Category Archives: Bio/Autobio/Memoir

Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan

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Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized mundane.

These days, we can clearly see the fallout from decades of declining public trust, the result, at least partly, of so many years of the press being undermined and of undermining itself. What is that fallout? Americans no longer share a common basis of reality. That’s dangerous because American democracy, government by the people, simply can’t function this way. It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

My parents were both readers, which should come as no surprise. Mom, a homemaker, consumed a steady stream of mysteries her entire life, as least the part of it that included me. Dad worked at night, but would set aside some reading time every day, particularly on his days off. He was not much of a book reader, though. His preferred material was the newspaper. Well, newspapers. There was a flood of them coming in, the New York Post (pre-Rupert), the Daily News, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, the Telegram, the Times. Not saying that we had all of these coming in every day, but all were well represented. And if you wanted to see what he was reading, it was not hard to figure it out. Next to his living room easy chair there was always a stack. If it were books, today, we would call it a TBR. But the stack had a life of its own, and a sorting that was inexplicable. He must have read a fair bit as he kept the pile from overwhelming the room, hell, the entire apartment. I cannot say that I was a big news-reader as kid. More sports than anything. I wanted to keep up with the teams I cared about, the baseball Giants, the Yankees, and eventually the Mets.

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Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS

I was very fortunate to have been raised in an environment in which reading the news, every day, was just a normal part of living. Even though my parents were not well-educated—Mom finished high school. Dad did not.—they valued staying informed. There was no talk at home about reporters slanting stories, although I am sure they did. The news was like the water supply, presumed to be potable, and universally consumed. But there was one exception. It was not until later in life that I began to read the news with a more critical eye, but even as a kid, I could see that sportswriter Dick Young was a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, flogging right-wing bile that had nothing to do with sports. I guess that was my first real exposure, consciously anyway, to journalistic political bias. Young was not a person who could be trusted, even though he held a very public position at a major New York newspaper. I doubt, if Dad were still with us, that he would accept what he’d be reading today as revealed truth. But back then, mostly, though, we took the news at face value.

Margaret Sullivan, a doyen of media self-reflection, has not been happy with the face value of American news reporting for quite some time. The news media, in her view (and in the view of anyone with a brain) is far too concerned with the horserace aspect of political competition, far more than they are with the actual policy substance that differentiates candidates and parties. One of the most respected journalists of her generation, having led a major regional newspaper, and having held two of the most widely read and respected writing posts in contemporary American journalism, she has had a ring-side view of this in action. She worked for thirty-two years at The Buffalo News, rising to be their top editor and a vice president. In 2012 she moved on to be the Public Editor at The New York Times, and in 2016 headed to The Washington Post as a media columnist in the high-powered Style section. She retired from that gig in August of 2022, and is currently teaching part time at Duke while working on a novel.

She won a Mirror award for her writing on Trump’s first impeachment, served on the Pulitzer Prize board, and was a director of the American Society of News Editors. She has also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous sexism, as she worked her way through her share of glass ceilings. She knows a thing or two, because she has seen a thing or two. Newsroom Confidential is not just a personal memoir of her career in the newsroom, but a look at the changes that has taken place in journalism and in our view of journalism over her career.

It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

The high point may have been the inspirational impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Nixon administration’s corruption, Watergate most particularly. It was seeing that journalism was a way to impact the world, to improve it, that moved her to pursue a career in the news. We follow her through the career travails at The Buffalo News. She tells a bit about her full dedication to work conflicting with the demands of having a family, exacerbated by having to cope with the extra resistance of gender bias in her struggle to advance her career.

But while Buffalo may have occupied the bulk of her professional life, it does not occupy a proportional piece of the book. The real meat begins with her move to The New York Times. As Public Editor, her role was to be an outsider, looking critically as the work of Times reporters. Not exactly a recipe for making friends. Most editors were not particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or not. The sexism presented straight away, as a Times obituary about a very accomplished woman opened with a description of her cooking skills. Her job was not only to write about wrongs, but to offer recommendations for improvement. It would prove a Sisyphean task. She writes about her personal conflict in taking on a Public Editor investigation into a story written by a Times mentee of hers. While it may have been an important and high-profile position, it was a very tough job at times.

One thing I learned back in my twenties is that it is not only the content of articles that merits attention. Their placement is also significant, as is the heading given to those articles. These are often provided by an editor, not the reporter, and are often misleading. Sullivan writes about the most egregious example of the Times doing this, in its treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The paper saw Clinton as a “pre-anointed” candidate, presuming that she would win. They wanted to be seen as tough, and were very defensive about being seen as too soft on Democrats.

The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently. It shouted one from the rooftops, and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands. With a little more than a week to go before the election, the Times published a story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” If anyone was concerned about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin, their fears might be put to rest by that soothing headline, though the story itself was considerably more nuanced. Even that reporting, not very damning for Trump, appeared on an inside page of the paper, a far cry from the emails coverage splashed all over the front page, day after day. We now know, of course, that Russia had set out to interfere with the election, and did so very effectively.

That sort of selective exposure was not exactly new. The Times had been aware, back when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, of a domestic spying program. They sat on the story for thirteen months, finally posting the information when the reporter who dug up the story threatened to scoop them with his book. The potential impact was considerable, as revelation of the program during the campaign might have impacted the election result. One collateral result of this was that when a later major leaker of government secrets was looking for a trustworthy outlet, the Times was bypassed, because there was no confidence that the paper would publish the material. The Washington Post and The Guardian received the materials instead.

She writes about the transition of the news business from paper to digital, the decline in readership overall, and the national decline in news outlets, noting some who railed against the change, and others who saw the future early on and climbed on board.

Sullivan’s real reporting bête noire is excessive reliance on anonymous sourcing, aka access journalism. Sure, there are instances in which getting on-the-record quotes is impossible, or even dangerous. But the over-reliance on anonymity has resulted in reporters being played for fools, being fed self-serving tidbits, often intended to dishonestly manipulate public perceptions, often aimed at using reporters as ordnance in internecine political battles, and far too frequently serving no public good. The classic example of this was Judith Miller at the Times, reporting inaccurate intel given to her by members of the Bush Administration in order to build support for a war that was already being planned.

In the digital age another piece of this is a compulsion to generate clicks. This creates an incentive for reporters to sometimes hold on to maybe-less-exciting policy stories in favor of pieces that are likely to raise a reader’s temperature. The old trope If it bleeds it leads has been translated into the age of digital journalism as favoring heat over light.

It is not really breaking news why people’s trust in journalism has declined. The news was once considered a realm in which professionals investigated and reported stories with an eye toward what was considered newsworthy. But with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine regarding broadcast news, the gates were opened for full-time partisanship in the airwaves. The concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has diluted, if not entirely removed, local news reporting. Now, many local stations broadcast what their distant owners tell them to, including the airing of political puff pieces for favored candidates and issues, and political hit pieces for those they oppose. With so many places in the nation reduced to a single newspaper or local news channel, local news has become more and more a mouthpiece of national corporate views. And a reduction in the availability of diverse perspectives.

The rise of the internet has had a huge impact on how we receive and perceive news. But a major reason, maybe the biggest, for a loss of faith in the media is the relentless assault on mainstream media by the right. Bias in the media is hardly new, but the unceasing emotionally-charged torrent of lies from right-wing media has raised dishonesty to a new, steroidal level. Every article that portrays Republicans or their supporters in a less than flattering light is attacked as evidence of some imaginary left-wing bias. One result of this relentless attack machine is that many outlets have become reluctant to report actual facts, lest they be attacked as biased. The Times, for example, took years to finally come around to describing Donald Trump’s blatant lies as just that. Can you fully trust a paper that is so weak-kneed about reporting the facts? Even regular Times readers must wonder. And, of course, those on the right now attack any media outlet that does not totally support the GOP party line. Even where no bias is present, many, if not all, on the right claim to see unfairness because they have been told thousands of times that such bias is always present. And the right is fond of using the threat of lawsuits to harass their targets. Trump is notorious for suing the objects of his ire, not expecting to win in court, but hoping to cost the sued large sums of money in legal fees, thus intimidating them, and, he hopes, deterring them from crossing him again. At least the Times has the resources to stand up to such bullying, but there are many media outlets that do not. Thus, MSM reporting slants away from truth.

Sullivan’s experiences writing for the Times and Post are fascinating, offering a view from inside the fishbowl, of the cultures, and some of the personalities, the battles that were fought against external attackers and the internecine conflicts that occur everywhere.

If Dad were around today, I expect he would approve of the many news subscriptions my wife and I share, the Times, the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, our local paper, et al. Our stacks of unread material may not accumulate next to chairs in our living room, but reside instead in a black hole of unread materials and a digital TBR of things we intend to get to. We have come to view news reporting with critical eyes, sensitive to biases that creep into (or are on full display) the text of pieces, aware of how those pieces are presented, where, when, and why. The sort of trust in the news that was extant in the middle twentieth century is gone. But that does not mean that all trust has been lost. For those willing to do the work, it is possible to discern good from bad, both in publications and reporters. But it takes a lot more effort today than it ever did. We are aware, as our parents’ generation was less likely to be, of a reporter’s bent. As the world has forced us to look closer at all sorts of informational input (think ingredient lists on food packages), we have become more discriminating consumers of news. This reporter can be relied on. That one cannot. The fracturing of the news into a galaxy of providers has made it easier than ever to choose only the news that that fits preconceived perspectives. But it is not exactly a news-flash is that it remains possible to find quality reporting. It just takes a bit of digging.

As for Sullivan’s look back at her career and the shift in public perceptions, it is revelatory, informative, and engaging. If you know anything at all about Sullivan’s writing, this will not come as a shock. The bad news? The decline in public trust of media is very real, as is the reduction in local reporting. The good news? (I believe) people are becoming more aware of bias in supposedly neutral news media. Trust in journalism can be rebuilt, but it is clear that many outlets rely on readers/watchers accepting their reporting with uncritical eyes. After you read Newsroom Confidential you will have a greater sense of what the journalistic challenges are today, both for readers and producers of news. You will not be able to say That’s news to me.

Review posted – 11/18/22

Publication date – 10/18/22

I received an ARE of Newsroom Confidential from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair and balanced review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an ePUB.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Margaret Sullivan’s FB and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff

Items of Interest from the author
—– Sullivan pieces for the Washington Post –
—– Sullivan pieces for the New York Times
—–The Washington Post – If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto an adapted excerpt
—–Literary Hub – Veteran Reporter Margaret Sullivan’s Favorite Books About Journalism

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Journalism, Non-fiction

The Lonely Stories – edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

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When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself. – from the CityLit interview

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. – Orson Welles

Welles was wrong. No one is born alone. We all emerge from mothers. Even so-called “test-tube” babies gestate in and emerge from a woman. Dying alone is a lot easier to manage, particularly when the passing occurs away from medical care. But, for most of us, even in the age of COVID, there are people likely to be in attendance, even if they are not necessarily the people one might have preferred. We are social creatures from birth. That said, I do take Welles’ point that we are isolated bits of consciousness trapped inside a meat sack.

