John Slania

Dear Simon Garfield,

I’m writing to tell you how delighted I was to read your new book, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. Your book artfully captures my appreciation for old-fashioned letter writing and my concerns for the future of the posted dispatch in this age of emails, texts and Tweets.

I am not one to criticize how we communicate in the digital age. I can’t tell you the last time I took out pen and paper, addressed an envelope, licked a stamp and walked a letter to the mailbox. But that is the point of your book. You gracefully summarize the theme with these words: “It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email—the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower, cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers.”

Indeed, To the Letter is part history lesson, part sociological study, part forecast of the future. You explore the beginnings of letter writing, including the epistolary works of Cicero, Seneca and Pliny the Younger. You muse over the letters of Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. You even devote space to the sad tale of Charlie Brown and how he never received a valentine in the mail.

Among the things I enjoyed the most about To the Letter were the photographs of important, quirky or sentimental letters written over time by the famous and not so famous, including a poignant series of letters between a World War II soldier and his sweetheart back home.

To the Letter has taught me to appreciate the thoughtful traditions of letter writing, and given me pause as I dash off my next email. I know that other readers will enjoy the book as much as I did. Perhaps they will be inspired to write you as well.

Your humble reviewer,
John T. Slania

Dear Simon Garfield, I’m writing to tell you how delighted I was to read your new book, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. Your book artfully captures my appreciation for old-fashioned letter writing and my concerns for the future of the posted dispatch in this age of emails, texts […]

In the beginning, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. As a Beltway outsider, George W. Bush needed the advice of a seasoned Washington politician. Dick Cheney was eager to exert his influence on public policy without the glare of the spotlight. So Bush asked Cheney to be his running mate. The rest, as they say, is history: 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession. The simplistic story was that Cheney, as vice president, ran the country behind the scenes, directing the moves of an untested president. The reality, according to journalist Peter Baker, was that the relationship between Bush and Cheney was much more complex. His new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, describes a relationship that evolved from Cheney being a trusted adviser to one where Bush became increasingly wary of his vice president’s counsel.

Baker witnessed the evolution firsthand, covering Bush as a reporter for the Washington Post. He now covers the Obama administration for the New York Times. Baker brings his newspaperman’s style of writing to Days of Fire; the book is steeped in facts, and the writing is clear and crisp.

You will also be impressed by Baker’s research and reporting. He interviewed more than 200 people, including White House insiders, politicians, relatives and friends to find some incredible anecdotes and to describe the shifting relationship between Bush and Cheney. In summary, when Bush chose Cheney as his running mate, he was looking for a mentor. But it was clear from the beginning that Bush was in charge, and he ultimately relied on his gut when making decisions, Baker writes. Things started to deteriorate after 9/11, as Cheney was a strong advocate of the invasion of Iraq under the assumption that it had weapons of mass destruction. In the aftermath, Bush started to rely more on his instincts, based in part on his growing self-confidence, and the realization that his vice president was a staunch, stubborn conservative.

Among the more fascinating examples of the changing Bush-Cheney relationship in Days of Fire is an account of how Cheney pushed hard to get a presidential pardon for his aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, after he was convicted of leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Bush, having already commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence, ultimately refused to pardon the conviction, a decision that infuriated Cheney and further soured their relationship.

All told, Days of Fire delves deeply into the Bush-Cheney partnership and offers breathtaking insights into power, passion and politics at the highest levels of our government.

In the beginning, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. As a Beltway outsider, George W. Bush needed the advice of a seasoned Washington politician. Dick Cheney was eager to exert his influence on public policy without the glare of the spotlight. So Bush asked Cheney to be his running mate. The rest, as they say, […]

To the End of June is a book about heartbreak. It's filled with tales about failed relationships; broken bonds between parents and children; attempts by foster parents to care for those lost children; the frequent, painful separations when those relationships fail. And even when the relationship does work, and a foster child does find a loving home, the child often carries into adulthood the emptiness of having lost his or her biological parents.

There are few silver linings in To the End of June. Author Cris Beam isn't out to paint a pretty picture. A gifted writer, Beam tells her tale in a short, staccato style. There is no need for flowery prose. The facts tell the story in a dynamic way, and Beam's rhythmic writing keeps the narrative flowing.

Here are some of those eye-opening facts: There are nearly 500,000 children in foster care in the United States. Up to $20 billion is spent annually on their health and management. Besides the inherent emotional scars of being separated from their biological parents, foster children are frequently shuttled from home to home and face a greater risk of suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse.

But it's the human stories Beam uncovers that bring the facts to life. Consider Oneida, 16, a half-Cuban, half-Italian girl from Brooklyn who moves in with a middle-class foster couple, only to disappear after refusing to follow the house rules. Or Noble, a crack baby adopted by a gay couple who provide the love and support to help him survive. Or Lei, a Chinese-American girl who makes it through foster care and graduates from an Ivy League school, only to struggle in adulthood because she never really knew her biological parents.

The shocking details about the foster care system and the compelling human stories make To the End of June an important book, one that sheds light on the lives of a half million children who are too often neglected and ignored.

To the End of June is a book about heartbreak. It's filled with tales about failed relationships; broken bonds between parents and children; attempts by foster parents to care for those lost children; the frequent, painful separations when those relationships fail. And even when the relationship does work, and a foster child does find a […]

The advance buzz for Barack Obama centers on the diary entries kept by Genevieve Cook, who was the one-time girlfriend of the man who would become the 44th president of the United States. Obama was 22 at the time, a recent graduate of Columbia University, living in New York and searching for his place in life. The diary entries, excerpted in Vanity Fair prior to the book’s publication, are intriguing because they reinforce the image of Obama being cool and aloof. Indeed, the 18-month relationship collapses under the weight of inertia as Obama decides to move to Chicago to become a community organizer. The rest, as they say, is history.

While Cook’s often-whiny diary entries are juicy, they represent only a fraction of what makes Barack Obama a great book. Author David Maraniss, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, uses his skills as a journalist to uncover new details about Obama and his ancestors. The book traces the Obama family tree back to his great-grandparents in Kansas and in Kenya. It follows Obama as a young boy as he hopscotches across the globe from Hawaii to Indonesia, and then as a young man attending college in Los Angeles, and later New York. The chronicles of this circuitous journey only reinforce how remarkable a story it is that Obama ended up in the White House.

Barack Obama fills in the blanks of Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father, because Maraniss is such a thorough reporter and researcher. The author of a memoir has a singular perspective, and can be selective with the particulars, while a biographer strives to find all the facts. Obama’s book creates the frame for the portrait. Maraniss’ book connects the dots.

What is fascinating about Barack Obama is that it ends before Obama enters politics. In fact, the protagonist doesn’t appear until the seventh chapter. Maraniss explains that he took this approach to delve deeply into Obama’s background and discover what shaped his character: Growing up as a biracial child with no father and a mother who was often gone; raised by white grandparents who struggled with their prejudices, the future president faced many challenges. “It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard,” Maraniss writes. As Obama finishes his fourth year in office, some say he is even more of an enigma. Barack Obama is a book guaranteed to bring more clarity to his story.

The advance buzz for Barack Obama centers on the diary entries kept by Genevieve Cook, who was the one-time girlfriend of the man who would become the 44th president of the United States. Obama was 22 at the time, a recent graduate of Columbia University, living in New York and searching for his place in […]

When it comes to writing, Neal Bascomb is a creature of habit. He begins his day at the same coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York, where he has written all his books. He drinks regular coffee, and he takes it black. He reads The New York Times. When he puts the paper down, it’s time to have a second cup of coffee, and to write. He uses one of the fancy pens he’s received as a gift, and any notebook he has available. Then he sets about writing his first draft in longhand.

“I’ve been coming to the same place almost every day for the past 10 years,” Bascomb says. “The place has a good feel to it. It’s public, yet no one bothers me. People come in and out. I sit at a table and open a notebook. The sounds around me become white noise. It’s beautiful.”

Bascomb breaks around noon, and returns to his home in Brooklyn for lunch with his wife and two daughters. Then he returns to the coffee shop to write again until dinnertime.

“Two good sessions, and a 1,000 words, and I’m happy,” he says.

In contrast to his rigid writing routine, Bascomb’s nonfiction books are remarkably diverse in subject. His latest, Hunting Eichmann, is an engaging account of the manhunt for Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi commander who was the architect of the mass extermination of Jews during World War II.

Written in rich detail and with authority, the quality of Hunting Eichmann would suggest the author is an expert on World War II, the Holocaust and war crimes. But this is his first foray into such subjects.

Bascomb’s first book, Higher, described the battle between America’s most gifted architects to build the world’s tallest skyscraper during the Roaring ’20s. He followed with The Perfect Mile, the tale of Roger Bannister and two other runners struggling to be the first to run the mile in under four minutes. Bascomb then wrote Red Mutiny, chronicling the 1905 munity aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin.

The diversity of Bascomb’s subjects makes perfect sense, given that he is a journalist in pursuit of a good story.

“I like to find stories that are very intriguing, with a strong narrative,” he explains.

While his approach allows Bascomb to avoid being pigeonholed, many book authors develop a specialty, which enables them to develop an audience.

“It may not be the best idea in terms of my career,” he admits. “There is value in focusing. a) You become an expert. And b) you keep your audience. In essence, I’m finding a new audience each time I write a book. I suppose there are those who love Neal Bascomb, but I’m not sure how many of them are out there.”

Bascomb actually has quite a few fans, given that his books have met with critical acclaim and have made numerous bestseller lists. Hunting Eichmann has the same potential, thanks to Bascomb’s painstaking research and lively writing.

The book follows the life of Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the notorious Nazi SS who organized the deportation of Europe’s Jews to concentration camps. When Germany surrendered, Eichmann escaped and lived under an alias in Argentina until his capture by Israeli spies in 1960. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged.

Hunting Eichmann tracks the Nazi officer’s rise to power and recounts his acts of genocide. It outlines his harrowing escape, his undercover life in Argentina and his suspense-filled capture. The story is thoroughly researched and rich in detail.

Bascomb, 37, first became interested in Eichmann in 1992, when he was a young college student studying abroad in Luxembourg.

“I was this Midwestern kid who found himself in a place where there was a lot of World War II history. Then when some Holocaust survivors came to talk to us, it struck me in the solar plexus.” Bascomb recalls.

Years later, when he was researching the subject, Bascomb was excited to discover new material on Eichmann, and he began a journey that took him around the world to learn about the fugitive Nazi’s life. He traveled to Buenos Aires to interview former Nazi soldiers. While there, he also discovered in court files the long-lost passport Eichmann used to escape Europe. Bascomb also traveled to Israel to interview former operatives with Mossad, the spy agency that tracked down and captured Eichmann.

“For 50 years, they had not spoken about this. They had a pretty dramatic story to tell. [And] discovering the passport—it was a powerful feeling to add to history,” Bascomb says.

Writing Hunting Eichmann also was a satisfying experience for Bascomb, in large part because the real-life manhunt for Eichmann was structurally similar to a mystery novel.

“It was like writing it as a novel, except everything is true,” he says. “It was exciting to get to that level—trying to tell it as if you were reading a novel, except this is history.”

While Bascomb is about to embark on an eight-city tour for Hunting Eichmann, he already is busy researching his next book, which is about high school science students. His eager pursuit of his next project, which is taking him to New York, Detroit and Santa Barbara, California, is due in part to his continued curiosity as a journalist. But there are also some practical reasons.

“I write books full time. I don’t freelance, I don’t teach. So when one project is done, I like to get cracking on the next one,” he explains.

But his wife has her own theory.

“My wife says I pick my books depending upon where I want to travel next,” Bascomb laughs. “That may seem true when I’m researching in Santa Barbara in January. But in my defense, I was in Detroit the week before.”

John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

When it comes to writing, Neal Bascomb is a creature of habit. He begins his day at the same coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York, where he has written all his books. He drinks regular coffee, and he takes it black. He reads The New York Times. When he puts the paper down, it’s […]

<b>Young doctor's voice outlasts war</b> <b>Last Night I Dreamed of Peace</b> contains two remarkable stories. It is foremost the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a young North Vietnamese doctor who chronicles her experiences caring for civilians and soldiers during the height of the Vietnam War. But almost as compelling is the tale of how the diary came to be published 35 years after Thuy's death.

A gifted writer, Thuy eloquently describes her feelings and opinions on war and the destruction it leaves in its wake. She witnesses this firsthand as she treats the wounded from her mobile medical clinic in the jungle, and her diary entries reflect alternating moods of hope and despair about the war. She criticizes the Communist Party for its reluctance to accept her as a member because she is a woman. And she speaks of the sadness of unrequited love, with frequent references to her mysterious first love, a Viet Cong guerilla she calls M. Thuy made her final diary entry on June 20, 1970. I am no longer a child. I have grown up, she writes. But somehow at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom's caring hand. . . . Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me. Shortly after, Thuy, 27, died from a gunshot wound to the forehead during an American raid on her clinic. Thuy's diary came to be published through an amazing series of events, described in detail in the book's introduction. An American lawyer, Fred Whitehurst, was serving with a military detachment, assigned to comb through captured enemy documents and burn those with no military value. Holding Thuy's cigarette packet-sized diary over a fire, Whitehurst was stopped by his interpreter, who said, Don't burn this one, Fred. It has fire in it already. Whitehurst saved the diary and kept it in a file cabinet for more than three decades before returning it to Thuy's family in Hanoi in 2005. Published first in Vietnam, the diary became a sensation. Now available in English, <b>Last Night I Dreamed of Peace</b> is enabling Americans to better understand the impact of the Vietnam War through the eyes of one extraordinary young woman. <i>John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.</i>

<b>Young doctor's voice outlasts war</b> <b>Last Night I Dreamed of Peace</b> contains two remarkable stories. It is foremost the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a young North Vietnamese doctor who chronicles her experiences caring for civilians and soldiers during the height of the Vietnam War. But almost as compelling is the tale of how the […]

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