Category: HI – History


Thank You for Being Late; An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman

April 5th, 2017 — 10:23pm

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman

This by far is one of the most interesting, enlightening, and engrossing books that I have read in a long time and I really thought I have been reading some pretty good books.

Thomas Friedman has been a reporter, New York Times columnist and author who has been awarded Pulitzer Prize three times for his work. He has the uncanny ability to describe and provide insight into our modern society and where we are going from a historical, political, scientific, and humanistic viewpoint. He draws his experience and insight from his decades of reporting in the Middle East, Washington, DC, growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, having met world renowned people in all walks of life including a parking lot attendant who he met who also writes a blog read in 30 different countries.

I know that the world in which my grandchildren are growing up is vastly different than my childhood experiences but Friedman with a simple explanation demonstrates how different it really is especially driven by technology. He cites “Moore’s Law” which is “the observation at the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years” (which reflects the accelerating scientific advancements in the world). Friedman then asks the reader to imagine the magnitude of change by visualizing a chessboard and putting the grain of sand on the one square and then doubling the amount of sand on each of the successive squares (64 in total on a chessboard). I googled the amount of sand that would be on the last box. It would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,600 grains of sand. It is this projection which illustrates how much scientific advancement is available to neutralize the statistics that show potential climate change, famine, unemployment, population growth, etc. etc.

Friedman wades into so many problems that our changing world is facing but emerges with an optimistic view that we can adapt as Mother Nature has been adapting since the birth of our planet (with the help of Moore’s Law). He concludes his book by turning inward and trying to understand himself and the community from where he came. He reviews his years growing up and reviews some recent visits to time visiting St. Louis Park, Minnesota which is a small suburban town where he attended public school and Hebrew school. He examines the values he extracted from his childhood experiences and also optimistically observes how this town is changing today with the new generation of immigrants but yet adapting and solving problems the way he hopes the rest of the country and the world will adapt. While he briefly mentioned his own parents and how they influenced him, I believe he underestimates the impact of the nuclear family and early childhood experiences.

Despite the above, this is not a simple homey book. Friedman deals with most subjects in great depth. He not only shares his own opinion but he cites statistics and conversations with wide variety of experts in every aspect of the subject matter. He reviews statistical trends, history, and in-depth discussions with many people. The hard copy version of this book is a solid 496 pages. You will come away from reading this book invigorated, knowledgeable and perhaps some of Friedman’s optimism will rub off on you.

1 comment » | E- Economic, HI - History, P - Political

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

January 21st, 2016 — 10:26pm

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 2.17.50 PMThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough

We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. So when I showed my 9-year-old granddaughter this book that I was reading and asked her if she knew what it was about, she gave me the riddle, “What do two rights make?” An airplane of course.

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for Truman and John Adams has taken on two additional American heroes, Wilbur and Orville Wright. McCullough had a trove of documents to work on, mostly now residing in the Library of Congress and in museums in the Wright Brothers hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Obviously there were no instant messages, iPhones, or e-mail correspondence during their lifetimes and like many of their contemporaries, they wrote numerous letters and kept extensive diaries. McCullough mined these sources as well as the newspapers and magazines of that era.

Wilbur was four years older than Orville. They had two older brothers and a younger sister and there were two twins born in between Orville and Wilbur who died at birth. Their father was a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren of Christ who traveled a great deal. Their mother, who it was said to had given them their mechanical ability, died three years before their first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1902. The family was very close and supported each other. Katharine, the sister, who was a teacher shared very much in the Wright Brothers’ success and traveled with them at the time that they received worldwide acclaim.

Perhaps it is a screen memory (an unconscious one constructed in retrospect) but the brothers recalled their father bringing home a toy for them when they were quite young which was a helicopter which flew with twisted rubber bands and suggested that this possibly was the origin of their interest in flying. A first-grade teacher remembers Orville sitting at his desk with bits of wood and telling her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother would fly someday.

Wilbur and Orville were obviously extremely bright although they never went to college. They opened a print shop while in high school and went on to open a bicycle store where they made and sold bicycles. This was the environment in which they began working on a flying machine.

McCullough traces with the accuracy of the historian that he is, each step of the Wright Brothers journey. Initially building a glider and then the development of intricate wings that could do special movement that the brothers meticulously developed. He describes the addition of the motor and propeller. We learned about the people throughout the world who were trying to be the first in flight and their relationship with the Wright Brothers. This book focuses mainly on an approximate a 10-year period from Kitty Hawk to the glorious flights in Paris and New York.

Overall, there seemed to be great camaraderie between the various pioneers of flight throughout the world with the Wright Brothers. However, there were some conflicts and some patent disputes that the Wright Brothers had with other flyers of the day. Ultimately, there was tremendous acclaim for the Wright Brothers. I think it is worth quoting the words of President Taft upon presenting the Wright Brothers with some awards in the White House. He said:

I esteem it a great honor and an opportunity to present these medals to you as an evidence of what you have done.I am so glad perhaps at a delayed hour to show that in America it is not true that “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” It is especially gratifying thus to note a great step in human discovery by paying honor to men who bear it so modestly. You made this discovery by a course that we of America like to feel is distinctly American – by keeping your noses right at the job until you have accomplished which you had determined to do.

According to McCullough there was rarely friction between the Wright Brothers themselves. They were a well oiled team who understood each others’ strengths and worked very smoothly together. While their relationship was detailed very clearly, what seemed to be missing was their personal lives. Either the author chose not to include any special social interactions or there essentially were none. It is hard to believe that there is no mention of any girlfriends or romantic interests. When Wilbur died in 1912 at the age of 45, Orville and his sister Katherine moved into a new house with their father. Orville became involved in their business details which now were quite complicated as the famed inventor. When at the age of 59 his sister decided to get married, Orville was reported to be very disturbed and negative about her plan which she carried out anyway.

I, probably like most of you, take flying for granted. I am more concerned about the arrival time, legroom, and how I should occupy myself during the flight. David McCullough’s book provides an unforgettable tribute to the brothers from Dayton, Ohio who made all of our flights possible.

 

Comment » | B - Biography, HI - History, T - Recommended for Teenagers, Uncategorized

Deported Colonel a.k.a. Gringo Cabron by Laura Jeannette Gau

October 25th, 2015 — 1:49pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 11.10.18 AMDeported Colonel a.k.a. Gringo Cabron by Laura Jeannette Gau Stone

This book is meant to be a historical account by a woman who lived in Panama with her family during the reign of tyrannical dictator, Manuel Noriega. She refers to herself in this book as Jenny. The author’s actual name is Laura Jeanette Gau Stone. She is married to United States Army Colonel, Charles Stone. He was the American liaison to the Panama government in the 1980s. The United States at that time had initially been friendly to Noriega and his government until the Americans under President George Bush decided to use military force to remove Noriega from office.

The time period of this book was during the Noriega regime 1983 – 1989. The focus is mostly on Jenny and Chico (the nickname for Colonel Stone) as well as their their family which consists of three daughters. The story is written like a novel but it appears to be the true account of their life. We see how the Doberman (the Panama’s government version of the Nazi storm troopers) have no hesitation in arresting anyone, beating them or taking them off to prison where they can be tortured and killed. Yet the people tried to live a normal life working, sending their kids to school, and going to church. Periodically, there would be protests by groups of people who would try to hold peaceful demonstrations wearing symbolic white shirts. They were called the “Crusaders”. It seems as if the people were hopelessly naïve as Doberman and other designated government troops would frequently charge in and injure and arrest the protesters squashing their attempts at self-expression and opposition. Two of Jenny and Chico’s children at one point were arrested in such activities but fortunately,Chico was able to get them released although their car was destroyed. Chico gradually undergoes a metamorphosis in this thinking from being a loyal soldier who did not initially accept the inhumanities of the oppressive government that he was advising. He eventually was exiled to the United States while his family continued to live in Panama.

The book serves the purpose of educating the readers such as myself about the oppressive lives that the people in Panama had to live during this time. It showed how people could endure such oppression that they could not control and persevered to raise their children with an awareness of the situation but yet some semblance of normality. The gradual revelation of Colonel Stone in realizing the tyrannical nature of the Noriega regime probably is similar to the realization by the U.S. government that they could no longer support that dictator. Noriega was captured during the overthrow of his government and now has spent more than 20 years in prisons, in the United States and Panama.

