• June 8, 2012

Non-fiction Snapshots this time, of pilots in WWII, slum-dwellers in Mumbai, and the "lasting political damage" caused by the retreating British empire. Terrific reads all!

In today’s non-fiction snapshots, we travel to Hell Above Earth, and then to other assorted places, some of which are hellish. Hell Above Earth is a little known, gripping WWII story. From there we go to the slums of India, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Katharine Boo’s keen observation of the “otherwise invisible lives of the more than 3,000 urban slum-dwellers packed into or on top of 335 huts outside the gleaming airport in Mumbai.” For those interested in empire and its aftermath, Professor Dane Kennedy recommends Ghosts of Empire, a “lively and perspicacious examination of British imperial rule and its heritage.” The six case studies of Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong show “that the British Empire was governed by a social and educational elite whose autocratic and often idiosyncratic rule left lasting political damage for successor states.” Terrific reads all.

Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him

by Stephen Frater

St. Martin’s Press

320 pp.

What would you do if you were ordered to kill your fellow soldier? That was the challenge facing Jack Rencher during World War II. The fellow soldier was Werner Goering, nephew of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s official heir. In 1942, Werner enlisted in the United States Army. He was an exceptional pilot, and the U.S. desperately needed pilots. But Werner’s relationship to such an important Nazi political figure created a nightmare of questions. What if Werner switched sides? What if he were captured? Fearing embarrassment to the U.S., J. Edgar Hoover issued orders to have someone in the cockpit shoot Werner if the plane ever went down in Germany. The military recruited Jack, a B-17 instructor and a skilled pistol shooter. And Jack met the most important requirement: he was willing to kill Werner. The men were assigned to the Eighth Air Force, one of the war’s most dangerous assignments. Men flew missions under impossible circumstances, circumstances that would have tried the hardiest of people. Sometimes their only choice was to watch their buddies die, knowing there was nothing they could do. It would be easy to not want to get close, not take the risk. Yet, friendships were anchors in the war’s insanity, and the one between Werner and Jack offered things both men needed. Still, Jack’s kill order left him the possibility that he might have to shoot his friend. During a mission when it didn’t look like they would make it home, Jack knew the moment when he would kill Werner. It would be the closest Jack came to carrying out the orders, and the nature of war. It’s been 70 years since Werner first enlisted, yet this story resonates today because it’s not about the people — it’s about the war. This book leaves a lingering taste of what it was like and at the same time, the feeling that we will never truly understand it.

~Linda Adams

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

by Katherine Boo

Random House

288 pp.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, reveals the otherwise invisible lives of the more than 3,000 urban slum-dwellers packed into or on top of 335 huts outside the gleaming airport in Mumbai. Drivers approaching the Mumbai terminal or its five posh airport hotels see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements for Italianate floor tiles and their corporate slogan: Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever. Grabbing you by the hand, Boo climbs the wall with her trash-pickers. She says: meet Abdul, a 16-year-old Muslim in a Hindu world whose mother raised him for a modern age of ruthless competition; since he was six, Abdul has been frenetically sorting garbage into more than 60 kinds of paper, plastic, metal and the like in order to sell it, keeping his ailing father and 11 younger siblings above subsistence. Meet Asha, who finds opportunities in corruption, strategically modeling herself after her politically astute slum-boss so she can replace him. Meet the lovely, bright and sensitive Manju, whose hope is a college degree. Meet Sunil with his rat bites, lice and maggots from infected or gangrenous scrapes sustained while dumpster-diving in the desperate effort to stave off hunger. Meet Kalu, whose specialty as a thief is the airport recycling bins which often contain aluminum scrap. What happens to Abdul when his success creates economic envy? Although his operating principle has been to avoid trouble, why is he blamed for the death by self-immolation of a one-legged woman, Sita, a neighbor? Drawing on years of painstaking research, Boo’s treatise on economics and sociology, as much as her compelling story, swallows us whole into the lives of scavengers subsisting on what we in the West throw away, and the ethics, politics, treachery, corruption and drama of what it takes to succeed under horrific conditions. I am amazed and transformed by this meditation on India, the human condition and the resilience of the human spirit.

~Katharine A. Lorr

Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World

by Kwasi Kwarteng

Public Affairs

488 pp.

This lively and perspicacious examination of British imperial rule and its heritage is a forceful rejoinder to those neoconservatives who would have the United States emulate Britain’s example in exerting power across the globe. The author, a black Briton of Ghanaian heritage who holds a Cambridge Ph.D. in history, was recently elected to Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party — a résumé that defies easy categorization. His argument is that the British Empire was governed by a social and educational elite whose autocratic and often idiosyncratic rule left lasting political damage for successor states. He presents six case studies — Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong — describing how each of these territories was conquered and governed by British authorities and how their policies contributed to the subsequent troubles that afflicted these places. Although sharply critical of British imperial rule, Kwarteng never comes across as a tiresome scold. His engaging narrative is punctuated by vivid pen portraits of an extraordinary cast of characters, ranging from imperial officials like Herbert Kitchener and Gertrude Bell to indigenous figures like Hari Singh and Aung San. Above all, Ghosts of Empire provides a highly readable reminder that many of the contemporary world’s troubles spots have deeper historical roots that derive more directly from British imperial intervention than some of us might suppose and others might acknowledge.

~Dane Kennedy

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