April 4, 2018

“Survival is sweet revenge”: The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor

The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor: From Krakow to Berkeley by Anna Rabkin

From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin (2018) 309 pages

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She was born Haneczka Rose in 1935 in Kraków, the youngest of three children of a well-to-do Polish-Jewish family. She became Anna Rozak at the age of six, when her parents sent her into hiding with a Catholic family to evade capture by the Gestapo. In England at the end of the Second World War, she took on the name Anna Rose. At the age of eighteen, she was adopted by an Austrian-American family in New York and became Anna Wellman. Finally, upon her marriage to New York businessman Marty Rabkin when she was twenty-four, Anna took on the name that appears on the cover of her magnificent new memoir, From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding. This is the odyssey of a Holocaust survivor whose experience parallels in some ways what so many refugees today are facing.

The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor

“I have lived in Berkeley, California, for many decades,” Anna writes in her preface, “but my life story spans continents. While it is common to describe life as a journey, mine has been a literal one: from my family’s frantic flight across Poland; my escape from the ghetto and then from Lwów; to being shipped off to England; to my quota-defying immigration to New York and subsequent migration to California. I have traveled across oceans and through waves of cultural and political change. Each place on my journey and each period left its mark on me.” Anna describes that journey with consummate skill, bringing up from her prodigious memory for sensory detail the remarkable story of her evolution from a shy young Polish girl who didn’t start school until the age of ten to the supremely accomplished woman who holds master’s degrees in city & regional planning and history, served for fifteen years as Berkeley’s elected City Auditor, and spearheaded the Berkeley Public Library’s first, $4 million fundraising campaign.

A troubled search for identity

Unsurprisingly, the most moving stories in the book concern Anna’s childhood in Kraków, Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine), and England. Her desperate longing for her parents, who had simply disappeared, and her troubled search for identity (after her Polish guardian had her baptized in a Catholic church) are especially poignant. As she reflected much later, “Jewish, Catholic, Polish, British, American—who was I?” Anna’s experience as a refugee shuttled from one country to another is similar to that of the unwilling migrants who are flooding across national borders in the 21st century.

Life in an ideally diverse community

Anna was twenty-seven when she and Marty arrived in Berkeley. At this remove, it seems she might not have found a more welcoming community anywhere. “My block,” she writes about the street where she has been living since 1964, “was unusually active and diverse. It was home to several immigrant families, five of whom were Holocaust survivors.” While that block is by no means typical of the city, its diversity certainly is.

Following her election as Berkeley City Auditor in 1979, Anna reflected, “survival is sweet revenge. I had not only survived the war, created a family and developed relationships with people of all backgrounds, but during the campaign I had overcome the fears and feelings of worthlessness that a hateful ideology had instilled in me. I had proved to myself that neither my gender, religious or immigrant background were insurmountable obstacles. I could participate in public life and even be elected to office. My community’s acceptance would transform my life.” It’s difficult to imagine a more inspiring and life-affirming statement than that.

A foreshortened timescale

From Kraków to Berkeley is structured around a foreshortened timescale. The twenty-seven-year period encompassed in parts one, two, and three (covering Poland, England, and New York in succession) occupies two-thirds of the book. Part four deals with Anna’s time in California since 1962. The final forty years are compressed into about forty pages. Having tried myself on several occasions to write a memoir, I understand. I found it damnably difficult to write with complete candor about people who are alive with whom I may have had complicated relationships.

Full disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m proud to state that Anna and I have been friends for many years. In addition to our connections through Berkeley politics since the 1970s, we have met almost monthly for more than thirty years in a dinner group she mentions in her book, and her late husband Marty was a member of my company’s board of directors for twenty-five years. However, I must make it clear that this review of Anna’s memoir is not one whit more positive than it fully deserves. Our friendship aside, I found the book endlessly fascinating.

Until July 21st, 2018, you can obtain a 20% discount on this excellent memoir at https://www.vmbooksusa.com/collections/biographies/products/9781910383698. Just use the code RABKIN18.

Previously, I reviewed the insightful memoir of another Berkeley resident, Elizabeth Rosner: Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory. My review is at The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics. I’ve also reviewed other excellent memoirs, including Bill Browder’s Red Notice (A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia) and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (A brilliant analysis of racism today).

January 31, 2018

A brilliant, muIti-dimensional picture of Indonesia today

Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth PisaniIndonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

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If you’re like most Americans, chances are you know little or nothing about Indonesia. Yet that island nation is the world’s fourth largest by population (after China, India, and the USA) and fifteenth largest by land area (just after Mexico). It also is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. Indonesia consists of “a string of 13,466 islands inhabited by people from over 360 ethnic groups, who between them speak 719 languages.” If armchair exploring appeals to you, then you’ll love Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani‘s memoir of her 13-month journey through what she terms “the improbable nation.”

No run-of-the-mill travel writer

Pisani is no run-of-the-mill travel writer. She lived in Indonesia for three years as a reporter for Reuters (1988-91) and returned for another four-year stay a decade later after training as an epidemiologist specializing in AIDS. (Today, Pisani runs a public-health consultancy in London.) It’s clear from context in the book that she is fluent and comfortable in the lingua franca of the islands, Indonesian. Equally important, Pisani is one tough lady. Even as a youngster, I wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting myself to the rigors of her 13-month odyssey.

