Posts Tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

BOOK: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

January 3, 2016

deadwakeOn May 1, 1915, the Lusitania, at that time the world’s largest passenger ship, set sail from New York, headed for Liverpool. Of the 1,959 passengers who went to sea with her, only 761 would ever feel land under their feet again. On May 7, as most of us probably remember from about two sentences in a history book in high school, the Lusitania was struck and sunk by a single torpedo from a German U-boat — an important incident, as it marked the moment the Germans changed the protocols of war (from”Hey, don’t sink civilians, you jerks,” to “Sink whomever you want; it’s a goddamn war”), which, along with the fact 123 American passengers died, is what finally got the U.S. to engage.

Erik Larson has written two of my favorite non-fiction books of all time: Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City.  In both those books, he employed a similar narrative device: the weaving of a fascinating historical story (the invention of the wireless for the first, the Chicago World’s Fair for the second) with a crime story about a super-creepy sociopath. Larson’s last book, In the Garden of Beasts, veered from that pattern, and, in my opinion, it suffered from it.  While still an interesting story, there wasn’t anything terribly compelling or unique about it.  I was disappointed.

When I heard he was about to release a new book, this time about the Lusitania, I was hopeful we might be in for a return to form.  After all, the sociopath’s story line here was pretty clear: Walther Schweiger, the notorious captain of U-20: the man who sank a ship packed with children, families, artists, writers, and other civilians headed to England for business or pleasure.

Unfortunately, this book ended up being disappointing overall as well. What the hell is going on over there, Mr. Larson?

The story actually weaves together four stories: the stories of the passengers/crew of both ships (Lusitania, U-20), the story of the British Admiralty, and the story of Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance, by far the least relevant and most distracting element of the book (mostly all that treacly tangential confection did was make me wonder if we really should’ve let a guy that mopily lovesick make such important decisions about things like war; and I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”). I can’t even be bothered to say anything more about that entire subplot, it was so out of place in this narrative. What a slog.

More problematic, though, is that most of the passages set on the Lusitania were dry and drab, overloaded with tedious details about what people were wearing — and I mean everything they were wearing, from their hats to their shoes, as though he’d found their luggage inventory lists and thought, what the heck, might as well throw those in too — as well as how bored they were. Right about the time Larson writes, “The usual shipboard tedium began to set in,” I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with him.

Though the book tells the stories of some interesting “lost” faces of history, like Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat and pioneering female architect Theodate Pope, since he never sits with a single passenger long enough to let us truly get to know them, it’s hard to build any kind of emotional connection to anyone on board, or to the passengers as a whole.  When the ship goes down, it’s terrible, it’s horrible, it’s tragic — but what it isn’t is moving. And that, I would argue, is more Larson’s fault than mine.

THAT SAID. The other two story lines in this book are utterly gripping and, I would argue, make the whole thing worth a read even if you have to skim the other sections to get yourself to the end.

The first section of interest is: every single second set on that U-boat, where life is described in riveting detail: the stifling heat on board, particularly when the ship was submerged; the “basal reek” of 36 unwashed men wearing leather uniforms that didn’t breathe; the part where the toilets exploded if you flushed them while the ship was underwater (a prank often pulled on n00bs, resulting in “the scent of a cholera hospital”);  the dogs and puppies Captain Schweiger had a soft spot for; that time they sink a ship loaded with horses and Schweiger describes watching one of them fight to swim, unable to do anything to help it as it kicked and thrashed about in the water, eventually throwing itself onto one of the life boats, with predictably disastrous results.

These passages are brilliant and they’re among the most engaging things I’ve read all year, packed with the Larson’s clean, transportive writing and a degree of detail that reflects what must have been a veritable shit-ton, pardon my English, of research. Unlike the passengers on the Lusi, Schweiger and his men become real people, putting the reader in the uncomfortable position of kind of liking them.  I haven’t felt myself so conflicted by my feelings by a bunch of asshole Nazis since Das Boot.

The other part worth taking a look at — and something I’m now really interested in reading more about — is the controversy described regarding the role of the British Admiralty in the sinking of the Lusitania. The Admiralty — specifically the intelligence group they called “Room 40” — had gotten their hands on a German code book, and were busily decoding messages when they started to encounter signs that a passenger ship flying a British flag was in danger of being targeted. They knew all about Schweiger (were, in fact, decoding his messages too), and they knew exactly where both U-20 and the Lusitania were.  The connection was pretty clear. The risk was pretty obvious.

Yet — they said nothing.

Why?  Well, Larson has two theories, one of which he clearly supports more than the other.  It was either because: 1) they were afraid that alerting the Lusitania would reveal to the Germans they had one of their code books (which would make the Germans, then, change up the code book; fair enough, I suppose, though 1,198 passengers and crew might beg to differ), or, 2), as Larson appears to believe, they actually wanted U-20 to go ahead and sink the Lusi, because they knew it would be the thing that, at long last, pulled the U.S. into the war.

Larson offers a lot of evidence supporting that latter theory (though, I should note, he doesn’t quite outright say, “This was all Churchill’s doing!”), much of it’s pretty compelling, and all of it was news to me.

And so, for the sake of this section and the sections on board the U-20 alone, at least for those of you intrigued by history and/or fascinated by wartime conspiracy theories, this book is worth picking up. Trust me, though, when I tell you you can just breeze yourselves right through all the parts set on board the Lusi (though, I did find Theodate Pope’s story interesting, so watch for her name) and everything about Wilson’s coup de foudre. You won’t be missing much worth catching, I’m afraid, and it’s mostly just going to get in your way.

