Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"What happened to Chocodiles?"

Whenever I'm trying to lose weight, I always have the most intense cravings for baked goods like bread and sweets.  I come by it naturally: I come from a long line of inveterate "sweet-tooth's."  I frequently make my mom's recipes for chocolate-chip cookies and zucchini bread.  When Jamie was pregnant and wishing for Chocodiles, I was a more-than-willing accomplice (and even after she wasn't pregnant anymore).  And, not a sugary treat, but I think one of my dad's favorite snacks when I was a kid was Coke and a box of Cheese Nips (and the rest of us were happy to share).

So, when I saw Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer, I couldn't resist.  She's experimented to discover the recipes for lots of classic treats that we all loved as kids, and she's tried to make them as close to the originals as possible.  You can make your own Oreos, Nilla Wafers, Nutter Butters, or Chips Ahoy cookies; Hostess Twinkies, Cup Cakes, or Sno Balls; even Fig Newtons, Pop Tarts, and Twix.  She's even got recipes for a couple of Girl Scout cookies.  Some of the recipes are a bit involved, and I wonder if it's worth the effort when I can get an Almond Joy for less than a buck, and store-bought marshmallows are a lot easier, but I guess a lot of people prefer the challenge of making them at home (she says many people say her recipes are even better than the real thing).  We've only tried a few recipes so far, and not all of them were as delicious as we expected, so the fun nostalgia-factor is certainly at play here - but still, everything was eaten rather quickly regardless!

Still, this is a nice cookbook for those of us who love goodies (maybe not so good for my diet, however).  And I really like the comments she has for each recipe and section - the bits of information she provides are helpful as well as entertaining.  And as someone who's not known for his kitchen skills, I also appreciate the section where she talks about equipment that's nice to have even if it's not entirely necessary.  It's a beautiful cookbook with lots of great pictures, so if you're like me this might be the most "fun" cookbook you'll want to have.  (I received a free copy from BloggingForBooks in exchange for an honest review.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"They will be driven to become soldiers"

August 24, 2014 marks an important event in American history.  It is the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington D.C. by the British. It's probably an event remembered by very few and not one you were planning to celebrate, and yet because of it and the events that followed, we got one of our most enduring symbols of America... and you might even say it saved our country.

Most histories I've read treat the War of 1812 almost as an extension of the Revolutionary War. But in Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner: The Six Weeks That Saved the Nation, Steve Vogel takes a slightly different approach.  He emphasizes the more immediate causes, namely the impressments of American sailors by the British into the Royal Navy, and the opportunistic invasion of Canada by American forces. Britain was fighting Napoleon and France at the time, and when they began to run low of manpower they simply grabbed Americans on merchant vessels under the guise that they were still 'British citizens.' To combat this violation of rights, America attacked Britain along the Canadian border, believing that the Canadians would willingly and enthusiastically join the U.S. The timing seemed ideal - Britain was distracted with another war - but the Canadians fought back. But using those attacks as justification, the British navy sailed into Chesapeake Bay and burned many towns, culminating in the conquest and burning of government buildings in Washington, including the president's house and the Capitol and sent James and Dolly Madison running.

Vogel also carefully weaves the story of Francis Scott Key, an attorney, into the greater history. Key was sent as a delegate to win the release of an American who had been captured by the British. Admiral Cochrane agreed to release him, but not until after the planned destruction of Baltimore, which they decided needed to be a more strongly received message than Washington had been, and Key ended up being an eye-witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the middle of the British fleet. Fortunately, American militias were in a better state of readiness this time, and the British were driven back. Upon seeing the American flag still flying the next morning, Key came up with the words to "The Star Spangled Banner." Vogel explains how it was printed in newspapers and its popularity in short time prompted a greater pride in the American flag (although it took a while before it was adopted as the national anthem).

Vogel does an excellent job in telling the story of the battles for Washington and Baltimore. Key is never the central figure of the narrative, which focuses more on the actual leaders, but his part in it provides an element anyone who has stood to sing the national anthem can identify with. I'm not sure that the point of the subtitle - "Six Weeks that Saved the Nation" - is explicitly proven, but it certainly proved as a wake-up call to the new nation and drove certain changes that helped to strengthen it - as well as giving Americans an anthem to bind them together (although not all, as he explains). And Vogel tells the story in a rousing and uplifting way. His descriptions of the battles are exciting and you get a feeling for the personalities involved in the events. There's a good deal of well-researched information in this book and it's an exciting read. (I received this book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program.)

