Saturday, October 31, 2015

Images of America: Selma

Images of America: Selma
© 2014 Sharon Jackson
168 pages

When I heard that the Images of America series had commissioned a book on Selma, I stood midway between excitement and dread. The series offers a pictoral recounting of small-town America, an experience overlooked by standard histories, but Selma for most is less a town and more an image -- a memory of violence.  This collection of photographs was done by an author who loves the town, however, and accords her a just tribute.  While not overlooking the role of Selma in the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement,  Images renders a view of the town itself, a booming center of agriculture and wholesale commerce, a place that generations have cared for and loved.   Long before nation-wide political movements decided to use the town to make history, Selma had its own proud history.  Sited upon the bluffs of the Alabama river, it found early success as an agricultural boomtown, and the aggressive pursuit by city fathers of railroads ensured it commercial prosperity throughout the 19th century, surviving even the arson of an invading army during the Civil War.  Selma's industrial importance to the Confederacy was then second only to Richmond, a fact lost on modern residents who  see it as a chronic small fry.  Selma attracted its fair share of immigrants during the gilded age, especially Jewish families from central Europe, whose shops lined the stretch of the city's central Broad Street. The city these residents across the generations built was utterly beautiful, and though some of that has faded through the years -- the trees lining Broad Street lost to utility poles, the magnificent Hotel Albert deemed too costly to maintain and bulldozed -- the city still boasts one of the largest intact historic districts in the nation. There is no shortage of homes whose stately columns and beautiful cornices make one feel like a Goth wandering amid the ancient beauty of Rome.    Selma is not merely a celebration of beautiful architecture and booming enterprise, however. Like another book in this series, Montevallo, this is something of a family album.  People, not buildings, dominate the pages -- from city fathers to contemporary politicians, each with their story. Jackson integrates the lives of Selma's citizens with nation-wide social movements, particularly women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.  Jackson does not shy away from the darker side of Selma's history, its agricultural expanse going hand-in-hand with a massive population of people held in slavery,  people whose ancestors remained held back by Jim Crow legislation for a full century after the war. Those who fought in '65 -- in both centuries -- are honored for defending their homes and and personhood.  Images of America: Selma is markedly balanced and contains photographs that even someone who collects them -- someone like me -- hasn't seen.

The Way

The Way: What Every Protestant Needs to Know About Orthodoxy
© 2007 Clark Carlton
222 pages

  If Protestantism is a willful child of the Catholic church, what is it to the Orthodox?  What is the Orthodox faith for that matter, Catholicism with more beards and fewer popes?  The Way  begins with the  unexpected conversion story of its author from a Southern Baptist seminary to a faith thought to be the sole province of Greek and Russian immigrants  before articulating the core aspects of the ancient faith – the Trinity, the Church, and the Eucharist which brings them together – as they stand in relation to the doctrines of most American Christians. Although Protestants defined themselves against the authority of Rome, their doctrinal stands nonetheless render them separate from Orthodoxy – so separate, in fact, that Clarkson believes Protestantism constitutes a separate religion.  In The Way,  readers of all stripes will find an introduction the Orthodox  theology, and Protestants will find a particular challenge to their views on sola scripture and the role of tradition.

After easing readers into the book with his conversion story, which unfolded amid a fundamentalist takeover of a southern baptist college in the 1980s, Carlson shifts to theology.  The Trinity is a crucial concept to Orthodox theology, as it establishes God's nature as rooted in relationship.  "God is love" does not  simply mean that person called God happens to be loving; His very nature is bound up in the act of the Incarnation, just as the Church's nature is contained within the Eucharist. The Church, Clarkton writes, is not a body of people who believe the same thing, but a community which shares in the living body of Christ.   In less heady chapters, Carlton argues against sola scripture from various grounds, namely that no one interprets scripture without a tradition; Calvinists read the bible through Calvinism, Lutherans through Lutheranism, Arians Arianism, etc. The Catholic-Orthodox tradition at least has the merit of being the source of the scriptural compilation, as it took several hundred years for a definitive collection to be established by the Church.   The Eastern Orthodox church has no qualms regarding protestant rebellion of papal authority, for they too reject it;  but in Carlton's view the protestants have erred seriously in rejecting all authority. Scripture alone is insufficient; every heresy has come armed with its chosen scriptural arguments, and the massive variety of commentaries on the scriptures demonstrate how subjective readings can be.  The leadership of the Church resolves heresies not simply by finding scripture, but interpreting them in the light of the Church's nature. Arianism was a heresy not because it chose the "wrong verses", but because it effectively denies the Incarnation,  and with it the church's very life.  If the Bible were so important to Protestantism, why then did they modify it -- dropping books as desired?  Christ left a Church, not a book, writes Carlton, and  sola scriptura reduces the Bible to a rule book and Christianity an ideology, while the  Orthodox faith is a life lived in Jesus, through the Eucharist.

Carlton has a talent for making theology comprehensible, though he is an author who frequently bares his teeth, with a contempt borne of familiarity for aspects of modern Protestantism.  Sola scriptura no doubt dies hard, just as strict Constitutionalism dies hard: how easy it is to endue an object with objectivity, in the hopes of satisfying our need for something that is wholly True. But the Bible is not God; it is merely inspired by him, writes Carlton, and to worship it is to commit idolatry. In a finishing touch, Carlton scrutinizes the creeds of Protestant sects to point out what they truly worship, comparing the opening lines of the Nicene Creed ("I believe in One God") with articles of faith like the Westminister Confession, which open placing scripture at the forefront and then address God.  If nothing else, The Way does much to  demonstrate that the Eucharist was far more important to the early church than a once-a-year knocking back of grape juice does credit.

Friday, October 30, 2015

I Saw it Happen in Norway

I Saw It Happen in Norway
© 1940 C.J. Hambro
292 pages

I Saw it Happen in Norway is a rare account of Hitler's early expansion,  the story of a nation's downfall told first-hand from a surviving member of its government and published during the war's dark hour of 1940.  The account exposes Hitler's war as nothing but naked, brazen aggression from the beginning.  Germany had no historical grudge to settle  or land to 'redeem' from Norway as it did with France and Czechoslovakia;  relations between the two northern powers were nothing but amicable.  And yet, in the early spring of 1940, German troops materialized from  false-flagged commercial transport ships, and the Luftwaffe began reducing the land's cities and towns to ashes. This was more than war; this was treachery.   In I Saw it Happen, a leading member of the Norwegian governments records how he and other officials realized nearly too late that they were being attacked,  and records the first weeks of resistance.  Coordination at first reduced to shambles by the concentrated Nazi attack on Oslo, the Norwegian army nonetheless managed to re-form enough to fight a rear-guard action, allowing the King, the crown prince, and leading officials to  take a government-in-exile out of the country.  The Norwegians were not alone in the defense of their nation, aided by British and French troops who crossed the North Sea in early recognition that the phony war was over.  Before the first month was over, however,  the Wehrmacht's invasion of France forced Allied retreat and Norwegian recognition that overt military defense would not long be practicable;  without munitions, resistance sustained by the hope that the tide would turn would be Norway's best option.   Brief as it is,  I Saw it Happen demonstrates how quickly the brutality of World War 2 began, and how immediate heroic resistance could be.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain
© 1980 Len Deighton
224 pages

"When I told them that Britain would fight on alone, whatever [the French] did, their generals told their  prime minister and his divided cabinet, 'In three weeks England will have its neck wrung like a chicken.'  Some chicken!  Some neck!" - Winston Chuchill,

In 1940,   the whole of Europe lay under the flags of brutal  tyrannies, fascist and Soviet alike. Having rolled over France with ease, Hitler bid the English to lay down their arms; acknowledge him as master of Europe, and the struggle would be over.   Hitler, it seems, skipped Napoleonic history altogether;  not only did he miss l'empereur's blunder in Russia, but the fact that Britain was no stranger to defying a continent arrayed against it.   Such defiance could be broken, however, through force of arms:  Britain's army had barely escaped the continent via Dunkirk and left much of its equipment behind. Its only hope lay in the Royal Air Force, protecting both the Isle and a Navy shielding convoys and guarding against invasion. Through a long summer, young men took to the air for the frantic defense of their home, fighting a battle so vicious that mere survival counted for victory. The Battle of Britain is justly called, however, for it summoned to action civilian and servicemen alike. As sons and brothers fought in the air, those unable to fight  stood their ground below, watching for the enemy and turning back the flames of war,  both parties enabling Britain to carry on. Len Deighton's Battle of Britain offers a day-by-day account of the summer and brims over with information valuable to  younger research students and casual readers alike.

Battle of Britain is nearly less narrative than reference material. There is a story here, not nearly as tightly told as With Wings as Eagles,  but delivered ably. What jumps out here is information -- orders of battle, tables of planes produced and destroyed,  schematics of Spitfires, Hurricanes, and ME-109s, illustrations of how radar worked on both sides of the Channel,  and gobs of photographs. There are photographs of letters and generous excerpts from after-action reports and diary entries from both sides of the conflict.   The layout is impressive, too; all these graphics are not cordoned off by themselves, or simply stuck in every now and again; Deighton integrates the two, so that a chapter on Operation Sealion begins set against a photograph of German troops practicing beach landings.  There are generous maps, and even full-spread illustrations of a typical RAF base. At times there's so much competing information that one loses track of the narrative - tables! Photographs! Sidebars! -- but only occasionally.

There is a story, however: after a brief history of military aviation during the Great War and afterward, Deighton leads into the months of constant struggle. He focuses more on tactics than strategy, but essentially Dowding's accomplishment was to prevent the RAF from perishing by attrition. British factories were humming with production, but Germany's war had been a long time in the making and its Luftwaffe out-gunned the competition. The RAF proved discretion the better part of valor; not by running, but by choosing the best ground and best time to fight. Earlier in the year, at Dunkirk,  British leadership had made the choice to use airmen only sparingly, knowing what lay ahead. Here, too, the RAF is used with caution. Had Fighter Command heeded the impulse to make an all-out defense of the nation, Britain may have very well been "bled white", its planes exposed and devoured:  instead,  the Germans were allowed to fly in force, and the fighters scrambled to make the best of opportunities, making quick stabs instead of prolonged duels. Deighton also gives generous space to the civilians and troops on the ground, who defended Britain in their own way -- spotting the enemy so the RAF could intercept them and restoring order to the chaos German bombs attempted to create.  As summer gave way to fall, the season for invasion passed, and the Germans increasingly distracted themselves by bombing cities. The darkest hour was not yet over, but the RAF had seen the nation through the worst of it.

"I have always loved England, but now I am in love with England. What a people! What a chance! ...we shall, by  our stubbornness, give victory to the world." - Harold Nicolson,  July 1940.

With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain,  Michael Korda

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins

The Seven Deadly Sins: A Tomistic Guide to Vanquishing Vice and Sin
© 2015 Kevin Vost
224 pages

In the first centuries of the Christian epoch, devotees retreated into the desert wastes to flee temptation. Even away from the cry of the maddening crowd, however, they found themselves struggling with the everyday vices of mankind -- tendencies toward pride, apathy, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth, and so on. In an attempt to organize a campaign against them, the monk-progenitors first had  to identify the enemy, creating a list of the chief frailties that all others stemmed from.   These seven enemies of the soul are not uniquely Christian sins;  they are universal problems of the human condition, and Vost draws on classical sources (Aristotle and the Roman Stoics --  Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius) for both insight and remedy.  The remedy is only partially philosophical, however, as Vost also counsels readers to seek help in the sacraments of  the Church, especially Confession and the Eucharist.   Written in three stages, Vost first reviews how these seven in particular were singled out,  shares patristic thought on the progression of vice from initial impulses to behavioral habit, and then offers a "Jacob's ladder"  route away from downfall.  These include practices useful against every vice, while some are sin-specific.  A few of the 'rungs' -- an examination of conscience, mental awareness of drifting into vicious habit,  and the deliberate cultivation of each vice's counter-virtue, could easily be found in a book like A Guide to the Good Life.The master here, however, is not Epictetus, but Thomas Aquinas. It is Aquinas'  study of the desert fathers that produces a list of seven sins, and not eight -- and Aquinas who offers advice for remedy, himself bringing together both the Hebrew and Greek wisdom traditions --  harnessing both mindfulness and prayer, contemplation and action, philosophical principle and sacrament.  The Seven Deadly Sins is thus true to its name in being a 'Tomistic' guide to vice and virtue, in effect offering laymen a guide into the  theological expanse of Aquinas.  Few people commit great evils,  but we all hindered by the same seemingly minor snares.  It is those small seed which can produce horror if left unchecked, however, and so this tidy little volume seems most valuable in the pursuit of spirituality, especially Christian.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hitler's Undercover War

Hitler's Undercover War: The Nazi Espionage Invasion of the U.S.A.
© 1989 William  Breuer
358 pages

Wars are not confined to battlefields, even when the fields of conflict are as wide-open as the open oceans and the very sky itself, as they were in World War 2.  Victories and defeats can be effected in the quiet of the night, by men and women ostensibly noncombatants, whose intelligence and skillful deceit is applied in just the right areas to supply vital information, or sabotage endeavors. Hitler's Undercover War is a rare history of German intelligence operations  before and during the Second World War, ending only in the total defeat of the Nazi state.   It is doubly a history of the growth of the FBI, from suited cops chasing bootleggers to sophisticated intelligence men vying to out-maneuver devils most devious.  Written by a soldier of the war, heart fully on his sleeve,  it has the immediate excitement of a spy thriller with a most satisfying conclusion.

The story begins long before the rise of the National Socialists, just after the peace of Versailles which concluded the Great War by dismembering Germany's army and forcing its new civilian leaders to accept the   Allied costs of fighting the war, and responsibility for starting it in the first place.  In an age of constant militarism,  surrounded by powers which hated her, Germany's disarmament wouldn't last long. Soon into the 1920s, in fact,  programs were being developed to keep the German army up to speed -- through whatever means necessary. If Germans could not refine military aviation at home, they would watch other nations' progress with great interest....and appropriate it when necessary. This was made easy, Breuer writes, by the fact that the United States was utterly naive in the area of espionage and counter espionage;  at one point Customs agents literally discover a briefcase full of military blueprints, give the nervous man carrying them a stern reminder to come in for questioning next week, and let him go.  The German 'Abwehr', its military intelligence group, created separate and later coordinating spy circles to collect and funnel war-related R&;D Germany's way.

Things grow darker once the Nazis assume power and begin plotting nothing less than world domination. The United States' status as a nation of immigrants is no less impactful here than it was in the leadup to the Great War, when immigrants of competing parts of Europe protested the thought of their new nation waging war on their homeland.   The Abwehr capitalized on the fact that many Americans were German who still wanted the best for their native land, even if they had left it behind.  The German-American Bund, for instance, led the way in protesting the thought of the United States getting into another of "England's wars", labeling Roosevelt a warmonger. They were aided by Nazi agents with press connections, who flooded areas with isolationist propaganda.  Hitler's intelligence handlers were far quicker to resort to violence; once a man or woman had been vouched as a Good German, worthy of serving the Reich and presented with an offer to spy, they and their family on both continents were threatened with harm if they did not answer the call.  (Such arm-twisting would eventually backfire, when one German-American immediately became a double agent, allowing the FBI to penetrate and take down one especially prominent intelligence cell.)

As the "New Germany"  realized war with the United States was inevitable,  its spy networks widened and readied for direct action. They remained at work tracking military developments, attempting to steal plans and parts for items like the Norden bombsight, and continually forwarding to Germany details on  American troop strength and deployment. Once the war began, however, they began actively attempting to sabotage factories and misdirect shipping. (Shipping information was especially vital given the American lend-lease programs, which sent arms and other equipment to both Britain and the Soviet Union.  With U-boats prowling right off the coast of the Atlantic seaboard, loose lips truly did sink ships.)  On one especially dramatic occasion,  a boatload of Nazi agents disembarked on a beach with trunks of explosives,  with plans to disperse throughout the United States and cause pandemonium by blowing things to pieces. They were partially undone by the fact that a Coast Guard seaman just happened to chance upon them burying their explosive booty and chattering in German.

Hitler's Undercover War will definitely interest  readers with a taste of intelligence operations;  here we have men creating and applying vintage spy paraphernalia, like matchbooks with secret codes, microfilm captures of confidential documents rolled into pens, and buxom blonde fatales flirting with guards so co-conspirators can do some snooping.  The period charm extends to the unfiltered adoration of the FBI:  J. Edgar Hoover is described as a "lantern-jawed supersleuth" who abstains from dating on the grounds that it will distract him from his work.  His determined avoidance of taking the Mafia seriously, and his antagonist role during the Civil Rights movement make his star shine far dimmer these days, so the Captain American-esque descriptions are little much. To give Breuer's treatment of him and his team credit, however, they were fighting the Nazis, some of whom were authentic Judases in selling out American troops for money, with no genuine love for the country of their youth  to excuse them.

  • The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, James Corum.  Far more information on how Germany was able to 'invent' a modern air force so soon after Hitler's rise to power, which included sending agents to tour air shows,  reviewing western aviation journals,  experimenting with civilian aeronautics, and even partnering with the Soviets. 


Downtown: Its Rise and Fall (1880 - 1950)
© 2001 Robert Fogelson
544 pages

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city!
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
 -- how can you lose? 

The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your care...
("Downtown", Petula Clark)

When Petula Clark sang that she knew a place you can go, she may have well been speaking of downtown, for it used to be the place to go. Downtown chronicles the decline of American city centers, from Gilded Age preeminence to steady 20th century decay.  Though ostensibly concerning the local politics of major cities (New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles especially),  this is in a sense a social history, the complete transformation of how Americans lived, shopped, and traveled told through the decline of city centers.  The author writes without any apparent agenda, something of an accomplishment given the central subject of public policy.  Despite the role played by city, state, and the national government in hastening the disintegration of American cities,  even unintentionally, Fogelson's conclusion is that the state of urban development in the United States has more to do with an instinctual aversion to crowded city centers than public policy.  While that's an unsatisfactory explanation of suburbia, it doesn't diminish Downtown as a gold mine of information about the gradual transformation of transportation, housing, and public policy.

A city is nothing less than an economic engine, a place formed by the coming together of producers and merchants to trade. So it was with American downtowns; commercial enterprises preferred to congregate one another. The reasons were simple: prior to telecommunications and rapid transportation,  business transactions were handled in person, and companies preferred to be close to their supporting services -- to their bankers and insurance agencies, for instance.  What transportation systems existed at the time favored central locations for streamlined delivery and sales.  Given the eagerness of enterprises to acquire land close to the action downtown for commercial purposes,  land values there rose, and residents who could cashed in to settle in the country.  From those elevated land prices grew elevated buildings, when the arrival of industrial steel manufacturing allowed for it:  landowners wanted to maximize the use of the land they were paying so dearly for, and so the towers soared.  Downtown was not  exclusively commercial;  apartment buildings took equal advantage of the Bessemer process to compete with offices in the climb toward the sky.  Though some city-dwellers complained about the towers blocking light, few attempts to limit the height of buildings took; even what scant regulations appeared were quickly riddled through with variances.

The commericial life of the city would involve political meddling, however.   The attempt of an entire a metropolitan area to conduct its shopping, banking, and theater-going in one relatively small area lead to chronic congestion.  This is a congestion beyond levels appreciable by Americans today, even those who sit in LA traffic jams.  Photos show pedestrians shuffling down sidewalks cheek-to-jowl, trolleys crammed like sardines and the streets utterly filled with these as well as horse carriages, rag-wagons, and delivery carts.  That traffic was the economic life of the city, but the thought of competing in such crowds could fill some with despair: was it really worth it?  What it was worth is a question pursued by city governments who attempted to find some better way of transportation in and to the city center,  either elevated or underground train lines. (Trolleys were nice, of course, but the glorious chaos of city streets meant they were frequently slowed and altogether blocked by pedestrians and carts.)   Such prospects were expensive undertakings for private enterprise, and required considerably more politcking -- getting permissions from landowners to dig under them, for instance --  and so city governments themselves often had to take on the burden of attempting them.  The el-lines were not altogether popular, casting a constant gloom over the streets and treating pedestrians to showers of sparks and cinders.   Subways were much more expensive and time-consuming to build, a daunting fact given periodic economic downswings, but little by little the major cities edged into using them.

Change was in the air, however. Frustrated with the chronic congestion of the city center, made worse now by construction in the rights-of-way,  some urbanites  began shopping closer to home when they could.  Soaring land values also tempted start-up businesses into offering their goods outside the city center, as well; other residential areas might not deliver as much traffic, but concentrated near the trolley lines as they were,  a go could still be made.  Soon downtown apartment stores were joining them, sending out colonies -- branches -- to do business to residents who didn't want to come to them.  Technology was allowing for more distance between residents and businesses, too;  a man could now telephone his accountant, or extend his traveling range in a relatively cheap automobile.  The arrival of automobiles into the downtown core only worsened congestion, however, consuming much more space than pedestrian traffic, especially when parked. They arrived at the worst possible time, too, when the economic life of American cities was threatened by the worse economic disaster in its history. The Great Depression, which would break the back of American urbanism, arrived in 1929.

The calamitous effects of the Depression were not limited to the economic havoc itself. Land values fell, and under unrelenting property taxes --  constituting the bulk of municipal budgets --   more than a few landowners torn down their towers to build parking lots instead.  Requiring zero labor and taking in fees from automobiles, such holes in the urban fabric were known as 'taxpayers'.   As people continued to shop on the outskirts instead of the center, downtown merchants decided their problems were two-fold. First, there was there was the problem of accessibility; no one wanted to come downtown because it was too crowded, as Yogi Berra might have put it. Elevated lines were too unpopular, trolleys increasingly in dire straits because of overzealous expansion and a public that didn't want to pay for the privilege of traveling like a mobile sardine, and subways too expensive.  Secondly,  as the upper and middle classes drifted out of the city into the rail suburbs, they left a vacuum filled with the kind of  riff-raff that scared off good customers.   Who would come downtown when they had to pass through tenement blocks filled with gangs of working men, immigrants, and mobs of un-supervised youngsters?    Several factors conspired against these tenements:   Reform movements, which saw the tenements as unfit for human life; the downtown businessmen, who wanted to distance the rabble from their shoppers, and the government, which needed to create jobs. Together a plan was born:  seize the land,  tear down the tenements, and build things like freeways and 'modern'  housing projects.  Government involvement was now quite beyond municipalities: the Federal government itself was active in urban areas, deciding what buildings should go and what kind should remain.  FDR's new government programs effectively encouraged urban decentralization by subsidizing developing outside the city, and impeding  private development within it by refusing such largesse, especially when minorities were involved.  The damage done by this kind of improvement -- the erection of wall-like freeways gutting the city and directing activity into the suburbs --  continued to sap the strength of the once dominant city center. It had already fallen from THE place to do business to merely the main place for business; now it lost even that  as the future of America became written in interstates, parking lots, and  strip malls.

Downtown is a a wealth of information, and remarkably varied -- covering in different chapters the politics of subway construction or housing policy.  It is a dispassionate obituary, even if it misdiagnoses the  cause of death.


Napoleon's Buttons

Napoleon's Buttons
384 pages
© 2003 Penny LeCouter

Napeolon's Buttons is microhistory in the truest sense of the world, a mix of science and history that not only dwells on the historical impact of various substances (cotton, sugar, chloroflourocarbons, silk), but examines the science behind their invention -- presenting a diagram of a silk molecule, for instance, to explain why it is so smooth and lustrous.   At times, the connections to global history are a bit of a stretch, as when the author repeats speculation that lead poisoning brought down the Roman empire and leads off with musing over the prospect that decaying lead buttons doomed Napoleon's winter expedition. At other times, there is no denying the impact;  Britain's interest in southeast Asia, for instance,  involved three resources of import: opium, caffiene, and tobacco, and as covered by John Keay's The Spice Trade, interest in nutmeg (among other spices) spurred on the age of discovery.  LeCouter's  chosen topics interact with one another, however, and the chapter she leads off with (abscorbic acid) informs the latter section on the age of discovery. An era inaugurated by the search for one topic was made possible only through another: if scurvy had continued to claim the lives of European seamen,  such extended voyages would not have been possible.  Buttons combines the usual close-to-home historical interest of works like Salt and An Edible History of Humanity with a strong dose of chemistry.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk
© 1982 Walter Lord
323 pages

In September 1939, British troops arrived in Europe to defend France against a rapidly expansionistic Nazi regime.  Germany's leader of six years, Adolf Hitler, had already annexed Austria and Czechslovakia, and following his invasion of Poland, the western powers had no choice but to declare war. For eight months following, however, Hitler's tanks were quiet, the only action being at sea. In May 1940, however, they sprang into action and with such ferocity that the entire Allied campaign seemed doomed.  Roaring through the Ardennes Forest, thought impassable by tanks, the German blitzkrieg quickly claimed northern France and surrounded entirely the British forces.  As a stream of routed and retreated Franco-English forces converged on what few port towns were yet untaken, their defeat seemed imminent.  But loss was not to be:  the tanks would stop, the  English would regroup, and in a brief snatch of grace they would organize a plan to evacuate the army from France so that it might live to fight another day.  Under the very nose of the Wehrmacht, amid the bombs of the Luftwaffe,  the British admiralty and its merchant marine stole a march and saved not only the British expeditionary force, but over a hundred thousand French soldiers as well. The Miracle of Dunkirk  tells a story of salvation in a dark  hour.

Walter Lord is best known for A Night to Remember  a narrative history of the Titanic disaster based on extensive interviews with survivors. The same style is employed here,  an easy kind of story-telling strengthened by the constant presence of the participants' accounts.  Like Washington's retreat from New York,  Dunkirk is a strange duck, a victorious defeat. What most impresses a reader in Miracle is the fact that the admiralty was able to effect a rescue amid so much confusion. The invasion of France  struck through Allied lines so abruptly that unit cohesion was virtually a lost cause.  The cry was, "Every man for himself -- make for Dunkirk!".   At first, Allied command waffled on what to do:  attempt a breakout and  rejoin the French army in the south,  or quit the continent altogether?  Fortunately for free Europe,  they chose discretion.  Equally impressive is how quickly a rescue fleet was cobbled together, made of not just whatever ships of the Royal Navy could be spared, but of whatever could be found that floated. Tugs, barges, ferries, fishing boats, pleasure yachts -- the whole of the English marine seemed present.   

Despite the chaos the admiralty had to manage,  some circumstances favored the evacuation. Smoke from burning oil tanks shielded parts of the beach and harbor from Luftwaffe attacks, at least part of the time,  and the German pause had given the BEF time to establish a few strongholds.  When the German advance continued, it was without much of its strength, with far fewer tanks:   most were being re-concentrated and repaired for the drive south.  In the nine days it took for the Wehrmacht to take Dunkirk,  the British marine managed to evacuated over 300, 000 British troops and 100, 000 French troops.  Miracle is replete with fascinating stories, like the presence of Charles Lightoller:  the only officer on the Titanic to survive its sinking, he commanded his ship to France and back, rescuing another generation from the perils of the sea and war.   Lord's heavy use of first-hand experience and storied style commend Miracle to readers with an interest in learning how the British and free French lived to fight another day at the port of Dunkirk.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reads to Reels: The Martian

It has been seven weeks since I ran out of ketchup. 

Last week I stopped at Books-A-Million while waiting for the 3:00 showing of The Martian, and thought of purchasing a shirt -- "THE BOOK WAS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE" --  and wearing it to the theater as a joke.  I'm glad I didn't, because The Martian is a rare movie that not only lives up to the book, but improves upon it in some ways. True, it is a slightly different story, with less explanation-rich attempts to figure out science problems and more emphasis on emotional drama. The science is abundant, but scaled back to a level that movie-goers --  encountering it in quickly-passing lines of dialogue and narration -- can appreciate on the fly.  This is a genuine science-fiction movie, however; every problem Watney encounters is of scientific nature.  He is a botanist and biochemist,  a master of ad-hoc engineering. Eventually NASA realizes there's something alive --and something familiar -- on Mars, and attempt a rescue, but they too have problems to puzzle through. So it goes, trial after trial,  one solution leading to another dilemma until at long last the end is reached.  The Martian communicates the emotional drama more than a book,   the anguish read on the faces of his crewmen who realize they left a man behind, the awe of a satellite-monitoring intern who realizes Watney isn't giving up.  There's little to no trace of convenient movie physics;  I was especially impressed by the fact that when NASA spots Watney on satellite, they were dealing with very pixelated footage; no CSI-magic to zoom in and enhance! Though this is science fiction, in the end what finally triumphs is the human spirit - Watney's refusal to give in to apathy, and his crewmates' decision to take part in a rescue attempt at peril of their own life. In translating The Martian from pageleaves to reels, nothing has been lost save a little gratuitous language -- and the reader turned viewer gains astonishing landscapes in the bargain.  Very well done, I think. This adapation of one of my top five favorite books in 2014 is a movie that will no doubt find its way into my DVD collection when it comes out.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dawn of the Eagles

Star Trek Terok Nor: Dawn of the Eagles
© 2008 S.D. Perry and Britta Dennison
435 pages

The days are dark for Bajor. More than thirty years into the Occupation, the once-promising Resistance has very nearly been broken by a planet-wide surveillance system that restricts the movement of Bajorans on the surface.  Some of the rebellion's best leaders have fallen victim to it, and there seems to be little to do but hide in what few caves and similar sanctuaries that remain hidden from the Cardassian state's sensors.   And yet resistance festers, not only a  stripped Bajor but among the Cardassians as well.  Religious dissidents, ordinary citizens, and even members of the military are weary of the toll occupation has taken on Cardassia:  decades have been squandered in which Cardassia could have fostered a sustainable economy, wasted instead on the short-term remedy of taking Bajoran wealth. But now Bajor is largely ruined and the occupation nearly costing more than it provides -- in lives and finances.  Even the architect of despair, Gul Dukat, pays the price for his Pyrrhic victory,  increasingly isolated and made miserable by the fact that no one really appreciates him.  Dawn of the Eagles chronicles the downfall of the Cardassian occupation, completing this epic of Deep Space Nine's backstory. Mixing the familiar and the new, it is the story of a people's liberation; the Bajorans, from Cardassia; the Cardassians, from the depravity that Empire has led them to.

Like those before it, Dawn of the Eagle relies on viewpoint characters familiar from the show -- Dukat, Kira, Odo -- supported by original characters. Many of the threads continue from the preceding books , like the struggle of the resistance (mostly focusing on Kira's cell) against occupation. Others are new: Odo is a major character here, having left the science lab behind him to search for the meaning of his existence. His skill at mediating disputes, and potential as a weapon in Cardassia's pocket, attracts Dukat's eye, and eventually the lonely shapeshifter finds himself as Terok Nor's security chief,  ostensibly serving Cardassian interests but more often than not indulging a soft spot for the Bajoran oppressed.  Several of the more interesting characters are Cardassian women, all dissidents to one degree or another. One, Natima Lang,  appeared onscreen ( a dissident, since Cardassia's government is perennially objectionable), but the others were more or less loyal to the state until their work forced them to confront the fact that they were helping perpetuate evil. (One, for instance,  is a disgraced weapons scientist who realizes the new project she's been assigned to involves the stealth sterilization of the Bajoran populace.).  That tension -- working through the question of how far one takes 'my country right or wrong'  -- makes for a compelling story, and truly sympathetic Cardassians.  This is a fitting end to the trilogy, making the miniseries tie together by ending with some of the same original characters and on the same Bajoran holiday that Night of the Vipers began with.  For Deep Space Nine fans,  this is a true preface and  wholly worth reading.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Science TBR

Every time I write down a list of books to go after, I lose the darn thing, so I'm posting this one!

  • 10% Human: How Your Bodies Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, Alonna Callen
  • Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, Richard Francis
  • Humankind: How Biology and Geography Shape Human Diversity, Alexander Harcourt
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Haroni

  • The Invaders: How Humans and their Dogs Drove Neaderthals to Extinction, Pat Shipman
  • Lone Survivors: How We Came to the the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer
  • The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, Brian Fagan

  • Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, Francis French
  • The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
  • Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene

Mostly biology/anthropology, with an odd space book thrown in. Into that Silent Sea is  a special one because I've been forgetting it for three years now.  None of these are immediate reads, though I'll go after at least one before this year is out.  I'm nearly done with my trilogy for the 2015 Reading Challenge, and after that my only real target will be the book with antonyms in the title. After that it's mopping up, really.

Night of the Wolves

Star Trek Terok Nor:  Night of the Wolves
© 2008 S.D. Perry and Britta Dennison
458 pages

Eighteen years ago, the Cardassian Union abandoned pretense and formally annexed the planet it had already manipulated and tricked its way into dominating.  Bajor has suffered greatly at the hands of the military dictatorship since, its economy cast into ruins as the Cardassians impose a kind of mercantilism that destroys the environment and shifts most resources to the Union.  Not content to complain and malinger in refugee camps, however, many Bajorans have taken to active rebellion. Hiding in the wilderness, they wage war against the oppressor -- and if collaborators get in the way, so be it.  Night of the Wolves, from the pen of an already-accomplished DS9 author, chronicles the Resistance's emergence as a serious threat to Cardassia's triumph. It is told principally through the lives of screen-established characters -- Gul Dukat, Kira, Ro Laren, Dr. Mora --  while incorporating a few new faces. The heavy use of canon characters, with subtle links to  Deep Space Nine's episodes, makes Night an ideal Trek series book, easily  read on its own regardless of its place in a trilogy.

While Night doesn't have the same climatic structure as Day of the Vipers, simply chronicling twelve years of the occupation in which both the resistance and players within it come of age, the depth it adds to established characters makes it a commendable read. The plot threads within don't intersect too much, but here we see both Kira and Ro's introduction to the resistance --and for Ro, her motive for seeking a life beyond Bajor, haunted by the fear of falling prey to the idea that the ends justify the means.  Here, too, is Odo's birth as a sentiment being, his coming of age within a Bajoran-Cardassian science lab.   The pages flew by for me, featuring as they did some of my favorite characters -- Dukat, Kira, and Ro Laren -- but even some of the new characters with stories independent of the DS9 shows took my interest. One of note is a Cardassian grad student who, after having an Orb experience while attempting to translate the writing on an artifact, travels back to Cardassia and discovers her people's life prior to the military takeover. Dukat is here in all his pre-Waltz ambiguous glory,  One matter of concern is the early introduction of some characters, namely Damar and Ziyal, and the fact that one character says "The middle of the occupation is no time to be having a child!".  Unless he's had an experience with the Orb of Time, which is lost, he probably shouldn't know he's in the middle of the Occupation. (To make matters worse, he's not even in the middle of the occupation; it's barely a third of the way through.)  This seems to make Ziyal far older than she appears onscreen, and Damar's career somewhat pathetic. Thirty years before we first see him onscreen, he was still a low-grade glinn worshiping the ground Dukat walks on?  That's Harry Kim-style career doldrums.

Though not as tight a story as Day, I liked it better --  such is the draw of its characters.

One interesting bit of story: Kira is literally the first Bajoran woman Odo sees. At one point she and her cell sneak into the science lab to do a little sabotage work, and he watches her from his goo tank. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Day of the Vipers

Star Trek Terok Nor: Day of the Vipers
© 2008 James Swallow

When a Cardassian warship arrived at Bajor carrying the dead bodies of Bajoran traders, that should have counted as ominous. Bajor and Cardassia were distant neighbors without formal contact until the Cardassian military found a Bajoran merchant ship adrift and decided to return the dead home to be laid to rest.  Despite their seeming benevolence, however, within a decade's time the Cardassians had proven to be very strange friends, the kind who don't leave people alone and level guns at their head -- for their own good, of course. Terok Nor: Day of the Vipers begins a trilogy covering the fifty-year military occupation of Bajor,  being the story of a peaceful planet's woe, its seizure and plunder.

The Occupation formed the background of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In its very first episode, the Federation was invited to Bajor to help pick up the pieces. A ferocious military resistance had sapped Cardassian resources and prompted them to leave, but creating peace between now bitter-enemies would not easy, not when the villains who perpetuated the occupation were for the most part still up and kicking. Chief among them in the series, and here in Day of t he Vipers, is Gul Dukat.  He begins not as a gul, but as a younger subordinate.  Although Dukat is not the only Cardassian viewpoint character, he is the one through whom we see most of Cardasia's foreign policy effected. Swallow creates an occupation arrived at through subtle measures, mixing in a few familiar faces with a host of new ones.  Dukat and his grey brothers do not arrive with a fleet of warships, roaring demands for surrender; they arrive as friends bearing gifts and ask for nothing but trade in return.   Swallow further develops traces established by Andy Robinson in his A Stitch in Time of Cardassia's culture before civilization collapse and military takeover created the Cardassia familiar to viewers through ST TNG and ST DS9.  Of particular interest is the use of religious Cardassians: though the Union is a predominately secular state, ruled exclusively by the military and its ethos, a small minority still hold on to Cardassia's pre-junta traditions. They come in handy; since the Bajorans are devout, the 'Oralians' serve as goodwill ambassadors of sort, even though Dukat and the other officers despise their traditional fellow nationals and work for their forceful extinction back home. When the Oralians and Bajorans hit it off, establishing an Oralian embassy of sorts on the planet. Cardassian culture gains a toehold on the planet, one used to great effect despite the acrimony between faith and state.  Bit by bit,  the Cardassians expand their influence on the planet, using the spectre of shared mutual enemies  to accustom the Bajorans to relying on the Cardassian military for protection and 'guidance'.  The full arrival of the Occupation proper doesn't arrive until the very end, and the last word -- "RESIST!" sets the stage for the birth of the Bajoran rebellion in Night of the Wolves.

I've long looked forward to reading this series, Deep Space Nine being my favorite of the Trek shows, and so far it does not disappoint, though the early inclusion of Dukat is strange given how long the Occupation lasted. (He's also the Dukat whom we're familiar with, as opposed to a younger man whose personality is still being formed.)   I thought the slow but subtle creep of Cardassia into Bajor was handled well, especially because it was executed not by one man with an evil plan but by several officers who had competing ideas on how best to expand their influence.  As bonus, we get a young Admiral Nechayev and a Welsh ridealong!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Called to Serve

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America
© 2013 Margaret McGuinness
277 pages

Long before the suffrage and feminist movements allowed women to assume a more publicly active role within society,  women religious were taking an active role in shaping the American landscape.  Although predominately a Protestant country, the United States was never without Catholic citizens,  whether through acquiring land originally settled by France and Spain, or by developing its own through immigration from Italy, Poland, and other parts of Catholic Europe.  The American landscape was for all a great mission, a place to build civilization anew, and  nuns were there nearly from the beginning.

Though some orders restricted themselves to prayer,  more active communities bounded, providing teachers and nurses to areas just being settled, which would have otherwise gone without. The sisters provided religious instruction, naturally, but also taught reading, mathematics, and other educational fundamentals. They also trained people for work, giving the margins of society -- impoverished freedmen and immigrants. especially their women --  the resources to begin building a life for themselves. America's religious sisters were not simply Europeans transplanted to the frontier; their rules of life had to be altered to take the harshness of the wilderness into consideration, though some adaptations were perverse. In the early 19th century,  religious orders owned slaves, for instance, even orders which were filled only with African-American nuns The nuns were far more conscious of the evil nature of slavery, however, ameliorating it as best they could and agitating for abolition much earlier than society at large, or even the Church proper.

Nurturing the margins -- the least of these -- was truly the prevailing mark of American nunneries.  When contagious disease swept American communities, women religious were often the only people willing to nurse the afflicted, sometimes at the cost of their own lines.  The rapidly urbanizing eastern seaboard provided plenty of diseases to battle, and nuns were at the forefront,   managing Catholic hospitals at every level and developing new methods to prevent infection.  As waves of courageous or dispossessed people from Europe swept America, nuns provided settlement houses that welcomed newcomers and helped them find a place for themselves in a new country. Nuns were strangers themselves, often ridiculed and sometimes even attacked by nativists who feared their papish influence.  Ultimately, though, their extraordinary compassion  and proven talent won respect -- and sometimes, even converts.   Despite these accomplishments, however, as the 20th century continued the ranks and influence of religious women fell precipitously, possibly because the gap they served was filled in: religious orders were no longer the sole means of a meaningful career for women, for instance. America's rising  secularization -- both in the sense of diminished religiosity and  the growth of medical, educational, and immigrant-handling government programs -- also diminished their attraction. They continue to serve America,  but frequently have been reduced to the rule of mere social activists, instead of the very creators of civil society as they once were.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tom and Viv

Tom and Viv is not based on a book, and I cannot even say that I have read the first bit of T.S. Eliot.  But this movie haunts me in such a way that I figure it's worth saying a few words about, and since the movie has such obvious literary connections, why not here?  Tom and Viv is a British drama about the first (failed) marriage of Tom Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot, whose famous work is The Wasteland.  This is an extensive poem I've also not read, but I have heard about it, and the sentiment expressed was that the world is going to pot.  I mention The Wasteland because it features in Tom and Viv, as a work of collaboration  between Tom and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.   The two are from different worlds; Tom is an American poet with no social status whatsoever, while Viv is a society daughter from a line that goes clear back to the Norman conquest.  In the film's opening lines, Tom's future brother-in-law Morris ponders that Tom desperately wanted to be English, so infatuated was he by England's rich traditions. This is unfortunate, because Viv saw in Tom someone who could take her away from high society, allow her to escape it. She had such hope for him  -- he lived in the attic of the most hated man in Europe, Bertrand Russell! She didn't expect that Tom would become utterly respectable, and worse yet through the most ploddingly civilized ways -- through ordinary  work at a bank and joining the Church of England.  And for his part, Tom didn't expect that she was absolutely mental.  What exactly the matter is with poor Viv is never really nailed down; there's speculation that she's manic-depressive with unfortunate hormonal balance issues, but more accurate diagnoses don't emerge until it's too late for her.  The pair's whirlwind courtship gives them no clue that one day Tom will be attending dinner parties with Virginia Woolf, or that Viv will be forcing Ms. Woolf out of her taxi at gunpoint and taking it to Tom's office, where she will pour melted chocolate into the mailbox because TOM NEEDS HIS CHOCOLATE and that wretched secretary won't let her in.  The movie spans over fifteen years, through which the two make one another steadily more miserable, worsened by the fact that they really do love one another. Or at least they're devoted to some ideal of the other - the idea that Tom loves Viv is put into question by the fact that he sticks her in a lunatic asylum and never sees her again, going to to marry some other woman and leave her to sit in a garden with other lunatics, baking chocolate cake for the husband she will never see again. Her brother's no better, wandering off to Africa and never writing.  At the end the viewer is left with two every depressing bits of speculation: Viv and her entire family were made miserable by erratic behavior that could have been ameliorated by medicine, and that Tom was mostly attracted to Viv  for selfish reasons.   I have watched it perhaps four times in the past year, and every time it leaves me sad -- yet there is something compelling about the unhappy couple's contradictory cries of the heart.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


© 1974 Stephen King
199 pages

A word to the wise: if you're going to execute a horrific public prank on the school outcast, like having her elected prom queen and then dumping a bucket of freezing pig blood on her, make sure she's not secretly telekinetic. Otherwise, she might trap the entire senior class in a burning gynasium, then become a one-woman reenactment of the Dresden fire bombing just for good measure.

Carrie was Stephen King's first horror novel, and it is, truly. The title character is Carrie White, a teenage girl raised by a deranged mother who regards anything connected to sex (including the existence of genitals,  curves, and menses) as evil.  Carrie is the soul of psychological isolation, spending much of her time in a locked closet as punishment, and so warped by her mother that she has virtually no way of relating with her peers. She's also oblivious to the facts of the life, and when she has her period for the first time, it couldn't come at a worse point: the school locker room, in full view of her school's clique of Mean Girls. High schoolers being what they are, she is immediately subject to public humiliation. The Mean Girls receive a little comeuppance; they are barred from the prom and one manages to be genuinely remorseful, asking her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Carrie deserves one night of happiness before high school is over, she thinks -- but this moment of good intentions is turned into hell.

Unfortunately for...everyone, at least those outside the funerary trades,  Carrie's one night of happiness is turned into one of horror when the barred mean girls decide to strike back.  Carrie, who spends the entire book being mentally tormented either by her mother or the bullies, snaps. She has a gift, or a curse, of telekinesis; she can make things happen with her mind.  (Her mother was already crazy before she was born, but having a child whose mood swings manifest themselves as a poltergeist probably didn't help..)   On the night of the prom, when she is drenched with blood and the entire school laughs at her, with the potential of happiness turned to utter degradation, Carrie decides to wreak havoc.  Whatever fragile grasp she had on sanity evaporates away under the boiling outrage, and she stalks through town blowing things up. Eventually she succumbs to the physical toll her powers took on her body, as well as an injury and even further mental trauma, but not before killing four hundred people and turning a quiet Maine city into a ghost town.

Carrie is fairly gruesome; definitely not the sort of thing I'd read twice, between all the murder, mayhem, and insanity.  Interestingly done, though;  King breaks from his narrative to insert clips of scientific articles, news reports, legal commissions, and survivor accounts that tell more of the story.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
© 2003 Khaled Hosseini
400 pages


The Kite Runner is a stirring story of betrayal and redemption set in Afghanistan as the country is destroyed through revolution, war, and the takeover by Taliban militias.  The novel rests on the relationship between Amir and Hassan, two young boys growing up together in the same household -- but separated by class.  Although theirs is a brotherly friendship, it is put to the test by intense social pressure, Amir's own fears, and the outbreak of war.  As the novel progresses, emotional and physical distance grows between the boys;  Amir, burdened by the shame of not defending his friend as he should when horror lashes out, pushes Hassan away, and eventually Amir and his father emigrate to the United States to flee the destruction of Afghanistan.  Fifteen+ years later, however, when Amir's father dies, he is called back to Afghanistan to visit an ailing friend of the family, There, in the rubble of his hometown, he must find the courage to atone for the selfishness and cowardice of youth. Once he hid before bullies and allowed others to be beaten for his sake; now he steals into the center of Taliban power to beard the lions in their den and rescue an innocent child.  The endgame has the kind of poetic justice found only in fiction,  with the same monster who tormented Amir and Hassan when they were all boys returning as the chief Talib. However improbable it is in real life, it succeeds wonderfully as a story, delivering the full impact of how Amir has changed since leaving Afghanistan. Few people get to fight their childhood memories so directly, and  it's utterly satisfying -- not the dispatch of the villain, but Amir's trial by fire. For most of the book, he is a weak character who shies away from responsibility, and  the ending chapters are a gauntlet that makes him honorable.  Although most of the book is tragic, such is made good by the finale.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Lady from Zagreb

The Lady from Zagreb
© 2015 Phillip Kerr
432 pages

            Bernie Gunther was an ordinary police detective in wild, wonderful Weimar until Germany’s economy collapsed and fringe parties swept into power. His police department absorbed by the SS, he wears the uniform of a party and of an ideology he loathes – and does a poor job of even pretending to tolerate. His antipathy for the Party makes a man of Bernie’s talents a useful tool, however, at least to Joseph Goebbels. With no career prospects or political ambition, the detective can be hired for a little bit of innocent work that the master of deceit would prefer to keep concealed from his rivals in evil miniondom, like Himmler.  For instance, Goebbels has his eye on a certain starlet who is waffling on cinema as a career prospect, despite being a Siren-like beauty who is sure to become the continent’s most popular actress.  Officially, of course, the chief of propaganda wants to keep her engaged making films to glorify the fatherland,  but he also has more intimate engagements in mind – the kind that married men have no business in making.   The problem is that the poor dear is distracted by her long-missing father, lost in war-torn Yugoslavia. What he’d like for Gunther to do is pop down to the most hellish place in Europe short of Auschwitz for a spell, find dear old dad, and then report back to Berlin.

Nothing is ever so simple, of course. Gunther has already encountered some soul-harrowing scenes since the Nazis took power in 1933;  he has seen massacres on both the Soviet and Nazi sides of the battle-lines, and  been exposed to the Final Solution in action.  Yugoslavia, however, is a bloodbath to be endured only with the native whiskey,:Gunther’s report makes even Goebbels blanch at the horror of it.  There,  the princes of hell on earth decorate their strongholds with skulls on pikes, and photographs of executions, like something out of a nightmare.  The usual psychological defenses – sarcasm, booze, and cigarettes – don’t quite do the trick. To survive, Gunther counterattacks: he falls in love. If the hormone rush from becoming infatuated with Germany's foremost sex symbol doesn't do the trick, then perhaps the thrill of chasing a girl who is not only married, but a mistress-potential for one of the most powerful men in the reich will.  Eventually the action moves to Switzerland,  where Americans mistake Gunther for a German general and hilarity ensues. Amid even more death, however, the piece of a puzzle which has lingered on Gunther's mind for a year finally falls into place.

The Lady from Zagreb is a very well-done detective novel,  putting its wartime Europe setting to good effect and linking several mysteries together. The humor is biting, as ever;  on learning that a fellow officer is writing yet another novel, Gunther comments that there will always be room in Germany for more novels, provided his countrymen keep burning them. In an early scene, a man is literally killed by Hitler; a bust of Adolf is used  as a bludgeon. Against the backdrop of both the Holocaust and the obscene carnage of Yugoslavia, however, even that humor fails to prevent this from being an utterly distressing novel, set in a land of desecration and filled with horror and manipulation. Not even Gunther's relationship with Dalia is free from the cloud of horror, unsurprising given Goebbels' close presence.  Certainly there's no fault in creativity or research; the book is littered with odd little details that must have been strange research finds, like a U-boat parked on the autobahn; one of Gunther's escapes is especially captivating.  As thrilling as it is, Zagreb is more than touch dispiriting on the whole, however.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Man for All Seasons

"A Man For All Seasons"
© 1966 Robert Holt
163 pages

"...the king wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed."
"They seem odd alternatives, Secretary."

            The king wants a son, Sir Thomas – what are you going to do about it?   King Henry, eight of that name and possibly last of the Tudors,  has decided to change wives. His lawful queen, Catherine of Aragon, has so far only given him one long-lived child: a girl, utterly useless for succession purposes.   Convinced that his marriage is cursed, Henry seeks to have it declared null and void by the Pope, but said pontiff is unwilling. He already made special dispensation for Henry to marry his brother’s widow in the first place; now they want to him to un-dispensate?   Anxious to replace Catherine with a younger model, and in fear of dying without a proper heir, Henry decides to resolve the succession  problem via secession.   Assume leadership of the Church  in England, appoint someone pliable as archbishop, and hey presto, instant divorce.    Henry can do nearly what he wants; the Pope may object, but he is across the Channel, and even the Queen’s Hapsburg family doesn’t have the energy to invade England just for marriage counseling.  Henry intimidates both Parliament and the church into giving in, but still—there is an itch of sanction. The compliance of dogs is easy to find; they can be appeased with food or cowed with beatings, and dog-men abound here, epitomized in the person of Richard Rich   What Henry needs to sooth any lingering qualms that he is following the straight and narrow path is approval from a man of virtue and conscience – a man like his Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. But More cannot approve; he is a faithful husband and doting father to several daughters, and a good Catholic who finds Henry’s easy disposal of his wife and the Church’s authority to be utterly alarming.   Choosing discretion as the better part of valor,  More retires from the court in the wake of Henry’s break with the church, but Henry is not content. He and his minions want either More’s sanction, or his destruction.  “A Man for All Seasons” follows the king’s pursuit of More,  a path that ends only with the subject's martyrdom.   More never explicitly opposes the king’s behavior;  never writes a tract, never denounces him from the chair of office,  never even says a word to his wife.   His silence, however, is forbidding, and the king will not have it.  There can be no law in   England save the King’s – not even More’s private reign over his conscience.   The import of “A Man” is not lost centuries ever the times they portray, nor decades after the play was written. Its championing of conscience against coercion, of moral conviction against swaggering license, remain relevant so long as those in authority continue to pursue their every impulse,  dressing their wrath and lust for power in the clothes of law and demanding obedience. Sophie Scholl lost her head for the same reason More lost his;  they had a better one than the king’s.  More’s stand for conscience was such that the Church of England – which More opposed – hails him as a saint.  Truly he was as Holt describes him, a man for all seasons,  including ours.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables
© 1908 Lucy Maude Montgomery          
299 pages

 "Anne, are you killed?" shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. "Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you're killed.""No, Diana, I am not killed, but I think I am rendered unconscious.""Where?" sobbed Carrie Sloane. "Oh, where, Anne?

  Anne of Green Gables is chicken noodle soup bound in paper, the heartwarming story of a imaginative girl growing up on the Canadian frontier. Anne is every reader’s ideal companion; she is one of us.  Anne is not content to read good stories; hers is a boundless imagination  that makes the ordinary spectacular;  she names trees,  sees roads to Camelot in humble dirt lanes, and can convert anything into a sweeping story.  She is the embodiment of childish wonder and delight, who is rendered rapturous at the thought of learning about something new, or embarking on an adventure with a friend.  Though orphaned at an early age – she has no memory of her parents, and is adopted by a childless pair of siblings at the novel’s start – Anne’s imagination gives her access to a boundless well of enthusiasm. Although she crashes from misfortune to disaster, she never loses and hope and always gains a bit of character from the experience. Anne’s imagination is not limited to creating stories for she and her friends to act out (Tom Sawyer would be an interesting neighbor for her; what would happen if the rafts they set out on chanced to meet, and Anne’s Arthurian romance collided with Tim’s pirate ship?). Her head is filled with the language of books, and when she reacts she reveals a vocabulary filled gloriously with pomp.  It’s almost a disappointment when she becomes more level-headed assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, but all stories have their proper ending. For Anne, that usually involves hugs, tears, and speeches.   Green Gables is glorious fun;  I wish I’d paid more attention when watching the play in third grade, but I was fairly smitten by the  actress.