Friday, January 28, 2011

5. Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower

I'm having a hard time getting this post out. I'm a bit rusty! I've been busy with the new year, but it was also this 487 page tome that has been occupying my reading these last couple of weeks.

I don't know what spurred me on to my sudden Eisenhower kick a few months ago, but it led me to Crusade in Europe, which is his account of the allied forces involvement and victory in World War Two. He wrote it three years after the end of the war, so the events were still fresh in his mind (it also heavily cited and documented as well) and many of the politics that took centre stage during his presidency were only then beginning to gestate.

First of all, World War Two is mindblowing. For those of us who grew up with the last cultural remnants of that period (Time Life books, Hogan's Heroes, Sergeant Rock comics, old war movies on Saturday morning), it is sort of a basic part of our upbringing and you almost take it for granted. I did also benefit from a pretty thorough education about the Holocaust as a child, whose impact never really became trivialized in my own consciousness. I truly hope that the next generations are learning this history as well. All of us should try not to forget the incredible scale of the war. Pretty much the entire globe (certainly all the white people) were fighting. What this book brings home, though, is the sheer scale of the logistics and even more amazing is how it was succesfully managed by a relatively small command group (led by Eisenhower) reporting back to their governments, dealing with all the competing political and military interests. Eisenhower's main point is that it was crucial that one person be put in charge. An interesting thesis and one I do not have the space (nor the knowledge) to get into here.

Another element that I found gratifying and yet frustrating, was the social consciousness and general common sense Eisenhower displays in this book. It's gratifying because it is nice to be reminded that the general zeitgeist in America was once one of generosity and awareness of the rest of the world instead of the selfish consumerism and fear-based anger that dominates her thinking today (not that that stuff wasn't around back then, as it has always been a feature of U.S. history, but it was way less severe). For instance, Eisenhower was totally against censorship in the military. Only in a few instances did he hide information from the press. On the contrary, he let them in early on information on many major attacks with the understanding that they wouldn't publish the info until it couldn't harm the allies' effort (and which except in one single instance, that of the Germans surrendering, the press followed loyally). He also dedicated precious military resources to make sure that any reporters got driven and escorted to wherever they wanted to go on the battle lines.

I believed that the proper attitude of the commander toward represnentatives of the press was to regard them as quasi staff officers; to recognize their mission in the war and to assist them in carrying it out. Normally the only justifiable excuse for censorship is the necessity to withhold valuable infommation that the enemy could not otherwise obtain. during the war I personally violated this general rule by imposing temporary political censorship in North Africa and by withholding advance notice of the eventual command arrangements in Normandy. Though my reasons, on both occasions, seemed valid to me, I never failed to regret what later proved to be a mistake.

In Word War II the great body of the American and British press representatives comprised an intelligent, patriotic, and energetic group of individuals. They could, with complete safety and mutual advantage, be taken into the confidence of the commander. When this was done the press body itself became the best possible instrument for the disciplining of an individual who violated any confidence or code under which the group was operating. Throughout the campaigns in the Mediterranean and Europe, I found that correspondents habitually responded to candor, frankness, and understanding.

In the handling of the press, the American practice was to provide every facility that would permit an individual to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. While this imposed upon us some additional administrative burdens, it paid off in big dividends because of the conviction in the minds of all that there was no attempt to conceal error and stupidity. These, when discovered, could be promptly aired and therefore did not grow in the the festering sores that would have resulted from any attempt at concealment. (page 300)

How mindblowing is that? I wonder what Cheney and the rest of Bush's administration thought of when they read that (assuming they actually knew any American history)? Even the basic idea of admitting fault, of admitting that there was error and stupidity at times seems lost to government and corporations and even individuals in America today.

Here's another amazing passage that really struck me:

Once the recruit of 1941 was inducted into the service the military leader had to shoulder almost exclusive responsibility for imparting such an understanding, but there was implied a glaring deficiency in our country's educational process. It seemed to me that constant stressing of the individual's rights and privileges of American citizenship had overshadowed the equally important truth that such individualism can be sustained only as long as the citizen accepts his full responsibility for the welfare of the nation that protects him in the exercise of these rights.

Every stupid teabagger and every entitled Liberal (and pretty much every Canadian as well for that matter) should read those words and think about them.

