Bambi vs Stalin

Susan Jacoby's book on the Alger Hiss case might easily be subtitled: Give It a Rest Already. The "It" in question is the tendency among some to make sweeping assumptions about anyone's beliefs or motivations based on whether or not they believe Alger Hiss was a spy or was guilty of perjury or was framed, etc. I've been fascinated by this case since I first saw the great PBS miniseries "Concealed Enemies" in the early 1980s. That fascination has led me to read many books on the topic, some good (Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars), some bad (fratricide) and some genuinely life-changing (Perjury). Jacoby's book is both good and eye-opening; in spots it is genuinely entertaining.

Jacoby is a self-described liberal who has written this book out of frustration at seeing the Hiss case still used as a litmus test of sorts. The liberal point of view has been under represented in this case since Verona so it is good to have another side weigh in. She states up front that she believes Hiss was a spy and she also states that very few liberals have thought Hiss was innocent since Weinstein's book. She also admits to finding Hiss himself to be rather noxious, an impression I share. Jacoby sketches the outlines of the HUAC hearings, the libel trials and Hiss's attempts at rehabilitating his image before addressing how the Hiss case is used today.

Jacoby inadvertently identifies another thing about this case that has got to go. As with so many books on the case, there are more fresh insights offered as to the impact of homosexuality on espionage and the criminal justice system. Long time Hiss aficionados will be familiar with the theory that Whittaker Chambers framed Alger Hiss because Chambers had a homosexual yen for Hiss. The daisy chain gets extended further here when Hiss's stepson publicly regrets that he couldn't' testify for Alger (and thus exonerate him) because he was homosexual and it would have been used against him on the stand. So, to recap, Chambers framed Hiss because he was gay, his stepson Timothy couldn't save Hiss because he was gay, and his son Tony alleges he became gay for a while because he lived for too long with his mother (Hiss's ex-wife Priscilla) who was bitter about the case. What's next? Claims that communism makes you gay? I'm eagerly awaiting the pronouncement that the Soviets weren't so much marching as mincing toward world domination. Can't we please, please dispense with these ridiculous stereotypes, too?

Jacoby does make a few missteps in my mind. I can't agree with her contention that the pursuit of Hiss was grounded in a desire to smear FDR and the New Deal. Maybe that was in the minds of some of the participants but HUAC had been around since World War 1, FDR was dead and the New Deal was old news by 1949. Jacoby also seems to embrace the notion that Hiss engaged in espionage because the Soviet Union was the only country openly opposing Hitler. A "cooler" less impassioned alliance, as she sees it. This theory has been around for a long time and for some reason it seems more palatable to many than the idea that Hiss (or any other American with communist sympathies) might have actually believed in the tenets of communism. Certainly this was the motivation for some but why is that any more plausible than the idea that Hiss thought the misery wrought by the Depression demanded radical change? White makes a convincing case that we can't know why Hiss gave his allegiance to the Soviet Union. Any theory is as plausible as the next.

She gives much credit to Weinstein's book but, weirdly, questions how Weinstein could have started out thinking Hiss guilty of lying to HUAC but innocent of espionage as one would cancel out the other. That's not so irreconcilable to me, in fact, I'll give you a theory straight from that old Hiss standby: "I was gay at the time." Jacoby even goes so far as to imply that Hiss was so cool, patrician and awesome that Chambers must have been attracted to him. Please. For all we know, Chambers' taste ran to tall, blond Tom of Finland types. The most unfortunate misstep is when she snidely follows up Chambers story of his "conversion" from communism after pondering the perfection of his baby daughter's ear with a note that Chambers was still having gay one night stands. Does she really mean to imply that one cannot love one's child or have spiritual beliefs if one is gay? I hope not.

The core of this book however, is Jacoby's call to stop using the Hiss case as it was in the 1950s when it was a "real indicator of which side you were on." Whether you believe that Hiss case was Bambi vs. Stalin (Chambers was the original translator of the Bambi story from German to English) or Harvard vs. Tricky Dick, the fact remains it is history, not current events. For me, the Hiss case is no more an indicator of broader beliefs than the case of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Historical puzzles, yes; continuing conspiracy? Not so much.

This book is not for everyone. It is definitely not for the beginner. It doesn't offer new information about the case but it does offer a different point of view. For me, that additional point of view makes essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the understanding the Hiss case and it's impact. It isn't likely to settle the debate, just broaden the discussion.

