Archive for July, 2011


Eyewitness to the Rise of Evil

It was 1933, and the head of the University of Chicago’s history department, William Dodd, was dispatched as the American Ambassador to Germany. He took his wife and grown children with him to a country that was witnessing the rise of Hitler. Nobody wanted to believe that things were as perilous as they seemed. Including Dodd. This is the premise of Erik Larson’s latest work of nonfiction In the Garden of Beasts, which details the life of one American family in Berlin, and the horror that they watched unfold.

Ambassador Dodd was not your typical American ambassador. A self-made man, an academic, and hailing from a modest background, he was unlike the wealthy men of privilege that usually filled out the diplomat corps. He took the job believing it would give him time away from the stresses of academia and allow him to finish his magnus opus on Southern history. He had no idea of what he stepped into. No one did. At the time the world was inclined to ignore the rumblings from German, the stories of the oppression of Jews and the nationalist fervor that was building up. Including Dodd and his family, even during the first year that they lived there.

Larson’s work focuses on Dodd and his adult daughter Martha– a free spirit, who was a bit of a bohemian who took a multitude of lovers while in Germany, including members of the Nazi party and Soviet agents. Let’s just say that Martha loved living on the edge, and living on the edge she did– initially, she refused to believe the reports of the horrors that were beginning to come to the surface in Germany, instead preferring to believe it to be a country that was trying to get back on its feet after a devastating war. Dodd was also inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, to the consternation of a select few diplomats that also served with him– he preferred to not worry about the “Jewish Problem,” believing that Hitler could not possibly last while in power.

The book is wonderfully written and moves along at a crisp pace– it weaves a web of  with intrigue surrounding the main characters. It builds and builds up to the “Night of the Long Knives” which is when Hitler launched a massive and terrifying attack against his enemies and took total power over Germany. From that moment on Dodd (and his daughter) began to speak out against Hitler and Germany, but no one would listen. No one wanted to hear them, even after they returned to the US four years later and Hitler’s aggression was apparent. The government instead followed a model of appeasement.

Larson is a fantastic writer– this is a historical book that is paced as a novel, and it is as tense and thrilling as any spy thriller–but it is for real. The book is really thought-provoking. Why did the government just look the other way? Why was the world not willing to confront the truth? How could we just let a madman run amok, and deny that he was violating human rights while the US’ s own ambassador was frantically cabling for the government to just listen to him? Of course,  these sorts of things continue to happen, governments continue to look the other way as madmen slaughter their own people–but this book gives yo a fantastic look into how an entire country (Germany) could willfully deceive itself, and the historical and social circumstances that surrounded Hitler that allowed him to rise to power.

This is a great book, one of the best nonfiction works I have read this year. Do yourself a favor, go read it and have your eyes opened, because we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

19th century fortune hunting

One of my favorite books of all time is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. I am a big fan of Wharton, although I do tend to find her books depressing at times, and The Buccaneers is my favorite book, despite the fact that it is an unfinished work. (It was released after having being finished by another author who followed Wharton’s notes.) Anyway the story is a rich young American woman from new money who goes to England looking to marry “up” and ends up with a Duke. The marriage fails, there is scandal and she runs off with one of the landed gentry who lives near the Duke. Sounds juicy, right? Wharton’s book is a masterwork commentary of class, money, social status and gender, plus her main characters are deeply compelling.

So about a month ago I saw that a new book was coming out by Daisy Goodwin, titled The American Heiress, about a young, rich American in the 19th century who goes off to marry a Duke and ends up in a difficult marriage… sound familiar eh? So of course it is really hard not to compare Wharton to Goodwin (which is probably unfair to Goodwin),  but I was intrigued and read the book.

So Goodwin’s protagonist is the aptly named Cora Cash, a wealthy new money American who has one of the most fiercely social-climbing mothers (and mother-in-law, the hysterically noted “Double Duchess,” but that comes later) depicted in literature. As far as Mrs. Cash is concerned, Cora is just a vehicle for her own social advancement, and she whisks her away to England to go title-hunting. With Cora is her free black maid, Bertha, whose light skin almost (but not quite) allows her to pass. Bertha is devoted to her mistress, and as a ladies maid occupies a rather high tier in the pecking order of household servants. (For those who have not seen enough Upstairs Downstairs, a ladies maid is only under the head housekeeper and butler. Governesses and tutors don’t count as ‘real’ help, although they are, in a sense, but their education elevates them above the rank of servant.)

Core, who is despite her wealth is rather naive, has an accident while out hunting and is rescued by a handsome, brooding Duke.  He is mysterious throughout the book, both volatile and charming, and he makes an offer to Cora. Of course, being a Duchess is something she cannot refuse, so she accepts. And then the story really gets going. We follow Cora trying to make her way through the intricacies of British society, and trying to grapple with the consequences of her marriage.

So after reading this book I thought long and hard about it. The good parts include Goodwin’s language– she is a very fine descriptive writer (as she is also a poet this should not be surprising) and her turn a deft phrase is delightful. The character of Bertha is compelling, in fact, the exploration of race and class that surrounds this light-skinned ladies maid is intriguing and I wish Goodwin had done more with it. The Duke is a brooding character, in fact, maybe too much so– you never really understand why he married Cora (aside from needing her money) and I found him too much to be like a more classic romance novel character, without the fun and self-deprecation that romance novelists bring to the pages. Mr Darcy, he is not. Cora herself is also not terribly well developed as a character, about half-way through the book I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her for being a stupid girl, for caring too much about what people thought, and for her acceptance of this stifling society.

Goodwin’s emphasis on the vulgarity of wealth in the late 19th century is intriguing. In some sense, I felt like it was as much a commentary on the ultra-rich now as on the characters set in the past. Some of the things that they buy and do are insane. You often find yourself thinking “how could anyone have this much money?” Goodwin seems to be encouraging her readers to laugh at the empty, shallow lives of the superrich.

While the plot was interesting and sucked me in, I found the ending really unsatisfactory. This is more of a glimpse into a particular world than a well-told narrative, because the ending does nothing for the book. (I don’t think all endings need to tie up all the loose ends, but I think there needs to be some satisfaction within them.)

Wharton’s Buccaneers it is not, but I have a sense that Goodwin was trying to do something different. But what, I am unsure. This book is a light, frothy read, and is sure to keep one busy while at the beach or traveling. Goodwin’s writing is beautiful, but I think she needs to work more on her characters, to make them more fully human.

One thing is for sure, I am glad that as a woman, that I was not born into this sort of society. Granted the world was not very nice to women in the 19th century in general (life as a farmer or rancher’s wife was terribly hard too–which likely would have been the lot of someone like me back then) but there is something especially vulgar about these rich daughters being married off strategically for their money and connections.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A Great Patriot

John Adams was a great reader himself, no doubt he might have appreciated this blog project. So, in honor of our country’s independence, I picked up John Adams by David McCullough this weekend, and ploughed right through it… finally.

My mom had given me this book years ago, and I read about half of it, but never finished. Life got in the way. Well, that is no longer an excuse, so I started all over again and finished it in about five days, surprising myself, because it is an enormous book. Thick, dense, and chock full of information.

McCullough’s masterwork is a gem for history nerds like myself. It is a popular autobiography that is written much like an academic book, meaning that McCullough combines popular writing with serious history and created a masterwork. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.

The book covers the entire span of Adams’s life, from his early years as a humble lawyer, to his work on independence, to his time as a diplomat in Europe, his vice-presidency, the Presidency, and his old age. It is loaded with detail, most of it gleaned from Adams’s own papers and letters. Adams was a prolific letter-writer– and extraordinarily self-aware and self-critical, and because of that, we know what he thought about almost everything. (Note to important world figures: keep an interesting diary and leave someone else to write your biography.) The book is so huge that there isn’t much that I can cover here, but a few major themes.

The first is the myth of the founding. Lately, all kinds of misinformation has been spread on America’s independence– and much of this is for political ends, which, would have no doubt exasperated Adams (and his friend Jefferson.) The fact is, that as McCullough’s book shows, independence from Great Britain and the founding of a new country was messy, fraught with peril, and that we got through it at all was due to not only great leadership, but also a measure of luck.  The Founders were often making it up as they went along, they did not agree on many things (in fact they agreed on very little) and slavery was a massive problem already for the young country. It was not some mythical moment of a newly formed, shining America rising out of rebellion. More like it was a mess, but a mess that sorted itself out, slowly, sometimes painfully and at times awkwardly. This, I think, is important to remember.

Adams was a man, who was religious, but who also believed in reason. He felt that religion and intellectual curiosity went together– there was no reason for them not to. He also believed in serving his country– he always did what was asked of him, even when he was put in miserable diplomatic situations, even with so many disparaged him, even when it seemed that everyone was against him– he put his country (not politics) first. We could learn a bit from this mentality.

Politics was as ugly then as it is now. A sensationalistic press came after Adams when he was VP and later President. His own friends (Jefferson) turned on him in the name of politics. Political parties began to determine where people stood, and Adams did not like this one bit. The sections on his Vice-Presidency and Presidency are amazing for how utterly modern they feel. Some things never change– party politics remains brutal. Presidents continue to be viciously criticized for their ideas and policies. Some things have not changed one bit.

His marriage to Abigail was extraordinary for its times. In fact, with would be extraordinary now. It was a marriage of equals, and without her, it is doubtful he could have achieved what he did. She was an incredibly smart woman, a brave woman, and his best friend. This is so apparent from their letters– their friendship is what carried them through life through thick and thin forever, and they survived some exceedingly trying times.

Finally, Adams’s emphasis on friendship. Adams remained friends with those closest through him through thick and thin, even when his friends did horrible things to him. His relationship with Jefferson is the best example of that– as young diplomats they were incredibly close, only to have the friendship torn to shreds when Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Yet, later in life Adams forgave his friend and struck up a close, but steady correspondence with him, and they became friends once more as old men in the twilight of their lives. To me, this was the most striking part of the book. Adams clearly valued people, he valued his friends, and he maintained those relationships even when at times it was painful.

This is a wonderful book– there is so much more I could  say, but I would just go on and on forever. Read it. It is not necessarily easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is a rich exploration of a great patriot’s life.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

J read Born to Run earlier in the year when we started the blog project, and it has been one of the books on my list to read. Because J already summed up the book in his post, I am going to offer a more personal reflection it.

I used to be a runner– that is, in high school I was a cross-country runner and in track, a miler and two miler, but frankly I preferred cross-country. The mile always seemed too short, the two mile, boring (eight times around the track can get a bit mind-numbing.) Cross-country was the most fun, with the winding, hilly courses, and frankly the long road runs were my favorite– in the summer we would rise early and be running by five am, while the city was still sleepy, the Los Angeles air still cool, and when it was often my teammates and I loping along through the neighborhoods around the high school. Our coach would follow us in his old green car, affectionately nicknamed “the tank” for its square appearance and army green color, as we quietly moved through the streets.

There was a student at our rival high school who was one of the best runners in the state. He had been born in Kenya and was something of a local legend. B was a tall handsome kid with a wide smile and who was so fast, the rest of us could hardly believe it. His running partner  was a tall blond kid, white as could be, who was known as “B’s Ghost” or simply “the Ghost.” At league finals they would come in far before anyone else, bouncing along like two gazelles. B and the Ghost were a joy to watch, and I remember standing with a teammate watching them finish. B made it look so easy, without strain, like as if running three miles on a smoggy 100 degree day was the best thing in the world. My teammate whispered to me “You, know, they say he trains barefoot– it’s how he used to run in Kenya–isn’t that insane?”  Then, after B’s teammates had offered their congratulations, my teammate and I walked up and congratulated B on his race. He smiled and thanked us graciously, and I noticed he wasn’t out of breath- in fact he hardly seemed to have run at all.

After reading McDougall’s book, it all began to fall into place. Because B had run barefoot in Kenya, he was a fore-foot striker, not a heel striker (something I had noticed in watching him run) and because of that, his gait was more suited to keeping his body in good condition and injury free. And B, despite all the races he won, despite the fact that he was later recruited for a major Division I college track team, despite the competitiveness, he clearly loved  running. You could see it in his smile.

As much as I could enjoy running, it was often painful, and I stopped running because of a really painful knee injury. And that was the part about the book that I really identified with– McDougall’s search for the reason as to why so many runners end up injured– it all has to do with modern running shoes, which McDougall asserts are so cushioned, as to ruin your natural gait, and your body’s way of telling what is the right way to run. McDougall asserts that as a species that we evolved to run, to run long distances, and to do it well into our old age if properly conditioned.

This book was deeply personal for another reason– my father’s family is descended from the Tarahumara Indians, the great runners that McDougall profiles. In fact the reason why I ran in high school was because that is just what we did. My father, before me, was something of a cross-country star. He loved to run, could “run all day” in his youth. He gave it up once he had a family to support, but his endurance stood him well when he worked in construction as a young man so my mom could go to college. But the fact of it remained, is that in my family, we always ran. It’s just what we do. I was raised that one ran because it was fun, not necessarily because we were good at it. Interestingly, as a runner I was a rather mediocre cross-country runner. Always came in the top ten and placed well for team points, but never a star– but that on the long road runs that we would take as a team I invariably did better. The longer I ran, the better my endurance held out, and I now wonder if I would have been better suited to much longer races in my youth, like the ones that McDougall profiles in the book.

It is funny that how as I got older and went to college, I encountered the more western mentality that running was “work.” “No pain, no gain.” It was no longer fun, it was so that the women I went to school with could keep their svelte bodies. Again, McDougall points out that among the Tarahumara and African bushmen who still run incredible distances, that this is not the case. You run, because you were born to it. You run, because you are human.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I would end up going on forever. The book was deeply personal to me, as an ex-runner (the problem knee has kept me from running for years, and I now live in a part of the country where a barefoot run could mean cactus thorns in your feet and a nasty bite from a rattlesnake)  and because of my own heritage. The book is, as J describes, well-written, funny, and very well-paced. While I may never go on a long run again like I used to, it has motivated me to start trail walking again (something I did after I stopped running, but I stopped once I got into the grind of grad school and then a job) so that I can re-capture some of that clarity that one gets after humming along for 10 miles.

My favorite run ever in high school was our annual fun run at the beach. At the end of the summer we would pile into vans and drive down to the Orange Country beaches. There, we shed our shoes and ran for about three miles in the sand, barefoot, galloping through the waves, chasing each other, laughing, and joking. We were not timed or really even pushed in any way. Early in the morning it was just us and the surfers bobbing out on the waves, and there was a special magic to it all. It was incredibly fun and it was how running is supposed to be.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Scheming Kings and Queens Part 2

So last week’s other book was A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. This is book two of the seven book long  Song of Fire and Ice  series.

Since I am going to attempt to read the whole series, I have decided to not really go over many plot details in my blogging. I introduced the characters in my first post, and I feel like that is plenty. Anyway, it suffices to say, that the book follows the Seven Kingdom’s disintegration into civil war after the death of the King, the varied adventures, journeys and horrors of the Stark children, the menace at the Wall, and the quest of the Mother of Dragons to take back her throne. Along with all that there is lots of scheming, plenty of blood and war (warning: this book is bloodier than the first) and so much intrigue that you might need a flow-chart to follow it.

Martin’s books are immensely popular, and I think that is because they are so well-paced. Each chapter is told from the POV of an important character, so just as he leads you up to something exciting, he moves on to the next character or plot line so that can tantalize you further. At times I found this frustrating, but the end result of this technique is that I raced through the book, trying to see who lives, who died, and who conquered.

It is said that Martin based the book on the Wars of the Roses, and at the moment it seems like an everlasting struggle for power. I cannot seem to figure out who is the main of driving character in this story (although I have my hunches) and at times Martin sets you up and then it all ends in an elaborate trick. But the book was easy to read and I raced right through it so, I guess I will have to go on to book three. So far, the series is holding my interest, but check back with me when I get to book five or six.  We shall see, but there is a huge wait list for all the books at my city library, so it seems that I am not only person that has been sucked into this series…..

Ciao for now

Bookish C

All the Saints

Okay so I have been a slacker. I have been reading but not blogging, so I figured that I better catch up with the blogging….

So today’s book (really it was last week’s book) is My Life With the Saints by James Martin, S.J. This book was different from the other books that I have read so far. It was part lives of the saints, part spiritual autobiography and part spiritual advice, making it, well, an interesting read. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who entered the priesthood in an unlikely (or perhaps a likely?) moment in his life. He was a young executive for General Electric, who came home one day, burned out, and wondering if all there was in life was the grind of corporate work. He sat down and turned on the TV an caught the last part of an autobiography of the Trappist monk, and great American Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, and everything changed.

Seriously. Everything changed. Like Merton, Martin was an unlikely priest. And this book tells the story of Martin’s encounters with Catholicism (in an non-linear fashion) and interweaves it with the lives of the saints, both those who are official saints (like Thomas Aquinas), unofficial saints, or those who may eventually become official saints (Merton, Dorothy Day) and those on their way to becoming saints (The Blessed Mother Theresa).

There are many things that are lovely about this book. One is that you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it. Father Martin, although a cradle Catholic, was fairly ignorant of the intricacies of his faith. He grew up Catholic, but not deeply entrenched in Catholic culture  (that is to say, he did not go to parochial school, his parents were not active in a parish, etc) so even by the time he decides to become a Jesuit, he is still unsure of  many aspects of Catholicism. In this way, he guides the reader carefully. He presumes little, his voice is non-judgmental, but he is in all ways, gently orthodox.  In that way, he is refreshing writer– it is sort of like having your own personal guide to the saints and Catholicism, one who is funny and insightful.

Each chapter starts off with the story of how Father Martin first encountered each saint. Sometimes it is in surprising ways, such as through a movie, then he outlines the life of the saint, and finally what that saint has to teach humanity. All the saints are different  (obviously) and one of the most moving chapters is Martin’s encounter with Merton (who is, I must confess, one of my favorite saints, despite the fact that he is not an official saint.) But each chapter works through the lesson, the saint’s life, their humanity and Martin’s life.

Now this may sound dry, but it is not. I found it to be a remarkably fast read, and at times very charming and funny. The saints were human, (that is of course, why they are saints) but often people get hung up on this ideas that they are so much greater than regular people. Yet Martin’s emphasis on their humanity and how they interweave with his story of becoming a Jesuit is striking, because it reminds us that we all can become saints. Of course, one would in some sense,  have to want to become one, and becoming a saint is decidedly difficult, but it is always possible.

I really enjoyed Martin’s voice, his light touch and easy style. This is a lovely book that  is full of wisdom from the saints and a particular Jesuit.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C