Category Archives: history

Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged The Armenian Genocide

Ah yes, a return to the World War I era, but something only tangentially related to the war itself.

There is a lot of “controversy” surrounding the Armenian Genocide, mostly in that it isn’t recognized as a genocide by most of the world, and the rest of the world has only been recognizing it in increments. Shamefully, the United States does not recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, although 48 states do. Also, the UK and Israel (yeah, Israel, no joke) do not recognize it as a genocide.

From about 1915-1923, the Ottoman Empire, particularly Ottoman Turkey, systematically targeted the Armenian population for physical and cultural extermination. First, they deported the intellectual community leaders (most of whom were eventually murdered) from Constantinople, then removed the able bodied male population by straight massacre and forced labor, and then the deportation of women, children,  infirm and elderly people by forced death marches to and through the Syrian desert. The general consensus is that about 1.5 million Armenians were killed during this time.

Turkey, to this day, either says the numbers were grossly exaggerated or that the these events didn’t take place at all. Yeah, right.

One, and (to me) possibly the biggest, indication of the fact that it was, in fact, a genocide was it was used as a model for later genocides (looking at you, Hitler).

And so, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), from 1920-1922, engaged in an assassination campaign which eliminated Ottoman political and military leaders responsible for the massacres, including the “Number One” (primary target), Talaat Pasha.

Eric Bogosian’s book, Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged The Armenian Genocide, expands extensively on this history lesson. Bogosian starts by explaining that he didn’t feel much connection to his Armenian heritage, partially because it wasn’t talked about much. He went into the fact that his grandfather, usually so mild-mannered and gentle, said things like, “If you see a Turk, shoot him.”

Bogosian then explains the history of the Armenian population of Eastern Europe and within the Ottoman Empire with other communities of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, etc…and explains, basically, how the circumstances for this genocide came about.

Bogosian uses Soghomon Tehlirian as a lens through which to focus the story of the Armenians. Tehlirian lost his family to the genocide, suffered from what sounded like PTSD, and went on to assassinate Talaat Pasha. He was eventually acquitted, because his lawyers successfully put the Ottoman leadership on trial, rather Tehlirian, who described the trauma of seeing his family murdered (although he never actually saw this). He claimed to have dreams of his mother who demanded he avenge the her death, and the deaths of his brothers and sisters. Including extended family, Tehlirian lost about 85 members of his family in the genocide.

Operation Nemesis was a really interesting book that I recommend. I learned a lot about a topic that I knew almost nothing about and I got to be disgusted by the fact that my country fails to correctly label a genocide as a genocide. It did a really good job laying out everything for the reader (or, in my case, listener) so that everything was clear.

PS: since only 48 states recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, I looked up which ones didn’t. Anyone who knows or understands the United States at all will not be surprised to know those states are those bastions of education and enlightenment, Alabama and Mississippi.

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The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

You have to forgive me for this one. I listened to Joshua Hammer’s The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu as an audiobook. I didn’t read it. It took place in Africa – Mali, to be specific. Timbuktu, to be more specific. Because of this, many of the names of the people involved I am not familiar with and consequently don’t remember.

That said, I enjoyed this a lot. Throughout the centuries, Timbuktu was a center of learning and knowledge, and in the 1980s, a man whose name was, IIRC, Abdel, traveled across Africa collecting ancient manuscripts of all types for a government and grant funded central library, preserving hundreds and thousands of years of cultural knowledge and learning.

But then, Al-Qaeda showed up.

The rest of the book follows Abdel and his compatriots on their quest to preserve these precious manuscripts and keep them out of the dangerous, destructive hands of religious fundamentalists who would think nothing of destroying these thousands of years of human scholarship and history.

It was amazing listening to these guys smuggle these fragile writings through the desert to keep them from being destroyed by any means Al-Qaeda could come up with – fire, in particular.

Also, in an age where public education and public libraries are being defunded and looked past, where teachers and librarians and keepers of knowledge are being vilified for any number of reasons, it was nice to read a book about how important LIBRARIANS are. Guys, LIBRARIANS.

