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Showman P.T. Barnum did not say “There’s a sucker born every minute” but that miscredited aphorism sums up Evelyn Wood and Reading Dynamics. An avatar of “speed reading,” Wood achieved fortune, fame, and infamy. Her bogus method and bulldozer disregard for fact made her “the greatest huckster of them all,” Marcia Biederman writes. Biederman engagingly explicates the life of a schoolgirl early to show characteristics—skill at debate and oratory, fascination with theatrics—that helped to gull a million otherwise sensible adults.

Scan Artist; How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World that Speed-Reading Worked
By Marcia Biederman
(Chicago Review Press, 2019; $26.99)

In the 1930s, the Mormon Church assigned Evelyn and new husband Douglas Wood to proselytize in eastern Germany. He managed more than 100 sites. She wrote lessons soft-pedaling Hitler’s anathematizing of Jews. When German troops garrisoned Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Woods came back to Utah via the Netherlands. Studying under a professor claiming to read 6,000 words per minute with “outstanding comprehension,” Evelyn developed a regimen of ostensibly taking in printed matter at high speed by zigzagging a finger down the center of each page, absorbing “concepts and thoughts.” At a 1961 National Education Association convention, a teenager tutored in the Wood method performed before an audience of 150. Handed a book he had never seen, he read 120 pages in three minutes, then spent 15 minutes discussing the text. The youth, a DuPont executive’s son, claimed to read seven thousand books—”several thousand,” he later clarified—per year. Moving from Utah to Washington, DC, Wood began training teachers in the era of the New Frontier. Nourished by endorsements from senators, the 10-week, $50 course—eventually five weeks at $500—sprouted franchises in 150 cities.

Then reality kicked in. Academic authorities hammered Wood’s claims; she countered that no test could gauge comprehension. Student satisfaction sufficed, she said. But she got out while the getting was good, unloading Reading Dynamics to the first in a series of corporate owners, a death spiral preceding a strokes that lay Wood low. By the time she died in 1995 her name and program had disappeared; Bierman suggests the time may be ripe for a reinfestation. Scan Artist thoroughly portrays Wood’s rise and fall as well as the need to beware the deal that seems too good to be true. It always is. —Richard Culyer writes in Hartsville, South Carolina

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin
By Douglas Smith
(FSG, 2019; $28)

When a 1920-21 famine afflicted the post-revolutionary USSR, America provided a lion’s share of an immense relief effort. It’s not a well-known story, so there are surprises and an unexpected hero in this expert, often gruesome history. Smith (Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs) emphasizes that Marx and acolytes schmoozed urban workers but stiffed peasants. During the Russian civil war both sides seized food stores from prosperous middle-class farmers called kulaks. After the Bolsheviks won, nobody, including Lenin’s government, had money, so the Red Army kept looting grain until that source literally dried up in a Eurasian drought that began in 1920.

Famine in rural districts did not bother the Bolsheviks—the party had little support there—but starvation went urban. Soviet leaders kept mum, but writer Maxim Gorki and other celebrities pleaded for help. Most who responded were humanitarians and boutique charities whose members delivered groceries, posed for photos, and disappeared. Feeding tens of starving millions requires long-haul fellowship. Enter the American Relief Administration led by Herbert Hoover, who performed brilliantly in a role requiring compassion and diplomacy—neither a Hooverian attribute.

Assigned early in the Great War to relieve mass starvation in Belgium and northern France, Hoover had persuaded the Allies and Germany to stop banning food relief. When after the Armistice he was running a Europe-wide nutritional program, the Allies tried without success to keep him from feeding Germans and Austrians. Relief Administration agents oversaw purchase of countless cargos of food, its transportation by ship and across vast regions over terrible rail and road systems, and its distribution to the hungry. No one ever compares Hoover to Mother Teresa, but he saved several million more lives than she. By that count, he may be history’s greatest humanitarian.

Hoover’s similar role in the Russian crisis stirred controversy. The American right doubted Russians were starving. Given Hoover’s fierce anti-Bolshevism, the left assumed he would sabotage relief. Commissars expected capitalist mischief. Hoover, now busy as secretary of commerce, remained in Washington. Sending subordinates to handle negotiations, administration, and staffing, he mostly served as the Relief Administration’s public face—defending the program, raising money, and lobbying Congress. Never a canny politician, Hoover did not exploit his humanitarian role, and it was a minor issue in his 1928 presidential campaign.

Unlike in later Soviet-era famines—1930s Ukraine, 1950s China—westerners roamed freely, so Smith makes use of diaries, letters, eyewitness reports, and the inevitable photographs of skeletal children and heaped corpses. Western historians pay modest attention; Russian historians, much less. This first mass market American account of that disaster is a good one. —Mike Oppenheim writes in Lexington, Kentucky.

Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation
By Steve Vogel
(Harper Collins, 2019; $29.99)

On the Cold War intelligence front in January 1951 the United States was playing catch-up. The Soviet Union had ditched the cryptographic systems American codebreakers had cracked during World War II, swapped radio communication for phones, and rolled up many of the agents the Central Intelligence Agency sent to Russia. North Korea’s June 1950 invasion of South Korea had blindsided American spies.

In Betrayal Steve Vogel dramatically chronicles the CIA’s stab at a rebound by tunneling below the communist capitals of Berlin or Vienna and tapping Soviet communication lines. After Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service succeeded in tapping Soviet lines in Vienna, the Brits offered to let the Yanks in on the next job, digging a tunnel in Berlin. The Agency put its best on the job. Running the show was Bill Harvey, a relentless Indianan who during World War II had unmasked more than 35 German spies and pinpointed SIS man Kim Philby’s role as a KGB mole. Harvey’s chief subordinate, Frank Rowlett, was a gentlemanly mathematician, a cryptanalyst since the late 1930s. Though as alike as chalk and cheese, the two respected one another’s skills and shared an intense dedication. What they did not know was that the KGB had another mole in the SIS—George Blake.

Given the project’s magnitude, three years of prep had to precede excavation, and digging, once begun, went slowly owing to the Americans’ inability to conduct surface testing along the intensely scrutinized border. Blake knew and leaked everything but the location. To avoid exposing him and to keep the foe invested in a known gambit, the KGB adopted a “wait and see” approach. The tunnel was certain to fail at its intended goals, but uncertainties remained, such as whether the USSR might have to overhaul its telephone system at a sensitive moment or have to take American agents prisoner.

Betrayal tells the story of the American race against time, a late-hour KGB try at foiling the dig, and how a single excavation came to underpin what the CIA built into its largest, most active office abroad. —James Baresel is a freelance writer in Front Royal, Virginia.

Are We There Yet? The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless 
By Dan Albert
(W.W. Norton, 2019; $26.95)

For more than a century, automobiles have been actualizing the twinned American zeals for freedom and movement despite being curbed by changing mores and an ever-encroaching regulatory system. Polymath historian and relentless gearhead Dan Albert celebrates the open highway’s appeal while extolling the virtues of oversight, documenting an arc steering from Americans’ bumpy courtship of the driving life to their wary romance with cars that drive themselves.

Emulating Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line, Albert crisply ticks through milestones along that meander, such as Ford’s “missionary zeal for low, low prices,” General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan’s interwar introduction of manufacturer-generated auto loans, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s culture-changing federal highway program.

Albert’s progressive thesis redlines when he discusses his hero Ralph Nader’s 1965 bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, and the public interest crusade—safety-oriented, yes, but also strong on fuel economy and environmental concerns—that Nader inspired. From there it’s a short hop to the fuel shortages of the 1970s and Albert’s assertion that mandatory fuel mileage standards and safety equipment helped “save automobility from itself”—or at least neutralize doomy pronouncements that cars “destroy cities” and “make mass transportation impossible.” It turned out car makers could profit by designing vehicles that continue to grow more efficient, intelligent, and protective of occupants.

Reluctant to pose as a seer, Albert nonetheless explains how millennials who prefer car services to even merely learning to drive make autonomous vehicles nearly inevitable. That societal avenue is ridden with curves and stitched with cul de sacs; skids and wrecks involving Elon Musk’s and other robotic pioneers’ whips harken to yesteryear’s stuttering technological progress. The great loss may be the pleasures of greasy-handed shade-tree mechanics. Tomorrow’s vehicles will need code slingers, not torque-wrench artists.

Automation may realize multitasking Americans’ dreams of an automobilic Eden free of CO2 and crunch-ups, but this vision of paradise lacks the fully engaged feel that makes driving with a manual transmission heavenly. — audiobook reviewer Ryan Paul Winn teaches at College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wisconsin.