Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, by Dierdre Bair***

caponeWhat is it about mobsters that draws our attention?  National Book Award winner Deirdre Bair takes on America’s most famous mobster, Al Capone, and examines the myths and legends that have sprung up in the time since his death. I thank Net Galley and Doubleday for permitting me the use of a DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book is available to purchase now.

Alphonse Capone was the first child in his large family to be born on American soil. His family was terribly poor. To steer him toward employment after he had left school, his father purchased a shoeshine kit for him so that he could begin his pursuit of the American dream; Al had other ideas, and his first racket was begun at age 16, shaking down other shoeshine boys as part of his very own protection racket. He was mentored by a man named Torrio, a mobster of the old school. Later Torrio would move his business to Chicago, and once New York became uncongenial, Al’s family sent him out there to join him.

The biography is intended to examine Capone’s life primarily from the vantage point of those near and dear to him; some of his grandchildren are still alive, and I gained the impression that the book was initiated by them. It is obvious from the start that the brutal killings—at the apex, Chicago saw a murder every day—and other vicious acts of retribution over what were sometimes small or even imaginary slights, are soft pedaled and his family life is emphasized.

I guess it’s all a matter of what you’re looking for.

Capone had an organizational genius, and since his entire empire was an unofficial one, he became the embodiment of capitalism unfettered. Bair tells us that the Harvard School of Business uses his business plan, or aspects of it, as part of the curriculum. And had the US Supreme Court not ruled in 1927 that income derived from illegal sources is still taxable income, chances are outstanding that Capone would never have gone to prison. He surely would not have found himself on Alcatraz Island without access to quality medical care; one wonders, however, whether having him live longer would truly have been desirable.

In fact, relatively speaking, I almost feel moved to thank the Bloods and the Crips for their restraint. Well, almost.

Capone was once called “The most shot at man in America,” and Bair examines the stories that are told or that have been written about him. For the diehard aficionado of all things Capone, hers is a must-read. For those with a more general interest looking to read just one book about him, I suspect that one of the many other biographers Bair quotes may be a better bet; it’s hard to say, though, because as Bair points out, after Capone’s death from pneumonia related to syphilis, his wife Mae burned all of his letters and other papers left behind, knowing that private business can quickly become public when one is sufficiently famous. And though Capone loved the limelight and even courted it, wearing flashy clothing and ostentatiously bestowing large gifts on total strangers at times, Mae was a private person. So there aren’t many primary sources to tap, when it comes down to it.

Nevertheless, I found myself highlighting in blue (which is the color I use when I see problems with a galley) the many times I saw the literary version of a flow chart drag down the pace:  “…according to rumors”, “…what may have happened”, and similar catch phrases, along with the menu of choices of what may have happened here, there, everywhere. I think that as a reader just looking for one definitive biography, I would have been happier to see the actual facts that are known. Many of them are riveting! For example, when it became clear that rivals sought to kill him, Capone had his home remodeled to accommodate a machine gun turret. His dining chair had a bullet proof back, as did the windows of his car. There are a lot of fascinating little details that are unquestioned in their veracity, and these are the places where my interest is piqued.

Second to Capone, by far the most interesting character is his wife Mae. Mae was lace curtain Irish, and intermarriage between the two still very distinct cultures was unusual. As I read of the things she has done to keep her family together and herself sane, particularly during Frank’s decline after his final illness began to affect his thinking and motor skills, I am truly impressed. The fact that ultimately it is she, and not a male family member or associate to whom Capone’s men come for business decisions once Frank can’t do it speaks volumes about her intelligence and talent.  I might like to read more about Mae Capone.

For those with an interest similar to mine, my recommendation would be to read this book if you can get it at your library or access it inexpensively, but barring deep pockets or strong interest, I wouldn’t pay full jacket price.

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela*****

longwalktofreedomI read this memoir, one of the most important of our era, before I was writing reviews. I bought it in the hard cover edition, because I knew I would want it to last a long time and be available to my children and their children. It was worth every nickel. It’s lengthy and requires strong literacy skills and stamina, but if you care about social justice and are going to pull out all the stops for just one hefty volume in your lifetime, make it this one.

The first two or three chapters flow like molasses on a hot day. Mandela is laying his ground work, but it’s tedious at the start. Fight your way through it, because the story to follow–and we’re talking about the huge majority of the book here–is absolutely riveting, and in many ways is a tremendous lesson in struggle as well.

Mandela is gone, but he is still a luminary figure in world history. In writing his memoir, some of which he did in prison, he was not following any publishing house’s advice about grabbing the reader right at the get-go. He didn’t need to toss in the usual teasers or follow a blueprint, because he was Mandela. An immensely articulate individual, an attorney before he devoted his life purely to the downfall of Apartheid South Africa, he was capable of telling his story brilliantly in many languages, and he did it.

