Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is a solid work of non-fiction subtitled The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America and tells the story of George Remus, the aforementioned bootleg king and murderer of his wife Imogene.

It's noted that Prohibition allowed for liquor to be used for medicinal purposes, and Remus as a bootlegger would buy both distilleries and wholesale drug companies, bribe officials to obtain withdrawal permits to remove the whiskey, then hijack his own trucks and resell the liquor. By the summer of 1921, Remus owned 35% of all the liquor in the United States, with he and Imogene living in Cincinnati like royalty, throwing lavish parties including a New Year's Eve party that year which featured Remus giving $1,000 bills to each guest and a new car to every woman there.

Remus eventually is arrested for his crimes and while in prison, Imogene started an affair with Bureau of Investigation agent Franklin Dodge. The two of them siphoned off the family fortune and when Remus released from prison in April 1927, shortly after Imogene filed for divorce, he returned home to find the mansion emptied out.

Imogene almost certainly had attempted to enlist people to kill Remus and immediately prior to their divorce trial in October of that year, Remus shot and killed her. The remainder of the book is about the murder trial, with Remus defending himself based on plea of temporary insanity, and he often made huge scenes during the trial, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and then successfully argued that the insanity was in fact just temporary so neither went to prison for the murder nor was institutionalized. It was a compelling tale told well by Abbott and Remus as a character was written into the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire about whiskey running during Prohibition.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel is subtitled The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and details the life of John Harrison and his clocks built between 1730 and 1770 that enabled sailors to determine their longitude and navigate more safely across the oceans.

The book notes how latitude and longitude originally plotted in A.D. 150 by the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy, with latitude lines running the width of the globe and longitude lines from pole to pole. The parallel of latitude lines are based on the equator so fixed by nature, whereas meridian of longitude lines set from an arbitrary spot, for the past several hundred years Greenwich, England.

Sobel notes this difference in how the lines set made it so that sailors could fairly easily gauge their latitude by the sun and length of the day, enabling easy straight east to west travel or vice versa, but it was much more difficult to determine one's longitude.

The two ways to ascertain longitude at sea were via a lunar method, tracking against the stars, but this difficult to do effectively given cloudy nights and the amount of calculation required, and via keeping time aboard ship as well as the time at a separate place of known longitude. From this time difference, one could calculate the degrees traveled and know the location. The problem with this method was having a timepiece that worked as it should, with them rendered unreliable by changes in barometric pressure, temperature extremes, or simply rolling of the ship.

In response to this situation, English Parliament offered the Longitude Act of 1714, stipulating the award of a large monetary prize to anyone that could make possible the accurate determination of one's longitude while at sea. Sobel details how the aforementioned John Harrison accomplished this task via the timekeeping method, building over four decades five revolutionary chronometers, H-1 through H-5. Also noted in the book was how Harrison's had to contend with people who advocated for a lunar solution trying to thwart his superior effort.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Working by Robert Caro

Working by Robert Caro was an excellent book on his approach to writing from the acclaimed author of The Power Broker on Robert Moses and The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power, all on Lyndon Johnson. This latest book felt to have two different main ideas covered in it, what Caro wanted to show in his prior works, and how he went about producing the writing.

Goal of his works

Caro noted how he wrote on Moses as well Johnson to provide a view into political power, how it's gained, wielded, and the impact it has on people, first at a regional level with Moses and then national with Johnson.

Moses shaped New York City and surrounding areas for some four decades as an unelected public official, both for good in spearheading the building of roads and parks, and for bad in displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. One example written of by Moses was the taking apart of the East Tremont neighborhood to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with it's routing not negatively impacting business interests held by powerful allies.

Similar to in his writing on Moses, Caro detailed the positives as well as negatives from Johnson's influence. He as a young congressman helped bring electricity to the rural Texas Hill Country he grew up in, then led the Senate for six years, getting more accomplished there than anyone else ever has, including on Civil Rights, but also winning offices and accumulating power through illicit means and presiding over the Vietnam War.

His writing process

Caro also covered how he went about his work, with early in his career learning from a boss the need to "turn every page" in investigative reporting. This resulted in things including Caro spending seven years, and doing at least 522 interviews, writing The Power Broker, and he and his wife moving to the Texas Hill Country east of Austin for three years while researching Johnson's childhood growing up in the area.

Caro noted the importance of extensive document reading on both Moses and Johnson as well as the effort he put into tracking down interview subjects. Then when doing the interviews, he would dig into areas such as what it was like for the person at a specific time they with either Moses or Johnson, and what things that saw around them... with Caro using this detail to try to help readers visualize a sense to place. He also noted wearing a suit to his office to write, as a reminder that it's a job he's paid to do, having a daily word count goal to hit, and outlining extensively. Additionally covered was his time writing in the New York Public Library and being part of a small community of writers there, and how important it is to have good narrative writing in nonfiction, not something that should only be in fiction.

All of this effort was noted by Caro as being towards the goal of telling the story of where someone came from, what shaped them, and how that influenced the shaping they then did, with the overarching effort being to use the stories of first Moses and then Johnson to explain how things worked.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski was an interesting book by a writer whose work I enjoy quite a bit and have posted on a number of times back to 2009.

Posnanski writes of how Houdini compelling in part because of how he's managed to stay so relevant to this day, with staying in people's consciousness through books, movies, television shows, and simply mentions of him, his name synonymous with escapes, so often in descriptions of how someone "pulled a Houdini." Also covered well in the book was how Houdini had many contradictions in his life, including lying about having been born in 1874 in Appleton, WI, when he born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, and being known as a brilliant magician, rather than the master escape artist, promoter, and all-around performer who gave himself challenges and won at them, but not necessarily magician, that he was.

Posnanski covered how Houdini may not have done the impossible, but he very much did the amazing, and virtually every illusionist, magician, or escape artist after Houdini would have been influenced or inspired by him. To this end, the book covers star performers in the field including the late Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, Joshua Jay, and the duo Penn and Teller, bringing to mind a great 2012 Esquire article on Teller.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain by Thales Teixeira

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain by Thales Teixeira was a very thorough business book featuring the subtitle How Decoupling Drives Consumer Disruption, with the things that stood out in it noted below...

From part 1 - The New Reality of Markets:

- Business disruption often isn’t necessarily driven by technology innovation, rather by a company decoupling, or breaking down steps in the Customer Value Chain (an example of a four step CVC being: evaluate, choose, purchase, and consume), and then fulfilling the need from a specific step.

- Business success can come from new ways, with an example of this Best Buy or supermarket chains now getting a substantial portion of revenue from manufacturers paying for prominent display space, or Costco losing money on sales to consumers, and making it on memberships.

- Innovative business models have to be more than simply the digital version of a traditional business. Instead, there should be an incremental innovation, leading to a disruptive idea.

From part 2 - Responding to Decoupling:

- Creating moats around your product, as Gillette did with their razors and replacement blades, isn't a customer-centric approach, and can be attacked by someone with a focus on the consumer.

- Established businesses facing decoupling threats can attempt to counteract them by recoupling, basically trying to force customers to not work with the decoupling. It's a risky approach, though, and an alternate approach would be for an established company to engage in preemptive decoupling. One way to decouple your own business is to actually rebalance, and then attempt to capture value, or revenue at the points that you create value, with the previously noted story of Best Buy getting fees from manufacturers an example of this.

- An established company in a market should calculate market share at risk due to decoupling, then if risk is high, calculate the cost of responding vs the risk, then if the decision is to respond, decide whether to decouple or recouple, and if decoupling, decide whether to rebalance.

From part 3 - Building Disruptive Businesses:

- A good way to begin as a disruption force is to operate on the fringe of a business, do well at a small aspect of the larger business. This helps in both having a focus and in not being as large of a target to take down.

- Growing as a business is about focusing on core competencies, and then moving into adjacent markets, particularly if there are things adjacent in the Customer Value Chain. Doing this can lead to growth by coupling, organically creating strong ties to the customer. It really is all about the customer, not innovation or competition, but the customer, and there should be incentives for employees to serve the customer.

- The idea of set-it-and-forget-it (SIAFI), where consumers receive products as part of subscription services is a fairly new and large consumer trend. 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb was a really good book with the subtitle A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.

Gottlieb writes a poignant story of both her life as she examines it in therapy and the lives of some of her patients. The patient stories were done with permission of those written about and modified so as to not be recognizable, with the characters in the book John, a Hollywood producer, Julie, a young woman with terminal cancer, and Rita, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if it doesn't improve.

It's compelling writing from Gottlieb that's both a biography about her becoming a therapist, working through and reacting to her own troubles and heartbreak, and helping patients cope with the pain of past life choices, pending death, and unimaginable family trauma. The book tells a number of difficult stories throughout and very much makes the case that in times of heartbreak, bad situations can be helped, and things can in fact get better, despite how unlikely that may feel.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott is a novel based out of the true story that the CIA during the Cold War worked to make available in Russia the banned book Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

Prescott imagines and writes of spies coming out of a CIA secretarial pool, love, and betrayal from Washington to Russia, and her novel has met fairly large acclaim, as noted in this review from The Guardian.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell was an interesting book subtitled What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, with some of the ideas from it that stood out noted below...

People often rely too much on their impressions, and too little on facts. 

Gladwell wrote of how people believe things they want to believe, often as part of them fitting into a narrative, but it better to simply look at things at face value rather than letting impressions carry too much weight in forming a conclusion. To this end, some of the stories in the book include British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin meeting with Hitler prior to the outset of WWII and then proclaiming he trusted his statements about the limits of German expansion aims. Those who instead believed Hitler would invade Poland hadn't met with him, but simply looked at his actions and statements to the world.

Another example given in the book is judges who in setting bail "stare into the soul of someone," but would often prevent crimes while someone on parole more effectively by simply looking at someone's record and the facts of the case without meeting them. Additionally, Gladwell noted how we don’t do well judging in situations where people act differently or express different emotions than we would expect, with Amanda Knox as someone who was odd and immature, and largely as a result was prosecuted for murder despite the flimsy case against her.

Defaulting to truth is something that should the majority of time be the norm.

Gladwell wrote of defaulting to truth is generally the right approach, and how whistleblowers are an important and helpful segment of society, but things would break down if everyone a whistleblower. There's a cost to being a whistleblower, with their lives often filled with paranoia and distrust, and generally defaulting to truth enables society to function better and people enjoy their lives more, even given the inherent tolerance for error that results. It's noted in the book that the person who earliest suspected Bernie Madoff engaged in a criminal Ponzi scheme was a paranoid type of person, and just how debilitating it was for them.

Specific acts are tied to specific places.

Another idea from the book was that of coupling, how acts are tied to specific things or places. Some examples given of this are how crime often tied to a very confined area, and suicide often tied to the way in which it’s acted out... with the story of how the UK changed the gas used to heat homes, no longer using "town gas," instead using natural gas, and as a result suicides plummeted. Suicide barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge was also brought up, people who were stopped from jumping often didn’t commit suicide later.

These three concepts feed into the story of Sandra Bland, someone pulled over outside Houston, subjected to aggressive and uncalled for policing leading to her arrest, and who several days later committed suicide in her jail cell. Gladwell writes of how this idea of aggressive policing, stopping and questioning people for minor infractions, should be confined to high crime spots as it comes with a price to not default to the truth that people likely aren't committing a crime. The thing to avoid is taking an idea that's a good one in limited use, and then expanding it farther than should be the case. Additionally, Bland's behavior after being pulled over was decided by the officer to be evidence of her guilt and heightened tension much more than the facts of the situation called for, ultimately leading to her arrest, and subsequent time in jail where she took her life.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell was a good book with the subtitle The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.

Purnell wrote about Virginia Hall, described in the book jacket as a Baltimore socialite who joined the British Special Operatives Executive organization and established spy networks throughout France, disrupting Nazi efforts there both before and after Allied forces landed at Normandy.

Throughout this entire time, she operated with a prosthetic leg, and dealt with numerous cases of being either passed over or subjugated by men with her a woman and showed a great deal of heroism through her efforts as part of the Resistance, with a line from the book "espionage, sabotage, and subversion behind enemy lines."

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sea Stories by William McRaven

Sea Stories by retired Four-Star U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven was an excellent book that has the subtitle My Life in Special Operations and details stories from his career.

It’s remarkable how many high profile events McRaven was involved in, including the capture of Saddam Hussein, killing of Osama bin Laden, and rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama.

Along with stories of these events, McRaven starts with his childhood as part of a military family, with his father an Air Force officer, and then Navy SEAL training after graduating the University of Texas. This part was particularly compelling reading, with the depiction of SEAL Hell Week, featuring six days of no sleep and constant encouragement from superiors to ring the bell and walk away. Out of this, don’t ring the bell was the mantra, don’t ever quit.

Additionally in the book was a number of other interesting stories, ranging from those that very well could have killed him, with McRaven thrown from a raft in heavy surf at Morro Bay, California and tearing his pelvis apart in a skydiving accident, to attempting to rescue U.S. citizens held hostage in the Philippines and searching for and finding the shattered pieces of a Navy plane that crashed in remote British Columbia in 1948. The book was a really fast read that featured some great stories, including some very much a part of the historical record.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert was a novel that felt to spend quite a while building a backstory, and which then finished very strong.

It's a first person account by a woman named Vivian Morris, who as a nineteen-year-old left college for New York City in 1940 to go live at her Aunt Peg's theater. Morris is telling her story to a woman named Angela who wrote Vivian to ask about her relationship with Angela's father, Frank. Vivian and Angela interacted first in 1971 when Vivian made her wedding dress at the request of her dear friend Frank, then in 1977 when Angela wrote to tell her Frank died, and then in 2010 when Angela wrote inquiring about the relationship, and Morris replied with the story told in the book.

The close friendship between Frank and Vivian didn't come until quite late and Gilbert wrote beautiful prose of the interactions between them. In relation to Gilbert's usage of language in the book, there were some quotes that particularly stood out...

- Reference to British Army engineers during the Great War, who used to say "we can do it, whether it can be done or not."

- Vivian's Aunt Peg upon picking her up to return her back to New York City following young Vivian's abrupt and shame-filled departure... "once I like a person, I can only like them always."

- How after Vivian's business partner, close friend, and roommate Majorie gave birth and became a single mother, the two of them raised together "beautiful, difficult, tender, little Nathan," someone who Majorie spoke of by noting how hard it was to raise him, how much she loved him and how he evidence that "not everyone is meant to charge through the world carrying a spear."

- The partner of Aunt Peg, Olive, who said to Vivian after she ran away from Angela’s father Frank upon meeting him... "the field of honor is a painful field," and "an adult can make the choice to be in that field."

- Frank's words to Vivian that "the world just happens to you sometimes, and people just gotta keep moving through it, best they can."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Four by Scott Galloway

The Four by Scott Galloway was an interesting book subtitled The Hidden DNA of Apple, Facebook, and Google and it's noted on the book jacket that Galloway an entrepreneur who has founded nine firms and a professor at NYU's Business School. Along with a look at each company, The Four includes ideas from Galloway that aren't specific to any one of the companies, both on business in general as well as how people should go about their careers, and below covers some of the things that stood out.


1. Maniacal focus on operations: Galloway writes of Amazon's investment into last-mile infrastructure, effectively removing friction for a customer. Additionally noted is the focus on robotics, using technology to improve steps in the supply chain process, and using AI to move towards zero-click ordering, where a customer would receive boxes containing what algorithms believe are desired, and then sending back what isn't. Also on this topic is how Amazon profits by selling access to their operational expertise and ecosystem, with AWS and Amazon Marketplace examples of this.

2. Investor storytelling: Noted is how storytelling between the company and investors is at the level where markets have bought into the idea of continuing to invest money in automation and operations for the future. Hugely risky and expensive risks, like floating warehouses, likely won't pay off, but have enormous returns if they do, and Amazon has the trust of the market to spend on such enterprises. Galloway mentions later in the book the power of a CEO who can capture the imagination of the markets, and have people who show incremental progress against that vision.

3. Avoiding commoditization: Amazon has done an excellent job of moving more into multi-channel with integration across web, social, and brick and mortar as the problem with pure e-commerce is brand loyalty is out the window, and it costs much more to acquire new customers than to keep loyal ones. The Whole Foods acquisition an example of this multi-channel approach, and Amazon Prime an example of the company moving way past being just another website to buy from.


1. Turning a commodity into a luxury item: The biggest thing that Galloway write of around Apple is how it's unique in having a luxury brand, but with commodity materials costs. The company has managed to develop an aura of cool and innovative, enabling it to charge prices and achieve margins that would be otherwise unattainable.

2. Using stores as a competitive advantage: Apple stores are noted as being a huge driver of point one above, with them a sort of physical manifestation of cool, and as of 2017, the 492 Apple stores worldwide drew in one million people daily.

3. Having an operator in charge: Galloway covers later in the book how leadership of a firm is best served at different points in the life cycle by different types of people: an entrepreneur, visionary, operator, or pragmatist, with it being hard, but not impossible for someone to transition from one type to the other. He notes that Apple hiring an operator in Tim Cook as CEO was key to it's continued rise, as if the company wanted another visionary, they would have made Jony Ivy CEO.

Facebook & Google - the ideas written of on each feel to blend together

1. Becoming ubiquitous: The platforms of each company, with Google's main page and Facebook or Instagram feeds, have become the respective places to go for search (with the exception of product searches on Amazon) or social. It's noted in the book that as of 2017, one in six people alive are on Facebook, so when someone wants to do this sort of interacting with others, there's simply not somewhere else they would go.

2. Knowing your users through data: Each company has a huge amount of intelligence about the people who use it's respective services, and is really good at data. Facebook in particular uses that data for behavioral targeting, something that can be very effective, as well as controversial at best, and insidious at worst.

The Four closes with Galloway's view of what he sees as individual personal success factors: emotional maturity, curiosity, an ownership of details, credentials, grit, being loyal to people, following your talent, going where your skill is valued, and asking for and giving help to others. While the book may be a little bit dated with it having been published in 2017, Galloway's notions on individual success as well as what's driven these four companies seem quite insightful and relevant today.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah was an engrossing autobiography with the subtitle Stories from a South African Childhood and the book jacket notes that he was born to a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, when such a union punishable by five years in prison.

Noah wrote of how he had to be hidden at time as a child during apartheid, lest his mother get found out by authorities as having a mixed-race child. When apartheid ended, there was a huge amount of violence between the Zulu and Xhosa people, two groups of blacks in South Africa. This came in large part because of how apartheid fostered division between peoples, with the white government doing things like teaching school in different languages to different tribes, creating a separation that made it possible for a white minority to have control over a black majority.

Noah's mother lovingly raised him alone through much of his early childhood, and there was a number of interesting anecdotes from Noah, including how he hates secondhand cars, as almost everything that's gone wrong in his life he can trace to secondhand cars, from being late for school to his mother getting shot.

Her car frequently would break down and she wound up getting involved with and then marrying a mechanic, someone who was an angry drinker who felt he needed to be seen as the man in charge. She went to the police the first time he hit her, but they convinced her to not make trouble and sent her away. Noah's mother eventually divorced him, and then he came back and shot her, which led to three years probation for attempted murder, a sentence that likely would have been more if the police had actually filed charges from when she went to them after being beaten. It was disheartening reading of how little protection provided for those who needed it, it seemed people were just on their own.

Noah was a very smart, albeit hyperactive, child who received a lot from his mother, was a tremendous hustler while a teenager, and made it out, with him providing in the book a fascinating tale of growing up in a world completely different than many who would read this book.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony

The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence was another great book from the writers of The Elephant Whisperer and while the first effort excellent for it's depiction of animals in the African wild, this one struck me with it's descriptions of people in Africa, including largely lawless areas both rural and heavily populated, and interactions with African warlords.

The ostensible topic of the book was Anthony's efforts to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction, with reportedly fewer than 15 remaining in the wild, all in the Garamba National Park on the border with Sudan in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. The book felt to wind up being more about the interactions Anthony had while trying to save the animals, with him first in the city of Kinshasa in the Congo and then engaging with people from the Lord's Resistance Army led by the infamous Joseph Kony. Kinshasa, which hosted the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight between Gorge Foreman and Muhammad Ali, was described by Anthony as home to 8 million people, with only 1M affluent by African standards, 2M making ends meet, 3M living in shantytowns, and 2M on the streets. Descriptions in the book of the city and the lives of the people who lived there, many of them seeming to hang on by a thread, were wild.

Anthony recounts how while in Kinshasa he encountered huge bureaucracy in his efforts to protect and save the rhinos, and as a last resort of sorts engaged Kony's LRA, known as the army that captured youth and turned them into child soldiers. His idea of going to the LRA was to get them to agree to not attack the guards in Garamba National Park, so the guards could fend off poachers, and Anthony went to Juba in the Southern Sudan where there were to be peace talks between the LRA and the government of Uganda whom they had been fighting for some twenty years. After initially rebuffing his entreaties, the LRA said they open to working with Anthony and later asked him to travel for a meeting, which led him on a voyage from Nairobi through Juba, Maridi, Eidi, Nabanga, and finally into LRA territory and Ri-Kwangba in Garamba National Park in the Congo, just across from Southern Sudan where Anthony met with LRA deputy-leader Vincent Otti.

It was compelling reading of the voyage and it's dangers along the way, including siafu or driver ants, and the LRA agreed to help with the rhinos and asked for Anthony to assist in peace efforts. In part due to Anthony, talks were progressing in 2007, until Kony killed his second in command Otti, and the LRA was attacked in December 2008 by Ugandan forces with US backing, resuming the full-scale war. The events described by Anthony came across as very tribal and raw, and so very different than in the western world. The book closes out back in Thula Thula with how life in Africa continues on, both beautiful and wild, and includes mention of the events covered in a heavily viewed YouTube video, as well as of the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence was a remarkable story with the subtitle My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.

Anthony grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, moved with his family to rural South Africa in the 1960s and after finishing school established a real estate company. He in 1998 purchased a 5,000 acre game reserve in Zululand within South Africa and then a year later was asked to accept a herd of troubled elephants onto his reserve, named Thula Thula, lest they be killed.

He took on seven elephants and they caused definite problems at first, breaking through fences and having to be recaptured. Towards the goal of getting the elephants to settle down into their new home, Anthony personally worked with them, establishing a relationship with the matriarch, and it's a wonderful story of how the elephants grew to have varying degrees of trust in him, and also of the rhythms of the African wild, it's animals, and life and death there.

Anthony wrote of how he and his wife established a luxury elephant safari lodge on the grounds at Thula Thula to fund his conservation efforts, and he closes the prologue of the book by nothing that the elephants taught him all life forms are important to each other in their common quest for happiness and survival.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe was an excellent book subtitled A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland and it provides a look at the Troubles in Northern Ireland, an undeclared war with a portion of the populating pushing to expel British oversight, through the stories of a few people from the conflict centered in Belfast, principally Dolours and Marian Price, Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, and Jean McConville.

Conflict in Ireland goes back over a long period, with in the Easter Uprising of 1916, revolutionaries seizing a post office in Dublin and declaring a free Irish Republic, leading to the Irish War of Independence. In 1921 the island was split in two, with 26 counties making up Ireland in the south and 6 in the north comprising Northern Ireland, ruled by Great Britain. Northern Ireland in 1969 was home to a half a million Catholics, who tended to be more in favor of a united Ireland, and a million Protestants, who tended to want the British there.

Dolours and Marian in the 1950s grew up in West Belfast, daughters of people who were in the Irish Republic Army back into the 1930s and who were fervent believers that the British should be expelled from Ireland, with violence towards that end, against either British forces or local British loyalists, entirely acceptable. The story then picks up with the ambush at Burntollet Bridge in early 1969, with loyalist Protestants attacking non-violent Catholics, including Marian and Dolours. Violence then picked up that summer, with many Catholics being forced out of Belfast and in early 1970, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army formed, the Provisional IRA, or Provos, that was more violent than the original. Dolours and Marian joined the Provos in 1971, with both factions of the IRA banned by the British as paramilitary organizations, and the sisters began to grow a reputation for their role in the armed conflict. In March of 1973, the Price sisters played a large role in a bombing in London, were captured and sent to prison and then, along with others, went on a hunger strike that garnered attention far and wide.

Two other prominent IRA members featuring in the book were Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes and it was interesting reading of the different paths taken by the two men, with Hughes someone who remained a solider fully behind the cause, and Adams an IRA leader who later denied having been part of the organization and turned himself into a politician that made deals with the British. A peace accord negotiated in 1996 had Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, but only as long as a majority of people there wanted that. If their choice eventually to unite with Ireland, they would. Another central character in the book was Jean McConville, a resident of battle-torn Belfast and widowed mother of ten, who people felt was an informer for the British. She was taken from her home by the IRA in 1972 and never seen alive again, simply disappeared, with her family having to assume her dead, but not having any confirmation. Much of the content in the book came out of a research project at Boston College begun in 2001 called The Belfast Project, where people involved in the conflict told their stories, and out of those interviews came information that largely confirmed McConville was taken by the Price sisters, on the orders of Gerry Adams.

Keefe at the end of the book writes of being fascinated with the ideas of collective denial and how people look back on political violence and Say Nothing was a fascinating study on conflict, counter-insurgency, affiliation and attaching causes. He did a really good job of weaving together a narrative from intricate details involving different characters in a conflict that to this day still erupts in occasional violence leading to deaths.