Site on Dec. 9, 2015, near Independence, Calif. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Manzanar Internment Camp)

Once Roosevelt ordered the freeing of the interned Japanese-Americans these people wondered where they could go.  Their homes and businesses were gone, and FDR’s order did not extinguish the rampant racism that remained despite the reputation the Nisei had garnered from the American media, at the same time their sons were fighting and dying for the American flag.  It is interesting that today we are witnessing a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States because of Covid-19, reflecting the idea that we as a people we have a long way to go in coping with our racist past and present.

In the case of Hirabayashi, he was arrested and imprisoned after a sham trial.  His lawyers fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in Hirabayashi v. United States.   As David Kindy writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1987, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reopened and reviewed the case, vacating Hirabayashi’s conviction with a writ of coram nobis, which allows a court to overturn a ruling made in error.

Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy.
Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

All four men are gone now—Shiosaki was the last survivor, dying last month at age 96—but they all lived to witness the U.S. government making amends. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 addressed the “fundamental injustice” of what happened during the war and provided compensation for losses sustained by incarcerated Japanese Americans.

‘The sacrifices of our parents and the sacrifices of the men in the 442nd were our way of earning that freedom,” Shisoki told Spokane’s KXLY 4 News in 2006. “The right to be called an American, not a hyphenated American and I guess that’s my message to everybody; that you don’t—this stuff doesn’t get given to you, you earn it. Every generation earns it in some way or another.’

At a difficult time in the country’s history, each of the four men followed the path that he believed was right. In the end, their faith in their country was rewarded with the acknowledgement that their rights had been violated.”***

***David Kindy, “Meet Four Japanese-American Men Who Fought Against Racism in World War II,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 12, 2021.

THE FIRE MAKER by Peter May

Beijing map

(Beijing and its metropolitan area)

After visiting China, many times from the early 1980s through the advent of the 20th century, author Peter May has witnessed the evolution of Chinese society from one that suffered under the cruelties of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.   Beginning in 1966 the Chinese dictator sought to reinvigorate his revolution as he feared death by purging the older generation according to psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in his book REVOLUTIONARY IMMORTALITY.  Once Mao passed from the scene pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping guided China through a period of modernization that has culminated in making China the superpower she is today.  May uses this evolution in China as a focal point in the preparation of his six volume fictional compendium entitled the China Thrillers.  These works of fiction allow May to present a nuanced historical picture of China as he develops his story lines, the first of which is entitled THE FIRE MAKER.

The novel centers around the relationship between Margaret Campbell,  a forensic pathologist and sassy character who left her position in the city of Chicago to accept a six week exchange with the People’s University of Public Safety in Beijing, China.  It appears she is trying to gain  personal space because of the breakup and death of her husband and hoped to share her professional skills with her Chinese colleagues.  Her interactions with Li Yan, recently promoted to Deputy Section Chief, Section One of the Beijing Municipal Police force, is one that develops slowly ranging from the acrimonious to one of mutual respect to romantic involvement.  Through their relationship May does an excellent job in reflecting the atmosphere of China in the late 1990s in Beijing as China was beginning to evolve into a dominant superpower on the world stage.

The dialogue between Campbell and Li Yan allows May to review the contentious relationship between the United States and China.  Their back and forth centers on China’s unconscious inferiority when compared to America’s perceived superiority toward the Middle Kingdom.  Their arguments center around the issues of civil and human rights with each character bringing up events from Tiananmen Square to the Vietnam War in their frequent exchanges.  By doing so May allows the reader to gain insight into Sino-American discourse that has produced so much angst between the two for decades.

The plot focuses on three murders.  The first, the immolation of Chao Heng, a former senior technical advisor to the Minister of Agriculture who was suspected of being a pedophile and a drug addict. Campbell, whose specialty is the autopsies of burn victims is brought in and convinces Li Yan that the victim did not commit suicide but was murdered.  The second victim, Mao Mao, a known drug user, and the third is an itinerant laborer from Shanghai named Guo Jingbo.  The question is whether the three murders are separate and coincidental or are they linked in some way.  The key for Li Yan is the discovery of Marlboro cigarettes at the site of each crime scene and his “gut” instinct.

(Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

May integrates a great deal of Chinese government policy in the late 1990s and its impact on family life.  Examples include the government’s “one child” policy and its approach to the civil rights of its citizens.  May also delves into Chinese history and philosophy through the application of Confucian ideals and in entertaining scenes that reflect the concept of feng Shui and is able to juxtapose the old China with a modernizing China very clearly.

May introduces a series of interesting characters apart from Campbell and Li Yan.  Li Yan’s uncle Yifu is a colorful individual whose reputation includes that of being a phenomenal police officer during his career.  Li Yan looks up to his uncle who taught him English and convinced him to train and study in the United States and whose shoes he would like to fill.  Bob Wade is a computer profiler who plays the role of Campbell’s guide and handler.  May Yongli, a chef and lifelong friend of Li Yan is a partier who tries to get his compatriot to loosen up and enjoy life.  Lotus, is a prostitute and May Yongli’s girlfriend.  Constable Li Ping is in charge of security surrounding Campbell but finds herself left out of most important situations.  Johnny Ren, a freelance Triad hitman from Hong Kong.  There are various other Chinese officials introduced along with detectives and low level government bureaucrats as the story lines unfold.

Margaret’s work with Li exposes her to a broad section of Chinese culture and opens her eyes to a vastly different world that she comes to respect. As the case evolves, she and Li Yan become more aware of a cover-up by highly placed government officials who have developed a genetically engineered form of rice to meet China’s food supply needs.  Margaret is set up for death by an alcoholic plant geneticist, Li Yan is framed for the death of his beloved uncle, and both must run for their lives in the hope that they can tell the world what they know of a dangerous secret that could lead to disaster after what appears to be three murder committed by a professional hit man.

The novel is not overly violent and exhibits a slow meandering pace that catches fire after several hundred pages.  The novel succeeds as a taut thriller, but more importantly as a window into China in the late 1990s.  As is the case in most mystery series, the conclusion of the novel leaves an opening that will be filled in the next installment of the Campbell-Li Yan relationship entitled, THE FOURTH SACRIFICE.

(Beijing, China)

“Walk With Eloise Freiberger” our wonderful granddaughter

Page Media

This letter may not seem appropriate for a website that focuses on books, but the cause is so very important I thought I would post it. If you are not interested please disregard since I do not personally know most of you. Thank you for your consideration.


Dear Family and Friends,

As many of you know, our wonderful granddaughter, Eloise, now three years old, was diagnosed with cancer two months before she turned two years of age.  Her type of cancer is known as a Wilm’s tumor, a juvenile type of kidney cancer.  She was admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York for three weeks and then another three weeks at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital where she underwent six radiation treatments and another six months of chemotherapy.
Eloise did not deserve cancer. Why her?  Our families think about this often, but why anyone?  No one deserves cancer.  Yet so many of us have been impacted ourselves by family members and friends who have battled the disease.  Unfortunately, one of Eloise’s “MSK Big Sisters” has just been readmitted to MSK to undergo further chemo and cell transplants as her cancer has returned.
So friends and family, help us give hope and better options to the kids and families that will be affected by pediatric cancer.

Pediatric cancer research is wildly underfunded, receiving just 4-5% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget. Most progress has been made through private funding of research such as the Kids Walk. We were surprised to learn that many of Eloise’s medications were developed in the 1970s and her treatment protocol in the 1980s. While we are eternally grateful for the unparalleled care Eloise received at MSK Kids, we want better options for young people everywhere. Every dollar raised through Kids Walk for MSK Kids goes directly to research.

In that spirit Ronni and I would like to support our children, Josh and Caryn and help raise money for MSK through the “Walk With Eloise” on September 25th where we will walk one mile along the Brooklyn waterfront in honor of the sacrifices made, by children and families before us, so that Eloise’s treatment would be possible.
If you are interested in contributing to this vital cause please click on http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/walkwitheloise to make a gift toward eradicating pediatric cancer.


Thank you for your consideration,
Ronni and Steve

SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER by Connor Sullivan


(Alaskan wilderness)


We have all heard the expression, “like father like son.”  In the case of Connor Sullivan his approach is markedly different from his father Mark.  In his excellent debut thriller, SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER, Connor Sullivan has written a taut suspenseful story that describes the plight of the Gale family who live in Montana but find themselves in the midst of the remnants of the Cold War with Russia that dates to the former Soviet Union.  Mark Sullivan’s approach is different in that he develops true historical figures and events and morphs them into novel format as he did with Pino Lella, an Italian teenager who guides Jews escaping the Nazis across the Alps in his award winning BENEATH THE SCARLETT SKY, and Emil and Adeline Martel who must decide what do as the Nazis push their way into the Ukraine in his most recent novel, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY.  Both authors are wonderful story tellers who know how to lure the reader into their fictional web, but their techniques diverge as Mark relies on historical characters, and Conner recreates a tableau from the past, but his presentation is fictional.

Conner Sullivan’s debut focuses on the plight of Cassie Gale, a former Army Ranger, who has reached the depths of despair after she finds her husband Derrick after he hanged himself in the family barn.  Other issues have also influenced Cassie’s psychological downfall and she decides to travel to the Alaskan wilderness to try and get her “head on straight.”  While camping she is kidnapped and winds up in a Russian prison, a plight she cannot understand.  Cassie is not the only American who has been kidnapped in the same manner from the Alaskan terrain.  Paul Brady, a former chief Petty Officer on Seal Team Two suffers from PTSD from tours in Iraq and his attempt to solve his personal issues in Alaska also bring him to a Russian prison.  A third person, Billy French, a young environmentalist who had met Cassie north of Dawson City in the Yukon has also been taken by the Russians.

Cassie happens to be the daughter of Jim Gale, a former CIA operative whose family is unaware of his past and it is interesting how Sullivan creates a scenario that links his past and present through Russian General Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, Chief of SVR Lines, the Illegal Directorate in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.  Sokolov is an eighty-one-year-old who has strong ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin and is a throwback to the old Soviet Union in charge of torture for the KGB.

As the novel unfolds each character’s role emerges and the plot becomes increasingly complex.  Sullivan does an excellent job presenting the bureaucratic in fighting in the Russian intelligence agencies, the lack of law enforcement in Alaska to help locate and rescue those that have gone missing, the inner workings of the Gale family, and the links between Russian spies in America that include Ned and Darlene Voight who have helped the Russians extract Americans from Alaska for over thirty years to be used for experiments by Captain Akulina Yermakova, a pseudo psychologist for the Russian GRU, int heir Science Directorate.

The question that eventually dominates the novel is what is the relationship between Sokolov and Gale, and what does Cassie and her sister Emily have to do with it.  A series of interesting characters are brought to the fore that include Sergeant Meredith Plant, six months pregnant, who oversees finding Cassie for the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.  Others include Max Tobeluk, a drunken Alaskan Public Service Officer in Eagle, Alaska, Ralph Condon of the Canadian Mounted Police, Peter Trask, Emily Gale’s husband, Maverick, Cassie’s ex-Marine guide dog who plays a major role, Eve Attla, a Han village elder who knows the people and region of the search better than anyone, Susan Carter, Director of the CIA, Prescott McGavran, Gale’s handler when he was known as Robert Gaines, Earl Monks, the FBI’s expert on locating missing persons in Alaska, among several others.

Sullivan writes with an intensity and determination that makes SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER the type of mystery that is difficult to put down.  Sullivan uses the captured Americans as victims of a sick Russian entertainment practice of pitting them against the dregs of the Russian Gulag in combat against each other as well as conducting medical experiments on those extracted from Alaska.  Higher ups wager on this “sport” and it contributes to the tenseness of the Navy Seals rescue mission.  Sullivan’s debut is the type of book you read from cover to cover during cold winter nights when you want to curl up with a book and not pay attention to the time!