Here’s hoping Larson returns, in his next book, to the kind of storytelling he does best (or, at least: better).  I’m still in, though I’ll be wary.


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BOOK: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015)

May 30, 2015

ronsonJon Ronson, a British writer probably best known for his book-turned-Clooney-film The Men Who Stare at Goats, is an expert at examining human behavior ranging from the weird to the downright disturbed. His latest work, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, seems like the perfect Ronson topic: a book looking at the dumb crap people do on the Internet, followed by the mean crap people so often do in response.

Using several very famous social-media-based public shamings as examples, Ronson sets out to explore the psychology and evolution of mankind’s lust for ruining the lives of others over even the slightest of transgressions.  However, while I found the individual examples fascinating, ultimately, this book just didn’t hit the right notes for me. Ronson spends a lot of his time expressing a kind of perpetual shock over the capacity of humans for irrational rage (though I should note here that I think this “perpetual shock” sensation was heightened by the fact I was listening to him read his own words to me in audiobook format; he definitely has a flare for the dramatic as a narrator). What he doesn’t really manage to do is take a goodly-sized step back from his emotional response to really delve into the various forces at work. The ultimate effect of this was, for me, anyway, to feel like I was being relayed a whole bunch of super-juicy gossip, without much in the way of exploration of what was driving each of the relevant parties to act/react the way they were.

The case studies described range from acts of thoughtlessness or carelessness (thoughtless tweet, careless photograph) to acts of outright, intentional deceit (two lying writers).  But while I was, for the most part, happily along for the ride, there was one story where Ronson’s reaction made me realize just how much of what was truly going on he was completely missing.

Specifically, I started to notice how oblivious he was to the role gender so clearly plays in these kinds of social media fueled public shamings, as evidenced by his chapter about Adria Richards, a story I had been following with great interest in the media when it first broke in 2013. That year, Richards overheard two guys at a tech conference making inappropriate jokes  (about computer “dongles,” admittedly a term ripe for offensive jesting).  Upset by their comments, she turned around and snapped a picture of them, which she then posted on social media.

In response to the hue and cry almost instantly evoked by the photo, one of the men was fired; not long after that, so was Adria. The difference?  The man was fired for making sex jokes at a professional conference. Richards was fired because her act incurred the wrath of a huge swath of others in the tech community, who then retaliated by hammering her company’s web site until it crashed. Another difference?  The man fairly quickly got another job (ironically, at a tech organization that employs no women, he admits to Ronson).  Richards, on the other hand, as with the other women profiled in this book (including Justine Sacco of the badly-thought-out tweet and Lindsay Rice of the badly thought-out Facebook photo), was subjected to prolonged, vicious, and violent death and rape threats, and, as of the time her chapter was written, still had not been able to find another job, largely because any potential employer who plopped her name into a Google search very quickly found a mass of hatefulness and degradation and was (understandably) unnerved.

When Adria tried to explain to Ronson that part of what made her take and share the photo was a pervasive concern for her safety at the conference driven by the overall culture of misogyny around her, she cited a line attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.”  Ronson’s response, and this is where I realized just how little he actually understood about any of this, was: “People might consider that an overblown thing to say.”

Ronson seemed to be suggesting, in other words, that it was unreasonable for a woman to feel as though her safety might be in danger at a professional tech conference. Richards was clearly overreacting. It was a sort of, “Hey, lady, let’s not get all hysterical here, now.” Which whatever, sure, fine, man. I mean, it’s not like this, this, this, this, or, for the love of god, THIS has ever happened.  Sigh, argh, sigh again. Argh once more.

None of this is to suggest Ronson’s central point isn’t valid (nutshell: we shouldn’t destroy someone’s life when they make a mistake), or to suggest this isn’t a highly readable, very thought-provoking book — all these things are true.  While I confess I don’t feel too badly when people call others out on social media for saying things without thinking about their impact on others — this is still all too common in our society, this belief that what you say on social media doesn’t count, shouldn’t matter, can’t harm, and I disagree with anyone who suggests it’s better to let that stuff go by without mention when it happens — it’s obviously outrageous how far those kinds of interactions can, and often do, end up going.  Hatefulness, life-ruination, shame, outings, worse — it’s vile and inexcusable.  Ronson’s exploration toward the end of the book of the various ways we’re inventing to deal with this issue were fascinating too (examples: the European “Right to be Forgotten” law and PR companies you can hire to help bury negative content deep down in search results, though that kind of thing can certainly backfire too).

Ultimately, however, I felt frustrated Ronson seemed more interested in sharing the gossipy details than he did in truly trying to analyze the harder questions at play here, and, frankly, he just seemed utterly incapable of even recognizing the gender-related ones.  Maybe that’s an unfair criticism — can men truly comprehend the things women are still up against in modern society?  Maybe they can’t. But what they can do — and should do, I would argue — is at least try (say, by asking a follow-up question instead of merely shutting the conversation down with a response that can only have been intended to make the interviewee doubt her own perceptions).

In the face of all this, it was hard for me not to leave this book wondering how much more powerful it could’ve been in the hands of someone a little more “worldly,” shall we say — time spent on astonishment redirected, instead, to more thoughtful analysis.  That said, this is still a very important, very eye-opening book, and well worth a read (or listen) to anyone interested in social media and modern society.

Recommended (with caveats)!


