A gold-medal book

I don’t know how this book got under the stack on my table, languishing for months while I read and listened to lots of others. I do know that I’m glad I retrieved it recently, after having seen it listed as one of the best books of the 21st century so far. It deserves that accolade and more. Other than my personal embarrassment, the tardiness doesn’t really matter. This is a book for the ages, not any particular moment. And, as might be expected, a movie is in the works. But don’t wait for that; read the book now.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS. By Daniel James Brown. Read by Edward Herrmann. Penguin Audio.  12 CDs. $49.95.

This is one of the best books I’ve read (listened to, actually, but the effect is the same) in a long, long time. It’s a sports story, and a good one, but it’s also a history, an inspiration, a compelling biography of one young man and a book about the American spirit that draws on reality, not slogans or prejudice.

The book’s title suggests that these nine Americans won the gold in Berlin, right? So you might think there would be little suspense. But as I listened to the climactic passages, I began to worry that the boys didn’t win, that it was their “quest” that was epic, not the outcome. I would have stopped and looked up the Olympic results, but I was too much in the grip of the against-all-odds competition.

Daniel James Brown takes a good sports story and elevates it into a great book.  Drawing on extensive research – personal interviews, journals, letters home, news accounts, archives – he brings to life the individuals who made up the eight-oar crew from the University of Washington in this sport in which the individual must give way to the team effort. He focuses particularly on one of the boys, Joe Rantz, who rose out of a heartbreaking family situation that would have crushed most people and joined the crew as his only hope to stay in college and find a place for himself in the world. Rantz’s story itself would have made a great biography, or provided the seeds of a compelling novel. But Brown also helps us to know the other boys and their coaches and mentors.

Without belaboring it, Brown makes it clear what a demanding sport crew is, giving us enough insight into the roles of the oarsmen and the coxswain and the fine points of racing to understand what’s going on when it counts.

And Brown goes beyond the competitions and the athletes to place this story in the context of what was happening in the United States and the world, especially Germany. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. The boys who made up the crew were, for the most part, desperately poor, and almost all of them had never rowed before they turned out as freshmen to try out for a coveted place on the team.

In Germany, meanwhile, Hitler was consolidating his power, organizing the 1936 Olympics as a chance to show the world just how great the country was becoming under his leadership. Brown carefully weaves in accounts of what was happening there, so that by the time we see the boys from Washington state rowing in sight of Hitler’s gaze and Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras, we fully comprehend the atmosphere and the gathering storms. There was talk of the U.S. boycotting the Olympics, as news spread about what was happening in Germany, but people in high places chose to believe what they wanted to believe.

Those who think of crew as a minor sport will be surprised to learn that in the 1930s, it was a huge spectator sport, right up there with college football and major-league baseball. Reporters followed the teams closely, writing about their training and prospects. Major races were attended by huge crowds and broadcast on live radio nationwide. The crews from the University of Washington and its West Coast rival, the University of California, were upstarts, rough boys from farms and forests who entered a heady foreign world when they headed east once a year to compete with the Ivy league schools, the Naval Academy and other elite Eastern colleges.

But being a star college athlete in a highly popular sport did not mean in the 1930s what it does now. The boys from Washington had demanding training schedules throughout the academic year, and were expected to keep their grades up, but they were not given scholarships, only the chance to get some campus job that would help them afford school.  Most had night jobs, and summers saw them doing hard manual labor to save up cash for the next academic year. When they traveled east each summer, it was on a tight budget. And after they won the right to represent the United States in Berlin, they were told they would have to come up with the money to get there.

Despite many setbacks, they did make it to Berlin, and Brown presents their competition there as nerve-racking and nail-biting as it must have been for the spectators there and all those huddled around their radios back home.

An extensive epilogue follows the boys as they became men, always carrying with them the memory of that time in Berlin when they transcended self for the rest of the team – and for the honor of their country. Brown also tells what happened in Germany once the glorious games were over, horrors that had American boys over there again in just a few years on a deadly serious mission.

