Book Review of “Rutherford B. Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents” by Marilyn Singer

The poems in this book are immensely clever. In just a few rhyming and often very funny lines the author manages to convey the essence of each president’s time in office.

For example, this is the poem from whence the title comes:

“Rutherford B., who was he?
Honest and upstanding, or His Fraudulency?
He won a harsh election with disputes and appeals,
(and also quite possibly backroom deals).
He believed in suffrage, thought the South would comply,
that all would get to vote (which proved to be a lie).
He had faith in education and desire for reform,
but he chose to steer a middle path
and not stir up a storm.
He had radical thoughts and conservative ways.
He said so himself, did President Hayes.”

The poem about Theodore Roosevelt is succinctly informative, with the accompanying picture giving a perfect representation of his personality.


How compactly the author tells what happened to James A. Garfield:

“He won a close election, was eager to begin.
Got shot by a crazed office seeker.
Doctors likely did him in.”

The poem about Abraham Lincoln is serious, and is paired with one about Andrew Johnson that is very funny.

As with many of the poems, the artwork accompanying the verse about Grant adds much to the composite portrait crafted by the combination of author and illustrator.


Singer writes humorously of Truman:

“No one was brasher
than that former haberdasher,
more prone to fury
than that man from Missouri….”

The poems begin with George Washington and continue through and including the administration of Barak Obama.

The ingenious mixed media illustrations by John Hendrix add wonderful details to the history of each president’s administration. His pictures are totally unpredictable and his inspired visual interpretations will have you shaking your head in appreciation.

The back matter includes short biographies of each president including a significant quote by each of them.

Evaluation: This is a fantastic way for kids to learn about the U.S. Presidents. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Disney/Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2013

Review of “True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump” by Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law who now serves as a legal analyst for CNN and “The New Yorker.” His book about the inquiry into Russian electoral interference as well as the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment can be summarized succinctly: Trump lied, lied, lied.

The main focus of the book is the investigation by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller into, as he was instructed by the Justice Department when appointed in 2017, “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” as well as any crimes arising from his investigation.

Toobin is critical of Mueller in several ways. One is the somewhat ironic criticism that Mueller followed the rules and tried to respect honor and fairness; Trump recognized no such boundaries, and Mueller should have anticipated that. Toobin also argues that Mueller wrongly did not investigate Trump’s finances. Toobin claims that Mueller thought such an investigation was unnecessary to prove intent even though it might have shown motive. [Other books, however, notably Michael S. Schmidt’s Donald Trump v. the United States report that Mueller was prevented from exploring that avenue by then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.] Toobin also laments that Trump gained further advantage when Mueller declined to subpoena Trump for a personal interview, and finally, when he opted not to characterize Trump’s guilt definitively in his summary, thus letting the new unabashedly sycophantic “Trump apologist” attorney general William Barr whitewash the report in Trump’s favor.

Toobin argues that “Trump’s victory over Mueller was tactical not strategic. The president and his allies outmaneuvered Mueller, but Trump’s character – and his behavior – didn’t change.”

Toobin is also critical of former FBI Director James Comey (again differing in this respect from Michael Schmidt), who he found to be sanctimonious and egotistical, definitely tipping the scales in the 2016 election toward Trump. He criticizes Rosenstein for having committed “malpractice,” and gives Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani “credit” both for steering Trump into the Ukraine disaster, and then deflecting attention away from Trump’s shenanigans.

Toobin ends the book with a withering criticism of Trump on his handling (or lack thereof) of the Corona virus. Trump, Toobin avers, responded to the coronavirus with the same belligerent dishonesty, vindictiveness, and blame shifting that characterized his treatment of Mueller and impeachment.

Somehow, Toobin points out, with all of Trump’s dishonesty and immorality, he survives and continues to wield power.

Evaluation: Toobin’s book is especially enlightening when it is read, as I read it, in conjunction with Michael Schmidt’s book. Both authors do an excellent job reporting on how Trump has managed to circumvent the law, but from slightly different perspectives. Coming together like a kaleidoscopic image, they provide a powerful lens into the Mafia-like operations of the Trump Administration.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2020

Review of “I Am Not A Number” by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer Re Forced Re-Education of Native Canadian Children

In an afterword to this book for children by Jenny Kay Dupuis we learn:

I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Granny’s father was chief of the community, and her mother looked after their fourteen children.”

In 1928, when Irene was eight years old, an Indian agent came to their house and demanded that her father hand over the children for the residential school: “They are wards of the government, now. They belong to us.” When her father objected, he was told that otherwise he would be fined and sent to jail. It was the law, and they had to go.

The stories taken from Irene’s memories of the school are pretty horrific. She was given a number and not allowed to use her name. Irene became “759.” She was not permitted any regular contact with her parents. She was told to “scrub all the brown off” her body when she washed. The food was awful, and she and the other children were always hungry. They were beaten if they were heard using any words in their own language – “the devil’s language” according to the nuns.

When they attended mass (every morning and twice on Sundays) she recalled that she “secretly begged God to let me return to my family.”