This autobiography chronicles Mandela’s life, first as the son of a tribal chief, then as an educated Black man under apartheid (a dangerous thing to be), then the journey, both outward and inward, from attorney to the leader of a revolution. You will read about his time on Riecher’s Island, the notorious prison, and the various experiences he had in the courtroom and in captivity. He tells of the cunning ways those who were jailed for political reasons created to communicate and to an extent, continue to lead from inside prison. And he breaks up the horror with an occasional vignette of a surprisingly kindly jailor or other authority figure who does small, decent things when no one is looking.

If you are interested in the history of South Africa and the defeat of Apartheid, this is a must-read. If you ever, as I did, had a “Free Nelson Mandela” poster in your living room…read this, and celebrate.

W.E.B. DuBois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, by WEB DuBois*****

WEB DuBois SpeaksI read this book about 2 years ago, and then found I was intimidated by the 60 multicolored sticky notes that I had used to flag all the brilliant passages, and so I told myself I would review it…later. I didn’t have a DRC this time; I bought that book fair and square at full jacket price from Pathfinder Press many years ago, and then my life was too hectic for me to find time for it. And make no mistake, this is not a collection you want to take on while multitasking. This is deep, serious, articulate writing from one of the most brilliant civil rights leaders the world has yet known. And so although he has been dead for a long time, like Dr. Martin Luther King, his words have made him immortal. I recently read and reviewed another title about this luminary scholar and class fighter, and that reminded me that I had some unfinished reviewing to do for him…or maybe for me. Here we go.

It was DuBois that wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a wrenching reminder that even those Caucasian folks up north that think they have no racial biases, often have some issues they haven’t yet faced. It was true when he wrote it, and I’m sorry to say it is largely true today as well. In the letters and speeches, he takes the pain laid bare in that famous book and explains what the source of racism is, and what we can do about it.

Dr. King wrote the intro to this series of speeches and letters, and I actually liked that introduction better than I like the Dream speech. It has more substance. When you get this book, for heaven’s sake, don’t skip the introduction. In fact, the book is worth having just for the introduction.

Because it is a collection rather than a memoir, it isn’t linear. The opening text is a short overview of his own life, and so when we come to the second piece in the book, the reader steps backwards in time. Although it’s harsh and hard to read in some places because of the writer’s capacity to convey the pain that he and other Black folk have endured so that everyone can at least taste it for a moment, there is more to it than that. This volume is singularly useful, because in addition to laying America’s problem out bare and plain, DuBois has concrete recommendations for change. They are radical, but then we’ve seen what band-aid measures and the electoral process has done for Black folk, and anyone that regards the matter with any degree of seriousness has to recognize that what’s happened so far is a train wreck, primarily for African-Americans and other people of color, but also for all Americans, because those of us that have lived here for our entire lives have been denied the capacity to find out what it’s like to live without racism.

Is that asking too much?

DuBois became a deeply political individual, a Marxist that founded the NAACP, and eventually left that same organization because of political disagreement. He provides a thorough explanation of his experiences and reasoning. When he presents the problem as an economic one, it provides a path forward, and although he is gone now, it isn’t too late for the rest of us to climb on board, if we care deeply enough to do so.

DuBois’s speeches and letters reflect the progress of his thinking, and so some of what he says toward the end is very different from the ideas set forth earlier. It’s a good idea to read it in order, even though it’s a collection, because then the reader can see his personal and political evolution. I don’t think there has ever been anyone more articulate, more brilliant as a writer and speaker, than DuBois.

If you agree that the USA needs big change in order to end the institutions and practices that have created second-class citizenship for African-Americans, and if you want to see justice done for the families of all the men, women, and children that have lost their lives at the hands of racist cops and vigilantes even during the tenure of America’s first Black president, then you ought to get this book. It’s radical, but maybe it’s time to consider radical measures. Because the government and the elected officials that run it won’t correct this problem for us. We can’t leave it in the hands of others; we have to do this ourselves.

And DuBois explains it better than anyone else.

Mot, by Sarah Einstein*****

Einstein_Mot.inddSarah is forty, and she’s floundering. Her life’s work, like her mother’s, has been to try to make the world a better place, and so she works at a homeless shelter as its director. But things are falling apart there; whereas once upon a time most of the mentally ill homeless were passive, now meth and other addictions have created so much anger and violence that she isn’t even safe there. She’s been physically attacked three times, one of which was sexual, and her life has been threatened on an ongoing basis. Too often she is the only staff member present, and it’s getting scary out there.

Many thanks to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for the DRC. This title goes up for sale September 15.

