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Winter Book Reviews

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   Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (Knopf, $30). “The betrayal of someone with whom you’ve shared everything,” hurled Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Stalin) in 1909, just before setting off on a witch hunt to find traitors in his own emerging party, “is so horrible, no actor or writer can express it—it’s worse than the very bite of death!” At the outset, British journalist and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore tells us Young Stalin is not so much a narrative history as it is a focus on the intimate, political and personal lives of Stalin and his entourage of psychotic henchman up to the start of the new Soviet government. This is often a story of contradictions—not of the author, but of Stalin himself. Indeed, Stalin was two men. He was a devious agitator, cunning mastermind, underground revolutionary, cruel executioner and deserter of women and children, while at the same time an accomplished poet, a trainee priest and a stirring and brilliant intellectual, who would eventually become an effective world statesman. What I find most perplexing about Stalin is how, on one hand, he could abandon some of his lovers and children and be such a calculating administrator of casual extinction that, during a time span of little more than 20 years, he was responsible for the deportation of 28 million people, yet, on the other hand, be the charismatic charmer to many and consummate family man (later in life). Was Stalin really an ideological zealot looking for supreme power as was his mentor and alter ego, Lenin, or was Stalin simply a natural born fanatical revolutionary, quite content to have remained as such? As to Stalin’s character, Montefiore quotes, “Stalin was formed by much more than a miserable childhood, just as the USSR was formed by much more than Marxist ideology.” That said, isn’t it plausible that genetics played a large role in Stalin’s psychological makeup and that a megalomaniac is simply born a megalomaniac?—Barbara Weddle

    The Diva’s Fool (Order of the Tarot Chronicles Book Zero) by Silvia Foti. (Echelon Press, $12.99). Local author Silvia Foti is back with the second Alexandria Vilkas mystery novel based in Chicago. This time the journalist is hired for a ghostwriting job by an opera diva at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, only hours before her untimely death on stage as Lady Macbeth. The fun begins when her editor assigns her to do a story about the murder for Gypsy Magazine, a forum for the paranormal and the occult. The Diva’s Fool zooms in on the ancient practice of tarot. While Alexandria works as a reporter for Gypsy Magazine, she also studies in preparation for her induction into the Order of the Tarot, under the tutelage of Christopher Warlick, a psychic on Archer Avenue. Between battling her personal demons to transcend her attraction to a married man and solving the diva’s murder, Alexandria’s life is littered with colorful characters from the world of opera, showcasing the fragile egos and quirky foibles that can be connected to life on stage. The development of the central character remains strong even amid the psychic and artistic forces swirling around her. This is a tight murder mystery offering a look into some interesting subcultures on the Chicago landscape.—Marilyn Soltis

 Chicago Under Glass: Early Photographs from the Chicago Daily News by Mark Jacob and Richard Cahan, in association with the Chicago History Museum. (University of Chicago Press, $45). Here is a book made to order for all who love Chicago photography, history, sports, politics—you name it. Mark Jacob and Richard Cahan have produced an incredibly readable book. The photographs are of historical importance—many of them shown for the first time. Rick Kogan’s forward and Russell Lewis’s preface set just the right tone for this fine book. This picture’s the thing (with apologies to Shakespeare). Photographs of famous and infamous people leap from the pages: Babe Ruth, Jane Addams, Enrico Caruso, Winston Churchill and Al Capone. Almost all of the Daily News photographs are from glass-plate negatives. A book like this is a must in the library of any serious photographer. The authors present important events of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including the Columbian Exposition, the Eastland Disaster, the Iroquois Theater, and the Great Depression. Chapter titles of the book are provocative, such as The Rich; The Poor; Moral Authorities; Lightning Strikes Twice. Chicago Under Glass is an important book, hard to put down and a splendid read. Did I hear someone say Pulitzer?—Emily McCormack

   We welcome your review. If we publish it, we will send you a gift certificate for dinner. E-mail to editorial@chicagolife.net or mail to Chicago Life Reviews, P.O. Box 11131, Chicago IL 60611-0311.

Published: February 07, 2008
Issue: February 08 Money Issue

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