London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

26162300Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.

Review:

I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing.  Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city.  This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces.  I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.

Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day.   Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.

It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.

There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about.  Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets.  Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy.  And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.

The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.

The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts.  Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.

And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.

Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

Once more London finds itself a blitz city.  A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.

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Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

31451258Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall―for almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”

In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berkson―publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American―joined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.

Review:

I feel a true crime binge coming on and I started with this book because hey, “the invention of criminal profiling”.  It makes you think the how of profiling would be discussed.

But no.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good account about the “Mad Bomber of New York” who set off pipe bombs in the city for the better part of two decades.  He started small, putting bombs in out of the way places, and got more adventurous as time went on.  The NYPD was getting criticized for allowing him to continue unfettered for years.  Desperate, they asked a psychiatrist for help.

This is the part I was waiting for – how did Dr. Brussel come up with a profile?  What medical knowledge did he draw on to arrive at the picture of a killer?

Sadly we don’t know.  Cannell sticks close to the police so we see Brussel make a prophecy (a Slavic guy in a double breasted suit, probably living with female relatives) and that’s about it.

I desperately wanted more info on the invention and process of profiling (see title) so I was disappointed.  If you’re a fan of true crime there’s a good story here, just expect more ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ than ‘hows’.

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

28953569The story Bhattacharjee covers is fascinating – in December of 2000 an FBI agent got a hold of coded letters sent to the Libyan consulate.  They were sent by a CIA analyst and offered to sell classified material to the foreign power at the price of millions to be wired to a Swiss bank account.  As proof of his access the writer included several top secret documents and promised information about US reconnaissance satellites, defense systems, and more.  It’s information that could put the US military and security in grave danger, not to mention kick strategy back a decade or two if it falls into the wrong hands.

I was excited to dig in – a whodunit, yea!  …except that we learn who the culprit is early on.  Heck, his name is in the first few lines of the jacket copy.  From there we could have gone down one of several paths – a why-dun-it, a how-dun-it, or a how-they-caught-him-…it.  But instead of picking one and committing Bhattacharjee gives us a little of each, and that lack of a single driving force made the read fall a bit flat for me overall.

Listening to the audiobook didn’t help, either, as alphanumeric code gibberish doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  I got the sense that if the ciphers were laid out on a page it would all come together but in my ears it remained largely incomprehensible.

So… ‘Danger tonight’ would be enciphered as four dot one dot fourteen dot seven dot five dot eighteen star twenty dot fifteen dot fourteen dot nine dot seven dot eight dot twenty.

@_@

Not the narrator’s fault, not anyone’s fault, but it did make some parts tough going.

Overall the story is interesting and at 1.8 speed it’s a quick and fun listen, but while serviceable it didn’t tip over into awesome.  If you’re into codes or espionage you’ll want to give The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell a go, but do yourself a favor and stay away from the audiobook.

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

6452798Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years.  It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust.  At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.

Review:

While I’ve read books about nuclear power this was my first about nuclear weapons and woah. By all rights we should all be dead by now, maybe ten times over. There are two interleaving story arcs, one about the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project through the early 2000s, and another that covers a Titan II missile accident.

I had no idea that there were so many mishaps, mistakes, and close calls – planes holding H-bombs catching fire on the runway, nukes lost at sea, early warning systems that misinterpret the moon rising over Sweden has incoming ballistic missiles.  I thought everyone would be behind more safeguards against human error because no one wants to blow up their town by mistake, but it turns out the military was largely against safety measures.  A well-protected weapon requires more checklist steps and time before launch, and those minutes would be crucial in a nuclear attack.

The narrative structure is similar to Columbine in that two separate timelines are alternated – here the history of atomic weapons and a missile accident in Arkansas.  I had never heard of the accident and didn’t know how it ended up so Schlosser’s account kept me riveted.  It also serves to break up the history portions and keep the narrative fresh.

I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it.  I had no problems with the reader and was able to push the speed over 2x, which is a help when the book is over 20 hours long.

My school history books didn’t do a good job covering the Cold War so Command and Control helped me reach a much needed deeper understanding. We should all know this history, if only to make sure we don’t repeat it.


You may also enjoy:

20820098 Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

8857310Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

Review:

Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse.  Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots?  Always, all the time please.  This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why.  The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on.  I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best.  While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation.  The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.

Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture.  It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering.  So in that sense, yea!  I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.

Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far.  It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines.  And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.

All in all… enh.  Not awful, but I expected much better.

War Diaries: 1939-1945 by Astrid Lindgren

Translated by Sarah Death
UK title: A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945

Synopsis:

29771643Before she became internationally known for her Pippi Longstocking books, Astrid Lindgren was an aspiring author living in Stockholm with her family at the outbreak of the Second World War. The diaries she kept throughout the hostilities offer a civilian’s, a mother’s, and an aspiring writer’s unique account of the devastating conflict. She emerges as a morally courageous critic of violence and war, as well as a deeply sensitive and astute observer of world affairs. We hear her thoughts about rationing, blackouts, the Soviet invasion of Finland, and the nature of evil, as well as of her personal heartbreaks, financial struggles, and trials as a mother and writer.

