Category: HI – History


How To Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss

October 4th, 2019 — 9:53pm

How to Fght Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss

I believe that this book was one of the most important books that I have read in a long time. Certainly, it is true because I am a Jew who has been aware of the historic and contemporary antisemitism. However, I think this book has equal relevance to both Jews and non-Jews who may not have thought about the subject but yet have concerns about some of the serious injustices which continue to exist in our world.

One of the critical lenses through which the author viewed this subject is in the discussion of the meaning and importance of the state of Israel. While she is aware that Israel may be far from perfect, she clearly exposes the anti-Israel views as expressed in in the BDS slogan (boycott, divest, and sanction)by people who want to eliminate the state of Israel This type of thinking is clearly the result of deep-rooted antisemitism even though some of it may come from Jews themselves when talking about Israel.

The author also examines the flawed and historic stereotyping of Jews and the dangerous way of thinking which has led to the pogroms, the holocausts, and other hideous events in human history.

Most fascinating is the author’s crystal-clear exposition how antisemitism can exist in the United States and throughout the world on the political left as it does on the political right. Once you are aware how it is expressed, you can see it all around you by “well-meaning” people who have had stereotyped views implanted deeply-rooted in their thinking and yet with the potential to so easily emerge.

We recently heard this young author speak at a local event and we were very impressed by her knowledge, insight, and empathy for the thought processes in the perpetuators as well as in the objects of antisemitism. Also, during the recent Jewish holiday, we were aware of at least two sermons by different rabbis who dealt with the subject of antisemitism in a similar manner as expressed in this book. Whether or not they had read this book, we strongly recommend that you should read it.

 

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Comment » | HI - History, P - Political, Uncategorized

A Woman Of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

August 2nd, 2019 — 2:33pm

Woman of No Importance-The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Virginia Hall was born in the United States, grew up in Baltimore and studied at Columbia University. She moved to France prior to World War II. As a young woman, she also had a tragic accident during a hunting trip where she shot her leg and ended up with a wooden prosthesis.

When World War II broke out and the Germans invaded France, circumstances plus dedication and brilliance led her to become one of the key figures in the French Resistance Movement. The author of this book, Sonia Purnell, spent a great deal of time and effort painstakingly studying the life and the amazing accomplishments of this woman who worked with the French underground. Virginia used numerous forged documents and also had a cover of being a correspondent for the New York Post, but in reality, she was organizing and participating in deadly sabotage against the occupying Nazis. She trained hundreds of members of the French underground. She risked her life numerous times in various operations. She went to extreme efforts to secretly maintain contact with the British for whom she was working via radio coded message. She guided many missions which included arranging the parachute drops of guns, explosives, and other supplies needed in the activities of the French underground against the occupying Germans. She devised complicated plots to free captured prisoners. She had many close calls and could have been captured and tortured as was the fate of many of her comrades. After D-Day she arranged numerous attacks on the German troops who were heading towards Normandy.

As a reader of this book, we got the feeling that we are by her side as she plans and carried out dangerous missions. She then escapes France via walking through the snow-covered mountains through Spain. Ultimately, Virginia falls in love with a young man who she encountered in her work and they eventually got married. This book is well written and will keep you on the edge of your seat. Virginia was ultimately awarded many medals including the highest French Medal of Honor. After the end of World War II, she worked for the CIA, assisting in spy activities directed against the communists.

As exciting and informative as this amazing story was, at times, I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters many of whom had French names. I also could not always picture the exact geography as she moved through different parts of France as well as during her escape via Spain. It would have been great if there could have been a directory of the many characters that we meet in this book and a brief description of them as well as a map where the reader could trace her adventures and travel. That being said, any student of history, especially if one wants the inside view of World War II should read this book. It also will be a satisfying read for anyone looking for a well-written spy story.

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Comment » | B - Biography, HI - History, P - Political

You Never Said. We Didn’t Ask: A Legacy From World War I- Poems by Estella Lauter

June 5th, 2019 — 11:14pm

You Never Said. We Didn’t Ask: A Legacy From World War I

Poems by Estella Lauter

My freshman college roommate at the University of Rochester was Chuck Lauter. His dad was Charles F. Lauter (1890-1990) who was a World War I veteran. Chuck married one of our classmates, Estella who addition to becoming a parent and grandparent also became an accomplished award-winning poet. Just recently she has published this 24 page small book of poems about the World War I experience and the effects of war upon a small group of soldiers which included Chuck’s dad. As the title suggests she was not told directly about it by these men but was able to reconstruct their experiences from some subsequent writings about what they went through.