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Natalie Eve Garrett – image from her site

We are the only true witnesses to our lives, present for every moment, every experience, every feeling. Even our closest friend(s), lover(s), shrink(s) or interrogator(s) can only know a sliver of the totality of us. So what? Is this something we require? Does this mean that we are doomed to aloneness forever? The best we can do to share that self with others is to select subsets, parts of ourselves, immediate needs, likes, reactions, interests, artistic expressions, and feelings to share, to connect our solo consciousness with the greater humanity within which we live, to demand responses, connections back, human links. What if that desirable steady-state of exchange is disrupted, or never settles in at all, for reasons internal or external? CAN ANYONE OUT THERE HEAR ME?

But we do have ways of connecting. Communication, if we can muster that. Words, gestures touch, other non-verbal modalities. We are largely telepaths, communicating our consciousness to others through the magic of sight and sound. No station-to station hard wires required. And yet, even given this miracle within us, we can, and often do, experience (suffer from) loneliness. Is loneliness a failure of communication, a reaction to external stimuli (rejection), a mechanism, like pain, that tells us that something needs attending to, or something else entirely? Maybe being lonely is just a garden variety human feeling that we all have from time to time, but that some have in dangerous abundance, in a way like cell growth and replication, which is desirable, versus out-of-control cell growth, which is cancer.

In The Lonely Stories, editor Natalie Eve Garrett has called together twenty-two writers of note for their lonely stories, memoir items, not fiction. The quote at top tells us that she was interested in looking at a few things; alone time as burden, blessing, or out of reach, longing for solitude, and feeling isolated in our lives among others. We learn more in that CityLit interview:

Even though it’s called The Lonely Stories, I definitely wanted it to encompass facets and permutations of being alone, including joy in solitude, how solitude can be replenishing and healing. So it felt like maybe sometimes I nudged things more in one direction or another and it was really important to me that the book tease out the distinction between the two, because loneliness is being defined as a lack, whereas solitude is kind of the art of feeling at home with oneself. There’s a quote for me that a friend reminded me of, that loneliness is a poverty of self and solitude is a richness of self. I feel that really nicely addresses the paradox of how being alone can be both maddening and joyful.

The tales told here cover a range. All of these stories, none longer than eighteen pages, present complexity. No simple woe is me, I’m feeling bad, will be found here. Sure, there is a bit of surviving the breakup of relationships, licking wounds, but there are universal concerns, at the very least concerns that very many of us share.

Megan Giddings writes about self-empowerment, allowing herself to function, to survive when alone, whether in a hostile social world or a physically perilous situation. Several writers tell of feeling isolated, lonely and alone in relationships. Imani Perry writes of the singular loneliness of the hospital room, and of how many of those offering help do so out of social obligation, without substantive intent or understanding. Maggie Shipstead writes of the up and down sides to experiencing the beauty of nature while alone. ( The natural beauty I saw while walking my dog—the frozen ponds and snowy beaches, the tender pale sunsets over whitecapped ocean—sometimes felt irrelevant, even discouraging, without anyone else to stand there with me and say something like, Wow, so pretty) She and others write about the joys of being alone. Sometimes coping with loneliness requires some creativity. One writer tells of concocting imaginary helpers to beat back the night. COVID figures in some stories, one in a particularly dramatic way. Of course, one can choose to be alone and find that it is not quite what one had hoped for. Lev Grossman’s story of setting out to make his fortune as a writer was hilarious, and hit very close to home. ( I can’t overstate how little I knew about myself at twenty-two or how little I’d thought about what I was doing.) Of course choosing to be alone works out just fine for Helena Fitzgerald and Melissa Febos. A question is raised; Can succeeding at aloneness spoil you for togetherness?

There are stories that will make you weep, stories that will make you laugh out loud, stories that will make you think, and stories that will make you feel. There are stories that deal with racism, alcoholism, marriage, rejection by one’s only parent, the loss of one’s parents to age and/or dementia. Three writers tell of the experience of immigration, one of multiple immigrations, and how being the outsider can stoke the engines of loneliness to a high intensity.
One of the most powerful pieces here is Yiyun Li’s story of public and private language. (Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. ) Anthony Doerr goes from a consideration of his on-line addiction to a concern about whether he actually exists at all. We think of writing as a solitary undertaking, yet some of the stories here point to writing as a way to create connections with other people.

One take on dream interpretation is that every person, every character in a dream is some manifestation of yourself. The experience of reading The Lonely Stories was a bit like that for me. In so many of the tales I could see myself in the experience of the story-tellers. I imagine that will be the case for many of you as well.

An aspect of this book that was, and probably should not have been surprising, (given the quality of the writers. Really good writing often has this effect.) was that I felt prompted to recall personal memories of loneliness, and it took some effort to turn that spigot off after only a dozen. I could have easily made this review a platform for my lonely stories, which would have been a disservice. (What if I alternate one of mine with one of theirs? went my inner gremlins. Wisdom won out. You have been spared.) It is the sort of book that would serve well as a springboard for a writing class. Everyone has felt lonely, if not all the time, then in some particular moments or parts of our lives. How about you tell of a time when you were lonely? The tales here will prompt you to think about a time, or many times when experiences, when feelings you had might fit quite nicely into a collection like this.

One thing I wished for was more of a look at definitions, where loneliness ends and being alone begins, for example. Where is the line between solitude and isolation? Where does the need to communicate run into a need for privacy? A three-dimension spectrum of solitude (not to be confused with the Fortress of Solitude) might be an interesting way to visualize aloneness, with the X-axis reflecting the degree of solitude, measured, I guess, in interactions per day in person or via comms, the Y-Axis indicating how much personal choice is involved (probably not much for a prisoner, some, for most people, more for a single person of means) and the Z-axis reflecting how a person feels about their XY intersection, with end-points at going insane and I’m good. Add color if a fourth dimension is needed. But maybe that would be in a psychology book, and not a memoir collection, so fine, whatever. There was an opportunity missed here in the selection of writers. Loneliness is a particular factor with older people, yet the oldest (that I could determine from simple Google searching) contributor is 60. Not a single fully vested Social Security recipient in the bunch, at least as far as I could tell.

Bottom line is that, while the title of this book may suggest it could be a downer, The Lonely Stories is anything but. It not only connects on an emotional level, but offers a wide range of insight into the human condition. You will laugh and cry, and maybe feel prompted to consider loneliness, or lonely times in your own experience. One thing is for certain. However you react to this book, you will not be alone in that reaction.

It’s the worst loneliness, I think, the loneliness we feel among those we feel we should be most like. Our tribe turns out not to be quite our tribe.

Review posted – April 29, 2022

Publication date – April 19, 2022

I received an ARE of The Lonely Stories from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. I felt less alone while reading the book and writing about it.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Catapult – Natalie Eve Garrett Wants Us to Feel Loneliness Without Shame by Tajja Isen
—–CityLit Project – Navigating Solitude with Kristen Radtke, Natalie Eve Garrett, & Nguyen Koi Nguyen

Songs/Music
—–Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
—–Paul Anka – I’m Just a lonely Boy
—–B.J. Thomas – I’m So lonely I Could Die
—–Charlie Haden – Lonely Town
—–Bobby Vinton – Mr. Lonely
—–Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
—–Gilbert o’Sullivan – Alone Again
—–Carousel (the film) – Rogers & Hammerstein – Claramae Turner – You’ll Never Walk Alone
—–Les Miserables – Lea Salonga (concert performance) – On My Own

Items of Interest
—–Garbo – ”I want to be alone”
—–Roots of Loneliness – Solitude Vs. Loneliness: How To Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely by Saprina Panday
—–The
loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe – complete text
—– Frontiers in genetics – Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation and Molecular Underpinnings

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

The King’s Shadow by Edmund Richardson

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As he left Agra behind, Lewis had no way of knowing that he was walking into one of history’s most incredible stories. He would beg by the roadside and take tea with kings. He would travel with holy men and become the master of a hundred disguises. He would see things no westerner had ever seen before, and few have glimpsed since. And, little by little, he would transform himself from an ordinary soldier into one of the greatest archaeologists of the age. He would devote his life to a quest for Alexander the Great.

There’s an old Afghan proverb: ‘First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.’ He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.

You have probably never heard of Charles Masson. At the time of his creation in 1827, no one else had either. Nor had his creator. For six long years, Private James Lewis had endured soldiering in the military force of the East India Company (EIC) in sundry nations and city-states, in what is now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He had hoped for a life better than what was possible in a squalid London. Dire economic times had driven large numbers of people into bankruptcy and poverty. And if they were already poor, it drove them to desperation. The government’s response was to threaten to kill those protesting because of their inability to pay their debts. There had to be a better option somewhere, anywhere. But it had turned out not to be the better life that he had hoped for.

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Edmund Richardson– image from RNZ

Lewis suffered from the multiple curses of curiosity and intelligence. He had tired of the often corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited officers and officials above him, and knew he would not be allowed to leave any time soon. When opportunity presented, Lewis and another disgruntled employee took off, went AWOL, strangers in a strange land. And in the sands of the Indian subcontinent, having fled across a vast no man’s land, feverish, desperate, and terrified of being apprehended by the EIC or its agents, Lewis happened across an American, Josiah Harlan, leading a small mercenary force in support of restoring the king of Afghanistan, and the adventure begins. Lewis vanished into the sands and Charles Masson was born into Lewis’s skin.

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Josiah Harlan, The Man Who Would be King – image from Wiki

A ripping yarn, The King’s Shadow (Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City in the UK) tells of the peregrinations and travails of Lewis/Masson from the time of his desertion in 1827 to his death in 1853. It will remind you of Rudyard Kipling tales, particularly The Man who Would Be King. The real life characters on whom that story is based appear in these pages.

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Dost Mohammad Khan. – considered a wise ruler by many, he was devilishly dishonest – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

It certainly sounds as if the world James Lewis thought he was leaving in London, a fetid swamp of human corruption, cruelty, and depravity, had followed him to the East. There is an impressive quantity of backstabbing going on. Richardson presents us with a sub-continental panorama of rogues. Con-men, narcissists, spies, the power-hungry, the deluded, the pompous, the vain, the ignorant, and the bigoted all set up tents here, and all tried to get the best of each other. There are political leaders who show us a bit of wisdom. More who know nothing of leadership except the perks. They all traipse across a land that Alexander the Great had travelled centuries before.

His quest would take him across snow-covered mountains, into hidden chambers filled with jewels, and to a lost city buried beneath the plains of Afghanistan. He would unearth priceless treasures and witness unspeakable atrocities. He would unravel a language which had been forgotten for over a thousand years. He would be blackmailed and hunted by the most powerful empire on earth. He would be imprisoned for treason and offered his own kingdom. He would change the world – and the world would destroy him.

The American mercenary with whom Lewis/Masson joined forces was a fanatic about Alexander, seeing himself as a modern day version. He taught Masson about his idol and in time Masson took the obsession on as his own, albeit without the desire for a throne that drove his American pal, reading up on histories of Alexander.

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Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835 – the restored king of Afghanistan who served as a British puppet) – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

You will learn a bit about Alexander, of whom stories are still told. He may not seem so great once you learn of his atrocities. The British government and the East India company tried to keep up, demonstrating a capacity for grandiosity, cruelty and inhumanity, whilst also armed with alarming volumes of incompetence and unmerited venality

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Alexander Burnes – image from Wiki

In his travels, aka invasions, conquests, and or large-scale slaughter, Alexander established a pearl necklace of cities along his route. Some were grander than others. One, in Egypt, is still a thriving metropolis. Most vanished beneath the drifts of time, whether they had been cities, towns, villages, or mere outposts. But Charles Masson was convinced that one of Alexander’s cities could be found the general area in which he was living. The evidence on which he based this view was cultural, appearing in stories, legends, and local lore, but then more concrete evidence began to appear (coins) and appear, and appear.

Time and again, Masson is dragged away from his work, and time and again he finds his way back, his passion for unearthing the lost Alexandria becoming the driving force in his life. Surely, if his own survival were his highest priority, he would have sailed for home a long, long time before he finally did. His work was hugely successful, all the more remarkable because he was a rank amateur. Much of Lewis’s work, thousands of objects and drawings, is still on display at the British Museum. He was a gifted archaeologist, and made several world-class advances. These include discovering a long-lost Alexandrian city and using ancient coins he had discovered, that contained Greek on one side, and an unknown language on the other, to decipher that language. And significantly modify the historical view of Alexander’s era.

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Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

The King’s Shadow is an adventure-tale biography, which focuses on Masson’s life and experiences more than on Alexander. Sure, there is enough in the book to justify the UK title, but barely. There is a lot more in here about him trying to secure the connection between his head and his shoulders, threatened by a seemingly ceaseless flood of enemies. He is a remarkably interesting character, which is what holds our interest. He has dealings with a large cast of likewise remarkably interesting characters, all of which serves to keep us interested, while passing something along about what life in this part of the world was like in the early 19th century. (Remarkably like it is today in many respects)

There are few downsides here. One is that there is a sizeable cast, so it might be a bit tough keep track of who’s who. That said, I was reading an ARE, so there might be a roster offered in the final version. I keep lists of names when I read, so managed, but that it seemed needed should prepare you for that. Second was that there were times when events went from A to D without necessarily explaining the B and C parts. For example, there is an episode in which Masson is sent along with a subordinate of Dost Mohammad Khan’s, Haji Khan, to extract taxes from a recalcitrant community. But Haji has no intention of returning, yet somehow Masson is back in Kabul in the following chapter. Really, did he escape? Did he get permission to leave? How did the move from place A to place B take place? In another, a military attack fails, yet there is no mention of why the fleeing army was not pursued. Things like that.

There are multiple LOL moments to be enjoyed. Not saying that there is any chance of passing this off as a comedy book, but Richardson’s sense of humor is very much appreciated. You may or may not find the same things amusing. His descriptions are sometimes pure delight. An itinerant Christian preacher arrives at the palace of Dost Mohammad Khan, intent on converting him. The preacher had encountered serial misfortunes in his travels and had arrived in Kabul stark naked. Richardson refers to him at one point as “the well ventilated Mr Wolff.” He also describes Masson arriving late at night at the home of Rajit Singh, the local maharaja, only to find an American in attendance, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Another tells of a message Masson left for future explorers at what was then an incredibly remote site. LOL time. As much as you will frown at the miseries depicted in these pages, you will smile, maybe even laugh, a fair number of times as well. I noted five LOLs in my notes. There are more than that.

Charles Masson, despite the lack of appreciation and recognition he received, made major contributions to our knowledge of the Alexandrian era. Edmund Richardson fills us in on those, while also offering a biography that reads like an Indiana Jones adventure. Richardson has a novelist’s talent for story-telling. His tale shows not only the power of singlemindedness and passion, but the dark side of far too many men, and some unfortunate forms of governance. It is both entertaining and richly informative. Bottom line is that The King’s Shadow darkens nothing while illuminating much. Jolly Good!

This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth – and what happens when you get there.
Had he known what was coming, Lewis might have stayed in bed.

Review posted – April 8, 2022

Publication date – April 5, 2022

I received an ARE of The King’s Shadow from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review and a couple of those very special coins. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

From Hazlitt

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He’s currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.

The King’s Shadow is Richardson’s third book.

Interviews
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria with Violet Mueller – re prior book
Tttpodcast.com
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria – audio – 48:03
—–Listen Notes – Edmund Richardson, “Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains” (Bloomsbury, 2021) – with David Chaffetz and Nicholas Gordon – audio – 36:14
—– Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City | JLF London 2021 – Edmund Richardson with Taran N. Khan – video – 45:32 – begin about 3:00
—–ABC – Deserter, archaeologist and spy – the extraordinary adventures of Charles Masson – audio – 55:28 – with Sarah Kanowski

Item of Interest from the author
—–A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Charles Masson
—–Encyclopedia Iranica – Charles Masson – a nice history of his life and accomplishments
—–Josiah Harlan
—–Alexander Burnes
—–Gutenberg – The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling – full text
—–Wiki on the story – The Man Who Would Be King

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Filed under Afghanistan, Archaeology, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, England, History, Reviews, World History

Fiddling While America Burns – I Alone Can Fix It – Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and closely studied many presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, said, “I have spent my entire career with presidents and there is nothing like this other than the 1850s, when events led inevitably to the Civil War.

Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II,” Milley told them. “Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”

I did not intend to write a full review for this one. It came out in July. I did not start reading it until August, and did not finish reading it until late September. That is what happens when I read a book on my phone, in addition to the two I am usually reading, one at my desk and the other at bedtime. But I was going to offer a few thoughts. Typed a line or two and then my fingers started pounding away at the keyboard pretty much all on their own. I astral projected myself to the kitchen to whip up a sandwich, make some tea and when I returned they were still banging away. I am sure there is a lesson in there about compulsion.

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Phil Rucker and Carole Leonnig – image from Porter Square Books

There have been, currently are, and no doubt will continue to be many books written about the Trump years. I Alone Can Fix It tracks the final year of Trump’s presidency, notes that he had faced no major problems until 2020, and then proved incapable of managing the ones that presented, seeking only his own aggrandizement, while clinging to power at all costs.

If you read books of this sort all the time, if you read The Washington Post, The New York Times, or other world newspapers, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other at-least-somewhat-responsible news sources, much of what is in this book will not be all that surprising. In tracking Trump’s 2020+, I Alone Can Fix It offers inside looks at the actions and discussions, the conflicts and challenges inside the White House, almost day-by-day. Much that is detailed here has been reported before. And a lot of the new material has been outed in leaks to newspapers and TV political shows. Interviews with the authors chip away even more at the new-ness of the material, if you are coming to it any time after its initial week or two of release.

Trump’s rash and retaliatory dismissal of [Acting DNI Joseph] Maguire would compel retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write: “As Americans, we should be frightened—deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.“

I am betting it is not news to you, for example, that when 1/6 was happening, Liz Cheney screamed at Trump toady Jim Jordan (who, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, had participated in a coverup of sexual abuse of wrestlers within the program) “Get away from me. You fucking did this.’” Or that Trump wanted to use the army to put down demonstrations in American cities. Or that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley was concerned that Trump wanted to use the American military to keep himself in office.

Carol Leonnig (National investigative reporter focused on the White House and government accountability) at the Washington Post and Phil Rucker (Washington Post White House Bureau Chief) are top tier political reporters. They sat with many of the principals in the administration, including Trump, and amassed a vast store of materials in pulling this tale together. It is a horror story. In doing so they have unearthed considerable detail that did not make it to the pages of daily reporting. It is a portrayal of Donald Trump as someone who is generally disinterested in the well-being of the nation, concerned only for himself, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one with eyes to see and an ability to reason.

I take issue with the clearly self-serving nature of some of the interviews. Spinners are gonna spin and twirling is the name of the game in Washington politics. Bill Barr, for example, attests to his devotion to the law. How Leonnig and Rucker allowed such tripe into the book is beyond me. This from a guy who routinely politicized the Department of Justice to subvert justice, seek punishment of Trump enemies (otherwise known as truth-tellers) and neglect to trouble those accused and even convicted of crimes. Puh-leez. He also pretends that he was practically dragged from retirement to serve as AG when, in fact he had actively campaigned for the job. Sure wish they would have called him out on that steaming pile of poo.

Esper, Milley, and Barr—were tracking intelligence and social media chatter for any signs of unrest on Election Day. They and their deputies at the Pentagon, Justice Department, and FBI were monitoring the possibility of protests breaking out among supporters on both sides. The trio also were on guard for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act in some way to quell protests or to perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election. This scenario weighed heavily on Esper and Milley because they controlled the military and had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Their duty was to protect a free and fair election and to prevent the military from being used for political purposes of any kind.

Plenty more seek to burnish their records (the phrase polishing turds pops readily to mind) for history, eager to remove the fecal stench of attachment to the most corrupt administration in American history. I could have done with a bit more of Leonnig and Rucker pointing out for readers where the spinning ends and the truth begins.

One of the heroes of this story is General Milley. Were his actions not confirmed by multiple other sources, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was polishing his own…um…medals in reporting to Leonnig and Rucker his role in staving off Trump’s desire to use the military to suppress domestic dissent, and in working with other defense leaders, legislative leaders, and foreign military brass to help prevent what could easily have become a shooting war with China. But what he told them checks out. The man deserves even more medals, pre-shined.

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General Mark Milley – image from New York Magazine

One of the things that is most remarkable for its absence in this book is mention of Afghanistan. Really? That deal with the Taliban was not worth including? It makes sense, though. The MSM paid little attention to it when the deal was made, and largely ignored the fact that the actual Afghani government was not a party to the talks. They were more than happy, though, to jump on Biden’s back for implementing the shitty treaty by actually getting our troops out of an endless no-win war. Trump was rarely mentioned, and the awfulness of the deal, THAT TRUMP HAD NEGOTIATED, rarely merited serious coverage. Disappointing that Leonnig and Rucker seem to have skipped over this in their book. It was significant.

It is an avocational hazard for those who consume political news in mass quantities that when there are so many books out about aspects of the same thing, namely the Trump disaster, it can be difficult to impossible to keep track of where particular stories originated. Also, each of the Trump era books is heralded in the press in the weeks leading up to publication with the juiciest bits from the opus du jour. The cacophony of revelations can make it impossible to discern the altos from the tenors from the sopranos from the basses. It all becomes one large chorus. Did I read about that in this book or that one, or that other one? Maybe I heard a piece about it on CNN, or BBC, or MSNBC, or one of the traditional network news shows.

