X — Another Great Kinsey Milhone Mystery

imageSue Grafton’s X is another fun Kinsey Millhone mystery.  Millhone is the reason to read this alphabetical series, which started with A Is for Alibi.  Kinsey Millhone is a twice-divorced and happily independent private detective.   It is sort of amazing that Grafton has been able to write such a consistently entertaining series based on just one relatively normal character, who isn’t grappling with some intense personal tragedy.  Millhone doesn’t have a sidekick, but she does have a charmingly cranky personality with a hefty curiosity component.  She is happily single and enjoys her life and her small group of friends.   It is always satisfying to read about a heroine who isn’t obsessed with her own looks or looking for romance.  Kinsey Millhone is a well-developed character who is comfortable in her own skin and has no trouble keeping us interested in what she is going to do next.

is jammed with subplots and interesting characters.  The plot isn’t particularly tight or organized, but the twists are clever and entertaining.  In X, Millhone lets her curiosity take over.  She’s got some money in the bank for a change, so she can pursue some odd leads just to put matters to rest for herself in this tangled tale.  Her approach is increasingly whimsical and accepting of human frailties.

I recommend this and the other books in Sue Grafton’s wonderful series.   These books hold your interest through interesting characters and intelligent story lines, rather than excessive sex and violence.

 

 

Ravensbruck — An In Depth History of Germany’s Concentration Camp for Women

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Sarah Helm has written an exhaustive and exhausting history: Ravensbruck – Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.  This detailed recounting of the horrific crimes committed at Ravensbruck, the only women-only concentration camp, is mind-numbing in detail.  I wasn’t always able to follow the thread of all the individual women’s experiences at Ravensbruck, but Helm’s excellent writing nonetheless paints a consistently grim  picture of unmitigated evil.

Ravensbruck wasn’t set up as strictly an extermination camp, although selections and mass murders were routinely conducted.  In addition to executions, beatings and starvation, Ravensbruck was also the scene of grisly medical experiments, most of which were conducted on Polish prisoners.  Even though many of them died, these Polish prisoners managed to communicate with the outside world about their ongoing plight.  Those who survived the crippling and often fatal medical “experiments” were consistently threatened with selections designed to eradicate the evidence of what had been done to them.

Women were sent to Ravensbruck from all over Europe and for all sorts of reasons.  Prisoners included Jehovah’s Witnesses, resistance workers, communists, prostitutes, intelligentsia from conquered lands and an assortment of “ordinary” German women who expressed disillusionment with the Nazi regime.  There were some Jewish prisoners, but they were in the minority.  There wasn’t much resistance at the camp, but the refusal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and many of the Russian prisoners to manufacture war materiel was impressive.

Heinrich Himmler’s direct oversight of the construction and operation of Ravensbruck would be remarkable except for the fact that his mistress lived just down the road, so it was convenient for him to stop by.  Himmler was keenly interested in the selection for execution process, as well as the grotesque medical experimentation.  Toward the end of the war, he played an interesting game of trying to trade some prisoners with the Allies in a delusional effort to save his own skin.  This  was in sharp contrast to Hitler’s orders to kill all the prisoners and to prevent them from falling into allied hands.

The saga of the end of the War was a blur of last-minute executions, beatings, forced marches, starvation and dashed hopes.  Unfortunately many of the Ravensbruck prisoners fell into the hands of Russian “rescuers,” who raped prisoners and non-prisoners alike.  Back home, the Russian prisoners in particular were punished for the sin of having been imprisoned.  Other prisoners often kept their stories to themselves.

Fortunately, some of the Ravensbruck prisoners did keep a record and some of them very much recalled what happened at the camp.  Sarah Helm’s interviews with survivors are very moving.  In addition to direct interviews with some of the survivors, Helm relies upon various diaries, public records and the evidence given at the war crimes trials of Ravensbruck’s administrators, doctors and guards.  The matter-of-fact testimony given by some of the doctors and guards about the atrocities they committed was absolutely chilling.

This isn’t an easy read, but the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck deserve to be remembered, and this book honors them.  Helm has done a magnificent job of gathering the evidence of what happened and presenting an organized history of a terrible place.

