Monday, September 29, 2014

This week: airplanes with Jesus, Kurt Vonnegut, and Voltaire



            This past weekend I read through A Day with a Perfect Stranger, not a difficult task given that it’s less than 100 pages. A sequel to Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, which featured overworked businessman accepting a dinner invitation with a man who turned out to be Jesus,  A Day’s approach is slightly different. Whereas Jesus argued Nick into accepting a relationship with him,  A Day is more of an episode of Touched by an Angel.  Nick’s wife, Mattie, is contemplating leaving him for his newly-found Jesusfreakness,  and so doesn’t hesitate for too long when the very interesting fellow she met on the airplane asks to join her for lunch during their airline layover. Their prolonged conversation through the day (including two air trips and a layover)  is something of an exercise in counseling, as the stranger moves Mattie to consider what she’s really worried about. Eventually he delivers the God loves you line, if not in an Irish accent with golden light and doves, and vanishes with Mattie in tears reconsidering her life. It’s nice in the Touched by an Angel way,  with lots of warm fuzziness that you probably have to be in the mood for.


            In other news,  I finished Seeing like a State, with comments to follow this week, and a review for The Age of Voltaire is imminent.  I considered checking out Rousseau and Revolution, but it’s only a hair shorter than the monstrous Age of Faith, and not nearly as enticing.   One day I’ll take it on, but not until the TBR list is complete.  Yesterday I picked up a handful of library books, largely history with some novels to boot. My next Great War read will be The Forgotten War, also on the Eastern front. One of the novels is by Kurt Vonnegut, so that should be fun – in that kindly, wearily cynical way. I had hoped to read H.G. Wells' Wheels of Chance, but it was only an e-book. Alas.  


Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Crucified Rabbi

The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity
© 2009 Taylor Marshall
236 pages


Take for granted Christianity’s inseparable connection to Judaism, but what does it mean, beyond knowing that Jesus was Jewish and died during Passover?  The Crucified Rabbi is the first volume of a Catholic history trilogy, and examines the close links between the early Christian church and those of Judaism.  That they abound shouldn't be surprising, given that the early Christians were Jewish. I had no idea, however, how much Jewish heritage had been passed through the Catholic tradition.

Taylor Marshall opens with the obvious, Christianity’s central claim that Jesus was the Jewish messiah.  His arguments probably won’t turn any practicing Jews into Messianics but after that things get more interesting. Subsequent chapters address shared elements of the two religions. Some ties are easier to see than others, like related holidays, prayer hours, and vestments. Others will be a harder  sell for the author, though his arguments are certainly interesting. Take for instance the idea that Jews were predisposed to Marian worship because of traditional devotion to the Queen Mother; this strikes me as problematic given that 1st century Jews were long removed from their monarchy.  In the same vein is the teaching that the Ark of the Covenant was a antecedent to Marian worship, because Mary like the Ark hosted the spirit of God. 

In addition to examining their shared religious history, Marshall reviews the political relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people;  things were not always so cozy. Though Catholic scholars have a long history of appreciating the Torah, the Church and its people have branded themselves with the mark of Cain many times, especially during the Crusades.  I did not realize how aggressively John Paul II pushed for reconciliation with Jews, I suspect the book is written in the same spirit. Though heavily footnoted with biblical and Vatican references, the book is on the light side, but an easy introduction to how much of early Christianity was simply Judaism in an altered context. 





Related:

  • The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine
  • Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline, Laura Winner;  a work on how Jewish spiriutality can inform others, especially Christian. 


Friday, September 26, 2014

One Second After

One Second After
 © 2011 William R. Forstchen
528 pages



When the power blinked, Colonel John Matherson wasn't alarmed. These things happen. But they don't happen at the same exact time as failing phones, stalling cars, and falling planes.  As night fell and nothing changed, he began to suspect the worst: that America had been attacked. One Second After turns a Norman Rockwell life into a horror story, taking readers through a town trying desperately to hold on to survival after its entire world collapses.

