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Weekly Reviews: Stranger Than Fiction

A possibly insane man who was acquitted of murdering his wife’s lover because the jury found it to be justifiable homicide, and then went on to play one of the most crucial roles in the early development of motion pictures.  A teenage assassin who has been blamed (both then and now) for igniting the precipitating event of the Holocaust.  A boy who discovers that his father is a spy.  A cargo plane, a B-17 bomber, and a Coast Guard plane all crash in Greenland trying to save one another; and the crew of the B-17 manages to survive five months stranded in Greenland.  Today, we look at four nonfiction books that describe events we might have a hard time believing if they showed up in a novel.

Edward Ball’s The Inventor and the Tycoon looks at one of the most unbelievable figures in American History: Eadweard Muybridge (my favorite of his various respellings of his name).  Muybridge was hurled from a crashing stagecoach and suffered a severe head injury, which may have led to permanent brain damage–and was certainly used as proof of his insanity in his trial over the murder of his wife’s lover.  He went on to become a photographer, and after settling a bet made by the famous railroad tycoon (and University founder) Leland Stanford as to whether all four of a horse’s legs leave the ground when it runs, he became obsessed with high speed photography, and eventually setting his rapid shots in motion, thus paving the way for later innovations in movies.

Herschel Grynszpan, on the other hand, was by all accounts a very ordinary young man.  A young Pole, sent to Paris to avoid the Nazis, for some reason he took it into his head to assassinate a minor Nazi diplomat at the German Embassy, and the world has been fighting over the meaning of his actions ever since.  The Nazis immediately seized on his actions as an excuse for Kristallnacht, and many writers since have heaped the blame on him.  In the new book The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, Jonathan Kirsch ably disproves the Kristallnacht theory (the Nazis had been planning something like it long before Grynszpan’s actions), and lays out his own theory of Grynszpan as a futile, but admirable Jewish Resistor–someone who belongs with the heroes of Doreen Rappaport’s Beyond Courage.

Next we have the first of two starred reviews for today: Mitchell Zuckoff’s Frozen in Time.  Zuckoff tells the story of the almost ridiculous set of plane crashes described above, and the heroic efforts by everyone involved to save as many of the stranded men as possible.  Meanwhile, he weaves in the story of his own involvement in a search for the remains of the Coast Guard plane.

And finally, we have a second starred review: Scott Johnson’s The Wolf and the Watchman, a memoir of a boy who discovered that his father was a CIA agent.  Though there’s plenty of covert action and espionage in this fabulous book, the real heft of it is in Johnson’s moving account of his relationship with his father and how the secrets of the CIA affected that relationship.

Together these four books offer more proof than anyone needs as to the potency and appeal of nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction: four stories which are practically unknown, and yet are more exciting than all but the very best fictional stories out there.

BALL, Edward. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. 464p. bibliog. index. photogs. Doubleday. Jan. 2013. Tr $29.95. ISBN 9780385525756.

inventor and tycoon 196x300 Weekly Reviews: Stranger Than FictionAdult/High School–Ball takes a look at two very different men whose paths crossed in the late 19th century. The tycoon of the title is Leland Stanford: grocer, railroad magnate, Governor of California, U.S. Senator, founder of Stanford University. The inventor is Edward Muybridge, an inventor, a bookseller, photographer, adventurer, self-promoter, and murderer. The author weaves their stories together, moving back and forth through time and around the world. Muybridge (born Muggeridge, but fond of changing his name as he changed jobs or locations) is best known as a photographer–he took some of the earliest and most daring photographs of Yosemite–and when he met up with Stanford, he photographed Stanford’s horses in an attempt to prove that “during a gallop, horses at some point in their stride lift all four hooves off the ground.” As he refined his approach, he used multiple cameras to catch ever-smaller increments of movement and invented a device to project the results onto a screen for viewers to watch. Ball brings to life the two men, each eccentric in his own way. The murder is a fascinating sidelight–Muybridge killed his wife’s lover but was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide–that gives some insight into the rough-and-tumble California life of the 1870s. Teens with an interest in history, photography, or film will be fascinated by this exploration into the relationship of money, patronage, and publicity to the creation of art.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA

KIRSCH, Jonathan. The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan. 352p. bibliog. chron. index. notes. Liveright Publishing. May. 2013. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780871404527.

herschel 197x300 Weekly Reviews: Stranger Than FictionAdult/High School–On November 7, 1938,  a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German Embassy in Paris and shot and killed a low-level diplomat named Ernst vom Rath. Within days, in an incredibly convoluted knot of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy theories, Grynszpan’s act was variously portrayed as the heroic action of a lone Jew outraged at Nazi atrocities; a crime of passion wrought of a failed homosexual affair; a set-up by the Nazis who supposedly wished to do away with a less-than-enthusiastic party member; and, most ominously of all, proof of the Nazi’s belief in the “International Jewish Conspiracy” and an excuse for the notorious events of Kristallnacht two days later.  Kirsch deftly cuts through these layers of interpretation to provide readers with an account of Grynszpan’s brief life–first in Hanover, then in Paris–his incarcerations in Paris and Berlin, and the vast array of meanings with which his life has been invested.  In the process, the author offers a unique perspective on the crucial period between the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933 and its decision to introduce the Final Solution sometime in 1941. Ultimately, Kirsch argues that Grynszpan should be seen as a tragically unsung hero of the Jewish resistance. Whether readers agree with Kirsch or not, the questions raised make this book essential reading for lovers of history, and the figure of the misunderstood adolescent hero should resonate with teens.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

* ZUCKOFF, Mitchell. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. 400p. bibliog. illus. index. notes. Harper. May. 2013. Tr $28.99. ISBN 9780062133434.

frozen in time 200x300 Weekly Reviews: Stranger Than FictionAdult/High School–This gripping page-turner tells two stories, one historical and one modern. In the historical part, three military planes went down on the Greenland icecap in late 1942. The first was a cargo plane, the second a B-17 bomber that was searching for the first, and the third a Coast Guard amphibious plane that was attempting to rescue the B-17’s crew. Greenland can be harsh and unforgiving, especially during the winter months and Zuckoff details how the B-17’s crew survived for nearly five months, and how seven of the nine airmen eventually made it home. Their survival was due in part to their own determination and ingenuity, but also to the perseverance of the Coast Guard, who never gave up on them. The modern story is about a group, including Zuckoff, who made an expedition to Greenland in the summer of 2012 in an attempt to find the Coast Guard plane and its long-dead crew. This is a fine example of narrative nonfiction, as Zuckoff moves the events of both stories forward while focusing on the people involved. Teens who like survival and adventure stories, such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) and Into the Wild (1996, both Villard) will be quickly drawn into the tale of these young airmen–mostly in their early 20s–who went through unimaginable physical and emotional trials. At the same time, they will be fascinated by what is essentially a modern-day treasure hunt, conducted not only with elaborate imaging technology but also with good old-fashioned research, guesswork, and luck.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA

* JOHNSON, Scott. The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA. 320p. Norton. May. 2013. Tr $26.95. ISBN 978-0-393-23980-5.

wolfwatchman9780393239805 300 197x300 Weekly Reviews: Stranger Than FictionAdult/High School–Johnson was a preteen before he saw that his father had two driver’s licenses with different names and different pictures, but things had always been a little strange in his upbringing as they circled the globe after his depressed mother left. Johnson adored and idolized his father, but by the time he was an adult and knew at least an outline of the truth, that his father was a spy, he had begun to question what all the lies and secrets really hid, and what the lasting effect had been on him and his relationships generally, and with his father, specifically. This book is not the expected thriller about the clandestine operations of the CIA, about murder and intrigue, war and death. That’s all there, and that will be the hook that attracts teen boys to this book, but once inside they will be inspired and moved by a truly honest and introspective memoir. This book covers the less-explored nature of the relationship between sons and fathers. It starts a little slowly but becomes addictive, and the action and tense life-and-death moments and unflinching look at espionage and war are expertly interspersed with more thoughtful passages; the moral lessons of both are powerful. Pair this book with the television series Band of Brothers and anything by Sebastian Junger.–Jake Pettit,  American School Foundation,  Mexico City

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About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark

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