Thursday, December 19, 2013
I had hoped, for various reasons, that this book might offer a contribution to the study of the assassination, but, although it is fairly well written and contains a couple of small bits of interest, it is largely a dud. I say this for several reasons, the chief being that Mr. Corsi does not answer his own question, does not even pretend to answer it. But beyond not answering his own question, Mr. Corsi just gives us a core-dump of his past reading on the assassination and leaves us with that, and, indeed, many of his offerings are highly contradictory in nature and occasionally even silly.
Here are a couple of quotes from the book’s dust jacket: “[the book is] the culmination of decades of meticulous research” by a best-selling, investigative journalist. “Corsi sets a new standard for JFK assassination research….”
Well, I could see no evidence supporting either of these claims, unless it took Mr. Corsi an extraordinary amount of time to read the books he surveys. His book is actually a survey of other people’s books and views on the subject, and, since I have read most of them, not a bad job of capturing some key points. But is that what Mr. Corsi’s book pretends to be? Not at all.
I have no objection to books which survey the literature on a subject – indeed, they can be quite valuable - but in taking the survey approach, an author is supposed to make a selection, a meaningful one, both in the books included and in the contents featured from each, and to offer a comprehensive point of view woven from the mass. Mr. Corsi’s book utterly fails in this first rule of survey literature.
Mr. Corsi has Oswald as a KGB spy, a CIA spy, a double-agent, and a number of other things at various points, leaving any sensible reader confused and dissatisfied. What I believe Oswald so clearly was is a young man who joined the Marines and was selected on the basis of his talents to be part of a “phony defector to Russia” program, one of many hare-brained schemes of American intelligence during the Cold War. Although not a CIA program, it was overseen by James Angleton, chief of CIA counterintelligence for many years, a man who was ultimately proved paranoid and was finally removed from the CIA after creating a huge, destructive internal battle over the Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko. Further, Oswald, on his return to the United States, worked as a paid informant for the FBI, perhaps looking into the training camps which Kennedy wanted closed after his agreement with Khrushchev. It was this work which brought him into close contact with the people intending to assassinate Kennedy, although I doubt Oswald ever knew their ultimate purpose, and his rather weird (by 1960s’ standards) background gave them the perfect material to mold a patsy.
The author spends, for example, a good amount of time on Ion Pacepa, a defector from Romanian intelligence. Mr. Pacepa’s notions include a reading of Oswald’s writing (!) and other materials to conclude that the KGB was running Oswald as an agent. Not just any agent, but one who was to carry out Nikita Khrushchev’s “desire” to kill Kennedy over his embarrassment from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For any informed person, this is a preposterous notion. First, Khrushchev actually had some grudging admiration for Kennedy and had established a backchannel of communications with the President. Second, the outcome of the Crisis was not entirely unfavorable to Soviet interests since Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba again – a pledge which infuriated America’s large terrorist armies of Cuban refugees and their CIA trainers and paymasters – met a major goal of putting missiles into Cuba in the first place. Third, the Soviets at that time were the absolute leaders in creating human intelligence networks – they had many great successes - and there is no way they would use a fairly marginal figure like Oswald as a major spy, much less as an assassin since he had zero skills, experience, or knowledge of such matters. Fourth, the risks in the Soviets giving anyone the task of assassinating an American president were beyond calculation in an era when the Pentagon still bristled with madmen who would have loved to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia. Fifth, Mr. Pacepa had a double motive for his far-out claims: ingratiating himself with the CIA faction which was intensely, insanely anti-Soviet and his own resentments against the Soviets, coming from, as he did, a Soviet satellite country. Sixth, this view of Oswald’s position is about as far as you can get from some of the other views presented, so why bother presenting it?
Clearly, you do not give readers a perspective with such a hodgepodge of views, but if the author’s aim was to present many views – which I actually cannot accept since there are views not represented – then it was incumbent upon him to do in each case what this reviewer has done above in the case of Ion Pacepa, present some analysis and perspective, but he does not do so.
JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF RICHARD BELZER'S HIT LIST: AN IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION INTO THE MYSTERIOUS DEATHS OF WITNESSES TO THE JFK ASSASSINATION
If you like books with very little material to read, and much of that repeated two to three times in a page or two, books with great sections of type set in heavy bold or inserted into shaded boxes, all with a generous sprinkling of exclamation marks, and if you like being addressed as “hey, folks” as by a pitchman on an infomercial selling sponge mops and you enjoy photos that seem to have been copied from dingy newspapers, then you will like this book.
The book is sub-titled as an “in-depth investigation,” but as someone with an abiding interest in the Kennedy assassination who has read a good deal of the literature on the subject, I think I can fairly say that this book’s only remarkable quality is that it has nothing new to say: it reflects virtually no research and remarkably little thought. Even its format is unpleasant, much resembling a high school newspaper from some backwater town.
