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05 January 2019

Book Review: The Secret Adversary

The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence #1)The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charming. I first read N or M? when I was 12 or 13 and fell in love with Tommy and Tuppence but I had never read this one. Though it seems like it's a tired formula now, a plucky couple solving crimes, one assumes when Christie was playing with it, it was original. And striking for Tuppence to be such an independent and mouthy woman. Bless her.


Have I said I love Tuppence?

Tuppence's given name is Prudence. She's the daughter of a vicar, to whom Christie alludes once or twice, always indicating that he is rather befuddled as to what to do about his unconventional daughter. Her nickname, Tuppence (as in "I don't care tuppence"), sketches her attitude towards convention. Like Millie, who was thoroughly modern.

When Tuppence, who has made it clear that she wants to marry for money, finally realizes she's fallen in love with Tommy after she has received a proposal from a fabulously wealthy millionaire; "What idiots girls are! I've always thought so. I suppose I shall sleep with his photograph under my pillow and dream about him all night. It's dreadful to feel you've been false to your principles."

Have I said I love Tuppence?

Christie makes it clear that Tuppence is the brains of the operation, a convention that was not typical in 1920s spy thrillers, where intelligent women were evil and beautiful women were built into the plot solely to provide romance for the hard-boiled leading man. As the two are trying to convince a secret agent to let them continue the accidental investigation they've started, the agent thinks this;

"Outwardly, he's an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it's quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn't got any....The little lady's quite different. More intuition and less common sense. They make a pretty pair working together."

Christie's writing is a bit blase but I didn't really care in the end. A fun, quick read.


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27 December 2018

Book Review: The Mother Tongue

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That WayThe Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Language is somewhat of a miracle. Bryson writes, "...about 30,000 years ago, there burst forth an enormous creative and cooperative effort which led to the cave paintings at Lascaux, the development of improved, lightweight tools, the control of fire, and many other cooperative arrangements. It is unlikely that any of these could have been achieved without a fairly sophisticated system of language."

We can infer much about the development and migration of humans based on language evidence. In the Indo-European language family, there is a common word for snow but no common word for sea. Therefore, humans started developing lanaguage somewhere cold and inland.

Bryson goes on to explore the oddities and interesting tidbits about how English came to be what we know as English.

Much of our history of people in England depends on an account written by a monk named the Venerable Bede, but his history was written 300 years after the events it described which, as Bryson writes, "...is rather like us writing a history of Elizabethan England based on hearsay."

But it's the history we have, so even when it's confusing and incomplete, we go with it.

Which is a metaphorical parallel with English. It's a mess. Boil means to bring water to a certain temperature AND also a gross pimple-like thing on your skin. Which are totally unrelated.

Also, sometimes a word means what it means and also means the opposite. Bryson points out, "Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean cut in half or stuck together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure but a horse that has bolted has taken off."

And it's not just our vocabularly. There are endless vagaries in pronunciation; "The combination 'ng' is usually treated as one discrete sound, as in bring and sing. But in fact we make two sounds with it--employing a soft 'g' with singer and a hard 'g' with finger ... We make another unconscious distinction between the hard 'th' of those and the soft one of thought. Some dictionaries fail to note this and yet it makes all the difference between mouth as a noun and mouth as a verb."

Bryson's book is full of little a-ha moments like that. He also has a little fun with the rules of grammar, most of which he thinks were originally quite dubious and originated in the mid-to-late 1700s, "a period of the most resplendent silliness, when grammarians and scholars seemed to be climbing over one another (or each other; it doesn't really matter) in a mad scramble to come up with fresh absurdities. This was the age when, it was gravely insisted, Shakespeare's laughable ought to be changed to laugh-at-able and reliable should be made into relionable."

Bryson doesn't discuss the Internet or Social Media because this book was published in 1990.


"At the time of writing, a television viewer in Britain could in a single evening watch Neighbors, a Australian soap opera, Cheers, an American comedy set in Boston, and EastEnders, a British program set among cockneys in London. All of these bring into people's homes in one evening a variety of vocabulary, accents, and other linguistic influences that they would have been unlikely to experience in a single lifetime just two generations ago."