As revealing and as enlightening as this book has been to me, it has little merit as a good read. While the author’s style is perky, it is quite repetitious. It does not provide the interesting background details that a Doris Kearns, or a Robert McCullough or other author of important historical events would have given. Nor does it have an intriguing plot that makes you not want to put it down that a good historical novel might have. While it is written as a  historical novel and  it is supposed to be the true account of the author’s real experiences. However most of the time, it seems more like a diary where the everyday boring details have not been removed.

2 comments » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, HI - History

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael B. Oren

September 18th, 2015 — 11:03pm

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli DivideScreen Shot 2015-09-18 at 5.56.52 PM

By: Michael B. Oren

The author is the former Ambassador from Israel to the United States who served 2009-2013 and currently is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

Oren’s journey to this position as Israel’s representative to the United States and the man who was one of the key advisers to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began when he was growing up in a Jewish family in West Orange, New Jersey. He was bullied then as a child and experienced antisemitism at a young age. At the age of 15, in 1970, Oren visited Israel with a Zionist group where he met Yitzhak Rabin in an encounter which he describes as a life changing event.

He went on to complete college at Columbia and received a master’s degree. He then immigrated to Israel in 1979. He came back to the United States to get a PhD at Princeton. He was married in 1982 to an American woman who also made Aliyah. They went on to have three children.

Oren’s commitment to Israel was more than an intellectual and emotional one. He joined the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and served as a paratrooper in the 1982 war and saw serious combat. He then worked with the underground in the Soviet Union and was arrested by the KGB. During the Persian Gulf War he was the Israeli liaison to the United States Sixth Fleet. In the 1980s and 1990s, he taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the university in Tel Aviv. He served in various positions in the Israeli government, and in 2006, was a visiting professor at Harvard and at Yale.

Oren has written numerous articles and a few important books including New York Times listed best selling books titled Faith and Fantasy, the history of America’s involvement in the Middle East and Six Days of War, an historical account of the Six Day War. He also wrote two novels.

So in 2009, when Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister appointmented Oren as Ambassador, he was already a seasoned government advisor as well as a respected historian. He considered himself a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. If fact, he described a very painful moment when he had to give up his US citizenship in order to become Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He vividly described his emotions seeing his passport voided.

Mr. Oren obviously must have kept a very complete diary as he goes on to document his life for the next four years in great detail. The reader has the feeling that the author is reliving the experience moment to moment, telephone call to cellphone call, car ride to plane ride, and so many very personal meetings. He essentially takes the reader up to the door of the Oval Office in the White House as he steps back to sit with the other most senior advisers as President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu hold their personal meetings. There are so many stories of this four-year period which essentially chronicles the delicate situation in the Middle East and the interaction between Israel and the United States.

I came away from this book feeling that Oren was a very loyal Israeli who still loves America. I thought that despite at times his critical view of some of the actions of the United States, he sincerely believed that his first country would always have Israel’s back.

As Oren currently serves in the Knesset, it would not surprise me if he did not someday move up and become part of the top leadership in Israel. This could lead to another important book to allow historians and people like us to gain further insight into the relationship between these two great allies.

 

 

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

Season Of The Witch by David Talbot

June 23rd, 2015 — 4:41pm

SEASON OF THE WITCH BY DAVID TALBOTScreen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.18.45 AM

If you have ever lived in San Francisco (as I did for one year in 1965) or perhaps visited the city and have fallen under its magical spell then this book is for you. This is especially true if your connection occurred between the 20-year period of 1965 to 1985. This may also apply if you identify with the social movements or news events that originated or were closely connected to The City by the Bay.

Here is a partial list of the fascinating people, places and events that were described in great detail in this very interesting book:

Haight-Ashbury, giving birth to the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Human Be In, the Hippy Revolution, Summer Of Love.

Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Runaway Children, Beatnik Society, Free Clinic, rock concerts, and Bill Graham.

San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, Mobey Grape, Openly Gay Community, The Cockettes, Finnochios, STD, LSD, CIA, Susan Atkins, Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Hell’s Angels, Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger.

Joseph L. Alioto, Good Earth, Vincent Hallinan, SLA (Symbinese Liberation Army), Cinque, Bill Harris, Patty Hearst, Zebra Murders, Zodiac Serial Killer, Asian Law Caucus. Margo St. James, Hookers Liberation, Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey.

George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, People’s Temple, Jim Jones, Jonestown, Guyana, Dan White , assassinations at City Hall, Edward DeBartolo, Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, HIV and the AIDS epidemic.

Although this book leaves at the end of the AIDS epidemic, we know this is just 20 years of a small but important part of the history of this great city. David Talbot, in my opinion, has earned the title of Story Teller Supreme for San Francisco. He told it like it was and what a story it has been and continues to be.

At the conclusion of this book, we are also treated to a section with photographs of some of the important players in the history of this great city that were described. These photos and the narration that accompanies, each one of them are a special dessert to the great meal this book has been.

Comment » | HI - History, Uncategorized

The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown

May 1st, 2015 — 5:23pm

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 5.20.02 PMDaniel James Brown is an author who describes himself as someone who writes narrative non-fiction which brings compelling historical events to life. That is exactly what he does in The Boys in the Boat. To most contemporary Americans, competitive rowing is not high on the list of sporting events to follow. Even if you have heard about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, you might only think of Jessie Owens, the black track star , who won a gold medal in the face of Hitler proclaiming his master race ideas. However, there is another story that you should know about those Olympic games .

This book tells the story of nine young men from the University of Washington who had an amazing journey that also took them to the 1936 Berlin Olympics to win a gold medal. It is about much more than their Olympic triumph. It is about what they needed to overcome and how they learned to work together in a manner which transcended the teamwork required for other sports. These young men came from farms, logging towns, and other difficult backgrounds. They struggled to get to the University of Washington and then to earn a spot on the rowing team. It is also a story about their coach, Al Ulbrickson and how he coached them and treated them as individuals and as a team. It is also about George Pocock, a boat-builder who not only built the rowing shell for the University of Washington team but also for most collegiate teams throughout the country. Pocock grew up in England and intimately understood rowing from his experience with the boats on the famous Thames River. It was his wisdom and support which sustained the University of Washington team almost as much as their esteemed coach.

Mr. Brown, the author, became interested in this subject when he had a discussion with a neighbor who was the daughter of one of these rowers. He ultimately met her father, Joe Rantz, a few years before he died. He heard this story firsthand and was able to review various documents and diaries not only of this man but of the other members of the rowing team as he was introduced to their families. The result is a book which reads like a page turning novel with events and insights into the people about whom the book was based.

There is a parallel story, which the author chooses to chronicle and which adds to the significance of the triumph of the University of Washington team at the 1936 Olympics. That is the events going on in Germany as Adolf Hitler came to power and began to oppress and ultimately murder the German Jews and others. The temporary easing up by Hitler of his cold-blooded extermination plans in order to deceive the world at his showcase Olympics, was clearly spelled out in this book.

I found the author’s discussion of the German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, quite interesting and revealing. She was given carte blanche by Hitler to film the Olympics from every angle in order to showcase Hitler’s Germany in a glorious positive image for the entire world. She worked extremely closely with Hitler and Goebbels (the Nazi Propaganda Minister) and may have been literally in bed with them. She filmed all the athletes from the best angles, sometimes from specially built trenches so she could show the marching Germans from an upward looking view. Interestingly enough, after the American team from the University of Washington won their gold medal (in a most exciting well-described come from behind victory), she was given permission to bring her cameras into the University of Washington’s boat for a special ride with them. The results can be seen in a well-preserved video of a preliminary heat won by Germany and the final won by the US for the gold medal  (see YouTube video-English  version or German  narration version  ) where she intermixes cuts of long views of the race with close ups of the rowers. Riefenstahl subsequently tried to distance herself from her close association with Hitler after the war ( see interview with Riefenstabhl). No matter what her culpability in Hitler’s propaganda show, the wonderful video of these nine men, whose self-determination, hard work, and comradeship, was very well done and will allow future generations to enjoy watching their accomplishment.

One reviewer in Publishers Weekly called this book a Nautical Chariots of Fire, which seems a very apt description. It is also rumored that the Weinstein Brothers have optioned this book for a movie which may be soon available as you read this review. I am sure it will be an exciting film but this book alone captures a vivid picture of the Boys In The Boat that you will not forget.

Comment » | HI - History, S- Sports, T - Recommended for Teenagers

The Warmth of Other Sons: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

April 3rd, 2015 — 8:12pm

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 7.03.27 PM

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

by Isabel Wilkerson

 

About 50 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation eliminating slavery in the United States, there began the Great Migration. Almost one by one “colored” people in the South would realize that they were not much better off than they were before the civil war. (I have to explain that I am comfortable using the word “colored” since I feel that it has a derogatory connotation. However, the word was used throughout most of the book since it was an acceptable descriptive word in the literature and speech during the time being described.) There were still lynchings and other types of murders of colored people in the South. This took place for no reason or for unproven accusations or insignificant acts such as a colored man talking to a white woman. The victims of this death and destruction also included children. Colored people could not sit with white people in movie theaters, restaurants, etc., and had to step into the street if confronted with a white person walking towards them on the sidewalk. These kind of situations persisted in the South into the 1960s. Even after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Legislation in 1964, it took another 10 years, and the effects of the work of Martin Luther King and others to make the worst of this discrimination to be a fading but still not eliminated shame of our country. Many of my generation of white people raised in the North supported the civil rights movement and some were quite active in it, but I would say that most could not fully understand what it was like to grow up in the Jim Crow South.

This is the power and strength of this book. Isabel Wilkerson, while a first time author, had already won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper work in Chicago when she approached this subject, not only as a black woman who knew her own family history, but as a journalist who found personal stories which she would present in great depth. She spent about 15 years researching and writing this book. She interviewed about 1,200 people who participated in the Great Migration from the South to the North. It was estimated that 4 Million “colored” people ultimately migrated between World War I into the 1970s. Wilkerson not only explained and analyzed the underlying factors in great detail, but by choosing three people to highlight, she brought a living vibrant understanding to this story that is unforgettable. Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling are the names of the people that we get to follow. She got to know them in the twilight of their lives over several years and spent many hours with each of them. The result is really three separate stories, each of which could have been a fascinating novel. We get to intimately know each of them as well as their families and friends. We appreciate what it was like growing up in the South; their hopes and aspirations, and sometimes the severe limitations that were put on them. We see how these three people made their decisions to go to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. We come to understand what happened to them and their families and as well as the next generation. Segments of their lives developed before our eyes in alternative chapters as we follow them into maturity and old age.

This book doesn’t end with the exodus from the South. There is an entire new complicated and painful realization that the reader has to face about the rest of the story. Employment and housing discrimination persisted in many places in the North, and unlike the European migrants who entered the big cities seeking a better life for themselves and their children, there were persistent obstacles for the people of the Great Migration and their children. Drugs, gangs and obstacles towards a good education for their children were constant issues.

Ms. Wilkerson has been recognized with the National Book Award as well as many other prestigious honors for this book. . It was also chosen as one of the 10 best books by the New York Times Book Review Section. This book should be mandatory reading for every American high school student. I found it painful but I’m glad that any repression that I may have had about this subject was reawakened.

Comment » | HI - History

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar

March 5th, 2015 — 1:32pm

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector TobarScreen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.26.05 PM

If you were on this planet in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped in Chile  for 69 days, half a mile beneath the earth’s surface, you must have heard about this captivating story. During the first 19 days, they had no contact with the outside world. They only had a few days’ supply of food and the water that they found was at best contaminated. Above ground, their loved ones were gathered near the entrance of the mine and were praying and supporting the Chilean government, as they organized an unprecedented rescue operation. This involved an outpouring of assistance from all over the world. There were three separate plans to drill a hole to reach the trapped miners. There was no guarantee that they would be reached in time to save their lives. Even after one drilling operation broke through to the place where they were gathered and was pounded on by the trapped miners and painted red so the people above would know they were reached, there still was uncertainty whether they would be saved from their underground prison. Soon, food and messages were lowered to them through the small hole and they found out that the world was following their ordeal.

