Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Mx3 is a pre-Halloween celebration of books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem!

death in the city of lightDavid King’s true account of a serial killer who roamed Occupied Paris during World War II served up an Mx3 triple play: murders, a monster, and mayhem. “The Monster of rue La Sueur” is what the French press dubbed Dr. Marcel Petiot, a well-respected and charismatic physician who led a macabre double life.

Petiot was convicted of murdering 26 people and suspected of killing nearly 60. The total body count could not be confirmed because most of the victims were chopped up and later found scattered around the city.

The doctor had set up a SAW-esque torture chamber, fitted with large hanging hooks and also a sophisticated Lumvisor viewer, so he could watch his victims suffer a slow, confused death. King offers an interesting look at the emerging field of forensics, as the police tried to identify Petiot’s victims from a mound of smoldering body parts.

The mayhem of wartime Paris worked to the killer’s advantage. Chillingly, he would lure desperate refugees to his lair by the dark of night, offering a safe passage out of France. At that time, people often disappeared at the hands of the SS, so few questions were asked when they did. French detectives initially held back on their investigation, believing that they had stumbled onto the work of the Gestapo. Petiot managed to elude authorities for months during the chaos of the German evacuation, the Allied Invasion, the Liberation of Paris, and the subsequent purge of the French police in which the detectives on his case were arrested for collaborating during the war.

King imbues Death in the City of Light with a smoky, atmospheric look at life in Occupied Paris: shrouded street lamps, air raid sirens, food shortages, a thriving underworld, and growing distrust among neighbors. As such, this book reminded me of Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City.

The patient, determined French Police Chief Georges-Victor Massau came off much like the lead in a detective novel. Turns out, Massau was a great friend of mystery writer Georges Simenon and was in fact the inspiration for Chief Inspector Maigret.

2013MX3My one beef, however, is that some of the most spine-tingling and conclusive revelations came in the Epilogue.

King dwells on the sensational trial, but relegates the harrowing, firsthand account of the only victim who escaped to the endnotes.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

Like Word Hits On Facebook

Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.”
—Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

YMaF paperbackMann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experienced and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.

For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:

“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.

Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.

Usually I pass along books, but this hardcover I've kept.

Usually I pass along books,
but this hardcover I’ve kept.

Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.

I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.

Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this drought-ridden summer of record heat.

I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:

“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”

Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press

Young Men and Fire (Wikipedia)

The Mann Gulch Fire (Wikipedia)

Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, official site

The Storm King Mountain or South Canyon  Fire (Wikipedia)

Loss of 19 Firefighters in Arizona Blaze (CNN)

Last Photo Taken of/by Prescott Hotshots

How You Can Help the Families of the Fallen Prescott Firefighters

Check Out WordHits on Facebook

Or Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson,
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

I recently got some fascinating new insights into the Declaration of Independence through Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson was chosen as author by default. He was the third choice, actually. The drafting committee wanted Benjamin Franklin, who was already rather a big-name celebrity in America as well as in England. But Franklin declined, saying he hated writing for a committee.

They turned next to John Adams, a fiery orator for ‘the Cause’ in the Continental Congress. But Adams recused himself, concerned that his vocalizing had caused him to be seen as a ‘radical.’ Adams wisely knew that they needed someone who was seen as a moderate to sway those who still hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown.

At the time the members of the Declaration’s drafting Committee of Five did not realize the importance of the project. Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and even Jefferson were each anxious to return to their home states, for the debates over state constitutions. These negotiations were considered to be the real grass-roots action. As Jefferson holed up in Philadelphia laboring over the Declaration, he yearned to be at the Virginia General Assembly.

Still, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the Declaration of Independence, creating what was not only an historic legal document, but also a masterpiece of writing. The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” by literary theorists.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

At the time, however, Jefferson’s genius wasn’t quite recognized and his opus was heatedly critiqued and edited by the Continental Congress. Jefferson “sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate,” which sounds a bit like the writer’s workshop from hell. “At one point, Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee.” Ultimately, several large sections were cut, and it was this revised version that was printed and circulated throughout the country.

Ellis points out that almost more than the existence of the Declaration itself, Jefferson’s famous closing words, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” became a rallying cry and a pledge that spurred on the revolution.

Still, Jefferson became a rather obsessed with his original draft. “He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version.”  While he sounds like an editor’s nightmare (from my experience at magazines, it’s usually the writers who resist editing that need it the most), the congress took out some very key elements.

First, they deleted all references to slavery and also to Jefferson’s proposal to end the slave trade, which he roundaboutly blamed on George III. This ominous omission still haunts us today. They also cut a thorough anti-king argument which Jefferson modeled after the British Declaration of Rights, a seminal act which set precedent by limiting the Crown’s power, reinforcing Parliament’s authority, and outlining the rights of petition and free speech during England’s Glorious Revolution. This seems a most genius way for Jefferson to use Parliament’s own words and laws to reinforce the Americans’ rights.

