Monday, September 24, 2007


I have been a serious cook for decades, this being one of the reasons I was able to serve as restaurant reviewer for a metropolitan newspaper. When I say "a serious cook," I mean someone who goes beyond using the recipes of others and creates his or her own. From time to time I will post some of mine.


A rich thick soup, almost a stew, that smells like the perfumes of Arabia. Much like Asian cooking, the work here is all in the preparation of ingredients, such as chopping. Cooking is simple.


Salt to taste - maybe 1 Teaspoon (if you do not used canned stock which is already salty)
1 Teaspoon freshly-ground Black Pepper
1 Teaspoon ground Tumeric
2 Teaspoons ground Cumin
1/4 Teasoon ground Ginger/ or better, a little grated fresh
1 Teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1 Bay leaf (may be omitted)
Ideally a Pinch of Saffron - so expensive, I often do not use


The above spice mix is characteristic of Morocco - it may be used for roasting vegetables, too. You may increase proportionately if you like even stronger spicing.


2 19oz. Cans of Red (or green) Lentils. You start with dried, but there is little advantage once you've prepared and soaked.

4 Cups fresh Chicken Stock/ or 2 condensed cans diluted. If you want a thinner soup, use more. For vegetarian version see NOTE under Meat.

1 Can crushed Roma Tomatoes (buy whole and crush with potato masher).

1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste

About 1 Pound of hunks of lamb/ pork/ or chicken lightly sauteed Use inexpensive cut of lamb. You may have meats in chunks or slices or whole pieces of sauteed chicken.

NOTE: Skip meat and substitute vegetable stock for vegetarian version of soup.

Fresh Cilantro (if available) - Don't cook, chop up & sprinkle on finished soup. Also
good without.

2 Onions - chopped

4 Cloves Garlic - chopped

4 or 5 Stalks of Celery - chopped into thickish slices

1 Red Sweet Pepper - chopped into chucks

Lemon zest from half a lemon


1 or 2 Potatoes - diced and put in with vegetables.

1 Lemon - sliced very thin & sauteed lightly for relish on top of soup when served.

Croutons - made of baguette style bread, buttered and baked at 350 until lightly gold.

A Cup or Two of Couscous, cooked separately, and stirred in at finish.


Put stock and tomatoes and spices including zest in a soup pot to simmer. Sautee onions, garlic, pepper, celery and tip into simmering stock mix.

Sautee meat just until browned very lightly and tip into stock mix. If using whole pieces of chicken, brown each nicely. Simmer the whole thing at least half an hour - I prefer a longer time to blend flavors.

Take a couple of ladles before serving and buzz in blender, returning to soup. Leave most of soup ingredients whole. This step not necessary, but nice for a thicker broth.

Serve with cilantro, thin lemon slices, and/or croutons. Warm pita is an excellent accompaniment.



This is truly a dreadful book.

The author attempts to do something loosely along the lines of Samuel Eliot Morison's "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," a fascinating, though dated, book that combines Morison's knowledge of the sea and sailing with a biography of Columbus. The author of "Cogito Ergo Sum," however, fails entirely.

In Wilson's effort - a very thin volume for a book purporting to be a biography of a major intellectual figure - we read almost as much about Wilson and his wife touring locations in Europe as we do about Descartes. The result is something a little like a poorly written script for one of those old corny school film strips.

Wilson never comes to grips with what makes Descartes great, and the vocabulary he uses - when he isn't saying things like "Gee!" or "Awesome!" - is that tiresome, annoying one typical of American social science academics of the second or third order.

The book actually contains errors regarding the period that even an amateur can spot.

This book is recommended only to be avoided.



Samuel Johnson was a brilliant critic, perhaps the greatest English writer after Shakespeare, a fascinating eccentric, and a genuinely heroic man. The great merit of Mr. Bate's biography is that he succeeds in the magical illusion of bringing Johnson alive again, giving us a vivid sense of what it might have been like to know him.

The highest praise for this book is the regret you will feel when the pages end and Johnson's great figure bows out. The biography is that rare item, a genuinely inspiring book.



This book should be required reading for all students of affairs in the Middle East, as well as for students of the great pageant of the British Empire. Here is the story of the remarkable woman who helped create modern Iraq.

Gertrude Bell was brilliant, gifted in languages, and ferociously brave. Ms. Bell travelled across deserts, climbed mountains, made contributions to archeology, served as an important intelligence source and an unusual diplomat, smoked in public, and sat as an equal with many fierce desert chieftains.

Her understanding of the Arabic people was sounder in many ways than the mystical nonsense of Lawrence of Arabia, a much better known figure.

I cannot call this a great book, for Janet Wallach is less than a great writer, but this is a good book on an important and neglected subject. Wallach brings us many interesting details of Gertrude Bell's extraordinary life.



With a certain group of American historians, largely those concerned with preserving images of America's founders and luminaries as saintly figures in white plaster togas, this book remains controversial.

In fact, it is perhaps the greatest biography of an American historical figure ever written. It is recommended highly to all lovers of good biography. It is indispensible to serious students of American history.

The official defenders of America's Civic Religion dislike this book because it captures some raw and awkward aspects of Lincoln, but Lincoln was rather raw and awkward and self-taught. It is the rise of such a man to such heights, plus his great natural eloquence, that make Lincoln remarkable.

Such historians love to cite this or that relatively insignificant error (in a 500-page book replete with details) to discredit Herndon, but Herndon's own detail and sense of honesty make him the best argument against such foolishness.

No one was better qualified than Herndon to record the life of Lincoln, having been his friend and business partner for many years. Herndon also conscientiously compiled a large archive of letters and memorials after Lincoln's death.

Herndon focuses on the personal Lincoln, and it is especially his observations about Lincoln's religious skepticism and family life that so disturb those who would have Lincoln embalmed like Lenin. Herndon gives us a vivid Lincoln, and if you like good biography, you will be impressed. The book was clearly a labor of love, and that fact still comes through more than a century after it was written.



There has been an industry in Kennedy assassination books, with nearly half of them ridiculous and nearly another half having no integrity. In my judgment, Mr. Posner's book belongs to the latter category.

Posner's book not only contains errors, it brings nothing fresh to the controversy. Posner simply re-interpreted parts of the body of old evidence according to his inclination, and he is an awkward writer. But it is the body of evidence itself which is in question, or at least many important parts of it.

Anyone interested in the Kennedy assassination couldn't help noticing this lamentable book being widely reviewed and praised in the mainline press. You must ask yourself, why would that be, when other very able books went largely ignored?

The Warren Commission was only a prosecutor's brief, and a fairly poor one at that. Indeed, the Commission itself investigated almost nothing, relying entirely on Hoover's FBI for investigative work.

Shortly before the Warren Report was released, Bertrand Russell issued sixteen questions about the assassination. Having seen an advance copy, he knew the Report would answer none of them.

To this day, there is no answer to his questions, and most especially this one: "If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?"

In the case put forward by the Warren Commission, and echoed by writers like Posner, the assassination boils down to an ordinary murder which should be a matter of no secrecy.

Russell's question echoes again and again down the decades as adjustments are made to the official story. Employing techniques one expects to be used for covering up long-term intelligence interests, various points raised by early independent researchers like Joachim Joesten have been conceded here or there along the way without altering the central finding. This is an effective method: concede details and appear open to new facts while always forcefully returning to the main point.

A significant writer along these lines is Edward Jay Epstein, an author whose other writing suggests intelligence connections. His first book on the assassination, "Inquest," conceded numerous flaws in the Warren Report. Epstein went on in subsequent books, "Counterplot" and "Legend" to attack at length - and for the critical reader, quite unconvincingly - ideas of conspiracy, Oswald's intelligence connections, and his innocence.

Posner's book is nothing more than a continuation along the same line of effort.

If you only ever read one book on the Kennedy assassination, it should not be Posner's. That book should be "Conspiracy" by Anthony Summers(5 STARS) with absolutely first-class investigative journalism and a clear and compelling narrative.

"Conspiracy," now aging in some aspects, was startling when published, not startling because of extreme claims, but startling for its skilled marshaling of a huge body of facts. It is done so well, you will not be able to put it down.

And if you still insist on reading Posner, you really owe it to yourself also to read Summers.



This is, quite simply, one of the most important books ever written about Jefferson. It redresses the terrible imbalance created by American historians who think of the Founding Fathers as the Twelve Apostles re-incarnated. Critics of the book should understand that O'Brien is a world-class scholar.

When O'Brien published "The Long Affair," about Thomas Jefferson and his peculiar admiration for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, the Sage for Archer Daniels Midland (aka George Will) went into a word-strewn fit over the book. I think Will's excesses speak to the quality of most criticism of the book.

Perhaps, the single thing about the book that most upset George was O'Brien's comparison of a statement of Jefferson's to something Pol Pot might have said. Jefferson wrote in 1793, at the height of the Terror, "...but rather than it [the French Revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." George wrote off Jefferson's brutal statement as "epistolary extravagance," and attacked O'Brien for using slim evidence for an extreme conclusion about an American "hero."

George went so far as favorably to compare the work of Ken Burns with that of O'Brien, calling Burns "an irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," as compared to one who "panders" to "leave our national memory parched."