By the time Edward Herrmann read Brown’s concluding words, I had tears in my eyes – tears of pride in all that’s good in the American spirit, as it was exemplified nobly by the boys in the boat.

 

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The real dangers on campus

Paul O’Connor is a father. He’s a veteran journalist. And he teaches college students. He has considerable insight into this book, and he says that every parent should read it.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

MISSOULA: RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN. By Jon Krakauer. Read by Mozhan Marno and Scott Brick. Random House Audio. 10 CDs, 12 hours. $45. Also available in hardback from Doubleday. 358 pages.  $28.95.

 In November 2014, Rolling Stone magazine sought to chronicle the crisis of sexual abuse and assault on American campuses with what turned out to be a highly flawed article, “A Rape on Campus.”

What Rolling Stone failed to accomplish in that now disavowed piece, Jon Krakauer has forcefully presented in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

This is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read. It is a story of rape, binge drinking, incompetent policing and neglectful prosecution, of a community more concerned about football than the safety of its own daughters, and of privileged young men unaware that their brute strength does not entitle them to have sex on their whims.

Krakauer primarily follows two cases, both involving football players, while setting these two stories in the larger context of a small Montana city embroiled in multiple rape and gang-rape allegations, many involving players on the much-loved University of Montana Grizzlies team.

In both of the featured cases, the woman knew the man before the incident occurred; in one, they had been friends since childhood.

Krakauer guides us through the relationships prior to the incidents and then through the criminal justice system as rape allegations are tried.

This book is an outright indictment of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the prosecuting entity in the city. The foremost villain is the surprisingly callous assistant prosecutor, Kirsten Pabst, who oversaw sexual abuse cases for the county. The city’s police force is presented as less than competent but not villainous. And the university gets a mixed grade: good marks to the administration, bad to the athletics program, its boosters and fans.

While this is a compelling read or listen, it is one that will make the typical parent ill. And that’s why every parent of a child – boy or girl – over the age of 10 should read it. Soon. Take your poison, and then get to work on your kids. Make them understand the dangers on campus for both genders.

There is a modus operandi on campus, be it at fraternity or house parties. Target young, innocent females, invite them to parties, get them drunk as quickly as possible, and then retreat to a room where they can be raped.

Other iterations of this tactic involve any college woman attending any kind of a party and who drinks to the point of being incapacitated. Hold her down, peel off her clothes, have sex. Go drink some more.

Probably the most startling aspect of the story is the naiveté of the students involved – the females who get muscle-melting drunk and the males who consider it acceptable to have sex with women who cannot provide consent, or who say no but are not strong enough to resist.

Krakauer provides considerable detail about the prevalence of rape in Missoula and nationwide, and conscientiously notes that Missoula’s rape frequency is slightly below the national average.

Rolling Stone hoped to start a national dialogue on the sexual abuse problem on campus, but only managed to stain its own reputation with poor reporting. Krakauer, working largely from court records, university documents, government reports and interviews with those involved, has presented us with material for every reading club and, I would hope, more than a few university summer reading lists.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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Trouble in the Navajo nation

Anne Hillerman is back with her second novel as she builds on her father’s beloved Leaphorn and Chee mystery series.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ROCK WITH WINGS. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 322 pages. $27.99.

When both husband and wife work for the Navajo Tribal Police, quality time together can be at a premium. So Sgt. Jim Chee and his wife, Officer Bernie Manuelito, are excited about the prospect of a brief vacation together, even if it’s a working vacation of sorts.

Chee’s cousin and clan brother, Paul, is starting a new business, a guest hogan in Mystery Valley, just outside the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. He plans to drive guests to good locations for getting photos of the spectacular sandstone formations in the park, which stretches from Arizona into Utah.

Paul has invited the couple to try out his guest hogan, but Chee and Bernie rightly figure he’s also going to need their help getting things ready.