Colorful and engaging anecdotes

Indonesia Etc. is full of colorful and engaging anecdotes of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled extensively in the Third World. There is, for example, a hilarious tale of a Crocodile Whisperer, a shaman who presented himself as able to persuade the crocodiles in one region to identify and shun the one beast in their midst that had eaten a local woman. In other tales, Pisani recounts her experiences wearing the wrong batik design to the coronation of a local sultan and with a Koran-reading contest. “Koran-reading contests are as popular in Indonesia as visits by Manchester United’s touring team.”

Then there was her effort to travel from small island to another. “‘Is there a schedule for the boat to Lonthor?’ I yelled across to the boatmen. ‘Of course!’ they yelled back. ‘When do you leave?’ I bellowed. ‘When the boat is full!’ came the reply.”

Pisani emphasizes again and again the warm hospitality and sense of humor she encountered everywhere in Indonesia. After casual meetings on boats or buses, local people unhesitatingly invited her to live with them in their homes and share their food for days on end. Just imagine that happening in New York or Los Angeles!

Indonesia’s blood-soaked history

In Indonesia Etc., Pisani delves deeply into the history, politics, and economics of Indonesia. Amid her tales of days spent in tiny settlements or on leaky, slow-moving boats from island to island, she explores the history of this extraordinarily diverse and rich nation. Most of the time since the country gained independence from the Dutch in 1945 Indonesia has been dominated by two men whose legacies remain evident to the present day: Sukarno (1945-67) and Suharto (1968-98). Pisani recounts their years with rich detail about the tumultuous times during which they presided over the nation.

One event stands out: the massacre that brought Suharto to power. In the course of three years, at least half a million, and as many as three million Communists, ethnic Chinese, and alleged leftists were brutally murdered. Hundreds of thousands more were raped, driven from their homes, or saw their businesses destroyed.

As Pisani writes, “The carnage wiped out a whole generation of socially committed activists and pulled up the roots from which they might regrow. It crippled the development of political debate and made Indonesian citizens wary of political allegiance.” For decades afterward, the Indonesian military ran rampant through the breakaway provinces of East Timor and Aceh as well as other regions that sought independence for themselves.

Indonesia today: one of the world’s most decentralized nations

From Pisani’s perspective, Sukarno and Suharto followed radically divergent political paths. Sukarno moved to centralize government, imposing rigid control from the country’s most populous island (Java) on the rest of the country and launching a satellite to carry news in the Indonesian language throughout the archipelago. Suharto initiated decentralization, devolving power onto local government.

“At a stroke,” Pisani writes, “the world’s fourth most populous nation and one of its most centralized burst apart to become one of its most decentralized. The centre still takes care of defence, fiscal policy, foreign relations, religious affairs, justice and planning. But everything else—health, education, investment policy, fisheries and a whole lot more—was handed over to close to 300 district ‘governments,’ whose only experience of governing had, until then, been to follow orders from Jakarta.”

In myriad ways, Pisani shows how the move to decentralization has been a disaster for Indonesia. When she wrote her book in 2012, the number of district governments had grown to 509, virtually every one of them a fiefdom for the local elite and rife with corruption. (“‘Papua’s wealth used to be stolen by Jakarta. Now it’s stolen by the Papuan elite.'”) Yet, as Pisani takes pains to point out, “No other nation has welded so much difference together into so generally peaceable a whole in the space of less than seventy years.”

Indonesia’s endemic corruption

As the author explains, “A small fraction of jobs in the bureaucracy are awarded based on competitive exams. But most of the jobs that are not given out to political supporters get sold . . . The minister in charge of the ‘state apparatus’ recently said that 95 percent of Indonesia’s 4.7 million civil servants didn’t have the skills they needed to do their jobs.” Many Indonesians attribute their country’s endemic corruption to the legacy of Dutch colonialism. Compared to the English, the Dutch provided few educational opportunities for their subjects. However, Indonesia has been independent for seven decades. Blaming colonialism is a bit of a stretch.

An “improbable nation?”

Pisani subtitles her book Exploring the Improbable Nation. She makes clear that Indonesia’s unmatched diversity, island geography, and complex history could well have resulted in many different countries rather than one. There’s no disputing this. However, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same might be said of many of the European countries that are generally regarded as the most stable and logical nation-states in the world: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, even England. Dig beneath the surface in any one of these countries, and you’ll find the nation-building that occurred in centuries past was anything but an inevitable outcome. All these countries are rife with regional differences in culture, history, and even language. To be sure, the regional differences are by no means as stark as they are in Indonesia, but it would be a mistake to assume that the emergence of these countries as unitary political units was foreordained.

Clearly, Indonesia’s geography is a decisive factor in setting its course in the world. For insight about how geography determines destiny, see my review of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall (A thought-provoking look at geopolitics) and The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics).

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

December 27, 2017

The Doomsday Machine: Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

The Doomsday Machine by Daniel EllsbergThe Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg

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In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. “King” Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We’ll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes, it will trigger a Doomsday Machine installed by the Soviet military, dispersing a radioactive cloud of deadly Cobalt-Thorium G all across the earth and wiping out all human and animal life.