The 33 miners made a pact that if they survived they would all agree to tell their story in a unified way and would share any riches that would be offered to them for the details of their unusual experience. Ultimately, Pulitzer Prize-winning  author of Mexican descent, Hector Tobar, was chosen to write their story in this book. He spent untold hours speaking with the miners and their families, as well as many other people who were involved in this unusual event. Even if the reader knows all the details of the eventual outcome, this book was suspenseful and read like an adventure story which would keep the readers on the edge of their seats. One small example of the human interest that also was found throughout this book is the story of a devoted wife and a loving mistress of the same man, both of whom came to know each other as they waited and prayed for the safety of their men.

The story did not end with the emergence of the miners from the rescue capsule. It was inevitable that they would have psychological issues as a result of their ordeal. I was one of the many mental health experts who was very concerned about the sequelae that they would face (see blog). This book certainly should meet all expectations as a true to life adventure thriller. It is factual, in-depth and captures the human drama of these people. It can stand on its own, or it may be the basis for a documentary film, or a dramatic movie that should be made (or may have already been made or is in process). While I believe this book deserves all the credit that others and myself have heaped upon it, I believe there is even a better recent book of the same genre about another calamitous event. That book is titled Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. It is about the inside story of a New Orleans Hospital isolated and with without electricity during hurricane Katrina. Both of these books are outstanding and should not be missed.

1 comment » | HI - History

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

December 25th, 2014 — 5:52pm

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand– I read this book and wrote this review prior to seeing the movie by the same name. I do plan to see it and will review it in FilmRap.net.Screen Shot 2014-12-25 at 1.30.47 PM (click here to see review)

Louie Zampereini was an Italian-American boy from a poor family who was raised in Torrance, California. He was a rough and tumble kid who had a propensity for stealing things and getting into trouble. He was fast on his feet and ultimately developed into a record breaking track star who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. When World War II came about he signed up for the Army Air Force and became a bombardier. Early in the war his plane on a mission crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean where he and two other airman survived in rafts for 47 days as they drifted 2000 miles. During this time they battled starvation, dehydration, hungry sharks and storms as well as Japanese planes that strafed them with machinegun fire. If you think this was bad you should see what happened after they were rescued at sea…by the Japanese and made prisoners of war (although they were never treated according to the Geneva Convention rules for POWs). We see how things were absolutely terrible and how demeaning the treatment of American Prisoners was, ironically clearly much worse than the German Nazis reportedly dealt with their American captives. Louis was apparently treated much more savagely once he was recognized as an Olympic track star.

Being a member of the Silent Generation and having come of age in the decade following WWII, I grew up as a kid reading all sorts of stories and seeing all the movies about this war. Even now as an older guy I am still drawn to a book such as this one. I am sorry to say that reading about the awful treatment by the Japanese of the helpless American prisoners, my old negative prejudiced feelings about the Japanese people were awakened. I know these are irrational and are related to issues from a previous generation. Although a few kind guards were mentioned, there clearly was, at that time, an institutionalized culture of cruel, vicious treatment of the Americans who were starved, tortured and made to do slave labor. We see these atrocities through the eyes of Zamperini who was officially considered dead by his government although his family seemed to have never given up hope for him. We trace his ordeal as he is moved to various prison camps and was never registered with the Red Cross as a POW although that was the usual procedure mostly followed by the Japanese who nevertheless hid their maltreatment of their captives.

The book does not end with his liberation at the end of the war. It follows Zamperini’s reintegration into civilization and his seeming resilience but also his very dark and destructive periods, which were almost as bad as you can imagine. The author Laura Hillenbrand, who previously wrote the best seller Seabiscuit had access to diaries, newspaper articles, radio and television interviews and a gigantic trove of people to interview who knew Zamperini in the various phases of his life including those who were imprisoned with him and close family members. She also had the opportunity to interview Zamperini himself more than 75 times and became quite close to him before he died in July of 2014 at the age of 97.

At times the book seems overly repetitious. Perhaps it felt that way because it was so painful. I am not giving away the ending because the title clearly does that but this book is also about the human spirit. As an outsider who didn’t live through his ordeal and didn’t live through this time as an adult, I can only try to get into Louis’ head through this book. When we try to do this, there is a tendency for us to be traumatized. At one point in the book we learn that recently there was a commemorative memorial made by the local Japanese people at the site of one of the camps at which Zamperini spent much of his time. It honored and remembered the prisoners who were there, many of them who had died there. We are also told that there are pictures of six birds flying in the sky as symbols of the memory for 6 of the prison guards who were tried as war criminals and executed! On the day that I am writing this review there is a front page article in the New York Times that discusses the current Japanese Prime Minister Abe and his hope to bring about a change in the Japanese constitution which was written post war by the Americans and forbids Japan from ever going to war again. Time marches on.

 

1 comment » | B - Biography, HI - History

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

December 22nd, 2014 — 4:50pm

My Promised Land by Ari ShavitScreen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.34.42 PM

If you have any familiarity with the politics of the Middle East and the establishment of the state of Israel you know it is a very complicated story. Ari Shavit is an Israeli who cares deeply about the future of his beloved homeland. He has written what appears to me to be a definitive comprehensive book about the history of modern Israel. In the course of writing this book, he has done extensive research and has interviewed hundreds of people, many who have been key players in the amazing story of Israel. Shavit is a well-established journalist who personally knows many of these people. Others agreed to meet with him apparently because of his good reputation. I am not in a position to judge if he has all his facts straight and if he has given a balanced view. I can only say that it appears that he has tried to understand and present numerous points of view, This has to be a painful book to anyone who has an affinity for Israel and what this country has meant to so many people.

Naturally, Shavit covers the story of the European Jews who escaped annihilation from the Holocaust and how many of them with literally the shirts on their back built kibbutzim, moshavim, new cities, orange groves and so much more. The transformation from scorched dessert into fertile farms while on the surface is a magical story but is one of tremendous work and dedication. Similarly the development of Tel Aviv into one of the great cities of the world seems like a fairy tale but in reality reflects the courage and the personality of the people who came to Israel.

The spirit and the work ethic of the people who made up the Zionist movement is not the only story of Israel. There is also a narrative of continued bloodshed, conflicts, ethical dilemmas and an uncertainty about the future. The 1948 declaration of a State of Israel by the United Nations was followed by an attack by the surrounding Arab countries, which is a well known important piece of history. As are the 1967 War and the 1973 Yom Kipper War. The details and the meanings behind these wars are discussed in great detail in this book. Shavit doesn’t stop there; he examines and discusses the displaced natives of Palestine and other parts of Israel where many Arabs have lost their homes. While many Arabs do live in harmony in what is now Israel, it clear that many live for the day that they can regain what they feel is rightfully their land. Then there is the situation of the Jewish settlements on the Palestine west bank. On one hand, this is viewed as undermining the one just possibility for a two state solution that might lead to long lasting peace. On the other hand, there is also the point of view of the settlers which they present as a moral and deep seated justification for what they are doing.

There is the story of the Sephardic Jews in Israel, many of whom have felt greatly discriminated against. As with each issue the author brings to life the point of view of the protagonists by not only reviewing factual historical events but also by telling compelling personal stories of the people involved.

Perhaps one of the most important subplots of the story of Israel is a secret chapter that cannot be officially told. On the other hand it is well known and documented by Shavit. In this case he does this by using mostly non-Israeli and certainly non-official sources. This is the fascinating tale but certainly true story of the development of the city of Dimona, which is where Israel mobilized it’s human resources, with some help from France, to develop nuclear weapons. While this unacknowledged fact is stated with great certainty, Israel has never overtly used this as a threat but it nevertheless has been essential for the survival of Israel.

If Dimona were the big secret that I heard about before reading this book, the discussion of the magnitude of threat to Israel from Iran was something that I never fully appreciated. The author in his meticulous style reviews the response of Israel to each step that Iran has made to develop their own nuclear weapon capacity. This includes a daring secret air attack by Israel in 1981 which demolished Iran’s nuclear plants, which were on the verge of producing weapon grade nuclear material. This leads us to the present and one of the major dilemmas that Israel faces today. Once again Iran, a country that has sworn to destroy Israel, is approaching the ability of developing nuclear weapons.

I hope I have made the point that Ari Shavit has written an amazing book that has vividly described in depth so many of the historical events that have allowed Israel to develop and flourish, as well as the issues that question Israel’s viability to survive in the future as it exists today.

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