But life and duty interfere, as they so often do. They have to hurry home because Bernie’s younger sister, who was supposed to be taking care of their elderly mother, has disappeared. Once back home, Bernie gets embroiled in some tricky cases, including a suspicious fire. She’s also interested in some people who are working to develop solar energy on Navajo land.

Chee, meanwhile, goes back to help his cousin, but soon gets called in to help the local police in the area. A woman has gone missing from a movie set, and in the process of looking for her, Chee finds what looks like a grave where none should be.

As Chee and Bernie work on their separate investigations, both uncover more than they had bargained for. Danger lurks in unexpected places. Retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, still recovering a nearly fatal shooting, manages to give them some help.

This is the second mystery novel in which Anne Hillerman has taken up the stories of the popular Navajo tribal police characters created by her late father, Tony Hillerman. In addition to keeping the beloved Leaphorn and Chee going admirably, she adds a feminine touch by telling a good portion of the story from Bernie’s perspective.

Tony Hillerman fans could debate endlessly whether the daughter’s new books are as good as the father’s. I’d have to go back and re-read some of Tony Hillerman’s earlier books to make a thorough comparison. I haven’t been tempted to do that, however, because Anne Hillerman’s books are good enough. Perhaps most important, like her father, she writes with understanding and respect about the Navajo people, their traditions and the beautiful, dry, wild land they call home. She also writes well, and, also like her father, she incorporates contemporary problems and realities into her stories, showing how the Navajo people reconcile their ancient ways with today’s world. The mystery she weaves is lively, the denouement believable.

I’m glad she had the courage to follow in her father’s footprints through the sands and rocks of the Four Corners area. I look forward to her next Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito novel.

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A different view of Bunker Hill

About  a year ago, Paul O’Connor acquired an audio version of a history of Bunker Hill and the origins of the American Revolution, and then promptly forgot it. Recently he found the book, began to listen – and found there was a lot to learn about that history.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BUNKER HILL: A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Read by Chris Sorenson. Penguin Audio. 11 CDs,13 hours. $39.95. Also available in soft cover from Penguin. 416 pages. $18.

On June 17, 1775, American militiamen occupied Breed’s Hill on the northern side of Boston, thus posing a serious threat to the British forces who, two months earlier, had been penned inside the harbor town after the battles at Lexington and Concord.

British Gen. Thomas Gage decided he had no choice but to contest the occupation of both Breed’s Hill and its neighbor, Bunker Hill.

The patriots had the high ground and were excellent fighters, many of them more experienced than the attacking Redcoats below. But they were low on gunpowder and outnumbered.

The Americans devastated British forces, slaughtering them as they attacked uphill. Total British casualties were 1,054, including many officers. Had the Americans not been short on gunpowder, they might have held the hills, destroyed the Crown’s America-based army and set North America on a very different course through history.

How had things come so far? How had American-British relations soured to the point of such bloodshed?

American school children learn of Parliament’s taxation without representation and of the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride. But that’s the Twitter account. Nathaniel Philbrick has provided us a much more detailed answer in this exciting read – or in my case, exciting listen – about not only that one-day battle but also the origins of New England dissatisfaction with Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, the escalation of the colonists’ defiance and, eventually, the decisive acts to openly rebel.

Philbrick’s main character is neither John nor Samuel Adams, the two patriots most frequently mentioned regarding the New England revolt. Instead, Philbrick focuses on Dr. Joseph Warren, the popular leader of the Massachusetts Committee on Safety, who led the colony while the Adams cousins were in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

What we get, then, is a very different perspective from most written about the early days of the War of Independence. Philbrick goes into great detail to chronicle the evolution of legal, social and political attitudes that brought New England into open rebellion and then separation from Great Britain. It wasn’t as simple as Boston Massacre, tea party, and then “one if by land, two if by sea.”

