Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

The LA Weekly profiles Nick Ut, legendary AP photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s still working as an AP photographer in LA.

You may not recognize the name, but you’ll know the photo; it is one of the two most famous Vietnam War photos. I won’t embed it, but you can find all over the place, including here.

I’m not generally a big fan of the alternative papers, but this is a swell article. Some pull quotes:

Ut believes in skill, too. But on a deeper level, he trusts in luck and fate. Many photojournalists were killed in Vietnam — 135 total, according to Faas’ count. By Ut’s estimate, 90 percent of the AP photographers who covered the war got shot while there.

Pulled mostly so I can plug Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina; haunt your local used bookstore for a copy.

…three months after he took Kim Phuc’s picture, he was hit in the leg by mortar fire. He was on his way to visit her. Her house, unfortunately, was located near an entrance to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of supply routes used by the Viet Cong. After the mortar shell blew up, Ut noticed holes in his camera. Then his shirt. Then his thigh.

Young photographers today, who “shoot 15 frames a second,” exasperate him. “Too fast. Picture lousy. One frame. Show the best picture. That’s how I learned. Look for the picture first.”
Besides, “If you come back with 500 pictures from one assignment? Your boss will yell at you. Too many! Who wants to look at all those pictures?”

Today, the 35mm Leica M2 camera with which he shot Napalm Girl is in a museum — the Newseum, in Washington, D.C.

Gratuitous Leica for the win! (I do wish the Weekly had gone into more detail about what Ut uses today. But then again, this isn’t an article targeted at professional photographers.)

Obit watch: July 22, 2014.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Novelist Thomas Berger.

For those who may not be aware, Berger’s most famous book was the Western Little Big Man, which in turn became the basis for the Dustin Hoffman movie.

Random gun crankery.

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Mike the Musicologist and I were talking about the moronic Rolling Stone list. So apparently “Derringers” are among the most dangerous guns in America? I can buy that; after all, no president has ever been shot with a machine gun, so clearly they are less dangerous than derringers.

(Would you trade a ban on derringers for legalized machine guns? I wouldn’t either, but I think it is an interesting question.)

Anyway, that, and the fact that I’ve been reading a lot about presidential assassinations and attempted assassinations recently, got me thinking. (As a side note, I owe my readers a longer discussion of the works of Candice Millard, but that’s for another time.)

So Oswald’s rifle may be the single best documented presidential assassination weapon we have. It is historically interesting, but we can set that to one side for the moment.

I am 99 44/100ths percent sure I have seen Booth’s derringer, but that was a long time ago in another country. I did briefly wonder how it was recovered: was it on Booth when he died? (No: Booth dropped it on the floor of Lincoln’s box when he pulled the knife and slashed Major Rathbone. Apparently, the New York Reload had not been invented in 1865.) And I was also not aware that there was a brief controversy about Booth’s derringer: there were claims that it was stolen and replaced with a replica. (I am also not sure that I trust the FBI’s police work 100% there, Lou, but that’s probably yet another discussion for another time.)

So that takes care of the two most famous assassinations. What of President McKinley, who, as you may recall, was shot by an anarchist with an unpronounceable name? Czolgsz’s weapon of choice was a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver; according to this site, that gun resides in the Buffalo History Museum. (Their website supports this.)

And that brings us to Garfield (the president, not the cartoon cat), who you may recall was shot by a “disgruntled office seeker”, which is a polite way of saying “a f–king nut”. When the Oneida Community thinks you’re weird, maybe that’s your sign.

Anyway. Guiteau shot Garfield with a “.44 Webley British Bulldog revolver“, which he purchased using money bummed from a friend. (Bumming money from friends and skipping out on his boarding bills was typical of Guiteau.) Supposedly, he bought one with ivory grips instead of wood because “he thought it would look good as a museum exhibit after the assassination”. (I’ve seen this cited elsewhere. On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry on the Bulldog says Guiteau didn’t want to spring for the extra $1 for ivory.)

The punchline to this: “The revolver was recovered and displayed by the Smithsonian in the early 20th century, but has since been lost.

Seriously. They lost the gun used to kill a president. Granted, it appears to have been “lost” long after Guiteau was tried and executed. But still; how do you “lose” a presidential assassination weapon? And can you imagine the discussion at the Smithsonian when they found out Guiteau’s gun was “lost”?

(And I think I have to give Oswald a slight edge on taste, as he was the only one to use a Smith and Wesson revolver. Granted, it was a Victory model, so it wasn’t one of the better looking ones, but it was still a Smith. And if you were wondering, Jack Ruby used a Colt.)

(I say “slight edge” because, for all of Guiteau’s numerous faults, at least he picked ivory. As we all know, only a pimp in a cheap New Orleans whorehouse carries pearl handled revolvers.)

Obit watch: July 14, 2014.

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Lorin Maazel.

He projected an image of an analytical intellectual — he had studied mathematics and philosophy in college, was fluent in six languages (French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, as well as English) and kept up with many subjects outside music — and his performances could seem coolly fastidious and emotionally distant. Yet such performances were regularly offset by others that were fiery and intensely personalized.

I know that Mike the Musicologist had strong feelings about Mazel; perhaps he will comment here or on his own blog.

Nadine Gordimer, noted South African writer.

This one’s for Andrew.

Friday, July 4th, 2014

This year is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge.

Earlier this week, the NYT ran a retrospective piece about the young reporter who covered the construction of the bridge; a man named Gay Talese, who later went on to bigger and better things.

The Times piece includes links to some of Talese’s original articles, if you want to feel nostalgic for the old NYT, or the Robert Moses era, or…


Obit watch: June 30, 2014.

Monday, June 30th, 2014

There’s an interesting obit in today’s NYT for Michael Brown, who passed away on June 11th at 93.

Brown (no relation, AFAIK) was one of the major figures in the “industrial musical”, which I have touched on previously.

Mr. Brown, whose clients included the J. C. Penney Company, Singer sewing machines and DuPont, was among the genre’s most sought-after creators. His shows — he supplied music, lyrics and direction and often took part as a singer — were known, Mr. Young said, for “their high quality and general buoyancy and fun.”


His most widely seen show was without doubt “Wonderful World of Chemistry.” Presented in the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, it was a rare example of an industrial musical open to the public. The show, written, produced and directed by Mr. Brown, was performed at least 40 times a day, by at least eight companies, for months on end.

If that was all Brown had done, this would still be a pretty interesting obit. But there’s another story: Brown and his wife had a good pot of money, and knew an aspiring writer who was living in New York and having trouble balancing her writing and her job.

So for Christmas of 1956, they gave their friend a present:

…an envelope with her name on it in the branches of their tree.
“I opened it and read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’”

That writer was Harper Lee. And now you know…the rest of the story.

Obit watch: June 18, 2014.

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Stanley Marsh 3, “legendary West Texas eccentric“.

This is Marsh’s most famous creation:

And Marsh spent the last years of his life entangled in civil suits and criminal accusations involving his alleged abuse of young men.

Texas Monthly
has the best coverage I’ve been able to find so far. Nothing in the papers of record yet, and the DFW papers are just running the AP obit.

Daniel Keyes has also passed away at the age of 86. Keyes was most famous for the novella “Flowers for Algernon”, later expanded into a novel, turned into the movie “Charly”, and the subject of countless popular culture parodies.

Gratuitous gun porn (#3 in a series)

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Before last week, I had not purchased a gun since July of 2012*.

There are reasons for that. One was that I went through a period of unemployment, where I wasn’t purchasing anything but essential items.

A second reason is that it has been hard to find things I’ve been interested in purchasing. My local gun shops have had very few used guns that I was interested in; it seems that people are mostly holding on to guns rather than trading them in. When Mike the Musicologist and I went down to San Antonio, I did find a few interesting used guns, but either the prices were out of line (in my opinion) or (at Nagel‘s) I didn’t have the ready cash available to make the purchase.

When I decided I was going to the Smith and Wesson Collectors Association symposium in Columbus, I thought there was a good chance that I’d break the drought. I don’t buy guns just for the sake of buying guns, but I generally have a mental list of “grail” guns at any given time. The S&WCA annual meetings are a good place to find at least some of those guns, since many of my “grail” guns are Smiths.

I was lucky enough to find two guns that I fell in love with, both at the table of noted dealer David Carroll. I was even luckier in that they were within price ranges I felt I could afford, and that Mr. Carroll was willing to work with me on payment and shipping. (Mr. Carroll is a swell guy. Go buy things from him. Please.)

(As a side note, it isn’t as easy to buy guns over the Internet or out of state as lying liars who lie would have you believe. The S&WCA meeting was in Ohio. I live in Texas. As a non-resident of Ohio who doesn’t have any type of Federal Firearms License (FFL), I couldn’t legally buy a gun in the state. Private sale or dealer, it wouldn’t make any difference; I’d be breaking the law, as would the person who sold it to me. I had to have my dealer in Texas send Mr. Carroll (who is a licensed dealer) a copy of his FFL, Mr. Carroll had to ship the guns to my FFL dealer, and then I had to go to my dealer, fill out a BATFE Form 4473, and provide my Texas concealed carry permit to my FFL dealer before I could take possession of the guns. If I didn’t have a Texas concealed carry permit, I still could have gone through with the purchase, but my dealer would have had to phone in a NICS check. The only thing my Texas concealed carry permit gets me is bypassing the phone call, since I’ve already been through a background check.)

(If I had a limited collectors license, what BATFE calls a “Curios and Relics” (or “C&R”) license, I probably could have brought one of the guns home with me. The “C&R” license is less expensive and less invasive than a full FFL, but it limits you (generally) to guns more than 50 years old. So I still would have had to have the second gun shipped to my FFL, plus there’s the whole “traveling with a gun on an airline” thing, which is kind of complicated.)

(And I’ll admit, it gave me more than a little thrill when I went to my FFL to pick up the guns, and the guy behind the counter said, “Oh, yeah. I saw those earlier. Those are pretty.” They especially admired the one I’m about to write about.)

(I’m sure many of my readers already know these things. The above is for the benefit of new readers, and people who may not be aware of the process. Remember: lying liars who lie, will lie.)

After the jump, photos and words and things.


Obit watch: May 17, 2014.

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Dr. Clyde Snow, legendary forensic anthropologist.

In Argentina in 1985, Dr. Snow and students he had trained excavated a mass grave where military death squads had buried some of the 13,000 to 30,000 civilians who vanished in a seven-year “dirty war” against dissidents. They found 500 skeletons, many with bullet holes in the skulls, fractured arms and fingers, and abundant signs of torture and murder.

In 1979, Dr. Snow helped identify many of the 33 boys and young men killed by Mr. Gacy, most of them buried in a crawl space under his suburban Chicago home. That year he also helped identify many of the 273 people killed when an American Airlines flight crashed and burned on takeoff from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, then the nation’s worst air disaster.

Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell (which is briefly mentioned in the obit) is the book that sparked my interest in forensic anthropology. It appears to be out-of-print, but readily available: I commend it to your attention.

Also among the dead: Watergate figure Jeb Magruder.

Today in literary fraud.

Monday, May 12th, 2014

When asked about questions about the story’s veracity by the Israeli newspaper Haaetz, the film’s director said, “That is exactly like the people who deny the existence of concentration camps. This is a true story. Everything that happened during the Holocaust is unbelievable and impossible to grasp, and people therefore also find it difficult to believe this story.”

Yeah, well, maybe. But I think you can ask questions about a story without being a Holocaust denier; the key is the phrasing. “What you’re saying happened doesn’t line up with what we know, historically, about the Holocaust, including the testimony of other survivors, Ms. Defonseca. Can you explain the differences?”

In related news, Misha Defonseca has been ordered to repay $22.5 million to her former publisher Mt. Ivy Press and Jane Daniel, who owns Mt. Ivy.

Misha who the what now? $22.5 million? That’s Steve King money!

Ms. Defonseca wrote a book called Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It didn’t sell well in the US, but was popular in Europe: it was adapted as an opera and as a French film, “Surviving With Wolves”.

…Misha Defonseca wrote of her experience of being a young Jewish girl on her own during World War II, fleeing into the woods where she was adopted by wolves, and killing a Nazi soldier.

The LAT is a little less clear on this next step than I would like, but apparently there was a dispute between Ms. Defonseca, Mt. Ivy, and Vera Lee (“a French speaker chosen to work with Defonseca”).

A judge found that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalty payments, hidden money in offshore accounts and failed to market the book. Rights for the book reverted to Defonseca, and she was to be awarded damages of $32.4 million.

This now also becomes an excellent example of “Be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it.” Ms. Daniel, of course, appealed the verdict. And as part of the appeal, she hired people to take a closer look at Ms. Defonseca’s story.

Which turned out to be almost complete bullshit.

An American geneologist worked with Belgian counterparts to track down Defonseca’s true origins. She was born Monique De Wael in Brussels, where she attended Catholic school during the time she had claimed to be lost in the woods.
One part of the story was true: As a young girl, she lost her parents. Both had been members of the Resistance and were deported and killed. She was raised by relatives — not wolves.

And she’s admitted the fabrication:

“This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”

Interestingly, Wikipedia has a “Fake memoirs” page, but it does not break out Holocaust memoirs into a separate category.

Books in brief: Busted

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love is the true story of two crusading female reporters for an underfunded newspaper, who exposed massive corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department and won the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

True tales of journalism appeal to me. And the book has blurbs from two writers I admire, Mark Bowden and Edna Buchanan. So I added it to my wish list when I first heard about it, and my beloved and indulgent brother and sister-in-law picked it up for me as a birthday present. (Thanks, guys!)

Given that it was something I asked for, and received as a present, this review may seem kind of churlish. But, while I appreciated the gift and enjoyed the book, it has some problems. And it would be unfair to my readers not to mention those problems, family matters aside.

The book is listed as by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Lasker. Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker are the two reporters who did the Pulitzer-prize winning “Tainted Justice” series for the Philadelphia Daily News, and were officially credited with the prize. I do find it odd and interesting that Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker do not mention that they actually shared the “Investigative Reporting” prize that year with Sheri Fink of the NYT. I do remember that there was some controversy over that; Ms. Fink’s work was originally in the “Feature Writing” category, but the Pulitzer board moved it to “Investigative Reporting”. It doesn’t diminish Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s accomplishment that they shared the prize, but not mentioning that fact makes me wonder.

Additionally, while the book carries both bylines, it appears to have been entirely a Ms. Ruderman production. When Ms. Lasker is mentioned, it is always in the third person as “Barbara”, while Ms. Ruderman narrates the book in the first person. Ms. Ruderman is a talented writer, but I feel the book would have benefited from more of Ms. Lasker’s perspective in the first person, rather than Ms. Ruderman’s recounting of her thoughts and feelings after the fact. For example, I’d love to hear Ms. Lasker’s account of being slapped by a source, and getting upset afterwards, because she lost her pen, from her own mouth rather than Ms. Ruderman’s. (The Daily News, being a broke newspaper, provided reporters with cheap pens. Ms. Lasker sprang for the “four for $3.99″ ones at the grocery store and losing one was “a big deal”. As well it should be. Crappy pens suck. Don’t buy pens at the dollar store, either. Just saying.)

It is possible that I may be mistaken, and this is just an authorial device. If so, it seems to me to be an unusual one; most collaborations of this sort that I’ve read set off the individual contributions by name, for example “Barbara” and “Wendy”.

Busted seems like a short book. It comes in at 242 pages (including acknowledgements) but it feels even shorter than that. And this leads into two more problems with the book. The first one is that it feels padded, and not in a good way. I would have liked more descriptions of the journalistic process Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker followed; but I have to face the fact that their journalistic process was dogged, unrelenting, boots-on-ground going through search warrants and talking to people work. (As opposed to the “reporter with a database” model that seems to pervade much of modern journalism.) Instead, there’s a lot of discussion of the precarious finances of the Daily News and of Ms. Ruderman’s and Ms. Lasker’s personal lives.

And that’s the second problem. Ms. Ruderman spends a lot of time discussing her difficulties striking a balance between being a good wife and parent and pursuing a good story. I get that, I sympathize with that, but lots of women have that problem. Granted, not all of them are spending their days searching for crack dealers, but a little bit of the work/life balance whinging goes a long way.

There’s also some stuff that I think flat out doesn’t belong.

Barbara had long, wavy highlighted blond hair and a tangerine slice of a nose. Her big green eyes, flecked with caramel, reminded me of top-of-the-line granite kitchen counters. She rimmed them with dark olive eyeliner and a hint of grayish blue eye shadow. With her coral lip gloss, silver hoop earrings, snug skirts, and candy-colored blouses, Barbara came off all bubble-gum–wifty and gee-whiz. But that was just her facade.

What the frack? If I was Ms. Ruderman’s editor, I’d have cut everything except maybe the last two sentences, and I would have cut the first half of the second to last one. This isn’t the only paragraph in which Ms. Ruderman dwells on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker. And there’s also quite a bit of material about Ms. Lasker’s misadventures in the dating scene, including failed dates and her relationship with her neighbor “Hutch”.

(Side note about “Hutch”: “A gun lover, he kept a 9mm Glock in his bedroom dresser and stashed shotguns and hunting rifles in a locked safe. Barbara hated guns.” Yet later on, when Ms. Lasker and Ms. Ruderman are afraid the Philadelphia PD is targeting them, “Hutch” is the person Ms. Lasker looks to for protection. Odd, isn’t it, how people who “hate guns” don’t hesitate to turn to people who have guns for protection? Especially when you’re afraid of “the only ones” you think should have guns?)

I’m not going to throw around my feminist credentials here, because I don’t have any. I believe in equality of opportunity for women. I believe women have a right to go about their lives and make choices without being physically attacked or sexually abused. I think the best rape deterrent is two to the chest and one to the head, administered by the victim at the time of the assault. I support strong, intelligent women. If that makes me a feminist, so be it. I don’t claim the title.

But the dwelling on physical descriptions of Ms. Lasker makes me uncomfortable. If it had been “Mr. Ruderman” instead of “Ms. Ruderman” who had written the paragraph above, would we be hearing complaints from women? “What do her physical attributes and her dating life have to do with her ability to do the job?” What, indeed?

(And how do green eyes remind you of granite kitchen counters, anyway?)

This is a shame, because Ms. Ruderman could have found other ways to fill space. I would have liked to hear more stories about their editor, Gar Joseph, to take one example. You have to like an editor who tells his staff, “I don’t give a shit about the parade unless a small child is entangled in the ropes of the Mighty Mouse balloon and choked to death, so don’t waste a reporter on it.” We could use more editors like that these days. Ms. Ruderman could also, perhaps, have filled in some more context on the Inquirer/Daily News war and the struggles of both papers in the new economy. And it would have been nice to see the “Tainted Justice” series put into the context of Philadelphia’s long history of police corruption.

That leads into my final issue with Busted. And, to be fair, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the writing (which is good) or the book’s narrative (which is compelling). But I feel like I have to ask this question of Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Lasker:

In the end, what did you accomplish?

The only result that’s mentioned in the book is some reforms in the way the narcotics division operates, and most of those reforms seem (from Ms. Ruderman’s account) to be stronger restatements of existing policy rather than actual rule changes.

And these events took place after the book was published, so it may be unfair to drag them in here. However, there is an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored:

The officers involved in the “Tainted Justice” investigation, including Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, will not face any charges for their actions. As a matter of fact, while they may face some internal disciplinary action, most reports I’ve read say it is very likely that they will be allowed back on the street and awarded back pay including “lost overtime pay”.

Okay. So let’s set aside the sexual assault allegations against Thomas Tolstoy for a moment. After all, these allegations come down to “he said/she said”, and shouldn’t we give the benefit of the doubt to the accused? Even if there are multiple complaints from multiple women? Even if at least one of those women says she was never contacted by investigators?

Let’s set aside the falsification of warrants charges against Jeffrey Cujdik, too. After all, much of the case against him rests on the word of a convicted drug dealer and known drug addict turned informant. Should we trust someone like that? Even if his charges are backed up by outside evidence, including the search warrants he allegedly lied on?

We still have the raids on merchants, where Jeffrey Cujdik and Thomas Tolstoy, among others, disabled surveillance cameras and took money and property from store owners. This is not a “he said/they said” situation: for God’s sake, these men are on video committing these acts! And those acts weren’t just violations of department policy: if you or I stole stuff from a bodega, we’d be prosecuted.

But Jeffrey Cujdik, Thomas Tolstoy, Robert McDonnell Jr., and Richard Cujdik (Jeffery’s brother) are walking away without charges and with back pay for right now.


Why do the good citizens of Philadelphia tolerate this? Why are the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police not being treated as criminal gangs? There’s evidence that both organizations attempted to intimidate witnesses to Cujdik and Tolstoy’s conduct; where are the RICO charges? Where are any criminal charges?

I know what Lawrence will probably say the answer is: the mayor of Philadelphia is an African-American Democrat, and the Obama administration is unlikely to bring charges against the police department that would embarrass him. Perhaps this is the case. I’m pretty cynical, but I haven’t quite reached that level of cynicism yet.

Busted is a good story. I just wish it was a more satisfying one, with a better ending.

Obit watch: May 9, 2014.

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Farley Mowat, perhaps most famous for his book Never Cry Wolf.

NYT obit for Bill Dana.