I mean no disparagement of Ken Burns, but he produces the television equivalent of coffee-table books. O'Brien is a scholar, the author of many serious books. The very comparison, even without the odd language, tells us something about George.

But language, too, is important. The irony is that George's own words, "irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," sound frighteningly like what we'd expect to hear from the Ministry of Culture in some ghastly place (dare I write it?) such as Pol Pot's Cambodia.

But George should have known better. This letter of Jefferson's is utterly characteristic of views he expressed many different ways. Jefferson quite blithely wrote that America's Constitution would not be adequate to defend what he called liberty, that there would have to be a new revolution every 15 or 20 years, and that the tree of liberty needed to be nourished regularly with a fresh supply of patriot blood.

Jefferson's well-known sentimental view of the merits of sturdy yeomen farmers as citizens of a republic and his intense dislike for industry and urbanization bear an uncanny resemblance to Pol Pot's beliefs. Throwing people out of cities to become honorable peasants back on the land, even those who never saw a farm, was precisely how Pol Pot managed to kill at least a million people in Cambodia.

What is it about many of those on the right relishing the deaths of others in the name of ideology? You see, much like the "chickenhawks" now running Washington, sending others off to die, Jefferson never lifted a musket during the Revolution. While serving as governor of Virginia, he set a pathetic example of supporting the war's desperate material needs. He also gave us a comic-opera episode of dropping everything and running feverishly away from approaching British troops in Virginia (there was an official inquiry over the episode). Jefferson turned down his first diplomatic appointment to Europe by the new government out of fear of being captured by British warships, a fear that influenced neither Benjamin Franklin nor John Adams.

But real heroes aren't always, or even usually, soldiers. Jefferson, despite a long and successful career and a legacy of fine words (expressing thoughts largely cribbed from European writers), cannot be credited with any significant personal sacrifice over matters of principle during his life. He wouldn't give up luxury despite his words about slavery. He never risked a serious clash with the Virginia Establishment over slave laws during his rise in state politics. And in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, he lamely and at length blamed the king of England for the slave trade, yet, when he wrote the words, it was actually in his interest to slow the trade and protect the value of his existing human holdings.

Unlike Mr. Lincoln later, who had none of his advantages of education and good social contacts, Jefferson did not do well as a lawyer. He never earned enough to pay his own way, his thirst for luxury far outstripping even the capacity of his many high government positions and large number of slaves to generate wealth. Again, unlike Mr. Lincoln, Jefferson was not especially conscientious about owing people money, and he frequently continued buying luxuries like silver buckles and fine carriages while he still owed substantial sums.

Jefferson spent most of his productive years in government service, yet he never stopped railing against the evils of government. There's more than a passing resemblance here to the empty slogans of government-service lifers like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich who enjoy their government pensions and benefits even as they still complain about government. Jefferson's most famous quote praises the least possible government, yet, as President, he brought a virtual reign of terror to New England with his attempts to enforce an embargo against England (the "Anglomen" as this very prejudiced man typically called the English).

Jefferson, besides having some truly ridiculous beliefs, like those about the evils of central banks or the health efficacy of soaking your feet in ice water every morning, definitely had a very dark side. Any of his political opponents would readily have testified to this. Jefferson was the American Machiavelli.

It was this side of him that put Philip Freneau on the federal payroll in order to subsidize the man's libelous newspaper attacks on Washington's government - this while Jefferson served in that very government. At another point, Jefferson hired James Callender to dig up and write filth about political opponents, an effort which backfired when Callender turned on Jefferson for not fulfilling promises. Callender famously dug out and publicized the story about Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave-mistress, his late wife's illegitimate half-sister (slavery made for some amazing family relationships), a story we now know almost certainly to be true (by the way, dates point to Sally's beginning to serve Jefferson in this capacity at 13 or 14 years old). It was this dark side of Jefferson that resulted in a ruthless, years-long vendetta against Aaron Burr for the sin of appearing to challenge Jefferson's election to the presidency.

Jefferson expressed himself in embarrassingly clear terms about his belief in black inferiority. And it is important to note that in doing so, he violated one of his basic principles of remaining skeptical and not accepting what was not proved, so this, clearly, was something he believed deeply. There is also reliable evidence that on one occasion he was observed by a visitor beating a slave, quite contradicting Jefferson's public-relations pretensions to saintly paternalism.

When Napoleon sent an army attempting to subdue the slaves who had revolted and formed a republic on what is now Haiti, President Jefferson gave his full consent and support to the bloody (and unsuccessful) effort.

Hero? I have no idea how George Will defines the word, but by any meaningful standard, Jefferson utterly fails.

Read the book, and decide for yourself.

Sunday, September 23, 2007



There are some oddities in the style of Mr. Ackroyd, and his book contains some, what might be called, experimental chapters, fantasies or dreams or prose poems on subjects the author associates with Dickens. Ordinarily, I would find these things a bit off-putting.

But Mr. Ackroyd succeeds in giving us an overwhelmingly animated and penetrating portrait of the great Victorian author. This huge book - and no smaller effort could capture Dickens' spirit - crackles with energy, the very kind of driving energy so characteristic of Dickens himself.

Dickens was a strange man with immense drives and desires going off in many directions and personal habits that might well at times be regarded as unbalanced. He was not the sentimental, storytelling Victorian father figure he is sometimes regarded, although he could be quite sentimental about family and friends and his storytelling ability had few equals.

He behaved at times as a petty tyrant and was highly opinionated, always a man of immense curiosity, a traveler, a political activist, a generous man, a workaholic, a man eager for every possible shred of success and acclaim, a talented actor and mimic, a man seemingly possessed at times, as when carrying on conversations with himself, imitating his own characters in a mirror or going for walks as long as twenty miles alone or living with the ghosts of his fractured childhood.

A whirlwind of experience and desires helped make this naturally talented man such a great novelist. There are similarities to the titanic storm that was Beethoven. In both cases, the young man in his first blush of success could be truly charming while the aging figure could be quite unsettling.

The book contains many interesting anecdotes and details of Dickens' England, as well as Dickens' America since he made two journeys to America, a place he both hated and was fascinated by.

Highly recommended to all lovers of good biography, all students of English literature, and all students of English history.



Let me start by advising that this is a dry book to read, so it is not for the average reader of narrative history. But its meticulous scholarship makes it an indispensable book about affairs in the Middle East.

People sometimes use the phrase "meticulous scholarship" to send up a warning flag that you had better not argue with what follows. But that is not so here. This book represents genuine scholarship, serving neither the purpose of public relations for Israel nor an attack upon it.

After offering some background on the origins of Zionism, Mr. Shlaim's theme is a review of the first half-century of Israeli policy. The title, an expression coined by an early Zionist, aptly sums up the thrust of that policy.

The author goes where scholarship leads, and he does not flinch from including less-than-heroic episodes that many contemporary books and news sources ignore.

Of course, in some matters of extreme sensitivity, there are still no adequate official documents available to scholars. In such cases, Mr. Schlaim tells us what he knows and goes no farther, leaving us with full confidence in his integrity.

I do not see how anyone can consider him- or herself well-informed on the Middle East without having read this book. It truly is that important.



This has to be one of the funniest books ever written.

Russo brilliantly sends up the pretensions and foibles of the staff and administration of the English Department at a small Pennsylvania university. It's one of those truly dismal, mediocre places, rarely mentioned in the same breath as America's world-class institutions, but which abound across the country.

About the first third of this book is almost non-stop laughter. The pace slows for a while, but picks up again. Near the end Russo gives us one of the funniest scenes ever written. I wouldn't want to reveal any of it to spoil your enjoyment.

The book is a departure for Russo, most of whose novels are reworkings of another theme, his childhood relationship with his very unusual father. Russo's effort along these lines reached its highest achievement in the modern masterpiece, "Nobody's Fool."



It is stunning how little Thomas Friedman understands about globalization, but that didn't stop him from writing a book about it.

Friedman's tone reminds me of the bluff guy who sweeps up to you in a bar, slaps you on the back and starts pouring out the fast-paced patter of a top-producing aluminum-siding salesman. Friedman's goal in every paragraph is to close a sale and unload as much product on you at as high a price as possible.

Most of what we call growth and science goes back only about 500 years to the Renaissance. Before that for centuries people stayed in the same little village, spoke the same words, went to the same church, and in general knew nothing their fathers and mothers didn't know. All great events like the "Enclosures" in England or the "Industrial Revolution" were steps in the same relentless march forward.

Globalization is just the latest manifestation of a now-constant flow of changing technology inducing permanent, long-term economic change. It promises to be a very troubling and unsettled period as local customs, habits, laws, and even languages come under great stress of huge and rapid changes. It is not unrealistic to anticipate revolutions, civil wars, and great human migrations coming out of these changes over the next century or so, just as industrialization or enclosures generated many social and political disturbances.

Ironically enough, America itself, despite its status as world economic power, faces huge problems adjusting to these sweeping, inevitable changes in the world. Ordinary Americans are going to have to make big adjustments in their expectations (the so-called American dream), and there is going to be huge pressure to participate in new and expanding international institutions required to regulate these massive changes.