If you're interested in some other good books that deal with the War of 1812, these are ones I can recommend: Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky and Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Freedom [can] not be maintained by bullets alone"

When WWII ended, Europe was in shambles. Germany had been the major manufacturing power prior to the war, but most of the industry and distribution channels had been disrupted or destroyed. The people were discouraged and pessimistic about recovery, and even the weather was worse than usual. The United States had already given a lot of "relief aid," but had nothing to show for it and was weary of the huge drain on resources that Europe was becoming. But with the communists trying to gain a foothold and spread their influence, America had to do something.  

In a June 1947 speech at Harvard University, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke of the need to help Europe recover.  His speech soon went from an idea to a much more ambitious goal of helping to rebuild those systems that would allow Europe to pull itself out of its problems.  But Marshall needed to keep it under the Congressional radar long enough to prevent them from changing the essential humanitarian (and very expensive!) nature of the plan. It was a tough sell and only passed with the help of some unlikely allies such as Michigan Senator and ex-isolationist Arthur Vandenburg.  Many in Congress continued to try to cut the funding, and it was only saved through extensive propaganda efforts. 

But it wasn't just some in Congress that tried to derail the Marshal Plan; European communists actively tried to sabotage it as well.  The Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov employed endless delay tactics in the early negotiations.  Italian and French communists went on strike and instigated riots. But the communists overplayed their hand, and those in Congress who were more inclined toward an isolationist policy realized just how necessary the plan was. (The US even ended up "influencing" Italian elections in 1948 to keep the communists out.)

The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe by Greg Behrman is an interesting history that tells the enormous contributions of more than just George Marshall.  Many important figures - both American and European - were essential to its success.  Behrman stresses that a key aim of the Marshall Plan was to prevent communist influence from spreading and to contain Stalin's power.  He explains the reasons many in Congress were reluctant to offer aid and the efforts that had already been made, as well as French fears over a rebuilt Germany (not an unimportant concern, considering that's what had led to WWII).    

This is definitely a book worth reading, but it's not always a very "rousing" or compelling history of what was perhaps America's greatest moment. For that I might recommend The Candy Bombers instead, but I read this book back in 2008 and it came out at a time when we were embroiled in nation-building in the Middle-East. The Marshall Plan worked because it made Europeans responsible for rebuilding their economy, and then gave them the help needed to get started. It was administered mostly by selfless men who had the brains to make it work, had true leadership at all levels, and corruption was minimal. It was not heavy-handed or forceful, seeking to dictate all the conditions attached to the aid given, but it wasn't simple charity either.  It's too bad we didn't apply those lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The cost of Liberty

Last month I reviewed some books about D-Day and the men who fought to liberate Europe.  And that's usually how we like to remember the story: bravery, sacrifice, and victory; Allied armies pushing back a merciless Nazi army and liberating grateful Europeans.  And the liberated people were very grateful and recognized the magnitude of the sacrifice.  But, as they say, "war is hell," and not least of all for occupied peoples, and not all Europeans remembered it so fondly (when they chose to remember it at all) with dancing and celebrating in the streets. 

The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock explores the experiences from the civilian perspective, starting with D-Day.  By the time Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, the French had already endured weeks of bombing meant to soften up the Germans, but just as often destroying French cities and towns. When the Allied armies broke through they were greeted warily by the surviving farmers and townsfolk who'd lost many family and friends, as well as any chance of feeding themselves. As the battle slowly moved into Belgium, the soldiers suffered through a bitterly cold winter but received a warmer reception from the people. And in the Netherlands, starvation was rampant and many survived by eating tulip bulbs.  It was a perfect example of how liberation doesn't solve everything, and a huge part of the population nearly died from lack of food when relief supplies were delayed in shipping. 