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BOOK: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (2014)

February 21, 2015

onimmunityEula Biss gave birth to her first child right as the H1N1 flu epidemic was freaking out the globe. As many new mothers do, she took to the Internet to try to learn more about the risk of the flu versus the risk of the flu vaccine for her newborn baby.  The information she found there was conflicting, confusing, and ultimately not all that helpful at resolving her myriad questions (welcome to my world as a research librarian, Ms. Biss!).

Ultimately, she erred on what she decided was the side of caution and ended up going along with her doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate her child (for the flu and everything else).  But that sense of overwhelming responsibility, confusion, and fear led her to rethink that choice more than once over the following years, as vaccines after vaccines were pumped into her child’s veins.

This book is what came out of her quest to get to the bottom of the truth about vaccine safety (i.e., that vaccines are vital and everybody who can get them should), and it’s a fascinating journey to take at her side.  Into this well thought-out combination of science and emotion, Biss mixes in a healthy dose of history, analysis of evolving cultural norms (changing notions of “filth” and “purity,” for example), a look at pop culture’s role (vampires, anyone?), and ideas taken from both literature and philosophy as well.

The trip is a wild ride all over the map, and as engrossing as it is, I confess I felt Biss’s writing wasn’t always up to the task.  At times, the book gets a bit bogged down by a tangent that isn’t quite worthy of the boggage, and begins to feel more than a little unfocused.

Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed her perspective on this.  There’s an awful lot of anger on both sides of the vaccine “debate” these days, and one of the things that puzzles me the most about that is the way in which it’s often coming from parents against other parents.  This despite the fact that parents on both sides of the issue are acting out of identical, powerful, and innate motivations — the goal of protecting their children from harm.

This exploration of a real mother’s real fears in trying to figure out the best thing to do for her own child adds a level of humanity, empathy, and understanding to a conversation I have long felt, as a health educator of sorts myself, has been sorely lacking in all those elements. The result is a refreshingly compassionate approach to the subject, and one far more likely to make a difference to parents who are still wary of vaccinating than the insults and rage I so often see thrashing about on social media whenever the topic comes up.  You can’t get someone to change their mind by calling them an “idiot,” especially when their chief motivation is fear. What you can do is try to approach them from a mutual desire to keep their child safe from harm, and to educate them patiently but persistently from that perspective instead.

Highly recommended to people on both sides of the conversation; this is a book I wish more people would read.


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BOOK: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)

July 15, 2014

cantwetalkRoz Chast is one of my favorite cartoonists of all time — her work is frequently featured in The New Yorker, among other places, which is also where I read the excerpt from this book that made me run right out to grab a copy.

This powerful, loving, hilarious, and tender memoir is about the end of her parents’ lives, and the challenges brought forth both by grief and practicality. Spanning their last several years together, from the day she first began to realize they were in a sudden decline, to their final months in an assisted living residence, the memoir features not only Chast’s graphics, but also photographs, copies of her mother’s handwritten (and delightfully rhyming) poems, and little pieces of history and memory.

The decline hastened after a fall — ain’t that always the way — and both her parents never really recovered from the resultant trauma (mom got hurt, dad got scared). Nothing in this book is something you haven’t encountered, either in your own life as a caregiver for an elderly loved one, or through the stories of loved ones who have done that themselves.  But it’s the way it’s told here that is so enriching, enlightening, engaging.  Chast is a beautiful writer, something it’s easy to forget when you simply look at her art, which leans toward the scribbly side (though I love it, don’t get me wrong). Her insights are bottomless and her love for her parents, especially her difficult and somewhat cold mother, comes sharply ringing through both the text and the drawings.

This is a powerful and richly emotional book, and it made me laugh out loud to boot.  Definitely going to be in this year’s top ten list for me, and I bet if you read it, you’ll feel the same.  Highly, highly recommended!

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BOOK: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

February 10, 2014

unbrokenThis absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing book tells the absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing story of an absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing man named Louis Zamperini.  And did I mention it was absolutely incredible, wonderful, and amazing?  I did?  Well, okay, then. Good. Let me tell you why.

Louis Zamperini was born to a family of Italian immigrants in New York in 1917.  When he was but a wee two years of age, his family moved to Torrence, California.  Because nobody in the Zamperini family spoke any English when they arrived in the Sunshine State, Louis, a somewhat passive, quiet kid, became a frequent target for bullies as he grew up.  After grinning and bearing it for a few years, it finally occurred to him that the best way to silence those bullies was to put his fist through their teeth — and once he realized how effective that was, Louis spent many of the ensuing years getting himself in perpetual trouble.

Finally, his older brother Pete, exasperated by his younger brother’s behavior, tried to rein Louis in by getting him involved in sports.  He talked Louis into joining him on the school’s track team, where Louis quickly discovered he had an incredible talent for running.  During his high school years, he made and broke several national and international track records, and by the time he was 19, he was on his way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Louis didn’t win in Berlin, but he came close enough to know he was good enough to win next time if he kept at it.  So he set his sights on 1940 and started training even harder.  As war began to break out worldwide, however, the 1940 Olympics were first moved and then canceled.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and Louis’s sights were redirected to a new target — war in the Far East.

Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1941 and became a bombardier for the B-24 Liberator, one of the most deadly planes in WWII — for its crew, I mean, not just for those with the misfortune of being underneath one when it dropped a bomb.

