Friday, December 12, 2014

Religion and war

There is an idea that has become so widely accepted that nearly everyone hears it without questioning: that religion is responsible for most (if not all) of the war and violence that has happened in the world.  And when you see news of "Islamic terrorists" waging jihad (holy war) against the West, it seems to make sense.  The Holocaust targeted Jews, so WWII must have been about religion, right?  Well, not really, and fortunately not everyone accepts this idea at face value.

In Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong says that our modern-day understanding of "religion" actually came about around the time of the Protestant Reformation.  People prior to that wouldn't have understood our distinction between a secular government and a religious one.  She looks back to the ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and others that sprang up in India, China, and the Middle East and examines the beginnings of the major belief systems (Hindu, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  She analyzes what is known about the beliefs as they developed and says that religion didn't usually play the same role in people’s lives as we think of today.  Furthermore, she says, religion was never the driving force behind wars of conquest: it was all about land and wealth and is a result of agrarian society and the rise of an “upper” or governing class.  The fact that religion may have been involved in such aggression was peripheral to the goals, and more often than not religion was a tempering force against such violence.

Armstrong makes a compelling case, even when she discusses the Middle Ages when the Holy Roman Empire held sway over Europe and the Crusaders went to Jerusalem to take back the Holy Land.  Even the so-called Religious Wars weren't drawn along the lines of religion, and adherents of different beliefs fought on the same sides.  And when it comes to more modern times she explains how religion became the more personal belief we have today and how nationalism became the driving force for violence with the rise of nation states. 

Not only is this book very well-researched, it is also very methodical and almost painstaking in its delivery and does so in a very scholarly and academic manner.  I felt I was in over my head until it got to more modern times and although I sometimes felt like abandoning the book early on, I'm glad I kept at it.  In fact, there's so much information here I feel like this is a book I'd like to re-read again in a few years.  I didn’t always find it thoroughly convincing, although that might be due to my unfamiliarity with much of the history, but sometimes it felt like Armstrong was squirming a bit to explain some more modern troubles.  But it's a solid and thought-provoking counter-argument to books that claim any gains in peace are due solely to "Enlightenment philosophies" (which she ties to the rise of nation-states and nationalism) and I’m sure I'm doing a poor job of explaining her arguments.  But personally, my greatest qualm with the book – as a religious person – is that it’s written with such an agnostic viewpoint that it felt like it was defending the benefits of religious belief systems while denying the Godly power behind them, but I understand the need for a scholarly viewpoint.  (I received this book from the BloggingforBooks program in exchange for an unbiased review.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Taking a break

I may have mentioned before that sometimes my brain gets a little overwhelmed with the histories I read and I need to give it a break.  I don't mean a break from reading, of course - it's not like I'm going to start watching television, after all! - but a break from heavy and serious stuff.  That's when I usually binge on some YA and kids books.  Here's a few of them:

Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson was a pleasant surprise.  It's about 12 year-old Charlie Reynolds who left Taper, Florida and an abusive father behind many years before.  Now, he and his mom are back when his step-dad, Mack, is offered the job of head football coach at the high school. Taper is sugar cane country, and when they burn the sugar cane in the fall (to remove the dry leaves), kids chase the rabbits and try to outrun the flames. Charlie has seen some scary things in his life, but nothing prepares him for the frights he faces here - and we're not talking gators and snakes. I don't want to give too much away but this was a fun little book for middle-school aged kids, and I think boys, in particular, might enjoy this fast-paced and sometimes scary story with interesting characters.  Supposedly there are elements of Beowulf in the story.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer is a pretty amazing story about loss and dealing with grief.  Twelve year-old Grace's life has been one of constantly moving. But when her mom dies in an accident, she ends up at her grandma's house - a grandma she's never met, and a grandma who put Grace's mom on a bus when she was 17 and pregnant. She struggles with the adjustment and schemes to get herself sent back to live with Mrs. Greene and her best friend Lacey. But then Grace starts finding little clues that she believes are being sent by her mother, leading her to something. The writing is beautiful and the story twists and turns as though answers aren't always easy, and Grace has to keep struggling to find them. Robert Frost's poetry is threaded through the story, and although it deals with a sober topic, I never felt that it lost sight of Grace's grief - or her grandmothers - and dealt with it in an appropriate way. 