In addition, her marriage, which was predicated upon a mutual dedication to social justice issues and the understanding that neither she nor her new husband would be around much because of the time and attention their work demanded, is coming undone as well. Her husband Scotti has at times sided with the population she is supposed to be managing at the shelter against her.

Think of it!

So maybe it isn’t so very strange that she has decided to load herself into her vehicle and drive 1400 miles to Texas to visit a homeless friend who has moved there. “Mot”, who used to be “Thomas”, is living in a beat-up car in a Walmart parking lot. And whereas most of us would regard her mission as either an immense personal sacrifice or even a little bit bizarre, the fact is that she needed to get away from West Virginia, that shelter (where she has given notice and is using up every possible minute of vacation time), and Scotti. She has rented a little cabin—the closest thing Mot will accept even temporarily in terms of living indoors—with two beds, one for herself, and one for him. And as the book opens, she is reflecting that even if he never shows up, a whole week in this primitive little yurt, all by herself, sounds positively wonderful.

Right away her spouse is ringing her cell to complain of how much inconvenience he is experiencing while she is gone. He sends unhappy e-mails constantly, but he also doesn’t want her to use her smart phone because that data costs money. So although she hasn’t explained to us yet about the state of her marriage, which should still be in its honeymoon phase but really, really isn’t, we start to get the picture.

Mot is a complicated fellow. Immediately, when she quotes him, I start asking myself whether this is schizophrenia, a dissociative disorder, both or neither? I’m not a professional by a long shot, but when a guy routinely refers to the other folks with whom he is sharing a body and that control his behavior, it’s pretty clear all is not well. And my jaw dropped on the floor later in the book when he commented, in a moment of total lucidity, that it was probably the latter.

Mot is a veteran, and Sarah’s documentation of the unconscionable way the USA treats its veterans is noteworthy. Advocates for veterans’ health care should be plugging this book all the time, everywhere.

Sarah’s time with Mot mixes with some odd bits of philosophy, most of them his, and so although plot wise there aren’t a lot of parallels, the overall flavor to this book is similar to that of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (I have never compared any other book to that book before, and don’t expect to!)

I should also add that I came to this galley after having read a couple of Pulitzer winners and some books by my favorite bestselling authors. I dove into Mot not because I thought it would be my favorite of the remaining DRC’s I had to review, but because I had snagged it right before it was due to be archived, and I felt an obligation to the author and the publisher. In other words, although it looked interesting, I didn’t expect to give it five stars. But the sum of the book is so much more than its parts, and to get it, you really just have to read it.

Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.

I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50, by Annabelle Gurwitch ***-****

ISeeYouMadeanEffortGurwitch is entering the downhill slope of middle age, and she isn’t going to go gently. In this enjoyable collection of essays, she is sometimes hilarious, and at other moments more philosophical. But she is never dull. Thank you to Penguin Random House for sending me an ARC.

Middle age means a deluge of mail order catalogs that sell products for the incontinent, the arthritic, the retired. Gurwitch doesn’t want them. What she might want is a few intimate moments with her hot yoga instructor—ah, so young!—or maybe even the young man who’s fixing her computer.

Alas, middle age also means caring for parents that are in declining health, and some of us get to raise teenagers at the same time. If you can’t laugh, you might have to cry! And sometimes, being middle aged means a precipitate end to a career, when your old employer sends you packing and those that are hiring want someone younger than you. They don’t say it, but it’s obvious.

And so middle age means you need to buy some really good concealer, because if you have been a sturdy feminist whose self-esteem used to mean that no cosmetics were necessary, guess what? Once you’re old enough, just picking those chin hairs out with tweezers isn’t going to do it. Lose the unibrow; trowel on the concealer and redraw the brows you just removed; cross your fingers that it works. “Facial hair,” she reminds us, “is an equal opportunity offender.”

Gurwitch is an actress, for those that didn’t already know that, and she has some stories to tell that will either make you howl with laughter or moan with pain, depending upon your perspective. Perspective? She has it here in spades. My personal favorite was her piece on petty theft. I hope she can still get a hotel room in her own name!

At times her tone becomes more philosophical, because there’s not much that’s funny about having people close to you die, and unfortunately, that’s one more unwanted surprise Mother Nature pushes at us when we edge our way toward 50 and beyond. And she wants you to remember that you can’t die without telling someone your password. You just can’t.

Many of us swore we wouldn’t sit around and bitch about our physical complaints when we grew old, the way our parents did…but now there’s Google. There’s WEB MD. For every symptom we have, there are at least twenty dread diagnoses possible! Get off the computer! Are you listening?

If you are under 40 and still reading this review, you ought to know by now that this book is not for you. If your mother is still alive, however, you should get this for her. Mother’s Day is coming. And for heaven’s sake get her a dozen red roses to keep it company.