"We baptized the library floor"

Kay Francis is one of those actresses that you either get or you don't. It isn't that she's so complex, it's that Kay is in on the joke and those who enjoy her performances are in on it too. Yes, she's dressed to the nines while playing someone down on their luck -but you didn't come in off the Depression era streets to see someone in rags, now did you? She wasn't the best actress and she wasn't the worst, she was better than Norma Shearer (and I love Norma!) despite Mrs Thalberg's Oscar.

It always surprised me that no one had written a dishy biography about Kay Francis. She was such a huge star in the 1930s and she did have all those husbands. Unfortunately for potential biographers, but fortunately for her, Kay was discrete. And Kay had a lot to be discrete about. She told much of it to her diary and based on the extracts presented here, Kay is my new dead best friend. Anyone who can sum up a day with "Read my new script - dear God!" is girlfriend material.

The authors cover Kay's career in detail and with the loving assessments of devoted fans. I'm right there with them in enjoying Kay's performances in movies like Mandalay and I Found Stella Parish. As film historian Jeanine Basinger put it in A Women's View, Kay was presence, not talent. That's not as harsh as it sounds, it's a simple assertion that Kay wasn't trying to be the great tragedian. Kay was focused on entertaining, not winning awards.

Kay did have a little time left over for her personal life. You can either look at it as quite depressing - 3 divorces, multiple abortions and a drinking problem - or you can see it as a strong woman living her life on her terms in times when women had few options. I prefer the latter interpretation and with lines from her diary like "Did something and had good time but can't remember" you get the feeling Kay preferred the latter, too.

This is a book for Kay Francis fans and movie buffs who want to know more about an undeservedly forgotten star.

Fresh Off the Vine

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only Amazon Vine participant who's only interested in the books. Of course that's not the case but the buzz on the boards seems to be mainly about the electronics items, or lack of them.

This month's harvest (yes, I can overwork a metaphor, too!) is Murder of Medici Princess by Carolyn P. Murphy and Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, both fiction. I could swear there was a non-fiction book of the same name (Murder of a Medici Princess) a year or so ago. Well, I guess if you were a Medici death by poison was a common fate.

Maisie, Maisie, Maisie

More than once while reading Among the Mad I felt a bit like Jan Brady bemoaning the ubiquitous perfection of her older sister Marcia. Fortunately, Maisie Dobbs isn't my sister because after less than one chapter of her ubiquitous perfection I was hoping she would be the first victim of the mad bomber. I'm not proud of this unrealistic hope but Maisie does try my nerves.

I read Winspear's first Maisie Dobbs outing and finished it hoping that the author would exercise more restraint in future books. After all if anyone is likely to be a fan of this series about a World War I nurse turned investigator it's a mystery fan and WW1 buff such as me. And Winspear does get many things right in this series. The period details ring true. The role that the war plays in the lives of survivors seems more realistic than what is depicted in the otherwise enjoyable Ian Rutledge series. Maisie is a strong woman who doesn't need a man to save her, another point in her favor in my eyes.

The trouble is that Maisie is a drag. A humorless, know-it-all apparently without fault unless you count her relentless good works. In the first chapter alone she's bought Christmas presents for her assistant's family, given alms to a beggar and attempted to save a man from suicide. And made me feel like trash for wishing this paragon had been turned to bits by a grenade. I blame her document case. Nearly every chapter features some business with Maisie and her document case. She's tucking pages into it, placing it in her car, drawing wax pencils from it or, my personal favorite, taking two sets of surgical gloves and masks from it. (I'm sorry to report that last one actually made me laugh out loud.) Like the world's oldest Girl Scout, Maisie is always prepared.
A few human frailties and a sense of humor would broaden the appeal of this series. As would dialing down Maisie's superiority in comparison to, say, Scotland Yard.

If I've hard on this book it's because I think the series has promise. Winspear has made Maisie less of a psychic than she was in the first book and the narrator for this audiobook, Orlagh Cassidy is excellent. What might easily have been two stars on the page becomes four stars under Cassidy's nuanced reading. She gives Maisie more depth than the mere words do. The central mystery is decent enough though more of a serial killer hunt for the needle in the haystack than a golden era whodunit. The characters beyond Maisie, however, aren't terribly well-drawn. It's all Maisie which makes her lack of faults become tiring.

Still, if you enjoy period mysteries this series is worth checking out. My advice is to take advantage of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and read a few pages. Some readers might find Winspear's attention to detail (Maisie doesn't rush into a call box to make a call; she goes to the box, opens the door, picks up the receiver, etc) a bit much. Others might find it just the ticket.

