Lady Cusp’s #CBR5 Review #5: A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi

ImageNassir Ghaemi takes on reverse diagnosing some of history’s greatest leaders in A First Rate Madness.  His thesis boils down to: it takes crazy to fight crazy.  He argues that leaders in history, such as Lincoln and Kennedy, were as successful as they were because of (not in spite of) their mental abnormalities.  Nassir often circles back to Churchill vs Chamberlain to explaining that Chamberlain’s rational mind was not match for Hitler crazy, but Churchill’s depression/addict mind lead Great Britain to (a slow, hard-fought) victory.


Is any of it true?  Who knows?  It’s an interesting thesis, but there is no way to prove any of it.  Reverse diagnosis, 20/20 hindsight, and modern psychiatry imposed on historic (and dramatically history-altering) time periods is asking too much for me.


If you are someone who has an interest in Abraham Lincoln, William Sherman,  JFK, Gandhi, MLK or even George Bush and Tony Blair, then you may enjoy this book.  There are definitely some fascinating tid-bits (MLK attempted suicide as a very young man when he mistakenly thought his grandmother had passed away JFK had quite a regular steroid/amphetamine cocktail a la Mad Men’s episode ‘The Crash’).  But, all in all, not my favorite.

Owlcat’s CBR5 review #17 of The German Suitcase by Greg Dinallo

I admit before reading this book, I had a strong bias toward books that are published only online, but the title and synopsis I read of this novel, plus the fact that Greg Dinallo, an author I am/was unfamiliar with, has published hard copy books in the past, I decided to take a chance on reading this.  Being an e-book only, the price was right, too.

The novel is actually two within one, with the primary story beginning when an advertising agent, Stacey Dutton, with a penchant for retrieving discarded goods for personal use, and thus having a goldmine of interesting furnishings, etc., finds a Steinbach suitcase discarded on a sidewalk behind a famous apartment building in New York City.  She retrieves it and immediately begins thinking of how it could be used in an advertising campaign that she and her company are about to embark upon with Steinbach & Company, who have produced high quality suitcases in Germany since the mid-19th century.  When approached with the idea of following the suitcase’s journey, including through the Holocaust, the CEO of Steinbach & Company, Sol Steinbach, is intrigued and excited about this approach. Questions are then asked:  who owned this suitcase? how did it come to be discarded in New York City and why? what is its connection to the Holocaust? and what is inside, as it is locked and things are clearly stored inside it.

After a lot of research, it appears the suitcase belonged to a prominent New York City orthopedist, Dr. Jacob Epstein, a Holocaust survivor as well, and the founder of a famous Jewish foundation that is involved in charity work and honoring, among others, Gentiles who helped save Jews during World War II.  He and his family are approached by the ad agency to engage in telling the story of the suitcase’s travels and in the process, honoring the Holocaust victims and survivors, which he agrees to do.

As the agency and he embark on this process, a young newspaper reporter, looking for the story of a lifetime that might guarantee his job at the newspaper for which he works and which is laying people off – and, incidentally,Stacey Dutton’s boyfriend – begins to suspect and unravel secrets surrounding the suitcase, Dr. Jacob Epstein, and another Holocaust victim (albeit Gentile), Max Klein.  His suspicions arise when he notes that there are two photographs of the same Auschwitz tattooed numbers on the arm of Dr. Epstein, and the two photos clearly show a different style of writing the numbers!

The second story within this novel is the history of the suitcase, but more, the history of the people involved in World War II, including Dr. Epstein himself, Max Klein, and others involved in helping Dr. Epstein and Max’s girlfriend, Eva, escape the SS and Gestapo after having originally been given waivers to practice at the hospital regardless of being Jews, needed because of the lack of German doctors.  The waivers are suddenly revoked, and their stories become a history of the fears, flights, and hiding, ultimately ending in the concentration camps for Dr. Epstein and fortunately for the girlfriend, in Italy, where her parents lived and which has not experienced the complete horrors of the rest of the European Jews.  The suitcase belonged to Max Klein and was given to Dr. Epstein at the beginning of his flight out of Germany and he managed to keep it with him throughout his incarcerations.

Meanwhile, Max Klein, who had to reluctantly become part of the SS to protect his own family, becomes the target of a particularly vengeful military officer because of his involvement with his Jewish girlfriend, Eva. He is sent to Dachau to work as a doctor on the ramps from the cattle cars and make the decisions of which Jewish prisoner went where, to a line that would send them to the gas chamber immediately, or to a line where they would become overworked and underfed slaves and die a slow death.  He tries to avoid this but cannot without jeopardizing his family, and so learns what other “good” German doctors learned at these ramps, how to shut down, make the choices, and then drown the memories in drink and sleep.

It is here at the ramp where he recognizes his best friend, Jake Epstein, who is transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau.  He rescues Jake by telling other doctors at the ramp that he and the accompanying doctors from Auschwitz have been sent to help with the prisoners’ suffering and dying from typhus, since they haven’t enough doctors at Dachau for this, and who cares if Jews die treating other Jews. Both Jake and their mutual doctor friend Hannah contract typhus in the process. From here, their relationship is complicated by various events, including the suspicions of Gestapo and SS officers and, eventually, the Allies arriving at the camp, which results in unrestricted vengeance by prisoners and some of the U.S. troops.

The stories in the present and the past are told alternately in every other chapter and at first, I thought this would be distracting, but I actually liked the style, partly because I didn’t have to wait until later in the book to learn how a specific present-day scene related to the past.  As the book went on, it became easier to figure out what had happened in the past, even before it’s revealed totally, but even so, that did not interfere with either part of the novel.

