The remarkable story of the second First Lady Adams

Here’s an outstanding biography of an often-overlooked woman.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOUISA: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. By Louisa Thomas. Books on Tape. Read by Kirsten Potter. 15 ½ hours; 13 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Penguin Press.

LouisaLouisa Thomas has applied her skills as a journalist and an author ably to the fascinating story of a First Lady who deserves the attention: Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, and daughter-in-law of the second president, John Adams, and of the much better known Abigail Adams.

Like, I suspect, many people, I had barely heard of John Quincy’s wife and certainly had given her no thought before I read this book. I now learn that in 2014, Yale University Press published a biography called Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams by Margery M. Heffron, who unfortunately died while writing the book. That biography, I read, ends rather abruptly about the time that the younger Adamses moved into the White House.

Thomas’ book follows Louisa from her privileged if somewhat unorthodox childhood in London until her death in 1852 at age 77. And what an unusual, interesting life she led!

Louisa and her siblings were brought up to think of themselves as Americans because their father was from Maryland, but she was reared as an upper-class English lady and never set foot on United States soil until after she was married. In many ways, as Thomas makes clear, she felt an outsider all her life, no matter where she was

She and John Quincy, who’d been brought up to believe that service to country came first and personal pleasure was always suspect, were an unlikely match. They almost did not marry, and the pattern of discord mixed with strong attraction persisted through much of their long life together. Both struggled with depression at times, and though they were close in many ways, they often seemed not to understand each other.

Almost as soon as they married, her father returned to the United States in disgrace, having suffered a business failure that meant, among other things, that he never paid Louisa’s promised dowry, a development that profoundly affected Louisa’s image of her position as wife.

Her story includes living with John Quincy in foreign cities, mingling with royalty, as he pursued his diplomatic career, finding favor at court even though her husband was not socially inclined and she had to improvise to fit into their surroundings on his meager salary. When they lived in the newly independent United States for brief periods, she found herself profoundly unprepared for the role of an American wife, who was expected, among other things, to manage the household accounts and be able to milk a cow. No one did much to teach her, and John Quincy often made important decisions about their lives and the rearing of their children without consulting her.

One of the most amazing things she did was travel with their third son, a young child, and a few servants of questionable loyalty and ability, some 2,000 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris to rejoin her husband. It was late winter, and her carriage alternately moved on runners across snow or wheels through mud. While they were traveling through areas devastated by the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Europe. When she finally reached Paris, her husband seemed unimpressed by what she had accomplished.

Louisa, however, either understood then or came to understand how remarkable her feat had been, and years later she wrote an account of the journey. That account is only one of a wealth of documents that Thomas drew upon to write this book. Louisa grew and changed throughout her marriage, and as her self-confidence increased, she found her voice, and a great outlet for her emotions in writing letters, journals, memoirs and even satirical fiction.

Thomas does an admirable job of combining the great amount of historical and personal information available with her insights into Louisa’s thoughts and actions. She is sympathetic to Louisa, but not blind to her faults. She also does a masterly job of placing the events of the Adamses’ lives into the greater story of what was going on as the new nation moved forward, with its many challenges and the realities of its evolving political system. And yet, although she often deals with what the men who held the power were doing, Thomas always keeps Louisa at the heart of her story.

There is so much of interest in this book. For one, it makes painfully clear how difficult it was in that era to be a woman, even a woman of some position and privilege. Louisa suffered at least a dozen miscarriages; there may have been more that were simply written off, by John Quincy and even by herself, as more of her frequent illnesses. She was also subject to other illnesses and fainting spells, and the treatments for her ailments tended to be such things as bleeding and the application of leeches. Of the four live children to whom she gave birth, only one outlived her. Her daughter died as a toddler while they lived abroad, and two of her three sons died as young adults. She did what she could – mostly behind the scenes, of course – to advance her ambitious yet stubborn and rather haughty husband’s political career, always having to worry about gossip and the suspicions of other women, many of whom considered her a snobby foreigner.

It may be some comfort to those who are dismayed by the political climate in the United States in this election year to read Thomas’ descriptions of the vicious nature of politics in the early to mid-19th century, when John Quincy was in the White House and then for many years in the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson, who defeated John Quincy for re-election, blamed the Adamses and their supporters in the 1828 election for the death of his wife Rachel, but Louisa Adams also suffered from her share of malicious attacks.

Slavery is an important theme, and Thomas makes it abundantly clear that slavery was widespread in the nation’s capital. Although John Quincy became an important abolitionist voice, even his reactions were complex, and Louisa, whose father’s family were slaveholders, had conflicting emotions and opinions. The rumblings that presaged the Civil War were growing ever louder during the Adamses years in Washington.

It’s also interesting to realize that we aren’t the only ones who live through rapid changes. When the Adamses first began traveling between Massachusetts and Washington, for example, the arduous journey could take weeks, but later in their lives, steamboats made it possible to cover the distance in a few days. And when John Quincy first began working as a diplomat, some Europeans were mystified as to what entity he was representing.

Fittingly, one of the most compelling aspects of the biography is the account of how Louisa grew from an insecure, dependent young wife into the strong, respected woman for whom both houses of Congress took the unprecedented step of adjourning in mourning on the day of her funeral. Thomas does not make the mistake of imposing too much of a 21st-century perspective onto a 19th-century woman’s life. She does, however, draw on the ample material available to her, including much written by Louisa, to bring alive the story of one woman’s journey through life.

This biography, beautifully read by Kirsten Potter, is a good choice for an audiobook. The facts, research and historical context are there, yet all comes together to be as captivating as most novels.

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A man of his times

Paul O’Connor found more than he expected in a new biography of General Custer.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CUSTER’S TRIALS: A LIFE ON THE FRONTIER OF A NEW AMERICA. By T.J. Stiles. Books on Tape. Read by Arthur Morey. 23 hours, 42 minutes. $95. Also available in hardcover. Knopf. $30.

CusterAuthors of historical fiction often use a central character who, through benefit of position or chance, can be in place to witness the most important events in the story’s sweep.

Herman Wouk, for example, created Admiral Pug Henry and through both Henry and his family swept us along the Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

T.J. Stiles uses this mechanism in recounting American history from shortly before the Civil War through 1876. But Stiles uses a real character, and his book is nonfiction, not a novel.

Gen. George Armstrong Custer, known mostly for his demise on the Little Big Horn, serves as a splendid vehicle for telling the American story of the era. This is a biography of one exceptionally successful Civil War and Indian Wars general. But it is also the story of a liar, gambler, racist, philanderer, stock market sucker and writer, a man who repeatedly proved to be one step behind the evolution of America in his lifetime.

This is the story of mid-century America’s attitudes on race and gender, on westward expansion, the spread of railroads, the growth of railroad companies and the manipulations that led to the Panic of 1873.

Better than any other writer of the period I have read, Stiles explains the political system under which the U.S. Army and Navy appointed officers. And, in the contraction of the two forces after the war, he explains how both branches became more professional and merit-based in choosing officers.

Stiles also explains the financial dealings that grew Gilded Age monopolies and nearly bankrupted Custer.

Through the expanse of this nearly 24-hour listen, Stiles was telling Custer’s story.

An undisciplined cadet at West Point, Custer was fortunate not to have been thrown in prison upon graduation. He entered the war in summer 1861 as the Army’s lowest-ranked officer, but through a series of fortunate bounces, he was soon on the staff of Gen. George McClellan. Luck, Stiles says, was always on Custer’s side, until the day he died, that is.

Given a chance to lead men in battle, Custer excelled. He lacked as a manager and administrator, but when a battle started he was brave, brilliant and lucky. Any number of times, rebel soldiers came within a hair of killing him only to be killed themselves by Custer or one of his men.

Custer was a political animal from a Democratic family in Michigan who openly opposed President Lincoln. His politics were politically correct for McClellan but not for his personal advancement after McClellan’s fall from grace. To prop up his own career, therefore, Custer lied repeatedly about his own positions and actions, hoping to advance in a now Republican-dominated Army. But once it served his purposes, he switched back to the Democratic side, once again lying as to his previous positions. At each turn in his career, he depended on favoritism to advance and he played favorites when advancing those under his command.

His personal side was no more honorable. He cheated on his wife; he tried to cheat in finance but was himself snookered. He gambled himself into a dreadful debt, one that surfaced only after his death and which fell on his widow.

To be honest, when I downloaded this audiobook, I asked myself if I wanted to commit 24 hours to a man about whom I’d already read several books. In the end, I’m glad I did, because this is so much more than a Custer biography. It is a history of how America worked in that crucial quarter century.