They also rejected Jefferson’s doctrine of “expatriation,” in which he theorized the that since the colonists had come to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure” (with no financial or other support of Great Britain), they were not beholden to that country. There were several other deletions including a tirade against George III for sending mercenaries to attack the colonists. In all, I tend to agree with Jefferson on many of his points. Then again, brevity is also important in these matters, especially when copies were made by hand. You can read Jefferson’s unedited version here.

revolutionary_summerEvery writer has known that mixed emotional jumble of having hard-wrought words deleted or rearranged. Often, however, a writer can find a strange satisfaction and even appreciation in this transformation. Not so for Jefferson. As he grew old and the country he helped found took shape, he grew less fixated on his version of the Declaration but never really got over it.

Ellis, however, defends Jefferson on this point. “At that time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.”

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson

Check Out WordHits on Facebook

Or Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

revolutionary_summerI really enjoyed Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis. This book offers several fascinating and new (to me) insights on that seminal time frame from May to October of 1776, which Ellis calls “the crescendo moment” in American History.

Ellis puts a somewhat sympathetic focus on General William Howe. Ellis explains the thought process behind Howe’s cautious military strategy, particularly his aspirations of diplomacy. Rather than crush the rebellion, Howe wanted to return to Britain having brought the Americans back into the fold. He believed, as did many of his countrymen, that the cry for independence came from a loud minority and not from the general American public. This was reinforced by the welcome he got when he landed on Long Island, then the largest concentration (with New York) of loyalists to the crown. Howe’s strategy was to demonstrate his martial dominance, thus bringing the Americans to their senses, and then negotiate peace with them. He had several opportunities early on to end the war with a decisive blow, but held back. Ellis adds a whole new intrigue to the dance between Howe and Washington, as we see each misinterpreting the other’s motives and moves.

Ellis also seeks to dispel the myth of the Minutemen, whom fables (and even schoolbooks) have credited with beating the British. In fact, these state militias were just that … only in for a minute. They were the last to show for battle and the first to desert. Washington complained to John Hancock, “great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.”

Joseph J. EllisInstead, it was the trudging, poorly-rationed regulars of Washington’s Continental Army, who fought the hardest and who kept up the battle, which became a drawn-out war of attrition. The states preferred to outfit their own militias, or Minutemen, rather than supply a unified army. This was partially due to regional loyalties, the beginnings of the state vs federal clash, and also because “the very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army.” This mistrust promoted word-of-mouth praise of Minutemen accomplishments. The press happily went along and reinforced this.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked to discover how controlled and complicit the press was in furthering “the Cause.” While they prominently reported unfavorable news about Howe and the British, they kept silent on Washington’s dramatic setbacks. “Most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all … American newspapers did not report it.” Very interesting considering that “freedom of the press” would ultimately be such a cornerstone of our constitution.

Ellis also spends a great deal of time on the Dickenson Draft, the first outline of the Articles of Confederation. Already there are kernels of unrest between those who would later become federalists or states’ rights advocates. And already there is a giant schism between the north and the south over slavery, so much so that southern states threatened “an End of the Confederation.”

founding_brothersOverall, Ellis kept me thinking and rethinking a period which I have read so much about. He peppers his arguments with erudite allusions to Aquinas, Thebes, Tolstoy, the Peloponnesian Wars, and such comparisons as Howe to Hannibal and John Adams to Cicero.

I highly recommend Revolutionary Summer! A stirring read with so much information for such a short book (only 185 pages). Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider. Finally, I also highly recommend Ellis’s book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Revolutionary Summer (Knopf)

Joseph J. Ellis official website

Check Out WordHits on Facebook

Or Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

Jane Austen Game TheoristWe all know that reading Jane Austen is good for you. Scientists at Stanford proved this last fall with MRI scans that showed reading Austen’s work boosted neural activity and even increased blood flow to the brain. Now, it turns out, we Janeites have also been unwittingly indulging in sophisticated Game Theory Economics.

Yes, Game Theory—the very discipline which garnered John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) the Nobel Prize in Ecnomics.

UCLA professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues this in his new book, Jane Austen Game Theorist.

Instead of bothering with chalk boards and lengthy variable-laden formulas, Austen imparts economic wisdom via the subtext of Marianne Dashwood’s swoons—indeed, Chwe cites this as an example. Who knew that while I was reading about Fanny Price deciding which necklace to wear, I was actually engaging in “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.”

As I reread Pride and Prejudice for the 200th Anniversary, I will be subconsciously learning the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Just like when moms puree broccoli to hide in brownies. And all this time I thought I hated math.