After a year, she was allowed to return home for the summer. She loved being home, but had nightmares about the school every night. She begged her parents not to make her go back. Her parents decided to hide her and her brothers in the father’s taxidermy shop. The Indian agent searched everywhere, including the shop, but didn’t find them. Her father claimed they went up north and he didn’t know when they would be back. Finally the agent left, and they came out laughing and crying and shaking:

“We were safe. I was Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie. And I was home.”

An Author’s Note reports that Irene was among approximately 150,000 children – some as young as four – who were were removed from their homes and sent to live at residential schools across Canada. [There was a similar system in the United States.] She writes:

“Of the over 80,000 students who either returned home or relocated to cities and towns across Canada, many felt they didn’t belong anywhere and strugged all their lives.”

The last residential school did not close until 1996. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a statement of apology.

There is an afterward by Jenny Kay Dupuis, the granddaughter of Irene Couchie Dupuis. She says her granny rarely would speak about what happened to her.

A photo of some of the Couchie children included in the book. Irene is standing at the far right.

Illustrator Gillian Newland, using watercolor, ink, and pencils, manages to convey the hurt and fear and sorrow of the children in the schools with her spare lines and colors.

Evaluation: This is a story children should know. In fact, adults should be aware of what happened to Native Americans as well, in both Canada and the United States. It is a sorrowful and shameful chapter of North American history. While the subject matter is difficult, it will help children develop empathy and understanding of the situation of others. Kids need alternate perspectives. There is no moralizing in the story; readers will have to think about what happened and draw their own conclusions.

In an interview, Jenny Kay Dupuis said:

“Co-writing I Am Not a Number with Kathy Kacer gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of literature for young people and how educators and families can make use of picture books to start conversations about critical, real-world issues.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Second Story Press, 2016

September 5, 1781 – Battle of the Chesapeake & Review of “In the Hurricane’s Eye” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick delivers yet another different perspective on the American Revolution in a very entertaining and readable manner.

When most Americans think of the Revolutionary War, they think of George Washington and his troops slogging through the snow or over the frozen Hudson River to defeat the British in land battles. Philbrick argues that it was a naval battle in which Washington was not even involved that enabled the Americans to prevail against Cornwallis at Yorktown.

By 1781, Philbrick informs us, the Revolutionary Army was on the verge of collapse. The soldiers were starving, underfunded, and mutinous. Washington wrote his former aide-de-camp, “We are at the end of our tether and … now or never our deliverance must come.” Thus, Philbrick claims, the Battle of the Chesapeake between the British and the French navies (the French acting on the side of the Americans) was one of the most important naval engagements in the history of the world. The reason is that the defeat of a British fleet by a French fleet enabled the Revolutionary Army to prevail on land. The French in turn were aided by the Spanish in Cuba, thanks to a Spanish government envoy and “fixer” in Cuba named Francisco Saavedra de Sangrois, who obtained money both to sustain the French fleet and to pay Washington’s mutinous soldiers. Philbrick writes:

“…it cannot be denied that the Spanish residents of Cuba provided what one commentator has called, ‘the bottom dollars upon which the edifice of American independence was raised.’”

But it might have been the weather that played the largest role. Three large hurricanes in 1780 ripped through the Caribbean, sending the French fleet up north at the Chesapeake to ride out the 1781 hurricane season. This move proved pivotal for both sides in the war.

George Washington

As Philbrick observes, France joined the War not so much out of a desire to aid America but to strike a blow against Great Britain. But France could have easily chosen to challenge Great Britain in Europe by sending warships into the Channel between the two countries, and Britain would have had to divert military resources from its fight in America. However, it was the islands of the Caribbean that attracted the fleets of both France and England. The “sugar islands” of the Caribbean accounted for more than a third of France’s overseas trade. Britain too saw these islands as a priority. Philbrick writes:

“…when the war for American independence broke out, Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean were worth much more to her than all thirteen of her colonies in North America.”

Thus both countries were concentrating on the Caribbean; Britain had 33 percent of her total navy in that area compared to just 9 percent in the coastal waters of North America.

By the fall of 1780, Philbrick writes, “it seemed as if France’s preoccupation wit the Caribbean might prevent a significant-sized fleet from ever making its way to the shores of the United States to aid the Continental army.”

Then, amazingly enough, not one, but three huge hurricanes hit the Caribbean. These were some of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history, with one estimate putting the total death count at 22,000 just from the second hurricane alone. (The hurricanes hit on October 3, October 10, and October 18.) Both the English and French took their surviving ships and fled the area, heading north.

Estimated Tracks of October 1780 Hurricanes
(After David M. Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870, 1963)

They had a fateful meeting in the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, in an exciting battle that changed everything for the combatants on land. Philbrick shows how the defeat of the British navy in the Chesapeake led inexorably to the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis to George Washington in Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781.

