Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan****

MichaelCollinsTo date, this is the single best volume that’s been written about Collins, and it’s a meal. I purchased this title on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon when I was there to visit family a few years ago. Although the length of the book is listed as 480 pages in paperback, the reader needs to come prepared. The type is tiny and dense, and it took me a long time to wade through it. If it were formatted using more standard guidelines, it would be a great deal longer.

As I write this review I am halfway through Coogan’s epic history of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and the style in which he writes is consistent in both books. Coogan tells us everything that is historically important, and he also tells us everything else he finds out, with no apparent filtering. His writing is half Irish history, half family Bible in the sense that if someone was briefly or peripherally involved with Collins, their proud relatives can probably find that person and his or her historical role somewhere in these pages. His shoe size is here, and the names of every girl he flirted with. For a man that lived so briefly, he left a large shadow, and the author was plainly unwilling to let even the tiniest bit of research go to waste, relevant or no.

I am somewhat surprised that Collins doesn’t rate more favorably with the author, given that his name is the one most associated with the creation of an independent Ireland. But Coogan does due diligence in establishing the brutality of the British occupiers, who killed indiscriminately with the use of terror. At one point, soldiers opened fire on a school yard where little children were at play; these royal ambassadors were the original school shooters, killing six little ones for being Catholic. In the protests that followed, women and girls knelt before British tanks and said their rosaries for those that had been killed for their Fenian identities.

The Irish freedom struggle took place at a time when the whole world was on fire. The Russian Revolution was unfurling with breathtaking speed; at the same time, there was no established Marxist revolution to look to for guidance, and Irish freedom fighters had no single idea of what political ideology should shape the struggle. Most of the revolutionaries were barely old enough to shave, and a lot of errors were made because of this lack of clear vision. The results were often tragic.

There’s an interesting discussion of whether Irishmen should become German allies during World War I. There is a strong resistance to becoming shills for the British, and so the question, then, is whether to remain neutral, or take the side of Britain’s enemy in the hope of receiving reciprocal assistance. In the end, nobody was organized enough, in this era of little technology, to come up with a cohesive plan, so the point was a moot one.

Should you read this biography? I think it depends upon how much time you have, and how strong your interest level is. One consideration might be to purchase it as a reference volume and flip through it to tease out the most relevant information, but be forewarned: sifting through the minutiae is not an easy enterprise. For researchers, the photos alone might be of interest, since they constitute primary documents.

Recommended for those with strong basic knowledge of Irish history that want to flesh out the details, and for those building a reference library.

The Road to Jonestown, by Jeff Guinn*****

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple

theroadtojonestownThe good news is that Jeff Guinn tells us everything there is to know about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

The bad news is that Jeff Guinn tells everything there is to know about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

This reviewer was just out of high school when the media frenzy emerged around the mass suicide of hundreds of Americans living in a cult called The Peoples Temple, which was sequestered in the equatorial jungles in Guyana, South America. No one could understand it; why would so many people follow such a flimflam man, and why would they be persuaded to ‘drink the Koolaid’?  I wanted to know; the whole thing boggles the imagination. I read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. I read it more slowly than I usually do, not because the narrative isn’t compelling, but because of the content.  The opening chapters of the story are darkly funny, but as we move forward, there are times when I feel as if I am gargling sewage. I deal with the conflicting emotions by alternating it with other books, and I finish all of them and move on to other things before I finish this one.  I could only take so much in one sitting! Just so you know; you’ve been warned.

Jones was obsessed with religion, even as a child. Unfortunately, he was also the kind of kid that would trick a puppy into walking out of a high window and falling to its death.

He just really liked control, and as he got older, the compulsion grew worse instead of better.

In the early 1960s, Jones started a church in Indianapolis. His wife, Marceline, was proud to be the preacher’s wife, and they shared a genuine desire to integrate the city at a time when the deep South was being forced to end Jim Crow, but nobody else was asking anything of the sort of Northern industrial cities. He funded his mission by conducting traveling revivals tent-style. He persuaded gullible audiences that he had a supernatural capacity to heal others; the audience plants that he brought understood that sometimes faith required a little help.

