Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The best read army in the world

It might sound cliché but books can be powerful weapons.  It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, the ideas they convey can change how people think and even threaten governments.  One example is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet, which was banned by the Soviet government for being critical of the 1917 communist revolution.  Last summer I read about it in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn which tells how the book ended up being published clandestinely by the CIA and smuggled back into the USSR during the height of the Cold War.  (Note: I didn't review it here on my blog because I didn't think it was very good.)  Also, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, they didn't just overrun their enemies, they burned their books. Millions of them were burned in Berlin and other countries because they were seen as subversive to the Nazi ideals. Hitler even wrote his own book and foisted it upon the population to influence what people thought. In many ways it wasn't just a war for the land and the people, it was a war for their minds as well.

Molly Guptill Manning says that some in America took this as a challenge.  In her new book, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, she says it was seen as a matter of pride that American service men would be able to read what they chose, and early book drives were held to collect books that could be sent to the military.  Unfortunately, many of those donations were heavy hardbound books that were impractical for soldiers to carry, and more than a few were so old and outdated as to be useless. In an unprecedented move publishers came together under the Council on Books in Wartime and produced the Armed Services Editions (ASEs) – small, lightweight, and portable copies of bestsellers, classics, biographies, histories, compilations of poetry, and discussions of current events. The books, which could fit easily in pockets and packs, turned out to be extremely popular. Over 123 million(!) were printed and distributed over the course of the war.

This was a very interesting and easy read about a mostly forgotten story of WWII. Manning includes some of the 'fan mail' soldiers sent to the authors and publishers, expressing their gratitude for the books and describing how they were traded and passed around along the front lines.  More than one talked about how the books helped to relieve the hours of boredom, but the real impact was that it made so many of those men into life-long learners who came home to re-enter society and universities.  The book is kind of a light and entertaining read but it made me want to read some of those ASE books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday. (This book includes a complete list of the books published as ASEs – even The Great Gatsby was saved from obscurity by the program – as well as a list of many of the authors banned by the Nazis.  I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a group effort

When I was in high school – waaay back in the early 80s – I was surprised when my friend Sean told me that computers were the wave of the future.  You have to understand that computers were still mostly used for specific purposes in the workplace, and it hadn't even been that long since punch cards had been replaced by magnetic tape.  A "word processor" was a typewriter that could store a few lines of text.  If anyone had a computer at home it was used to play games.  Sure, games were fun, but I didn't understand how computers could be useful

Such thoughts now are laughable.  Less than ten years later that I bought my first computer: a 286 clone with a color monitor that cost $2,000.  I even paid extra to upgrade the hard drive from 20mb to 40mb.  My $500 printer was a dot matrix that could print in color!  With some now-primitive versions of WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, I soon found out just how useful computers could be.  And although the "digital revolution" seemed to have happened overnight, there was a lot of prior work that led to us all depending on computers and internet connections in our homes.

We love the idea of the lone inventor toiling away in obscurity, but it's more often a work of collaboration and shared ideas that create revolutions in society.  Walter Isaacson reaches back to the roots of computers in his newest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  He starts with Charles Babbage's "difference engine," a computing machine from the early 1800s, and the book Ada Lovelace wrote about it (and Ada is a recurring theme in the book).  If not for her detailed documentation it would probably have died in the ash heap of history.  Isaacson discusses the contributions of Alan Turing and many others whose ideas and insights built upon and added to the thinking of others.  Isaacson strives to "give credit" where credit is due, but he clearly and chronologically points out how each one inspired other uses and inventions – and he covers the squabbles for credit that often ensued.

I had a hard time following some of the concepts that underlie the logic of computers, but it's a fascinating history full of names and machines I had barely heard of previously.  Some were geniuses in their own right, but many would never have been known if not for their collaborators – Bill Gates had Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniack.  He even explains the role Al Gore had in "inventing the internet" – yes, he had a role.  There are lots of pictures, including a funny police mug shot of a very young Bill Gates with an unusually huge smile.  Some chapters were absolutely fascinating – as someone who grew up spending the money I earned mowing lawns in video arcades and buying game cartridges for the Atari at home, I loved the chapter that told about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari.  Other chapters were less interesting, however, and I struggled with the chapter linking hippies with the personal computer (I thought Isaacson seemed to mention LSD, acid, and psychedelic drugs way more than was necessary).  Even blogs and search engines find their way into the history.