Worth Re-reading

My addiction to LibraryThing is allowing me to revisit old friends. One of the reasons I give for buying books instead of just borrowing them from the library is that I only keep the books I want to reread. But how many books have I actually reread?

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre (best spy story ever)
  2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (because you never forget your first gothic)
  3. Anne Sexton by Diane Middlebrook
  4. Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander
  5. Skull Session by Daniel Hecht
  6. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
  7. Decent Interval by Frank Snepp
  8. Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart

That's a respectable start, at least.

Random Thoughts

I'm reading Iain Pear's Stone's Fall and D.J. Taylor's Bright Young People. At nearly the halfway mark I've noticed a few thing, all of them random.
  • Roughly 20 Kindle lines equal one printed page.
  • A different "voice" isn't necessary to convey a change in narrator. Pears does it effectively but subtly almost entirely through the opinions and perceptions of the narrator.
  • Although if asked I would swear that I hate slow paced books once I get into a well-written slower paced book, I like it. Stone's Fall can move glacially at times but is still entertaining.
  • Those Brits do love creating "clubs".
  • The press's fascination with reporting the doings of basically moronic people is not a new phenomenon.
  • I'm becoming obsessed with LibraryThing.
  • This obsession may not be a bad thing. So to speak.

As Good as Before

How many times have I read one book by an author, loved the book and then tried the author's other books only to find that the first one was the best. Too many times. that's how many.

That's what I thought I was in for with Iain Pears' Stone's Fall. How could it be as good as An Instance of the Fingerpost? So far (12 chapters) it is as good. All in all, I've been quite lucky with the books I've read this year. It's enough to make me forget all about The Great Upheaval.

Then again, Maisie Dobbs is still haunting me. And her damn document case.

Through a Glass, Darkly

Imagine you're watching a play. The play is similar to another play that you've seen before, several plays, in fact. This time there is a screen in front of the stage made of fine black gauze. You can see and here what it going on behind the gauze, when the light shines a certain way you could almost forget the gauze is there. Then the scene ends and when the curtain rises again the same scene is played again, this time without the gauze screen. The same words are spoken but in some by different characters than you thought the first time. In other cases you can see the actors' expressions completely now and the words, though the same, have an entirely different sensation.

This is what reading Dave Cullen's amazing book is like. I thought I knew the story of Columbine - after all I'd seen it play out on my TV screen - but I was watching the whole thing through the gauze of misconception and insta-reportage. Cullen rips the gauze away and tells the whole story. It's not enough to say he sets the record straight, that sounds like he fixed the punctuation; This isn't a merely book, it's a revelation.

When people asked me what I was reading and I answered "A book about Columbine"
the usual reaction was a visual and verbal mixture of puzzlement and dismay. "Why are you reading about that" they'd ask, "hasn't that been done to death?" The simple answer is that the truth of Columbine hasn't been told until know. And when I'd puncture a few of the myths that we'd all believed to be truth - it wasn't the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't Goths, etc - the response was "No way" followed by "I need to read this book, too."

Yes, you do. This is the must-read nonfiction book of the year.

Cullen spent years talking to the everyone involved who would talk to him and the result is a story that is actually more horrifying that anything reported at the time. Far from being bullied teens who fought back - and wasn't that always a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of reporters and viewers alike? - this is the story of a clinically depressed teenager in the hands of a teen-age psychopath. Eric Harris, the psychopath in question, is exponentially more terrifying than science fiction monster for the simple reason that you wouldn't invite "Alien" into your home but you'd give Eric the keys to your house to watch it while you were on vacation, all the while thinking what a nice, responsible young man he was. Meanwhile he'd be building napalm jet backpacks in your basement. Eric was misunderstood, all right, because he wanted it that way. Cullen presents one of the clearest explanations of psychopathy I've come across and the evidence for Harris being categorized as a psychopath is overwhelming.

Dylan Klebold, as Cullen notes several times, is more concerned with love than hate but the whole that depression leaves in his soul is filled by Eric Harris's hate for all humanity. It's easy to imagine Dylan Klebold taking a different path. By contrast, one can only see Eric Harris committing other more heinous crimes. Was it just bad luck that led Klebold into Harris's path? Who knows? That's the point that Cullen isn't afraid to make - that no one knows what created Eric Harris or what made Dylan Klebold so vulnerable to him. It wasn't being bullied or bad parenting or video games or Twinkies or music with hidden messages or any other stock, easy answer.

Cullen does find heroes and villains and mixtures of both. The families of the murdered react in different ways, from painful to witness hatred to self-destruction. The community reacts with compassion, understanding, exploitation, fatigue and finally ambivalence. I thought Cullen did an especially sensitive job of dealing with the role spirituality and faith played in the healing process. For some their faith allowed them to accept the tragedy with a peace reminiscent of the Amish school shooting. Others are moved by their faith to reach out the parents of Harris and Klebold only to find their actions denounced by others of the same faith. Yes, there are some who wittingly or not exploit the tragedy in the name of their religion and Cullen calls that out, too but this is a balanced portrait.

This is one of the best non-fiction books of the decade. The reporting is excellent and the writing is even better. Anyone who enjoys thoughtful non-fiction and/or wants to better understand the society we live in should make it a point to read this book.

Friends in Low Places

What we have here is a beach read. That's not a dismissive term, at least not to me. But there are good beach reads, bad beach reads, even great beach reads. This is a good beach read that occasionally skirts the edge of great and bad.

A beach read needs a plot that is interesting without being overly complex, characters which are interesting with at least one full on detestable character and, most importantly, a narrative drive set to turbo. That doesn't mean fast-paced, it means that the story needs to propel the reader along. Scott Thurow's Presumed Innocent is an example of a great beach read that has a touch of literary credibility. Back in the day Judith Krantz delivered good beach reads without any redeeming qualities.

The Devlin Diary is not only a beach read, it is two books in one which makes it hard to avoid being overly complex. Story A is set in Restoration England and involves a female physician who gets caught up in series of murders Story B, and I choose my letters carefully, is set in modern day Cambridge University involves a female fellow caught up in a murder. The woman, Hannah Devlin, in Story A is strong, smart and resourceful. The woman, Claire Donovan, in Story B is a ninny. At least it cuts down on the complexity.

And that is the dilemma in a nutshell. Story A is good. The pacing is right, the anachronisms are very few, and the characters surprisingly well-drawn. The plot doesn't completely hold up but it's really a vehicle for Hannah to find good husband material in the veritable cesspool of morals that was King Charles II's court. Story B just lays there, repeatedly referencing the rollicking adventures in the author's previous book without managing to make me want to read it and leaving it's heroine wondering why the cute guy she has a crush on isn't paying attention to her. Which might be fine if this were a teen novel and the heroine were fourteen. Fortunately Story B takes up only about a third of the book but every time the action ground to a halt with a switch to present day England I wondered why Christi Phillips bothered with it. She does well with historical fiction, she might even have the makings of a Rose Tremain. Claire Donovan doesn't make the historical portion any more accessible and, really, who wants to read about their heroine deploying her awesome translation skills?

Still, this is a beach reach and judge by those standards this is a good read overall. Take it for what it is and you'll have fun.

Dead Boring

Jack Olsen once said that a true crime book that doesn't seek to answer the question of "what created this monster?" is "pure pornography." It's fitting, then, that his final book was I, The Creation of Serial Killer. There isn't a Jack Olsen book that isn't worth the time of any serious true crime fan. He was a true great and if anyone else had written this book I doubt I'd have read it. You see, I'm basically a wimp and the gore that is inherent in any serial killer story is more than I can take. While the gore factor on this book is low for a serial killer story, this is still one of the most profoundly disturbing books I've ever read. It is the first book that I have deleted from my Kindle - I literally didn't want it around.

Olsen gets into the mind of serial killer Keith Jesperson, literally channeling his voice. This was enlightening. Who knew that the mind of a serial killer was so boring? Vile, horrific, loathsome thoughts and fantasies - these I expected and got. The boring factor was a revelation. Step inside the mind of a serial killer and you're in for the endless self-justifications of a whiny loser. Everybody done him wrong. Whether Jesperson is more self-aware than the average serial killer or, in other words, is less of a whiny loser than most serial killers is a bit like asking if the concentration camp guard was nice. It's all relative, yes, but consider the scale.

There are moments of twisted Is-this-guy-for-real black humor, like when Jesperson refers to "special moments shared with my victims" that elicit a combination gasp-laugh-choke. The Serial Killers Pen Pal Club that Jesperson starts, on the other hand, may just be proof that sometimes illiteracy isn't such a bad thing. Then again, it's hard not to walk away from this book passionately pro death penalty even if you start it passionately on the other side of the debate. This crew is pretty much the filled with poster children for euthanasia with their mercenary insistence on being paid for every word and getting jealous when one of them gets more press.