Because you just never know. It could be her last. And really, that’s not so funny.

The Oregon Trail: An American Journey, by Rinker Buck *****

theoregontrailBuck is a journalist and author who replicated (to the extent possible in modern times) the covered wagon crossing of the old Oregon Trail, much of which still contains the original wagon ruts. A creature of the Pacific Northwest myself, I thought I had the whole Oregon Trail story down cold, but I learned a lot from Buck’s wonderful memoir, which threads his own experience with the historical information he gleaned from a variety of sources into a fluent, fascinating, accessible yet hyper-literate narrative. My great thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available to the public in August of this year.

Buck discusses his experience, and the book, here:

The germ of Buck’s idea to travel the old Oregon Trail in a covered wagon came from a favorite childhood experience. Buck’s father took his large family on a covered wagon vacation during the late 1950’s. They traveled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is one of the author’s fondest memories. His brother Nick, who sounds like a real character, decided to join him on this adventure, and their skills complemented each other wonderfully in most instances, with Rinker having done a great deal of research and put up the considerable sum it took to buy the wagon, the mules, and so forth, and Nick having a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as tremendous mechanical aptitude in general.

Our author is one hell of a writer. His down to earth metaphors made his story accessible for modern people. For example, he says that the Conestoga wagon was the semi truck of the mid-1800s while the prairie wagon used by most families, which was made by Sears Roebuck, Studebaker, and John Deere, were more like the station wagon. The whole narrative is peppered with this sort of figurative language, and it’s both amusing and helpful. And I loved seeing the ways in which the problems of the early pioneers often became his problems also, sometimes in ways that would have halted an ordinary traveler right then and there. But Rinker and his brother are serious badasses, and they kept on going.

Think for a moment how high up the driver’s seat on a covered wagon is, for example, and how immensely soporific the repetitive clopping of hooves are on a very warm spring day. There is no safety belt; there is nothing whatsoever to keep a man from falling off and being crushed beneath the wagon.

Narcissa Whitman, one of the early settlers who together with her husband, founded the Whitman mission in Eastern Washington (part then of the Oregon Territory) made the trip on horseback. But she had no safety belt either.

The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, did a whole lot of it on foot and pushing carts; those that lived through the experience populated Utah. But I agree with Buck that Devil’s Gate was not solely part of the Mormon experience, and President Bush had no business turning federal park lands over to the LDS Church. Frankly, it steams my clams all over again just writing about it…moving on.

I also have one small bone to pick with Buck’s research, though it isn’t enough to lop a star off my rating: he says that the 400,000 pioneers that crossed the Oregon Trail was the greatest overland migration in history. To be fair, when he wrote this, it was widely accepted as truth. But in 2010, Isabel Wilkerson documented an overland migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern Industrial cities and also to California between 1915 and 1970. The Oregon Trail, then, may be the second largest, but not the largest.

I also might have liked to see a citation accompany controversial facts tossed in, such as the claim that it was covered wagon makers, not Henry Ford, who started the mass assembly line. Generally I liked the flow of the text made possible by avoiding footnotes, but if one is going to butcher a sacred cow, one should back the assertion with a source.

But all these things are minor compared to the value, both in education and entertainment provided by the story of the Rinker brothers’ modern day reenactment, which is nothing short of spellbinding. I had just begun it when I came down with a case of flu, and I can’t tell you how comforting it was to curl up under my covers with my glass of orange juice and this book and immerse myself in their journey, which commenced in Missouri and like the original pioneers, continued across six states. And although I have never done the trail itself (and if I were to do so, I’d be one of the Winnebago set that made him half-crazy with their giant rigs that spooked the mules and their never-ending cameras winking at him and blocking his way), I have driven through all of the states he crossed through except Kansas.

It was useful to have traveled through most of the region that Buck described, yet his descriptions were so palpable that I think even if you have never been there and never plan to, you will see much of it in your mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what is the most remarkable part of this wonderful memoir: the novel aspect of the covered wagon trip during the 21st century, or Rinker’s voice, which switches seamlessly from that of historian, to that of family member with family issues, to that of the humorist who can appreciate life’s ironies even in adverse circumstances. All I know is that you don’t want to miss out on this one. What a terrific story!

Moon Walk, by Michael Jackson ****

1062902Moonwalk was written at the height of Jackson’s fame, in the wake of Thriller and the 25th anniversary Motown TV special. It is a fascinating read, and was the #1 New York Times bestseller at the time. I give it only 4 stars because there is a ghost writer here. It’s understandable; Jackson had his finger in so many pies at the time, and also was somewhat reluctant to breach his own privacy by speaking candidly about his own life. Ultimately, though, the writer-behind-the-writer says that Jackson decided it was time to set the record straight about some things. He still nearly pulled the plug at the dead last minute, after editing and approving the final copy, leaving his ghost writer with an immense amount of time and effort that nearly came to nothing. I’m glad he decided to follow through.