But it was even worse on the Eastern Front.  The brutal Nazi push across Poland and to the outskirts of Moscow, and the even more brutal push back by the Red Army across Poland to Berlin made a horrific mess of Poland.  The depravity by both the German and the Russian soldiers was beyond extreme.  UNRRA tried to care for the civilian casualties, but it was an enormous task and, sadly, liberation didn't always mean an end of suffering.  One sad fact of the agreements made with Stalin (remember: he was our ally at the time) was that DPs (Displaced Persons) were to be returned to their countries of origin.  Trying to force people who were reluctant to return to areas now ruled by Soviet Communists was an especially unenviable task. 

Of course, the experiences of the Jews in the concentration camps are covered, too.  Many were kept in the camps for more than a year after liberation because they couldn't be cared for elsewhere.  The lives they had led previously in Europe had been irredeemably lost, so they now fought for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

This is not a book for the squeamish or faint of heart.  Armies on all sides were guilty of inhumane treatment - some more than others - but whether it was a "righteous" war or not, it inflicted a terrible cost in human suffering. This isn't a "complete" history and can seem a bit academic, but is still an excellent portrayal of the "dreadful ugliness of war." It is similar to Year Zero by Ian Buruma, but with a view confined mostly to Europe.  At times I thought Hitchcock seemed overly critical of America and the Allies, and I was disappointed that the Marshal Plan was mentioned only once in passing, but he always tries to explain the situation and give the appropriate background on why specific actions were taken.  At any rate, this book certainly has it's place among the histories of WWII. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine, and I'll review a book about the Marshal Plan - a much happier book - soon.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Barnstorming with lawyers

Back in 2007 I picked up a used book called Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers.  Written back in the 70s by Harry Combs, an accomplished pilot, it challenges the commonly held view that the Wright brothers were merely bicycle "tinkerers" who barely stumbled into the air ahead of the competition.  Combs describes the two brothers as coming from a close-knit and supportive family who found out through trial and error that all the principles others had "discovered" were wrong.  Through genius and talent (and three years of hard work) the brothers figured out the true scientific principles of aerodynamics, became the first in history to achieve true flight (sustained, powered, and controlled), and ushered in the modern age of flying.

Then, in 2008, I found another used book called Unlocking The Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane by Seth Shulman.  Glenn Curtiss was the primary rival of the Wrights, and Shulman portrays him as a series of opposites: shy and unassuming, yet a master PR man always entertaining the press; the "beloved son" of Hammondsport, NY, who frightened and angered everyone by testing noisy contraptions and racing motorcycles around town at breakneck speeds; and an honest and upstanding citizen violating patent laws for the "greater good" of mankind.  Shulman spends so much ink attacking the Wrights that he doesn't even manage to adequately describe Curtiss.

The fact is that what happened in December 1903 on the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, NC, was monumental.  Wilbur's (and Orville's) genius at solving the problem that had stumped so many others for millennia was truly remarkable.  But Lawrence Goldstone portrays them as mere mortals in Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies - and it isn't always heroic and triumphal.  He describes the Wrights as clannish and Wilbur as overbearing, but we see them most through their heavy and frequent use of the legal system.  Wilbur sought to monopolize the invention with a broad "pioneering patent" that would have required licensing fees of any who soared on his coattails.  And even though Glenn Curtiss soon improved upon the methods of control (developing many of the improvements that are still in use today), he became an especially hated rival and target of the Wright's attacks.  The legal storm that arose cast a heavy shadow over the aviation industry in America, and lead to health problems and an early death for Wilbur.

Although it only covers the early years of aviation - from the lead-up to Kitty Hawk and through the first World War - this is a pretty wide-reaching history.  (For a book that discusses the subsequent period, see The Aviators.)  This was a time when the public's thirst for air shows and events was at its highest and created celebrities of the pilots in the barnstorming circuit.  Goldstone profiles not only the Wrights and Curtiss but many other prominent and largely forgotten individuals: early pioneers such as Otto Lillenthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute who inspired and shared information with the Wrights; visionaries such as Thomas Baldwin who put his faith in balloons and invented the parachute; and scoundrels like Augustus Herring who made a fortune by deception (including selling the information he stole from the Wrights to Curtiss).  And of course, there's the daredevils such as Lincoln Beachy, who thrilled audiences with his death-defying stunts - as well as his death.

