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The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)

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Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”

In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.

Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:

No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.

A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…

Willful disregard

Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask.  She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:

Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.

Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’  A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.

As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.

This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.

If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.

Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.

It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?

There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.

The one who wants least has the most power.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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Louise Michel: Rebel Lives

“But above all, I was in love with the revolution.”

If ever a woman seized her century, it was “The Red Virgin”–Louise Michel. Born in 1830, the illegitimate daughter of a serving girl, Louise was brought up on the estate of her father’s family. Here she must have occupied a peculiar zone–firmly in the servant class and yet favoured but unacknowledged by her father’s family. Louise was educated as a teacher, and apart from her idiosyncratic teaching style, she led a normal life until she suddenly morphed into a revolutionary.

The meaty introduction by Nic Maclellan is an overview of Louise Michel’s life. As France plunged into turmoil and war, she began attending demonstrations against the Second Empire. Eventually she became a major force in the siege of the Paris Commune that existed from March until May 1871. Following the siege, she was arrested, tried and exiled to New Caledonia (islands just off the coast of eastern Australia). Even in exile, Louise made a name for herself while promoting the rights of the native population.

The book explores Michel’s life through excerpts from her memoir, letters to her lifelong friend, Victor Hugo, the play The Days of the Commune by Bertolt Brecht, and essays written by Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Howard Zinn and Friedrich Engels. (An excellent essay by Engels analyzing the two-party political system in America is included). Succint and informative at 155 pages, for those unable to tackle Louise Michel’s memoirs, this book is an alternative. Bear in mind, however, that the book is one in a series of ‘remarkable lives’ in the Rebel Lives series, and this series includes Einstein and Helen Keller. This explains why the book almost has the feel of a school primer at times.

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Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres

The centrality of classifying animals as property should not be underestimated when it comes to considering the depths of animal exploitation woven into our society and economy. Having animals categorized as property gives us the ability to exploit them as a resource for even minor human wants.”

Anarchists disagree on a lot of issues but agree on others. Most would agree that hierarchy in this world–forced upon us at birth and ingrained through every aspect of culture is unacceptable. Most would agree society reinforces hierarchy through its many institutions, and that hand-in-hand with hierarchy comes unequal wealth and power distribution. And again, most anarchists would agree that capitalism has a huge role in oppressing and exploiting people; domination and hierarchy thrive in the fertile ground of an economic system that views people as units for production. But just how do animals fit into the capitalist equation? That’s a question asked by social anarchist Bob Torres in the book, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. Torres takes a fresh and fascinating look at the way we treat animals, and in presenting his argument that animals are just as much a part of the corporate machine as humans, he argues that with a “baseline” of veganism:

“As a needless and unnecessary form of hierarchy, anarchists should reject the consumption, enslavement, and subjugation of animals for human ends, and identify it as yet another oppressive aspect of the relations of capital and a needless form of domination.”

Now to some, that statement–as we absorb it–makes perfect sense. But other anarchists will reject this position. Is it extreme to see that animals are simply tools in the capitalist machine? If we embrace this position, then surely the next thing is to reject the consumption of animal products, just as we reject other forms of capitalism that insidiously and persistently attempt to weave into every aspect of our lives.

Torres, a philosophy professor at St. Lawrence University presents his antispeciesist argument to the reader, and after finishing the book, I have to say that Making A Killing is one of the best books I read in 2007. Torres has managed to clarify many of the problems I had with issues connected to the animal rights movement, commodification of animals, and the animal agriculture industry. Torres presents irrefutable arguments regarding the treatment of animals, and he does this by combining Marxist economic theory with anarchist beliefs.

Arguing that there are “similarities with how humans are exploited as labor power” and “how animals are exploited as commodities,” Torres walks the reader through his belief that agriculture animals are members of the working class, with animals “mere ends towards the production of greater capital.” Holding absolute power and dominion over animals, we treat them in a range of ways–at best they are seen as property, at worst they are enslaved in the violence of the capitalist money making machine. Forced to labor and produce, “animals are nothing more than living machines, transformed from beings who live for themselves into beings that live for capital.”

But beyond examining animal agriculture, Torres also explores the exploitation of animals in vivisection. Citing some of the ridiculous and redundant aspects of animal experimentation, he notes that with a death toll of a “conservative estimate of 20 million animals per year in the United States alone” vivisection “is big business.”

