1927 was some kind of year

  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2013; Random House Audio narrated by the author)
  • In 40 words or less: 1927 was chock-a-block full of events that changed history. From May to September, Bryson weaves together economic, political and cultural upheavals that shaped the world as we know it. It can be comforting when contemporary events leave us shaken.
  • Genre: History
  • Locale: Primarily U.S.
  • Time: May to September 1927
  • This book has something for everyone. There’s sports, aviation, politics, industrialization and, yes, more politics. When one questions whether so much had ever changed so quickly, a well-written panoramic view of the times is very helpful.

I’d been meaning to read Bill Bryson’s book on the summer of 1927 for a while. The timing seemed ideal, this being the 90th anniversary of the events of that summer. On a personal note, my father was just days old when the book opens. What better way to get a sense of the America into which he was born. And for those of us trying desperately to temper today’s cataract of news with other information, listening to Bryson’s calm voice laying out the history was a fine choice.

Calvin Coolidge was president. The economy was strong, and industry was growing. Taking advantage of the good times, he chose to spend three months on an extended trip to South Dakota, channeling his inner cowboy.  At the same time, Herbert Hoover was dealing, on his behalf, with the results of catastrophic Mississippi River flooding that displaced thousands and disrupted river commerce. Hoover proved himself equal parts skilled manager and self-promoter in directing the relief efforts.

For many, 1927 is of note for Charles Lindbergh’s historic nonstop flight from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh was focused on the technology and the task at hand. Temperamentally a loner, he was ill-suited for the fame and interest his achievement brought. Bryson’s careful research synthesizes the information about the man, his single-minded attention to the flight, and the forces that shaped his later life and brief entry into politics.

This was summer that brought Al Jolson to the screen in the first broadly released talking picture. It transformed the entertainment business and made and broke many stars, and studio owners in the transition.
The newsreels of the day featured the New York Yankees, the dominating force in baseball.  This was the year that Babe Ruth set the mark for home runs with 60. While his feats on the field were famous, his off-field activities were also unmatched.

Based on these events alone, the book would be worthwhile. This was the summer that the Model A was introduced by Henry Ford, changing the automobile industry in America. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death after a trial focused as much on their anarchist politics and immigrant origins as it was on the murder. And a titillating true crime story of adultery and murder was also in the headlines. The Dempsey-Tunney fight captured America well beyond the boxing world.

Finally, in a measure of hubris, the central banks of the US and its major allies put into place monetary policies that paved the way for the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression.  It was a very busy summer.

Whether your preferred method of reading is paper, e-book or audiobook, Bill Bryson’s ability to interconnect all these events will carry through. Having an escort through all these aspects of history is rare indeed.  It is the kind of education most can only appreciate long after leaving the classroom.


‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ coming to a big screen near you

Ten years ago, Diane Ackerman brought the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski before the public in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Next Friday, March 31, the heroics of the Zabinskis will receive even greater exposure as the film The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to neighborhood theaters. I’ve been a cheerleader for the book for all ten years. It combines narrative nonfiction, nature writing and a little-known story of genuine heroes of the Holocaust in one tight package.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film as yet. Those who have seen it in preview have found it moving and frightening – both reactions completely appropriate to the subject at hand. The book is based in large part on Antonina’s journals.  Jan Zabinski was the head of the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his young family lived on site, taking care of the animals as conditions worsened. For scientific reasons, several Nazi officers were keenly interested in the animals and spent considerable time at the zoo.

Of greater note are the extraordinary lengths Jan went to secreting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them within the zoo. Jan was the head of a cadre of resistance members that moved more than 300 Jews, partisans and other opponents of the Nazi regime out of and through Warsaw to safety in the countryside.

As is often the case, the screenplay for this movie was written by someone other than the author. Books and movies have very different ways of treating the same story.  When a screenwriter takes on the task of turning well-written nonfiction into a film the most important thing should be whether the truth remains in the telling. The cast for the film, headed by Jessica Chastain, is international and should help capture the range of people that were caught up in Warsaw during the war.

Make no mistake, this film will not gloss over the horrors of the war and just show cute animals. As in the book, there will be moments of humor and tenderness. It should also show the individual and collective depravity of the Nazi regime.  For this reason, it is rated PG-13. Anyone considering taking somewhat younger children who have had exposure to Holocaust material before should keep in mind that there may be very different reactions to pictures and sounds than to words on a page.

Without broad critical reactions, it is hard to know if the movie will have a wide distribution. If you can, see it.  Regardless, both the story Ackerman has to tell and her writing would make reading The Zookeeper’s Wife time well spent.


Incredible heroism in wartime Warsaw in two versions

  • unknown-14Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (Gallery Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, developed an extensive network that saved 2,500 Jewish children and countless adults, under the eyes of the Nazis. An extraordinary narrative look at the individuals and their actions from interviews, diaries and documents.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II; limited material through her death in 2008
  • Read this for an intimate look at Irena Sendler, and those she recruited, their extraordinary actions and the obstacles they overcame. Not a canonization, this book portrays Irena and others as people with personal motivations and failings.
  • unknown-13Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Pulling no punches, the Young Readers Edition focuses on the events in Warsaw during the war and the actions Irena Sendler took to save thousands of lives.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II
  • Read this for a clear narrative of Irena Sendler’s life and actions from 1939 through 1944. Note, while the language and presentation are suitable for readers 10 and older, adult guidance is strongly recommended because of the disturbing information presented.

Please bear with me. Neither these books nor the author fits the mold of usual Holocaust histories or biographies, if there is such a thing. Tillar Mazzeo is a cultural historian and professor, brought to the reading public through her books about Madame Cliquot (champagne) and the history of Chanel No. 5, arguably the world’s most famous perfume. Her path to writing about Irena Sendler was far from obvious.

In 2009, Mazzeo visited family posted to Krakow, Poland, with the State Department. She noticed a wide expanse of open parkland adjacent to a forested area near the international school where her sister worked. Mazzeo wondered why the land was left to go wild. Her sister told her the trains to Auschwitz traveled through there and it remains a reminder, coming to life on November 1 when the local citizens come with candles and flowers to memorialize all those lost. Offered the chance to visit Auschwitz, Mazzeo declined, but when her sister told her about Irena Sendler a few years later she decided it was important for her story to be told.

Within the last decade, Sendler’s extraordinary actions to save approximately 2,500 Jewish children and countless other persons persecuted by the Nazis in Poland during World War II have become better known. Though recognized at Yad Vashem in 1965, her story was little known previously for many reasons – she sought no recognition, Poland came under Soviet control after World War II, her actions and motivations were not consistent with Poland’s government’s interests, she wanted a “regular” life, and she was a woman.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. The daughter of a doctor who died as a consequence of tending patients in the most difficult circumstances, she became a dedicated Socialist, pursuing her principles through the university and in her profession. Her circle included a mix of social action-oriented Catholics, Socialists and Jews, doctors, nurses and other social workers among them, who became the foundation of an extensive lifesaving and resistance network.

Irena Sendler and her compatriots took advantage of the extensive system the Polish/German government to provide false documentation and secure medication for those in the Ghetto. Sendler took complete responsibility for maintaining information on each of the children taken from their parents and placed in homes, orphanages and other locations. Through a combination of extensive planning, lucky breaks and many people looking the other way, Irena Sendler avoided arrest until late in 1943. As the lynchpin of the network, her capture endangered the safety of the resistance network and all the identity information about the children. Her escape on the day slated for her execution was purchased by the resistance.

Mazzeo’s research and writing and Farrell’s adaptation are both strong additions to the canon of Holocaust literature. While it is at times difficult to keep track of the many individuals involved in the rescues, in hiding, and providing assistance, those details provide a sense of the magnitude of the undertaking. So why two versions? The original version delves deeply into the personal life and motivations of Irena Sendler. Her personal and family relationships were complicated. At times she ignored her family to their detriment while attending to her network. It also contains extensive footnotes documenting the narrative.

The Young Reader Edition focuses on the events and actions of Irena Sendler and her network. Since it is intended for those with less knowledge or exposure to the history, there is context and background provided. The language, while appropriate to the audience, is far from juvenile. This version would be ideal for intergenerational book groups. While it includes a great deal about many aspects of Sendler’s life, there are personal relationships and familial issues that are omitted. While they may have influenced her choices, they do not change what she did.

I read both and I would recommend both wholeheartedly.

‘TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging’

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  • Unknown-4TRIBE by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: An outgrowth of a June 2015 article on soldiers’ PTSD long after leaving the battlefield, Junger posits what is it about modern society that has created this problem. Using recognized research and his observations, Junger provides food for thought.
  • Genre: Nonfiction/Anthropology
  • Time: 300 plus years of communities
  • Read this for an interesting take on the how individualism and independence may leave our society vulnerable to depression, PTSD and other problems.

Sebastian Junger is a familiar name to many for his book The Perfect Storm about the New England fisherman caught as three weather fronts came together in 1991. His writing is fiercely analytical, bringing together the individual, societal and (in that case) climatological factors that marked that tragedy.

Junger spent time embedded with troops in Afghanistan. As a journalist, filmmaker, and long form author, he was struck by the strong bonding of military units regardless of the ethnic, racial, intellectual and social differences that might divide in other environments. Junger saw wounded soldiers desperate to return to their units rather than to be sent home.  Many of the same strong and courageous individuals had severe and long-lasting difficulties reintegrating upon returning home. TRIBE is his effort to understand why.

This brief book, less than 140 pages, refers to dozens of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies, business and newspaper articles on the evolution of tribal and group behavior. The primary exemplars are tribes, going back to ancient times through early America, who’s communities were completely interdependent with well-defined communal roles. His contention is the superiority of this model is reinforced by the resistance of captured American settlers to return to their communities, often fleeing to return to those who had been their captors.

Junger asserts that that interdependence is seen in military units and that the loss of it causes/exacerbates reintegration difficulties. On the civilian side, he suggests that this lack of fundamental purposefulness contributes to some instances of depression, abuse of medical insurance and other behaviors.  As evidence, he shares data that suggests catastrophes such as 9/11 resulted in reductions in suicide and symptoms of depression. Rather than turning inward, people reached out to help others both selflessly and to fulfill a need to contribute to making society whole. In my opinion, his assessment might also be worth looking at in terms of gang members and those who have been incarcerated.

This is not an academic treatise nor does he proport to be a scholar.  Having said that, I’d recommend it to those who study societal dynamics, social workers, and particularly those involved in the serious problem of appropriately training our military and reintegrating them into civilian service. Even if he isn’t spot on, his work provides a starting point for discussion.


In ‘Epitaph’ a century-old story has very modern overtones

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  • Unknown-5Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (Ecco, 2015) audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber (HarperAudio)
  • In 40 words or less: Masterful research brings the history and people of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral to life. Vivid descriptions and dialog fill out the political and social history. It will change any assumptions you may have of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Arizona Territory
  • Time: Primarily 1880-1882
  • Read this for a well-written story and a better understanding of the human stories and political dynamics of the Arizona Territory. Today’s Republicans and Democrats have nothing on them.

Only a fool would try to pigeon-hole Mary Doria Russell’s writing style. Her first novel, The Sparrow, captured numerous science fiction awards. A Thread of Grace, a historical novel of the Italian Resistance and the Holocaust was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Epitaph is her second novel about two of the West’s most celebrated figures – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I’ve been a fan for more than a decade and was not disappointed with Epitaph.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in the early 1880’s was a bustling town with more than 10,000 people, two newspapers and all the standard businesses of the period. All sides in Post-Civil War politics were well-represented in the Territory, vying for the power to determine the future of its evolving government.

Local politics were very fractious in the counties in the Territory. Winning the position of Sheriff was financially very lucrative, receiving often 10% of taxes collected. And since there often were alliances with assessors, mudslinging and shady deals were not uncommon. Cowboys were a synonym for rustlers and stagecoaches were often targets for robberies. Lawmen often had more than one boss, truly a gun for hire. As Russell lays out the complicated circumstances that led up to the shootout, the politics and shifting business loyalties often put lawmen directly in the line of fire.

Medical science was brought out through Doc Holliday’s ongoing battle with tuberculosis and the slow and painful death of President Garfield, due to infection, after he was shot by Charles Giteau. In the aftermath of the shootout, Holliday, a dentist by training, insisted  over their objections that the doctors use hygienic practices to treat the Earps’ wounds. Alcoholism and laudanum dependence mirror today’s substance abuse issues.  At every step, Russell enriches the understanding of life at that time.

Many stories about the West give women minor roles. Josie (Sadie) Marcus’ left a privileged life in San Francisco’s Jewish community to seek fame and fortune with a theater company,  like her idol Sarah Bernhardt. Achieving minor success, she hitches her star to a political aspirant and moves with him to Tombstone. There she develops a friendship with Doc Holliday and he keeps an eye out for her, recognizing she is in an unhealthy relationship. Josie leaves the unscrupulous philanderer, prostituting herself to make ends meet. Only after many missteps does Wyatt’s and Josie’s  decades-long love story begin. Each of the Earp brothers brought a woman with him when they left Kansas for Arizona. Russell deftly brings out their different interests and temperaments, as she does with each of the brothers.

At every turn, another aspect of the complexity of life at this time is revealed in Epitaph. Interested in the role of gambling or immigrant issues?  It’s there.  Border and political issues with the Mexican government are there, too. The local papers are controlled by competing political groups. Epitaph provides a striking reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A very able narrator, Hillary Huber, read the audiobook as I traveled from Florida back home to the DC area. While her skill and careful differentiation of characters through tone and accent added an extra dimension to the novel, it is Mary Doria Russell’s words and storytelling that carry the day however the book is “read.” In this political crazy season, Epitaph is a perfect book to carry you away while reminding you that change will happen again and again and again.