Review: Washington’s Retirement Was Anything But Dull

Like other school kids, I was steeped in reading about the Father of Our Country from elementary school onward, but my fascination with George Washington had a personal backdrop.  I lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and our apartment building was on Ft. Washington Avenue.  My high school was named after him as well.

It created a sort of kinship which was deepened by studying his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island where he promised that the new nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  More than that, he wrote that Jews were not going to be less equal than Christians: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” (Slavery, of course, was a giant asterisk to this discussion)

How could a son of Holocaust survivors who came to American for freedom not admire a man like the author of that letter?  A man who could have been king if he wanted to, given how so many people idolized him.  But at the end of his second term as president, having steered the fledgling nation from revolution to democracy, he chose to ride off to his Virginia estate, leaving politics and governing behind because the quiet life of a farmer with large holdings suited him best.  He faded gently from the scene, appropriately aloof from politics.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In fact, Horn shows through brilliant use of contemporary letters and newspapers from a wide range of figures that Washington may have been offstage but he was as deeply embroiled in politics as ever.  He scrupulously followed every twist and turn of the rivalry between the two parties forming around President Adams and Vice President Jefferson and was keenly alert to the threat of war with our former ally France.  And for anyone who knows Alexander Hamilton only from the musical, he cuts a much less dashing figure here, and had delusions of grandeur.  But then Hamilton fits the general turmoil of jockeying for position against a background of tremendous political and global instability.  Many of our Founders and their supporters had their diva moments.

In the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, you feel the sorrowful isolation of Washington who complains of “Having staked my life–my reputation–my fortune–my ease, tranquility & happiness–in support of the government of our country” when at every turn fate might undo all that effort and plunge the United States into bloody chaos.

Yet there’s the wildly comic dithering about what kind of insignia officers for the new army being formed should be wearing, and you wonder how anyone could be so concerned with minutiae at a time when war with France was looming–or seemed to be.

Horn’s deft use of letters reveals the daily reality of Washington’s “retirement” and his recruitment as commander-in-chief.  President Adams realized that Washington was the best person to lead a newly strengthened army in case the French decided to invade the US.  He did not have to be on the scene to be caught in the tug of war between Republicans and Federalists and affected by war fever.  Just as important was his abiding concern about the legacy he left behind in his voluminous papers.

And if you thought our current political climate was newly poisonous, think again.  The scheming and invective between various factions around Washington before and after he left the White House were every bit as vicious, cruel, and divisive as today.  The main difference is the speed at which the poison spread and the tools used to spread it.  The rhetoric employed today to eviscerate your opponents is a lot more juvenile and not remotely as witty, either.

This book is everything you could ask for from a popular biography. It’s beautifully written, dramatic, compelling, colorful, revelatory, refreshing, sometimes hilarious and sometimes shocking–and at times it reads like a thriller.

Best of all, it makes Washington relatable and human, not a portrait, not a monument.  That’s the author’s greatest achievement.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, several public radio stations, and had his own on-air book show where he interviewed authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.

 

 

 

Review: The Strange History of Lotharingia

I’ve been a Simon Winder fan ever since he published his hilarious cultural exposé James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain.  I read it while traveling and laughed so hard and so often that I startled people around me in airports and on planes.  I just couldn’t help myself.

I was more circumspect when Winder launched a trilogy about the tangled history of German-speaking peoples and their friends and foes with Germania.  I made sure that I read that book and its follow-up Danubia at home.  I laughed even more, but this time only my dogs were startled.

Those books are a unique combination of memoir, travelogue, history, and cultural commentary filtered through an exceedingly wry sense of often self-deprecating humor.  They are very British.  Where does his new book and the last volume in the trilogy take us? A land that most people have never heard of: Lotharingia.

Okay, it may sound like a country in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s real.  Well, it was real.  It’s the part of Charlemagne’s Empire that lay between France and Germany and today is roughly where you find The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Switzerland.  The region has seen umpteen battles as one ruler or country after another sought to control it or even small parts of it.  Winder jokes about the blizzard of battles, some of them started over nothing, and crazy rulers like the French king who thought he was made of glass.

It’s all true, all wildly fascinating, and Winder’s colorful images are wonderful.  Here’s how he describes  Burgundy, one of the many lands to rise–for a time–out of Lotharingia’s chaos: “In many ways the Burgundian state as it developed was like a vast strangler-fig around the borders of France, from the English Channel to the Alps, both crushing France and living off of it, using the haziness of Lotharingia to intersperse itself in spaces in between.”

Winder has spent years exploring the remotest corners of this area, is steeped in its tangled history, and makes erudite and thought-provoking observations on every single page.  He invokes the region’s many rivers more than once, and at times you may feel yourself on a languorous river cruise while you read, enjoying the fantastic views.

It’s a great voyage because you don’t have to put up with annoyances like people around you taking endless selfies and calling home to check on their Amazon deliveries.  Along the way you discover mind-blowing art, fabulous treasure, bizarre monuments, and tranquil oases that might make you want to start packing your bags.

Winder is a perfect tour guide.  He’s witty, affable, erudite, and engaging.  He has a brilliant eye for the weird, picturesque or goofy detail, whether noting a king or emperor’s unusual name or pointing out that sacred relics in medieval Europe were as common as penny candy.

Encyclopedic and consistently entertaining, this is a perfect gift for fans of well-written travelogues, history, and memoir.  Winder’s personal and family wanderings are as much fun as following his exploration of the most luxuriant royal family trees that ever sprang from Lotharingia’s extravagantly fertile soil.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Jerusalem Report, Bibliobuffet, Lambda Book Report, and Michigan Radio.

 

Review: “The Siberian Dilemma” is a Must-read Thriller

Once American intelligence agencies verified that Russian interfered in the 2016 election, it behooved all thinking Americans to inform themselves about our long term enemy, an enemy many of us thought was no longer a potent threat.

You couldn’t start anywhere better than with the crime novels of Martin Cruz Smith. They present a wide-ranging, richly-textured portrait of the ailing, corrupt Soviet Union collapsing and slowly turning into an even more corrupt money-mad kleptocracy. The touchstone for all this upheaval is the cynical, battered hero Arkady Renko.

Renko should have risen much higher than he has as a police inspector, because his father was a famous general in The Great Patriotic War (WW II).  But he disobeys orders, won’t cut corners, and won’t accept cover-ups. In other words: he’s honest. It hasn’t done him any good in the old order and it’s even less helpful in the new one where everything is for sale.  In fact, it almost gets him killed more than once.

His latest dangerous case sends him to Siberia in search of his testy journalist girlfriend Tatiana who’s risking her life researching a story about oligarchs and oil–and much more than she’s let him know about.  Siberia is “where strange things happened and stranger things were just around the corner…It was a zone on the edge where planes of existence overlapped.  Nothing was inexplicable.”

But everything is potentially lethal.  When Arkady lands in the grim Siberian city of Chita, the chatty cab driver laughingly warns him, “Don’t go by first impressions.  It gets worse.  A few days ago an oil tanker on a train headed to Moscow exploded two kilometers from the station.  It went up in flames for no good reason.  They say you could have seen the blast from the moon.”

Renko asks if that happens often there and the driver says, “It’s Chita.  Anything can happen.”

And anything does, as Arkady is the subject of more violence in this book than ever before, or perhaps more accurately, violence unlike anything he could have imagined.

I’ve read all of the previous novels twice and look forward to reading them again. They’re beautifully written, but not in such a way as to interfere with the narrative. Every word serves the story, like these quietly ominous lines from  Three Stations:  “Yegor’s name was like a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade.”

Line by line he’s also one of the funniest novelists we have, and Renko’s sly insolence when dealing with his nasty boss Zurin is one of the highlights of the series.  Their barbed relationships doesn’t prepare you, though, for a shocking request Zurin makes near the end of the book that could not only change Renko’s life but change the course of Russian history.  And while the characters may be fictional, their prototypes are not.

“Brilliant” may be an over-used word for  reviewers, and so is “stunning”–but both of them fit.  There’s more to say than that, however.  Martin Cruz Smith has been writing an epic history of contemporary Russia that should have earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature by now.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other publications, online journals, and radio stations.  He is the author of 26 books in many journals and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.