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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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03 June 2018

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill HouseThe Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With blurbs like "Gripping, unputdownable" I expected more from this book.

I found it putdownable in both senses of the word. It was obtuse, disorganized, and unsatisfying.

The introduction set me up for a thrilling read. Then Summerscale dissertationed the heck out of it, heading off on trivial tangents, spending pages saying virtually nothing, and never giving the reader the satisfaction of insight.

Summerscale describes the investigation into the crime as "...like a torch swung round onto sudden movements, into corners and up stairwells." And, indeed, her book was the same, though she let her flashlight rest on minutiae far more than necessary, perhaps in an attempt to create content where there was no content.

Some interesting trivia about the development of the idea of a "detective" and fiction devoted to the craft, though. The word "clue" derives from "clew" which means "ball of thread." The word had come to mean "that which points the way" do the the myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. The word "detect" comes from the Latin de-tegere which means "unroof." Summerscale says "the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus, 'the prince of demons,' who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside." The term "red herring" was not invented until 1884 and derives from something that puts bloodhounds off a scent.

And this, from an 1853 editorial in the London Times was moving to me;
"Nothing can be more slightly defined than the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity . . . make the definition too narrow, it becomes meaningless; make it too wide, and the whole human race becomes involved in the dragnet. in strictness we are all mad when we give way to passion, to prejudice, to vice, to vanity; but if all the passionate, prejudiced and vain people were to be locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key to the asylum?"

But otherwise? Skip it.


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26 May 2018

Book Review: Camino Island

Camino IslandCamino Island by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We picked this up at the airport in Paris. We are about to move from Africa, back to the US for the summer, and then to Shenzhen, China in the fall. Because of this, we are trying to reduce our weight; meaning we need to be able to fit our belongings in 7 boxes weighing less than 50 lbs each.

So we told the kid we weren't buying any more books. His argument was, "But it's about F. Scott Fitzgerald's manuscripts! Dad LOVES Gatsby!"

We bought it. It's a paperback. Those don't weigh much, right?

I haven't read much recent Grisham. I loved his early best-sellers -- The Firm, Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill-- but then I stopped reading him.

I expected something different from this book, the plot of which seemed to wander about in a lethargic way, like a southerner telling a tall tale while sipping lemonade on a wrap-around porch during a hot summer afternoon. I didn't think Grisham was capable of wandering. But this book is mostly spent lavishing with a cast of characters that would be more comfortable in a lazy summer beach read.

The New York Times wrote the book "reads as if Grisham is taking a vacation from writing John Grisham novels." Yes. That. Exactly.


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23 May 2018

Book Review: The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train RobberyThe Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used my "define words by context" skills quite a bit in this book;

"It was the stickman's job to take the pogue once Teddy had snaffled it, thus leaving Teddy clean..."

"She's a judy. Clean Willy's doll. Pinches laundry, doesn't she? Aye, she does a bit of snow."

"Every night. It's the reeb that does it. Reeb gives a man a powerful urge."

"That's the lay? You popped me out of Newgate for this? This is no shakes, to knock over a deadlurk."

Finally, on page 179, Crichton admits to the cryptic nature of the slang;
"'Dressed proper, with good manner, but speaks a wave lag from Liverpool, and he can voker a romeny." Harrenby glanced at Sharp, in the corner. From time to time, even Harranby needed some help in translation."

The word "cockchafer" was used multiple times before it was defined at the end of the book as a treadmill used to punish prisoners.

This is historical fiction. But one would make a mistake if one actually tried to learn history from this historical fiction. Crichton is an unreliable historian. Though he mentions well-known things from history, like the Crystal Palace from the 1851 Great Exhibition, he also fully invents some things, like the story of George Bateson.

Google George Bateson. There are several articles citing as fact that he invented a system to prevent people from being buried alive. But, in fact, this "fact" originated in this book. Crichton made it up and, through a series of erroneous citations, Crichton's fiction has been elevated by some to fact.

I took it as fact. Then I thought to myself, "Huh. I wonder if 'bats in the belfry' comes from Bateson and his belfry?" It doesn't, of course. George's name and the name of his fictional device is a joke, designed to make the reader think of the phrase, not the other way around.

The Bateson story doesn't happen until 3/4ths of the way through the book. Makes me wonder how many other asides I took on faith as accurate Victorian history when they were really just fanciful inventions of Crichton's imagination. Is a cockchafter even real?

Just another reminder to read, research, and check your facts with reliable sources before you claim something as real. A good lesson to learn, again, in this age of "fake news."


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19 May 2018

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other EinsteinThe Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hate reading about abused women. I hate having to be a bystander while these women make decision after decision to stay with a person who only seeks to invalidate and minimize them.

So I did not like this book.

It was interesting to me that the word "mercurial" popped up every five pages or so. Either that was a calculated conceit by the author or she needs a better editor.

However, I did enjoy the clarity with which the idea for the theory of relativity comes to Mitza; "What would happen if the train left the station not at sixty kilometres and hour but at close to the speed of light? What would happen to time? If the train left the station at rapid speeds approaching the speed of light, the clock's hands would still move, but the train would be moving so quickly that light could not catch up with it. The faster the train accelerated, the slower the hands would move, ultimately freezing once the train reached the speed of light. Time would effectively freeze. And if the train could go faster than the speed of light, then time might roll backwards."

I also enjoyed this nugget of reflection on why great people who are also awful people are sometimes universally adored; "It's as if they've transformed their professional admiration into unshakeable personal affection, no matter how contemptibly he has acted."


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15 April 2018

Book Review: Timeline

TimelineTimeline by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting idea but poorly executed and written. I did not care about even one character, which was a shame. The descriptions of the Middle Ages were intriguing (as well as the lecturing about how we have the Middle Ages all wrong) but I wanted a better story, or, rather, a story that was peopled as carefully as it was plotted.

"In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused."

"If you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree."


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14 March 2018

Book Review: Pompeii

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I devoured this book. As someone said in the Goodreads thread, "To focus on the water systems of Pompeii and surrounding towns as effected by the imminent volcanic eruption is genius and I can't put this book down. Think it is a great way to add interest to an event we already know of the outcome."

The idea of aqueducts has always been fascinating, though I lack the specific engineering understanding to fully comprehend how amazing they actually were. I've seen the ruins of several (most impressively, Segovia in Spain and Pont du Gard in France) but knowing that before laser measuring and surveying, Roman engineers were able to build these massive, yet delicately-designed, structures. "The great Roman roads went crashing through Nature in a straight line, brooking no opposition. But the aqueducts, which had to drop the width of a finger every hundred yards--any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant--they were obliged to follow the contours of the ground. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought."

Harris is a good writer in the sense that I was never given pause by his structure. Nor was I frequently blown away by his prose, save for a few dog ears like this one, where he is describing how smell and touch set off memory;

"But lately almost anything could set it off--a touch, a smell, a sound, a colour glimpsed--and immediately memories he did not know he still possessed came flooding back, as if there was nothing left of him any more but a breathless sack of remembered impressions."

I enjoyed every bit of it. Not once was I thrown off by the anachronistic coupling of language using modern terms cuddled up with Roman terms. Nor was I thrown off by the fictionalization of known Roman citizens.

Harris puts thoughts into Pliny the Elder's mind (and I'll leave it to the learned historians to determine how accurate his imaginings might be, although in the Acknowledgements, Harris says that Mary Beard read the manuscript and provided feedback; having just finished SPQR, I tend to trust that Beard knows what she's talking about) but one stream of consciousness Harris attributes to Pliny's thought process was particularly moving;

"Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and then dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails--and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?"

Ampliatus, the villain of the piece, wants his work in Pompeii to be important through the ages. He also wants to use predictions of the future as a way to solidify his power, so he commissions a sibyl, a fortune-teller, to give him a prophecy. And it's this prophecy that causes him to stay in the town as it is being pelted by ash and pumice; his conviction that Pompeii will survive.

"She saw a town--our town--many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more. She saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our ampitheatre, our streets--thronging with people of every tongue. That is what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure."

The moral? Interpreting prophecy can dangerous.

"It killed more than two thousand people in less than half a minute and it left their bodies arranged in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at. For although their hair and clothes burned briefly, these fires were quickly snuffed out by the lack of oxygen, and instead a muffling, six-foot tide of fine ash, traveling in the wake of the surge, flowed over the city, shrouding the landscape and moulding every detail of its fallen victims.The ash hardened. More pumice fell. In their snug cavities the bodies rotted, and with them, as the centuries passed, the memory that there had even ben a city on this spot. Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens."


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Book Review: SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The snob in me was prepared to hate this book. Like a learn-ed history teacher probably should.

But, me, I am not so learn-ed. And my knowledge of Rome was spotty, at best. SPQR helped me put everything together in a chronological order that finally helps me understand Rome.

See, it's not just empire. First it was a city-state run by Etruscan kings. Then there was the Lucretia incident, a likely mythical tipping point for Roman citizens to overthrow their foreign king and form a republic (I actually played Lucretia in the Britten opera once but never quite made the connection as to what point of Roman history all of it...too busy learning notes and blocking to learn history; shame). The Roman Republic was born at approximately the exact same time as Athenian democracy, but neither was glorious and fully formed at any point in history; at best, it was always a bunch of rich people struggling to retain their power. Then Julius Caesar is murdered, because they were worried he was becoming too powerful, and Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar, who became the power-concentrated-in-one-person those who killed Caesar feared.

Beard puts all of this together in an attractive narrative that gives just enough detail to keep me interested and intrigued but not so much as to overwhelm. I'm what she knows about Rome that she left out of this book would fill volumes.

As usual, the greatest pleasure of history is the interesting trivia about things I've never thought about before.

Like the word "Aborigine" comes from ab origine meaning "from the beginning."

Or September comes from "7th month" (October, 8th, November, 9th, December (10th) because the old Roman calendar was structured differently and then suffered from development as they were continuously challenged to find a way to keep time that was consistent but also matched with the natural rhythms of the world, which has 365 1/4 days in a lunar year (back then, once in a while, they'd add an extra month to get things back on track; now we add an extra day every four years)

Or the fact that, of course, they did not calculate time like we do. BC, AD, BCE, CE; all a product of our modern sensibilities applied after-the-fact to ancient times. Romans usually referred to dates by the names of the consul who held office.

Or the fact that in the 4th century BCE, the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War. The Latin word for "rams" is rostra, from where we get the word "rostrum."

Or the idea that the very idea of an electoral government is flawed because of the eternal conflict over whether the elected official is a "delegate," bound to vote exactly the way the people who elected him wish him to, or a "representative," elected to exercise his own judgement.

I'm writing this review 3 full days after I finished the book and I've already forgotten 80% of what I learned.

So I'll have to read it again. Then again. Then one more time. And I suspect it will be enjoyable each time because I'll have forgotten that I learned all this once or twice before. Everything old is new again.


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