Fear and control enabled Jones to move much of his congregation with him when he packed up and headed for the supposedly nuke-proof town of Ukiah, California. After that, it was like a downhill snowball.  The amazing thing is that this man and his oddball group were so widely accepted for many years, even praised by local politicians and celebrities. But then things began to unravel, and he told his followers it was time for the most ardent believers to move with him to The Promised Land.

The most amazing thing to me is that he didn’t have to rope people in to move to the jungle; he made them compete for the honor.

Guinn’s documentation is strong, mostly based on interviews with survivors and the vast files left behind by Jones and his people. The narrative flows well and never slows, and part of that is due to the lack of formal footnotes, but the endnotes provided for each chapter, along with the list of interviews, in-text source references, and bibliography are beyond reproach. Best of all, he has no axe to grind.

For those that want to know, this is it. I doubt you’ll find a better single book on this subject anywhere. It’s available for sale as of today.

Nixon: the Life, by John A. Farrell*****

richardnixonfarrellHistory buffs rejoice; the definitive Nixon biography is here.  John A. Farrell is the renowned biographer of Clarence Darrow. Now he gives us a comprehensive, compelling look at the only US president ever to resign from office under the cloud of imminent impeachment. This is the only Nixon biography that answers the many questions that left Americans—and those around the world that were watching—scratching our heads. Why, why, and why would he do these things? Farrell tells us. I read this book free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday, but it would have been worth paying the full retail price if I’d had to. It’s available to the public now.

Anytime I read nonfiction, I start with the sources. If the author hasn’t verified his information using primary sources, I go no further. Nonfiction is only fact if the author can prove that what he says is true—and I have never seen more meticulous, more thorough source work than what I see here. Every tape in the Nixon library; every memoir, from Nixon’s own, to those of the men that advised him as president, to those written by his family members, to those that opposed him are referenced, and that’s not all. Every set of presidential papers from Eisenhower on forward; the memoirs of LBJ, the president that served before Nixon took office; reminiscences of Brezhnev, leader of Russia ( which at the time was part of the USSR); reminiscences of Chinese leaders that hosted him; every single relevant source has been scoured and referenced in methodical, careful, painstaking detail. Farrell backs up every single fact in his book with multiple, sometimes a dozen excellent sources.

Because he has been so diligent, he’s also been able to take down some myths that were starting to gain a foothold in our national narrative. An example is the assertion that before the Kennedys unleashed their bag of dirty tricks on Nixon’s campaign in 1960, Nixon was a man of sound principle and strong ethics. A good hard look at his political campaigns in California knocks the legs out from under that fledgling bit of lore and knock it outs it out of the nest, and out of the atmosphere. Gone!

Lest I lend the impression that this is a biography useful only to the most careful students of history, folks willing to slog endlessly through excruciating detail, let me make myself perfectly clear: the man writes in a way that is hugely engaging and at times funny enough to leave me gasping for air. Although I taught American history and government for a long time, I also learned a great deal, not just about Nixon and those around him, but bits and pieces of American history that are relevant to the story but that don’t pop up anywhere else.

For those that have wondered why such a clearly intelligent politician, one that would win by a landslide, would hoist his own petard by authoring and authorizing plans to break into the offices of opponents—and their physicians—this is your book. For those that want to know what Nixon knew and when he knew it, this is for you, too.

I find myself mesmerized by the mental snapshots Farrell evokes: a tormented Nixon, still determined not to yield, pounding on the piano late into the night. I hear the clink of ice cubes in the background as Nixon, talking about Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, suggests that “The Indians need—what they really need—is a mass famine.”

I can see Kissinger and the Pentagon making last minute arrangements to deal with a possible 11th hour military coup before Nixon leaves office. Don’t leave him with the button during those last 24 hours, they figure.

And I picture poor Pat, his long-suffering wife to whom he told nothing, nothing, nothing, packing all through the night before they are to leave the White House…because of course he didn’t tell her they were going home in time to let her pack during normal hours.

The most damning and enlightening facts have to do with Vietnam and particularly, Cambodia. Farrell makes a case that the entire horrific Holocaust there with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot could have been avoided had Nixon not contacted the Vietnamese ambassador and suggested that he not make a deal with Johnson to end the war.

Whether you are like I am, a person that reads every Watergate memoir that you can obtain free or cheaply, or whether you are a younger person that has never gone into that dark tunnel, this is the book to read. It’s thorough and it’s fair, and what’s more, it’s entertaining.