I don’t imagine that high school and even college students get grounding in the history and the personal experiences of those who fought in the Great War. This book is a wonderful introduction as well as a reminder of our heritage. At times it is a narrative, other times it is an emotional insight but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to the great soldiers who are embedded in American history.

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Comment » | HI - History, Poetry

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

May 8th, 2019 — 5:01pm

 

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

I always felt that I was fairly well educated in American history, dating back to the Revolutionary War. I had also studied World War I and World War II and of course the Holocaust. In recent years, I became more aware of the Japanese internment and over the years, I read a fair amount about the history of various immigrant groups in the United States. I must admit that I never thought too much about the history of the Native American Indians in this country nor was this topic covered in my schooling. Of course, I knew that the original explorers and settlers of the Western United States did take away the land of the Native Americans who were obviously here first. I have some vague awareness that there had been some reparations which I am reminded of when I would see advertisements for gambling casinos in California that I knew could only legally function because they were allowed to be run by the Native Americans.

This book was a game changer! It starts off as a real life “who done it”. It is of course a non-fiction book and the reader gets the feeling it’s going to be an interesting true to life mystery. There are a couple of unexplained murders which have occurred. The setting is the 1920s and the location is in the western United States. The victims happen to be Native Americans who are members of the Osage tribe. Suspects come and go. There are some more unsolved deaths which may or may not be accidents or perhaps crimes. Maybe there was a poisoning. There are some attempts at prosecuting possible murderers but the trials usually don’t work out.

It turns out that where the Osage tribe members have lived is on an oil-rich land. The Federal government has worked out a plan where every legitimate member of the Osage tribe gets “Head Rights” which turns out to be lots of money which makes them and their descendants quite wealthy. Of course, when they die, these “Rights” go to their heirs unless they assign them to someone else, perhaps a caretaker of their children, a white spouse or some other arrangement which the soon-to-be deceased member had decided to make. Over the years, all sorts of devious plots are suspected including bribery of juries, medical pathologists who did not quite find the bullet in the body, doctors who might have injected some substance that could have led to the death, undertakers who seemed to be involved in some way and just about everybody else. Families of the deceased became suspicious of the reasons for the deaths of their loved ones and how the inheritance was worked out. Numerous private detectives were drawn into these cases. In fact, these situations probably spawned the development of the occupation of private detectives and investigators in this country or at least was a major part of it.

Of course, the deaths and the suspected murders that were occurring over the years were taking place on the land of the Osage tribe, which is considered federal land, and therefore, federal investigators became involved in looking into these possible crimes. These were occurring at the same time that the new director of the soon-to-be named Federal Bureau of Investigation was trying to establish his new bureau. That man, of course, was J. Edgar Hoover and this story is also about the founding of this American institution and the ins and outs of that organization.

The author of this book literally spent years researching it. He spoke with many grandchildren and other descendants of the victims as well as some of the descendants of the suspected murderers. He traveled to many locations, studied archives and personal papers in addition to conducting many personal interviews. In fact, literally, one-tenth of the book are references, citations and summaries of newspaper articles and reports of personal discussions that the author had.

The end result is that the reader is left with an understanding of a piece of American history, which is as comprehensive and complex as any phase of American history. It is not only complicated, colorful, and as horrid as the story of gangsters in America during prohibition, or the tales of the various crime families about whom stories have been written and even equally outrageous as some of the infamous political scandals that have occurred in this country. On top of all of this is the amazing truth that you probably never heard of these events, that is, until you read this book.

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1 comment » | HI - History

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

April 27th, 2019 — 2:32pm

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

How can a book about the library be expected to hold our interest? Well, the main focus of this book is one particular library, the Los Angeles Public Library which famously almost burned to the ground in 1986, but it is really about much more. This book describes the long line of librarians who have played the leading role in this particular institution dating back to the 19th Century and forward to the modern age. As is often the case when discussing edifices where great things have happened, the architecture and the architects who created them are also very much a part of the story. The book also discusses the antagonism towards libraries by dictators and oppressive regimes throughout the ages characterized but not limited to the book burning by the Nazis.