Unfortunately, I thought the book suffered from a too-wide reach of history.  It's an interesting chronicle, but the Wrights are generally cast as greedy villains while Curtiss never became more than a cardboard figure despite his prominent role in nearly everything.  While the Combs book was probably accurate but overly-praising, the Shulman book suffered from inaccuracies and too much venom.  This book is probably very accurate as well, but it felt like a little too much dirty laundry.  (That's my opinion, but the book is generally receiving more positive reviews from others.)  I'm not saying a book shouldn't expose the truth even when it's ugly (and I'm not questioning Goldstone's facts or motives), I'm just saying I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Blessed are the peacemakers

Ever read a book that challenges the way you think about the world?  Like who the good guys and the bad guys are?  If you're Christian, you probably think of Israel as one of the "good guys," and shake your head at what they put up with from "those who hate them."  I can't count the number of times I've heard people admiringly tell how "Israel doesn't take crap from anyone," and they aren't afraid to go after their enemies wherever they are.  We sometimes claim to admire Ghandi's nonviolent resistance, but more often we cheer the heavy-handed force of standing up for yourself.  But of course, there's always two sides to every story (and this book really only mentions the other side, and doesn't moralize about the conflict).

Actually, it's really a book about spies, but not the James Bond type.  Because Robert Ames didn't fit the image of a spy.  He was a family guy with six kids and was faithful to his wife.  Nonetheless, he was probably the most influential operative the CIA ever had in the Middle East.  He was fluent in Arabic and grew to love the people and customs of the area.  He didn't "recruit" many agents, but the friends he made were some of the most important people in the region... even if they were terrorists.

One of those friends was Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian who was Yasser Arafat's right-hand-man.  But the PLO was considered a terrorist organization and Salameh (aka, "The Red Prince") was head of the Black September group that was responsible for kidnappings, hijackings, and even the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Ames convinced Salameh to stop attacks against Americans with the hope of US support for Palestinian refugees.  But Salameh was assassinated by Israel in 1979 and Ames was killed when a suicide bomber (a tactic which was still uncommon then) blew up the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63.  When 299 died in October in the attack on the US Marine barracks, America lost its appetite for intervention in the region.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird is an excellent portrait of not just Robert Ames but of American involvement in the Middle East in the 60s thru the early 80s (including the Iranian hostage crisis).  And Bird makes a good case that if we ever had much influence in the region, it was because of Bob Ames.  He understood the feelings on both sides, and the friendships he made (particularly Mustafa Zein and Salameh) gave America influence with Arafat at a time when even speaking to the PLO would have created a political scandal.  Having only been in high school at the time, I found the book especially enlightening.  Lebanon was constantly in the news back then, and the news was never good, but now I think I understand why a little better.  

But lest you think this is an anti-Israel book, it actually feels like a more balanced perspective.  Ames may have been overly sympathetic to the Palestinians, but he wasn't blind to their crimes.  And Bird points out that Israel has only itself to blame for the creation of Hezbollah, and the roots of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be traced back to some events when we didn't condemn the brutalities perpetrated by our ally.  I thought it was an interesting read on how the events of the late 70s and early 80s shaped events that have happened since, and it's really caused me to think.  And mostly I think it's unfortunate events couldn't have turned out differently.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Aiming high

One of my favorite movies is Follow Me, Boys! with Fred MacMurray as Lem Siddons.  He's a travelling musician (but studying to be a lawyer) who makes a fateful decision to get off the bus in Hickory, a charming small-town middle-America kind of place.  (Heck, I'd have gotten off the bus, too!)  He volunteers to be the Scoutmaster, impresses the sweet and beautiful Vida in the process, and makes a wonderful life for himself and is a positive influence for the town's boys through the years.  I don't know if towns like Hickory ever really existed, but I like to think that that's how life used to be (and ought to be).  

Even though I had some good Scoutmasters like Lem Siddons, and even though I loved reading Boy's Life cover to cover each month, I was never a very good scout.  Maybe the problem for me was that Scouting was an ideal, but the reality was allergies on campouts and having to hang out with a few obnoxious kids I'd rather avoid.  Or maybe passing off requirements and earning advancements wasn't a priority in my troop - either that or I just didn't "get it."  Still, even if it didn't work for me like it was supposed to, it doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for the high ideal, even if we fall short, and the movie showed the ideal of how Scouting could work.

Somehow I stumbled upon The Wolf Patrol: A Tale of Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts by John Finnemore, a fun story that showed how Scouting works.  Dick Elliott, a kid from the well-to-do part of town, and Chippy, a "wharf-rat" from the poor part, become great friends in spite of their differences because of Scouting.  The two even take a long hike through the English countryside, living by their wits and always remembering to "do a good turn daily."  There's plenty of danger and the boys run into a few bad guys, but they use the skills they've learned to triumph - and even catch a foreign spy.  Granted, the book is quite dated (it was written in 1908) and is in the adventure style of books like R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, but it illustrates how the Scout Law can be a guide and how it can improve boys lives.  Plus, it was actually kind of fun to read - being one of those boy's adventure tales - even if it's a bit overly idealistic.

Friday, May 30, 2014

It must be... 22 years

I never thought I'd miss you
Half as much as I do
And I never thought I'd feel this way
The way I feel
About you
As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day
I know that it's you I need
To take the blues away
It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love
Nothing more, nothing less
Love is the best

How can it be that we can
Say so much without words?
Bless you and bless me
Bless the bees
And the birds
I've got to be near you
Every night, every day
I couldn't be happy
Any other way
It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love
Nothing more, nothing less
Love is the best

As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day
I know that it's you I need
To take the blues away
It must be love, love, love
It must be love, love, love
Nothing more, nothing less
Love is the best
It must be love, love, love...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Here a word, there a word

There has been much lamenting and handwringing over the isolating effect technology has on us - and rightly so.  (This video is my favorite.)  Human interactions are reduced to texting and messaging, sometimes even when we're in the same room.  We witness birthdays and events through tiny screens instead of watching them happen in front of us.  We post what we ate for lunch and share pithy memes, political rants, and cat pictures for all the world to see.  But I wonder who really cares what our score was on Pet Rescue Saga, what song we're listening to, or if we just saw a clown make a balloon animal.  How often do we go back and watch those videos, and how do they compare to half-missing the real thing?  It's kind of pathetic when you think about it, or as Syndrome might say: "Lame, lame, lame!"

And yet, it's not all lame.  Apparently, some of us who are staring at our phones while in line at Burger King aren't playing BubbleLand but are actually reading Emily Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, or even M.M. Hastings.  It's being called interstitial reading - using those fragmented moments of otherwise wasted time to read - and many of us are reading the classics we slept through in high school.  After all, you can download them for free (or nearly so), and who cares if it takes three or four months to finish?  Personally, I just finished Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  No, Miss Haltiner didn't assign it in high school, but it's one of those books you hear quoted often enough and is worth reading.

Pip is being "raised by hand" by his older sister (which apparently means she was pretty hard on him), and she is none to happy about it.  Luckily her husband, Joe, takes a liking to the small boy and occasionally intervenes on his behalf.  A couple of notable events happen to young Pip: first, he runs into a frightening escaped convict while wandering the marshes and helps him with food and a file to remove the leg iron.  Second, a neighbor arranges for him to visit Miss Havisham, the wealthy and eccentric old woman who has wasted away in perpetual bitterness at having been left at the altar.  But as he grows into a young man he is informed that he has "great expectations" and has come into a future inheritance from an unknown benefactor.  His life changes drastically; he leaves Joe's blacksmith forge and moves to London, where he begins his training as a gentleman, but with limited guidance he frequently falls into debt and folly.  

Dickens is a master of the English language, and in the beginning I often found myself laughing and highlighting humorous comments.  The story, however, languished for me in the middle while Pip is in London.  I imagine this could be why some critics complain that since Dickens was being paid by the word, his writing becomes a bit wordy and the story drags a little at this point (and maybe that's why it took me several months).  Still, the characters are fascinating and add to the eventual conclusion - which I found very satisfying.  I've previously admitted that it's not often I guess the mystery before it's revealed, but I didn't think Pip's "great expectations" were hard to figure out.  Nonetheless, that didn't detract from the story and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone with a little interstitial time while in line at Burger King, waiting at the doctor's office, or... wherever.