Get it. Read it. You won’t be sorry!

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty, by Kate Hennessy***

dorothydayDorothy Day is an interesting historical figure, the woman that founded The Catholic Worker, which was initially a combined newspaper, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen. I once subscribed to The Catholic Worker, and since it cost one penny per issue, you couldn’t beat the price. I saw this biography available and snapped it up from Net Galley; thanks go to them and Scribner, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. This title was published in late January and is now available for purchase.

I always had a difficult time getting a handle on what The Catholic Worker stood for. The name suggests radicalism, and indeed, Day was red-baited during the McCarthy era. Day was a Catholic convert and a strong believer in sharing everything that she had with those that had nothing. She worked tirelessly and selflessly, and despite often living an impoverished existence somehow made it into her eighties before she died, an iconic crusader who became prominent when almost no women did so independently—though she was no feminist, and believed that wives should submit to husbands. Since her demise, speculation has arisen as to whether she might be canonized.

What was that huge crash? Was it a marble statue being knocked the hell off its pedestal? Hennessy takes on the life and deeds of her famous grandmother with both frankness and affection. In the end, I came away liking Day a good deal less than I had when I knew little about her. Her tireless effort on behalf of the poor included anything and everything her very young daughter had in this world, and at one point she remarked that she felt unable to ask others to embrace a life of poverty if her child wasn’t also a part of that. It was a different time, one with no Children’s Protective Service to come swooping down and note that the child was sleeping in an unheated building in the midst of frigid winter; that there was no running water, since the building was a squat; that the only food that day was a single bowl of thin soup and perhaps a little hard bread donated from the day-old stores of local bakeries; that even small, personal treasures and clothing given the child by other relatives and friends would either be stolen by homeless denizens or even given away by her mother, a woman with the maternal instincts of an alley cat. Day did a lot of good for a lot of people, and no one can say she did it for her own material well being, but she more or less ruined her daughter’s life, and even when grown, Tamar’s painful social anxiety and panic attacks derailed her efforts to build a normal life for herself.

Nevertheless, the immense contribution that Day made at a time when the only homeless shelters were ones with a lot of rules and sometimes religious requirements cannot be overlooked. She is said to have had a commanding presence, endless energy (and the mood swings that accompany such energy in some people), and a mesmerizing speaking voice. Day’s physician also treated the great Cesar Chavez, and reflected that their personalities were a lot alike.

I confess I was frustrated in reading this memoir, because I really just wanted the ideas behind the Catholic Worker laid out for me along with the organizational structure. Was the whole thing just whatever Day said it was at the moment, or was there democratic decision making? I never really found out, although I gained a sense that the chaotic events shown in the memoir reflected an unarticulated organizational chaos as well. This is a thing that sometimes happens with religious organizations; the material underpinnings are tossed up in the air for supernatural intervention, and the next thing they know, there’s an ugly letter from the IRS.

Only about half of this memoir was actually about Day; my sense was that the author did a lot of genealogical research and then decided to publish the result. The first twenty percent of the book is not only about Day’s various romantic entanglements; a significant portion of the text is mini-biographies of those men, and frankly, I wasn’t interested in them. I wanted to know about Day. Later I would be frustrated when long passages would be devoted to other relatives and their lives. Inclusion of daughter Tamar was essential, because Dorothy and Tamar were very close all their lives and shared a lot, and so in some ways to write about one was to tell about the other. But I didn’t need to know about Day’s in-laws, her many and several grandchildren, and so on. I just wanted to cut to the chase, but given the nature of the topic, also didn’t want to read Day’s own writing, which has a religious bias that doesn’t interest me.

Those with a keen interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker may want to read this, because not many books are available that discuss her life and work. On the other hand, I don’t advise paying full cover price. Get it free or at a deep discount, unless you are possessed of insatiable curiosity and deep pockets.

US Grant: the Civil War Years: Grant Moves South and Grant Takes Command*****

usgrantthecivilwaryI was fortunate to receive a DRC of this two volume biography of America’s greatest general, US Grant. Thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for providing it in exchange for this honest review. This is the sixth Grant biography I’ve read, and aside possibly from Grant’s own memoirs, which are valuable in a different way than this set, I have to say this is hands-down the best I have seen. Catton won the Pulitzer for one of his civil war trilogies, and this outstanding biography is in the same league. Those with a serious interest in the American Civil War or military history in general should get it. It’s available for purchase now.

