Category Archives: history

The Stalin Epigram

Woohoo, I’m finally reaching 2017 books. That’s actually THIS YEAR. I know it’s almost August. Still, go me.

The first book I read this year was called The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and for that reason was somewhat disappointing. While it does create an atmosphere of suspense, it really isn’t much of a thriller, which is what I thought I was getting. It’s based on the life of Osip Mandalstam, a widely admired Russian poet, who writes a satirical (and not so satirical) poem about Stalin during the height of Stalin’s power and purges (the 1930s).

Mandalstam writes a forbidden poem, reads it to a bunch of people, gets ratted out to the “Organs” (which is the name for the secret police) and he goes to prison, where he’s tortured, and then into exile with his wife. After he gets out of exile, he’s super jumpy and paranoid and depressed as you would be after being tortured and exiled, so he goes back to Moscow, where he isn’t supposed to go. He is discovered again, sent to a labor camp or a Siberian prison (this time without his wife) and he dies.

I don’t know what the point of this book was beyond telling a fictional account of something that’s well documented. The book is told through several points of view, the main one (to me) being that of Mandalstam’s wife. Other points of view are a weight lifter, one of Stalin’s bodyguards, an actress both Mandalstams are boning (again, more pointless sex writing, ugh), another Russian poet or two (both friends of Mandalstam) and maybe a few others.

The writing was fine, and the characters were interesting and varied, but nobody seemed to really do anything. Like I said, there was no point. The author, I think, has put some pretty serious research into Mandalstam, which is why I thought we were going to get more spy story paranoia and not just “Hey this is what happened.” I think Littell might have actually visited Mrs. Mandalstam in the 1970s before her death to accomplish some of this research, and included his thoughts on the conversations and what they were like after the novel was finished, but again, I’m not sure of the point.

I skimmed a lot of this book, which I guess is why I can’t remember much and entirely missed the point. Like my previous read, this wasn’t great. It was okay. But the font was much smaller, and it was at least 100 pages longer. It took me three months to finish and I put it down for extended periods.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn’t seem to really know what it wants to be. If you do choose to read it, you won’t regret wasting your life. It’s not that bad. You may, however, find it to be generally disappointing.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

Image result for john muir quotes

This book was a companion to a Ken Burns documentary on PBS that I caught a few years back. Dayton Duncan I believe wrote the book with Ken Burns.

I loved it. And I’m going to plug this project, and the Park Service, and the parks.

I am a citizen of the United States, for those who care, and I’m passionate about animals, the environment, and public lands. I loved the documentary, and the book, but I have not been to many of the parks. My current list of parks I’ve visited is:
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Arches National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Acadia National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park
Muir Woods National Monument
Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I have never felt healthier than when hiking through Zion National Park. Visiting Acadia National Park was the highlight of my 2016. I snorkeled at Dry Tortugas earlier this year. I can’t wait to head to Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains. I am planning trips to Glacier, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and every other park I can possibly get to.

While I have always been interested in America’s great outdoors, this book and film combination really made me sit up and say, “I want to see America.”

The book, like the film, went into the details of how the parks came to be, who the major players were (John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, etc), and the changing role of the park service, focusing particularly on the first/oldest and some of the most visited parks: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, etc…

Today, Americans overwhelmingly support their parks. Millions of visitors frequent the parks each year – more popular parks like Yellowstone are considering limiting visitor numbers because they’re so crowded and they have trouble keeping up. Even those Americans with no plans on visiting a national park believe they should be protected and preserved for future generations. And somehow, for some reason, the parks and the parks service are always under threat.

Americans have screwed a lot of things up over the years. It’s no secret. But we’ve done a lot of good things too. And this whole national parks thing? The idea that these fantastic places with these unbelievable landscapes and incredible wildlife belong to all of us, and not just to the privileged few? That is something we got right.

