Archive | Book Review RSS feed for this section

Hitler Revised: Just Goin’ With the Flow

9 Mar

Bad boy Charlie Sheen’s ravings are strange, even frightening, but nowhere close to the evil rants of Adolf Hitler, the benchmark for public madmen in modern history. Or so I had thought. But it seems that 70-plus years after the start of World War II, historians are updating the common wisdom about the all-powerful German dictator.

Recent revisionist tracts, such as the diplomatic history 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy, tell us that Hitler didn’t want to start a world war and had no plans to conquer all of Europe let alone the globe. He merely wanted to make Germany the dominant nation in the middle of the continent. You know, just a little extra room for the German people to stretch out. Nothing to fight about.

On the military and economic history front, Joe Maiolo’s Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941 reveals that Hitler was only keeping pace with the arms buildup among other nations. England has tanks and bombers and warships; France has tanks and bombers and warships; the Soviet Union has tanks and bombers and warships, so, this logic goes, the Third Reich better damn well have tanks and bombers and warships, too. Hitler was simply following the crowd.

The Nazi leader, these tomes argue, was just a victim of his circumstances. Even without him the Second World War would likely have been inevitable. So, you see, Uncle Adolf was just playing out his role in the relentless march of history.

And speaking of Hitler playing his role, it’s now much in vogue to play Hitler in a role on the big screen. Comedies mocking the man tend to be popular among filmmakers, if not audiences, such as the 2007 flop My Fuehrer: The Really Total Truth About Adolph Hitler and this year’s Mein Kampf. (Of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers opened the door for these iffy movies.) But dramas have also emerged, including the riveting 2004 Downfall, about which critics worried that by showing the monster Hitler as merely a man who loves dogs and is kind to secretaries would subvert his place as the worst person in history.

But our firm faith that Hitler was the primary force behind the death and destruction of World War II is not built on ideas from movies. It comes from reading history. A history that some, apparently, want to alter.

Historical determinists like Overy and Maiolo eschew the “great men theory” of history. That is, whether you’re a Hitler or a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a Stalin, you are merely a bigger piece of flotsam in the relentless river of history, but flotsam all the same. No matter who you are, determinists reason, history will carry you along, you cannot make history happen. History is bigger than any single individual. Even a Hitler.

That’s nonsense. Men and women make history by their choices. When George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, all the evidence in the world refuting Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 or his collection of WMDs could not stop his single-mindedness. He could have said stop at any moment. But he didn’t. He chose to make history by starting a war. As I write this the Libyan people have joined the surge for freedom in the Arabic world, but one man, the nation’s dictator, is using his will and power to thwart the movement in the region. It’s his choice to battle against democratic urges among his people. And he may prevail.

Naturally, people are molded and influenced by their environment, their times, their family, friends, colleagues, and more. Ultimately, though, they make their own decisions. Others may choose to follow along or not, that’s their decision. This obvious truth is why the lame excuse among Germans at Dachau or Americans at Abu Ghraib that they were “just following orders” rings so hollow. People are responsible for their own actions.

It probably won’t take revisionists 70 years to explain and rationalize Charlie Sheen’s antics as being something beyond his control. He’s just another poor victim of circumstance. You know, like that Hitler guy.


My Pinko Past

25 Jan

This past weekend I finished reading Joseph Kanon’s brilliant 2009 thriller Stardust, which is set in Hollywood in the summer of 1945 immediately after the end of World War II. Partially a whodunit. Partially a look at how the leftist ideology voiced in the movies that helped sustain morale on the home front during the war became anathema soon thereafter.

Without giving away anything about the plot, Kanon reveals the tensions that reigned among the throng of German emigrants fleeing Hitler who had made their way to Southern California. Tensions exacerbated because their loyalties were always suspect, rightly or wrongly, as Ben, the protagonist, learns. That’s because the emigrants in the story had pasts that made them need to flee the Nazis, meaning they were intellectuals, socialists, or communists.

Of course, their pasts are not always indicative of who these men and women are in the novel’s present. At one point, one of the German characters, Ostermann, a distinguished writer who left the dark times in his native land for the sunny Southland, reflects on the ideological indiscretion of his youth. All youth, in fact.

“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change….A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”

When I was eighteen I was not for the Kaiser (I’m not that old.) or for anyone representing authority. It was 1969, Nixon was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was raging. That October millions of protestors in the United States marched, sung, and meditated for peace to come to Southeast Asia. Across the nation there were teach-ins, one of which I led at my high school in California. (You’ll note in the accompanying school yearbook photo, Peace Day fell in the same week as a varsity football game.)

Although young, naive, and mostly clueless politically, during the organization of my school’s Peace Day I found myself suddenly in common cause with people whose ideologies were far more developed and sophisticated than mine. I read what they recommended and began to fancy myself a radical. A mustache soon appeared below my nose and my hair fell over my collar.

Once I was in college I was ready to commit to a deeper radicalism. The war had gotten worse with the illegal (and immoral) bombing of Cambodia and the massacre at My Lai. I helped organize more protests and became friends with committed leftists.

Communism, of course, had been completely discredited by the perversion of Stalinism, the tanks in Prague, and the brutality of life inside the Soviet Union. So I hung out with Leon Trotsky’s followers, in this case those engaged with the now defunct Young Socialists Alliance. I subscribed to The Militant, which apparently still exists, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s when I was dreaming of a socialist paradise in the USA, the economy was on the rocks from underwriting the war for so long as well as suffering the effects of the first Arab oil embargo. And Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was claiming “executive privilege” that would have put the executive branch above the law. It was easy to be radical in that milieu.

Then something happened that opened my eyes. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon was not a monarch beholden to no one else. The president, every president, had to submit to the due process of law like anyone else.

Suddenly I felt good about being an American. A nation built on law actually meant it.

Unlike many who shape-shifted from being radicals on the left to be radicals on the right, I took baby steps away from militancy. Despite persistent pleas from my YSA buddies, I never formally joined. I stopped going to meetings because hardcore members would not admit that the Supreme Court’s decision was meaningful since it did not fit their blinkered ideological narrative of American politics. I let my subscription to The Militant lapse. For a few years I even became a Democrat, though as now, I mostly eschewed party affiliations because my progressive notions are still a little too pink for the Democratic Party, especially today.

Also, getting older made me less radical. What inspired me at eighteen no longer raised my spirits in my twenties let alone in my sixtieth year. As Ostermann said, Things change. And so do people.

24 Hours in Cyberspace: 15 Years Later

23 Oct

I was rummaging around some seldom-opened cupboards in the garage when I came across a few boxes of books that had been stored back in a corner when we moved to the Willamette Valley more than 10 years ago. Inside one container I found a copy of 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave still shrink-wrapped and pristine, untouched by human hands.

Published with much fanfare in late 1996, the book’s conceit was to have photographers around the world visually capture a single day (8 February 1996) in the life, as it were, of the worldwide web. More a magazine with many different stories to tell between hardcovers than a proper book with a single voice or point of view, 24 Hours in Cyberspace encompasses much of what exists today online, yet it lacks almost everything that is important about our contemporary cyberspace experience.

The sometimes goofy, occasionally poignant photos in the book reflect a random collection of people whose lives somehow touched the web. The team behind 24 Hours in Cyberspace showed how some people involved in health care, politics, education, and other areas are engaged with the worldwide web. They touched on sensitive topics as well, such as the proliferation of pornography and the spread of Holocaust deniers online. The attempt was a comprehensive glimpse of the influence of the web in daily life.

In truth, though, all the people covered in the book are also engaged with cellphones, televisions, automobiles, and other technologies we embrace. The web, as depicted in 24 Hours in Cyberspace, is just another tool. Nice. But not earth-shaking.

For example, one photo spread shows an American in St. Petersburg, Russia negotiating for his “prospective Russian bride whom he met online.” How different is that from bachelors in the Wild West shopping for mail-order brides in the penny newspapers of the day? And, while another photo shows some young women in Bangi, Malaysia who, according to the excitable accompanying text, “lift the lid on Pandora’s box as they check out a bare-chested Matthew Modine on Hollywood Online.” Hardly revolutionary considering most those women had probably already seen similarly dressed men in the thousands of magazines published in their country. (And Matthew Modine? Come on, ladies. Have better taste.)

Of course, it’s easy to carp about a nearly 15-year-old book which contends that the Internet “is a shape-shifting, borderless medium firmly in the hands of ordinary citizens bent on turning it to extraordinary ends.” Given that ordinary citizens in China, Iran, and behind other borders face government sanctions if they violate national laws while online seems to undermine that statement.

1996 was, in terms of the worldwide web, a far more innocent time. The authors of 24 Hours in Cyberspace could not envision Google battling with a sovereign nation over a search engine. Perhaps because the book’s producers did not even mention Google, Facebook, Twitter, social networking, software as a service, cloud computing, or any of the other truly revolutionary aspects of the Internet.

As such, 24 Hours in Cyberspace is not a very interesting or insightful book. It tells us nothing important about the real power of the Internet. Nor does it tell us much about who we are as human beings. But it does offer yet another proof point that making a bet on what we’ll be doing online even just a few years from now is probably a poorly placed wager.

Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century

9 Aug

If reading influences what we think and believe, it’s little wonder that so many of us have a jaded view of government, business, media, and society in general. Just look at your typical best seller list from the New York Times or USA Today and you’ll find them chock-o-block with thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre. Anyone familiar with these cousins of fictional style knows that nothing in life is what it appears to be; there’s always an agenda or conspiracy in play; and the truth exists merely to be suppressed.

Reading these books teaches you not to trust institutions of any sort. Politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs, journalists, and probably your next door neighbor are all up to no good. These genres feed a worldview nourished on cynicism, doubt, suspicion, and dread. Perfect books for our time.

I enjoy a gripping thriller or a taut mystery as much as (often more than) great literature. But the key to a top-notch one is not the plot, but the people in the plot. That’s where the thriller and mystery writer can match the literary artist. If they can engage you with characters at the level of, say, Edith Wharton’s Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, you’ve found yourself a winning writer.

Here’s a selection of character-driven thrillers and mysteries from the first decade of the 21st century that stayed with me because the people in them were complex, interesting, and even profound as well as fun to spend time with, if only on the page.

The Falls (2000) by Ian Rankin. Almost any Rankin novel of the last ten years is worth your time. Resurrection Men would be an excellent alternative. But the plot in The Falls is more subtle and satisfying. Inspector Rebus is, as ever, an exceptional antihero worth getting to know.

The Good German (2001) by Joseph Kanon. Set immediately after World War II in the ruins of Berlin, the story is a character study of a man trying to square his pre-War life with post-War realities as the foundation for the new Cold War is being laid. Conspiracy. Greed. Murder. Femme fatale. What’s not to like?

December 6 (2002) by Martin Cruz Smith. Not one of Smith’s better known works, probably because it’s not part of his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, et. al.), but it is his most intriguing. Plus, Smith introduces his most engaging and likable character, Harry Niles, who is caught up in a 24-hour whirlwind of events the day before the “date which will live in infamy.”

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) by Philip Kerr. If there’s a mystery/thriller writer with a higher IQ than Kerr, I haven’t read him or her. His novels make you think and none more than his quirky mystery involving Newton and his erstwhile assistant sidekick. However, if you’ve never read Kerr before start with The Shot or Dead Meat from the previous century. They’re better still.

A Place of Hiding (2003) by Elizabeth George. Most of George’s mysteries center on her Inspector Thomas Lynley. This one, however, takes two minor characters, Deborah and Simon St. James, from her other Lynley novels and puts them front and center in solving a knotty conundrum.

Bangkok 8 (2003) by John Burdett. Although I’ve read other Burdett novels with his delightful detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, this is the one that started it off. And it’s the best of the bunch.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson. Mysteries involving bad things that happen to children generally leave me cold. They deliver cheap thrills, building our interest around threats to the utterly innocent. Atkinson’s approach is much different, building the plot around the characters more than the crime. An exceptional story.

The Lighthouse (2006) by P.D. James. This is another excellent novel with the stiff, eloquent, and poetic Commander Adam Dagliesh. Almost any James novel will satisfy (such as 2001’s Death by Holy Orders), but this is particularly illuminating as her main character deals with issues as his career sputters towards its close.

The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) by Michael Gruber. A wonderful tale with a handful of characters who are all well-drawn, unique, and oodles of fun to follow through a fascinating plot that spans centuries. None of Gruber’s other books come close to this gem.

The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst. Everyone is spying on everyone else and everyone knows it. But our favorite spy is the best character of the bunch, Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon. Gallant. Brave. Thoughtful. If you’ve never read Furst, here’s the place to start.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 in English) by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Blomkvist. Need I say more, except this is the best of the trilogy.

Joe Pike: Precursor to an American Rebellion?

27 May

Thriller author Robert Crais has long used a character named Joe Pike, a sidekick to his main protagonist. Only in 2007 with the arrival of The Watchman has Pike gotten the star treatment. Step aside Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson is coming through.

Except Joe Pike is no fussy and proper Watson. He’s a bad-ass, non-nonsense anti-hero that executes swift justice along with the evil people who populate his dark Los Angeles streets. On occasion, if he must, he’ll work in concert with the law. But mostly he functions outside of it.

American literary history is rife with anti-heros who scoff in the face of authority while enforcing justice for others too weak to defend themselves. R. P. McMurphy, Sam Spade, and Huck Finn come to mind.

Joe Pike follows in their tradition. And, I wonder, if like those three, does he presage something else in American history? Rebellion, perhaps?

Huck Finn appeared in 1885 in the midst of labor unrest heretofore unknown in U.S. history, culminating in the Haymarket Massacre in 1886 and the founding of the American Federation of Labor in 1887. Sam Spade arrived 1930 just as the Depression was getting into high gear, leading to the election FDR and the much-needed reform of Wall Street. R. P. McMurphy showed up in 1962 as the Civil Rights movement was accelerating and the seeds of the student anti-war protests were sown.

In Crais second Pike novel, The First Rule,  the “good” guy spells out his anti-hero’s philosophy: 1. protect the innocent (a baby); 2. defend your friend (in this case, a dead man’s honor); and 3. stop a criminal plot (a shipment of illegal weapons). And he’s very precise about achieving his goals in that order. There’s nothing about enforcing the law or cooperating with authority. And like Huck, Spade, and McMurphy, he puts his own life on the line to achieve justice.

Screw authority. Do what’s right.

Joe Pike is no McMurphy, Spade, and certainly no Huck Finn. Few, if any, dissertations will be devoted to his influence in literature. But I found it interesting that after setting aside Crais’s latest novel I read Simon Schama’s essay, “On the brink of a new age of rage,” in the Financial Times (registration required) arguing that he thought revolution was in the air in the U.S. and the UK and that “we face a tinderbox moment.”

He writes: “Should [the U.S. and UK] governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation.”

Joe Pike will not lead us to rebelling against authority. Then again, neither did any other antihero in fiction. But like them, he captures a mood we feel today. A mood that is fed up with the excuses and the excesses of the powers that be, one that may ignite into a serious rebellion against authority. That certainly would be something dissertations will be written about. I only hope Joe Pike gets himself a footnote.

Lords of Luck

17 May

For those of you who remain concerned about the precariousness of our global economic situation, I highly recommend Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (The Penguin Press, 2009). It’s a wonderfully written book by Liaquat Ahamed, whose career has been in investment banking not academia or financial journalism. His is a fast-paced history replete with treasured anecdotes and insightful analysis about the most frightful of economic times that, if we’re not careful, may become second only to our own.

For those of you who prefer not to consider the possibility that our economies can actually worsen and who have faith that those in positions of power are capable and open-minded people, doing all they can to steady the financial mess we are in, I suggest you go see Ironman II instead. While equally chaotic as our economic messes, the movie, at least, has a happy ending.

Ahamed’s subject is what spurred the decisions of the financial giants who steered the global economy to the disaster of the Great Depression. When reading about Montagu Norman, the eccentric governor of the Bank of England, Benjamin Strong, the chronically ill gentleman of power inside the Federal Reserve, the luckless Emile Moreau at the Banque de France, and the Reichsbank’s vainglorious Hjalmar Schacht as well as the so-called experts in their respective nations’ finance ministries and treasury departments, I could not help but think of their doppelgangers in similar positions of financial power today. And I cringe.

Norman, Strong, Moreau, Schacht, and their co-stars were all fighting against or preparing for history’s financial shipwrecks. None of the men (and they were all men) in the early part of the last century could imagine any economic turbulence that might lay ahead of them. They made choices in the hope of bringing back prosperous and mythic times of yore. As a result, their decisions about pegging currencies to gold, balancing budgets, influencing exchange rates, or attacking inflation, deflation, national debts, and more succeeded or failed by sheer luck.

Worse, just like Alan Greenspan, the most overrated economic leader in generations, these men were captive to their ideological beliefs. If one of their pet constructs seemed to bolster the finances of their nation, they accepted that the success was based on the rigorousness of their ideas. If another construct failed miserably, they found a fallacious reason to excuse their blinkered belief system. Just like the mendacious and pedantic Greenspan.

As I’ve noted before about myself, I generally see the glasses we face in life as being half empty and often cracked as well. So it’s not surprising that when I look at our economic leadership of today and their policies, I see vain men and women driven by ideologies that work as often as not because of happenstance. Whether we escape even worse economic mishaps in the months and years ahead simply depends on how lucky they, and we, are.

Getting to 100

11 May

My 93-year old aunt Ida called me this morning. She actually meant to call her grandson also named Mark. Given that she’s legally blind and uses a voice-controlled telephone handset, it’s not surprising that she heard “Mark Duvall” when the machine’s electronic voice said “Mark Hall.” But we had a lovely chat, nonetheless.

In every other way, my aunt is in great health. She lives without a caretaker in a semi-independent retirement community. She doesn’t use a hearing aid. She walks every day without a cane or a walker. And she plays bingo with a little ocular help from a friend, two years her senior.

In many ways aunt Ida would be a pretty good example for a new book, The Roadmap to 100: The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which was written by a friend of mine, Randall Stickrod, based on research by Walter M. Bortz II, the former co-chairman of the American Medical Association’s Task Force on Aging and co-author. Aunt Ida was born on a California farm in 1916, married a local boy, raised six children, and has been active all her life. She never smoked, although her late husband did, and as far as I know, Ida never drank alcohol. What she did do a lot of, as I recall, is laugh. Still does, if today’s conversation is any indication.

Aunt Ida's mom & dad circa 1950

In Roadmap to 100 there’s plenty of information about exercise and diet, particularly the former. During a book reading at Powell’s Books last week, Randall said, tongue partially in cheek, “If you want to save the price of the book, well, in sum, we

say, exercise.” Actually, the book says much more than that, but it stresses the

importance of vigorous activity and backs up the assertion with hard data that the more you do so, the better your odds will be to live a long and healthy life, just like the title says.

The book also discusses diet and genetics, but it mostly reviews the science around how exercise leads people to better health. As Randall says, “You can’t eat your way to 100.” And, he says, your good (or bad) genes only contribute about 20 percent to your longevity.

What the book doesn’t cover is a sense of humor. I suppose that’s because there’s little science to back up the notion that laughter can lead to a long life. Although there is plenty of evidence to show that laughter can heal what ails you. Norman Cousins, the former editor of the Saturday Evening Post, was diagnosed with cancer and instead of moping around, he watched Marx Brothers movies and laughed himself to recovery.

Randall points out that the fastest growing demographic in the United States is the 100+ year old age group. Let’s hope they all exercise, so they can stay healthy. No one wants to be an invalid and live long. But in addition to running, biking, walking, and whatnot, I hope these oldsters also laugh. Because there are few things worse than grumpy old men and crabby old ladies, no matter what their age.