Another issue covered in the book is the bizarre contrast in the way we treat animals. Torres argues that some species are granted special status, companion animals, for example. While they would seem to be higher on the hierarchal chain of worth assigned to them by humans, Torres notes that they still “seem to occupy a sort of nether-world between animal and human,” and that they are still fundamentally (legally) viewed as property. There’s a current trend afoot to encourage the ‘gentrification’ of companion animals by draping dogs and cats in designer jewelry. The capitalist system has undoubtedly seen the benefits of feeding the idea of companion animals as fashion accessories–there is–after all BIG money to be made on these consumerist trends.

Torres also blasts the animal rights groups who seem to have been effectively co-opted by capitalism (this should come as no great surprise to anarchists). While he acknowledges, “critiquing PETA is seen as a special form of heresy,” he cites several examples to back up his criticism; PETA’s granting the ‘Visionary” award, for example, to Temple Grandin for redesigning slaughterhouses “to decrease the amount of suffering that animals experience in their final hours.” According to Torres, this “defies rational comprehension” and is “at the very least contradictory.” Torres argues this is just one example of the many “Faustian bargains” mainstream organizations make with the animal agriculture industry in order to maintain “bureaucratic concerns.” He notes that we opt out of our responsibility by imagining that animal welfare groups are there in place to oversee the job for us. If the animal welfare groups are out there improving animal slaughter in order to ensure that happy animals end up on our dinner tables, then we can eat meat with a clear conscience.

Torres really hits some chords when he points out that in many ways, animal activist groups simple end up helping corporations develop great new business strategies and yuppie market niches. Citing the blatant example of Whole Foods, Torres notes that “they’ve been able to convince people that are supposedly opposed to animal exploitation to sign on to a business and marketing model that relies on the exploitation of animals, albeit in kinder, gentler ways.” Whole Foods, and other similar corporations “get to appear as the ‘ethical’ choice for consumers who care, but who don’t care enough to give up foods that exploit.” We’ve all seen the ads–ranging from Amish chickens to my personal favorite–‘tasty veal without the cruelty.’

One of the things I particularly like about Torres’s book is that there is no aim to make us wallow in guilt. Guilt as an issue comes up only in connection with sneaky marketing ploys used by corporations designed to ensnare us into guilt avoidance. Torres makes his arguments with clear concise rationality, and he offers facts and figures without emotional hyperbole. The book ends on a surprisingly optimistic note with suggestions for readers. I’ve long been troubled by animal commodification and exploitation and Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights synthesized these issues for me by placing animals “within the larger dynamics of capitalist exploitation.” The book includes an index (always appreciated by this reader), and scrupulous notes for further reading. Excellent.

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Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 66-67

“We lived a sort of armed existentialism.”

Astrid Proll’s book Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77 is for those interested in the Red Army Faction. The RAF is an integral part of West Germany’s history, and as a revolutionary/terrorist group (pick the term you prefer), they were a thorn in the side of German politics for decades. Astrid Proll was an early member of the First Generation RAF. Proll’s “underground time with the RAF … lasted less than a year,” and she was arrested in 1971. When she was released from prison, she escaped to England, and that is probably the reason she remained alive. This book of photographs is a compilation of some significant moments in the history of the RAF.

The photos from the early days are giddy, and high-spirited, but then a photo of the dead Benno Ohnesorg–shot by police during a demonstration–marks the swift change in events. One photo shows the abandoned shoe of Rudi Dutschke after he was shot by a “right-wing assailant.” Later photos include ‘wanted posters’, and prison photos of Ulrike Meinhoff, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan-Carl Raspe.

The final photos are taken from the funerals of Ensslin, Baader, and Raspe after the state claimed they committed mass suicide in their prison cells.

The book includes an introduction by Proll, and these pages include both German and English text. Proll makes some interesting comments and admits that the RAF “overestimated themselves ridiculously … we were self-timers who acted cut off from reality in a void.” If you are interested in learning more about the RAF, I highly recommend the following: How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex by Stefan Aust, and the film, Germany in Autumn.

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The Urban Guerilla Concept

“Legality is about Power.”