Illustrated with family photographs, newspaper clippings, and facsimile pages, Lindgren’s diaries provide an intensely personal and vivid account of Europe during the war.

Review:

I’m not a World War II buff but when I do read about the period I like learning about everyday people and what it was like to live at the time.  Troop movements, negotiations between allies? Enh. But give me diaries and letters by those on the homefront and I am there.

Lindgren’s account is a very specific and detailed view of the war from neutral Sweden, a fact that helps it transcend narratives I’ve read before. Instead of being stuck in London for the Blitz or tied to a German account of of the fighting we get to peek at all sides from a relatively safe Scandinavian perch.  She pasted in newspaper articles about the war and fills in the spaces with information about Lindgren’s own life – making do with rations, working censoring letters, listing what her children received for Christmas.

The specificity takes us back to that scary time but she still pulls back and looks at things with a wider lens.  These parts stuck with me the most as I write this in November 2016 as global political balance seems to be deteriorating by the day. “One dreads opening the newspaper each day,” Lindgren writes, and I can’t help but agree with her.

As long as you’re only reading about it in the paper you can sort of avoid believing it, but when you read in a letter that ‘both Jacques’s children were killed in the occupation of Luxembourg’ or something like that, it suddenly brings it home, quite terrifyingly. Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth.

It’s a wonderful, intensely readable look at World War II from a unique perspective.  A hearty recommend, especially for fans of diaries and homefront history.

Thanks to Yale University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Synopsis:

9780062363596_b2357Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

Review:

There is so much history that we don’t know about.  Some of it is hinted at in textbooks – conversations that may have taken place in closed rooms, people who may have helped behind the scenes.  These are things we can imagine not knowing.  But that there was a group of African-American women that worked as mathematicians at NASA, plotting our course to the stars?  It’s an unknown unknown – in media depictions I don’t think I’ve seen any people of color at all.

apollo13-mccmovie
Mission Control packed with white guys in the movie Apollo 13

All too often women and people of color are left out of our histories.  Hidden Figures works to fix that.

There is way too much I didn’t know about the Jim Crow South.  I mean, I knew Virginia was segregated, but I had no idea of the crazy stuff they did to keep it that way:

In 1936 a black student from Richmond named Alice Jackson Houston applied to the University of Virginia to study French but was denied admission.  The NAACP sued on her her behalf, and in response the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate educations of black students in any place but Virginia.

I didn’t know that executive orders slowly desegregated the military and government jobs over time, providing an opening for all black people to get into more skilled professions.  Other things that I already knew – minorities being shut out of the housing market, women not being promoted as quickly or paid on par with men – came to life.

Shettley focuses the the story through many lenses.  What was it like to be a woman at Langley?  How about a black man?  How were those issues compounded in the case of the black women “computers”?  And what additional difficulties did the world outside of work present?  Intersectionality, I love thee.

I’m having a hard time coming up with more to say because I just want to press Hidden Figures into your hands and say, “read this.”  Learning about Dorothy Vaughan, who moved away from her family for a chance at a job that would fulfill her while providing for her children, inspires me.  I want my 10 year old niece to read about Katherine Johnson, a natural mathematician that took every opportunity that presented itself, along with a bunch that didn’t.  All the women in this book smashed ceilings, and “the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.”

So the content gets high marks from me.  The writing is good, more journalistic than narrative non-fiction-y.  So if you like your fact to read like a thriller this may not be the best choice for you.  In fact you may just want to wait for the movie. Yes, movie!  I’m so excited, because everyone will see that NASA also looked like this:

MV5BYWJjZmE3MDItNDlkMi00YzY5LTkyYjItZTE5MjdkM2ZmYzZmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc2MTUyMTc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,956_AL_
Scene from Hidden Figures, forthcoming

Shetterly has done us all a service by researching and speaking with these amazing women while they’re still here to tell their stories.  A must read for NASA history buffs, and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the space program, civil rights, or pioneering women.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

In Our Own Hands edited by Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray

Synopsis:

27837529This collection of new research examines the development of deaf people’s autonomy and citizenship discourses as they sought access to full citizenship rights in local and national settings. Covering the period of 1780–1970, the essays in this collection explore deaf peoples’ claims to autonomy in their personal, religious, social, and organizational lives and make the case that deaf Americans sought to engage, claim, and protect deaf autonomy and citizenship in the face of rising nativism and eugenic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Review:

Author Sara Novic has written some wonderful essays about Deafness, including this one about the history and significance of American Sign Language (ASL). Reading it opened my eyes to a blind spot in my knowledge – Alexander Graham Bell was against Deaf people? There’s a movement called oralism? While I have a grasp of current issues (access to interpreting and captions, the debate over cochlear implants) I had no idea of what Deaf people were facing even fifty years ago. That’s where In Our Own Hands comes in.

