The Zoo, by Isobel Charman

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The Zoo

Reader, I skimmed this book. Isobel Charman’s The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo, 1826-1851 is the kind of historical writing that I loathe, unfortunately. While Charman did her homework by digging through the archives of the Zoological Society of London, she writes this history as though it’s a novel, full of little vignettes of city life and the thoughts and emotions of the men who created London Zoo. The Zoo’s history is, on its own, interesting enough to sustain my interest. That’s what I wanted. So I skimmed to get the historical details and ignored what I saw as filler.

London Zoo was founded by the Zoological Society in 1826, though it took a couple years for the Society to acquire land, build the essential enclosures and buildings, and gather animals from around the world. For its first few decades, the Zoo was only open to Society members (which included Charles Darwin) and people who had permission from members plus a shilling. Still, the Zoo attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially when they had just put a particularly exotic animal on display.

Charman makes it clear that, in spite of the Society members’ collective erudition, they were woefully ignorant about taking care of their menagerie. The visitors treated the Zoo as a spectacle. Vendors sold food (cakes and such) that the visitors would feed the animals—which made the poor creatures sick. At one point, the keepers had to post a sign asking the ladies not to poke or hit the animals with their parasols. This is nothing compared to the appalling veterinary care and inadequate habitats. The veterinarians, Charles Spooner and William Youatt, tended to treat the animals’ illnesses and injuries the way doctors would human maladies: with lots and lots of mercury in the form of calomel. Spooner and Youatt were firm believers in the power of purgatives. Each chapter contains litanies of the animals who regularly died, especially during the winter.

I am fortunate enough to live near Hogle Zoo, a lovely zoo that I visit several times a year. As I read The Zoo, I couldn’t help but compare Hogle Zoo’s enormous enclosures, heavily supervised human-animal encounters, and dedicated, knowledgeable staff to those of the early London Zoo. The difference that almost two centuries has made in zoo keeping is night and day. Zoos today have to make accommodations for space, but their staff do their best to keep the animals happy and healthy; entertaining human visitors is really just a way to fund conservation efforts.

In spite of its stylistic problems, The Zoo does offer a lot of food for thought when it comes to animal welfare and scientific discovery. My impression of the Society members having read this book is that their arrogance and confidence in their own methods and objectives constantly got in the way of their ability to feel empathy for the thousands of animals that lived (and often died) at London Zoo. Two hundred years later, we know so much more about these animals and their needs. (We also know that mercury cures nothing and will kill anything sooner rather than later.) It would just take time to observe and learn from the animals, rather than forcing the animals to adapt to life in a spectacle.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017. 

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler

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Blitzed

As a reader of nonfiction, I tend to return to the same subjects over and over again: Victorian social histories, the European theater of World War II, war crimes, and weird medical history. These are pretty broad territories, but narrow in the grand scheme of things. What I like about nonfiction in these areas is that each bit of new information the historians dig up fills in the picture a little more. I thought about this a lot while reading Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler (translated by Shuan Whiteside). Historians keep coming back to Hitler’s life, searching for a reason why he committed his terrible crimes, how he suckered an entire nation into following him. Hitler is the great evil and we want to understand. Ohler’s book on Nazi drug use goes a long way to explaining the irrationality of Hitler’s behavior during the war. I was fascinated.

Ohler dug into federal archives in Germany, the American National Archives, and German medical articles to trace the history of the use of drugs like Pervitin (an early methamphetamine), Eukodol (which contains the same active ingredient as oxycontin), cocaine, and other experimental drugs cooked up by German researchers in the early Twentieth century. Ohler points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis had strict ideas about sobriety—primarily as a response to the decadence of the Weimar republic. But as Hitler moved closer to war, those ideas started to fade away. The Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were all issued Pervitin in massive quantities to fuel massive territory grabs between 1939 and 1941. Wehrmacht soldiers were reported to go 72 hours without sleep on this highly addictive drug during the invasion of France.

All of this is very interesting, but what most grabbed my attention was Ohler’s descriptions of the relationship between Hitler and his personal physician, Theodore Morell, and Hitler’s constant use of drugs. Morell built his reputation on supplying vitamins and hormones to patients, which appealed to Hitler’s vegetarianism. Also, Morell somehow managed to relieve Hitler’s stress and diet induced bloating. Hitler trusted him so much that he never dismissed the doctor, even when the cures started to lose their effectiveness. Thanks to Ohler’s deciphering of Morell’s poorly written notes in the US National Archives, he learned that Morell started dosing Hitler with Eukodol in 1943.

Eukodol was a popular Weimar drug that induced euphoria, allowing users to float away into fantasy. After Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler, the dictator was tried with cocaine for pain from ruptured ear drums. For the rest of his life, Hitler would take Eukodol, cocaine, and various bizarre medications for Morell every other day or even daily. Throughout the war, Hitler held as much control over the armed forces as he could, making frequent seemingly inexplicable mistakes when ordering halts and marches. Drug use, especially of something like Eukodol, would do much to explain why Hitler constantly ignored reality and sent his troops into disaster, approved hair-brained schemes, and held on so long in the fact of immanent defeat.

Blitzed is a brilliant piece of historical work, but I did have one problem with Ohler’s writing. Occasionally, he tries to recreate moments in Hitler, Morell, and Göring’s lives that cannot be backed up with evidence. Ohler is much better when he thoroughly documents the medical science, Morell’s notes on Hitler, and other primary sources. I tended to skim the paragraphs with the recreated vignettes to get back to the history. Other than this irritation, I was hooked all the way through and I think it answers quite a few questions that have been unanswered for decades.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017. 

The Book Thieves, by Anders Rydell

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The Book Thieves

In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (translated by Henning Koch), Anders Rydell takes a counter-clockwise journey across Europe to learn more about the lesser known theft of books by Nazis during the Second World War. Rydell begins in Berlin before heading off to Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, and Vilnius. Along the way, he visits libraries—primarily Jewish libraries—that are still trying to reclaim books that were stolen over 70 years ago. As Rydell depicts matters, returning books to their rightful owners is a nearly futile task no matter how worthwhile.

The Book Thieves is a meandering book. Often, the libraries Rydell visits are just a launching point for a long discussion about the origins of the libraries, pre-World War II Jewish communities, and the evolution of Nazi ideology. Early in the book, Rydell answers questions about why the Nazis were so keen to pack up entire Jewish and émigré libraries and ship them back to Germany. During the 1933s, prominent Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg were working to create an environment of total information control. What people would know was what the government would allow them to know. In order to do that, they had to make sure that no one would have access to other points of view. So they would steal libraries and erase the collected histories of entire communities. On top of that, the Nazis deposited many of the books in places like the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, where Nazi “scientists” would alter actual history, culture, literature, and so on to create an entirely new version of reality.

Very little of The Book Thieves is about actually returning books because it’s so difficult to trace ownership. In many cases, librarians working in German libraries would remove owners’ marks when they added stolen books to their collections. Sometimes an ex libris bookplate or some initials would remain that modern librarians could trace back to their original owners. The scenes Rydell includes about owners or the owners’ descendants received a stolen book were truly touching and served as a powerful reminder that, no matter how hopeless it might seem, it is absolutely worthwhile to try and make restitution even after all these years.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 February 2017. 

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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The Emperor of All Maladies

Many medical histories follow the same arc. A disease or condition appears. It is named and scientifically described (more or less—less if the humors are involved). Doctors through the ages attempt to cure the disease or condition with everything from what sounds like a marinade recipe (Pliny the Elder) to pseudo-scientific procedures or remedies up until modern medicine figures out what’s going on and a real cure is found. This is exactly what happens in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, but saying that damns the book with faint praise. This book is full of human stories, heart, curiosity, and stellar science writing.

Mukherjee began this book during his oncology fellowship. Cancer fascinated him. It’s been with us so long and it’s only recently (since the 1950s) that medical science has been able to cause lasting cures and remissions. After introducing his interest in the topic, Mukherjee goes back to the earliest records of cancer in ancient Egypt and Middle East, through Galen and the humors to William Halsted and his ultra radical surgeries to Sidney Farber‘s experiments with chemotherapy and the present era of gene targeting drugs. Throughout, Mukherjee shares stories of people he treated during his fellowship. These stories serve as a reminder that all of this science is in service to patients, to cure them.

