book reviews

Repost: Shannon Miller’s It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote on July 27, 2016. It appears here as/is.

Hi everybody.  I know I could be writing about politics or that poor French priest who was murdered near Normandy yesterday, but I think enough people are writing about those topics.  Besides, it’s high time for another book review.  I used to crank them out weekly and now it takes me a lot longer to plow through my reading.  Today’s review is about America’s most decorated female gymnast and ovarian cancer survivor, Shannon Miller, and her book It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life.  

With help from ghost writer, Danny Peary, Miller published her book in the spring of 2015.  Although I kind of quit watching gymnastics years ago, Shannon Miller comes from an era when I did used to tune in.  I remember seeing her when she was just 11 years old, competing in a meet that was aired on the now defunct cable channel, Home Team Sports.  Even back then, she was very impressive.  Years later, when she and her teammates won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, I remembered her performance as a child and marveled at how far she’d come.

Shannon Miller at age 11.

Today, Shannon Miller has a degree in law and is the mother of a son and a daughter.  Her daughter, Sterling Diane, was born against the odds after Miller had her left ovary and fallopian tube removed and endured nine weeks of chemotherapy.  Miller has her own foundation, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, which is devoted to encouraging health and fitness for women. 

Miller reminds readers that her potentially deadly cancer was discovered when she was feeling just fine.  It was a routine visit to her gynecologist that uncovered a cancer that often kills women because by the time it’s discovered, it’s too far advanced to treat effectively.  I agree with her on an intellectual level that people should pay attention to their health.  However, as a healthcare consumer, I think it’s very difficult for many folks to be attentive to their health.  For one thing, it’s takes time and money that many people don’t have.  For another thing, seeing doctors is potentially very demoralizing.  Most of us would rather be doing something else.

Shannon Miller’s gold medal winning balance beam routine at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

In her book, Miller doesn’t focus too much on cancer or even married life.  It’s Not About Perfect is about eighty percent about Miller’s gymnastics career.  I’m okay with that, because I was interested in reading about gymnastics.  Let’s face it.  Shannon Miller is where she is, for the most part, because she is such a talented athlete.  It makes sense that such a large portion of her life story would be devoted to life in the gym.  I appreciated her comments about the historic 1996 Summer Games, too.  I was in Armenia at the time and didn’t get to watch them live.  Readers who would rather read about Miller’s struggle with cancer may be disappointed that there’s not more included about that battle.  In a way, the book’s title is a bit misleading.

I thought Miller’s book was mostly well written.  She comes across as a pleasant person, albeit more religious than I expected.  She mentions her faith more than a few times in her story.  I have nothing against people who have faith in God.  Some people may feel like this book is a bit whitewashed in that Miller mostly keeps her comments about her coaches and gymnastics very positive.  She writes about working out with serious injuries, enduring surgeries, competing when she was tired or sick, and glosses over the politics involved with assembling an Olympic team.  But I got the sense she didn’t want to alienate anyone and, perhaps, was not quite as candid as she could have been. 

Interestingly enough, I read in a review on Amazon.com that Shannon Miller was raised Christian Scientist, which means that early in her career, she didn’t necessarily go to doctors.  But she and her mother, Claudia, are both cancer survivors and were saved by the powers of modern medicine.  It would have been a great asset to Miller’s book had she written more about that aspect of her faith.  Apparently, in Shannon Miller: My Child, My Hero, her mother’s book, the Christian Science part of her upbringing is discussed.  Now, even though that book was published in 1999, I’m thinking I might have to read it.  Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows how much I like to learn about fringe religions.  Edited to add: I read a large excerpt of Claudia Miller’s book on Google and it looks like a lot of the information is pretty much the same as what’s in Miller’s most recent book.

