“Red Notice” by Bill Browder

rednoticeRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is an enthralling memoir by Bill Browder that reads like an espionage thriller.

Bill Browder comes from a leftist family.  His grandfather, Earl Browder, runs for President on the American Communist Party ticket in 1936 and 1940.  He appears on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938 with the caption “Comrade Earl Browder.”  Forcing depression-era America to focus on the failings of mainstream capitalism, he arguably causes most political players of the time to revise their policies leftward.  Into this family comes grandson Bill Browder making the ultimate rebel move:  he embraces capitalism and gets an M.B.A. from Stanford.

After getting his feet wet with his first few investment and consulting firms, he chooses to specialize in the enigmatic and virgin area:  Eastern Europe.  His first assignment in Poland is getting paid big consulting bucks to ultimately tell the failing bus company to lay off most of the staff – it is equally disastrous and humorous.  While there, he witnesses Poland’s first-ever privatizations – the government is unloading its property and state-run businesses at a steal. The lightbulb goes off when he realizes, quicker than most investors, the demise of the Communist bloc offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get insanely rich.

In 1995, Hermitage Capital Management is born, Bill Browder moves to Moscow focusing on investments in Russia. Here begins a rollercoaster ride wildly whipsawed by the volatility of investing in the wild-wild East.  By 1997, Hermitage is the best performing fund in the world, and Bill Browder is considered a financial superman and instant expert on investing in Russia.  His meteoric rise (turning $25 million into $1 billion) takes a dive (down to $100 million) when Russian oligarchs begin diluting the value of shares owned by westerners.  Putin is elected in 2000, in part, because he vows to clean up malfeasance by the oligarchs.  At first, Browder considers him an ally, but later realizes Putin doesn’t want to clean up Russia; he just wants to redirect the bounty from the oligarchs to his KGB friends.  With continued opportunistic, creative, and stealthy investing, the Hermitage fund recovers, skyrocketing to $4.5 billion.  Browder is the largest foreign investor in the country.  And then, in 2005, while flying back to London, Browder is detained at the Moscow airport for 15 hours and expelled from Russia with no explanation.

Browder puts up a fight.  His office, those of his attorneys, as well as those of the underlying companies in his investment portfolio are raided.  His Russian attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovers a fraudulent $230 million tax scheme committed by internal officers.  Those that committed the crime have him arrested, and, while in custody, he is tortured and killed.

At this point in the story, Bill Browder transforms from the mega-capitalist investor to a fervent activist seeking justice for the murder of his friend and attorney.  He brings his fight to Washington and with another roller coaster “winds-of-fate” story, achieves bipartisan support for the Magnitsky Act signed into law by Barack Obama in 2012.  That law bans 18 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the US and freezes their assets.  Putin immediately retaliates by banning Americans from adopting Russian children.  Bill Browder understands the danger he is up against.  He tells the reader that if he dies a mysterious, untimely death, know this: it was Putin.

I highly recommend this riveting memoir – a tale much richer than fiction.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 5 to discuss Red Notice at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“A $500 House in Detroit” by Drew Philp

500houseOn the surface, this is a story of a young, idealistic college kid from the University of Michigan wanting to use his studies and hard work to make a difference in the town that needed the biggest difference made: Detroit.  He moved with no money, no job, and no friends to an apartment in the red-light district and on notorious murder row.  His apartment neighbors were crack dealers, prostitutes, and drug addicts.  And although he was out of his element, something about the place made him feel connected – much more so than in affluent Ann Arbor, where he was finishing his degree.  Commuting back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor his last year of college, Philp describes as economic jet lag – yo-yoing back and forth between extreme ends of race and economic divide only 40 miles apart.  His first job was as the white-face front to an all-black construction company.  The company shamelessly used his white voice and white face to bid the more lucrative jobs in the suburbs.