Seriously though, tremendous kudos to Chwe for giving us yet another way to examine Austen’s work. If more economists read Austen, perhaps we could finally settle the debate over the Laffer Curve.

Chwe’s emphasis, however, is more on the political ramifications of Austen’s strategic thinking, and I must say I am fascinated by his approach. According to Chwe, Jane’s observations and theories can be applied to the Cold War stalemate, as well as to military mistakes made in both Vietnam and Iraq. And that’s just what I have gleaned from reviews and excerpts … I cannot wait to actually get my hands on this book!

Janeites, this would be a perfect pick for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013.

All this does make me feel better about myself, mathematically speaking. Even though I struggled with trigonometry in high school, I made it through each of Austen’s books twice so I must have actually been a math prodigy. I’m also feeling rather smug about opting out of ‘Intro to Economics’ in college for a course that compared Northanger Abbey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No joke—great class!)

One can’t help but feel bad for those poor souls who actually studied economics. Why bother with the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when you can just read Emma? Or Jane Austen, Game Theorist?

Given that prominent economists like Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) endorse this book, I do wonder if the all-knowing Jane also offers clues as to how I should invest my IRA? I will have to keep this in mind as I dig into Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and when I reread Persuasion.

Economics, Game Theory, and Jane Austen via PBS NewsHour

Game Theory: Jane Austen Had it First via The New York Times

More Austen on WordHits…

The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

How Did I Not Know about Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

Check Out WordHits on Facebook

Or Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

I brought this book to read on a recent family trip to Provence, but my readaholic nephew purloined it. I thought that odd, but put it off to the fact we had few books in English. Now that I’ve read Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone, I see what hooked him. This is not a book about courtly love or pomp. This book roils with war, intrigue, the crusades, and the machinations of 13th-century medieval Europe. The queens (four daughters of the Count of Provence) are almost like chess pieces, married off to forge alliances between different fiefdoms. In turn, they become the queens of England, France, Germany, and Sicily. Reminder, they are queens, not pawns, and each manages to exert influence into the politics and wars of her realm.

Four Queens opens in 1219 with the marriage Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence, to Beatrice of Savoy–the parents of the four queens to be. Provence was then one of many feudal territories vying for power and was technically allied to the Holy Roman Emperor (Frederick II off in Sicily) not to the then French king. France consisted mostly just of the environs around Paris, and the ‘king’ was more of a glorified count.

In fact, Raymond’s grandfather had also been a king, Alfonso II of Aragon (in Spain), and Raymond was the first of the line to rule Provence locally rather than from Aragon. I found this fascinating that Provence had closer ties to Aragon and Barcelona than to their neighbors in Languedoc, with whom they were almost continually at war. But for a few different marriages (and perhaps the Pyrenees), Provence might have been swept up by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile when they merged all of their lands into what became a unified Spain in 1492. Meanwhile, the nearby Duchy of Gascony was controlled by the English crown for most of the 13th century. This cross-pollination of feudal interests made for ongoing turf wars, which were continually redrawing political borders.

Using the marriages of the Four Queens, Goldstone traces the rise of France as an emerging power that swallowed up other fiefdoms. Raymond’s eldest daughter, Marguerite, married King Louis IX of France, but that did not stop the king from waging war against King Henry III of England, who had married her sister, Eleanor. I didn’t understand how entrenched English holdings were in France at the time—not just claims in Normandy, but also Poitiers, parts of Bordeaux, and, again, as far south as Gascony (thanks to Henry II’s wooing of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152). The Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope (who were by then rivals) also held claim to several vassals and territories. All the while, they were all also launching bloody Crusades into the Holy Lands.

Goldstone dishes out the schemes, betrayals, and battles like a sophisticated, real-life game of Risk. Beatrice of Savoy’s shrewd uncles became huge power brokers, masterfully playing the Pope, The Holy Roman Emperor, and the Kings of England and France, against each other. Savoy (now mostly a ski and tourist region divided between France and Italy) back then held quite the trump card. They controlled key passes in the Alps which France, Italy, and Germany needed for trade and for troop movements.

Medieval King & Queen.
Image: Clker.com

Goldstone brings to life this pivotal era as it sets the stage for the Hundred Years’ War—into which I now have new insights. She maintains a scholarly, if slightly dry, tone, weaving in details about the courtly troubadours, the lives of the Queens, and the drama of the battlefield. She also includes fun trivia such as the origin of London’s Savoy Hotel, a French queen’s cameo in Dante’s Purgatory, and the inconsequential rise of an unknown Rudolph I, the first of the Hapsburgs.