Finally, Torn from Troy: Odyssey of a Slave: Book 1 by Patrick Bowman was another that surprised me - mostly because it's basically the story of The Odyssey by Homer, which was one of those books I read the Cliffs Notes for instead when it was assigned back in high school.  But this is retold as the story of Alexi, a fifteen year-old Trojan boy who is enslaved by Odysseus, who is called Lopex in this story.  Alexi ends up helping the Greeks through the storms they face at sea and getting out of some of the troubles they get into, like the Cicones they try to steal from, the bewitching lotus-eaters... and even bigger problems.  And as he learns a grudging respect for his captors, he also earns respect from them.  I liked this one so well that I'm going to track down the rest in the series, and I might even go back and read The Odyssey and The Iliad.  (Miss Haltiner would be proud!)

(I received Boys of Blur and The Secret Hum of a Daisy from Amazon Vine.  Torn from Troy was a 2014 audiobook download from SYNC.)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who you calling a "jerk?"

Norman Rockwell said that he painted life as he'd "like it to be," and I like that sentiment.  His illustrations mostly "[exclude] the sordid and ugly" and show the "ideal aspects" of an "ideal world."*  The world he paints is one mostly of honest and upstanding citizens and innocent kids enjoying ball games and soda fountains.  I'm old enough that I remember seeing soda counters (although I don't know if they actually mixed "sodas" anymore at that time) and they seem like a relic of a simpler age.  There was one in the old Earl's Pharmacy where we used to buy candy and comic books.  There was another at the old Snelgrove Ice Cream parlor on South Temple in downtown Salt Lake, although I only ever ordered ice cream.  I think both places are gone now, and the world seems a little poorer for it.

So maybe it was with that nostalgia in mind that I got The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More--Stories and Flavors of an American Original by Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman of the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain (I received a free copy from Blogging for Books for review purposes).  Interestingly enough, it starts out with about 50 pages of history on soda fountains, which enjoyed a heyday during Prohibition (so much for the Norman Rockwell image).  They explain the origins of the term "soda jerk" (the guy behind the counter mixing your soda), give a few historical accounts of the dangers of working with carbonated water, and even offer a little history on the Brooklyn Farmacy itself.  (This is my second cookbook from an establishment in New York, so maybe publishing your recipes is the new thing for trendy eateries?)  The recipes start out with the syrups, and some (like the cola syrup) are complex and involved.  Several of them call for such exotic ingredients as "orange flower water" and "dried hibiscus flowers," but those are almost always listed as "optional."  I went for the simpler recipes, and several are actually very easy - and tasty! - and finding plain carbonated water at the grocery store turned out to be much easier than I thought it might be.
Although you can mix a simple soda with the syrup, subsequent sections use them in floats and egg creams (something I'd never heard of).  And the book is extremely well organized, with each recipe giving the page numbers for the syrup and the syrup recipe references where else it's used.  (There are also a number of options for mixing the syrups for someone who's "not in a temperance mood.")  They explain the proper techniques for making egg cremes and advocate artfully hanging the ice cream on the edge of the "float glass" for your floats.  Several of the syrups also produce a "compote" which can be used as toppings for ice cream and other treats.  In fact, the book seems to have recipes for everything you can order at the Brooklyn Farmacy, even the ice cream sundaes and splits plus the toppings to go with them, as well as the milkshakes, cookies, and other baked goodies that look delicious (maybe sometime I'll get a chance to visit and find out).

And while I find the recipes very good and a lot of fun to make, the real popularity of the book in my house hit me when the kids were having a bunch of friends over and Jamie went ahead and bought everything and asked me to make raspberry sodas for them.  She didn't realize that it took almost an hour to make plus time to cool, so only the kids who stayed late got some, but that only meant I was mixing raspberry sodas for her for several days afterwards!  I think I'd better plan ahead for when she wants a pineapple soda - that one takes 24 hours to make - and I'm looking forward to it already!

*The full Norman Rockwell quotes are: "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be", and "I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it - pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers... only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard."

Friday, October 17, 2014

"After all, it's a desk job."

"I suppose of all those [candidates] mentioned he will be the easiest one to beat."  Herbert Hoover, 31st US President
"I do a lot of things I can't do." 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd US President

We live in a world that is vastly different than it was a hundred years ago.  The crippling diseases people feared back then aren't even in the back of our minds now – if we even know what they were or what they did.  True, we have new diseases to fear, but how scared are you really of contracting Ebola?  Contrast that with the threat of polio which could leave its victims handicapped for life.  And this was before handicapped parking stalls and the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Being "crippled" could ruin your ability to work and provide for yourself or family.  It made it difficult to get around and made you dependent on others, and in some ways it took away your privacy.  It made people look at you differently, as if you were "unclean."  That was the reality.  And yet, the American people elected a polio victim as president in 1932.
“Eleanor Roosevelt and others said polio changed Roosevelt, that it made him more compassionate. That may be so. But the first impact of the disease was to call forth elements of his nature that no one had seen before  elements that even he may not have known he possessed. His decision to defy polio was a critical moment in his life perhaps the critical moment.” pg. 132

Franklin Roosevelt wasn't much like his uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, the "rough-rider" with his bully pulpit and big stick philosophy.  In fact, Franklin was a bit of a "dandy;" tall, handsome, charming, full of life, and with a very promising political career ahead.  In his excellent book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Tobin explains how FDR probably contracted the polio virus at a Boy Scout retreat.  He tells what it does to the body and why Roosevelt may have been especially susceptible to its harshest effects.  It was uncommon for a 39 year old man to contract the disease, and he went undiagnosed and improperly treated for weeks.  But he also tells of his efforts to walk again, and how he overcame the public stigma attached to the disease.  And the account of how he eventually ascended to the presidency is quite inspiring, convincing people he could do the job.  "After all," his son Jimmy said, "it's a desk job."
And this is the crux of the book.  I've often read that FDR tried to hide his disability, and even the recent PBS special said photographers were "forbidden" to take pictures that showed his vulnerability.  Tobin describes how FDR actually used it to his advantage, promoting the progress he had made and his fight to overcome its effects.  He points out the many times he was seen in public – by huge gatherings at the Democratic conventions – and the letters that were written to him.  He tells of his efforts to connect with other sufferers and his business venture at Warm Springs, Georgia to develop a sanctuary where polio victims might recuperate and regain some of their abilities without having to worry about how they appeared to others.  People may have overlooked his handicap, and photographers may have declined to take his picture while being carried or lifted out of a car, but that was out of respect for his privacy and dignity (another thing that has changed dramatically in 100 years).

I don't know a lot about President Roosevelt.  He did a poor job of handling the Great Depression, and some credit him with making it last as long as it did.  As an economics student myself I've wondered at some of his stranger policies.  And yet, I've always been surprised at how absolutely revered he was by so many!  Tobin does an excellent job of explaining the illness and bringing a humanity to Roosevelt's suffering, despite the lack of a personal record (which Tobin laments more than once).  His accounts of how it affected his family and how FDR still managed his presidential aspirations are fascinating.  Having seen friends deal with debilitating medical conditions, I think I have a small idea of how discouraging it might have been.  Yet, as Tobin points out, FDR refused to be beaten by it and used his bright personality and ready smile to encourage others.  Tobin even makes a strong case that Roosevelt became president because of his disability.  It's an argument I found convincing, and it gives a lot more depth and meaning to his famous quote that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Friday, October 10, 2014

A "Sweet" giveaway

So you might have noticed that I've started reviewing cookbooks lately.  Yes, it makes sticking to the diet that much harder, but I can't help myself.  Honestly, I should get cookbooks for healthy food, but where's the fun in that?  At any rate, BloggingforBooks is giving away a copy of Food Network's Sweet: Our Best Cupcakes, Cookies, Candy, and More through the Read it Forward program - which apparently gives away a new book every week.  I loved their Treat Yourself cookbook, full of recipes for classic snacks (I loved the oatmeal cookie recipe so much I haven't moved on to try any of the others!).  If you're interested, click here, and if you win let me know - or better yet: bake some cookies and come share them with me!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Sweet and Salty diet

A few years ago my sons and I were in New York City.  When I asked Taylor what he wanted to see - Statue of Liberty, the WTC/Ground Zero, the Empire State Building? - he said Carlo's Bakery.  What?  That annoying reality show?  So, we figured out the subway routes and schedules to get to Hoboken (it's across the river in New Jersey) and read somewhere that you need to get there early, which we did.  And there were a few people standing around in front, but not what we were told to expect.  'Where's the line?' we asked, and someone pointed across the street to this huge mass of people.  By the time we found the end of it over a block away we decided it wasn't worth the wait and bought a cannoli in Little Italy instead - and no waiting! 

But one thing I learned from that is that New Yorkers (or maybe it's just the tourists) go overboard about bakeries.  One that might be making a legitimate bid to be the 'next-big-NY-bakery' is Ovenly in Brooklyn.  A couple of friends, Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin, got together and have turned their passion into what sounds like a very popular place.  And I was fortunate enough to receive their hot-off-the-presses cookbook, Ovenly: Sweet and Salty Recipes from New York's Most Creative Bakery, from GoodReads.  And their signature seems to be the mix of sweet and salty in their mouth-watering goodies.  When they use chocolate they prefer it to have at least 60% cocoa content, so it's on the bitter side, and many of the recipes are topped with a light sprinkling of coarse sea salt. 

