I admit it--I wrote this one solely because I thought this topic might land me on the front page and generate a lot of comments. I know, I know, I am a horrid, horrid person.
(but it worked)
Two for one today. Don’t worry, they’ll be short. No, really! Trust me.
Ah, history. Pick a random time period and who knows what will come up? Wars, executed royals, religious strife, rich people getting richer, poor people getting poorer. You can find all that and more in Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815. In fact you can find Charles I’s execution, Louis Capet and Marie Antoinette’s executions, the Glorious Revolution, The War of Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, The Thirty Years War, the Second Hundred Years War, the Habsburg Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the rise and fall of Dutch economic power, the rise into the Industrial Revolution of Britain, passing glances at Catherine the Great, various Fredericks, a bit of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Descartes, ending, where else, but with Waterloo. My goodness, those blasted colonies in North America barely rate a glance squeezed in with all that (and alas, no South Seas Bubble!).
So as you can see, this is a big survey type of book, actually part of Penguin’s History of Europe Series. This has its virtues and its flaws. The upside (sorry, this book is done, so it’s just upside, not upside potential): it gives you some background on just about everything major that happens during this time period. The downside: there’s never quite enough about any one thing. I found myself, as I read, constantly thinking, “Oh, I wish I knew more about Catherine the Great…Napoleon…the War of Spanish Succession…” This gets frustrating at times.
What I really liked about this book was the way it was organized: it’s not a straight through linear history, nor does it cover one nation at a time. Instead it’s organized by topic, which to some degree allows readers to jump around and pick through what they want to read at any given time. I liked this approach but admit that this also has its negative, which is that if you do allow yourself to just poke at random topics, you are not really having the experience I’m sure the author intended. And here is where I’ll admit that I was a jumper arounder, an index flipper, an, “Oh, what about—“ type of reader in this book. And further, I will admit that I may, after all that, not have actually read the whole book. I’m very sorry, I know I am just a horrible, horrible person, but to be honest, I had other books waiting for me that I wanted to read more.
In the opening to a section on culture, Blanning writes: “…I have tried to find a conceptual vessel which steers clear of the Scylla of a list of great names without being sucked down into the Charybdis of overgeneralization.” Maybe, though, this is an impossible task. In a large survey such as this you can’t get bogged down in too much detail, but then you’re left making only sweeping, quick generalizations. So again, I suppose the best way to deal with this is simply to remember the task at hand, that this is a book that is best read as an introduction to a time period, not an in-depth study of anything.
I feel this is an enormously useful book; if I was going to write something set in this time period and wanted to get a feel or introduction to an event or part of the era, I would take a look here to see what I could find. But I just didn’t find it a can’t put it down, read from cover to cover kind of book, which of course, is what I had hoped for.
When I wrote about Lynne Olson’s fantastic Troublesome Young Men, I noted that I was somewhat surprised by the depth of pro-Nazi feeling in England in the 1930s. I thought this was something to be explored further, and who better to start with than the Mitfords?
There were six Mitford girls, with at least four achieving some notoriety throughout the 1930s and 40s. The Mitford family were that peculiar type of minor British nobility that on one hand were always complaining about how poor they were and doing all sorts of penny-pinching just to get by, but yet always seemed to be living in some tremendous estate, traveling to Paris for finishing school, or planning trips. I would like to be that kind of poor.
Whether they were rich or poor or somewhere in-between, the Mitfords were still undeniably of the upper-class, meaning that they spent time with other nobles, rich people, and famous people (Winston Churchill was a relative). The Mitfords’ fortunes, or lack thereof, were enormously aided by the fact that they were all very pretty (and in the case of Diana, the second oldest, actually one of the great beauties of the day) and enormously witty, the archetypal Bright Young Things.
Nancy is probably the best known today; she made her own fortune by writing Evelyn Waugh-esque novels such as Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Diana is of course known for her looks, as best portrayed in perfect period Cecil Beaton photos. Jessica became a journalist and also wrote books. Deborah is probably the most undeservedly unknown; quiet and lacking the glamour of her sisters, she did the country a small but invaluable service when she married a Cavendish and in the post-war years helped save the legendary Chatsworth estate.