Warren was at the head of that evolution, steering the committee on safety and gradually bringing the colony’s outlying settlements, neighboring colonies and, eventually, the Continental Congress to support his positions.

Philbrick is a popular writer of history, not an academic. He brings considerable storytelling skills to an episode in American history that is complex, that is often mired in lore and sentimentality, and that gets encrusted with Puritan sensibilities. He takes a great story and tells it well.

He also offers entertaining alternative historical possibilities.

What if Warren had not permitted then-Col. Benedict Arnold to undertake what turned out to be an unnecessary campaign to seize Fort Ticonderoga, carrying with him 200 barrels of gunpowder? Would that powder have been sufficient for the Americans to hold these two hills on June 17?

And what if Warren hadn’t been killed on Breed’s Hill? Might he, with his considerable political skills, have risen as an alternative to George Washington as America’s leader, or at least provided General Washington with better advice on running the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776?

This audio book sat on my desk for nearly a year after its release in 2014. Once I started listening, I consumed it in less than four days of listening.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

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How peculiar: missing ravens and walking dead

What fun it is when the author of a beloved series gives us a new book.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BRYANT & MAY AND THE BLEEDING HEART. By Christopher Fowler. Bantam. 383 pages. $26.

Yes, they are back, despite repeated attempts by various powers-that-be in London to get rid of them or at least render them ineffective. Arthur Bryant and John May, the eccentric, cranky but ever-so-wily elderly detectives who are the heart and soul of the small but successful Peculiar Crimes Unit are once again solving some of London’s weirdest crimes, to the delight of any readers who make their acquaintance.

You needn’t have read any of the previous 10 books in the series to enjoy this one, but if you have, you will know that the Peculiar Crimes Unit dates to World War II, when London’s Metropolitan Police Force needed a discreet unit to handle sensitive cases that might harm the public’s morale. The war is long over, but the unit, led by its intrepid and unorthodox senior detectives, Bryant and May, presses on. In latter days, it increasingly deals with cases that are strange, baffling, maybe with a hint of the supernatural or black magic. Bryant, especially, knows people who operate in the shadows.

Over the years, Bryant and May have become set in their ways, and the ways in which they are set have little to do with contemporary police procedures, rules and regulations. They tend to do what they think best, no matter where the unit is moved, no matter who tries to shut it down or rein it in, no matter what threats are made.

These books are mysteries, and they deal with murders and other serious crimes, but they are also very funny. It’s hard to think of an adequate word to describe the PCU and its people and methods. Quirky comes to mind, but doesn’t suffice. The books are also poignant, as the geriatric detectives, especially Bryant, deal with failing health, loneliness and changing times.

This time, the PCU has been placed under the jurisdiction of the City of London. Raymond Land, who is nominally the unit chief, tries in vain to convince his crew to behave lest the new bosses crack down on them: “This means no weird stuff. Try to behave for once. Avoid provocative behaviour. Don’t be imaginative. …” Of course, his counsel is roundly ignored.

The detectives don’t have time for playing by the rules. A strange case falls into their laps when a teenager sees a dead man rise from a grave in an old cemetery – and before long, the teenager is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Meanwhile, Bryant begins investigating the disappearance of seven ravens that live at the Tower of London. Legend has it that if the ravens are gone, England will fall. Bryant’s old friend who works as the Raven Master is more worried about the state of his job if the loss of one of the tower’s main tourist attractions is discovered.

Before long, the unit is dealing with body snatchers, bleeding hearts, a mounting death toll, more coffins and a growing feeling that these two seemingly disparate mysteries have some strange connection.

As always, Christopher Fowler gives us a witty, weird, thoroughly entertaining mystery, steeped in London history and atmosphere, and peopled with eccentric yet believable characters. These books are great entertainment.