So imagine what the internet has done since then. Netflix and other on-demand viewing programs. I would love for him to re-release a new edition with a forward that explores what we've done to language in the last 30 years because of these globalizing resources. Also, now that dictionaries live online, they are ever-changeable and updateable. I think Bryson could have a field-day with that.

Other interesting tidbits:
Did you know tidbit used to be titbit, but then the world went through a fit of properness and it was changed to tiDbit?

Did you know that written Icelandic has not changed all that much so modern Icelanders can easily read sagas written thousands of years ago?

Saint Patrick wasn't Irish. He was Welsh. The only reason he ended up in Ireland is that he was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was 16.

The Domesday book is pronounced "doomsday" because long o sounds used to be pronounced ooo. But it's not about doom. Domesday refers to "domestic"

The word "roundabout" is of American origin. It was invented by an American, Logan Persall Smith, who was living in England and was one of the members of a 1920s panel of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English. This panel decided how things should be pronounced and used, as well as making rules about vocabulary. Before Smith, traffic circles in Britain were called "gyratory circuses."

So, in Cockney, there's a tradition of playing a rhyming game to come up with new meanins for words. For example, bottle means ass; the rhyming phrase "bottle and glass" was a coy rhyming replacement for "ass" which was eventually just shortened to "bottle." This is where we get our term "bread" meaning "money;" bread and honey.

Also, in Bryson's list of dead words, I really want to bring back teetotaciously. I think "helliferocious" is already back, with an alternate spelling (hella ferocious)


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Book Review: The Man Who Loved China

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle KingdomThe Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Simon Winchester picks the most fascinating topics, but this book falls short. As have all of his other books for me, save for Pacific. Pacific is a strong book because it is structured as a collected series of articles; it does not need a through-line. It is loosely connected by the similarity in subject but does not really need to lead from point A to point B.

In this book, Winchester sets out to tell the story of Joseph Needham, a fascinating polymath who rehabilitated western thought about Chinese history.

Ostensibly, it's a biography. It needs to lead from point A to point B. But it is poorly edited and poorly structured; things that don't bear repeating are repeated, ad nauseum. Things that need further explanation are cast aside. And the main question posed, throughout the book, the "Needham" question of why China stopped inventing, is never answered. Because it is unanswerable. But, if so, why plant references to it throughout the book if, at the end, you're going to reveal that there is no satisfactory solution to the mystery?

But, regardless of my annoyance with the structure and the pedantic drudgery of the writing, I learned so much from this book.

I knew that many inventions claimed by the West were actually invented in the East; China is now famously given credit for gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press. What I didn't know is that this "discovery" is so recent. Needham visited China in the 1940s and his books that set out to prove it--Science and Civilisation in China--began to be published in 1954 (and are still being published, the latest of the seven volumes in twenty-seven books being released in 2015)

Needham single-handedly changed how the west viewed its history; the list of inventions originating in China is long (there is an 11 page index that lists all of them, including arched bridges, crossbows, vaccination against smallpox, paper, chess, toilet paper, seismoscopes, wheelbarrows, stirrups, powered flight, etc.)

Though Needham did not discover the Diamond Sutra, Winchester discusses it at some length. It is said to be the oldest printed book in the world, having been created with printing blocks a full 600 years before Gutenberg. The date it was created is helpfully written in the text; 868 AD. Of course, the printing press never really caught on in China. Chinese uses pictograms, phonograms, and ideograms to represent words or syllables, with over 30,000 characters, which meant that a printer using movable type would have to have over 30,000 precast blocks. In European languages, there are usually 26 to 35 letters that are reused in endless combinations to create language. Though a British-Hungarian archaeologist named Marc Aurel Stein found the library in Dunhuang in 1907, and bribed the abbot of the monastic group in charge of the cave, allowing Stein to smuggle thousands of documents, including The Diamond Sutra, out of China.

