Book Review – The Deserters by Charles Glass

  • The Deserters – A Hidden History of World War II
  • by Charles Glass
  • Publisher – The Penguin Press
  • Copyright 2013
  • 314 pages

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Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – Glass shines a light on the little-discussed aspect of World War II – deserters from Allied armies. The Deserters is interesting, but it is very uneven. While the book is great food for thought, but Glass is overly determined to press his main point  – that desertion is inevitable. Still, Glass deserves credit for examining one aspect of a complex, all-encompassing war.

Yesterday’s Heroes & Yesterday’s Dreams

Way back in summer 1983, my grandparents asked me if I wanted to attend my grandfather’s army reunion with them. My Paw had been an M.P. (Military Police Officer) in the 84th Infantry Division (The Railsplitters) during World War II and my grandparents attended the 84th’s reunion every year. I went with them to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, site of 1983’s reunion, and got to meet Paw’s buddies and their wives and hear all of their stories about those bygone days. As a result, I’ve always been interested in World War II.

A Novel Take on The Past

Charles Glass’ book The Deserters accomplishes something remarkable in evoking that long-lost time and the people who lived it. For too long, we in the Allied nations have seen World War II through rose-colored glasses. Studs Terkel alluded to this view in the title of his oral history of WWII – The Good War (1984). Journalist Charles Glass’ The Deserters is also a book that aims to bring a dose of realism to our understanding of WWII.

Through The Deserters, we learn that not every Allied solider was heroic, or even invested in the war effort. Desertion and crime (often committed by AWOL soldiers) were both common. Glass writes of the deserters –

Their plundering of Allied supply convoys, often at gunpoint, deprived General George Patton of petrol as his tanks were about to breach Germany’s Siegfried Line. Rampant thieving left their comrades at the front short of food, blankets, ammunition and other vital supplies. In Italy, deserters drove trucks of looted Allied equipment for the Italian-American Mafiosi Vito Genovese (who concealed his fascist past and made himself indispensable to Allied commanders in Naples) (pp. xvii – xviii).

You read such descriptions of far-than-perfect GIs and say to yourself, “Yes, that’s the way it must have been. People weren’t Angels back then.” And that’s the best thing about The Deserters – it provides a fresh perspective on WWII.

Three Deserters in “The Good War”

Glass focuses on three deserters:

  1. Steve Weiss, Brooklyn-born seventeen-year old,  who enlisted in the army after convincing his father to sign his enlistment papers.
  2. Alfred Whitehead, who grew up in the Tennessee hills and then won commendations for valor in combat before he deserted.
  3. John Bain, a Scottish boxer who deserted in both North Africa and in the United Kingdom.

The Focus – Steve Weiss

When Glass wrote The Deserters, Weiss was the only one of the three still living. Perhaps as a result, at times, The Deserters focuses so much on Weiss that it reads more as his biography with Bain and Whitehead’s stories thrown in to add length. Weiss is a terrific storyteller and he has some amazing stories about his involvement with the French resistance and his time in the stockade.

But Weiss “spins” his story and Glass doesn’t ever question whether Weiss told him “the whole truth.” Weiss presents the Army as so hopelessly inept that he could not help but desert. Seventy years after WWII, Weiss still has a litany of complaints, some of which are remarkably petty. (For instance, when he reported to headquarters to rejoin his unit, the clerk didn’t offer him a cup of coffee (p. 208)). The Allied Army that Weiss describes is so awful that it make you wonder how it won the war.

Almost Forgot – Those Other Two Guys

Even after reading the book, I found it hard to reach many conclusions regarding Bain and Whitehead.

Though Bain was raised in the slums, he became a poet after WWII. One senses that Bain was an artist who took to heart too many of the front’s horrors. Toward the end of the book, Glass includes some words that Bain wrote about one of his poems “Walking Wounded.” Bain says that poem came from images he remembered of wounded British soldiers trying to get through the North African desert –

And slowly I came to see that the Walking Wounded represented the common human condition: the dramatically heroic role is for the few. Most of us have to take the smaller wounds of living and we have to return again and again to the battlefield, and perhaps in the long run this is the more important, even the more heroic role (p. 310).