 

 

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A harrowing story of Vietnam

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, Paul O’Connor finds that a new book about a heroic mission in the Vietnam War makes for engrossing, if disturbing, reading.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

LEGEND: A HARROWING STORY FROM THE VIETNAM WAR OF ONE GREEN BERET’S HEROIC MISSION TO RESCUE A SPECIAL FORCES TEAM CAUGHT BEHIND ENEMY LINES.  By Eric Blehm. Random House Audio. Read by Fred Sanders. $40. Also in hardcover from Crown. 305 pages. $27.

Even 40 years after helicopters flew the last Americans out of Saigon in 1975, an author writing about U.S. combat forces in Vietnam treads a thin story line between two very contentious camps, the war’s supporters and its opponents.

Eric Blehm, a best-selling adventure and military writer, tells a story of incredible bravery and transformation in Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines.

Neither Blehm nor any writer on Vietnam, however, can tell such a story as Stephen Ambrose did about World War II in Band of Brothers. That’s because Americans remain sharply divided over our role in the war, our tactics and politics, and the service of our military personnel.

In the epilogue, Blehm makes his point: Americans can unite to honor the service of men like Roy Benavidez, the main character here, and still disagree on the politics. The service and politics are two different issues.

Benavidez was a troubled, tough kid growing up in rural Texas in the 1940s and early 1950s. He quit school early to help his family and stayed right on the edge of trouble with the law. But there were adults available to help, and Benavidez learned. It was in the U.S. Army that he got control of his life and his impulses.

But it was an impulsive act that got him into our history books. On May 2, 1968, while at his base in Vietnam, he heard that a team of Green Berets was surrounded and under heavy fire just over the border in Cambodia — where they weren’t supposed to be, but where they were on a special mission to document traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Without orders, he jumped on a helicopter headed to the pick-up zone and dropped himself into the fight.

The survivors of the clandestine mission were clinging to a small piece of an open area that could serve as a landing zone for a rescue helicopter, except that hundreds of North Vietnamese regulars had it covered on three sides. A chopper could land, but it was likely to be destroyed before it could take off.

To tell much more of what happened that day would be to ruin the suspense. But what transpired was horrific. The fire back and forth and from above was relentless, and the combined casualty count was nauseating. All those lives lost…

Blehm writes only from the American side. He provides no account from NVA soldiers or records. A view from that side could have greatly enhanced this story, explaining the bravery and commitment of our enemies that day. But the book is otherwise richly detailed in telling the stories of Benavidez, his Green Beret colleagues and the crews of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company.

Blehm’s book is infused with the bitterness of the Vietnam vets, for the politics that restrained them in country, the anti-war fervor back home and the 1980s budget cuts that threatened their disability and survivors’ benefits. He reports that but doesn’t stray across the line into the political right’s assertions that America lost because of peace protestors and the liberal media. So, good for him there.

It’s hard to say that one could “enjoy” this book. The material is not “enjoyable.” But it is an engrossing listen/read, one you’ll have trouble putting aside.

▪   Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.               

 

 

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Mixed results

By Linda C. Brinson

I didn’t read Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel Water for Elephants, but I heard high praise for it from a number of people. Back then, I was editing and writing for a newspaper’s weekly book-review page, and I rarely had the luxury of reading a book that someone else was going to review for me. It went on the list of books I mean to read one of these days, and it’s still there.

When Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge, arrived as an audio book, I could hardly wait to listen.  When I did, my reactions were decidedly mixed.

AT THE WATER’S EDGE. By Sara Gruen. Read by Justine Eyre. Random House Audio. 8 CDs; 10 hours. $40. Also available in print from Spiegel & Grau and in a Random House Large Print Edition.

Maddie Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are a young, spoiled couple who live in the home of and firmly under the thumbs of his well-to-do parents in Philadelphia. World War II is raging toward its end, and Ellis has greatly disappointed and embarrassed his father, a former Army colonel, by being found ineligible for military service because he’s colorblind – a condition that, oddly, had never before been detected.