Red Army Faction: The Urban Guerilla Concept is not an A-Z of the Red Army Faction, and the reader is best served approaching this pamphlet with some prior reading on the subject. Divided into three sections, the pamphlet contains: historical background, an introduction, and The Urban Guerilla Concept–the RAF’s first “ideological text” (apart from a short letter shortly after Andreas Baader was sprung from jail). Anthony Murphy writes both the historical background and the introduction. The document, The Urban Guerilla Concept–while ostensibly the collective product of the RAF was most likely written by former journalist Ulrike Meinhof. It’s the most famous document ever produced by the RAF, and so for anyone interested in the RAF–the “most influential and longest surviving” guerilla group that sprung from the German Student movement of the 1960s, then this pamphlet is invaluable. If however, you’re new to the Red Army Faction, then I recommend Stefan Aust’s book Das Baader-Meinhof Komplex (if you can find a copy in English), Televisionaries by Tom Vague (flawed, but still interesting.) or the marvelous memoir How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann.

The pamphlet’s historical background is extremely valuable in its explanation of how the West German government perceived the Red Army Faction (the RAF never referred to themselves as the Baader-Meinhof Gang). The West German government had shown a tendency to “resort to authoritarian methods to solve political problems, particularly political dissent from the Left.” Identified as the “biggest threat to democracy” the members of the Red Army faction were classified as “enemies of the state.” Under West Germany’s Basic Law, they effectively “lost their rights”, and the “protection of the state” became an overpowering priority. This explains why the West German government responded so quickly to the RAF with such extreme, overwhelming violence (the police were issued with machine guns and grenades in June 1970).

The document The Urban Guerilla Concept basically lays out the RAF’s ideological argument for the armed struggle against the state. The document rife with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist rhetoric references the Springer press, the Vietnam War and the destruction of the Black Panthers. Now, years after the official demise of the RAF in 1998, this document shows the RAF’s determination and oddly enough there’s a thread of naivete that runs throughout the text that predicts its inevitable destruction. Yet, at the same time, some of the document is strangely prophetic–more than 3 decades later:
“No publications escape the control of vested financial interest-through advertising;…and through the concentration of media ownership. In the public domain a powerful elite has the dominant role….The media’s message in a nutshell is…Sell….News and information become commodities for consumption.”

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I Cried. You didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight Edgar Abbott

“That day, at that hour, I became the predator rather than the prey.”

I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight E. Abbott is a harrowing, haunting read. In the 1950s, following a car accident that placed his parents in hospital for months, 9-year-old Abbott was sent to Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Within minutes of arriving, he was hit in the face by another boy, and that evening observed rapes occurring in the showers. On the third day, a counselor sexually assaulted Abbott. When Abbott defended himself from another assault, he ended up in solitary confinement for 90 days, and here he remained until his father arrived to take him home. Abbott acknowledges that he was no longer the same child, and that it took just “four months for the county to construct” a “walking time bomb.”

When he returned home, Abbott was withdrawn and traumatized. His grades dropped, and he reacted with explosive violence to threatening situations. At age 12, Abbott was back in Juvenile Hall again, and then sexually assaulted by a manipulative counselor. From here he was moved to the ironically named Optimist Home for Boys and endured further molestations and beatings. When he was released to his parents, Abbott was even less able to integrate back into family life, and he was on the slippery slope to becoming a lifetime criminal.

The memoir charts Abbot’s gut-wrenching experiences, and each step of the way, the institutions he’s locked up in are tougher, and more brutal, and Abbott’s fight for survival becomes more violent. At 13, he’s locked up in the state mental hospital at Camarillo, stuffed in a strait jacket and given shock treatments. From here it’s onto the California Youth Authority (CYA), and their various facilities–Whittier, Pasa Robles, Ione, and the Deuels prison in Tracy. Abbott details the tiered system within each of these prisons, just how important it was to be seen as tough, and that “showing emotions was a sign of weakness.” To be viewed as a “sissy” or a “punk” translates to being brutally raped by everyone above you on this violent food chain. This memoir makes “it clear that within youth prisons there is no social order other than that based on violence.”