I'll admit I was skeptical.  Some of the recipes are a bit involved and intimidating for a novice like me, so I found some of the easier ones and dove in - and they were very good!  One in particular, the "Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies," which they claim is not just "the perfect vegan chocolate chip cookie," but "the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  Period."  Okay, that might be stretching it a tad, but it was really good!  The chocolate didn't taste bitter at all, and - although I didn't put salt on all the cookies - it's an interesting and perhaps even addicting combination.

The book gives some background on Agatha and Erin and how they got started, as well as some "essential tools and ingredients," which is kind of nice for really ambitious bakers.  Recipes fall under the following categories: scones & biscuits; quick breads & coffee cakes; muffins; cookies & shortbreads; pies & tarts; brownies & bars; cakes & cupcakes; baking for the holidays; fillings, frostings & sauces: and bar snacks.  Some recipes (like the above mentioned chocolate chip cookie) specify to follow the instructions exactly, while many others suggest variations and encourage experimentation.  The pictures are beautiful (as is the book) and make me want to try lots of recipes (although many of them contain coffee and alcohol, and I abstain from both).  Nonetheless, I plan to keep working my way through the others as well as I can and hopefully still stick to my diet and lose weight.  But that shouldn't stop you from making them!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Return of the romance

A friend recently suggested I ought to read romance novels.  My first reaction was "huh?" followed quickly by "why?!?"  But after thinking about it (and knowing my friend was just joking), I realized I have read a few books that I think qualify.  I really liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and Sweet Misfortune and The Final Note by Kevin Alan Milne were both quite good.  I was told that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand don't really count, but surely Wuthering Heights does?  I don't think anyone who's read Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd would argue it wasn't a romance, and I just finished The Return of the Native by the same author, although it took me two tries to get through it.

The "native" is Clym (Clement) Yeobright, who returns home to Egdon Heath, a small village on the English moorlands.  He's grown disillusioned by a business career in Paris, and wants to become a teacher for the poor instead.  But the love interests in this story go far beyond a simple triangle - it's more like a... a love-pentagram, I guess.  Clym's cousin, Tamsin (Thomasin) was engaged to marry a local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve, who suffers from a wandering eye.  In fact, Wildeve had something of an illicit relationship with Eustacia Vye, a dark-haired beauty who longs to escape the heath for a more adventurous life.  The final piece of the story is Diggory Venn.  Venn is a "reddleman," a traveling salesman of a red chalk used for marking sheep, and the hazard of his trade is that the chalk also colors his skin red.  But in spite of making him look like a devil, Venn is actually a very decent guy, and the story opens with his return to Egdon as well, bringing the unfortunate Tamsin, whose wedding to Wildeve in a neighboring town didn't happen due to a mistake with the license - and, of course, Diggory had unsuccessfully proposed to Tamsin a year before.

So, just to sum it up: Diggory still carries a torch for Tamsin, who feels obligated and honor-bound to Wildeve, who is really in love with Eustacia, who sees Clym as a possible escape from a dreary and provincial life on the heath.  Got that?  Naturally, no one marries the right person.  What a boring story that would've made!

I don't usually worry about revealing the plot and outcome with classics, but in this case I suspect the story isn't widely-read or familiar to most, and I've probably said too much already.  But as easy as it is to like the noble Venn (who reminded me of the solid Gabriel Oak), Hardy depicts each of the characters in such a way that you can relate to and sympathize with all of them.  Eustacia seems so beautiful and exotic (as well as aloof) to the villagers that some of the women believe she's a witch, and yet you can't help but feel her longing to escape for something more exciting.  I even felt bad for the fickle Wildeve, who is kept from the woman he really loves by the social expectations and customs of the community.  Even the setting of the fictional Egdon Heath, which is almost pagan-like with its bonfires and traditions, adds a layer of fascination and appeal to this ill-fated love-... um, pentagram.

And yet, as interesting as that all may sound, it still took me two tries to get through it, because - after all - it's a romance.  The tragic nature lends some interest - and I've enjoyed others like Main Street, O Pioneers, and The Good Earth, that have elements of a romance in them.  But honestly, romances aren't really my thing, and I mostly enjoyed the well-developed characters and the very human dilemmas they face which we sometimes see echoed in our own lives.  Plus, there's Hardy's beautiful language which can bring a place alive with so many subtly-nuanced words that you'll want a dictionary at hand to truly understand and see the color in his story.

So, while I won't be cracking any steamy bodice-rippers or the more circumspect "bonnet-rippers" (aka Amish romances), don't be too surprised if I come back with another classic that borders on romance.  Although, I think it's a safer bet that I'll be reading a history, maybe even one that recounts a long-ago love story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let them eat bread

The joke at my house has long been that all dad knows how to cook is oatmeal and French toast (and don't expect him to fry bacon at the same time).  And yet, over the last year or so, that's been changing.  I think it was when my mom sent her recipes for chocolate-chip cookies and zucchini bread.  After that I started making sweet cornbread muffins - on a regular basis - and the kids laughed at me.  Then I pulled out the bread maker we bought a couple years ago but never used, and now some mornings we wake up to the smell of freshly-baked bread.  Now I've started getting cookbooks and actually trying some of the recipes.  I think I might even be turning into something of a "foodie."  

Last month I mentioned the "classic snacks" cookbook I've been having fun with, but recently I received Bread: The very best recipes for loaves, rolls, knots and twists from around the world by Anne Sheasby from GoodReads Giveaways (in exchange for an honest review).  It's a very beautiful book with great pictures that accompany most of the recipes.  And there's a range of recipes from regular breads to gluten-free options to bread maker recipes to seasonal favorites (and more).  Since I'm still new to baking I appreciated the instructions and tips in the beginning, and it's helped me understand better how to use the bread maker.  I had no idea how important it was to keep the salt, sugar, and yeast apart when loading the bread maker - especially for delayed bread-making - and I think it's made a difference in the quality of my bread.  I had tried several different recipes from the bread maker manual and some I found online, but they all came out a bit on the dry side.  But the "simple brown bread" recipe in this book has instantly become my favorite - much softer, moister, and better-tasting than any of the others.

Another was the marbled chocolate-banana bread.  It's a very pretty bread but it wasn't quite sweet enough for my sweet-tooth.  Everyone I shared it with at work, however, appreciated that it wasn't so sweet!  Nobody could tell it was a banana bread though, because the cocoa ends up being the dominant flavor.  I've made a few notes for some changes to try the next time I make it.

Although a number of the recipes can be made in the bread maker, it's not just a bread maker recipe book.  It also explains how to do regular dough-recipes, and there's one for rosemary ciabatta rolls I'm eager to try.  Some of recipes surprised me, considering it's a bread cookbook: there's recipes for pancakes (the book calls them "drop-scones"), French toast (a much fancier recipe than I usually make), and pizza dough (well, the recipe is for much more than the dough).  And there's a lot of "seasonal favorites" that seem very European, like bread pudding and such.  It's a very nice cookbook (hardcover and hardbound, not spiral), and although I think my family is getting tired of my baking, I'm having a lot of fun with it (even though it's interfering with my diet).  So, don't be too surprised if I show up at the beach or a church meeting and offer you some homemade baked goods.

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.)

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.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Brave men

Several years ago when my son was still in elementary school, he had to interview a hero.  He chose my wife's grandfather who had served in the Navy during WWII.  I still remember that afternoon when he said many times with a distant look in his eyes that he wasn't a hero – the guys who didn't make it back were the heroes to him.  Then he quietly talked about driving a landing craft full of Marines toward beaches in the Pacific, trying to get them in as close as possible to the sand because the more water they had to run through the less likely it was they'd make it.  He'd never even told his family about those experiences, and I feel grateful to have heard it at all.  Jack passed away a few years ago, and there's probably a lot more to the story that he kept to himself.

"I want to tell you what the [D-Day invasion] entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you." — Ernie Pyle

At the beginning of The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 by Cornelius Ryan, he says the book is "not a military history" but "the story of people."  Published in 1959, it was based upon the accounts of actual participants (who were still living) and is probably one of the best accounts of D-Day. It starts with a few stories immediately prior to the invasion but the main focus is on the events of June 6, 1944.  It does not give extensive detail about the strategies or even full accounts of each and every unit or battalion involved but instead weaves the experiences of both generals and soldiers into a very readable account. It can feel somewhat confusing at times, mixing both broad plans with on the ground accounts, but this style gives the book a very human feel. And it's not just confined to the Allies' viewpoint, but includes many stories from German soldiers and officers as well as a few from French civilians and the Underground Resistance. And all are presented in a surprisingly even and fair manner, without demonizing either side, which also gives it a somewhat detached feel at times. 

Another "classic" on WWII is Brave Men by Ernie Pyle, published in 1944.  Pyle was a war correspondent and this is a compilation of his newspaper columns while he was with soldiers fighting in Europe. Pyle was killed the following year on Iwo Jima, but he was especially popular for his intimate style of reporting that focused on the perspective of soldiers.  Reading this book really gives you a feeling for what they went through, both the grueling horror and the intense boredom. He covers not only the infantrymen on the front lines but the artillerymen behind them and the fighter and bomber pilots above. He tells what their days were like, what they ate, what kind of reception the locals gave. He shares his experiences at sea with the Italian invasion, how the supply chain worked, and how difficult it was to rebuild bridges that were blown up by retreating Germans. He tells not only of "GI Joe" but of "Sad Sack" and all the others who served, no matter how gloriously or not. It was surprising to see the names and home addresses of soldiers, but I can imagine people back home watching his columns, hoping to see a familiar name or maybe even writing to strangers. It's all done in a folksy way that must have forged a stronger connection between home and the front.  

I'm amazed at the sacrifices of the earlier generation and what they accomplished, and just as amazed at how little we sometimes seem to appreciate it now.  And I think Jack was a hero not just for what he did during the war but for his life afterward.  He came home, became a school teacher and later a principal, and raised his family – which I'm honored to be a part of now.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The BIG picture

When you read war histories you find they often fall into a couple of different perspectives: the leaders and their strategies, and the soldiers and the action.  And while it might be tempting to dismiss books that focus more on strategy as academic, scholarly, and even boring, it's also a valuable perspective to better understand the course of history and why events unfolded as they did.

Most WWII history buffs are familiar with Operation Overlord.  It was the largest seaborne invasion and included over 6,000 ships and landed over a million men on the beaches of Normandy beginning June 6, 1944 – it was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.  But Overlord was part of a larger operation called Neptune which encompassed the entire plan to take the battle to Continental Europe, including the Mediterranean.

Even before Pearl Harbor, the US was involved in the war in Europe by providing armaments to Britain and Russia.  And once the US was committed to joining the war, Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that defeating Hitler needed to be the priority.  But Churchill had little faith in the untested and green US troops – and with good reason it turned out.  So even though Roosevelt, Marshall, and Eisenhower urged for a mainland cross-Channel assault, Churchill consistently redirected the attention toward the Mediterranean.  Initial fighting was in North Africa and eventually moved up into Italy, where it stalled.  Part of this British reluctance was a desire to keep Germany from controlling the Mediterranean and the important Suez Canal in Egypt (the shortest route to the British colonies in the Pacific).  But another influence was the British disaster at Dunkirk, where they barely got off the continent alive and able to fight another day.  The issue from the American perspective was that it wasn't facing the problem head-on and seemed to be dragging out the conflict.  Also, and perhaps more significantly, it didn't provide enough relief for the Russian troops fighting on the Eastern Front – a problem Stalin never hesitated to complain about.

This is just one of the interesting understandings I gained while reading Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings by Craig L. Symonds.  It's an excellent history of the bigger picture of what was going on, and deals mostly with the higher political and military figures.  It's also very much a view from the Allied perspective – there isn't much about the enemy here.  And while I found it very interesting in it's own way, I'll admit it's kind of dry information and I almost set it aside.  But everything changed when Symonds got to the actual invasion and I found myself unable to put the book down.  Suddenly the men on the ground and in the boats became alive and the action was intense.  There are plenty of individual stories and accounts woven into the narrative, but it still retains an orderly 'big picture' feel to it instead of the chaos that usually comes through in other books on the topic.  And while the paratroopers dropped behind the lines were given scant attention, Symonds tells in excellent detail the saving contribution of the destroyers, which maneuvered inshore in dangerously shallow depths and within range of the big German guns to provide the kind of coverage the air bombing had failed to achieve on that heavily overcast morning.

I've already written about a couple of books about the D-Day invasion of Normandy (The Bedford Boys and The Boys of Pointe du Hoc) that emphasize the fighting men and I'll follow up with a couple more that are considered "classics."  But if you're looking for a book which not only explains the lead-up to D-Day but also gets into the troubles of pulling together such an enormous armada as well as the challenges of getting so many men onto a thin beach with a long shallow approach full of mines, you'll probably enjoy this one and appreciate Symonds' excellent writing.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)