At the time this was written, Jackson had no children. His name is associated with more than one book, and I may see if I can get a copy of a later one.

I am not much of a pop music fan, but the sheer enormity of Jackson’s accomplishments and his role in music history makes his a must-read for a memoir reader like me.

I came out of this convinced that though (through the lack of a normal childhood) Jackson’s social skills were sometimes off a notch and his judgment not always sharp, he was not a pedophile. I believe him when he says that children are the only people he can talk to who don’t seem to have ulterior motives (beyond a particular circle of family members and close friends), and that he enjoys making them happy. I really do think he was naive enough to think that a child would find it fun to sleep in the host’s big bed rather than be all alone in a room he wasn’t familiar with (and assume that the oh-so-grateful parent would remain such). Beyond that, I think that at some level, his involvement with children had to do with his own lack of a childhood that involved the fun and freedom usually associated with that time. My best guess is that he brought kids home, or went to their homes and hospitals, and spoiled them rotten, and enjoyed the experience vicariously.

Jackson’s own upbringing, though he loved the music and turned out to have a genius for it, was grueling. He is diplomatic in the things he says about his father, and gives him credit for finding the resources to bring not only musical instruments but microphones into their 3 room home in Gary, Indiana, so that his talented tribe would understand how to handle them and move with them by the time they were on stage. They began with talent shows that had cash prizes, and worked their way up to auditions. They played in some really raunchy clubs at an age where most first-graders would not even be watching R rated movies. But Jackson took to the life, and grew close to his brothers. Motown signed them, and they were off to California.

Jackson was instantly enthralled by all things Californian. The trees had oranges, he says, and there was the ocean, and Disneyland! Welcomed to the “Motown family” by singing legend Diana Ross and by the vice-president of Motown, who lived just down the street, they were house guests until they were settled and established, and ran freely between the two fabulous homes. Ross was like a second mother to Jackson,and she introduced him to the art world, which would later become not only a love of his, but a source of smart investments also.

In Gary, he and his family had all been practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he mentions this only briefly, to show that some of the corruption and profanity that young performers take on was not going to be part of his own life, because that was not how he was raised. He doesn’t mention the religion again after his move to California. This left me curious. Could a man like Jackson have truly believed that only a certain number of people are allowed to go to heaven?

He writes about his break with Motown,which he and some of his family precipitate when Motown is not receptive to having him write music, and about his lengthy, fond collaboration with Quincy Jones. He is able to get in on the ground floor once MTV breaks loose, and spends his own money in order to create music videos of the highest caliber. (“Bad” used real gang members from South Central LA; the massive security was loosened a bit once they found that since the gang members pretty much just wanted recognition, respect, and lunch and were getting all three, they were courteous and cooperative. I’ll admit I really liked this part, having taught young people with similar issues.)

His hair and skull catch fire due to negligent fireworks use while making a commercial for Pepsi. He knows he could have sued them and won big, but he chose not to.

Without a trace of irony or hubris, he states that he is thankful he never got involved using any sort of drugs, since he had seen what this does to others. (To be fair, he specifically refers to street drugs like marijuana and cocaine; I suspect that some of the drugs that would later plague him were due, in part, to the pain he experiences after accidents on the job such as the Pepsi adventure.)

A star like Jackson could have used his life story as a vehicle for payback, but he goes out of his way to avoid any semblance of that, and when he has to talk about people who did rotten things, such as a management-level person who stole from him, he does not name names. I thought this was really nice. He briefly mentions his father and the belt, but also gives the man credit for the early start he and his brothers had, and the fact that they were the first big family act to enter the pop scene.

Later he simply mentions that his father was no longer representing him at a point in the story. He makes no reference to the marital discord between his parents.

The one place we can almost see the hair rise on the back of his neck is when he speaks about the controversy regarding the changes in his facial structure. He owns that he had a nose job and a chin cleft added, and points out that entertainers all over Hollywood do exactly the same thing, and he asks why this is such a big deal, when after all, he is a musician. The man has a point. On the one hand, those with the most fame get the most scrutiny, but on the other, it also (though he never says it) sure seems as if a black man who makes it big gets more scrutiny than others. He adopts a vegetarian diet, and of course, as we grow older, our faces lengthen anyway, thus the harder planes to his face and loss of baby fat. And in thinking about some of the bizarre things printed in tabloids…who is really going to have the bones in his face broken and reset? Even if vain enough for something of that nature, it would be extremely risky, and involve a huge amount of time away from work.

