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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

History Photography Quiz (Part V)

Leo Tolstoy telling a story to his grandchildren in 1909.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dead Wake - The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

One of my favorite authors is Erik Larson a modern master of popular narrative nonfiction. No dull history tomes for him as he’s  proven time and again  adept at rescuing relatively significant but mostly obscure episodes in history and turning them novel like into best sellers. Two of my favorites were The Devil in the White City and In The Garden of Beasts.

2015 brought us Dead Wake – The last Crossing of the Lusitania.
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a huge and fast luxury ocean liner sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying thousands of people including a record number of children and infants. Trying to starve Britain into submission, Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. Still most believed the “rules” of warfare kept civilian passenger ships safe from attack.
Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, following new orders was ready to shoot. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
The fate of many of the passengers we know but it was the secrets which lay behind the decisions of the hunted and the hunter which drew my attention and kept me focused on the story.  Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history. How it all happened and why was quite unexpected. A historical mystery as it were. I loved it. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz Part IV.

Construction of Christ the Redeemer in Rio da Janeiro, Brazil.
Overlooking the city of Rio, site of this years Olympic games, it was constructed over a ten year period beginning in 1922.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Kindly Ones

I took a group of high school students to Germany. We went to Dachau outside of Munich. I had explained carefully what happened here. Still, as we approached the bus parking lot, the area around it was neatly mowed and had a park-like appearance. Across the street was a McDonalds. Incongrous to say the least....

On the way to Williamsburg, I pressed my companions for a stop in Washington, to see the new Holocaust museum. We were given an identity tag to wear of an actual victim. As we entered the elevator it had the appearance of a railroad boxcar. We spent hours looking at photgraphs and artifacts like thousands of shoes of children murdered by the Nazi killing machine. When we left I had the worst migraine of my life.

Each generation needs to learn of this human atrocity and never forget it. I have read many books on this subject in that spirit. With that in mind, I obtained and read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. Nearly a thousand pages long, it has been falsely compared to Tolstoys War and Peace. Awarded the top prize for literature in France, I had hoped that it would measure up to that standard. It didn't.

I must say that I did intend to write a real review of this book. The fact is, I am unable to articulate all the reasons I found it to be the worst book I ever read. Opinion among the experts is somewhat divided about it. Mine is not. If you want to learn about the historical unfolding of the German invasion of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and its consequences, there are hundreds of books that do a better job. Hannah Arendt, watching Adoph Eichmann at his trial, explained the psychology of the bureaucrats who managed the murder operation. She coined the phrase,
the "banality of evil." My phrase to characterize this awful book would be "historical pornography." I will let it rest there.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Photographic History Quiz (Part 3)

Fidel Castro lays a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz (Part 2)

The Microsoft staff in 1978
Bill Gates, front row left.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

History Quiz

An airman being captured by Vietnamese in Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi in 1967. The airman is future Senator John McCain who spent over five years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp. Donald J. Trump recently mocked his service.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Pagan Lord

Ok, I’ll own up to it. I’ve been a lot into English historical fiction in recent years. Favorite authors include Bernard Cornwell - 10th century (The Saxon Chronicles),   Sharon Kay Penman - (12th century The Plantagenet series),  and Hilary Mantel - (16th century (The Thomas Cromwell Trilogy).  This month it was The Pagan Lord by Cornwell….

Alfred the Great is dead and Edward his son reigns as king.  The Kingdom of Wessex survives but peace is tenuous at best. The Danes in the north, led by Viking Cnut Longsword, stand ready to invade and will never rest until all of England is theirs.

Uhtred, once Alfred’s great warrior but now out of favor with the new king, must lead a band of outcasts north to recapture his old family home, that great Northumbrian fortress, Bebbanburg.

Loyalties are transitory for some and  every Saxon kingdom is drawn into the bloodiest battle yet with the Danes; a war which will decide the fate of every king, and the entire English nation.

Uhtred, the hero and narrator of the Saxon series, is a fascinating mixture of divided loyalties and internal contradictions. Born a Saxon, he was raised by Danes and has the temperament of a genuine Viking. He disdains the “nailed god” of the Christians and favors older gods, such as Thor, whose symbol (a hammer) Uhtred carries with him everywhere. He served Alfred loyally and effectively but never really liked or sympathized with him. Uhtred’s one overriding ambition is to recover the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg, which was stolen from him years before.  They called this era The Dark Ages for a reason. Nobody writes the twists and turns, the chaos and battle scenes as well  as Cornwell. When  Untred winds down the Saxon Chronicles we can even see a small light at the end of the tunnel. The birth of England….



Thursday, June 30, 2016


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,

 And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

 I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 William Ernest Henley

Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) survives 27 years of imprisonment. His guide is the Victorian age poem Invictus. He emerges to lead a reconciliation of blacks and whites into a new South Africa. Matt Damon plays the captain of the countries white dominated and beloved rugby team. The team is also a symbol of white racism and despised by the nations blacks. Clint Eastwood finds just the right touch, avoiding an over the top sports movie and a deep psychological analyses of character motivations. The result is exciting action in a sport that most American wouldn't have a clue about, and a truly dramatic portrayal of real political leadership. It was also something that I found downright inspiring. I recall teaching world history to my senior high students and feeling that the apartheid state in South Africa was as intractible a problem as the issue of Palestine, the Arabs and the Jewish state. Sometimes it's nice to be wrong.
The poem and the movie are both oldies but goodies.
I highly recommend them both.....