Not only was the B-24 infamous for bursting into flame for no apparent reason (never MY favorite quality in an airplane), but its design made it nearly impossible to ditch or belly-land  safely in an emergency — the fuselage almost always busted into pieces, busting the crew into pieces along with it.  Shortly after the plane was introduced, there were several incidents in which the tails or wings just fell off in midair, also not a terrifically confidence-inspiring quality in a bomber.  Many B-24 crew members began referring to the plane as “the Flying Coffin,” and for good reason:  in the three months in which Louis and his crew trained to fly, 3,041 AAF planes met with accidents stateside, killing an average of nine men a day.

Overseas, so many B-24s went down during the war, and so often over the ocean, that the military began assigning ships runs below the air routes where the planes most commonly flew — an attempt to try to rescue more crash survivors from the sea.

Though Louis and his crew had a lengthy streak of good luck after joining the fighting, when their first plane was badly damaged in battle, they were assigned to the Green Hornet, a B-24 notorious among the other pilots for being a wreck in the sky, ready to fall apart if given so much as a sideways glance.

The Hornet quickly lived up to its reputation when Louis and his crew were sent out on a rescue mission looking for the crew of another plane that went down over the water. Mechanical issues forced the pilot, Louis’s friend Allen “Phil” Phillips, to ditch the Hornet in the sea.  As predicted, the plane broke apart, killing almost the entire crew. There were only three survivors — Louis, Phil, and a new crew mate they barely knew, Frances “Mac” McNamara. The men managed to pull themselves into a lifeboat, but they had almost no supplies whatsoever — a few candy bars, a couple of small containers of water, a bunch of fish hooks, and that was about it.

Surrounded by sharks, including a few big ones that periodically tried to leap into the boat for a better chomping angle (OMG, EEP!), starving, dehydrated, and quickly covered in painful, festering salt-induced sores, the situation could not have been more dire.  Yet somehow, Louis, Phil, and Mac managed to hold on.  Quick thinking and quicker hands allowed them to catch some fish and birds to eat, as well as rain water to drink every now and then.  They even managed — miraculously — to avoid getting shot when a Japanese fighter plane strafed them TWICE from above.  Knowing that keeping their brains sharp was critical to their survival, Phil and Louis spent endless hours telling each other stories, quizzing each other on trivia, singing, and keeping each other’s spirits up.

The record for survival on a lifeboat at sea before Louis’s plane went down was something like 35 days.  The Green Hornet’s survivors made it 47.  (I repeat: FORTY. SEVEN. DAYS!)

Believe it or not, things only got worse from there.  Because while they were, thank god, eventually rescued, their rescuers were a  group of Japanese soldiers, who quickly shuttled the already-dying men off to a series of brutal POW camps in the region.

For four more years (I repeat: FOUR. MORE. YEARS.) the men were starved, beaten almost constantly (especially Louis, who was a favorite target of one particularly brutal guard), refused medical care for diseases like dysentery and malaria, and forced to work themselves nearly to death.  Not only that, but once the Japanese found out Louis was a famous American Olympian, life for him became even more hellish.  Knowing they could use Louis’s fame to their advantage, the Japanese didn’t report his identity to the Red Cross as they were supposed to, and instead let his family believe he was dead for years. Eventually, they tried to torture him into becoming a propaganda tool for the Japanese military.  When he refused, he was starved and beaten even more.

AND, PEOPLE?  THAT IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE HELL THAT MAN ENDURED.  I’ll stop there, though, and let you discover the rest of Zamp’s story on your own.

In all my many years of reading true stories about wars, veterans, heroes, and survival against all odds, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story more amazing than this one.  Louis Zamperini is. . . I mean. . . seriously, words fail me.  All I can come up with is “amazing.”  I keep saying “amazing.”  Because he is AMAZING.  (Note, by the way, that I said “he is” right there. You may find that tense reassuring as you read — I know I did.)

That said, it’s not just the story of Zamp’s (amazing!) life that makes this book as impossibly hard to put down as it is.  A huge part of the credit for that also has to go to author Laura Hillenbrand.  I was familiar with Hillenbrand’s name — she wrote that extremely popular book about Seabiscuit a few years back — but I hadn’t read any of her work before.  And WOW, no wonder Seabiscuit and Unbroken are both still bestsellers  (Unbroken, in fact, has sold so many copies so steadily for so long that the publisher STILL hasn’t released it in paperback — why bother when the $30 hardcover keeps selling like hotcakes three-and-a-half years after being published?).

Hillenbrand is a phenomenally talented writer — it’s no stretch to say she’s one of the best non-fiction writers I have ever encountered, in fact.  Her stunning descriptions of both place and people transport you right into their worlds, and her clear affection for her subjects creates an authentic emotional connection from the very first page (I can’t remember the last time a book made me work quite so hard to keep from crying all the time, by the way — and those were fought-back tears of both the sorrowful and joyous variety, depending on the chapter).

Additionally, there were times I came across a sentence in this book that was so finely crafted I had to stop and read it again (and sometimes: again and again).  What a rare gift, writing like that. What utter, pure, complete pleasure that is.  I cherished every single word of this wonderful book. and I can’t wait to read more by Hillenbrand as soon as possible (starting with Seabiscuit and ending with everything else she ever writes as long as we both shall live, amen).  The lady is a goddamn genius.

Amazing man, amazing writer, amazing story, amazing book (soon to be what I hope is an amazing movie, by the way).  If you read one book this year, MAKE IT THIS BOOK.  I promise you, you will not be sorry.  Louis Zamperini will change your life; he certainly changed mine.  I turned the last page of Unbroken 3 weeks ago and I haven’t gone a day without thinking about it since.  When was the last time you read a book like that?  Such a gift, that man, his story, this book.  I am beyond grateful.

