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Composed, Memoir by Singer Rosanne Cash

Composed, by Rosanne Cash

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I learned a bit about Rosanne Cash in her memoir, Composed (Viking) which goes on sale today. The first-born child of country music legend Johnny Cash is a singer with a respectable career that spans decades and her story is curiously involving.

Starting off with aspects of her youth in southern California, struggling with an absent celebrity dad, snakes, and brush fires, Cash promises more than she delivers, touching on events without conclusion. Tales of Catholic school, growing up in California, and visiting her dad in Tennessee after her parents divorced are well written in key spots. She skimps on deeper thoughts, seeming to hold back when things get interesting. Filling in blanks with name-dropping and recounting her privileged globetrotting while suggesting a torment she never explains, Cash drifts in and out of her pursuits, from attending Vanderbilt University to traveling throughout Europe and writing songs. Without chapter titles, an index or table of contents, Composed feels more like an accounting to some unseen authority than a biographical narrative and at times it is tedious; like listening to a parent rattle off a list of acquaintances who’ve died. Gradually, Cash finds her way. By the last third, she writes about becoming self-made, facing what she describes as living on false premises for 30 years, making better records, raising children, hearing the first passenger jet streak low over Greenwich Village from her daughter’s school and watching the Twin Towers burn, and grieving for her father, who remains an enigma to her even after his death, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, whom she deeply admires, and her mother, whom she says “gave just the right amount of nurturing, not too much to suffocate or too little to starve”.

Though she mentions without elaboration “dark nights of the soul” and a teen-aged trip to Mexico after ditching school in that same passage, Cash, who survived brain surgery, Walk the Line (which she apparently hates), and motherhood and marriage, relaxes toward the end, making this light, easygoing book rewarding for those interested in her music, writing, and Johnny Cash. Speaking of her work, expectations and legacy, she notes: “It took me a long time to grow into an ambition for what I had already committed myself to doing, but I knew I would be good at it if I put my mind to it. So I put my mind to it.” Composed is more strained than composed, but when Rosanne Cash expresses herself, she offers a counterpoint to her father’s iconic line, “I’m Johnny Cash” that has more to say than simply “I’m not”.

Book Review: History of the Holocaust

LongerichHolocaust

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Oxford University Press recently published the 1998 Politik der Vernichtung (Politics of Destruction) by Peter Longerich (Professor of Modern German History at Royal Holloway, University of London) in English. The result, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews, is an exhaustive account of the National Socialists’ systematic extermination of Jews (among others) during World War 2. Using mostly primary sources from various archives throughout Europe, including Germany and eastern Europe, Longerich examines the Nazi murderers and their decision making process, demonstrating that the mass murder of the Jews was a “central tenet” of the Nazi philosophy, which was crucial to Nazi policies.

This hardcover reference volume, making use of the 1930s archives of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, which re-emerged in the 1990s after years in Soviet Russia, relies on letters and reports detailing attacks on Jews by Germans. The documents show how the German volk (people) embraced Nazi attacks on Jews. Filled with notes, a bibliography and an index, this is a factual history, not a philosophical examination, of Nazi Germany’s atrocities (for why the Holocaust happened, read The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff).

“In the first month of the war,” Longerich writes, “Jews were almost wholly excluded from German society…In September 1939, for example, an (unpublished) general 8 p.m. curfew was imposed on Jews, their radios were confiscated, and their telephones were disconnected in summer 1940.” He continues: “Jews’ ration cards were marked with a ‘J’, they were only permitted to use certain shops, and the times when they were permitted to shop were strictly regulated by the municipality (and often limited to one hour a day)…These drastic measures had the effect of starving the Jewish population and ensuring that they devoted most of their energies to obtaining food.”

Longerich describes Treblinka as a “densely forested setting” which was “screened off from the eyes of the outside world.” At first, the mass murder at Treblinka was, he writes, “a crazed massacre” with an arrival area that was scattered with corpses. When new Jews arrived to see the mayhem, he explains, “[Nazi] guards reacted to the panic that arose with further shootings.” By the end of 1942, he notes, “precisely 713,555 people had been murdered in Treblinka.”

With a new introduction and new material on the victims, ghettos, and death camps, Longerich, currently working on a biography of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, has “significantly reworked, shortened in some places and extended in others” his history of the Holocaust into over 600 pages. This should be another important resource for those seeking knowledge of the 20th century’s second most evil dictatorship.

Undateable

What makes a man undateable? This is the question that drives a silly, ridiculous book by two women. Most of the material in Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex is skimpy, stupid or beside the point and some of it’s downright offensive to all men. But I have to admit that this photo-laden trade paperback is hilarious in spots and fun to flip through as the summer dating season approaches. For authors Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle, transgressions include being “overly cologned”, having “tighty whities” (which they dub “just plain creepy” without explanation) and wearing what they call “stupid t-shirts” with emblazoned messages such as “Addicted to Porn”, “FBI (Female Body Inspector)” and “I Am the Big Dog Dad.” The photos of men behaving badly are often funnier than the copy, which is often lame, cliched or too taste-specific. Still, some of this stuff is a hoot. For example, the ladies consider the multicolored, swirly “Cosby sweaters” a toxic asset: “don one of the woollen tragedies and it’s a lock no woman will come near your pudding pop.” In an entry on What Not to Be dubbed “Bitter Boy,” next to an image of a surly looking man with his arms crossed at the chest, they write: “Bitter Boy isn’t so much a look as it is a mind-set. First off, let’s just get this out of the way: Bitter Boy has personally never done anything wrong. Ever. It’s the rest of us who are f***ing everything up and making his life a living hell.” Other no-no’s include the Mandanna, air guitar, Soprano-speak, jogging in place at the stoplight and, of course, the mullet (though this doesn’t appear to apply to lesbians). The funniest bits pertain to men’s personal appearance choices. And you thought only men judge the opposite sex by their looks. (Villard, $15, 192 pages).

Books: ‘Valley of Death’ and Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu

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Look for a former French lieutenant’s tale of pre-Vietnam War, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (Random House hardcover, 752 pages, available February 23 for $ 35) by Ted Morgan. The New York City-based writer and journalist, who fought in the French Army in Algeria, has produced an epic account of the contest that ended French colonial rule in Indochina, the 1954 battle between France and a Communist-backed “people’s army” in Vietnam.

Using French military archives and exclusive firsthand reports, and tracking countless errors by the American government, Morgan reframes the six-week battle for Dien Bien Phu, a remote valley on the border of Laos along a rural trade route, which was fueled by Communism’s rise following World War 2, particularly by Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who were already waging a proxy war with the West in the Korean peninsula. Morgan, a Vietnam reporter who knew the late David Halberstam, provides facts according to his research, which point to the West’s chronic ignorance and appeasement of Communism, though he is more focused on what happened than how and why it happened.

Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Winston Churchill, and Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil). In the fully annotated and indexed Valley of Death, he provides an important perspective on the West’s foreign policy in mid-20th century. That America’s ineffectual war in Vietnam began with this climactic battle, and has continued with decades of lost battles and wars, culminating in our current debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unmistakable.

As Morgan writes on page 172, some opposed American involvement in Vietnam, including Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican who, Morgan writes, “called for an amendment that no funds should be given to the French until they ‘set a target date for … complete independence … the people of Indochina … have been fighting for the same thing for which 177 years ago the people of the American colonies fought.” Morgan notes that “this was the man whom [President] Lyndon Johnson called ‘trigger-happy’ when he ran against him in 1964.” Sen. Goldwater went on, observing that, by aiding France, “we are saying to the great men who penned the document and whose ghosts must haunt these walls, that we do not believe entirely in the Declaration of Independence.” Despite Sen. Goldwater’s warning that “as surely as day follows night our boys will follow this $400 million [aid to France]”, Congress defeated his amendment, approved President Eisenhower’s 1953 aid package, and soon entered the Vietnam War, one of several wars in Korea, Iran, and Iraq, that the United States neither declared nor won.

Movie Review: Dear John

Dear JohnDirector Lasse Hallstrom’s first movie in four years, Dear John, feels half-hearted. Working with a screenplay by Jamie Linden (who wrote the powerful We Are Marshall), based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook), Hollywood’s best director starts with refined, beautiful scenes of young lovers on a beach in Charleston. As the story of two self-sacrificing lovers comes undone, so does Dear John. What’s left is an empty exchange between selfless characters competing to do themselves in.

That might be alright if the result was involving, as is typically the case with Lasse Hallstrom’s movies, such as Casanova, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, or his best picture, Chocolat. Instead, we get vacant Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and blank John (Channing Tatum), each saddled with sacrifice after sacrifice. The only person in the movie with something close to a sense of purpose is Savannah and her goal is to open a camp for kids with “special needs”, not necessarily because she loves the work; she says they need help, so Savannah feels a duty to serve others. So does everyone else in this sad, forlorn movie. John serves in the military merely as something to do and, later, as an evasion of reality. Watching this pair deny themselves for two hours is tedious.

With a theme that one must live for the sake of others, anyone can see where the plot will lead. But it isn’t convincing in Mr. Hallstrom’s hands. He can’t resist focusing on life, which means showing the couple in lingering close-ups and focusing on singularly meaningful pieces of property, such as rare coins that are rich with history or a dish with a simple yet elegant pattern. His tendency to evoke people in motion, fleetingly in love with life, people, places and things, only makes one impatient with the zombies these characters become. John used to be a tough guy; he serves in the Army and likes to surf and that’s about it. Savannah is a rich kid; she goes to college, builds houses for charity, and seeks to serve the disabled. They act like a brochure for national service. They talk in slogans. They both lack an ego.

Add an apparently unemployed family friend (Henry Thomas) and his son, John’s father (The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins), and America’s worst act of war (appallingly described as “buildings falling” with no mention of war let alone those who started it), mix in cancer, autism and a guitar-driven soundtrack more suited to 1970s southern California than early 2000s South Carolina and Dear John disappoints. Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) and Tatum (Stop-Loss, Coach Carter) have decent moments as they exchange letters across a jumbled timeline but they are reduced to holding up the morals of the Peace Corps, an ideal which, it turns out, is undramatic. Having the hero plead for Savannah to tell him what to do after he was shot by unnamed enemies is more sadistic than romantic. Even the presumed “benefits” of Savannah’s altruism don’t come off: one never sees the completed charity house and we never lay eyes upon those who will own it.

Lasse Hallstrom remains one of most talented artists in pictures. He is a masterful storyteller and he makes marvelous movies that celebrate life. Unfortunately, Dear John is not one of them.