When I had read a couple of US Grant biographies, I told myself that enough was enough, and that I should push away from this one subject in favor of others. I am glad I ignored my own advice, because I have come away from this prodigious, in-depth study with a deeper understanding than anything else has provided.  It’s over 1100 pages long, and over 800 pages once one discounts the end notes and index, but it is as great a pleasure to read at the end as at the start, if not more so.

Is this a good choice for someone new to the American Civil War? Generally speaking (if you’ll pardon the pun) I’d say no, but for someone otherwise well versed in military history or with a tremendous interest level, time, and stamina, it could be. Because Catton is known as an expert in this field, I especially enjoy not having to review his citations. I know his sources will be strong, and one brief overview convinces me this is true.

The first volume starts with his less than glorious entry into the war. As many know, he had been a member of the regular US army during the conflict with Mexico, and had fallen apart and had to go home. Now he is back, but only after a string or two has been pulled by a family friend, and even then, his task is a daunting one. Volunteer soldiers don’t take orders or submit to discipline as a West Point soldiers do, and when he arrives, it seems the lunatics are running the asylum. One of the things that I am impressed with anew every time I read about Grant is his unerring judgment, the social radar that is an indisputable part of his talent. By knowing where to go easy on his men and how to bring them into conformity where it’s most important, he creates a solid force to move South with.

The battles of Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the tragic but technically successful battle of Shiloh open up the Mississippi River for the Union and divide the South. Catton uses a number of anecdotes that are new to me, and his congenial tone, occasionally caustic wit, and spot-on analysis leave me both energized and contented at the same time.

The second volume, however, is where I learn the most. Until I read this biography, I haven’t understood exactly how great a risk Lincoln takes when he orders that the US military forces should be given the ballot, an unprecedented move, as he himself runs once more for the highest office. His opponent, McClellan, is a former Union general that at the war’s outset, was at the top of the chain of command.  He didn’t go home a happy man, and now he is running as a Copperhead, the moniker given those in the North that want to end the war and let the South leave the Union, slaves and all. And though I know it is often the case that soldiers and sailors choose to support their Commander in Chief at the ballot box, I haven’t fully recognized how badly this may go for Lincoln. Doesn’t every soldier want to go home? This is the Democratic ticket’s promise; end it now and send them home.

On top of all that, Lincoln and Grant, who think a lot alike, clamp their teeth together and endure the white knuckled ride that they know they’ll be facing when they decide against further prisoner exchanges with the South. There are two strong reasons for this decision: first, the South refuses to recognize Black men in uniform as soldiers, and won’t exchange them, assuming that all of them must be escaped slaves, including those with Northern accents. Grant declares that no prisoners will be swapped until the South is willing to parole every Northern soldier, and he means it.

In addition, both Lincoln and Grant realize that the South is running low on manpower. There are thousands of their soldiers sitting in military prisons; to trade them out and risk seeing them back in uniform is to turn a military contest into a war of annihilation. With prisoner exchanges, the war will last longer, and there will be more death. In a peculiar way, refusing to exchange prisoners is the more humane policy.

In an election year, this is a tough sell. There are families up North that have been notified that their son, brother, father, is a prisoner of the enemy, and word has by now been spread as to what kind of conditions those poor men face. How much harder is it to vote for Lincoln and the fight for the reunification of the republic when to do so is to prolong the time their loved one sits behind bars, slowly starving? Lincoln and Grant could temporarily resume prisoner exchanges until after the election, but they stand on principle, and it pays off.

Another thing that I don’t really grasp until I read the second volume is Grant’s relationship with the Army of the Potomac, a collection of men that to some extent have been poisoned with McClellanism. It’s a real tightrope walk, and he is deft in his dealing with it. I can’t tell you everything he does here; that’s the point of the book, after all. But I came away with a renewed respect for General Sheridan, and an interest in reading biographies of that general also.