Needham explains this in his book. He also explains Chinese philosophy and religion and how it affected science. For example, from Volume II of Science and Civilisation in China;
"Heaven has five elements, first Wood, second Fire, third Earth, fourth Metal, and fifth Water. Wood comes first in the cycle of the five elements and water comes last, earth being in the middle. This is the order which heaven has made. Wood produces fire, fire produces earth (i.e. as ashes), earth produces metal (i.e. as ores), metal produces water (either because molten metal was considered aqueous, or more probably because of the ritual practice of collecting dew on metal mirrors exposed at night-time), and water produces wood (for woody plants require water). Such is the Dao of heaven."

Winchester does not go into detail about the inventions themselves; he instead tells the story of Needham's travels in China in the 1940s, which also requires background in Chinese history during that era, which requires knowledge of Japan's empire ambitions and WWII, none of which I was particularly familiar with. But there are some big holes in my knowledge of history that are now partially filled; China was fighting a battle with Japan (they had taken over most of the coastal regions) while also dealing with in-fighting between Chiang Kai-shek and the communist forces under the leadership of Mao Zedong.

Needham was in China at a time when the Chinese government had retreated to Chongqing (Chung King to our western ears) and traveled there under the auspices of the "Sino-British Science Co-operation Office" to help Chinese scientists keep the supply lines open to get the supplies they needed to continue their research.

Needham spent most of his time traveling through the country, learning as much as he could, buying as many books as he could, and flirting with as many women as he could. And then he came home, started writing his book, flirted a little too much with communism for comfort, got himself in enormous trouble when he was duped by Soviet spies into believing, and publishing, that the US government had used biological weapons in Korea, climbed back out of trouble again somehow, kept writing his book, kept living with his wife, with his mistress next door (the wife and the mistress were long-time friends; the three spent lots of time together), traveled some more, lectured a lot, became Master at Cambridge, smoked, preached, danced, sang, and lived. Until he died, at the ripe age of 94, working on his book almost literally until the moment of his death.

Fascinating man who deserves a better biographical treatment than this one.


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19 November 2018

Book Review: Travels With My Aunt

Travels with My AuntTravels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I simply loved this book the first time I read it, oh, 15 years ago? It outlined a life I could then only dream of. A kind of existence that I thought impossible. And not all the CIA/crime stuff. Just the life of wandering about having adventures.

Now I kind of have that life. Over the past three years, I have wandered around over 15 countries and lived in two locales that bear the markings of being rather exotic.

So on this re-read, I was not as taken with the locales and the idea of just going somewhere to go somewhere. And when that wasn't blinding me, I was open to noticing the flaws of the book, the worst of which is that it is poorly constructed and loosely bound, as if Greene wrote it in 7 different chunks, a month apart for each, and relied on his memory to recall what he'd written in the last chunk when he started the next one.

But I still liked it. The adventure. Aunt Augusta, the kind of woman we love in books and TV but would complain about endless were she part of our lives. A woman who, like the story she tells of Uncle Jo, is prolonging life by making each day something different.

And the periodic moments of Greene's writing that resonate. Like:

"Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember -- the hours when you had to take your medicine."

And this moment when two businessmen are discussing ideas about how to get rid of an inventory of plastic straws; "Then we produce medical evidence. That is the modern form of the legend. The toxic effect of imbibing alcohol through a straw. There is a Doctor Rodriguez here who would help me. The statistics of cancer of the liver. Suppose we could persuade the Panama government to prohibit the sale of straws with alcoholic drink. The straws would be sold illicitly from under the counter. The demand would be tremendous."

And this...

"'In a year,' my aunt said, 'what would you two have to talk about? She would sit over her tatting -- I didn't realize that anyone still tatted -- and you would read gardening catalogues, and then when the silence was almost unbearable she would begin to tell you a story of Koffiefontein which you had heard a dozen times before ... You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you'll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it every night while you try to sleep and Miss Keene reads.'
'You may be right, Aunt Augsuta, but isn't it the same everywhere at our age?'
'Not here it isn't. Tomorrow you may be shot in the street by a policeman because you haven't understood Guarani, or a man may knife you in a cantina because you can't speak Spanish and he thinks you are acting in a superior way. Next week, when we have our Dakota, perhaps it will crash with you over Argentina. My dear Henry, if you live with us, you won't be edging day by day across to any last wall. The wall will find you of its own accord without your help, and every day you live will seem to you a kind of victory. "I was too sharp for it that time," you will say, when night comes, and afterwards you'll sleep well.'"

And this kicker, which stabbed me right in the heart:

"People who like quotations love meaningless generalizations."


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07 November 2018

Book Review: A Separate Peace

A Separate PeaceA Separate Peace by John Knowles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know when I first read this. One assumes I did as a pre-teen or a teen, but I don't remember reading it. I don't remember any specifics. All I knew is that the battered paperback I hauled around with me for 25 years always made me smile every time I would go through books to get rid of them.

And I never got rid of this one.

But, why? Why did it make me smile?

So I read it again.

And, frankly, I expected to be disappointed. I had read several reader reviews here, lambasting how horrible this book is. The hundreds of comments agreeing with some of the most negative of the reviews. The one thread on which the adults who hated this book as a teen gang up on the one or two current teens who piped up to say they liked it.

As divisive as our current political landscape, apparently.

So let me weigh in.

I LOVED it. Again. And one more time. LOVED.

It's ponderous. It's a little foreign, in that I am not a male teen in 1942 at a boarding school. But, you know, I'm also not a British teen wizard. Or a teen archery expert living in a dystopian future. I don't have to directly relate to the situations to directly relate to the characters.

But even though I did relate to the characters, it was really the writing that really made me love it. Not the story. Not the conflict. But the writing. The power. The force of description. The insight.

"cobblestones heaving underfoot like a bricked-over ocean squall"

"Until now, in spite of everything, I had welcomed each new day as though it were a new life, where all past problems and failures were erased, and all future possibilities and joys open and available, to be achieved probably before night fell again. Now, in this winter snow and crutches with Phineas, I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk."

"'What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.' I didn't really think that this was true, my seventeen years of experience had shown this to be much more false than true, but it was like every thought and belief of Finny's: it should have been true."

"Dr. Stanpole's car was at the top of it, headlights on and motor running, empty. I idly considered stealing it, in the way that people idly consider many crimes it would be possible for them to commit. I took an academic interest in the thought of stealing the car, knowing all the time that it would be not so much criminal as meaningless, a lapse into nothing, an escape into nowhere."

"The old phrase about 'If these walls could only speak' occurred to me and I felt it more deeply than anyone has ever felt it, I felt that the stadium could not only speak but that its words could hold me spellbound. In fact the stadium did speak powerfully and at all times, including this moment. But I could not hear, and that was because I did not exist."

"We members of the class of 1943 were moving very fast toward the war now, so fast that there were casualties even before we reached it, a mind was clouded and a leg was broken--maybe these should be thought of as minor and inevitable mishaps in the accelerating rush. The air around us was filled with much worse things."

"Finny...you wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing had happened to your leg ... They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's just what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight anymore. You'd make a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war."

"The advance guard which came down the street from the railroad station consisted of a number of Jeeps, being driven with a certain restraint, their gyration-prone wheels inactive on these old ways which offered nothing bumpier than a few cobblestones. I thought the Jeeps looked noticeably uncomfortable from all the power they were not being allowed to use. There is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left, and as I watched the Jeeps almost asserting a wish to bounce up the side of Mount Washington at eighty miles an hour instead of rolling along this dull street, they reminded me, in a comical and poignant way, of adolescents."

"...it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart."

I'm really glad I've been hauling this around for 25 years. I'm going to haul it around for at least 25 more.


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03 November 2018

Book Review: Tyrant

Tyrant: Shakespeare on PoliticsTyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, that one took me a while. I'm going to blame an overseas move to China and the fact that, a month ago, 3 New Yorker magazines actually made it to my Chinese mailbox all on the same day, which distracted me from this little tome for several weeks.

But I'm also going to blame my inability to keep looking at the dumpster fire. Sometimes you just have to look away.

But none of those reasons detract from this being an instructive, if challenging, read.

