Review: Heroes and villains
Three books and a range of humanity
(CNN) -- It may not be a compliment to describe a work of non-fiction as "reading like a novel." Even so, it is a convenient shorthand for describing how the author has approached a particular set of facts. It allows the reader to understand that reality has been given a sense of structure -- a sense of drama, even -- that is missing from academic non-fiction.
Three recent books aptly fit into the description.
Devils of the details
"Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators" (Walker) is less like a novel than a collection of short stories with a single theme. Riccardo Orizio, an Italian journalist who formerly reported for CNN, spent the better part of a decade tracking down ex-dictators.
Employing the same wryly understated style that made his first book "Lost White Tribes" so absorbing, Orizio catches up with men and women who strutted their hour upon the world stage, then virtually disappeared. Some are instantly recognizable -- Idi Amin, the former Ugandan ruler and reputed cannibal, and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Haiti's former enfant terrible.
Others were swept aside by the tide of history -- Poland's one-time Communist president Wojciech Jaruzelski and Nexhmije Hoxha, whose husband was the Marxist dictator of Albania. One is still in the news -- Mira Markovic, also known as Mrs. Slobodan Milosevic, runs a political party in Serbia. Two former African rulers, Mengistu Haile-Mariam of Ethiopia and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, round out the list.
Orizio lets each tell his or her own story. "The fallen dictators, it would seem, are not the cause of all the ills that befell their countries," he writes, "but only some of them. In their own eyes, sometimes not even that." Deftly counterpunching their self-serving narratives with hard-hitting facts, he exposes the former rulers for what they are -- narcissistic, sometimes pitiable, and unalterable human.
A New York disaster
"Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum" (Broadway) seems tailor-made for adventure fiction. Say, a disaster movie.
The pleasure steamer caught fire on June 15, 1904, while ferrying 1,300 people to a church event on the East River in New York. More than a thousand passengers died. Yet the event has been all but wiped from the national memory, supplanted by the Titanic disaster of a few years later. Historian Edward T. O'Donnell is trying to change that.
He reconstructs the conflagration minute by minute in exhaustive and horrifying detail. Drawing from contemporary newspaper accounts, official documents and the recorded memories of the few survivors, O'Donnell paints a chilling picture of what happened aboard the General Slocum that fateful day, and the devastating effects it had on New York's German immigrant community.
In the process, he chronicles miraculous escapes, unselfish heroism and the unspeakable negligence that caused such a massive death toll aboard a ship within easy reach of shore. The disaster that has been so thoroughly forgotten by most New Yorkers will be seared in the memory of anyone who reads O'Donnell's account.
True stories of combat are inherently dramatic, and the events of October 3, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia, have been told before. Even so, Michael J. Durant has a unique perspective on the incident widely known by the title of a book and a movie, "Black Hawk Down."
Then an Army Chief Warrant Officer 3, Durant piloted one of the two helicopters that crashed into the chaos of the largest single U.S. firefight since Vietnam. His memoir "In the Company of Heroes" (Putnam) is a first-person account of the battle, and of his captivity at the hands of Somali warlord Mohammed Aidid.
Durant goes beyond that narrative, though. He recounts his military career in some detail and sheds a bit of light on his duties as a member of a Special Operations aviation unit. He reveals for the first time some of the more harrowing details of his capture and imprisonment.
That Durant survived at all -- with a broken back and leg -- is testament to his personal courage. His book, moreover, is a testament to the courage of the men with whom he served and the families they left behind. A decade removed from the events, Durant remains emotional about those who lost their lives that day, and embittered by the actions of those he blames for their loss. "In the Company of Heroes" is a compelling story of war, sacrifice and survival.