DAVID HALBERSTAM’S, “THE FIFTIES.”


As I look back on the previous year (2021), I put a list together of the books that for some reason Highly impressed me. The book I found most enjoyable to read was Pete Hamill’s “North River.”
The novel I thought was closest to perfection was Ann Patchett’s, ‘The Magician’s Assistant.” I doubt Ms. Patchett herself would agree with me; nevertheless the tens of thousands of people who read it.

The most important book I read was Walter Isaacson’s, “The Code Breaker,” followed by three biographers from the great David Halberstam. So as 2022 rang in, I decided to read David Halberstam’s, “The Fifties.”

In short, it was the best decision I have made this year. “The Fifties,” is the best book I have ever read about an entire decade in 20th century America. It actually starts off in the 1940’s and the creation of the Atom Bomb and Robert Oppenheimer. And then after Mr. Oppenheimer expresses concerns about the creation of the hydrogen bomb, which was one hundred thousand times more powerful than the Atom Bomb, being called in to testify before the Senate by that crusader of all that is good and non-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and in not so many words was accused of being a communist.

It moves on to General Douglas MacArthur, a man whose ego had no limits and whose misinformation about the Chinese intentions in Korea cost the needless deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Thankfully, he was finally relieved by President Truman and after his farewell tour through the states was quickly forgotten.

The author then moves on to the ‘beat generation,’ and the impact of Jack Kerouac and the poet Allen Ginsberg, followed by the phenomena of Elvis Presley and black musicians, and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

The above things mentioned are just a few of the topics Mr. Halberstam goes into deeply. He doesn’t miss a thing, and his storytelling is mesmerizing. Oh, I so strongly recommend this book, so very strongly. 

“THE OPIUM WAR,” BY JULIA LOVELL

What can I say? Before picking up Julia Lovell’s novel “The Opium War,” I knew virtually nothing about the subject and the little I did know was wrong. After finishing the novel I came away with a greater understanding , not only of the Opium Wars (there were two) but the Chinese mentality, the British greed, and the isolation of the Chinese Empire and their emperors.

The British introduced the drug to the Chinese, and the Chinese were ready participants. The Opium came from the country (British colony) of India where it was harvested and grew rapidly. The British who had always wanted to open trade with the huge landmass called China, invaded ports along the coast and set up trading stations.

In many of these port cities the trade was mutually beneficial to the Chinese and the Queen of England who could never possess enough money or land. But the biggest return came from the sale of opium and just because the Chinese emperor saw the harm it was costing his citizens…making them lazy and completely incompetent…did not deter the British desire to trade the opium with all willing buyers.

After the Chinese destroyed millions of dollars of British opium, war broke out. What would follow was like a Woody Allen comedy and I had to remind myself that hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese citizens, men, women, and children were killed or committed suicide. The Chinese were no match for the British. Yes, The Chinese build forts that housed hundreds of soldiers, and manned cannons atop the forts but the cannons were stationary and the British had no problem destroying the forts as many Chinese soldiers simply fled.

At one point, A Chinese official in charge of military operations collected all the female chamber pots, put them on a boat, and send the boat toward a towering ship of war in hope that the smell and magical blood of the females would be enough to ward off the British advances. It didn’t work.

The first half of this book is a little difficult to get through because of all the names and the insanity, but the second half of the book was a real joy as the author dissects the way future Chinese governments would portray the Opium Wars as a imperialistic drive by western nations to take over the entire country.

Mao used it to his advantage and in so doing killed 30 million innocent Chinese men, women, and children. After his death, future communist governments used the Opium Wars as a way to get the citizens to mistrust the Western Nations; even though at the same time they were building relations and trading partners with any western nations that wanted to trade with them.

This is a really informative novel and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of China. Thanks to my friend Dmitri for recommending this book.

“CATCH THE MOON, MARY,” BY WENDY WATERS


What a pleasant surprise. “Catch the Moon, Mary,” by Wendy Waters is both angelic and beautifully written. An abused child, Mary, is visited by an angel, Gabriel, and the abuser is quickly punished and hobbles out of the child’s room in terrible pain.

Gabriel quickly makes a deal with the gifted child that the music she makes on her piano is to change the world and make it a better place to live, and at the same time make her famous beyond her imagination.

Of course, there are a few set backs because Gabriel is not to be denied his wish to re-invent the world, and as a consequence any one who gets in the way of his plan is killed.

Ms. Waters uses biblical figures, such as Gabriel, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and brings them into modern times and it works. The supporting characters are all well defined and it is the power of music that eventually prevails. “Catch the Moon, Mary,” is a gem of a novel.

“A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE,” BY SONIA PURNELL

Acts of HEROISM have always fascinated me since I was a child, sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table, and listening to stories about heroic individuals told to me by Uncle Tony. Over the years I have come up with a very simple definition of heroism: It is an individual or group of individuals, putting their lives on the line, coming to the aid of the helpless and badly abused, when they could simply had turned their backs and walked away. Very little infuriates me more than when I hear people call a person like the former, 45th President of the United States, a hero. In fact, he is the definition of a coward.

“A Woman of No Importance,” is the story Virginia Hall. Despite a prosthetic leg, she helped light the flame of what would be called The French Resistance, which at the very start wasn’t much of a resistance on the part of the French people. In fact, The Vichy government that was comprised of French political puppets, used by the Nazis to enforce their idea of a perfect state, had very little problems rounding up suspected French citizens of espionage and putting them in prison, shooting them, or sending them off to German concentration camps.

It was the British government, at first and throughout, who dropped spies into occupied France and the free zone of Lyon, who built up groups of resistance to cause havoc against the occupying Nazis, and it was Ms. Hall, an American, working for the British, whose courage, spy craft, organizational skills and the ability to recruit that the Gestapo transmitted was “the most dangerous of all allied spies. We must find her and destroy her.” Well, they never found her and her every day heroics for over four years helped win the war and was in many ways responsible for the successful Allied invasion at Normandy.

The author, Sonia Purnell, has done a masterful job of not only telling the story of this extraordinary and courageous woman, but also in giving the reader a great history lesson of what it was like in occupied France during the war.

Sadly, the post French government of Charles de Gaulle, like Stalin, never gave the British and the allies the credit they deserved for liberating their country. In fact, Mr. de Gaulle looked down upon the British and Americans, and it would take over 50th years for the French government to truly recognize the heroism of Virginia Hall.

KAZUO ISHIGURO’S, “THE UNCONSOLED.”

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled,” is a three hundred-and-sixty degree turn from the other five books I have read by this amazing author. First, it is at least three times the size of all his other novels, and secondly there are so many characters that he brings to life that he paints a picture of a small town that the great Leonardo Da Vinci would be proud of. He uses three types of narrative (a stream of consciousness, first person, and dreams) and in my life I have only come across three other authors who have been able to achieve this level of expertise using three different types. Those three authors are Toni Morrison, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.

“The Unconsoled,” is a literary achievement of the highest order. If this review appears small compared to the praise I have bestowed on other books, it is simply because I have a habit of reviewing the greatest novels I have read in either a few words, or a paragraph or two. Tolstoy’s, “Anna Karerina,” a literary achievement very few have ever matched.

KAZUO ISHIGURO’S, “A PALE VIEW OF HILLS.”

“A Pale View Of Hills,” is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel originally published in 1982. Whereas, it might not meet the structural brilliance of his later novels it is a novel well worth reading. In fact, after finishing the novel, I went back and re-read the first three chapters. The book is barely two hundred pages, and I was able to read it in two days which is quick for me.

The novel, narrated in first person, is told through the eyes of Etsuko, a Japanese woman from Nagasaki now living alone in England. Her memories of her past life in Nagasaki are triggered by the recent suicide of her daughter.

The novel takes place about five years after the end of World War II. American soldiers are being shipped off to fight in Korea. The influence of the American style of life has already taken hold among the younger generation of Japanese men and women and it clashes with the older generations’ traditional views, which the younger generation blames for getting them into the war. American democracy is not easy for the older generations to accept.

Nagasaki, the victim of the second atomic bomb dropped by the Americans, is quickly rebuilding yet the effects of the bomb are still felt; even though Mr. Ishiguro only allures to the ‘bomb,’ on a few occasions but the devastation and lost of life caused by the bomb is defined by the actions, physical disabilities, and emotions of almost all the characters in the book, including the children.

Like in all of Mr. Ishiguro’s novels, the messages he wishes to convey are not boldly displayed. He forces his audience to ‘think,’ and that is one of many reasons he is one of the greatest authors of the last fifty years.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD’S “KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST.”

In Joseph Conrad’s novel, “Heart Of Darkness,” a literary masterpiece of the highest order, the character of Mr. Kurtz, the crazed leader of a tribe of Black Africans, whose sunken heads of dead black Africans, sit atop the posts of the iron gate that surrounds his mansion. Mr. Kurtz, a Belgium Colonial director, also has a collection of sword off hands and other body parts.

Toward the end of book Mr. Kurtz’s final words are “The Horror, The Horror.” Over the last century and into the 21 century, students and teachers have argued who Conrad based this crazed and insane character on. Some have argued, Rudyard Kipling, Marlon Brandon (Who played the character of Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now.” The worst interpretation of Conrad’s masterpiece ever presented, but a great movie all the same), and some Winston Churchill.

Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” gives us three real possibilities. You see, Conrad’s book which is fiction is based on the six months he spent in the Congo under the murderous leadership of King Leopold of Belgium. Leon Rom, a Belgium director who met Conrad while he visited the Congo is my choice of who Kurtz represents. To his credit he had the sunken heads of Africans atop the post to the gate surrounding his mansion and a wonderful collection of dismembered body parts.

I mention Conrad’s book so much because Mr Hochschild references the book and Conrad numerous times. “King Leopold’s Ghost,” is about the brutal and inhumane plundering of the Congo by the King and his hired men. The torture of the native population could easily make one nausea. It is estimated that at least 12 million native Africans died during the reign of King Leopold. And even after his death, it continued to a lesser degree but it nevertheless continued. And while this genocide was going on the English and Portuguese governments were plundering and murdering the natives in different parts of the rich mineral continent. One needs to remember that these atrocious were allowed to go on right into the early parts of the 20th century, and in some cases into the middle of the century, and till this day a good part of Africa is at war with itself, sponsored by America, Europeans, and Asians.

This is a really good book, extremely informative, with many villains and some amazing heroes. If one wants to read a great review of this book I recommend my friend Dmitri’s review. It really get into it.

KAZUO ISHIGURO’S, “REMAINS OF THE DAY.”

“The Remains Of The Day,” by Kazuo Ishiguro is in my humble opinion a GREAT Novel. In fact, I will go so far as to say it is a MASTERPIECE.

A former professor of mine, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Louis Simpson was fond of saying, “That Hemingway is a thinking man’s writer. If you simply read his words and don’t think beyond that, you will never appreciate the true greatness of Hemingway.” After hearing him say this I went back and re-read Hemingway’s, “The Sun Also Rises.” The first time I read it, I thought it was a good novel. The second time I read it, I came away thinking it was a masterpiece. Since then, it is the book that I have read the most times…possibly as many as ten times.

The same Mr. Simpson was also fond of saying, “That the size of a novel does not determine its greatness, and that a great short short or poem is easily as intellectually stimulating as any novel.”

Mr. Ishiguro’s novel about an English butler and his three decades of service in the mansion of Lord Darlington, pre- World War II and a few years after the war, meets all the criteria that Mr. Simpson was fond of repeating. It is barely two hundred pages, the writing is clear and simple, and the questions it poses are many and intellectually challenging such as, “When is blind duty to one’s job morally wrong? Are wars, such as World War II, often decided by a few powerful men and should they be held accountable for the terrible consequences of such wars? Is family secondary to country?
Is a democratic form of government in the best interests of all its citizens? Should every man and women, despite their level of intellectual, be given the right to vote? What does the word ‘dignity,’ really mean?”

Mr. Ishiguro won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature a few years back, and after reading a number of his books I can honestly and without a doubt say he deserved the Prize.