 

 

 

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The real pursuit of truth

A series has taken a new turn, and Bob Moyer hopes for a course correction.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE CROSSING. By Michael Connelly. Little Brown. 388 pages. $28.

thecrossingusHarry Bosch has been banging around the Los Angeles Police Department for a lot of years.  He’s a unique creature, a badge-carrying paean to the private-eye tradition of Raymond Chandler.  For years, he made life unbearable for killers — and his superiors.  Now, after years of not following police protocol, practice or politics, he’s a civilian.

And he doesn’t like it.

Now (in the latest installment in the series, published late last year) he’s just banging around Los Angeles, not caught up in the traffic he watches wend down through the hills below his house.  Killers are still out there, and he can catch them, quote.

Enter The Lincoln Lawyer, Harry’s half-brother, Mickey Haller.

The opposite of Harry, he doesn’t give a hang if the guy is guilty, he’ll get him off.  This time, however, he needs Harry’s help, because he actually has a client he doesn’t think did “it,” that is, murder anyone, in spite of ironclad DNA evidence.  He baits the hook, and Harry goes for his line.

Of course, Harry finds clues that other investigators don’t count as important — the sound of car doors slamming, a broken wristwatch and other small pieces of a puzzle that won’t go together to prove the guy did it.  The one thing Harry can’t find is The Crossing, the point where the victim and the supposed murderer met.  Meanwhile, Harry becomes a marked man the closer he comes to the real killers.  Before long, Harry has a solution, but the way Haller handles it makes him uncomfortable with being on the “dark side,” as he used to call it.

And he doesn’t like it.

We don’t either.  Harry and Haller working together doesn’t quite make it: Haller’s a glorified cameo to give Bosch a reason to do his thing, it takes too long to get into the story over Bosch’s backpedalling, and Haller’s bad habits don’t hold up well in the light of Harry’s hard-boiled pursuit of truth.  Let’s hope Harry can work his way back into the real pursuit of truth through the Police Department — or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

 

 

 

 

 

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Putting down roots

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD. By Tracy Chevalier. Penguin Audio. Read by Mark Bramhall, Hillary Huber, Kirby Heyborne and Cassandra Morris. 9 hours; 7 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Viking.

edgeI regret to say that I have not read any of Tracy Chevalier’s previous novels, a situation I intend to remedy. If you’re hoping for a review that places her latest novel in the context of her others, weighing against, say Girl With a Pearl Earring, you won’t find that here.

I had to judge At the Edge of the Orchard solely on its own merits, and this novel has plenty to recommend it.

This is a historical novel divided into two distinctly different parts, separated by a gap of 15 years and most of the continent that was growing into the United States. Both settings – the Black Swamp of northwest Ohio in the 1930s and the California Gold Rush country in the 1850s – are frontiers, though in very different ways, and Chevalier does a fine job of describing ways of life that most of us don’t learn much about in history classes.

Part one is the story of James and Sadie Goodenough, who left Connecticut with their brood of children and headed west. A younger son, James was not destined to be able to make much of a living back home. They set down roots where their wagon got stuck in the mud, and there they tried to establish themselves as farmers so they could claim the land they were homesteading. One of the requirements was to establish an orchard of at least 50 trees, something that James dearly wanted anyway. He loved apples with a passion, and had even brought cuttings from trees that his family back east could trace to England.

The Goodenough family found life in the swamp harder than they had ever imagined. The swamp always seems to be trying to reclaim the land, and in summers, it becomes such an unhealthy place that the family expects the death of a child or two each year. One of their few outsiders they ever see is John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed.

Frustrated by struggles they have no hope of escaping, James and Sadie sink into a pattern of battling each other. Things only get worse as Sadie increasingly finds solace in drinking applejack. Ulimately, a bad situation becomes much, much worse.

Fast-forward 15 years to California, where the Goodenough’s youngest child, Robert, is a 24-year-old making his way in life. Robert is mostly a loner, a man of few words, and Chevalier’s story reflects the way he keeps things to himself. For a while, this second part of the book seems unconnected to the first. We don’t know why Robert left home at such an early age or why he has never tried to return. We learn that he has written occasional letters to his siblings, and that he has not heard back from them.

Gradually, we learn bits and pieces about where he has been and what he has done. He’s worked various jobs before finally lucking into one that suits him: collecting seeds, seedlings and saplings of trees – especially redwoods and giant sequoias – for a naturalist who sells them to people in England who want to create exotic gardens.