This is the very kind of book which makes those genuinely interested in finding out what happened on November 22, 1963, subject to ridicule. It is simply a shameless grab for dollars, offering readers a chance to reach into a twenty-dollar-or-so grab-bag to discover a plastic toy from the dollar store.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
This is a good, vigorously written biography by an author who is sympathetic with his subject, but it suffers from faults which exclude it from true excellence or being regarded as a definitive life.
First, the author is fixated - a strong word, but appropriate here - by notions around Jewish identity, an odd focus for a biographer of Oppenheimer, a man who was raised in a secular environment at home and at school and who seems to have given very little thought to Jewish culture. Indeed, Oppenheimer, with his piercing blue eyes and tall thin figure, almost certainly was of mixed ethnic background, but even here the author assures us, his rather ethereal mother, the dominant parent in contributing to his looks and temperament, was as Jewish as his hearty German Jewish father.
The author more or less accuses Oppenheimer of ignoring cultural roots to his peril, regarding the act of having done so almost as a character flaw and as an explanatory variable in his personality. Monk makes himself a bit silly in this because countless migrants to the United States from scores of ethnic backgrounds, including my own paternal grandfather, did things like change the spelling of family names or adopt English-sounding first names or nick-names, and many gave up traditional customs. They wanted a fresh start in a brave new world, and no one would sensibly assert they were flawed in doing so.
Monk starts the book by quoting the physicist Rabi, generally a brilliant observer, on the something which seemed to be missing in Oppenheimer’s personality, and from there weaves the theme of missing Jewishness. Actually I think Rabi (whose view here, it should be noted, would have been influenced by his being an old country Orthodox man) got this observation wrong because it is very likely that Oppenheimer was something of an autistic, perhaps the milder form called Asperger’s Syndrome, which explains his extreme awkwardness with other people and difficulty seeking or making friends. Combined with his rather ethereal character plus other personality quirks, Oppenheimer undoubtedly communicated a sense of undefined otherness. Missing ethnic roots is not on the mark for analysis.
A good deal of attention is given over to rising anti-Semitism in the United States, something which had had no long-term history but seems to have arisen after the stock market crash of 1873. The rude turning away of Joseph Seligman from the Grand Hotel at Saratoga in 1877 was a watershed event which other hotels and institutions soon began to copy, if for no other reason than not wishing to lose their customers to those who catered to prejudice. This, of course, is relevant to the life of a man like Oppenheimer, but coming along, as it does in this book, with all of the author’s emphasis on the theme of Jewishness and anti-Semitism, it becomes a bit wearying. Oppenheimer went only to the best schools and received magnificent appointment after magnificent appointment during his career, so the relevance of anti-Semitism to his life seems marginal if not obscure, and as we know from glancing at a list of Nobel-winning physicists, being Jewish was no bar.
Monk’s worst excess is introducing virtually every scientific figure to whom a descriptive epithet may apply as “Jewish Dutch” or “half Jewish” or “German Jew,” etc. This not only contributes nothing to the story, its repetition many times communicates a sense almost of reverse prejudice. The ethnic origin of any scientist surely is irrelevant except where it may have a special bearing, as in someone’s escape from Hitler’s Germany.
Contributing to the sense of a man with a missing center was Oppenheimer’s true tragic flaw: he is almost a case study of the exceptionally brilliant man who does not achieve top recognition in his chosen field. Yes, the world community of theoretical physicists certainly came to have his name on their tongues, but while Bohr, Dirac, Rutherford, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Born, and others made historic contributions in the revolutionary scientific period of Oppenheimer’s early life, and received Nobel prizes in recognition, Oppenheimer did not. Oppenheimer, despite all his cleverness and literally tireless efforts to keep on top of theoretical and experimental work in his life as an active physicist, gained his position in history for what was essentially a management job, heading up the scientific teams of Los Alamos in building the atomic bomb.
What’s more, having as his great achievement the construction of a terrible weapon which shortly was used brutally to extinguish tens of thousands of souls simply had to conflict with Oppenheimer’s acute aesthetic, poetic sensibilities. The author tells us that Oppenheimer never regretted his work on the bomb, but if that is so it goes to the same tragic flaw of needing to achieve and accomplish and impress yet not quite being able to do so in his field of pure science.
As Monk informs us with many interesting anecdotes, Oppenheimer in his twenties could be something of a terror with his sharp tongue and his incessant desire to demonstrate he knew more than others, even during other scientists’ presentations which he would interrupt many times. I tend to think that these acts too demonstrate Oppenheimer’s tragic flaw: he almost knew or feared he might not achieve what many of them had achieved, yet he felt impelled to make an indelible impression on them with questions, anecdotes, and witticisms.
So too Oppenheimer’s two half-hearted attempts at killing male friends in his academic years, both involving friends whom he admired but likely felt over-shadowed by in grace and attractiveness and success. The incidents may well also have reflected frustrated sexuality in a man who had a hard time relating to people and whose actual sexual identity may have not been strongly fixed: more than a few hostile observers regarded him as homosexual. These violent acts are anecdotes of which I was not aware – in one case leaving a poisoned apple on the intended victim’s desk - and they speak strongly to Oppenheimer’s odd personality. He did also suffer from severe depressions and was once diagnosed as schizophrenic. On the subject of his personal life, I think it fair to say the author does a less than adequate job with, for example, the nature of his strange marriage to Kitty barely touched upon.
During the unpleasant period of hearings over Oppenheimer’s security clearance, the author depends too much on transcripts, always in my view a questionable approach. It would be much more interesting to learn more about how this affected Oppenheimer’s private life. In this sequence of events, there is Oppenheimer’s own terrible mistake of having previously called into question the political reliability of others, particularly that of his old friend Chevalier. The author gives us Chevalier’s exchange of letters with Oppenheimer, and I believe we see in this yet another aspect of Oppenheimer’s true tragic flaw. It was almost as though Oppenheimer were once again poisoning an apple to be left for a friend. He destroyed Chevalier’s career and never expressed regret for having done so.
Monk seems to regard the possibility of Oppenheimer’s having served Soviet interests as almost impossible. He cites as proof Oppenheimer’s deep affection for America, as for the geography of the Southwest or his determination to show Europeans that America could build its own school of theoretical physics, but those kinds of feelings are simply not proof against the possibility of espionage. Kim Philby, one of the legendary British spies for Russia in the 1950s, in his sad Soviet exile, relished receiving the Times of London from the KGB and reading such utterly banal English things as cricket scores. Anyway, Oppenheimer worked in a cesspool of McCarthyite insanity, the very thing which in part motivated the British Cambridge Five and other spies for fear America might launch a nuclear attack on a yet unequal Russia. Indeed, the author neglects communicating the well-developed plans and advocacies in Washington for a massive, pre-emptive strike on Russia.
The fact remains that Sudoplatov, in his memoir, tells us that Oppenheimer did serve as a spy. I know full well that spy memoirs are frequently riddled with disinformation, but Sudoplatov’s claim is a rather large thing which any biographer pretending to comprehensiveness cannot ignore. I say this without believing the claim, but, if the claim were true, it would not outrage me the way I suspect it would Mr. Monk. I have always regarded the acts of the period’s British spies as a healthy antidote to the nuclear-armed insanity of early 1950s America. If extreme measures are regarded as needed to defend freedom, as they so frequently are in America, how much more so to defend masses of humanity from insane attack?
Sunday, October 06, 2013
What a pleasure to discover a book of this quality near the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. As someone with an enduring interest in the subject who has read a variety of books, I assure readers that here is one of the best and most informative books written on the subject since Anthony Summers’ original Conspiracy of 1980.
Alex Cox has not done the same kind of original investigation that Anthony Summers did (indeed, it is too late in time even to attempt that again), but his approach is that of extracting and assembling the key findings of other studies and investigations, and it is a valuable approach when done well, as it very much is here. The timeline method of highlighting two parallel lives yields some eyebrow-raising coincidences and discoveries not commonly found with other approaches.
Perspective, and not mere recitation of facts like data points on a scatter graph, is an important element to understanding historical events, and a powerful perspective is what this book offers, perhaps more so than any other.
Mr. Cox gives us a fact-packed and well-written narrative, and he doesn’t waste a sentence telling his story. You will be riveted by the text. Importantly, here Oswald is not regarded as a villain and Kennedy not over-rated as a saint. Indeed, it is a major flaw in perhaps the majority of books on the subject to assume the opposite of one of these characterizations.
Despite the graceful and polished public image, the Kennedys were often unattractive people who made many enemies as their driving ambitions scraped against or crushed the interests of others, although one believes by the time he was killed, the President had learned some hard and valuable lessons about governing and was on his way to some worthy achievement.
Oswald was, as goes the typical recitation of his background, a poor young man with little formal education and a chaotic upbringing, but he was also a young man with talent and decent motives (and, indeed, a man possessing the rather typical American patriotic views of his time) seeking an interesting and unconventional life of service when he got sucked up into powerful, murderous events he never fully understood.