Readers probably will be most ambivalent about Whitehead. As someone descended from generations of working-class people in the Appalachian mountains, I found that his stories of his impoverished childhood in East Tennessee were similar to stories that my grandparents had told me about their lives during those years. However, Whitehead’s war years left me ambivalent. He was very brave in combat, but – away from the front – spent his time drinking, stealing, fighting, and visiting prostitutes (though he had a wife in the U.S.).

After the war, Whitehead stayed married, raised a family, became a barber, and self published a memoir about his experiences in WWII. However, Glass uses military records to show that Whitehead’s account is exaggerated.

Missed Opportunities

Glass’ main thesis, which he advances throughout the book, is that desertion is a natural occurrence when people are exposed to combat over prolonged periods. Therefore, Weiss and other GIs cannot be blamed for their desertion. I think that Glass’ basic idea is correct, any of us would break down at some point. However, he won’t mention another salient point – many GIs who were exposed to awful conditions didn’t desert. This is crucial, but Glass doesn’t want to go there.

Similarly, Glass doesn’t take up the still-bigger issue of what to do about desertion. In the cases of all three men, Glass details the military authorities’ inept, subjective discipline. If desertion is inevitable, deserters shouldn’t face harsh or, perhaps, any punishment. But if desertion is allowable, how can militaries fight tyrants such as Hitler? There are no easy answers, but Glass doesn’t even allude to these complexities.

Uneven, But Valuable

In The Kid Stays in The Picture, Hollywood producer Robert Evans said that there are three (true) sides to every story – your side, my side, and the Truth. If one keeps in mind that The Deserters provides just one side of the truth, it’s a valuable book because it explores a part of the truth that has been ignored for seventy years.

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Book Review – Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

  • Crazy for The Storm – A Memoir of Survival
  • by Norman Ollestad
  • Publisher – HarperCollins
  • Copyright 2009
  • 272 pages

Rating – 8/10

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Summary – In February 1979 a small plane crashed in California’s San Gabriel mountains. The three adults on board died, leaving eleven-year old Norman Ollestad, Jr. To attempt to find his way down the mountain in a blizzard. Crazy for the Storm is Ollestad’s account of that crash and of his life with his adventurer father, Norman, Sr. It’s an amazing book and well worth the reader’s time.

Review – “Dysfunction memoirs” (such as Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Kent Walker’s Son of a Grifter) have become an established corner of the publishing world. In this vein, Norman Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm recounts his childhood with his adrenaline-addicted father. But, unlike many of these authors, Ollestad finds much to admire in his unconventional upbringing.

Green Grass & High Tides – A Lot to Like

It’s been said that the 1960s laid the groundwork for the changes in U.S. Society, but that the 1970s were when the country digested those changes, started to make sense of them. Born in 1967,  Normal Ollestad, Jr., was on the front lines of those changes. His charismatic father, Norman, Sr., had published a scathing tell-all memoir of his time as an FBI agent. Norman, Sr. Then practiced law in and settled into a bohemian existence in Topanga Beach, California.

At the beginning of the book, Norman’s parents have split up, and are living in separate homes in Topanga Beach. Crazy for the Storm provides a vivid description of 1970s Topanga’s bohemian lifestyle; of his parents’ failed relationship Norman, Jr. Writes –

It wasn’t that abnormal really – a lot of people in Topanga Beach who were married were kissing other people, fighting with their new boyfriends or girlfriends, and suddenly moving into other houses (p. 7)

The core of the book focuses on the relationship between the Normans –  Jr. & Sr. Eventually, the reader learns that Norman, Sr. Had been a child actor and had missed many boyhood activities when he was forced to attend auditions and work. As an adult, Norman, Sr.’s life is a sort of delayed adolescence, as he focuses his energies on one daredevil pursuit after another.