The uneasy relationship between the elder and younger Hydes reaches the breaking point after Ellis and Maddie disgrace themselves at a New Year’s Eve party at a high-society home. When the young couple is called on the carpet, the end result is that they find themselves tossed out of the house and bereft of the lavish allowance that has supported their lifestyle.

Ellis decides that the only way to prove his courage and salvage his relationship with his father is to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, something that his father tried and failed – notoriously – to accomplish years earlier. His inseparable best friend, Hank, helps arrange an improbably passage by ship to Scotland for the two of them and, of course, Maddie. After a rough journey, they find themselves staying at the only accommodation available in the village near the loch, an old inn with few amenities.  Making matters worse, food is rationed and air raids necessitate nightly blackouts and occasional trips to a bomb shelter.

The local customers and the sparse staff at the inn have nothing but contempt for the obviously spoiled young Americans who are off on a lark while the young men they know are dying in the war or coming home with serious injuries.

Ellis, especially, and to some extent Hank do nothing to change the locals’ bad opinion. Supercilious and demanding, they are the ugliest of ugly Americans.

Maddie, though, often left alone at the inn for days as the two men pursue their adventures, gradually comes to know the young women who work there, others in the village, and, eventually, the brooding man who runs the inn.

The book has possibilities. I’m a fan of historical novels that combine fictitious characters, even a romance, with real events and people. But the characters and plot must be believable and compelling for this sort of novel to work.

Before talking about the book’s flaws, I will say that I listened to the end, and that doing so was not a waste of time. This book is one of those that is better, I suspect, in its audio version. Justine Eyre did a lovely job with the Scottish accents, a delightful element that would have been missing in my own reading of the book. The story overall was interesting enough to keep me listening, but I think the flaws would have made me set the print version aside as not worth the effort.

My biggest problem with At the Water’s Edge may be that I was never able to believe the central premise: that finding the monster would put Ellis back in his father’s good graces, or even that Ellis believed that it would.

That problem is compounded by the way Ellis quickly deteriorates into a cardboard character, a thoroughly depraved one, once the trio arrives in Scotland, and Hank is little better. Even as Maddie grows in depth and self-awareness, the young men become stereotypes.

The latter part of the book becomes mostly a predictable, rather formulaic and contrived romance novel with some rather confusing supernatural elements thrown in. The news from the front, played on the inn’s radio nightly, the telegrams announcing war casualties and the occasional air raids are just interesting enough to make one wish Gruen had done more with that part of the story.

The story’s symbolism – that there are very real monsters (Hitler, Ellis) around us – is presented with a heavy hand, and also stated outright in case the reader still doesn’t get it.

A historical novel about hunting for the Loch Ness Monster might have worked. There have been many successful novels set during World War II, and there’s always room for another. A romance with an evil husband and a gallant lover with a mysterious past could have been fine for those who like that sort of book. But these elements never really come together to make At the Water’s Edge the book it should be.

 

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A liberal arts education, plus survival skills

Paul O’Connor finds that frequent digressions make this book all the more rewarding.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

NATURAL BORN HEROES: HOW A DARING BAND OF MISFITS MASTERED THE LOST SECRETS OF STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE. By Christopher McDougall. Random House Audio. 16 hours. $45. Read by Nicholas Guy Smith. Also available in hardcover from Knopf. 352 pages. $26.95

In May 1944, British agents and Greek resistance fighters accomplished one of World War II’s most remarkable special ops. They kidnapped the commanding general of Nazi Germany’s 70,000-strong garrison on Crete.

The Germans were dumbfounded not only by the audacious abduction but also by the getaway: If the general were still on the island, as all but the most ridiculous of contrived clues indicated, how could the abductors have escaped across the razor-sharp rocks and forbidding terrain of the island?

Christopher McDougall uses that question to present his argument that humans have natural strength and inherent abilities that go far beyond what we employ today.

