Come to This Court and Cry, by Linda Kinstler

It’s been 77 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. We know a lot about what happened but, as Linda Kinstler finds as she tries to track down any information about a grandfather who disappeared, there are things that we will never know. Documents were destroyed. Mass graves were obliterated. We have survivor testimonies but not everyone was willing or able to talk about what happened to them. Now, after so many decades, many of the last survivors and perpetrators have passed on. In Come to This Court and Cry, Kinstler investigates two mysteries. First, there is what might have happened to Boris Kinstler. The second—and the one that ends up being more successful—is Kinstler’s exploration of what Herberts Cukurs did during the war and why Mossad agents assassinated him in 1965. What connects the two men? They both served in the notorious Arajs Kommando, under the command of the SS in Latvia.

Kinstler begins her book in what might strike some as an odd place for a work that spends so much time discussing legal culpability and rules of evidence. She begins in a book store, with a copy of a novel about the assassination of Herberts Cukurs based on actual events. Within a few paragraphs, however, it makes sense to begin this book with a novel. Kinstler repeatedly talks about how we use law, history, and story to organize the bits and pieces of what we know into a coherent whole. For example, there are multiple testimonies from survivors that place Cukurs at the scenes of massacres during the war. Some survivors claim they say Cukurs shoot people. Another survivor, however, explains how Cukurs saved her from the Riga ghetto and helped her escape to Uruguay. There aren’t any documents that definitively prove that Cukurs killed anyone; they only confirm that he was in the Arajs Kommando (which definitely carried out massacres of Jewish people). To make these fragments into a whole that tells us whether or not Cukurs was a perpetrator or a fellow traveler, we have to use what we know about the place, the time, the Holocaust, and so on. Kinstler presents everything she knows, then leaves us to decide on Cukurs’s guilt and if he deserved to be gunned down by Mossad.

The memorial and ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue of Riga, destroyed by the Arajs Kommando and others in 1941 (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Kinstler meditates on the roles of literature, law, and history in determining the truth, she also returns to the questions of culpability and guilt. She references the Nuremberg Tribunal and other trials that sought to assign blame for the Holocaust and punish the perpetrators. So few people were tried. Of those who were tried, some served gallingly short sentences. But what about the people who followed orders? Who turned in their neighbors? Who voted the Nazis into power in the first place? Once you think about it, the ripples of guilt spread out to thousands. And to what end? It wasn’t possible to arrest most of continental Europe after the war. And arresting everyone wouldn’t bring back everyone and everything that was lost.

And what about Kinstler’s grandfather, Boris? Well, there even the best storytelling can’t bring him out of the shadows. It’s so sad that Kinstler ends up knowing a lot more about a probable war criminal than she can know about her own grandfather. She’ll never know if he was a perpetrator or an agent of the KGB or both. She’s like a lot of other descendants in that she will never know what happened to her forebears in the Holocaust. All that’s left are bits of documentation, stories, rumors, and a sense of denied justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

We Carry Their Bones, by Erin Kimmerle

Trigger warning for extreme child abuse and murder.

Before it closed in 2011, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was the subject of repeated state investigations for abuse and unexplained deaths of the boys who were sentenced there. The correctional institution was a place where boys were dumped. Many of the inmates had been sentenced for criminal offenses, but some (especially children of color) could be sentenced for “vagrancy”—a “crime” that forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle notes was often used to snatch people (again, especially people of color) from around the state to lease out for prison labor. All of those investigations found evidence of extreme abuse and yet the school was remained open for 111 years, after dozens of children had died and thousands more suffered irreparable psychological and physical harm. We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s attempt to document the crimes that took place at the Dozier School and her role in uncovering dozens of unmarked graves on the School’s land when the University of South Florida finally got permission to conduct a forensic investigation in 2012.

We Carry Their Bones is the second book I’ve read that was based, at least in part, on events at the Dozier School. In 2020, I read Colson Whitehead’s gutting novel, The Nickel Boys. That novel is part of the reason I wanted to read We Carry Their Bones. I wanted to know more about the history behind Whitehead’s book. That history is very grim indeed. The Florida School for Boys—later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—was founded in 1900 as a place for minor boys to be sentenced by the court system. The institution was segregated. When investigators recommended reforms (when they weren’t asking for the whole school to be shut down), the few reforms that were enacted were usually only implemented on the white side of the school. For example, one of the early investigations required that the school install fire escapes on the dormitories, they were only added to the white ones. Only years later were fire escapes added to all the dormitories. A fire destroyed one of the white dormitories in 1914. At least seven people died in that fire. It would have been worse if not for the two fire escapes–although Kimmerle points out that the doors to those fire escapes were locked and chained. Guards and children had to break the locks to get out.