Bowhunting the Alaskan Wilderness

(A bull moose with antlers in velvet stands knee deep in the colorful tundra of Denali National Park)

“I ALONE CAN FIX IT”: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

PHOTO: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the Capitol in Washington D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)

“Tis the season to read Trump books, fala la la lah…..”  It appears this summer is the publishing season for monographs on the final year of the Trump administration.  A number of important books are available, i.e., Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta’s NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, Michael Wolff’s LANDSLIDE: THE FINAL YEAR OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY; Michael C. Bender’s “FRANKLY WE DID WIN THIS ELECTION, and Carol Leonnig and Paul Rucker’s sequel to A VERY STABLE GENIUS, I ALONE CAN FIX IT: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR.  All zero in on Trump’s final year in office which has turned out to be one of the most consequential years in American history since the flu pandemic of 1918.  Leonnig and Rucker’s latest effort continues to take readers deep inside Trump’s chaotic and impulsive presidency and Leonnig must be recognized as a few months ago she released another important work ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE.

Leonnig and Rucker are Pulitzer Prize winning reporters for the Washington Post and have had access to numerous sources inside and outside the Trump administration.  They have consulted over 140 sources that include senior most Trump administration officials, career government officials, friends, Trump himself, and outside advisors.  As in her previous book, Leonnig along with Rucker have produced a well sourced, crisply written monograph that is equal to her previous efforts.

What separates the first three years of the Trump administration from the last is that between 2017 and 2019 Trump faced no major crises.  It was a period dominated by Trump’s bluster, self-aggrandizement, scandal, and self-preservation, characteristics that were not conducive to the events of 2020.  As Trump made loyalty and personal power the number one traits that dominated his management skills his immigration policy that ripped children from their parents, his denigration of the rule of law, his threats to democracy, his support for white supremacy, his contempt for allies are all important, but he faced no economic or military crises, or a public health disaster until his last year in office.

Donald Trump

( June 1, 2020, President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House)

The authors give Trump credit for Operation Warp Speed in helping to develop vaccines in record time, but his ineptitude, back biting, lack of empathy and cruelty in combating the virus through mask wearing and making vaccines a partisan political issues have resulted in the death of over 600,000 Americans and the infection of tens of millions of people with Covid-19.  Apart from the pandemic, Trump’s White House oversaw the collapse of the economy, heightened racial tension after the George Floyd murder, conducted political rallies that became super spreader events, and the policy of “law and order” was being manipulated to the point that advisors had to talk him out of giving orders to shoot demonstrators.

Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election result created further chaos as he resorted to misinformation and lies that the election was stolen from him.  He created a “personality cult” that politicized any effort to combat the virus and introduced disastrous treatment options such as bleach and hydroxychloroquine. The result is that 50% of the American people are fully vaccinated and the country is now on the precipice of a fourth wave of the disease as cases are rising in areas that are under or not vaccinated.  We have become a country that is split between those who are and those who are not vaccinated.  As an aside Trump and his family are also fully vaccinated at the same time, he fueled the distrust in government that led to the January 6th insurrection to overturn the election of Joe Biden.

Leonnig and Rucker correctly point out that the concept of the “common good” is alien to Trump as every issue; race, economics, health, immigration, foreign policy, and finally the pandemic is seen through the lens of what he believed to be in his best personal and political interests.  Trump’s toolbox of bluster, bullying, and manipulation would not work during a pandemic.  Muzzling experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, picking feuds with public health officials, holding super spreader events, and refusing to be a correct role model during the pandemic helped to spread the virus further.

Leonnig and Rucker provide a detailed narrative outlining the cause of the virus, the role of China, and how it spread to Europe and the United States.  They relate the efforts of Dr. Robert Ray Redfield Jr., Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president, Matt Pottinger, former Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States,  Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Coordinator, Stephan Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, and others who worked to control the virus but who also were targets of President Trump as he railed against Public Health professionals.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington.

(Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley)

The dysfunction inside the Trump administration as it sought to deal with the pandemic are numerous and the authors present a series of them to support their points.  Jared Kushner was brought in to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators.  He in turn brought in a bunch of his friends and associates, called “financial whiz kids,” who knew nothing about government procurement or how international markets functioned.  One person described them as “the whiz bang crew of numb nuts” as Kushner’s “sourcing team” were in way over their heads and chaos reigned.  The turf battles, messaging, fealty to Trump, and inability of advisors to get along dominate the narrative as the White House tried to speak with one voice, but the leaks proliferated.  Leonnig and Rucker’s recreation of dialogue between HHS Head Alex Azar, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump advisor Michael Caputo, White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah, and White House Spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany places the reader inside the room where the dysfunction takes place.

If there is a hero in Leonnig and Rucker’s account it is Joint Chiefs of Staff Head Mark Milley.  A good example of the role he played is depicted in his comments toward Stephen Miller, Trump’s sycophant and immigration guru.  After listening to Miller spout his hatred, Milley told him to “shut the fuck up,” and that US troops could not be used against peaceful demonstrators.  The conversations that led up to the clearing of Lafayette Square of demonstrators by Park Police, National Guard and others so Trump could have a photo op in front of St. John’s church fit Leonnig and Rucker’s ability to explain why and how things evolved and their implications.  Once Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke out against what occurred the tongue lashing he experienced by Trump is available for all to read.  Milley and Esper were in a constant battle with Trump over the politicization of the military as the former president became laser focused on demonstrations in Seattle and Portland and having a large military parade on July 4th.  For Milley and Esper it was all about preserving democracy and preserving the constitution.

The misinformation seems to appear on every other page as the Trump administration tried to develop a narrative that the president was doing all he could to stave off the virus.  At one point Kushner’s “whiz kids” and others were asked to develop new models to offset public health predictions of the number of Covid-19 cases for the future if something was not done.  They were to do so by prioritizing economic recovery over public health.  This goes along with Trump’s attitude that things were doing well no matter what the evidence reflected.  Trump was obsessed with the number of covid-19 victims as it reflected negatively on this reelection.  The stock market was another Trump obsession and when it did not cooperate he would blame others and accuse them of “killing him!”  Of course, it was all the fault of the “deep state.”  Once the senate voted 52-48 not to impeach him, Trump received the memo that no accountability for his actions existed, and he went on his revenge crusade getting rid of the likes of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman and Olivia Troye once an advisor to Vice President Pence who publicized the illegalities in dealing with Ukraine.

Leonnig and Rucker do not miss a trick even including Melania Trump’s attempts to speak some sense with her husband in February 2020 to no avail.  They recount advice particularly by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie among others on how Trump could win reelection but as in the case of his spouse, the former president felt he knew what was best by going after “Sleepy Joe” and discarding a series of sound suggestions.  According to the authors the turning point in fighting the virus came with the arrival of Scott Atlas. For Trump, the virus stood in the way of his continuation in office and finally in July 2020 he found a public health official who would parrot his medical beliefs, Dr. Scott Atlas.  Atlas was a neuroradiologist at the conservative Hoover Institution who knew nothing about contagious pathogens, but he wanted to open up the economy, refused to endorse the wearing of masks, and was an advocate that the US was approaching herd immunity.  Atlas’ views were used to undercut public health officials and he went after Anthony Fauci with abandon. 

As Leonnig and Rucker shift to discuss the election about halfway through the book they bring the same talent and relentless reporting as Trump ratcheted up misinformation about the virus and every other issue as he tried to ignore the virus, but events would not let him, i.e.; the disastrous super spreader rally in Tulsa in June.  By the end of July Trump began his campaign that would result with the accusation that the election was stolen.  He suggested on July 30 that the election should be postponed, and fraud dominated mail in voting.  Further on September 23, 2020, Trump stated for the first time he might not honor the results of the election if he lost.  Tweets concerning the election  such as “the most INACCURATE AND FRAUDULENT election in history” still reverberates today as the House began its hearing concerning the January 6th insurrection. 

The William Barr-Trump relationship receives a great deal of coverage apart from the Attorney-General’s role at the Justice Department.  Leonnig and Rucker recount Barr’s repeated attempts to prevent the former president from self-sabotage.  Barr, known more for his role in defining the Mueller Report for Trump’s benefit and interfering with the sentencing of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, offered Trump advice about his campaigns shortcomings and what he needed to do to win reelection.  Barr’s political advice was mostly ignored and the author’s recount the numerous examples of  how Trump was his own worst enemy in trying to improve his position in the polls visa vie Biden, i.e., allowing Mark Meadows to cut federal funding for the CDC while Redfield was trying to get the billions needed for vaccine distribution once it was available.

Rudy Giuliani emerges as a comical figure with his conspiracy theories, distorted advice to Trump over election fraud, and trying to get Trump to just declare victory despite the evidence that he had lost the election to Biden.  Leonnig and Rucker’s daily account from January 2020 to January 2021 doesn’t leave out much that occurred or important conversations that took place.  They culminate their story of administration incompetence and back biting with the run up to January 6th by explaining why it occurred and who in their view is to blame.  The book offers a strong narrative, but is a bit light on analysis and interpretation, but if you are looking for an engrossing recapitulation of the last year you cannot go wrong consulting I ALONE CAN FIX IT.

PHOTO: Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)

AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE by Brad Stone

Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley Jan 24, 2020 Sunnyvale / CA / USA - Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco bay area Amazon.com Stock Photo

Remember when Amazon first came online in 1995, they would discount books by 33-40%.  This pricing lasted for a good 10-15 years then the discounts were reduced under the theory that once they conditioned you as a customer, they could slowly increase their profit margins.  After a year of Covid-19 restrictions Amazon’s popularity and bottom line boomed as people were sequestered at home.  Today the discount on books is usually 10-15%, and sometimes less, reflecting Amazon’s commitment to the bottom line.  Only speaking of book pricing, but I have noticed similar trends with other products.  The question is how we arrived at the present juncture, who is responsible, what are the historic trends when it comes to Amazon, and lastly what role has Jeff Bezos played in the process.  These questions are answered in full along with a partial biographical portrait of Bezos and how he built Amazon into the most dominant consumer source in the world and a company worth $1.76 trillion today in Brad Stone’s new book, AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE.

Stone, the senior executive editor of global technology at Bloomberg News has written an in depth account of Amazon’s phenomenal growth from 2010 through 2021 focusing on the managerial style of Jeff Bezos and his incredible ability to support, develop, and implement projects that would be worth billions.  Stone also digs deeply into the culture at Amazon and its mantra of putting the customer first, however, that “bumper sticker” is disingenuous as its record of employee safety, philanthropy, and demanding a certain belief system from executives and others reflects.

WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future
(Jeff Bezos)

Bezos’ genius and overbearing personality are on full display in Stone’s account.  According to the author the watershed year for Amazon’s overwhelming dominance in multiple markets with varied products is 2010.  From its inception through 2010 Amazon was not a very profitable company, but the infrastructure groundwork for what Bezos was able to achieve was in place.  Stone covers every facet of the Amazon experience and how it developed into the economic behemoth it is today.  Stone delves into the development of Alexa, Kindle, Amazon Go, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon advertising, the creation of Fulfillment Centers, its success in India, development of third party sellers, and the purchase of Whole Foods and the Washington Post in detail.

Bezos was the driving force behind Amazon’s technology innovations harnessing artificial intelligence, robotics, and other ingenious developments.  However, his management style pushed his engineers to the breaking point in many instances and his nasty commentary when not happy at meetings are legend.  Bezos could be “remorseless with those that did not meet his exacting standards, but he seemed to have an unusual wellspring of patience for those who practiced the challenging act of invention.”  Bezos gets a great deal of the credit for the Amazon experience and success, but he had tremendous executive talent and engineers to work with.  Stone explores the work of people such as Dilip Kumar, Greg Hart, Andy Jassy, Dave Clark, Jeff Wilke, Stephanie Landry among many others.  Bezos and his deputies believed that algorithms could do the job better and faster than people.  In many ways it explains the insensitivity that exists at Amazon toward certain employees especially in Fulfillment centers. 

Amazon's Newest Robotics Fulfillment Center Holds Grand Opening In Orlando : News Photo
(Amazon Fulfillment Center)

According to Stone the ultimate goal was turning Amazon’s retail business into a self-service technology platform that could generate cash with a minimum amount of human intervention.  In accomplishing their mission, a number of negatives emerge.  Stone’s research uncovers a male dominated culture at Amazon reflected in the lack of women in upper echelon positions.  Women complained about the working environment and deals made with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Tomba, and Ray Price all for naught.  Female anger emerged at the same time the “Metoo” movement gathered momentum as sexual inuendo, jokes, touching etc. came to the fore.  Casting a net around Amazon working conditions and treatment of employees also does not enhance the company’s reputation.  The use of robotics at Fulfillment Centers created repetitive motion/health issues; pressure on workers to gather products quickly and package them; worker performance was monitored  by tyrannical invisible robots, poor benefits and low pay, periodically firing people at the lowest level of the employee chain, in addition to the constant threat of termination, all take the luster off of Amazon’s workplace propaganda.  Further, Bezos and company are very anti-union and went out of their way to expand in areas, i.e.; airplane procurement and location which were also anti-union.  During the pandemic when Amazon’s work force passed one million and its annual earnings exceeded $380 billion as sales rose by 37%, the company pursued a virulently anti-union policy.  A way to sum this up is that the monograph highlights genius, innovation, and greed.

Stone is not a stylist, but he has the ability to explain a great deal of technical jargon in a very easy manner.  Whether explaining the role of artificial intelligence in the creation of Alexa or Amazon Go the reader can easily comprehend the arguments presented at executive conferences and meetings, particularly those of engineers.  Stone explores numerous topics aside from the development of new products or strategies that in the end created billions in sales and profits.  A key part of his discussion is not to reinforce the role of retail in Amazon’s success but focus on “Cloud Computing” which generated the revenue to fuel Amazon’s supercharged expansion.  As Mark Levinson points out in his review in the Washington Post, “with cloud computing, an organization can rent computers, programmers and security experts from an external provider such as Amazon instead of maintaining its own data centers. Amazon pioneered cloud computing in the early 2000s, and by the 2010s it was easily the market leader.  Bezos divined that finding new uses for Amazon’s burgeoning cloud infrastructure was the key to the company’s future.”

Bloomberg's Best Photos 2014 : News Photo
(Amazon workers)

Stone’s discussion of the location process for a second headquarters when difficulties developed in Seattle with the city government and the ability to expand facilities is eye opening reflecting Amazon’s insensitivity toward local government.  In addition, the chapter on Amazon Web Services which became the most profitable component of the company is key as was the formation of their own advertising strategy and the creation of an airplane fleet and purchase of delivery vans to bring about next day delivery.

The Amazon story is one of amazement.  How could one company become so powerful economically and culturally as most people seem to consult Amazon on a daily basis, even before the onset of Covid-19 which would allow Amazon to expand exponentially as people had few alternatives to acquire products they needed while they quarantined.  By the end of 2020 “Amazon boasted a $1.6 trillion market cap and Jeff Bezos was worth more than $190 billion.  His wealth had increased more than 70% during the pandemic…a breathtaking achievement.”  Stone stresses that the key aspect of how this was achieved was Bezos’ management style as his underlings knew if the boss had an idea, it was their job to bring it to fruition which in most cases they did.  To his credit Stone has laid out the Amazon success story for the general public, but also its warts.  Though at times the narrative gets bogged down in details it is worth the read if you wonder when you “click” how did it come to that action by your finger for everything you need.

TRESPASSER by Paul Doiron

(ATV Riding in Maine)

After whiling away the hours reading Paul Doiron’s THE POACHER’S SON and enjoying it immensely, I decided to move on to the second iteration of Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch in TRESPASSER.  The book lived up to my expectations as Doiron develops a taut plot that carries through the three hundred plus pages that justified the time spent with Warden Bowditch.

Doiron continues to develop Bowditch’s life story and character after the events in THE POACHER’S SON.  In TRESPASSER, Bowditch continues to show up at murder investigations and when the higher ups warn him off and tell him to tend to his “warden” duties” he can’t control his curiosity which are based on his empathy and sensitivity to the cases that emerge.  In the current situation Bowditch finds himself chasing a demented family bent on using their ATVs in order to anger their neighbors as they destroy private property and deal drugs.  Further, there is another father and son partnership engaged in similar activities as Doiron’s commentary of the “interesting” types of people who live in certain parts of Maine seemed justified.  Apart from his Warden duties, Bowditch has a sixth sense when it comes to crime.  Bowditch follows up a call of an accident where automobile has struck a deer and the driver just walks away from the accident and disappears.  The State Trooper who showed up late to the accident scene is incompetent and full of himself leaving Bowditch holding the bag.  Later, Ashley Kim, a graduate assistant at the Harvard Business School is found dead after being sexually assaulted in her mentor’s house – of course discovered by Bowditch.

The problem that emerges is that the crime is reminiscent of a murder seven years previous where a young lady is raped and murdered, and controversy surrounds the conviction of one Erland Jefferts who receives a life sentence.  However, the prosecution withheld evidence and cut corners raising the question as to whether Jefferts was railroaded.  A group referred to as the J Team made up of Jefferts Aunt and Uncle and a series of lawyers are convinced he is innocent which creates a number of theories as to whether Jefferts was in fact guilty and what is the relationship to the death of Ashley Kim.  Of course, Bowditch pursues his own investigation and lo and behold he locates the individual who was the prime suspect, Professor Hans Westergaard dead in his car.

Doiron is master in plot development.  He slowly allows his story to unravel with numerous twists and turns that draws the reader in.  In my case after a few pages, I was hooked and I decided to get comfortable and read the novel through in one sitting absorbing the plot, the author’s commentary describing “Mainers,” the ecology of the region, and the intricacies of Bowditch’s life.  As Doiron develops his whodunnit the two murder cases come together as number of people begin to feel uncomfortable. Among them is one of Doiron’s new characters, Assistant Attorney General Danica Marshall, a tough and attractive prosecutor who does not care for Bowditch.  Other new characters include Calvin Barter, a sexual predator and drug dealer; Dave and Donnie Drisko, poachers who replicated the actions of the Barter family; Knox County Chief of Police, Dudley Baker, among others. 

Doiron reintroduces characters from his first novel. Sgt. Kathy Frost, Bowditch’s boss reappears as does Charley Steven, the retired Game Warden pilot, Sarah Harris, Bowditch’s girlfriend, and Detective Mike Menceri, who seems to be in a running argument with Bowditch throughout the novel.  For our protagonist he seems to have a career death wish as he continually angers higher ups by his actions.  But he is obsessed with finding justice for victims whether they are non-human or human.  For Bowditch, whose own life was recently shattered by violence turning away from these crimes is not an option.  His investigation has reopened old wounds among the locals and the rich summer “invaders” and because of his persistence he puts his life in danger as well as the women he loves as he has touched a nerve among certain people who refuse to allow him to solve the case.

Doiron’s first two novels can stand alone but I would recommend they be read one after the other and then move on to third the installment in the Mike Bowditch series, BAD LITTLE FALLS.

(ATV Riding in Maine)