The modern nation state evolved directly out of these forces, but as the process goes on, the nation state itself will feel heavy forces of erosion. All of this, of course, is in directions opposite to America's present course.

But don't look for a clear explanation of any of this from Friedman. Friedman's sales pitch includes a call to making the world safe for McDonald's, Pepsi, and America Online. The tone is genuinely depressing.

Friedman's gems include belittling Silicon-Valley executives who stress their international identity. Like a stereotype of the ugly American, Friedman bellows, "Oh, yeah? Then, the next time I.B.M. China gets in trouble in China, call Jiang Zemin for help."

Does Friedman truly think high-tech business can be global without concessions to local interests? Think of car plants today. No government allows you to just keep exporting cars. Sooner or later you build a local plant, and you adapt to local conditions. You certainly obey local laws. And you certainly hire mostly local people. America's F-16s, the kinds of things Friedman is so fond of referring to, don't change any of that.

This book represents a kind of catch-22 for Americans. If they embrace Friedman's parochial, beat-the-drum-for-America attitude, they will only be even less prepared for the unavoidable era of dramatic change coming.



Mr. Wood's book tries to put some intellectual and moral sizzle back into an American Revolution that has long come to be regarded by world scholars as something less than an earth-shaking event.

Despite much-labored efforts, Mr. Wood fails, and he is pretty dull along the way in presenting his case. It really could not be otherwise, for his basic thesis is faulty. The Revolution has been summed up, quite accurately I believe, as a group of home-grown aristocrats taking power from a group of foreign-born aristocrats.

America's central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.

These notions manage to get thoroughly muddled with Puritan religious ones that have been around since America's colonial days, producing a story with strong overtones of a biblical legend.

This set of myths and attitudes has been called America's Civic Religion, and it is an apt name. Gordon Woods does not seriously question this fuzzy, half-mythical view.

The first truly important cause for American independence was Britain's victory in the French and Indian War (more generally called the Seven Year's War). The French in the 1750s were setting about constructing a series of forts both along the Canadian border and in places like the Ohio river valley. Their intention was to prevent the westward expansion of the British colonies and to lock up much of the valuable fur trade.

British colonists did not look favorably on this development. Their intense desire was to become rich through land speculation and endless westward expansion, the kind of activity, apart from marrying a rich widow, that made George Washington one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, one with rather a reputation for sharp business practices.

The colonists were used to a rather privileged position that none of them wanted disturbed. They lived a healthy and relatively happy life, as all the statistics and observations of the time attest. Foreign observers frequently commented on how healthy Americans under the Crown were. As well, it was widely observed, and commented on in Europe, that these colonies - well before the Revolution - were amongst the freest places in the world to live.

Britain did win the war, but at considerable cost. The colonies' first reaction to British victory was joy and celebration. It was later that a series of what can only be regarded as reasonable tax measures to have the colonists help pay the costs of the war aroused such great antipathy in the colonies. The view was simply this: The war was over, the benefits to the colonists could not be re-claimed by Britain, so the colonists felt no obligation to help pay beyond what they had contributed during the war. Hatred of taxes - unavoidably associated with crippling good, sound government - has remained to this day a feature of the American cultural landscape.

So, after the French and Indian War, things at first looked favorable for the desires of settlers to build limitless land empires, but then several developments considerably darkened the view.

A key one was the Quebec Act which vastly extended the territory of Quebec to include what today is Illinois as part of a vast Quebec Territory. Most Americans will not know what a huge storm this caused in the colonies because it is not an attractive subject for elementary texts.

First, it appeared to make the possibility of endless western expansion impossible. England, quite fairly and reasonably, wanted to discourage expansion over the Appalachians into Indian territory like the Ohio valley as a way of maintaining peace. The Mother Country had a conscientious policy of avoiding further conflicts with native Americans. This policy American colonists had tended to ignore, but the creation of a new Western jurisdiction under a Catholic province like Quebec, was an entirely different matter.

There was a paranoid fear of "papism" in the colonies, peopled as they were by many Puritan extremists who had run away from the dislike they often aroused in the old country. Anti-Catholic feeling ran very high in the American colonies. Indeed, it was an old custom, and remained the custom for decades after the Revolution, to burn effigies of the pope each year on Britain's Guy Fawkes Day. America's nasty-tempered Puritan settlers wanted nothing to do with "papists." Yes, the very same nasty, hateful words we heard during the Northern Ireland conflict over the last thirty years were constantly on the tongues and in the newspapers of American colonists.

Britain's final reaction to the colonists' refusal to pay taxes, after a long period of adjustments in the taxes and talks with colonial representatives, and to their contempt for Imperial regulations over boundaries and trade - many of the colonies' richest men such as John Hancock were simply smugglers - triggered an authentic "grass-roots" revolt in Massachusetts.

When the unthinkable actually happened in Massachusetts - violent revolt being originally unthinkable for most well-known and established colonial figures like Franklin or Washington or John Adams - there was no going back. The central issue became one of how things were to be managed by the colonies' ambitious little Establishment.

Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief represented an important turning point. What had been an almost spontaneous revolt organized by militia groups who elected their leaders became an organized opposition with an organized army under an appointed commander who suddenly started lashing and hanging volunteers who didn't obey orders or show proper respect. Washington, the cold Virginia aristocrat, expressed contempt in his letters for the New England militiamen who had taken all the chances and started the whole business. He wanted to command a real army with smart uniforms and traditional discipline just like the British army he so admired. He had been frustrated for years about getting a permanent commission in the British army, something that was then rarely awarded to colonials.

The real lessons of the American Revolution include the fact that early Americans were not motivated by quite the high ideals that contemporary Americans generally attribute to them. Anti-Catholicism and greed for Western expansion were basic causes. So, too, antipathy to taxes. Still, given enough time, America outgrew some of these early narrow prejudices.

Many will recall that the Pulitzer Prize for journalism has been awarded to mediocrity and even downright fraud, but this book is the perfect example of how little the Pulitzer Prize for history means as a guide to quality and stimulating work. Perhaps this generalization is true of all prizes, but it has been egregiously so in the case of the Pulitzer.



The Assassination Chronicles consists of three short books - Inquest, Counterplot, and Legend - written over a period of about a dozen years and combined into one volume.

Inquest established Epstein's bona fides on the Kennedy assassination and is the most readable volume. It is essentially an effort to concede criticisms of early and penetrating critics such as Joachim Joesten while preserving the Warren Commission's central findings intact. It contains pretty much nothing that others had not already said by the time of its publication.

Other writing of Epstein's suggests intelligence connections, and his handling of the issues around the assassination tend very much to serve official interests.

If you are informed on the hard facts of the assassination, Counterplot and Legend are almost unreadable. There is a palpable sense of reading a case against an accused without a word from the defense. These are not investigations in any meaningful sense of the word. Epstein assumes the role of Judge Warren without the judicial robes, dressed instead in the deceivingly casual dress of a supposedly authentic critic.

There is no explanation to this day for the secrecy that still surrounds important parts of the Kennedy assassination, and it is this secrecy that blurs and distorts so much of the key evidence. Were this not so, books like Epstein's would not be published. Except for the concessions made in his first volume, Inquest, Epstein simply does not deal with the case's central issues of missing evidence, weak evidence, and implausible evidence. He stands ready to accuse and judge a man who had no motive, almost no means, and against whom what genuine facts we have would never convince a conscientious jury.

Something terribly significant has been kept from the world for more than forty years since the assassination, and books like The Assassination Chronicles, or Gerald Posner's update, aka Case Closed, are significant efforts along the way to keeping it that way.

One can only speculate on the reasons for all the secrecy, including the possibility that the CIA and FBI never understood who was responsible. Now, there was a state secret worth keeping in a time of Cold War paranoia. And the secrecy concerns are still valid. After all, the CIA and the FBI blew it on the imminent fall of the Soviet Union and on the activities of the 9/11 gang who entered the U.S. with legally-issued visas to take flying lessons.

No one should read this book without also reading Anthony Summers' monumental work of genuine investigation, Conspiracy.



This biography (actually two volumes, Hubris and Nemesis) is well worth reading. Kershaw is a sound, if not elegant, writer and tells a story you will want to finish, but the book has significant faults.

Historians still do not know exactly how to reckon with the phenomenon of Hitler. The man was like a gigantic cyclonic storm that suddenly welled up and unleashed death and misery on a colossal scale.

And for that reason he stands as the most influential man of the 20th century, not the greatest or the most gifted, but the most influential.

His existence brought to life such memorable opponents as Churchill, his defeat established forty years of Soviet dominance over much of Europe, and his bestial acts unquestionably led to the founding of modern Israel, setting off great difficulties in the Middle East for decades.

The ironic thing about Kershaw's book is that the author says he does not understand Hitler. Hitler remains a mystery to him, and Kershaw even says that in some ways his book is not a biography of the man but of the era in Germany. This is not satisfying to the reader wishing to understand better.

Kershaw's thesis of Hitler as a an almost compulsive gambler who struck it lucky for a while is weak. Hitler's rise to lead a great nation of Europe and his years of early diplomatic and military victories call for a more insightful explanation than a heavy run of luck. Kershaw gives credit to Hitler as an instinctive propagandist (in advertising terms, a talented marketer), but that is about as far as he goes to explaining this eye of the greatest storm in human history.