Abbott’s survival within the system caused him to “develop a set of social reflexes and assumptions” that made “him totally incapable of negotiating life outside of institutionalization.” According to conservative statistics, 75% of those released from CYA are locked back up within three years. Clearly rehabilitation just isn’t taking place within the CYA, but just what transformations do take place is the subject of this deeply disturbing book. According to Abbott, “there is nothing left of the softness of morality or conscience, only strength and will.” I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority was recently republished by AK Press. This new edition includes an excellent, informative preface by Books Not Bars.

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The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti

“That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.”

Seven years after one of the most notorious murder trials of the 20th century, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927. Their execution came as a blow to the supporters who had failed to gain a retrial. Following the executions, several people who believed in the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti worked together to produce a book of the letters they had written during seven years of imprisonment. The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti was first published in 1928, and the book immediately came under criticism.

Some critics claimed that the letters were fake or highly doctored, and indeed prior to publication, there was some debate between the editors regarding just how much should be altered to correct spelling, which letters to include etc. Published comments denouncing the book even resulted in a libel suit against the New York Herald Tribune. The book’s introduction carefully details public and institutional opinion in the aftermath of the execution and the publication of the dead men’s letters. Appendices in the book include: the background of the case, speeches to the court, Vanzetti’s letter to Governor Fuller, Vanzetti’s last statement, and an index.

As for the letters themselves, there are substantially more letters from Vanzetti than from Sacco. The two men–both Italian immigrants and both anarchists–came from vastly different backgrounds. At the time of Sacco’s arrest, he was a shoemaker, but had no formal education. The letters he wrote over his seven-year imprisonment show a marked improvement in his English. The first few letters are very simple, but quite difficult to understand. Over time, the letters became more complex and revealed Sacco’s love of nature. When Vanzetti was arrested, he was working as a fresh fish seller. He was a well-educated man, and his education is reflected in his letters–they are more political in nature–with many references to the Bolsheviks, Socialism, and the Russian Revolution.

The collection of letters is a dry read, and the letters are better absorbed in smaller doses. Neither man was interested in compromising his political beliefs in order to win approval from the American public or the justice system. Vanzetti’s letters, in particular, reveal an extremely interesting individual. He spent a great deal of his free time translating a book from Italian into English, and regretted the loss of his books more than anything else. The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti presents a good overview of the case with a mini-biography of both men, and it’s clear to the reader that every single aspect of this case was fraught with controversy and prejudice. For anyone interested in the case, I also recommend the film, Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s not easy to find a copy, but it’s well worth searching for.

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Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto by Bernard Goldstein

“A nightmare without interruption.”

Bernard Goldstein, a Polish Jew, was a leader in the Jewish Labour Union known as the Bund. His background as a militant and dissident included fighting in the revolution against the Czar. Some of his teenage years were spent in jail for his pro-labour political activities against the state. He suffered multiple imprisonments and even survived a term in Siberia.

In his 40s, Goldstein was one of the more than 500,000 Jews shoved into the Warsaw ghetto. He managed to survive, and his memoir Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto chronicles events in the hellish conditions created by the Nazis. How can any human being survive such horror? Why Goldstein survived and thousands of others died is one of the facets of this book. Pure luck, unflagging determination, and strong political beliefs are at the root of Goldstein’s survival. Above all, this is a story of bravery and sacrifice, and Goldstein lists many names of those who died in the ghetto to save others from capture and death.

Goldstein chronicles the wave of anti-Semitism that swept over Poland with Hitler’s rise in power. This anti-Semitism was firmly in place when Warsaw fell to the Germans. Goldstein and his fellow Bund members all felt instinctively that they should fight to the death against the Nazis. Resistance was, Goldstein felt, the key. Under pressure, the decision was made to submit to the Germans. Prominent Jewish leaders felt that resistance to the Germans would create greater anti-Semitic feeling amongst the Poles. Forced labour of the Jews quickly degenerated into the establishment of a ghetto. Once the Jewish population was safely contained inside the ghetto, the Germans were free to carry out their horrific plans for extermination. Goldstein describes the establishment of viable social organizations within the ghetto–the underground press, secret schools for Jewish children, and an underground political organization. He also describes in detail the propaganda films made using the Jews as subjects. These propaganda films were then aired in German cinemas.