I believe that Jackson is telling the truth; a nose job, a chin cleft, terrible acne as a teen that started the habit of hiding his face at times, and then later (not in this book), the skin disease. I think this is true, though it doesn’t make as good copy for selling sensationalistic news rags.

The one really unsettling note was that Jackson seemed to think it was a hilarious practical joke to surprise people who were afraid of snakes with Muscles, his boa constrictor, and chase them around the room. I have the same phobia, and once had (honestly) a science teacher who chased me around his 7th grade classroom with a big snake, ordering me to “touch it.” I did not, and I had nightmares for weeks. But it’s too late to tell Jackson that this particular thing is not funny.

Jackson’s songwriting partnership and friendship with Paul McCartney led the latter to recommend that he consider investing some of his money in song rights. This had not occurred to Jackson before, and turned out to be a strong move financially, as most of us now know. And he says that although he knows others in the business discourage their own children from performing, if he ever has children, he will tell them to follow their dreams, and if they want to perform, they should go for it.

The artist, with all his eccentricities and extraordinary talent, can’t talk to us anymore. For those who enjoy memoirs and autobiographies of musicians who have made historical strides in their field, this is highly recommended.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.

The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan, by Jeffrey Clement

thelieutenantdontknowClement is a rough-and-ready type of guy. He comes from a military family, and grows up under the assumption that he will join the US Navy after he graduates. It is something of a shock to the family when he joins the Marines instead.

Most of the books I review are ones I receive free in exchange for a review, and my finger surprised me when it tapped the button requesting a copy of this title from Net Galley. See, I am a Marxist. I never support an imperialist war, which means every war the USA has been involved in since the end of the American Civil War, and for me, even the horror of 9/11 didn’t change that. So why did I want to read a soldier’s memoir of Afghanistan?

I hadn’t read far, once I received the book, when I realized that part of the hook for me was the journalistic black-out that has been imposed for many years, ever since the flag-draped coffins hit the front pages of local newspapers and everyone rose up for various reasons; some of them were against the war in general, and some were families of the deceased who felt it was disrespectful for their loved ones to be displayed this way. But one way or another, the Pentagon and those who stand behind it decided that this would not be another open-access war; there would be no more photographs of anything that took place in Iraq or Afghanistan in print from even the most mainstream media. It was a giant blow to the First Amendment. And now, though he was required to change a lot of details for security reasons, a Marine lieutenant has come forward to tell us about his experience there. It was as if the wizard had stepped out from behind the curtain; finally, someone was writing about the war.

Many people, especially those of us on the left, get the false notion that the US military wants to round up all of our young men and send them off to fight. It isn’t quite like that, at least in this man’s experience. From among those who sign up for ROTC, there are those who are culled. Some are tossed for academic reasons; some for physical weakness or unfitness; and others simply aren’t team players. And the amount of absolute obedience and conformity that the training requires leaves no room for the free thinker, that’s for sure. Either you do it, or you’re out!

I had never heard before of someone who genuinely loved every minute of his training experience. I think that part of that mindset has to be a really strong physical constitution; people who get sick easily just can’t do this. But a large part of it is also the culture, the stories that are handed down by the family, and the things he isn’t supposed to ask about. I have had friends from military families also, and I recognize common traits among them: they are reliable, punctual, and they don’t whine. Clements comes across readily as one of them. But he is a natural. He works hard, takes responsibility, and passes with flying colors, though the tale is told with a certain humility in which he owns his mistakes and laughs about some of them, lightening the overall tone.

When he is asked why he prefers to be a military engineer (in charge of logistics, so that he is out in the field with the men rather than driving a desk), he says that his skill set points toward engineering or teaching, and he does not want to teach. As a retired teacher, I could only grimly nod, and think, “So this is what it’s come to. Men would rather go out in the desert and get shot at than deal with the current climate in teaching.”

Long after bin Laden has been found and is dead, US forces continue to serve in the most maddening of conditions. Everything there seems to be in short supply. Nobody has a truck, and if they do, it runs badly; after all, trucks were designed for roads, not sand. Nobody can drive anywhere other than behind a minesweeper, because incendiary devices are planted anywhere and everywhere, or nearly so. Open desert is scary to cross because an attack could come from anywhere anytime, and just what will the convoy hide behind? But hills are worse, because gunners may hide behind them, and they too can conceal horizontal exploding devices. And while traveling in a large convoy, often speeds are limited to 3-5 miles per hour. Twilight is the Taliban’s favorite time to attack, but it is almost impossible to get anywhere at these speeds without having to travel during that time. If someone shoots at you, you aren’t allowed to shoot back unless you can see them; nothing creates an international incident faster than deaths due to friendly fire among allies. All you can do, when shots come out of nowhere, is run, and sometimes, that is at the speed of a walk.

But it has to be done. The village must be secured.

Clement has a gift for story, and the wisdom to let his experience gel to where he could write about what he did and saw with a measure of professional distance. He engages, but does not rant. It’s a good book, well paced and organized, with some (approved) photographs to further enlighten the reader.

What is it that “The Lieutenant Don’t Know”? The phrase is mentioned early in the text, but not fully explained till the end of the book, and it is done with the care and precision of an accomplished writer. You’d better order a copy right now, because not just anyone can explain it the way Clement can.

Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, by William T. Sherman *****

memoirsofgeneralwmtshermanIt’s important to admit bias up front, and I will tell you that I went into this with a strong sense of near-adulation. Sherman has long been my greatest hero among American generals (and it’s a short list). I have no use for Civil War literature that waxes nostalgic for the “lost cause” of wealthy Southern Caucasians, nor can I stomach the revisionist notion that the war was really just a sad, sad misunderstanding that might have been averted with a little more discussion. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an historic necessity with material roots. Marxist historian George Novak wrote that the opportunity to avoid war and let the Industrial Revolution march forward unfettered by slavery was lost when the slave owners firmly declined all offers to compensate them for “their” slaves and let them go free, so that progress and humanity might take a great leap forward. And so I am a great fan of Sherman’s. His march through Georgia was correct and righteous, and the anger his soldiers unleashed upon the state that began the whole process in a premeditated and aggressive manner, South Carolina, was well placed.

Now that all of that has been dealt with, I can talk about his written record.

Sherman’s memoir is remarkable. He was one of those rare beings, both a soldier and an incredible scholar (in the mold of Lewis and Clark, perhaps). He headed a military academy in Louisiana when the South seceded, and after giving a moving farewell speech to his students–the man gives a sense of being capable of really creating personal bonds, while at the same time knowing that if he has to say goodbye forever, he’ll do it–and went to Washington to seek orders.

Sherman is an outstanding writer, and his voice comes through loud and clear. I confess my affection for him is marred slightly by his horrific perspective (probably not unusual, but this guy never did anything halfway) toward the American Indian. I decided enough was enough, and skipped forward to the Civil War. My husband, whom I will call Mr. Computer, was also reading it, as we had accidentally procured two copies, and he did the same.

The opening years of the war are incredibly frustrating to study. McClellan had been a big-deal general during the war against Mexico, and he was initially placed in charge, while Grant and Sherman lingered in the background out west, each having left the military under a cloud, Grant for his drinking during the Mexican war, and Sherman as having been perceived as crazy. (Today I think a nice bottle of Xanax or Valium would’ve done wonders for the man in peace time years, but I believe he merely suffered from anxiety, and there’s a lot of that out there)!

By reading Sherman, one does not get an account of the whole Civil War; he can’t rightfully provide such a thing, because this is a memoir, so he writes about the places he went and the battles in which he took part. He is lavish in his praise of competent or even excellent officers, and takes pains to mention as many as possible by name, sending them down in history as heroes alongside himself.

His most famous contribution, the 3-campaigns-in-one march of some 425 miles, from the siege of Atlanta, to its invasion, and his willingness to tell the truth and avoid the senseless pussyfooting of his predecessors, who had stupidly believed that by firing over the heads of the Confederates, they could scare them into submission, is an inspiration. He understood that in order to win a war and have it be over, the gloves must come off, and ugly things had to be done. He limited his attacks to Confederate soldiers until the local population began to sabotage his efforts, at which point, without hesitation, he burnt local homes, measure for measure. Inside the city, he endeavored to destroy any and all infrastructure that would aid the enemy, since Confederate weapons, clothing, and food were nearly all warehoused in this city. He personally supervised the destruction of the railroads that would otherwise keep supplies moving between Atlanta and the field, and cut his own supply line, a gutsy move unheard of previously. He soon learned not to trust Cavalry to destroy the railroads, because they’d just tear the tracks off, and someone else would put them back on. Sherman supervised the heating of the rails till they were white-hot and pliable, and created a tool for bending them around the trunks of trees, or into knots when no trees were nearby, so that no one would ever use them again.

Sherman has an unfairly tainted reputation regarding the Black people of the South, perhaps because he discouraged newly-freed families from following his train. The issue was a logistical one; he had enough food for his soldiers, thanks to their resourcefulness in foraging, and he welcomed single Black men to assist in noncombatant ways in order to free up his soldiers. (He was not willing to arm his Black enlistees, and was pleasantly surprised when he found others had successfully done so later). But when someone from Washington came down and privately interviewed former slaves to see who they trusted and who they didn’t, they gave their unilateral trust to Sherman. This is the proof for me, that although he was later unsure they were ready for the ballot before they became literate (with which I disagreed), he treated them with kindness and they revered him, viewing him alongside President Lincoln, as their liberator.

