Category Archives: non-fiction

A Few Words on Anthony Bourdain

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Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few days, you probably know that Anthony Bourdain was found dead in a hotel room in France on Friday morning. He’d killed himself at 61.

I have been bummed about a lot of celebrity deaths.

But Bourdain’s death by suicide is different, and I find it as haunting as I did Robin Williams’s death in 2014. It probably doesn’t help that Bourdain, like Williams, was one of my favorite people that I never met. Carrie Fisher is another one. But Fisher didn’t actively kill herself, and that makes her death devastating, but different.

As with Williams’s death almost four years ago now, I never met the guy, but I feel like I lost a friend. My world is a little less complete, beating back the darkness is a little harder.

I also don’t have anything I can add to the discussion about suicide, the same way I didn’t have anything to add four years ago. I don’t have any ideas on ways to better the care for people with mental health struggles, and can offer no insightful point of view about the pain people with that level of depression are going through.

I listened to two of Bourdain’s books last year. I liked them both. I’ve been watching ‘Parts Unknown’ and his other shows on and off for years. Bourdain was an incredible storyteller. He went places with an open-mindedness that I envy, and wish I could summon (I can’t make myself want to go to China, for example). He made me want to go places (not China, obviously, but elsewhere, like South America). He was authentic and genuine, and he was smug about a lot of things, but never about the people he met or the cultures he was getting to know.

He showed me the world and its cultures through food and drink, and he was smart and funny and brave as he did it. He was self-aware, and self-deprecating, and ran circles around the establishment he exposed in terms of making the public want to experience new adventures, culinary and otherwise. He was empathetic and honest, and the most ironic thing about his death is that this was a guy who was showing us how to live. Be curious, seek travel and movement and other ways besides your own, and don’t be afraid of things that are different from what you know.

The most astonishing part about his death, to me, was how other people loved him as much as I did. Maybe it’s because when he was making headlines it was for the outrageous things he said and then everyone was condemning him instead of talking about how great he was, but I also think people embraced him more as time went on. I have seen certain commentaries from people that they have never seen people of color so affected by the death of a white man, and that is another testament to his storytelling: he didn’t just tell. He listened. It was as if the people in each story were the most important people in the world and he shared those stories with understanding and respect, without acting as if he was uncovering something. He was simply sharing it, not discovering it.

As I said, I have nothing real to add on the discussion of suicide and mental health, and I’m not someone who feels the need to add to the white noise by contributing nonsense. I don’t know what Bourdain was thinking, or how he was feeling, or what inside him was so dark that it could convince him to leave his daughter, who he seemed to love more than anyone (not surprising or unusual).

All I can say is this: Anthony Bourdain was colorful, and bright, and we need more people like him. He left an incredible legacy of learning about cultures and meeting people through travel and food and storytelling. I will miss him.

Finally, if you are thinking of taking your own life, or suspect someone you know is considering it, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They can help.

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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.

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).

Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934

Back when I was a temp at my job, or back when I was still a clerk with less responsibility, I spent a loooot of time on Wikipedia. For some reason I spent a lot of time reading about organized crime. I think I did this because there was a lot of material and I had a lot of time to kill. I even ended up with a favorite gangster. Plus, it was all very interesting. Culturally, the gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s have always been glorified, by locals and by Hollywood. Hell, this continues to this day. John Gotti is still a hero in his old neighborhood.

So I saw Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 by Bryan Burrough in the audiobook library, and I was intrigued, because while I’d read a lot about gangsters, I hadn’t read much about law enforcement. I knew that a lot of mob higher ups were hardly ever arrested or convicted and that didn’t really begin until the establishment of the RICO act and the big cases in the 1970s. And considering the kind of attention the FBI has been getting these days, I thought this might be a good time to learn more about its origins.

This all said, I found this book disappointing. I didn’t realize when I checked it out but it was an abridged production, so I didn’t get the whole book, and further, they focused a lot on the gangsters, which you expect, but I felt they left a lot out about the FBI.

Most of the book covered how the FBI came into prominence, but left out a lot of background. They made headlines by killing or capturing members of the midwest’s most notorious outlaw gangs: the Dillinger gang, the Karpis gang, the Barker gang, Baby Face Nelson’s gang, and the Barrow gang, whose most famous (and founding) members were Bonnie & Clyde Barrow. What they didn’t cover much was the origin story: that the Bureau first came into being after the assassination of President McKinley, when now President Theodore Roosevelt wanted more power to monitor “anarchists” believed to be a threat to the United States, how the Departments of Labor and Justice had been keeping records but a new government agency was formed after the assassination, how the Mann Act played into the expanding role of the agency, etc…

In the part of the book I heard, Burrough does document the early power struggle between J. Edgar Hoover and his main rival, and he does go into a lot of what drives Hoover – inferiority complex, jealousy, etc… – but there really isn’t that much about specifics of how the FBI really came to be, and only a minimal amount about the power struggles at the FBI early on until Hoover clearly grabbed power.

The portion of the book chosen to be in the audiobook was mostly the government’s pursuit of the criminal gangs across the midwest, but a lot of it I already knew. I always like hearing about John Dillinger (a bank robber and a gentleman, so the story goes), but there wasn’t much I didn’t know about him either.

Maybe what I’m really looking for is a biography on Hoover? I don’t know. I can’t recommend or not recommend Public Enemies in print. I didn’t read the whole book. I can whole heartedly not recommend the abridged audiobook version to anyone who has even a basic understanding of what went on in the midwest in 1933 and 1934. There just isn’t enough new information, and the whole thing is a waste of time if you have even rudimentary knowledge of the events of that time.

 

 

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.

Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I listened to two Anthony Bourdain books this year, both read by the author. The first one was Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the second was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

As you probably know, Kitchen Confidential was the book that made Bourdain famous and the one that was probably the most shocking. Of the two, I liked it less.

I didn’t dislike it because of the content – the content was just fine. It was Bourdain reading it. He sounded monotone and kind of bored, and you think that maybe he recorded this book back before he’d really mastered his public persona. He does a 180 in Medium Raw, during which he sounds lively, funny, and engaged in what he’s reading.

A lot of people don’t like Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people see him as one of those guys who never grew out of the smart ass, teenage bad boy thing. He acts like he’s a badass but you don’t really believe him. They say he’s angry, and he can be vulgar and brutal. I always just thought he was being honest.

I’ve always liked his style. He’s gruff and says some wacky stuff from time to time, but Bourdain, to me, is very cool, and he’s cool because he doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care if he’s cool, if you think he’s cool, or what you think about him either way. He is what he is and he does what he does, and that kind of honesty and self-assuredness, is the coolest thing anyone can possibly achieve.

Both books are similar – stories of Bourdain’s time in kitchens, how the industry worked, in Medium Raw he talks about what’s changed about the industry since he wrote Kitchen Confidential, etc…

I found both books funny, but Medium Raw funnier, because Bourdain’s sense of humor about himself is on full display. He did it in Kitchen Confidential, too, but it was different. It’s easy to make fun of yourself as a goofy kid just out of college who thinks he’s really cool. It’s much harder to make fun of yourself as an adult who is supposed to be taking himself and his career very seriously.

Medium Raw also torches the Food TV industrial complex that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. That book actually came out in 2010, so Bourdain was criticizing actual chefs who had never worked in restaurants. As someone who really used to enjoy watching those chefs Bourdain made fun of on Food Network, I have to say that in 2018, Food Network kinda sucks now. They used to have actual TV personality chefs making things for most of their programming. Now we mostly watch food based reality TV shows, which are kind of interesting sometimes but mostly bore me to tears. I used to love turning Food Network on during the holidays and see what people used to make their own holidays special. Now it’s just, like, sad people competing to see who can build the biggest most structurally sound gingerbread house.

Sorry, tangent. My point is, I get where Bourdain is coming from even if he caught a lot of shit for it (and he DID catch a lot of shit for it).

I found Bourdain’s stream-of-consciousness style both endearing and conversational, writing the way most of us talk (although without maybe using so many F-bombs). I liked the stories. I know from these books that I could never work in a kitchen, so that is one regret I don’t have to suffer.

Plus, I’m a fairly adventurous eater. I’m not Bourdain’s level of adventurous (I enjoy his TV shows as well, although I don’t watch them often), but it’s nice to hear about food from someone who knows about food. If it wasn’t for him, I probably never would have tried oysters (which I now love) because I just didn’t know what to do with them.

The bottom line is that both books were enjoyable food-centric memoirs. And who doesn’t love food-centric stuff?

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 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.

 

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