Discussion: Philbrick is great at describing the intricacies of battles both on sea and land without being ponderous; on the contrary, he is consistently interesting, and explains every aspect of what occurred in a way not only to educate the reader but in a manner highlighting the most fascinating aspects of the battles. For example:

  • Benjamin Franklin wrote about the significance of the Gulf Stream and where to find it, but the British refused to pay attention to “simple American fishermen” and ignored what he had to say. Thus their trips back and forth across the Atlantic took longer than necessary;
  • Just a single typical battleship at that time, called “the 74” (because the ship had 74 cannons arranged on two decks), took 2,000 oak trees to make, or fifty-seven acres of forest;
  • The best way to destroy those wooden ships? “Hotshot” – or cannonballs heated in a furnace until they were red-hot and could start fires;
  • British ships had bottoms sheathed in plates of copper, which gave them a significant speed advantage;
  • The British fired low, to inflict more casualties, but the French fired high to disable the ships, which proved to be a more efficacious tactic;
  • Washington, who knew much of his mail was being intercepted and the contents reported to Britain, regularly wrote misinformation, as we might say today, to keep his actual plans a secret;
  • England also received misinformation about the course of the war from its own people, because the British generals over in America wanted to make themselves look better than they were;
  • Benedict Arnold’s treason and bad behavior continued to motivate the Patriot Army throughout the War to avenge those he had betrayed;
  • During the Siege of Yorktown, there were more than 6,000 British and German soldiers, along with thousands of escaped slaves, cooped up in a space just 500 yards wide and 1200 yards long;
  • No portion of the U.S. suffered more deaths in the War of Independence than New York.

Storming of a redoubt at Yorktown, via U. S. Army Center of Mlitary History

Philbrick also describes the power struggles between the French and the Americans, and how deftly Washington tried to assuage the sensibilities of the French, even while he was often furious at them. Power struggles within each army affected the fate of the armies as well, as did weaknesses for luxury and gambling, and even health issues, which came to play a major role.

The book ends with an Epilogue that reminded me of the end of the movie “American Graffiti.” Philbrick devotes a few paragraphs to each of the major players in this history, telling what happened to them after the American Revolution was over.

Evaluation: Philbrick does an excellent job of making history exciting. He also provides welcome explanations of necessary nautical details that add to the color and atmosphere of the story, such as the ways in which naval battles are fought, and how ships were constructed at the time. So much of military history is devoted to armies on land; this engrossing book helps balance that coverage.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

Review of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

Lale Sokolov, born in Krompachy, Slovia in 1916, was transported by the Nazis to Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. Late in his life, he told his story to the author. She decided to call this book a “novel” because she created dialogue based on what Lale told her, and because of the uncertainty of the veracity of memory. Nevertheless, she states:

“Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates, and places.”

At the time he was sent to Auschwitz, Lale was 24, healthy, and could speak a number of languages, all of which proved very fortunate for him. In fact, as inappropriate as it seems to speak of an inmate of Nazi concentration camps having a lot of “luck,” the truth is that Lale, in spite of his circumstances, had an inordinate amount of it. Even one of the S.S. marveled he was like a cat with nine lives. Almost without exception, those who tried to do what he did in the camps were executed – or tortured first and then executed.

Lale became a Tätowierer, or tattooist, for the camp, one of the men assigned to brand the prisoners when they arrived, just as was done to Lale when he came to Auschwitz. The Nazis used the tattoos to identify bodies after they killed them, in order to facilitate their meticulous record-keeping that chronicled who arrived and who was killed.

Children at Auschwitz showing their tattooed arms

Lale hated the job, but it was a way to keep alive, and he vowed when he came there that he would survive and see those who were responsible pay a price. He held on to that thought using it like a mantra to make himself get up each morning, and the next and the next.

Lale Sokolov showing his own tattoo from Auschwitz

He soon got another reason to go on living, after meeting a girl whose tattoo had faded and needed to be redone: Gita Furman (born Gisela Fuhrmannova) was also from Slovakia. Lale was entranced by her dark eyes, and began a secret courtship with her. He was helped by a number of factors. Because he was one of only two Tätowierers, he had more freedom than other prisoners, and even got extra rations. He was able to walk around and befriend two local (non-Jewish) workers who came from the nearby town, and from whom he received meat, chocolate, and even medicine, for which he paid in jewels confiscated by the Nazis from incoming prisoners. He got those from the girls who worked in “Canada,” where the possessions of new arrivals were collected and processed. The girls transferred jewels and money to Lale, and he used it as payment for goods from the outside. These he shared not only with the girls from Canada but with others.

Women’s Barracks

He was in this way able to help get Gita penicillin when she was sick. After she recovered, he also managed, through bribes, to obtain a job for her in the camp office where life would be easier. He paid the guard in charge of Gita’s barrack to get time to see her. He helped anyone he could (everyone in the camp always wanted more than what the camp provided), and he was repaid in kind when he himself needed help. Thus both he and Gita survived until 1945, when the Russians were closing in and the Germans abandoned the camp. But first, the Nazis tried to kill remaining prisoners. In the ensuing chaos, Lale and Gita independently escaped and made their separate ways back to Slovakia.

Lale went to the main train station in Bratislava every day, hoping to find Gita among the many survivors arriving daily. And after two weeks, there she was. They were married in October, 1945. When he got into trouble with the new government in Czechoslovakia, again Lale got lucky, and he and Gita escaped, making their way to Australia in 1949.

The author met Lale in 2003, after Gita died and when Lale wanted to tell his story to a writer who was not Jewish, so would more likely be without personal baggage or preconceptions. She visited Lale two or three times a week for three years until his own death in 2006 and gradually learned his story.