If you have the opportunity to take a good look at this book, and the documentary, do it. The scenery and wildlife aside, the National Park system, the fight for the common people to be able to visit the last wild places in America, to have a backyard to call their own, is the United States that inspires greatness, that dares the world to be better, that leads by example and says with an extended hand, “Come on, you can follow us.”

To know that country, to see what it is capable of when it’s being its best self, is well worth the time.

“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” – Wallace Stenger, 1983

Image result for john muir quotes

The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and The Birth of Moving Pictures

Edward Ball’s The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and The Birth of Moving Pictures was another disappointing book to me. Not as disappointing as Last Words From Montmartre, but pretty disappointing all the same.

It wasn’t the quality of the information presented – it was interesting in that I learned a lot about the history of how moving pictures came to be. But this wasn’t the book I thought it was going to be.

One of my biggest issues with this book was that the title was really misleading. The inventor (Eadweard Muybridge, spelled by the man himself in several different places), the tycoon (Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University), the murder, and the moving pictures had what felt like almost nothing to do with each other. The guy who invented motion pictures murdered another guy who had an affair with his wife. He also kind of knew the tycoon who used his invention and who largely ripped him off but with whom he also worked on some small projects. For example: does a horse’s four hooves leave the ground at the same time while running? Together, they solved this mystery.

There was also a lot of jumping around in time. The author jumped around in location and year and I thought he was going to bring the two things together at some kind of intersectional point. As I said, the two men barely had anything to do with each other, only met a few times, and the inventor spent most of his life trying to get money out of the tycoon, but not even consistently. It was almost like it didn’t matter.

The murder wasn’t even that interesting. Older man marries a younger woman and goes away a lot, ignoring her, and leaving her alone. She has an affair, and the husband kills the boyfriend. HOW SHOCKING. I do have to admit, it was impressive how nonchalant Muybridge was about it. Got up, went looking for the boyfriend, calmly, shot him, turned himself in calmly, etc… all very matter of fact.

But overall, I just wasn’t much impressed by  The Inventor and The Tycoon. It just wasn’t coherent or interesting or connected enough to justify writing a whole book about it. It could have a been a chapter in either of their biographies, but a whole book? Nah. 

The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914

For the most part, I had a pretty good public school education. I did pretty well at most of my subjects and excelled in English and history.

HOWEVER.

There was (is?) one giant gaping hole in my history education. And that giant, gaping hole was European history from the French Revolution through the start of World War I.

No joke. I have no idea what happened. I barely remember them even mentioning it. Considering that World War I is still referred to as “The Great War” in Europe – or at least in Britain – I felt like this was a gaping hole I should start trying to fill, and this was a good opportunity to expand my understanding from “alliances! assassination of Archduke Ferdinand! powder keg!”

Seriously, that’s the extent of what I knew about World War I before listening to this book. Sooo, this book.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan required a lot more listening time than most books I listen to; in page length it was 784 pages, and it required listening in the car as well as at the gym and at work, and I think I actually drove around listening to it at some point.

Anyway, the book introduced me to some of the players – characters – that led to the most destructive war the world has ever seen (yes, even more so than World War II). MacMillan painstakingly chronicles the cultures and leaders of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Britain, France, Bulgaria, Serbia, the United States, etc…in the years leading up to the start of the war.

Using quotes and correspondence, this book is thoroughly researched, and while I’ve seen a complaint that it could be repetitious, the repetition really helped me, because it’s hard to keep track of names you’re not familiar with.

I think what horrified me most as I got through this book was how easy World War I would have been to avoid if the personalities involved had just applied common sense and good judgement rather than ridiculous nationalism and a desire to have the biggest dick on the continent. Honestly, I could NOT believe how easy World War I could just have not happened. The entire 20th century would have been totally different.

This was an amazing book – well researched, informative, really laid the groundwork for me in understanding what caused the first World War. It was long, but worth the effort. I still don’t know much about 19th century Europe outside of this, but my public school education taught me that working backwards is a reliable method of problem solving. This book laid a really great foundation for further study of European history.

One Summer: America, 1927

My physics teacher in high school forced us to read a history book. That was the first time I’d heard of Bill Bryson. One of the books on the list was A Short History of Nearly Everything. That was not the book I read that year. I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Because it was the shortest. I probably would have enjoyed Bryson’s book more, looking back on it, but I was 17 and an idiot.

Bill Bryson kept popping up though – in college classes and bookstore tables. Given that history books are some of my favorites to listen to at work (where I can learn a lot, not hear EVERY detail, and not lose track of the story), I decided to finally give Bryson a try and went with One Summer: America, 1927. I have been fascinated with the 1920s for a long time, and it’s the loose theme for my upcoming nuptials. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two of my favorite authors and two of my favorites of their books take place in the 20s, so this book as my introduction to Bryson was a natural choice.

I didn’t know anything about the book or Bryson (except that he kept popping up) going in, so the book, read by Bryson for the audio version, was surprisingly funny due to both content and Bryson himself.

Bryson uses several major events of the summer of 1927 as a lens through which to view American life, what it was and what it was going to become, while focusing on pop culture and the daily life of Americans during that time.

The major events focused on included:

+ Babe Ruth & the 1927 New York Yankees
+ Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight
+ the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (the one event in the book I’d never heard of)
+ Henry Ford and the transition from the Model T to the Model A
+ Calvin Coolidge’s presidency the ascendance of Herbert Hoover
+ the trial and executions of Sacco & Vanzetti
+ the release of talking pictures with ‘The Jazz Singer’

…these were not the only topics touched, but they were a major focus.

I was pleasantly surprised with this book. It was a lot more interesting than I had thought it would be, and it was a lot funnier than I thought it would be. Bryson grew up in both the US and Great Britain, and his dry sense of humor was quite appealing to me.

These were topics we’d barely touched in school (Sacco and Vanzetti, Lindbergh’s flight), and in some cases not at all (they skipped over Mississippi Flood entirely, as well as anything about Henry Ford that wasn’t “hey the assembly line…”) and I found the detailed dive into these topics, and their impact on American life, a fascinating alternative high school history class.

The book also explored the contrast between the 1920s Jazz Age and the 1930s Great Depression that was looming not far down the road. Bryson also doesn’t just speak to an American audience. Babe Ruth and baseball are huge parts of the book, and so Bryson takes time to explain why Americans are so obsessed with Babe Ruth (even 90 years later) and at least the basics of baseball.

My next Bryson book will be A Walk In The WoodsOne Summer: America, 1927 convinced me that I should definitely read/listen to another Bryson book.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Of the books I read in 2016, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Rob Edsel (with Bret Witter) was one of my two favorites, and definitely my favorite non-fiction book.

The Monuments Men deals with the story of the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section of the military. Early on, the group was comprised of a handful of men, led by Lt. Commander George L. Stout. As their role expanded and members grew, most of these men and women with art expertise were to protect as much European culture as possible during the war – art, architecture, rare & valuable texts, etc…

One major thing that worked in their favor is that the Nazis didn’t destroy art/culture/etc.. They hoarded it. There was some kind of twisted logic in why these artifacts belonged to the Reich even though they were French, Italian, etc…in origin. But the size of the hoard was status. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had a particularly expansive collection of stolen property (which wasn’t QUITE looted). Göring always left some small payment or promise there of, and even though he was never officially connected with Nazi looting organizations, he ended up with a lot of loot.

While it sounds very dull, this was actually a great challenge, particularly early on. Many people didn’t believe that art was something worth saving when faced with defeating an enemy like the Third Reich. Many of the Monuments Men assigned to units had trouble getting the resources they needed to do their jobs. It frequently took mandates from President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower to get the Monuments Men what they needed.

But it wasn’t just men, it was women too. The book particularly highlights the efforts of French art historian and museum curator Rose Valland. Being a French woman, the Nazis mistook her for a harmless not-quite-idiot. As a member of the French Resistance who understood German, she secretly and painstakingly kept track of the art the Nazis plundered from both the French national collection at places like The Louvre, and private (many Jewish) collections. She documented meticulously what was taken, where it was taken, to which Nazi officer it had been sent and reported back to Jacques Juajard, Director of the French National Museums, on the status of the ongoing Nazi looting. She and Cpt. James Rorimer, who slowly gained her trust and with whom she became friends, were instrumental in recovering over 20,000 stolen works from Neuschwanstein Castle.

With all the history and lore surrounding World War II, the fact that a lot of European culture and architecture was at risk of being destroyed is very easy to forget. With intercontinental travel easier than ever, it isn’t hard to take for granted the fact that the magnificent works of art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras is there every day in museums and that centuries old churches and palaces and architectural wonders are still standing.

But there was a time when this wasn’t necessarily going to be the case. And a lot of people, who frequently haven’t gotten the credit they deserve, worked very hard to make sure it was.

This was a fascinating, well written, satisfying non-fiction book, and like I said, definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History is an autobiographical memoir by Tony Mendez and Matt Baglio, and was adapted by Ben Affleck into an Academy Award winning film of the same name. It was originally an article for Wired magazine, and was expanded after declassification of documents into a much more detailed story.

I go through phases periodically where I watch a bunch of movies and read their source material. In this case, it was was the other way around, where I audiobooked the source material first and then watched the film.

Mendez was a CIA technical operations officer in the 1970s, decorated and widely recognized for his work in evacuating 6 American diplomats during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Called “The Canadian Caper,” the effort took the cooperation of the CIA, the Canadian government, and several Hollywood professionals, including makeup artists John Chambers and Robert Sidell, and Sidell’s wife, Joan.

Spoiler alert: they get the stranded Americans out of Iran. That wasn’t the most interesting part of this story.

The most interesting part of this memoir was finding out 1. how the CIA operated at the time and 2. how the whole thing sounded like amateur hour.

IIRC, Mendez was hired into the CIA as an artist. He copied stuff, did forgeries, etc… if the CIA had any kind of super advanced tech it wasn’t in this book, or it’s so dated to 2016 that I didn’t realize it was considered advanced tech at the time.

Originally an artist, it was clear Mendez’s role grew by the time the Iranian Hostage Crisis took place. Mendez’s main job was getting the American hostages to believe their cover stories enough to get them out of Iran, which was no easy feat. The key to being a convincing liar was believing the lie, and it was difficult to get the scared Americans to believe what they were saying about themselves, which was total BS.

It was an incredibly dangerous operation, because if they had been discovered there was a good chance they’d be executed. But again, what was really fascinating to me was how incredibly low tech it was. It was drawing up passports that passed inspection and coming up with a solid cover story – the cover story being they were Canadians scouting film locations in Iran for a science fiction film, called “Argo.” (Duh, right?)

The film that came from Mendez’s memoir is a very good film but it didn’t do a good job with 2 things. It took a loooot of dramatic license. There were a lot fewer imminent danger scenarios than depicted in the film, however, this was a film and you have to keep an audience engaged.

The other thing was the film seriously downplayed the role of the Canadian government in the rescue of the hostages. The Canadian Ambassador and Embassy played crucial roles in rescuing the Americans. Mendez gives this credit, the film doesn’t. The film also makes it look as the British and New Zealand embassies turned the American hostages away – this isn’t what happened. The British, in particular, took a great risk taking in the hostages, only moving them because it was deemed too dangerous for them to stay there. The British Embassy, IIRC, was the target of attacks itself. New Zealand had organized a place for the Americans to stay if they needed to change locations and drove the Americans to the airport when it was time to leave Tehran.

It’s understandable why a lot of this was changed for film purposes – it would have been a 4 hour film – but it was hurtful to these countries anyway. Affleck tried to smooth things over but it wasn’t much help. President Carter even commented (paraphrasing), “This was mostly a Canadian achievement. Ken Taylor (the Canadian ambassador) is the real hero of the story.”

Anyway, flawed film aside, Argo was a really interesting “inner workings of the CIA” book, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in contemporary world history.

America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Founding Fathers Who Shaped A Nation

Earlier this year, my former officemate told me about Overdrive.

Overdrive is a wonderful app that allows you to listen to audiobooks from your local library for free as long as you are a member of that library system. This was a huge deal for me, because while I had tried to get my hands on free audiobooks before, I always ended up only being able to obtain popular books, and so my selection was rather limited. I like to listen to books at work or at the gym, because I frequently don’t have the chance to actually read at home.

Sooooo I got Overdrive ASAP. I think it’s weird that more the one person can’t listen to a book at a time, but what do I know?

I started with history books, because in the end, I am a nerd, and a sucker for a good story.

The first book I listened to on Overdrive was called America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Founding Fathers Who Shaped A Nation by Kenneth C. Davis.

There were six, loosely connected individual stories in this book, and while they were a bit anecdotal, I really enjoyed them and learned a lot. They cover about 300 years, from Columbus’s voyages to the Americas in the 1490s through to the Shays Rebellion in 1786 & 1787.

“Isabella’s Pigs” covered Columbus’s voyages to the Americas and what was going on with the Spaniards in the New World, particularly some of their activity in what we now know as Florida (spoiler alert: they were fucking miserable). There was also, IIRC, some good stuff about French Huguenots in there. They made wine (surprise!), and got here before the Pilgrims.

“Hannah’s Escape” tells the story of Hannah Duston, famous in New England but nearly unknown everywhere else, who was taken captive by Native Americans who killed her family and 27 colonists. She, in return, killed 10 Native Americans holding her and her daughter hostage and scalped them. Badass. It also goes into the stories of other “uppity” women of the period – Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson. Dyer and Hutchinson lived in Massachusetts at the same time, both were considered too outspoken for women, both were tried, both had significant childbirth issues. Hutchinson miscarried a strange mass of tissue believed now to be a molar pregnancy, while Dyer gave birth to a stillborn infant that probably had anencephaly (as in, the brain never developed). Dyer was later executed in Boston for being a Quaker and just refusing to leave permanently, and Hutchinson, after surviving what would have been a similar fate, was massacred by Native Americans along with her entire family in a dispute that really didn’t have much to do with them but the governor was a turd and antagonized the native people.

“Washington’s Confession” was a detailed account of Washington during the French and Indian War where he may have committed a war crime, and how it later affected his leadership during the American Revolutionary War.

“Warren’s Toga” was probably my favorite of the stories. It goes into detail about a much forgotten American patriot named Joseph Warren, a physician, the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and a secret rebel leader in Massachusetts. It was Warren who enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes to ride to Concord and alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were coming to arrest them. Warren fought at Lexington and Concord, and died fighting as a Major General at Bunker Hill. His body was treated brutally by the British, but was recovered by his brothers and Paul Revere ten months later, and forensically identified by Revere, who had done some dental work on Warren and had put an artificial tooth in his mouth. His death galvanized American colonists, who saw him as a martyr.

“Arnold’s Boot” was an in depth look at Benedict Arnold, who if he had died at Saratoga like he was supposed to, would be remembered as a great American hero instead of a great American traitor. And for some reason, the general public seems to think Arnold was hanged as a traitor. He wasn’t. He died in poverty and relative obscurity in London in the early 1800s. Arnold had a rough upbringing, but did well in the military after overcoming his discipline issues. One of the reasons for his defection to the British cause was that, in spite of his excellent military leadership, credit he deserved was often given to other guys – including Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys. Allen and Arnold had this sort of bizarre rivalry for George Washington’s approval and Arnold eventually lost his shit after not getting enough accolades or something to that effect. Arnold was also pessimistic about the rebels winning the war – a fair point, actually, considering the rebels didn’t win the war as much as they didn’t lose it. But the whole thing is Arnold’s life and why he did what he did. It was a fascinating story. I actually felt a bit sorry for the guy. Stop. It’s 250 years later, we can feel a bit sorry for Benedict Arnold.