What fascinates me about the history of cancer research and treatment are all the epiphanies that brought us to where we are now. So many men and women were able to make intuitive leaps about genetics and chemistry that I am in awe of their brains. Mukherjee writes:

Science if often described as an iterative and cumulative process, a puzzle solved piece by piece, with each piece contributing a few hazy pixels of a much larger picture. But the arrival of a truly powerful new theory in science often feels far from iterative. Rather than explain on observation or phenomenon in a single, pixelated step, an entire field of observations suddenly seems to crystallize into a perfect whole. (362*)

There were times, Mukherjee tells us, that theories were rejected out of hand because they contradicted established wisdom. Other times, discoveries were prevented from going into practice because they were so radical no one was sure they could work. After all, the challenge of cancer treatment is killing off cells that are terrifyingly similar to normal human cells; doctors have to kill the cancer without killing the patient. If these men and women tried something, they ran a real risk of killing people.

The Emperor of All Maladies is packed with tales of scientific experimentation, dead ends, miracles, rivalries, compassion, bravery, stubbornness, and some truly great science writing. Mukherjee has a gift for relating tons of scientific and medical information without ever condescending to his readers. He weaves together the “biography of cancer” from the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology into an amazing epic. I feel like I’ve been through a college course in oncology after reading it. (I am also exceedingly grateful to be alive now, when many cancers can be treated. If I had been born even a few decades earlier…the mere thought makes me shudder.)


* Quote is from the 2010 hardcover edition by Scribner.

Unmentionable, by Therese Oneill

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Unmentionable

I’ll admit that I was suckered in by the reviews of Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. How could I resist a book about Victorian life told with non-stop snark? Reading Unmentionable is a lot like sitting down with a hilarious friend who just went on a Victoriana kick and now wants to tell you the highlights of what they found. Unfortunately, Oneill uses the second person (why am I finding so many of these lately?) throughout the book and most of what she relates is par for the course. I would only recommend this book to people who haven’t read much social history about the Victorian era and want some background on the Victorian mindset in an easy-to-read format.

I could not stop comparing Unmentionable to Ruth Goodman’s much superior book, How to Be a VictorianWhile Oneill did quite a bit of research for this book, it’s primarily limited to advice books of the era. Advice books are aspirational; they tell historians what some people of the time thought people should behave. Advice books should be balanced against primary sources, artifacts, and whatever other information exists on how people actually lived during the time. After all, some of the advice (especially the medical advice) in those books is ludicrous—when it’s not outright detrimental to the health.

While most of the information in Unmentionable I already knew, I did appreciate the efforts Oneill did to dig up medical “expertise” and advice about menstruation and sex. Doctors of the Victorian era had some very strange ideas about menstruation and reproduction. I knew about hysteria, of course, but I had no idea that some doctors preached “ideal” menstruation. It’s clear these guys (and they were all guys) had never actually listened to women about their experiences. The medical literature of the time reads like a strange blend of sermonizing, half-remembered ideas from Hippocrates and the old boys of medicine, and pure guesswork. As for sex, well, there were so many social rules it’s a wonder that any of us are here at all.

Unmentionable is a breezy overview of Victoria life as seen from the advice books for the upper class. How to Be a Victorian is a better read for those who want to know what life was like for the full strata of Victorian society, with the added bonus of first hand experience as the author talks about wearing Victorian clothing and following their hygiene routines.

The Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky

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The Food of a Younger Land

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up on a blend of midwestern and Texan food (my parents come from opposite parts of the country) and as much junk food as I could sneak past my mom. (Sorry, mom.) I ate casseroles, Tex-Mex (Mexican food as interpreted by Texans), what my dad called “southern gourmet” dishes like biscuits and gravy, and lots of Italian dishes that my mom had taught herself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become fascinated by food history. Why do we eat what we eat? How old is this recipe that my mother and her mother make? Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land answered some of my long-standing questions, as well as introducing me to American cuisine prior to World War II and the interstate highway system.

Kurlansky rediscovered the notes and draft essays, recipes, and anecdotes for what was supposed to be a book called America Eats at the Library of Congress. America Eats was the brainchild of Katherine Kellock, who envisioned a massive volume that would reveal the everyday diets and regional specialties of the United States. The timing didn’t work out. By the late 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was on its last legs. The Project—which employed thousands of writers across the nation during the Great Depression—dissolved completely during World War II. Kellock sent out assignments to every state’s project and a few writers turned in content for America Eats, but the book was never completed and most of the unedited manuscripts were stored at the Library of Congress waiting for someone like Kurlansky to make sense of them.