I could go and on about this book. I'll just say that it was a great read on many levels. It's a bit plain in style and at times gets a bit slow with a page or two on troops moving into position, but that never lasts more than a page or two. The story itself is astounding and followng it from the top is fascinating, enjoyable and educational. I would also recommend this book for anyone interested in leadership. Some great advice here on handling multiple allies, on maintaining morale in the people under you, in being direct, straight and respectful of your colleagues and subordinates. Overall, I found it inspiring and just kind of mind-blowing. You should read it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

4. Iceman 6 - Canadian Kill by Joseph Nazel

There was almost the whole Iceman series on display at S.W. Welch for the longest time. They are beautiful artifacts, but I always held off on buying them. Of them all, judging by the cover here, you can guess that Canadian Kill would be the one I really would want. We did a big sale of old books at the end of the year and I went a bit feverish with the $24 credit we had earned and I ended up picking this up.

The Iceman series was published by Holloway House, who are best known for being the first publishers of some classic ghetto literature, including Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. If Canadian Kill is representative of the series (and from other blog reviews I've read, I suspect it is), then Iceman is definitely a lower order of quality, both literary and political. I honestly suspect that this book had only one draft. There are many typos, but also some weird continuity errors and the occasional wrong name used. The set-up is spectacular and fantastic, but this particular story was quite pedestrian. Basically, Iceman is a street tough made good who now owns an insanely fancy resort in Vegas and has a coterie of beautiful, ass-kicking women and a jive-talking sidekick named Christmas Tree. They live in a world of trouble and decide to take a vacation at a remote cabin in Northern Quebec.

Unfortunately, they arrive by plane at their cabin just as young Yvette is escaping on skies from the snowmobiling guards of the New Body of Man whose top secret hideout just happens to be around the corner from Iceman's new ski chalet. A trigger-happy guard shoots the plane and thus Iceman and his team of beautiful deadly-handed babes and Christmas Tree have to pit themselves against this organization, led by the megalomaniac The Manager, that was just poised to take over the world.

It's basically Shaft meets James Bond, with everything turned up to 11. I do have to appreciate how quickly the action got started. Guns come out quickly and there is a lot of it. There was a weird trope where practically every time somebody got shot, the wound and blood was described in detail for at least one and sometimes two sentences. And yet there is absolutely no sex in the book! It's all offstage, a weird coyness that I would not have expected from a Holloway House book.

Joseph Nazel himself was quite an interesting guy. He cranked out tons of books and was a major player in the African-American journalism scene in the 70's, 80's and 90's, being an editor at a bunch of magazines. I suspect he was a better writer than the Iceman series indicates, but was probably just cranking these out to make his mail. I'd like to read a real in-depth biography of the guy.

It's weird, there is very little info that I can find about the Holloway House. They don't even have an entry in Wikipedia. Very odd. These guys are a crucial part of American cultural and literary history.

Friday, January 07, 2011

3. Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis

I received this book as a pleasant surprise xmas gift from my wife. I had never heard of it before, but it's certainly a book that I should know about. Lucky Jim is high on the list of my all-time favourite books, though I have never read another book by Amis.

Everyday Drinking is a collection of three previously published books on drinking by Amis, two of which, Every Drinking (1973) and On Drink (1983) were collections of his regular columns for a newspaper (the Times?) and the third, How's your Glass (1984) which is a long and challenging alcohol trivia quiz.

This is enjoyable, informative and even inspiring stuff. The first book is an excellent practical primer for the beginner and expert alike on how to drink. It gives sane, realistic and specific advice on how one should stock a home bar, how to one up wine snobs and get the better of cheap hosts (and also how to be a cheap host), the best strategies for dealing with a hangover and what kind of diet a lifetime drinker should have. I have come to enjoy alcohol and drinking a great deal in my middle years, but anybody who appreciates expertise should realize what a perfect expert Kingsley Amis was to write such a treatise. He was a lifelong practiced drinker with an expert eye on the foibles of human interactions (which is a big part of the fun of drinking, as Amis himself makes quite clear) and a brilliant and productive writer. This is a satisfying read simply because you really feel like you are in the hands of a master. Also, compared to a lot of similar foodie books of today, he always keeps his advice on the ground. I can't tell you how many recipes I just have to skip because the ingredients are not for sale anywhere outside of their point of origin or New York or LA. Other than the specifically British items (especially the beers), pretty much everything Amis suggests for you to start a lifetime of drinking can be found in any liquor store.

It's also quite funny. His acerbic and misanthropic wit is as sharp as ever here. He has a chapter on how to host a party, all based around avoiding sharing any of your good or expensive booze with the guests, but doing it in such a way to make the wives think you are super generous and gallant and the "old stagers" (the husbands who really want to get drunk) think you are cheap with the ultimate goal of ensuring that they have a good fight on the way home from your party. One nasty technique is in response to the old stager who demands a gin and tonic at a party where only wine is being visibly served. You fill up the glass with a lot of ice and tonic and then pour a small amount of gin gently over the back of a spoon so it lays on top of the ice. The first sip will taste quite strong, thus fooling the guest long enough. Yes, the privations of the Blitz sit deep with the Brits!

The quiz at the end is really tough and quite fun too. If I had any space left in my memory banks, I'd probably try and commit a lot of it too memory. It just seems cool to know.

Interestingly enough, after I had finished the book last night, I was thinking that it would be neat to find the original copies of these books. I thought to myself, this is the kind of book Louis XIV would probably be able to lay his hands upon. And lo and behold this very morning, he has a post up about the original hardback of On Drink in all its 70s British glory. Such a coincidence calls for a drink!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

2. The Blond Baboon by Janwillem van de Wetering

This is the third of the Grijpsta/de Gier/commisarius/Cardozo series that I have read and the most traditionally-plotted. It's a straightforward murder mystery, taking placed almost entirely in Amsterdam. Note how I include two more characters in the identification of the series. That's because the commisarius and junior detective Cardozo are featured as much as the two main detectives. Really, the detectives act as a team, with everyone participating, and really the series should be identified as "the Amsterdam municipal police murder squad series" instead of "the Grijpsta-de Gier series".

This time, a woman falls down her back stairs during a destructive gale. It looks like an accident and she was drinking, but there are too many weird minor other things going on for the team to simply let it go. Soon they are digging into a complex tale of the internal politics of a furniture business. As usual, the real pleasure of these books is the interplay between the detectives and their humanist approach to their work and the world. It's like putting on an old comfy sweater. I wonder if they made a TV show out of this? They should if they haven't.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

1. The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet by Michael Pearce

Some blog somewhere recommended the books of Michael Pearce. I simply wrote down the two titles recommended and his name on the list I keep in my pocket. I have completely forgotten where the recommendation came from. I'd like to rectify that if I could, so if it happens to be any of the vast audience who reads this, throw me a comment.

The Mamur Zapt is the head of the British Secret Service in Egypt when it was under Britain's control in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Return of the Carpet is the first in a series of 16 books about the Welsh army captain, Gareth Cadwallader Owens, who fills this role of intrigue, politics and investigation in Cairo. I really don't know much else about the pedigree of these books, besides the brief bio in the back about the author, who grew up in Egypt and went back there to teach.

The Return of the Carpet refers to an annual ceremony where a holy piece of thread comes to Cairo from Mecca. The book starts out with a wealthy and powerful politician surviving an amateurish assassination attempt. We slowly learn about the complex politics (the fundamental basis of which is that Britain is ostensibly on there as an advisor to the government, but actually has the army and is basically in charge, but this is only the beginning; it really is complex) of the situation. Furthermore, the Mamur Zapt is supposed to be only responsible for intelligence and has no mandate to investigate. There are several other agencies with which me must negotiate, manipulate and politic to get things happening. If you like byzantine state politics and inter-departmental intrigue, this book does those things very well. It's great to see Owen make plays against obstinate army sub-commanders or Syrian consul generals as well as to watch him realize he has been manipulated.

What it also does well is describe the rich physical and social milieu that is 1920's Cairo. It was a crazy melting pot and Pearce really brings it home for the reader. This is a period and region I am not too familiar with but have always been drawn to (probably due to those early Tintins), so I will definitely continue along with this series as I find new volumes. The plot itself was a bit dry and not super-interesting to me at certain points along the way, but there is enough promise there that I have the feeling other stories will be more engaging.