Almost 100 years later, Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida found those seven bodies, co-minged in a confusing number of coffins, in unmarked graves on the school grounds. School and legal records (those that could be found) recorded 31 burials on the school grounds. Between 2011 and 2012, fifty-five graves had been found. The initial USF investigation used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called ground-truthing to find the graves in the graveyard. Ground-truthing is the removal of a shallow layer of soil to see if anomalies detected by the radar were burial sites. Kimmerle and her team didn’t have permission to dig deeper to confirm burials or exhume bodies. They, relatives of children who died at Dozier, and former inmates had to go to court repeatedly to get official permission to exhume bodies, identify those they could, and rebury them. Kimmerle frequently shares her memories of conversations with grieving family members and former inmates. Even decades later, the grief and fear and sorrow and anger are fresh. The former inmates, notably the White Hosue Boys (who took their name from the building on campus where the worst beatings were meted out), and family members never stopped asking questions about what happened at Dozier.

I appreciated several things about We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s persistence in getting at least some justice for the children, the former inmates, and the relatives; her forensic expertise; and her efforts to put the crimes of the Dozier school into historical context. That said, I struggled to get through the brief book. We Carry Their Bones is disorganized and repetitive. Events aren’t arranged chronologically or thematically. Some events are told more than once, in similar language. A lot of the school’s history itself is glossed over. I can understand that people who worked at the school would be very unwilling to talk to Kimmerle, but it’s hard to conceive of how the Dozier School was open for so long, almost entirely unchanged in spite of the investigations, without more information. On that score, Kimmerle does touch upon why the residents of Marianna—who for decades staffed the school and were financially supported by it—would have such a hard time a) admitting the crimes that happened at the school and b) accepting that the school’s secrets must come to light. A lot of white Americans resist the fact that their ancestors did terrible things. A lot of the people who fight Kimmerle and other’s efforts were very much alive when those crimes occurred. If they knew, they were complicit. If they didn’t know, they knew people who were involved, either in the brutality itself or the efforts to cover it up.

In sum, although there are some very good parts of We Carry Their Bones and although this is an important story that must be told, I think this book could have used more time with the editors to cut the repetitive elements; suggest areas to add additional, relevant material; and re-organize the overall structure.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Facemaker, by Lindsey Fitzharris

During the pandemic, in the months when the faculty and staff were working from home, I worked my way through all of the episodes of ER and Botched (among other shows). I was fascinated by the way medical knowledge advanced during the run of ER (1994-2009) and what the two surgeons on Botched were able to do for their patients to rebuild faces and bodies. Lindsey Fitzharris’s illuminating (and occasionally harrowing) account of the work of Sir Harold Gillies during World War I, The Facemaker, takes us back just over 100 years, to explore the dawn of plastic surgery. It turns out that some of the things the doctors on Botched do were pioneered by Gillies and his collaborative team of surgeons and dentists whereas others (like the use of ether and chloroform as anesthesia) are now seen as primitive. It’s even more remarkable when you know that this incredible, ground-breaking work was done as thousands of patients were pouring into Gillies’s hospital over four years of unceasing warfare on the Western Front.

Although Gillies practiced surgery before and after the war (Gillies died just a month after performing his last surgery), Fitzharris focuses her account on the war years, when Gillies and his team were constantly pushed to innovate. She opens by explaining that soldiers in World War I faced weapons that were much more dangerous, on a much bigger scale, than in previous wars. Poison gasses could kill, blind, and maim lungs in seconds. Machine guns were in every trench, ready for anyone to stick their heads over the top. Artillery produced massive craters in and out of the trenches that would obliterate anything in their path. And yet, at the beginning of the war, some armies sent their infantry into battle with flimsy helmets or no hard protection for their heads at all. The iconic Tommy helmets came a bit later. Conditions on the ground meant that, if a soldier was wounded, they were very likely to pick up infections before they could be rescued and sent to a hospital. Given the nature of the weapons they faced, it was little wonder that so many soldiers suffered catastrophic injuries that also required their doctors to learn, almost on the fly, radical techniques to treat their patients.