Like any horror story, this is grisly and exciting; as Matherson quickly realizes, his city has been the victim of an electromagnetic pulse,  probably generated by a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere.  Virtually every electrical device is now kaput. Cars, computers, even telephones and clocks are dead.  One character notes in alarm that they've been thrown into the Civil War era, but their fate is far worse than that; as the historian Matherson notes, the world of 1865 had its own infrastructure. That was a world of widespread farming and home industry, of self-reliance. With electricity went every tool and system the modern world depends on; the trucks, trains, and ships that moved food from across the continents;  the computers that managed the money. The integrated world economy, David Ricardo's dream coming true, meant the utter dependence of every community on thousands of others.  With thousands of people needing medicine and food every day, and without the means to produce it or import it again as needed, One Second After is a tale of slow death.

The technological order having collapsed, and the old traditional skills having been forgotten,  the people of town are in a bad way. An early scene in a nursing home overwhelms Matherson and readers with a hint of the tragedy that is to come;  its staff unable to come to work, and medications running low,  four medical personnel are alone in a building filled with dozens of elderly who need constant care. Matherson is there to evacuate his father in law, but when he arrives he finds death, disease, and despair; the staff are overwhelmed, unable to cope.  It's a gut-wrenching scene, but devastation won't be limited to the nursing home. Those dependent on medications in the civilian population are first to decline; food poisoning, disease, and strife ravage the population in turns.  Without comforts, ferality rears its head; as some give in to their inner beasts, Matherson and others do their utmost to preserve some dignity. They study the situation, make plans for the future, organize defense against what mobs and nature are throwing at them, and  strain not to break themselves.

While rock bottom is never reached, and there is some marginal reason for hope at the end, this is a truly harrowing story. There are minor issues with the style --  the characters often remind themselves  that "we're still Americans",  invoking memories of higher ideals, but in too unvarying a way --  but this is a small fly in the soup. As devastating as the barrage of crises is,  the main character continues to hold on, making it inspirational. There's no question that this novel was written as a warning; the story is bookended with notes from a  congressman and a military intelligence officer who remark on the dire need to prepare for the aftermath of this kind of an attack. That warning applies not just for Congress, however, but for people, too;   Matherson's city profits from the skills of a few survivalists and hardcore Civil War reenactors, but  the townsfolk on the whole are not prepared. Accustomed to buying everything as needed from the store, no one has any extra provisions or supplies set aside.  Little wonder 'prepping' booklists often include this one.

While I don't know how likely an EMP attack is, One Second After is a chillingly effective warning of how fragile everyday life has become.

Related:
Lucifer's Hammer.  An apocalyptic novel following an asteroid impact, this also has a cannabalistic horde. It's also more firmly a science fiction novel.
World Made by Hand, James Kunstler.  This is far gentler, since it's set long enough after the peak oil scenario that collapses the modern world that characters have adjusted to living in the 19th century.
Supervolcano: Explosion, Harry Turtledove.  Similar scenaro

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Honourable Defeat

An Honorable Defeat: A Hiastory of German Resistance to Hitler
© 1994 Anton Gill
293 pages

        


No civilized nation on Earth is as haunted as its history as Germany. For twelve years, one of the worst governments conceivable reigned over the heart of Europe, and the people in the land of poets and thinkers seemed content to let it be so, even to do his bidding. But some acted on that disquieting sense that something was amiss with the NSDAP;  some took action. An Honourable Defeat examines the record of those Germans who did more than quietly dissent, those who took action.  In the end their efforts did little to drive the monsters from power, but they were the nation's conscience, and reflecting on what they thought and attempted to do can only work to the good.

An Honourable Defeat sees resistance against Hitler and company being driven by a few main groups:  youth movements,  the Catholic Church, disenfranchised political rivals on the left, and -- lastly, conservative forces within the army.  Of these, leadership from the army was the most effective,  although at war's end all it could show for itself were a few stalled assassination attempts and one destroyed conference room.  In general, resistance took two forms, passive and active. Youth groups often engaged in passive resistance, organizing literary circles and  groups to dance to music forbidden by the regime.   Dissenting officers within the military threw the odd wrench in the wheel, fighting against their own sense of duty and obedience to do so. Some were placed in truly awful positions; one "SS spy" had to oversee a death camp while collecting and forwarding information.  In terms of active sense, no mention is made of any organized attempts to sabotage war material production, but Gill does cover youth leaflet campaigns,   pulpit condemnation, and (of course)  military officers' attempts to effect a coup. 