The characters, both past and present, were totally believable in their actions and reactions.  Those who had to make horrible choices were clearly fraught with ethic dilemmas throughout.  The moral dilemmas were evident in both the past and the present, when people had to choose the lesser of two evils and choose if not making a decision was the right decision to make.  At times, particularly among the modern characters, it was easy to dislike some of them, but then I would find myself realizing that they weren’t all bad and had consciences and were struggling just like most of us would.

The ending was not terribly surprising but it was satisfying, and I would recommend this book.  I also discovered that my bias toward publishing only as an e-book was totally unwarranted and that’s encouraging because it could mean more books for more people at lesser cost.  But I will definitely read some of Dinallo’s other books now.

Rochelle’s #CBR5 Review #21: When Nixon Met Elvis by Igor Kultina – with video


On the 4th of July, after the fireworks, I came across Drunk History: Washington, D.C., three stories from DC’s history, all told by drunk young men.  The episode told the stories of Deep Throat – the Watergate informant, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and when Elvis decided he wanted a DEA badge and asked Nixon if he could have one.   Truth be told, the Lincoln assassination segment was the best – Adam Scott played John Wilkes Booth and the drunk narrator was an awesome bro.  But the Nixon/Elvis segment had some information with which I was not familiar.  Here is a little clip I found:

Drunk History: Elvis Meets Nixon – YouTube.

I knew, of course that Elvis and President Nixon had met, and that Nixon had given him a Drug Enforcement badge, but hadn’t thought about it in depth.  It seemed like there might be some insanity there for me to explore.  I found Igor Kultina’s When Nixon Met Elvis.  I hesitate to call it a book.  It is 44 pages of letters and mostly first person accounts of the meeting and the events surrounding the meeting.   I won’t spoil the crazy for those of you who don’t know the story.  Here is a little excerpt from Elvis’ letter to the President requesting the meeting:

I will be here as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent.  I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.  I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private.

I can’t really give this a star rating.  I will be looking for more on this moment in history.  Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #61: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

at homeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life is Bill Bryson’s answer to his own work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which was about basically the entire universe*. What’s the opposite of the history of everything? Apparently the history of just one place: the home.

*I haven’t read it yet and maybe never will, because he talks about the supervolcano in it, and just . . . no. I can’t deal with the supervolcano. LA LA LA.

Bryson and his family live in a country parsonage in England, and Bryson became curious first about the history of his own home, and then logically, about the history of homes in general. We spend so much time thinking and writing about the big events in history, the wars and famines and political upheavals, but very little time thinking about the history of the objects and small places we encounter in our everyday lives. It’s amazing the amount of history bound up in something as common as salt, for instance, or our mattresses, or the dining table, etc. As he states in the book, “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

As always, Bryson is delightful. He obviously takes such pleasure in uncovering these small, almost forgotten moments, and he always does so with affection for even the most unscrupulous of his subjects. There was so much in this book that I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. It seems like every other page I would be shocked into saying something like, “What? Really? That’s where that came from?” I’m sure I will never be able to remember it all, but it was damn fun reading all the same. There was a bit in the middle when he went on and on about architecture and architects when I was rather bored (apparently I don’t like reading about architects, which is something I’ve just learned about myself), but for the most part everything in here was great. I listened to it on audibook, which was a good choice, I think. The only thing about the audiobook: I was a little thrown by Bryson’s accent. He’s American by birth but has spent decades with an English wife, living in England, and it ends up sounding like his accent is having an identity crisis. This didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book. It was just a bit strange.

Still didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, but it’s pretty hard to top a book about Australia, honestly, because that place is CRAZY.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #34: The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.

Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.

Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.

The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.

*Not that one. He knew something.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #42: The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

Described as a young adult novel, The Eagle of the Ninth is written by one of the finest historical fiction writers I think I’ve ever read, and is worthy of the attention of youth and adults alike. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote her Roman Britain trilogy, of which this book is the first, in the 1950s, and her books’ gradual disappearance from the shelves of libraries and classrooms is a tragedy. Her plots are thrilling and well-crafted, full of action and pathos, and her attention to the details of the ancient period about which she writes—whether it be the food and clothing, the buildings and temples, battle strategy and politics, family relations or the complex social order– is as exquisite as her language.

This is the story of the young Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, who has been deployed around 150 AD to Britain to man one of the Roman fortresses. He is Cohort Commander of 600 well-trained troops from Gaul (ancient France), and unbeknownst to him, the tribes of the North that Rome is trying to subjugate are plotting an uprising. Marcus has chosen to be deployed to Britain in honor of his beloved father, who had commanded the famous Ninth Legion and whose several thousand strong force had disappeared into a Caledonian (Scottish) mist many years earlier, and was never heard from again. Marcus acquits himself well in stopping the uprising, but takes a near-lethal wound that forces him to muster out of the Legion and which destroys his dream of rising to the top. He spends a lengthy time recuperating at the British home of his father’s much older brother, where he buys a defeated gladiator named Esca as his personal slave, who then becomes his closest friend.

When Marcus learns that the missing Ninth Legion’s Roman Eagle, a golden standard assigned to every Roman Legion, is rumored to have turned up in a tribal shrine way in the hostile north, he and the northern-born Esca volunteer to seek out the story of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance and, if possible, to retrieve the Roman Eagle. Their quest is both thrilling and terrifying as Marcus and Esca go “undercover” among the suspicious northern tribes, learning a great deal about the customs of these barbarians that Rome is so determined to “civilize,” and ultimately uncovering the truth about the 9th. When Marcus and Esca’s true purpose is discovered, they are in a race for their lives that is breathtaking.

In the mood for 2,000-year-old thrills and chills? Read Sutcliff’s trilogy and spread the word.