Historians, naturally enough, are reluctant to write anything that could be interpreted as admiration, but other historians have managed a better job of dealing with Hitler's talents and personality, notably Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, and William Shirer.

One new element that Kershaw brings is a focus on Hitler's being responsible for the Holocaust, not that any responsible historian ever has denied it, but naturally enough there is no paper trail. I think Shirer is better on the horrors Hitler inflicted. I also think a more insightful treatment of this kind of psychology is found in Gitta Sereny.

One of the great mysteries of Hitler's psychology is his anti-Semitism. There is just no accounting for its immensity, and Kershaw does little to enlighten us here.

Read this book and the other authors I have mentioned and decide whether you agree with me that the definitive biography of Hitler has yet to be written.



The Regeneration Trilogy is both wonderful and disappointing, an odd combination of characteristics for a set of novels, but then the First World War itself was characterized by heroic exhilaration and utter dispair, by encrusted tradition and unanticipated revolution, by invention and backwardness.

Ms Barker takes us to an institution, a quiet and somewhat remote place, seemingly safe from the savagery of the Western Front, where damaged men are sent in hopes of recovery. She quickly has us involved in several fascinating characters, the full extent of whose experiences she only gradually reveals. Most interestingly, the characters of the men themselves are only gradually revealed, as often to our horror as satisfaction.

After reading the first volume, I could hardly wait for the second. It was the third volume I found disappointing. The disappointment comes through what she does with characters we have become intensely interested in, but I'll not reveal any details and leave it to new readers to see whether they agree.

The characterizations of the first two volumes are wonderful (although I am not a great fan of mixing real people in with fictional characters, the practice does not feature too heavily), and Ms. Barker gives us a remarkable sense of what that terrible war meant, particularly in ordinary lives on the home front.

Ms. Barker's trilogy is highly recommended for those interested in history, students of human psychology, and those who enjoy good writing and a gripping story.



Shelby Foote's trilogy of the American Civil War has been called America's Iliad and Odyssey, and in some ways it is an apt comparison.

The Trojan War certainly held a comparable place for ancient Greeks as America's Civil War holds for contemporary Americans. I've always wondered why this should be so.

I think there are several major reasons. First, the anvil of the Civil War is where America's rise to world power is hammered out. Lincoln, in the long-term view, is less the Patriarch who frees slaves than he is the successful Corporate Lawyer who forges the nation into a feared industrial and military power. The Civil War is revolutionary for America's status, just as the Great War marked the beginning of the decline for Great Britain.

Second, in a country that has never really quite experienced the horrors of war in the modern era (American deaths for example in World War Two were a little more than half of one-percent of the fifty million lives total, and losses in the First War were almost insignificant out of total losses), the Civil War stands as America's time of great sacrifice and bloodshed.

There is also the myth and color around the nature of the Old South, stuff about gentlemen, honor, and manliness. Southerners certainly accepted this dreamy view, at least the small number with money, while the other dirt-poor farmers were bound to them through dread of Blacks and the feared effects of slavery's end. Northerners, too, came to accept the colorful myths, and many still do. Southern culture of course was based on slavery, and it was a brutal culture in many aspects, but America has never really come to grips with slavery in its history, and the myths are appealing.

Mr. Foote collected some wonderful, colorful anecdotes about the daring deeds or marvelous escapes of leading characters in his long narrative. The telling of these tales does remind one of Homer's various intense scenes with leading characters preparing for or engaging in combat. These come like delightful arias in a long opera.

Certainly, Mr. Foote has captured the great panorama of the Civil War, at least in its military aspects. Some might think the three-thousand pages of narrative a bit excessive, but fans of the Civil War and those who like a good yarn that lasts and lasts will greatly enjoy the books.

Comparisons with Homer may be taken too far. Homer was a poet. Shelby Foote's prose are sturdy and workman-like.

Mr. Foote does not deal with all political, social, and economic dimensions of the Civil War, but then that isn't his job, just as it wasn't Homer's.

This raises a possible philosophical criticism of the work. To a certain extent, with the work's color and sweep and bold deeds, Mr. Foote could be charged somewhat with helping to perpetuate the myths of the Old South, but this is not a point I would want to insist on because those who want to fully understand the Civil War must read other books. This one does just what it sets out to do.



This is a difficult book to categorize. It is well written, contains many interesting anecdotes, but it misses the essential Orwell.

Taylor's gloomy, otherwordly, ex-Etonian, ex-imperial policeman simply does not add up to Orwell. The sum of the parts is much less than the man. Taylor's book is a bit like an autopsy, the pathologist clearly never being able to comprehend the stiff, dead flesh and bottled samples before him as the full human being they were. Nevertheless, autopsies do tell interesting tales.

Orwell's gloomy temperament puts him not outside the mainstream of writers but exactly in the company of so many important writers. The list of writers with some form of depression, whether alcoholism or gloominess, is so huge - Greene, Swift, Hemingway, Le Carré, Dickens, Gissing, O'Neill, Twain, Faulkner, etc, etc. - one comes to think of the quality almost as a job requirement. It provides one of the special lens through which critical writers see the world. One has to believe Taylor understands this, but his book conveys only clinical observations of gloominess snipped from letters, diaries, and conversations.

As far as Orwell's otherworldliness, Orwell was clearly in the great tradition of English eccentrics, and that is an important component of his appeal. There is a long and glorious line of them from Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen down to Alec Guinness, Margaret Rutherford, and Vanessa Redgrave. Yet Taylor only offers clinical observations and never puts them in their proper context.

Orwell was not an important novelist, so it seems a bit gratuitous to say so as Taylor does. In fact, he wasn't even a very good novelist. Yet books like Keep the Aspadistra Flying do provide a keen sense of his Englishness. Missing entirely from Taylor's autopsy is a sense of Orwell's quintessential Englishness. When Orwell writes of getting back to the feel of heavy English coins and having mahogany tea, readers get a sense of pure distilled Englishness. This comes through also in quasi-journalistic books like The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London - important early efforts at what today might be called investigative journalism - books which Taylor rather disparages both in terms of Orwell's re-arranging actual events and being an observer mentally wearing an Eton tie.

What Orwell was is a critic, and a rather magnificent one. I am reminded of Degas' description of Monet as "Only an eye, but what an eye!"

Orwell had an exquisite sense of justice and a very sensitive barometer for tyranny plus he had the words to convey vividly his sensibilities. Taylor virtually misses this in his examination of bile and stool samples. Taylor too often puts Orwell's political criticism down to miss-directed, soft-Left thinking of an ex-Etonian. Orwell himself recognized the simpering nature of much of the Left's views, yet he struggled bravely with finding a vocabulary to accommodate his sympathies. He possibly did not come to recognize himself for what he was, a scorching critic of both Left and Right. After all, his time was short. That is how it is when you die in your forties.

He was also an important literary critic, and while Taylor recognizes this, I don't believe he gives it a full enough examination.

Taylor sadly drags out the subject of anti-Semitism, perhaps the most overly-used epithet of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If Orwell was anti-Semitic - and I do not believe this for a second - it was in the same vague sense of virtually all Englishmen of his time. The English have always had a degree of xenophobia, a quality whose obverse side is the very set of qualities defining Englishness. I am tired of discussions of whether Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice makes the greatest playwright in human history anti-Semitic, discussions which always ignore the human qualities and sense of justice Shakespeare gives his character, and just so, Orwell, overall a truly decent man.

There has been a good deal of writing in recent years about Orwell, much of it wrong-headed, from claims being made that he would have supported Bush's invasion of Iraq (!) to sentimentality. Little of it captures Orwell the independent and remarkably clear-thinking critic. Taylor gives us no sense of what it was that animated Orwell, other than some almost silly stuff about getting back at people like the headmistress of his school. There is almost a sense in this book of a high-class hatchet job done on Orwell, but I don't want to push that point. What makes Orwell truly important is minimized, and what wasn't important is given a good deal of weight. Perhaps that is the fate of great critics who support no one's ideologies and preconceptions.

This book should be read only with an awareness of its limited approach to the subject. This is not Orwell, but a somewhat interesting display of bits and memorabilia in museum cabinets.

Please see my review of Gordon Bowker's Orwell biography, a superior work (published in the same year) in most respects to Taylor's.



The subject of this book is one of those remarkable stories of someone who may have been a prince escaped from murder or a clever and well-tutored imposter. This is the Anastasia story of England in the late 1400s. Was the subject of this book Richard Plantangenet, Duke of York, second son of Edward IV, or one Perkin Warbeck (a name with various spellings including Werbecque) from Tournai in what today is Belgium? Ms. Wroe, while telling an interesting story and enlightening us on many of the story's complexities, does not solve the mystery.

A bit of the background to the Prince Richard/Warbeck story is known to many through Shakespeare's wonderful play, Richard III, where Richard's nephews, the sons of Edward IV, are murdered in the Tower at Richard's command. But Shakespeare was concerned with drama and human character and notoriously inaccurate in his histories. The legend of a hideous, spidery Richard III is no more valid than the story of Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I, having bizarre markings plus an extra finger on one hand, a story which served the interests of Henry VIII in demonizing his legally-murdered wife.