Because the manuscripts were unedited, the quality of The Food of a Younger Land is uneven. Some of the pieces included are no more than scraps of recipes collected by FWP folklorists. Others shine, however. My favorite pieces covered Wisconsin lutefisk church suppers, a history of dishes that originated in New York, and hilarious attempts to explain things like ravioli and tortillas (included a helpful note on pronunciation) to readers who might never have encountered these dishes. There is a lot of casual racism that was common in the 1930s and 40s that wouldn’t be allowed past an editor these days. The sections that discuss Native American food are particularly condescending; the sections about African American food in the south are full of racist stereotypes. Kurlansky warned about this in his introduction, but I wasn’t prepared.

Even though America Eats was never edited, one theme did emerge. The distance between farm and fork before the interstate highway became to homogenize American culture used to be a lot shorter. In the midwestern section there are descriptions of enormous meals made from ingredients grown just outside the cook’s door. In the northeastern section, cooks and eaters dig and cook clams in gigantic bakes all in an afternoon. The entire southern section is full of barbecues of livestock raised and killed within a mile of where it would be eaten. I freely admit that I have no idea where my food comes from and it makes me a little sad that my generation (with a few exceptions) has so little connection with where food comes from. (Another, smaller theme that came out was that American men loved eating what are variously called calf or lamb fries, prairie oysters, or Rocky Mountain oysters. Who knew?)

I don’t know if I’ll try any of the recipes in The Food of a Younger Land, though some of them sound very tasty. The writers who collected and wrote the source material often noted just how long it took to create authentic baked beans or a proper barbecue. Also, it’s near impossible to get some of the ingredients these days and I just don’t have time to hunt my own opossum or squirrel. Ah, well, I suppose that feeling a bit of regret about the foods I’ll never taste* is one of the downsides of reading food histories.


* Except for lutefisk. I feel no regret whatsoever at never eating this dish. It sounds appalling and I have it on good authority that it doesn’t actually taste like much anyway.

Bellevue, by David Oshinsky

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Bellevue

When I read non-fiction, I usually end up reading something weird (Agent Zigzag or Grunt) or something awful (Nazi Hunters or Five Days at Memorial). It’s rare that I read a book that highlights the better angels of our nature, but that’s what I found (for the most part) in David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: A History of America’s Oldest HospitalThere are varying dates for the founding of Bellevue Hospital stretching back to the 1730s. Bellevue has been open ever since the eighteenth century and only closed briefly once, during Superstorm Sandy. The hospital’s mission has always been to take care of patients who couldn’t pay for their care. Even today, they take care of people no one else will.

Bellevue is as much a history of New York City as it is a history of the hospital. Oshinsky writes about the various epidemics that afflicted the city through the ages: yellow fever, typhus, cholera, Spanish Influenza. He also writes about the social pressures of waves of mass immigration, poverty, and the attitudes of the rich and powerful towards the “lower classes.” The two clash repeatedly over the centuries. Because of its huge population of poor crammed into filthy, infested tenements, disease is rife. Someone has to care for these people or, failing that, at least take care of the bodies. Bellevue was (and still is) that place.

The two factors (endemic disease and the reluctant providing of a medical safety net) would have made an interesting story all on their own, especially in an age where the social safety nets are being stripped away as fast as Congress can sign a bill. What I found most fascinating was the history of medicine at Bellevue. Bellevue is old enough to date back to the days of bleeding, various purges, and a lot of guesswork*. The patients of Bellevue, for better or worse, would be in for centuries of medical experimentation. Bellevue physicians made important discoveries in forensic medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and were on the forefront of AIDS treatment in the 1980s. Two Bellevue physicians even won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in the 1950s.

Of course, along with the beneficial discoveries, there was a lot of misguided, painful, possibly damaging, practices. Yellow fever and cholera patients were bled repeatedly. Tuberculosis patients were bundled in blankets and parked out in the fresh air in all weather. Women died in high numbers from puerperal fever in the 1860s and 1870s even after germ theory had been widely accepted. From the 1930s to the 1950s, children in the psychiatric wards were subjected to insulin- and electro-shock therapy. Psychiatric care is where Bellevue physicians struggle most. Even though the 1990s, psychiatrists struggled to diagnose and treat their patients. Part of the problem was because, as a public hospital, Bellevue takes care of prisoners for the city and its staff are regularly called on to evaluate whether criminals are faking or genuinely mentally ill.

In spite of its failings (most of which can be chalked up to lack of resources), I have to admire Bellevue and its staff. There have been times in the hospital’s history when physicians have deserted their post but, for the most part, Bellevue has been and still is a place where anyone can be treated regardless of their ability to pay. Doctors and staff stayed to care for people during epidemics and pandemics and riots and disasters. They are heroes.

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


* Fun fact I learned from this book: New York and other states in the late 1700s repealed measures to make sure that physicians had actually gotten medical training before they hung up their shingle. The reason? Legislators didn’t want to infringe on a person’s right to pursue any profession they wanted.

Grunt, by Mary Roach

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Grunt

One of my favorite things as a librarian is helping people search for odd topics. These searches frequently turn up bizarre studies that make me wonder how on earth anyone got their grant approved (getting rats addicted to cocaine comes to mind here). If I wasn’t a librarian, I would love to have a job like Mary Roach’s. She has parlayed her curiosity about everything and her delightfully immature sense of humor into a career shedding light on weird science. Her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, takes us behind the scenes to show us the men and woman who work to keep our fighting forces healthy, sane, and relatively safe.

In Grunt, Roach interviews entomologists who raise medicinal maggots; surgeons who reconstruct genitalia for soldiers who lost their’s to IEDs; submarine and corpsman instructors; audiologists; and numerous soldiers, sailors, and marines to gather stories and facts. She also combs through military archives to reveal an OSS project to create stink bombs to humiliate the enemy and the World War II quest to develop an effective shark repellent. As usual, Roach leaps from project to experiment to anecdote, following her curiosity wherever it takes her (usually somewhere gross or disturbing). I know some readers don’t like this about her, but I love the idiosyncrasy of Roach’s books because my brain kind of works that way, too.

Even though Roach bounces from topic to topic, I did pick up on a central problem military scientists have faced since the First World War: human behavior. In stressful situations, humans behave counterintuitively. Noise freaks us out. Anti-diarrheal medication interferes with “nature.” We want to hold our breath under water. Again and again, science shows us that our first reflex or semi-logical thoughts are wrong. Several chapters in Grunt illustrate how Marine corpsmen (and women) are trained with everything but live fire exercise to avoid lethal mistakes and how submarine instructors use bags of wine to show why holding one’s breath while surfacing is a really bad idea (explosive decompression).

Training and experience help, but only so much. A large part of military research is devoted to new armor, uniforms, equipment, and medication—more stuff for soldiers to tote around in their already overloaded packs. The longer I read, the more I noticed how everything is a trade off between weight, environmental conditions (heat and humidity), and compliance from the soldiers, sailors, and marines.

Grunt was fascinating and hilarious. I had a great time traveling around from military base to base (and even onboard a ballistic missile submarine) with Roach. She showed me a side to the Armed Forces I hadn’t even thought of before, even though my dad was in the Navy for decades and many of the older male members of my family served in the Army and Air Force.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016. 

The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski

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The Nazi Hunters

Unlike Hiding in Plain Sight, Andrew Nagorski’s exploration of the pursuit and prosecution of war criminals spends as much time discussing the biographies of the pursuers as he does their quarry. The Nazi Hunters covers the last 60+ years of tracking down Nazi war criminals, from the chaotic days at the end of the Second World War to the Iwan Demjanuk case just a few years ago. Not only do the hunters have to deal with red tape, deliberate obfuscation, and time, they also spend time fight each other’s egos and arguing with each other in the press. If Hiding in Plain Sight didn’t make it clear that the path to justice is far from smooth, The Nazi Hunters certainly will.

Nagorski begins in 1945. Some war criminals were caught. As much of the top brass as the Allies were able to capture would end up on trial in Nuremberg. In the first third of the book, Nagorski writes about the various American prosecutors and judges who worked for the Nuremburg Tribunals. In the early days of war crime tribunals, the prosecutors had to work very hard to link the defendants with the appalling crimes of the Holocaust, using the evidence to show direct responsibility as much as possible. Occasionally, as during the Dachau Trials, standards slipped enough that hideous rumors about the defendants, Ilse Koch in particular, threatened to turn the proceedings into Grand Guignol.

A few criminals—Joseph Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie—would spend years on the run in South America. After the late 1940s, the rate of trials and convictions slowed to a crawl. It was up to people like Tuvia Friedman, Simon Wiesenthal, the Klarsfelds, and Fritz Bauer to keep the effort from halting entirely. Friedman and Wiesenthal helped the Mossad to find and capture Eichmann before spending the rest of their lives quarreling about who deserved the most credit. The Klarsfelds used the media to help the French government turn the screws on the Bolivian government to extradite Barbie. Bauer was a new name to me, through no fault of his own. Bauer was a prosecutor for the German state of Hesse and was instrumental in prosecuting and convicting former concentration camp guards in the mid-1960s at the Auschwitz Trials.

As I read The Nazi Hunters, I thought about two questions. The first may be one of the central questions of the book. How far is too far when it comes to pursuing Nazi war criminals? Mossad kidnapped Eichmann and flew him from Bolivia to Israel for trial. Iwan Demjanuk was wheeled into a courtroom on a gurney. And yet, in other cases, prosecutors declined to put accused war criminals on trial for lack of evidence or because they weren’t willing to authorize extradition in the first place. It seems the answer to the question very much depends on circumstances.

The second question I wondered about is more personal. Why I am I so interested in reading about war criminals? Part of it is the idea that there are crimes that are so big, so terrible that the entire world can agree that they are wrong and the perpetrators must be brought (eventually) to justice. Part of it is also that I still don’t understand the path from Hitler’s election in 1933 to the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust and World War II. I know the theories, but I am still staggered by the magnitude of what the Nazis did. Nagorski discusses the cases of Rudolf Höss and Adolf Eichmann in this book, which satisfied my curiosity about motivation at least a little. Höss wrote an autobiography and Hannah Arendt and other scholars wrote extensively about what motivated the war criminals. The question stands but Nagorski does a wonderful job showing the breadth of scholarly debate. I suspect—and I think Nagorski does, too—that the truth lies somewhere between brutality, the banality of evil, ambition, anti-Semitism, opportunity, and misguided duty to Hitler.

The Nazi Hunters is a meandering book. I lost the thread of what Nagorski was up to a few times. That said, I learned a lot from this book. Nagorski’s research and interviews with Nazi hunters turned up new information. I was fascinated by Bauer’s story, for example. Nagorski’s thoroughness has also given me new questions to think about and new perspectives from which to examine the long vexed history of the pursuit of war criminals.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 May 2016.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s rare the people talk about the stage of life in which they exchange roles with their parents. This is surprising given how common it is for people to live into their eighties, nineties, or even hit the 100 year mark. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast shares the experiences she had in her parents’ last years in her inimitable style. Chast’s story is comic and sad and frightening and very, very human.

Even when they were younger, Chast’s parents were no picnic. Her father, George, was extremely anxious, becoming more so as he began to suffer from senile dementia. Caring for him meant calming him down, helping him through his confusion, and coping with his constant talking about everything that popped into his head. Her mother, Elizabeth, was an angry woman who would deliver “a blast from Chast” whenever someone had infuriated her. Elizabeth and George were completely co-dependent, Chast remarks at one point before growing angry at the pair of them for thinking it was a compliment.

Chast moved out of the family apartment in the 1970s, never planning to go back. She didn’t go back until September 2001, a few days before the Towers were hit. The state of the apartment made it clear that her parents were in decline. Until the very last years of their lives, George and Elizabeth were stubbornly independent. They only grudgingly conceded to Chast and only gave in step by step to Meals on Wheels, then an assisted living facility known as The Place, then to the nursing home.

Throughout those last years, Chast struggles with her sense of duty and the financial burdens and the fact that her parents drive her “bats.” The three of them had never had the best relationship, so what does a daughter who wants to do the right thing do? How much does she owe them? And what happens when those parents really want to be left alone instead of being cared for by nurses and doctors and other hired caretakers because they’re no longer well enough to be independent? Any answers to those questions would be platitudes or outright lies. Chast wisely does not even try to answer them for us. Seeing her struggles, however, raises important questions that everyone with aging parents needs to think about. (More ominously, it raises questions for people with children to consider.)

I’m glad Chast wrote and illustrated this book. Its immediacy and emotional honesty filled me with empathy for her. It’s rare to read something so honest; Chast does not hide her own anger and anxiety and turmoil no matter how she might be judged by readers.

I am really looking forward to discussing this book with the group.