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BOOK: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan by Elizabeth Norman (2013)

January 30, 2014

webandMost people — at least, I hope this is the case — have at least heard of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II.  The build-up to that travesty began not long after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese began trying to take the Philippines — a key piece of property in the Far East.  Over the next year or so, they bombed and invaded the region, finally ending up on the Bataan peninsula, where Douglas MacArthur’s troops were waiting for them.

Originally, MacArthur’s plan was to hold Bataan and the small island close to it, Corregidor, until the US Navy could bring in reinforcements and supplies (food, ammo, medicine).  Once those reinforcements arrived, he planned to attack north, defeat the Japanese, and push onward to victory.  USA! USA! USA!

Over the year before the battle began, though, as the US Navy struggled to get back on its feet post-Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began setting up thick blockades around Bataan, preventing any Allied ships from reaching the troops.  For months, the soldiers on Bataan lived on half-rations, without faltering in their fight against Japanese attacks.  When it became clear no reinforcements were going to make it in, the US ordered MacArthur to evacuate himself to Australia, leaving his men behind.

“I shall return!” he declared famously.  Infamously, it took him three more years.

Meanwhile, the US ordered the men left on Bataan to continue to fight, even as they began literally starving to death.  As medical supplies ran out, their bodies broke down further as malaria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases raged through their systems.  They were told not to surrender.  And for four months, they didn’t.  When they finally lacked the strength to hold up their guns, however, the commanding officer of the ranks deserted by MacArthur gave up — it was the largest surrender in American history.

The Japanese took the surviving troops prisoner — both Americans and Filipino — and began to march them to POW camps north of Bataan.  The Japanese soldiers believed surrender to be the ultimate act of disgrace, and they treated their prisoners accordingly.  The starving, sick, already-dying men were beaten, beheaded, stabbed, shot, and otherwise tortured the entire march.  By the time they arrived at their destination, some 2,500-10,000 Filipino soldiers and anywhere between 100-650 Americans had died along the trail.

That’s more or less what I already knew when I picked this book up.  What I DIDN’T know was that there was another group of Allied soldiers on Bataan and Corregidor — a group of 78 Army and Navy nurses.

In the fall of 1941, the Philippines was an exotic, exciting place to be.  Nurses from all over enlisted in the military and requested to be sent there, where they’d heard most of their “duties” would involve dancing with handsome GIs and partying.  Most of them had next-to-no training in medicine, which worked out just fine because nobody in the Philippines seemed to be in any danger of actually getting hurt.

Until all hell broke loose.

Caught in the battle, the nurses rapidly set up field hospitals in the jungles of Bataan, sometimes right in the middle of the fighting, and eventually moved to Corregidor, where they set up cots and surgeries down inside a set of underground, concrete tunnels.  As the bombs fell and the bullets flew, these mostly-young, very naive women began witnessing horrors they could never have imagined.  The Angels of Bataan, as they came to be known, were the first US military women to serve in a hot zone, as well as the first US military women to be all, “Oh, the HELL with this nonsense!” and trade their impractical-white-dress uniforms in for the same khaki overalls the men were wearing.

After months of bloody battle, the women too were herded into interment camps when Bataan and Corregidor fell.  There they lived out the rest of the war — about three more years.  That’s three years of terror, disease, starvation, and torture.  Most of them continued to serve as nurses in the camps, establishing infirmaries and trying to maintain a regular schedule — as much for their own sanity as for the injured troops.

In the last year of their internment, rations were cut dramatically for the women as well as the men, down to fewer than 700 calories a day by the time they were finally liberated in 1945.  Most of the nurses had lost upwards of 30% of their body weight, and were wracked with disease to boot.

When the survivors finally got home, they were immediately whisked away as poster-girls for victory — look at our amazing gals, who survived POW camps and still look great in lipstick!  Exhausted and ill, they were carted around for weeks putting a pretty face on war for their government until the novelty wore off.  And then they were discarded, with the Army and Navy refusing to honor their (female) leaders with the medals they so clearly deserved after such unbelievably courageous service.

It wasn’t until 2001 (!!) that Maj. Maude Davison, credited by many for keeping the women alive by making them continue to serve as nurses throughout their imprisonment (thus maintaining their spirits, thusly maintaining their lives), was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal; other leaders of the corps still haven’t received formal recognition.

This incredibly well-written and compelling book uses letters, diaries, and interviews with the survivors to tell the other story of Bataan — the women’s story.  And it is, in a word, amazing.  If you’re at all interested in military history, WWII, or just in incredible stories of survival and perseverance, this is a don’t-miss.

In fact, it’s just a don’t-miss, period. You should know about this. USA women!  USA women!  USA women!

Thank you, Angels of Bataan, for your service and your inspiration.

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Dyatlov Pass Incident Double Feature! Devil’s Pass (movie) and Dead Mountain (book)

January 24, 2014

devilspassA few weeks ago I checked out a book from my local public library about something called the “Dyatlov Pass incident.”  When I got home, I set it on my dining room table and then kind of forgot it was there.

The following weekend, I was in the mood for a crappy horror movie, and I noticed this flick called Devil’s Pass was available for streaming at Netflix.  It sounded intriguing: I love movies set in snowy nowheres, and it was directed by Renny Harlin — admittedly not a great sign but at least I’d heard of him.