I looked forward to reading this book since I had really enjoyed his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and while it was very interesting it didn't quite dazzle me the same way.  It's a bit long – nearly 500 pages before the notes – but still a very good telling of how these things we never knew we needed have become so indispensable in our modern lives.  (I received this book from the GoodReads FirstReads program.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Research: heroes and spectators

Lately I've been reading more about an unsavory part of history that I'm usually content to skip: the Holocaust.  You might recall my recent review of 'my neighbor's' memoir?  Well, I'm chalking it all up as research for a novel that starts in that time, but that's all I want to say about it for now.

Hitler's First Victims: The Quest for Justice by Timothy W. Ryback tells about Josef Hartinger, a German prosecutor whose jurisdiction included the Dachau concentration camp in the years that the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. When he received notice that four inmates had been shot while trying to escape, it was his responsibility to investigate. While others simply accepted the flimsy stories from the guards about prisoners killed while attacking or trying to escape, he insisted on autopsies and investigations. And when he had enough evidence of wrong-doing, he attempted to prosecute.

Those sent to the camp were mostly political prisoners. They had been involved in communist activities or had connections to opposition groups. Many, however, were only suspected of complaining about the government, and in a few cases personal grudges were being settled (many, but not all, were Jews). They were told they were merely being "detained" while their case was investigated, and that they were being held in "protective custody." But from the beginning, some prisoners were singled out for regular, brutal, and systematic abuse, and those prisoners invariably ended up dead rather quickly. And although Hartinger tried to prosecute a few crimes he found strong proof for, the cases were dropped or derailed by others.
"Just because one is without power does not mean one needs to be without courage and ultimately without character. Shouldn't one try to find some way to make a difference, even in such hopeless circumstances, without necessarily jeopardizing one's life?" -- Josef Hartinger
We look back on it and have a hard time understanding how something like the Holocaust could happen, and yet it did. This is not an especially heroic story. Hartinger's contribution was that some of the evidence he prepared was found after the war and became instrumental in the Nuremberg trials. Nonetheless, he was one of the few to stand up and voice his objections to the injustices – and he was one of the even fewer to survive after putting his life on the line. This book is a detailing of the early deaths at Dachau – not just the original four mentioned above – and describes (repeatedly) the beatings and torture several of the detainees endured. It explains how many of them were killed, and includes explanations later obtained by the perpetrators themselves. It's not for the faint of heart, and yet it is a small insight into the way the mass murder that later became systematized began, and how it was allowed to continue by those who could have spoken out.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Voices from the Other Side: Inspiring German WWII Memoirs by Jean Goodwin Messinger is a little different.  While we regularly see memoirs written by Jewish survivors of WWII, rarely do we see a collection of the stories of ordinary Germans who also lived through those years (two of the stories here are from Jews). Messinger has collected a couple dozen stories and recollections; mostly from those she has met in Colorado. Most were children or came of age during the war. Some grew up in homes that supported Hitler (usually due to the economic prosperity that came after many years of hardship), but most were either ambivalent or against him. Some are told in the person's own words and some are told by the author. The question of what happened to Jewish neighbors was often not something people felt safe wondering too much about, and several talked of being turned in to authorities over trivial statements.

This was actually quite an interesting book to read – and sometimes the most interesting part of the memoir was what was not talked about. Many talk of the hardship of losing homes or family members, and some suffered a lot while some not so much. And while this book doesn't try to offer an answer to how the Holocaust happened, it's interesting to see the recollections of people who lived through such a fascinating and terrible chapter of history. (I received a free copy of the book from the author.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marx, Maynard, and Dr. Dick

"Economic reading, by popular hearsay, is a veritable desert of dusty prose. In all honesty, much of it is. The student of economics must be prepared for long journeys without a single refreshing sentence; it takes the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint to finish some of the great texts." Robert L. Heilbroner

Perhaps the coolest teacher I ever had was Dr. Dick at Westminster College.  He didn't look like any teacher I'd known before.  His beard was trimmed but his hair was past his shoulders, and he wore shorts with Birkenstock sandals and a rather loud shirt – untucked, of course.  Honestly, he looked a bit scruffy.  And he had this funny smirk on his face – all the time!  I first thought he must be an aide or something, but then he took roll and started lecturing.  And he made Intro to Macroeconomics one of the most entertaining classes ever!  I still have one of the books from that class over twenty years ago: The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner, and recently decided to read it (I must not have read it in class, or maybe we only had to read a small part because I found my notes in only one chapter).

Heilbroner looks at the great economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (whom Dr. Dick preferred to call "Maynard," with emphasis), and some of the not-so-great ones as well.  And he truly tells you about their "lives, times and ideas" and makes the history come alive.  Not only do you learn about Smith's "Invisible Hand" and supply and demand but also how he'd sometimes go into these trances where he'd end up marching for hours before coming out of it!  And you learn about Maynard's – oops! – Keynes' dalliances with men as well as his insights into economic depressions.  But there's also some of the nuts like Robert Owen, Henry George, and Thorstein Veblen.  And, of course, there's Karl Marx.

The section on Marx is probably my favorite because Heilbroner makes you see the world Marx and his theories came from – as well as how often he was right!  He also points out that Marx "was not the architect of actual socialism" – that was Lenin – and it's so insightful that it makes me want to read Capital and maybe even The Communist Manifesto!  In fact, the whole book was utterly fascinating (and ought to be required reading for all those who blindly sing the praises of capitalism and ignore the failings) and I highly recommend it.  My copy is from 1986 and it would be interesting to see what he'd thought of the collapse of communism just a few years later (maybe there's an update in a later edition?).  Heilbroner doesn't just explain economic ideas or even merely put them into context, he does it in a way that entertains – no need for "the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint" with this book.  Many times he even made me laugh!  It was almost as if I were back in Dr. Dick's classroom, and I even thought I could hear him laughing along with me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Winter and gardens

It's the middle of winter, so naturally my mind turns to... the garden!  Of course, here in SoCal we can pretty much garden year-round and I've got pots sprouting with peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, and turnips.  At this time of year I find myself irresistibly drawn to seed catalogs and gardening books, where I pore over the pictures and descriptions and dream of what I'd like my garden to be.

One beautiful gardening book I've been enjoying lately is The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr.  This is a hefty book at nearly 400 pages that is comparable to Sunset's Western Garden Book for content but loaded with beautiful pictures and focused just on herbs.  I've never grown many herbs myself, but I've got a monster rosemary and a struggling thyme, and I plan to add catmint and valerian to the garden this year.  (The catmint is just because I like mint and the valerian is because it's one of those plants I remember from my dad's garden that we called 'garden heliotrope' and always smelled so wonderful – he says it's died out now.)  But the thing that strikes you in going through the encyclopedia-like entries is the huge variety in herbal plants and the many uses.  Sure, plenty of them smell great – like lavender or that rosemary – but there are so many ways they can be used in cooking.  Orr gives ideas on what goes best with what kinds of dishes and even includes a few recipes here and there.  I've been putting off reviewing this book because I wanted to try the caraway-orange biscuits – unfortunately I just haven't had the time lately and didn't want to put it off any longer.  Many herbs also have medicinal properties from simple relaxing teas (I'm thinking of that catmint) to the folkloric insomnia cures (maybe that valerian will come in handy sometime...?), although he offers reasoned cautions (such as warnings about other uses for aloe than just sunburns).  But mostly I find so many of them beautiful to grow in the garden – and another I'd like to add this year is bee balm: both pretty and useful.

I compared it to another book on my shelf, Herb Gardening For Dummies®.  Overall, the information is comparable.  Both talk about the history of the various herbs along with the uses and tips on growing.  Orr even sometimes shows a sense of humor that is often prevalent in the 'Dummies' books.  But Orr's book is ten times more pleasing to look at, and let's face it: with gardening books, sometimes you want as much inspiration as you do information, and you can get both with this one.  (I received this book from BloggingForBooks.)