And no sooner does one finish one of these books that there are ten more peeping for attention like baby birds in a nest far outnumbering the worms their poor parents are able to scrounge. Thus, we get by with the news and political talk show interviews and daily early peeks at the books, hoping to be able to read at least enough of these things to get a clear picture.

Like AI learning systems, there is a constant feed of information. At some point (although hopefully one has already achieved such a state) one internalizes the incoming stream, somehow manages to sort and categorize it, finds some sort of understanding and can use the collective intelligence to face new questions, problems, and situations with an informed base of knowledge, and generate a wise, informed decision, or opinion. At the very least we should have a sense of where to look to check out the latest claims and revelations.

“A student of history, Milley saw Trump as the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having this stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of twentieth-century fascism in Germany were replaying in twenty-first-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

To that end, the Leonnig and Rucker book is a welcome addition to the ongoing info-flow. We live in dangerous times, and they offer some of the nitty gritty of how the sausage is made, how the perils are generated, and sometimes averted, who the players are and how they acted in moments of crisis.

In the long run it probably does not matter if you heard the relevant information in this book, in a Woodward book (I am currently reading Peril) or in one or more of the gazillion others that have emerged in the last few years. What matters is that we get the information, that it is brought to us by honest, intelligent, expert reporters and/or participants, and that it is presented in a readable, digestible form. Leonnig and Rucker are both Pulitzer winners. Keep your eyes out for any irregularities, of course, but these two are reliable, trustworthy sources. Add their work to your data feed and keep the info flowing. We need all the good intel we can get to counteract the 24/7/365 Republican lie machine and to face down the next coup attempt. Knowledge is power. Acquire it. Learn from it. Remember it. Use it.

Review posted – 12/3/2021

Publication date – 7/20/21

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Carol Leonnig’s WaPo profile and Twitter pages

Links to Phil Rucker’s Instagram, WaPo profile, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Face the Nation – “I Alone Can Fix It” authors say former president learned he was “untouchable” from first impeachment – video – 07:46
—–The Guardian – Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by David Smith
—–Commonwealth Club – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker: Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Yamiche Alcindor – video – 57:01
—–NPR – Fresh Air – Investigation finds federal agencies dismissed threats ahead of the Jan. 6 attack – audio – 42:00 – by Terry Gross – more about Leonnig’s book Zero Fail but worth a listen

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol– By Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti
—–Washington Post – The Attack: Before, During and After – Reported by Devlin Barrett, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. — Written by Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman — Visuals and design by Phoebe Connelly, Natalia Jiménez-Stuard, Tyler Remmel and Madison Walls

Items of Interest from the authors
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Non-fiction, Public Health, True crime

A Legend in His Own Time – Blood and Treasure by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

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Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. He maintained that dealing with belligerent Native Americans, whether via combat or negotiation, was for the most part a matter of luck and instinct. His rescue by Simon Kenton was evidence of the former, his quick thinking on the Licking River, the latter. He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism. Now, it was as if the patience he had honed over a lifetime of stalking game through the deep woods was in anticipation of this moment. He would need that gift in the coming months.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite possessions was a bona fide, official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. No actual raccoons suffered to create that bit of headgear. Disney had made several live-action films in the 1950s (TV mini-series’ really) celebrating Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett may have actually worn one that wild creatures suffered to provide. Daniel Boone preferred beaver hats. Although Crockett and Boone were born a half-century apart their deaths were separated by a mere sixteen years. But to young TV viewers in the 1950s the two seemed inseparable, played on the screen by the same actor, Fess Parker, wearing pretty much the same costumes, no doubt saving Disney some wardrobe expenses.

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Fess Parker – image from the California Wine Club

The memories I retain of the shows are much-faded, but I doubt much has been lost. Civilized American good guy frontiersmen (Crockett) or pioneer (Boone) doing battle with hostile indigenous residents, and battling corruption among his own people. Standard TV fodder of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the usual doses of humble wisdom, and little mention made of the genocide that was being foisted on sundry North American native peoples.

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Bob Drury – image from Macmillan

It was the chance to fill that cavernous memory hole with some actual information, on at least one of Fess Parker’s greatest roles, that drew me to Blood and Treasure. On finishing the book, it was possible to drop a coin into that chasm and hear it hit bottom, after a reasonable wait, much better than hearing nothing prior.

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Tom Clavin – image from The Southampton Press

There is history and there is Boone. It is the information on both that is of great value here. Those of my generation at least know the name Daniel Boone, even if our image of him may have been the product of Disneyfication. I expect there are many, born later, to whom the name Boone is likelier to summon images of a baseball figure, a town or city by that name, or a brand of sickly alcoholic beverage. He was a fascinating real-world character, whatever hat he chose to wear. The authors report in the C-Span interview that, unlike Parker’s cinema-friendly 6’5”, Daniel Boone was actually 5’7” or 5’8,” a typical height for a man of his times. He had several cousins, however who were over six feet and Boone was concerned that a raccoon skin cap would make him look even smaller. He favored a felt hunter’s hat that was made of beaver.

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A child’s “Davy Crockett” hat – image from the Smithsonian

The character himself is fascinating, presenting both as a man of his era, and a person with some 21st century sensibilities. Daniel Boone was born in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the 6th of eleven children, to Quaker immigrants from England and Wales. The family ran afoul of local public opinion when one of their children married outside the religion, while visibly pregnant. When another, Boone’s brother, Israel, also married outside the faith, and dad stood by him, Pop was excommunicated. Daniel stayed away from the church after that. Three years later the family moved to North Carolina. While Boone carried a bible with him on his long hunts, considered himself a Christian and had all his children baptized, he was not exactly a bible thumper. He was open to other ways of viewing the world. This willingness to learn would serve him well. Boone was fascinated by and respectful of Indian ways as a kid. He spent considerable time with Native Americans, studying their culture, and learning their woodland hunting, tracking, and survival skills. He learned the birdsongs of local avian life, studied the use of plants for medicinal purposes, learned Indian crafts. He was a proficient enough hunter that by age twelve he was providing game meat for his family. His gift for frontier life was clear very early on. In a way he was a frontiersman savant, like those 7-year-olds who play Rachmaninoff as if it’s no big deal. By fifteen he was considered the finest hunter in the area.

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Daniel Boone by Alonzo Chappel – circa 1861 – From the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia

He had considerable respect for his wife, Rebecca, maintaining impressive wisdom about their relationship. After he had been away on a long hunt, for a year, for example, he returned home to be presented with a new daughter. He could count high enough to figure that the child was not his. Rebecca told him that she had thought he was dead (not an unlikely excuse at the time) and had fallen for someone who looked very much like Daniel, his younger brother. Daniel coped, noting with an impressive sense of humor that he had married a full-blooded woman, not a portrait of a saint, raised the girl as his own, and was grateful that Rebecca had at least kept it in the family.

He confronts many personal challenges over the years, losing several children (he and Rebecca had ten) to illness or Indian attacks. The book opens with the torture and murder of his teenage son, James. He is called on time and time again to work with militia or government military units. He served with the British in their conflict with their French rivals for North American influence. He was a part of many of the conflicts that took part in the western colonial lands in the late 18th century. I had not heard of any of these. Drury and Clavin point out their often very surprising significance.

Boone was not initially cast to star in this novel. Drury and Clavin, with more than a few history book pelts in their saddlebags, had written about the wars waged on the plains Indians, many of whom had been pushed west by the advancing white invaders, and wanted to trace that process back. The book covers, roughly, the period from the 1730s,when Boone was born, to 1799, when he moved his family west to Missouri. The book was supposed to be about how the Indians had been driven out of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In doing their research, however, Boone kept turning up, a Zelig-like character, involved in many of the seminal events of his time. Served with a British regiment? Check. Served with George Washington? Check. Developed the primary trail through the Cumberland Gap? You betcha. He even established a town that would be named after him, Boonesborough, and led the defense of a western fort, the loss of which might have changed the outcome of the American Revolution. The man really was a legend in his own time. A natural leader, he partook of many of the important battles that occurred between settlers, through their militias and their English backers, and both the native people they were attempting to displace and their French allies. He functioned as a diplomat as well, respected by many of the Indians and seen as a man of his word, not a common attribute at the time. And so he became the narrative thread that pulled together a large number of related, but disconnected parts.

The frontier in the 18th century was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wild, Wild West was the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The English had entered into treaties with Indian tribes that basically drew a line there. We will allow our colonists to advance only so far, and no farther. The colonists, however, were more than happy to roll their eyes, mutter a “whatever” or the 18th century equivalent, and continue pushing westward, making life difficult for just about everyone. I was reminded of contemporary settlers, eager to occupy land outside their legal realm. At least some of this westward movement was driven by land speculation, including by some founding father sorts. I know it is tough to believe that real-estate developers might be anything other than sober, law-abiding capitalists, but, like the poor, it appears that we will always have them with us.

Drury and Clavin offer a look at the diverse tribes that occupied the areas in conflict, showing differences among them. One particularly horrifying episode involved a group of Indians who had converted to the Moravian faith, a sect of Christianity. They were pacifists, took up no arms, but were slaughtered anyway by a group of American Rangers in what became known as the Moravian Massacre, a shameful episode, widely talked about at the time. We also see leaders of one tribe, in negotiations, willingly ceding land to their white counterparts, when they, in fact, had no hold over that land at all. I was reminded of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan, among other places, where tribal allegiances easily trump larger national demands. Many of the most effective, and memorable of Indian leaders are shown, impressive in their tactical leadership, creativity, and tenacity.

The American Revolution was more an eastern than western conflict, but there were times when battles on the western frontier might have determined a different outcome to the colonial attempt to separate from the motherland. These were mostly, no, they were entirely, news to me.

It is in learning about so many of these turning points that the value of the book is most manifest. If, like me, your knowledge of American history has been shaped primarily by what we learned in grade school, high school, and college, and absorbed from popular culture, you will get a very strong sense of just how much we do not know, and had never suspected. In a way, it was like opening up the back of a mechanical watch and seeing all the intricate gears at work, impacting each other to produce the simple result of indicating the time of day. Getting there is not so simple. Nor is truly appreciating how 21st century America came to be what it is today. This book offers an up-close look at some of those gears.

My reading experience of this book was wildly divergent. I found it to be a very difficult read for the first half, at least, dragging myself through anywhere from ten to thirty pages a day for what seemed forever. Even then, I recognized that there was a lot of valuable information to be absorbed, so stuck with it. It is true that there are a lot of characters passing through these pages, a bounty of place names, a plethora of battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that were significant and interesting. But it felt so overwhelming that the TMI sirens were blaring repeatedly.

But at a certain point, some of the characters, through repeated appearance, became recognizable. Oh, yeah, I remember him now. Wasn’t he the one who…? Yep, that’s the guy. At a certain point it was not a duty to return to the book, fulfilling a felt obligation, trying to learn something, but a joy. Quite a switch, I know. But as I read the latter half of the book, it became clear that this was not just a rich history book, but quite an amazing adventure story, a saga, filled with deeds heroic and dastardly. There are many compelling characters in these pages, and so many ripping yarns that reading this became like sailing through something by George R. R. Martin. Taking the analogy to the next step, I have zero doubt that, with the many compelling narratives at play in this book, it would make a fantastic GoT-level TV series. It certainly has the blood and gore to play at that level, the territorial rivalries, the vanity, backstabbing, the double-dealing, the battles, sieges, murders, tortures and war crimes, but also the underlying content to give it all a lot more heft. This is how nations are created. This is how they grow. These are the people who paid the price for that creation. These are the decisions that were made, the promises broken and kept, the lies told, the excuses offered. Sorry, no dragons, or other mythical beasts, but there is, at the core, a bona fide legend. (James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohican was inspired by Boone rescuing his kidnapped daughter, Jemima) Thankfully, it will require no blood for you to check this one out, and only a modest amount of treasure.

Like the Cherokee, the tribes north of the Ohio River strongly suspected that America’s War for Independence was being fought over Indian land despite high-minded slogans about taxation without representation. It was the Shawnee who recognized the earliest that this internecine conflict among the whites could only end badly for the tribe should the rapacious colonists prevail. Native American support of the Crown, in essence, was the lesser of two evils. It was not the British, after all, who had begun desecrating Kanta-ke with cabins and cornfields.

Review posted – May 21, 2021

Publication date – April 20, 2021

I received this book as an e-pub from St Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for a fair review. No raccoons, beavers, or other wildlife were harmed providing headgear used during the writing of this review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Drury’ personal site, and to Tom Clavin’s personal and FB pages

Items of Interest
—–C-Span – Interview with Drury and Clavin – video – 50:08 – This one is all you will need
—–Gulliver’s Travels – Boone’s favorite book
—–National Museum of American History – The saga of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap
—–Wiki on the Moravian Massacre
—–Wiki for Last of the Mohican
—–Gutenberg – full text of Last of the Mohicans

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Reviews

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

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Like a bird flying repeatedly into a pane of glass, I kept seeking Heathcote. Each time I reached out for him, the crack yawned open just a little wider, until eventually. I hurtled straight through.

How do you let go of someone you never had?

Charlie Gilmour was living in southeast London when his partner’s sister came across an abandoned chick.

Magpies leave home far too soon—long before they can really fly or properly fend for themselves. For weeks after they fledge their nests, they’re dependent on their parents for sustenance, protection, and an education too. But this bird’s parents are nowhere to be seen. They’re nor feeding it, or watching it, or guarding it; no alarm calls sound as a large apex predator approaches with footfalls made heavy by steel-toed boots. It could be no accident that the bird is on the ground. If food was running short, a savage calculation may have been performed, showing that the only way to keep the family airborne was to jettison the runt.

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From infancy to adulthood – From Charlie’s eulogy for Heathcote –photos by Polly Sampson and Charlie

This small bird with a huge personality caught his attention. Charlie’s struggles to care for, to raise, this raucous magpie parallels his growth as a person, and his lifelong struggle to get to know the man who had abandoned him as a chick months-old baby, his father, a well-known poet, artist and playwright. Heathcote Williams, for a brief period in his life, had likewise nurtured a corvid, a jackdaw, bequeathed at a country fair by a pair selling pancakes, fulfilling
an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.
Whispering secrets in your ear

Charlie seizes on this connection when he discovered the poem his father had written about the experience.

“Initially it was just meant to be a light-hearted story about this magpie that came to live with me, roosted in my hair, shat all over my clothes and stole my house keys. When my biological father died, though, it became a much, much more complicated story. Honestly, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite far into the writing process.” – From the Vanity Fair interview

Williams was quite a character, a merry prankster, a Peter Pan sort, grandly creative but not the best at responsibility, able to charm all those around him, doing magic tricks, persuading people that he really was there for them, while never really being able to handle the demands or needs of the people who needed him most, leaving domestic carnage in his wake. Charlie had never really understood why, one day, he suddenly just got up and flew the coop on him and his mother, Polly Samson. This memoir tracks Charlie’s quest to make sense of the father he never really knew.

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Charlie Gilmour and his beloved magpie Benzene – image from Vanity Fair – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie lucked out in the parent department in another way. When Mom remarried, it was to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. None of David’s music career is addressed here. But he is shown as a stand-up guy, a supportive, understanding, and loving father who takes Charlie under his wing by adopting him.

Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on. – from the Public reading Room piece

We follow the growth of Charlie along with Benzene. It is made clear early on that a magpie presents both challenges and delights that are uncommon in human-critter relations. Tales of bird behavior that might have one pulling out hair in clumps (which might actually be useful, as the bird stores food in Charlie’s hair) are told with warmth, and, frequently, hilarity. My favorite of these occurs when Benzene is under the sway of a nesting instinct, having settled on the top of the fridge as a place on which to construct her DIY nest. At a birthday party for her:

My dad strums her a song; my younger sister reads a poem; and a family friend, a venerable literary academic named John, unwillingly provides the sex appeal. This rather reserved man of letters is too polite to do anything but quote Shakespeare as Benzene places her birthday bluebottles and beetles lovingly up his sleeve and tugs the hem of his trousers insistently nestward.

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Heathcote Williams planning one of the Windsor free festivals in his Westbourne Park squat, London, in 1974 – Image from his obit in the Guardian – Photo by Richard Adams

Charlie’s nesting life is also under development. After he marries his partner and they talk about growing their family, he must confront his fears of being a parent himself. Nature vs nurture. Will he be the absentee his biological father was, or the rock-solid mensch of a parent he lucked into in David Gilmour? Clearly a concern that requires some resolution before going ahead and fertilizing an egg. The issue extends to a question of mental illness. Heathcote had been ill-behaved enough to get institutionalized. It was certainly the case that his behavior often crossed the line from eccentric to certifiable. Did Charlie inherit his father’s proclivities? Is genetics destiny? Charlie had committed some behavioral excesses of his own, consuming vast quantities of illegal substances, which fueled some extremely bad behavior. This landed him on the front pages of the local tabloids, swinging from a beloved and respected war memorial during a protest, and then in prison.

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Charlie with David Gilmour – image from The Guardian – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie takes us through the attempts he made for many years to connect with Heathcote, but his father offered only teases of interest, always managing to disappear before Charlie could latch on, a hurtful bit of legerdemain.

In addition to the title, the names, which largely focus on feather development, given to the five parts of the book, set the tone. All the expected imagery is used throughout, including fledging to nest-building, to mating behavior, to molting, egg-laying and so on. It could easily have been overdone, but I found it charming. In rooting about in Heathcote’s history Charlie offers us, in addition to his personal tale, some of Heathcote’s outrageous adventures from back in the day. Charlie’s personal growth as a person adds heft.

I was reminded of a few other memoirs. In Hollywood Park, musician and writer Mikel Jollett tries, a lot more successfully than Charlie, to connect with his missing father, confronting issues of nature vs nurture. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk looks at her training a goshawk as a coping mechanism to help in grieving for and remaining connected to her late father, similar in feathery subject matter, although it is quite a different book. Alan Cumming, in Not My Father’s Son, looks at the damage his father had done to him, trying to figure out how this mercurial man had become so cruel, as Charlie tries to figure out how his mercurial, if not overtly cruel, father had become so nurturing-phobic. John Grogan’s Marley and Me looks at the difficulties of caring for a difficult pet, and the corresponding rewards.

It is not necessary to love the memoirist to enjoy their book, but that is not an issue here. Charlie behaved rather poorly, both as a child and an early twenty-something, but learned his lesson, grew up, straightened out, and became a likable, decent sort, a very good writer who is very well able to communicate the struggles through which he has grown. It is easy to root for him to get to the bottom of what made Heathcote tick, and to find a way to make peace with what their minimal relationship had been. His writing is accessible, warm, moving, and at times LOL funny. You will need a few tissues at the ready by the end. Just for padding your roost, of course.

In the Archive, the sour smell of mold is somehow even more overpowering than it was at Port Eliot, as if the material is rebelling against the light. At the end of each day I come away filthy, sneezing, and feeling lousy—but I keep going back for more. I need this. My approach is far from methodical. I attack the body of words and images like a carrion bird, looking for the wound that will yield to my prying beak, the original injury that unravels the man. I peel back layers of skin, pick over the bones, snip my way to the heart of the matter. A patchwork biography begins to emerge; a rough story told in scavenged scraps. It feels almost like stealing, like robbing the grave, except it’s not the treasure that interests me. Heathcote’s glories get hardly a glance. It’s the traumas I’m searching for. Answers to those same old questions. Why does a person disappear? What makes a man run from his child? Why was Heathcote so afraid of family? What forces guided that nocturnal flight in Spring so many years ago?

Review posted – February 19, 2021

Publication date – January 5, 2021

I received an ARE of this book from Scribner in return for an honest review. No feathering of nests was involved. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC for bringing this to my attention. You know who you are.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–The One Show – The One Show: Elton John meets Charlie Gilmour
—–David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’ – Charlie and David Gilmour on their relationship and history
—–Bookpage – Charlie Gilmour: From feathers to fatherhood by Alice Cary
—–Vanity Fair – Birds of a Feather. Interview with Charlie Gilmour by Chiara Nardelli Nonino

Songs/Music
—–Donovan – The Magpie
—–The Beatles – Blackbird

Items of Interest from the author
—–Vogue – What Raising a Magpie Taught Me About My Famous, Troubled Father
—–Waterstones – a promo vid for the book – 1:52
—–5×15 Stories – Featherhood – a story about birds and fathers
—–The Guardian – ‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back
—–Public Reading Rooms – Heathcote Williams: Eulogy to the Dad I never knew
—– Charlie’s articles for Vice

Items of Interest
—–BBC – My Unusual Life | The Man Who Lives With a Magpie – a short doc on Charlie
—–Wiki on Pin feathers
—–The Guardian – David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
—–Straight Up Herman – an arts journal blog – Being Kept by a Jackdaw – Heathcote Williams’ poem

Other memoirs of interest
—–Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
—–H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—–Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
—–Marley and Me by John Grogan

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Digging for Truth – We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

book cover

I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

book cover

What do you do when you’re a scared-shitless kid that’s been faking it for so long? You bury it. You polish your smile and study until you can’t even focus your eyes. You buy yourself a big red sweater with an S across the chest, just like the superchild you once were. You try to prove them all wrong. You attempt to outrun it. But then you get injured and your mom goes insane and a kind man in a blue shirt with a trim black beard uses the words. Emotional abuse. Crossing physical boundaries, Trauma. Neglect. I feel like a blank space covered in skin.