As soon as the movie started, I was astonished to discover it was about the same thing as the book I’d just picked up — the Dyatlov Pass incident — something I’d never even heard of until this bizarre coincidence.

What a bizarre coincidence!

Also: what a fascinating story!  And man, is it ever the perfect fodder for a horror or sci-fi movie — why there haven’t been more of them, I have no idea.  Before I get into specifics about the movie and the book, though, let me fill you in on a little background.  This part is the true-story part.

In the winter of 1959, a group of young adults in Russia decided to take a break from school and go ski-hiking into the Urals.  They started out as a group of 10 (8 men, 2 women), but not long into the trek, one of them fell ill and had to turn back.

The other 9, led by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old student at Ural Polytechnic and highly skilled climber, had no concerns about their trip, despite the fact they were climbing in the snowy nowheres of Siberia in January — certainly not my first choice for camping.  These guys knew what they were doing, though, and they were having a great time doing it.  Photos from their trip show them goofing around, enjoying camp, laughing.  It was clearly a blast.

At least, it was until it wasn’t anymore.

After their deadline to get back to town came and went, the group’s friends began to get worried.  They soon put together a search team and headed up along the same path the Dyatlov group had taken.

For five days, they found nothing.  On the sixth day, they found the group’s tent, eerily set up inside as though the group had just been there and would be back any moment.  Food was laid out.  Several of the hikers’ boots were lined up by the tent entrance.  But at the back of the tent was an ominous sign: a huge slash in the canvas, clearly made from the inside, as though something terrible had been coming in the front and the rear was their only way out.

Eventually, all the hikers’ bodies were found, and it became clear they had fled in a panic, separating from each other and running in wildly impractical, random directions.  Most of them had frozen to death alone — they were all drastically under-dressed for the weather, many in what amounted to pajamas, and, as the boots in the tent had suggested, several were in their stocking feet.  In Siberia.  In January.

Disturbingly, though, two of the bodies showed evidence of some kind of violence — one had a crushing head injury, the other was missing her tongue.  Another two were found in an embrace, next to the embers of a small fire. And, weirdest of all, several of them had high levels of radioactivity on their clothing.

Leading to the question: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

First, the movie’s theory.  Devil’s Pass is about a group of film students who decide to follow the path the Dyatlov group took and make a documentary about the incident.  It’s essentially The Blair Witch Project, only set in Siberia instead of New Jersey — this, for me, was not a bad thing.

After days of hiking in, the group finally gets to the place where the Dyatlov tent was discovered, and decide to call it a night, pitching their own tent essentially on the same spot where Igor’s had been. This, incidentally, would also not be my first choice for camping.

While the others are setting up, the team leader and her buddy head out for some early poking around.  It’s just trees and snows and hills and rocks and stuff — until they come across something plenty weird: a door.   A door in the side of the mountain.  Thumbs up!

From there, the movie gets even more intriguing. Annnnnnd then it takes a sharp turn towards Hilariously Dumb.  All in all, though, it’s not a terrible flick and I’d say it’s well worth a rental if you’re interested in some really crazy theories about what happened to Igor and his pals. Why the hell not?


Speaking of really crazy theories, let’s move on.  The non-fiction book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is written by a journalist, Donnie Eichar, who essentially does the same thing the kids in the movie did — he goes to the Northern Urals and hikes the same path, in the hopes he’ll discover something no one else has and finally put to rest the decades-old  question, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The book is written in alternating chapters, with half of them set in the present day, focusing on the author’s research, interviews, and travels, and the other half set in 1959, telling the story of the Dyatlov group (reconstructed thanks to the hikers’ journals and camera, as well as interviews with friends and search party members).

Everybody in Russia seems to have a theory about what happened to the Dyatlov party, with no two theories alike.  Those theories range from alien abduction to a Soviet military conspiracy involving a secret radioactive weapon the group had accidentally stumbled across them testing out.  The conspiracy theory is strengthened somewhat by the fact the government had been unwilling to help during the search, and later refused to release any of their own information about the incident and the victims.

Assessing and dismissing most of the major theories one by one, Eichar finally proposes yet another idea, only this time, the theory is based in science and is supported by scientists specializing in exactly that very scientific thing — a thing I will not describe so as not to spoilerize you.

The problem is, after such build-up — such suspense, such drama, such crazy, crazy weirdness — Eichar’s theory was kind of a super-bummer let-down for me.  Partly because it’s really the only theory that makes any sense whatsoever, which means it’s probably truly what happened.  Which means, ugh, how awful.  Frankly, alien abduction probably would have been a gentler way to go.

So, what the hell happened?  The answer is we still don’t know for sure and we may never know (though, apparently, there are more super-secret documents the Russians won’t release — suspicious!).  Yet despite the fact that after reading the entire book, you still won’t really know anything more about what happened than you did when you started (which is to say: nuttin’), it’s well worth reading anyway, just so you can meet Igor and his friends, follow them along their journey, and mourn their tragic deaths.  If what Eichar thinks happened really is what happened, it seems the least we can do for those poor kids.

As soon as you turn the last page, though, pop in Devil’s Pass so you can end your own journey to Siberia with some serious eye-rolls and snorty giggles.  Really, Renny Harlin?  Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  Of all the possibilities?  You cheeseball.