Miller also is mum about her first marriage to ophthalmologist, Chris Phillips.  That marriage did not last long and Shannon mostly says it’s because they didn’t know each other very well.  Of course, perhaps it was best that she not write too much about that marriage since her ex husband basically accused her of infidelity.  From what I gathered, the split was nasty and it was probably best not to rehash the relationship in the book.  I remember photos of them in People magazine when the wedding happened and other readers probably do, too.  

I thought it was pretty cool that Shannon included photos, including one of her smiling radiantly while holding her son, Rocco, and sporting a totally bald head.  Her trademark frizzy hair has since grown back after it fell out during chemotherapy.  It looks like it’s no longer frizzy.  Shannon’s looking sleek and professional these days.

Anyway… It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life is probably not a bad read for most gymnastics fans.  It’s not really juicy or scandalous, but it’s not terrible.  Those who want to read more about Shannon’s personal life or struggle with ovarian cancer may be left wanting.  I think I’d give it three and a half stars.

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book reviews

Repost: Toni Tennille tells all in her life story…

I am reposting this book review that I wrote for my original blog on August 18, 2016. It’s in honor of my Facebook friend, Marguerite, who posted about The Captain and Tennille today. Also, I genuinely enjoyed Toni Tennille’s book. She’s an interesting and talented lady. This review is as/is, the way I posted it almost five years ago.

Captain and Tennille perform during their heyday with two of Toni’s three sisters singing backup.  Toni’s sisters were also musically talented.  I’m pretty sure they’re all lip syncing here, though.   

I just finished reading Toni Tennille: A Memoir, the life story of singer, songwriter, and actress Toni Tennille, who is best known as half of the 70s pop duo, Captain and Tennille.  As a bonafide child of the 70s, music by Captain and Tennille was part of my early soundtrack.  Their cover version of Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was a huge hit in 1975.  I grew up hearing it on the radio and at my Aunt Gayle and Uncle Brownlee’s house.  Brownlee is my dad’s younger brother and a musician; he always had hipper musical tastes than my dad did.

Captain and Tennille also had a popular variety show on ABC that aired for one season.  I never saw their show because besides being very young in 1976, I was also living in England.  As Toni Tennille explains it, in those days TV wasn’t as global as it is now.  She and her famous ex husband, Daryl Dragon (aka the Captain), were able to travel to Scotland on vacation and not be recognized by leagues of adoring fans.

Anyway, I decided to read Toni Tennille’s story when I read an article about her online.  She and Daryl Dragon got divorced not long ago.  They had been married for 39 years and both are in their golden years.  I was curious about that, but I also admire Toni Tennille’s talents as a musician.  So I downloaded the book, which Tennille wrote with help from her niece, Caroline Tennille St. Clair.  I just got around to reading it and, I must say, I found it a fascinating and enjoyable book.  Caroline did a great job in making the book seem as if it came straight from her Aunt Toni.

At the very beginning of her story, Tennille writes about being a small child in Montgomery, Alabama, playing outside.  Suddenly, there was an accident that could have altered her destiny.  A heavy wheelbarrow fell on Toni’s finger, nearly severing it.  Her parents rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent surgery.  Young Toni had shown musical talent and had an interest in playing the piano.  She lost part of her finger, but then went through many surgeries to reconstruct the digit so she’d eventually be able to play her instrument.  Bear in mind, this was going on in the 1940s, when surgeries were much more primitive than they are now and anesthesia consisted of ether. 

She continues her story with tales about growing up in an era when blacks and whites were segregated.  Her parents were fairly well off; her dad owned a furniture store and her mother was on a television show.  They had hired help.  The help consisted of several black women who looked after Toni and her three sisters.  Toni explains that her family treated the help with dignity and respect.  Racism always made the Tennille family uncomfortable.  Still, if I had to mention a part of the book that made me a little uneasy, it was that part. 

Fate led the Tennilles out of Alabama when Toni was a student at Auburn University.  Her father’s business failed and Toni had to drop out of school.  But it turned out there was a bigger life waiting for the family in California.  It was there that Toni met Daryl Dragon, who would eventually become her second husband.  Daryl Dragon came from a wealthy California family.  His mother had been a singer and his father was Carmen Dragon, a famed conductor.  All of the Dragon siblings had musical talent, but Daryl was said to be the most talented.  He was working with The Beach Boys when he and Toni met.  Thanks to Daryl, Toni landed herself a gig playing with the big time as a member of The Beach Boys’ band.

As time passed, Toni and Daryl started working together.  They became an act.  People thought they were married, so they eventually decided to make it official at a wedding chapel in Nevada.  Sadly, although Toni claims to have been in love with her husband and wrote many songs for and about him, he never seemed to return her affections.  They slept in separate bedrooms.  Daryl respected his wife for her musical abilities, but didn’t seem into her as a woman.  And that was the state of their marriage for a very long time.

Toni Tennille’s talk show.

Based on Toni’s many observations about her ex husband, my guess is that he’s more than a bit narcissistic and/or perhaps suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome.  She claims that he saw her as a possession.  He would get very jealous when she was involved in any acting job that required her to kiss another man.  And yet, when she was at home, he never kissed her very often.  He spent a lot of time alone and adhered to weird, strict diets, which he expected his wife to follow.  In one story, Tennille writes about eating nothing but yellow grapefruit for weeks.  She writes of visiting beautiful cities world renowned for food and ending up eating tasteless crap her husband favored.

The “Captain”, so nicknamed by one of the Beach Boys, was rarely without his hat.  Tennille explains that he started balding in his 30s and was very self-conscious about his thinning hair.  So he would never be hatless, even in places where it was customary or compulsory to remove one’s hat.  Toni Tennille missed out on seeing the Sistine Chapel because her husband refused to remove his hat.  He also has a condition that affects his eyes, making them look strange.  Dragon was self-conscious about the problem, which prompted a lot of fans to write in and ask what was wrong with him.  That was also a source of much shame and embarrassment for him and he took it out on his wife.

While Toni Tennille writes a lot about her career and some of the great things she was able to do, a lot of this book is about her marriage to Daryl Dragon.  And folks, I’ll be honest.  As interesting as it was to read about her marriage, it was also more than a bit depressing.  Here she was, this beautiful, talented, vivacious woman and she spent her best years married to a man who didn’t really love her.  She allowed him to dictate so many things about her life.  It wasn’t until she was in her 70s that she finally had enough and got a divorce.  However, despite the divorce, it seems the Captain and Tennille still talk.  Toni writes that they speak on the phone every couple of weeks or so.  I guess old habits really do die hard.

Despite the fact that I think Toni Tennille should have divorced many years ago, I did like her book.  She comes across as very likable and friendly.  Ultimately, she keeps this book pretty positive, yet I never got the sense she was embellishing about the ordeals she went through in her personal life.  If you’re curious, I recommend reading Toni Tennille’s Memoir.

Edited to add: Daryl Dragon died on January 2, 2019.

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book reviews, Military

Double repost: A review of Whatever The Cost: One Woman’s Battle To Find Peace With Her Body by Jenifer Beaudean and a review of In The Men’s House by Carol Barkalow

I will try to write something fresh a little later. For now, I want to repost these book reviews about women who went to West Point. This post originally appeared on my blog on March 20, 2014. The review of In the Men’s House was reposted on that post and was originally written for Epinions.com on April 6, 2012.

I just downloaded a couple more e-books from Amazon.com.  One book that intrigued me was Jenifer Beaudean’s 2011 memoir, Whatever The Cost: One Woman’s Battle To Find Peace With Her Body.  I read this book because it has components of three things that interest me: the Army, West Point, and eating disorders.  I had read about how some women either join the military to stay thin or develop eating disorders in the military.  Jenifer Beaudean entered West Point, aka The United States Military Academy, in 1987.  Women had been at the Academy since 1976 and though she did not come from a military family, Beaudean was inspired by a trip she took to West Point in the 70s, when women were still new.

Beaudean explains that she was not a natural choice for the military.  Creative and artistic, she got good grades and was a hard worker.  But she was not a natural athlete and she loved food.  Through strict dieting and diligent working out, Beaudean entered West Point in 1987 weighing 133.5 pounds at five feet four inches tall.  She missed the maximum weight allowed for her height by just half a pound.

Life at West Point was very difficult for Beaudean.  It was physically and academically challenging and she comforted herself with junk food.  Because the Academy also served heavy rations at mealtimes, Beaudean gained about twenty pounds over the course of her time at West Point.  She did end up a “diet tray” (slang term for overweight folks in the military) and had to lose weight or face being kicked out of the Academy.  Toward the end of her years at West Point, she developed bulimia, which followed her for years after she graduated. 

Beaudean completed her service obligation after graduation and left the Army in 1994 due to an injury she sustained in a parachuting mishap.  She married and divorced another soldier and went on to earn an MBA at the University of Michigan.

Beaudean’s story is one that I think probably doesn’t get told often enough in the military.  There is a lot of pressure to be thin and athletic as a service member, though some branches are stricter than others.  I thought Whatever The Cost was decently written, though there were a couple of minor editing glitches.  At one point, Jenifer Beaudean describes a male cadet as “strack”.  Having been around Bill and other military folks, I think she means STRAC, which is a 70s term military personnel used to describe someone who is Standing Tall and Ready Around the Clock or Standing Tough and Ready Around the Clock or Strategic Tough and Ready Around the Clock.  The point is, it’s an acronym that stands for something.  “Strack” is just how it’s pronounced.  I don’t remember Beaudean explaining this point in her book.

At another point in the book, she writes of trying to fit in her “dress mess”.  What I think she means is “mess dress”, which is a formal uniform worn by servicemembers at certain occasions.  Maybe “dress mess” is an official term, but I’ve never heard of it.  Someone can educate me if I’m wrong.

I also think that Beaudean spent a lot of time writing about the West Point experience and not enough time writing about the bulimia.  While I did find reading about her time at West Point fascinating, I’m guessing that a lot of readers would pick up this book because they’d want to read about the eating disorder she developed there.  I felt like that part of the book was a bit underdeveloped and could have used more substance.  I might have included a bit less about the West Point experience if space was an issue, though I have to admit, that was also very interesting reading. 

I admire Beaudean for working toward fulfilling her West Point dream and sticking through it, as difficult as it was.  I’m glad she found competent help and overcame bulimia, even though she writes that it will always be “there” in her head.  I liked the way she ended her book, too.  Overall, I’d probably give Whatever The Cost four solid stars.

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I was a rising college junior home for the summer when I first ran across Carol Barkalow’s book In the Men’s House: An Inside Account of Life in the Army by One of West Point’s First Female Graduates.  I clearly remember the day I purchased this book.  It was late May 1992 and I was wasting time in a Rite Aid drug store, looking for something interesting to read.  I was intrigued by the bold red lettering and picture of an attractive blonde woman on the paperback cover of In The Men’s House.  Having grown up the daughter of an Air Force officer and lived my whole life around the military culture, I had a feeling I would be interested in Barkalow’s story, particularly since she had bravely been among the first women at West Point.  The book also reminded me of an old made for TV movie I had seen about those brave women who sought to bring equality to the U.S. military. 

Twenty years later, I still own Barkalow’s book and have read it several times.  Many things have changed, although my closeness to the military has not.  I am now an Army wife.  A few days ago, I decided to do an Internet search to see what Carol Barkalow was up to these days.  I see that Barkalow, who had been a captain when she published her book, has retired as a lieutenant colonel. It appears that she is now on the public speaking circuit, living in southern Florida. 

One book– two parts

In The Men’s House is divided into two major parts.  The first half of the book is about Barkalow’s initiation into the Army.  In 1976, she was a high school graduate from Clifton Park, New York and one of 119 women entering the United States Military Academy, popularly known as West Point.  Barkalow and her female comrades were the very first women to attend West Point; consequently, they got a lot of attention, both negative and positive.  Year by year, Barkalow explains what it was like to progress through West Point until she and 61 other women finally graduated on May 27, 1980. 

The second half of the book is about Barkalow’s initial years as an Army officer.  Her career commenced in Germany back in early 1981.  Then a second lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery branch, it was Barkalow’s first time out of the country and she wore her Class A uniform for the overnight flight to Frankfurt.  Barkalow describes three fast-paced years in Europe.

In 1984, Barkalow changed branches and became a Transportation officer, which had been her first choice.  She was transferred to Fort Lee, an Army post located between Petersburg and Hopewell, Virginia.  Barkalow’s new assignment as a company commander of a transportation unit in Virginia was not as intense as her work in Germany had been.  Consequently, Barkalow found time to develop a new hobby– bodybuilding.  An entry in a bodybuilding contest and subsequent picture that ran in the post newspaper turned out to be somewhat scandalous.  Barkalow almost lost her command over a picture that ran of her in a bikini.

This entire book really addresses sexism in the Army as it was in the late 1970s to mid 1980s.  Barkalow recounts her own experiences as well as those of classmates and colleagues.  She includes many snippets of diary entries she kept while at West Point.  She also includes photos.

My thoughts 

Obviously, I think this is an interesting book or I would not have read it more than one time.  I did notice during this latest reading that my perspective of Barkalow’s story had changed quite a bit.  When I read this book before, I was a single young woman.  I had spent a lot of time around military folks, but wasn’t totally vested in the culture.  This time, I read In The Men’s House as an Army wife.  My husband, Bill, was able to give me some insight into some of the things Barkalow wrote about in her book, since Bill is himself an Army officer. 

This time, when I read about Barkalow’s time in Europe and Virginia, I could relate more.  Bill and I spent time in Germany not long ago.  I grew up in Virginia, though I’ve never been to Fort Lee.  Barkalow wrote that one of her first choices of assignments would have been at Fort Eustis, which I am very familiar with, having grown up very close to it.  So when I read Barkalow’s story this time, it was like I had a lot more firsthand knowledge of the places she was writing about and the Army lifestyle. 

On the other hand, this book was published over twenty years ago.  The Army has definitely changed in a lot of ways.  Most recently, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, allowing servicemembers who are openly gay to serve without fear of reprisals.  Barkalow makes very oblique references to the Army’s collective attitude about homosexuality, but doesn’t really address it much in her book, other than to write that she didn’t care too much what her colleagues’ sexual orientations were.  She writes of dating men at West Point and ridiculous measures that were taken when the first female recruits showed up.  Many of Barkalow’s observations are very interesting.  For instance, she writes that the first female recruits had to have incredibly short haircuts, wear very unflattering pants, deal with sexist remarks and obscene insults by upperclassmen, and cope with an administration that had no idea what to do with the women. 

Barkalow writes that women at West Point forced the institution to change some of its long held but ill considered policies.  It’s because of women at West Point that cadets stopped running in combat boots.  They now run in athletic shoes, mainly because when women tried to run in boots, they got stress fractures.  Another example of policy change had to do with hygiene.  It used to be that cadets would be given a couple of minutes to shower or would not be allowed to go to the bathroom when they needed to go.  When women started attending West Point, the administration apparently realized that healthy women have menstrual periods.  Not letting the women shower appropriately and forcing them to ignore toilet needs led to stained uniforms and health problems.  Policies changed for the better.

I liked the first half of this book better than the second half.  Frankly, I think Barkalow might have had a better book had she just written more about her time at West Point instead of her first couple of assignments in the Army.  At the time she wrote this book, Barkalow was still early in her career.  A second book about her Army career seems like it would make a lot more sense, since she admits that West Point and real Army life were two different animals.  Also, I gathered from a glance at her Facebook page, that Barkalow may now identify herself as a lesbian.  A book about her experiences serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would also be interesting. 

Overall

I’m not sure how easy In The Men’s House is to find these days.  Given than it’s twenty years old, it’s a touch dated, although I do think it provides good insight into what it was like to be one of West Point’s very first female cadets.  I think it also offers a good glimpse of what it was like to be a female Army officer at a time when female officers were a distinct rarity.  I think any woman who served during that time must have a great deal of courage.  That being said, I enjoyed the first half of the book more than I did the second half. 

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book reviews

Repost: my review of Children of the Flames

Here’s one more reposted book review. This one was originally written for Epinions.com in 2010 and reposted on my old blog January 24, 2015. It appears here as/is.

On January 27, 2015, it will have been 70 years since Russians liberated the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.  This morning, I read a fascinating news article about an 80 year old Slovakian Jewish woman who was at Auschwitz when the Russians came.  It was Marta Wise’s 10th birthday when she was caught by Nazis and sent away, first to the Sered labor camp in Slovakia and then, a few weeks later, to Auschwitz, where she and her sister, Eva were imprisoned and were subjected to the cruel medical experiments carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele. 

In the last days of Auschwitz, there was a lot of chaos.  Able bodied prisoners were forced to march westward in an attempt to escape the Russians.  Because Eva was sick, Marta stayed behind with her.  The Nazis tried to kill Marta and some other prisoners by locking them in an enclosure and setting fire around it… but European weather is fickle.  A sudden rainstorm put out the fire and Eva and Marta were rescued. 

Their survival was against all odds.  The sisters were able to go back to Bratislava, where they reunited with their parents and all but one sister, Judith, who died at Auschwitz.  Marta moved to Australia and went on to marry and have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. 

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am reposting my review of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

The story of Dr. Josef Mengele and his gruesome twins experiments May 8, 2010 (Updated May 8, 2010) 

Pros:  Fascinating book. Well-written and insightful. Photos.

Cons:  May depress some readers.

The Bottom Line: This book is a valuable reminder of where humankind has been and where we don’t want to return.

Last night, I finished reading Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. This book, published in 1991, was co-written by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Lagnado is writer who has had a special interest in Dr. Josef Mengele and his twins experiments at Auschwitz. Sheila Cohn Dekel is also a writer and an educator, as well as the widow of Alex Dekel, one of Mengele’s victims. 

A brief overview 

Dr. Josef Mengele was a high ranking Nazi physician. He literally had a deadly charm to go with his handsome face. Although Dr. Mengele had been an undistinguished student at his Gymnasium in Gunzburg, Bavaria, he eventually managed to study at the University of Munich, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology. Mengele happened to be in Munich as the ideas of eugenics, racial purity, and ethnic cleansing were becoming popular in German society. 

Graduating from university with highest honors, he went on to Frankfurt University, where he earned a medical degree and later joined the military. In 1941, he got his first taste of combat and was an excellent soldier. The following year, he was in another battle on the Russian front when he made his first selection. Because there wasn’t enough time or supplies to help every wounded man, Mengele had to decide which of the wounded would be treated and which would be left to die. This task was reportedly very gruesome for Mengele and he hated to do it… but he was evidently very good at it. 

Mengele’s skill at picking and choosing would be used again when he went to work at Auschwitz. It was often Mengele who met the trains carrying hungry, exhausted, and often very sick Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz. With a white gloved hand, he would casually pick candidates for the gas chambers, directing the new prisoners to go left or right. 

Mengele’s studies in genetics and anthropology made him fascinated by so-called “freaks of nature”. And so, when those trains came to Auschwitz, he directed his fellow Nazi soldiers to help him find quirky subjects for his research. He looked for dwarves, giants, and Jews who didn’t look like Jews. But he was most interested in twins. Mengele believed that twins held the answers to the genetic secrets he had a burning desire to explore. Mengele’s position as a high ranking SS physician at Auschwitz gave him the freedom to explore those secrets by undertaking any experiments his heart desired. 

Mengele’s children: a protected class 

Dr. Mengele sought twins every time new Jewish prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. Most of the prisoners who arrived were under the impression that they were there to work. So when soldiers called for twins, some parents of twins and adult twins were reluctant to come forward. But as it turned out, the people who ended up in Mengele’s experiements were often better treated than other inmates were. They were fed better, allowed to keep their hair, and had better quarters. They were also safe from the gas chambers. The catch was that they had to be Mengele’s specimens for his often gruesome experiments and exploratory surgeries. Those that didn’t survive the experiments or surgeries were autopsied by an assistant, who would send their body parts and organs to Berlin. 

Supposedly, Mengele was comparatively gentle with the twins, particularly with the small children. He kept them in fairly good health and had a fairly gentle touch when he drew blood (on a daily basis). Sometimes, if he had a very young set of twins, he’d let their mother come with them. Mengele would often pick a pet who would be especially well treated. It’s said that he was affectionate with the children, giving them candy and chocolate and sometimes even playing with them. Some of them called him Uncle Mengele. But he would also casually dispose of them when he grew tired of them and none were spared his horrifying experiments.  

This book’s layout 

The authors of Children of the Flames chose to recount the story of Mengele and the twins in an interesting way. They got the stories from surviving twins who were the subjects of Mengele’s research and flip-flopped between the twins’ experiences and Mengele’s life story. Among the twins interviewed were a pair of male/female twins. The male half had been chosen to be the “twins father” because he had served in the Czechoslovakian army. He looked after all of the male twins. His sister was almost murdered, but was saved before she was sent to the gas chambers. The female twins in Mengele’s research did not have a “twins mother”. 

The authors include a lot of commentary from the “twins father”, as well as several other sets of the several thousand twins that Mengele used in his research. Of course, of all of those twins, only a few hundred survived the war. The authors also include photos as well as an afterword that updates readers on the twins.

One thing to know about this account is that it’s not entirely about the concentration camps. The authors don’t go into great detail about the experiments and they don’t dwell much on the concentration camp experience. Instead, they approach the story by describing how it was for the twins before and after the war as they interweave Mengele’s story.

My thoughts 

I found Children of the Flames fascinating. Josef Mengele was a horrible person, but he’s extremely interesting to read about. From this account, he comes across as deceptively charming and kindly, yet underneath that gentle exterior was a monster who killed and tortured people as if they were toys. As someone who has studied the social sciences, I find Mengele an extraordinary subject. He really is an example of a sociopath. The authors follow him from Germany to several countries in South America. They also offer information about his two wives, his son Rolf, and his nephew and former stepson, Karl Heinz.

I also enjoyed the interviews from the twins, most of whom were incredibly resilient. Their stories from before and after their experiences at Auschwitz are recounted, giving readers some perspective as to what it was like during their recoveries. Anyone who thinks the Jews had it so much better after they were liberated may be in for a shock. The twins describe very hard times, particularly for those who went to Eastern Europe or Israel rather than America or Canada. 

Overall 

Children of the Flames is excellent reading for anyone who is interested in learning more about Nazi Germany and concentration camps. The authors did an outstanding job of describing who Josef Mengele was as they put a face on his victims. They provide valuable insight as to what it was like for Jews after they were liberated. Even when they weren’t prisoners, they were still victims, haunted by nightmares, poor health, and crushing poverty. This should be required reading for anyone who is a student of European history.

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book reviews, Trump

Repost: A review of Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump…

Here’s a reposted review of Harry Hurt III’s book, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump. It was originally posted in 1993, but I reviewed it on April 28, 2017. It appears here as/is.

I was determined to finish my latest book last night, even though we had a brief power outage.  I have been reading Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump for ages.  There was a time when I used to breeze through books in a matter of days, but this one took forever.  So last night, I pushed through and got the thing read.  Written by Harry Hurt III, Lost Tycoon was originally published in 1993, long before anyone in the world would know the horror of President Trump.  Although it took me a long time to get through it, Hurt’s book offers a telling look at the man who would be the United States’ 45th president.  And yes, according to this book, he was every bit as much of an asshole in the 80s and 90s as he is today.

I happened to discover Hurt’s book back in February, less than a month after Trump’s inauguration.  I read an article that mentioned Lost Tycoon.  In it, there was an anecdote about how Mr. Trump, pussy grabber extraordinaire, was recovering from a painful hair replacement surgery.  Trump’s then wife, Ivana, had suggested the surgeon.  He had done good work on her own aesthetic work.  But Mr. Trump was reportedly in agony after the procedure and he allegedly became so enraged at Ivana that he raped her and pulled out chunks of her own hair.  Then, as she sat sobbing after her husband defiled her, Trump asked “Did it hurt?” 

The story about Trump’s violence toward Ivana came from their divorce proceedings.  Although the story is clearly depicting Trump as a violent sex criminal, Ivana only calls it “rape” in that he wasn’t “loving” to her.  As I understand it, this wording is due to Trump’s concern over his image.  But according to Hurt in story after story, Trump is interested only in conquests.  According to Hurt, he lies and mistreats women, including his second wife, Marla Maples.  Stories about Trump’s affair with Maples figure prominently in Lost Tycoon.  Granted, she is depicted as a homewrecking bimbo, but she and Trump also weathered their share of storms.  And we’ve seen how he treats Melania, too.

Aside from stories about how Trump treats women (and how he lies about the ones he’s dated, like Carla Bruni Tedeschi), Lost Tycoon offers plenty of sordid tales about Trump’s shady business dealings and famous arrogance.  Twenty-four years after this book was published, I can see that Trump hasn’t changed.  While what I was reading may have seemed scandalous to the point of tabloidesque in 1993, in 2017, I can see that Hurt’s depiction of the future president is dead on.  

Harry Hurt III is an award winning journalist who has worked for The New York Times and Newsweek.  He clearly did extensive research for this book.  It’s well-written and packed with astonishing tales about Trump and his family, giving readers an interesting look at him when he was a younger man.  Naturally, because this was written in the 90s, you won’t read about Melania or Barron Trump or even Tiffany Trump, Marla Maples’ daughter with the president.  What this book offers is a glance at what was coming.  I was a young woman in 1993 and I distinctly remember the headlines about the Trump love triangle, as well as Trump’s tycoon business deals, much of which was built on other people’s money.

Toward the end of the book, there’s even a story about how Trump tried to keep heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson out of prison for raping nineteen year old Desiree Washington.  Hurt writes that Trump tried to broker a deal in which Tyson would set up a fund for rape victims.  The author alleges that Trump was really thinking of himself and his own issues with sexual assault.

By contrast, in 1991, Trump’s then 79 year old mother, Mary, was mugged by a sixteen year old kid who had skipped school.  The kid had knocked down Mrs. Trump, causing her to suffer a broken hip. She spent time in the hospital and Trump was reportedly “incensed” about it, wanting the kid to go to prison.  I agree, the kid should have been punished, but so should have Mike Tyson, right?  A 44 year old black maintenance man who happened to witness the mugging caught the teenaged criminal and held him for the police.  Trump invited him to dinner with him and Marla Maples.  The future president smiled for cameras as he thanked the man for helping his mother, but he did nothing to help the guy with better work opportunities, something that the man needed and Trump could have easily provided.

Although it took me way too long to finish this book, I do think it’s worthwhile reading.  This man is now our president and it’s scary as hell (ETA: Thank God he was not re-elected).  Maybe that’s why I took so long to get through Lost Tycoon.   The future looks bleak.

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