Who is that masked man? If all of your life you’ve worn a mask, what do you see in the mirror? A reflection of someone you aren’t. How can you know who you really are, or who you might become, if you see your world through cut-out holes? And the world never gets to see you, never gets to relate to you, the real you, behind your facade. Kinda tough to live your best life that way. Kinda tough to live a real life that way. And how did that mask get there in the first place? And how did it impact the nuts and bolts of your life? And is there any hope you can tear it off without losing the you beneath, pull it off slowly, maybe un-sew it from your face, a stitch at a time?

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Mikel Jollett – image from his Twitter

Who is that masked man, the kid from the cult, the pre-teen looking for thrills, the teenager who nearly killed himself, the long-distance-runner, the Stanford student, the substance abuser, the serial spoiler of relationships, the music-world journalist, the successful rock musician, the wonderful writer? Or are they all just different masks?

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Synenon leader Charles Dederich – Image from San Diego State University

The impetus to write the book was a recent one. Jollett had been writing and performing music with his band, Airborne Toxic Event, since 2005, a step sideways from his intention to pursue a writing career, and a closely linked redirection from his work as a music journalist.

Then, in 2015, his father died, and Jollett says he was overwhelmed with grief and confusion. “I wondered why it hit me so hard, so I went back into my past—that day my mom took us out of the cult. I went in to lockdown and started to write.” He stayed with it for three years. – from the PW interview

There was a lot to write about. This coming of age story begins when he was five. Jollett had the bad luck to be born into a bad situation. His parents were members of Synenon, a place that came to public prominence in the 1960s in California, a goto drug rehab community for a while. People charged with substance-related crimes were often sent there by California courts. It probably did some good in the beginning, but as the leader of Synenon, Chuck Dederich, became more and more unhinged and power mad, his not totally crazy community became a totally crazy cult. Not the best start for a new life. One of the rules in Synenon was that children were to be raised communally. So, even though mom and/or dad might be around, they were not the ones providing care. Have a nice life.

“It was an orphanage!” Grandma screams. “That’s what you call a place where strangers raise your kids!” Grandma says that mom doesn’t even know who put us to bed or who woke us up or who taught us to read. She says we were sitting ducks. (We did play Duck Duck Goose a lot.) “You made them orphans, Gerry!” Grandma will point at us from her chair as we pretend not to listen.

We follow Mik’s journey from his earliest memories of Synenon, raised by people other than his parents until Mom flees with him and his older brother in the dark of night. Most orphanages do not send goons to track down people, including children, who leave. Even out of the Synenon cult, Mik, his brother, Tony, and his mom, Gerry, were not safe. Mik gets to see a fellow “splittee” get beaten nearly to death by Synenon enforcers outside his new home.

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Facing your dark side – image from Narcissism and emotional abuse.co.uk

If this decidedly unstable beginning was not enough of a challenge, his mother was not the best of all possible parents.

Is that a mom? Someone who you can’t ever remember not loving you? I know Mom doesn’t think that’s what it is but I do…She tells me I’m her son and she wanted kids so she wouldn’t be alone anymore and now she has us and it is a son’s job to take care of his mother.

Gerry was just a weeeee bit narcissistic, to her children’s decided disadvantage. It would take Mik years to learn that the usual arrangement was that parents take care of children.

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Image from collectiveevolution.com

Jollett takes us through many stages of his life, successfully modulating the narrative to fit the age he is portraying in each. As he grows, his awareness increases and his interests broaden. It makes him, appropriately, an unreliable narrator as young Mik does not yet have the tools to see past the misinformation he is being given.

It took my brother and I a long long time to piece together the reality that a functional adult might have about the situation, that we’d escaped a cult that had once done good things for addicts (including our father), that our mother was severely depressed, and that these experiences were very unique in some ways and quite common in others. So I wrote the book from that perspective, at least at the beginning: that of a child trying to piece together the reality of the changing world around him; because that’s how I experienced it. There were mysteries. What is a restaurant? (We’d never been in one). What is a car? A city? And, most devastatingly, what is a family? Because we simply didn’t know. – from the Celadon interview

Being born into a cult and having a depressed, toxically narcissistic mother were two strikes already, but then pop, and other paternal family members had spent considerable time behind bars, and in both his paternal and his maternal trees there was a history of substance abuse, of one sort or many. You’d think Mik was destined to wind up an alcoholic and/or a drug addict and in jail. Is genetics destiny? This is a core battle he faced in his life. Another was to come to terms with how his strange upbringing affected how he related to other human beings, particularly to women. He talks a lot about how he presented a façade to the world, while keeping his truest self well back, if he even knew his true self at all.

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Robert Smith mask – Image from funkyBunky.co

Jollett endured years of poverty, and emotional abuse. He found outlets in criminal acts and substance abuse. But he also found other ways to fill his needs and channel his creativity. A close friend introduced him to the music that would push him in a new constructive direction.

I go to a place in my head where I can be alone. Listening to Robert Smith sing his happy songs about how sad he feels is like he’s there too, like he has his Secret Place in his head where he goes and since he wrote a song about it, he’s right there in my headphones, so we’re in this Secret Place together. Me and Robert. It’s a place where we are allowed to be sad, instead of feeling like freaks of nature, us weirdos and orphans.

A major change in Mik’s life is when he begins spending time with his father, Jimmy, and his father’s significant other, in Los Angeles, first summers, then, at age 11, moving there more permanently, Gerry having moved to Oregon with the boys when they were fleeing Synenon. It is a whole new world for him there, not just offering different ways to get into trouble, but the opportunity to get to know Jimmy and his father’s family, something that was not really possible in his earliest years, particularly as his mother had portrayed Jimmy negatively.

I’d been told so many terrible things about him at a very young age. He was a heroin addict, an ex-con who’d done years in prison. He “left my mother for a tramp.” That was a common refrain. But none of it turned out to matter. He was clean by the time I was born and all I ever knew once I got to spend time with him, was this guy who would do anything for me. He was affectionate. He took us everywhere. He cared so deeply about our basic happiness. He had a great laugh and a quiet wisdom about him. He never cared what I became in life. He wanted me to be honest, to be interesting (or simply funny), and to be around. – from the Celadon interview

The emotional core of the book is connections Jollett has, for good or ill, with the people in his life, friends, and particularly family.

Jimmy was fond of betting on the ponies. He took Mik with him once he started visiting LA. Hollywood Park is the track they attended. It is where Mik has meaningful heart-to-hearts with his father. It is a place that lives in his imagination as well, a place where he can connect with his family across time. Will Mik grow up to be a ”Jollett Man,” a bad-ass tough guy who leans hard toward wildness, or something other? There are certainly strains in him that offer other possibilities. His athleticism, intellectual curiosity, academic licks, creativity, musical talent, and stick-to-itive-ness offer hope for a future different from his father’s.

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Image from The Smiths and Morrissey FB pages

As an adult, Mik finds a career in music, and gains insights into the musical creative process from some household names. He gains as well insights into his emotional state that help him understand the life he has been living. But the real core is how he got to that place to begin with.

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Image from Invaluabl.com

Jollett employs literary tools to great effect. For example, as an eight-year-old in Oregon, his family raised and slaughtered rabbits for food. In addition to this being a sign of the family’s poverty, it is clear that young Mik senses that he, too, is being raised in an emotional cage to provide sustenance of another sort. His writing is smooth and often moving. There are sum-up portions at the end of chapters that pull together what that chapter has been about. These bits tend toward the self-analytical, and are often poetic.

…music makes me feel like I belong somewhere, that this person I don’t know, the one who swims beneath his life in a dark, chaotic, unknowable place, this one has a voice too.

Mikel Jollett has written a remarkable memoir, offering not just a look at his dramatic and event-filled personal journey, but a peek out from the masks he wore to the times he lived through. While his actions and experiences covered a considerable swath, there is always, throughout his moving tale, a connection to family, to his mother, father, brother, various step-parents, his extended family, and closest friends. The power of these connections caused him considerable difficulty, but also made it possible for him to weather some major life storms. The odds are you will be moved by Jollett’s celebration of real human bonding, cringe at some of the challenges he had to endure, mumble an “oh, no,” or worse, as you see the missteps along his path, cheer for the triumphs when they come, and luxuriate in the beauty of his writing. Whatever else you may get from the book, it is clear that Mikel Jollett is unmasked as an outstanding writer. Hollywood Park is a sure winner of a read. Bet on it.

One sentence [in The Scarlet Letter] stood out to me as I read on the edge of my bed. I marked the page: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” It made me think of the Secret Place, the place I hide with Robert Smith. I know this face. I’ve learned not to tell anyone at school about Synanon or Dad in prison or…Mom in the bed staring up at the ceiling. It’s a mask, this face you create for others, one you hide behind as you laugh at jokes you don’t understand and skip uncomfortable details, entire years of your life, as if they simply didn’t happen.

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Jollett (l.), with dad Jimmy and brother Tony -image from Publishers Weekly

Review first posted – May 15, 2020

Publication dates
———-May 5, 2020 – hardcover
———-March 22, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an ARE of this book from Celadon in return for an honest review. But, do they really know who they gave this book to? I could be anyone, pretending to be anyone.

Thanks to MC, too.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page and a promotional site for the book

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Mikel Jollett Crafts a Heartbreaking Memoir of Staggering Growth by Louise Ermelino
—–Lit Hub – Sheltering: Mikel Jollett Challenges the Memoir Form
by Maris Kreizman – video – 17:58
—–Celadon – Mikel Jollett, Author of Hollywood Park, on Life Inside and Outside a Cult by Jennifer Jackson

My dad was my best friend and when he died it completely derailed my life. It wasn’t just sad, it was confusing. No one tells you that about grief. Or at least no one told me. Just how disorienting it is. And it’s probably the reason I started writing the book: because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was just baffled by how sad I was, how much it felt like the world was actually ending. I emerged from a very deep depression in which I hardly left the house for about six months. I’d put on weight, hadn’t written a word or a single song. I cried every day, and spent so much time just questioning who I was in the world without this guy who was the first person I ever trusted. And all I wanted to do was write about it because it helped me to understand it.

Songs/Music
—–Celadon – Animated Trailer for the album Hollywood Park by the author’s band Airborne Toxic Event – samples from the album songs, with animated backdrop
—–The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
———-Boys Don’t Cry
—–Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall
—–The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
———-Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
—–Jackson Browne – Running On Empty
———-The Pretender
—–The Airborne Toxic Event – Wishing Well
———-Sometime Around Midnight

Items of Interest
—–Instagram – images from the author and his band
—–The Hollywood Park Book Tour – only for ticket holders
—–The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Religion, Reviews

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

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All bullies are largely the same. They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them. I know. I’ve seen it up close.

James Comey is a lawyer, and in A Higher Loyalty he has presented a case to the jury of American public opinion. He lays out the steps of his interactions with Swamp Thing, from introduction to long-distance buh-bye. This is what happened, here, here, and there, on this, this, and that dates. This is what was said. This is what I understood those words to mean. And really, who are you going to believe, a public servant with a decades-long reputation for, among other things, honesty, or a feckless serial and possibly pathological liar?

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James Comey – image from the NY Times

One can argue that it was not Swamp Thing’s clear collusion with Russia that constituted Ground Zero for what would become, in effect, a large-scale impeachment inquiry. Given the spinelessness of GOP legislators and the toadying nature of most of Trump’s appointees, given the clear intention of the Trump administration to install such creatures in as many positions of power as possible, it is a distinct possibility that there might have been no Special Counsel investigation but for a single action, taken by Swamp Thing, and his childish inability to keep his lies straight. We would still have the Quisling sorts like Devin Nunes, who could be counted on to cover their boss’s and their own butt cheeks instead of doing their constitutionally defined job of overseeing the executive branch. The hyper-partisanship and cowardice of most Republicans in the federal government have made a laughing stock of our democracy across the planet. That would have been there in any case. But on May 9, 2017, after having failed to gain a personal loyalty pledge, Swamp Thing fired James Comey as the head of the FBI, with the laughable excuse that Comey had mishandled his job of investigating Hillary Clinton, which is not to say that Comey managed it well, of which more later, but that Swamp Thing had previously praised Comey’s actions as courageous. ( Those who support his dismissal by Swamp Thing will likely succumb to right-wing talking points, preposterous though they are, that Comey was a secret Hillary supporter, whose actions strove to bolster her candidacy. If you believe that, please stop reading now. Your brain has ceased functioning and nothing written here will make any sense to you. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.) When he subsequently admitted on a nationally televised interview that his reason for doing so was “the Russia thing,” he opened the door to a world of hurt. In the absence of the Comey firing there may never have been a Special Counsel investigation into “the Russia thing,” but by so blatantly obstructing justice by firing Comey, Swamp Thing placed the target, in flashing neon, on his own back.

That is the true starting point of Comey’s book. But, like most well written legal documents, there is considerable backstory, and in a very well written case, there is a central thrust. The tale told here is not just about his few months of interactions with the president. He offers pieces of his life story to let us know the kind of person he is, or at least the kind of person he wants us to see him as, the experiences that molded his character, the personal motivations that informed his adult decisions, and what he portrays as ethical choices made in challenging situations in his career. He wants us to understand that he believes he acted properly, both in doing what he did during the 2016 presidential campaign, and in refusing to do what the tainted president demanded of him. And, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision will be yours.

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Image from SusieMadrak.com

Here are the charges

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hilary Clinton?

Questions

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that sort of matches his suit?

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?

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Image from @dumptrump33 – Of course we may be raising our expectations a tad high for RM

As for that central thrust thing, it is alluded to in the opening quote. Comey bloody hates bullies. He had to contend with them as a not-nearly-oversized teen. He was thrilled, when pursuing his legal career, to have an opportunity to go after some of the uber-bullies of our society, members of organized crime. He was also on the scene when one of our major political bullies, Dick Cheney, tried to wrest a signature from a man in a hospital ward, just so he could continue an expiring domestic surveillance program of questionable legality. In a way, all his life had led up to his dealings with Swamp Thing, a person who is the very personification of the coward as bully. Comey knew what he was facing when Swamp Thing was elected. He hoped to be able to avoid conflicts with him, and see out his ten-year term as FBI head. He knew the odds of that happening were small.

We are offered a look into Comey’s upbringing in Yonkers, and then New Jersey.

Being an outsider, being picked on, was very painful, but in hindsight it made me a better judge of people. In my life, I would spend a lot of time assessing threats, judging tone of voice, and figuring out the shifting dynamic in a hallway or locker room crowd. Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation. Which is why bullies are so powerful, because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in.

He walks us through some of his career steps and big moments. These include the successful prosecution of a large chunk of the New York area mafia, prosecuting Martha Stewart, prosecuting Scooter Libby, and the event that made his reputation. He was the acting Attorney General at a time when the Stellar Wind program, an illegal domestic spying undertaking, according to DoJ analysis, was up for renewal. The administration needed a sign-off by the AG, and acting AG Comey refused. Getting wind that Presidential counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andy Card were on their way to the hospital to wrest a signature from the barely conscious John Ashcroft, being treated for a life-threatening condition, he dashed to the hospital himself, sirens howling and lights flashing, calling Robert Mueller, then the head of the FBI, to join him in preventing this blatant malfeasance. It is the stuff of legend. And secured him a place in the pantheon of political heroes for his courage under such withering political fire. The passage could have been written by any of today’s best-selling writers of political thrillers, leaving one breathless, even though we know the outcome. Though the broad strokes are at least somewhat familiar to folks who pay attention to the news, there are details I bet you do not know and will be very surprised to learn. The book is worth it just for that section alone.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft – image from US News

Throughout, Comey talks about trying to do the right, the moral, the ethical thing when confronted with difficult decisions. He is certainly persuasive when he writes about the lessons he has learned over his life from people he has known and respected, and from important people and writers whose work has informed his growth as an ethical person. He cites as a particular influence the writings of religious philosopher Reinhold Nieburh, someone many in government, from both parties, have looked to for inspiration. You may be surprised at some of the other people he notes as influencers.

Also a bit of a surprise is his take on various people he has been connected to, most of whom will be familiar. Rudy Giuliani, who had held the US Attorney position for the Southern District of New York when Comey was a prosecutor there, comes in for a look.

Though Giuliani’s confidence was exciting, it fed an imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted, something I didn’t realize was dangerous until much later: a leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings. Rudy’s demeanor left a trail of resentment among the dozens of federal judges in Manhattan, many of whom had worked in that U.S. Attorney’s office. They thought he made the office about one person, himself, and used publicity about his cases as a way to foster his political ambitions rather than doing justice. It was a resentment that was still palpable when I became the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan—and sat in Giuliani’s chair—a dozen years later.

Hizzoner’s fondness for the limelight has not faded a single watt. Comey also talks about his dealing with former AGs and others in government. His meetings with President Obama make for fascinating and surprising reading.

As with anyone who is presenting himself as ethical, and better than the pack in that regard, he offers up some specifics of errors he has made, including one fairly meaningless lie that he told as a young man, which made him feel particularly guilty. He points out an error of insensitivity he had made when addressing the Michael Brown case, but it is presented in such a way as to show how receptive he is to learning something new. It’s a bit like a job interview when the applicant tries to skirt the “What’s your worst quality?” question with how he works too hard for his own good. Eye roll please. Comey offers fleeting mea culpas on having an outsized ego and an eye for the dramatic, then notes several examples of what a wonderful, thoughtful boss he is. It is clear that he wants us to like, and respect him, and take his “aw, shucks,” demeanor at face value. But it is also quite clear that he is a well-armed, and well armored political in-fighter, familiar with his home turf, sharp-edged, and deft in the art of manipulation.

It is a clear thread throughout Comey’s book that his literary RPG is locked, loaded, and aimed at one Donald J. Trump. The things that disgusted him throughout his life, from childhood and in his public career are epitomized by the man who fired him for doing his job. A secondary, related, core is centered on defending his actions in 2016 and 2017, making the case that he should not have been sacked.

So what about the charges and questions?

I’m almost there. But before that, you should know that James Comey, whatever you think of him as a public official or as a political person, is a wonderful writer. He is able to paint a picture and bring you along with him with seeming effortlessness. No doubt this talent has been honed by his many years of preparing and presenting cases. This book is his case to all of us.

Ok, down to the end

—–Does Swamp Thing really run his White House as if he were a mafia don?
Really? Have you heard anything to offer a more accurate description? I haven’t. Spot on, JC, particularly given his familiarity with less powerful dons as a prosecutor in the SDNY.

—–Does a guy who’s 6’8” really think he can fade into the woodwork by getting up close and personal with White House drapery that matches his suit?
Yeah, he kinda thought he could. The drapery is taller than he is and the color matched his suit somewhat.

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Darth on Twitter had a bit of fun with this

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As you can see from this image from War News Blogspot, Comey was sure to be spotted

—–Has Comey behaved in a non-partisan manner in the jobs he has held, in the decisions he made in those jobs?
As for being non-partisan, I call BS on that. Comey is a Republican, and, while there have been notable instances in which he has risen above purely partisan perspectives, that bias has, I believe, interfered with his ability to remain consistently above the political fray. He writes, for example,

I wanted to find a way to help Bush. This man, whom I liked and wanted to see succeed, appeared not to realize the storm that was coming. The entire Justice Department leadership was going to quit, and just as he was running for reelection.

A politically disinterested official would have given such a concern zero consideration.

We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election…

Rather a false equivalence, no? It is pretty obvious how flawed the Republican candidate was, but the Democratic nominee was one of the most qualified presidential candidates in modern history. The deep flaws some insist on seeing were primarily made up of lies that had been broadcast about her for decades by a well-financed and relentless political attack machine. Like one of those augmented reality games that let you superimpose imaginary characters onto a real-world scene. (Pokémon GOP?) So BS on that, too. Opting to go public with a re-opening of the investigation of Hillary so late in the election season, against protocol, and without the prior knowledge of his AG, knowing it would likely impact the election, while simultaneously keeping under wraps the ongoing investigation of Trump for collusion with Russia was really the kicker. I believe this revealed his partisan stripes, however well he may have tried to disguise them in the tall grass of self-justification. Many will find his explanation persuasive. I am not among them. Bias revealed.

—–Did Director Comey tell the truth when he testified that the president had pressured him to drop the case against Michael Flynn?

Here is piece of how he describes that interaction

He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
At the time, I had understood the president to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.

The preponderance of news coverage, confirmed by Comey’s reporting here, makes it abundantly clear that Swamp Thing did indeed ask for special treatment for his guy, a glaringly illegal no-no. Comey was right to continue with business as usual after getting this appalling directive, which is exactly what it was.

—–Is Director Comey an egotistical prima donna who put his personal needs and perspective above the needs of the nation and his bosses?

IMHO, Yes, but with significant asterisks.

Even Comey’s close friends acknowledge that his great strength is also his great weakness: a belief in his own integrity. “He believes this in a way that creates big blind spots, because he substitutes his judgment for the rules,” says Matt Miller, a former director of public affairs for the D.O.J. – from the Vanity Fair Article

See more on this below.

—–Did FBI Director Comey, with forethought and malice, and by choosing to break with FBI protocol, deliberately affect the 2016 presidential election in such a way as to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton?

Yes and No. It seems to me that Comey’s identification with the departments to which he has belonged or which he has headed, whether temporarily or long-term, is extremely strong. Not a bad thing, per se. But I believe there have been times when he has proven himself unable to separate where James Comey ended and the FBI or the Department of Justice began, leading to situations where Le département est moi. I believe that in some of his actions, Comey, knowingly or unknowingly, became, in his head, one with the department. Therefore, it is impossible to differentiate where actions intended to protect the reputation of the FBI or the Department of Justice leave off and become actions to defend the ego and reputation of James Comey. And there is a considerable ego involved. I would not be surprised if Comey, at some not necessarily conscious level, saw himself as a sacrificial figure, a Prometheus who gave the nation the fire of just cause to investigate Trump’s Russia dealings, or even a Christ-figure, sacrificed, if perhaps not as intentionally as the original, for the greater good.

Bottom line is that if you have not read this book, really, what the hell are you waiting for? It is a beautifully written picture of one of the most compelling political stories of our time. Even if you have strong party-based feelings about Swamp Thing or Comey, even if you may (as I did) roll your eyes on occasion, it is worth hearing the story from the horse himself. You will learn some things you did not know and be entertained while doing so. You don’t have to swear a loyalty oath to read this book, but you would be doing yourself a disservice to let it slip.

Review first posted – May 11, 2018

Publication date – April 17, 2018

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Comey on Twitter

Items of interest
—–Vanity Fair The True Story of the Comey Letter Debacle – by Bethany McLean
—– Wiki on Reinhold Niebuhr
—–full transcript of Rachel Maddow’s interview with Comey
—–Stephen Colbert’s interview with Comey
—–The Comey Memos
—–6 Takeaways From the James Comey Memos – by Michael S. Schmidt
—–March 21, 2019 – NYTimes – James Comey: What I Want From the Mueller Report
—–June 14, 2018 – Vox – The long-awaited inspector general report on the FBI, Comey, Clinton, and 2016, explained – by Andrew Prokop

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, True crime

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

book cover

“Sahafi! Media!! He yelled to the soldiers. He opened the car door to get out, and Quadaffi’s soldiers swarmed around him. “Sahafi!”
In one fluid movement the doors flew open and Tyler, Steve, and Anthony were ripped out of the car. I immediately locked my door and buried my head in my lap. Gunshots shattered the air. When I looked up, I was alone. I knew I had to get out of the car to run for cover, but I couldn’t move.

Click!

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Lynsey Addario – from CBS News

You may not recognize the name Lynsey Addario, but if you read newspapers, check out magazines, or are aware at all of the imagery that accompanies major events in the world, you have seen her work. Addario is one of the premier photojournalists on the planet and has the portfolio, the Pulitzer, and a MacArthur award to prove it. In 2014, American Photo named her one of the five most influential photographers of the last quarter century. In 2012, Newsweek magazine cited her as one of 150 Women Who Shake the World. Thankfully, she does not shake her camera when she is shooting (unless of course it is for intended effect). Although no one could blame her if she did. Addario has spent a large portion of her career as a conflict photographer, working for extended periods on the scene in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Congo, Sudan, and other garden spots. Wherever people have been shooting at each other in the last two decades there is a good chance that Lynsey Addario has been there. The one place she declares she will not go these days is Syria, which says something. She has been kidnapped in the field twice and has felt her life to be in danger more times than that, so when she says she won’t go to a place, it must be something really special.

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US Soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan

It’s What I Do is Addario’s tale of her journey from growing up in a Connecticut suburb as part of a Bohemian family, to finding and developing a talent for capturing life through a lens, to pursuing a career in photography. While working in New York in 1999, she got a big break, being asked to work on an Associated Press project looking into transgender prostitution in the city, and the spate of homicides with which that community was being afflicted. It turned into a months-long undertaking and brought her work to public notice for the first time. Click!

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A shot from that series

In 2000, a family friend invited her to go India.

Everything that made India the rawest place on earth made it the most wonderful to photograph. The streets hummed with constant movement, a low-grade chaos where almost every aspect of the human condition was in public view. Click!

It was while there that she was encouraged to go to Afghanistan to shoot the lives of women living under the Taliban. She was able to gain access to a half of Afghani society barred to her male counterparts. Click!

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Women and girls study and recite the Koran in Peshawar, Pakistan, 2001 – from the Women’s Eye

9/11 brought on a whole new era of conflict. Addario was on the scene when the USA invaded Iraq, having set up shop in Kurdistan when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Of course that required some extra planning. At the time she got the assignment she was in South Korea covering refugees from the north, and enduring the extraordinary humanitarian horrors of the extended karaoke the refugees enjoyed. She needed to get tooled up for the job and it proved challenging. One thing she had to arrange for was body armor. She found herself befuddled by the on-line offerings. She wrote to her editor.

I have checked out the websites you recommended, and am not sure if I just tried to read Korean. Basically, I have no idea what I am looking at—ballistic, six-point adjustable, tactical armor, etc. Please understand that this language is not familiar to me—I grew up in Connecticut, was raised by hairdressers.

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A woman prays at dawn after the 2010 earthquake that nearly destroyed Haiti

She was kidnapped for the first time while en route to Ramali with other journalists. And was subsequently jarred when Life magazine declined to publish her photographs, because they were too real for the American public. (The New York Times Magazine would later publish some of the work.) The experience of working in the Iraq war zone and coping with the politics of news publishing provided valuable life lessons.

…something in me had changed after three months in Iraq. I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people. I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening in Iraq so they could decide if they supported our presence there.

Her work has often demonstrated the power of the image. When she got shots of a Sudan massacre she made it impossible for President Bashir to continue denying that the war crime had taken place.

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Addario’s image of armed boys and men near the Afghan border won her a Pulitzer – from The Women’s Eye

Addario pooh-poohs any notion that she is an adrenalin junkie. She says that she has come to recognize that the photos she takes have the power to inform the public and influence people, so feels a responsibility, a calling to bear witness to much of the awfulness of the world in order to shine some light on it, to bring it to the world’s attention.

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Addario stopped to help when one of these women was in labor, miles from a hospital. She gave them a ride. – From Itswhatidobook.com

When Addario first submitted her manuscript, she was advised to make it more personal, as in writing about her off-the-field life as well as her experiences behind the lens. She includes in the final version a bit of her love-life history, which entailed some admittedly bad choices. As a dedicated career-woman, sustaining relationships has always taken second place to her work. She says she even walked out on dinner dates when she got an assignment.

Recently, a young photographer asked her how to get into the business. She told him to start traveling, shooting and contacting editors for assignments. When he told her that he didn’t want to travel much because of his girlfriend, Addario told him to break up with her.
“He thought I was insane,” says Addario. “I told him you have to decide what your priorities are. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, there are 10,000 young photographers who will.”
– from Photo District News article

The book contains many amazing shots Addario has taken over the course of her career. They add significantly to the aura of outsized accomplishment that Addario has earned. One significant thing about the shots Addario takes is that they are not only journalistically effective but expose an impressive artistic talent. She is able to tell troubling stories while at the same time making outstanding art. The book is printed on very high-quality paper, images and text, which adds a very tactile richness to both the visual power on display and the engaging text.

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An Iraqi woman fleeing a massive fire in Basra in 2003

Although one can piece together information by reading diverse articles about her, and watching sundry videos in which Addario does presentations and is interviewed, those connections are not always spelled out in the book. Particularly in the earlier parts of her photographic sojourn, it was somewhat murky why and how she decided to uproot and move to Argentina, and later to India.

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Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq

It’s What I Do is not a photography book. You will not get any technical tips there. While you will see some very nicely printed photographic images, those are there to enhance, to illuminate the text. The main thing here is her story. Lynsey Addario is a rock star in the world of photographic journalism. She takes us frame by frame on her journey from suburban origins as the child of hairdressers to becoming a world traveler covering important events everywhere on the planet in an attempt to illuminate the darkness. It is quite clear that her achievements have come at considerable personal cost, and that she is possessed of a rare personal fire that has driven her to take large risks in order to fulfill what she perceives as her mission in life. For those of us not familiar with the names that appear under all those news photos, It’s What I Do offers particular insight into just how important it is to have photographic boots on the ground wherever important events are occurring. Real-world photography is Addario’s contribution to the world. We are all enriched by her efforts, her sacrifices, her courage and her talent. This book will be an eye-opener for many. It is a perfectly focused, well-framed look at a life well lived, a life that has benefited and promises to continue to benefit us all. Click!

Publication
———-2/5/2015 – hardcover
———-11/8/2016 – paperback

Review first posted – 4/22/2016

BTW, a deal was struck at some point to turn this into a major film, with Jennifer Lawrence as Addario, to be directed by Steven Spielberg. As of 2022, we are still waiting, so who knows?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

She has a separate personal site specifically for the book

Every time I leave my family I wonder why I’ve chosen this life. I leave my two-year-old son and I come home and he won’t speak to me for a few days. And it’s lonely on the road. And I’m in these strange hotel rooms, or tents. It’s not a luxurious life. It’s something that people think that you’re out there for the adrenalin rush. They think you’re out there because it’s glamorous. But it’s not. You’re out there as a photographer who has chosen to cover conflict. It’s a calling. It’s something that sort of takes over who I am. People ask me why I do this and it is what makes me most alive. It is what I believe in. it is my happiness and It’s what I do.

Videos
—–This is must-see – Addario’s presentation, followed by an interview, at Arts and & Ideas at the JCCSF
—–National Geographic – 26 minutes – Lynsey doing a presentation, with focus on her NG assignments. Much info from JFFC presentation is repeated, but there is a lot that is different so this one is also definitely worthwhile
—–The Annenberg Space for Photography – focus on her kidnapping – 10 minutes
—– Item on CBS This Morning linked from LA‘s site
—–Time Magazine – This opens as text, but there are videos embedded

Interviews
—–Photo District News. Among other things this has a lot on breaking into the business
—– The Literate lens – In Love and War: An Interview with Lynsey Addario
—– Photojournalist Lynsey Addario On Her Relentless Pursuit of Truth – from The Women’s Eye

Articles
—–From American Photo – THE INFLUENCERS: LYNSEY ADDARIO
—–National Geographic – December 19, 2017 – Inside a Female Photographer’s Experience Documenting War – by Daniel Stone – Regarding the documentary series The Long Road Home, about the Iraq War

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Addario watched as Iraqi Shiite followers of Muqtada Al Sadr stood amidst burning tires in Sadr City moments before American tanks opened fire on the area in Baghdad, Iraq April 4, 2004
Image and image text from NatGeo article – Image by Addario, of course

—–July 10, 2020 – A new article by Addario in National Geographic – In the U.K., families of the dead still wonder: was it COVID-19?

—–August 27, 2022 – MSNBC interview with Addario – Photographer Lynsey Addario reflects on 6 months of the war in Ukraine

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Filed under Afghanistan, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Journalism, Non-fiction