Movie: Devil’s Pass: Netflix it | Amazon Rental
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Summer Reading 2013

August 30, 2013

As I mentioned in my recent review of the book Bold Spirit, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading this summer but haven’t gotten around to writing many reviews.  Figured I’d just hit them all in brief in a little round-up.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Controversial Religious Shelf

goingclearzealotGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (2012)

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

Both these books are absolutely fascinating.  And that’s all I have to say about THAT, aside from the fact I was a little disappointed that despite spending half his book talking about Paul Haggis, Lawrence Wright did not once mention Due South, Haggis’s greatest achievement.  Whatever, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.

Craptacular Shelf (You knew there would be one)

deep stormDeep Storm by Lincoln Child (2007) – Scientists discover a stash of powerful alien weapons in the Mohorovičić discontinuity under the ocean!  In trying to get to it, lots of people die!

Utopia by Lincoln Child (2002) – Scientists discover that hackers getting into into the robot-programming system at a robot-controlled futuristic theme park can wreak a lot havoc!  In trying to stop it, lots of people die!

riptideRiptide by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – Dudes, pirate treasure hidden in a deep pit that is perpetually filled with water AND there’s also a monster and the computers go all wonkeroo!  BAM!  Lots of people die!

Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – AZTEC FUNGUS!  ET CETERA!

Look, I know it seems ridiculous. FOUR Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston novels in a row?  The thing is, I really enjoyed Deep Storm, which is essentially the book version of every good-bad disaster/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen.  That got me started on the kick, and  once you’re reading super cheesy science fiction, it’s incredibly hard to stop.  Man, that was a fun book binge.  I might be through it now – but only for now.

Mystery Shelf

killroomsweetnessThe Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver (2013) – Lincoln Rhyme’s latest case.  A bit of a yawn, unless you are SUPER DUPER into bitching about how evil Obama’s drone program is.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009) – Nerd-girl solves a mystery.  A little too adorable for its own good.

Non-Fiction Other Stuff Shelf

cleanClean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy by David Sheff (2013) – Sheff’s first book, Beautiful Boy, is a book I still recommend to people (read my review) four years after reading it.  A memoir of his years  as the father of an addict, it not only laid out his personal agonies, but also delved deep into the science of addiction.  This book, his second, is less a memoir and more a handbook for parents.  It too covers some of the science of addiction, but it focuses predominantly on youth prevention, treatment, and recovery — how to talk to your kids about drugs, what to do if you think your kids are using drugs, how to help your kid after s/he’s been in treatment, etc.  Wise reading for all parents of youths, but not nearly as engaging for me as Beautiful Boy.

Sad, Party of Two Shelf

bookthiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006) – You know what’s weird about this novel?  It was apparently written for adults, and marketed thusly in Zusak’s country (Australia).  And then when it jumped the pond, or whatever the Aussies call that, it was repackaged as a book for young adults.  After having read it, I can only assume that’s because the American distributor reacted to it the same way I did, which was to think, “Man, I would’ve loved this book when I was 13.  NOW, on the other hand. . .”

Having read a number of novels set in Nazi Germany in WWII, not to mention seen a lot of truly devastating films about the Holocaust, it was hard to get into the more cutesy elements of this novel, which is narrated by Death, to unaffecting effect.  It’s about a little German girl, Liesel, whose family is hiding a Jewish man in their basement (Max). She steals books from the local mayor’s wife, with the help of her best pal Rudy, which is why she’s called the Book Thief by the author and his narrator.  It’s sort of a way to take control of her own losses, which are numerous, I would say. The kids are sweet and confused about the world around them and their feelings for people and each other, and lots of people die in horrible ways.  It’s enough to make a grown woman cry, really.  Only, despite a few flashes of brilliance here and there, I was pretty underwhelmed by both the story and the writing.  It’s sluggish and clumsy in many places, and it’s also very predictable (though I suppose you could argue that any book set in Nazi Germany is bound to be predictable, but whatever).  I read the whole thing, and I got a little teary at the end.  But it’s not one I’ll revisit or that I particularly recommend.  No plan to watch the movie.  I’ve seen enough.

unvanquishedThe Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1938) – This is a novel I’d read before (I’m pretty sure I’ve read all his novels before by now), but not since early college days and I had forgotten how great it was.  It’s the rare Faulkner novel actually set during the Civil War instead of after it, and also the rare Faulkner novel loaded up with humor as well (to specific effect, of course — the man’s not jovial for kicks).  This is an incredibly brilliant, moving story about two boys, one white boy and one black, raised together on a plantation and forced to grow up REAL FAST when the war begins.  “Men have been pacifists for every reason under the sun except to avoid danger and fighting,” one of the characters remarks.  Ain’t it the truth.  Man, whew.  So good.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s a joy to read nonetheless.

There are two other books I read this summer, but I’m going to do full reviews on them later.  Until then, hie thee to the library, and let me know if you come across anything great you want to recommend!

BOOK: Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt (2005)

August 20, 2013

boldspiritI’ve been doing a ton of reading this summer, and not reviewing many of the books.  This is partly because some of them have been cheesy crap, some of them haven’t really been worth saying much about, and some of them have been books I’ve read before.

HOWEVER.  There was no skipping a review of this one, because I LOVED IT SO.

This is the non-fiction story of a woman named Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in Spokane in the 1890s along with her husband and eight children.  After a hard life moving around the harsh Midwest with her family, trying to find a safe place to live and farm, Helga and her family had mostly settled into Spokane when the economy collapsed.  Owing thousands in taxes and mortgage payments, the Estby’s were about to lose their farm when an intriguing offer fell into their laps.