The insights offered in this book include not just facts and issues around the assassination but a deadly accurate (I did live through these years) sense of the poisonous and complex political atmosphere in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Readers should note that while Not in Your Lifetime (published in 1998) was advertised as an updated edition of Anthony Summers’ earlier work, Conspiracy (published in 1980), it is almost an entirely different book. The original Conspiracy stands, in this reviewer’s judgment, as the best single investigative book ever written on the Kennedy assassination, and it is the place for anyone new to the assassination to start.
Unfortunately, I believe Mr. Summers, in this “update,” fell too much under the influence of Robert Blakey, Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Mr Blakey became Chief Counsel only after the original appointee, Richard Sprague, had to step down. Sprague’s leaving had to do with his unmistakable intention to conduct a thoroughgoing investigation of the assassination, not depending on the FBI as the Warren Commission had or on other investigative agencies and not constrained in its comprehensiveness. The congressional establishment was having none of that, knowing full well that a lot of bodies lay buried, and Mr. Sprague lost his political leverage through the retirement of his key congressional supporter.
Mr. Blakey became chief proponent of “the Mafia did it,” his past government service having been involved a good deal in fighting crime and racketeering. I read Mr. Blakey’s book and other related ones, and I have never found “the Mafia thesis” convincing. Yes, some important Mafia figures were angry with the Kennedys, but would they put their entire billion-dollar industry at risk? I think not. Anyway, other activities towards the end of killing Kennedy were underway, and some Mafia figures were undoubtedly aware of them. After all, the gigantic secret anti-Cuba terror program conducted by the CIA in the early 1960s made bin Laden’s later little mountaintop operation resemble a boy scout outing. The CIA had thousands of Cuban refugees trained and armed and spent millions on attempts to assassinate Castro, run guns into Cuba, and conduct horrific acts of terror from shootings to bombings.
As with all of Anthony Summers’ investigative books, Not in Your Lifetime (1998) is well written. And there are some interesting new tidbits added to the story, such as the fact that Oswald, at one point during his publicity stunt over renouncing his citizenship (something he never actually did) at the American Embassy in Moscow, was taken behind some doors not open to the general public. But the immense detail of Mr. Summers’ 1980 book, Conspiracy, is gone, details looking into almost every interesting aspect of the assassination. And the author seems to lean towards the “Mafia did it” thesis.
But, to rephrase Bertrand Russell’s famous question about the Warren Commission’s conclusions, if the Mafia did it, why all the state secrecy? It was then just a sensational ordinary murder, and a good excuse to crush the Mafia, not a political crime discrediting some of the secret agencies of government.
Blakey also thought Oswald was involved, but I have never accepted that. Oswald – with his past connections to security services, being trained in Russian while in the Marines, sent on not-well-understood assignments in Japan, and ultimately carrying out a long fraudulent defection to the Soviet Union – fell, when back in the United States, into a murky situation he did not fully understand. He was likely working as an informant for the FBI, the agency charged by the Kennedys with closing the refugee terror-training camps in the American South following the settlement with Khrushchev of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Oswald’s Russian-defector background made him a perfect patsy for the assassins, and his FBI status made him pursue all avenues to information about training camps and those running them. After all, the key to the Kennedy assassination is communism in Cuba and the paranoid, blood-soaked drive to end it. Everything points that way, right down to Oswald’s ridiculous leafleting and his supposed trip to Mexico City, his association with anti-Castro fanatics like Guy Banister and David Ferrie, and his creating a phony, one-man chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
I am hoping that a new edition of this book, coming out in 2013, reflects more the original approach of Conspiracy, but I am not overly hopeful since being disappointed by Mr. Summers' book on 9/11.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Well, the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination is almost here, and loads of new books on this yet not-fully-understood subject are being published.
Always having been interested in the subject, I will be reading some of the new or updated books. This is necessarily a risky task because the Kennedy assassination literature has consisted of about five-percent genuine books, with the rest an ugly swamp of disinformation, quick-buck products, and just plain stupidities.
I know that we can never fully understand the event while so many vital documents remain buried in classified government files, especially those of the CIA and FBI, but clever researchers do sometimes manage to piece together interesting new conclusions in sorting through the mounds of public evidence.
You try the best you can to not trail again into the swamp, but unless you can actually page through a book in a store, sampling its logic and writing quality – and who does that now very often with the convenience of Amazon? - you are bound to land in the muck a few times. Amazon’s reviews provide a helpful device, but experienced readers know they are larded with meaningless praises from relatives, friends, colleagues, or unscrupulous publishers trying to gin up sales. Humans do have a tendency to abuse every good thing. You really must read a number of any set of reviews with a critical eye, but then information has never been free.
I had some reason to think there might be a new approach in this book, and indeed there is, a new approach to abusing readers. Not only is the author embarrassingly uninformed, but the publisher employs a new sales gimmick: this book is incomplete, virtually ending in midstream, and you must buy volume two (and who knows after that, volumes three or four depending on sales volume?) to let the author finish.