Grant was so eager to have Sherman back to help him fight Lee across the Potomac that he nearly boarded him and all his men onto ships once he reached the sea. Sherman talked him out of it, saying that he must go THROUGH the Carolinas in order for those insulated in die-hard South Carolina to see the might of the American army, and understand that resistance truly was futile. The newspapers (and Sherman’s feelings toward the press were as plain as everything else; on the one hand, I do love a free press, but they were publishing his battle plans, which were supposed to be secret, and so I can understand his hostility toward them!) of the South printed lies, saying that the South was winning its quest for separation, and Sherman felt that personal experience was the only thing that would really convince those who had first seceded, who had fired on Fort Sumter, and perhaps since they started all this, it was appropriate that they not be spared the privations that the people of Georgia, who were much less enthusiastic toward the Confederacy, had experienced.

Grant was smart enough to listen to him, and let him follow what he considered the best course of action. Lincoln was a true friend and leader who knew when to stop delegating. Again and again, lies came to him about Grant, that he was drinking again, etc. and should be removed, and Lincoln, who was well and truly done with the likes of McClellan, Pope, and Burnside, said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights”. I mention this, not as a digression but because Grant and Sherman were hand in glove. This partnership, this blending of mind and purpose, is part of what made victory possible.

Sherman and his men fought their way through woods, swamps, over quicksand, through areas previously considered impenetrable, and unlike many high-ranking officers, he gave himself no perks that he did not share with his men (apart from the rare invitation to dinner with a Union family). At the very end of his memoir, he devotes perhaps 20 or 30 pages to what constitutes effective leadership, and one thing I was struck by is that he believes a commanding officer should ride up front, because the men leading it have pride in the fact that they are leading, and that disorder and bad behaviors are limited to the rear. In short, he is safer with the men in front, and he has to see what is ahead to draw the correct conclusions about what should be done next. He sleeps on the ground, just like his men. At one moving point, he and his men sought refuge from a storm by sleeping in a church, and some of the soldiers found carpets and made him a little bed up by the altar. Sherman told them to give that bed to their division leader, because he was used to sleeping hard. “Then I fell down on a pew and was instantly asleep”.

After Lincoln’s assassination by a Confederate sympathizer, and attempts upon the lives of Seward, Secretary of War, and others, newly-minted President Johnson suddenly knocked Sherman’s legs from beneath him. Without a hint or clue as to why, Sherman was suddenly vilified, and the orders to his subordinates NOT TO OBEY HIM were released to the press. Such lack of appreciation for a man who gave his all to the Union took my breath away. Apparently Secretary of War Stanton, who replaced Steward once he was injured, was filled with paranoia and behaved both irrationally and unfairly. This was primarily his doing, and Sherman knew it. He reported to Grant, and ONLY to Grant.

Upon reaching Washington DC, each leading general paraded with his army before a massive crowd, and Sherman had his rightful place on the review stand once he reached it. He passed down the line, shaking hands along the line of others who’d been seated there…until he reached Secretary Stanton. At this point, he states that he publicly brushed past the outstretched hand offered him, thus returning the public insult that had been dealt him in the press. He snubbed the guy in as public a manner as possible, and I once again wanted to cheer. Well done.

“War is war, and not popularity seeking”, he responded to someone who questioned his destruction of Georgia, and the sieges that left rebel cities on the brink of starvation. And he was right. It can’t be over until someone has the courage to wage real war. His frankness and his affection for his troops, even though he knew some of them would fall, or maybe even more so because of it, was deeply moving, and I came away feeling that I had read one of the best memoirs ever.

One more thing I’d add, for those who get the edition that I read: if you flip to the last page, it says 490. Hmmmm. The book appears to be longer, but then, there’s a lot of small print, where he documents everything meticulously, using primarily the telegrams and letters from himself to his superiors and vice-versa.

But there’s something more. This was originally a two volume set. It’s less expensive to buy just one book, but it remains two volumes under one cover. Once you reach the FIRST page 409, There is a page that says VOLUME II and then you start on page 1 again, so that you are actually reading over 800 pages.

Put together with Southern historian Shelby Foote’s less-apt and rabidly pro-Confederate trilogy, this was a meal, yet I don’t regret reading them together, since it provided two perspectives (and I am finishing Burke Davis’s book on Sherman’s march to the sea, a smaller volume with a third perspective that is closer to Sherman’s own).

But if you ask me who I believe when facts collide: I believe Sherman.

Post script: Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy is not reviewed on this blog, because I only give space to work I respect and have rated at four or five stars on a one-through-five star scale.