These librarians cold have been tortured. Killed. Brutally. By TERRORISTS. That’s how important their work is. Knowledge is what is going to save people from fundamentalist lunatics like Al Qaeda. And the lunatics know it.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and again, I apologize for not knowing the names of the people involved better.

Abdel did eventually save his library, along with hundreds of thousands of years of human thought and study. We all owe him and his fellows a debt that can never be repaid.

The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling particularly masochistic is wade into the swamp of current affairs. I try to keep up as best I can, but I find it depressing and frequently tune out due to lack of mental strength. Listening to politicians talk, to me, is particularly exhausting, especially if I don’t subscribe to their ideological worldview and I find most of them to be raging hypocrites. Listening to bullshit cliches and never actually learning real information is both frustrating and infuriating.

And nowhere, nowhere, do you get more cliches with no information than the big highlight events: state of the union, inauguration, presidential debates, etc…

Anyone who has ever paid any attention at all knows that politicians on both sides of the aisle LOVE to invoke our Founding Fathers. It’s their all time favorite thing, and if they can link Jefferson, Adams, Washington, etc…to their causes, they do it.

I hate this invocation, personally. The men who founded our country had the foresight to give us an experimental, amendable (and so far, enduring) system of government but they lived in a world we would barely recognize as modern and would probably think most of our modern conveniences were witchcraft. Older Americans, and quite many younger ones, barely understand how something like television actually works. Do you think our founders would have any informed opinions on the damage Fox News does to our democracy? They’d barely be able to cope with catching up on our technology, let alone render a valuable opinion on its implications for American life.

David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible takes a look at just why our politicians do that.

It’s a popular myth, one that Sehat debunks thoroughly in The Jefferson Rule, that the political climate at the founding of our country was, somehow, less polarized.  Our most enlightened founders put aside their petty differences to come together and magically come up with a Constitution and system of government and somehow execute this new radical, never before done plan without any conflicts.

Even the newest student of history, one opening his/her first non-high school textbook, knows this is BS. Maybe it was less “polarized” but it was no less contentious. While Washington was unanimously elected twice and called for non-partisanship and warned against faction and political parties, his cabinet was constantly fighting with each other. In particular, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were not so secretly constantly at each other’s throats and tearing each other apart behind each other’s backs. Hamilton favored a stronger central government, Jefferson favored less consolidated power. Washington tended to favor Hamilton and his view, and Jefferson towards the end of his tenure and then after he left the cabinet, worked to undermine Hamilton AND Washington.

It’s important to understand Jefferson’s views (smaller, more limited government, weaker executive branch, etc…) because it’s Jefferson whose views and actions then become the most problematic. While Jefferson preached the glories of small government principles, his acts as President strongly contradict these things. To argue the Louisiana Purchase was anything but an exercise of federal power is to do the most high flying of mental gymnastics. And Jefferson’s protege, James Madison, eventually came around to Hamilton’s thinking on the national bank and strong-armed northern states when America began its first foreign war since the Revolution.

But Jefferson was the first to refer to the principles of the founding as the end all, be all of reasoning. He used phrases like “the true principles of the Revolution” and called his fellow countrymen heretics to “the holy cause of freedom.” He was the first to take “founding principles” and use them to back his own and ideas. It’s still done to this day, the rule of the title being, “Thou Shalt Not Betray Founding Principles.”

Sehat goes on to argue that politicians and ideologues who refer to founding principles are those who can’t make a more rational/contemporary argument for what they believe should be done, and appeal to the warm sentiment the American people feel for their founders and their founding.

Very few politicians of the modern age actively reject the idea of following founding principles. One of the most prominent was Theodore Roosevelt, who in his 1905 inaugural address, said, “Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.”

What is interesting is that this appeal to founding principles fades during and after the Civil War until about the 1920s (this time includes Teddy Roosevelt, as previously mentioned). This, according to Sehat, is because the Civil War rendered the American political landscape a complete disaster and that nobody wanted to touch founding principles. The Constitution was supposed to prevent armed conflict, instead the country went to war over what the Constitution meant.