This is a tough book to critique. Olsen so effectively channels Jesperson for half the book that I missed Olsen's familiar, sane voice. Judged on its own terms, probably the only fair ones, it succeeds in what it sets out to achieve. But would I recommend it? Well, if you think serial killers are fascinating or interesting, then step right up and get yourself disabused of those notions. Ditto if you think they can be rehabilitated - these guys just like killing. If you're wondering if press coverage encourages serial killers to up the ante, Jesperson is an example of someone who wants "credit" for his "kills." But, again, would I recommend it? This isn't an enjoyable book. I didn't enjoy Plato's Republic though I'm glad I read it. The best I can offer is that if you're deeply interested in serial killers, this book is essential reading. But be prepared for loss of appetite and nightmares.

Some Paranoia with Your Suspicions?

Some authors have to work overtime to disappoint me. Peter Robinson is one of those authors. He is so in command of his craft that he can phone it in and still produce a book twice as entertaining as the competition. He's not phoning it in on All the Colors of Darkness but I'm not surprised that this isn't among his fans' favorites. It's a dark book - what Inspector Banks book is a barrel of laughs, though? - and the themes make it even darker than most.

The central theme is paranoia. All kinds of paranoia: sexual, official, professional, political, existential, psychological, etc. It's nearly "all the colors of paranoia" at times. And what better venue for any dissection of paranoia that the spy trade? One of the things I admire most about Robinson is that he isn't afraid to have his characters be wrong and in this outing Banks anti-establishment tendencies seem to be leading him down the wrong path. Or is it the right path?

Another admirable Robinson trait on display here are his strong female characters. As thrilled as I was in the last book that Annie Cabbot handled her own problems without leaning on a man, I'm thrilled that in this book Annie is still standing on her own two feet and that Banks' female boss isn't given the cliche treatment. Winsome is coming along as a character in her own right. These are three strong, smart woman succeeding in the "man's world" of policing. How rare is that?

I have to agree with others here who feel this isn't Peter Robinson's best book. The main flaw, for me, was the terrorism portion of the story. It felt weirdly tacked on to the main story and Banks' reaction lacked the nuance I've come to expect from Robinson. He won back many of the points lost in that story with the twists and turns of Banks' romance with Sophia. There we had the kind of emotional realism that Robinson knows how to deliver better than most.

All in all, this is an entertaining mystery. Worth the time of any mystery fan and still a must for Robinson/Inspector Banks fans.

Smart Beach Reading

After reading Robert Sabbag's superbly economical prose, some cutting to the chase seems in order. Down Around Midnight is one of the best books I've read this year and one of the very best memoirs I've ever read. In the avalanche of Woe-Is-Me memoirs that the publishing industry seems determined to foist upon us this book is a rarity - a tale of tragedy and introspection that actually has meaning. Sabbag asks us, simply, to consider what it means to be lucky.

I'm sure that many people like myself whose work requires an amount of airplane travel are fascinated by aviation accidents. Whether that fascination is purely morbid, a twisted hope that one can study up for the big event or just an outlet for fear I don't claim to know. I do know that after a two emergency landings and several unpleasant severe turbulence experiences I've wondered more than once what it would be like to be in a plane crash. What would it feel like? What would I do?

Robert Sabbag delivers the answers for his experience right up front. If he's going to tell a story about a plane crash he's not going to hide the main event for last. And that should give you a good idea of the kind of story teller he is: no nonsense, no tricks, and definitely no BS. This is a "slim volume" as the saying goes so it's difficult to talk about it without giving too much away. Sabbag's story is about talking to other survivors of the crash to sort out what happened from what he remembers happened. Along the way he tells us about NTSB investigations, g-force, life on Cape Cod and the mysteries of memory.

Not only does Sabbag never whine - whether he's talking about learning to walking again after a broken pelvis or grappling with "Survivor's Guilt" - he makes this story enjoyable. He balances the tragedy with a genuine enjoyment of life and the people in his life. He doesn't cut himself any slack either, when he says "I was a bigger jerk than usual", you believe it. Still, you wouldn't mind sitting down at a Cape Cod bar for a cold one with Sabbag, he's good company.

It's one thing to physically survive an airplane crash, it's quite another to be able to make sense of the events and emotions surrounding it all while telling a compelling and accessible story. Sabbag succeeds on all fronts. This is a book I know I'll be recommending as a smart beach read for this year and years to come.