Even more gradually, we learn what happened when he left the Ohio swamps. Slowly and carefully, Chevalier brings the two parts of the story together, until an unexpected visitor arrives and the pace picks up.

This is not an easy book to read. Chevalier has done her research thoroughly, and she writes a grim and sometimes violent story.   But the novel grows on you and takes hold, until you must know what happens to Robert and the few people he lets himself care about.

The history in this novel is fascinating, especially the story of how those who “discovered” the giant trees in the 1850s dealt with their find.

Trees – first apple trees, then the giant trees of California – are central to the story, in themselves and also as metaphors. Ultimately, the book has much to say about human families, and, to use one of those metaphors, how something fresh and good can be grafted onto what has come before.

This audio presentation of At the Edge of the Orchard, with four readers presenting different points of view, works especially well.

 

 

 

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Overcoming great odds

World War II continues to be an endlessly fascinating subject for those who love history. Paul O’Connor takes a look at a new book about the last major Nazi offensive.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

ARDENNES 1944, THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE, By Anthony Beevor. Penguin Audio. Read by Sean Barrett. 14 hours, 35 minutes. $22.50. Also available in hardcover. 480 pages. Viking Adult. $35.

ardennesWith the exception of only the Normandy landings and the battle to break out of the beachhead there, no American battle in the European theater of World War II remains as much in our contemporary discussion as The Battle of the Bulge.

How were the allies so unprepared for the massive German counterattack through the Ardennes Forest on Dec. 16, 1944? How did allied intelligence miss the presence of such a large German force? How could U.S. 1st Army Gen. Courtney Hodges have been so clueless both before, and for many hours after, the attacks began, and why were allied forces to miserably thin at exactly the spot where German forces had invaded the Low Countries in 1914 and 1940?

And, finally, how did Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower restrain himself in dealing with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery?

Into all of those questions wades noted WW II historian Anthony Beevor with a book that makes the description “spectacularly detailed” seem wanting.

Beevor can’t answer the intelligence questions. No one has been able to do so since the battle. Extraordinary German efforts to keep their secret worked only to a degree, but the allies missed key clues. He does, however, lay out in precise detail the predicament the allies faced at the end of 1944.

The allies controlled a Northern European front from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Although American replacements were flowing across the Atlantic and the French were back in the battle, there still weren’t enough men, especially in battle-tested divisions, to give each mile of the front the manpower it deserved. In addition, Hodges was churning up U.S. lives at an horrendous pace in the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, and Gen. George Patton was doing the same along the U.S. 3rd Army’s Front.

The intra-allies war for supplies, which had to be trucked hundreds of miles, also meant that no commander had the resources he said he needed.

Beevor writes mostly from the macro viewpoint. His is mostly a history of generals and large units. But “mostly” is the key word there. If this history is to stand out from others it will do so on the strength of the author’s details for smaller operations.

The Battle of the Bulge was won because small groups of American forces held key pockets of real estate during the initial German onslaught. Here and there, they blocked crossroads, bridges or fords fit for armor just long enough for the Americans to reorganize in the rear. It seems that every skirmish, in every hamlet, gets a rich accounting. We don’t learn many of the stories of the individual soldiers who fought these battles, not in the way we would in a Stephen Ambrose history, but we do learn how many Panzers they destroyed, how they did it and what it cost the Germans in their desperate race against time.

This presents a problem in the audio format. Unless one memorizes the geography of the Ardennes region, visualizing the relative placement of each such town and villa, the listening is confusing. If you listen, as I do, on long drives, it is near impossible to see the broader battle as it would be seen in a hardcover with maps.

Beevor makes two points that I had not read before. The first is that the battle, which turned out to be the bloodiest of the war in terms of U.S. casualties, significantly weakened not only Hitler’s ability to defend his western front, but also his eastern defense. Stalin launched his winter offensive just as the allies were relieving Bastogne and reasserting their offensive. German forces that had been moved from east to west, and then been chewed up by the Americans, were not available to slow the Soviet drive to Berlin.

His second point is more a suggestion. It is possible, Beevor posits, that Montgomery suffered from Asperger’s disease. We didn’t know much about it in 1944 but we do now, and Montgomery demonstrated many of the symptoms.

Regardless of his condition, by the end of 1944 Montgomery was a danger to the allies. He’d nearly failed at Normandy, did fail in Operation Market Garden, and he was a dangerous distraction to Eisenhower at the Bulge. It was delightful hearing Sean Barrett’s British voice say as much.

