I suppose it is my own prosaic life that draws me to read biographies and memoirs. If I were doing anything more interesting than cleaning the chicken coop I wouldn’t have so much time on my hands to read. Here are four books in that genre that let me, figuratively, fly the coop this year:
Seven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
Audiobook, 329 pages (11 hours, 38 minutes) narrated by Mark Meadows
One of those “classics” everyone has heard of and no one (at least not me) has read. Is it worth it? Yes – both for the inherent adventure story and as a background to understanding the geopolitics around China’s merciless subjugation of Tibet. You may be more familiar with the Hollywood version of the story starring Brad Pitt.
Pitt, of course, played the title role of Heinrich Harrer, an accomplished climber and explorer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an Austrian in India in 1939 and was captured and imprisoned by the British in the wind-up to World War II. Not only did he manage to escape a POW camp and trek across the Himalayas but he also slipped into the then-hermit kingdom of Tibet, where he became tutor to the young Dalai Lama. They remained friends up to Harrer’s death in 2006 at age 93.
An absorbing read. Recommended. 4 stars. And should be followed up with Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
No Surrender: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier’s Extraordinary Courage in the Face of Evil
by Christopher Edmonds
Kindle, 512 pages
This is a curiously homespun account of the author’s father, Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds. It evolved out of a school project coupled with the author’s longing to track down the details of his recently deceased father’s experience in World War II as a member of the 422nd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division, known as the “Golden Lions”.
Roddie Edwards was, first and foremost, a man who lived his Christian faith and the book is written through that lens. His son tracked down fellow soldiers with whom Roddie served to discover his father’s heroism as an inmate of the Berga Nazi POW camp near Schlieben, Germany. The younger Edmonds is not a professional author, but the story is authentic. This one man, a prisoner, stood up to the Nazis in faith, and won. 3 stars.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
by Kai Bird
Audiobook, 448 pages (14 hours, 47 minutes) narrated by René Ruiz
Robert Ames, when queried by a high school classmate as to his work, replied mildly “I do stuff for the government”. Few knew that he was a high level CIA operative deeply embedded in the hotbed of 1970’s Middle East geopolitics. He died in the 1983 Beirut truck bombing of the American Embassy that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans.
This is an interesting read, especially for people like me who are fuzzy at best on the background of the PLO and the byzantine coil of loyalties and betrayals of those (or any) years in the Middle East.
I was probably more than halfway through the book before I picked up a whiff of hagiography. The author (winner of a Pulitzer prize for his book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) was forthright about Ames’ sympathy to the Palestinian cause but less so about what appears to be his own. As The Wall Street Journal noted in its review of the book, “Ames was an impressive enough intelligence officer that Mr. Bird should have been satisfied with telling the story of his life without exaggerating its importance.” 3 stars.
The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird
by Joshua Hammer
Audiobook, 336 pages (8 hours, 23 minutes) narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies
A neighbor mentioned this book in passing and I marched straight home to download it. I’m a sucker for books about birds and this one had the added intrigue of being listed not in the “nature” category but in “true crime”.
I did not know there was such a thing as egg thievery but it turns out to be a highly lucrative trade stoked by the big money behind falconry devotées in the Middle East. Jeffrey Lendrum, the subject of this book, began stealing eggs as a teenager in what was then Rhodesia. The author tracks Lendrum’s subsequent movements around the globe invading the habitats and nests of peregrine falcons, Saker falcons and the highly prized gyrfalcon. He is caught, imprisoned, released – and steals again.
The book is well-researched and well-written. It never flags in its pacing so even if you aren’t a bird fanatic you won’t get bored. 3.5 stars.
Next week – since real life is tough to bear we’ll focus on fiction.