Well, I finished with the author before he finished with me. What can you say about a writer/researcher who doesn’t know so basic a fact as that Oswald never renounced his American citizenship in Russia? The fact is that In front of State Department official (and ex-CIA employee), Richard Snyder, Oswald made a big show for possible witnesses about renouncing at the Embassy, even handing over a legally-meaningless, scribbled note. Snyder explained that the only method of renouncing citizenship involved a standard form to be sworn and witnessed. Oswald never pretended to do so. Further, Anthony Summers, in his second book on the assassination, tells us that Oswald at one point during this whole little stage play for any KGB watchers was admitted to a restricted area behind closed doors.
Yet Mr. Albarelli asserts twice that Oswald renounced his citizenship, contradicting the testimony of everyone involved including Richard Snyder, and contradicting plain logic, too, because had Oswald actually signed the papers and taken the oath he would certainly not have been entitled to return to the United States. Swearing off your citizenship is not a game, it comes with real consequences.
Albarelli pooh-poohs the idea of some highly-informed researchers that Oswald himself never did travel to Mexico City – an idea supported at least in part by the CIA’s never supplying a photo of Oswald (the Cuban Embassy there being under constant photo-surveillance) and claiming telephone-recording tapes of calls Oswald supposedly made were routinely destroyed. No, Albarelli claims Oswald went to Mexico City three times, a bizarre claim I have never come across before.
Albarelli is immersed in notions about the use of drugs and hypnotism to interrogate people and to possibly set them up for carrying out ordered acts. While it is true that the CIA did a huge number of illegal and unethical studies on uninformed people and even hospital patients - killing some of them - it is difficult to see what application this has to the Kennedy assassination. A drugged and/or hypnotized Oswald would have been no more suitable a candidate for assassin than a not-drugged, not-hypnotized one. The man was certifiably a poor shot, and the rifle he supposedly used is a ridiculous piece of garbage.
We can surmise that many pro-Warren Report books on the assassination - Gerald Posner, Priscilla Johnson, or Edward Epstein in the last book of his trilogy come to mind - were generated (either wittingly or unwittingly on the part of authors) through CIA contacts and assets. After all, many who do work for CIA assets and cut-outs never even understand the truth behind their paychecks. But I suspect many of the more outlandish anti-Warren Report books also owe their genesis to CIA assets, it being an effective method of discrediting critics to publish silly or lurid stuff that supposedly represents their views – the precise method used to discredit Jim Garrison’s investigation.
Avoid this book and its sequel or sequels because you will learn nothing worth knowing from it/them.
Monday, September 16, 2013
Why do you think this book was so widely and highly praised in the mainline press? The list of praising quotes reminds me of the spontaneous outpourings we read and heard later for Gerald Posner’s inaccurate and manipulative book on the Kennedy assassination, Case Closed.
Under the pretense of telling an off-beat romantic story, this book serves as a hatchet job on Oswald, the intent being to confirm Oswald’s character as in keeping with the Warren Report’s one-sided prosecution brief. After all, many who knew Oswald and accounts from people in Russia tell us he was not a man who could have shot anyone, much less a political figure he admired. Ms. McMillan’s brief for this book, and it does seem to have been a brief, was to counteract such first-hand observations of Oswald’s character.
Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s book is one of the most dishonest I have ever read. She employs every tidbit of selected material to manipulate her subject, Marina herself having sadly supplied much of it over time. Any conscientious biographer would be ashamed to do what is done here, even for a disliked subject
Ms. McMillan never knew Oswald: she briefly met and interviewed him in Moscow, 1959, after a mysterious tip as to his location, activity with a close-to-zero probability of being coincidental, activity never satisfactorily explained and fully in keeping with a traditional practice of intelligence services to use go-betweens to check up on the progress of their sensitively-placed employees.
Ms. McMillan had worked as a translator at the American Embassy and became a “journalist,” working for a news agency no one ever heard of, and almost certainly worked directly or indirectly for the CIA: after all, many if not most CIA contractors never even know for whom they are working. The profession of journalists abroad in the 1950s and 1960s was so thoroughly compromised by the CIA – Reuters, Life Magazine, The New York Times, and others crawled with disguised agents and contract employees – that security services like the KGB regarded it as the norm to assume suspicious connections.
