Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none. I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling*****

How much would you pay right now to laugh out loud, and laugh hard, about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with current events? Exactly. My thanks go to Net Galley and Perseus Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The author is a journalist who caught wind of a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire that was taken over by libertarians:

“The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than…other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality. Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town—just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.” 

By the time the long-term denizens of Grafton realized the extent of the mayhem that these people intended, they discovered that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded…At the same time the Free Towners set themselves to shaping the community to their liking, the town’s bears were working to create their own utopia.”

The newcomers’ idea of liberty meant no enforcement of any law, and no taxes, even for basic infrastructure and services. And when the local bear population blossomed, it was every Free Towner for herself.

Hongoltz-Hetling provides a succinct history of the town, then introduces a handful of the key players. There’s a man that buys and lives in a church in order to avoid paying taxes; an Earth Mother type that decides the bears are hungry and should receive free donuts, seeds, and grains daily in her own backyard; several tent dwellers that eschew basic hygiene and food safety; and oh, so many, many bears. Some of the townspeople are identified by name, but those that prefer anonymity are identified by colorful nicknames.

At the outset we see jaw-dropping levels of eccentricity coupled with hilarious anecdotes, and true to his journalistic calling, the author spends a good deal of time in this tiny, lawless burg, and so he reports events not second hand, but from his own experience. My favorite part is the showdown between Hurricane the Guard Llama and an ursine interloper looking for mutton on the hoof. Another is the conflict between “Beretta,” the resident next door to “Doughnut Lady,” who hates all bears primarily because they are fat.

Eventually things take a darker, more tragic turn for some; the most impressive aspect of this story is the seamless manner in which the author segues from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and then brings us back up for air.

Ultimately, the bears are emblematic of the need human beings have for cooperation and organization.

Though the material used for this story is rich and original, it takes a gifted wordsmith like Hongoltz-Hetling to craft it into a darkly amusing tale of this caliber. If I were to change one thing, I would lose the digression near the middle of the book with regard to typhus, Tunisia, and diseases shared by bears. It slows the pace and could easily be whittled down to a single paragraph. But the rest of this book is so engaging that I cannot reduce my rating by even half a star. My advice is to skim that passage, which eats up about five percent of an otherwise perfectly executed narrative, unless of course you like that aspect of it.

In six years of reviewing, and out of the 666 reviews I have provided to Net Galley—and yes, that’s the actual number, until I turn this review in—I have purchased fewer than one percent of the books I’ve read, either to give as gifts, or to keep. That said, this book is going under my Christmas tree this December. If you read it, you’re bound to agree: the story of Grafton is the best surprise of 2020.

Do it.

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.

Handsome Johnny, by Lee Server**

I was invited to read and review this biography by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it’s the story of Johnny Rosselli, known as “the gentleman gangster.” Sometimes I enjoy a good gangster story; my great-uncle (whom I didn’t really know) was Sherman Billingsley, the thuggish owner of the New York Stork Club, and so when I read about others, it sparks my imagination. Usually.

I didn’t engage with the book’s beginning when I sat down the with digital review copy, and eventually I got bored and set it aside for something more compelling. But often, the galleys that land on the back burner become more interesting once I can get an audio copy. After avoiding this book till publication, I found an audiobook at Seattle Bibliocommons, and I began listening to it in the evenings when I prepared dinner. In this way I found it more interesting. There’s a fair amount of background provided, because the writer (perhaps wisely) doesn’t assume his audience is proficient in American history, Prohibition and so on. I didn’t hear anything I didn’t know already, but it was okay. Gradually it took on the flavor of a documentary, not riveting but not bad. I listened to the first 25% and thought I would probably finish it this way.

Unfortunately, a deal breaker came up somewhere in the next ten percent. Rosselli has gone to Los Angeles because there was no mob out there yet. He figured he’d pioneer vice and leg-breaking on the West Coast. Fine, fine. He meets Al Capone, who is being harassed by cops and told he can’t stay in L.A., and Rosselli does Capone a favor and thereby comes into the Capone orbit. Okay, fine. But then we get into the women.