The author obviously spent years compiling this book and shares with the reader her many hours of discussion with the people who work and serve in the library. It becomes clear that working in a library has been a calling for most of them and a dedication of skilled men and women who proudly wear the title librarian.

As the author travels through the halls of the library, we see how the function of a library is not only the presentation and the sharing of all types of books, but that the library also is a font of knowledge with availability of art, historical documents, patents, music and much more. As we travel through this building, we also appreciate that many of the daily inhabitants of the library are people of all ages; the elderly, children, scholars, students, artists, immigrants, etc. We see that the library is and can, not only be a place of obtaining special knowledge and education, but a place for social programs and creative, innovative activities. It is also interesting to see that the library is also often a refuge for the homeless.

In the past, the library became known as a place where one could visit and ask a dedicated staff to direct him or her to a source where they can get any type of information and answer any specific question. In fact, the library has always provided a phone service where you could call in and get an answer to the most unique or mundane question. Therefore, now that we are in the age of the computer, with Google, Alexa, and Siri, etc., where one can ask your own personal device any question and get an answer, one might think that the library should become an institution of the past. Interestingly enough, however, it appears that libraries are reinventing themselves and are becoming more popular than ever. Not only do the libraries, through the work of the dedicated librarian staff, assist people, how to reach and query the Internet about anything but they provide access to the most up-to-date equipment and technique for the use of everyone including the poor, the homeless, the elderly, children, everyone, et cetera. The library offers classes where people can be educated how to use these modern techniques. And of course, the library can also be a social meeting place. And most important, the library now is on the cutting edge of all forms of knowledge, history and communication. This book is an eye-opener that shows a library of the past, the present and the future.

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Comment » | HI - History

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

February 10th, 2019 — 4:23pm

On Gold Mountain: A Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family by Lisa See.

If you do not know it, “Gold Mountain” is California and the story begins as the author’s great-great-grandfather Fong See arrives on the West Coast of the United States where he works making herbal remedies for other Chinese men working to build the railroad.. The book traces his intermarriage to Ticie and how he becomes involved in Chinese antiques and furniture. The arc of the story includes three generations, many of whom stayed in the family business, mostly in the Los Angeles area. We followed the progenitor and other family members as they often visit China and give money to family back home, and bring old Chinese antiques and furniture back to the United States. We come to appreciate the outrageous discrimination against the Chinese including American laws that directly targeted this group. We also learn about Chinese customs including the practice where men often had multiple wives which might include concubines and prostitutes.

This is an important book about the history and roots of Chinese-Americans. It serves a purpose of also being a family record of the ancestors of the author as well as many Americans who have roots in the immigration from China. I feel educated and more enlightened having read this book. I can understand why the author, who has written many best-selling novels, would have chosen to share her family history in this book.

Having said all of the above, I found the book quite tedious to read. The author should have provided a clear usable family tree diagram to follow the different characters and the various relationships.( There was a small family tree at the beginning of the book , which was very difficult to read on the I-Pad,) To the non-Chinese reader, the names were unfamiliar and frequently sounded the same. In addition, sometimes it appears that the author used two different names for the same character.

The author’s previous success as a novelist, I am sure led many people to explore this book. In my case, I only stayed with it because it was a selection of my book club. In the end, I am enlightened about Americans with Chinese heritage, but this is not a book that I would recommend for enjoyable reading.

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Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, HI - History, P - Political

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperial World by Robert Kagan

January 5th, 2019 — 11:35pm

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperial World by Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan, the author of this book is described by Wikipedia is a neoconservative American historian and foreign-policy commentator. It also notes that Kagan prefers the term “liberal interventionist” to describe himself. It goes on to say that some have characterized his approach to international relations as “realistic.”

This book is a review of political history mostly of the past century in terms of the American led liberal order versus an authoritarianism type of political system that might include a socialistic system with benevolent idealistic communism or a tribalistic system that evolved into a fascist government. Kagan is of course a historian as well as a political analyst. He discusses the importance of geography influencing government formation i.e. the relative isolation of Great Britain as compared to the rest of Europe and of course the United States being surrounded by two great oceans as compared to the crowding of Europe with various border issues there and in Africa and then South America.

The rise of various imperial leaders are analyzed in depth as well as the philosophies of Hitler, various Chinese leaders and those of American such as FDR and George Marshall after the end of World War II.

The social and political dominance or hegemony of various countries over others is looked at as history evolves and power flows and ebbs, is the theme of this book. Even to a non-historian reader such as this one, the book is very enlightening as it puts modern day political struggles even those in the United States at the present time, into a context of world history.

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The Ghost of The Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin

March 20th, 2018 — 5:46pm

Ghost Of The Innocent Man: A True Story Of Trial And Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin.

Somewhat by coincidence, this non-fiction book continues the theme of An American Marriage, which was the previous book which I recently read and reviewed in this blog. That book was a fictionalized account of a man who was wrongly in prison for a crime that he did not commit and how that impacted himself and his young wife.

This book is a true story of the ultimate development of a remarkable Innocence Inquiry Project in North Carolina. It also follows the story of Willie Grimes, a young innocent man who was accused and convicted of raping a 65-year-old woman and spent 20 years in prison. The author of this book was not an attorney but rather was a writer who undertook this writing project when he was 26 years old. He traced the birth of the Innocence Project, which started at the University of North Carolina and Duke University Law School and then coalesced over a few years into a state sanctioned Innocence Commission that provided an official process for examining the case of convicted prisoners who may have completely exhausted their appeals process and could still have a pathway to having their cases reexamined.

The author told the story of young attorneys who became involved in this project while also working with smart idealistic law students, as they became the last resort for prisoners who may have been totally innocent. The author’s study did interview the various founders and pioneers of this project and told in great detail the trials and tribulations of getting it off the ground. The very interesting story of the birth of this project was interspersed with the equally remarkable story of Mr. Grimes’ voyage through the judicial system and his experience in numerous prisons in North Carolina over the years. The author related in exquisite detail Mr. Grimes’ interactions with various cellmates, prison guards, doctors, as well as his visits to Jehovah Witness people who became very important to him. In fact, my biggest criticism of this book was the repetitive recounting of every interaction that poor Mr. Grimes had in prison. The author literally seemed to reveal “every detail” and report from Mr. Grimes’ case manager in prison, every unremarkable note by nurses, psychologists, guards, every comment, and minor infarction while in prison as well as many repetitive thoughts that Mr. Grimes may have had.

The author also provided the details of seemingly every letter or communication between the client and his various lawyers and between various people in the Innocence Project that were trying to help him and develop their program. Yes, this approach conveyed the tedious life that Mr. Grimes had in prison and the tremendous attention to detail of those who were trying to help him had to go through, I got that point! However, I felt that this was way overdone and made the reader spend much more time than needed in order to get it.

It was quite fascinating to come to understand some of the complications of doing hair analysis analysis, and even potential DNA analysis although Mr. Grimes’ trial predated the sophisticated DNA techniques that are used today. The reader also learned about the importance of saving evidence from the crime scene and how this may or may not always be done. However once again, these points in my opinion were way too much repetitive.

There was one question that was always on my mind and never answered in the book. Early on when Mr. Grimes was arrested, he claimed he was innocent and offered to take a lie detector test. This request was never followed up by the police or by his own attorney. I understand that such tests are not foolproof, but could not such a test, if it had supported his claim, have helped him in his appeal?

There came a time during his incarceration where Mr. Grimes could have found a pathway to change his life sentence by being paroled, if he took a special course for sexual offenders but as part of that process, it would have required him to apologize and ask for forgiveness for his “crime.” He refused to do this as he always contended his innocence. In the end, after more than 20 years in prison, as the reader suspected throughout the book, the Innocence Project was successful in allowing Mr. Grimes to be judged to be innocent and gain his freedom.

However, the book does leave us with the awareness that such innocence projects do not readily exist throughout the country and there are only a few * like this one, which leaves the reader with the awareness how there is a serious defect in our criminal justice system that needs to be addressed.

  • There is a  large well known DNA project and there are smaller projects throughout the country  such as the one in Alabama which was written about in a book titled Just Mercy  which was also  reviewed in this blog  :

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And then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

March 17th, 2018 — 5:59pm

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel

I have always enjoyed Richard Engel’s television reports from the Middle East. He comes across as a brave, dedicated, knowledgeable reporter. More recently, I have seen him on NBC with a helmet and flak jacket reporting riots and in the middle of dangerous situations. Therefore, it was quite interesting to read about his determination as a young man to be a reporter and why he chose to specialize in the Middle East. He certainly was ambitious, but he was willing to put in hard work and to climb a ladder going from a freelancer to NBC’s go-to person in the Mid East. His adventures included a situation where he was captured and held prisoner. The book had the makings of a interesting movie or documentary.

The history of this area of the world has always seemed quite complicated to me. As part of this book, Engel makes an effort to trace the history of this part of the world back to ancient times. He makes a professional attempt to describe the history dating back to Mohammed and even earlier. He explains the differences between various groups and sects, such as Shiites and Sunnis and goes into great detail about the various leaders (mostly not elected) who were strong in the various countries and describes how they have impacted the history of this region. He tells how each one came to power as well as why they were able to stay in power or were toppled by opponents, sometimes with or without the help of the United States or other outside countries. I wish I could say that I am greatly enlightened by these descriptions and that I now have a coherent understanding of the history and the various power of factions in the Mid East but unfortunately, that would not be true. While Engel is clearly a knowledgeable scholar of the history and of the intricacies, they still blend together in my mind although I have not given up on trying to master an understanding of them.

While I am sure Engel would disagree, I did feel that he was somewhat unsympathetic to Israel. He noted at one point when he and his young first wife lived in Jerusalem, most of the Americans that he met there “were deeply involved in their temple groups.” He went on to say that he was “never able to break into their close-knit communities.” Also, in describing the Israeli ministers at all level, he noted, “I never saw such a well-oiled public relations machine.” When describing life under the Oslo Agreement, for the Palestinians living in the West Bank, he emphasized how blatantly unfair it was to the Palestinians, “it was a strange system which Palestinians had different rights depending where they lived.” He made the statement that “Many Israelis then and now, scarcely saw the Palestinians as human.” During the confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians throwing rocks at them, he noted that the Israelis shot rubber bullets, which he then added, “could cause fatal hematomas” as if the rocks thrown at the soldiers were not dangerous. Furthermore, in his description of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, I thought he was negative towards Israel. I have never doubted Engel’s attempts at being an objective reporter, but as noted, I did think he was unfairly unsympathetic to Israel.

Despite my feelings about his one-sided view of Israel and my own difficulty in grasping a substantial piece of the history lessons he tried to give, I found this book a very a interesting and worthwhile read from a familiar television reporter for whom I have great admiration.

 

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

July 13th, 2017 — 9:44pm

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Much to my chagrin, I thought that I was reading a fiction novel until I concluded the book and read some notes by the author. It was then that I understood that the book is a true account of specific real people living in Annawanda, a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) India. The author kept detailed notes about her interviews and discussion with the people described in this book. Everything in the book is purported to be true!

I come away from this experience with insight into the life of living in a slum in India. It is most depressing to realize the demeaning life that so many people are living there. It is especially disheartening to appreciate how so many children are deprived of an education and instead have to accept their role of hard labor at a young age. If something can even be worse than this, it is the type of work that these youngsters must pursue. Of course any type of child labor is deplorable but for the children of Annawanda and other such areas, a major work endeavor is scavenging garbage on a daily basis in order to come up with anything of value which might include used paper cups, uneaten food, scraps of metal and whatever. At times these children would seem to be from age 10 upward. They would find their lives endangered from security guards or dealing with risky physical hazards. Other times we learn how such children suffer the health consequences by incurring diseases and infected skin lesions by their daily submersion in garbage. The fact that their parents and other elders tolerate these activities by their children, have encouraged it as well or even joined them in some aspect of this work, only demonstrates the degenerate nature of their life.

It is ironic that these things are happening in a democratic country, which appears to have free elections. However, this book gives us a close look at the level of corruption among politicians at all levels, police and seemingly among just about any person who has any authority or advantage over another person. Paying bribes is an acceptable way of life even if these payments may be diminishing the food from their families.

Certainly this book is well written. The subject matter is riveting, if for no other reason that it is unbelievable. Does a woman with one leg being set on fire by herself or perhaps assisted by someone close to her, provide a dramatic scenario? Imagine a prolonged trial for this incident in which one of the defendants is a child being tried in juvenile court, all fraught with corruption and bribery.

Katherine Boo is a first time author who worked as a writer for New Yorker Magazine for many years and has spent a great deal of time reporting from poor countries. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award. It must have been an emotionally painful experience to have been so close to the depravity and misery that she reported in this story.

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