Shakespeare's Richard was the creation of several writers, notably Sir Thomas More, a truly nasty piece of work always ready to burn "heretics" alive and yet coming down to us in popular history as the noble "Man for All Seasons." More wrote to please and flatter the Tudors.

Richard's character is today regarded as heroic, and it is not certain at all that he had the young princes murdered, as indeed it is not certain that the princes were murdered. Richard's terrible death on Bosworth Field marked the start of Henry Tudor's reign as Henry VII, father of tyrant Henry VIII and grandfather of the redoubtable Elizabeth Gloriana.

Wroe's book has a number of faults. First is a stylistic tendency for a dreamy drifting-off from the narrative with paragraphs of associations and tidbits of obscure fact. You might call this illustrating the manuscript. Some find it appealing, and so do I when it is not overdone, but it can be irritating, as it sometimes is here, reminding me somewhat of the excesses of Fernand Braudel in The Identity of France.

For someone concerned with a display of detailed and even obscure scholarship in the early part of the book, Wroe, in the latter part, offers some almost naively simple scenes. In speaking of Warbeck's confession at his execution, for example, Wroe says, "The last thing they [the condemned] did was to speak falsehoods. It is almost unthinkable that Henry would have forced such a thing on Perkin, or that he would have agreed to do it."

Nonsense. Invariably at public executions of important or notable persons, they confessed their guilt, just as virtually all accused did at Stalin's show trials. The King's powers were too sweeping for it to be otherwise. In the case of treason, individuals were hung before being taken down, still alive, to be disemboweled and castrated, then to be drawn and quartered. A nod from the King allowed death to occur mercifully on the gallows. Also in the case of treason, the condemned person's children could be turned into paupers through confiscation of all property, or they could be treated with some degree of leniency. The wife and any relatives faced terrible possibilities were the death not an acceptable one (Warbeck left a wife and a son in England).

The book's index is inadequate, a considerable fault in a book about an era in which spelling was almost guesswork. The name Warbeck, for example, is not listed alphabetically for at least a cross-reference.

Still, this is a book worth reading, and, at times, it flows nicely.



Robert Hooke's life was curious, a neglected topic that makes good reading, although a full, living sense of this man is missing from the book.

He was an ingenious, creative man, abounding with energy and interests in his younger years, whose acquaintances and friends included Boyle, Pepys, and Wren. He was widely recognized as a physics and general science experimenter of exceptional ability - a designer of both accurate instruments and experiments in which to employ them - almost certainly the greatest of his day. He might be viewed from today's perspective as something of the Ernest Lawrence of his day versus the great theorists.

Hooke's interests included astronomical measurements, microscopy, fossils, watches, the behavior of gases, and more. He was also interested in theoretical concepts although his mathematical abilities fell far short of people like Newton or Leibniz. Still, he came up with the hypothesis of the inverse-square law for gravity which he sent to Newton, asking him to prove mathematically whether it was valid. Newton never gave Hooke appropriate credit for Hooke's early insight, and it is not clear whether this was owing to Hooke's annoying carping or Newton's own very unpleasant temperament.

Hooke's early musings on the layers of fossils found on his native Isle of Wight demonstrate a remarkable analytical and creative mind at work. He got the process of their formation pretty close to right lifetimes before the meaning of fossils was widely recognized in science.

Ms. Jardine made the happy discovery of what is likely Hooke's portrait (no known one survives), a picture that had long been identified as being of John Ray. The circumstances of her discovery make a wonderful little tale early in the book.

What comes through so strongly from some of Jardine's anecdotes is how the basic philosophy of science had advanced by the second half of the 17th century, Hooke's time. This was, after all, only a few decades after Francis Bacon, yet the main points of modern science seem to be assumed by Europe's leading tinkerers and scientists.

Hooke's story is not a happy one, but I will leave that for readers to discover. Ms. Jardine is at times a slightly awkward writer, but she has an interesting story to tell and, on the whole, she tells it well. Ms. Jardine also wrote On a Grander Scale, a biography of the wonderful Christopher Wren. The book on Hooke she regards as a companion volume to the one on Wren. Do read both.



This a wonderful book. It will have you smiling, laughing, and concerned with the lives and events of a place that might otherwise be seen as of little worth.

Anyone who has driven through the secondary roads of Northern New York will recognize the book's breathtaking authenticity. This is the land of rusting cars sitting on blocks in front yards, old farm houses slumped over and left unpainted for decades, and ugly roadside beer joints with neon window signs.

The town at the center of the story is a place, once somewhat grand, now for years in serious decline. Charm can be spotted in the decayed gingerbread woodwork of century-old houses whose residents are too poor or old to keep them up. Some huge old trees give parts of the main street a disguise of faded elegance.

The town might be taken as a metaphor for the main character, Sully, who is slowly rotting into the same fabric of decay. Sully is charming, offensive, funny, and pathetic in turns. He is both biting observer of the town's slide into oblivion and full participant.

Sully is a complex human being, and surely one of the most memorable characters in modern American literature. He is actually one of a number of attempts by Richard Russo to come to terms with the man who was his extraordinary father. Most of these attempts have not been as appealing or successful as Nobody's Fool, the only exception being The Risk Pool, another fine book, where his central character is a boy thrown by circumstances into the bizarre, chaotic life of his father, a much rawer character than Sully.

Russo has the gift to hold a place up to laughter while yet never separating himself from what he is having us laugh at. It is that quality that gives grace to a story that could fall into brutal sarcasm.

The film that was made of this book was the kind of fine little film Hollywood just does not make anymore. It was a terrific role for an older Paul Newman, and, if you saw it, I think you will find yourself hearing his voice and intonations sometimes as you read Sully's lines.

But the book is far richer and more interesting than the film. It is quite simply a modern masterpiece.



This is a disappointing book. The main points of Atatürk's career - hero of his country's war for independence and founder of the modern secular state of Turkey, a man with some remarkably modern views for his place and time - make him one of more attractive hero-figures of the twentieth century.

But somehow Mango does not succeed in giving us the living, breathing man. Indeed, Mango manages to make some of the genuinely exciting events of Atatürk's career read like rather dull broadsheet accounts.

Mango is certainly a scholar. That comes right through, but there is a somewhat lifeless quality that characterizes much of what should be a smashing yarn of great wars, declining empire, and dashing figures. The great number of Turkish place names and people do not make reading any easier, although Mango does offer a guide to pronunciation at the front.

Interestingly, this appraisal is quite at odds with cover quotes from reviews. One gets expert reviewers' ambiguities like "Takes its place at the top," or "...a higher level of biography than any previous account." Book reviewing in major publications has always been something of game, full of backscratching, favors, and artful ambiguities. The gap here between reviewers' words and Mango's actual work is rather notable.

Still this is a biography of an important figure, one about whom there is limited material in English. It is definitely worth reading.



This book is the best of the newer Orwell biographies, but it still falls short in some respects. Bowker does a far better job than D. J. Taylor at creating a sense of continuity and purpose in Orwell's life. Bowker is a good writer, occasionally showing bits of inspired analysis, but still there are passages of utility-grade stuff.

The two biographies, Bowker and Taylor, published in the same year, offer readers an opportunity to compare two quite different treatments of the same life, treatments that both use previously unknown materials. Taylor's treatment is more episodic and seems to lose no opportunity to highlight something dark, unflattering, or unpleasant about Orwell.

Bowker gets at Orwell's quintessential Englishness. I was happy he used exactly that word, Englishness, which I think is an important and appealing aspect of Orwell. It is a word I've always associated with Orwell much as I do with figures such as Dickens or Graham Greene. This is a quality virtually ignored by Taylor, unless you accept his references to old-boy school snobbery as a rough substitute, references I believe are clear distortions.

Bowker is sympathetic to his subject without ever being servile or sentimental, a position which is right for a biographer. While Taylor makes some effort to convince us of his old admiration for his subject, his words ring false. Taylor displays strong antipathy towards his subject, releasing it slowly through the book, and to my mind this is never the correct position for a biographer. Moreover, the clash between Taylor's claims of admiration and his clear antipathy introduces a howling note of falseness that warns of the author's intent.

Bowker does an excellent job of summarizing the saga of Orwell's widow (his second wife) Sonia and his literary legacy - a tale in which the new Cold War becomes an important element - an interesting topic with which Taylor doesn't do much. Bowker also does a nice job of explaining why a biographer would write about Orwell despite the author's well-known wish that he wanted no biography.

The portion of new material in either book dealing with Orwell's sex life does not shed a pleasant light on part of his character. I couldn't help thinking of passages in Benita Eisler's Byron dealing with the poet's grotesque servant-boy swapping and Mediterranean tours to buy boys in various countries - activities that would put him in prison today - passages that frankly left me feeling as though I needed fresh air. No, Orwell wasn't as twisted as Byron, but he was double-dealing in his sexual affairs and apparently sometimes found the charms of young girls selling themselves in exotic lands an irresistible purchase.

I very much agree with Arthur Koestler's observation, quoted in Bowker, "I don't think George ever knew what makes other people tick, because what made him tick was very different from what most other people tick." Orwell was in many ways what contemporary speech might describe as "out of it." He was, if you will, an authentic English eccentric. This may help explain why Orwell was such a powerful critic and observer while remaining a second-tier novelist.

In a way, something like this may be said of many incisive critics and great artists. The divine Mozart with his scatological letters and often buffoonish behavior. Beethoven's constant moving to new apartments, thunderous emotional storms, and self-destructive attachment to a worthless nephew. The ticks and quirks of the magnificent Samuel Johnson. Dicken's unbelievably obsessive, compulsive behavior.

At the more extreme end of the scale, we have Rousseau's bizarre temperament, always ready to attack friends and admirers. The strange Herman Melville who may just have murdered his wife. Marcel Proust's sadistic penchant for sticking pins into live mice.

Sometimes I think it is better just to enjoy the work of genius rather than digging too deeply into the lives of its creators. For this reason I am almost fearful of reading Norman Sherry's third volume on Graham Greene (reported to focus heavily on the unsavory aspects of Greene's life), one of my favorite twentieth-century writers and critics. But then again, we want to understand, and we find it almost irresistible to read about the lives of artists we have come to love. And whatever unpleasant we may learn, it remains the greatness of their work that drew us to them.

Orwell wrote some of the twentieth century's best essays and occasional pieces, and, in 1984, not long before his death, he displayed a kind of penetrating political insight rarely seen before or since. Since great writing is so often the work of mature people, we undoubtedly missed a great deal when he died at 46.



This is an interesting book. Doctor Ala Bashir was as much an insider as it possible to be without being treated as a criminal by Bush's invasion forces. He served as a personal physician to Saddam Hussein for about twenty years. He is also an artist whose work Hussein favored.

This book is not a biography, and it is not a history in any proper sense. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes by an intelligent observer about life in Iraq under Hussein. Internal consistencies and other evidence suggest that this is an honest work, although we would like to read considerably more on some subjects.

In the dark world of dictatorship, to be favored by the leader often means to run into bitter dislike from other members of the regime, and this was certainly Bashir's experience. We are reminded by his anecdotes that dictators often are not aware of all that goes on within various fiefdoms, or if they are aware, they often feel unable to change things - a great irony, yet one confirmed by the lives of many from Hitler to the American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

Bashir confirms that a good deal of American propaganda gives an inaccurate picture of Hussein. Although Hussein could be ruthless and violent, he had a genuine concern with improving conditions of life for Iraqis, building many hospitals, schools, and cultural institutions. He actually advanced Iraqi women's rights significantly concerning important matters like a woman's right to initiate divorce.

Surprisingly, Hussein could even be a good listener, so long as the subject was not one on which he had made up his mind. Hussein was not a Stalin, and he had no admiration for Hitler. He enjoyed books, particularly history and biography. Bashir is pretty sure from personal experiences that Hussein is not an anti-Semite, but he would not even listen to anyone concerning a change in policy towards Israel.

Many of the problems in Hussein's regime were family problems. Hussein depended on clan and family strongly for loyalty, and he knew perfectly well that this often ended up with less competent people in senior positions. Bashir makes clear that Hussein's son, Uday, was mentally ill, and that on least one occasion Hussein was ready to punish him severely. Yet time usually softened Hussein's temper, and he expressed affection for a pretty-much worthless son.

While we all know that American policy favored Iraq over Iran, contributing to the terrible brutality of their 8-year war, Bashir suggests the CIA was there at the beginning, assisting the coup that led to Hussein's eventual assumption of power.

Those seeking to understand affairs in the Middle East will find this book refreshing, without propaganda or bombast. It is of limited scholarly use, but it is definitely worth reading, its main faults being a limited range of subjects and sketchy coverage.



I am not a regular reader of mysteries, but my wife has encouraged me to read a number of interesting writers in this genre. One of my favorites is Norwegian writer, Karin Fossum.

He Who Fears the Wolf is a story with her appealing character, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, a quiet, thoughtful man with unusual powers of observation and a somewhat melancholy personal life that keeps him immersed in his work. The contrast with gun-waving, bellowing American detectives is notable and welcome. In this character, as in so many of Ms. Fossum's characters, there is a deep sense of humanity and decency.

In Wolf, Ms. Fossum creates another wonderful character, Erkki Johrma, an insane-asylum escapee. Ms. Fossum always displays an interest in the disturbed and rejected of society, but with Errki she has worked something of a miracle.

This story contains what must be one of the most memorable series of scenes in mystery books, to say nothing of literature. It involves the escape of a bank robber and a hostage, and there is a quality here that reminds me of Don Quixote - pathos, absurdity, and subtle humor combined with a very sympathetic view of the human condition. I cannot give any details without spoiling it for you.

Ms. Fossum is also a poet, and her descriptive powers are considerable, but she manages her descriptive passages with quick brushstrokes. She never creates a burden for those who like mystery books to move along briskly. Some might even regard her descriptions of bloody scenes as a bit overpowering.

Please don't think this is an "artsy" book despite its literary qualities, this is a genuine murder mystery, well-paced and gripping. It is a book you will not want to put down.



This book is an interesting failure. It is well worth reading and contains many interesting passages, but Ms. Frieda fails in her stated aim of creating a more sympathetic understanding of Catherine de Medici and the difficulties under which she labored.

Catherine is widely seen as a talented, scheming and ruthless power-behind-the-throne figure, doing almost anything to promote and protect her children which included two Kings of France. Catherine's era overlaps that of a truly great queen, England's Elizabeth I, so her story includes figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Philip II of Spain and includes the great waves of violence that crashed across Europe following the Reformation. You just can't come up with better historical material.

Ms. Frieda does a creditable job of telling her story, at times rising to gripping narrative as when she describes events around the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, an orgy of killing in which something on the order of ten to twenty thousand Huguenots were slaughtered, many having their throats cut in their beds.

Ms. Frieda's explanation of Catherine's role in the Massacre is that she only wanted to have a small group of leaders killed while conveniently gathered for the wedding of Henri of Navarre, a Protestant of Valois blood, and Catherine's daughter, Margot. Ms. Frieda's thesis is that what was to be a small "surgical operation" got completely out of hand with Paris mobs taking to killing anyone even suspected of being a Protestant, as though killing a group of guests at a royal wedding, had it gone no further, would have been just fine.

Ms. Frieda is not the first to put the thesis forward, but it fails utterly to soften our view of Catherine. There is little proof supporting Frieda's interpretation, but, in ordinary common law, if you commit a crime that generates a still bigger crime, you are not free of guilt. Beyond that, no one knew better than Catherine, after all her terrible experience with French Catholic-Protestant relations, what a seething place Catholic Paris was. To have Admiral Coligny, a much-admired Huguenot, and other high officials assassinated at that time in that place was criminally stupid, apart from all considerations of ethics and proper statecraft.

She wheedled her mentally-unbalanced son, Charles IX, into agreeing to the vicious plan, in part out of her sick jealousy over Coligny's friendship and influence with the King. When Charles, in one of his maniacal rages, finally roared his infamous "Kill them all" order, shouldn't the supposedly careful and subtle Catherine have understood how the words could be misinterpreted?

One can't avoid seeing Catherine as the classic over-protective, hot-house mother, willing to forgive her bloody awful darlings anything, willing to do almost anything for them. Such people always do a great deal of harm in ordinary life and even more when they are in high places. This sick trait of Catherine was compounded by the fact that there was raging madness in her Valois-de Medici brood. Charles IX, Henri III, and her daughter Margot, who married the future king, Henri of Navarre, were simply mad, unfit to rule even in ordinary times, but these were not ordinary times. There was Catherine working feverishly for their interests, effectively against the interests of France as a whole.

Other unsavory aspects of Catherine's character come through even in this book. Her horrible execution, many years later, of the Count de Montgomery, the man who accidentally killed her husband, Henri II, in a jousting entertainment, is just one. Henri, who had insisted on another joust, had publicly forgiven the man as he lay dying. Catherine waited for many years to take her bloody revenge. Frieda says this is one of the only examples of her taking vengeance, but that statement comes after having dismissed many convenient deaths, widely suspected at the time to have been poisonings.

Read this book and others - it contains an excellent bibliography - to decide for yourself how best to interpret Catherine's work. You will, in any event, be exposed to interesting times, and you will be glad you aren't living in them.



Here is biographical study blended smoothly with murder mystery. The cause of Mozart's death remains a mystery after many attempts to explain it. Despite the great success of Amadeus, the idea that the composer Salieri poisoned Mozart out of jealousy is generally not credited. Francis Carr skillfully reopens the question of poisoning, but with a new and plausible suspect, having set the stage with an analysis of Mozart's and Constanze's marriage.

It may seem hard for the general reader to believe that so little is known about parts of the life of so great a figure as Mozart. No matter which biography of Mozart you pick up, you find efforts to explain certain blanks in the life of a man so celebrated in his own time. So, too, the odd manner of his funeral and burial. Carr's thesis brings together and explains a number of these mysteries.

In the second half of the book, Carr does a superb job of documenting inconsistencies and reopening the question of why Mozart's remains were treated the way they were. In this matter he masterfully sweeps away the weak explanations of major biographers, especially those around the burial laws of Emperor Joseph II.