A mysterious sponsor on the East Coast was, Helga learned, offering to pay $10,000 to any woman who walked all the way across America.  This was an era of a lot of change in terms of the way women were viewed in our nation, and the sponsor aimed to accomplish two goals with this idea:  one, to get a woman to model a new shorter-style skirt (the hem is just above the ankle, gasp! See picture of Helga and Clara in the skirts here!) and show it off to as many other ladies along the route as possible; and two, to demonstrate to the world that chicks can do shit like walk all the friggin’ way across AMERICA.

Hoping to win the wager and save the farm, Helga takes the gig, enlisting the company and partnership of her eldest daughter, 19 year-old Clara.  They armed themselves with a compass, some pepper spray, and a revolver, and set out for parts East.

Their route took them through 14 states and exposed these two ridiculously amazing women to a huge variety of experiences.  They visited American Indian reservations, survived terrible snowstorms and heat waves, shot a couple of thieves (atta girl, Helga!), and met an impressive number of famous politicians from the era.  In each town, Helga and Clara would head first to the local newspaper office, tell a reporter what they were doing and how it was going, and then set out to find the local mayor or another bigwig and have that person sign a letter they were carrying explaining their task.  By the end of the trip, Helga and Clara had obtained the signatures of, among numerous others, William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley.

Their adventure ends in devastating tragedy, in more ways than one, and it was that tragedy that led Helga’s family essentially to shun her for generations after she returned home.  When she was in her last years of life, she finally wrote a memoir about the walk — which her children promptly burned the moment she died.

Luckily, newspapers never forget (see why we still need newspapers?), and author Linda Hunt was able to put together most of the story based on dozens of articles streaming across the U.S., as well as general historical information about the era.  There’s also a fair amount of speculation involved, as Hunt tries to give us some insight into what Helga’s life might have been like, basing some of those elements on other accounts from similar women of the time.  (Incidentally, I come from Norwegian immigrant stock myself, so I can attest to the fact we are totally bad ass.)

This book is absolutely FASCINATING.  I cannot recommend it highly enough!  More than the story of two incredibly determined women who walked 3000 miles to save their farm, it tells the story of one of the biggest times of transition in the fight for women’s rights.  I devoured this book in two days, and will definitely be revisiting it again.  READ THIS BOOK.  (And watch for a review coming soon of Helga’s grand-niece’s fictionalized account of the story, a YA novel titled The Year We Were Famous.  Can’t wait!)

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BOOK: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth (2002)

November 27, 2012

For those of you who missed it, there was just a delightful new BBC series running on PBS here in the US titled Call the Midwife, about a group of midwives (some nuns, some not) working out of a convent in London’s East End in the 1950s.  I enjoyed (most of) the series very much, so, naturally, when it ended, I decided to check out this book, the first in a set of three (I think?) memoirs written by the “main character,” Jenny Worth.

A lot of the first half of the book will be familiar to anyone who watched the series — some of the same midwifery cases are presented (for example, the husband and wife with 25 children who don’t speak each other’s language) and many of the characters are recognizable too (oh, Chummy, I love you so!).  The book also features more historical background on the evolution of the practice of midwifery and the striking poverty of the East End.

The problem is that what I enjoyed the most about the TV series was essentially every character except for Jenny, who I mostly just found cloying and annoying (hey, that rhymes!).  Chummy, a class-A awkward underdog, was obviously my favorite, and several of the nuns were also wonderful, engaging characters.  Unfortunately, these people all played much larger roles in the BBC series than they do in the book.

The episode I found the most yawn-inducing of the TV series, by comparison, was the one that focused almost completely on Ms. Worth and her complicated love life, and naturally, since this book is HER memoir, there’s an awful lot of that kind of stuff in it.  Go figure.  I didn’t find her all that interesting as a narrator, either in the series or in the book, and in terms of the traditional “fish out of water” observer, she comes off as more patronizing and judgmental than curious and compassionate.  Though her horror over the conditions in which she finds herself working (the slums of London, essentially) was honest, she never seems to shake that horror off long enough to see through the grime and disease.  She’s judgmental of the women and judgmental of the way they live their lives (why can’t they just CLEAN UP, she wonders an awful lot), and despite her increasing experience over the pages of her story, she never seems to grow very much.  Additionally, she’s not much of a deep thinker.  She doesn’t ponder the women or their lives to try to make sense of them — she merely describes them, and mostly with distaste.

Plus, as you’ll realize by about the third page, though Ms. Worth is definitely a midwife who wrote a book, she is NOT a writer who worked as a midwife.  If you catch my drift.  (If you don’t, what I mean is, BOY, is this book badly written!)

That said, I did enjoy reading this, believe it or not, mostly for the brief snippets of the lives of everyone else Jenny encountered.  I think other fans of the series will have a good time with it as well, as long as you give yourselves license to skip tedious chapters at will. (Anything that appears to be focused on Jenny, her family, or her old boyfriend, you should flip past as quickly as possible.)   The stories about the women of the East End — their courage, their grit, their spirit, their tenacity — those are the real treasures in this book. And they alone are worth swimming through the muck of mixed-up verb tenses to get to know.

It’s too bad Chummy (luf!) didn’t write this memoir, I thought to myself as I turned the last page.  I have a feeling it would’ve been a vastly different book, and greatly improved.  I’m looking forward to season two of the series, but am unlikely to pick up the other memoirs in Worth’s series.  Disappointing!

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