Mary S. Lovell tells the story of the Mitfords in The Sisters. Covering the meeting and courtship of their parents all the way to the present and the sisters who are left (here you’ll have to forgive me…this book was overdue and I just had to return it so I’m going to be working from memory). This means lots of details about schoolroom fights, illicit romances, various interfamily spats, and most importantly Girls Gone Political Wild.
Diana married quite young, to a Guinness, no less. Her marriage seemed to be going well. She was rich, beautiful, and her husband to all accounts, was quite nice. Then she fell for Sir Oswald Mosely, the head of the British Union of Fascists. A scandalous affair, divorce and eventual remarriage to Mosley followed.
Diana’s younger sister Unity, meanwhile had herself fallen for all things extreme and fascist, including an infatuation with Germany and Hitler. Here is where I must mention that her full name was Unity Valkyrie and she was conceived in a small Canadian mining town known at the time (and surely not anymore) as Swastika (her parents had gone there in an ill-fated attempt to strike it rich). If anyone ever wanted to argue that names are destiny, Unity is the best evidence. She went to Germany to study, and aggressively worked her way into Hitler’s circle by doing, what I suppose pretty girls have done since time in memoriam: finding her infatuation’s regular haunts, and planting herself in his line of vision (this does not work for us less genetically lucky females; I could set myself on fire and men would walk by without noticing). Soon she was having tea with Hitler, sitting by his side, a regular pet of the great dictator. When Diana and the Mitford mum, Sydney came to visit, they all got to know Hitler and found him charming and likeable. If you think this all makes for some very peculiar reading, well, you’re right. Peculiar might be too nice a word. Creepy might be better.
Soon the Mitfords were known all over Europe as the 1930s equivalent of Hitler groupies. Unity was often referred to as Hitler’s girlfriend, though to all accounts their relationship was platonic. Hitler supposedly found her entertaining, but told associates that he would never get involved with a non-German woman. Others speculated that he just wasn’t as interested in women as he was in building power. This seems apparent.
Meanwhile, younger sister Jessica, better known as Decca (btw, each Mitford had about 800 nicknames. What is it with the British and nicknames?) fled about as far in the other direction as possible. She had become interested in communism while in her early teens, and when she met her second cousin Esmond Romilly, impeccably red with a stint fighting for the International Brigade in Madrid on his resume, she fell in love. The two ran off to Spain to cover the war for a newspaper, causing a huge scandal with her parents and sister trying to get the marriage annulled. The scandal with Diana’s affair, divorce, and marriage to Britain’s leading fascist, Unity’s status as Hitler’s number one fan, and now Decca’s dramatic involvement with one of Britain’s most famous young communists led to one of the best headlines in newspaper history: “Mixed Up Mitford Girls Still Confusing Europe.”
Decca and Esmond eventually went to the US and worked in a variety of jobs, charming many people along the way. When Britain officially went to war, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed in action. Decca eventually remarried, moved to California, and became involved in civil rights and investigative journalism.
The war tore the family apart. Diana and her husband were sent to prison and interned for the duration as enemies of the state. Unity, whose dream had been for Britain and Germany to unite under a fascist banner, had threatened to kill herself if the two nations went to war against each other. When war was declared she shot herself in the head, but survived. Her hospital bills were paid by Hitler and she was eventually sent to convalesce in Switzerland. Her family came to get her and brought her back to England. She was brain-damaged and needed care for the rest of her life. She died in the late 1940’s after her old wound was infected.
Sydney retained her enchantment with the Nazis and Hitler while family patriarch David, who had briefly been brought into the German circle with other family members, turned back to Britain and against Hitler when the war began. He and Sydney fought constantly and were virtually separated for the rest of their lives. David never saw Decca again, could barely stand the sight of the once vivacious, now incapacitated Unity, and it was a long time before he could deal with Diana (who by the way, never really renounced fascism and managed to retain only the fondest recollections of Hitler. And rather unjustly, it would seem, remained stunningly beautiful into her 90s). The only son, Tom, was killed in action in Burma.
(As noted, Deborah remained fairly peaceful, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. Pam married a leading British scientist, was divorced from him after fourteen years of marriage, and spent most of her life in Switzerland. Nancy was avowedly antifascist, but not a communist like Jessica. She fell in love with a French politician and had a longstanding affair with him.)
This is all just a thumbnail, and probably more information than you wanted at the moment. As to the book—it’s a quick read, with lots of detail, but there was something about Lovell’s approach that made me feel a bit like I was reading a romance novel. Oddly, considering this was a book written by a fairly well-known biographer who had had a big success with a life of aviator Beryl Markham, there were some grammatical errors, as well as the occasional bouts of overwrought prose.
It makes an odd read, in a way. As I said previously, it’s strange indeed to read about the social Hitler having tea with Unity, Diana, and Sydney. Lovell tosses this off casually and seems reluctant to put any judgment on Unity or Diana. She finally somewhat grudgingly notes that Unity remained callously indifferent to the events going on around her in Germany, indifferent to the most obvious signs of Hitler’s harshness and anti-semitism. She also doesn’t deal much with Decca’s communism and when or where she might have had regrets. But maybe that’s not her place. Maybe it’s better just to put it out there and let the reader make the judgment. That certainly would be a valid approach. But for me, sometimes this felt overly cautious.
One of the most mysterious parts of the Mitford story is how and why both Unity and Decca became so engaged in extreme politics at such a young age, when they lived in the country most of the time, with politically uninvolved parents, and with only finishing school type educations. Did someone influence them? Did they pick up a book somewhere that changed their lives? There is no explanation or background from Lovell and I would have liked one. The other thing I missed is that there was a lack of context to their stories. Although we get the occasional headline, it’s mostly about the family. There is little about the world around them and where they fit in. This book makes you feel sometimes like the Mitfords were the most important people in England and they weren’t.
I know little to nothing about the Korean War. I guess I really only have three associations for it. Of course I think of the Korean War as the sham setting for MASH, which even little kids watching reruns recognize is really about Vietnam (and by the way, that’s really confusing when you’re a kid). The next thing I know is that it was the first war where helicopters became important. And finally, I remember a woman I worked with who told me once about an uncle, who fought in the war when he was seventeen, was wounded, came back, and in her words, “never really recovered.” And he was bitter that the war that had so changed his life was so forgotten, so little talked about, so lost between history’s two favored conflicts of the 20th century, World War II and Vietnam.
The Korean War is easily lost in the shuffle. It was a strange conflict, not as clear as WW II, and, taking place at the dawn of the television age, not as viscerally in-your-face as Vietnam. But it’s worth taking the time to unravel, because it is really a piece of the Cold War; in fact, you may say that it gives lie to that name in a way. The general implication of the term “Cold War” is that it was a war not fought by soldiers, but was rather a standoff between governments. The war in Korea, though, was fought with all the big West vs. East players, though—the US, China, and in a shadow role, the USSR—and they believed they were engaged in a struggle to save the world from (depending which side you were on) communism or capitalism.
So along comes The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s last book, and about as in-depth a primer on the Korean War as I could hope to find. This is a big, detailed book, and I would embarrass myself trying to refight the war in my own words. Suffice to say that Halberstam goes into all the reasons why the war started, why the US got involved, and why China got involved—the US neglected to include South Korea in their defense perimeter; Kim Il Sung in North Korea decided to take this opportunity to assert himself and attack; Kim, a military incompetent, took advice from China and Russia, with Mao, particularly anxious to make an impression on the world after chasing Chiang out to Taiwan; the US, fearing a repeat of the hesitation of the ‘30s that led to cries of appeasement and world war, entered to try to stop it before Korea was lost to communism, and thus the rest of Asia (ostensibly) to follow.
There are plenty of battle descriptions here and they are all miserable. Korea was a tough landscape for war—mountainous and bitterly cold. The US was not prepared for the weather and to be honest, the military was not in great shape. When WW II ended, there had been a huge outcry to rush demobilization of the troops and those that were left were poorly trained and unprepared for war. Defense budgets had been pared. The greatest leaders had been pushed into government jobs, and those that were left were horded by Macarthur in his Tokyo empire.
The real strength of this book is not the facts about the reasons for war, or the depictions of battle, but the portraits of the people involved. The most notable is Macarthur, the arrogant hero of two other wars, whose confidence in himself and his view of the world helped turn the war into more of a mess than it had to be. Macarthur was a 19th century man, with a view of Western superiority that made him constantly underestimate the Asian players in this game. He succeeded with the amphibious assault on Inchon, but it was a success that made the situation worse because once that worked, he believed all his ideas and plans would work, and no one felt they were in a position to challenge him at that time. But they should have. Macarthur tried to fight the war in Tokyo, using maps where inches were miles, and mountains were dark shadows. He force the soldiers into situations where they couldn’t win, and worst of all, refused to believe that China was entering the war even as he was confronted with stark, hard evidence.
Macarthur ruled by fear and those that succeeded with him were those that yessed their way to the top. In Macarthur’s army, no one rose on merit, but instead rose by how much they sucked up to him. The result was Macarthur putting one of his untalented toadies, Ned Almond, in charge of a corps that subsequently became involved in some of the most disastrous battles of the war. And when more competent men challenged him, Almond had them removed, thus compounding his mistakes.
Macarthur and Almond come off as the villains of the piece, but there were others making bad choices as well. Truman, for never having the courage to remove Macarthur until it was almost too late; those in the government who resented Truman and didn’t want to give him any help; Mao, for, well, being Mao and pushing his own soldiers to the brink; Stalin for never offering anyone quite enough help; the China lobby in the US, who kept believing in a mythical heroic Chiang who would come to the rescue if they just gave him a little more money an equipment.
But there were also heroes, like Colonel Paul Freeman, commander of the 23rd Regiment, who put in impossible situations constantly by his leadership, made as many good decisions as he could and always looked out for the welfare of his men; Matt Ridgway, who stepped in and took over for Macarthur when things were at their worst, and helped turn the war around; and of course the many ordinary soldiers who survived and fought as best as they could under horrific conditions and often inexplicable orders.
This book is often fascinating, often frustrating; it’s amazing how pettiness and politics that is better suited to junior high can play out and end in the deaths of powerless men. It’s also very useful—there are lots of maps, for which I am eternally grateful. I can’t tell you how many books about wars I have read that have almost no maps, leaving me constantly feeling lost. There also is a nice glossary in the beginning of military terms, particularly how many men are in a corps, platoon, regiment, etc. (this is the type of thing where when I try to ask Dad, he returns with, “Which war? Which front? Who was in command? What year?” Now you see where I get my annoyingness.).
I know more now about the Korean War than I did before, though of course not everything or even close to enough. The story of this sad, gray, unloved conflict is well-suited for this melancholy autumn. I recommend it, though with the warning that it’s a big, dense, detailed book. If you’re looking for light reading, this isn’t it. If you really want to learn something and are willing to spend the time, it’s worth it indeed. And I guess that’s all I should say, all I have to say.
In other news, the show is going well; audiences seem to be enjoying it (equal parts laughs and screams; nothing like a little fake blood around Halloween). Otherwise all else is sad. I make many mistakes and I pay for them over and over.
First: Let's go, Cleveland!
(and that's all I'm going to say about that subject)
So the latest--this one troubles me a little because I'm worried that I'm getting labeled as the bard of Ron Paul, a title which I don't particularly want. I prefer to think of it as being more about how campaigning has changed in twenty years, but whatever, the reader is the author; I can't control what people think--and if I had that power, trust me, I'd be using it on more interesting things than this issue (btw, they changed my original title and I'm not thrilled with their choice. Oh well).
This second one is pretty much a pure snarkfest that I did in a rush (I said, "Sure, I can have it to you by noon." I said that at 10:55 am). But I got to work in the Keyser Soze monologue from The Usual Suspects, and that's always good fun. So as always, read if you dare.
In other news, everything is awful.
Here's another one that was so embarrassingly long it, again, had to be split into part I and part II. Part II has some pictures in it; they're not the ones I would necessarily have chosen out of the excessive amount I submitted, but I can't complain. I never was in love with the whole piece, to be honest, but the Powers That Be liked it and it seems to have been reasonably well-received, so who cares about my opinion? Take a look at the monster if you're so inclined.
Sorry, no book reviews for a bit (okay, I know no one is sorry). Events have conspired to cut into my usual reading time and the book I do have now is long and going at in small bits and pieces isn’t enormously helpful (where was this huge book when I needed it two weeks ago? Am I the only person in the history of medicine to have uttered these words in an ER? “Please don’t admit me! I finished my book and I’ve read the footnotes twice!”). Instead, how about this:
I read a column by Rob Neyer on ESPN.com that posited this question, essentially, if you could go back in time to watch a baseball game, what would you choose? He opted for choices pre-1960, going with the premise that because games prior to that were televised in black and white, our images of those game are also in black and white (presumably he also meant black and white photos because some of the games he chose were way before anyone was televising anything). So what would we want to see in “living color,” as it actually happened, your own view instead of that of a historian or reporter or camera?
Now I’m not wild about this particular reasoning for the time period because, although it’s true that games were televised in black and white initially, there certainly was film of other games, for newsreels and such, and I’ve got to believe some of that was in color. I mean, I could be wrong on that but consider this: the first feature-length Technicolor film was Becky Sharp in 1935 (as you might imagine, it’s generally a bit stagy and stiff, but worth a look for Miriam Hopkins' no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners performance in the title role. Has there been a better Becky since? I doubt it). The technology took hold quickly—there are color films taken in the field during WW II and people were shooting home movies in color in the 1940s, so it’s not like there was a purely black and white film/video world prior to 1960. But that’s just pickiness on my part, as well as a reason to mention Becky Sharp, and if nothing else, you can always count on me for a bit of trivia and relentless flogging of things I like (here’s to you, Miss Hopkins). It’s an interesting question nonetheless.
(Sidenote: Neyer asks several writers to make their choice for the game they’d like to go back to. He checks in with Josh Prager, who wrote The Echoing Green, the winner of the not-very-coveted top spot in my 9 Best Books of 2006 list (no, I won’t ever miss a chance to plug my own stuff, but I do it just because I am very fond of those books and want to make sure other people know about them…I know, who am I kidding? I’m the only one reading this.) (did I just parentheses within a parentheses?!! I should be handcuffed and hauled off to punctuation jail)). This makes me think that this year’s list is going to need to be done frighteningly soon, and to be honest, it won’t be easy. I found many books this year that I liked, admired, or respected, but none that I loved. This may even be a Top Seven or Top Five list instead of Top 9.)
Anyway, where and when would I go back to? Considering how my appearance at a baseball game usually guarantees a loss, I probably shouldn’t choose a game that would have been important to a pennant race; I’m not up for rewriting history today. If given the opportunity to time travel, would it be smart to go someplace I’ve never been? Should I go to one of those games in Japan that featured all-star teams with the likes of Ruth and Gehrig? I’ve never been to Chicago. Maybe one of the Black Sox games (“hey, is it me or are these guys really not trying today?”)? Well, knowing what we know now, I guess it would be a good gambling opportunity. I love the 1930s—maybe a Cubs game in say, 1933 (“you know, that guy over there looks a little like Dillinger, like if he’d had plastic surgery or something…”).
But with my background, I guess it’s inevitable that my real choice would of course be a trip back to the early days of the original Yankee Stadium. I know, not very original, but there it is. For that, I guess I’d want to be there in the 1920s (I like reading about the 1930s, but I’m not going to volunteer to live during the Depression—even for a day). Let’s say 1927. That’s about as classic as you can get. But if I’m going to be back there, why not live it up a little? Let’s say that I’m a Broadway star, a sort of Adele Astaire type. At night I’ll perform in a frothy Gershwin musical, then go out and dance until dawn, sleep late, then go to a game at Yankee Stadium in the afternoon. I’ll drag myself in to the theater right after the game and my dresser will look at me disapprovingly and say, “How are you going to sing after yelling at a ball game all afternoon?” And I’ll just say, “I’ll be fine once I get onstage. Now get me a drink and where are my shoes for the ‘Life is a Bowl of Tutti-Frutti Ice Cream” number?”
I admit, the idea of time travel is rather attractive. I could use a break from here and now and all the attending awfulness. So many places and times, where would I go? To see a big historical event? To observe some tremendous moment of discovery? To look at a place untouched, in its original incarnation? There are so many things to choose. But you know what? If given the chance to time travel, I would give almost anything to take my sweet little dog for one more walk, late on a summer night.