The “nuclear football” is a sham

Daniel Ellsberg, then a high-level consultant to the US military on nuclear war, viewed the film when it was newly released. He was profoundly shocked. He and a friend who worked with him thought Dr. Strangelove was “essentially a documentary.” Somehow, the film’s creator, Stanley Kubrick, had guessed one of the US government’s most closely-held secrets. Despite all the media attention to the “nuclear football” containing the codes to unleash a nuclear war, and the government’s insistence that only the President had access to those codes, it was indeed possible for a local commander to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Beginning with President Eisenhower, an unknown number of military officers—certainly, more than a dozen; perhaps several dozen—have had their fingers on the nuclear button as well. Eisenhower had delegated that ability to his theater commanders, and they in turn had passed it down the line. Ellsberg even met an Air Force major commanding a small US airbase in Korea who could have started a nuclear war simply because he assumed the USSR had attacked American bases when atmospheric disturbance cut off communications.

The Doomsday Machine is alive and well

In fact, Ellsberg reveals, that level of delegation of control to military officers in the field has been the case throughout the sixty-year history of the nuclear standoff between the US and Russia. The potential still exists for a devastating nuclear exchange to be set off through miscommunication, miscalculation, or an unstable military commander. And Ellsberg makes the case in his shocking new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that such an exchange would inevitably result in nuclear winter. This phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed by scientists, would extinguish virtually all complex life on Planet Earth by shutting off sunlight, causing harvests to fail, and subjecting billions of human beings and animals to “near-universal starvation within a year or two”—if they survive the fires and the fallout. Effectively, then, both nuclear superpowers had—and still have—the capability to end the human project with what amounts to a Doomsday Machine.

Dan Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

Ellsberg has been studying nuclear war since the late 1950s, when he began a long career as a high-level government consultant to the military. Of course, he is far better known for his courage in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, after several years of work on the Vietnam War. However, in The Doomsday Machine, he explains that he had collected a huge stockpile of official documents about nuclear war that he fully intended to release in the same manner once the reception for the Pentagon Papers had run its course.

“From the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970,” Ellsberg writes, “I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction . . . perhaps fifteen thousand pages in all.” (For many years, Ellsberg had “classified access several levels above Top Secret.”) Sadly, all but the Pentagon Papers were lost in an abortive effort to hide them. But much of that lost material has since been declassified. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront.

Startling revelations in The Doomsday Machine

The Doomsday Machine is full of deeply disturbing revelations. The book sometimes reads like a thriller, as Ellsberg describes his mounting horror and revulsion over the discoveries he made over the years. Here are just a few of the most shocking:

  • The United States is poised to deliver a preemptive nuclear first strike. “Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations . . . Though officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning’ (LOW) . . . has always been at the heart of our strategic alert.”
  • The United States is far from alone in delegating nuclear war-making capability to field officers. “How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons? Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably.”
  • “The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware.”
  • For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, US nuclear weapons were targeted at thousands of cities in both Russia and China—and our country’s nuclear war doctrine held that every weapon in the arsenal would be released all at once in the event of war . . . on both countries.
  • If you’re old enough, or read enough history, you might remember the “missile gap” that played a part in elevating John F. Kennedy to the White House. Of course, there was no gap, as was revealed not far into Kennedy’s short stay there. But Ellsberg reveals that the actual number of Soviet nuclear weapons at the time was not hundreds but . . .  four. The US then had forty. (Today, there are nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world; the US and Russia account for 93 percent of them.)
  • If you were an adult during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as I was, you’re surely aware that the world came extremely close to nuclear armageddon. Ellsberg reveals, however, that the chances of war were even greater than was known for many years after the fact. Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were in the Caribbean—and one came perilously close to detonating a nuclear torpedo that would have destroyed US Navy ships in the vicinity. Only the chance intervention of a single man on that submarine prevented that catastrophe, which would unquestionably have caused the US military to unleash a first strike on the USSR and China. And that event took place two days after the world believed the crisis had been resolved by agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

In Part Two of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg probes the origins of the notion that attacking cities was acceptable. It’s a fascinating account of the history of airpower, from the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I to strategic bombing in World War II. Though less dramatic than his earlier revelations about nuclear war, Ellsberg’s explanation of how the US and Britain came to justify the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden is deeply distressing. This experience laid the foundation for the use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and makes clear how “there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman’s civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city.” Yet “seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert [an] invasion” of Japan.

We still live under the nuclear hammer. “Two systems still risk doomsday,” Ellsberg concludes. “Both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable.”

If this review doesn’t worry you enough, you might take a look at my post, My 6 favorite dystopian novels.

Enjoy reading nonfiction? Here is my list of The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

November 1, 2017

The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics

inherited PTSD: Survivor Cafe by Elizabeth RosnerSurvivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

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“I carry the words; I pass them on. I listen to the stories and tell them again.” Thus writes Berkeley novelist and poet Elizabeth Rosner in her deeply moving new memoir, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory. The stories are the recollections of Rosner’s parents, both of them Holocaust survivors, and of countless others she interviewed in researching the articles incorporated in this book. Interspersed among these sometimes shocking stories are accounts of her three visits to Buchenwald, where her father was imprisoned as a teenager during the last year of the war, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The phenomenon of inherited PTSD

Thus, Survivor Café is a memoir, but it is far more than that. Rosner set out to understand the impact of her parents’ experiences in the war on her own life. She read deeply in the literature about the Holocaust and about the phenomenon of epigenetics, “the study of environmentally induced changes passed down from one generation to the next.” This emerging field is controversial and its research easily overdramatized. However, interpreting the findings narrowly, Rosner found in it an explanation for her own deep feelings about the Holocaust—and those in other second- and third-generation offspring of survivors. As others have observed, the overwhelming majority of Holocaust survivors experienced PTSD in later life. And “PTSD, it turns out, has an impact on the very wiring of the brain, and these changes are transmitted to the offspring.” Rosner quotes a Viennese psychoanalyst “who used the term ‘transposition’ to describe the unconscious cross-generational transmission of massive trauma by Holocaust survivors.” I’m confident that this phenomenon is not universal, but I’m equally certain that it’s common. I’ve seen it in action.

Beyond the Holocaust

In the United States today, “survivors” are often taken to mean those who directly experienced the Nazi Holocaust and lived to talk about it. When analysts broaden their scope, they might refer to other documented examples of genocide in the 20th century, most notably the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan tragedies. In Survivor CaféRosner further expands the term to encompass those who experienced the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as African-American slavery, with brief references to other incidences of genocide. She also includes the Japanese internment in World War II, which was surely traumatic for those who experienced it though it did not directly lead to large loss of life. Those examples make her case.

However, Rosner includes many references to other, far different atrocities that led to inherited PTSD. She cites 9/11, the Sandy Hook school massacre, and the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. Instead, to stick to a narrower interpretation of inherited PTSD that is limited to genocidal incidents, she might well have explored the subject with survivors of the Ukraine famine in the 1930s, China’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and 60s, the Biafran war in the 1960s, the Bangladeshi war for independence in the 1970s, and the ongoing civil wars in what is currently called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every one of those events has caused the death of at least one million people, and most of them far more, leaving tens of millions of survivors. There are other, less dramatic examples of genocide as well. As so many observers have remarked, the last century was an extraordinarily violent time in human history.

A quirky chronology

Survivor Café is eloquently written and abounds with insight. Rosner has clearly thought deeply about her subject for a great many years, and she has conducted methodical research to flesh out her own perspective. However, in one respect the book is not an easy read: it clearly represents the author’s attempt to mesh together several previously published articles. The result is a quirky chronology, with Rosner’s account jumping from one decade to another and back again in a fashion that is disorienting at times. There is also some repetition, in which the same event or the same source is described in much the same fashion at two different points in her account. But it’s easy enough to shrug off these relatively minor problems. Survivor Café is, in the end, an illuminating piece of work and a worthy addition to the extensive literature of the Holocaust.

I’ve found fiction to be a rich source of insight about the Holocaust. You might wish to see my review of All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won. You may also be interested in The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. My review is at A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust. I’ve also reviewed The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd: A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto.

This book is included in 19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels).

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

June 6, 2017

Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny

al franken's memoirAl Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

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If you’re expecting nonstop laughs from Al Franken’s memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, you’ll be disappointed. Naturally, the book is laced with Franken’s signature humor. He rarely passes up an opportunity to go for a laugh. That even begins with the tongue-in-cheek title. But what comes through most strongly in this book is the man’s intelligence. If you’ve had the opportunity to talk to Al Franken, hear him speak about government policy or politics, or witness him in action on C-SPAN, you know what I’m talking about.

Learning how not to be funny

As Franken explains in his Foreword, this book is “the story of a midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator. . . It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Franken might have added that he also learned to keep his volcanic temper in check (at least most of the time).

Although it’s clear that Franken had a lifetime interest in politics, his entry into the arena was inspired by an extraordinary role model, Senator Paul Wellstone, who held the same seat in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his tragic death in 2002. Like everyone else among Paul’s legion of supporters, Franken was shattered by the senator’s untimely death in a small plane that crashed in a snowstorm in northern Minnesota. (His wife, daughter, and two cherished long-time staff members died as well.)

The longest vote recount ever?

After a savage election campaign in which his integrity was repeatedly impugned and lines in jokes he’d told as a comedian were pulled out of context again and again to make him look evil, Franken eked out a victory in one of the closest elections in the history of the U.S. Senate. Republicans dragged out the recount process for eight months to keep Franken from providing Democrats with the 60th vote in the Senate that would enable them to prevent a filibuster. Franken wasn’t able to take his seat until nearly six months after the beginning of his term on January 3, 2009. Eight months might not represent the record for the longest vote recount ever, but if not it’s surely in the running.

Al Franken’s memoir: 35 years in comedy, 8 years in national office

Following what came naturally to him, Franken began a life in comedy in high school when he teamed up with Tom Davis. The Franken and Davis act went professional soon afterward and carried them both—as a writing team—into the inaugural year of Saturday Night Live. Franken spent 15 years with the show, and his account of that experience is prominent in his memoir. But the book is largely about Franken’s 2008 election campaign, the excruciating recount that followed, and his years in the Senate. Unlike so many other politicians who write autobiographies, Franken dwells at length on the role of his staff in feeding him with ideas and teaching him how not to be funny. This, despite the solemn advice he received from his colleagues in the senate never to credit his staff.

Befriending the enemy

Al Franken became even more famous than Saturday Night Live had made him when he became embroiled in a long-running feud with the recently-defrocked Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. Although many Republican senators express views as outrageous and unfounded as Reilly, Franken took a different approach when he got to the senate: he went out of his way to befriend his political enemies. To judge from what he writes in his memoir, Franken may have more good friends on the other side of the aisle than he does among his fellow Democrats. Franken’s friends include some of the most hard-line Right-Wingers in the senate. By all accounts, politics aside, he is respected by his colleagues—with one notable exception. As Franken makes clear, Texas senator Ted Cruz doesn’t respect anyone, Democrat or Republican. “[H]ere’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” It’s easy to understand why after reading the anecdotes Franken recounts. “Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with.” That helps explain why Republicans didn’t flock to Cruz when he became the last man standing as an alternative to Donald Trump. Apparently, they hated Trump less.

An insider’s perspective on the issues

At times Franken departs from autobiography to explain his positions on leading issues that face the country. He’s well worth listening to. The best example of his thinking about national policy is healthcare. In a chapter entitled “Health Care: Now What?” he explains the logic behind universal healthcare—and the illogic that the Republican Party brings to the issue. Crediting a veteran journalist who has produced documentaries for PBS’ documentary show, Frontline, Franken explains that the U.S. doesn’t have a healthcare system. It has “a number of health systems. If you were in Medicare or Medicaid, you were in the Canadian system: single-payer. If you were in the military or the VA, you were in the British system: socialized medicine. If you got your insurance through your employer, as most Americans did, you were in the German system. But if you didn’t have any health insurance, you were in the Cambodian system, where one illness or injury could literally ruin or even end your life.” This is the reality on which the Affordable Care Act is grounded, as Franken explains. Given that the Act was based on a plan produced by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, “Obamacare” is a conservative solution to the problem. And it’s only a partial solution at that. All of which is why, as I write, Democrats across the country are increasingly turning to Medicare for All as the only real solution to America’s healthcare crisis. Franken explains, however, that the deal the country got in Obamacare was the best that could be had at the time, given Republican intransigence and the conservative inclinations of some Democratic senators.

Al Franken and me

In fairness, I must disclose that I’m a big fan of Al Franken’s, and I have been for a very long time. I can’t claim to “know” him, but I did interact with him on a few occasions early in his political career. Presumably because my fundraising agency had worked for Paul Wellstone, Franken hired us to conduct the direct mail campaign for the Political Action Committee he founded in 2006, the Midwest Values PAC. He was a client of my company for five years. On a couple of occasions, I even wrote fundraising letters that went out over his signature. Largely because Franken was so well known and admired, we raised a great deal of money for him.

For another perspective on Al Franken’s memoir, take a look at a review by Eric Lach in The New Yorker (June 2, 2017).

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

January 10, 2017

A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia

Putin's RussiaRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

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Even if you follow international news only casually, you’re likely to be aware that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy. The country is effectively governed by fewer than two dozen oligarchs. Some, including President Vladimir Putin himself, hold government office. Others are private “bankers” and “businessmen.” Together, they have looted hundreds of billions of dollars, plundering Russia’s oil and gas reserves and buying up government enterprises at pennies on the dollar in a corrupt process of privatization.

The truth about Putin’s Russia

Putin alone is reported to have amassed a fortune of at least $40 billion. Other observers consider him the richest man in the world, with assets totaling more than $100 billion. Though from time to time we’ve also read reports about the murder of whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and opposition politicians, these fragmentary reports don’t make clear just ruthless and brazen the rulers of Putin’s Russia have shown themselves to be

Russian-American journalist Masha Geffen’s expose, The Man Without a Face, gave us insight into the rise of Putin himself. Now comes Red Notice, Bill Browder‘s lucid memoir of nearly two decades’ involvement in the Russian financial markets. Through painful personal experience, Browder bore witness to the violence and other criminal behavior that built the great fortunes at the top of Russia’s economic pyramid today.

An investment adviser turns civil rights activist

Red Notice encompasses two stories. First is the remarkable tale of how Browder made a fortune through investments in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Second is the story of how quickly his business, his life, and his colleagues’ lives began falling apart once Browder ran afoul of Vladimir Putin. He began his career as an investment adviser. He ended it as a civil rights activist.

Browder is a remarkable figure in his own right. His grandfather was Earl Browder, who headed the US Communist Party during the 1930s and 40s and twice ran for President on its ticket. Other members of his family, including his father, two uncles, and his brother, are not just progressive politically but prodigies in science and math as well. They hold distinguished professorships in their fields at top universities. (“In my family,” Browder writes, “if you weren’t a prodigy, then you had no place on earth.”) Bill Browder himself rebelled against his family from an early age, resolving to do the one thing that would most upset his family: become a capitalist. And so he did, earning an MBA from Stanford and going to work for the investment bank Salomon Brothers and later as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group.

Making billions from privatization

Browder’s interest in Eastern Europe soon got him involved in some of the very first privatizations in that region. Later, having proven his ability to pick wise investments in Poland and elsewhere in the region, he founded his own firm in Moscow, Hermitage Capital Management. With substantial funds from Israeli and American investors, Browder quickly built Hermitage into “the best-performing emerging-markets fund in the world” in 2000. By the early years of this century, the firm held $4.5 billion in assets. It had been started only in 1996 with $25 million. Browder made all this money taking great risks with large investments in what appeared to be sure-fire 50- or 100-to-1 payoffs as the Russian privatization program proceeded. He turned out to be right again and again.

This process of privatization lay the foundation for many of today’s great fortunes in Russia. “Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatization,” which had been the alleged purpose of the program, “Russia wound up with twenty-two oligarchs owning 39 percent of the economy and everyone else living in poverty. . . [B]y the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person.” This is not the way business works in most of the rest of the world. It’s criminality, pure and simple. It may be unkind to point out that Browder might well have been one of these oligarchs had he been Russian. The fortune he built was considerable.

From Putin’s favor to criminal charges

Once Browder ran afoul of Putin and his cronies, the full might of the Russian government began mobilizing to ruin him. Police official raided not just his offices but those of his lawyers as well on the basis of trumped-up charges. Criminals literally stole three of his companies by forging documents and filing them in obscure provincial courts. Bogus complaints were lodged against Browder and his lawyers for tax evasion, beginning a years-long saga which ended when criminals engineered the theft of $230 million from the Russian government—the same amount Browder’s firm had actually paid in taxes! But all this legal maneuvering was only the beginning. During these times, Browder successfully moved all his assets out of Russia and out of reach. When the criminals realized there was nothing to steal, the threats escalated. Browder then managed to extract two of his principal lawyers from the country before they could be jailed and tortured. A third, Sergei Magnitsky, was not so lucky.

Much of Red Notice is about Bill Browder’s years-long effort to gain Magnitsky’s freedom. When he failed, and Magnitsky eventually died before the age of 40 from torture, medical neglect, and a vicious beating by guards when he was deathly ill, Browder became virtually a full-time civil rights activist. It was in large part through his efforts that the US government eventually took action against the 60 individuals who had taken part in the illegal jailing, torture, medical neglect, and murder of Sergei Magnitsky. With help from several remarkable government officials, he even managed to persuade a very reluctant Obama Administration to issue sanctions personally directed at the 60. Their vehicle was the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which Browder was instrumental in passing. It’s a truly moving and remarkable tale.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

August 23, 2016

Hillbilly? Redneck? White trash?

hillbillyHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Two recent books set out to paint a picture of working-class culture. One is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. I found the book to be too densely written and couldn’t finish reading it. The other is far more accessible. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance, is the haunting story of one man who escaped the bounds of his class and now sometimes finds himself adrift. The book also paints a vivid picture of America’s hardening class divisions. It’s a riveting illustration of widening economic inequality.

An intimate portrait of hillbilly poverty

The outlines of Vance’s story are easily described. Born and raised in a Rust Belt town in Southwestern Ohio, Vance was abandoned by his father at an early age. His mother, a nurse, descended into drug addiction. From the age of sixteen, Vance was raised by his mother’s parents (Mamaw and Papaw). Though she packs pistols, swears like a sailor, and intimidates nearly everyone, Mamaw brought long-needed stability and encouragement to the boy’s life.

After a four-year stint in the Marines, Vance attended Ohio State University. He graduated summa cum laude after one year and eleven months! (This man is clearly no slouch.) Yale Law School followed. At the age of thirty-one, married and settled into a job as an attorney, he looks back on his life and his family with brutal honesty and a tender touch. Some might call his family and their neighbors “white trash” or “rednecks.” Vance finds the term “hillbilly” more precise and uses it throughout the book.

It’s the culture that handicaps Vance as he transitions from life in a hillbilly community to Yale and then a New York law firm. He clearly has the necessary intelligence. But he doesn’t possess the social capital to fit smoothly into his new environment. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t know which fork to use at a banquet (though that’s also true): worse, the social cues and sometimes the vocabulary seem to throw him. Some might call this culture shock.

Vance’s portrait of working-class poverty is at times alarming. It’s disturbing throughout, with its portrayal of unstable families, substance abuse, domestic violence, willful ignorance, indolence, and occasional welfare fraud. Vance writes skillfully, and his story is suspenseful to the end. The biggest surprise is how beautifully he survives a childhood that seems impossible to bear.

About the author

J. D. Vance was born and raised in the working-class community of Middletown, Ohio. His “people” come from the coal-studded region of Eastern Kentucky, where poverty is as severe as anywhere else in the United States.

This is one of the books included in my post 10 enlightening books about poverty in America.

July 12, 2016

A cold hard look at the enduring nuclear threat

nuclear threatMy Journey at the Nuclear Brink by William J. Perry

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

At times it seems as though about a dozen people run the federal government. They change jobs from one administration to the next, occasionally drop out to work in academia or industry for a time, but then pop up again when another President comes along. At their level — the cabinet and sub-cabinet positions — political party tends not to matter as much as the public might think. History is full of such examples. One of those people is William J. Perry.

Six decades combating the nuclear menace

Now 88 years of age, Perry is best known as the former Deputy Secretary and then Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, but his career in government — and in a variety of private-sector positions elsewhere in the military-industrial complex — began in the 1950s. In My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry ably recounts his efforts over six decades to combat the menace of nuclear weapons from his positions in government, private industry, academia, and, now, the nonprofit sector. His account is brisk, readable, and ultimately terrifying.

The enduring nuclear threat

Perry makes his case at the outset: “Nuclear weapons no longer provide for our security — they now endanger it.” Because of the failure of the U.S. and Soviet governments to reach agreement on eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, a step that was within their reach three decades ago, and the proliferation of nuclear technology to at least seven other nations, the human race is if anything more at risk from nuclear bombs than we were at the height of the Cold War, with the sole exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea collectively possess a total of more than 16,000 nuclear weapons. A single missile, with ten nuclear warheads, could obliterate all the major capital cities of Europe — or the ten biggest cities in the United States.

Perry foresees three principal threats: the increasingly bellicose stance of Russia under Vladimir Putin, the ever-present possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and the possibility that terrorists might steal or purchase a weapon and detonate it in a large American city.

A chilling history of nuclear confrontation

Perry’s memoir brings to light several little-known events and circumstances that might have led to a full-blown nuclear conflagration between the U.S. and the USSR. “Although the Cuban Missile Crisis [in October 1962] ended without war,” he writes, “I believed then, and still believe, that the world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management. . . For example, we now know that the Soviet ships approaching our blockade of Cuba had submarine escorts, and that the Soviet submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes . . . [T]he commanders had been given the authority to fire [those] torpedoes without authorization from Moscow. Only years after the crisis did we learn that one of the Soviet commanders had seriously considered firing one . . . at an American destroyer that was trying to force him to surface. He was dissuaded from doing so only by the other officers on the submarine.” This is scary stuff. Very scary. At the time I was terrified. Yet I didn’t understand just how close we came to Armageddon.

Perry makes clear that politics rather than military necessity has dictated the massive expansion of our nuclear forces in the past and prevents its further reduction today. “I can testify,” he writes, “that during the Cold War, no US president was willing to accept nuclear forces smaller than those of the Soviet Union” even though both nations had armed enough missiles to reduce the planet to ashes many times over. It was this imbalance that powered the nuclear arms race rather than the need for deterrence. In fact, the Triad — our nuclear forces on land, in the air, and under the sea — is unnecessary. “I am convinced that we could have confidence in our deterrence if we had only submarine-based missiles.”

A front seat at the brink

In his memoir, Perry recounts the various ways in which he personally has been involved in holding back the nuclear threat. In the 1950s and 60s, as a research scientist, he helped to develop the reconnaissance technology that revealed the true extent of the Soviet Union’s nuclear forces (undermining the fantasy of the “nuclear gap” that politicians — including John F. Kennedy — used to frighten the American people). In the 1970s, as a senior Defense Department official, he helped engineer the development of the U.S. deterrent that (in theory) prevented a Soviet attack. Then, in the 1990s, in collaboration with Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, he implemented the U.S. program to remove nuclear weapons and nuclear materials from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Now, in the 21st century, he is working through the nonprofit sector with other former federal heavyweights (George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn) to campaign for nuclear nonproliferation and for reforms in the nuclear alert system that he believes to be antiquated and dangerous.

February 16, 2016

Updating colonialism

colonialismThe New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

No one but the most hard-bitten defender of U.S. foreign policy would deny that the United States dominates a global empire bigger than any other in human history and that we have employed highly questionable and often illegal means to build it. In The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, author John Perkins explains some of the tactics at the root of America’s empire-building project. His book is based on decades of personal experience. Perkins analyzes those tactics — in a word, the insidious application of economic pressure backed by the threat of military action or even assassination — in a truly compelling account of his personal history. Anyone who seeks to understand how the United States came to have its far-reaching role in global affairs today should read this book.

Latter-day colonialism

Early in the 1970s Perkins was recruited by the National Security Agency but, at the urging of his recruiter, elected instead to take a job in private industry with a low-key Boston-based international consulting firm. There he played the role of an economist, although his only academic qualification to do so was an MBA. Perkins thrived in the new job, quickly rising through the ranks to become Chief Economist and the youngest partner in the firm’s 100-year history.

As Perkins explains, his job was simple: to inflate the numbers in his projections about the economic benefits that would accrue from the construction of massive electrical generating projects designed by his company. As his mentor explained to him in the clearest of terms, he would become an “economic hit man” (EHM), one of a number of “highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars.” He would accomplish this by encouraging “world leaders to become part of a vast network that promotes US commercial interests.” Perkins adds that “[i]f we faltered, a more malicious form of hit man, the jackal, would step to the plate. And if the jackals failed, then the job fell to the military.”

The specific purpose of Perkins’ exaggerated projections was to induce developing nations to sign up for enormous loans from the World Bank, USAID, and other U.S-controlled financial institutions. These loans would be used to pay high prices for construction and consulting services by U.S. companies, thus ensuring that virtually all the loan money came right back home. Since the projections would inevitably prove to be faulty, the loans would become unpayable after a few years, leaving the leaders of those countries in hock to the United States and incapable of denying its wishes. The result was that, against their will, the affected countries would be forced to host military bases, vote with the U.S. at the United Nations, and otherwise act much the same as they would if they were colonies of a European power.

Updating the story

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is an updated and enlarged edition of Perkins’ 2004 New York Times bestseller, which sold 1.25 million copies and was translated into 32 languages. The new version is significantly different from the original. Thirty-three of the book’s 47 chapters are in Parts I through IV, which describe the author’s life and work from 1963 to 2004. These chapters are substantially the same as they were in the original, although Perkins has added detail that was lacking.

Chapters 15 and 16, which describe the Faustian bargain between the United States and Saudi Arabia, strike me as especially important. If you’re wondering why the U.S. ignores the inexcusable mistreatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or why our government secretly flew all the members of the bin Laden family back home immediately after 9/11, you’ll understand once you’ve read these chapters.