  • 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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Lifestyles of the rich and criminal

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FAMILY JEWELS. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $35. Also available in hardback from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

stoneStuart Woods cranks his Stone Barrington thrillers out pretty quickly. This one is, if I count correctly, No 37. Family Jewels, with some interesting plot twists and a fascinating historical object at its center, should please Woods’ fans.

For detective/thriller fans who somehow are not familiar with this best-selling empire: These books are pure escapism, in the midst of settings most of us can only dream about. Barrington, a former New York police detective, is now a lawyer who’s incredibly wealthy and incredibly well connected – emphasis on incredibly. He’s friends with many people in high places, including the president of the United States. In his private plane, he jets around the world, able to stay at his choice of his own posh houses and estates or those of his friends. Beautiful, accomplished women fall into bed with him at a moment’s notice, all in a civilized and sophisticated way, of course, with rarely a hint of complication. And although he’s now a lawyer rather than a cop, his travels and associations regularly take him into the midst of crime, intrigue and danger.

If you enjoy reading not just a mystery/thriller but also one that describes the rich and famous living lives that even they rarely experience, you will enjoy these books. If you want something a little closer to reality, or with more depth and character development, you need to look elsewhere.

For what they are, these books are entertaining. This one, as is often the case, works especially well as an audio book, an amusing distraction when, for example, traveling. The plot moves quickly, from the time a very wealthy woman, Carrie Fiske, shows up at his law office wanting protection from her ex-husband. Oh, and a new will might well in in order, too.

Naturally, Stone must spend a weekend with Carrie at one of her mansions, all in the name of getting the job done, and there he stumbles upon a murder. That’s only the first murder in what becomes a complicated plot that’s not nearly as predictable as it first appears. As the action mounts, Stone uncovers interesting secrets as well as valuable treasures.

 

 

 

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Rough winds and murderous seas

My partner for this review is my younger son, a U.S. Navy officer who has served two deployments aboard Navy ships and is now an instructor in seamanship and navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson and Lt. Samuel F. Brinson

THE ADEN EFFECT. By Claude Berube. Naval Institute Press. 260 pages.

AdenThis novel, first published in 2012, is a great find for fans of contemporary thrillers, especially those having to do with the military and international affairs. It’s a special treat for those who are interested in America’s Navy and modern adventures at sea.

The Aden Effect is great find for two main reasons: One, this is a good read, well written, fast moving, tightly plotted, intelligent and with engaging characters and plenty of action. Two: It’s the first of a series, and the second one is already in print. (A review of No. 2 will be coming soon.)

The author, Claude Berube, knows his material. He’s taught history at the Naval Academy, where he heads the Naval Academy Museum (if you haven’t visited the museum, you should). He’s worked for the office of Naval Intelligence and on Capitol Hill, and he has deployed to the Persian Gulf as an officer in the Navy Reserve.

He also has a good imagination, and he’s a fine writer.

Berube’s book is as up to date as today’s headlines. As the book opens, pirates are terrorizing the seas off the Horn of Africa, and the U.S. and other navies have their hands full trying to protect international shipping.

C.J. Sumner, who recently took over as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, is under pressure from Washington to negotiate access to oil fields on the island of Socotra and to persuade the Yemenis to help in the fight against the pirates. Finding the going tough, C.J. decides to press an old friend into service to help her. That old friend is Connor Stark, a former naval officer who, after a dishonorable discharge, has become a mercenary living in Scotland, where he’s tentatively beginning to make a new life for himself.

Sumner needs someone who can get things done, and someone who knows the dangerous area in which she is working. She believes that her old friend Stark is her man, so she pulls strings to have him recalled to active duty as her defense attaché. Stark isn’t happy about this interruption to his new life, but he answers the call. We don’t know the details of why Stark was kicked out of the Navy, but as the story develops, we begin to get some hints.

Things, of course, are never quite what they seem, and Berube introduces plenty of complications into this tightly packed story. Back in the United States, Daniel Golzari, a Diplomatic Security Agent, finds more than he expects when looking into the death of a college student in New England who was the son of a State Department official. Golzari uncovers an illegal trade in khat among Somali refugees, with some ruthlessly murderous people involved.

Golzari’s investigation leads him to a Yemeni shipping company owned by a prominent member of the ruling family, someone with whom Stark is working.

When Golzari and Stark butt heads in the course of their separate missions, they immediately dislike each other. But events force them to work together, however unwillingly.

