Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this winter. Share what you’re reading and send your review to our book review editor, Robert L. Stamper, MD, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
By Debby Applegate
Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD
Pearl (later known as Polly) Adler was born about 1900 in Belarus, near Pinsk. Belarus was a portion of an area known as the “Pale,” encompassing parts of Poland, Ukraine, Russia and some neighboring countries that allowed Jewish inhabitation.
They lived primarily in small communities, or “shtetls.. Life in these towns was meager with men largely studying the Torah and other religious matters while women ran the household, raised children and often managed the family business. As a result, women were better prepared for the external world than were men.
When Adler was 13 years old, conditions for Jewish families had soured significantly owing to “pogroms,” organized massacres and similar actions against Jews that led to mass emigration. Since it was costly and risky to leave the Pale, generally one child was sent to the U.S. or elsewhere to stay with previous emigrees and pave the way for other family members. Pearl was selected from her sibling brothers to make the voyage because young men, if caught, were conscripted to the military, sent to the battlefield, and typically never heard from again.
Adler ’s toughness and tenacity portended her future and allowed her to make the long journey to Springfield, Mass. where she lived for a short while with an extended family before leaving for Brooklyn and another negative family experience. However, she discovered the adventures of Coney Island, learned to have fun, socialized and worked in a menial job.
Soon afterward she “discovered” Manhattan and all its wonders and opportunities and through a circuitous path came to understand that women could make sizeable money in offering sex for sale. However, owing to her small stature and self-described plain features, she eschewed prostitution for herself but was able to procure attractive, albeit financially needy women and through her guile developed a trade as a madam.
What followed was a remarkable and notable career, although fraught with the hazards of working in an illegal profession. By its nature she encountered many underworld figures including Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond; some of these men would partner with her, protect her andat other times, torment her and her girls and ransack her brothel. Obviously, the police could not provide protection from hoodlums, but were heavily on the take for money and sexual favors in order to look away from Adler’s business. Nevertheless, from time to time she was arrested and had to close shop and start anew. At one time she went legit and opened a retail store, only to watch it fail. She returned to the business that she knew and flourished.
She had the panache to develop high end salons that offered more than sex for hire and attracted a clientele that included the upper echelons of New York society, including prominent politicians, entertainers, athletes, journalists, intellectuals, etc. She was aided greatly by Prohibition. Through her connections the best illegal alcohol flowed through her establishments. They became the place to be for many of the glitterati of the roaring ’20s. The list of those who frequented Adler’s will truly astonish the reader.
The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II
By Buzz Bissinger
Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD
Sports pages across the U.S. inevitably make the comparison between gridiron exploits and war. Sportswriters, coaches, and fans use clichéd words and phrases like “the battle in the trenches,” “blitzes” and “bombs” to link the two entities. The comparison, of course, is patently absurd.
Buzz Bissinger is author of the classic football book “Friday Night Lights.” In his latest book, “The Mosquito Bowl" describes a forgotten game played on Christmas Eve 1944 between two regiments of the 6th Marine Division assigned to the South Pacific. It is not a book about sports.
Bissinger again demonstrates the consummate skill in character portrayal found in his acclaimed earlier works as he acquaints readers with the generation of young men drawn into the maelstrom of war by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although none of the men featured are still alive, by the book’s end readers will feel they had known them during the prime of their lives.
The difference between this book and another of the reviewer’s favorites concerning young athletes, Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” is that Brown’s “boys” were competing for gold medals and Bissinger’s were trying to stay alive. Most of the 65 men who played in the book’s titular game were collegiate or professional football stars. Tragically, some did not survive the war.
Bissinger uses the game, which he describes only superficially, to prepare readers for the participation of the athletes in the bloody invasion of Okinawa, Japan. The fierce battle for that island was one of the primary factors considered by President Truman in his decision to drop the atomic bombs causing Japan to surrender.
Five years of meticulous research provided the author with the historic background to the protagonists’ lives before, during and after their military service. He does not shrink from acknowledging the prejudices common to both military and civilian society in that era. Rivalry between military branches, faulty tactics and inexperienced leadership are not spared from criticism.
By the book’s end, Bissinger has managed to connect readers to the young men whose lives were irrevocably altered by the politics of their time. The youths who did most of the fighting and dying on Okinawa were plagued by boredom, an implacable and fanatic foe and the constant underlying fear of the random and sudden death which characterizes war. These forgotten men deserve this book, which is destined to become an instant classic.
The Overstory: A Novel
By Richard Powers
Reviewed by Laurie Gray Barber, MD
Richard Powers begins, “Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things,” and then sweeps us into this epic book describing five trees that permanently change the lives of nine diverse characters. Settle in for a rewarding, although sometimes tedious, splurge into the lives, communication, and survival of trees. The word “overstory” relates to the canopy of the forest, and Powers starts at the top and digs into the science of roots, branches, leaves and man’s reliance on (but careless tending of) our earth.
In 2019, Richard Power won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction with “The Overstory.” The Pulitzer board described the book as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.” This 612-page novel opened my eyes to human’s tenuous relationship to nature, climate change and other people, as well as our warped perception of time.
Perhaps a book such as this prods us to mindfulness and better stewardship of our only home. Let this be your “hard” book this season.
Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler
Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II
By Bruce Henderson
Reviewed by Robert L. Stamper, MD
In his first book on the overall subject of unsung heroes of World War II, “Sons and Soldiers,” Bruce Henderson tells the fascinating story of Jewish boys who grew up in prewar Germany, got sent by prescient, albeit distraught parents to be raised in the U.S. as Naziism grew and who ultimately played a critical role in the Allied victory in Europe.
These boys were bilingual but thoroughly American. As a group, they tried to enlist in the early days of the war but were spurned by the U.S. armed forces and the War Department as potential enemy aliens despite their refugee origins. However, as the early days of the war saw many Nazi victories, the potential value of these men as interrogators of prisoners and even as frontline spies began to dawn on the powers that were. The author zooms out to tell us what was happening on the larger fronts and then zooms in on the individual acts of heroism that helped turned the tide of the war in Europe. This very readable book adds a refreshing and little-known aspect to the chronicles of World War II in Europe.
In a sort of sequel, “Bridge to the Sun,” Henderson turns his attention to the Nisei, second-generation Japanese men born in the U.S. and full American citizens. After Pearl Harbor, as much as they wanted to prove they were true and loyal Americans, they were found unfit for the armed forces since it was thought they would naturally want to help the Japanese. Some were already in the U.S. Army or Navy but were pushed into noncombatant roles. At the same time, the Japanese -born and second-generation civilians were being rounded up. They were given little time to sell their farms, businesses and homes, and were sent to “relocation camps” in inhospitable places away from the West Coast (as far away as Arkansas).
Japanese is a very complex language with several different dialects and intricate written symbols. In fact, the Japanese were so convinced that no enemy could decipher their language that they did not bother to code their military radio signals or operational commands.
Enter the Nisei, especially those who had been schooled in Japan for a few years prior to the war. Despite being angry at having their families imprisoned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, they volunteered for hazardous duty. Like their German Jewish counterparts in Europe, they were invaluable at crawling up to enemy lines and bringing important information back. Very useful information also came from the diaries of dead soldiers and the intercepted battle plans.
Initially, however, they were less effective at interrogating prisoners because the Japanese soldiers were imbued with the idea that surrender was shameful and preferred suicide to capture. Eventually, there were enough surrenders (sometimes of Nisei who had not left Japan in time and were conscripted into the Japanese army) that useful information was obtained.
Henderson writes well and, although filled with details, the prose flows easily. I learned a lot about the costly battles for control of the many islands in the South Pacific whose names echo from my childhood, history classes and the movies. The terrible devastation produced by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably saved millions of both Japanese and American lives. However, the author explores the decision with the nuances it deserves, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about atomic warfare in that situation.
Perhaps even more interesting and astounding is what we learn about the individual Nisei soldiers. Henderson treats us to the story of their lives before, during and after the war. He explores their various emotional conflicts at having to fight an army that might contain cousins, uncles and even siblings. We learn not only the military strategies of the war in the Pacific from the birds' eye view but about how those strategies played out in the trenches and the critical contributions to the final victory by the heroism of these dedicated American warriors.
Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism
By Glory M. Liu
Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD
There are several reasons for reading this book. The obvious one is that it tells the story that we Americans are so fond of, that Adam Smith an early economist and social philosopher who pointed out our economic and cultural north stars. We say this to justify capitalism and more particularly, the American view on free markets. But it turns out, that self-serving narrative is inaccurate.
Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” came out just as the American Revolution was launched. A few years later it became a reference point by America’s founding fathers. It details the economic theory that described the true nature of national wealth and a treatise that described the best form of government not only for the economy. Its pages promoted moral virtue (a phrase our founders used all the time — in the Federalist Papers, and it appears more often than the words democracy or even freedom).
Smith’s popularity was not surprising. Our founders embraced the European Enlightenment and, the Scottish Enlightenment was a particularly secular version that. Scottish Enlightenment became popular in America (especially at Princeton where founding father James Madison and others were assuming this philosophy in our constitution) and might be considered our nonreligious moral foundation.
Even today, Smith remains influential for his economic theories, especially in the U.S. and U.K. However, Glory Liu teaches us that much of what we think we know and hold dear about Smith is not true. His narrative has slowly evolved in the last two centuries. And it is startling that his common image as the icon of American-style capitalism and free markets is simply not justified.
As Glory Liu describes, over a period of two centuries and as part of the American narrative, Smith was given credit for a new philosophy of political economy that was firmly associated with free trade. Eventually, the University of Chicago, Department of Economics promoted this idea to the point of suggesting Smith as the genius who understood that enlightened self-interest was the key to the miracle of free markets. In other words, they claimed that Smith’s invisible hand was propelled by greed. But that was just too convenient and as Liu explores the primary sources, she shows how we can recover Smith’s original intentions and restore his reputation as a moral philosopher. Smith was much more nuanced. He understood human psychology and that self-interest was not driven simply by hyperrationality.
Smith argued there were certain circumstances in which government intervention might be necessary to improve the lives of the less wealthy. For example, Smith believed that government intervention was necessary to help ensure that the benefits of economic growth were more evenly distributed. He argued that the government should provide basic education and infrastructure and basic necessities like food and shelter, so that all members of society had the opportunity to participate in and benefit from the prosperous economy. And as a moral philosopher, he felt that government could nudge modern capitalism, achieving both wealth and general prosperity.
Oh yes, I did say that there was another reason for reading this book: Glory Liu is the daughter of Donald Liu, MD, whom many in our readership will know well. Dr. Liu is a renown ocular plastics academic who spent portions of his career at the Doheny Eye Institute when it was part of the University of Southern California, later at the King Khalid Eye Hospital in Saudi Arabia and since 2001, at the University of Missouri. I knew Don well as a thoughtful and insightful intellectual, and it’s not surprising to find these same traits in his daughter, Glory M. Liu, who is a fellow at Harvard University.