In Which Abraham Lincoln Tries to Inspire His Generals to Win the Civil War

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Tried by War  —  Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, persuasively tells one of the more interesting stories of the Civil War.  A beleaguered Abraham Lincoln had a heck of a time getting his generals to wage an offensive war.  Lincoln was famously more aggressive than most of his generals, who were generally more terrified of losing a battle than they were anxious to win the war.  With the outstanding exception of Ulysses S. Grant and a few others, Lincoln’s generals seemed to have an imperfect understanding of what it would take to win the war and save the Union.

At their worst, as personified by George McClellan, these generals cultivated unbelievable arrogance and condescension, mixed with a willful blindness to their superior odds and resources.  They persisted in denial about the need to engage Lee’s army and kept behaving as if the war were going to end in some sort of compromise between the parties.  Not so!.  They either didn’t grasp or didn’t care that Lincoln was determined to achieve a complete victory.

The most striking thing for me was the effort Lincoln undertook to teach himself military strategy.  It is a good thing that Lincoln was good at educating himself, because it seems that he had few contemporary tutors.  As the war began, Lincoln hit the books and read up on military history and strategy, and fortunately proved to be an excellent pupil.  He was profoundly educable and leaned whom to trust.  This was is just part of what made Lincoln THE best possible president for his time.

If you don’t know much about the Civil War’s specifics, this very readable book presents excellent background on the military strategy and battles.  The character sketches of the participants are strong and insightful.  If you do happen to know a lot about the Civil War, this book is also welcome, because of McPherson’s masterful focus on Lincoln’s struggles in the face of the unremitting obstruction from so many of the generals under his command.  I strongly recommend this book!

Channeling Dorothy Parker

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Ellen Meister has written an entertaining novel, Farewell, Dorothy Parker.  It is clear from the start that things will end well, but in the meantime reading this novel was stressful because the heroine herself is so stressed and intimidated by everything.   Violet Epps is a movie critic with an witty and acid pen, but her personal life is a mess.  She is timid and shy and her own worst enemy.  Enter Dorothy Parker!  Parker is hilarious.  She is the antithesis of timid and shy, and her personality is the hilarious driving force for much of this story.  I loved the the contrast between Parker and Violet Epps, and I especially loved all references to Parker’s writings and the Algonquin Round Table.

This is a fun read!  It would make a great recommendation for young women lacking in confidence.

 

A Man Without Breath — An Excellent Bernie Gunther Novel

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I am a big fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, and A Man Without Breath is an excellent addition to the series.  Bernie Gunther would like to be an ordinary criminal investigator, but the Nazi regime and World War II make that impossible.  No one is untainted in Bernie Gunther’s world, but Philip Kerr still manages to present Gunther as a sympathetic character  —  hard-bitten with just a little bit of idealism left in him.  Humphrey Bogart would have played him very well.

This time Gunther finds himself in on the Eastern Front on an errand for Joseph Goebbels.  It is the Spring of 1943, and a lot of Germans have begun to realize the war may not end well for them.  Their frantic maneuvering doesn’t preclude still more atrocities, but it does muddy the waters for Gunther, who would really just like to solve his crimes and go home to Berlin.  There is a plethora of interesting historical detail, particularly with respect to the NKVD’s own atrocities and the growing interest on the part of certain aristocrats in assassinating Hitler.  It is a grim story, but the characters, plot and setting are really interesting.  Kerr adds some Casablanca-like repartee, a little romance and an excellent sense of the absurd to make this a really good novel.

Alice, the Enigma — A Biography of Victoria’s Second Daughter, Princess Alice

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Royalty buffs and historians of women’s history alike will enjoy Christina Croft’s new biography of Alice, Queen Victoria’s second daughter and also the mother of Alexandra, the last Tsarina of Russia.  Alice, the Enigma — A Biography of Queen Victoria’s Daughter is informative and generally sympathetic to Alice, who was the third of Victoria’s nine children and a surprisingly independent thinker and feminist.  Neither as brilliant as her eldest sister the Princess Royal nor heir to the throne like her brother the Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII), Alice nonetheless managed to carve a niche for herself and do some serous good in the world.

It was pretty difficult for a nineteenth century princess to do much more than marry well and bear children.  Indeed, surviving multiple childbirths was an accomplishment in and of itself.  Alice herself married at 19 and had seven (!) children before she died of diphtheria at the age of 34, so it is amazing that she was so engaged and effective in her humanitarian endeavors.  She actively promoted  and engaged in modern nursing services and corresponded with Florence Nightingale.  She was a feminist and was particularly interested in women’s health, all of which horrified her mother.  Not surprisingly, Queen Victoria also resented the fact that Alice occasionally dared to give her pointed advice.

Alice doesn’t seem to have been particularly happy as she entered middle age, and her photographs show her to be incredibly serious and melancholy.  It may have been the style of the time not to smile for the camera, but Alice consistently looks glum.  As a side note, her resemblance to the current Queen, as well as to Princess Margaret and Prince Charles is astounding.

This is a worthwhile book.  I particularly liked the way the author incorporated some of the voluminous correspondence of Alice and her family.  Princess Alice’s interest in new ideas and women’s rights were truly unusual, given her times and her royal status.  She didn’t fit into the stereotype of the prudish, Victorian woman, and that’s what makes her interesting.

History’s People – Personalities and the Past

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Margaret MacMillan has written a wonderful book, History’s People – Personalities and the Past.  Rather than engage in a heated debate about the extent to which individuals drive history, MacMillan’s chapters focus on different types of personalities, many of which have directly affected the course of history.  Some of her chapters make odd bedfellows.  It isn’t often you see Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler discussed in the same chapter, but MacMillan’s parallels are fascinating, even as she recognizes that Wilson and Thatcher could never share the malevolence of Hitler and Stalin.

HIstory’s People was created as a series of distinguished lectures, and the book is fairly short.  MacMillan’s accounts are absolutely fascinating, and I wish she had written still more.  The book comfortably describes famous, infamous and relatively unknown people with thoughtful attention.  MacMillan is Canadian, and she writes about a number of characters in Canada’s history that would be little known to anyone outside Canada.  The new information is welcome, and the themes she develops are compelling.  She pays particular note to women who may not be well known, but who nonetheless were important pioneers and observers.  She recognizes how important observers such as Samuel Pepys and Victor Klemperer (I Will Bear Witness) are to our understanding of the past.

This book informs the reader about a huge variety of historical movements and events.  Using individual lives to tell these stories makes this a tremendously worthwhile book for both scholars and those of us who will welcome having some of our knowledge gaps filled with thoughtful and intriguing accounts of some very interesting people.  I highly recommend this book!

Detroit Featured in Two Interesting Novels

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I’ve recently enjoyed two novels featuring single not-quite young white men who move to Detroit.  Detroit, as a ravaged urban wasteland, is the central figure in both books.

Scott Lasser’s Say Nice Things About Detroit is the easier and somewhat more conventional read, but it is a serious book.  David Halpert is a lawyer who returns to Detroit in part to look after his ailing father and in part because there is really no place he wants to be.  Halpert’s contacts and relationships with the Detroiters who never left makes this a rich and interesting story, and there is also a clever plot line.  This is the first Lasser book I have read, and I liked it so much that I bought his other books.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This is an unsettling read, but it is very insightful about the dueling interests that come into play when privileged young people volunteer themselves to rescue a failing city.  Greg Marnier has no contacts with Detroit, but he also has no place he particularly wants to be.  He just kind of falls into living in Detroit, partly through lack of other options and partly because he allows himself to be drafted into a rich friend’s plan to revitalize a down-and-out Detroit neighborhood.  Marnier frequently lacks initiative and almost always lacks firm conviction, but he is somehow interesting and good-hearted enough to keep the story going.  This is a very cynical book  —  there are no heroes, and at times it is almost too unpleasant too read.  The intentions and effectiveness of most of the self-proclaimed urban saviors can’t withstand much scrutiny.  The local residents are equally complicated.  In many ways You Don’t Have to Live Like This comes across as an autopsy of a bold and purportedly altruistic endeavor to save a community that doesn’t want to be save by these particular people.  I do keep thinking about this book, and I do recommend it.