Berube deftly works a lot of action into this relatively slim novel, including sea battles with pirates and a rescue by a U.S. Navy ship whose crew is struggling under a questionable captain.

The plot, too, is intricate, with the mingled investigations leading to unexpected places.

The action, plot, well-described setting and interesting characters – including some of the Navy personnel – would make for an entertaining read on their own. The book is also rich with pressing international issues, such as China’s efforts to assert dominance in the region, piracy, the drug trade, competition for oil, and political corruption.

And the book has something else that lifts it above most other thrillers: thoughtful questions about right and wrong, justice and legality, and when breaking or at least bending the rules might be the most patriotic and moral course of action. For all its action and intrigue, this is a book with depth. Reading it brings to mind the work of another thriller author whose work was first published by the Naval Institute Press: Tom Clancy.

Berube handles his material well, without letting the intricacies and details slow the plot. His depictions of what happens on a U.S. Navy ship are, for the most part, spot on. He uses quite a few Navy acronyms and other terms, but usually does a pretty good job of giving enough explanation to help out the landlubbers among his readers.

The story leaves us ready for the next adventure, and, fortunately, that book is already available. Stay tuned for the next review.

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Man’s best friend, explained

Getting a dog to lie still for an MRI is a daunting task. Trying to explain dogs’ love for humans may be an even greater one. Paul O’Connor’s latest listening adventure has been an audio book that tackles those challenges.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

HOW DOGS LOVE US: A NEUROSCIENTIST AND HIS ADOPTED DOG DECODE THE CANINE BRAIN. By Gregory Berns. Narrated by L.J. Ganser. Audible.com. 7 hours and 41 minutes. $12.57.

DogLoveDoes Dexter really love me?

Of course he does. Look at how he wags when I get home, or how he follows me around the house at night, even coming up to the man tree house to watch hockey games with me. He’s lying by the window, soaking up the sun right now as I write only 15 feet away.

But does he really love me, understand me, or has he just figured out that I’m the guy who feeds him twice a day?

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns set out to answer a number of questions about dogs and how their brains work, mostly whether our dogs love us. A long-time researcher on the operations of the human brain, he went to work on his terrier mix mutt Callie, using the facilities of Emory University.

This is a fun listen, one very suited to a long afternoon ride in heavy traffic when you’re already missing the family member you had to leave at home with a dog sitter.

Here’s the challenge Berns faced: Find a way to get Callie into an MRI machine and train her to stay perfectly still for about 20 seconds. Given that the machines make a racket and dogs seldom stay still while awake, it was a challenge.

The book is the story of how Berns and his research team designed their project, how they trained Callie and other dogs to cooperate, where they succeeded and where they didn’t.

At the same time, it is the story of the Berns family’s love of their dogs and of the beneficial effect that the research project had on the author’s underachieving middle-school daughter.

For dog lovers, there are a number of ah-hah moments, the times when a new method succeeds in moving the research forward. (We might all learn a thing or two about training our dogs.) The book also serves as an illustration of how scientists conduct neuroscience research.

Even at just under eight hours, the book seems a little long. There’s a lot of stuff that a stronger editor would have condensed. And the narrator’s performance is grating at time, mostly when mimicking the silly dog talk Berns used on Callie. (OK, I talk the same way to Dexter, but no one hears me while stuck in D.C. traffic.)

As for the central question of the book, you shouldn’t have to ask. Of course they love us. You just have to read the book to learn how and why.

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Who we were, who we are

It’s worthwhile to learn history, and to learn from history, and especially, as Paul O’Connor observes, to see how yesterday’s mistaken attitudes persist today.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE BROTHERS: JOHN FOSTER DULLES, ALLEN DULLES AND THEIR SECRET WORLD WAR. By Stephen Kinzer. Read by David Cochrane Heath. Blackstone Audio. 13 hours, 28 minutes. $14.95 (Audible.com)

Americans want to think better of out 20th century history than our adversaries portray it, to deny Soviet charges of imperialism, Chinese allegations of hegemony, and Cuban characterizations of us as the neighborhood bullies.

Such a disposition will be hard to maintain for anyone who reads Stephen Kinzer’s 2013 history of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, the immensely powerful brothers who controlled the U.S. Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency during much of the Eisenhower administration and who jointly waged a war, mostly kept secret from the American public, against nations across the globe.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles had been raised in a family tied closely to the American international establishment, and they both worked as prominent lawyers in New York. They used their political connections to serve their clients in ways that would constitute illegal conflicts of interest today.