PHOTO: Lale and Gita with their son Gary in the 1960s.

The author concluded:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but also their dignity, their names, and their identities. It is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’ On the morning of his funeral I woke knowing it was not a good day for me, but that it would have been for him. He was now with Gita.”

I would only counter that I didn’t think of Lale and Gita as “ordinary” at all. As Lale said to Gita about her friend Cilka, who was forced to perform sexual acts with one of the SS:

“Tell her I think she is a hero. . . You’re a hero, too, my darling. That the two of you have chosen to survive is a type of resistance to these Nazi bastards. Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.”

Lale also, to me, was heroic, and extraordinary.

The book includes photos and some additional information about the fate of others mentioned in the story.

Evaluation: This powerful book of courage and hope when there is no justification to feel either is an incredible story, and highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

Holocaust Remembrance Day & Review of “My Real Name is Hanna” by Tara Lynn Masih

This book for young adults (and older) is based on the true story of the Stermer family, who were in the five percent of Jews who survived the Holocaust in the Ukraine, out of a total of between 1.2 and 1.6 million Jews. (Many Ukrainians died during the war period as well but they were not targeted by the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi advance troops, whose mission was primarily to kill Jews in advance of the arrival of German troops.) A large number of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, but Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – has some 2,600 Ukrainians registered as “righteous Gentiles” who helped save Jews. [N.B. the population of the Ukraine in 1939 was 40 million.]

In this story, the Slivka family is helped by some of those righteous gentiles, as was the case, in real life, with the Stermer family. It is difficult to see how anyone could have survived at all otherwise.

When the book begins, Hanna Slivka, the narrator, is about to tell her history to her daughter, so we know that at least she herself survived. She begins her story in 1941 when she was age 13, before the Nazis arrived in her small town of Kwasova in the Ukraine.

Hanna is close to an older gentile neighbor, Alla Petrovich, who lets Hanna help her make her pysanky eggs (what we call Ukrainian Easter eggs). Later, Alla helps the Slivka family escape from the Nazis, first by giving them a cross to put on their doorway, and later, by giving them what little food and monetary help she can give.

But the Gestapo are relentless, determined to make the area Judenfrei, free of all Jews.

Before long, Hanna and her family have to go into hiding, first into a crude cabin deep in the woods, and later inside deep and dark underground caves. There the Slivkas stay for almost 400 days, although the Stermers stayed even longer – over 500 days!

Throughout their time of both figurative and literal darkness, Hanna’s papa counseled them to keep hopeful, not to lose faith, and not to become like their oppressors. “Life is not good, however you are living it,” Hanna learned from him, “if you become like those who don’t value you.” And there was an additional important incentive to carry them through. When Hanna’s mama first saw the cave and muttered, “I have never lived on dirt,” Papa said to her:

This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that – to live….”

Evaluation: This is one of the most inspirational stories you will read. As the author said in her Historical Note at the end of the book about the Stermer’s experience, “their family story of survival and transcendence would not let me go.” Neither will Hanna’s story. The subject is difficult, but insofar as it really happened (though just not to these made-up characters) it is so important that people know about it.

The author also said:

Little did I know that my agent and I would be submitting the final manuscript during a time in which the KKK and White Nationalists would march again and bring forth from the depths of an ugly, deadly history their rallying racist and anti-Semitic chants and their anti-Semitic acts, some violent, by an increase of 57 percent in 2017. I dream of a day when we will no longer need Holocaust stories to remind us to be kind to each other, and to be watchful of those who aren’t.”

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Mandel Vilar Press, 2018

April 3, 1948 – Marshall Plan Goes Into Effect & Review of “The Taste of War: World War II and The Battle For Food” by Lizzie Collingham

The Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program, ERP) was an American initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $12 billion (nearly $100 billion in 2016 US dollars) in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The plan was in operation for four years beginning on this date in history.

The initiative was named after United States Secretary of State George Marshall. The latent goal of the plan was to reduce the influence of Communist parties within Western European countries. Thus, as Lizzie Collingham writes in her excellent book The Taste of War: World War II and The Battle for Food, the U.S. stipulated that a portion of the money given to each country had to be used not for food, but for propaganda extolling the benefits of the American way of life, including exhibitions, films, pamphlets, radio shows and concerts.

This book describes the hunger problem in great detail, arguing that the need for food and water was a significant motive for World War II and other aggressive territorial actions preceding it.


Collingham, a historian from Cambridge, avers rightly that this is “an often overlooked dimension to our understanding of the Second World War.” She not only wants to highlight how and why, during the war, at least 20 million people died from starvation, malnutrition, and its associated diseases, but to show just how important the demand for food was in pushing Germany and Japan into their radical solutions to the food problem. The vision of Lebensraum shared in particular by Germany and Japan, was a battle not just for land to absorb excess population, but on which to grow food and provide it for the rest of their populations.

1942 U.S. war poster; artist Ben Shahn

1942 U.S. war poster; artist Ben Shahn

Taking each of the combatant nations in turn, Collingham discusses their needs in terms of caloric consumption for both civilians and military, and how they coped with it. Germany, for example, did not want to risk the disaffection over hunger that plagued their country during and after World War I, and engaged in deliberate extermination by starvation of targeted groups. Polish Jews, for instance, were allotted a “derisory” 184 calories a day. The mentally ill, disabled, and Soviet prisoners of war, were put on a “starvation diet” known as “The Falthauser diet” by the “doctor” who introduced it: he argued that his method resulted in death by starvation within three months, and offered a practical solution to “the problem of disposing of these unproductive members of German society…” The Germans even set up “hunger houses” that specialized in this “diet.” As successful as this plan was, soon it seemed that even three months was taking too long, and the Germans came up with more efficient ways to eliminate what they called “useless eaters.”

Not everybody went hungry...

Not everybody went hungry…

Other countries experienced many deaths by starvation that were not so cold and calculating, but were nevertheless the results of misguided or cruel government policies. In Japan, sixty percent of the 1.74 million military losses were due to starvation, rather than combat. In some instances, the troops had to resort to eating their own dead comrades. Japan was isolated, but didn’t have the same resources Britain did to keep imports coming into the country.

Britain had few qualms about starving its colonies in Africa and India to feed the home country. As Collingham reports, “At least 1.5 million Bengalis died during 1943-44, when food scarcity was at its height.” Epidemics, easily killing those weakened by malnutrition, killed another 1.5-2 million. (She does attribute blame to the Indian Government was well as the Brits, but the British could have done much more about the situation had they cared as much about their “dark” subjects as their Caucasian ones.) Britain also left other nations to starve, such as Greece, where some half million civilians perished. Approximately two million starved to death in French Indochina. The parade of gruesome facts is a long one.


In the Soviet Union, citizens fell under a double whammy, as it were, being starved alternatively by Stalin and by Hitler. It is estimated between 2 and 3 million Soviet citizens died of hunger and malnutrition. [Timothy Snyder writes that between 1932 and 1942, some eleven million Soviet citizens died of starvation, first because of the policy of Soviet leaders and then because of the policy of German leaders. Timothy Snyder, “Stalin & Hitler: Mass Murder by Starvation,” NY Review of Books, June 21, 2012]

Stalin in 1943 - never opposed to having massive numbers of his own people killed

Stalin in 1943 – never opposed to having massive numbers of his own people killed

China also experienced millions of deaths from hunger, not helped by the internal struggles in the country between the Nationalists and the Communists. Collingham reports:

Two million Nationalist soldiers died and at least 15 million civilians, 85 per cent of them peasants, and virtually all of them the victims of deprivation and starvation.”

The perceived ineptitude and corruption of the Nationalist government contributed to the ability of the Communists to take over after the war, when they proceeded to increase the death toll from hunger exponentially. When Mao got power, he began to engage in “land reform” in earnest, which meant murdering some one million “rich” peasants in order to collectivize farms. But he didn’t “need” to murder most of the 30 million reputed to have died during this time; the inept and unjust collectivization process took care of that.

Mao Zedong, friendly happy murderer of massive proportions

Mao Zedong, friendly happy murderer of massive proportions

In other areas after the war, the hunger problem actually increased, not only because of the disruption to planting, harvesting, and available labor because of the war. In 1946 a huge drought affected most of the world (except for the U.S). Thus, in Japan, for example, hundreds of thousands starved to death after the surrender, and in Germany, as Colingham points out, “the population only began to experience hunger after the war (not being able to take food from useless eaters anymore).

Eventually, in 1948, Europe began receiving aid from the U.S. via the much-vaunted Marshall Plan. But Europe wasn’t the only area of the world in need.


For example, there were the Pacific Islands. There, during the fighting, the U.S. had leveled crops and fields to install airstrips and roads and bivouacs. At that time, they fully shared their food largesse with the natives, but after they left, the natives had nothing, and no way to replace it. They had become totally dependent on imports, but the U.S., ever conscious of courting the farm vote, would not grant them any tariff relief. So they became impoverished, hungry, and eventually addicted to the chemically-processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods they managed to buy from the U.S. (at inflated prices). Even today, many of those areas suffer from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Two other aspects of food and war receive a thorough treatment by Collingham. One is the logistics of war itself; i.e., the need to keep soldiers who are on the move fed and watered, and with enough vitamins to ward off deficiencies common in wartime. Soldiers also require more calories, since they expend a great deal of energy. The amount of food required is incredible, and the lengths to which combatants will go to get it is amazing as well. (This is of course in addition to the vast amounts of fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, etc. that also need to be transported along with the soldiers. But without sustenance, nothing else will matter.) The importance of making sure there is enough food for both soldiers and civilians, and adequate means of transport to distribute it, cannot be overemphasized. Most of the combatants simply did not think to, or feel able to, release ships and rail lines from the use of the military for conveyance of food. Also, believing, as most combatants initially do, that the war would be short, they destroyed land and crops and animals without worrying where their next meals would come from.

Source: Joint Cultinary Center of Excellence, Parade Magazine, 5/19/13

Source: Joint Cultinary Center of Excellence, Parade Magazine, 5/19/13

Collingham also allocates some space in this book to the problems the future may bring because of the changing nature of the demand for food, both in terms of quality and quantity; the effects on the environment and resulting repercussions; and the unequal distribution of wealth and ergo food, which is bound to affect international relations.

