“Veteran’s Day Poppy,” a song by Captain Beefheart, ends with this couplet: “It can only make me cry/ Your Veteran’s Day poppy.” Sung, and even just on paper, these lyrics perfectly capture the inherent sadness of war. Begun in America just before World War I’s Armistice Day, the tradition of wearing a poppy, especially a red one, supposedly originates from the plants that grew in the battlefields in the Flanders region of Belgium—and then there’s the obvious symbolism of the color red.
The majority of this month’s memoirs touch in some way on war in the traditional sense of armed conflict against a known and defined enemy. Most of the titles also focus on battle in the metaphorical sense—the war within, the fights we undergo to define who we are.
Baer, Robert B. The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins. Blue Rider. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9780399168574. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698151789. MEMOIR
Baer (See No Evil), a longtime agent with the CIA, tells us a series of loosely interconnected stories that demonstrate the 21 laws of his title. Many of them focus on the elusive and masterly assassin Hajj Radwan, a sometime associate of Hezbollah whom Baer spent a good deal of time tracking in Lebanon. Like Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu, Baer believes that to understand the enemy, we must think like him. An ideal assassination, he says, effects real change through just one death, though a true assassin never takes credit for his act, letting the job (and its possible mystery) speak for itself. Though the author jumps around a lot chronologically, he is never less than engaging, slipping in a personal story (often about his mother!) just before the reader may become weary of his theorizing. The book is also full of wry and unexpected black humor. VERDICT An intrinsically intriguing book that should have a wide audience. Worthy of serious study and rereading.
Gallagher, Frank with John M. Del Vecchio. The Bremer Detail: Protecting the Most Threatened Man in the World. Charlie Foxtrot. 2014. 278p. ISBN 9781497643987. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781497643970. MEMOIR
Hired by Blackwater to participate in the protection of Paul Bremer, presidential envoy to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, Gallagher quickly found himself in charge of Bremer’s security detail. Though abounding with descriptions about a world—private security—most people know nothing about, this, alas, a repetitive book. Gallagher has little time for those who would disagree with him, Blackwater, or the logic of having private security companies protecting public governmental figures. While such a take-no-prisoners attitude is surely necessary to run a security operation at the level the author did, one expects a little more nuance and evenhandedness from a narrative account. Gallagher’s defense of Blackwater rings hollow, particularly since he spends ample time criticizing many of their management decisions. VERDICT For those who want to learn more about the universe of private security, with the caveats above kept in mind. Readers should also be aware that the book’s style is very amateur.
Joseph, Dilip with James Lund. Kidnapped by the Taliban: A Story of Terror, Hope, and Rescue by SEAL Team Six. Thomas Nelson. 2014. 224p. notes. ISBN 9780718011284. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718011307. MEMOIR
This is a more sophisticated book than the title would lead one to believe. Dr. Dilip Joseph and two other men were kidnapped by the Taliban in December 2012 while making their way back to Kabul from a rural medical clinic in eastern Afghanistan. Joseph ably brings us into his mind-set as he focuses on staying alive by attempting to appeal to the humanity of his kidnappers. As such we are also given a realistic sense of what it would be like to be a captive: the confusion, the chaos, the uncertainty, but also, strangely, the ordinariness of it all. Though there is no proselytizing in this book, the author makes it clear that he is a devout Christian and the account’s overall message is one of acceptance and forgiveness. VERDICT This book is highly recommended for all readers, as it adds a quite different perspective on our current adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq while providing insights into a situation most of us will never encounter.
Rodriguez, Daniel with Joe Layden. Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept. Houghton Harcourt. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780544365605. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544365612. MEMOIR
Since Saint Augustine, memoirs have been focused on tales of redemption, on the passage from a purposeless life to one with meaning. The story Rodriguez tells of his own life follows this same well-worn pattern, but he recounts it so well that it hardly matters. After barely graduating from high school, the author went on to two overseas deployments with the army—one to Iraq, one to Afghanistan, the latter earning him several decorations. Then, most improbably, he earned a starting spot on the Clemson University (SC) Tigers football team a full five years after playing high school football. Rodriguez is unsentimental and straightforward about his experiences, whether writing about his struggle with PTSD or his weightlifting and exercise regimen. His drive and determination to overcome obstacles is extraordinary and admirable and should be an inspiration to people everywhere. VERDICT This is an uncommonly solid memoir. Recommended for all readers, particularly those interested in sports and military books.
Speth, James Gustave. Angels by the River. Chelsea Green. Nov. 2014. 224p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781603585859. $25. MEMOIR
Speth (America the Possible) is perhaps best known as a founding member of two pioneering environmental organizations: the National Resources Defense Fund and the World Resources Institute. The first two parts of his book are conventional memoir, detailing his childhood in the small town of Orangeburg, SC, as well as his growing unease as he enters Yale University with Southern views on race (the author was born in 1942). He also includes a compelling chapter on one of his inspirations, the Southern Agrarians, a 1930s group of writers who were severely critical of industrialization and “progress.” Unfortunately, after this section the book descends into a series of less-inspiring summaries of the various jobs Speth has held, and shilling for various movements, including environmentalism, as well as the negatives of too much growth and material consumption in particular. This is not what one wants from a memoir. VERDICT For those interested in Speth and the various organizations he’s been involved with and causes he supports. Those interested in critiques of “bigness” should turn to Wendell Berry or Bill Kauffman instead.
Poehler, Amy. Yes Please. Dey St: HarperCollins. 2014. 329p. illus. ISBN 9780062268341. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062268372. memoir/tv
At one point in Poehler’s first book, she pauses in the middle of a story about how enraged she was when someone dropped a script in her lap while she was sleeping on an Amtrak train and writes, “See? I am not as nice as you think I am.” The strongest parts of this memoir are along similar lines, when the comedienne discusses instances of everyday sexism and general disrespect she’s experienced and describes ways she’s learned to assert herself that other women could deploy for themselves. She spends a lot of time writing about how hard writing is, which becomes a bit wearing. The chapter about Parks and Recreation with footnotes from show creator Mike Schur stands out as both informative and funny, but a section toward the end about a trip to visit orphans in Haiti is tonally different from the rest of the book and seems tacked on. VERDICT These quibbles aside, the book is well worth reading for Poehler’s fans and anyone who enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?—Stephanie Klose, Library Journal
Powers, William. New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City. New World Library. Nov. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781608682393. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781608682409. MEMOIR
Can a person truly find minimalism while living a modern life in New York City? Powers attempts to find out this answer as he and his new wife, Melissa, downsize from a 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse into a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment,” and use various skills of the Slow Food movement, rooftop gardening, and condensed workweeks to live a mindful, urban slow life. Paring down belongings and restructuring time to allow for living “in the moment,” Powers ruminates on the battle for time and money in an age when both are gone as quickly as they arrive. As the couple spends a year trying to balance a slow life in a fast city, they find compatriots, who, in their own ways, are embracing slower lives. VERDICT Powers (Twelve by Twelve) takes his desire for balance from the woods of North Carolina to New York City. Empowered by his experiences, he gives readers an inside view into a more contemplative, ecofriendly life, no matter the environment. This honest, engaging memoir will please readers looking for inspiration to slow down.—Kristi Chadwick, Massachusetts Lib. Syst., South Deerfield