In many ways this is a tragic history; in addition to the people destroyed by Hitler and his memory, and the tortuous stress endured by many members of the resistance who lived double lives, there remains the fact that not much was accomplished. In some cases, plots were ruined by bad luck, or misinformation; one early attempt to blow up Hitler's plane in flight failed because of the cold at high altitude. The military officers were slow to take decisive action, struggling with where their duty lay; this was especially quarrelsome once the war began in earnest. It was one thing to kill Hitler for merely threatening conquest, but once Germany was embroiled in a fight to the death against Russia, who would dare leave the nation leaderless?  The civilians who took action were limited by their lack of experience; one promising leader's career was cut short early on when he was seen out in public wearing a "ROT FRONT" button. First rule of resistance: don't advertise being an enemy of the state.

An Honourable Defeat is by no means complete (efforts by civilians to shelter Jewish neighbors are overlooked, for instance), it demonstrates how early and how varied German resistance to tyranny was. While it never brought forth the kind of world-shaking fruit anyone would prefer, the fact of that little seed of righteous defiance existing within us offers hope against the threat of future malfactors.



Saturday, September 20, 2014

Collision of Empires

Collision of Empires
488 pages
© 2014 Prit Buttar


          

       A quirk of the Great War is that its initial contestants usually cease to be subjects of interest to the historical imagination once Europe’s titans are involved.   The Great War conjures up images of the western front, of  France and the United Kingdom in a bloody grapple with Germany, dug into the fields of Belgium.  The war began, however, in the east, ‘over some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ – over Austria’s reaction to the assassination of its heir by a Serbian nation. Collision of Empires looks at the war where it started – Austria.  Covering only the war’s beginning in 1914,  Pritt Buttar examines the brutal, clumsy opening to the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Germany against Russia and Serbia. 

The author's title is well-chosen, for despite the intricate timetables developed by the respective' empires general staffs,  the powers involved were plainly not ready for modern war.   Austria's commander worshiped the indomitable Spirit of the Offensive, just as Italy's commander did. That attitude, which led to twelve Battles of the Insonzo on the Italian front, is similarly productive here. Some problems, like a mass of men with repeating rifles, machine guns, and solidly defensible territory, cannot be solved simply by throwing another mass of men at them.  From the Baltic to Serbia, here mighty armies are thrown at each other and rebound with sickening thumps. Such was the advantage of defensive combat that the Dual Monarchy failed even to subdue tiny Serbia.  The attack at all costs mentality failed across the front, from plains and lake country to the hills and mountains of the Austrian invasion routes. At the year's end, the only power capable of feeling remotely capable of its accomplishments would again be little Serbia.

Collision of Empires is highly detailed, as one might suspect considering its sharp focus on the first few months of the war. The author begins with respective chapters on Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia's political and military cultures before covering the opening campaigns.  Illustrations are generous, but the maps leave one wanting;  there are precious few of them, they only show attack routes, and they're so zoomed in that an atlas is in order to get a reader's bearings.  There's no faulting the overall narrative, though, which combines a seasoned east-European historian's commentaries with a fast retelling of the war.  According to an interview with Buttar, this is the first part of a trilogy. I look forward to the rest.

Related:
"Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know about the Eastern Front", Prit Buttar. 
The White War, Mark Thompson

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring, being the first part of the Lord of the Rings
© 1954 J.R.R Tolkien
570 pages



Not many birthday gift involves a life-threatening quest to defeat a Dark Lord and prevent the enslavement of all living creatures,  but Bilbo Baggins is an exceptional gift-giver.  Frodo Baggins had no idea when he accepted his uncle’s gift that it could hold so much trouble in store for him (nor did Bilbo, for that matter), but c’est la vie.  The ring belonged to an ancient, malevolent power, and the evil one wants it back.  No choice remains but to destroy it, so Frodo must venture from his safe home into the outlands, brimming with dangerous monsters and ancient mysteries.

Such is the beginning of the Lord of the Rings tale, its first two chapters gathered here as The Fellowship of the Ring.  Having struggled to get through The Hobbit, I was surprised by how immediately this story drew me in. There’s a basic simplicity to the story, from the overall morality theme – good is good, evil is evil, and ne’er the twain shall meet, except in combat --  and the imagery evoked. There’s nothing mysterious about a reader’s delight in the arcadian comforts of the Shire, or dread at the gloomy forests and hostile, forbidding crags.  Far from simple, however, is the delivery;  Tolkien is a master world-builder, whose characters move through a landscape full of its own history, and are enmeshed in actual cultures.  ‘Developed’ isn’t quite the word. Tolkien delivers an experience more than just a fantasy story;  his characters’ heads are full of stories, legends, and songs that they regale one another with, and offer insight into Middle Earth’s history – which is still being written with their own adventure. The experience delivered by Tolkien is more than a fantasy-adventure novel; his characters tell tales and sing songs in invented language that seem at first like garnish, but later prove to have lasting relevance. This is a story rich in imagination from the beginning,  the archetypical high-fantasy epic with settings that overwhelm the mind’s eye, complete with villains that resonate on a primeval level.

Although I’m only starting out on my personal quest to read through the adventure, I daresay I’m looking forward to it much more than Frodo and his companions, for whom doom looms large. Onward!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tobacco

Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization
416 pages
© 2003 Iain Gateley




The age of discovery opened an era of global domination by European culture and power, but in at least one instance, the new world had its own victory. Tobacco, smoked heavily throughout the Americas,  took the world by storm once European sailors started smoking, sniffing, and drinking (!) it. sometimes reaching parts of the planet even before they did in a chain reaction. Tobacco is a straightforward history of the weed's own conque

A native of the Americas, tobacco had many roles in the cultures of the Aztecs, Incas, and more. They smoked the plant, but they also applied its juice to their eyes and skin; the principle use of tobacco was in shamanic ritual and herbal medicine.  Europeans dabbled with this (there is no substance on Earth that has not been championed as a cure-all at some point), but  sailors and conquistadors soon used it chiefly for recreation.  Smoking was a completely new phenomenon to Europe, and neither the Catholic nor later the Islamic powers knew what to make of it. It stunk of the devil, but neither the Bible nor the Koran expressly forbade it, and soon enough even priests were taking snuff during Mass. Everywhere European trade-ships went, they took sailors and tobacco, and the people they met spread the good news of smoking with such profligacy that when European explorers penetrated the heart of Africa, they found tobacco already waiting.

Tobacco offered mental stimulation and relaxation without the drunkenness of alcohol, though there was still vomiting involved if one overdid it.. Tobacco was soon grown worldwide, and formed the basis of much of the colonial American economy.  Cigars, like whiskey, weathered Atlantic crossings far better than raw foodstuffs, and could retain value.  Their use as a trade commodity can't be understated; even well into the modern era, tobacco was used as money. In World War 2, for instance, not only did soldiers and prisoners use cigarettes as currency within their respective institutions, but in financially-stressed Nazi Germany,  cartons of cigarettes were used as stable money when the official currency was being played with. (This, despite the official Nazi forbidding of tobacco!)

Besides recreation and money, tobacco served a multitude of ever-changing social roles. Different types of tobacco consumption marked different cultures, like the cigar's association with power and the pipe with middle-class respectability.  The cigarette began as a French invention, and was resisted for the longest by English tabagophiles, who looked askance at anything French. Initially derided as weak, soft, and effeminate,  cigarettes eventually became the standard use of tobacco for various reasons -- their cheapness, ease of use, and near-immediate addictveness among them.  People embraced the cigarette as a way to spit at traditional values; what Oscar Wilde started, flappers continued.  It helped that cigarettes had an enormous media presence; barred from depicting steamy romance onscreen, Hollywood used cigarettes to establish connections between characters and create imagery thick with innuendo. Even after concurrent skyrocketing rates of cigarette consumption and lung cancer indicated a medical crisis in the making, people continued lighting up. If anything, the warning labels and danger increased their allure.

Eventually in the English-speaking world, at least, governments decided to start taking more strident action;  in the United States,   areas where one may smoke are the exception and no longer the norm. Tobacco's rise and possible fall have both happened with stunning rapidity, and Gately is an entertaining guide to its story; he delivers a bounty of information in one rapidly-moving narrative that doesn't tire. . As with Drink,  Tobacco is globetrotting;  America and Europe get most of the attention, but no corner of the globe goes unremarked on.  Even for a nonsmoker like myself, Tobacco has value as cultural history, if only to demonstrate how quickly entire ways of life can be transformed, repeatedly. (It's one of the reasons I like histories of consumer goods so much -- the human capacity for fads is amazing.)  More importantly, it's fun, a history filled with adventurers, rebels, pirates, and scheming businessmen.