Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Deserters -book review

The Deserters, a Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass was published in 2013. As the title states, it is the true story of a part of World War II which most people today are not even aware of. We are so inundated with heroic stories of “the Greatest Generation” , that many readers will find it shocking to find out that over 150,000 American and British soldiers deserted in the European Theater.

However, do not dismiss these men as cowards. The deserters were not soldiers who refused to fight. They were combat hardened men who had seen huge amounts of fighting and death . The vast majority of the deserters came from the front line rifle companies, which had to bear the brunt of the war. The author notes a staggering statistic that, “the infantry, barely 14 percent of the total American Military presence in Europe suffered 70 percent of the casualties.” Infantry troops were sent back into combat again and again, with no “tours of duty” or rotation home. They were in combat until they were killed or the war ended. Most assumed they would not see the end of the war.

Many of the troops who deserted suffered from what today we would call “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”.  The author focuses in detail on three of the men who deserted from different units, and who he was able to interview for the book.  They all speak of being in a daze when they walked away from the front line and not really even remembering doing it.  One of them walked away after he saw  his fellow soldiers robbing the dead bodies of men from their own unit who had been killed in battle only a few minutes before.

What happened to the 150,000 deserters after they left their units became a major problem for the high command. They gravitated to the liberated cities like Paris, still had their weapons with them, and were tough as nails. Many joined criminal gangs and successfully robbed supply convoys. The replacement troops with no combat experience who were guarding the convoys were not a match for these men.

This is a fascinating, and well documented book which we highly recommend to any history buffs, or people who wonder what they would to in this same situation. Before you answer too quickly that you would never desert, read what these men faced and honestly ask yourself whether you could do the same.

Given the death and causality statistics the amazing part is not that some men deserted, but that the vast majority of the front line troops did not. Now an old man, one of the deserters actually tried to go the  reunion of his unit last year. His rationale was that the amount of time he had spent in combat before his desertion more than qualified him to be part of the group. The other tough old veterans who made up the remaining contingent of his unit, made it very clear to the deserter that he was not welcome.

Spider Cracks and the Invisible boy – by Gregory F. Farrell

The snow crunched beneath Tommy’s boots as he marched towards the park pulling his sled. The sun was just coming up and the air was so cold he had to inhale through his nose so it would not hurt his throat. The snow had a thin layer of ice on it, which made pulling the sled easier. It was a good thing, since the sled was made heavier due to Tommy’s little dog Macy riding on top of it.

Tommy had not wanted to bring Macy, but the dog started barking when it saw Tommy going outside, and Tommy wanted to get away without anyone hearing him. Usually that was not a problem at all. Tommy was a very quiet boy in a very loud family. Combined with the fact that he was the youngest, and small for his age meant that most of the time he felt invisible. Sometimes he could go a whole day without saying a word to anyone and no one even noticed.

But Tommy was much stronger and more ambitious than any of his loud brothers or sisters would have guessed. In the winter, when they were all huddled inside watching T.V. or playing video games, Tommy went to the big hill at Cumming’s Park with his sled whenever he could.

His dream was to accomplish what the big kids at the park said only a few had ever been able to do. The conditions had to be perfect and today was the day. The snow was packed down and icy.  Kids had been sledding down the largest hill all week, smoothing the snow and making it as fast as an Olympic luge track. The big kids said if you could go fast enough, you could get all the way down the hill; skid across the small road that ran through the park, and then down another small hill  to the lake. They said that five years ago Kevin Dunn had made it all the way to the middle of the lake.

The only way to do it was very early in the morning before the old men volunteers got there. The park was always so packed with kids that the old guys had started a group to direct sled traffic and keep the kids from smashing into each other. And they never, never let anyone ride a sled across the road and down to the lake. The old guys loved saying,  “a kid on a sled is no match for a car”. The old guys loved lecturing the kids about the dangers of everything.

But when Tommy got to Cumming’s Park there were no old guys yet and no kids either. Tommy and Macy stood alone at the top of the hill looking over the vast expanse of snow. The hill, then the lightly plowed road, then the smaller hill then the lake.

Tommy gently lifted Macy off the sled and put him to one side telling him to stay. Then Tommy took a running start holding the sled in front of him like a shield. He leapt off his feet and threw himself onto the sled, almost knocking the wind out of himself as he did so.

The speed was amazing. He felt the cold air rushing across his face, and could hear Macy barking excitedly at the top of the hill. Then suddenly, he was at the road, and the sled’s metal runners made a terrible screeching sound as they scraped against the pavement. The sled slowed, but just as he feared it might stop, he was across the road and the sled picked up speed again as it started down the second hill towards the lake.

Then the sled moved with a wonderful smoothness as it began to glide out onto the frozen lake. The town had cleaned all the snow off the lake so that people could ice skate. Further and further, past Kevin Dunn’s record, past the rubber orange cones.

The sled finally stopped and Tommy lay on the sled breathing heavily and feeling exhilarated. Macy had run down the hill and was pacing at the edge of the lake excitedly. It was just then that Tommy saw the first of the spider cracks in the ice begin to appear, and realized too late what the rubber orange cones meant.  The old guys placed them wherever the ice got too thin.

From living in that part of Connecticut Tommy actually knew a lot about ice. He knew better than to get off the sled. If he stood up all his weight would be on two feet instead of being spread out, and he would certainly fall through the ice into the freezing cold water. He spread his arms and placed his gloved hands on the ice, and slowly pushed  himself backwards. As he did so the spider clacks multiplied, and the ice started to make small splitting sounds. He listened desperately for any sound of the deeper toned sounds indicating a major split in the ice.

It took him almost half an hour, but he was finally able to push himself backwards, past the orange cones, back to the safety of the ground. He sat down in the snow exhausted, while Macy licked his face merrily.

When Tommy and Macy made it back to the house the rest of the family was having pancakes and hot chocolate and Tommy realized he was starving. Tommy’s mother said something about thanking him for taking Macy out for a walk, but Tommy was too tired and hungry to listen.

The rest of that Saturday, Tommy spent huddled on the couch under a big blanket with his brothers and sisters watching T.V. and drinking hot chocolate while Macy slept at their feet. Tommy realized he really didn’t care any more  about breaking Kevin Dunn’s record, and that somehow he didn’t seem to be invisible any more.

The Other Typist – book review

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell  was published in 2013 and is a remarkably good mystery story for a first time novelist. The lead character is named Rose, and she is a drab unimaginative sort despite the fact that her job should be exciting. She works in the New York City police department in 1923 typing up the statements, lies and sometimes even confessions of the criminals the detectives bring in for questioning.

Rose’s world is completely changed with the arrival in the department of Odalie- “the other typist”. Odalie is everything Rose is not. She is glamorous and dresses in ways Rose at first finds scandalous. Unlike Rose, who keeps all the detectives at a safe distance, Odalie enjoys flirting and being the center of attention.

Rose is surprised and flattered that Odalie goes out of her way to make friends with Rose, and soon the two even become roommates.

But there is something about Odalie which never makes sense to Rose. What is Odalie really doing there? Why is she working as a typist when she seems to have tons of money and some sort of secret life?

Rose finds herself getting drawn more and more into Odalie’s secret world, and soon finds that each step off the straight and narrow path becomes easier and easier. Rose gets so far off the path you wonder if she will be able to make it back.

Suzanne Rindell has done an excellent job in this period piece mystery novel from the Prohibition days in New York. Mobsters, flappers and very tough cops make this an exciting and fast paced book.  It has an unexpected surprise twist ending that I have to admit I did not see coming, even though in classic mystery tradition the clues were planted throughout the story.

I eagerly look forward to the publication of Ms. Rindell’s next novel.

Iranian Secrets by Adam & Gregory Farrell

Professor Atash Nikahd sat in his cramped office in the top floor of  the foreign studies department of Columbia University. The office had a desk, two chairs, and a variety of computers and computer parts. The rest of the space was strewn with old books, newspapers and magazines in a variety of languages including Farsi, Hebrew, French and German, all of which the professor spoke fluently.

Despite the tight quarters, there was a second man in the office. He name was Jack Kelly, and he was what as known in political circles as a “smooth talker”. Despite having no formal title, he was the man the President sent in whenever a particularly delicate situation needed attention.

Kelly leaned forward and began, “Professor, there is some concern about a paper you are preparing for possible publication.”

“Please, call me Atash. Yes I have been working on this for almost two years. I have proof, absolute proof that the Foreign Minister of Iran has been working with other high members of the government to steal ancient Persian artifacts from the museums and sell them outside the country to private collectors. They have amassed millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts while robbing the Iranian people of their heritage.”

“Those are very strong allegations professor.”

“They are not allegations!  I have shipping documents, photos of the artwork, even copies of bank statements. When I present the paper at the conference it will be a sensation!”

Despite the professor’s agitated tone, Kelly’s voice remained calm and soothing. “Well you see Atash, that sensation is exactly what the President is concerned about. Our negotiations with Iran are at a delicate stage. We are on the verge of full diplomatic relations, and Iran’s Foreign Minister has been very helpful to us. The President is very impressed with your other work Atash, but as a favor to him he would like you not to present this paper.”

“The President of the United States knows who I am?”

“Of course, Atash. In fact he read your History Middle Eastern Kings while he was in college,” lied Kelly smoothly.  

The professor was flattered but very upset. “But you don’t understand. The academic world is cut throat. I am not even a full professor. Columbia could drop me at any time. I have devoted the last two years of my life to this. I spent all my personal savings for travel and research. And of course, I had to pay bribes every step of the way to get the documents I needed. I was gone from the university so much that Columbia has threatened to fire me.  Even my wife left me. She called me an obsessed fanatic. If I don’t publish the results I am ruined, finished.” Atash was visibly shaking at the end of his speech. It looked like he was on the verge of tears. Atash continued to talk about his problems for another half an hour.

Kelly sat quietly and did not interrupt. The term “smooth talker” was not accurate. Kelly’s real skill lay in his ability to listen, really hear what someone was trying to say. And what he heard from Atash Nikahd was a man in late middle age, desperate for respect.  No wife, no tenure, no money and no publications.

When Atash was finished venting, Kelly leaned forward and began to talk. After he was done the two men shook hands and Kelly left Atash alone in the small office.

The conference came three weeks later but Atash did not present a paper. He sat alone in the back of the lecture hall, listening to lesser minds and even some graduate students make presentations and receive applause. Negotiations with Iran continued and four months later it was announced that full diplomatic relations would resume between the United States and Iran.

It was a warm spring day when the Presidential motorcade pulled up to the front of Columbia University at 116th Street & Broadway. Standing on the sidewalk to greet the President was Professor Atash Nikhad wearing a brand new beautifully tailored dark suit. It was the kind of suit he would be expected to wear as the new United States Ambassador to Iran.

Atash and the President shook hands while the press and TV crews crowded around for pictures. In the back of the crowd, unnoticed by most, Atash saw Jack Kelly. Their eyes met, and Kelly gave Atash a nod and smiled.

Murder At Morristown Hospital

“I don’t care if you call it Coumadin or Warfarin.  Doctors use it as an easy way to kill old people,” Ryan shouted.  But no one paid any attention to him.Well  I’m the killer now! You hear that? It was a warm July 3rd, and Ryan Mitchell sat on a bench in front of the Morristown New Jersey Medical Center . Despite the heat, he was wearing a loose windbreaker and had his hands in his pockets. There were a lot of old people like Ryan sitting on the benches enjoying the summer’s day. Some of them, like Ryan,  were in regular clothing , but most of them were in hospital gowns and bathrobes. A lot of them talked or even shouted to themselves, and no one else cared.

Morristown New Jersey Medical Center - scene of the murders

Morristown New Jersey Medical Center – scene of the murders

Ryan pulled a sheet of paper out of his left windbreaker pocket and looked at the typewritten list of all the people who had tried to kill him. Then he rephrased that in his mind. They had not actually tried to kill him. They would all say they were dedicated healers trying to help him. But the fact of the matter is that they almost did kill him.

3 way Foley catheter - a torture device pretending to me a medical product.

3 way Foley catheter – a torture device pretending to me a medical product.

It had started with the name at the top of the list “Dr. Larotta”. He was the idiot who had prescribed the Coumadin in the first place; without even explain to Ryan that it was one of the most dangerous drugs in the world. Then there was Larotta’s pretty nurse Nancy who misread Ryan’s blood samples, and constantly reported that there was no problem with the drug’s dosage.  “Larotta’s probably banging her on the side” muttered Ryan out loud. No one paid any attention to him. Old people talked to themselves all the time.

Sitting in front of the hospital, Ryan was almost overwhelmed by the flash of bad memories it brought back. Those tiny pills which Dr. Larotta had prescribed to help thin his blood. No one explained how the drug reacted so differently in different people. How apparently unrelated things like a change in diet could drastically change what the drug did. It thinned Ryan’s blood alright. It thinned it so much that it was literally leaking thorough his veins and arteries into the rest of his body. He was bleeding to death internally and did not even realize it. All he felt was an incredible tiredness.  Then one morning he went into the bathroom and urinated pure blood.  Sometimes Ryan wondered how close to death he had really been when he was rushed to the emergency room.

The car next to which Dr. Larotta's body was found

The car next to which Dr. Larotta’s body was found

The real pain had begun once he was admitted to the hospital. A 3-way Foley catheter was inserted into his penis. It was a pure torture device. To wash blood out of his bladder it constantly pumped a saline solution into his bladder with one tube and took the blood/urine mixture out with another. For 24 hours a day for a 4 full days.  There is really no way to describe the pain. The third name on Ryan’s list was the Urologist,  Dr. Epstein who it turns out forgot to order the Foley catheter removed. The torture had continued 2 days longer than needed just because Epstein had not gotten around to checking Ryan’s chart.

The list went on and on. Nurses, orderlies, volunteers all had various levels of complicity in the injuries to Ryan.  It had taken Ryan almost 2 years to get himself back to full health.  When  he got out of the hospital, barely able to walk, he had refused any drugs and shunned any contact with any member of the medical community. He made himself stronger by sheer force of will. Every day he would walk a little more. Then gradually he began eating better and even lifting small weights.  Bit by bit he moved on to longer walks and heavier weights.

Every day after his exercise routine he would do his research on the internet and compile  the names on his list. Ryan’s wife told him it was useless. She said that no lawyer would take his malpractice suit. No jury was interested in someone who almost died. She said he had no permanent injuries. She pointed out that with his new routine he was stronger than 90% of the men his age. No jury was going to give money to a healthy strong man, no matter how much pain he claimed happened to him in the past. She just did not understand.

Ryan suddenly looked up as Dr. Larotta walked out of the front of Morristown Hospital and headed to the physicians’ parking lot where Marotta’s 12 cylinder Jaguar was parked. Ryan shook his head at that. “Who the hell needs 12 cylinders in New Jersey?” Ryan muttered.

When Dr. Larotta went into the parking garage, Ryan got up from the bench, stretched and headed towards the garage himself. As Ryan entered the garage he could see Larotta standing looking at the four flattened tires of the Jaguar.

The murder weapon

The murder weapon

Ryan reached into the right pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out the brand-new .32 caliber revolver. It was time to scratch the first name off the list.

The Incrementalists book review

The Incrementalists by Steven Burst and Skyler White published in 2013 is a science fiction novel about a secret group which has been influencing human behavior for thousands of years. This type of conspiracy theory theme seems to be a common plot device in science fiction literature. However, unlike many secret societies, The Incrementalists are actually trying to help mankind instead of gaining power for themselves.

Incrementalists live almost forever, since when an Incrementalist dies, his or her soul and memories are implanted into the body of a new human who willingly accepts joining the group.

However, there are two main flaws with the whole system. The first is the obvious fact that this group does not seem to be very good at its job. The stated purpose of the group is to incrementally move human society to become better and better. Considering that in modern times there have been two world wars, instances of mass genocide and numerous sadistic dictators, you have to wonder how bad things would have been if this group had not been making  everything better.

The second flaw is that the whole system really depends upon a series of murders. When the human body of an Incrementalist dies, the soul “merges” with a new human body. However, what really happens is that the person who already lives in that body dies. Since the memories and will of the incrementalist are so much longer and stronger than those of the person being entered, the soul that already inhabits the body is, in effect, completely overwhelmed to the point it no longer exists. That is, until the process is tried on a new human recruit (Reneee), who ends up being a much more strong willed young woman than anyone anticipated. Renee ends up being  dominant, and as a result throws the whole group into chaos.

This is an enjoyable book and the dialog is smoothly written. I would recommend it even for people who are not normally science fiction readers.

The Great Influenza – book review

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry- is a meticulously well documented study first  published in 2004 and remains one of the best books ever written about the 1918 world wide flu pandemic. You might think that such a book would be dry reading, but the author keeps the focus on the  human aspects of the story rather than the statistics.

It was the perfect storm of disease. Three events converged in 1918. The strain of flu that year was one of the deadliest ever known. Young strong people who got the disease often died within 24 hours. It also happened to be the coldest winter in a century, which meant people were spending a lot of time huddled inside together to keep warm, creating a breeding ground for the virus. The third and final event was that World War I was causing millions of people to be on the move, spreading the disease across the planet. By the time the pandemic was over, more than 100 million people had died from the flu. That is more than died as a result of World War I itself.

The book shows the exhaustive efforts of doctors working to try to create an effective vaccine. By 1918 the medical field had reached what we would consider the modern era and this was the first major test of new techniques.

There are also a number of sad human stories, one of the saddest being that of U.S. Army Colonel Charles Hagadorn, a 51 year old career soldier who was commander of an Illinois training base (Camp Grant) that had swelled to a population of 40,000 due to the demands of the war. Colonel Hagadorn was a bachelor and the army was his life. He loved the men under his command and thought of them as “his boys”. When the brutal Midwest winter hit, he was concerned that many might freeze in their thin tents, and had the men relocated to the tight quarters of the wooden barracks and ordered extra stoves. He had seen some army memos warning about the flu, advising to keep  troops separated as much as possible. However, he thought the danger of the cold was far greater. When the flu struck the base it went through the men like wildfire and by the time it was through over 500 of the men had died. The final causality at Camp Grant was Colonel Hagadorn himself, who committed suicide when he realized what had happened to his boys as a result of his decision.

The scariest part of the book is when the author points out that today we are not much more prepared for a pandemic than they were in 1918. We have better communication and more advanced research facilities, but these are counter-balanced by the fact that air travel and a more  crowded world mean that any disease can cross the globe in far less time than it took in 1918.

This is a fascinating book, and includes many pictures and eyewitness accounts. It reads as if it were a novel. I will guarantee you that by the time you finish it you will find yourself involuntarily cringing whenever someone near you sneezes.

Captain Phillips – movie review

Although you already know the story from the news, this well directed movie with excellent acting throughout is worth seeing. It is, of course, the story of Captain Phillips who was kidnapped by Somali pirates when the container ship  Maersk Alabama was attacked in the Indian ocean in 2009.

It is a fast paced movie, but has much more character development than the typical action movie. Tom Hanks, as always, puts in an excellent performance as Captain Phillips, whose main concern is always how to keep his crew from being hurt in an extremely dangerous and volatile situation.

The surprise star of the movie,  however, is the Somali born actor Barkhad Abdi who plays the very young pirate leader Abduwali Muse. His performance is even more impressive since it turns out that this is his acting debut,  and that he moved with his parents to Minneapolis when he was 14.

The pirate leader is extremely  dangerous and unstable, due to the fact that he really does not know what he is doing, but can not afford to show any weakness or indecision in front of his own men or the Maersk Alabama crew. He keeps repeating to Phillips “don’t worry-every thing going to be OK.”  As his situation becomes worse and worse you realize it is himself rather than Phillips who he is trying to convince.

We definitely recommend this movie.

The Ex-Zombie Girl by Gregory Farrell

Allison was alone in her SoHo apartment when she went through her daily ritual. She stood naked in front of the full length mirror. She was not admiring her body, but was looking for any cuts or discoloration which would accompany the return of the virus. She took a small blood sample and put it in the meter and only relaxed when she got the green signal.

She never wanted to remember the time of the sickness, but she knew she could not forget it. She remembered using her teeth to tear into the raw flesh of other people; sometimes even people she knew. She remembered the taste of the blood and skin. The worst part was that she remembered the overpowering feeling of how much she had liked it. Every day she lived in  fear that the desire would return. Like a recovered drug addict who never truly trusted that the addiction was gone. Allison knew there was no such thing as a cured Zombie.

Of course, no one was allowed to use the “Z Word”. It was less than 18 months ago and the government had successfully been able to cover up almost all evidence of the outbreak. Stage 1 infected like Allison had been injected with the cure. Stage 2 & 3 had simply disappeared for good after the Special Forces picked them up. Rumor among the Cured like Allison was that it was just a matter of time until the government would decide to eliminate all chances of a second outbreak. One night the Cured would all disappear as well.

Allison got dressed and decided to go out for a walk to see if she could pass for a normal person. She walked all the way over to the NYU campus, expecting to get strange looks from the  students milling about, but got none.

She sat down on a bench near a food vendor’s cart. A slight breeze shifted and  she could smell the meat cooking on the grill. Allison shivered as she felt the change begin in her.  Suddenly Allison felt more hungry than she had ever been. The unbelievable strength returned to her muscles.  What seemed like a fog entered her brain, and a darkness descended on her soul.

A group of NYU students stood in a small circle talking excitedly about their classes and assignments. They paid no attention to the woman on the park bench 10 feet away, when she stood up and with a strange gait started to move towards them.

Carrie – movie review

Carrieis a remake of the classic 1976 horror movie that launched the career of Sissy Spacek. This new version stars 16 year old Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and she does a magnificent job of portraying this troubled young woman, who also happens to have supernatural powers. Her mother is played by veteran actress Julianne Moore who brings a level of complexity to the character. The mother carries religious fanaticism to the point of insanity. The many scenes that have just these two characters interacting are riveting to watch.

The problem with the movie comes with the rest of the cast. The “nasty girls” in the high school who pick on Carrie all seem to have come directly from some badly made after-school T.V. special about bullying.

Also, Chloe Grace Moretz is the only one of the actors who looks like she could really be in high school.  Several of the “girls” are 25 years old and look it (we checked the actresses on-line bios).  Everyone in the school is beautiful and self-confident. None of the kids are overweight, or painfully thin or have bad skin or wear braces. It looks like a school for fashion models.

However, all of these flaws could be forgiven if the movie did not commit the worst sin a horror movie can make – it is not scary.  Since it has been 37 years since the original movie, there are undoubtedly a large number of moviegoers who never saw the original; even on DVD.  But for some reason, the producers chose to give away the entire movie in the previews. Really, scene by scene the entire movie including the big finale. So by the time you see the movie, there is nothing new to scare you. As a final let-down, the director chose to leave out the scariest scene of all from the original (the infamous “hand coming from the grave”).

Unfortunately, we cannot recommend this movie. However we do predict that Chloe Grace Moretz will have a long career as a great actress.