The book has a good many passages quoted from Mozart letters, a practice that I generally find less than happy, being so often used as padding. But here the letters are skillfully used to establish Mozart's feelings and attitudes towards his wife as well as providing key testimony from figures such as Constanze's sister Sophie. The absence of letters at certain times, presumably destroyed by Constanze, is itself a line of evidence. Because the heart of the book - Mozart's relationship with his wife and what happened to cause Mozart's death and strange burial - can be little more than an extended essay, the author may be forgiven some padding.

The book is well enough done that you may find yourself reading it in one sitting, just as I did.

If you had previously rejected the idea that Constanze was an inappropriate wife for Mozart, believing it based in prejudice and being aware, through letters, of Mozart's great affection for her, this book may just change your mind.



Here is investigative historical scholarship of the highest order, ranking with J.J. Scarisbrick's remarkable Henry VIII. Written in good, clear prose, every chapter of The King's Cardinal is packed with subtle observations and deductions from existing documents.

Wolsey is an interesting figure for many reasons. He was butcher's son who rose to the highest offices of church and state, the kind of career we usually associate with the modern era rather than with a time when feudal titles tended to be requirements for all important posts in government. Wolsey's capacity for work was breathtaking and his talents were considerable. Most interestingly, here was a man who understood the demands of realpolitik as well as Machiavelli yet maintained a genuine concern for humanism, enlightenment, justice and fair dealings in society.

There is surprisingly little reliable evidence for details of Wolsey's life, yet a substantial body of his correspondence and observations of others during his years in power survives. Thus, this book is less a biography of the controversial Cardinal than an analysis of important acts and policies while he was in power.

Gwyn strips away, carefully, layer by layer, many myths and misunderstandings that have accumulated over five centuries and managed to cloud understanding of Wolsey. Most importantly, he makes it clear that Henry ruled and Wolsey served, sweeping away the image of the younger Henry as playboy king who handed over most serious business to his Cardinal/Chancellor.

Gwyn makes it clear that it was Henry's bull-headed demands for progress on the divorce, "the king's Great Matter," coming at a time when Wolsey had many other important issues with which to deal, that were the cause of his downfall.

I love Wolsey's words in a final interview with Sir William Kingston, keeper of the Tower: "Therefore, Master Kingston, if it chance hereafter you to be one of his [Henry's] privy council...I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put into his head; for ye shall never pull it out again."

Here is a book for all lovers of scholarly history and biography, for all serious students of English history, for students of foreign policy and statesmanship, and for all those who want to understand how a first-rate scholar goes about his business.



This book is a poor effort. It reminds me of one of those quickie books about the Mafia from the 1960s that were indigestible piles of newspaper cuttings and police tips. Such books spilled over with supposed mobster names and sinister-sounding activities, all with no perceivable organizing principle or meaningful analysis.

Just so Jacquard's book. After you've read it, you will understand almost nothing more about bin Laden than you knew before you read it. Jacquard has the name of every insignificant Arab-sounding individual ever given a parking ticket somewhere in the Western world, often going off on pointless tangents from his attempt at a narrative on bin Laden. Unfortunately, the dozens of undefined organizations Jacquard mentions sound a lot like the Devil's Circle in that silly 1930s cliffhanger serial, The Three Musketeers.

The one interesting thing about this book is that it confirms a theory of mine concerning so-called experts on terror. In the United States especially, there are scores of such fellows regularly appearing on television news or writing other quickie books. No one ever seems to question how they are qualified to be considered experts in terror. After all, terrorist organizations are very secretive. How much did we ever learn about the IRA, a truly professional terrorist organization if there ever was one?

Much of what is claimed to be known today about al Qaeda, for example, is the result of American torture in a chain of post-invasion gulags. Like a child's cry of "uncle!" hoping to be released from a bully's grip, the words of the tortured are of little worth.

I am still trying to find a worthwhile book about bin Laden, but in the meantime, Jacquard's book is recommended only to be avoided.



This is a disappointing book. I had looked forward to what promised from some comments and reviews to be the first important book on the Kennedy assassination since Anthony Summers' Not In Our Time.

I am, readers will note, discounting numerous books since that publication which re-state old evidence, trying to give it some new twist, and conclude Oswald was the lone assassin.

The main merit of this book is that it does not accept the official story of the assassination. However, it attempts to prove a specific alternate theory, and it fails to do so. Along the way, it is pretty dull.

The first fault of this book is that it is poorly written - dull, heavy, and repetitive. The poor writing to which I refer is not just a matter of style. It includes, for example, many examples of saying, after suggesting some line of thought, that the authors will get to that in a later chapter. This is prima facie evidence of poor organization.

The poor writing includes such annoying faults as introducing facts or quotes with phrases like "as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist said...." Haynes Johnson is introduced three or four times this way. Alert readers will recognize a technique to bolster a claim beyond its merit. In general, one expects such quoted information to stand on its own, not on the citation of a newspaper-marketing award.

The book descends into a almost silly hush-hush tone with a number of footnotes or parenthetical statements about how the authors are protecting the identities of certain people. After making such claims, the authors sometimes proceed to suggest who in fact is involved, the worst example of this being the suggestion that Che Guevara was the CIA's man in Cuba ready to kill Castro.

Another fault of the book is a truly enormous amount of quoted material. This is a lazy-minded practice, a substitute for good analysis. It is also simply padding used to create the kind of fat book many expect on a serious topic like this.

The book brings little that is genuinely new forward. Almost every idea in it has been suggested previously by others, including a number of books on the Mafia as assassins.

The idea that there was a secret C-Day plan (the authors' nickname for a coup and friendly invasion of Cuba being run in top secret by Robert Kennedy) only puts into new words what has been general understanding for years. President Kennedy was a jingo, as was his brother. He embraced the idea of American interference in the affairs of others. He was also part of a family that never accepted defeat with good grace. Neither of the Kennedy brothers would accept the embarrassing defeat of the Bay of Pigs nor the partial-defeat of the resolution to the Cuban missile crisis.

But the book's greatest fault is not proving its thesis. This book has a superficially plausible thesis, that the Mafia infiltrated secret Kennedy plans against Cuba and used the existence of these plans as cover for the assassination, knowing the government would be too embarrassed to reveal the truth afterward.

If indeed the Mafia were behind the Kennedy assassination, then it is doubtful there can be convincing direct evidence left, and indeed the authors fail to produce any. They assemble a complicated story from snippets of still partially-censored government documents and casual remarks. And as all people who have studied the assassination know, the most interesting government documents have never been released or do not exist.

Of course, the Mob doesn't leave filing cabinets full of paper documenting its crimes the way the Nazis did. The best we have had is whispered word that so-in-so said they killed Kennedy.

When you give the authors' thesis a second thought, you realize it is faulty from the start. Why would the government be intimidated about the revelation of its plot in the context of the early 1960s when almost anything anti-Castro was acceptable? Why would the government not go ahead with C-day after the assassination, just using the assassination as cover?

More generally, the CIA's dirty-operations people, armed camps of violent anti-Castro refugees, professional criminals, and other nasty hangers-on were all so tightly bound together in the costly, anti-Castro plots of the early 1960s, it seems inadequate to think of one of the elements, and the smallest element, as separate and influencing exclusively the course of events. Many anti-Castro Cubans themselves hated Kennedy, viewing him as weak in their cause. They didn't need the Mafia, having been generously financed and armed to the teeth by the CIA.

Al Qaeda's future training camps in the mountains of Afghanistan were small, under-financed efforts compared to these American operations involving thousands of people and tens of millions of dollars. It was a giant criminal, terrorist plot financed by government. It failed in its purpose, Castro outlasting two generations of American Presidents, but it managed to kill many people, waste huge amounts of money, and do a great deal of damage.



It's about time we had a decent biography of Nikita Khruschev.

Khruschev is a more important historical figure than seems generally appreciated today. He was something of a refreshing presence on the dreary world scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember his American tour, and you couldn't help but find a kind of pleasant and infectious quality in some of his observations and activities. I believe he sincerely wanted to slow or halt the Cold War the same way he diminished the horrors of Stalinism, an historic achievement.

Taubman doesn't capture the more idealistic sense of Khruschev, which I believe was genuine, because I was a young man through his time and took an interest in events.

Taubman's Khruschev is a bright (Khruschev had considerable analytical ability and a remarkable memory) peasant risen to the top, an extremely crude man, always regretful about his lack of formal education, who never ceases to behave as something of a Father Karamazov. I have no doubt there is truth here, but it provides an incomplete picture.

Was Khruschev any cruder than what we now know of the private life of John Kennedy, who had prostitutes swimming in the White House pool while Jackie was away, or of the public Lyndon Johnson, who used to conduct interviews and bark orders while relieving himself? I ask this because Taubman repeats the word crude or offers anecdotes about crude behavior many, many times.

Even as a young man I thought many of Khruschev's crudities were not so great as they were treated by America's press. The banging of his shoe at the U.N. is a favorite example. Crude? Yes. But significant beyond style? I think not much.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in biography, the period, world affairs, or Soviet history, but I do have reservations about it, and it should be read with some caution.

Taubman weaves into the text too great a sense of the correctness of America's position and policies of the time, giving a sense of Khruschev largely representing an irritating and sometimes dangerous opponent to them. America often behaved in provocative and dangerous ways through the Cold War. Taubman mentions some matters, as Eisenhower's saying that if the Soviets over-flew the United States the way the United States regularly invaded Soviet airspace there would be war, but the week-to-week reality of this is not stressed enough here to appreciate the intensity of the Soviet point of view. There were many such matters, including American submarines actually colliding with Soviet boats.

Taubman gives a lot of attention to Khruschev's well-known habit of rattling his rockets in speeches, but we are not given enough background for why he might do this. The Pentagon actually had plans in the mid-1950s for an atomic pre-emptive attack on the Soviets. Generals like Curtis LeMay, the man who bombed Japan to the point of gratuitous horror, openly advocated nuclear hostilities. And, of course, America had used the atomic bomb, twice.

Taubman's treatment of matters like the Cuban Missile Crisis suffers from this. The U.S. had a huge, generously-finaced terrorist operation going against Cuba at the time, including along more than one track, and that is an important part of the background that Taubman treats with what I believe is neglect. Taubman's words on the ghastly Bay of Pigs does reveal hints of American jingo attitudes. They are not offered loudly, but they are there, and I think they should not be if we want to understand what motivated Khruschev.

One of the great missing chapters in the book is any detail around the Kennedy assassination. The assassination is there but not treated adequately. It was, after all, an epic event which had great consequences on both the Soviets and America. Of course, to treat the assassination adequately involves going into issues that remain murky and controversial.

Despite my reservations, the book is an interesting and worthwhile read, however, I certainly do not agree with the New York Times review which said "Succeeds in every sense...unlikely to be surpassed any time soon...."



Everyone concerned with contemporary world affairs should read this book. Fisk aims to capture the sweep of events in Western Asia over decades, and he largely succeeds.

It is not a great sweep-of-history book in the sense of Gibbon or Macaulay - Fisk is a journalist, not an historian - although it has great journalistic passages.

Fisk provides an indispensable antidote to much of the propaganda and disingenuousness that plagues mainline media on the subjects of the Middle East and terror, much the way the Internet is plagued with innumerable viruses and Trojan horses.

Robert Fisk is one of the world's great war correspondents, and if you haven't read him at his passionate best, read the sections of this book about the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the first Gulf War. He has lived in the Middle East for decades, and he has hurled himself into the conflicts there time and again.

To some, particularly defenders of Israel's excesses, Fisk is a controversial figure. But there is relatively little legitimate controversy possible in Fisk's reporting. He writes what he has witnessed, and he has spent many years putting himself at risk to be a witness.

The faults of the book are few.

At over twelve hundred pages, it may prove off-putting for new readers, but if this is a fault from one perspective, it is a strength from another. The book stands as an invaluable, comprehensive reference for events in the Middle East over recent decades. Forgotten a name involved in a famous event or a date? You are almost sure to find it here.

One of Fisk's stylistic manners is to get the name of obscure witnesses, as an individual soldier, or details such as the serial number off the scrap of a shell used in a battle or incursion, verifying where it came from. These are the practices of a seasoned, professional journalist and often provide Fisk with leads to still other stories.

For new readers, it should be emphasized that Fisk generally is a clear writer, so the length of the book should not discourage you.

The other fault is its episodic nature, although again this is a fault only from some perspectives.

The episodic nature undoubtedly derives from Fisk work as a columnist, and I think it likely a good part of the book is taken from re-worked columns or old notebooks. It is important to stress that the book is not a collection of old columns, a common kind of book from so many columnists.

Fisk enjoys reading himself, and the sense of an omnivorous reader of newspapers and history books pervades his work.



People impressed by big fat books will be impressed by this one, but in a sense its very size is a judgment against it.

It is no great feat for experienced court prosecutors to churn out voluminous documents. They do it all the time in their court briefs, taking pages of legalese to say what should take paragraphs of good, clear English.

It is fitting in more than one way that Bugliosi is a prosecutor, for this book is a prosecutor's brief, just a fatter one than the ones produced by Bugliosi's predecessors like Gerald Posner or Edward Epstein.

But size here serves another purpose. What I would call intimidation. How could you possibly argue with this massive pile (1,600 pages) of evidence and argument?

The truth is that it is not hard at all to argue with it.

Bugliosi follows his predecessors who used pretty much the same evidence to reach the same conclusions which any independent-minded student of the assassination understands is impossible, that is, that Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone.

Bugliosi had no new evidence of any significance with which to work. He simply looks at the same old stuff ad nauseam. Those familiar with the evidence know the truth is that until we have new evidence, Bugliosi's conclusion cannot possibly be reached by a conscientious investigator.

The key fact of the assassination is that the existing evidence is not adequate to convict anyone, and certainly not Oswald. There is of course other evidence in existence which has never been released. The CIA and the FBI have files they have never released.

We know this from many bits of evidence, including references in documents we do have and from situations about which we can positively conclude evidence must exist by the nature of things. A good example of the last is the CIA surveillance photos and recordings of Oswald, or someone pretending to be Oswald, in Mexico City. An obviously incorrect photo was released and the claim was made recordings were erased.

Oswald's connections with the FBI have never been satisfactorily examined. There are many circumstances suggesting his being a paid informant for the FBI, especially during his time in New Orleans. A letter Oswald wrote to a Dallas agent just before the assassination was deliberately and recklessly destroyed by order of the office's senior agent immediately after the assassination with no reasonable explanation.

Oswald had no motive for killing Kennedy, having expressed admiration for the President. Bugliosi cannot get around this fact, only pursuing the typical path of all his forerunners of attacking Oswald's character.

Oswald's being promptly assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, a man associated with the murky world of anti-Castro violence, someone whose past included gun-running to Cuba and enforcer-violence in Chicago, is a gigantic fact that sticks in the throat of any author like Bugliosi. It has never been explained and is not here.

Of course, there is always Bertrand Russell's unanswered questions after he had reviewed an advanced copy of the Warren Report: "If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?"

Russell's question goes to the heart of the matter, as you would expect from one of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century. It has never been answered, and certainly not by Bugliosi.

It must be embarrassing for Bugliosi that Italian authorities recently, near the release of his book, conducted a series of tests with Oswald's ridiculous choice of weapons, a 1940 Mannlicher-Carcano, one of the last rifles in the world a determined assassin would choose.

Army sharpshooters could not come close to Oswald's supposed feat of loading the crude bolt-action rifle and firing it three times.

Moreover, in their tests using animal parts, it was shown impossible for a bullet to emerge from Kennedy virtually intact as the Warren Commission said "the magic bullet" did.

Of course, when we limit ourselves to three times loading and shooting for the rifle, we are already playing the Warren Commission's game. There were in fact at least four shots as a closely-analyzed recording clearly showed.

Recent analysis at Texas A&M University also showed that the ballistics evidence used to rule out a second gunman had been misinterpreted.



This is a biography of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, but the focus of this book is not so much to document the Earl's life as to demonstrate that the Earl was the author of the plays and poems we ascribe to William Shakespeare.

The known facts of Shakespeare's own life are few and seemingly unpromising to have produced the language's greatest poet. Many scholars and critics over the centuries have speculated that others were responsible for the plays and poems.

In de Vere, Anderson does have a fairly strong candidate. The author does show many connections between events in the life of Edward de Vere and facts and references in Shakespeare's work.

I think Anderson's strongest argument is the idea that a man like the real William Shakespeare, actor and theater producer, a man without any access to high levels of government, a man who so far as we know never traveled to any extent, and a man who would not have had access to any great library, simply would not be familiar with all the sophisticated matters touched on in the plays.

To bolster this general argument, Anderson identifies many circumstances from the plays that may be explained in terms of de Vere's experience, but they all remain suggestive, and in many cases Anderson does go through a rather tortured effort to make what he regards as a strong point.

Anderson offers many other supporting suggestive bits such as anagrams and drawings seeming to reveal another as the actual playwright and passages annotated by de Vere in contemporary books. The whole of this is suggestive, at times powerfully so, but it is somewhat less than convincing.

Although I enjoyed this book, nevertheless, in the end, I remain unconvinced. As Anderson says himself, there is no "smoking gun" - and, God, how I wish a scholar writing about our greatest writer would avoid such clichéd American expressions.

The most important doubt for me is found in de Vere's own known writing. While his letters show a man of learning and eloquence, I just do not hear Shakespeare in his words. There are times when Anderson says a reference in a letter is the same matter as a reference in a play or poem, but the magic of the language just isn't there to my mind.

Several interesting thoughts come to mind with the de Vere thesis. First, de Vere - wastrel and swashbuckler, was not a particularly pleasant or even ethical man, quite different to the figure most of us imagine Shakespeare's being.

Second, de Vere was not just a failure as a businessman, he was a total failure at being even the keeper of his inheritance. He had no commercial sense at all.

In the American national battery of tests for teachers some years ago, I noticed an odd question about Shakespeare in which the "correct" answer was about his being a good businessman - running a successful theater company, etc - rather than the romantic ideal of the artist. I thought the question heavily biased by America's focus on making money. If de Vere was Shakespeare, the question is not only odd, the desired answer was altogether wrong.

Despite my reservations, this is a book that should be read by all admirers of Shakespeare and by all who are fascinated by the Elizabethan period.