Trump is not named in this book but he looms ominously in the near background much like he did at the televised debates with Clinton in 2016. Greenblatt says in his Acknowledgments that he sat in "...a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehension about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it. 'What can I do?' I asked. 'You can write something,' he said. So I did."

As the title indicates, this is a study of tyrants in Shakespeare — the Henry VI trilogy, with the rise and fall of Jack Cade, Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Leontes, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus.

Tyrants do not come from a vacuum. They are brought to power by simplifying complicated issues into shouting points. By drawing a line in the sand and requiring the populace to choose sides. Tyrants are aided and abetted by the political systems of their time.

In the chapter entitled "Party Politics" Greenblatt discusses the Henry VI trilogy, wherein Shakespeare tackles the War of the Roses and the fact that, eventually, people forgot what they were really fighting about, which paves the way for a tyrant. "The roses serve as party badges; they designate two opposed sides. With a weird immediacy, the legal argument (whatever it was) gives way to a blind adherence to the white or the red."

In the chapter entitled "Fraudulent Populism," Greenblatt outlines how tyrants use ignorance to further their grasp of total power. "Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader ... surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of the underclasses. In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable. But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions."

In the Henry VI trilogy, the tyrant has a patsy, a fellow named Jack Cade. Cade was a real person who led a rebellion against the government in 1450. Shakespeare made him into a tool of the tyrannical ambitions of the Duke of York. It is in response to Cade that the famous line --"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"--is uttered. Greenblatt writes, "For Cade's ardent supporters, the time-honored institutional system of representation is worthless. It has, they feel, never represented them. Their inchoate wish is the tear up all the agreements, cancel all the debts, and wreck all the existing institutions...The poor whose passions Cade is arousing feel excluded, despised, and vaguely ashamed. They have been left out of an economy that increasingly demands possession of a once-esoteric technology; literacy. They do not imagine that they can master this new skill, nor does their leader propose that they undertake any education. It would hardly suit his purposes if he did so. What he does instead is manipulate their resentment of the educated."

As Cade and his followers become a mob and sweep through London, they capture Lord Saye, whose worst crime, according to Cade, is building a grammar school. Greenblatt writes, "We are meant to find this ridiculous, of course; the scene is quite rightly played for laughs. But Shakespeare grasped something critically important; although the absurdity of the demagogue's rhetoric was blatantly obvious, the laughter it elicited did not for a minute diminish its menace. Cade and his followers will not slink away because the traditional political elite and the entirety of the educated populace regard him as a jackass."

The Henry VI trilogy is the prelude to Richard III and in the chapter entitled "Enablers," Greenblatt explores the tyrant's need for sycophants. Richard is trying to come to the throne through a campaign that spreads misinformation; the illegitimacy of the other claimants to the throne. It doesn't work at first; the populace simply does not comply. But the tyrant and his sycophants do not stop. "The steady barrage of falsehoods plays its part, working to marginalize skeptics, to sow confusion, to quiet protests that might otherwise have erupted. Whether from indifference or from fear or from the catastrophically mistaken belief that there is no real difference between Richard and the alternatives, the citizens fail to resist."

Richard takes the throne. But he has still not eliminated all the more legitimate claimants; he is keeping one alive in the Tower. Richard, in discussions with Buckingham, alludes to Edward still being alive and asks Buckingham what he thinks Richard should do. Buckingham refuses to say what Richard wants him to say; he refuses to be complicit. Richard doesn't need Buckingham's permission, of course, but he wants his consent. "At this critical moment at the onset of his reign, he [Richard] wants and needs to be assured of his associate's loyalty, and that loyalty is best guaranteed by having Buckingham make himself an accomplice to a horrendous crime."

Greenblatt goes on to write in the chapter entitled "Tyranny Triumphant;"

"For the tyrant, there is remarkably little satisfaction. True, he has obtained the position to which he aspired, but the skills that enabled him to do so are not at all the same as those required to govern successfully. Whatever pleasures he might have imagined would be his give way to frustration, anger, and gnawing fear. Moreover, the possession of power is never secure. There is always something else that must be done in order to reinforce his position, and since he has reached his goal through criminal acts, what is required inevitably are further criminal acts. The tyrant is obsessed with loyalty from his inner circle, but he can never be entirely confident that he has it. They only people who will serve him are self-interested scoundrels, like himself; in any case, he has no interest in honest loyalty or dispassionate, independent judgment. Instead, he wants flattery, confirmation, and obedience."

In the chapter entitled "The Instigator," Greenblatt deconstructs the character of Macbeth. "In Richard III, Shakespeare imagined the beleaguered tyrant torn between self-love and self-hate. In Macbeth, the playwright probes far deeper. What has it all been for, the betrayals, the empty words, the shedding of so much innocent blood? It is difficult to picture the tyrants of our own times having any such moment of truthful reckoning."

In the chapter entitled "Madness in Great Ones," Greenblatt tackles King Lear, those rulers who started out legitimate and who have lost their minds along the way. "They may have thoughtful counselors and friends, people with a healthy instinct for self-preservation and a concern for their nation. But it is extremely difficult for such people to counter madness-induced tyranny, both because it is unanticipated and because their long-term loyalty and trust have inculcated habits of obedience... What he [the tyrant] wants is loyalty, and by loyalty he does not mean integrity, honor, or responsibility. He means an immediate, unreserved confirmation of his own views and a willingness to carry out his orders without hesitation. When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger."

As Paulina says in defiance to the tyrant Leontes in The Winter's Tale "It is an heretic who makes the fire, Not she which burns in't"

But Paulina is a noble. A high-born. Shakespeare never writes in his plays of the common people defying tyranny. Only investing in it.

According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare thought common people "...were too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by trivial gifts..." Save for one nameless servant in Lear, Shakespeare does not depict anyone but elites fighting back.

The power of democracy for Shakespeare was only defined by the example of Rome, which was inherently corrupt and fallible.

Rome fell.

In Shakespeare's last play, Coriolanus, he finally gives the populace a little credit for having the spine to reject a dictator. But not much. It was still Rome, after all. Plebians are easily fooled and manipulated.

Is our example of democracy in America something the might have changed Shakespeare's mind? What would he make of the Tragedy of Trump?

"...Shakespeare reflected throughout his life on the ways communities disintegrate. Endowed with an uncannily acute perception of human character and with rhetorical skills that would be the envy of any demagogue, he deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest instincts and to draw upon the deepest anxiety of his contemporaries. A society locked into bitterly factionalized party politics, in his view, is particularly vulnerable to the fraudulent populism. And there are always instigators who arouse tyrannical ambition, and enablers, people who perceive the danger posed by this ambition but who think that they will be able to control the successful tyrant and to profit from his assault on established institutions ... There are periods, sometimes extended periods, during which the cruelest motives of the basest people seem to be triumphant. But Shakespeare believed that the tyrants and their minions would ultimately fail, brought down by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished."

Tyrants never win, for good, in Shakespeare.

Macbeth's Act V Scene 5 soliloquy after the death of Lady Macbeth is one of my favorite moments of Shakespeare. And one of my favorite lines is, "It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."

When read as judgement of the general human condition, the soliloquy is an exercise in hopelessness; what we do does not matter in the end.

But when read as a judgment on tyranny, it is full of hope.


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26 August 2018

Book Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great story told with the indecision not only of what to include and leave out but simply how to tell it. Edsel, and Witter, who is credited with co-authoring, decided early in the book to leave out the Italy Monuments Men but, after having read it, I wish they had focused even more. The survey they tried to do left me confused about who was who and jumping back and forth over the continent chaotically, much like the Monuments Men themselves.

I feel like now that this story is being rehabilitated, better popular histories will emerge. I can only hope they will, because these are great stories about the Greatest Generation. I don't think we'll ever fully understand the magnitude of what they saved.

Nor are we giving culture and art the same priority in our current world-wide conflicts. We still have a thing or two to learn, I think.

"If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future." Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of Museum Directors, 1941

The provenance and ownership of art can be a tangled web and war tangles the tangle. Take the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the masterworks of Western art. Hitler's K├╝mmel Report, commissioned in 1940, laid Germanic claim to much of Europe's valued art.

"The inventory listed every work of art in the Western world--France, the Netherlands, Britain, and even the United States--that rightly belonged to Germany. Under Hitler's definition, this included every work taken from Germany since 1500, every work by any artist of German or Austrian descent, every work commissioned or completed in Germany, and every work deemed to have been executed in a Germanic style.

The Ghent Altarpiece, though fully Belgian, was deemed Germanic in style. But there was further claim. Prior to World War 1, Germany owned six side panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Treaty of Versailles was designed to punish and decimate Germany. It was the thorn in Hitler's side, to him, it was the fullest representation of the humiliation that the rest of Europe visited on Germany and the most concrete example of the failings of German leaders of the past. It was such a flashpoint for Hitler that when Germany overran France in 1940, Hitler had his underlings locate the exact railcar in which the Treaty had been signed. And in that railcar, he forced the French to sign a new treaty.

But Hitler wasn't done. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to return the Ghent Altarpiece panels to Belgium as war reparations. So, for Hitler, stealing the panels back, and acquiring the rest of the Altarpiece, was personal.

The Ghent Altarpiece was one of the holy grails of Monuments Men work. Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna was another. The Nazis looted the Louvre (thoughJ acques Jaujard had already secretly removed almost 4,000 of the most important works). But there were also thousands upon thousands of minor works. There were the art collections of prominent Jews. And, near the end of the war, the treasures of Germany hidden from the Allies.

The Monuments men were looking for all of it. They were also trying to protect important buildings from destruction. They were protecting spires, stained glass, Roman ruins.

The Germans hid many works in salt mines. Salt, which used to make the world go round (it was so valuable that Roman legionnaires were sometimes paid in salt, from whence we get our word "salary.") became important again, but only as a bystander to the salvation of the world's art and culture.

They also hid art in aristocratic castles, like Neuschwanstein and others. Lincoln Kirstein (who after the war started the NY Ballet with Balanchine) had a run-in with a German countess that he describes in delicious detail in a letter home. "One lovely old countess received us in bed. She only had one poor little room in this elegant old mansion, and almost broke her neck flying into bed no doubt, as we swept into the court. She was an ancient bitch, Italian, who married a great german name, and is harboring a whole slue of art dealers, young 'sick' counts and barons...and my, have they had a terrible time. They almost didn't get out of Paris in time, and them with their weak lungs...she only had one little insignificant request to make. It seems some displaced Russian jewish polack american negroes had taken to shooting the deer in the animal-park, and it was not in season, and it was giving the chief forester NIGHTMARES."

This was the aristocracy that made Hitler's rise possible. They rode the wave, toasted themselves and their brilliance in Paris, then went home to hide and escape prosecution when the war started going the other way, often with their railway cars stuffed with stolen art.

Then they told fantastic stories about how they were never Nazis in the first place. Some claimed hardship. Some claimed torture. Others claimed they had never believed. Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler's photographer, had grown rich off of Nazism. But he had never been a "...believer, only an economic opportunist. Wasn't this the American way?"

Edsel writes that history is "more often than not a messy combination of intention, courage, preparation, and chance."

And at the end, Edsel encapsulates one of the ironies of the war. Harry Ettlinger, a translator with the Monuments Men, had been born a German Jew. He escaped to America in 1938, right after his bar mitzvah, and then was drafted by the American Army the day he graduated from high school. Growing up in Karlsruhe, he was never allowed, as a Jew, to go to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where the prized exhibit was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. After the war, Ettlinger was photographed saving the very Rembrandt he had always heard about, but had never been allowed to see. https://static.timesofisrael.com/www/...

I look forward to reading more about the Monuments Men as their story is coming into focus in the 21st century.

And apropos of nothing, this is a description of a Monuments Man named Walter Huchthausen, who was killed in action.

"...the few people who saw him at his job--friend and enemy--must think more of the human race because of him."

We should all strive to be the kind of person about whom things like this are said.




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