“Lafayette’s Sword” was the story of Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran who got a very raw deal  – fought for the Continental army, wasn’t paid, was discharged after injury, and still in a lot of debt but had trouble working due to injury – and decided to revolt again over taxes and unfair hardships. It ended rather poorly but he wasn’t executed. I think most of the rebels were given amnesty in exchange for acknowledgement they participated in the rebellion. The leaders, including Shays, were sentenced to hang but most of these sentences were overturned or commuted. I had a vague understanding of this already from AP American History in high school and a book I read on the train from Boston to New York called The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, which actually chronicled the events leading up to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, but also went into some of the details of Shays Rebellion. The reason it was called Lafayette’s sword is that Shays actually received a sword from Glibert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette for his service, which he had to sell to pay some of his debt. This was frowned upon by his peers. For those who don’t know, General Lafayette was a Frenchman who joined the Continental army during the Revolution after France entered the fray and lobbied for increased French support (which the Americans would have been lost without).

So in case you couldn’t tell by the sheer amount of information I retained, I really enjoyed this book. It was interesting, and fun, and if you want to learn some cool stuff about people who don’t always get the credit they deserve and isn’t overwhelmingly long, America’s Hidden History is for you.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

I first started reading about Huguette Clark, the subject of this book, back in college, maybe 2009 or 2010, as a news story on, I think, NBCNews.

At the time, she was 100+ years old, living in a hospital, and the reason she was in the news at all was because the New York district attorney was investigating wrong doing/abuse/mismanagement of her fortune by her shady lawyer and accountant.

She died in 2011, at 104 years old, having spent the last 20 or so years of her life living in a New York hospital.

Which brings us to Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

The aforementioned news story was (I believe) written by Dedman, who became aware of Clark when he encountered her property in Connecticut. The property was meticulously maintained and he spoke to the caretaker, who was well paid, but the owner hadn’t been there in years. Dedman, a reporter, started poking around, and found that Ms. Clark had three enormous, well maintained properties – one in New York City (a 5th Ave apartment), a property on the California Coast, and the property he’d seen in Connecticut.

He couldn’t figure out why she didn’t appear to live in any of them. He ended up contacting some of her family. Paul Clark Newell Jr. is a relative of hers – a great great nephew or something like that. Her family may not have been so great either, but Paul Clark Newell had reached out to his aunt some years earlier in an effort to get to know her because she was an elderly recluse with no immediate family of her own. He co-authored the book with Dedman based on what he knew about his family history and conversations with his aunt.

The book goes into detail about the life of Huguette’s father, Senator William Clark, and how he made a vast fortune, beginning as a mail carrier for the US postal service (a much more difficult job than it sounds like when you consider he was crossing the Rockies in the 1800s and through hostile Native American territory in Wyoming, Montana, etc…) and by eventually owning and running successful copper mines in the West. It should be noted that for the time, Clark’s employees were paid well and even had days off.

Senator Clark didn’t marry Huguette’s mother until he was much older. Huguette’s mother was originally sponsored by Senator Clark as a music student. Senator Clark had a first wife and other children long before Huguette came along, which explains how when William Clark was born Martin Van Buren was President of the United States, and when Huguette Clark passed away, Barack Obama was President of the United States.

The book then goes into Huguette’s life growing up, her adult life, and how she eventually came to be living in a hospital. For some reason – maybe it was the scandal that plagued her father’s time in office or because she was such a recluse who only ever quietly spent her money – but the current world doesn’t well remember William Clark, whose fortune was one of the largest in the United States during his lifetime and who was a senator from Montana from 1899 – 1907, and the world didn’t much notice or remember Huguette until Dedman wrote the news articles in 2009/10.

I found the whole book fascinating. I’m a history nerd anyway, so I loved all the history involved in telling Huguette’s story. The story is one of mystery and intrigue, that runs from before the Civil War, to the Guilded Age, to the 21st century battle for a huge inheritance.

But I think my favorite thing about the book was learning about Huguette, who I’d never have known otherwise, and who was so admirable in so many ways. She was so shy and so secretive that no photographs exist of her for decades, and she spent the last years of her life with doctors and nurses, buying gifts for others (people she knew and people she didn’t). Drawing on her papers, conversations with her and with her few friends and relatives, Empty Mansions reveals the portrait of an eccentric but kind and generous woman, and learning about her life made Empty Mansions one of my favorite books in 2015.

The Quiet Twin

I’m starting this post with a plug.

I bought The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta at The Mysterious Bookshop at 58 Warren St. in New York City. I looooove The Mysterious Bookshop. I have a soft spot for independent bookstores and The Mysterious Bookshop is definitely one of my favorites.

The cozy one room store is floor to 12? 15? foot ceiling wooden bookshelves and tables, at least half the back wall is dedicated to Sherlock Holmes, but the rest of the store is full of mysteries and thrillers from all over the world. The green carpet is dated and so is the oversized furniture,  and while many books are new some of the books are used, but it’s extremely easy for any mystery book lover to overlook the antiquated atmosphere and spend an hour? afternoon? day? going through everything from Victorian crime fiction to historical suspense thrillers.

…which brings me back to The Quiet Twin. The story is set in 1939, Nazi-occupied Vienna, in an apartment complex with an inner courtyard. A series of murders have taken place through the city and when Professor Speckstein’s dog ends up murdered as well, he wants to know who did it and why. He enlists the help of Dr. Beer, a physician who lives in the building. Before long, Dr. Beer is in the bedroom of Professor Speckstein’s teenage niece, Zuzka, who is not obviously ill but insists on seeing him. She shows the doctor the oddities of their neighbors she has learned just by watching them through their windows.

By the way, Professor Speckstein is the neighborhood Zellenleiter, an informant for the Nazi party. He’s also a sex offender.

There are a lot of characters in this story, and each one has any number of things to hide.

I kept waiting for the twin to show up, but it becomes obvious, as you read the story, that the twin Vyleta is referring to is the side of ourselves that nobody sees, the secrets we hide from the world, “The Stranger” as Billy Joel would call it.

In this book, Vyleta focuses on what happens to ordinary people when they live in an atmosphere of constant paranoia, and suspicion, where they are constantly being spied on. While the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Pol Pots of the world commit the greatest atrocities, how do regular, usually peaceful people become insidiously complicit? Vyleta seems to suggest they’re petty crimes of opportunity: small betrayals that we may overlook, or may not even remember that we commit, in an effort to secure our own safety.

In retrospect, it is easy to condemn the action and non-action of the populations of Germany and the rest of Europe during the second World War. It’s easy to say now that we would never get caught up in something so violent, that we would condemn something so horrific, that we’d never inform on our neighbors and friends in an attempt to protect ourselves. But would we? Vyleta explores this, and its consequences throughout the story.

A couple of things:

1] The ending is horrifically unsatisfying and bitter. I’ve just found out that there is a sequel, so I’m about to go buy that, but I’m a little nervous that it’s going to be even more unsatisfying than this one.

2] There aren’t many characters to like. In fact, of all of them, I think I liked only two. Don’t get me wrong: I found the characters interesting, I just didn’t particularly like them. Vyleta does some of this on purpose, I’m sure.

3] It can be a bit of a slow read. The atmosphere is tense, but there are long stretches where you just want to speed it up a bit. I found that to be the case anyway.

Overall, though, The Quiet Twin is by far the best book I read in 2015. Suspenseful, disturbing, and a fascinatingly introspective look into human nature during a time where everyone’s actions had the potential to be touched by the creeping evil of Nazi culture, I highly recommend it.

%d bloggers like this: