Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I. Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience. Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning. They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night. Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health. The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets. In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.
Almost from the day he was born into privilege, Winston Churchill was ambitious. Searching for an opportunity to demonstrate his talents and value to the wider British empire, Churchill enlisted in Great Britain’s army in India, ran for parliament (and lost), and finally, still in his early twenties, shipped off to South Africa as a journalist to cover the Boer War. The Boer War was fought between two colonial powers, the white descendants of Dutch settlers and the British with obvious disregard and disrespect for the continent’s natives. During a skirmish when an English train of soldiers was ambushed by Boer fighters, Churchill-the-embedded-reporter, demonstrated extraordinary leadership and selfless heroism before being captured. Then, despite overwhelming odds, he managed a solo escape from a military prison across enemy territory and many hundreds of miles of African desert to earn his freedom. Immediately he enlisted in the army and continued to fight for England. The traits on display in his younger years reappear some three decades later when Churchill’s self-assurance and stubborn belief in the ability of England to fend off an enemy would make him the hero that stood up to Hitler’s Germany. And yet in this post-Obama era of Trump, even an historical account of excessive self-confidence scratches up against the border of narcissism that is so intolerable in a nation’s leader.
Kim Philby joined the British spy services and the Russian KGB as a young man fresh from university. The Second World War had not yet begun and Philby was a young leftist at a time when supporting a socialist agenda for the world and opposing Nazism and Fascism by whatever means necessary made sense. By continuing to spy for the Russians for decades, however, while he climbed ever higher in MI-6, Philby became the highest ranking double agent in the west, responsible for giving away British and American secrets and for disclosing the names of hundreds of British informants and spies that ultimately met their deaths in Stalin’s dungeons. Several insider’s views of spying are laid bare. One, British spies of the 1940s through 1960s evidently consumed their body weights in liquor every week. Two, to be a successful spy requires simultaneous trust of those upon whom you are relying for information and complete suspicion of everyone about you as your opponents are working exceptionally hard to feed you misinformation. Running an organization of spies, like the CIA, MI-6, or even the KGB, when everyone must be suspected at some level of potentially working for the enemy, has to be nigh on impossible. The use of Russian and American spies to plant false information or manipulate a foreign public’s perception of its leaders is an ongoing pursuit. If done successfully, say under current conditions, by hacking into a computer network, it might just sway an election toward a friendly, incoherent, demagogue.
In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
The United States was on rocky footing in the immediate decades following the civil war with the North wanting revenge and the south not yet over its stinging defeat. In the 1880s, James A. Garfield was an archetypal American politician. He grew up fatherless, impoverished, and in a homemade log cabin on an Ohio farm. He went to college, was self-effacing, and apparently had no ambition beyond working for justice and the equality of freed black men and women. His renowned oratorical skills put him in position to make a nominating speech as a young Congressman at a deadlocked Republican presidential convention. After dozens of inconclusive votes, without ever wanting to run for the office, and against his wishes, Garfield was selected to be the Republican candidate,. He was elected President without really campaigning, and would likely have been an outstanding leader had he not been shot by a lunatic and left to die because doctors at the end of the nineteenth century did not yet believe in antisepsis and Alexander Graham Bell’s feverish attempts to prepare a device that could locate the bullet lodged in his abdomen did not outrace the infections in Garfield’s body. Millard’s account is engaging, but in the end Garfield’s run as President was too short to be of real significance.
Patty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders. Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality. A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions. The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.
This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance. After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks. Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod. Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains. In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem. Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade. Crops died. Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered. Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton. The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.
It is the middle of the fifth century, though you would have to know that on your own, as there is no indication in the book, and the Roman Empire is coming to an end. For Rome the benefit of maintaining its long-term occupation of Great Britain is no longer worth the cost and it withdraws its forces. Aquila, an 18-year-old Roman soldier, having lived his entire life in Britain deserts the Roman army only to be instantly subdued by the first invasion of Saxons. In this book, Saxons are brutish vikings, and despite the fact they are to become the forebears of the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain, they are described as not much more than seafaring guerillas. Written ostensibly as a children’s book in 1959, and winner of many awards, now more than half a century later, The Lantern Bearers can be difficult to penetrate. It presumes mastery of mid-century British language interspersed with working knowledge of early British history. As historical fiction runs, this one is not all bad, but by today’s standards the characters are thin and the plot more than a little contrived.
The Arbat is a Moscow neighborhood; its children are the teens and twenty-somethings caught up in Stalin’s increasingly repressive communism of the 1930s. These youth are generally supportive of the socialist ideals that brought communists to power in the years when they were born, are anxious to uplift of the proletariat and at the same time enjoy the vices and virtues of cafes, restaurants, and urban nightlife. One of their own, however, Sasha Pankratov, is exiled to Siberia on charges that are unfairly enforced by a mid-level government apparatchik. Stalin is portrayed throughout as an increasingly paranoid and unstable megalomaniac. Sasha’s friends blindly feel their way into an increasingly uncertain future — the rule of law is vanishing, Germany is increasingly militaristic, government is less trustworthy — and Sasha must decide how to make meaning with what is left of his life in a world with other exiles surviving among Siberian peasants. Rybakov wrote this book while still under communist rule and released it just as perestroika was first opening the USSR. My mother’s Russian immigrant friend was a child of the Arbat and says the book is spot on accurate.
In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.