Bob Woodward is a legend, yet I had never read one of his books. His famous breakout, All the President’s Men, came out when I was too young to be reading political heavyweights (I was not yet in middle school). He’s written many books since then but I admit I was not paying more than cursory attention to politics until things got weird in the Tea Party era. Anyway, I did not know what to expect.
Woodward is very organized, cogent and always clear in his recounting, but he is in this case not a natural story teller: in Rage, he does not spin a strong narrative. He is sparing with conjecture and weaves little of his own experiences or opinions in his reporting. He leaves a lot to the reader, which is appropriate for a reporter. He does not resort to partisanship or gonzo self-involvement in order to deliver a gripping, integrated tale as Hunter Thompson* would.
This is certainly the most challenging review I’ve undertaken. Charlotte Shane’s book is not like any other I’ve read. This was a kickstarter project to publish the collection of her blog of the same name. She says of this effort: “I was lonely and isolated, so I wrote a lot.” But that is not what makes it difficult to review. There are two issues that make this a challenge for this reviewer (after the TL;DR).
In the first two thirds of the book, Shane presents her early and middle years doing sex work and it is a harrowing tale that would give any father nightmares. She depicts extreme sexual positions, pain, discomfort, and sexual torture with an air of sometimes wounded but defiant bravado. In the last third, she is in more control, yet still occasionally takes johns she shouldn’t – just to prove she can control them. Control is a big theme in this work; for example, she doesn’t like pain, but takes on as a sub in order to test herself.
The writing is episodic and, early on, often very disjointed with few clues as to setting and participants. Later, it is still episodic, but more context is given and becomes more reflective, though there is no overall theme to pull the book together. It does, however, depict in brutal honesty the trade of high-priced escort. Money, sex, saps who fall for her, the clients she falls for, kindness, degradation, glamour and adventure. Other themes are big cocks, sex, shared intimacy, pain, pride in her job, loneliness, depression (never explicit, but implicit in some entries), men who think she’s beautiful, but no, she isn’t. It gets a bit repetitious with certain themes (such as that last one) yet there is no closure; the sturm und drang is open-ended, a memoir-in-progress. The last bit (Volume II) is a series of vignettes, with more attention to construction, presentation and setting, yet not related in time or theme.
If the Boltons were real, Shane would be their huckleberry
The first difficulty in review is that this book is so raw. Shane is sometimes compared to Anaïs Nin, but I wouldn’t put this work in the same category. Yes, Nin brought us as close as her hand-mirror; she shared vast ranges of emotion (often contradicting) and deep thinking on art and psychology. She even shared the physical pain of her miscarriage. But Nin heavily edited her Diariesand even applied editorial awareness in the Journal of Love. She knew that at some point, even the unexpurgated diaries would be read, and Nin’s motivation was literary. Although there are some explicit love scenes, they aren’t the focus. Nin conveyed that her sex was pursued in the context of love and intellectual curiosity, and in that curiosity and investigation, she weaves an overarching story.
Shane is a different animal, and she presents a problem for the reviewer, in that the content is unrelentingly revealing. I have hundreds of quotes I’d love to use (see photo) but it would be patently voyeuristic to use most of them. I feel many are statements that are Shane’s and only Shane’s to share, so I’ll quote the barest few to convey what this book is like.
Double-cross promises a long scorecard of unusual characters in a trying–and dangerous–game, spying for Britain in WW2. It delivers, both in the selection of outsized personalities and a build of the stories which is clear and engaging. Ben proceeds at a steady pace right to the end of the book, lingering on each personality and their adventures in turn. The individuals involved are shown in the context of an overall arc, the grand deception that led to D-Day. Although I had read much of that time, from diverse histories such as The Rommel Papers, I never knew what a part the British intelligence service played in that success of the Allied landing. Also, I found the denouement quite interesting and fulfilling, as MacIntyre presents the fates of his subjects in detail.
Although I appreciate MacIntyre’s focus, I would have liked more texture about the British minders. There is less about the spymasters than the spies; more detail of the MI5 crew’s day-to-day lives, and indeed some description of setting would have been welcomed. Did they all work in the same building? Share coffee? Did they have class differences or were they a homogenous group? But that would have made the book longer. We have to assume MacIntyre provided as much detail as he had.
I like history a lot – especially history which gets into the nitty-gritty of what people did and their motivations. That is often lost in histories, especially histories which are of large temporal scope, as this on (the entire 14th century). The tendency in many histories is to discuss events, as if they just happen, with insufficient setting as to understand why people pursued the amazing things they did.
Tuchman gets into the social, epidemiological (plague was a big thing) and political setup to the century — and goes further. She really got into the nuts and bolts of what motivated the class of people who had the largest impact on that era’s history: the nobles. It was due to their wars and follies that much of the wealth of nations was squandered, and by wealth, we include human life. The horrors of war, torture and vindictiveness which people of that era pursued makes the horror of present-day a little more believable, unfortunately. I refer to the atrocities of Daesh.
Well, Tuchman portrays a Catholic church which at that time was completely suborned by men of unabashed ambition, and despite the efforts of a few, for the most part it was part and parcel of many horrors perpetuated on the common people. The schism, between the Avignon and Rome papacies is central to this period and if you ever wondered just why that schism lasted so long, or desire to understand the base motivations behind it, Tuchman provides an enjoyable if horrifying account.
The subtitle is “The Calamitous 14th Century” and I don’t think anyone can argue with that. Tuchman lays it all out in detail, and it is at times unimaginable to understand how badly it all turned out, yet here we are. If there is good to be taken from the history of the time, it is that untrammeled pride, avarice and ambition will invariably lead to a bad end.
The Aviators is a good read for the detail-oriented reader with a passion for history and personality. Groom did an amazing job researching his subjects and the result is a very satisfying portrayal of three very driven, talented and certainly lucky men. From their beginnings in various motorsports to military (or adventure) flying, each had a track from field to flight which echoed the others, and Groom points out the similarities as well as divergence of their fates and fortunes. I really enjoyed the view into the cockpit — of Lindbergh’s Spirit, Doolittle’s experimental windowless cockpit, Lindbergh’s biplane fighter. Highly recommended.