Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2014

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI

Posted by nliakos on May 29, 2014

by Betty Medsger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

On March 8, 1971, a group of eight activists broke into a regional FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, seeking evidence that the FBI was actively suppressing dissent in America. They got their evidence–the files stolen that March night revealed the existence of Hoover’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), its illegal surveillance of American citizens without cause, its use of “dirty tricks” and lies to smear the reputations of people Hoover did not like, and much more. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, journalist Carl Stern and others were able to gain access to mountains of damning evidence concerning FBI activities and culture. But it was the Media burglary that started the investigations that eventually resulted in new rules and more oversight. The eight burglars were never caught, despite a determined (but somewhat inept) FBI investigation. Quite by accident, journalist Betty Medsgar, recipient of one of five sets of copies of the files stolen from the Media office that day (and the only one who did not give them immediately to the FBI, thanks to her gutsy employer, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post), learned the identity of two of the burglars and was then able to find and interview all but one of them for this book.

The book came out during the brouhaha over Edward Snowden’s theft of NSA files, and the contrast (the vilification of Snowden vs. the admiration for the Media burglars, now that we see their crime in retrospect) is instructive.

The book was fascinating, upsetting, depressing, and very long (28 chapters, 538 pages). I think it could have been much shorter. It delves into topics which are not strictly related to the burglary and its aftermath; there’s a whole chapter on the NSA files, which I assume may have been added at the last minute; and a lot of information about the history of the FBI, pre- and post-Media. The editing could be cleaner, too; at times it appeared to be patched together. I was often confused, and there seemed to be a lot of repetition. The organization of the material is not what I would have chosen. It starts out with the burglary and ends up with profiles of the burglars and what happened to them afterward. Personally, I would have preferred to learn the burglars’ background early in the book, and read about their subsequent lives later. As it was, the burglary itself was confusing because I wasn’t sure who was who.

The chapter “Crude and Cruel” was the core of the book for me. It details the heartless and illegal ways that Hoover’s FBI operated when no one was overseeing it. Specifically, Medsger describes the cases of Jean Seberg (miscarriage and suicide), Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton (murdered by the FBI in his bed), Geronomo Pratt (wrongly imprisoned for 27 years), Muhammad Ali, and others. Hoover’s “crude personal fascinations” guided FBI intelligence gathering, and cases were never closed. Hoover manipulated elections, was the driving force behind Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and targeted intellectuals, writers, academics, African-Americans, scientists, political parties (in particular the Socialist Workers Party), and students. Even in the area in which the FBI was supposed to be working–organized crime–Hoover depended on illegal and immoral activities to get the job done, as in the case of four men sent to prison fora murder actually committed by FBI informants. The innocent men spent almost forty years in prison while the FBI sat on the evidence that they were not guilty.

It is unbelievable that J. Edgar Hoover was appointed director of the FBI when he was only 29. He had already shown a willingness to ride roughshod over people’s rights in the 1919 Palmer raids (“one of the worst violations of civil liberties in the nation’s history”), yet he was given free rein to develop an empire within the U.S. government. As Medsger points out in her chapter “Questions”, nobody asked any for most of the 48 years Hoover was in charge–instead, people lionized Hoover and fell over themselves to supply him with everything he asked for and more. And if someone did dare to ask a question or levy a criticism, Hoover immediately responded with surveillance and smear tactics.

After I read the book, I thought that the FBI should have been disbanded completely and replaced with something completely different as soon as the extent of its abuse of power became known. Instead, a few checks were put into place, and a few people tried to change the culture of the organization, without much effect. Today, the FBI has (together with the NSA) so much information about each and every one of us that future (and present) abuses are likely.

This is an important book. It’s too bad some readers won’t ever make it through to the end.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | 3 Comments »

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Posted by nliakos on May 13, 2014

by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday 2012)

Harold Fry is your basic nebish who sets out to mail a letter to a former colleague who is dying of cancer. . . . and keeps walking. He walks from Kingsbridge on England’s southwest coast, all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed on the North Sea coast, on the Scottish border, a distance of 627 miles. It takes him almost three months. Along the way, he learns to savor the joys of being outside (even though most of his route is along main roads!); he meets many different people (and one special dog), shares his story with them, and listens to their stories; and perhaps most importantly, he revisits and confronts his painful memories. At the same time, his estranged wife Maureen is forced by Harold’s absence to confront her own demons. Harold cannot save his friend Queenie, but he does manage to save himself. . . and Maureen.  Sprinkled throughout are little lessons or realizations, like, “The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other, and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”  A fantastic book.

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Posted by nliakos on May 11, 2014

by Gail Godwin (Random House 1999)

I must have read a review of this when it came out and added it to my list of books to read. I am sure it’s been on there at least 15 years! As the semester is ending, I went to McKeldin Library and the library at the Universities at Shady Grove and borrowed nine books on my list (and would have taken more, but I ran out of time and space in my rolling backpack; maybe next week). On the way home on the bus, I grabbed the first one my hand came in contact with: Evensong. 

I believe that this is the second book about Margaret Gower Bonner, Episcopal priest, but I haven’t read Father Melancholy’s Daughter, the first one. In Evensong, Margaret is married to the love of her life, Adrian Bonner. They live in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he is chaplain (and now acting headmaster) of a private school for children in crisis, and she is the pastor of a congregation called All Saints High Balsam. Their marriage, once so promising, is going through some rough times; Adrian tends to melancholy as much as his father-in-law apparently did. The novel opens a couple of days before the first Sunday of Advent, 1999, and takes us up to December 18 (with the epilogue some twenty years later), the day of a Millenium Birthday March for Jesus; the march is organized by an annoying woman who drives Margaret and everyone else crazy with her refusals to take “no” for an answer.

In those four weeks, we get to know (from Margaret’s perspective) a cast of interesting characters: Adrian, Chase (an unusually difficult student from Adrian’s school), Tony (a lay monk who turns up in High Balsam and ends up staying with the Bonners), Gus and Doctor Charles (a couple that Margaret marries in Chapter 9, as well as his tweenaged daughter Jennifer), Chase’s adoptive father who wishes Chase would just go away and stop getting into trouble, Grace Munger (the march organizer) and other people from the town. We also learn Margaret’s and Adrian’s backstories; Adrian’s explains a lot about his lack of confidence and self-esteem.  There are various subplots and story lines which culminate in a dramatic event in the final chapter, but no spoilers! It was a fast and enjoyable read, and I liked learning about an Episcopal priest’s responsibilities and daily routines–something I’ve never really thought about before.

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Orphan Train

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2014

by Christina Baker Kline

Thanks to Daniela W-L for lending me this engrossing novel based on the orphan trains of the 19th and 20th centuries in America. Niamh Power immigrates to America from Ireland, only to lose her parents and siblings in a tragic fire. She is sent to Minnesota on an “orphan train” and finds herself little more than a servant or slave in two placements, one worse than the other, until her luck finally changes. . . . More than eighty years later, she awakens the memories of these transformative life events as she goes through an attic full of papers and keepsakes with the help of Molly, a rebellious half-Native American teen who discovers that the rich old lady is similar to her in ways she could never have imagined.

(Summer break is beginning and I am heading to McKeldin Library tomorrow to gather a boatload of books from my “to-read” lists! Watch this space!)

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The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2014

by Lesley Hazelton (Riverhead Books 2013)

Like many people, my knowledge of the life of the Prophet of Islam was limited to a few very vague bits: I knew he had married an independent businesswoman for whom he worked, and I knew that there had been a “flight” from Mecca to Medina. So I was ripe for this biography of Muhammad from veteran journalist and writer Lesley Hazelton. Hazelton wrote the book with people like me in mind: not Muslims, not even believers, necessarily. She makes very clear what is fact, what is historical/cultural background, and what is conjecture about the life of this man who actually changed the world. Drawing on the histories of ibn-Ishaq and al-Tabari as well as the Quran itself as her primary sources, Hazelton weaves the story of Muhammad’s life from conception to death. I learned about his early years as a goatherd, the diverse society in which he lived, the pre-Islamic beliefs and practices which became incorporated into Islam, his transformation from outsider to ultimate insider, and much more. Many thanks to my student Munerah for giving me this book!

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »