Category Archives: Nonfiction

Review: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher

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Trigger

Blurb: On a summer morning in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, a teenage assassin named Gavrilo Princip fired not just the opening shots of the First World War but the starting gun for modern history, when he killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet the events Princip triggered were so monumental that his own story has been largely overlooked, his role garbled and motivations misrepresented.

The Trigger puts this right, filling out as never before a figure who changed our world and whose legacy still has an impact on all of us today. Born a penniless backwoodsman, Princip’s life changed when he trekked through Bosnia and Serbia to attend school. As he ventured across fault lines of faith, nationalism and empire, so tightly clustered in the Balkans, radicalisation slowly transformed him from a frail farm boy into history’s most influential assassin.

 

I’ve read several of Butcher’s books, which combine modern travelogues with historical journeys (I recommend all of them, by the way–they’re fantastic). In The Trigger, the author retraces the journey of Gavrilo Princip, the young man who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, providing the spark that ignited World War One. The writing style is, as always, wonderful; Butcher is a journalist and his prose is compulsively readable. This book is set in the former Yugoslavia–a country whose very name means “land of the South Slavs”–and Butcher was there 20 years ago reporting on the wars as the nation was torn apart. The blend of history and personal narrative was, as always, fascinating reading, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in the history of this part of the world. That being said, I didn’t find The Trigger to be as compelling as the author’s other work, likely because there’s so little information about Princip himself around which to built the rest of the book. That’s not the fault of the author, though; as the book itself explains, competing ownership of Princip and his motives over the last hundred years make any attempt to get to the truth very difficult indeed. And that’s Butcher’s strength–in Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, and now The Trigger, Butcher recognizes the complex history and politics of these regions and presents them as such; he doesn’t attempt to make it simple and easy to understand.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: A Curious Madness by Eric Jaffe

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CuriousMadnessA Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II by Eric Jaffe (Scribner, 2014)

Blurb: In the wake of World War II the Allied forces charged twenty-eight Japanese men with crimes against humanity during the Tokyo war crimes trial. At their conclusion, seven were hanged for their war crimes and almost all the others served lengthy prison sentences. Okawa Shumei, a brilliant ideologue, was the only civilian among the indicted “Class-A” suspects. In the years leading up to World War II, Okawa had outlined a divine mission for Japan to lead Asia, prophesized a great clash with the United States, planned coups d’etat with military rebels, and financed the assassination of a Prime Minister. Beyond “all vestiges of doubt,” concluded a then-classified American report prepared in 1946, “Okawa moved in the best circles of nationalist intrigue.”

On the first day of the trial, Okawa made headlines around the world by slapping star defendant Tojo Hideki on the head. Had Okawa lost his sanity? Or was he faking madness to avoid a grim punishment? A US Army psychiatrist in occupied Japan—the author’s own grandfather—was charged with determining whether Okawa was fit to stand trial. He’d seen madness his whole life, from his home in Brooklyn to the battlefields of Europe, and now his seasoned eye faced the ultimate test. A Curious Madness is the suspenseful tale of each man’s journey to this climactic historical moment.

I’ve included the blurb above because I found it utterly intriguing. Now, having read the book, I realize I overlooked the importance of the final sentence: it’s the story of these two men before the slap, which is much less intriguing, at least for me.

The book describes both men’s lives, Okawa’s and Jaffe’s, by alternating between the two biographies. While I found Okawa’s story to be interesting, Jaffe’s was less so, in large part because the story is being told by his grandson, and the family history isn’t all that relevant to what is posited as the central question of the book: Okawa’s sanity (or lack of it). There’s a lot of discussion of the mental illness of Jaffe’s mother and its effect on the family, but because Jaffe was apparently a very private and taciturn man, the author is unable to shed light on Jaffe’s thoughts and reactions, so he remains a distant figure, and I didn’t feel as though I gained any real insight into him at all. The author also gives some consideration to the history of combat psychiatry, which I did find interesting, but again, because combat was not ever posited as or considered to be the basis of Okawa’s sanity, it wasn’t necessarily relevant to the book’s central question.