The book is built around British agents plucked from the nation’s artistic and intellectual circles not for their soldierly skills – they had few of those – but for their imaginations. Winston Churchill wanted a behind-the-lines force creatively terrorizing the enemy.

Kidnapping the general would only terrorize the Germans, however, if the abductors got away with him. To do that, the agents would have to exhibit the primal physical capabilities modern man has lost but that survive among the Cretan population.

And to explain how Cretans could survive on little or no food and water while traversing outrageously rugged landscape with German pursuers hell bent on catching them, McDougall provides his readers and listeners with a wide-ranging liberal arts education.

In various chapters, he discusses Greek mythology, history, geography, literature and culture, human physiology, nutrition, exercise science, martial arts, primal hunting, psychology, strength training, corporate food, British MI6 and American workout culture.

Listening to the book brought to mind Victor Borge, the renowned pianist and comedian who would annoy and amuse his audiences by starting to play only to stop abruptly to tell a story. That’s what McDougall does to us: He starts to tell the story of the kidnapping, its planning and execution and the attempt to escape, but every time we get rolling, it’s off on a tangent, maybe on nutrition, The Iliad, a school teacher/hero in Pennsylvania, or why corporate gyms and exercise machines really don’t do us much good. (I listened to this book, by the way, while on an elliptical trainer at my gym.)

Then there is the other story he tells: his quest to piece together the full story of the operation, including a replication of the arduous climbs and descents the agents undertook.

Despite the digressions, I loved the book, and wish I had climbed off the trainer and scribbled down a few nutritional and exercise tips.

McDougall’s primary point is that man has lost natural skills that kept him healthy and strong. On Crete, those skills survive – and so we can reacquire them- and that is how the abductors got away. But, whether they actually got the general off the island, I won’t say.

Nicholas Guy Smith reads the book expertly in the audio version.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.               
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A jerk, but a fascinating one

I’m pretty sure Paul O’Connor listened to this audio book about Steve Jobs on his iPhone. I edited this review on my Macbook. It’s interesting to learn more about a man who had such a major impact on our lives.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BECOMING STEVE JOBS: THE EVOLUTION OF A RECKLESS UPSTART INTO A VISIONARY LEADER.  By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Read by George Newbern. Random House Audio. 16 hours, 21 minutes. Also available in hardcover from Crown Business. 412 pages. $30.

Was Steve Jobs a jerk?

Since the Apple co-founder’s death in fall 2011, that question has persisted in the discussion of his life and role in the digital technology revolution.

Walter Isaacson, in his authorized 2011 biography, argued a convincing case that, yes, Jobs was a jerk. He wasn’t alone; conventional punditry was not kind to Jobs.

Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, two Fortune magazine journalists who covered Jobs for 25 years and knew him well, had a somewhat different view.

Yes, Jobs was a jerk, they write in Becoming Steve Jobs, The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader. But not all the time.

The overwhelmingly negative reporting on Jobs’ life upset many of his friends and co-workers, so they granted interviews to the authors, hoping to tell the other story.

The result here is still an indictment of Jobs.

He was arrogant, immature, lavish in his spending, passive aggressive, meddling and egotistical. He had a quick temper and was prone to belittle people who didn’t meet his standards, or whose work didn’t. He was a shit to his daughter, whom he disavowed after her birth, and to some of his earliest employees, whom he cut out of the first big financial bonanza at Apple.

But, few among us are all bad. And the angle of this book is that Jobs grew as a person, as a businessman and as an artist. He made amends with his daughter, becoming a good parent to her and to her step-siblings. He was generous to his employees both financially and in personal support.

As current Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying late in the book, no one as selfish as the Jobs depicted in the popular press would have been as generous, as supportive or as beloved as Jobs.

For those not eager to read or listen to a long book about a jerk, or a sometimes jerk, our authors still provide a fascinating story. It is a history of the personal computing industry from the mid-1970s when Jobs and his first partner, Steve Wozniak, began designing, building and selling Apple computers.

My favorite chapter focused more on Bill Gates than on Jobs, on how Gates recognized that by seizing the market for his operating systems and software he put Microsoft at the center of the industry. In a later chapter, the authors explain how Gates unwittingly outlined the future path of Apple’s ascendancy, the computer at the center of a hub of digital products for music, video, personal computing and telephone. Gates envisioned it as a course forward for Microsoft, although we can see today that it was a challenge for which his company was not suited.

It would be Jobs and Apple who brought digital technology to individual customers, providing them with devices that they didn’t know they wanted but that eventually enriched their lives.

The book is a great read or listen, but the authors’ choice to tell the story in the first person singular is annoying. The reader never knows who is writing, whether the “I” involved in one story or another is Schlender or Tetzeli.

But don’t let that stop you. This book is worth a read or listen.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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Frankly, my dear

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A TOUCH OF STARDUST. By Kate Alcott. Random House Audio. Read by Cassandra Campbell. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in hardback from Doubleday.

Kate Alcott has done it again. She’s written another historical novel that’s a romance – the adventures and travails of one fictional young woman – wrapped in a real story, with real people.

Earlier, Alcott gave us The Dressmaker, a novel grounded in fact about the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, and The Daring Ladies of Lowell, which spins its tale around the real story of a the murder of a young woman textile-mill worker in Massachusetts in the 1830s.

This time Alcott inserts her fictional heroine, Julie Crawford, into the Hollywood intrigue and drama surrounding the filming of one of the greatest movies of all time, Gone With the Wind, in 1939.

Julie is a young college graduate from a good family in Fort Wayne, Ind., which just happens to be the hometown of Carole Lombard. Lombard, of course, is the actress with whom Clark Gable (Rhett Butler in the epic movie) is having an affair while awaiting his divorce, much to the displeasure of the studio.

Despite her parents’ misgivings, Julie has come to Hollywood with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. She takes a job in the publicity office at David O. Selznick’s studio, but soon she is hired away to be Lombard’s personal assistant. That job not only thrusts her into the personal world of Lombard and Gable, but also gives her a good vantage point to view the crises and triumphs of the film’s production.

Through Julie’s eyes, we witness Selznick’s difficult, demanding personality. We see the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism that were rampant in Hollywood. We become aware of the growing menace of Hitler across the Atlantic, and how the movie moguls had no desire to tell the story of what was happening in Europe.

It’s great fun to read the details and insider stories of how this classic movie was put together in the low-tech world of the late 1930s.

Carole Lombard, a strong, funny, devil-may-care woman, becomes Julie’s friend and role model, living proof that a girl from Fort Wayne can shed her Midwest, middle-class strictures and make something of herself. Gable comes alive endearingly, false teeth, big ears, fragile ego and all.

As in Alcott’s two previous novels, the thread that holds the book together is Julie’s personal story – her efforts to become a screenwriter, and, of course, her love life. Julie falls in love with Andy, a young assistant to Selznick. Andy is Jewish, a fact that would appall Julie’s father. After his grandparents in Germany are arrested by the Nazis, Andy grows increasingly disillusioned with the world of movie-making and conflicted about his relationship with Julie.

Combining such a love story with fascinating history, working in real historical events and figures – this is Alcott’s stock-in-trade. Each of her novels draws some criticism along the lines that she’s trying to tell too many stories, that the historical novel might be better without the romance thrown in.

Those who don’t want a fictional heroine and her love affair worked into the mix should probably read some other book. The rest of us can enjoy a story that moves along nicely amid a fascinating and well-researched bit of history.  Alcott includes an informative chapter at the end that details what happened to Lombard, Gable and others after the months depicted in the novel.

A Touch of Stardust might not be another Gone With the Wind, but it’s an entertaining book, worth the read or, read superbly by Cassandra Campbell, the listen.

 

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