Monthly Archives: October 2013

Nazism in America: From Frightening to Fringe

CBR_Logo2Swastika Nation:
Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German–American Bund
by Arnie Bernstein

For most Americans today, Nazism and white supremacy are nothing more than fringe groups with little real impact on our nation. And with the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” the living memory of World War II and the terror of Nazi Germany is fading away. Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund by Chicagoan Arnie Bernstein serves as a good reminder that this dangerous and vile movement was alive and well (even if a pale imitation of Hitler’s Nazi Germany) in America in the pre-War years.

Swastika_Nation_3-210The story of the Nazi movement in America in the 1930s seems to have been largely forgotten. Swastika Nation tells the story of Fritz Kuhn, a native German who became a naturalized American citizen while remaining loyal to Germany, and the creation of the Nazi movement in America in the 1930s. Kuhn was clearly the driving force behind what was at that point a nascent Nazi movement. The book details Kuhn’s life story, his energy and skill in growing the Bund into a frightening movement supporting Nazism, the internal politics of American Nazism, and the organization’s final disintegration. In a twist, Bernstein conveys the sense that Kuhn and his minions were buffoons, despite the vileness of their opinions.

The author relies on a variety sources: FBI files, Congressional hearing transcripts, interviews, newspaper articles, and numerous books. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any deep analysis or insight of those sources. For the most part, Bernstein appears to accept these sources at face value, failing to evaluate these sources with a critical eye.

The book includes some mildly engaging stories. For example, we see Walt Disney’s welcome and then rejection (apparently out of business necessity) of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Several paragraphs are dedicated to describing the downward spiral of Walter Winchell’s family.

But these stories, while interesting, illustrate a key problem with Swastika Nation. The story of Fritz Kuhn could and should have been told with fewer words and a sharper focus. The book contains much entertaining but ultimately extraneous material. In The Writing Life, author Annie Dillard addresses “the necessity of throwing out the material you like that doesn’t fit in the book.” The author, she argues, must resist the temptation to retain material that lacks “the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to and unity with the book’s thrust.” Bernstein did not heed this guidance. His writing skill makes the book a quick read, and yet it is too long. The reader doesn’t need, for example, six to seven pages reviewing the life of gangster Meyer Lansky before getting to his role in fighting Fritz Kuhn. Similarly, and although a minor note, Bernstein mentions “a squadron of two score and ten OD men …” when surely “fifty” would have sufficed.

Swastika Nation is an edifying book in light of neo Nazi activities in the 1990s and 2000s. In the end, however, the book feels unsatisfying. It is a by-the-numbers account of what happened, when it could have been more.

Two-Star Review

September 2013, St. Martin’s Press
$27.99, hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1-250-00671-4

—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

Learn more about author Arnie Bernstein.
Read more about Swastika Nation.
Listen to Arnie Bernstein discuss the book.

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A Powerful Approach to Health

CBR_Logo2Power Vegan:
Plant-Fueled Nutrition for Maximum Health and Fitness
by Rea Frey

Along the spectrum of approaches to health and fitness, most would consider veganism an extreme option. That said, it is an approach that becomes more popular and seemingly more possible as we learn more about the dangers of processed foods, pesticide-laden produce, and hormonally altered meat. Author Rea Frey sees veganism as a worthy way of life—and a practical option—for anyone who wants to live more healthfully.

Frey, a Chicago-based nutrition specialist and certified trainer, provides readers with a pathway to a healthier lifestyle in Power Vegan, published this year by Agate Publishing’s Surrey Books imprint. Frey argues that her approach is not a diet. She instead proposes that being a “power vegan” is about bringing power to one’s life by eating a plant-based diet and embracing exercise and lifestyle habits that improve health. Frey’s approach is encouraging and well-argued, but let’s call a spade a spade: Power Vegan is a diet book.PV_cvr

That said, it is not a diet book that instructs readers to give up all carbs or to survive on only low-fat foods or to avoid all sweets. Instead, Frey focuses on adding to one’s diet those foods that improve health and empower bodies. And, although she does, indeed, argue for a plant-based diet, she is in no way dogmatic about the notion, understanding that plenty of readers have no intention of giving up their seitan or steaks.

That understanding is in and of itself refreshing and even inviting, and because of that open-mindedness, Frey subtly lures readers around to her point of view. By tempting readers with notions like “the power of food to heal” and urging readers to “figure out what your health is worth to you and go from there,” Frey expertly guides readers toward the possibility of living healthier lives in a way that doesn’t require deprivation or guilt or superhuman feats of willpower.

Frey offers a three-pronged approach to power eating and shares with readers tips for eating for health and for fitness. She addresses the changes our bodies undergo as we age and how we can use food as an antidote to various ailments, aches, and pains. Power Vegan also provides readers with a number of exercises, recipes, and self-assessment tools, making the book both practicable and actionable.

The notion of going from a meat-loving, Cheetos-eating couch potato to a fit-and-trim raw-food-eating vegan may seem too much for some readers. Frey understands this, too, suggesting that readers make small changes over time rather than trying to completely switch gears all at once. She suggests adding in one new vegan food every week, arguing that we can actually eat more food when we eat the good stuff.

Rea Frey

Author Rea Frey

Some of the information Frey provides may not seem particularly revelatory to some readers, especially those who have struggled with weight or health issues and have read more than even just a few diet books or health-related articles. But many of the tips are insightful, and, even if they’re not new ideas, serve as good reminders of how to achieve good health.

In addition, Frey can be repetitive at times, suggesting time and time again that spinach or kale can be slipped into a smoothie or that slow cookers are great tools for readers who hate to cook. And, it would be nice if the recipes included in the book featured nutritional information for those readers who, for example, might have issues with sodium or sugar.

And, although Frey does say that all-out veganism isn’t the only way to health, she does press the point more than just a few times, especially when it comes to the ethical issues surrounding meat and processed foods.

But these are minor negatives and easily overlooked in a guide that, overall, provides at the very least some thought-provoking advice. Veganism may scare some readers, but that’s no reason to avoid this helpful guide. Frey offers plenty of practical advice that anyone can implement, regardless of where they stand on the ethical issues surrounding food or where they are on the health and diet spectrum. Power Vegan is about achieving lasting health, and Frey expertly and gently guides readers along a customizable path that they can follow in their own individual ways.

Three-Star Review

—Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about Rea Frey.

May 2013, Agate Publishing/Surrey Books
Health & Fitness
$15.95, 295 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978-1-572840141-3

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Ready, Set, Go! Chicago Reading Marathon

As the elite men were about to cross the finish line at this year’s Chicago Marathon, the notion of a reading marathon dawned on me. And why not?

Marathoners log scores of miles and hours of training all summer and, indeed, all year in their quest for 26.2 miles, whether they run the distance on Marathon Day in 2.5 hours or 5 hours or longer. How many books could we read if we dedicated that much time and energy to filling our souls with stories instead of or in addition to filling our soles with miles?

Reading has long been considered to be on the decline, though recent studies show that eReaders are breathing new life into the hobby. A recent Pew study found that roughly 75% of Americans over the age of 16 have read at least one book—in whatever format—during the past year (a whole book! wow!). In addition, 20% of U.S. adults have read at least one eBook, and 11% listened to an audiobook.

As someone who reads dozens of books a year, the notion of reading just one title every twelve months is unfathomable. I can’t imagine restricting myself to only one book. In fact, my current wish list has 26 books on it (coincidence? maybe). With 325,000 new titles published every year, how could I choose just one of those to read? It would be something like Sophie’s Choice, forcing me to abandon something I love to save just one.

But plenty of people are doing just that—reading just one or two books a year. They choose to spend their time on other things. Which is fine. But what’s really sad is that nearly 20% of U.S. adults report that they had not read a single book during the past year. Not one.

eBooks may well be changing that paradigm. Pew reports that “the average reader of eBooks says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-eBook consumer.”

That seems like good news (even to someone who still loves the feel of a real book … the binding, the paper, but maybe that’s a blog post for another day). Who cares about format as long as people are reading?

If, then, it is true that most readers are hitting somewhere between 15 and 24 books a year, a Reading Marathon of 26+ books doesn’t seem out of the question. Indeed, for many of us dedicated readers, it’ll be a cake walk, a 5K to a marathoner.

So here’s a challenge to readers and nonreaders alike: Read 26+ books by next year’s Chicago Marathon, which is tentatively scheduled for October 12, 2014. That’s a book about every two weeks. (I’d even go so far as to propose reading 26+ books from local authors and local publishers, but that might be pushing it.)

We’ll call it the Chicago Reading Marathon. Are you up to the challenge?

—Kelli Christiansen


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