The concluding 14 chapters, Part V, 2004-Today, are entirely new; they add nearly a third to the book. Although Part V includes a fair amount of narrative about Perkins’ own experiences since 2004, it’s dominated by the concluding six chapters, which consist of Perkins’ analysis and his recommendations for “Things to Do.” It was in Part V that I found myself disappointed.

When does a writer know when to stop?

Perkins’ account of his experiences as an economic hit man is compelling. The details he relates about face-to-face meetings with coworkers and dissidents alike are impossible to dismiss: I too have traveled a good deal around the world, especially in developing countries, and I’ve had similar experiences along the way. And I’ve observed first-hand some of the diabolical practices he describes. However, when Perkins strays from his story and struggles to place it in a larger historical context, he comes up short. Parts I through IV tell a great story, and it’s well told. A few of the chapters in Part V help bring that story up to date. Perkins’ use of the term “economic hit man” beautifully points to the truth behind the work he did, work that so many others have engaged in. However, Perkins expands the definition of EHMs to include corporate executives, investment bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists at work in the United States today. This exercise stretches the term beyond the breaking point.

Without question, our society suffers greatly from “skyrocketing student debt caused by state and federal cuts in public education, the constantly increasing medical debt resulting from deficient national health care and insurance policies, predatory payday loans, tax laws that subsidize a few of the richest at the expense of the many, and the outsourcing of jobs to other countries.” But to claim that all these problems result from the work of economic hit men makes no sense. Our society is far too complex, and our problems can’t be explained away so easily. Perkins would have been better advised to stick to his story and avoid reaching into areas where his personal experience is lacking.

The concluding chapters “What You Can Do” and “Things to Do” compound the problem by suggesting a laundry list of irrelevant or trivial suggestions that readers might follow to right the world’s wrongs. For example, Perkins recommends that students “Understand your passions” and “Join organizations.” The book would have been stronger without this sort of thing.

Disclaimers (plural)

John Perkins and I go back a long way. When he arrived in Ecuador with his first wife in 1968 to begin service in the Peace Corps, I had been in-country for nearly three years. I even have a vague memory of meeting him sometime during that last year of my Volunteer service. We reconnected, probably in the 1990s or early 2000s, when we met at a conference of the Social Venture Network, of which we were both members. We found ourselves in the same room again in 2003 or 20004 at Berrett-Koehler, the publisher we share, in the run-up to the publication of the original Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. John was there to meet with the publisher’s staff in preparation for the book’s release, and I was working on a series of books about socially responsible business. Then, last year, I was retained by Berrett-Koehler as one of several advance reviewers to critique a draft of the book. The final product is different from the version I read then, but not nearly enough to suit me, since I criticized the manuscript in much the same manner as I have the finished book in this review. (I had a few additional complaints that I won’t share here, because I’ve said enough.)

Relating all this information serves two purposes: first, to make my bias clear; and, second, to attest to John’s credibility. His book might seem a stretch, but knowing him as I do, I would be astonished if it weren’t all true, a few errant memories and minor errors of fact notwithstanding. I find fault with the book only in his free-wheeling historical analysis. The loud objections that issued forth from establishment circles in response to the original edition of the book only served to confirmed the essential truths behind his story.

About the author

John Perkins has written or edited four nonfiction books about the experiences and issues described here, plus five books about shamanism and indigenous cultures, largely based on his experiences in the Amazon and the Andes.

September 15, 2015

A brilliant analysis of racism today

racismBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Racism, America’s original sin, is grounded in the lie that some of us are “white” and others “black.” Even the most casual glance around a crowded sidewalk in any major city will show how much diversity there is within the human race — the only race to which we all belong. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” as the gifted essayist and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me. After all, we are all sons and daughters of mitochondrial Eve, who trod the savanna of East Africa more than 100,000 years ago.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once asked “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Coates quotes Ralph Wiley in response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

No thinking person with even a trace of empathy for our fellow human beings can read Between the World and Me without a growing sense of anger at the cruel injustice that lies at the root of the American Dream. The legacy of slavery lies heavy on us all, visible all too vividly on the streets, in our law enforcement and criminal justice system — and, in far too many of us (nearly all, really, both “white” and “black”), the depths of our hearts.

In Between the World and Me, Coates addresses his fifteen-year-old son. Coates is a survivor of the shocking reality of life in the crumbling, segregated neighborhoods of Baltimore, familiar to us all through the artistry of the long-running drama, The Wire. The son of two hard-working, loving parents who valued education — with a grandfather who was a research librarian at the African Research Center at Howard University — Coates made his way from the ghetto to Howard, his personal Mecca, and later to hard-earned success as a writer. He contrasts this personal experience with that of his son, growing up in New York in a middle-class home, living in a diverse neighborhood, and facing a starkly different day-to-day reality. Coates takes his son along on a guided tour of his intellectual journey: “the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” To sum up this experience, Coates quotes Malcolm X: “If you’re black, you were born in jail.”

Coates’ analysis of the plight he survived — the reality experienced by so many millions yet today — is harsh. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before the elements of the world, before the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear . . . [A] society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” Coates is unsparing in his view of today. He does not appear to hold much optimism for tomorrow.

Between the World and Me is an eloquent lament crammed with insight and marvelously pithy observations, worthy of citation in any debate about the state of our society.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an award-winning essayist and memoirist who works as national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has won two coveted awards, both the National Magazine Award and the George Polk Award.