What I find most interesting is that while the Founding Fathers were incredibly educated, enlightened men for their time and we act as if they had all the answers, they definitely didn’t have all the answers. Part of the brilliance of the Constitution is that  questions of power (federal vs. state, responsibilities not specifically enumerated in the document, etc..) are basically ambiguous and left unanswered. Argument over them is the answer. Things are taken on a case by case basis and we basically duke it out in elections and in courts to come up with answers to questions the Founders left no specific answer to. It’s actually brilliant, allowing the government of the people to change as the governed change. The brilliance of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton is that they planned it that way, even if they were arguing over interpretations of the Constitution before the ink was dry.

The Jefferson Rule was an interesting, intelligent read. Considering the current political environment in the United States, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding current affairs.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

This was another book I read in the spirit of Halloween, and it didn’t disappoint!

Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is full of ghost stories. He takes us to prisons, abandoned mental asylums, old mansions, cemeteries, churches, “Indian burial grounds,” and the like.

There are some stories everyone probably already knows – like the stories of the Winchester house, Amityville, the LaLauries of New Orleans, etc… – are well known. Dickey does jump in to debunk some of these myths and legends. For example, the Winchester House legend – that Sarah Winchester built a house to confuse spirits murdered by her husband’s Winchester rifles after speaking to a medium – is stoked by even the caretakers of the home, but in reality, it just isn’t true. Sarah Winchester had a lot of money and a taste for unusual architecture. She wasn’t any more afraid of ghosts than anyone else in the 1800s.

Aside from jumping into (and in some cases, debunking) well known myths and legends of American culture, Dickey uses ghost stories as a critical lens to explore the American psyche. Ghostland takes a look at why we, as Americans, both use and need ghost stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. A ghost story may white wash history, or try to assuage our consciences about something that happened that we can’t justify. They can be used to calm fears and teach lessons to children.

Dickey says:

“Paying attention to the way ghost stories change through the years — and why those changes are made — can tell us a great deal about how we face our fears and our anxieties. Even when these stories have a basis in fact and history, there’s often significant embellishment and fabrication before they catch on in our imagination, and teasing out these alterations is key to understanding how ghosts shape our relationship to the past.”

I loved this book. Loved it. As someone who has always loved a good ghost story, it was fun reading, in depth, about lots of well known American hauntings. It was fun to listen to their backgrounds and what these stories tell us about ourselves.

Anyone interested in pop culture, hauntings, and history ought to read Ghostland. It’s a lens we don’t look examine ourselves through too often, and well worth a read (or a listen on audiobook, which is how I experienced it).

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches

This is the book I thought I was getting when I downloaded American Nations. SC Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was about the 40 years of conflict between white settlers and the Comanches on the open plains of the United States.

I’m not sure why they chose to add to the title about Quanah Parker. Maybe it’s because I was actually quite busy while I listened to the audiobook but I didn’t feel like he featured a lot. There was a lot about the history (of violence) between white settlers on the frontier and the Native Americans who already lived there, but Parker was a minor player during most of the novel. He was supposedly the greatest of all the Comanche chiefs, and Gwynne didn’t much go into him, in spite of his name in the title.

That said, I really enjoyed about learning about the different types of Native Americans in the book, although the focus was definitely on the Comanches and plains Indians. I knew they were incredible horsemen, but I had no idea just how incredible, or how young they started training with horses.

I also found it fascinating that Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanches at age 9 and but later adopted by a Comanche family and then married a Comanche warrior was never able to readjust to life in whitelandia after being found and returned to her actual family at the age of 33. She kept trying to escape with her younger children. Oh, she was Quanah’s mother.

Another fascinating narrative was the role the buffalo played in the relations between the plains Indians and white settlers. It made me sad that the innocent buffalo were just pawns in this conflict between two different groups of people.

I enjoyed this book as a history book, although the title was misleading. That said, there are a number of Goodreads reviewers who seem to think the book is “racist.” It’s really, really not.

Gwynne makes it quite clear that the white settlers of the time were just as capable of brutal violence as the Comanche tribe, sometimes more so. And Gwynne does use the language white settlers used to describe the Native Americans of the time; words like “savage” and the like. But context matters here. He would frequently use white people’s own language and quotes when describing their views of the Comanches. People unable to grasp context may find this book prejudiced and unflattering to Native Americans, but I think it’s just as harsh to the white settlers. The white settlers are also described as barbaric and opportunistic. This isn’t something only limited to the descriptions of Native Americans. People who want to see racism here will see it. To me, it’s just a history book. But considering how people want to stop reading Huckleberry Finn because of the use of the ‘n’ word, I won’t hold my breath that people won’t miss the forest for the trees.

Again, I think this book has a lot of good history. That Quanah Parker only shows up for the last third of it makes the title very misleading. I feel like we get a lot more of Cynthia Ann Parker’s story than Quanah’s. Quanah’s story is sort of more about how he negotiated for the tribe as their time was fading, but it wasn’t much part of the book. Still, this is a really good look into life on the plains in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

I’m not sure what made me check this out to listen to on Overdrive. I kept seeing it available? Maybe the title? It is sort of unusual to describe a virus as ‘diabolical.’ Viruses are viruses. They do what they do. There is no evil intent there.

But rabies is different. Even now, in the year 2018, with a method of treatment for the sickness that got animals killed by the thousands and terrified everyone throughout cities and rural communities alike, rabies is a scary disease. It’s good practice, as a matter of routine, that if you find bats where you live, you go get treated for rabies. If you’re bitten by anything outside, go get treated for rabies.

Rabies has terrified people for thousands of years. The sickness that makes you fear water is a long, slow, painful way to go out. Even now, once it takes hold in the brain, nobody is immune to it and (almost) nobody survives it. You painfully lose your mind, and you die.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy takes us through Greek mythology to the middle ages to the Renaissance to contemporary times, examining the science, history, and the cultural impact of the rabies virus.

One of the most interesting things I found in this book was the link between rabies and the vampire and (even more so) werewolf legends of the middle ages in Europe. Rabies, after about 30 days, depending on the site of the bite, causes the infected, previously normal person to (more or less) lose his/her mind as (s)he becomes a snarling, hissing, foaming shell of his/her former self. The lycanthropy legend involves an infected but previously totally normal person to totally lose his/her mind and become a snarling, hissing, animal monster. When does this occur? At the full moon. How often does it occur? About every 30 days (about the incubation period of the rabies virus). Oh, and how is the werewolf infected? (S)he’s bitten by another person who has the disease. Just like…rabies.

One of my favorite parts of the book was learning about the heroic efforts Louis Pasteur took to come up with a way to inoculate against the rabies virus. I forget exactly why he was interested in this. I can’t remember if someone he loved died of rabies or it was just because he was biologist/microbiologist who was interested in it. He was fearless, collecting samples of saliva from rabid dogs himself (with the help of two assistants), testing the vaccination over and over on various animals (this hurts my heart but I recognize there was really no way around it), and finally testing it on 9 year old Joseph Meister, who had been badly mauled by a rabid dog. This was a huge risk to Pasteur because, in spite of his extensive scientific background, he was not a physician and it opened him up to legal consequences should anything go wrong.

But Meister survived. 3 months after being mauled, he was still in good health. Meister always publicly defended Pasteur (who was somewhat of a controversial figure, as people of science and forward thinking can be) and served as caretaker of the Pasteur Institute in Paris until his death in 1940. The story says he committed suicide rather than let the Nazis enter Pasteur’s crypt.

Fun Fact: I celebrated Louis Pasteur’s birthday this year by baking cookies and handing them out at work. We should celebrate our great thinkers. By the way, Pasteur also came up with the process of Pasteurization aka heating liquids to a certain temperature to destroy dangerous microorganisms living in them. Liquids like milk. Dunk your cookies.

There is a method, called the Milwaukee Protocol, to treat rabies after neurological signs of infection start showing (which usually means the patient is beyond hope) but it usually fails. It worked one time, saving the life of a Wisconsin teenager who is now the only known person to survive rabies without receiving the vaccine. Treatment involves putting the patient in a coma, pumping the patient with antiviral drugs, and letting the body fight off the infection before it completely destroys the brain. The theory behind this treatment being something along the lines of “if the human body can fight off other viruses, it can fight off this one given enough time and medical help.” If a patient is showing neurological symptoms, they might as well try this treatment. They’re definitely going to die without it and only probably going die with it, which is still better than “definitely.” But really, if you think you’ve been exposed, just go get the vaccine.

Finally, as with many of my books, I did this one on audiobook. It was read by Johnny Heller, who was the same person who read another one of my 2017 favorites, The Lampshade. Heller did an excellent job narrating this book as well.

I loved Rabid. It was, in many ways, a scary book. It’s easy to understand why people hundred and thousands of years ago who didn’t understand viruses thought the rabies virus was diabolical. It is slow, and painful, and always fatal, sending normal people into unrecognizable, raving madness before killing them. I know a lot of people on Goodreads didn’t find it a very interesting book, and for some reason they really hated that the virus was anthropomorphized in the title. But I think they missed the point. And I loved the book. I love myths and legends, science and history. And people get all wrapped up in how scary rabies is, and it is scary. But the book, possibly without meaning to, provides a lot of reasons for hope – not just regarding rabies, but regarding lots of things.

As scary and dangerous as the rabies virus is, science and human ingenuity conquered it. Rabies has been almost entirely eliminated as a human cause of death globally. Even developing countries have seen huge declines in deaths by rabies infections. Just think of all the other things we can accomplish.

Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story

I don’t remember where I picked up Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. Probably at Barnes & Noble. But I do remember why I picked it up. Our intelligence agencies have been under attack, particularly by Donald Trump, since before he was elected president. And I wanted to have a better idea of what happened at the CIA and got the opportunity.

The author, Jack Devine, worked for the CIA from the 1960s through the 1990s and now runs some kind of “security” company – which sounds like a fancy spy agency, when he describes what his new company does. He says that although he retired in 1999, he could probably have a tail on somebody faster than just about anyone else in the world. I thought this was slightly outlandish, but now I believe him.

Devine started as someone who worked in the CIA equivalent of the mail room and who rose through the ranks to become a high ranking executive. Among other things, he ran covert ops on at least three continents, lived abroad with his wife and children, and knew Aldrich Ames, one of the biggest traitors in the history of the CIA and in modern American history.

The book was fascinating. I read this one. It took me about a month because of wedding planning, but it isn’t a very long book and should be considered a must read of contemporary American history.

Devine recounts for readers how the CIA worked while he was there, and his recipes for “good hunting” – running successful spy operations that endanger as few people as possible while also gathering the most useful possible information from the most reliable sources possible. Devine details how he built relationships with his informants, how the agency operated during his time there, and what he viewed as his and his colleagues’ successes and failures during his career.

Devine also goes into what he believes are problems with the agency now, the biggest being that the emphasis of gathering intelligence has been placed on the backburner and that the CIA is involved in too many paramilitary operations and the jobs that they used to do – meeting people, gathering information and cultivating reliable sources – have been given to the military, who don’t do as good a job because they aren’t trained to do that job. The CIA has also been ensnared bureaucracy and, of late, has been highly politicized.

As interesting as the book was, I had to read it with some grains of salt. Devine worked for the CIA, and still thinks quite highly of it. Everything he says could be lies and considering it’s his legacy, he has plenty of reasons to lie.

That said, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he may sanitize some of the harsher truths and the role he played in some of the stuff that went on, but I don’t think he’s lying outright. I could be entirely wrong, of course, but he strikes me as a man of integrity. He never once calls himself a patriot, but I would call him one. He does call his colleagues patriots, and with few exceptions, thinks very highly of them, even when he disagreed with them either politically or with the actions they chose doing their jobs. It was very refreshing not to hear someone trashing their colleagues left, right, and sideways for attention.