Okawa’s history, on the other hand, is relevant, because his actions and his philosophy were what resulted in his being on trial in Tokyo. Understanding exactly what role he played in the decades leading up to World War II helped me understand how he could be the only civilian at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to be charged with crimes against humanity. I did feel as though I learned a lot about Okawa and his beliefs about the role Japan should play in Asia, although I felt the author glossed over the sheer brutality of the Japanese in China and Korea in his discussion of Japan’s role in the pan-Asian movement (which no doubt was a major consideration in Okawa being charged).

Because of the author’s focus on the two men’s lives before the slapping incident, which was the only thing they had in common, and the lack of any discussion about the two interacting, I never really got a sense of cohesiveness while reading the book. I felt the author’s family history took too great a role, and the title doesn’t really reflect the actual content. The question of Okawa’s sanity is almost an afterthought, and while I agreed with the author’s conclusions, I didn’t feel that it was nearly as much of a mystery as I did before I read the book.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars of 5

Review: Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram

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StringerStringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram (2014, Doubleday)

Anjan Sundaram, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Yale, turned down a good, safe job offer and instead decided to spend a year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a reporter, focusing on the 2006 presidential elections. An Indian national who grew up in Dubai, Sundaram has experience with being an outsider; even when he finds Indian enclaves in the Congo, he’s never quite able to fit in. But being an outsider—in particular, not being a white Westerner—serves Sundaram well in many ways, as he’s able to make connections and gain access that many others wouldn’t have. He’s also used to byzantine bureaucracy (meaning he knows what’s being said behind the words that are actually spoken) and analyzing situations from the outside, which makes him extremely effective as a reporter.

That being said, this is not a book about the Congo or the war or even the elections; it is a book about the development of a journalist in perhaps the largest war zone since World War II—which many would argue has gone largely unnmentioned in the mainstream Western media. The big-picture events are very much in the background—the focus is on daily life, both urban and rural, and on the people Sundaram encounters during his stay; and also on his transition from naïve cub reporter to cynical journalist who realizes that long after he’s gone, life in Congo will stay the same—the difference being nobody will be there to report it.

The quality of the writing is what sets this book apart. When I first saw the comparisons to Naipaul I was skeptical, but Sundaram has earned them. He’s able to convey so much emotion in his writing, and honesty: he’s writing about the real Congo, the struggles of everyday Congolese with whom he’s lived and worked. This is a story about humanity. Yes, Sundaram is still an outsider—he makes no claims to the contrary—but I was fascinated by his account. While I wish there had been more completeness to the story, I think maybe that was the point: in a society where nothing really changes other than the person in charge, can the big questions (such as how to end these conflicts) really ever be answered?

I definitely recommend this book.

This ARC was provided via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars of 5

Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

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Midnight in PekingMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French (Penguin, 2012)

Blurb: In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

 

From the afterword, “The Writing of Midnight in Peking”: I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography…a footnote made reference to Edgar’s wife Helen feeling nervous after Pamela’s mutilated body was found not far from the Snows’ house in Peking…the footnote also mentioned fox spirits, a “love cult,” the fact that Pamela’s father had once been a British consul in China, and that the murder was never solved.

Inspired by that footnote, French began the research that resulted in Midnight in Peking. While the book focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner, French places that event into context: the lead-up to the Sino-Japanese war, which resulted in the occupation of parts of northern China by the Japanese during World War II. The murder investigation was complicated by the ever-changing political and social situation in the city and was essentially abandoned after the Japanese invasion, with no real attempt to identify the killer.

Pamela’s father, however, was unwilling to accept that his daughter’s murderer could not be found, and he conducted his own private investigation, sending updates to the British government in the hopes they would take action. During his research, French uncovered many of those updates and the responses, which seem to indicate that the British authorities not only failed to conduct a proper investigation into Pamela’s murder, but in fact engaged in a cover-up: among the participants French identifies in his “reconstruction” of the murder was a well-known Western expat.

French is able to incorporate a lot of detail into the book without letting it bog down the story. He gives just enough political and social history of Peking to allow the reader to understand how the murder of a white girl—the daughter of a former British consul, no less—could be shocking, yet not a priority for the British or Chinese police after the initial investigation.

The one major flaw in this book is the lack of a good map. There are so many references to Peking’s streets and major landmarks, and having a visual reference would have been extremely helpful. An antique map (I think; couldn’t get a good look at it) appeared on the endpaper, but as with many hardcover library books, was obscured by the book jacket, library labels, etc. and was unusable as a reader reference.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez

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NarcolandNarcoland by Anabel Hernandez (Verso, 2013)

Blurb: The definitive history and anatomy of the drug cartels and the “war on drugs” that has cost more than 50,000 lives in just five years, Narcoland explains in riveting detail how Mexico became a base for the megacartels of Latin America and one of the most violent places on the planet. At every turn, Hernández names names—not just the narcos, but also the politicians, functionaries, judges and entrepreneurs who have collaborated with them. In doing so, she reveals the stunning corruption of Mexico’s government and business elite.

 

In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration broke with previous U.S. foreign policy to embrace the Reagan Doctrine and actively support anti-communist resistance movements. In Central America, this took the form of backing the anti-Sandinista rebels, the Contras. The U.S. Congress had blocked funding of the Contra rebels, so the CIA turned to other money sources, one of which is alleged to have been the trafficking of narcotics from Colombia to the United States via Mexico. When the U.S. began covert operations to use drug money to fund anti-communist rebels, the organizations that controlled the drug routes into the U.S. gained a lot of influence and power and eventually developed into the cartels as we know them today. In Narcoland, Hernandez argues that the current Mexican Drug War is a direct result of those Reagan-era policies.

Hernandez traces the history of collusion between the drug cartels and government and police officials to expose the massive corruption that exists at virtually every level of Mexican business, politics, and law enforcement. The narcos had been around since the 1970s, and Hernandez describes the drug traffickers and the political and judicial systems then as being separate entities; the traffickers respected government authority, paid their “taxes,” and maintained a low profile, and government and police took their cut and turned a blind eye to the narcos’ activities. As the drug trade exploded in the shift from marijuana to cocaine and the profits rose exponentially, this separation began to fade, and no longer willing to simply turn a blind eye, politicians and law enforcement officials took an active role in drug trafficking. Rather than paying money into the system, the narcos were now buying favors directly from the individuals they worked with, and political campaigns were funded with drug money. Under Presidents Fox and Calderón, the author argues that the federal government chose sides, protecting the Sinaloa cartel in its struggle with the other cartels, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

For someone who is not familiar with the history of the various cartels and their major players, the level of detail can be overwhelming. Names are sometimes given in the English tradition (father’s surname) but sometimes are given in the Mexican tradition (father’s surname, mother’s surname) and it can be a bit confusing. Also, the author uses a lot of acronyms and it’s easy to get lost. There is a list of acronyms and a list of names at the end of the book—many times I wished I were reading a physical copy of the book and could flip to the back for easy reference (this is personal preference: I don’t find glossaries, indices, etc. to be user-friendly in ebooks, for the most part). But these are relatively minor quibbles.

This is a very thoroughly researched and documented book, and because it goes into the history of drug trafficking in Mexico and how the cartels gained so much power instead of simply presenting the situation as it exists today, it doesn’t just expose the corruption, it provides an explanation of its roots and how and why it became so widespread. Understanding the reasons is essential to finding a solution and bringing about major change.

This book was originally published in Mexico in 2010 under the title Los Señores del Narco. It’s been updated to be current through the end of the Calderón presidency in November 2012. Apparently Hernandez has received death threats and is always accompanied by bodyguards; I’m not at all surprised—though obviously I’m saddened and dismayed—to hear that after reading this book.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Double Cross, The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

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DoubleCrossDouble Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Blurb: D-Day, 6 June 1944, was a victory of arms. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of operation: one of deceit, aimed at convincing the Nazis that Calais and Norway, not Normandy, were the targets of the 150,000-strong invasion force.
The deception involved every branch of Allied wartime intelligence, but at its heart was a team of five double agents, one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a Frenchwoman whose love for her pet dog nearly wrecked the entire operation.

These were not conventional warriors, but their masterpiece of deceit saved countless lives, and Double Cross is their story.

I’ve always been interested in history, but at university my focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, so while I studied World War II, it was usually in the context of what came after—the Cold War—and I never really studied the Allied side of things. I’ll be honest, much of what I know about D-Day comes from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. While I find the politics and the machinations and the analysis of war fascinating, I have a hard time reading about the battles themselves. This book, which focused on the machinations and the analysis, was riveting.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre, and I was impressed with the sheer volume of information he includes without being bogged down in academic-sounding prose. He tells the overall story by focusing on the individuals involved, which both draws the reader in and heightens the drama. The Double Cross System came into being in June 1943, when the British realized they actually controlled every single German spy on British soil, and came up with the idea of using this network not just to learn what the Germans were up to but to actively engage in the dissemination of false intelligence. The spies themselves are an unlikely group—philanderers, gamblers, good-time girls, bit-part actors, “substandard” homing pigeons (I am not making this up)—who confounded their handlers and yet managed to fool the entire German intelligence network (who surely must have been more competent than the book makes them appear).

Over the course of a year, the Double Cross agents built up a network of nonexistent spies and fed their German handlers carefully crafted misinformation about the upcoming invasion. Having broken the Enigma code early on, British intelligence were able to keep tabs on how German intelligence were using the information being fed to them. It was a masterful operation, and one that played a large role in the success of the Normandy invasion:

“D-Day was the reason for the Double Cross system, the grand finale to every preceding deception was a foretaste. The men who fought that day have become lasting symbols of courage and skill. But while they battled their way up the bloody dunes, an unseen force fought alongside them, from many miles away, not with guns, bullets and bombs, but with subterfuge and stealth, to whittle away German strength and confidence, to confuse, surprise and mislead, and shield the invaders with lies.” (p. 320)

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II or wartime espionage.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: No Time to Lose by Peter Piot

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No Time to LoseNo Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses by Peter Piot (W.W. Norton & Company,  2012).

Blurb: When Peter Piot was in medical school, a professor warned, “There’s no future in infectious diseases. They’ve all been solved.” Fortunately, Piot ignored him, and the result has been an exceptional, adventure-filled career. In the 1970s, as a young man, Piot was sent to Central Africa as part of a team tasked with identifying a grisly new virus. Crossing into the quarantine zone on the most dangerous missions, he studied local customs to determine how this disease—the Ebola virus—was spreading. Later, Piot found himself in the field again when another mysterious epidemic broke out: AIDS. He traveled throughout Africa, leading the first international AIDS initiatives there. Then, as founder and director of UNAIDS, he negotiated policies with leaders from Fidel Castro to Thabo Mbeki and helped turn the tide of the epidemic. Candid and engrossing, No Time to Lose captures the urgency and excitement of being on the front lines in the fight against today’s deadliest diseases.

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom held that infectious diseases were a thing of the past: vaccination programs and antibiotics had most of them under control, and there was general optimism that others (such as malaria) would soon be eradicated as well. Very few people imagined the challenges that lay ahead: emerging diseases such as Ebola and SARS; drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which made previously curable diseases untreatable; and a deadly new epidemic: HIV/AIDS.

Peter Piot chose to study infectious diseases, going against the advice of his medical school teachers. In doing so, he set himself up for an amazing life: He was one of the first Westerners to arrive on the scene of the 1976 Ebola outbreak—the first known outbreak—in Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). After that experience, Piot decided to continue his study of infectious diseases, with a focus on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the 1980s, as HIV/AIDS emerged in Western nations, Piot was one of the first to grasp the significance of and the impact the virus would have on Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa. Piot spent the latter part of his career organizing the world response to HIV/AIDS, taking care to ensure the developing world was both represented and given assistance.

Dr. Piot is an engaging writer, and the book mirrors the diseases he’s dealing with. The first half is fast-paced and adventurous, the story of a virus hunter in the hot zones of Africa. The second half of the book is much slower, as it deals with the slow-to-develop HIV/AIDS epidemic and the glacial pace of the world’s response to it. All in all, this was a fascinating memoir.

 

My rating: 4 stars