In the wake of World War II, the brothers were well situated to play major roles in America’s relations with the world. Allen Dulles had been a successful intelligence agent during the war, and John Foster Dulles was recognized as one of the Republican Party’s leading minds on foreign affairs.

Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952 propelled the brothers to power, and they used it with brutal and myopic determination.

John Foster Dulles was an ardent advocate of global corporatism – the belief that small countries must oblige the interests of large international corporations. He operated with Calvinist certainty, especially regarding American exceptionalism, the belief that America is blessed with permission from God to run the world.

Allen Dulles, although sharing his brother’s political views, was in personality the complete opposite of his restrained brother. A social butterfly, charming story teller and mischievous cad, his skills as an intelligence agent were undeniable, but he was a terrible administrator, an inadequacy that would cost the U.S. dearly many times, especially in 1961 in the Bay of Pigs operation.

Once in office, the two often bypassed regular channels to conduct secret operations that served their paranoid view of the world. In Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Indochina, The Congo, Cuba and other countries, they fomented rebellion and pursued the interests of their global corporate friends.

The Dulles brothers failed to understand what was becoming the post-colonial world that followed WW II. As nations freed themselves from the yokes of England, France, Holland and Belgium, and attempted to assert domestic control of foreign corporations on their soil, they sought to develop their own national identities. They preferred neutralism in the Cold War between the Soviet and Western blocs. But the Dulles brothers said that those who were not with the U.S. were against the U.S.

In one nation after another, the brothers saw sincere nationalist movements as communist insurrections, sometimes, as in Indonesia, despite forceful protestations, by these countries’ leaders, of affinity for the U.S. and the West. And once a Dulles enemy, any such country could count on U.S. interference in their domestic affairs, including the arming and bankrolling of insurrections.

Kinzer doesn’t lay all the blame on the brothers. He clearly states that they were carrying out Eisenhower’s vision of how to conduct world affairs. And, in a spectacular closing chapter, Kinzer places the Dulles brothers in the context of American 1950s insecurity.

Unfortunately, the Dulles mindset persists today, fueled by politicians who tell the gullible Right that the U.S. can and should always have its way when dealing with other nations, that compromise is not necessary. Other countries should bend to our will.

This well researched and argued 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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Too close for comfort

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DEEP BLUE. By Randy Wayne White. Penguin Audio. Read by George Guidall.  8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

You’d think that, having written 22 crime novels starring Doc Ford, Randy Wayne White might be running out of plot ideas. After all, how many dangerous situations can a marine biologist living at a quirky South Florida marina get into? Even if that biologist used to be some sort of top-secret government agent and still disappears mysteriously from time to time on some sort of mission?

But you would be wrong, as Deep Blue, the 23rd book in this lively series, proves admirably. If anything, this is one of the best all-time Doc Ford novels. White is clearly on top of his game and on top of what’s going on in this dangeorus world of ours, whether it be the realm of terrorist violence or that of the latest in high-tech threats.

As the book opens, Doc sets off on what should be, for him, a fairly routine secret mission. He’s after an American working with ISIS, with the assignment of making sure this assassin doesn’t kill anyone else. The job takes him away from his home and lab at Dinkin’s Bay on South Florida’s Sanibel Island, where the odd assortment of residents and hangers-on who make up his community are counting down, jovially, to Christmas.

Once in Mexico, however, Doc finds that things begin to go wrong, in a complicated way with repercussions beyond even his wary imaginings.

Doc is usually able to compartmentalize, to keep the jobs he occasionally embarks on separate from his life with his friends at Dinkin’s Bay. This time, however, he’s aroused the ire and interest of an evil genius who is all too capable of taking the fight to Sanibel Island, even into the homes and private lives of Doc and his friends.

This fast-paced book is full of plot twists, surprises and suspense. It will have you reading way past bedtime, or, if you’re listening to George Guidall’s masterfully read audio version while you drive, speeding past your turnoff because you just have to know what happens next.

The suspenseful plot is bolstered by thorough research into state-of-the-art threats.

In Deep Blue, Doc must use all his wits to protect not only himself, but also the people he cares about and the casual way of life they all treasure. He makes it to the end of the book, but he’s ready for whatever he must do next – and so are we.

 

 

Posted in Audio Books, Popular fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment