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review 2017-06-19 00:31
Get your cocoa, dim the lights, and settle down in front of the fire......
Dark on the Mountain - Henry Mitchell

This was an interesting collection of twelve short stories that reminded me of a series that was on TV in my childhood - Tales of the Unexpected - every story had a twist in its tail. Admittedly, most of these twists were a bit dark and a lot of characters met a sorry end, but I could just imagine them being told around a campfire on a dark night, they would be perfect.

My audio version was narrated by Wayne Paige, who had a slow, sultry voice that I took a bit of getting used to, but once I'd settled into it, the voice suited the stories well. My one issue was knowing where one tale ended and the next began - so I downloaded the free sample of the e book, just to get my head around the set-up. After that I had no problem and was able to pick up the breaks.

The script on the cover of the book has a bit of an Indie feel and would normally have put me off, which just goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover.
If you enjoy short stories, this is well worth picking up.

Thanks to Audiobook Boom, through whom I was given this free review copy audiobook in return for an unbiased review.

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review 2017-06-10 20:38
Reading progress update: I've read 382 out of 382 pages.
The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill - Greg Mitchell

Disclosure: I do not personally know the author, Greg Mitchell, but I do follow him on Twitter and have had a very few direct exchanges with him.  Through one of those, I won a copy of this book.  So this was a free copy, but not in any way connected to my reviewing it.  I'm not sure Mr. Mitchell is even aware that I occasionally review books at all.

I have read two of his previous books, Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial, written with Robert Jay Lifton, and Atomic Cover-up: Two Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the Greatest Movie Never Made.

The Berlin Wall went up a couple months before I turned thirteen, just before I entered the eighth grade.  I remember the event dominating the news.  Much of my mother's family was German, and from an area that was then in East Germany, so there was a personal, if distant, connection.  We watched the news on television every night, and the fifteen-minute broadcast at noon on the local Chicago station.  And my parents subscribed to the major pictorial news magazines, Life and Look, which often featured articles about Germany and Berlin, especially after the Wall.  I knew about the death of young Peter Fechter, killed trying to escape.

Somewhere in my consciousness all these years was probably a memory, too, of reports of successful escapes, including through tunnels, but it wasn't a memory I could easily call up.  Therefore I went into the reading of The Tunnels with only the most essential, but essentially superficial, background information.

The opening chapters of Mitchell's book expand on that background as well as introduce the main characters – the diggers and the refugees.  But as the story proceeds, others emerge on the stage – reporters, informants, politicians.  The narrative acquires a context beyond the tunnel, beyond the Wall, beyond Berlin.

Without that context, this is a thrilling escape adventure.  With that context, this becomes a powerful commentary on the human spirit in its greatest and weakest moments.

During that summer of 1962, when a small group of young men began the tunnel under Bernauerstrasse, international events were heading on a collision course that seemingly had no connection to the dirt and mud and risks.  

An NBC news crew had quietly, almost secretly, filmed some of the construction of this tunnel, intending to present the result as a documentary for U.S. television.  There was, however, opposition from the government, and by the time the program was scheduled to air in the fall of 1962, political tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were escalating over the deployment of missiles in Cuba.  Though there were American forces in West Germany, and even in Berlin – an isolated city surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany – Cuba was closer to the U.S. mainland by thousands of miles.  And there were those in the administration of John F. Kennedy who were willing to write off Berlin -- in the form of a nuclear war -- in exchange for keeping those missiles out of Cuba.

The governmental machinations exposed in The Tunnels are not pretty.  They're a stark contrast to JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech of the following June, delivered to 450,000 cheering, adoring Germans.

There is much in The Tunnels that applies to our current international political scene.  The book was published in October 2016, on the eve of, well, you know what.  And the final pages reference walls in general and in particular.  One passage, however, may be more poignant than all the rest.

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany remains one of America's close allies but its citizens, according to opinion polls, harbor deep ambivalence about the United States.  To a significant extent, the country is still divided politically, with a surprising level of anti-democratic feeling (and opposition to new immigrants) in the former East and plenty of left-wing sentiment in the old West.  Peter Schneider, a well-known German journalist and author (one of his books is The Wall Jumper) told a New Yorker writer that Americans in the Cold War era "created a model of a savior, ad now we find by looking at you that you are not perfect at all – much less, you are actually corrupt, you are terrible businessmen, you have no ideals anymore."

Angela Merkel, who was born in East Germany, is now sometimes referred to as the leader of the free world, a title formerly claimed by the president of the United States.

The 90-minute documentary produced by NBC and aired in December 1962 went on to win three Emmy awards in May 1963, including Program of the Year, the first documentary to do so.  The Tunnel is available online.  I watched it just after finishing the book; it is well worth your time.

There are many worthwhile quotes in this book, in addition to the passage I reproduced above, that remain as relevant to 2017 as to 1962.  After The Tunnel finally reached American audiences and was deemed "nothing short of a triumph" based on both reviews and ratings,

[Producer Reuven Frank] was troubled that he still didn't understand exactly why the Kennedy administration had fought [the film] with such vehemence.  Frank realized, not for the first time but now most profoundly, how painfully vulnerable to pressure the America media remained when it came to the reporting of sensitive issues.  "Anyone with half a brain," as he once put it, "can make it impossible," or nearly so.

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text 2017-06-10 17:08
Reading progress update: I've read 266 out of 320 pages.
The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill - Greg Mitchell

I only quit reading at 11:30 last night because I knew I had to be up very early to catch the cool temperatures and rising sun no later than 5:00 a.m.  Otherwise, I'd have read until I finished it.  Now that I've taken care of those essential early chores, I can go back to reading.


It's tempting to skip some of the background, the non-digging narrative, and just stick with the tunneling, but to do so is to lose the ultimate context, especially its poignant relevance to the current human situation.


A superb and timely book. 


More details to come.

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text 2017-06-07 19:40
Reading progress update: I've read 34 out of 320 pages.
The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill - Greg Mitchell

The Berlin Wall went up quickly, overnight on 13 August 1961.  At first it was mostly barbed wire with some concrete, and for the first several months it remained relatively porous, easy to slip through at various points.  But as the barrier was fortified, those who wanted to escape to the West had a more difficult time doing it. 


Though Berlin was a divided city inside a divided country, travel between the sectors had been relatively free until that August.  That freedom, however, had allowed thousands of East Berliners to permanently leave for the western sector, and many of them were skilled professionals.  Not only was the cold war heating up, but the space race and technology competition were ramping up, too, and the eastern bloc couldn't afford to keep losing its best and brightest.


Some of those best and brightest went to work on tunneling to get their families and friends and even paying "passengers" under the Wall.


One of the most fascinating features of this book is that Mitchell had so much access to first-hand source information.  As he writes in the prefatory "Note to Readers,"


It incorporates no invented dialogue.  Re-created scenes are not imagined but based in most cases on accounts of two or more participants.  Unless otherwise attributed, anything between quotation marks is either actual dialogue (as recalled by a witness, often in an interview with the author) or from a memoir or other book, letter, oral history, court record, interrogation, White House transcript, or other document cited in the Notes. . . . All of the names are real. . . . [N]early all of the central events and episodes in this narrative (and surely the most exciting sections) are based on lengthy original interviews with nearly all of the key tunnelers, and several of the couriers and escapees. . . .


Yes, I'm only 10% in, but I already highly, highly recommend this book as a testament to the indomitable human spirit.  Goodness knows we need it these days!


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text 2017-06-06 22:22
BL-opoly - #6 - Set in western Europe
The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall-and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill - Greg Mitchell

A change from my usual disclosure.


I don't know the author personally, but I do follow him on Twitter, and we have had a few short direct exchanges.


The first book of his I read was Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial, which I read in 1998. It was one of two books that prompted my return to college later that year, shortly before my 50th birthday.


When I saw Mitchell's promotions for The Tunnels on Twitter, I was immediately interested. Not being able to afford it, I obtained it from my local library. Unfortunately, this was right at the height of my art show season, and I didn't have time to get ore than a couple chapters into it before it was due back. I planned to check it out again this summer when I knew I'd have more reading time.


Several weeks later, however, Mitchell sponsored a giveaway on Twitter. A copy of The Tunnels would be sent to the first person who correctly identified the "famous American" depicted in the bronze statue Mitchell posted a picture of on Twitter.


Well, I recognized the "famous American" instantly*, but never thought I'd end up being the first to post. As it turned out, however, I was, and a few days later, The Tunnels arrived in my mailbox (direct from Amazon, so no autograph!!).


I'm old enough to remember when The Wall went up as well as when it came down, and given the current state of world affairs, I though this would make the perfect reading for a space on western Europe.







*It was Lou Gehrig's Hall of Fame statue, and yes, I'm a baseball fan.

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