Fitzharris is incredibly good at condensing a lot of medical history in the chapters of The Facemaker. She can dip into medical history reaching as far back as Sushruta or briefly explain the history of blood transfusions and blood-typing to catch readers up on what they need to know to understand what Gillies et al. are doing with their surgical techniques. Plastic surgery (plastic in this case meaning shapeable or malleable) had been performed before World War I, but it was rare. Pre-anesthesia, pre-antisepsis, and pre- a lot of things we see as necessary for safe surgery, plastic surgery was very experimental before Gillies came to maxillofacial surgery. Fitzharris’ descriptions of Gillies’s techniques are clear. For readers who want more, there are archives of before, in-progress, and after photos of soldiers who had their faces rebuilt at Gillies’s hospital. Rebuilt is the right word. Some of the patients Gillies and his fellow surgeons saw were missing teeth, jaws, noses, eyes, and a lot of skin. Gillies and his team were able to rebuild faces from ruin.

It takes a remarkable kind of person to walk into unprecedented medical cases and think about what was possible, rather than focus on what they’d been taught was impossible. Gillies and many of the people he worked with during the war had the right mix of talents, thoughts, and personalities to work with patients who had been through physical and psychological hell. I’m glad Fitzharris retells Gillies’s story and the stories of several of his patients and colleagues; these stories should never be forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent c. March 1919 (Image via Wikicommons)

Cultish, by Amanda Montell

I am endlessly fascinated by language. I am almost equally interested in cults. So when I saw a brief review of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell, I knew I had to get a copy. Readers, I was hooked from page one. Over the course of this book, Montell covers suicide cults, fitness fanatics, and multi-level marketing*, always keeping the focus on how cult leaders and members reinvent vocabulary and how those words can shape our feelings and worldview.

After a section in which Montell discusses the word “cult” itself, she dives into the heaviest part of her exploration by looking at Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate. The leaders of these cults were able to draw in followers and, ultimately, convince at least some of those followers to commit suicide. Montell talks with survivors, reads or listens to primary source material, and discusses theories with experts in theology and psychology to understand how language played a role in the behavior of the cult members. She shows how language can become so loaded that it not only instantly helps us identify members but also reinforces the us versus them mentality of insiders and outsiders. For example, if someone says they’re pro-life or pro-choice, those terms (at least in America) speak volumes about the people who claim those identities. Montell also talks about thought terminating cliches—a term I didn’t know existed although I recognized them in the instant they were mentioned—which immediately shut down debate. These cliches include things like “god moves in mysterious ways” or “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve always been kind of annoyed by these cliches and now I know why: I wanted to keep talking!

I think Montell is more successful in the later chapters of Cultish, in which she moves on to MLMs and fitness. These aren’t cults in the way we usually mean the term; they’re not religious, although they might borrow some of their language from established religions (especially Christianity, here). New members are told that they are doing the right thing, the best thing, by joining. They often get a lot of instructions for how to live and do things (depending on how all-encompassing the organization might be). Montell writes about the hype new members receive (love-bombing) and the shame they might have thrown at them if they announce intentions to leave. Using ex-member interviews, Montell reveals just how hard it is to shake the conditioning that comes from the loaded language of cultish groups.

Cultish isn’t just about language, as you might be able to tell from my brief review. Rather, Montell describes the work she’s doing as sociolinguistics, which looks at language through psychological and sociological lens. The more I learn about linguistics from podcasts like Lingthusiasm and other sources has shown me that linguistics and language are about a lot more than grammar and vocabulary. Our words are inextricably bound up with how we think and how we feel about, well, everything. It’s all words and their power when you start to think about it. Along the same lines, Cultish is also about becoming aware of that power by asking questions, resisting thought terminating cliches, and watching out for people manipulating words to manipulate others.

* If you’d like to know more about cults and cult-y groups, I recommend Sounds Like a Cult, which Montell hosts with comedian Isabela Medina-Maté.

Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan

Any scholar or librarian will tell you, once you start to accumulate information, you’re going to need a way to find the bit you need in the inevitable mountain of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment codexes, and all the other written and digital texts that followed. Human memory is good, but its been centuries since it was possible to read everything. So it’s no surprise to me and other nerds that indexes have been around since at least the beginning of the common era to help us find that one bit in that one book that we read that one time. In Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan takes us on a journey through jotted notes, to the first indexes, to mock indexes, to the massive digital databases that run operations like Google.