As to her knowledge of Marina, well that comes long after Marina found herself in an impossible situation and had been brow-beaten into submission by American authorities. After the assassination, Marina found herself alone with a child in a strange land, a Russian speaker in a United States consumed with anti-Communist hysteria, her husband, falsely portrayed as a Marxist and traitor, having been summarily accused of killing the President and then murdered. She was quickly taken in hand by the Secret Service and the FBI after the assassination and whisked away for a long period with no public access, supposedly for her own protection, but in fact to make her understand, one-on-one, the hopelessness of her situation and the one avenue open to her to be able to remain and earn a living in the United States: to confirm whatever nonsense the FBI came up with to blacken her husband’s reputation.
And she did as she was told. Anyone who has seen old video of Marina speaking, or who has read her testimony, gets the impression of a flighty-brained or impossibly-distracted person, or indeed of a mentally unbalanced one. The effect of her words on any topic about her husband is immediate for any unbiased reader or watcher. One almost suspects her treatment by some of the drugs we now know the CIA then was spending millions on to develop and prove both as interrogation drugs and as a means to induce psychological control of unwitting people. The CIA went so far at the time as to conduct many illegal experiments on various uninformed patients and populations, ending in the uncounted deaths of quite a few.
Questions rarely asked and never answered about Marina herself include why she even was admitted to the United States at the height of the Red Scare, why the FBI wouldn’t have kept constant tabs on her as a likely Russian agent, and why she was permitted to remain in the country after such cataclysmic events?
Well, you will learn nothing about those matters nor about anything else of substance from this poor book.
There is only one valid reason for ever reading this book, and that is to understand the bizarre lengths to which American security services have gone to create a legend around Oswald. Why is that? Why should that be necessary? After all, if he was what the Warren Commission and Hoover’s FBI – who incidentally did all of the actual investigating for the Commission - portrayed him to be, he was just one more disgruntled malcontent who committed a murder.
But all clear-thinking people know that isn’t so.
Monday, July 29, 2013
The theme of the book, as the title implies, is about truth and lies – a retelling of that ancient observation that what people hold as truth is often a lie and what they regard as a lie is just as likely to be the truth. In the parlance of war, war being part of the book’s subject matter, history is what the victor says it is.
This is a subject of never-ending fascination, and, in a world where the President of the United States speaks of rights and freedoms while sending fleets of high-tech death squads to kill thousands of innocents on the other side of the planet, it certainly has fresh relevance.
While there are a great many lies told and truths lost along the way in this book, I think the author largely fails in making her case. Indeed, I think the book says things she likely never intended.
To my mind, an important theme of the book is the truly suffocating nature of life on a small island where little happens and there is almost no opportunity.
Boredom in the characters’ lives and their need to feel part of a relatively small gang of peers and neighbors, no matter how obnoxious their behavior or dull their character, this reader found genuinely oppressive.
I also feel certain the author did not intend to write a novel about mental illness and the terrible damage that severe cases inflict on friends and family, but that is what I believe she has done. Is the evident mental illness of several characters here unintended? I think so. For the author and a number of reviewers seem to think there is humor and humanity in lunatic thoughts and vicious acts.
Does mental illness’s importance in this story (again for me) reflect the effects of inbreeding over the centuries in so small a place as Guernsey, further enhancing the suffocating social effects of island life? I think so.
In her effort to explore truth and lies, Ms Horlock mixes fiction with fact and has two stories running in alternate chapters, one is the main, later fictional story and the other a part-fictional blend of earlier events. One at first thinks of an admirable effort like the great German film, People on Sunday, an original mixture of documentary and a fictional story from 1930.
But to my mind Ms Horlock does not succeed in blending fact and history, and again, as with other parts of the book, there is confusion. She makes a surprising number of errors in her history, as in often calling German troops Nazis, when in fact the average German conscript was no more a Nazi than the average Russian conscript was a Stalinist or the average Italian a Fascist.
Again, the author badly confuses concentration camps with death camps (note: camps are not a significant part of either of the author’s two stories). Despite the term concentration camp having come down to us in Hollywood movies as the places in which mass murder was organized, the truth is that there were broadly two distinct and different sets of institutions.
Concentration camps - of which there were many and in which the nature of the populations and the severity of their treatment by the state varied just as with modern prisons ranging from minimum to maximum security – were mainly places to isolate and punish dissidents and political undesirables or to hold people until some further disposition were decided, which could, of course include death for political crimes.
Along with some other allied nations, the United States too had concentration camps during the war. They were for resident Japanese, some Italians, serious dissidents, and others, but it called them internment camps. The many people interned lost their freedom for years, lived meagre lives under harsh conditions, and had their property, homes and businesses and bank accounts, stolen and never returned even after the war. But mainly they were not killed, and just so for the most part in Germany.
The death camps – most infamously Auschwitz – were disguised as concentration or work camps but were places for organized, industrial-scale murder in Eastern Europe under covering chaos of the invasion of Russia. The death camps were not run by police or by the German Army, whose leaders mostly wanted nothing to do with Hitler’s brutal excesses in breaking military traditions and international codes.