Evaluation: I’ve long been interested in the logistics of war, and the importance of getting food and water not only to the troops but to the animals that service them. It can certainly make a difference in success or failure of an operation, particularly in the desert. (Indeed, in some areas of the world, the fight for water and/or water access is becoming as important as the battle for land used to be.)

I learned so much from this book, and strongly advocate that any scholar of war, history, or socioeconomics at least read through Part I, which contains more general information before the author goes into greater detail. It definitely added to my understanding of world affairs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Penguin Press, 2012

Review of “Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times” by Joel Richard Paul

This is yet another book that, while focused primarily on John Marshall, compares the legacies Marshall with his political rival, Thomas Jefferson. Both men made essential contributions to the early republic. And like every other historian I have read, in this author’s assessment, Marshall was the better man.

Joel Richard Paul studied at Amherst College, the London School of Economics, Harvard Law School, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He teaches international economic law, foreign relations, and constitutional law at the University of California Hastings Law School, serving as the Associate Dean at the time of publication. He provides an astute analysis of John Marshall’s greatest cases, and does not hesitate to point out instances when Marshall “was no purer than his contemporaries.” Yet he clearly finds much to admire about John Marshall.

As he notes in his introduction:

None of the founding generation of American leaders had a greater impact on the American Constitution than John Marshall, and no one did more than Marshall to preserve the delicate unity of the fledgling republic.”

This was done by a man whose only formal education was one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school! Yet this self-taught man went on to exhibit not only a wide-ranging erudition but a sense of honesty and decency that won over even those who began as his opponents. (The exception of course was the intractable Jefferson, who saw Marshall as standing in the path of Jefferson’s control of all branches of government.) Marshall’s special forte was the art of compromise, which he employed both as a diplomat in France, and on the court which he led for thirty-four years, longer than any other chief justice. More critically, he single-handedly established the court’s importance and supremacy in American life.

Marshall was born on September 24, 1755 in Germantown, Virginia, the eldest of fifteen children. His mother was a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s mother but the families were not close. Because of a scandal involving Marshall’s maternal grandmother, the Marshall side of the family was disinherited, and Jefferson’s family got most of the wealth. As Paul observes:

As a result, Thomas Jefferson grew up at Tuckahoe with five hundred slaves. There he enjoyed enormous privilege and wealth. His cousin John Marshall and his fourteen siblings grew up on the frontier working the stony soil on their father’s modest farm.”

Paul avers that Marshall grew up without resentment; rather, he moved fluidly between classes and had the confidence to believe he could elevate his station. Unlike Jefferson, who grew up with education, advantages, and was groomed for leadership, Marshall had to rely on determination and self-invention. His upbringing also provided him with more compassion than Jefferson, and a more generous and humane nature. Paul opined:

Though Marshall belonged to the party of elites, he practiced republicanism in his everyday life. By contrast, Jefferson preached democracy but lived more like the European aristocrats he despised.(p. 235)”

Jefferson, in Marshall’s view, as Paul contends, “lacked genuine empathy and embodied precisely the kind of elitism that he attacked in theory. He could never be trusted to act in the interests of the nation.”

When President John Adams nominated Marshall to be Chief Justice right before he ceded the presidency to Thomas Jefferson, “the Supreme Court was regarded as nothing more than a constitutional afterthought.”

Jefferson and the Republican Congress wanted to emasculate the judiciary, and took numerous steps (only some of which were successful) to do so. But by the time Marshall’s tenure ended in 1835, he had “elevated the dignity of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning.”

Importantly, Marshall was able to win over the other justices on the court, even those appointed by Jefferson specifically to oppose Marshall. Paul posits that Marshall’s collegiality as well as “sheer personality and intellect” won over “even the most resolute colleague.”

How he did this – and sometimes he acted less than exemplary in his efforts to outwit the attacks on judicial independence and rule of law by Thomas Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson – is the subject of Paul’s book. Paul tells the story mostly through an explication of the cases that came before the court, because the fact was that many of them represented competing visions of power between Jefferson and Marshall.

Thomas Jefferson

I was especially surprised to learn about Marshall’s sneaky manipulation in seminal cases like Marbury vs. Madison, but I believe, as Marshall seems to have done, that the end justified the means. In any event, Marshall was no less sneaky and manipulative than Jefferson, but Marshall, in my view, was more often on “the side of the angels.”

Paul informs us that prior to Marshall’s tenure, each justice issued his own individual opinion seriatim. Marshall thought that the Court’s authority would be more persuasive and the law more clarified if he could forge a single decision on behalf of the entire Court. Thus, during his thirty-four years as chief justice, Marshall personally wrote 547 opinions. Of these, 511 were unanimous.

It is important to note the irony that Marshall, a “founding father,” rejected a strict construction of the Constitution and insisted on interpreting it as a living document that responded to the needs and demands of a growing nation.

Marshall made a number of courageous decisions that inspired a great deal of enmity in his detractors, such as clearing Aaron Burr of treason charges in 1807. This charges were pushed forward by President Jefferson for the principal reason that Burr was a powerful political enemy. But the penalty for treason was death, and there was a total lack of evidence against Burr.

Portrait of Burr, undated (early 1800s)

While Paul is generally willing to expose Marshall’s warts, he gives him a pass when it comes to slavery. Paul writes:

Marshall was not free of racial prejudice, and he did enjoy the comforts that his household slaves provided to him. Marshall’s attitude toward African Americans was paternalistic. He viewed his slaves as family members who needed his guidance and support. . . . It appears that Marshall treated his slaves humanely, and on at least one occasion, he paid for a doctor to care for a slave woman who was ill.”

In his conclusion he repeats the assertion that Marshall had a “generous and humane relationship with his slaves” (p. 437).

[This seems to me to be a quite specious argument. Can you be “humane” toward someone you hold in ownership, house in your basement, trade like baseball cards at a cattle market, and buy and sell at your whim? Okay so maybe you don’t use a whip and don’t use rape – should that be touted as laudatory? I would accept “less horrible” perhaps, but not “humane.”]

Paul Finkelman, writing in Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court (Harvard, 2018) contends that biographers are reluctant to tarnish the picture of “our greatest chief justice.” But Marshall’s relationship with slavery was an important influence on his jurisprudence and therefore deserves closer scrutiny.

Marshall accumulated more than 150 slaves in his lifetime, while also giving around seventy slaves to two of his sons. When he died, Marshall did not arrange to free any of his slaves, unlike some other prominent Virginians in his time, including George Washington. No evidence remains as to how he actually treated his slaves.

But we can learn something from his jurisprudence, Finkelman argues. It was “hostile to free blacks and surprisingly lenient to people who violated the federal laws banning the African slave trade.” (Finkelman at 34) For Marshall serving on the court, Finkelman argues, “slaves were another form of property subject to litigation….”

Finkelman cites John Marshall in his “Memorial: To the General Assembly of Virginia,” December 13, 1831, available in Papers of Marshall, 12:127 contending that free blacks in Virginia were worthless, ignorant, and lazy, and that they were “pests” that should be removed from the state.” (Finkelman at 51)

It is truly tragic that Marshall felt this way, for he might have made a difference. As Marshall said in his opinion exonerating Burr, and acknowledging the unpopularity of the ruling:

That this court dares not usurp power is most true. That this court dares not shrink from its duty is not less true. No man is desirous of placing himself in a disagreeable situation. No man is desirous of becoming the peculiar subject of calumny. . . . But if he have no choice in the case, if there be no alternative presented to him but a dereliction of duty or the opprobrium of those who are denominated the world, he merits the contempt as well as the indignation of his country who can hesitate which to embrace. That gentlemen, in a case the most interesting, in the zeal with which they advocate particular opinions, and under the conviction in some measure produced by that zeal, should, on each side, press their arguments too far, should be impatient at any deliberation in the court, and should suspect or fear the operation of motives to which alone they can ascribe that deliberation, is, perhaps, a frailty incident to human nature; but if any conduct on the part of the court could warrant a sentiment that it would deviate to the one side or the other from the line prescribed by duty and by law, that conduct would be viewed by the judges themselves with an eye of extreme severity, and would long be recollected with deep and serious regret.”

Evaluation: I love reading histories of John Marshall – how can anyone with an interest in the law and in this country not find fascinating the court cases that shaped all subsequent jurisprudence as well as the relationship among the three branches of government? The fact that relationship is now imperiled is all the more reason to study how and why these struggles were worked out in the past, and to what effect.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Riverhead Books, 2018

March 6, 1934 – Birth of Robert Ames, American Intelligence Officer & Near East Director for the CIA & Review of “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird

Robert Ames, born on this day in history, joined the U.S. Army after his 1956 graduation from La Salle University in Philadelphia. He switched from the Army to the CIA, eventually becoming one of the CIA’s chief analysts for the Middle East.

Kai Bird has written an excellent biography of Ames which seems quite timely even though it tells the story of a man who died on April 18, 1983 in the suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.  In the course of telling Ames’ story, the Pulitzer Prize winning author provides excellent background on the roots of the current problems in the Middle East.

Bob Ames was highly regarded in the CIA because, for one thing, he could speak Arabic fluidly.  He even acted as a translator at times for State Department officials in the Middle East.  [I find that the lack of a requirement to speak the native language is a rather sad commentary on the qualifications and/or training of the Foreign Service.]  Ames was also attracted to the Arab culture generally and made it his business to interact with natives rather than just hanging around with other diplomats, as so many others did.

Bob Ames

Bob Ames

This admirable quality of Ames had the effect, however, of making him rather biased toward the Arab side of affairs.  He had little sympathy for Israel and seemed to consider himself an advocate for the Palestinians.  To that end, he made some close friendships with members of the PLO, including Ali Hassan Salameh, the so-called Red Prince, commander of Yasser Arafat’s personal security squad and chief of operations for the terrorist Black September group (the organization responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre and other attacks).

Ames considered Salameh a “special friend” and even tried to get permission to give him a firearm as a gift.  He was denied that request, but he was able to arrange (with the approval of CIA Director George H.W. Bush) for Salameh to get all-expense paid trips to Disneyland, New Orleans, and Hawaii with his mistress.  (This mistress, a former Miss Universe, eventually became Salameh’s second wife — the allowance of multiple wives being one of the few aspects of Islam to which Salameh paid obeisance.)

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel's son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel’s son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Bird devotes a lot of coverage to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and brutal massacre that same year in mid-September by Lebanese Maronite Christians of mostly civilian refugees in the camps at Sabra and Shatila.  The massacre was horrific, involving rape, torture, mutilation, and execution.  Oddly, the Maronite Christians were not the ones who were blamed for the outrages they committed.  Most Arabs blamed the Israelis. They were in fact in the area, and did nothing to prevent what happened.  But in addition, the U.S. had pulled out most of its forces shortly before the Maronites went on the rampage.  The U.S. preferred Maronite primacy in Lebanon to the increasing influence of Soviet-backed Syria.

In any event, the blowback from the murder of all the innocents in the refugee camps energized a number of terrorist groups who wanted nothing more than to wreak havoc on both Israel and the U.S.

The United States embassy bombing in Lebanon the following April was part of this blowback.   A car loaded with explosives drove into the lobby of the building and detonated.  At the time, concrete car barriers had been sitting in a storage area at the Embassy, yet to be put outside to prevent just such an occurrence.  Aside from Bob Ames, 62 others were killed, including a total of seventeen Americans.

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

One of the men thought to be a mastermind behind the attack, Imad Mughniyeh, went on to arrange a number of other suicide bombings for Hezbollah, and it was rumored that Osama bin Laden consulted with him in planning for the September 11 attacks.  Mughniyeh was assassinated in 2008 in an action that the CIA says was undertaken by Mossad, and Mossad says was undertaken by the CIA.

Discussion:  While incredibly well-researched, there is occasional repetitiveness in the book, which is surprising.  I can only guess it was rushed into publication precisely because the issues in the book are so relevant to today’s news.

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

That relevance relates to one of my biggest takeaways form from this book, which is that, if the past is any guide (and I have no reason to think it would be different now),  no one can say what is ever really going on behind the scenes with governmental players.  They not only have to present a certain face to the world for political and diplomatic reasons, but also a lot of their negotiations are highly dependent on secrecy and even duplicity.  Maybe you will find out the truth forty years later, maybe not.  But I think we can be fairly certain that whatever Obama, Netanyahu, Trump, Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King Abdullah, David Cameron, or anyone else says in public, it only has a 50% chance of reflecting what is really going on in private.

My second takeaway:  both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have legitimate concerns and grievances, and both sides have responded to each other irrationally.  But Bob Ames definitely sympathized with the Arab side, overlooking or justifying somehow their terrorist activities, and I think the author sways in that direction as well.  This was never conveyed by a discussion of the pros and cons of each side, if you will.  It was just simply always there, in the background.

Third:  One of the biggest tragedies with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is that, while people in countries all over the world feel passionately about one side or the other, no one wants to allow either one to emigrate, so neither side really has anywhere else to go.  Furthermore, both sides are convinced (largely for religious reasons) that they need to be in that particular place.  There seems to be no alternative but for the two sides to find a way to get along with each other, but of course, that doesn’t seem to be happening….

At Hezbollah's "Museum for Resistance Tourism" in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

At Hezbollah’s “Museum for Resistance Tourism” in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

Evaluation:  I tended not to regard this so much as a biography but rather as a detailed examination of the operations of the CIA, particularly in the Middle East.  As such, it is an extremely valuable insider look of a part of U.S. operations that don’t often see the light of day.

Rating:  4/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Wow!  Rene Ruiz does a fantastic job.  He clearly did a great deal of research into the pronunciation of a multitude of Arabic names and Middle East places.  His intonation and pacing are good as well.

Published unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2014

Review of “The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are” by Michael Pye

Michael Pye is an English journalist who thinks the Mediterranean Sea has gotten too much attention in various histories of Europe. He wants to move the center of gravity of European history northward, to the North Sea to be precise. Pye’s view of Europe from 700 to 1700 differs from what most of us learned as the “Dark Ages,” where “we imagine human invention and perversity and will were suspended for centuries.” Instead, he sees the influx of people from north of the old Roman Empire as a good thing in that the interlopers “spread the idea of being free and having rights.”

Pye paints a more nuanced picture of the Vikings than we are used to. Instead of one- dimensional, rapacious marauders, they appear to have learned to co-exist with the Irish and the English. We get a skewed version of the early Middle Ages from Bede’s Church History of the English People, which Pye characterizes as a “Saxon account of Saxon triumphs, a Christian treatise.” Bede’s vision predominates in our perception of the period because it has few if any contemporary competing narratives.

Pye credits northern Europeans with resuscitating trade after the barbarian invasions. He pays special attention to the Hanseatic League, which flourished as a trading cartel for several centuries. He also attributes significant progress in science and engineering to the struggles of the people who lived in what is now the Netherlands to protect their land from the incursions of the sea.

This is a short book (328 pages) for covering such a broad sweep of history. Consequently, it is written in rather broad brushstrokes. Nonetheless, it is ultimately satisfying in giving a somewhat novel rendition of medieval European history.

Rating: 3.5/5

Paperback published by Penguin Books, 2015