I appreciated that Goldstone highlights not only the Four Queens from Provence, but also other savvy female players of the era. Their mother, Beatrice of Savoy raised her banner men to fend off unwelcome invasion by ambitious ‘suitors’ after her husband Raymond died. She then adroitly negotiated with the Pope and Louis IX to marry her namesake daughter Beatrice to the king’s brother Charles of Anjou. Nor did she shrink from scheming against said daughter, when she felt that Beatrice and Charles usurped her interests in Provence. Henry III’s mother Isabella of Angoulème was a power hungry manipulator who even schemed against her own son. Ultimately, Isabella lost out to Louis IX’s formidable mother, Blanche of Castile, who basically orchestrated her own son’s rise to power and oversaw his consolidation of the French territories. Known as “The White Queen,” Blanche was the daughter of Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, and also a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, so she had rather imperial aspirations.

Overall, I found Four Queens engaging, readable, and very educational. While not as racy as Tudor biographies, I’d call it a must read for anyone interested in European history. As an aside, I read this right after I finished GRR Martin’s A Clash of Kings. Martin has cited the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, and the Wars of the Roses as inspirations for his books. I definitely could feel that influence reading these two books so close together.

Like WordHits on Facebook

Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »

As this weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, I decided to read A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. I had never read the classic, which was first published in 1955, has never been out of print, and is still considered the definitive text on that disastrous event. I can’t believe I hadn’t picked this book up before—what a gripping read. Lord did exhaustive research, interviewing survivors and studying all the newspaper accounts. Though it’s not just the facts, but Lord’s pacing and the way he metes out the many small moments that make this book so memorable. Lord writes with a crisp, descriptive hand. “The Atlantic was like a polished plate glass; people later said they had never seen it so smooth.” Even 60 years later, the book holds up and does not feel dated.

We’ve all heard much of the Titanic lore. For example, there’s the much-repeated story of the cook who got drunk and thus survived in the freezing water. He has a cameo in the James Cameron film, clinging to the rail of the stern next to the mawkish Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet). In fact, reports Lord, Chief Baker Charles Joughin treaded water in the 28-degree ocean for four long hours—no wetsuit! That’s a Navy-Seal caliber achievement. I love the scene in which Joughin calmly enjoyed a whiskey in his cabin as the water lapped up over his shoes.

The book holds so many small precious stories, true ones. Two young men, new friends that night, shook hands and jumped off the rails together—one lived, one drowned. Men worked furiously in boiler room 5 pumping water and keeping the coal burning for ship’s lights (and the wireless). John J Astor IV disguised a ten-year-old boy in a floppy girl’s hat so the lad could get into a lifeboat. I did not know boys that young were considered ‘men’ and thus not included in ‘women and children first.’ Instead, they were told to buck up as they watched their mothers and sisters drop down in the boats. Oh, and those officers on the nearby SS Californian who watched the whole thing, flares and all? Darwin Award.

Titanic lifeboat shot from the RMS Carpathia. Image: Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Instead, the RMS Carpathia raced north. I hadn’t realized this was such a full-court press, with them turning off the lights, heat, and hot water to send all power to the engines. Even after Titanic sinks, Lord takes us through the tensions and the struggle to survive in the lifeboats, several of which were swamped with water and listing themselves.

A Night to Remember was so riveting that I did not pause to turn on “Downton Shipwreck,” Julian Fellowes’s four-hour TV saga. Full disclosure: I did dvr it. Still, I get a little frustrated with these fictionalizations as I’m more curious about the actual events. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain (and/or Lord Byron).  And, it’s certainly more gripping than melodrama.

After all, what could beat the story of the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship? Industry was vanquished, and its magnates, such as Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, were also proven vulnerable. The ship’s demise marked the end of an era. Some say the Edwardian Era, others the Belle Époque. “To anybody who lived at the time, the Titanic more than any other single event mark[ed] the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era,” wrote Lord. The ship has since become a cultural phenomenon, spurring myth, discussions, and fascination for a century now.

Lord wrote a sequel The Night Lives On, highlighted with several other picks listed as “Best Titanic Books” on Goodreads. There are also several recent releases to mark the centennial reviewed by The Washington Post. And, The New York Times Book Review just spotlighted two new books that deal with the aftermath of the survivors. Several of whom committed suicide in the years after.

But my favorite take on all this Titanic hype is Book Riot’s “What Books Were People Reading on the Titanic?” Talk about a meta must-read.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Sinking of the RMS Titanic (Wikipedia)

Best Titanic Books via Goodreads

The Unsinkable Story via WSJ Blogs

Fascination with Titanic Goes On, 100 Years Later

Round-Up of New Titanic Books at The Washington Post

100 Years at Sea: New Books About Titanic Passengers at The NYT Book Review

Book Riot: What Books Were People Reading on the Titanic?

Like WordHits on Facebook

Follow @WordHits on Twitter

Read Full Post »