Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek, MD, and T.J. Mitchell

Seven stars

While the world of medicine is likely beyond the comprehension of many, there is always an interest in some of the more bizarre cases that make their way onto the public’s radar. These types of medical situations are anomalies, according to Dr. Judy Melinek, MD and TJ Mitchell, citing that the vast majority of medical cases are not worthy of a script on prime time television. After leaving her surgical residency, Melinek leapt at the chance to enrol in one focussed on pathology, with significant interest in the forensic arm of the field. This led to a two-year fellowship in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York, where Melinek was able to see some of her most exciting and interesting cases, described throughout the book. While many think of a medical examiner as being one who deals in homicides, Melinek explains that there are many types of life-ending situations that ended up before her. Some were quite serious, including the man who leapt five storeys to his death and fractured numerous bones, while others were overly comical, like the man who died from complications with his metal penile implant. Not only does the job require an examination of the body to determine the matter of death, but can be quite contentious if the family disagrees or the matter makes its way to court. Melinek explains that her job can be quite stressful, especially as the body is not always forthcoming with evidence of what has happened and witnesses can inject their own bias surrounding the events leading to the end of life. Melinek may have a humours side, but her work also subjects her to numerous cases of horrible death or suffering, not the least of which was the fallout of the September 11, 2001 disaster, where she and her team (alongside many others) were tasked with identifying remains and trying to bring closure for many. Full of oddities that many readers will likely feel must be real—as this stuff could never be made up—the book will education as well as entertain the curious reader. Perfect for those who have an affinity for all things medical and enjoy some of the funnier predicaments in which people can find themselves at the point of death. A lighter read for those who want to absorb rather than construct strong opinions.

Melinek and Mitchell have created an interesting piece here, serving to dispel the myths of television dramatization of the former’s job as well as presenting some of the more interesting parts of work as a medical examiner. The authors do a masterful job of explaining the medical nuances of the work and injecting a less than intensely serious aspect, which can sometimes help to make the vignettes more alluring. At no time should the reader feel that the profession is anything but serious, though there are so many interesting files that must cross the desk of a medical examiner that they are forced to find some of the lighter sides to get through the day. I can only suspect that many of the names (and some facts) have been fudged, as the authors freely offer names and situations to help the reader feel as though they are in the middle of the situation at hand. Told in a straightforward manner with some medical jargon (which is fully explained), the reader is given a decent dose of the profession without drowning in the minutiae. Melinek and Mitchell divide the book’s chapter’s up to discuss a specific theme and choose a central case, whose narrative builds throughout, as well as some minor side vignettes to exemplify some of the arguments being presented. This not only allows the reader to have a better handle on the topic, but see it from multiple perspectives. As I am a big fan of forensic medicine, this book was right up my alley and served as a wonderful way to sit back and relax after some high-intensity reading of late.

Kudos, Dr. Melinek and Mr. Mitchell, for this wonderful piece, that served the purpose I needed. I will keep my eyes open for anything else you may write, though will steer clear of any medical journals, even though some of the findings would surely be eye-opening.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

Nine stars

I assert my right to call this a #realreview

With three interrelated books about the current POTUS sitting on my TBR shelf, I chose to read and review them back to back, looking for insight into the man and some of his more recent activities. Admittedly, they do not constitute a formal biographical image of Donald Trump, but do they ever paint an interesting picture to allow me to create my own biographical narrative! Calling these non-fiction pieces the ‘Trump Trifecta’, they have served me well in my non-fiction binge. Some may dispute the ‘non-fiction’ nature of these books, but that is for the reviewer (myself included) to decide in analysis while weighing the information presented. After reading about some of the controversial means by which the 2016 Presidential Election may have been influenced by outside sources and the wonky goings-on during the first year in the Trump White House in the first two books of the trifecta (check reviews should you want to know more), this final piece seeks to take a step back from (and a giant one into) some of the events that may have led to a less than level playing field when it came to the 2016 Presidential Election. James Comey has written this quasi-memoir not only to set the record straight from the perspective of the FBI, but also to explore his own life through a lens that he describes in the opening pages of his book. Comey explores how he has sought to live his life in such a way that truth and justice prevail, free from political and personal bias, which he comes to call a ‘higher loyalty’. Comey asserts that he has been required to make life choices that may, on the surface, baffle many, but which are grounded in this loyalty principle, thereby exemplifying the purest form of decision making. Comey expounds on an early life in Yonkers, New York, where he was raised to respect those around him, an essential part of his Irish heritage. A move midway through his adolescence pushed him into a life of being bullied, though Comey tried always to turn away from the scandal, even when it appeared easier to raise a fist and solve his problems. A passion for what was right saw him earn a legal degree and see his career catapult into a successful firm before being chosen to work in the US Attorney’s Office in New York, under the auspices of a man whose political career in the Republican Party would soon push him to a degree of notoriety. Comey worked hard and used his principles to defend the law, but always asked himself and those around him if the laws were just for all involved. Hand-picked by George W. Bush’s Justice Department to be the Deputy Attorney General, Comey received his first significant dose of partisan politics, something that he tried to negate in his work. A few key stories come to light, particularly surrounding some anti-terror laws arising out of September 11, 2001. These laws contained areas that Comey could not stomach and, while serving as Acting Attorney-General, faced off against the heavy hitters in Bush’s Cabinet. Comey explores his greatest surprise when President Obama sought him out to serve as Director of the FBI, a position that was both an honour and would prove to be an anchor around his neck. However, Comey was happy to take on the challenge, armed with his loyalty mantra. Comey delves into the professional, yet highly respect-driven relationship he had with Obama, which would be tested when the FBI was tasked to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server case. Comey tells the reader that he knew there was pressure for the investigation to end with a specific narrative (albeit vague and coming from the current AG’s office, not the Oval Office), but that would not sit right with the Director. Comey demanded neutrality, even when his decisions would seem to tip the scales in one way or the other. The reader will be interested to see some of the narrative depicting the email case during the 2016 campaign and how Comey handled the situation with apparent aplomb. He addresses the extreme vilification he received (even from inside his own household) and how some feel his decisions derailed the last-minute surge that Clinton needed to defeat Trump. From there, with the most unlikely president-elect before him, Comey sought to continue as FBI Director, but was faced with a man (and a team) that wanted to remove the arm’s length relationship, pulling Comey ‘inside the family’, something that could not be accepted. It was this desire to remain impartial, justice-driven, and transparent that began the soured relationship between President Trump and his FBI Director, especially when the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election arose and furthered when questions around Trump involvement became a strong possibility. The poisonous exchanges around the role and limits the FBI should have within an Administration soon led to the ire-driven (guilt-laden?) decision to fire Comey, hoping that would silence him once and for all. It is here that things take a more personal note, though Comey tries to stay above the fray, providing foundational arguments to back his opinions. While surely not the last word on the topic, as it continues to make headlines (and Twitter fodder), Comey does his best to set the record straight without debasing himself to the level of inferior intellect that can be presumed with the epithets flying around from atop the ivory tower on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. Interesting reading for any reader looking for some context and understanding of the situations that may have swayed the 2016 campaign, but also to better know the man who ended up in the middle of the firing line, despised by both GOP and Democratic supporters for making decisions they could not handle. It certainly has added much to the discussion, even if some prefer to paint Comey as something other than a complete professional.

I entered into reading this book with an inherent dislike of the POTUS, for reasons that were only further supported by some of the content of this book. However, while I have tried to assert the foundation of my issues with the man, this book took less of a smear approach than I might have thought. I knew very little of Comey the man or even his story, which was presented in a succinct manner here and helped me to better comprehend his thinking. This book is not written to be a tell-all or to create a safe ground on which James Comey can launch verbal bombs to destroy those who have attacked him. Instead, Comey chose to present his side of the story (life, rather than just recent events) and to support that he has always tried to take a neutral and principled perspective. This is the man who signed-off on taking Martha Stewart to trial and to face-down the likes of Dick Cheney during what was supposed to be an easy renewal of torture tactics. Comey seeks less to pat himself on the back than to show that his standing up to authority and steering clear of the partisan rhetoric is lifelong and not one to push him into the spotlight during the most contentious presidential election in recent memory. While the fallout continues on the Russia Probe and Twitter is full of hateful comments from a number of people, Comey could not let that flavour his decisions, and he still stands behind the decisions that were made. This exemplifies a man whose determination to find the truth is stronger even than mine, though I have come to see that justice should supersede the easy solution. I’ll not deny that I have my own hopes for what happens in Congress as it relates to the Oval Office, but I can see Comey’s desire to let things run their course and not to tinker with the machinery. For, as he hopes throughout, justice will have the final word and maybe even bring about a solution that is best for all. James Comey is no saint, but his approach and calm demeanour surely has done much to help me better understand some of the decisions he made in life, permitting him to hold his head high and know he did what was best for the country, through the eyes of Lady Justice.

Kudos, Mr Comey, for such an insightful piece that is free of finger-pointing and scandalous name-calling. It is refreshing to get your perspective and see that you had your eye on the ultimate prize for all, a just society that could stand tall and without blemish. Let’s hope others can take a page out of your book.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

President Carter: The White House Years, by Stuart E. Eizenstat

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Stuart E. Eizenstat, St. Martin’s Press, and Thomas Dunne Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The presidency of James Earl (Jimmy) Carter has been seen by many as a flop, or so it would seem as I entered reading this book. Many would point to a few key items, namely Iran’s Revolution and the dire energy crisis, pushing Carter to the realm of lame-duck for most of his time in office. While many will remember the Camp David Accord, that seems to have been overshadowed by many of the negatives. Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter’s Domestic Policy Chief, seeks to inject a new analysis, commenting from ‘within the tent’ to offer new insights, good and bad, about the Carter presidency and those who played key roles in the Administration. This comprehensive political biography sheds some light on Carter’s presidency in three distinct categories worthy of exploration below: domestic policy, foreign policy, and humanitarian efforts. By allowing Eizenstat to guide the reader through these categories, a new perspective may come to the surface, as historians are about ready to turn the microscope on the four years Carter spent in the Oval Office. Presidential history buffs and those who may have lived through the era may enjoy this piece, though it is quite dense in its factual presentation and by no means a swift read.

Before delving into this debate, it might serve the reader well to understand that Carter was a Washington outsider, having never served on the national level and with few friends. While he did have some strong Democratic support in Congress, Carter did not speak the language and even his closest advisors (Cabinet and otherwise) were forced to learn the intricacies of how things worked in Washington. What might have been easy to do as Georgia’s governor or running a peanut farm would not work here, where blood was shed without anyone blinking an eye. Carter would soon learn the game, or stumble trying, in an effort to create domestic policy that he could stomach and Congress would pass. This would come to be central in his single-term as president and shaped some of the major decisions that led to his defeat to Reagan in 1980, a few of which I will espouse below but many Eizenstat dissects in detail.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency saw both significant successes and resounding defeats when examining his domestic policy. The Administration will likely be forever haunted with the photos of serpentine lines at gas pumps during an energy crisis that plagued America after the OPEC fallout, as well as the president urging Americans to turn down the thermostat to save on energy. Eizenstat does not shy away from these gaffes, which turned the Carter Administration on its head and forced the POTUS to make numerous televised addresses to ‘rally the troops’. Within the White House, there were many drawn-out arguments about this and how the electorate would react, forced to pinch pennies at a time when things were already tough. Carter wanted nothing more than to provide for his people, but the numbers just did not add up. Eizenstat also explores Carter’s attempts to wrestle with the airline and transportation unions, creating a more consumer-friendly America, without the need to line the pockets of those in positions of power. As Eizenstat repeats throughout the tome, Carter had a great deal of difficulty thinking like the liberal much of the Democratic Party and its members wanted him to be. He turned his backs on unions in favour of trying to limit spending, surely not music to his Democratic backers. While energy was a major stumbling block for him, environmental issues were topics that Carter could handle with ease. Coming from rural Georgia, Carter knew the importance of nature and natural resources, including water and green space. Armed with this knowledge, Carter pushed forward to ensure that those in Congress who wanted such items in their districts could count on his support, though he was by no means blind to the need for some leveraging (even though Eizenstat explains he was not a good negotiator). Carter felt it more than simply an added bonus, more a quintessential part of the process, to have natural beauty in a country that had been forced to suffer through scandal for so long. Beauty may have been in the eye of the beholder, but Carter wanted to offer that opportunity to Americans for generations. Within the borders of the fifty states, Carter was able to offer some positive outlooks, though did stumble quite effectively when it came to domestic policy.

Carter also saw many successes and significant shortfalls when it came to the foreign policies he led throughout his time in office. Two immediately come to mind—the Camp David Accords and the Iran Revolution—which show the reader just how difficult such policies can be to enact. Carter worked to create a set of policies that would help other countries with what resources he had on offer, but also tried to remove the tarnish that had been left with the abject failure of Vietnam. America was still seething with that military disaster and needed a new image, combined with Carter’s desire to be a player on the world stage and help where he could. Eizenstat explores Carter’s ongoing efforts to shape the Cold War and push the Soviets off their perch as a superpower. Carter’s policy to stop shipments of grain to the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan proved to be a policy that led to an international boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Carter has been seen to make a knee-jerk reaction by doing so, as Eizenstat argues effectively, but the effort to stand up to this and refuse to turn away shows that Carter had a larger agenda in mind, to push for sanctions of some sort against a country that was trying to expand its sphere in a significant and yet completely unnecessary way. One must remember that the spheres of influence at the time were created by playing international chess, with the USSR and USA being the two significant players. From a lighter perspective, Carter tried to renegotiate the Panama Canal Treaty, presenting this structure to its people and thereby removing an iron fist that Teddy Roosevelt created early in the 20th century through efforts to bait and switch with the Panamanians. Carter pushed to turn control of the Canal over to the locals, though he did receive much pushback from within Congress, who could not see the need to hand over such an essential piece of property that had done so much to aid with international trade. Eizenstat effectively argues that Carter and his administration took a hard approach and would not accept anything but complete success, creating a softer and more open-minded America when it came to its neighbours in the international community. This, in turn, may have curried some favour at a time when America was in dire need of some positive and non-aggressive outlooks with its foreign policy decisions. There were, however, times when Carter’s attempts at good foreign policy turned sour, if only because he had gone to the well too many times before. While some of the groundwork was made by the likes of Nixon and Kissinger, Carter engaged in a set of discussions to solidify a SALT II treaty, scaling back the number and type of nuclear weapons each side would possess, thereby seeking to rid the world of the potential of nuclear war. Carter found himself in the precarious position of pushing this sort of argument at a time when the USSR was on its way down, early stages of teetering before the knockout punch that would come at the hands of Reagan and Bush 41. Carter would not stand down and simply let the Soviets see his passive side, wanting a world free of such weapons, while also ensuring that the United States was not left vulnerable. This may look to be a positive decision made by the administration and the reader would be correct, but the eventual passage of such a treaty failed when Congress—specifically the US Senate—would not support the treaty. It would seem that Carter had arm-twisted too many times and called in all his favours, thereby leaving him no political capital with which to bargain. While one cannot entirely lay this failure at his feet, it does stand to reason that, as mentioned above, Carter’s lack of knowledge of the Washington game might have knocked him down to the point of not being able to push forward at an essential time, leaving the riches for Reagan to collect into the 1980s, where history can paint a much more vivid picture of the 40th POTUS. Carter’s mishandling of the diplomatic hostages in Iran is likely the largest stain left on his presidency and one that will forever be remembered in the history books. While Eizenstat does present a strong argument that Iran and its revolution does not rest on the backs of America, supporting the Shah and pushing to keep him as Iran’s rightful leader did prove to be a yoke that Carter could not toss off, leaving him in a horrible situation once Ayatollah Khomeini took control and used his significant influence to punish Carter personally until the moment he was no longer POTUS, thereby embarrassing him to no end. It goes without saying that US Foreign Policy was significantly shaped by Carter in his single term as president, though one can hope that it is the humanitarian agenda that is remembered for decades, rather than the necessary aggressive stances from 1977-1980.

Carter is best-known for his humanitarian efforts, mostly after he left office, some of which were very positive, though there were also some limitations that left him coming up short. Perhaps closely tied to his foreign policy objectives, Carter wanted nothing more than to promote human rights around the world, but more specifically to his Latin American neighbours. In an era when Nixon and Ford had done little to help push for true human rights, Eizenstat argues that Carter sought to look past the desire to rid the region of communism and focus on their rights of the people. Dictatorships (albeit not Communist) in Argentina and Peru had horrible human rights records and Carter could not abide by this. Rather than going in with guns blazing or CIA operatives ready to kill for peaceful results, Carter and his emissaries sought to turn favour by promoting a softer approach and using carrots over sticks to show just how effective it could be. This was a key approach that the reader can see developing throughout the book, as Carter was sandwiched between two significant administrations—Nixon/Ford and Reagan—who were less than interested in human rights and more for the push to annihilate leftist regimes in the region. While there were surely some less than admirable results, Carter and his administration did not stop their efforts to shape the region as one where human rights could be promoted, ushering in a more peaceful world by the time he left office. One could argue that Carter’s humanitarian efforts in the Middle East were not entirely successful, on a larger scale. Eizenstat spends much time focussing on the lead-up to the Camp David Accords by showing the Israeli and Egyptian delegations trying to forge a peace that would last, especially for the Palestinian peoples. The attentive reader will realise that while Carter tried to create a lasting peace, it did not work effectively, nor did peace with other regional players, but there has not been a significant war in the region since 1973, pitting Israel against its Arab foes, which is something. Humanitarian efforts are much harder to push, as it does not always encapsulate the American agenda in a lasting manner. Carter tried to step away from the norm and offer his own flavour, pushing for openness and the rights for all—likely influences by his Christian values—while many other politicians pushed for hard-line results, no matter the cost. Still, Carter’s humanitarian efforts are likely some of the greatest positives that historians will take away from his presidency and life, when that, too, comes to an end.

Looking back through the entire journey of this tome, the reader can see that Eizenstat not only encapsulates an effective exploration of the Carter presidency, but is able to dispel many of the myths that history has left as footnotes in its texts. Carter was not a failed president who was incapable of keeping gas in the pumps or bringing home the American hostages from Iran, he was a man with strong convictions who tried to play the Washington game without fully knowing the rules. Elected at a time when America was healing, they turned to a man without the taint of Vietnam, Watergate, or civil rights abuses and wanted to create a new beginning for themselves. Even the Democratic Party, particularly its congressional members, had to look at the president in a new light, using his compassionate side with fiscal conservatism to help build up the coffers after much expense. Might this have helped Reagan when he came in to show a new dawn to America? Yes, it is possible, but Eizenstat argues that without Carter, America would possibly have continued down its rabbit hole and been a sour country that could not shed itself of a corrupt image. Carter’s presidency was a sense of new life that was needed, if only to jumpstart things and help see that there could be hope and positive outcomes, given enough time and effort. That single term in office did much for the country and reset its vision, even if Carter was not given the chance to guide America into the 1980s. Jimmy Carter might not have been the Washington politician that many had come to expect, but he did offer a perspective that differed from many, brining his understanding of the South to the world stage and surrounding himself with strong-minded individuals. Eizenstat does not and cannot take that away from anyone, though the theme of a unique approach resonances throughout this piece. The 39th President of the United States will likely receive new recognition in this piece, and rightly so, for he did do much for the country in its time of need, even if it was not the medicine Americans thought they needed at the time.

Looking at Eizenstat’s book, it is clear that there was much to analyse and develop, even over a four-year time in office. The amount of work that went into laying out all the information and developing key themes cannot be lost on the attentive reader. Eizenstat parsed through not only his own recollections, but those of many other players to create this well-balanced tome, which offers as much praise as it does criticism. To have someone on the inside of the administration is likely a double-edged sword. Some will feel that it offers an unbalanced approach and pushes a more laudatory narrative for the reader to enjoy, though I feel it helped enrich the overall presentation. Knowing who to talk to about what did nothing but offer the reader something special and the piece worked well offering significant amounts of detail on which to chew. Eizenstat surveys much of the Carter Administration’s efforts and seeks to categorise them in a succinct manner—not always winning with brevity—to provide the reader with key themes to judge on their own. The attention to detail and backstory is without question one of Eizenstat’s key attributes throughout. I was able to take away not only the political arguments from the book, but also find interesting historical approaches to key events that I would not otherwise have known without needing to explore countless sources. Jimmy Carter has always been an elusive figure for me, sandwiched between the bumbling Ford and powerhouse Reagan. Eizenstat offers a more comprehensive and well-developed perspective of the man and his thoughts, as well as some of the influences that led to his key decisions. Carter may not have been an excellent president—as Eizenstat argues—but he was a good one and worked well with the tools he had at his disposal. Many who have sat or will one day take a place in the Oval Office could learn from him, or at least admire what he did and how he fought to make America great for all its citizens.

Kudos, Mr. Eizenstat, for your dedication to this powerful book. I did learn so very much and can see a few areas I want to explore more, thanks to some of the ideas you presented in this lengthy piece.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story on Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Eight stars

I assert my right to call this a #realreview

In possession of three somewhat inter-related books on the 45th POTUS, I thought that I would craft what I am calling my Trump Trifecta, which fits nicely into this non-fiction binge whose time is waning. Some may dispute the ‘non-fiction’ nature of these books, but that is for the reviewer (myself included) to decide in analysis while weighing the information presented. After reading about some of the wonky goings-on during the first year in the Trump White House in the opening book (check reviews should you want to know more), this second piece explores how Trump made it from long-shot candidate to winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election. Michael Isikoff and David Corn—both journalists who covered the recent presidential election—explore numerous players in the 2016 campaign and how they are interconnected in their divergent efforts to shape events. There were three significant issues that served to define the campaign and led to a number of noteworthy outcomes: Trump’s disinterest in distancing himself from Russia, significant hacks into the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the Clinton email server discovery/repercussions. In the early portion of the book, the authors lay some of the significant groundwork used to shape these overall arguments. Trump’s connection to Russia and Putin can be traced back to his desire to have a Trump Tower in the Russian capital, paired with his apparent strong desire to create a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin proved essential aspects to the future GOP candidates ongoing connection to the country. This was further solidified during the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Russia, where the authors depict Trump as trying to curry favour with the Russian leader and have him attend. This connection, alongside some leaked potential blackmail that Russian Intelligence captured during the aforementioned pageant stay, helped to strengthen Trump’s apparent desire to speak fondly of Putin and the larger Russian Government system, turning away from any criticisms or smears at any point. Moving to the year of the campaign, Isikoff and Corn discuss oddities that were found within the DNC’s email servers, cyber-footprints that could only be described as hackers having infiltrated the system and collected large portions of documentation, which included email chains that told of strongly worded opinions on a variety of sources. Some of these included the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, while many others were from senior members of the DNC slandering Trump or Bernie Sanders. These emails were eventually released through WikiLeaks and tweeted by a number of sources that were eventually traced back to Russia, though it was only the DNC that received this rough treatment, leaving Trump and his team to stand on the side and use the documents to fuel their ongoing attacks. This hacking led to many questions about what else Russia might be able to do and how far their reach might go. Tied to the DNC hacking has to be the dark cloud that hung over its candidate and the personal server that Clinton used. While she stated that she did nothing illegal and only followed those who went before her, Clinton was not able to dodge this bullet, particularly when the FBI opened an investigation and sifted through many of the emails, finding crumbs of things that might have remnants of national security concerns. All this worked to gather negative momentum and helped Trump (and the hackers) to create a strong negative persona of the Democratic candidate. What followed was a mixture of these three issues and a number of other characters who, when added to the mix, created the most controversial and dramatic lead-ups to a presidential election in recent memory. Those who enjoy peeling back some of the layers that led to this tumultuous campaign will likely enjoy this piece, which pulls no punches and explores items from numerous perspectives. Isikoff and Corn do a masterful job of adding hype and intrigue to this, only helping to further stoke fires that have not yet dissipated. This book has all the elements of a political thriller, but with all the ties to publicly revealed information, I know it has elements of substantiated fact. Well worth the time for those who can stomach the drama.

I admit outrightly that I am not a fan of the current POTUS, but I do love a good election story that shows the drama of events as they unfold. The authors have tried as best they can to depict both sides of the race, but particularly the intrusion by Russia and the seeming inability of the US Government to stop the meddling and potential voter influence of the 2016 Presidential Election. Some within the Obama Administration were too timid to act with an iron fist, concerned that it would come across as partisan, while others did not want to appear to place a thumb on the scale and tip things in any direction. Within all of this, the FBI was trying to run two significant investigations: Clinton’s email scandal and the Russian hacking, taking no side while garnering a pile of information on which they could act. The book is surely full of salacious details, particularly directed at the GOP candidate, though much of this hit the airwaves and was not disputed at the time by Trump, even though his campaign wanted to nullify it from the get-go. Some will call the book a smear campaign, putting Trump in bed with the Russians or even trying to draw parallels between hacker and troll actions with his own campaign. While I choose not to dive in wholeheartedly, the evidence is quite strong and I would challenge anyone who can explain it away to do so, rather than try to toss mud and deflect on the accusations at hand (see my review of the first book in the trifecta to see how I feel about those who do nothing but whinge and try to bang pots because they cannot defend their position). It’s damning, but so are some of the concerns raised within the Clinton email scandal and the information released, albeit illegally. With Russian hackers, a candidate seen to be colluding with them, another embroiled in an email scandal, where do we turn? Who can shed some light on all of this while trying to take the high road? Let’s go to the FBI and its director, who was in the middle of this mess. That’s where this trifecta ought to close out its analysis. But, we could not have made it there without the help of Isikoff and Corn, who paved the way and left me itching with questions and shaking my head.

Kudos, Messrs. Isikoff and Corn, for a great piece of journalistic analysis. I can see the trolls (Russian and others) trying to pull down the foundations of your arguments, though you seem to have embedded them in a sturdy foundation. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

Seven stars

With three somewhat inter-related books on the 45th POTUS, I thought that I would craft what I am calling my Trump Trifecta, which fits nicely into this non-fiction binge. Some may dispute the ‘non-fiction’ nature of these books, but that is for the reviewer (myself included) to decide in analysis while weighing the information presented. The first book in this group is Michael’s Wolff’s piece that hit newsstands early in 2018. Wolff, a journalist who was invited to cover the Trump Campaign and eventually the first year of the Administration, has penned an interesting book that explores not only the central figure, but also the chaotic ensemble of individuals who surrounded Trump and his unique start in the Oval Office. What jumps out first is that no one on the campaign thought that they had a chance to win, including the candidate. In fact, it comes across that no one wanted to win, truth be told. However, to get the ‘common’ message out, Trump continued to swing and seek gratification for how hard he was working before pulling off the unlikely victory, aided by Russia or not. Wolff further explores how some of the most conservatively-minded folks flocked to Trump and created a persona that the candidate (and eventually POTUS) fit nicely in there. I do think that Trump was stained with the Bannon association, thereby seen as the ultra-conservative thinker that many have come to presume Trump to be. Pulling together much of Wolff’s comments throughout and what is seen in his public displays (interviews, press conferences, and tweets), Trump is simply suckling at the teat to garner support, rather than espousing much of this rhetoric. The old saying goes that you are the company you keep, I suppose that could make him a xenophobic misogynist with white supremacist leanings, but only through supportive comments, which Wolff pulls primarily through public sentiments offered media outlets and social media. What Wolff does well throughout is to show how the Trump Team is not a team at all, but a number of spokes in a wheel, with POTUS as the hub and, for the most part, the only connection between them all. Many hated one another or sought to see the others fail. Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump; all players in this circus and few of whom could stand the others (as well as Trump). I would not say this book is chock-full of dirt or flashy gossip, but it does shed the light on some of the goings on and, if true, could prove just how fractured things will be leading into November 2018 and 2020. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to raise an eyebrow and wonder what is actually going on behind the mindless tweets and comments. Entertaining, to say the least.

I admit outrightly that I am not a fan of the current POTUS, nor will I one day see the light. He is not my president, so I need not like him or even respect what he is doing. That the current leader of my country, Prime Minister Trudeau, has been able to hold his tongue and curry favour is fine, but I am able to stand on my own personal soapbox and eschew comments as I see fit, not the least because I live in a country where that is respected and enshrined. Wolff does not try to pretend he is anything other than who he promises to be, a journalist writing a book about the inside view. Does he soften the blow in his writing? Not particularly, though he chooses to use the words of others in the inner circle or who have granted interviews, rather than sharpen his pen to write scathing things. I admire that and am happy to see that he felt the freedom to say what was on his mind. The chapters were well paced and offered insightful information, sometimes linking one to the other, but also choosing to spin biographical yarn about other players onto to return to the narrative later on. I found the book easy to digest, though I am not prepared to drink every drop of the Kool-Aid simply because it is salacious. What has come to be an interesting social experiment—by no means with a genesis in the publication of this book—is the reaction to negative press, print, or sentiment directed towards Trump or those who follow/support him. The blowback by those who support Trump and the POTUS himself about this or anything mildly critical is highly intriguing. Anyone who has followed things since January 20, 2017 (especially those who have Twitter) will see that negative press or comments immediately lead to a smear campaign or ‘#fakenews’ blather. It is that leap to bang pots and create a scene that has left me wondering if more truth can be said to be within the comments attributed to the man or his followers. Why make such a fuss? Is it not better to roll your eyes and move on, choosing not to dignify the comments or stories with even a small reply? Alas, as Wolff explores within the book, Trump cannot handle anything negative, he must reply and turn it into something favourable to him. Moving back from the Oval Office, I find that a number of people who read and comment on some of the things that I have said turn defensive, as if there is no time for a debate, but simply ‘take my ball and leave’ attitude. When reviewing a recent piece about the 2016 Election, someone who did not hold my less than happy sentiments about the outcome chose to say that she and her fellow Trumpers had ‘better crawl back under our rocks and eat Russian caviar’. Poignant and silly, but true. Also, when I said that I would be reading this book, someone deemed that ‘if you don’t like him and just want to substantiate your opinion, then that’s the book to start with. It’s only the reality of the most Left to consider that book accurate.’ Interesting… let’s toss a flagrant comment like that out there, so we will rush away, fearful of being grouped in a way that sounds sheep-like. Let me be clear, there are many who feel they found they way to return America to a greater nation and do not espouse these sentiments and I shall not paint too wide a brush, but I fear a select few have chosen to whitewash things and inject hasty generalisations to smear an entire group, simply for holding opinions that differ. All that noise must mean there is an attempt to distract or turn the focus elsewhere, no? Then again, politics does bring people out of their shells at times, and I am not one to stay away from a pot that needs stirring. While I do wonder what brought the electorate to choose Trump, perhaps that is for the next book in the trifecta to better explore, so it’s time to sink my teeth into that.

Kudos, Mr. Wolff, for an interesting look into the early time in the Trump Administration. The Trifecta is off to a good start and I appreciate your dedication to present what you saw and the sentiments of those who offered interviews. A great foundation, so let’s continue with more.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky

Nine stars

Let them eat salt! Literally, let everyone do so, as we all need a (moderate) dose of it. Such is one of the early discoveries in Mark Kurlansky’s biography of salt and how it shaped the world. Kurlansky uses his attention to detail and ability to entertain the curious reader in this book that explores much of how salt came to be found on most tables around the world, as well as some of the key customs and traditions that have lasted for centuries, if not millennia. The book places salt’s importance in three distinct categories throughout history, which Kurlansky develops effectively. Salt is most easily seen as a part of food/cooking, but also an important business over time, and finally a key political commodity throughout documented history. By viewing salt through these three lenses, the reader can better understand and respect how powerful and integral those small grains (or large rocks) have been to shaping the world in which we live. Interested and open-minded readers will enjoy this highly educational biography on what might seem a random and somewhat bland topic (pun intended). I challenge anyone who has the time to step outside the box and see if it’s to your taste.

It is worth mentioning that, while Kurlansky does make mention of many forms of salt through the narrative, the significant portion of the book relates to sodium chloride (NaCl), common table salt. This product is surely both a quintessential part of human function, but also found in most foods, either in core ingredients or added in preparation. Kurlansky discusses how the Chinese were some of the first to document their use of salt to create new staples in the country, namely soy sauce, which involves a fermentation process that salt helps spark. Salt has the sensational ability to pull moisture from items and create a brine that cures them in new and exciting ways, thinking of such things as picked cucumbers, meats, or even eggs. Salt as a preserving agent proved to be central to the success of permitting foods to be kept for longer periods, be it meats hunted to last throughout the winter or fish caught on the far side of the world to endure the journey back. Kurlansky briefly explores the importance that salt and cod played as teammates to bring the fish from the seaside communities to the islands and across the Atlantic (which is extrapolated in his book about the history of cod, another good read), thereby feeding the masses who could not fish themselves. Salt’s preserving ability also serve the rich well in keeping their wines before the discovery of bottling corks, where a sprinkling in the wine not only kept it fresh, but added an interesting flavour. Kurlansky mentions throughout that salt’s addition to items to keep them edible led to numerous accidental creations that we take for granted now. Sauerkraut, long deemed (by me, at least) to be a Germanic invention has some of its earliest documented findings in China, where packing cabbage in brine within barrels that previously held fermented items led to this delicacy that the likes of Marie Antoinette could not get enough of, up to the day of her death. I also came to learn that corned beef has nothing to do with corn, but embedded salt (a corned substance being one that has bits of another item embedded within it) that seeps in and creates an interesting flavour. That humans need salt is not in question, though Kurlansky does admit that salt intake is much higher now than in times of old and that sodium levels far exceed the recommended amount. I suppose we’re well preserved for years to come, allowing us to work well into old age.

While there is no doubt that salt helped feed the masses, it had to come from somewhere to make it onto tables or into the foods that were consumed. Salt was surely a lucrative and profit-rich business, according to Kurlansky, and anyone could do it on a small scale. However, large salt deposits could be handled in various ways by different companies. The first and most profitable type of business was brine ponds, used primarily for medicinal purposes. Those seeking to cure what ails them could turn to a soak in one of these ponds, usual naturally warm, and find much success. Those areas of the world able to procure the development of these ponds and keep them from drying out would see significant profits. There were other areas that used larger bodies of salt water to procure the salt needed for preserving food or making its way to the table. By creating man-made smaller basins and using the sun as a means of evaporating the water, large salt deposits remained, which could then be sold on the market. New England and parts of the Nordic countries were able to profit significantly through this method, which was sometimes paired with their cod stocks to create salted cod to sell on the world market, providing financial stability for the region. As Kurlansky discusses throughout the book, various groups were able to perfect the salt extraction method long before large machines or complex piping entered the scene. He does stress in the latter portion of the book that the lost art of salt retrieval, once passed from generation to generation, is all but lost in an era where massive factories can produce and sell salt at a discounted rate. The selling or trading of salt on the open market promised to be just as lucrative. Supply and demand would surely enter the discussion here, as would regions able to boost their economic situations by exporting salt to those in need. Kurlansky does have an interesting take on this, which I will discuss below, but there is no doubt that profits played a huge part in the salt business. Of note, salt was a significant factor in influencing Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in where they might choose to settle, away from the eyes of the majority of the American population in the mid-19th century. Looking for fertile and self-sustaining land, Young found a spot close to… yep, a ‘salt lake’, where he developed the Mormon Church and eventually helped forge Utah’s Salt Lake City. Food and business (and even religious settlements) help pave the way to a discussion of the politics of salt.

As with most things in life, if there is a crack left open (or space between crystals, in this case), politics will seep in. The politics of salt are far-reaching and have significant impact since documented history began. Kurlansky discusses the Chinese in the millennia before the Common Era not only capitalising on salt in the region, but regulating its use and distribution across the empire. Perhaps a sign of things to come, rulers and governments sought to control who could have what, when, and how much, though there was no sense of equality. Far be it from me to inject economic terms here, but regulation most certainly led to a dilution of the free-market economies of these areas, where the capable could profit based on their vested time and interest. Equally interesting, there is a discussion of the British suppressing their Indian subjects prior to the country’s independence. Mahatma Gandhi fought the British ban on local procuring and selling of salt, feeling that the people had a right to work for themselves without being suppressed. It worked, though not until after much struggle and bloodshed. Kurlansky makes an interesting observation throughout the book, that one could always predict that war was on the horizon when militaries began procuring large amounts of salt. Campaigns of any length would require forethought and planning, as it was not always possible to predict the plentifulness of energy-rich foods. Salting products for long-term use was the key way of doing so, which took not only ingenuity, but also access to salt. In one example, Kurlansky uses the US Civil War, where some were sure Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Army was surely doomed, having no known salt reserves from which to pull. Salt as a political weapon, albeit one that cannot make you bleed (but definitely could cause one to squirm if it got into the wound, no?!). The political side of salt also served to create a significant have and have not duality, such that portions of the population or states facing one another were able to elevate prices and quantities to suit their own needs. As with many products, there is no way to completely balance distribution, though one can presume that it is greed that led to as much disparity on the world market, even with something as basic as salt. Put labour into the mix and politics cannot stay away, begging to regulate or comment on working conditions, hours, and rates of pay. Kurlansky stirs the pot throughout by sprinkling commentaries on these and many other political topics throughout the book, sure to keep the reader thinking.

This is my third food-related biography by Kurlansky and I have not read one that has not completely floored me. The subject matter might seem bland or even off-putting, but take the time to explore what Kurlansky has to say and few will drift off from boredom. The detail Kurlansky takes in his writing seeks to educate and entertain in equal measure, while not drowning the reader in minutiae. Adding historical references and some anecdotes, the reader is taken on this journey and the points being made are further solidified as being fundamental. Kurlansky also shows an interesting habit that becomes apparent to those who have read many of his biographical pieces, pulling on pieces of research at just enough depth to make his point, but expounding on them in another tome. One can see this with his pieces on salt, cod, and milk, three that I have recently had the pleasure to devour. This interchange of ideas only furthers the hypothesis that everything is interconnected on some level, part of the larger lifeblood of the world in which we live. As with his other pieces, Kurlansky also brings the point home with related recipes embedded in the larger narrative. This personalises the subject matter and, for most, permits the reader to become actively involved in the topic at hand. Kurlansky’s books would not be complete without random pieces of knowledge, what I like to call ‘dinner party fodder’. I had no idea of salt’s presumed trait as a fertility agent or aphrodisiac. I suppose men of a more advanced age in centuries past would turn to a handful of salt rather than their coloured pill to boost their ‘shaker’, though, much like the modern pill, too much can lead to heart issues. Still, there is no end to the funny information I learn when Mark Kurlansky is in the driver’s seat. Take a whirl and spice up your life!

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for never ceasing to amaze me. I know so much more now than I ever thought I could have about common table salt. What may seem so simplistic is shown to be so very exciting, with your lighthearted writing. I look forward to reading more of your work in short order.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Nine stars

In this high-impact book, Betty Medsger thoroughly explores a 1971 break-in of a small FBI office that turned the entire Agency and its most prominent director, J. Edgar Hoover, on their heads. When a small group decided to undertake a break-in of the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office to protest the power and corrupt nature of the Agency, no one knew what they were going to find. Thoroughly planning and casing the offices, this small group planned and prepared, hoping to make a statement by stealing some of the files and making sure they were handed over for publication. After undertaking an almost flawless break-in during a seminal sporting event, the burglary took in an interesting turn when the group stole most of the files from the office. These files included scathing memos, written by FBI Director Hoover himself, about secret missions the Agency had been undertaking for decades, including secret blackmail files on numerous people of notoriety, suppression techniques the Agency would take against various protestors, and an all-out heightened campaign of racial inequality, including coordinated acts to ensure civil liberties were not supported in America’s South. The group chose specific media outlets—including the author—and high-ranking politicians, in hopes of revealing some of the horrible missions Hoover sponsored or encouraged. It sought also to shed a strong light on the antics being undertaken by various US Administrations to suppress dissident groups, sometimes devised by Hoover and foisted upon the Attorney General and President (likely through blackmail). When media outlets began buzzing with the news (and presenting some of it to its readers), Hoover turned to rounding them up by putting all available resources into identifying the burglars. Additionally, sure the perpetrators came from a select group, he undertook a sting operation at a draft office and had many protestors arrested for crimes committed there, sure that people would leak what they knew. Unable to stand by and watch, Congress undertook its own investigation, culminating in the Church Committee, which sought not only to examine the severity of the information found in the memos, but to rewrite the covert nature of America’s various intelligence agencies. This may have been the most damning part of the entire fallout. During the latter portion of the book, Medsger explores these burglars, none of whom were ever identified during the five years the FBI sought to find them, before the statute of limitations expired. She offers up biographical and follow-up information to show that these people were more than simply vigilantes seeking to smear the Agency at a time when government resistance was at its height. With the Vietnam War in full swing, the country was almost unrecognisable and those seeking to speak out were often muted or violently suppressed. Unveiling some of the horrible, government-sanctioned means of silencing the protestors shows the lengths to which the US Government would go to push its plans forward, even when the majority felt diametrically opposed to the actions of their elected officials. A stellar piece of work that many with a keen interest in American politics and intelligence gathering will find enlightening. I know I was blown away with what I learned throughout.

It can be effectively argued that the Media, Pennsylvania burglary was a turning point in American intelligence and the iron grip that Hoover held over the FBI. Medsger does a great job in not only arguing this point throughout, but is able to substantiate it with countless examples. In an era when directors of the FBI fall as swiftly as a tweet does off the fingers of the ignorant, it is almost impossible to think of someone at the helm of American Intelligence capable not only of securing his job for decades, but to keep his superiors in line through blackmail. It is also quite unfathomable to think that the modern American would rise up and protest as vehemently as took place back in the late 1960s and early 70s, the central time period of this book. While some may say that the burglary was an act of defiance against the US Government, it was surely more than that, as Medsger elucidates throughout. It tore the veil off major Intelligence gathering and dissemination for a number of decades. The fallout of these revelations, beginning with the Church Committee, started an era whereby the citizens of the United States were no longer overtly targeted by their own government for dissent, but it also weakened the ability of such agencies as the FBI, NSA, and CIA to gather and effectively act on intel without oversight or limitations. Medsger strongly argues that this double-edged sword reared its head in the latter part of the 1970s and into the Reagan Administration, which blatantly removed the leash from most agencies. For the casual reader, such as myself, that may not have as dire an impact as those who are in the trenches (or live in the United States), but it does pose an interesting question: how much freedom should a government have to act covertly to gather intelligence? I choose not to enter that debate here, though Medsger does use September 11, 2001 as an intriguing litmus test. Whatever the reader feels, it is worth noting that the actions of a handful of amateur burglars who sought to engage in a form of protest brought the first FBI Director significant shame (albeit posthumously) and the entire Agency running for cover. While I am not one to condone smarmy intelligence gathering to silence those in positions of power, what might things be like nowadays if the FBI had some concrete intel on recent men who have been POTUS? Let that one stew for a while!

Kudos, Madam Medsger, for a brilliant piece of work. I am happy to have been directed towards your book when recent a recent account of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. So many wonderful piece of information that came from those years in American politics!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

Nine stars

Continuing on my histories of odd things (and non-fiction binge), I returned to another Mark Kurlansky piece that may leave some readers swimming in the other direction. Kurlansky presents the cod and its importance in world history, which was surely as entertaining and educational as it was unique. Many may think cod as nothing more than a fish that finds its way onto the plate, best served with potatoes and green peas (or whatever vegetable one has on hand), but there is a great deal more to this creature of the water. Politics and industry play such key (and intertwined) roles in its discovery and ongoing exploration (exploitation?) that the reader will surely come away with a more thorough understanding of the complexity of the fish. Kurlansky offers up a few interesting insights to pique the reader’s interest, if nothing more. Rest assured, a non-fish eater though I am, I was astounded with all that came from this piece, and the impact cod has had on the world for over two thousand years.

Cod have not only been fished extensively (and exclusively) for thousands of years, but they are some of the most sought after fish for their versatile nature. Well before refrigeration became an option, fishermen discovered the ability to salt them, which not only added a flavour, but also a distinct ruggedness. Allowing the fish to last that much longer, it could be transported, sold, and stored for longer periods, thereby making it highly profitable on the world market. Throughout his piece, Kurlansky shows just how desired salted cod became, in all corners of the world. But it is not only the salted fillets that prove to be a delicious treat, but most every part of the fish. From their livers (tasting and whose oil is highly medicinal) to their heads (a delicious chowder, without eyes) and even their skin (perfect for making bags and satchels), cod is one of the most versatile fish on the market. Kurlansky discusses at one point that there is even a use for the bones, particularly amongst the ever-thinking Icelandic population. Cod as food is likely the easiest way the reader will consider this fish, but there is so much more to the discussion.

Cod was not only a form of food on which to sup, for some it was a way of life. Kurlansky explores the life of a fisherman and how entire communities would rely on the bountiful cod catches that came from off the coast. Kurlansky returns throughout the piece to discuss the importance of cod fishing to Newfoundland (Canada), New England (America), and much of the country of Iceland. Entire livelihoods were based on enough cod coming off the boats to be sold on the open market. There are many parts of the world where cod is not plentiful, but it is sought after as a staple in the diet. Kurlansky explores how overfishing by other countries has helped to deplete the stock of cod, thereby adversely affecting the lives of huge portions of the populace. This has, at least in the Canadian example, forced multi-generational fishing families to turn to financial assistance for subsistence, their pride decimated. Politics abound when it comes to fishing and those who pull cod from the water are affected like no other. Kurlansky does provide a captivating and chilling narrative about the politics of cod fishing.

One would be remiss to simply accept that cod are a food, for anything that can be sold will surely have a price tag and a profit. Kurlansky explores how centuries ago, explorers would find their way in the open waters to take advantage of this new discovery, hoping to sell it and provide a large profit margin. The Basques were able to capitalise on this for centuries, particularly because the were situated in a plentiful area. The British Commonwealth ran likely a well-oiled machine, forcing colonial fishermen to send back their catches to be sold to others, without the full profits making back to the original source. In time, other countries were able to build large boats to join the ‘game’, entering the fray and taking what they could handle. However, cod are not as fertile as one might think, nor able to replenish as quickly as they are captured. This led to a shortage of fish and a moratorium on fishing. An international agreement to extend sovereign waters led to many a clash between countries, only added proverbial blood to the water and turned ugly when the cod population shrunk. Countries went to (fish) war over cod and sanctions ensued, particularly a battle between Iceland and the UK in the 1970s. No one was safe and entire communities, as discussed above, suffered the most. This is likely some of the most disturbing parts of the narrative, as it pulls in the seal hunt and the economic livelihood of thousands of families and is only another example of how large corporations destroyed the little man for their own greed.

I am the first to admit that I do not like fish, though I was drawn to this piece and could not find a way to step back. Kurlansky has such a way with his storytelling that the reader finds themselves in the middle of the story before realising how much time has passed. Full of anecdotes and personal asides, Kurlansky personalises the topic more than many historians can do for actual human subjects. Who would have thought that cod could be such a complex food, while also being such a binding agent for small communities? Kurlansky does offer a great deal of information that the reader must digest, but it is all poignant and ties together throughout the narrative. I found myself relating events in early chapters on cod fishing to later discussions of wars between the governments of the UK and Iceland, fitting the two topics together seamlessly. With the added bonus of numerous recipes pulled from over many centuries, Kurlansky ties the discussion together and permits the reader to explore the culinary side of the topic, a less confrontational aspect of cod fishing. While there is no doubt that cod will long be a divisive topic when it comes to mass fishing quotas between countries, it is also the lifeblood for many people, which is easily forgotten, especially by a man on the landlocked Canadian Prairies. Kurlansky breathes life into the discussion and keeps the reader thinking, which can lead to talking and eventually acting on what they have come to learn.

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for another stunning food-related biography. I am completely hooked and have a few more of your books to explore in the not too distant future. While I may not be rushing out to have cod-head chowder, you did get me thinking about an industry about which I know so little.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin, by Hampton Sides

Nine stars

With the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) a few days ago, I felt it appropriate to read Hampton Sides’ stellar account of the lead-up to the event and the hunt for the killer. I’d heard much about it and knew that I would be in for something that would educate me, as well as provide context for this important event in more recent American history. Sides delivers a powerful narrative of the year preceding the King assassination, from multiple perspectives. America in the late 60s was a hotbed when it came to civil rights, particularly with MLK’s marches and the push by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to bring attention to events in the Deep South. Depicting some of the SCLC’s goals, Sides provides the reader with some excellent sentiments about the danger lurking in the shadows, particularly in Alabama, Mississippi, and even into Tennessee. Meanwhile, former Alabama Governor George Wallace was in the middle of a campaign for president, seeking to solidify the southern sentiment about the need for segregation and keeping those of colour at bay. While a smaller and less impactful narrative, it does provide the reader with some insight into southern thinking from one of its most notorious political figures. Another man with his eye on MLK and hatred towards the cause was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Sides provides the reader with an insightful perspective into how little the Director felt for the SCLC’s cause and the issues that MLK kept raising. Sides repeatedly quotes sentiments Hoover made about the movement, feeling it was nothing but a collective of troublemakers. This would prove important as the story progresses. Perhaps most important of all is the narrative surrounding Eric Galt (pseudonym used by James Earl Ray), depicting his travel from Atlanta to Mexico and even out to Los Angeles, all after his 1967 prison break, explained in detail during the opening chapter. Sides weaves quite the tale as Galt sought to stay off the radar while creating his new persona. With MLK’s arrival in Memphis for another march, Galt chose a flophouse close to where the leader stayed and made final preparations to undertake a dastardly event that would rock the civil rights movement and American history. After the shots that would lead to MLK’s death, Galt fled the city, leaving a vague trail as he sought to hide from authorities of all kinds. This secondary run on the lam left Galt to flee to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. Sides explores the ongoing bait and switch techniques Galt undertook as he sought to disappear off the North American continent, especially when American officials locked in on his identity and he became the most sought-after fugitive by the FBI. The rush by the FBI to find MLK’s killer and bring him to justice contradicts its director’s earlier dismissal of the radical, though this is not lost on Sides or the attentive reader. The final race to locate and bring Galt (now identified as James Earl Ray) to justice leaves the latter portion of the book’s narrative full of twists that will captivate the reader. Even fifty years after the event, Sides injects enough drama and detail to keep any curious reader on the edge of their seats. Highly recommended to lovers of recent US history, particularly those trying late 1960s. Sides has what it takes to breathe life into an old debate that seems to have become highly relevant again.

My interest in the MLK assassination has been percolating for a long time, as I enjoy reading about the civil rights movement in the US and 1968 as a year of action. I recently read a piece of fiction related to the MLK assassination, positing some interesting theories, which piqued my interest to find some factual accounts related to these events. Sides discusses in his introduction that much of the narrative is tied together by his extensive research, which allows for a strong narrative that captivates the reader’s attention. Using the opening portion of the book to lay the groundwork for many key actors prevalent to the larger narrative, this permits the reader to have a better handle on the political and social picture in 1968 America. The detail to which Sides goes to explore both MLK’s movement and Galt’s journey across the continent provides a vivid picture that permits the reader to almost feel present at each event. What might be most interesting of all is Sides’ great focus on the path Galt (Ray) took, leading to a time in Canada and Europe before being caught inadvertently as he sought to travel further. Sides provides such a fluid writing style that the storytelling almost seems fictitious in its detail. As one fellow reader commented to me, the story progresses in such a way that each night of reading can end with an intense cliffhanger, even with the final outcome firmly branded in history texts already. It is worth noting that Sides does not appear ready to plant ideas of conspiracy or point fingers as Ray’s involvement in a larger planned movement, but rather to gather vast amounts of the readily available documentation to create a stellar narrative that any interested reader can enjoy. With chapters of various lengths, all full of factual depictions, Sides shows himself to be a sensational historian that can entertain as well as educate. I can only hope to find more of his work to see how he tackles other events that shaped American history.

Kudos, Mr. Sides, for your powerful piece that touched on all those aspects about which I wondered. I hope many will take the time to explore this and other pieces surrounding those most important 20th century events in America’s long history.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Soul Survivor: Reflections on One Man’s Journey Beyond Cancer, by Timothy Pechey

Nine stars

I will admit that I am quite the structured person, both in my reading and everyday life. When I chose to read this book, a collection of reflections in truth, I forced myself out of a comfort zone I have been fostering for a lengthy period. Additionally, when I chose to interpret this piece as a ‘Spring Equinox’, I knew I would really have to explain myself, though it is to no one else that I report. Tim Pechey was given the worst possible news the day before his 44th birthday, a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma. The news not only crushed him, but devastated his spirit and connection with the Higher Power he chooses to call God. This is a collection of seventy-nine reflections that Tim made over a time, some related to the cancer experience, others to the revelations he had while making his way through treatment or recovery. Each reflection focuses on something that Tim discovered or felt, helping him to discover a light within himself and around this most horrific roadblock in his life. Trying to wrestle with the pain of radiation and chemotherapy, having a sense that he had been abandoned by the world, and coming to see that this was the—albeit awkward—stop sign that life needed to put out there to give him a chance to smell the roses, Tim came to terms with his illness and turned it from a prison sentence into a chance to grow. Tim pushes through the collection and shows just how powerful his strength became as he fought diligently to better understand himself as a man, a husband, a father, a friend, and a spiritual being. While highly personal in nature, Tim’s goal to present this for those who have been through the struggle and want to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or simply to provide solace for those seeing a loved one with cancer and knowing that there is something bright on the other side, Tim Pechey refuses to give up and provides enough hope to show that sometimes life does give you a bad hand, but knowing that you are not alone is one form of medicine. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone, seeing as it is so personal in nature, but anyone with a curiosity should surely take the time to see one man’s journey, however personal, from the horrid winter of cancer diagnosis to the sunny spring over coming out as a survivor.

This was surely one of the hardest reads I have ever undertaken in my life. Not only does it touch on pain and confusion, but it stirs up many of the memories I had of that time of my life, an awkward teenager unable to come to terms with the cancer diagnosis and how my family seemed to be torn apart. It was, however, refreshing to see how my own father came to terms with this and turned it from a life sentence into something that he could use to springboard him into a better understanding of himself, while seeking new ways to help others. A selfless man to the core of his being, he has written these reflections, not necessarily to be read in order, but for the reader to digest at their own pace. Some are dated at different points in the journey, but they are not placed chronologically, for the purpose of this book is not to see the A to B trip from cancer diagnosis to remission, but to allow the reader to see the meandering nature that life takes when a proverbial glass is dropped at their feet. Shards emerge and small piece of light catch certain things, allowing for slow and fermentable digestion over time. While I cannot pick up the phone (my father was not as tech savvy as he would like us to believe) and call to talk, I do feel much closer to him by reading these wonderful thoughts and recollections. My guilt at putting up such a backlash is not lost on me, but there is nothing that I can do now and this is not MY book, so I will keep those reflections to myself for the time being. Short, insightful reflections help move the book along and yet the progress made is astounding, as the reader finds themselves in the middle of a man whose faith and health crises were not enough to have him toss in the towel. There is surely a great deal of talk about God, the Christian religions, and a connection to Jesus, for which I am usually so critical of writers. However, as Tim writes in the introduction, this book is all about that connection and ‘soulness’, so I can not criticise him too strongly for sticking to what he warned readers would follow. I will forever be proud of the man I call dad and I can only hope that Neo will find someone in me who is as compassionate, supportive, and as strong a role model as my own father was for me.

Sadly, after preparing this book, but before its publication, my father passed away from a recurrence of cancer. He will be forever missed and loved by many. I can only hope that he is somewhere regaling others with stories and reflections, educating and helping people, which was truly his gift.

October 13, 1951-April 9, 2000

Kudos, Dad, for giving me the passion to read, to love, and to never give up. You will always be the one I credit for helping guide me into becoming the man I want to be.

This book fulfills Topic #6 for the Equinox #3 Book Challenge, A Book About the Current Equinox.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Milk!: A 10, 000-Year Food Fracas

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Mark Kurlansky, and Bloomsbury (USA) Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I remember an advertising campaign from my youth that extolled the virtues and health benefits of drinking milk. It stuck with me and I have tried to present the same positive outlook to my son. When I saw the latest Mark Kurlansky book, all about the history of milk, I could not help but wonder if it would be an entertaining read, as I knew he had tackled some other interesting food topics. One may presume the topic is quite mundane or simplistic, but the attentive reader will discover that milk and its byproducts are anything but boring, though it is one area where history has only added to the controversies, rather than neutralise them. In a book that is as eye opening as it is refreshing, Kurlansky offers the reader much insight into this product that has been a central part of history as long as female mammals have roamed the earth.

Milk has long been a controversial staple through the centuries, from the debate between breastfeeding and delivering the essential nutrients to babies, to the best ‘type’ of milk for humans to consume, and even whether to treat milk to make it safer for consumption. Kurlansky details these and other debates throughout the pages of his book, presenting arguments and views as they were documented throughout history. There remains a strong debate over pasteurisation versus raw milk, which has led to various parts of the world to adopt varying rules and regulations. While many Western countries turn to cow’s milk, there are numerous other animals whose milk is widely used, utilising the higher concentration of such mammals on differing terrains.

Liquid milk is only scratching the (fatty) surface of the discussion, as Kurlansky talked extensively about the various byproducts. Often discovered by accident, byproducts include cheeses, butters, and creams, though their variety can easily be forked into hundreds of different outcomes. The history of cheese is both long and full of political intervention, as Kurlansky discusses at length. Creation of cheese can be a laborious process and is tightly regulated, creating different colours, flavours, and consistencies. Kurlansky explores not only how different milk determines key cheese creations, but also the food intake of the cow that can vastly alter the end result. Turning to creams, history has seen the evolution of different products, based not only on filtering techniques but also the ability to refrigerate or cool for lengthy periods of time. Different people claim fame for various inventions that many take for granted now, though there was surely a fierce debate at the time to launch the best clotted creams, ice creams, and desserts that stemmed from there. Kurlansky also explores how different parts of the world tapped into shaping these byproducts with the local ingredients, creating even more differentiation across the globe.

The political and social aspects of milk are firmly rooted, particularly when government health and legislative bodies learned that they could levy fees and fierce regulations. Milk can be a highly profitable industry, though strict adherence can also lead to marginalizing those who have spent their life trying to make a living off dairy production. Kurlansky turns the focus away from North America and delves deeply into the European and Asian markets, which may shock some readers in the West. There is surely a hierarchy when it comes to milk consumption, as well as a fierce debate about how to treat the animals and the food they consumed. There is no correct answer, nor does Kurlansky try to steer the reader in any single direction, but offers a wonderful cross-section of information for a better understanding. Readers and milk enthusiasts alike can enter the debate better armed for the battle.

Kurlansky’s delivery of the topic at hand is so seamless as to create a story that flows with ease from beginning to end. While there is so much to cover, Kurlansky offers detailed discussions throughout without bogging the reader down with minutiae. Not only does he provide a rich history of milk and its evolution, but Kurlansky offers hundreds of recipes embedded in the narrative, permitting the reader to explore the more amusing side of milk’s maturation. Offering education and entertainment in equal doses, Kurlansky provides the reader with a fulfilling historical tome that will fuel interesting discussions for all. Any reader with a love of history and curiosity about food will surely find something they can enjoy in this book. “Milk. It does a body good!”… and so much more!

Kudos, Mr. Kurlansky, for such a wonderfully diverse piece. I have learned so much and dazzled others with random facts that will stick with me for years to come. Now I am convinced that I will have to find some of your other food histories and see how they compare.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Man who Could be King, by John Ripin Miller

Eight stars

The Revolutionary War comes alive in new ways under the pen of John Ripin Miller in this interesting piece that shows a new and interesting side of George Washington. Told from the perspective of Josiah Penn Stockbridge, the intensity of the Continental Army’s clash with the British hit home for many, none more than Commanding General Washington. Charged with being his closest aide, Stockbridge tells the reader not only about the numerous moments that led to the informal surrender of the British, but the goings-on soon thereafter. Newburgh, New York is the setting and the army is about ready to give-up. An anonymous letter arrives, addressed to General Washington. In it, there is discussion of revolt against the Continental Congress, who have not paid the troops. Over the week during which the book takes place, Stockbridge explores how Washington will react to this—and further anonymous letters—leading up to Washington’s formal address to his men. Might he try to convince them to deny their ire and let Congress lead this new country, freed from the shackles of British control, or will he stand alongside them and rise as the leader of the revolt, serving alone and with all power concentrated in his mighty word? Washington has a great deal riding on this decision and a country waiting to be shaped. Miller does an exceptional job here, pushing the limits of fact and fiction, to create this wonderfully detailed story that will leave the reader with a new respect for General George Washington. Perfect for US History fans who want a thought-provoking piece to keep them debating for the foreseeable future.

I admit that when I saw the title of the book, I was sure that it would be a strongly argued piece about the regal possibilities of the first US president. While I was soon to discover it was a piece of fiction, I was blessed to know that the narrative was seeped in historical fact. Miller pushes the envelope here, entertaining and educating in equal measure. Josiah Penn Stockbridge is an interesting character, particularly as he holds the entire narrative in his able hands. A pacifist by religious conviction, Stockbridge shows the reader the inside view of working alongside Washington, as well as some of his weaknesses, both familial and collegial. Stockbridge weaves quite the tale and allows the reader an insight into the struggles felt by the man who would run these newly joined thirteen colonies, but never does he turn Washington into an outright deity. Washington’s presence is felt throughout the piece, though through the lens of Stockbridge, forcing the reader to parse through the laudatory sentiments to see a man—a mortal—who had the world looking on him an a massive army on the brink of disaster. Even after the British laid down their arms, the battle raged on, within the American camp. Seeping in actual fact, much of the story surrounds these letter that become the cornerstone of the plot. How will Washington react and synthesise this news and whose side is more grounded in what the man feels? Suspend what is known in the history books and look deeply into the choice that Washington had to make, then let the reader ponder, “what would I do?”. I enjoy alternate history and this one left me thinking, as it should any intrigued reader.

Kudos, Mr. Miller, for a piece that kept me wondering and hoping throughout. I am pleased to see you chose this topic and I hope you have more such books in you to keep the reader guessing.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson

Seven stars

When asked if I would take a leap of faith (pun evident later in review) and read Jordan B. Peterson’s book, I was slightly hesitant. Surely, I could take something away from this and learn how to incorporate it all into my daily life. If not, I would be able to drum up some interesting discussions with people about the content. Peterson argues effectively that life has become chaotic for most people, as he has witnessed in his profession as a clinical psychologist. His analysis of this chaos can, and should, be rectified by better understanding twelve rules that can assist the wayward person to find their way and live a more productive and less erratic life. While I choose not to delve into all twelve, some interesting insights did emerge as I made my way through this piece, including that humans are not alone in their struggles, nor are their reactions unique. Early in the tome, Peterson makes strong parallels between human inter-personal relationships and those of lobsters. Making some fundamental ties to the two, Peterson seeks to convince the reader that there are strong correlations that cannot be dismissed, simply because the two groups seem so vastly different. From there, the narrative takes an interesting tangent, exploring the lack of self-care that people have, whereby they are more concerned with the health of pets than with themselves, at times. His argument seems to be that it is essential to look inward and fix that which is reflected in the mirror before trying to ‘save the world’. The burden of the world’s issues is chaotic and can be too much to handle, but making that one change—the self change—can bring stability. Core tenets such as listening to what others have to say and trying not to compare one’s self to everyone else seem to fill much of the narrative, as Peterson seeks to push the idea of the inner view to betterment, rather than one of comparison. No one is entirely perfect, so it is a waste to try modelling a life based on the outward appearance of others, be it their physical display or attributes. Rather, taking the time to stop and reflect will lead the reader to acquire the needed tools to betterment. These twelve rules do seem well-grounded and based on a number of years of experience that Peterson has garnered, through study and interactions with patients, and so the reader need not think this is a twelve-rule modern stone tablet set of commands. Those who enjoy learning and analysis of behaviour may enjoy this one. I found some tidbits highly thought-provoking, but I am not yet sure if I will return to take more detailed notes for personal betterment.

I will be the first to admit that I am not one for self-help books or those that seek to point out flaws with a recipe for success. I suppose that is the primary reason I chose this book for the Equinox Book Challenge, to push myself out of a comfort zone and face some of the raw aspects of my being. While I was interested in most of what Peterson had to say, I found some of it troubling, especially if the message was meant to go out to the general public. While I will admit that the West is strongly a Judeo-Christian society, particularly the general rules and moral pathways laid out, it is an ever-evolving society that cannot be boxed in. While done effectively, Peterson used numerous biblical passages and stories to assert his points, both the flaws that have been around for centuries and the solutions that have been followed when listening to God. At no point did I feel that Peterson sought the reader to ‘find Christ and be saved’, but such ongoing reference to these stories boxes the reader into knowing them before being able to make the correlations. Peterson does explain the stories and then explores how God was trying to communicate something to the mortal individuals, but there can be a sense of inculcation, even if not intended. To reach out to the largest cross-section, removing the faith-based narrative may help. Secondly, I would venture to say that this piece straddles the fence between academic and useful for thought-provoking argument, rather than helpful to the masses who might need it. While the core tenets are laid out in the rules and a brief description of them, the discussion is quite detailed and thorough, perhaps too much to truly get the meat out of the piece. Peterson knows his stuff and has much to say on the topics, but perhaps too much to effectively leave the reader with something to take away. Biblical reference, personal experience, historical context. They all occur within each discussion of the different rules, but it is traversing the entire narrative to find the thread of discussion that can leave the reader wondering what they just read and where this all began. I admit that I enjoyed the meandering discussion and numerous insightful viewpoints, but if the premise of the book is to find twelve keys to successfully slaying the chaos dragon, it may be best not to meander along the countryside and forget the task at hand. Soldiers in the battle need clear rules of engagement. That being said, perhaps people enjoy the discussion and as I admit to not being keen on this genre, I am speaking for myself alone. Whether I enjoyed the content, the method of delivery, or even the message, Peterson does craft an effective book and keeps the reader engaged throughout. Canadian content is always nice to see and he personalises the journey, rather than speaking from an ivory tower down to the lowly masses. I can applaud him for that and am pleased to see that type narrative flowed so well and seemed to present a clear understanding of the topic at hand.

Kudos, Mr. Peterson, for your helpful insights into the world of removing chaos. I’ll keep the book for future reference and be sure to speak to others about it.

This book fulfils Topic #5: First and Last? in the Equinox #3 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Retreat, by Mark Edwards

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Mark Edwards, Amazon Publishing, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In his latest thriller, Mark Edwards adds a degree of the paranormal while also creating a mystery that will keep the reader guessing. Lucas Radcliffe is still riding the wave of his latest bestseller, exploring a number of missing children who were taking by a mysterious beast. Seeking to gather himself as he begins his next piece, Radcliffe makes his way to a writers’ retreat in North Wales. On his way up to the secluded spot, Radcliffe learns more about the local lore and the proprietress’ own personal tragedy; a daughter, Lily, who went missing two years ago and a husband who drowned the same day, looking for her. Radcliffe is curious, though understandably reticent to speak about it when it is introduced to Julia Marsh. Could this story of the Red Widow have any basis in truth or simply be a way the locals keep themselves in check? Radcliffe divulges what he knows to Julia, who is still traumatised by the happenings two years before. Wishing to help, Radcliffe hires his own P.I., hoping to make sense of what he knows. When odd things begin happening inside the retreat, Radcliffe wonders more about the lore, but cannot admit to himself or anyone else that he might be ready to accept it. Julia is convinced that her daughter will be back and must be ready for the inevitable. When people tied to the community begin turned up dead, Radcliffe is convinced that there’s a coverup, both tied to the recent disappearance, but also to the lore that posits the Red Widow will arrive every thirty-five years to take a child as a sacrifice. As panic mounts and a collection of writings reveals many secrets Lucas Radcliffe may have stumbled upon something more captivating than any novel he could wish to create. Edwards is brilliant yet again and delivers a stunning thriller sure to keep the reader hooked through to the final pages.

I have always loved a good Mark Edwards novel, especially as they do not follow too strict a writing path. Edwards is able to breathe chills into his writing while keeping the story plausible and unique from past publications. His creation of Lucas Radcliffe is surely a loose mirroring of himself, an author with a collection of darker ideas. Radcliffe does come across as a little passive in his appearance throughout the piece, but does have a sense of determination, especially when a mystery emerges. He seems eager to help, though it is readily apparent that his literary net is always out, seeking tidbits for another novel that may help him further explore his dark thriller side (like Edwards?). Julia Mars proves to be another strong and alluring character, whose focus on trying to find her daughter trumps everything else. Seeking to protect herself from the outside world, Julia is less a waif than seeking to foster what little strength she has left. The cast of secondary characters are well developed and help to create a curious mystery throughout. Spanning over thirty-five years, the characters have honed their personalities and proved as secretive as they are forthcoming, creating an interesting duality that only the reader is able to see. The story may seem a little silly, paranormal in its delivery, but Edwards does a wonderful job to provide the reader with a mystery and chilling narrative that weaves into many unexpected twists and keeps the story from becoming too predictable. Layering the present narrative with both flashbacks of Lily’s final year before her disappearance and some journal entries back in 1980, Edwards keeps the story fresh and the reader engaged, which allows them to become lost and pleasantly surprised.

Kudos, Mr. Edwards, for delivering yet another powerful piece that thrills and shows just how versatile a writer you have become.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: