Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Age of Voltaire

The Age of Voltaire: A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756
898 pages
© 1965 Will and Ariel Durant


            The ninth work in Will Durant’s sweeping Story of Civilization, The Age of Voltaire picks up with the death of the Sun King in the dawn of the Enlightenment.   It’s an age of tumultuous change; though its survey ends before the French revolution, Europe is already in the throes of the industrial and scientific revolutions. New worlds are opening; not only are new goods flowing in from the recently-discovered parts of the globe,  but western man’s entire worldview is shifting. The modern age is dawning.

           Voltaire follows the titular philosopher as he travels from France to England, Germany, and later Switzerland, though the first three countries are Durant’s focus here.  As with the rest of Durant’s integral history,  this book carries weight because it examines not only political and military history, but considers in depth the literary, artistic, philosophical, and religious developments of the time. These ideas are not isolated from one another;   individualistic philosophy drives changes in both politics and religion, weakening the claims of absolutist monarchy and state churches alike. England grows with the times;  her king is superseded by Parliament and the prime minister. France hardens and resists, but the tide of history sweeping Europe will break it as surely as the waves break shorelines. 

           Of course, in this era it's less a gentle tide and more of a water-cannon. The radicals of the era are not content with careful, prudent change; no, things must be set on fire. Christianity is beyond reform for the rising philosophes; the world must be overturned, priests must die, churches must be burned. This is the  cradle of the French revolution, the nursery of those who would  take a machete to society until their ideals are satisfied. On a more constructive note, science and technological prowess are abounding, and Durant sets aside a large segment of the book to look at it seperately. 

       Durant is a genteel moderate on the religion and philosophy debate; from Our Oriental Heritage on, he has favored religion as an institution offering stability, comfort,  beauty, and more to the human race, though he is never blind to its abuses. His conclusion, a dialogue between a pope and Voltaire, makes plain his attitude that the tumultuous era his history is heading into is one of mixed blessings; while Durant is thankful that the rise of the philosophes advanced human liberty, checking the abuses of monarchy and organized religion alike, in their enthusiasm they became arrogant.


Benedict: You thought it possible for one mind, in one lifetime, to acquire such scope of knowledge and depth of understanding as to be fit to sit in judgment upon the wisdom of the race --upon traditions and institutions that have taken form out of the experience of the centuries. Tradition is to the group what memory is to the individual; and just as the snapping of memory may bring insanity, so a sudden break with tradition may plunge a whole nation into madness like France  and the revolution. [....] We should be allowed to question traditions and institutions, but with care that we do not destroy more than we can build. 

p. 788

As with his judgment of the impact of the reformation, the entire dialogue puts his tender appreciation for both sides, and the wisdom in appreciating them both, on display.  I suspect his criticism will grow a little sharper in the next volume.

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 national. 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 conquest.

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.




Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Living Downtown

Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States
© 1994 Paul Groth
399 pages



Although today hotels are thought of as places for travelers, at its most basic level a hotel is simply a rented room; an apartment without a kitchen. For much of American history,  the 'huddled masses' filling the cities found homes not in detached houses, but in residential hotels.  Buildings giant and small, dilapidated and grand, they catered to the rich and poor alike. Living Downtown examines what lives were like, as lived in different classes of hotels, and tracks their struggle through the 20th century as they became the target of reformers.  This is a social history of urban life in American cities' boomtime.

Suburbanized America thinks of apartments and the like as exceptions to the rule of privately-owned homes, but as Living Downtown reveals, communal life has a strong history in the nation. Wealthy families saw in hotels a place to enjoy servants without the bother of managing them; ambitious middle-class couples could claim a fashionable address and the opportunity to network with their betters; and the working class found a certain independence in cheap rents that allowed them to move easily in pursuit of work, or maintain lodgings even if they were laid off for a short time. Hotels ranged from grand palaces to 2-penny a day flophouses that even the indigent could afford, provided they found an odd job now and again. Hotels also offered more inherent opportunities for socialization;  those midrange and above typically came with cafes, restaurants, and shops attached;  the wealthy could even find rooms reserved for smoking and lounging about.  Lowly flophouses wouldn't sport such facilities, of course, but they were enmeshed in an urban fabric that catered to the needs of their guests.

Living Downtown finds in hotels abounding interest. After  discussing the lifestyles and attractions of the different classes of hotels, Groth moves on to hotels' place in the overall American fabric. Hotels attracted negative attention beginning the Progressive era, where helpful reformers took it upon themselves to clean up American cities and inflict morality upon them.  The idea that rich society wives could lounge about in hotel parlors, not even bothering to keep house, was too much for reformers to bear, as was the inevitable use of hotels of all kinds as playgrounds for prostitution. Establishing and advancing the ideal of American society being rooted in privately-held, detached homes,  the progressive era saw hotels first constricted in growth by regulation, then smothered altogether by aggressive zoning laws that would eventually attempt to deconstruct American cities, turning smartly-organized social arrangements into sprawl. Granted, there were areas that needed attention -- especially in the area of waste sanitation in poorer hotels -- but more has been lost than gained by idealistic zeal.  In addition to social history, there's a little discussion of business practices.

In 21st century America, where the market for cheap housing  has been all but obliterated by aggressive Federal support for welfare tenements of the kind that destroy cities, Living Downtown is a vivid reminder of the variety of housing approaches that once existed, and a look back into American cities when they were truly dynamic from the ground up.



Monday, September 8, 2014

This week: hot rocks, war in the east, and Holly Golightly


This week the to-be-read list shrank, as I finished Richard Fortey's Earth -- an introduction to the processes that shape the Earth, while at the same time a travelogue to the planet's most beautiful hotspots.  Fortey is both tourist and technical guide, lingering over settings of Hawaii's lush jungle and shores before traveling to the extremes of Death Valley or Greenland. The picturesque landscape is rivaled only by Fortey's explanation of the principles that are molding the landscape; he likes to use vivid mental images "Imagine a water balloon filled with honey..") to start the reader off. Geology doesn't receive much in the way of popular science books, but Earth was commendable.

Earlier in the week I read through Breakfast at Tiffany's, largely because I rewatch the Audrey Hepburn film every so often and wanted to see how they compare. The story is largely the same, with some film characters having greater roles to play, but the ending is altogether different.  It's not the tidy, neat ending of the movie, and the searching, searching, ever-searching character of Holly is left still craving something more out of life.

Another review is in the works for Drink: A Social History of America, not to be confused with Iain Gately's Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.  Presently I'm a third of the way into Collision of Empires, a history of the Great War's eastern front.  Within the next few weeks I'll mount an attack on Galileo's Finger, and dispatch this list completely.


To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
Earth, Richard Fortey (9/7/14)
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Wiseguy

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family
© 1986 Nicholas Pileggi, Henry Hill
256 pages


How does a boy from a nice family grow up to be a gangster? Well, it helps to live across the street from a mob-owned cab stand that needs fleet-footed boys to run errands.  Growing up in poverty,  young Henry Hill couldn’t help but envy the lifestyles of the men who frequented the cab stand across the way, rolling by in luxury cars, dressed in tailored suits, and handing out wads of cash like peppermint candy.  Determined to wield the power they did, at the age of twelve he became a gofer – and once he learned the art of the hustle, he rose through the ranks of gangsterdom to become the Sam Walton of crime. 

If the name sounds familiar, you may have seen the film Goodfellas, which is wholly based on Wiseguy. The film is astonishingly true to the source, because Hill’s life was full of the cheap thrills and casual violence that pervade the movie. Even the scene where Hill wakes up with his wife leveling a pistol at his face is recorded here first. The differences between the film and its text are minor, but both expose the underworld.  Although Hill misses the lifestyle he abandons when he flees into witness protection at the end, he doesn’t romanticize his life during that time.  Hill doesn’t attempt to dress his life up in a pinstriped suit and pretend to be a man of honor; from the start, he says, he was a hustler.  Even as an errand boy, he developed the practice of eking out money whenever he could. Paid to run sandwiches from a shop to card games, young Henry began making the sandwiches at home and pocketing the money.  


Such was the pattern of his life;  the art of the hustle. Even in the Army, Hill found ways to make a buck;  sentenced to the kitchens, he  tucked away extra food and sold it on the side, profiting from Uncle Sam’s excess.  Wiseguy is entertaining in a voyeuristic fashion, but it’s also informative for those who know little about organized crime.  Associates of the Mafia weren’t necessarily on the payroll of the boss;  Hill stopped being a paid employee in adolescence.  Through most of his life, through all of his schemes, Hill was self-employed – a chronic hustler.  He fixed sports matches,  applied for credit cards under assumed names,  bought untaxed cigarettes and sold them on the cheap.   His connection with the Mafia was somewhere between social and ‘political’;  other associates were his partners in various operations, and they all relied on the ‘real’ Mafiosi, made men like Paul Vario to settle disputes between one another, or to keep unconnected hoods from working their turf.   Some of their extralegal activities are in grey enough territory that a reader might be impressed with their creativity energy;  what is the business market if not a larger version of the hustle? But for the most part, Hill and his men take the easy ways out, and they’re not creating wealth so much as repurposing it for themselves. Though their story has legitimate fascination (their tribal relationships are the kind that might have ruled before the creation of law) , ultimately they’re hoods, and when Henry goes down he takes satisfaction in sending some of his lifelong pals to the can.   Hill’s life seems flashy and fun, but ultimately it leads to his and all of his friends and family’s ruin, for their moral bankruptcy is total. 

Related:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Progress of the War (Reading)


The ninth month of the year means ‘tis time to review how my Great War reading is shaping up. The summer has seen not only a terrific book on the Italian-Austrian front (The White War), but at least two books on the naval action, so two-thirds of my target areas have been taken care of. The war in the east is still a dark mystery, but an upcoming read (Collision of Empires) should address that nicely. Little of my reading has come from the possible list I drew up back in January, but  that’s quite all right – so far the year’s best read in this area has been an unexpected one, again The White War.  In the months to come I’ll be reading about the Eastern Front, and taking on The Great War in Modern Memory at the very least.

  1. The First World War, John Keegan
  2. La Feu (Under Fire), Henri Barbusse
  3. The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  4. The Great War at Sea, Richard Hough
  5. To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War, ed. Vincent O'Hara et al
  6. Wipers: A Soldier's Tale from the Great War, Jeff Simmons
  7. Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
  8. The Eastern Front, Norman Stone
  9. Rites of Spring: the Great War  and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins
  10. World War 1 Companion, Mathias Strohn, editor.
  11. Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
  12. Silent Night,  Stanley Weintraub 
Conscience, Louisa Thomas
+  An Ice Cream War, William Boyd
+ The White War,  Mark Thompson
+ Castles of Steel, Robert K. Massie
+ The Red Baron,  Manfred von Richthofen

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Red Baron

The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen
© 1969 ed. Stanley Ulanoff
240 pages




The average man on the street may not know the first thing about the Great War, but he'll have heard of the Red Baron. Attribute that to a silly song, or a Peanuts comic trip, but in the Great War Germany had no hero like Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a true knight of the air.  Beginning as a cavalry captain, von Richthofen joined the air service and soon proved a frightful natural. The Red Baron constitutes his memoir through the war, and what cannot be told by his death is told by others, namely his brother and an English pilot.

Owing either to the author's military precision, German directness, or the consequences of translation, The Red Baron is short and to the point.  The memoirs open with reports from his time riding with the Uhlans in Russia before he announces that he is joining the air service.  His reports from time at the front are largely devoid of emotion, but they are aided by interspersed letters to friends at home in which the Baron reveals his joy at flying, his thoughts about his foes, and eventually  his fear about the inevitable. His record was exceptional; before his own death, the Baron was responsible for no less than eighty kills in the air. He expresses little pleasure in this, aside from a hunter's quiet pride in having gone out and gotten his quarry, and never rails against his foes. The French he regards with a little disdain because they prefer ambushes in the air, and experienced pilots are too wise for that approach to work long; the English are far more worthy opponents, even if they enjoy theatrics a little too much. (So says the man with a bright red 'crate').  But having dispatched so many opponents himself, and seeing Germany lose ground and his many friends dead, the Baron could feel death coming for him.   After expressing anxiety about what was to come -- and shoving it out of the way, knowing he must do his duty -- the memoirs end, followed by a narrative by his brother, the account of an English pilot, and an article about his burial.  The appendices are quite good, including diagrams of all the major fighter planes mentioned throughout.

The Red Baron takes a while to warm to a reader, being very staid for the most part and translated imperfectly, but it does have the virtue of being the thoughts of the man himself, and not just speculations and praises of him. That remains its chief selling point, though there are dashes of information that give interested readers a feel for what it might have been like to  fight in the air.


"We found Richthofen. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. There could be no feeling of joy that there lay Richthofen, the greatest of all!   In my heart I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth. I cursed the war!  If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow". - Captain A. Roy Brown, RFC/RAF