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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Reluctant Admiral

Sometimes you just stumble on an obscure book and pick it up. Thus was the case at my bargain book stop recently…. The Goodwill.  It was The Reluctant Admiral. It is the story of both an individual and an organization. The individual is Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor raid and commander of the Combined Fleet until his dramatic death in the South Pacific. One of the best-known Japanese wartime leaders -- complex, tough, sympathetic, and realistic -- he believed from the start that Japan was bound to lose the war. The organization is the Imperial Navy, whose gentlemanly traditions and international outlook contrasted strongly with those of the army. Based on interviews with people who knew him well, private and intimate correspondence, and secret and official documents, it is -- as the New Yorker said -- a "brilliant" book. Fascinating is how I would describe it but then I'm a military history junkie and the book surely wasn't a "best seller". My only critique would be lots of unfamiliar names that were hard to keep track of. Still the basic story brings a subject clearly to light...:)

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.