I do want to say straight up – this is an academic work. The chapters are written by different people and pull from research, doctoral papers, and lots of other things that add up to pages and pages of end notes. Some authors write engrossing narratives while others are more on the dry side. So this is a book to get your learning on.

And boy, did I learn. In the 1800s deaf people were referred to as “The Deaf and Dumb” which made no sense to me until I read this snippet from a 1845 article:

The truth is, monkies [sic], and the lower animals, do not talk, because they have nothing to say. The tongue is moved by the mind, but where there is no intellect, there is no thought; and where there is no thought, there is no need of any language…

So in their minds the deaf didn’t speak because they were too dumb to need language. Cue jaw drop.

And that’s just the beginning. There are essays about Deaf citizenship, Deaf education, how Deaf organizations formed and changed over time, and just how awful Bell was. Many come back to the ideas of agency, paternalism, and oralism (the belief that spoken language is inherently better than sign language).

I especially like the intersectionality many of the essays cover. One chapter is about Black ASL, another touches on Deaf religious history in the American South, yet another looks at Deaf societies and associations in Australia. The editors have made an effort to shed light on subjects that are less known and I appreciate it.

While In Our Own Hands is not for the casual reader it’s a valuable look at Deaf history and activism that helped me fill a gaping hole in my knowledge. Looking back I should have given myself permission to skim the chapters that were super dry or covered topics that interested me less, but all in all the read was worth it.

Thanks to Gallaudet University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Synopsis:

27507970On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat with some of its parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study session. An hour later, he began expressing his hatred for African Americans, and soon after, he shot nine church members dead, the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, among them. The ensuing manhunt for the shooter and investigation of his motives revealed his beliefs in white supremacy and reopened debates about racial conflict, southern identity,systemic racism, civil rights, and the African American church as an institution. In the aftermath of the massacre, Professors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain sought a way to put the murder – and the subsequent debates about it in the media – in the context of America’s tumultuous history of race relations and racial violence on a global scale. They created the Charleston Syllabus on June 19, starting it as a hashtag on Twitter linking to scholarly works on the myriad of issues related to the murder. Charleston Syllabus is a reader – a collection of new essays and columns published in the wake of the massacre, along with selected excerpts from key existing scholarly books and general-interest articles. As timely as it is necessary, the book will be a valuable resource for understanding the roots of American systemic racism, white privilege, the uses and abuses of the Confederate flag and its ideals, the black church as a foundation for civil rights activity and state violence against such activity, and critical whiteness studies.

Review:

As an American in Japan there’s literally half a world between me and events in my home country.  Major news gets clipped down by the Japanese media – “Yet another shooting in America.  Somebody shot X people because of historical hatred/current events/being psychologically unstable.  Y people are protesting. Police are investigating.”

After the Charleston shooting, where a white male shot nine black people in a racially motivated crime, I knew I needed more information.  The Japanese news didn’t have it.  The American online media added some background, but not enough.  Luckily #CharlestonSyllabus, a hashtag on Twitter started by the editors of this book, collected all kinds of books, articles, primary source documents, and even songs that related to the shooting and the history that leads up to it.  The list is extensive and deep; you can find it here and at the back of the book.

Extensive and deep is good, but it also meant I had no idea where I should start.  I put a couple of titles on my library wish list, where they still linger.

That’s where this one volume Charleston Syllabus comes in.  It’s organized into six chapters covering everything from slavery and religion to Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter.  Each section starts off with a historical overview before turning over to historical documents, scholarly analysis, and articles from the days and weeks after the massacre.  I love how all the different kinds of writing nestle up against each other – a slave’s first person account next to a song they may have sung while working, next to a scholarly article on the events of the period.  The variety and breadth of the sources help you get a deep understanding of the historical context and how it relates to today’s news.

Throughout the book I found myself thinking, how could my education have failed me so badly?  Why haven’t I studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a kick butt investigative journalist?  Why wasn’t an annotated Constitution of the Confederate States put before me?  There is so much more history than the cotton gin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Charleston Syllabus filled in many of those holes in my knowledge.  It opened my eyes to topics and controversies I only heard of in passing.  It gave me a lot to think about and pointed me towards time periods and people I’d like to study more deeply.

If you’re American this book will help you grapple with the complicated mess that is racial relations in our country.  If you’re not American it will show you how current events are related to a long and terrifying history of slavery and oppression.  Charleston Syllabus is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how things went wrong and think about where we can go from here.

Thanks to University of Georgia Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

24602886On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette’s arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.

Review:

I’m not a big audiobook person but the chances of my listening to one go up if it’s:

a – nonfiction
b – funny
c – read by the author
d – …who is a contributor to This American Life

It might be the narrowest of genres but it rarely fails. 😉  Continue reading “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell”