BOOK REVIEW: I Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operation by Paul Marer

I Participated in Wallenberg's Rescue OperationsI Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operations by Paul Marer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inquiries about purchasing the book can be made here.

 

In 1944, the Nazis were working to eradicate the European Jews. Among the last major Jewish populations accessible to Hitler that had yet to be shipped to the death camps were those from Budapest. Among the most effective forces arrayed against the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascists) in the days before the Red Army arrived were neutral nation diplomats who issued protective documentation, offering at least a thin shield of legal protection that saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of such diplomats is that of the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg – not because his operation was bigger or riskier than those of the others, but because his story didn’t end with the war. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets at the end of the Siege of Budapest for reasons that remain speculative, and he died in a Soviet prison. This book draws on the experience of Marianne Bach, a young member of Wallenberg’s team. Given the loss of Wallenberg, and the fact that the other members of his operation are now deceased, Bach’s story is an important last chance to learn more detail about what happened in Budapest during those dark days.

The book is chronologically arranged. The first two and the last three chapters discuss Marianne Bach’s life before and after, respectively, her days working as part of Wallenberg’s team. A reader might dismiss such chapters as humdrum, if necessary, background information, and starkly contrast them with the more high-octane, life-and-death, fascist-fighting core of the book. However, Marer fixes his sights on an intriguing focal point throughout these chapters, identity (and crises, thereof.) Both before and after the war, Bach was challenged by questions of identity – religious, cultural, and national identity. Living abroad, she was a foreigner, but at “home” in Hungary there’d been a great effort to eliminate her people. It was smart to focus on events and questions at the crux of identity. It makes these chapters engaging to a degree that a broad biographical sketch would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The core of the book (ch. 3 – 8) doesn’t just tell Bach’s story – in fact, it doesn’t just tell the Wallenberg story, it delves into the broader question of the fate of the Budapest Jews and all those who intervened to save whomever they could. This isn’t to say that the closeup story is absent. Readers get a detailed view of the operations that Bach was involved in and an overview of the Wallenberg story – including discussion of his fate as a secret Soviet prisoner. It’s just that those closeup stories are embedded within a broader context that includes activities like Carl Lutz’s Glass House operation, Hitler’s order to take over of Hungary before it could defect from the Axis, and the Danube executions by Arrow Cross Militiamen that followed that takeover.

This book provides a gripping examination of a disturbing time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

A Little History of PoetryA Little History of Poetry by John Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Out: April 21, 2020

Amazon page

 

This book offers a wealth of biographical insight into poets, stretching back beyond Homer, but without getting caught up in the minutiae of full biographies. Rather, it’s more about presenting tidbits of information that help uncover why a given poet’s verse is as it is – both mixing an understanding of where the world was during that poet’s time and what the individual was going through. But that’s not all the book does. It also shows the reader how poetry changed over the centuries, how changes in society influenced poetry, and – sometimes — how poetry influenced society.

If covering poetry from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” through poets of the 20th century in a book with the word “little” in the title seems impossible, it is. It’s done in this volume by being English language poetry-centric. (Some might prefer to call it Western-centric because it discusses the likes of Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as some German, French, Russian, and Italian poets, but these discussions are largely in the context of those poets interacting in the larger world of poetry.) That is, while it discusses foreign language poetry, it’s mostly with respect to poetry that influenced (or in some cases was influenced by) English-language poets. This focus is most profoundly seen in the book’s dalliances with Asian poetry, which are few and brusque. The book discusses a few Chinese poets as well as Japanese haiku poets, but explicitly in the context of how they influenced Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. (Also influencing the minimal mark of Indian and Zen schools of poetry is the fact that the Beat poets were lost from the selection process as well.) The only other noteworthy mention of poetry of Asian origin is about Rabindranath Tagore, mostly because he was a Nobel Laureate and was globally prominent enough to influence poets of the English-speaking world (most of his work was originally in Bengali, though he did a lot of his own translations to English.)

The previous paragraph is not so much of a criticism as it might sound. It’s clear that any book that opts to take on an artform with as much longevity and universality as poetry in a single compact volume is going to have to be highly selective. However, I wouldn’t want anyone entering into the book thinking they would learn something about where Norse poetry or Hungarian poetry or Arab Ghazals (none of which bears a substantial mention) fit in the broader poetic scheme, and I can see how someone from an African or Asian tradition would come away offended by the lack of acknowledgement of global poetry. In short, what the book does, I felt it does very well, but its title could make people think it’s a different book than it is.

