Thursday, September 18, 2014

"You must survive!"

"There are times and places where children do not dream any more about how to commit pranks, but about how to take the government to task." 
 Stephan Hermlin

Our first home was in the Rose Park area of Salt Lake City.  It was a humble neighborhood but most people took great pride in their homes and yards, and we loved it and still count many friends there.  We got to know most of our neighbors through church and many of the older members were a source of inspiration, some of whom had made great sacrifices to come to the United States following WWII.  One of these neighbors was Sister Wobbe, and my wife remembers her as one of the hardest working people she ever met.  Her husband, Rudi, had passed away about a year before we moved in, and although I sometimes heard stories about him, they seemed almost too much to believe.

Rudolph, or Rudi, Wobbe grew up in Nazi Germany.  As a boy his family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the LDS or Mormon Church) and he eventually became friends with two other LDS boys, Helmuth Huebener and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe.  But as they watched the Nazis exercise power and control over they people, they recognized it for the evil that it was.  Rudi resisted joining the Hitler Youth despite the intense pressure, but with Helmuth he began listening to BBC radio broadcasts that gave a very different picture of how the war was going than what the government said.  Eventually the friends began secretly distributing leaflets (written by Helmuth) denouncing Hitler. 

“It may be easy with the retrospect of history to see how bad the Nazis were. But to grow up in the midst of that environment, being taught every day that Germany had the best and finest government on earth and still to have the insight and courage to break free of the propaganda, took a man of a high and special caliber. ”
— Rudi Wobbe (speaking of his friend Helmuth) 

Three Against Hitler by Rudi Wobbe (and Jerry Borrowman) tells his story of how the teenage boys were caught by the Gestapo and put on trial for "Preparation to High Treason" against the nation.  Helmuth bravely defended himself and his friends before the "Blood Tribunal," but the sentences handed down were harsher than others because of the political nature of their crimes.  Wobbe tells of the time he spent in prisons and concentration camps, of the brutality he faced as well as the kindness of some fellow prisoners and even a few guards and wardens. 

I never met Brother Wobbe but through this book I felt like I got to know him.  He shares how his faith helped him in times of trial and it's very moving.  It's not a long story or as polished of an account as you might expect to find in professional biographies, but it comes across in his own words and feels that much more powerful because of it.  At times it made me ache inside for what he and others faced in such a difficult time and place, but it also made me very grateful for the life I've had.  This is a book I can eagerly recommend for anyone interested in WWII history.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The best lies

Kim Philby rose easily through the ranks of MI6, England's foreign intelligence organization.  In a group made mostly of the upper class of British society, they prided themselves on being part of an elite group - a club, actually - that traded in secrets.  And Philby was as charming as they came, easily making friends of nearly everyone, but especially those with information.  Unfortunately, he was also passing that information on to the enemy - the Soviet Union - and did so for about 30 years!

I found A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre both frustrating and infuriating, and yet I couldn't put it down.  Philby became friends with another member of MI6 who joined about the same time he did, Nicholas Elliot, and an American counterpart in the CIA, James Angleton.  And while the men drank (and drank, and drank) together, Philby listened to all the information his friends shared.  Whether it was about internal matters or operations that involved communist nations, he passed it all along to his Soviet handler, and the volume of information was such that even the KGB wondered if he was stringing them along.  And yet his information lead to the deaths of numerous people: anti-communist Catholics in Germany (and their families), Albanians sent to foment rebellion (and their families), and British and American spies in Russia.  It is estimated that thousands of people died because of Philby's friendships... and their willingness to share their knowledge over drinks.  And even when circumstantial evidence pointed to their friend, Elliot and Angleton couldn't believe that the guy they thought they knew so well could possibly be a Soviet spy.  It's said that the best lies are the ones we tell ourselves, and nowhere was that more apparent than in this case.

MacIntyre knows how to tell a good spy story, especially when the story is true.  I enjoyed Operation Mincemeat and have more by him on my to-be-read list.  This isn't exactly a biography in the traditional sense, but also profiles Elliot and Angleton, and focuses on the friendship of the three men.  And as frustrating as this one was to read (how could they not know?!?), it was a great story I just couldn't put down. (I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A boy and his tiger

My hometown newspaper was one of the original 35 newspapers that ran Calvin and Hobbes when it debuted on November 18th, 1985 (eventually it was in over 2,400 papers).  Reading the funny pages was a daily ritual, and I loved strips like Bloom County and Peanuts.  And honestly, I didn't think much of Calvin and Hobbes that first day, or even the second.  The art was a little rough and the jokes weren't especially creative.  But on day 3, I was hooked.  That's when you first glimpse the dual-reality of Calvin and Hobbes – Calvin's view compared to everyone else's.  Some people make the mistake of thinking Hobbes is only "alive" when he's alone with Calvin, but that's wrong.  The truth is that Calvin sees and believes Hobbes is real, not just a stuffed tiger; that is his REALITY.  It's the same as when he thinks he's Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, Stupendous Man, or even Safari Al (yeah, I know - Safari Al was only in one strip, but I loved that one!).

Can you tell I'm a little passionate about Calvin and Hobbes?

I've had Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip by Nevin Martell on my to-read list for quite a while, and always been put off by the negative reviews.  But when Watterson recently emerged from his self-imposed exile to contribute to several days of Pearls Before Swine, I decided it was time to check it out (and those few days were the only times when Pearls Before Swine was actually worth reading), and what I realized was that many of the negative reviews were missing the point.  Everyone knows Watterson disliked the fame and hates being interviewed, so why would you complain when the book doesn't have an interview with him?  And if you're already aware of Watterson's abhorrence of licensing and merchandising his product, why would you expect this book to be full of reproductions of the strips?

What Nevin Martell did - despite his best but failed efforts to interview Watterson - was to talk to a lot of other cartoonists and those who knew or know Watterson.  That's about as close as we get folks.  A few words from Watterson's mom, some friends, his agent, and those cartoonists who wish they could be as good as Watterson.  He chronicles what is known about the reclusive artist, his ordinary upbringing, and a few jobs before Calvin and Hobbes debuted and became an instant classic.  He talks about the strip's evolution, as well as the artist and the struggles he had with his syndicate.  He explains what is known of Watterson's views (from what he's written and said in a few interviews and other speaking engagements), especially as it relates to his wish not to see his creations plastered all over calendars, t-shirts, coffee mugs, post-its, television commercials, etc. etc. etc.  Watterson could have made a FORTUNE, and we'd all have stuffed Hobbes' in our homes and suctioned to the back windows of our cars (remember the ubiquitous Garfield dolls?).  But he didn't.

See, to him, his art was special, and he worked hard to make it something worthy of being called art.  Remember all those strips where Calvin talks about art, usually in relation to his snowmen?  That's likely Watterson talking, and the way the artwork improved and became something special is because of his commitment to it – not to making a buck.  Take a close look at the furniture, the trees, the movements and facial expressions of the characters – then compare it to other strips.  There is no comparison.  He transcended all the others, and it took a huge toll on the man.

So, maybe you've already obsessively read everything about Calvin and Hobbes online that you can, and you own every single book that ever came out (as well as the rare calendar and t-shirt), and you read it all over and over again.  If so, there might not be much new here for you – and you might very well be a stalker.  This book isn't amazing, but it's good enough, and for those of us who admire and applaud Watterson's decision NOT to cash in and make a FORTUNE, it's a fun and interesting little insight into the ten years of absolute joy in the funny pages – even though we desperately miss Calvin and Hobbes (and would have bought the calendars and t-shirts and everything else).  Thanks Mr. Watterson – it was fun.

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.)