How much of Sherman’s march through Georgia and then to the sea is Grant’s idea, and how much of it is Sherman’s? I come away understanding this better than before as well, although I have read both Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs. Catton has a way of crystallizing events without oversimplifying them.

And I nod with solemn satisfaction at the cold fury Grant experiences when he learns of the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of others, including himself.

I still shiver with pleasure when I reread the denouement, in which Grant sends General Weitzel and his troops, some of whom are Black, into Richmond when the Confederate capitol falls. I want to cheer as the throngs form for the military review in Washington DC after the war has been won; all those thousands of soldiers, all those citizens and international visitors in the stands and on the sidewalks, singing “John Brown’s Body”. Think of it!

I promised myself to be brief, and I haven’t really done that, but this is the least I can bring myself to say about this excellent biography. If my review is too long to hold your attention, then this two book series—even while allowing for the fact that Catton is a far better writer than I—will also be more of a meal than you are prepared for.

But for those with a sufficiently great interest level and stamina, I cannot imagine a better memoir of Grant for you to buy and enjoy. Enthusiastically recommended!

American Gothic:The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth, by Gene Smith***

americangothicI was invited to read and review this title by Open Road Media and Net Galley. Thanks to them for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title was released to the public October 4 and can be purchased any time you want it.

Although I love a good night at the theater as much as anyone else, I came to this bearing a love of history and a strong affinity for the American Civil War. I didn’t realize to what extent this would be purely a biography of this family of actors, and it was because of this that I became somewhat disillusioned.

Smith has carefully documented the lives of Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth. He talks about their predecessors, their early development, and their careers, and he documents everything he talks about. Those studying nineteenth century American actors will want this book, because these men were the most famous of their time period, tickets to see them perform much sought after.

My problem is with the elephant in the room.

It’s hard not to approach John Wilkes Booth without thinking about military history, and about his role in what was essentially an incipient CIA within the Confederacy. Other sources neatly document the fact that it was not a case of simple mental illness on the part of an assailant that made President Lincoln, the greatest president in the history of the USA, die. There was a great deal of planning involved, of research about where he would be and when he would be there. Contacts were made, and a plot was launched that was initially much more far reaching in scope, but with the surrender of Lee’s army, others within the cadre left town fast and didn’t look back. Booth was the one that decided he was going to follow through, one way or the other. How much of it was due to a longing for an historical spotlight, how much was due to emotional instability, and how much was a calculated effort to revive the Confederacy by assassinating Lincoln, we do not know, but what we do know, and what Smith doesn’t say, is that this was not a matter of simply yielding to impulse, of losing one’s sanity and suddenly deciding to kill a great leader. It was done in a calculated way, and I can’t respect this biography when this information is omitted. All we hear about are references to early signs of “madness”, as if this horrible deed can be swept to the side by the use of one well-placed word.

That being said, The New York Times loved this book. If the history of acting is your wheelhouse, you may want to read it. There’s nothing of method or technique that will help a developing actor, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about the actors’ lives and careers, and that’s pretty much it.

Those that treasure history as a bigger picture, or that are looking for some tiny morsel to help them understand what made John Wilkes Booth carry out this monstrous, well-planned killing will remain as much in the dark when the book ends, as they are now.

Fire Lover, by Joseph Wambaugh*****

fireloveratruestory John Orr was a fire fighter that wanted to become a cop. The psychological test weeded him out; his personality wasn’t stable enough for a guy that carries a gun for a living, and they turned him down. Over the years, however, he became not only a fire chief, but a highly respected arson investigator, and took tremendous pride in the fact that he was part of the law enforcement community. However, occasional snubs from that group made him livid, and he dealt with his rage in the most horrific manner imaginable: he became the most prolific arsonist in California history. Joseph Wambaugh captures this true crime story in electrifying detail. I received my copy from Open Road Media and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review, but you can get your copy Tuesday, October 18, 2016 when it is digitally released.

It starts with the Ole Hardware Store fire. Ole is a family owned business, but it is large in scale, the size of a big box store, and four people die there. Wambaugh provides personal, poignant details of those that perish, and I appreciate this. The white Volkswagen is particularly moving.

Orr doesn’t see it as poignant or tragic, however; he is enraged at the cops and insurance investigators for calling it an accident, and in order to achieve recognition for his twisted projects, he sets more fires. More. And still more. And as the fires increase, the budget, which had been going to be cut, isn’t cut after all, and Orr has all the work he can handle and more, because he is investigating his own crimes. Time and time again, he is seen at the sites of fires doing uncharacteristic things, or before an alarm has yet been sounded, but no one is ready to suggest that he is the party responsible until it is screamingly obvious.

The author is tremendously skilled at shifting the mood from the somber, to the ironic, to the occasional moment that is genuinely comical, without ever missing a beat, setting an inappropriate tone, or dropping his documentation, which is meticulous and must have taken a lot of years to compile. I usually am not fond of true crime stories because I know I may not like the ending; the author can’t choose how it comes out if his story is true. But this one drew me like a moth, and I had to get a closer look.

Wambaugh chronicles Orr’s life as well as the arsons, investigations, and then the trials that follow, and he does it brilliantly. He received an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and it was an honor he earned.

Highly recommended.

Michelle Obama: A Life, by Peter Slavin****

michelleobama I received this book as a birthday gift from a gracious house guest. I think he chose it for me because he knew of my strong interest in civil rights issues. Although this is actually out of my wheelhouse, I decided to read it, and I was surprised how much of it I enjoyed. Of particular interest was the beginning of the book, where a surprising amount of the narrative was devoted to African-American history, especially in Chicago. I hadn’t expected it and found it both interesting and useful.

I don’t generally follow the lives and careers of mainstream American politicians or their spouses, so  I didn’t know much of anything about Michelle Obama, other than that she had made it plain, upon taking up that famous residence, that her family would be her main focus and if the public didn’t like it they could lump it. After all, nobody was paying her a salary, so she had some choices.

Reading of how her parents struggled in order to get Michelle and her brother excellent educations, and of the tenacity with which Michelle approached school, social justice issues, and her career, I found myself feeling strangely sorry for her. Before her husband decided to pursue politics, her career outshone his. She was in demand and had a lot of choices. When she headed to the Ivy League, her classmates and professors were almost all white people, and the pressure was on her not only to succeed, but to be the one African-American that would be the example, the cultural education for a whole lot of privileged white people. That kind of hot spotlight would undo some people, make them decide to go on home and enroll at a school closer to home, but Obama—then Robinson—did it and did it well, and then she went back to her hometown, Chicago, to find ways to use her education to serve her community.

As the first Black first lady (FLOTUS), she’s had to make some difficult choices, and there would be a certain level of criticism no matter what she chose to undertake. Her career had been ascending like a rocket, and she took what will likely be a permanent leave of absence in order to keep her family well tended. She hadn’t wanted her spouse to go into politics, because she was convinced, as I am, that being a politician doesn’t end up making a difference. She urged Barack to become an inspirational instructor, or a school administrator, or go to work for a strong nonprofit, but that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wrote a book; it didn’t sell. (Occupying the Oval Office would change that.) But when two parents put their careers on a fast track simultaneously, often the ones that pay the price are the kids, and she wouldn’t have that for their girls. If it came down to her career versus their development, she was determined to be there for them. And who am I to say that wasn’t the right thing to do?

Slavin is not an official biographer; in fact, after leaving the White House, Michelle plans to publish memoirs of her own. However, this writer was given interviews with people very close to the First Family with Michelle’s blessing, and maybe that is why some noteworthy items are glossed over.

Because whereas this memoir is about her more than him, a fair amount of the president works its way into the text. Their lives are joined, after all. And it does seem a little myopic not to have addressed the elephant in the room: the first Black president can’t prevent cops all over the country from shooting Black men—and sometimes women—all the damn time and for no good reason. After all the protests that took place all over the nation, with chants and signs of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!”, you’d think it would merit at least a paragraph.

It’s like it never happened.

So if you are an admirer of the Obamas, this is not a bad book certainly. And it’s tempting to jump into their court, so to speak, based solely on the amazingly stupid things about birth certificates and loyalty that the ultra-right has come out with, questions that a white presidential family would never have to confront.

But when push comes to shove, this book won’t make a big difference, and sad to say, neither will the Obamas’ eight years in the White House. It’s good to know that American society has moved forward enough to elect a Black president, but like all the presidents before him, his authority is limited and to some degree, illusory.

I recommend this memoir to those with an interest in Michelle Obama. Those eternally present polls that reflect the public’s perception of those in the White House show that a much greater number of Americans admire her than approve of the president. But of course, one doesn’t have to be American to want to read this; one only needs to be interested in the life of this historically first, First Lady.

American Heiress: the Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin****

AmericanheiressSometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and the Patty Hearst fiasco was definitely a case in point. This reviewer is old enough to remember the news coverage at the time; here Toobin presents us with what is likely the most objective and well researched account of the kidnapping and subsequent crime spree in which Hearst was a participant. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book was released digitally earlier this month and is available to the public now.

In February of 1974 Patricia Hearst, favorite daughter of Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate, was kidnapped from the Berkeley apartment she shared with her fiancee. The group that grabbed her called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. It was an historical time when many young people considered themselves revolutionaries, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions. But the SLA was an odd formation at best. They were the product of students from the University of California at Berkeley that had been part of a project to tutor prisoners at the Vacaville penitentiary. Instead of the prisoners gaining literacy, the students were mentored by a handful of prisoners in how to handle explosives and commit crimes against private property and the US government. The entire SLA, it would later be learned, consisted of seven Caucasian people under the age of 30 and one Black man named Donald DeFreeze. By the time this group of irresponsible nut wings made headlines, there wasn’t a legitimate group on the Left that would have anything to do with them.

But the story gets weirder still. The heiress had become bored with her boyfriend and was a terrible student; her future was looking lackluster, even depressing when the kidnapping took place. Within a few weeks, Hearst had joined her captors, brandishing an automatic weapon during a bank robbery, one of a number of crimes in which she participated. And the enormous amount of media attention paid to this band of misfits set tongues to wagging from city, to suburb, to the hinterlands: was Hearst truly a convert, or was she just following orders to stay alive?

Other books have been published about this bizarre series of events, but as far as I know, all of them have been written by those with a stake in the outcome. Toobin, an independent journalist who’s written for the New Yorker, has examined court documents and a host of other primary resources to ferret out the truth. Hearst chose not to cooperate with his book, which is the most objective treatment of the subject I have seen.

Most of the book chronicles events that are too strange to be fictional, and there is tragedy as well. But my favorite passage is when things are falling apart and one of the kidnappers tells a friend on the outside that a “Ransom of Red Chief” situation is developing, and everyone would really like to release this woman so the cops would stop searching so hard, but she just won’t go home. I also enjoyed the anecdotes regarding attorney F. Lee Bailey.

This is a fast read, with plenty of dialogue. There are no slow spots. And I can almost guarantee that no matter how off kilter your own life is right now, Hearst’s adventures will make it look tame indeed.

War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans***

warandturpentineI received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review. Though it wasn’t a good fit for me, I think there are niche readers out there that might enjoy it.

This memoir chronicles the life of the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a Dutch worker that fought in World War I. The son of a brilliant artist, Martien worked whatever jobs were available until the war broke out. He had hoped to become an artist like his father before him, but instead wound up painting buildings just to earn a living.

Apart from its historic aspect, this title is one that I knew would be outside my comfort zone. Since retirement I’ve pushed myself outside my usual well-worn paths and taken a few risks, and though it doesn’t always work out for me, a few unlikely choices have affected me so favorably and so deeply that I have continued to push my own walls outward. I don’t know a thing about art, but I thought it might not matter. I pushed myself to read The Goldfinch, which was about a stolen museum painting but also much more, and once I did I couldn’t believe I had let the DRC pass me by. So I had this in my mind; War and Turpentine might be one more opportunity that I shouldn’t miss.

The basis for the memoir is a series of notebooks that the author’s grandfather gave him, a journal of sorts, and the memoir itself is done not in the usual linear fashion, but as a series of snapshots. I confess I prefer my memoirs to start at the beginning and end at the end, if not the end of life, then at the end of the period being discussed. But an artist would perhaps not have thought that way; I can see the reason for selecting a different format, but because there was no discernible story arc, I found myself floundering and eventually avoiding the book altogether.

The prospective reader should know that along with some really strong imagery and other word smithery, the memoir contains some very graphic violence.

I suspect the ideal reader for War and Turpentine would be one that loves art, art history, and European history.  It is for this niche audience that I recommend this book.