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Book Review:
Dee recommends three books

Three books I've been reading which I highly recommend (April 2024): 


1.  The Great Displacement: Climate Change and Next American Migration by Jake Bittle (2023) contains exceptionally well written and informative chapters regarding the aftermath of climate disasters: hurricanes in the Florida Keys, flooding in Kinston, North Carolina and Houston, Texas, wildfires in California, coastal erosion in Louisiana, droughts in Arizona, rising seas in Norfolk, Va. Bittle's chapters follow the fortunes of a few families affected by each of these disasters and/or dramatic ecological change, with cogent analyses of the effects on housing markets, the cost of insurance and political decisions regarding whom to help to rebuild vs. governmental decisions to give up on restoration efforts in particular communities. Several of the descriptions of these disasters, especially the fires and floods, are terrifying.  Bittle's theme is that massive climate displacement of entire communities is already here, and is here to stay for hundreds of years in a best case scenario.  A worst case scenario is that global warming destroys civilization and possibly most living species before climate displacement effects millions of Americans. Bittle's chapters provide some cause for hope and for pessimism.   He questions the extent to which a divided and increasingly incompetent country can pull together to meet this challenge.   


2. In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas by Larry McMurtry (1968) is laugh out loud funny in parts, insightful in all chapters and filled with melancholy in a few chapters. McMurtry published this book of essays in 1968 when he was a low level academic at Rice University in Houston, where I was a graduate student in philosophy in 1966-67. Even as a young writer, McMurtry had a sharp eye for cultural change. In his funniest chapter, "Eros in Archer County," McMurtry discusses sexual mores and the language used to discuss sexual organs and activities in the small town where he grew up in the 1940's and 50's. He recounts a story of unexpectedly having an orgasm while climbing a street pole when he was eight or nine years old. He was surprised, amazed and delighted at his good fortune. When he slid to the bottom of the pole "A lady of my acquaintance happened to be standing near by, so I hurried over and gave her an ecstatic report on the event," pointing to his groin as he did so. "Ssh," she said, looking apprehensively about. "Just don't tell anybody." 


I grew up in Texas on the 1950's and early 60's in Dallas, a city McMurtry despised ( at least in this book), along with East Texas, urban sprawl and the Astrodome. He loved the wide plains of West Texas and the vanishing breed of cowboys, whom he views as never coming to terms with small towns and the evolving social mores in which women expected to like sex with partners sensitive to their needs. McMurtry believed this idea was so scary cowboys avoided the company of women whenever possible. There is much else to praise in these essays by a writer whose observational skills and liveliness are apparent in just about every sentence. 


3. Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz by Jozsef Debreczeni (2023 first published 1950)  is beyond shocking even (I'm guessing) for readers who have read other books about Auschwitz. Debreczeni was a Jewish Hungarian journalist who spent all of 1944 and the first four months of 1945 in several labor subcamps in the "land of Auschwitz."  It is impossible to convey in a few words the degradation of these camps in which prisoners were systematically starved while forced to do hard labor in mines and other settings for many hours per day. Prisoners were often left naked or poorly clothed in freezing temperatures and beaten to the point of death for minor infractions. Most prisoners had diarrhea, all had lice; they lived in barracks with pools of feces in close proximity. Death was common and could come at any time; and was often longed for by prisoners suffering the torments of starvation, typhus and many other ailments. 


A main surprise of this book is the extent to which it is animated by hatred and contempt for Jews given power by the Nazis to run the camps on a daily basis. Jonathan Freedland writes in the Introduction: "Their daily tormentors were not ... only Nazi Germans or even the Nazi local collaborators wearing the grey- green uniforms of the SS. In this book, the Germans are mostly out of view and off stage: they are the ultimate authority, the masters of the camp, but their will is done by others. Those others are the kapos , the prisoners picked -- often entirely at random -- to serve as the Nazi's enforcers.." both through merciless beatings and also through control of scarce food and work assignments. Freedland has understated this point. Debreczeni describes a complex hierarchy among those he terms the "aristocracy,": Blockalteste (Block Elders), Lageralteste (Camp Elder), Lagerschreiber ( Camp Clerk), Stubenalteste ( Room Elder), Wagonalteste ( Wagon Elder), as well as kapos. These persons had the power of life and death over "haftlings", i.e., prisoners. According to Debreczeni, they typically skimmed rations from prisoners which they used as resources to bolster their power.     


Debreczeni survived more than 16 months in these hellish circumstances despite expecting to die on just about any day. Amazingly, his powerful will to live survived labor in the mines, typhus and starvation. He stayed alive in early 1945 when he had typhus for weeks and could not walk a step because a camp physician, the only prisoner Debreczeni describes as ennobled by his medical tasks, gave him liver to restore his strength.  Even at Auschwitz, in a hell hard to imagine, Debreczeni was loved by someone who never gave up on him and had the food resources to save his life. 

-- Dee Wilson

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