They were run by a special (lowlife) branch of the SS, itself a political army which served as Hitler’s Praetorian Guard whose officers were selected and indoctrinated to provide an elite corps of Aryan future-society types.
The author also speaks of the underground field hospital the Germans built on Guernsey and leaves the suggestion that German field hospitals away from the fronts were for the hideous Nazi experiments with prisoners. That is simply not true.
The problem with this book is that confusion so often prevails, and not just in historical facts, but in the main story, especially in the main characters. Cathy, the protagonist, is supposed to be very funny - an older, more earthy and sophisticated version of Martha Grimes’ Emma Graham. But Cathy is in fact a pretty nasty piece of work, someone with little affection for members of her family, someone given to ugly impulsive behavior, and someone who tells lies extreme enough to destroy the lives of others. She does not represent a “typical” adolescent in my experience.
Cathy is often not funny despite author’s effort to have it so. Cathy’s light and elliptical adolescent descriptions strike me as not consistent with her acts, which vary from just dumb to genuinely vicious.
Nicolette, alternately Cathy’s close friend and poisonous enemy, is one of those adolescent beauties intensely and neurotically aware of her attractiveness to others – always flipping her hair and spending considerable time at mirrors and acting as though a moment’s attention from her were a rare gift bestowed. The key to her nature is that she endlessly uses her attractiveness to play the tyrant over the lives of virtually everyone with whom she comes into contact.
Unless you like tales of “those good old boys drinking whiskey and rye,” neither of these characters is attractive or particularly interesting. Indeed Nic, for so Nicolette is called, is so lacking in human values it seems unreal that many people in the story continue to crave her attention and the glow of her presence. Nicolette is an extreme narcissist with no loyalties to anyone or anything beyond her own perverse amusement and poisonous humor. She is pretty close to what we today call a sociopath.
While we have all met characters like Nic in life, and may well have been taken in for a while by false charm and glamor, the people in this book are all taken in all the time. She is a walking center of attention for Cathy and other girlfriends, a dark star in whose orbit they rotate, and it strains credibility that someone this vicious and inconstant could long sustain the interest and loyalty of others, at least of those with intelligence, as Cathy is supposed to have.
The book is well written, and it has its moments, but there are not nearly enough of them. In the end we left feeling the sort of fetid horror of being at the mercy of someone like Nic, or Cathy for that matter, in a small isolated place. And we are left with a long trail of bad decisions and stupid acts trying to pass for amusement.
And it does seem very much to me that the author’s late explanation for Nic’s treatment of Cathy is contrived and unconvincing. The same circumstance, which I won’t reveal, is used to almost justify Cathy’s criminal treatment of an excellent teacher, revealing not so much a web of lies as a set of very warped values.
“Cathy’s teenage voice is a joy – funny, endearing and credible….Horlock has created an authentic adolescent voice and…illuminated the history of a small island….” The Independent
“Irresistibly funny and poignant….” Financial Times
This reviewer cannot agree with either of those statements, and they only demonstrate the fatuous and even incestuous nature of so much of the book review industry.
Monday, February 11, 2013
This is an absolutely shattering film, one of the most profound anti-war films ever made.
It is based on a play, and I believe the judgment shown in cutting Act 3 of David Haig's play and substituting a reading of Kipling's poem works splendidly for the film.
The acting and casting and directing are superb.
And the locations and sets, as is the standard for BBC drama, are wonderful to the eye.
Few films convey both the hopes, wishes, and ideology which go into the making of war and the utter futility and waste of its grim reality, and that is just what this masterpiece achieves.
World War I was built on glib phrases, airy patriotism, and emotional heroics - although in reality it was nothing more than a fight between two branches of a royal family over dominance on the continent of Europe.
It ended by killing 20 million people in the most grotesque fashion and setting the stage for World War II which would kill 50 million more.
The World War I generals repeated pretty much the tactics of the American Civil War, confirming the old saying about generals always fighting the last war, but they did so with such grimly efficient new killing technologies as heavy machine guns, tanks, poison gas, and flamethrowers.
The film's poignancy comes in part from the fact that World War I - unlike World War II or America's Vietnam Holocaust - saw the finest and best educated and most highly connected young men often volunteering, and dying.
I wish every dreamy-eyed schoolchild had this film in his or her history curriculum.
Recommended without reservation.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
This surely is one of the most perfect film adaptations - and, indeed, one of the most perfect films - ever made.
It is literally flawless in its casting, acting, photography, costumes, and clever directorial touches.
