Friday, November 18, 2005

Why Do I Love These People? Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families by Po Bronson

Why Do I Love These People? Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families by Po Bronson

This article originally appeared in People magazine.

'Think your family's dysfunctional? Bestselling author Po Bronson (What Should I Do with My Life?) decided in 2002 that he wanted to "decode the mystery" of family relationships. Bronson gave the project three years, interviewed 700 people and found 18 fascinating families whose secrets are revealed here. Along the way, he unearthed enough juicy drama for 20 episodes of Oprah--homing in on the heartbreak and healing, the emotional tremors and transitions that are part of every family's saga.

Few readers will be surprised by the author's assertion that the face of the American family is changing. He notes that fewer than 23 percent of the 57 million married couples in the United States have children, and that disparate racial and religious backgrounds are no longer a rarity. It's what's going on inside those families that captures our attention; the book's strength lies in Bronson's depiction of the sometimes eccentric ways family members maintain their ties. Anne Jacobsen asked for and received her husband's permission to have an affair; Mary Garrett, a post office worker, never hugged her eight children but sacrificed beyond measure to send six to Ivy League colleges. Bronson's conclusion? "Real love ... is a mere starting point." It's a theme worth exploring and a book worth reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Turow’s WWII Novel Surrenders to Cliché

Turow’s WWII Novel Surrenders to Cliché: New Books

Reviewed by Edward Nawotka

Scott Turow risks deviating from his usual courtroom thriller, to try a World War II spy story in the mold of Alan Furst. “Ordinary Heroes” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 370 pages, $25) recounts the story of WWII JAG lawyer David Dubin, a Lieutenant in Patton’s army, who in October 1944 is ordered to find and arrest Major Robert Martin, a rogue OSS spy and possible double agent. It’s a mission that mysteriously leads to Dubin being court-martialed with the possibility of execution.

“Ordinary Heroes” begins in the present when Dubin’s son Stanley, a 55-year-old burnt-out journalist (and minor character from 1987s “Presumed Innocent”) discovers among his father’s belongings a cache of letters addressed to a mystery woman and records that reveal Dubin’s heretofore unknown court-martial. Investigating, Stanley tracks down the now elderly lawyer who defended his father and is given a manuscript written by Dubin that explains what happened. “Ordinary Heroes” alternates between Stanley’s present day story and Dubin’s wartime memoir, which makes up the majority of the narrative.

Dubin is the second generation son of Russian immigrants and Jewish socialists. He shortened his name from Dubinsky to mask his identity upon enrolling in a posh Midwestern college and arrives in Europe as an idealist, believing he is serving “a land of equals where everyone deserved to be greeted by only one label—American.” What he finds is a segregated Army where his dogtags are stamped with an “H” for Hebrew and he is warned not to be “the wrong kind of Jew.” It’s only after questioning the integrity of his job, which consisted primarily of court-martialing “Negro” soldiers, Dubin is sent to pursue Martin. The order is issued by General Roland Teedle, an alcoholic rumored to be homosexual, who hates socialists “Because they believe mankind can be good without [God’s] assistance” and opines that “So much of civilization is merely the recovery period between wars.”

On the second page of the book, Dubin vows to “happily remain a lawyer, not a foot soldier.” But just as soon as he tracks down Martin, a man with the charm of William Powell and the courage of Audie Murphy, Dubin is cajoled into joining a mission to blow-up an underground arms depot using a locomotive wired with explosives. Here he meets Gita Lodz, a vampy Polish partisan who will seduce and dupe Dubin, helping Martin repeatedly escape arrest. And when Martin does escape, Dubin pursues both him and Gita, for whom he has fallen, going so far as to make a harrowing low altitude parachute jump into occupied territory to continue the chase.

War fever inevitably infects Dubin (and Turow) who is distracted from his prey by the German army making its last stand at the Battle of the Bulge. For nearly a third of the book, Dubin leads an infantry division in defending the town of Bastogne, Belgium, and stars in a series of cinematic military tableaus, including a bloody Nazi ambush and capture by the SS. Battle hardened, he becomes inured to the stench of war until (cliché alert) he encounters the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand.

As a novel of derring-do, “Ordinary Heroes” delivers plenty of action and romantic interludes. But the book fails outright as a mystery: too early on Turow reveals that Dubin’s court-martial was dismissed and his sentence dropped, and it’s all too obvious how the relationship between Dubin, Martin and, especially, Gita will work itself out.

Although Turow based this novel in part on his father’s experiences as a doctor with Patton’s army, the story itself just seems overly familiar. Anyone that has already seen “Band of Brothers,” which features many similar scenes and settings, will likely experience frequent moments of deja-vu.

If this seems like a surprising direction for the author who made his reputation writing modern legal thrillers, it’s not. Turow has turned to writing polemics. His previous book, 2003s “Ultimate Punishment” outlined his arguments against the death penalty. “Ordinary Heroes,” in addition to being an enjoyable, if hackneyed WWII adventure story, is also a vehicle for Turow to deliver lawyerly disquisitions on war, religion, and patriotism. Unfortunately, all too often Turow’s characters become talking heads who slip into leaden cliché--such as Dubin’s observation that “The general’s names might be remembered by historians, but it was [real soldiers] who would fight the true war,” and Martin’s proclamation, “I thought fascism was the plague. But war is. War is.”—that are bested only by the recent Star Wars prequels.

It’s been fun, but Turow should to the courtroom where he has total command of the milieu.

Review; H.W. Brands' 'Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times'

How Andrew Jackson changed the world

By Edward Nawotka


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

When Andrew Jackson was an 18-year-old apprentice lawyer in Salisbury, N.C., he took the bold step of inviting not one, but two women to the town's annual Christmas Ball. A scandal ensued. The problem wasn't with the number of women he'd invited or that they were mother and daughter, no less. The problem was that the women were prostitutes.

This story, from University of Texas professor H.W. Brands' compelling new biography, "Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times," foreshadows the type of revolution Jackson brought to American politics.

The man who would later become our seventh president was not of the patrician stock that had previously filled the White House; he was the son of Ulster-Scots immigrants to South Carolina, and his father died in a logging accident weeks before he was born. "Jackson devoted his public life to battling birth and breeding as requisites for personal advancement," Brand writes.

He led an eventful life. At age 13 he was captured while serving as a courier for the American Revolution. Later, he moved to Tennessee, where he began life as a "frontier gentleman," working as a lawyer by day and moonlighting as a land speculator and slave trader. It was there that he established the political career that eventually led him to Washington, first as a representative, then as a senator and finally as president, the first such man to serve in all three roles.

Brands, who has published well-regarded biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt (and a history of Texas), moves quickly through Jackson's youth and political rise in order to get to the good stuff: Jackson's pursuit of military glory and honor.

This central section of the book is the one that most readers will find themselves lingering over after Thanksgiving dinner. Jackson took over the militia, became one of the most merciless American Indian fighters and led his troops in the Battle of New Orleans, where the American side suffered a total of 13 casualties, while the British lost 1,600. It remains one of the most undervalued victories in American history; had we lost New Orleans, it is likely the British would have sailed up the Mississippi and tried to split the country in two. Jackson, always more a frontiersman of the West than a politician of the East, would have never let that happen.

One of Brand's most laudable skills as a biographer is his ability to connect the smaller moments in a subject's life to the watershed events of the day. In public lectures, and one would assume in his classes, he refers to this as "little history" and "big history."

In this way, Brands draws a clear connection between Jackson's dueling skills and his ability to absorb barbs during his presidential campaigns. In one memorable instance, Brands recounts the story of a duel in which Jackson, knowing he was the lesser marksman, absorbed a pistol shot from a man standing only 24 feet away, and then returned fire, killing him. It's the same resilience that earned him the nickname "Old Hickory": A hickory branch, writes Brands, is "thin but impossible to break."

Later, when Jackson ran for president in 1928 against incumbent John Quincy Adams, he tolerated what Brands calls "the longest, bitterest, ugliest campaign in American political history." Not only was Jackson's spelling mocked, but his wife was accused of adultery. In a 19th-century version of the attack ad, a "coffin handbill" was printed up that depicted six coffins for soldiers Jackson ordered executed during the War of 1812. Nevertheless, he won with a large majority of the popular vote and served two terms.

The section of the book that deals with Jackson's presidency offers far less drama, perhaps because there was no momentous event that marked his administration out for special historical consideration. A proponent of state's rights, Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, creating a decentralized banking system, but then later cajoled South Carolina, which was agitating for secession, to remain in the Union.

The legacy of his post-presidency years is more important to Texans; it is through his relationship with former Tennessean Sam Houston that Jackson helped make sure that the independent republic of Texas would become part of the United States. (Pull out a $20 bill right now and say "Thank You" if you wish.)

Jackson's revolution was to bring pluralism to American politics, henceforth known as "Jacksonian democracy." It's a concept Brands brings most alive when he describes the "astonished" looks on the faces of Washingtonians as Jackson's supporters rushed into the city for Jackson's first inauguration. One wrote: "It was like the inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome. . . . The West and the South seemed to have precipitated themselves upon the North and overwhelmed it. . . . Strange faces filled every public place, and every face seemed to bear defiance on its brow."

Jackson's populist aura might explain why we seem to be experiencing what may turn into a small revival of Jackson boosterism. In 1946, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Age of Jackson," which was the first to argue that Jackson deserves credit for laying the founding principles of the Democratic Party; Schlesinger went so far as to compare his policies to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This year, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz has authored two books that focus on Jackson: a short biography edited by Schlesinger and a mammoth work of political history, "The Rise of American Democracy," that uses Jackson as the linchpin of its argument. Perhaps modern-day Democrats are looking to find a historical standard bearer for their somewhat beleaguered political party.

Still, Brands is a bit too breezy in his acceptance of this interpretation of Jackson's legacy, especially given that the man was a slave owner who was best known in the public imagination as an American Indian killer. Brands' book gives far more support to the idea that Jackson's primary achievements were military and social, rather than political, and more thorough discussion of this point would have been welcome. It's a shortcoming that might simply be a consequence of Brands' effort to condense Jackson's eventful life into a single volume.

That quibble notwithstanding, Brands is a good match for his subject. Though his book is academically astute and erudite, it is hardly above relying on a good gunfight or a political scandal to carry the story, rather than freighting down the narrative with he-said, she-said theoretical equivocation. (For that, you can turn to Robert V. Remini's authoritative three-volume version of Jackson's life.)

This is, simply put, a readable and exciting book, much in the mold of such perennially popular presidential biographers as David McCullough and Joseph Ellis. It is, in a sense, as populist in its inclinations as Jackson himself.

Austin writer Edward Nawotka is a book critic for