Lastly, some of the good writing in this book is clearly attributed to cowriter Vernon Loeb, who is a professional writer. Props for that.

I highly recommend Good Hunting. Part memoir, part history lesson, I thought it was a well written, highly educational, and very enjoyable read for anyone interested in the inner-workings of the CIA.

The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

Another one of my weird interests: people who disappear. I don’t think I’m actually unique in this but I will admit it, which I think makes me unique. And kind of weird. But knowing you’re weird makes it ok, right?

Anyway, this is one of those cases.

Joseph Crater was a New York Supreme Court Justice who disappeared on August 6, 1930 and whose body was never found. There is no proof he was murdered, but most people of his stature who disappear without a trace and are never found are frequently murdered.

His disappearance was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine, a New York City political organization started in 1789 and dissolved in 1967. By the time of Crater’s disappearance, Tammany Hall was a thoroughly corrupt enterprise tied to organized crime. Its influence really began to wane not long after Crater went missing – they engaged in a losing battle with reformers looking to clean up the political process in the city. One of the reform leaders was Franklin D. Roosevelt, first governor of New York, then President of the United States.

Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress builds a mystery novel around the three major women in Crater’s life around the time Crater disappeared – his wife, Stella, his maid, Maria, and his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.

This was a very entertaining novel. Crater was presented as complete asshole, so his disappearance is really no loss. The characterizations of the three women, however, was a fascinating picture of three women, each who are unable to really exercise any agency in their roles in the early 20th century, taking control of something in their lives as they react and deal with the disappearance of this man they were all, in some way, dependent on.

The story moves between the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, where Mrs. Crater and Maria’s husband meet in a cafe. IIRC, Mrs. Crater is telling Maria’s husband, a non-corrupt NYC police detective who helped investigate her husband’s disappearance, exactly what happened in the months leading up to August 6, 1930.

I’m not going to give away the ending here, although it was an immensely satisfying explanation, because it’s never fun to read a mystery when you know the end. But the book itself, despite the dark subject matter, isn’t particularly dark, and is really more about these three women, their relationships with each other, and their efforts to improve their lives. The characterizations were fun and their relationships, particularly with each other, are so well developed.

I did this one via audiobook at work and in my car, which I very much enjoyed as I traveled all over two counties, working and apartment hunting. This a great book for the beach – an intelligent, not too dense, page turner.

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans

This book was one of my best literary surprises of 2017.

Everyone knows the horror stories that came out of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The mass executions, forced labor, illness, starvation and almost any other torture that can be imagined probably has a home in a Nazi death camp. My own grandfather was in the United States Army and had pictures of liberated prisoners. From what I understand, his unit helped liberate the camps. When he died, my mom told me my grandmother didn’t know what to do with them. She didn’t want to keep them because they were so horrifying, but didn’t have the heart to just get rid of them either. I’ll have to ask my mom what happened with that. I don’t remember.

This story, however, was kind of new to me. As we’ve put World War II further and further behind us, some of the stories have started to fade, and aren’t as well known. I remember vaguely hearing once that the Nazis made things from the human skin of the people they murdered, but it never really stuck in my mind. Maybe I dismissed it as too horrible to be real, or whatever, but The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans dives right in to that particular rumor and turns it inside out.

The book was written by Mark Jacobson, a journalist, who ends up with a lampshade purchased by Skip Henderson for $35. Henderson bought the lampshade in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from a sidewalk rummage sale in New Orleans. I can’t remember if he actually bought it from self-described neo-nazis, but the lampshade was advertised by the seller as made from victims of the Holocaust.

Henderson, who couldn’t figure out what to do with the lampshade and the idea of having a murdered somebody’s skin in his home made him restless and uneasy, sent the lampshade to Jacobson and basically said, “You’re the investigative journalist, investigate!”

And Jacobson sets out to investigate the lampshade. Genetic testing initially confirmed that the lampshade was made from human skin. Jacobson went on to visit Buchenwald, where such items were supposedly made, Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC  (which both refused the lampshade and maintained that items made of human skin were a myth), Holocaust deniers/neo-Nazis, a psychic, the mythology surrounding items supposedly made of human skin, the mythology surrounding the Holocaust, and the black market in which these kinds of taboo items are allegedly bought and sold.

I say allegedly, because in spite of the fact that human skin artifacts were widely reported by prisoners in the death camps, this lampshade is the first grisly artifact of this type to be discovered and subsequently investigated. Most Holocaust museums maintain that objects made of human skin were a legend, some kind of mass hallucination in the mind of desperate prisoners who, with good reason, saw even more exaggerated evil than was really there. Still though, most (contemporary) legends have some roots in historical truths.

I loved this book. First of all, I listened to it, and the narrator, Johnny Heller, really did a great job. I liked his voice, and he did a wonderful job balancing the seriousness of the subject matter with the dark humor Jacobson employs all through his investigations in Poland, Germany, Israel, and the United States. It’s clear Jacobson doesn’t take neo-Nazis seriously, but he does try to get to the bottom of their insanity. And some of the stuff these people say is darkly hilarious except for the fact that they’re serious.

I don’t remember exactly what happened to the lampshade but IIRC, at the time of publication, Jacobson still had it and could sleep at night having done the best he could to get to the truth. Or something of that nature.

So The Lampshade comes highly recommended by me. It was a well researched report on a grisly topic that is significant in not just remembering the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, but that there is a continued ongoing effort made by good people to put things right in small ways after an unimaginable horror. For all the research about the Holocaust, this book happened because neither Skip Henderson nor Mark Jacobson could live with the idea that a lampshade allegedly made of a Holocaust victim’s skin was in their possession and they made no attempt to do justice by the victim – in this case, the only justice available being to discover the truth and tell the story.

 

On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most interesting, well spoken men I’ve heard in our time, so when I saw On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance in the audiobook library, I realized that this interesting, well spoken man had a book that combined some of my favorite things:

+ his interesting, well spoken point of view
+ New York City
+ the Jazz Age
+ jazz itself
+ art & culture

And so, naturally, I checked it out and started listening.

This was a particularly enjoyable hybrid book. Part memoir and part history book, Jabbar took us on his journey as a kid, born Lew Alcindor, to fit in, and find himself through the prior work of other African Americans.

One of my favorite parts of the Harlem Renaissance is jazz. It was a pleasure listening to Jabbar go through the clubs in Harlem, the music, the musicians, and the dancing of the time period.  I wish I could have heard Duke Ellington and Lena Horne at The Cotton Club, and while I find the ‘whites only’ restriction of the era absolutely repulsive, exploiting the talent of black Americans for money by catering only to white American audiences, to hear that kind of talent? What an amazing opportunity.

Jabbar also spoke about Zora Neale Hurston (author of, most notably, Their Eyes Were Watching God), Langston Hughes (one of my favorite poets and one of the poets I studied during a project in high school), Louis Armstrong, and the Harlem Globetrotters, among others. I loved hearing especially about Hughes.

Also: Jabbar gets into how blacks ended up in Harlem in the first place (hint: they were forced out of other areas of the city), so yes, he also went into politics and legal issues black Americans faced during the time period (which makes sense, since it was the height of Jim Crow).

He also tracked his personal journey, discovering these artists, how his mentors helped him, how they helped him become a better kid, a better basketball player, and eventually a better man.

The coolest thing about Kareem is that he is so much more than a basketball player, and he contributes so much more to our culture than just basketball – although he has no problem talking basketball with fans and seems to enjoy using basketball as a key to unlocking other people’s other interests.

“If the pinnacle of my influence as a human being was perfecting the sky hook, I would not feel very satisfied.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I loved this contribution to our cultural understanding. It was informative, interesting, and fun. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Kareem’s and basketball, but also to fans of jazz, history, art, New York, and any other number of things that intersect in the Harlem Renaissance. It was a really enjoyable book.

 

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