Elizabeth Gaskell's novel has been described as an under-appreciated masterpiece, and I think that assessment accurate. The most remarkable aspect of her characters is that in all of them we see at least two aspects, both how they might be seen as correct or elevated or admirable in their actions or as foolish or malicious or criminal, depending upon the viewer.
It is this quality which takes the story far beyond what we might expect from a romantic book of the time. There is humor and subtlety as in Jane Austen's best earlier work, but there is also genuine insight into the human condition.
And the producers of this adaptation have captured the quality to perfection, taking the film far beyond mere costume drama. There is always depth and subtlety at work here even though the story is largely light and romantic. There are few Hollywood films which could stand being compared.
There isn't an actor cast here I would change, and that is not something you can often say about films.
The locations and sets are breathtaking.
Watching the parade of gorgeous women's costumes alone is like walking through the halls of some fabulous museum.
And the director has handled this wealth of material with the most exquisite judgment.
Highly recommended, even if you are a person who normally does not like romantic drama.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
I wanted to like this book. Much of the first third or so is well told, contains even some beautiful passages, and has a wonderful character in Baba, the father of the protagonist.
The book's theme I believe may be summarized as courage, and in the first third, taking place in Afghanistan, we see the courage of Baba and the cowardice of his son, Amir.
The second third or so, occurring in America, loses most of those qualities, contains serious improbabilities (as in the medical care poor migrants receive and in how the characters adequately support themselves in their small occupations) , loses opportunities to enrich the story (the enchanting possibilities of the flea market full of exotic characters), and has a genuinely cardboard cut-out of a character, the protagonist's wife, Soraya, who stops being interesting after the first charming description of her face.
The third part, back in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, continues in the vein of the second, only more so. Here there is an effort at redemption - a favorite theme of Americans, almost a national mantra - and in my view it not doesn't work and suffers from being tedious. The improbabilities mount with two more instances of near miraculous medical care under extreme conditions and a ridiculous fight in a closed room with a Taleban commander, a scene almost from a "boys' own" book for twelve-year olds. The character of the grown Hassan is simply unbelievable. And the evil Taleban commander, revealed as the same psychopath Amir knew when he grew up in Afghanistan, is a genuine comic book character.
One very much senses the author having had the glimmer of an interesting story, and after developing it for a while with some success, simply arrived at a point of not knowing what to do with it. After the first part, the story becomes tired and loses its ability to grip or enchant. He tells us in the first portion of the book almost all he appears to have to say worth saying.
But what strikes me as dishonesty is the book's worst fault. Whether consciously or not, I do not feel this is an honest tale full of the complexities and nuances of real life. Rather he has constructed, whether consciously or unconsciously, a Potemkin Village kind of structure, essentially a piece of propaganda.
Taleban are terrible. Americans and old school Afghans are good.
Perhaps what most bothered me about the book is its unrelenting demonization of the Taleban. Don't misunderstand, I am not a fan of these or any fanatical people and well know the Taleban have done horrible things.
But then all fanatics and extreme ideologues do horrible things, and in Afghanistan that includes many of the members of the Northern Alliance, the Taleban's main enemy and America's ally. The author's sentimentalized America would, shortly after events in this book, inflict countless horrors on Afghanistan and Iraq, being responsible for the deaths of a million people, several million refugees, and the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons on civilians, amongst other horrors.
The Northern Alliance are the folks upon whom America conferred the rule of Afghanistan, after they did most of the fighting against the Taleban on the ground while brave Americans dropped countless bombs from 30,000 feet. General Dostum, one of the warlords making up the Alliance, stands out today as resembling Vlad the Impaler, who provided the foundations for the Dracula legend. No member of the Taleban could possibly exceed his many acts steeped in horror.
Indeed, what few in the West understand, and what the author completely leaves out of events, is that when the Russians departed Afghanistan, the various warlords of what would be the Northern Alliance ruled in a kind of medieval chaos. People were shot in the streets and upon roads all the time, and you couldn't go far along any road before having to pay "tolls" to the warlord governing that region. The Taleban actually started as a "clean government" party who fought to end the chaotic conditions and indeed did so.
The author uses the rape of boys to heighten the cartoon image of a demonic Taleban, the rape of Amir's boyhood friend, Hassan, as it proves his half brother, as well as the rape later of the dead Hassan's son. But if you've followed events closely during America's brutal and pointless war in Afghanistan, you know the rape of boys is common in that harsh and desolate place. It is in no way peculiar to the Taleban.
A Canadian soldier - still shocked by things he saw there - told of an interpreter, certainly not Taleban, working for the Canadian Forces raping a boy within sight of others, hurting the child to the point of blood running down his legs, and there were others like him. Such people weres never held accountable because America needed them.
Overall, despite a bright spot here and there, this is a weak book and is not recommended.