Now, I understand that mobsters were about as far as anyone can get from feminism, and of course in the 1940s and 50s, there wasn’t any women’s movement to speak of. The problem is that Server doesn’t differentiate Rosselli’s point of view from his own. I get the distinct impression that the two aren’t very different. There’s only one quality worth reporting in women, and that’s their physical appearance. So Rosselli falls for Jean Harlow, who is perfect. Completely perfect. What makes her perfect? Well, she’s got great legs. They are described. Breasts too; we hear about that. And she is a virgin! Every middle-aged mobster loves to get a virgin in the sack, right? At age seventeen she’s barely legal, but nobody worries about that. Oh, and also she’s very, very white. Porcelain skin. Just wonderful.

By the time Server is done explaining all of Harlow’s best qualities, and the misery that that bastard put her through (though he doesn’t describe it this way; in fact, the reader has a kind of bemused smirk to his voice throughout,) and oh how sad about her suicide at age 27, I am seeing red.

 I’m not chopping bell peppers now. I’m standing stock still in my kitchen, glaring at my tablet. Dinner may be a little late.

I try to continue with the book, but I am pissed.  Finally, I decide life is too short. I’ve tried this book twice, but I don’t finish it. In fact, I consider that second star in the rating to be generous.

This book is recommended to misogynistic assholes. Everyone else should give it a miss.

The Third Rainbow Girl, by Emma Copley Eisenberg**

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a journalist who researched the murders of young women headed for the Rainbow Gathering, a music festival in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received early in exchange for an honest review.

What I was expecting from this book is not at all what I got. The cover suggests something spooky, and the topic also tells me this is a true crime story. The promotional blurb says it’s

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence. 

Instead, it’s a strange mishmash of genres that don’t blend well, and the result is a wandering narrative entirely devoid of suspense or even focus of any kind, and though I tried reading it multiple times, then checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, I could not push myself all the way through this thing. I resolved to finish it and get it reviewed, and I wouldn’t let myself read anything else till it was done; the result was that I found excuses not to read or listen to anything at all. I finally let myself off the hook, but not until I had skipped to several parts of the second half, just to make sure there was no shining epiphany at the end.

It’s a tough spot to be in, journalistically speaking, because Eisenberg spent five years researching “these brutal crimes,” but she came up dry. How do you squeeze a story out of that? Instead of writing about the murders, she mostly writes about herself investigating the murders, making this story more of a journalistic memoir with a side serving of Pocahontas County history and culture.

If this is what the book is, then it should be sold as such. The title is deceptive, and the murky woodland illustration on the cover is deceptive as well. A journalistic retrospective should be billed as exactly that, so why wasn’t it? Possibly because nobody wants to buy a journalistic retrospective. Why not? Because it’s boring, boring, boring.

Ordinarily I would be gentler with a writer that’s published a debut, but I came away feeling resentful of the time I wasted reading and listening to a book that wasn’t what the reader was led to believe. I felt this way when I read it free; how might you feel if you ponied up the jacket price only to find that it’s not scary at all, and says little about the murders it’s supposed to be about?

No. No, no and no.

At Home With Muhammad Ali, by Hana Ali*****

Muhammad Ali is the sort of larger-than-life historical figure that nobody forgets. I was offered an opportunity to read and review this biography written by his daughter, Hana, and I jumped at the chance. Her recollections are bolstered by the vast archives that her father intentionally left, cassette tapes of every phone conversation that took place from his home, along with letters, photographs, and journal entries. Ali knew he was making history, and so he consciously left copious documentation behind. This wonderful book strikes the perfect balance, deeply affectionate and intimate, emotionally honest, yet never prurient or mawkish. My thanks go to the author for the beautiful hardcover copy, and for this opportunity.

A note before I continue: usually when I review a book, I refer to the author by his or her last name. In this case, however, the last name is shared by author and subject, and so when I use the name ‘Ali,’ I refer to the boxer, whereas I refer to his daughter and biographer by her first name.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t watch boxing, which my mother considered a nasty, violent sport; I was inclined to agree with her, and so when Dad turned on a boxing match on television, she and I beat a hasty retreat. However, it was impossible to miss my father’s agitated shouts at the TV whenever Ali was on it. Ali’s brash confidence, his refusal to humbly look at the floor while talking to white interviewers, his fervent proselytizing on behalf of the Muslim faith frightened a lot of Caucasians, particularly those who, like my family, lived a life that never intersected with people of races different from our own. But my father wasn’t just afraid of Ali; he was angry. How dare he! On television! He called him a clown; he called him an idiot. There was a lot of that going around at the time, as the Civil Rights Movement strove to change the racial contours of American society, not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the nation.

Many years later, when I began studying education in preparation for teaching public school, in particular language arts, American history and civics, one of the most critical parts of my own graduate school curriculum had to do with serving children from underserved racial and ethnic groups, and part of that was in holding up positive role models to foster self-esteem in every child. My classmates raised the name of Muhammad Ali, and I could see that they were right; say that name around any Black child, especially a little boy, and watch his chin raise perceptibly, his spine straighten, and a gleam come to his eyes. This is what interested me about Ali, not his athletic record, but his principled stand in regard to Civil Rights issues, and his assertion that Black men in America should walk tall.

As I began reading Hana’s glowing tribute to her daddy, I began to wonder more about his boxing career. Ali began boxing at age twelve! There’s a practice you won’t see today; but Louisville, Kentucky during the post-war boom was a much different place than anywhere in America today. By the time he was old enough to shave, he was already accomplished at his sport. And the more I read, the more convinced I was that I should not review this biography without watching some boxing. I went to YouTube over and over, and I watched Ali with Sonny Liston, with Joe Frazier, with George Foreman. I learned a lot about the sport, including the fact that it’s not really all that violent, and it involves just as much skill as other team sports. And also: that man was talented, and he was so damn smart.

And this is the side of Ali that the public never really saw. Who knew that he preferred brainy women with independent ideas? In the 1960s, this was a rare thing among men. Who knew that he wouldn’t let anyone, whether family or staff, raise a hand to his children? Nonviolent parenting all the way. There wasn’t much of that around back then, either. Part of his indulgent nature was due to his faith, but part of it was a deep fear that some hateful person would try to hurt him by kidnapping his daughters. Given the way Hana describes her childhood self, it might have become a Ransom of Red Chief situation. Among the mountains of documentation Ali saved is a hefty collection of letters sent home by preschools and schools decrying Hana’s scrappy behavior. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the recordings she shares:

“’Hana, say ‘I’m a good girl.’

“’I’m a good girrrrl.’

“’Say ‘I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“’I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“Say ‘I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’Say ‘I won’t scratch the boys no more.’

“’I won’t scratch the boys no more.’”

Hana recalls him as a gentle father who remained available to his children despite his busy career; each day began with her careening down the stairs to find him in his den, where he might be having a phone conversation with one of many American celebrities as well as world leaders. He spoke with Brezhnev, Ghaddafi (who wanted to contribute to the war chest of a Black American presidential candidate), and Deng Xiao Peng, who wanted Ali to train Chinese boxers. He offered his services to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, hoping he might use his religion as a connection to the Iranians holding American citizens hostage.

In another section she recounts the time he happened by a police cordon. A man was out on a ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump; Ali persuaded the cops to let him get past the cordon and speak to the man. There are photographs of him holding the would-be jumper in his arms after he was rescued.

Whereas other public figures often bemoan their lack of privacy, Ali loved being famous, and he loved his fans. Sometimes he left home just to go out and find some of them and talk to them. It’s refreshing.

Yet Ali wouldn’t have been an easy man to be married to. Part of this dovetails with his generosity; he often tooled around in his Rolls Royce when he wasn’t training or working, and when he saw homeless people he’d load them into his car, bring them home, and put them in a guest room until he could arrange a lovely hotel suite for each of them. It’s a sweet gesture, but although Hana doesn’t mention how her mother reacted to it, I can tell you right now that for me, that would get old fast, coming home and not knowing how many strangers had taken up residence. And whereas Ali had more respect for the women in his life than most men did back then, his marriages were clearly never intended to be equal relationships.

But his relationship with Hana was an idyllic one, and this shows in the many engaging photographs that punctuate the text, one after another in which she and her father pose using identical body language, some of which are pretty funny. She also speaks with the pain she feels, even today, of her parents’ divorce, which she is convinced was primarily due to a misunderstanding.

There’s a great deal here about Ali’s religion; there’s really no way to tell his story without it, since it motivated nearly everything he did. There are places where I am ready to be done with it; but just when it threatens to slacken the pace of the narrative, Hana wisely segues on to other topics.

To remember Ali is to remember the virulence of the overt racism of twentieth century America. The way that the media played up every violent thing any Black man or boy did; the stereotypes involving the jungle, and the unpredictability of Ali’s personality, all served to underscore the false notion of hidden menace deep within the man. Ali is the first Black man I ever saw on television that didn’t keep his eyes down when talking to reporters, and who didn’t downplay his own strength. He scared a lot of Caucasian people half to death, merely by being successful, strong, and confident.

But Hana doesn’t dwell on any of the negative publicity; instead, she shows us who he really was. Ali loved to write poetry, for example, and he loved to read. He had never gained strong skills in spelling or grammar, so some of what he produced came out looking a little rough, and yet its merit is undeniable. What a voice! Who knew that a fun day out with his daughters often meant a trip to Barnes Noble to load up on good books?

The book’s ending is perhaps the most poignant of all. Hana recalls her father, an old man in his seventies, weakened by Parkinson’s, viewing footage of himself after the Foreman fight:

 “I wrestled with an alligator, and tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Watching himself he muses, “Man, I was something!”

I defy you to finish this book without a lump in your throat or misty vision, as Hana tells us, “Sometimes I still feel like that five-year-old girl roaming the halls of a mansion, waiting for her daddy to come home.”

Highly recommended.

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker****

Happy anniversary, Doubleday. This is my thirtieth review for you.

Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy.

I wanted to read Kolker’s book because so little is written about schizophrenia for the general readership. My best friend’s older brother was schizophrenic, and sometimes she would phone me crying and whispering from the floor of her bedroom closet. The bro—let’s call him Marco–was a large person, over six feet tall with a towering red afro that made him appear even larger. He and my friend were both adopted, and their parents weren’t nearly that big. Marco hated taking his medication, and once he reached his teens, he self-medicated with every street drug he could get his hands on. As a result, he often became violent, breaking out all of the windows of the family home and assaulting his poor sweet mother with a crowbar before the cops arrived to haul him off to the hospital again.

And so I wondered, when I saw this book, whether this was a common experience (yes,) and what inroads had been made in the decades between then and now (very few.)

The Galvin family is an anomaly, a very large family of twelve children, half of whom were stricken and the other half traumatized from growing up with them. The family participated in The Human Genome Project, a compilation of genetic samples and other information aimed at unlocking Mother Nature’s terrible secrets. Of course, researchers were also absorbed in the question of nature versus nurture.

Kolker does an outstanding job of chronicling the Galvin family’s history alternately with passages about what was known about this disease at the time when the eldest sibling began to show symptoms, and what has been learned since. It’s a lot of information to organize and share, and who knows what information he weeded out as unnecessary, because one has to stop somewhere.

When the Galvin children were diagnosed in the mid-twentieth century, professionals in the field leaned heavily toward the idea that there was no hereditary cause for the condition, but instead embraced a “mother-as-monster” theory. Because of this, Mimi Galvin, the mother of all of those children, was inclined to stonewall rather than seek help. But who could blame her? Our society was only slightly removed from the days when the ‘crazy’ family member was locked in the attic. (“That thumping sound? Oh dear heaven, perhaps that old raccoon has snuck back in. Enjoy your pie; we’ll chase him out of there after you’re on your way.”) To make matters more complicated, Don, father of the brood, had a high profile position in the U.S. military, and rumors of family drama could have impacted his career.

Like my friend’s family, the Galvins dealt with the noise, the horror, the disruption by moving to the far edges of town, seeking geographical isolation so that neighborly complaints need not be an added worry.

Here’s the difficult part of writing about schizophrenia: readers want to find a grand discovery at the end; if not a cure, then a new and impressive treatment, or an historic advance in eliminating the problem. But solutions are elusive, and because of the stubborn nature of this disease, what may seem ground breaking to a researcher looks like a big, fat so-what to the average reader.

All told, Kolker has done a fine job describing what has taken place within the family and within the field; I thought he was a little hard on Mimi, who made a lot of errors but was facing a terrible dilemma during a period when our culture was very different from today. That aside, I do recommend this book to you. It will be available April 7, 2020.

Fight of the Century, by Michael Chabon et al*****

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, a large cross section of the finest writers alive have written essays, each about one landmark case. Chabon and his co-editor, Ayelet Waldman, contributed their advance to the organization, and all of the contributing authors did so free of charge. As for this reviewer, I’d have been interested in an ACLU publication, even if I hadn’t heard of the writers involved; and I’d have been interested in anything written by Chabon, even if the story or topic wasn’t in my lane. As it is, I count myself beyond lucky to have scored a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It’s for sale now.

This is the sort of book that invites skipping around, either according to subject, or according to the authors you love best. Because of this, I recommend buying it in paper rather than digitally, because flipping around out of order in digital format is a pain in the butt. Also, this is the sort of classical reference material that you’d want on your shelf. In fact, I want a physical copy for myself.

I haven’t read all of the entries, but I’ve read enough of them to recommend it to you. The cases discussed are meaty and interesting, and they aren’t the standard fodder that shows up in every undergraduate course on Constitutional law. Each entry is succinct, and the writers refrain from self-promotion. The entries I appreciate most so far are by Jesmyn Ward, who discusses the use of anti-loitering laws to transform free Black boys and men into slave laborers; Timothy Egan, who details a 1962 decision regarding the right to receive Communist literature in the U.S. mail; and Louse Erdrich, who discusses digital snooping and surveillance used against the Dakota Pipeline protesters in 2016. I know there are many more I want to read, but I am posting this now so that you can get a copy while it’s in the stores.

Here’s your chance. You can get an outstanding addition to your home library while contributing to a worthwhile organization whose work is more crucial now than ever. Highly recommended.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg***

Ortberg wrote The Merry Spinster, a work of dark humor that convinced me that he is a genius. This book is a lot different, although at times the same voice peeks through. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Many of the essays in this book are recycled from Ortberg’s blog, but since I never saw the blog, all of it is new to me. The essays describe his experience as a trans man, and though it is funny in places, most of the pieces ooze pain and bitterness. And to be fair, a trans man brought up female in an evangelical Christian home, taught to consider the Rapture in every choice made, every road followed, is bound to have these things in spades. However, there is a good deal of redundancy here. After awhile I found my attention wandering, and by thirty percent of the way in, I was watching the page numbers crawl by. How much longer…?

Some of the chapter titles are full of promise, but then the chapter itself disappoints. What, this again? I did enjoy the passage on parallel parking, and the chapter on Columbo (the only man Ortberg has ever loved) cracked me up.

I have rated this title three stars for general audiences, but I suspect that for those transitioning to manhood, or for those close to someone doing so, the rating will be higher.

Recommended to those transitioning, considering transitioning, and their loved ones.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.