Goldstein describes in great detail how the Jewish population was controlled from within the Jewish community, and how the Nazis devised selections with devilish new twists. Goldstein was one of the final few left in the ghetto following massive deportations to death camps. He chronicles the struggles of the brave few who fought the Germans in the Ghetto uprising–a fight to the death. The Ghetto uprising–and its aftermath is covered in some depth. The book even covers living as a hunted Jew on the Aryan side of Warsaw, the collapse of the German army to the Soviet forces, and Goldstein’s attempts to live in post-German occupied Warsaw.

Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto is an stunning eyewitness account of one of the most heinous events in human history. Goldstein relates events in a matter-of-fact fashion, and doesn’t use emotional language as he describes the conditions faced. Since this is a first person account, the book lacks the dryness of an historical account, and there were pages when I simply couldn’t put the book down.

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Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay

“I’m less trashy than I used to be.”

After reading Francis Milstead’s delightful biography, My Son, Divine, my attention was drawn to the biography Not Simply Divine, written by Divine’s personal manager, Bernard Jay. I read many reviews of Jay’s book, and Francis Milstead also referred to the book with a hint of negativity. As a Divine fan, I wanted to read the book and gain my own opinion.

Bernard Jay became Divine’s (Glenn Milstead) manager in 1977 until Divine’s sudden death in 1988. Not Simply Divine provides Divine fans with details of Divine’s film roles, recording career, and disco engagements, and Mr Jay, in his introduction writes that this is a “warts and all” portrayal of the star. Jay explains that he is aware Divine is often shown to be a “selfish and insensitive person,” and he contends the book is a honest portrayal of the Divine he knew. The book includes scanty details of Divine’s life prior to Bernard Jay (reasonably enough), and for the details of Divine’s childhood and teen years, fans must read My Son, Divine, written by Glenn’s mum.

Bernard Jay had a somewhat turbulent relationship with Divine. Obviously, Mr Jay believed, ultimately, in Divine’s potential for stardom–after all–he committed to Divine’s career–but managing Divine was not an easy job. Jay and Divine agreed that their mutual goal was to alter the perception that Glenn was simply a drag queen, and establish Glenn as a character actor–whose most successful character was Divine. Jay’s task was fraught with problems–for starters, Divine didn’t earn enough money to warrant the entourage who accompanied him on tour. It was even questionable that Divine’s income warranted a personal manager (whose only client was Divine). Bernard Jay’s attitude to his subject is problematic–at times he is extremely complimentary–extolling Divine’s work ethic, charisma, and talent, but at other times, Jay sneaks in a snide comment–and one example is Jay’s description of Glenn eating “feverishly.”

Divine is no longer here to defend himself, but this is one case in which being maligned in print after death, backfires, and the negative comments about Divine reflect badly on the author. I can’t imagine that anyone other than a Divine fan would buy this book, and so Jay created an interesting dilemma in writing a book that includes several rather negative comments about Divine–that will, it is hoped, sell to Divine fans. I have no difficulty accepting that Divine was a flawed human being, but the glimpses of revulsion Jay shows for his subject are quite gratuitous.

However, on the plus side, the book, Not Simply Divine, filled in many of the gaps and detailed Divine’s career. As a result, at the end of the book, I was not shocked by Divine’s flaws–in fact I had even more respect for this hard-working actor who kept going in spite of the fact that he suffered many set-backs in his career (including never receiving adequate compensation from several record labels).

I think a Divine fan can read My Son, Divine, and have a fairly good idea about Divine–his career and the flawed human being that he was, but Not Simply Divine is an essential supplementary book–especially if you want specific details about Divine’s career. BUT, the reader should be aware that there are several very unpleasant and negative comments made by Mr Jay (and I’m not talking about the fact that Divine was a compulsive spender)–the comments that I found a bit much were cruel and gratuitous. But consider the source–Bernard Jay’s star slipped away just as he was about to prove that Jay’s faith was warranted. Jay was left the rather thankless job of mopping up the financial mess left after Divine’s death, organizing an auction of Divine’s belongings,and paying off the IRS.

This is a well-written book, and I enjoyed it–although I do wish that Mr Jay had been a little more forgiving with some of his nastier comments, and although there really weren’t that many nasty comments (and once unleashed, they seemed to arrive on a page in waves), this would have been a better book without the nastiness, and I’d hazard a guess that the book would have enjoyed more success.

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