At 23, he bought a monstrous shamble of a house on auction for $500 – a big 2-story Queen Anne with a wraparound porch and a yard for a garden.  It needed a new everything: porch, roof, walls, floors, plumbing, electricity, heating, the works.  It was stripped and full of trash.  He says, “I wanted a house nobody wanted, a house that was impossible.  The city was filled with these structures.  It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, that this American torment could be built back into a home.  Fixing it would be a protest of sorts.”  It will take muscle, defiance, ruthlessness, and community to fix this thing.  And poetically, it will take the same ingredients to rebuild the city.

There were so many points in the story that less adventurous mortals like me were begging him to throw in the towel:  spending a Detroit winter in a creaky, drafty house with no heat; learning the foundation needed to be lifted; shoveling out 2 stories of trash piles as high as his chest; trying to sleep with gunshots outside the house; the basement flooding.  This was not an easy life.  Why are you doing this?

Philps began to realize “Detroit was just America with the volume turned all the way up, that what was about to happen would have repercussions for the rest of the Western world.  Detroit was the most interesting city on the planet, because when you scratched the surface you found only a mirror.”  The big struggles America faces: racism, economic disparity, education, drugs, crime, hopelessness, were the same in Detroit, but on steroids.  And how a powerhouse of a model city in its heyday can within a matter of decades be the open wound of the country is one of the most telling stories of American history.

What Philps learned from those eight years was that “there were still 700,000 people living in Detroit, with their own ideas about what it should become. There was a community already here, not a grotesque one that needed changing as I had been told, but a powerful and innovative one I wanted to assimilate into.”

Nowadays you hear about the hip vibe coming from Detroit – the renewal and renaissance.  Philps gives a cautionary warning about repeating errors from the past.  While 80 percent of Detroit is black, 70 percent of those leading the regeneration are white.  Developers have been sweeping in and bidding on properties against black families occupying the houses.  Philps and a friend successfully outbid a developer from ousting a neighbor.  City and state funds are funneled not to the diehard citizens of Detroit that lived through the crises but to the likes of billionaire Mike Illitch to build a new hockey arena.  Starting fifteen years ago, one-third of Detroit homes have been foreclosed, the homeowners evicted.  In 2014 over 100,000, one seventh of the city, had their water shut off.  This is the dark underbelly of the “renaissance”.

A $500 House in Detroit was selected as the 2018 One Book, One Community read for the White Lake Area.  Join us for a community book discussion at the Book Nook & Java Shop at 6 p.m. Wednesday, November 7.  A community potluck will be held at 5 p.m. at Lebanon Lutheran Church in Whitehall on November 11. Drew Philp will attend the potluck, and at 7 p.m. he will talk about and sign his book and some of the impact it has had since being published a year ago.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan

crazyrichasiansCrazy Rich Asians is the Cinderella story of Rachel Chu, a 28-year-old economics professor at New York University, who has been happily dating Nick Young, a 32-year-old History professor at NYU, for the past two years. Nick tells Rachel that his childhood best friend is getting married over the summer, he plans on flying back home to Singapore for the wedding, and he wants her to accompany him. But, this raises questions. Does an international trip to meet family mean something serious for the relationship? Rachel is a bit anxious, but ultimately agrees. As an economist, Rachel knows Singapore has one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world, and she is excited to see the island up close with Nick as her guide. Rachel knows nothing about Nick’s family and is nervous about what to expect. As Rachel fishes for details about them, Nick clams up.

Rachel is shocked to learn that not only is the wedding the upper-crust social event of the year, but Nick is Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.  Nick’s mother, Eleanor, expects Nick to return to Singapore and marry a woman from his own milieu. As the potential heir to a massive fortune—and a member of one of most mysterious, wealthy, and powerful families in Asia—Nick should only be dating women in their social circle. That is, he should absolutely not be dating some unheard-of woman from New York. Despite knowing nothing about Rachel, Eleanor is certain Nick’s girlfriend is a gold digger after Nick’s fortune. Eleanor decides to take matters into her own hands, hiring a private investigator to conduct a full background check on Rachel and her family and enlisting her best friends and their daughters to help sabotage her son’s relationship.  This, from the book, sums it up:  “To Eleanor, every single person occupied a specific space in the elaborately constructed social universe in her mind. Like most of the women in her crowd, Eleanor could meet another Asian anywhere in the world…and within thirty seconds of learning their name and where they lived, she would implement her social algorithm and calculate precisely where they stood in her constellation based on who their family was, who else they were related to, what their approximate net worth might be, how the fortune was derived, and what family scandals might have occurred within the past fifty years.”

The genre is a romantic comedy with colorful characters and humorous situations.  Rachel is mostly trying to survive the competitive, judgmental, and entitled women that orbit the social circle.  It’s a clash of snobbish Old World tradition and socially fluid American individualism.  The book is now a movie of the same name.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 3 to discuss Crazy Rich Asians at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew Sullivan

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I love bookstores so any book about a bookstore gets my attention.  The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a fictional bookstore in Denver loosely based on the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver’s historic LoDo district where the author used to work.

The central character is 30-year-old Lydia Smith who loves her job at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – the employees and regular customers bond to form a loose family.  The community is shaken when one of the regular customers, Joey Molina, hangs himself with a belt among the stacks at the store at midnight without a suicide note.  Even more disturbing is that he bequeathed his meager belongings to Lydia.  She is led to unravel the puzzle of his last days when she discovers Joey has left coded messages to her in pages of his books.  And why did Joey have a picture in his pocket of Lydia’s 10th birthday party?

When a childhood friend, Raj Patel, reappears in Lydia’s life she revisits an unsolved 20-year-old tragedy.  Causing a media frenzy at the time, the Hammerman, who, while Lydia was on a sleepover as a child, brutally killed her friend and her friend’s family with a hammer, leaving Lydia alive, hiding under the sink. The Hammerman was never caught, and Lydia seeks answers from the now-retired detective who handled the case, but she may not want to hear what he has to say. Turns out he always suspected her father was the killer but was stopped from pursuing that path, even in the face of some compelling evidence, and he’s never let go of his suspicion. After all, why did the killer let Lydia live after killing a 10-year-old girl and her parents?

 

The book is filled with quirky characters and the descriptions of the store and surroundings are vivid. The plot is full of surprises and the final resolution to the story is packed with coincidences that strain credulity, but this creative and intricately plotted mystery still largely satisfies.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, September 5 to discuss Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

LilacGirls

LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann

thetrick

The Trick employs dual story lines.  The first is about Max Cohn, a 10-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, who momentarily wishes his father would go away when he is asked to clean the bunny cage instead of going to the movies.  A few weeks later, his parents announce they are getting divorced, and Max feels guilty that his fleeting wish came true.  He is determined to make things right.  While looking through his father’s things, he finds an old LP labeled: ZABBATINI: HIS GREATEST TRICKS, which among other things, contains the spell of “eternaaaaal loooooove!” – this, he believes, is what is needed to save his parents marriage.  Unfortunately, when he plays the track, it has a scratch and won’t play.  Undeterred, he goes about searching for the famed magician.  He climbs out the window, jumps on a bus, and heads to the Hollywood Magic Shop, where he incredibly receives some help on tracking down Zabbatini, now an old man.

In alternating chapters, we learn the the story of Moshe Goldenhirsch. In the early days of the 20th century in Prague, Rabbi Laibl Goldenhirsch and his wife, Rifka, desperately long for a child, but their efforts are in vain. Laibl gets called to serve in World War I. Upon his return, Rifka is pregnant. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “Immaculate conception.” (The locksmith upstairs may have been an agent to the miracle.)  Because the rabbi loves his wife, and because they want the child so much, he accepts her words (and he has secrets of his own). But little Moshe is a gift, and he is loved – postwar life is happy for a while. Later, Rifka’s health deteriorates, and Moshe is left to the care of now an abusive, depressed, and drunk rabbi of a father.

This all changes when a neighbor takes Moshe to the circus.  It is love at first sight – not just the excitement of the circus, the animals, the magician – but Julia, the magician’s assistant.  Like Max’s determination, Moshe is single-minded in his efforts to join the troupe and pursue his interest in Julia. Under the tutelage of the magician, he creates his own persona and craft, becoming “The Great Zabbatini.” Just when hitting his stride in Berlin, the Nazis come to power along with growing anti-Semitism.   Moshe learns that neighbors are your friends until they aren’t. Villagers accept money to keep secrets until there’s no more money, and they get paid elsewhere. Moshe is sent to a concentration camp.  In a chapter called “Scheherazade’s Last Tale,” Zabbatini performs a new trick every night for the camp commandant, until he finally gets bored and throws Moshe in with the rest of the prisoners.

Emanuel Bergman has written a charming, yet haunting, tale of love, betrayal, redemption, and the power of determination. It also asks if there is room for miracles and magic in our lives or is it just a trick?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 2.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 3 to discuss “The Trick” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly

all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

hillbilly

Hillbilly Elegy is not only a memoir and hero’s journey of the author, it is a critical look inside hillbilly culture still strong in some parts of rural and middle America.  Vance’s deep family roots are in Appalachia, namely Jackson, Kentucky.  There are two elements of hillbilly culture that Vance explicitly depicts as a framework through which the reader

can understand his narrative. The first is an internal code of justice, independent from the traditional legal system. This code is primarily based on the concept of honor: one’s reputation and that of one’s family is paramount. This is most clearly demonstrated through the Blanton men, Vance’s great uncles, who had committed various violent acts, mostly in response to perceived slights. Rather than being viewed as criminal or violent, their actions were necessary and applauded in their community. A second, related aspect of this culture is an almost paranoid privacy and strong suspicion of outsiders.

From an early age, the author learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. His grandmother (he refers to as “Mamaw”) taught him how to win a fist fight, while implying that he should never start a fight, only respond when necessary to protect his honor.

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randparents, like many of their peers, were enticed by manufacturing companies (in this case Armco Steel) to move to industrial towns of the Midwest (in this case Middletown, OH).  Vance was raised in Middletown, but because of the deep family roots and summer visits, considered Jackson, Kentucky, his real hometown.   Hillbilly transplants took their hillbilly values with them.  While transplanted families generally enjoyed higher rates of economic success than their counterparts who remained, they faced backlash from their Northern white neighbors. The blunt, honor-based hillbilly culture conflicted sharply with communities that placed a higher importance on politeness and formal authority. The author describes a specific incident in which Mamaw and Papaw destroyed items in a pharmacy and accosted the clerk for telling their young son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy, not to play with an expensive toy. A reaction that seemed normal and expected for Mamaw and Papaw shocked those around them.

Mamaw was the most influential adult in Vance’s early life – she stressed the importance of education and was a solid emotional rock compared to his mother who went through numerous boyfriends and husbands and was addicted to narcotics.  The last straw was when his Mom asked J.D. for a jar of clean urine, admitting that she could not pass a drug test to keep her nursing license. At Mamaw’s urging, J.D. reluctantly complied. However, from this point forward, J.D., with his mother’s agreement, lived solely with Mamaw.

Vance’s first break away from hillbilly culture was his enrollment in the Marine Corps.  Prior, throughout his youth, the author claims he was plagued by a sense of self-doubt, something common among people in his community. Through boot camp and life in the Marines generally, he acquired a sense of confidence and discipline. He compared his new resolve and ability to tackle challenges to the learned helplessness endemic to his society.

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er he finished his service, Vance attended Ohio University where he used his intense work ethic to complete his degree in 23 months while working 3 jobs and keeping up his exercise routine. He then attended Yale law school.

Although feeling like an outsider at Yale, he learned from his girlfriend (later wife) and a mentoring professor, that success not only came from hard work and good grades, but relied on social skills and networking.

Vance is critical of hillbilly society and its talk of hard work, yet laziness and helplessness at heart, and the tendency to blame their economic circumstances on the government (especial

ly at the time Barack Obama).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 4

.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 6 to discuss “Hillbilly Elegy” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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