As a history, the book’s forty chapters are, quite logically, chronologically arranged. However, there are sometimes overlapping time periods because of how poets are thematically grouped. Each chapter shines a light on anywhere from one to about twenty poets (two or three is most common) who were exemplars of the time period. Generally, the chapters describe key details about each poet and his or her place in the art, and then dissects a particularly important work or two from said poet. Except in the case of a few short form pieces, whole poems aren’t presented, but rather illustrative lines or stanzas. (In many cases, I found myself pulling up whole poems on the internet because of curiosity that Carey aroused. Except for a few of the most recent poems, almost all the works discussed are in the public domain, and can be readily accessed.)

I learned a great deal from this book, and I was turned on to some poets that I hadn’t thought much about before by learning of their lives. I’ll definitely be reading more Spender, Wheatley, Auden, and Rossetti. There are many poets I’ve read without any touch of biographical insight beyond a vague notion of when they lived, and so it was interesting to gain an inkling of the world of each.

If you’re interested in poetry or the history of literature, I’d highly recommend this book. While it is English language-centric, if one approaches it knowing that, I think you’ll find it well worth your time.

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BOOK REVIEW: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain

Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties RebellionAcid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion by Martin A. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a microhistory of America’s interaction with LSD. LSD, commonly called “acid” from its full name Lysergic acid diethylamide, is a chemical substance that was originally derived from ergot fungus, and which causes distortion of perception, an altered state of consciousness, and – in some cases – hallucinations. When I say it’s American history, that’s an oversimplification because many of the events described happen overseas (e.g. LSD’s own story begins in Switzerland with chemist, Albert Hofmann, after all,) but most of the central players are American and the book’s two primary lines of investigation are both centered on America. One of these lines involves the covert research program designed to discover if acid could be used as a truth serum, a mind-control agent, an incapacitant, or otherwise to the benefit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert agencies. The other line is about the role that LSD played in the countercultural revolution of the 60’s and early 70’s.

The book’s flow begins more heavily focused on the covert programs, then gets into what was happening with the youth in the 60’s, and toward the end discusses where the proceeding lines seem to run together with individuals like Ronald Stark who was a drug smuggler involved with an organization called the “Brotherhood for Eternal Love” but who many suspected of having ties with (if not direct employment by) the CIA – and not entirely without reason (though not with sufficient evidence that firm conclusions are drawn in the book.) I should mention that this just the general flow. The book has a chronological flow with topical segments within, so it’s not like it deals with these issues entirely independently.

If the covert research program had been carried out by competent scientists using accepted methodologies, then the discussion of these programs would probably be at best moderately interesting. (To be fair, some competent science may have occurred, but it’s so unnoteworthy compared to the wild and pranksterish that it draws no attention.) What the reader learns, however, is fascinating because it involves clean-cut and seemingly respectable g-men spiking unwitting subjects with acid like a teenage prankster-idiot might do – but without the “excuse” of being immature, stoned, and having not yet learned to behave responsibly. Perhaps the most bizarre program was Operation Midnight Climax, in which CIA agents hired prostitutes in San Francisco to spike the drinks of their johns so they could find out if the customers got loose-lipped. A CIA agent would watch on, dutifully making pipe-cleaner twists of the various sexual positions performed by the sex-worker and her customer.

The civilian history follows a path from Hofmann’s discovery at Sandoz Laboratories (now owned by Novartis) through the early years of Al Hubbard (the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) through the trials of Timothy Leary to others who figured in the heyday of LSD such as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and, finally, to the crackdown on psychedelics and the illicit smuggling rings that resulted. There is fascinating coverage of how Federal law enforcement tried to stifle production and smuggling of LSD, particularly with respect to training agents to infiltrate hippie organizations.

This book originally came out in the 80’s (though I read the 2007 edition) and while it has a post-script that discuss a bit of a resurgence that occurred beyond the 70’s, it doesn’t touch upon a more recent thaw in attitudes toward psychedelics as they’ve begun to be legalized (or sought out where they are legal) or the surge in popularity of “micro-dosing.” As of this book’s end all psychedelics remained Schedule I – a label which states that they have no legitimate medicinal value (which cooler heads have realized is blatantly wrong given substantial evidence that psychedelics can be of benefit in conquering addiction, in managing depression, and otherwise.)

I found this book intriguing. It’s a must-read if you are interested in any of the following topics: the 60’s counter-culture revolution, mind-control programs, or how public policy gets hijacked by history.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carl Lutz (1895-1975) by György Vámos



Carl Lutz by György Vámos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page (only the French edition is currently showing)

 

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat assigned to Budapest in 1944, at the time the Nazis and their Arrow Cross comrades were trying to deport the Budapest Jewry to death camps. Lutz may not be as well know as his Swedish counterpart, Raoul Wallenberg, but that’s not for lack of saving lives. Like Wallenberg, he saved thousands of Jews by issuing protective documentation, and by fudging numbers and background documents where necessary to keep more people safe.

Lutz also oversaw a facility where the people issued these documents were allowed to stay to keep them out of the city ghetto from which they might get caught up in deportations. The Swiss-flagged facility was called the “Glass House” because it was on the grounds of a factory where specialty glass had been made, and the building’s façade was covered in multiple styles of glass as a way for perspective customers to see what products were available. Unfortunately, the property wasn’t designed for residential use, let alone for providing facilities for large numbers of people. Quarters were cramped and hygienic facilities were inadequate. However, the facility did keep people alive, even though it was raided by the Arrow Cross. [For those visiting Budapest, a small museum / memorial room can still be found at this same location, and this book’s author can offer more insight.]

The book is written in a scholarly style, i.e. employing a historian’s tone. It largely follows a chronological format. The book doesn’t discuss Lutz’s life much outside the war years, but it does give the reader background about Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws and actions as well as an overview of strategic-level events. [Hungary was allied with Germany in the Second World War, but in 1944 tried to separate itself and stop deportations. This resulted in Germany taking control and handing power to the Arrow Cross Militia, which was the Hungarian fascist party — akin to the German Nazis.]

The book is concise, weighing in at only 125 pages — about 17 of which are in an appendix of documents and photos regarding Swiss efforts to undermine the Nazi’s Holocaust.

As I said, the book is written in a scholarly / historical format, rather than the more visceral narrative approach of a journalistic or popular work. Still, it does become more intense reading in the latter half — when the author is describing events concerning the Glass House, Lutz’s issuance of protective documentation, and the siege of Budapest by the Russians at the end of the war. It will certainly give readers insight into a little-known rescue effort during the Holocaust.

If you’re interested in international efforts to thwart the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews, this book will clue you in on events that aren’t well-known – particularly by English readers. I highly recommend this book.

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DAILY PHOTO: Views of Pani Kotha

Taken on November 30, 2019 in Diu


Pani Kotha (a.k.a. Water Fort, Fortim do Mar, and Alfiston Jail) is a Portugese prison positioned off-shore from the Diu Fort — between Diu island and the Ghoghola peninsula. The ship-shaped structure held prisoners — at least those that weren’t good swimmers.

BOOK REVIEW: Chloroform by Linda Stratmann

Chloroform: The Quest for OblivionChloroform: The Quest for Oblivion by Linda Stratmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Stratmann’s book tells the story of the rise, fall, and debauchment of the anesthetic known as chloroform. As such, most of the book — particularly in the first half — is a medical history that offers detailed discussion of the debates that went on between doctors as to whether chloroform was the best form of anesthesia available, or whether an alternative approach was superior. (Contenders include: ether, nitrous oxide, or the old-fashioned approach of no anesthesia whatsoever.) The book also discusses a number of cases in which chloroform was used in the commission of a crime, or was speculated to have been. On the topic of vice, the use of chloroform as a recreational drug is also described. For those who aren’t medical historians, the explorations of chloroform in crime, vice, and licentiousness are where the book gets intriguing, and they tend to take place in the latter half of the book. [That makes sense from a chronological perspective as it took some time before laypeople became aware of the range of uses of this substance.]

The book is well-written and follows the intrigue. That said, it’s definitely a niche work. I came at it from the strange direction of one who is interested in consciousness (and, by extension, how it is lost.) This book could appeal to those interested in the history of medicine, true crime, or recreational drugs, but, regardless, it’s a niche within those niche fields.

The book has graphics, annotations, a bibliography, and even an appendix that describes the chemistry of chloroform. It comes with all the bells-and-whistles one might expect of a scholarly book, but tells a story skillfully. The author is neither a journalist nor a scientist, but she seems to have done an extremely thorough job of research.

If you only read one book on the history of chloroform this year, make it this one. [Disclaimer: As far as I know, this is the only history of chloroform, and it’s certainly the only one that I’ve read to date.]

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5 Historical Figures You May Not Realize Were Super-Freaky

5.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: This French philosopher is probably best known for his ideas about social contract in governance. At least that’s what I knew him for when I was a student of the social sciences.

Unlike the Marquis de Sade, whose philosophy and sexual proclivities were intimately intertwined, one wouldn’t necessarily guess that Rousseau was a masochist into getting spanked by dominant women from his political theories. Although, all interest in governance is about who holds the whip and what the whipee gets in exchange for being subjected to it — figuratively speaking, of course.

 

4.) Peggy Guggenheim:  This  heiress  to  an  

artistic empire had a legendary libido — and not just in her youth. What interests people is not so much that she was sexually promiscuous, but that age didn’t seem to curb her desire for sexual conquest.

Even though her memoir is filled with discussion of her sexual dalliances, she is still more well known for discovering important 20th century artists and saving art from thieving Nazis.

 

 

3.) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: One of the all-time greatest musical minds, his genius for composition may have helped to keep him from being known for his scatological obsession.

This may seem far-fetched (not to mention grosser than the other proclivities discussed herein) but there’s even a Wikipedia page about it — so it must be true.

I knew from discussion of the movie “Amadeus” (which I, sadly, haven’t seen) that there was something unexpectedly scandalous about Mozart, but I never would have guess this was it.

 

2.) King Edward VII: It may be well-established that King Edward had some wild times, but the fact that he had custom sex furniture made tells you just how all-consuming his passions were.

 

1.) H.G. Wells:  The author of “War of the Worlds,” “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” and “The Time Machine,” Wells was all for free love, long before there was a free love movement. He is said to have had sex atop bad reviews. While I knew him as an early sci-fi author who famously predicted the atomic bomb (Physicist, Leo Szilard, cited Wells’ “The World Set Free” as an inspiration), he was — unknown to me — legendarily promiscuous.

POEM: A Mile of Murder

On a moonlit midnight —
between the bands of rain —
stretched a mile of murder.

Marched through the night
to keep day roads clear for troops,
Fascists sought to free themselves
of the ugly evidence of their crimes.

But sweeping the weary and woebegone
under the rug is not a rapid task,
and so a mile of murder
mass migrated towards the morn.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human HistoryThe Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a geographic and historical overview of the Indian Ocean from the geological processes that created it to the wave of independence movements that took hold in the wake of the Second World War. The author’s approach is to emphasize the interaction between – rather than within – the various nations of this region. [Though, India in particular, gets a great deal of space devoted to internal happenings. However, given its central location (trading to both the east and the west,) its size, and its cultural influence on the region, it’s not necessarily the case that this is an unfair bias.]

I was happy to find a book that seemed to be just what I was looking for. Having lived in India for more than five years, I’ve often been struck by the intriguing evidence of interconnectedness that I didn’t have the historical background to understand. From a discussion with a Nairobi cab driver who had no idea that chapati (a flat bread common in South Asia, but eaten as far afield as the Caribbean) was anything other than an indigenous Kenyan culinary invention to the fact that Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore, I’ve often found myself curious about how these connections came to be. This book didn’t disappoint. Sanyal delves right into the fascinating fun facts without getting too bogged down in the who married whom and who fought whom that quickly becomes the tediousness contributing to a lack of enthusiasm for the subject of History among school children. (That said, there is – probably necessarily – some of the stuff that students are forced to memorize, here and there.)

The approach of the book, after an introductory chapter that gives the reader a contextual introduction to the region, is to proceed chronologically. This means the book starts out more geology, geography, and anthropology and gradually becomes more of a history. In the later half of the book, this history is particularly an economic history focused on the products whose trade drove interaction in the region – be it for conflict or for cooperation. Trade is important throughout the region’s history, but we also see a lot the spread of culture earlier, especially the spread of religion. From the spice that was much coveted in Europe to the opium that the British East India Company used to balance its trade with China (resulting in the Opium Wars,) this trade has had a profound impact on the world in which we live.

There are many graphics throughout the book, primarily maps. These are extremely beneficial. The book is annotated with end-notes that provide sources and elaborations.

I found this book to be both interesting and entertaining. The author throws in a one-liner joke now and again, but what I really found humorous were the fictions that were widely believed back in the day. Most of these resulted from merchants telling tall tales to make asking prices more palatable. It’s harder to scoff the price of a diamond if one thinks they were guarded over by gigantic snakes and the only way to get them was to throw meat into a canyon so that Eagles (the only things that could out move the snakes) might snatch up a diamond with its steak. It is also fascinating to learn how the same stories were heard from different sources, suggesting that false information behaving like an infection isn’t new to the internet age.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that in the final chapters the author leaves behind the historical objectivity that seems prevalent throughout most of the book. Instead of presenting the information and letting the reader make up their own mind about such events as Subhas Chandra Bose’s (Netaji’s) courting of the Nazis during the Second World War, Sanyal shapes the information he feeds to readers to persuade rather than to inform. I didn’t notice this in earlier parts of the book and suspect it was just easier to be dispassionate about the distant past.

All-in-all, I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about history and trade across the Indian Ocean. I learned a great deal, and found the book readable and intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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