The first indexes, according to Duncan, did double duty as memory aids and tables of content. Duncan quotes a letter from Pliny the Elder to the emperor at the time, letting him know that he doesn’t have to bother reading Pliny’s encyclopedia; he can just browse the index instead. But it’s a long way from Pliny’s index to where we are now. Duncan takes trips through alphabetical order, how to accurately indicate locations when people keep making the books different sizes, and how detailed the index should be so that it’s not as big as the original book. So much about the index seems intuitive, because we’ve always had them, but some of the oldest extant indexes we have include instructions about how to read and use an index.

One recurring theme in Index is the surprising amount of vitriol people have expressed about how indexes make things too easy! Just like the recurring arguments about how writing is worse than memorization (Socrates in the Phaedrus) or how whatever that other person is doing isn’t real reading, there have been a surprising number of people who think that using the index is cheating. They fret that students will read the indexes instead of the book. Duncan quotes a lot of witty men sneering at “index-learners.” (It was a sick burn for the 1600s.) From my perspective in the twenty-first century, I would respond to these learned men that indexes are a necessary key to finding anything these days. The libraries we have now would blow their bewigged minds.

J. Horace Round learned the hard way that you should not let your academic rivals index your book. (From Feudal England, 1895)

Over the weekend, I had to work very hard every time I talked to a family member or a friend to not read parts of this book to them. I was fascinated and highly entertained by every chapter of index-y goodness served up by Duncan. I realize that this book is for academic nerds, and not everyone is going to enjoy it the way I did. But you guys, this book is engrossing! And full of index jokes! Which are totally a thing!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Misinformation Age, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

Two of my colleagues and I lead a book club for faculty this fall semester using Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall’s The Misinformation Age. Over six sessions, my colleagues and the professors who joined us from across our university, used the book as a springboard for discussions of conspiracy thinking, information literacy, politics, higher education, trust, and so much more. Although this book falls short in at least one critical way, it was a fantastic resource for helping us to understand more about why we fall for misinformation and how it spreads as fast as a retweet.

I’ve been fascinated by misinformation since before the 2016 election. Prior to that #!@$! event, false beliefs and misinformation alternately amused and puzzled me. Why on earth did so many highly intelligent people believe in humoral medicine? Why did so many people think Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast was real and freak out? But after 2016, it was a lot harder to brush off folks who believe in Q-Anon, refuse to get vaccinated, deny climate change, and so many other things that have zero empirical supporting evidence. I work as an academic librarian. Part of my job is to teach people how to find and use credible information. How can I teach students to be critical about the flood of information we’re all drowning in? How do I teach them to recognize their own cognitive and emotional biases? I hoped The Misinformation Age would give me insights that I could use to help my students sort the credible germ from the misleading, false, and dangerous chaff.

O’Connor and Weatherall approach the problem of misinformation from a philosophical and statistical perspective. They model how scientists form consensus from their interpretations of the data, how dissentors emerge, and how all of this information is disseminated to the public at large. Being a humanities person at heart and a social scientist by profession, there were many moments when these models struck me as simplistic. O’Connor and Weatherall address motive here and there, but what bothers me the most is that the authors only briefly engage with emotion. My own experience and what I’ve learned from reading about conspiracy thinking has led me to believe that you can’t boil down the problem of misinformation down to numbers. Numbers can show us that there is a problem, but they don’t really help us understand the problem. At least, numbers didn’t help me understand issues like confirmation bias, conformity bias, and all the other biases that our goofy gray cells come up with.

What I appreciated most in The Misinformation Age were the examples from history that O’Connor and Weatherall used to introduce and illustrate their points. Perhaps its my humanities background but their recounting of the aggravatingly tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the hilarious trope of the Vegetable Lamb, or the horrifying tale of Pizzagate were a lot more effective for me than models of information transfer and updating of beliefs. I’ve always subscribed to the adage about those who don’t learn history—not to mention the fact that these (hi)stories contain the very human emotions and biases that keep us from being a coldly logical species.

For all my criticisms and quibbles about The Misinformation Age, I’m glad that my colleagues and I chose it for a faculty book discussion series. It was genuinely helpful for us as we shared our experiences, assignments, and questions about misinformation. If nothing else, it helped us generate a thread of really interesting resources for teaching information literacy skills.

Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama

This Thanksgiving weekend, I went to South America…via Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama. Books are the perfect way to travel. Salama braved the heat, the bugs, the humidity, and the aggravation of ahorita (which can mean anything from right now to hours later to “you just missed it). In this travelogue, Salama takes us on an abbreviated trip down the Magdalena River, from the Colombian Massif to Barranquilla, where the river empties into the Caribbean.

On the almost 1,000 mile journey by surely every type of ground transportation Colombia offers, Salama touches on twentieth and twenty-first-century history, erosion, archaeology, Pablo Escobar’s hippos, economic depression, syncretic music, the lost glory days of river travel, and so many more topics. It’s a wonder he packed all that into not much more than 200 pages. In fact, I wish Salama had lingered a little more at his various stops along the Magdalena. For example, Salama often talks about incidents during the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and revolutionary/insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but never really goes into how La Violencia started or was resolved.

Salama is at his best when he talks about the dwindling biodiversity of Colombia’s exploited countryside and its effects on the Magdalena River. In its nineteenth and early-twentieth-century heyday, steamboats would travel up and down the river for hundreds of miles. But due to changing economic demands and La Violencia, the forests alongside the river were cut down. Erosion followed, silting up the river so much that the steamboats and larger vessels couldn’t travel far enough to make trips worth the captains’ wile. Fishermen saw their catches get smaller and smaller, both in quantity and in the size of the fish. Garbage travels with currents until it’s spat out into the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla.

During a moment of reflection while traveling on the river itself (instead of alongside it), Salama writes:

Sunset on the Madgalena near Barrancabermeja (Image via Wikicommons)

The eerie sound of the sand making its presence known brough about these stories of glory and decline, which I’d read with great nostalgia before setting off on my journey. I envied those travelers who wrong of the Madgalena’s golden dawns on steamboat mornings, of the cacophony of monkeys and insects in its trees and the cries of manatees in its waters, because these were things I knew I would never see. In a life marked by news of slaughtered wildernesses and vanishing species and doomed by impending climate catastrophes, I envied them just as I have long envied those lucky enough, in a world before mine, to experience the majesty of nature without feeling the crushing weight of so much loss.

Every Day the River Changes, Chapter 4, Advanced Reader Copy

Unlike Dominic Ziegler’s Black Dragon River (about the Amur River) and other nonfiction books about places I’ve read that tend to focus on histories and peoples, Salama constantly reminds us readers of the river’s condition. Sure, Salama talks to all kinds of people who live along the river—from academics and conservationists to ferry- and fishermen—but his conversations are always about how the river has changed and how it will continue to decline in the near future unless there are major, systemic changes. This focus on the present, plus Salama’s fascination with the river and his sorrow about missing the glory days of the river, serve as a call to arms about what we, humanity, are losing when we actively destroy the landscapes and ecosystems around us. It will cost a lot in terms of money, effort, and time, but places like the Magdalena aren’t irrevocably lost if we act now. If we save the river and its ecosystem, maybe we, too, can travel up the once-mighty river in a steamboat.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

What They Didn’t Burn, by Mel Laytner

Josef Lajtner rarely spoke of what happened to him between 1940 and 1945. His son, journalist Mel and author of What They Didn’t Burn, only knew a few things. He knew that Josef had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. He knew that his father had survived partly because he knew how to weld, but there were hints of strange stories and bits of luck that the elder Lajtner never really spoke about. Later, when Mel interviews another Holocaust survivor and asks why the survivor never recorded his testimony, the survivor says, “Why should I?…I don’t have to justify my survival.” Although he never said, I wonder if Josef rarely spoke about the Holocaust because he also didn’t want to discuss why he lived and so many other didn’t. What They Didn’t Burn is the fruit Mel Laytner’s efforts to fill in the blanks. He doesn’t “justify” his father’s survival; he treats it like the extraordinary occurrence that it was.

In the years after the Holocaust, numerous organizations—the Auschwitz Museum, Yad Vashem, the Arolsen Archives—have answered queries from survivors and descendants of survivors looking for information. Mel Laytner sends out calls for any piece of documentation that can help him find out what happened to his father. Laytner also seeks out his father’s friends to glean more names, dates, and events that he can use to trace Josef’s path across Poland and Germany as he worked in a series of forced labor camps. He also travels to Poland, to the towns where his Lajtner relatives lived and the remains of camps where his father and thousands of other Jews struggled to live. By the end of all that travel and research, Laytner knows a lot more about how his father survived, but he’s also left with big questions that he wishes his father was still around to talk over with him.

One question that frequently arises in What They Didn’t Burn is how far can one bend the rules to survive? How far should one bend those rules? The Nazis didn’t give Jews and other prisoners in their custody enough food to live for long. To endure the work, the cold, and the punishments, people had to “organize” food and clothing. Organizing (this verb was constantly used by the survivors Laytner interviews) can range from foraging while on work details to bartering to straight-up theft. Some Jews became kapos for extra rations and privileges. Josef Lajtner was offered a post as a kapo, but refused it because he wouldn’t commit the acts of violence that the position would require of him. Laytner tells us that kapos are a taboo subject among survivors, yet offers multiple examples of Jewish men who used the post to lessen the suffering of their fellow prisoners. Laytner—and his father’s decisions—ask us to take a more nuanced look at the things people had to do in the face of an entire regime and its allies trying to destroy them.

Laytner also touches on the changes in attitudes toward and memorialization of the Holocaust. When he first visits Poland, for example, the Blechhammer camp where his father was imprisoned for most of the war was mostly ruins. There was a sign that let visitors know where they were and what the site was. They had to imagine the rest from what they’d learned or remembered. Years later, parts of the camp had been rebuilt. The difference between Laytner’s first and second visits to the bigger cities in Poland are more troubling. Holocaust tourism (if you’ll forgive the phrase) had become a fully developed industry between those visits. What does it mean for our understanding of the Holocaust that, in some places, no traces remain while in others, history has been recreated for public consumption?

Nothing is simple in What They Didn’t Burn. The documents Laytner receives are complicated by their context and provenance. The physical sites are burdened by years of either erasing the past or preserving it, resurgent anti-Semitism, and the sheer passage of time. I appreciated all of the challenging questions Laytner raises. All too often, I see history oversimplified to the point that it loses meaning. To really think about history and its complexity is to truly engage with it and learn. This may not be the most innovative or startling work about the Holocaust I’ve ever read, but its honesty and Laytner’s depth of scholarship are a perfect tonic to novels that use the Holocaust as window-dressing or nonfiction that plays it safe.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Fuzz, by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s latest dive into the interesting and odd is Fuzz, in which she pesters experts and government officials in four different counties to ask all kinds of inappropriate questions about human-animal conflict. She talks to wildlife rangers who determine if people were killed by animals, other humans, or by accident. She attempts to get straight answers out of officials who really don’t want to talk about India’s monkey overpopulation problem. And she talks to lots and lots of biologists who study species they clearly enjoy, but that they are tasked with finding ways of eradicating. The result of this tension is that Fuzz might be the most melancholy of Roach’s books. Thankfully, it is packed with irrelevant facts, fun vocabulary, and plenty of silliness.

Humans have been locked in a struggle with many species since the first humanoids. We are killed by and kill in turn large predators like bears, mountain lions, and leopards. (All are covered in Fuzz.) We’ve also been fighting with species who steal our food and mess with our stuff, mostly by pooping on it. (Roach discusses several species of birds and rodents.) We’re not even safe from plants. Windthrown (a new word I learned from Roach) trees destroy our property and occasionally hurt us. Some plants can poison us. It’s a dangerous world out there. As Roach discovers, however, most of the things we do to avoid, mitigate, relocate, or eradicate the problems are pointless.

There’s a fact Roach deploys towards the end of Fuzz. Until the mid-nineteenth century or so, boys were employed as bird scarers. Twice a year, the boys would head out into the fields to scare the crap (literally, but accidentally) out of birds that would eat seed and ripe grain. Because they only did this semi-annually and because they were kids, the birds didn’t acclimate and the scaring worked a charm. All of the other methods used since then—explosives, poisons, and even lasers—stop working very quickly, if they even work at all. The real kicker of this is that birds don’t take that much. A rancher tells Roach in the last chapter that he estimates that the birds take about the same amount of cattle feed that he loses to the wind. These facts summarize Fuzz well. First, technology is no substitute for understanding animal and human behavior. Second, really understanding animals and the ecosystem would show us that it’s best if we left things alone. On the way to this lesson, Roach dives into monkey contraception, gene drive eradication plans, dynamiting treetops, lots of humane rodent traps and less humane poisons, and the US Navy futilely waging war on the gulls of Midway Island.

I learned so much from this book that I’ve been blurting out all kinds of trivia to everyone I’ve talked to in the last two days. The urge to drop trivia into every conversation will probably fade. (It usually does.) What’s going to stick with me is the knowledge that we need to learn to live with all of the other species on this planet. The critters are crafty and they’ve had a very long time to learn how to survive. Our energies would be better spent making peace with the rats and the gulls and getting into the habit of correctly using bear-proof garbage bins.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Illustration from US Patent 269,766 (“Animal Trap”), submitted in 1882 by J.A. Williams (Image via PlanetPatent)