Norman, Sr. Continually pushed Norman, Jr. Into daredevil pursuits (such as skiing and surfing), even though Norman, Jr. Dislikes the risks involved in each. In one scene, Norman, Jr. Conquers a difficult ski slope; he than expounds upon his father’s rough magic –

I caught myself dreaming about super light Alta powder for a second, then turned away to head any glimmer from him. sometimes I detested his charisma, that way it trampled everything and always won out. Yet even then I wanted to be like him (p. 63).

In the Trough – Negatives

In his narrative, Ollestad cuts back and forth. Typically, one chapter recounts some of the events from the 1979 plane crash. The next recounts Norman Jr.’s life leading up to the crash. Then the third chapter returns to the 1979 crash. This isn’t a bad plan, but I don’t think that Ollestad gets it quite right. The main interest in the story is the Ollestad family; the crash shows the good and the bad in Norman, Sr.’s approach to life. In Crazy for the Storm, Norman, Jr. Spends a bit too much time on the details of the crash, omitting additional background on his family that would have been more interesting.

In this vein, Crazy for the Storm leaves you with too many loose ends @ the book’s close. Readers learn a lot about Norman’s mother and stepfather, but we never hear anything about what happened to them – or so many others – at the end of the book. 2-3 pages to tie up the loose ends would have left readers more satisfied with Crazy for the Storm.

Finally, Ollestad presents the story by re-creating dialogue from long ago. This technique isn’t my favorite, because I can’t forget that – even if Ollestad accurately recounts details – I cannot forget that the dialogue is invented. (Ollestad lost some credibility with me when he recounted riding around Los Angeles in 1979-80 while listening to Madonna (page 230); that never happened – Madonna had no recording contract @ the time).

Sunset on the Water – Final Thoughts

The best thing about Crazy for the Storm is that it’s a page turner. I finished it in just over 24 hours. While you will be entertained, Ollestad leaves you with no easy answers. It’s clear that he is ambivalent about his father, still trying to come to grips with him all these years later.

Crazy for the Storm is a terrific, true tale of a bygone era that can be as complex and as ambiguous as life itself. Don’t miss it.

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Book Review – Yelp Help by Hanna Raskin

  • Yelp Help – How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews
  • By Hanna Raskin
  • Publisher – CreateSpace
  • Copyright 2013
  • 91 pages

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Rating – 4/10

Summary – Restaurant critic Hanna Raskin purports to show us how to write better restaurant reviews. The price for the electronic version ($2.99) is right and she has some good ideas. However, she “pads out” the book by quoting at length from other people’s reviews and much of her advice is intuitive (and available for free from other sources).

Review – It’s been a while since I’ve written a restaurant review, but I’ve been thinking that I might give it another try. Then I saw that professional reviewer Hanna Raskin (currently at Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier), had written Yelp Help, a how-guide that I could get for just $2.99I gave Yelp Help a trybut I was disappointed.

The Big Issue – Mediocre, Unfocused Content

If a restaurant serves lousy food, the decor and the service don’t matter. Similarly, Yelp Help’s content is mediocre and its problems all come back to that issue. Raskin didn’t have enough material (even for 90 pages), so she tried to fill in with whatever thoughts crossed her mind. As a result, the book wanders far from the original idea and fails to hold the reader’s attention.

At the beginning of the book, Raskin indulges in a long discussion of how restaurants operate. She includes a laundry list of all of the jobs that are available in restaurants. In my opinion, this material is boring and offers only minimal help to potential reviewers.

Throughout the book, Raskin includes too many reviews that she has copied verbatim from various sources. These reviews would be much more helpful if Raskin offered more commentary on what these reviews illustrate. Too often, she just quotes from these reviews and includes minimal or insight as to what the reader is supposed to take away from them.

To Be Fair, Raskin Makes Some Good Points

Raskin does provide some material that you can use if I want to write reviews. For instance, pages 60 – 63 offer a basic set of criteria that you should examine when visiting a restaurant. The criteria fall under the following headings –

  • location,
  • decor,
  • ambience,
  • service,
  • menu,
  • beverages,
  • food (with separate criteria for preparation, presentation, and taste), and
  • general.

Though there are similar checklists available online, Raskin has some good insights on how to examine a restaurant.

Similarly helpful is her generic outline for how to structure your review (pages 65-67) –

  1. Thesis,
  2. background,
  3. physical description,
  4. acknowledgment of other reviews,
  5. vignettes supporting thesis, and
  6. conclusion.

To be sure, there are some pearls of wisdom for the reader who can get through the book. But there’s a lot of mediocre material. Even some of her good advice on how to write (or not write) reviews is not particularly deep, or insightful. For instance, would-be reviewers are told to avoid cliches in their writing.

Time to Pay the Bill & Leave

Yelp Help can assist potential reviewers examine their dining experiences. But – even at $2.99 per copy – it’s not a great value. To improve reviews, I recommend first using the free advice that is widely available on the ‘net.

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Monday, 11 July 2016 Found a Great Book @ The Library Monday…

Monday I went by the library and got a copy of Norman Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm. I’ve read about 80 pages and it’s terrific – the best book I’ve read since League of Denial. So far, I’d give it a 9/10.

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Sunday, 10 July 2016 Sunday New York Times & Red Velvet Oreos

Sunday I rode out to Publix and bought a copy of The New York Times. (My older daughter E, accompanied me & used the trip to get some red velvet Oreos).

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The NYT was good and I’m still enjoying it. You always learn something from the obits. There was an obit for Sydney Schanberg, the Times journalist who exposed Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” after Pol Pot and his followers took over in 1975. Schenberg’s obit is here –

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/business/media/sydney-h-schanberg-is-dead-at-82-former-times-correspondent-chronicled-terror-of-1970s-cambodia.html?_r=0

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Book Review – Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

  • Tijuana Straits
  • by Kem Nunn
  • Publisher – Scribner
  • Copyright 2004
  • 306 pages

Rating – 5/10

Summary – Kem Nunn’s Tijuana Straits (T.S.) contains elements of both a standard crime novel and a “serious” novel. In trying to strike this balance, T.S. is only a qualified success. At times, Nunn hits his stride; some of his writing is terrific. Unfortunately, at least as often, the book founders. T.S. isn’t bad, but it’s far from a “must read.”

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Review – A few years ago, I found out about Kem Nunn’s novel Tapping the Source and bought it. At the same time, I bought a copy of another Nunn novel, Tijuana Straits. After reading Source (which I thought was pretty good), I didn’t come back to Nunn’s work for several years. But I finally read Tijuana Straits.

Sam Fahey & Magdalena Rivera

T.S. centers on Sam “The Gull” Fahey, who lives near California’s Pacific coast, just north of the Mexican border. Fahey was once a brilliant surfer, but he drifted into drug dealing, which ended with Fahey doing two stints in prison and committing a terrible act for which he cannot forgive himself. In giving Fahey an unlikable past, Nunn injects an element of drama into Tijuana Straits – Fahey’s flaws help to lift the novel above other novels that settle for the worn good-versus-evil plot.

Fahey is the standard anti-hero of post-1960s fiction: a marginally-employed, single man, with a chip on his shoulder regarding “The System.” He runs a worm farm on his property, which he inherited from his despicable father. The reader learns that Fahey has given up surfing decades before.

Enter Magdalena Rivera, a Mexican lawyer raised by Catholic nuns after the death of her mother. Magdalena has discovered that Tijuana’s businesspeople are destroying their workers’ health by exposing the workers to hazards on the job. Nunn should have done more character development on Magdalena. She’s likable, but she needs more depth, something like Fahey’s fatal flaw to draw in the reader and make her seem real. As is, she mainly serves as the attractive (but brainy) “good girl” who can draw Fahey out of his decades-long slump.

The Plot – Basic Stuff

Eventually, Magdalena’s activities cause her to run afoul of some bad, violent people. In trying to escape these people, Magdalena meets Fahey. The plot is no great shakes. Fans of crime fiction will feel that they’ve read this one before, just with different characters and in different settings.

So Why Read Tijuana Straits?

I’m not trying to make a case for T.S., but Tijuana Straits works relatively well as a character study. Yes, you’ve seen and read about people like Fahey before. But he’s an engaging character and you care about him. Fahey in Tijuana Straits reminds me of William Munny, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the film Unforgiven. In Unforgiven, Munny is an ex-gunfighter who is forced to consider (and to try to atone for) the poor choices that he made as a young man. Fahey is just such a character.

Also, one area where Nunn consistently shines is in his description of nature, particularly of the ocean. When Nunn writes of the natural world in Tijuana Straits, there is a depth, an insight, that makes you sit up and pay attention. Consider –

Fahey was sixteen at the time, and those were the golden years, the days he went to now in his mind, days of offshore winds and evening glass-offs, of rides so long one’s thighs burned at their ends. … In the end it was the Gull [Sam] alone, caught inside, awaiting obliteration, who’d seen Younger [Sam’s surfing mentor] on what just might have been one of the largest mountains of water ever ridden. It was not much more than a peek, really, for in a moment the very same wave that Hoddy [Younger] was riding would send him diving for deep water, holding to the eel grass that grew among the stones to save himself from being pulled back up into the maelstrom above… Christ, he must have made land hallway to Rosarito, then walked home, frozen to the bone … (Pp. 58-59).

Why You Should Skip Tijuana Straits

Besides T.S.’s slight plot, it has frustrating deficiencies. As mentioned before, Nunn couldn’t quite decide whether to make this formula crime fiction or a serious novel. This fence straddling blurs the book’s focus.

Problems also arise because Nunn often presents the same scene from the perspective of multiple narrators. For instance, Chapter 29 presents a showdown from Fahey’s perspective. Then, chapter 30 replays the same scene from the villain’s (Armando’s) viewpoint. This is an ambitious choice on Nunn’s part, requiring great writing skill. Unfortunately, Nunn doesn’t make it work. The effect is to slow momentum and frustrate the reader.

A bigger problem is that Nunn often shifts the book’s tone. The passages told from Sam’s perspective have a serious, sober-minded character. But the passages told from the bad guys’ perspective meld slapstick humor with ghastly violence. The latter scenes jar the reader, and detract from T.S.’s overall impression. (In melding slapstick humor and gratuitous violence, Nunn is following in the footsteps of Elmore Leonard, who also diminished some of his best books by including “funny violence”).

One final gripe is that the writing is not “tight.” On a trivial level, there are a few typos. (For instance, page 148 has “though” when it should have “through” and “carven” for “craven”). Much more serious is Nunn’s tendency to write sentences that go on forever. Nunn loses you in the middle of these monsters and you have to decide whether to start over or just keep plowing ahead. Finally, in a weak scene (pp. 176-7), Nunn has Fahey drink three beers in the midst of a conversation that lasts less than a page and half. I know that I’m nitpicking, but Nunn should have written a funnel into the story if Fahey was going to drink that much in that short of a talk.

(To be completely fair, Nunn does rally a bit at book’s end. He’d really lost me, but regained some ground with the end of T.S.).

Sunset on the Ocean

Tijuana Straits ain’t bad. But it’s the second Nunn book that I’ve read, and – while he shows flashes of brilliance in both – I haven’t seem him sustain it for a book. If you come across a Nunn novel, they’re worth a look. But I can’t rate them higher than “pretty good.”

 

 

 

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Friday, 8 July 2016 Finishing Tijuana Straits

Finally, I got finished with Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn. I’ll give it 5/10. Earlier, I read Nunn’s Tapping the Source band thought that it was a little better than was T.J. Straits.

Also, I read the old New York Times Magazine on people who infect themselves with parasites in an effort to improve chronic health conditions. There was also an article on how Netflix threatens to destroy the business model for TV. I didn’t make it through that article.

The parasite article is here –

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/magazine/the-parasite-underground.html?_r=0

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