Tim Gebhart – Blogcritics https://blogcritics.org The critical lens on today's culture & entertainment Sat, 01 Dec 2018 21:49:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Book Review: ‘Gnomon’ by Nick Harkaway https://blogcritics.org/book-review-gnomon-nick-harkaway/ Fri, 15 Dec 2017 20:31:30 +0000 https://blogcritics.org/?p=5480797 'Gnomon's', by Nick Harkaway, exploration of a total surveillance state is mortally wounded by length and language

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With news about NSA surveillance of electronic communications and an increase in the already huge number of cameras keeping an eye on public places and private property, there’s justifiable concern for individual privacy. This concern is a core of Nick Harkaway’s latest novel, Gnomon.

Harkaway envisions a near-future Great Britain in which an AI, the Witness, has access to total surveillance of the population and all information. It is a key to the System, a permanent direct democracy with ongoing polling and which allows citizens to vote directly on the country’s issues.

As a “precautionary principle” to ensure the System keeps society the best it can be, it is occasionally necessary to investigate certain individuals via neurological access to their thoughts and memories. The subjects tend to emerge “happier, more organised and more productive” because the aftercare works like a “tune-up.”

Now, for the first time, someone died during an examination – Diane Hunter, a nonconformist writer. Mielikki Neith, a die-hard inspector for the Witness, is called on to investigate what happened by accessing the recording of Hunter’s memories. But she discovers four additional personas in Hunter’s mind.

They are Constantine, a Greek investment wizard; Athenais, an alchemist and the mother of St. Augustine’s son; Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian artist who ends up doing the graphic design for the massively multiplayer online game (Witnessed)being created by his granddaughter’s company; and the title character, a future collective consciousness akin to the hive mind of Star Trek’s Borg.

As the book’s protagonist, Neith provides a framework police procedural story. Her investigation leads her to wonder if the System she believes in so fervently has an inherent defect or is perhaps even being manipulated. While intertwined with that framework, the other four characters create an esoteric labyrinth of mysticism and arcana somewhat reminiscent of Umberto Eco. Their stories unfold through a multitude of individual discourses as Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s interrogation. They are the novel’s ultimate failing.

Many of these chapters are confounding, almost impenetrable. They even occasionally take us into Hell and outside time. Several, especially Athenais’s, refer to so many mythological figures and ideas – with some early Christian history and symbolism thrown in – a reader is well-advised to have some sort of reference work handy. Harkaway’s word choices also call for reference material. He seems to prefer the obscure (“novacula, ”saccades,” ”pursuivants,” “apocatastasis”) over the straightforward.

Finally, many of these discourses are too lengthy and digressive. Gnomon clocks in at 700 pages. Granted, the story is complex, but it would have benefited greatly had several hundred pages been eliminated. As a result, I’m guessing a significant number of readers who start the book will not see it through to completion.

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Book Review: ‘Justice Failed: How “Legal Ethics” Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years’ by Alton Logan with Berl Falbaum https://blogcritics.org/book-review-justice-failed-legal-ethics-kept-prison-26-years-alton-logan-berl-falbaum/ Sun, 15 Oct 2017 16:45:53 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5478803 Alton Logan tells of spending 26 years in prison for murder even though two lawyers knew he was innocent.

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People often tend to equate ethics with morality. Alton Logan can unquestionably tell you that is a misconception. After all, when two lawyers adhered to their ethical obligation not to reveal information from their client, Logan was incarcerated for 26 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Logan tells his story in Justice Failed: How “Legal Ethics” Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years. And while Logan’s case epitomizes close to the worst dilemma attorney-client privilege might create, it is also a devastating commentary on ongoing problems in the criminal justice system. In a lengthy introduction, the journalist who collaborated with Logan on the book, Berl Falbaum, makes clear that he views the lawyers’ action show the law and the legal system are immoral. Yet the bulk of the book, written from Logan’s standpoint, is a fairly straightforward narrative of his life, one in which he appears much more understanding of what happened.

How Logan was ensnared by legal ethics is readily explained. He was arrested for the January 1982 murder of a security guard at a Chicago McDonald’s four blocks from his home. Age 28 at the time, Logan faced the death penalty. He was initially convicted in February 1983, the jury sparing him the death penalty by just two votes. Yet just a week after Logan’s arrest, Andrew Wilson, who actually shot the guard, was arrested for murdering two Chicago police officers. Less than six weeks after Logan’s arrest — and nearly a year before his trial — Wilson told his two public defenders that he’d killed the McDonald’s guard.

Wilson’s refusal to disclose that himself or to let his attorneys do so put the attorneys in a Catch-22. Not only could revealing this information mean Wilson likely would have another capital murder charge, it could be used as an aggravating circumstance for the death penalty in the killing of the two officers. On the other hand, the attorneys knew an innocent man not only was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he too faced the death penalty. Their solution? They prepared and signed an affidavit saying “privileged sources” informed them that Logan was “in fact not responsible” for the McDonald’s shooting.

Fortunately for Logan, they also obtained Wilson’s permission to disclose the information after Wilson’s death, which they did in 2008. Still, the affidavit sat in a locked strongbox under the bed of one of the lawyers for 26 years. And, interestingly, the lawyers disagreed on whether they would have revealed the information if Logan had been sentenced to death.

Yet Logan’s conviction also involves police and prosecutorial misconduct. The biggest example is when police found the two guns used to kill the police officers. That search, just six days after Logan’s arrest, also turned up a sawed-off shotgun. Ballistics tests revealed the shotgun fired a cartridge shell found at the McDonald’s murder scene. The police did not investigate the connection between Wilson and the shotgun. Then, at Logan’s first trial, the state convinced the judge that the shotgun and shell shouldn’t be admitted into evidence. Although an appeals court ordered Logan retried because of that, prosecutors managed to keep out evidence that it was Wilson who’d possessed the gun. Without that context, the jury had no reason to doubt the claim that Logan was the killer.

Logan and Falbaum both contribute to telling Logan’s story. Falbaum’s introduction delves into attorney-client privilege overall, its effect on the case, the frequency of prosecutorial and police misconduct, and resulting wrongful convictions. Perhaps because of this division of labor he is much more critical of the confidentiality rule. For example, he points out that one exception to attorney-client privilege includes a dispute over legal fees. That means, he says, lawyers can “violate” confidentiality to collect a fee “but not when an innocent person is facing execution or serving a life sentence in prison.” (While another exception allows disclosure when necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm,” it didn’t apply. When the attorneys gained the information the guard’s death had already occurred and Logan’s death was not “reasonably certain” because no one knew if he would get the death penalty.)

Logan, in contrast, tells us the story of his life and his experience. In so doing, he comes off as far more reasonable about what happened than one might expect. Although at times guilty of a bit of repetition, Logan’s account is thoughtful and gives insight into what many criminal defendants, particularly those of color, experience. Yet this double barreled approach weakens the book.

While the authors may have felt an introduction to the issues was necessary, it creates a situation in which Falbum’s argument comes before readers are fully familiar with Logan’s story. Additionally, while Falbaum spoke with a large number of people, including multiple lengthy interviews with the attorneys, their thoughts and comments aren’t really weaved into Logan’s story. Instead, they are largely confined to the introduction and footnotes in Logan’s narrative. There is also a distinct difference in style. Logan writes in plain, everyday language in contrast to the analytical tone and content of Falbaum’s introduction. And Logan may leave you scratching your head at times. For example, he says that when police first came to his home after the McDonald’s murder he assured his mother he didn’t have anything to do with it. He then writes that he was at home with his mother and two other trial witnesses, the night of the killing. If they were together when the murder occurred, why would Logan need to tell his mother he wasn’t involved?

Ultimately, though, regardless of whether a different route would have improved the book, Justice Failed is an intriguing look at critical legal issues of which the general public is unaware.

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Book Review: ‘Gratoony the Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton’ by Gilles Gratton https://blogcritics.org/book-review-gratoony-loony-wild-unpredictable-life-gilles-gratton-gilles-gratton/ Mon, 02 Oct 2017 01:21:21 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5478270 'Gratoony the Loony' by Gilles Gratton is the autobiography of the former professional hockey goalie in which he reinforces the stereotype of the crazy goaltender.

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Gratoony the Loony
The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton
Gilles Gratton
ECW Press, 260 pages

Stereotypes exist for a reason. Many, if not most, seem to stem from a smidgen of truth. Particular instances add layers to that kernel until a full blown stereotype exists. Sometimes, members of the group that is the subject of a stereotype help propagate it.

Take the ice hockey goaltender, for example. They’re supposed to be crazy. After all, who willingly puts their body in front of a solid piece of vulcanized rubber coming at speeds up to 100 mph? Even Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent said, “You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalie. But it helps!” One of the goaltenders who embodied the stereotype is Gilles Gratton, who earned the moniker “Gratoony the Loony” (to be distinguished from “loonie,” the $1 Canadian coin).

Even though Gratton only played in 47 NHL games in the 1975-76 and 1976-77 seasons, he achieved somewhat legendary status. His autobiography Gratoony the Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton, co-written with Greg Oliver, shows how his quirks and actions fostered the image of the crazy goaltender. But it also tells the story of a French-Canadian boy growing up playing hockey and reaching the big stage while believing there was more to life than a hockey rink.

Gratton spent three seasons in the World Hockey Association, playing in its second All-Star Game, before moving to the NHL. He asserts that he didn’t want to play hockey, “it just seemed that destiny pushed me into it.” Similarly, he says his brother Norm, who would play 201 games with four NHL teams, would rather hunt than play outdoor hockey when they were growing up.

The introduction to Gratoony the Loony deals with an event near the end of his career that drew extensive attention. While goalies had fiberglass masks, they were not that far removed from the type made iconic in Friday the 13th. At a home game at Madison Square Garden on January 30, 1977, Gratton came on the ice wearing a mask painted as a snarling lion. (It’s probably apropos that he chose a lion because his astrological sign is Leo.) The mask was so striking that, according to Gratton, the referees and players on the ice came down to look at it. He believes the mask “has come to define me, because most of the rest of my career was just a series of fuck-ups.”

Gratton doesn’t limit his focus to the quirks and antics that he’s remembered for. Instead, Gratoony the Loony is more autobiographical than many sports memoirs. He writes of growing up with parents who were “emotionally absent,” allowing him to do whatever he wanted. He says he struggled with “despair over the meaninglessness of life.” He dropped out of high school after only three days.

Before his last NHL season, Gratton no longer wanted to play hockey; he wanted to “meditate, go to ashrams, do my spiritual stuff and uncover life’s secrets.” In fact, after retiring at age 24, Gratton spent several years exploring Transcendental Meditation and yoga, in hopes of becoming “an enlightened being.” Ultimately, though, I think readers would have been better served by a deeper exploration of the effects of how he and his brother (who drank himself to death in 2010) were raised and a more abbreviated discussion of his life after retiring.

Make no mistake. This is a book about hockey. There’s plenty of narrative of Gratton’s years playing hockey, especially professional hockey. In fact, the book at times has the feel of a series of war stories. Perhaps because of that, brief, oral history-like accounts from a wide variety of people are interspersed throughout the book. To me, the inserts tended to break the flow of the book and a number didn’t seem that relevant to the subject at hand. But those interested in the Gratoony the Loony reputation also get what they came for. Among other things, Gratton tells of:

  • His mood and thinking being affected by his horoscope and why would you play a goalie who wasn’t in the right mood to perform?
  • While playing for Toronto’s WHA team, taking several laps around the practice rink wearing only his mask and skates, ending with a pirouette at center ice.
  • When interviewed at center ice in San Diego after being named first star of the game, Gratton told the crowd, “You have a nice city here. It’s too bad you don’t have a good hockey team.”
  • After getting hit in the ribs by a puck, telling the doctor the reason it hurt so much was because he was stabbed in the same place by a Spaniard in a prior life.

Plainly, Gratton reinforced the hockey goalie stereotype. He still may be doing so. Gratoony the Loony also tells of his post-hockey astral projection and that he’s currently living two distinct timelines. In the past, he’s lived as a 12th century sailor, a 14th century Indian “hobo,” a 17th century Spanish landowner, an 18th century Spanish priest and a 19th century British surgeon. All in all, to paraphrase Daniel Tosh, it’s not a stereotype if it’s true.

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Book Review: ‘Fear’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit https://blogcritics.org/book-review-fear-dirk-kurbjuweit/ Thu, 28 Sep 2017 22:17:41 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5477743 In 'Fear' Dirk Kurbjuweit takes an existential look at family

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I hate it when someone says an author reminds them of such and such other author. The comparison is unfair to the first author and all too often falls apart. So forgive me when I tell you that Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear reminded me of the work of Dutch author Herman Koch. And that’s a good thing.

Most Americans know Koch because of his book The Dinner, an international bestseller that spent eight weeks on the NYT Book Review’s fiction bestseller list when released in the U.S. in 2013. Like The Dinner and two other Koch novels, Fear explores family disarray and moral codes. Despite the fact Kurbjuweit tells us most of the end of the story in the second chapter, there’s a sense of existential trepidation throughout.

The book is narrated by Randolph Tiefenthaler, a 45-year-old Berlin architect. He, his wife and two children live in the ground floor of a late 19th century home with flats in the basement, second floor and attic. When they meet Dieter Tiberius, the man who leases the basement flat, things seem normal. Unfortunately, Tiberius later makes suggestive comments to Tiefenthaler’s wife, Rebecca, and writes her love letters. His bizarre actions escalate. Soon he is writing notes and letters accusing the couple of abusing and molesting their children. (The plot is based upon Kurbjuweit’s own experiences more than a decade ago.)

When Tiefenthaler goes to the police and lawyers trying to stop Tiberius, he finds there is nothing to be done since Tiberius hasn’t committed a crime. Tiefenthaler even offers to buy the basement flat from its owner, an offer that is rejected. Not only is Tiefenthaler frustrated, he fears someone may believe the allegations. Combined with the thought that he is failing to protect his family, Tiefenthaler’s self-loathing grows.

Tiefenthaler’s thoughts make clear he suffers an inordinate amount of angst. It’s apparent that much of it is tied up in the rocky relationship he had with his father growing up. Tiefenthaler’s father is infatuated with pistols; he has around 30 guns in their home. Each Saturday, his father would drive them to a shooting range for the two of them to shoot at targets. Tiefenthaler, though, had a strong aversion to his father’s passion and just before his 10th birthday refuses to go to the practice range any more. His younger sister eventually takes his place and the father-son relationship never improves.

Tiefenthaler can’t put his finger on the fear underlying his dislike of shooting with this father, just as he has a hard time understanding his dread in general. His relationship with Rebecca becomes strained, even to the point where Tiefenthaler begins to wonder if maybe Tiberius is telling the truth. “‘I trust you not to abuse our children’ is something you should have have to say,” he thinks one night as they sit in their living room.

Kurbjuweit’s pacing as Tiefenthaler’s turmoil increases not only heightens the sense of pressure but helps the reader grasp it. And while the reader knows how the story ends, the devil is in the details. Kurbjuweit, deputy editor of Der Spiegel, has won several awards for his reporting and written several nonfiction works and novels. Translated by Imogen Taylor, Fear is his first book to be translated into English. It is an auspicious beginning.

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Book Review: ‘Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind’ by Jaime Lowe https://blogcritics.org/book-review-mental-lithium-love-losing-mind-jaime-lowe/ https://blogcritics.org/book-review-mental-lithium-love-losing-mind-jaime-lowe/#comments Tue, 26 Sep 2017 23:31:47 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5477744 First diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16, in 'Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind' Jaime Lowe looks at her 20 plus years taking lithium and the drug itself.

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“I don’t really believe in God, but I believe in lithium.” So declares Jaime Lowe in recounting her 20 year struggle with bipolar disorder in Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind. Yet as the subtitle suggest, Lowe also examines the treatment of choice.

Bipolar disorder, once known as manic depressive illness, usually first appears between the ages of 15 and 30, with 25 being the average age of onset. Lowe was an overachiever, with her first hospitalization for the condition occurring at age 16. Mental opens with a recounting of her first episode of extreme mania. As with other accounts, one wonders how someone who, to put it colloquially, is “out of their mind” can accurately describe what happened. Lowe, though, says that because the experience was “real for me,” she does remember and the incidents leave a feeling that “never fully dissipates.”

While hospitalized, she was started on lithium, the first line treatment for bipolar disorder. What is more striking about this first hospitalization is not necessarily what led to it but the existential state in which she was left once well enough to be released.

Who was I if my actions and thoughts didn’t represent me? What if they did represent me? What if they were extensions of me, rooted in a subconscious realm? What if the me from before I was on lithium is the real me?

Lowe recognizes these questions were too deep for her teenage mind to ponder for long. At the same time, she says, “I no longer had a baseline for reality or even a way to fully trust myself.” And those existential questions, or at least their undercurrent, would not disappear.

Lowe was fortunate because lithium worked for her, allowing her to live and work without being overwhelmed by her condition. In late 1999, Lowe tapered off lithium after having taken it for six years. She began slipping into a manic state even before stopping the drug entirely and once full blown, it would take several months to convince her to go back on the drug. Again, she returned to comparatively normal life.

Still, her “normality” reflects one of the problems with the psychiatric memoir. As a college student, she lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a year studying art history. She’s traveled to Turkey, Germany and Japan and enjoyed the nightlife and other things New York City had to offer while living and working there. To date, the memoir authors largely have been white and relatively privileged.

We aren’t hearing the experiences of those, minority or otherwise, who struggle to obtain treatment, let alone those who lack the resources, or the deinstitutionalized. Granted, this is not a problem cause by Lowe. In fact, near the end of Mental, she discusses the fact that while she spent more than $100,000 on outpatient psychiatric care in 18 years in New York City, some 43 million Americans don’t have that option.

In 2014, Lowe encountered something many others who rely on lithium face — kidney damage. Routine blood tests by her primary care physician ultimately revealed that two decades of lithium left her kidneys with only 48 percent function. “I had to choose between my kidneys or losing my sanity,” she writes. Her need to search for a replacement treatment leads her to explore lithium itself. In doing so, Magic is uncommon.

As if infatuated by it, Lowe travels to lithium production sites in Nevada and Bolivia and spas with lithium in the water. She ultimately weaves together concise summaries of the history of treating mental illness, what lithium is, where it comes from and the history of its medical use. And, Lowe says, the nature of lithium creates a problem for patients. Lithium is one of the first three chemical elements created by the Big Bang. That means it can’t be patented so, according to Lowe, there’s no financial incentive to continue studying its effect on the brain. Lowe fortunately found another treatment that has worked, although the book recounts that it was far from a simple process.

As noted, Magic comes from the view of a privileged, white American, which is heightened here by a sense of New York City bohemian cool. Perhaps related to the latter, at times the tone is one of hip casualness and there are occasional clunkers (“temperament itself is so tempestuous”). Lowe also tends to wander or be a bit wordy in the last third of the book, delving into family history and other topics. The flaws, though, do not leave the book or its scope hollow. By going beyond the personal aspects of bipolar disorder, Lowe provides a rare perspective.

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Book Review: ‘Iraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq’ Edited by Hassan Blasim https://blogcritics.org/book-review-iraq-100-the-first-anthology-of-science-fiction-to-have-emerged-from-iraq-edited-by-hassan-blasim/ Sun, 10 Sep 2017 21:05:40 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5477186 In 'Iraq + 100', edited by Hassan Blasim, ten Iraqi authors imagine life in their country 100 years after the U.S. invasion and occupation

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Iraq + 100
The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq

Hassan Blasim (ed.)
Tor Books, 224 pages

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

There’s no question that whoever first coined this maxim was absolutely right. For example, when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, 14 of them Saudis, hijacked four airplanes on September 11, 2001, few would have predicted that within about 18 months the United States would invade Iraq. Even fewer would have predicted the U.S. would occupy the country for another eight years. So why would anyone want to predict where Iraq will be in 100 years?

Ten Iraqi authors attempt to do so in Iraq + 100. Actually, they’re speculating about — inventing — the future, not predicting it, so technically the book is speculative fiction. Perhaps attitudes toward that genre led to the book being subtitled Stories from Another Iraq when originally released in the U.S. last December. Forge, an imprint of noted science fiction publisher Tor Books, isn’t put off by the label, though. The edition of the book it releases this week bears the subtitle The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq. That doesn’t alter the book’s mission.

Rather than asking Iraqi writers to wrap fiction around the 2003 invasion, something editor Hassan Blasim did in his own 2014 short story collection The Corpse Exhibition, Blasim asked the writers to do something rare for Iraq. As he notes in his introduction to the book, “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing.” In fact, Blasim was concerned it would be difficult to find writers willing to imagine Iraqi cities 100 years in the future.

Like most anthologies, the end result is mixed. Additionally, Western readers’ perception or appreciation of the book may be affected by the fact seven of the 10 stories were originally written in Arabic and each has a different translator. To the extent this is science fiction, it is “soft” sci fi exploring the cultural, political and psychological effects of the invasion and occupation of the country. There’s also a little magical realism and surrealism utilizing Iraq’s and Islam’s history and culture.

Some stories offer optimism. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” Blasim’s own story, while Baghdad is managed by a Chinese corporation, it has become “a paradise for digital technology developers.” Likewise, despite desertification and environmental degradation, this Baghdad is divided into 24 Chinese-designed domes, each a new garden of Babylon. The city exports the world’s best software and extraordinary scientific discoveries.

Ali Bader imagines a peace-filled future, at least for Iraq. In “The Corporal,” an Iraqi soldier returns to Kut, where he died in the 2003 invasion. “There are no more Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians” in Iraq, he is told, because organized religion is viewed as an impediment to knowing God. The country is long free of conflicts or civil wars. America, however, has become “an extremist state” ruled by religious radicals much like the Taliban governed Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. is “part of the axis of evil.”

Other futures are far more dystopian. In “Operation Daniel,” the Kirkuk envisioned by Khalid Kaki is a wealthy city-state cut off from the rest of Iraq and governed by the Chinese. All languages but Chinese are forbidden and the punishment for anyone speaking or reading in them is being incinerated and “archived” in a synthetic diamond.

Diaa Jubaili bases “The Worker” on a statute of that name in Basra. The city exports or has consumed every imaginable resource. It never lacks corpses, whether from disease or starvation. Despite a virtual total collapsed, “the Governor” reassures those still in the city with a monthly address about historical events that surpass the city’s own catastrophes and suffering.

Whether hopeful or despairing, these stories may have Americans ruefully recalling what Gen. Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

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Book Review: ‘Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee’ by Ann Marie Ackerman https://blogcritics.org/book-review-death-of-an-assassin-the-true-story-of-the-german-murderer-who-died-defending-robert-e-lee-by-ann-marie-ackerman/ Mon, 28 Aug 2017 00:44:38 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5476748 Former prosecutor puts her talents to work in investigating the existence of a historical connection between a German assassin and Robert E. Lee

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Death of an Assassin:
The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee

Anne Marie Ackerman
The Kent State University Press, 224 pages

Coincidence. Fate. Chance. Karma.

History is full of odd, seemingly unrelated events combining to produce a fortuitous result. To those who analyze such things, coincidences are easily explained by the laws of mathematics. Some contend that the most incredible coincidence would be if there were no coincidences. (https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11719) Others, though, believe that meaningful coincidences happen so frequently that math and science cannot explain them. For them, these events are examples of Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, two unconnected events appearing to occur purposefully.

No matter what they’re called, such circumstances are fodder for plenty of narratives. On its surface, it would appear to be the basis of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. Yet author Ann Marie Ackerman unravels a real life mystery. Not only is this an engaging piece of history, the former prosecutor uses an appendix to present the compelling evidence and reasoning behind her identification of a 19th century German murderer. Ackerman also makes a strong case that the initial investigation may have seen the first use of forensic ballistics as a law enforcement tool. (And for those who believe in it, is it synchronicity that Death of an Assassin is being released when the nation is debating Confederate statues?)

Death of an Assassin begins on the night of October 21, 1835, when the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, was shot just a few steps from his front door. The mayor did not see his assailant and died about 30 hours later. Using the original investigative file, Ackerman details the investigation, providing a rare look inside the techniques and legal standards of the time.

Despite a thorough investigation and examination of several potential suspects, the case was essentially closed without resolution in 1837. At some point, the actual assassin emigrated to the U.S. illegally. (Ackerman doesn’t identify him until approximately halfway through the book so his name isn’t used here.) In January 1840, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, then a force of only 7,000 men.

At the time of the assassination, Robert E. Lee was 28, a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. That same month, the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule began, eventually leading to the Mexican-American War a decade later. And, Ackerman maintains, that would bring Lee and the German assassin together during the siege of Veracruz in March 1847, Lee’s first battle experience.

In April 1847, Lee would write his 15-year-old son about his experiences. He described a soldier in a company protecting him and the battery he commanded during the bombardment of Veracruz. The soldier’s thigh was shattered by a Mexican cannonball and he lay in agony most of the day. When finally being borne off in a litter, he was killed by an incoming shell. “I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man,” Lee wrote.

Currently living in Germany, Ackerman’s experience as an American prosecutor shows through. Poor military record-keeping at the time forces her to say the assassin “probably” was the soldier mentioned in Lee’s letter. Yet she musters and builds a strong case for naming him. Although there are a few instances of repetition and the actual events surrounding the man’s death are muddied by time, Death of an Assassin is a cogent work.

In 1872, the assassin was identified, ironically, by a Bönnigheim resident who emigrated to the U.S. in 1836 after unfounded rumor said he killed the mayor. In a letter to authorities, he relayed that a friend told him that shortly after arriving in the U.S., the assassin admitted to killing the mayor for rejecting his application to be a game warden. While aware of the killer died in combat in Mexico, it took Ackerman to make the connection to American history.

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Book Review: ‘The Trial of Prisoner 043’ by Terry Jastrow https://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-trial-of-prisoner-043-by-terry-jastrow/ https://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-trial-of-prisoner-043-by-terry-jastrow/#comments Wed, 26 Jul 2017 19:11:56 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5475840 In 'The Trial of Prisoner 043' author Terry Jastrow provocatively imagines George W. Bush being tried for war crimes because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq

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A person might be forgiven if they think a book with the title The Trial of Prisoner 043 is part of the booming dystopian literature. In contrast, Terry Jastrow’s first novel posits a perhaps more idealistic view of today’s world. Prisoner 043 is so named because he’s the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush.

Jastrow imagines what may be an aspiration of a number of people: Bush on trial before the International Criminal Court for war crimes because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In doing so, he shrewdly uses the treaty creating the court, the Rome Statute, as a means of sharpening the book’s core conflict. It, in fact, moors the opening of the book.

Following an investigation by the its Office of Prosecutor, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bush. Yet the ICC doesn’t have the power of arrest; a member state must actually make the arrest. The U.S. is not a member of the ICC. How then to get a former U.S. president before the court?

British paramilitary commandos, assisted by the British government, snatch Bush on the 17th hole of St. Andrews Old Course in Scotland (a locale perhaps reflecting Jastrow’s lengthy experience producing or directing major golf championships for ABC and his 12 years as president of Jack Nicklaus Productions.) Perhaps aptly, Bush is hooded, shackled and handcuffed before being whisked away in a van, although the hood and restraints are removed when he is flown to ICC’s headquarters in The Hauge, Netherlands.

Given the political uproar Bush’s seizure creates, including the U.S. contemplating a variety of military options, elements of the ICC are conscious of public appearance. The prosecutor’s office had already picked two of its attorneys to handle the case: an American man and a woman born and raised in Fallujah, Iraq. They face off against a defense team made up of a lifelong Texas friend of Bush and two American lawyers expert in international criminal law.

After the ICC rejects challenges to its jurisdiction (in 2002 the prosecutor’s office declined to investigate alleged war crimes in Iraq because the ICC lacked jurisdiction over U.S. forces), the latest “trial of the century” begins. This is a different trial than Jastrow’s written about previously. His play, The Trial of Jane Fonda, had Fonda defending her activities during the Vietnam war in a meeting with angry Vietnam veterans. The Bush trial, though, is in a courtroom and draws so much international attention that it is broadcast and live streamed worldwide.

While the ICC’s formal procedures and rules play a role in the story, The Trial of Prisoner 043 greatly telescopes its core story. While readability requires some condensing, Jastrow’s tends toward the extreme. The trial begins within weeks of Bush’s arrest, not the months and years it actually takes.

Likewise, the trial itself takes three months. Compare that to the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloševic, where the prosecution took 294 days to present its case and called nearly 300 witnesses. Miloševic died before the trial ended.

Substantively, Jastrow admits that in creating the trial he is “more an aggregator of content than a writer.” Much of it is taken directly from published sources, sources he freely credits. Yet this also allows The Trial of Prisoner 043 to capsulize both sides of the debate over the beginning of the Iraq War. Jastrow’s prosecutors pull no punches, including attempting to show Bush’s criminal intent by the lies told by his administration in the run-up to the war, 260 by Bush alone. The defense, meanwhile, challenges using such a trial to second-guess a president’s national security decisions.

At the same time, the need to compress the array of information and sources creates a foible common to trial-based tales. To keep the pace moving, the attorneys tend to launch into argumentative, opinion-laced discourses wedding a number of facts. If a soliloquy precedes a question to a witness, chances are the question itself wouldn’t be allowed by the rules of evidence. This may exasperate only those familiar with trials or the law but even we find it easier to overlook in light of Jastrow’s ingenious use of the law to untangle a knotty conflict between points of view and nations.

Realistically, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq will never lead to a war crimes trial. Yet by exploring this provocative “what if” the considerably researched The Trial of Prisoner 043 is a thought-provoking read.

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Book Review: ‘Samaritans’ by Jonathan Lynn https://blogcritics.org/book-review-samaritans-by-jonathan-lynn/ https://blogcritics.org/book-review-samaritans-by-jonathan-lynn/#comments Sun, 23 Jul 2017 21:57:08 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5475723 'Samaritans' by Jonathan Lynn skewers American healthcare system and the political arguments over the Affordable Care Act.

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If Jonathan Lynn’s Samaritans takes off, he should send thank you notes to Congress, particularly Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Mitch McConnell. The ongoing Congressional spectacle with the Affordable Care Act provides a near perfect backdrop for Lynn’s a biting takeoff on healthcare in America.

Lynn is perhaps best known as a television writer and film director (including one of my all-time favorites, My Cousin Vinny. Satire becomes a scalpel in his story of Max Green, head of hotel operations at a Las Vegas casino, who sees becoming CEO of a large hospital as the path to wealth. Evincing many of the ideas at the heart of ACA debate and weaving in real facts about the American healthcare system, few elements of the healthcare debate are spared.

Green becomes head of Samaritans Medical Center in the Columbia Heights area of the nation’s capital. Obsessed with the bottom line, Green insists his contract include him getting “a fair slice of the profits” when he turns the hospital’s red ink into black. The hospital board, chaired by the billionaire owner of a company that makes electronic components for weapons systems sold worldwide, decides to give Green a chance.

Green’s efforts include fairly common strategies — trying to build high profile practices by hiring renowned doctors, eliminating costly elements (even nurses, here many are replaced by janitors) to create profit centers, and buying outside service providers, such as temporary nursing and billing and collection agencies. These aren’t enough for Green. He implements numerous “innovations,” including cutting a deal with a celebrity lawyer who frequently sues Samaritans, that bring profit but also have dire ramifications for both he and the hospital.

It’s what motivates Green and his data-driven deputy, Blanche Nunn, that sharpens the book’s focus. They expound the free market and evangelical ideologies underlying much of today’s healthcare debate. Green tends to make Paul Ryan-like pronouncements, such as, “People can’t have what they can’t afford. That’s what got America into this economic mess — everybody wanting something for nothing.” If someone can’t afford health care, Green says it’s “TP,” their problem.

Green’s philosophy also lays out the Catch-22 in leaving people uninsured. “Prevention’s not profitable,” he observes. It’s better to shutter a diabetes center because treating the consequences of the disease is far more profitable. And when Andrew Sharp, the star cardiothoracic surgeon Green hired, suggests not everything can be decided by the marketplace, the CEO says that “sounds like communism.”

Blanche’s devotion to the free market is rooted in what she’s learned from her evangelical ministers, Pastors Spittle and Wallow. (The hospital’s Roman Catholic chaplain doesn’t express opinions he “can safely leave my theological thinking to my superiors.”) “Capitalism is God’s ordained economic system,” Blanche maintains, and because the free market is “divinely inspired,” government should not interfere. When it comes to medical needs, Spittle taught her that “God had prescribed the answer: unregulated, free-market corporate health care.” Thus, Medicare’s problem, she says, is that it was “set up to help patients, not profits.”

In lampooning these ideas, Samaritans shows how they are at work in the politics of healthcare. Dr. Sharp and other Samaritans physicians and employees provide the counterpoint, observing and experiencing the impact of Green’s and Nunn’s machinations. Ultimately, Green goes a step (or three) too far, resulting in inventive denouement. Lynn’s one page epilogue contains some of the book’s best humor but it would require an inexcusable spoiler to show why.

Samaritans is more insightful farce than laugh-out-loud funny and generally succinct and well written. It does, though, have its flaws. A couple characters seem unnecessary to advancing the story and feel more like walk-on extras. More disquieting is a tendency for some of the female characters to use sex as a tactic to achieve success. While Lynn uses this to further distinguish between the good guy and the bad guy, the frequency with which it appears collapses toward hackneyed trope.

Still, these blemishes are comparatively negligible compared to the book’s truth telling. In looking at America’s healthcare system, Samaritans both entertains and educates.

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Book Review: ‘Crowns in Conflict: The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918’ by Theo Aronson https://blogcritics.org/book-review-crowns-in-conflict-the-triumph-and-tragedy-of-european-monarchy-1910-1918-by-theo-aronson/ Thu, 20 Jul 2017 21:51:20 +0000 http://blogcritics.org/?p=5475570 Royal biographer provides interesting perspective on World War I through biographic approach using European monarchs

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Crowns in Conflict:
The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918

Theo Aronson
Thistle Publishing, 438 pages

You’ve got to give the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica a bit of credit. At the time, Europe had 20 monarchies, not counting the nearly two dozens kingdoms, duchies, and principalities that were part of the German Empire. Yet in its entry for monarchy, the encyclopedia said that while “it survives as a political force, more or less strongly, in most European countries, ‘monarchists,’ in the strict sense of the word, are everywhere a small and dwindling minority.” Just seven years later, a number of those monarchies would no longer exist, including three of the strongest.

In Crowns in Conflict: The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918, Theo Aronson takes a distinct approach to the end of monarchical Europe. For one, he takes a broader view, looking at roughly a dozen major and minor monarchs who sat on Europe’s thrones in the second decade of the 20th century. The second, and most notable, is that the book is biographical in nature, not surprising given that Aronson, who died in 2003, wrote nearly two dozen royal biographies. His method produces a very readable examination of the topic. Rather than rehash the standard history of how the Central and Entente Powers careened into war, the book looks at the history of each monarch and what the kings and queens did through the course of the war.

This approach works in large part because most of the royalty were related to each other. For example, Britain’s King George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the crown princesses of Romania and Greece were all first cousins. The kings of Belgium and Bulgaria were also cousins of King George. Aronson uses these connections to not only explore the relationships among the monarchs but how each monarchy was led into the war and its ultimate effect on them.

Originally released in 1986 but with a new imprint two years ago, Crowns in Conflict also recognizes and explores the impact the advent of constitutional monarchy on each monarch’s power. The monarchs were no longer the only voice or decision-maker. “When set against the forces of nationalism and militarism, these dynastic relationships counted for nothing,” Aronson observes. Instead, the monarchs’ loyalty was now “country before caste.”

Britain, Germany (ruled by the Hohenzollerns), Austria-Hungary (the Hapsburg empire), and Russia (the Romanovs) were the powerhouses and the last three bore the most responsibility for World War I. Thus, George V, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary are the main focus, Yet other monarchies, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Serbia, also were buffeted by the war. Three such monarchs — King Albert of Belgium, Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and Ferdinand of Bulgaria — also are looked at in detail.

Some may view Aronson’s approach as a bit superficial or perhaps even gossipy. I, though, found it an interesting version of an oft-told tale. Rather than simply being a diplomatic or military history, Crowns in Conflict uniquely personalizes World War I. It also helps place monarchies in a historic context.

In so doing, it has the benefit of hindsight the Encyclopædia Britannica didn’t have. What it couldn’t or didn’t predict was what would replaced the dwindling hereditary autocracies. “Dictatorships of one sort or another shortly were established in almost any country over which the monarchs had once reigned,” Aronson observes.

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