Category Archives: non-fiction

On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most interesting, well spoken men I’ve heard in our time, so when I saw On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance in the audiobook library, I realized that this interesting, well spoken man had a book that combined some of my favorite things:

+ his interesting, well spoken point of view
+ New York City
+ the Jazz Age
+ jazz itself
+ art & culture

And so, naturally, I checked it out and started listening.

This was a particularly enjoyable hybrid book. Part memoir and part history book, Jabbar took us on his journey as a kid, born Lew Alcindor, to fit in, and find himself through the prior work of other African Americans.

One of my favorite parts of the Harlem Renaissance is jazz. It was a pleasure listening to Jabbar go through the clubs in Harlem, the music, the musicians, and the dancing of the time period.  I wish I could have heard Duke Ellington and Lena Horne at The Cotton Club, and while I find the ‘whites only’ restriction of the era absolutely repulsive, exploiting the talent of black Americans for money by catering only to white American audiences, to hear that kind of talent? What an amazing opportunity.

Jabbar also spoke about Zora Neale Hurston (author of, most notably, Their Eyes Were Watching God), Langston Hughes (one of my favorite poets and one of the poets I studied during a project in high school), Louis Armstrong, and the Harlem Globetrotters, among others. I loved hearing especially about Hughes.

Also: Jabbar gets into how blacks ended up in Harlem in the first place (hint: they were forced out of other areas of the city), so yes, he also went into politics and legal issues black Americans faced during the time period (which makes sense, since it was the height of Jim Crow).

He also tracked his personal journey, discovering these artists, how his mentors helped him, how they helped him become a better kid, a better basketball player, and eventually a better man.

The coolest thing about Kareem is that he is so much more than a basketball player, and he contributes so much more to our culture than just basketball – although he has no problem talking basketball with fans and seems to enjoy using basketball as a key to unlocking other people’s other interests.

“If the pinnacle of my influence as a human being was perfecting the sky hook, I would not feel very satisfied.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I loved this contribution to our cultural understanding. It was informative, interesting, and fun. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Kareem’s and basketball, but also to fans of jazz, history, art, New York, and any other number of things that intersect in the Harlem Renaissance. It was a really enjoyable book.

 

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Russia, The Wild East, Parts I & II

I’ve been fairly interested in Russia for about a decade. Not enough to actually go there or study Russian or anything, but the history, yes. I know. I’m so devoted.

I thought this set of rentals were two audiobooks, but instead they were two 5 hour radio programs produced for BBC radio. I didn’t return them to the library for actual books though. I was already committed.

The first part of the series, From Rulers to Revolutions, covered Russia from the Middle Ages (maybe slightly earlier) up through the 1917 Revolution. The second part of the series, The Rise and Fall of the Soviets, covered the 20th and 21st centuries until, I think, 2014. Barack Obama was definitely still in office when this program was produced.

From Rulers to Revolutions took a look at Russian history and, particularly, how the Russian political system developed from a group of princes to one Czar and looked in depth at all the times Russia nearly became a democratic monarchy, but didn’t. In most cases, if not all, the Russian monarch simply could not bring themselves to give up their power to any kind of legislature or election process or anything of the sort. Peter the Great couldn’t do it, Catherine the Great couldn’t do it, etc…

The Rise and Fall of the Soviets, of course, looked at Lenin, Stalin, the Bolsheviks, etc… all the way through to Putin, who is an authoritarian in his own right.

I knew very little about Russian history so I thought this did an excellent job explaining at least the basics. One of the questions posed both early on and towards the end of the program was “Why does Russia always turn to despotism rather than to democracy as a solution to their problems?”

Martin Sixsmith, who wrote and presented these programs, was a journalist in Russia during the 1980s and 1990s, and tries his best to answer why Russia has never been able to truly reform itself and whether it will do so in the near future. Sixsmith painstakingly examines the country’s major events and influential rulers for clues to Russia’s pattern of behavior.

It was an interesting program and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in at least the basics of  Russian history and its politics.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

This is another one of those books that I listened to because there’s a gaping hole in my education. After the adoption of the Constitution through to the Civil War, there wasn’t a  detailed study of what was going on in the country in my education. The presidents between Jefferson to Lincoln didn’t get a lot of play. Or maybe I just don’t remember. But mostly I think they didn’t get a lot of attention.

So, I borrowed American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham to begin filling that hole.

Meacham said he wrote the book to show the contradictions that defined Jackson. He represents both the best and worst of us, and had an enormous capacity for both kindness and callous cruelty. If you were his friend, he’d do anything for you and never believe a bad word about you (see: The Petticoat Affair). If you weren’t? He was a ferocious opponent who would stop at nothing to win the argument or get his way (poor John C. Calhoun).

Andrew Jackson is one of those presidents nobody talks about anymore in any kind of connotation that isn’t completely negative. People use the term “genocide” when referring to Jackson’s policy of Indian removal. While there is absolutely no justification for this policy, which was incredibly racist and cruel, I think it’s a stretch to call it “genocide.” Don’t get me wrong, obviously the Road to Hell and everything, but part of reading this stuff is looking at context. Jackson wanted the Native Americans land, but wiping them out was never something he wanted to do. Jackson also believed he could only accommodate Indian self-rule if they were on lands west of the Mississippi River.

Naturally this drama took place in the South, because that bastion of liberty and equality just never stopped giving us shining examples of truly enlightened thinking. Some of these tribes were the same ones Washington tried to make peace with but failed because he couldn’t enforce the treaties he signed. One historian actually argued that Jackson’s policy saved some of these tribes, because the tribes that didn’t relocate from the southeast disappeared entirely. I thought that was a real stretch but I suppose it’s true? Preserving native cultures was clearly not Jackson’s intention either.

I liked this quote, that Meacham wrote, regarding Indian Removal policy.

“There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy, no moment, as with Lincoln and slavery, where the moderate on the morally urgent question did the right and brave thing. Not all great presidents were always good, and neither individuals nor nations are without evil.”

But there was a lot more to him than this one policy.

Jackson had no children but was a family man, loved children, and adopted two Indian children who he loved as his own (again, the whole “contradictions defined him” thing). He and his wife were guardian to his wife’s brother’s children after his brother died. He was a respected military leader who won a resounding victory over the British in the battle of New Orleans in the final battle of the War of 1812. He worked to bring democracy and independence to even the poorest of white people (but was an unrepentant slaveholder).

And Presidents that followed, including some of the Presidents we hold in highest esteem (Lincoln, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, etc…) considered Jackson a great president. Jackson was a unionist above all other things. Without the Union, there could be no progress of anything else. Jackson actively opposed nullification in favor of a strong central government. He worked against those who proposed seccession. He changed the presidency to a tool to use directly on the behalf of the people who elected him rather than a mostly impotent position on the periphery of the government.

Jackson was a skilled politician and media manipulator. He, more or less, invented the Democratic party. He fought against the National Bank, believing it gave creditors too much power and the people at its mercy too little. His faith in the American people was second to none.

Understanding the world Jackson lived in helps us understand our own, because in a lot of ways, his political environment wasn’t so different from our own. The best and worst of Jackson is the best and worst of the United States. As Meacham writes:

“He was the most contradictory of men. A champion of extending freedom and democracy to even the poorest of whites, Jackson was an unrepentant slaveholder. A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands. An enemy of Eastern financial elites and a relentless opponent of the Bank of the United States, which he believed to be a bastion of corruption, Jackson also promised to die, if necessary, to preserve the power and prestige of the central government. Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins.”

I loved this look at Jackson’s time in the White House. American Lion helped me understand Jackson as a politician and a man. And I loved the voice of the man who read the audiobook (whose name I don’t know). This was truly a great audiobook and a balanced, interesting look at the seventh President of the United States.

All this said, considering he did support and sign the Indian Removal Policy which led to countless deaths, he should probably be off the money. On the other hand, considering he hated the National Bank, his being on the money (the most common bill!) is kind of the ultimate troll.

But that’s a debate for another day. We’ll fix the money in our own good time, I guess.

“The people, sir – the people will set things right.” – Andrew Jackson

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism

I’ve always been a fan of the Jews. My parents enrolled me in a Jewish nursery school, I am well versed in Jewish traditions for a non-Jewish person, and if I had to pick an organized religion to belong to, it’d probably be Judaism. I can’t really suspend my disbelief enough to be part of a religion, but if forced by the state or something, I’d be Jewish.

And honestly, what’s not to like about a non-violent group of educated people who mind their own business and like reading and feasting? Nothing. That’s what.

But as we all know, Jews get a lot of flack from…well, most other groups. They’re blamed for everything from the black plague epidemics int he middle ages to the reason Germany was in such bad shape after World War I. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things were the Jews fault.)

Most things Jews are blamed for aren’t their fault, and so, as a sympathetic gentile, I started listening to The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

I don’t know what I thought I was going to hear, but it wasn’t this.

The book went a lot into historical antisemitism, from the the early days of Christianity through to very recently. The stories from the past, about how Jews were blamed for disappearances, murders, disease during the Middle Ages, and then again during the 20th century where it was believed they were masterminds of a global conspiracy to…I don’t even know what, I was familiar with and understood.

Antisemitism does take a lot of forms and has changed over time, but some of the stuff Goldhagen cites as modern antisemitism I’m not sure is, particularly later stuff. The best example being that policy disagreements with the state of Israel are antisemitic. Sure, a lot of people who oppose Israel’s policies ARE antisemitic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is. There were a lot of blanket statements here I found too broad.

Goldhagen also takes shots at recent scholars but I don’t know enough about them to really form an opinion on whether or not they’re antisemitic. Goldhagen certainly sounds as if they are, but I really don’t know them well enough and his argument is clearly spun to sound like it.

Anyway, some of this stuff was so ridiculous I nearly turned it off (it was an audiobook). I ended up listening all the way through but a lot of it felt like it was a reach and they really could have made a shorter, better book if they’d left some of the later, wilder claims. I believe he was accusing all of Europe and the United States for being antisemitic for…reasons. I’m not denying antisemitism exists, I’ve seen it myself, but this idea that everything is done with antisemitic motivation is over the top.

It also didn’t help the audiobook’s cause that I felt like the person reading it (whose name escapes me now) was practically yelling at me. It sounded more like a political speech than a book, and it went on for hours. Outrage and anger and volume are not really what makes a good audiobook for me.

There was some interesting history in this book. There really was. A lot of the stuff about much earlier antisemitism I didn’t know and was fascinated by its origins, but the whole later part of the book, to me, was a waste of time. I’m sure there are other books on antisemitism out there, and I’d recommend one of those before this one. The last parts of this book felt more like grasping at straws than a lot of enlightening information.

I’d go with a different book.

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea

One of my favorite activities is finding out all the gaps in my high school education. I don’t know why I love doing this. It’s usually in a spirit of complaining about all the things Yorktown High School could have just done better. I have a lot of critiques of literally everything about my high school education.

One thing I never understood when I was in US history class was why we skipped learning about the actual wars the country was involved in. We’d study all the way up to the war and skip the war entirely, and move on to the aftermath of the war. Seriously. As 16-17-18 year olds, it made us so angry. The war was the interesting part.

Naturally we spent a lot of time leading up to the Civil War and then immediately skipped the Civil War and moved on to Reconstruction…

…which means I missed this whole thing about Sherman’s March to the Sea and exactly what it entailed. My mom was stunned when she mentioned it and I, having never studied the actual Civil War in any fashion, had no idea what she was talking about.

So when I saw Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Andre Trudeau, I figured this might be a good opportunity to catch up on some history I wasn’t all that familiar with.

Well. It kinda worked.

I absorbed a lot of information about the strategy of the Union Army and what Sherman was doing. I ask again, since Sherman effectively conducted the campaign that won the Civil War for the Union, why wasn’t he put on the money?

What I didn’t learn was much of where Sherman went or when.

I listened to this book as an audiobook but I think I probably should have done it as a real book. I assume a real book would have some maps? I have no idea what the geography of Georgia or South Carolina is. I don’t know where the crucial rail lines were. I’m not familiar with the finer points of the terrain down there. The significance of long descriptions of military tactics, movements, and actions that cut off Georgia and South Carolina from the rest of the Confederacy were all lost on me.

It was an interesting book, I think someone getting into Civil War history would really like it. I think someone reading the book would really like it. I don’t recommend the audiobook for beginners though. It was just too hard for me to follow without also checking out a visual guide.

Joseph J. Ellis (Part II)

So, as the conclusion to Part I, here is Part II! (I know, I know. Lame.)

I listened to two other books by Joseph J. Ellis this year.

The first was Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. It examined the middle of 1776 (from May to October, so a little more than the actual summer), probably the most consequential 6 month period in the creation of the United States, and wove narratives of newly minted Americans George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as those of British Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe, into a compelling, day to day political and military narrative of the period.

The Continental Congress and the Continental Army were so short of money and supplies that they had to make a lot of decisions on the fly. The book looks at the role of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, and how it fueled the revolutionary fire. It explained the rules of honor in the 18th century, which explained why Washington was so willing to engage the British when he really had no chance, and how the British military’s arrogance contributed to their eventual loss of the war. They could have crushed the American Revolution in its infancy, but they just didn’t take it seriously enough to destroy the Continental Army once and for all.

It was a very good book, although a lot of it I already knew. What was refreshing, though, was the British perspective. A lot of American history books gloss over, or entirely eliminate, what happened on the British side of the Revolutionary War. (I can only imagine that in Britain they go over it, but who knows?) It was nice to get some of that here.

The last book in this vein I listened to this year was The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. It dove into the creation of the federal government and the adoption of the Constitution. The sheer amount of work it took Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay to sell the Constitution and centralized federal government to an American populace disinclined to allow the growth of any centralized national government (understandably, as the Revolutionary War came at great cost) is nothing short of political brilliance and skillful manipulation on a scale I’m not sure we’ll ever see again.

People don’t seem entirely aware that the colonies banded together to fight the common threat of Great Britain and then planned to mostly go their separate ways (for more about that, read this book). This presented a series of problems that made the country completely ineffective at, basically, being a country.

Hamilton and Madison get a majority of the credit for the Constitution, and they deserve the lion’s share: they wrote the majority of what we now know as the Federalist Papers. Hamilton had to manipulate Washington to some extent, as he was very conscious of his legacy. Washington retired from public life after the Revolution, and only came back into service when he felt he had no choice. Washington threw his support behind the Constitution and national government when he realized all he fought for during the war would be lost if the country fell apart, and he knew going in that he’d have to serve as first President, even if he didn’t really want to.  Madison had to out argue Patrick Henry (arguably our greatest orator) for support of the Constitution (Henry was staunchly against a stronger government) in front of the Virginia legislature – no small feat. John Jay, in addition to contributing to the Federalist Papers, was a cerebral diplomat but also wielded a lot of influence with people in the position to influence. He was a respected lawyer, and supported a stronger government because as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784-1789, he lacked the authority needed to make treaties under the Articles of Confederation.

The book gets into some other issues, but it also shines a light on men who don’t get much attention when it comes to the creation of the country, most notably Gouverneur Morris, who wrote a lot of the Constitution, including the all important preamble, and Robert Morris (no relation), who more or less financed a huge portion of the Revolutionary War out of his personal fortune, and who, along with Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, built the American financial system from scratch. If I remember correctly he, more or less, created the concept of “credit.”

Robert Morris was probably my favorite discovery in this book. I had heard of him but not that much about him, and the way Ellis explained his individual role (the others too, but Morris especially) really hammered home how much things have changed. He financed the war because basically he felt it was his duty. That old JFK quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you” etc… that WAS Morris.

In the same vein, I didn’t fully realize or understand the role honor played in the creation of the Constitution. These people didn’t want to be remembered as the people who improbably won a war but who failed at creating a country afterwards. They knew they were going to remembered, and they worked to create how they were going to be remembered.

It was a really solid, interesting look at how the United States became the United States. I highly recommend it, especially if you know the basics but you’re a little fuzzy on the time period. It’s illuminating.

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Joseph J. Ellis (Part I)

I’m not sure where my fascination with the founding of the United States comes from. I think it has something to do with being very familiar with the musical ‘1776’ from the time I was a very small kid, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve just always been interested in it, and by Thomas Jefferson especially, but that interest has expanded way past Jefferson. I’m a pretty voracious consumer of knowledge on the founding of my country these days.

Joseph J. Ellis has written a large number of books on the creation of the United States. I haven’t read all of them or read them in any order, but the first one I read was His Excellency, George Washington back in 2006. It gave me a new appreciation of Washington. This was during college. I also followed that up in college with Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

For some reason I really took to Ellis. I don’t know what it was about his writing that I enjoyed. I still can’t quite explain it. One of my college roommates found his writing very dull, but I liked it as I felt it was a balanced look at the founding. Nobody was deified but credit was given where it was due, too. And then I took a break from Ellis and his writing.

But as with all things I love, I  returned to it. I listened to three books by Ellis this earlier this year. They were:

01. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
02. Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
03. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 – 1789

American Creation dealt with issues from the revolutionary period through Jefferson’s presidency, and examines these six things, some of which are both great successes and incredible failures.

The first chapter examined the Declaration of Independence, which had revolutionary implications that the founders didn’t even realize; they saw the document as a letter to Britain and the world about why they were about to commit treason, and hopefully convince the rest of the world that it wasn’t really treason and get some aid, both financial and military. But when we talk about the Declaration of Independence today, which parts do we talk about? Not the charges listed against King George III about why the colonists revolted. We talk about what Ellis refers to as “the American promise.” Without ever meaning to, Thomas Jefferson wrote into our founding document the basis of all American political and social reform:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

This was my favorite chapter.

The second chapter examined Washington’s near superhuman achievement in keeping the Continental Army together in the winter at Valley Forge, PA. Supplies were short, and the ongoing strain changed Washington’s strategy. Over that winter, the strategy became to control the American countryside, rather than an all out decisive battle with the British. This was a hard decision for him, because rules of honor and conduct at the time demanded a decisive battle.

The third chapter dealt with James Madison’s efforts to create a strong federal government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While he wasn’t able to create a federal government that could veto state laws, the Constitution allowed for argument, which was essentially the solution. Neither the federal nor the state government was ever always right.

Chapter four was about Washington failing to create a successful, lasting treaty with the Native Americans, particularly in the southeastern United States – South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (although, IIRC, Florida wasn’t actually part of the country at that time).  Washington did desperately want to honor the treaties he signed and, unlike many of his contemporaries, admired and even liked, many Native Americans. But he was unable to honor his treaties, mostly due to the sheer size of the country and the small, almost non-existent federal military at the time. Washington considered it one of his biggest failures.

Chapter five looked at Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s creation of party politics. Knowing what we know now, this was possibly a disservice to the country. But anyway. Alexander Hamilton was basically Washington’s protege and favorite son, and Hamilton had pretty grand ideas about national economics, which Jefferson and Madison saw as a threat to liberty…particularly the liberty of their fellow plantation owning Virginian aristocratic friends. So Jefferson claimed to disparage party politics but worked to actively undermine the Washington administration from within. This really wasn’t a flattering look at Jefferson. I knew he disagreed with Hamilton but didn’t realize the efforts he made to make him and Washington look bad.

The final chapter looked at the Louisiana Purchase, and Jefferson again. In addition to the mental gymnastics Jefferson had to do to justify the federal power he exercised as chief executive while claiming to hate the power of the chief executive, the book looks at his achievement of making the purchase but also his failure to prevent slavery in the new territory. Ellis even argues that Jefferson’s failure here set the country on the path to Civil War, and so really, the tragedy outweighed the triumph.

I had intended to write this in one post, but as it’s nearly a thousand words, I’m going to cut this off here and continue in a second post on this subject.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I’m a sucker for a good detective story.

So, apparently, was England during the Victorian era.

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective goes into great depths investigating the murder of 3 year old Francis Saville Kent, the baby of Road Hill House, where the higher class Kent family lived.

Jack Whicher was one of the eight original detectives of the newly formed “detective branch” of Scotland Yard, and was only called in after local authorities botched the investigation. Local police were certain that the child’s nursemaid was involved in the crime, for no other reason except that people of higher classes didn’t commit crimes (and so the whole Kent family was excluded from investigation from the get-go). The only family member who garnered some suspicion was the head of the household, Francis’s father, Samuel Kent, who local police believed was having an affair with the nursemaid. There was no evidence of this affair.

Whicher ended up focusing on the family, and due to suspicious circumstances (such as a missing nightgown) finally settled on 16 year old Constance Kent, Francis’s half sister, as Francis’s murderer. Constance’s mother had died some time prior, and Constance, along with her brother, felt much left out of their father’s life with his new wife. But sadly, due to the whole “aristocrats – especially aristocratic ladies – don’t commit crimes” attitude of the times, the papers and public opinion supported Constance, and Whicher returned to London with his reputation in tatters – it took quite some time for it to recover.

He was eventually vindicated though; Constance confessed to the murder some 3 years later, and was imprisoned for it, at least for awhile.

Constance never explained why she did it. It’s been suggested she was mentally unbalanced, but Summerscale concludes that her confession was probably false and it was made to shield another person – most likely her brother, William Saville Kent, another relic of their father’s first marriage. They shared a close sibling relationship and at the time, Constance’s options in life were much more limited than William’s. William went on to become an early marine biologist. The motive of the crime was believed to be jealousy of Francis’s position as their father’s favorite, and the attention Samuel gave to his second wife’s children rather than his first wife’s children.

If William or Constance killed Francis, the other was most likely some kind of accomplice in the matter. But it was only ever Constance who ever got real blame or who ever gave any kind of confession. If her family did care about her reputation, they certainly never made an effort to clear her name while she was alive.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was well researched and well read, and it read like a true crime book. It was fun to learn how murder fascinated Victorian England, and that this was one of the first murders that captivated the whole country.

I also had an affinity for Jack Whicher. He’s been dead over 100 years, but he was still very good at his job, inspiring more famous detectives, such as Charles Dickens’s character Inspector Bucket.

Any true crime fan should read this book. It’s like, the original true crime. Sure, it’s not true crime exactly, but it is a good whodunnit: a murdered toddler, a dashing detective, and a great plot twist. How can you turn that down?

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

I originally decided to listen to this book because I wasn’t paying attention and thought it was a book about Native American history.

It wasn’t. *sad trombone noise*

But American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America might be the most important history book I’ve ever read in regard to understanding my own country.

Do you ever wonder how the United States ended up the way it did with no one dominant way of thinking throughout what is supposed to be one country? There are huge differences of opinion, from region to region, about individual liberty vs. the public good, the second amendment, the separation of church and state, etc… why is this?

Author Colin Woodard argues that there isn’t, and never has been, one United States and that the United States has always been, with a few very important exceptional time periods, a series of smaller, regional nations that have managed to get along just well enough to call themselves one country. There’s always the complaint that the United States, in particular, is superrrr polarized and it didn’t used to be like this.

Woodard argues it’s always been like this.

Woodard brilliantly explains the different “nations” in North America, taking us back through the colonial period, with different parts of the new continent settled by different people with very distinct political and religious traits. Because of this, different regions with unique challenges handled their business differently. As it became more important for them to stand together against common threats to their well being (the British control of the colonies, for example) they managed to pull it together long enough to win the Revolutionary War and then go back to being distinct regions again.

I won’t say that I didn’t know anything in this book. In fact, I probably knew most of it. But the information is laid out in such a concise, clear way that you smack yourself in the face and say “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!?” when thinking about why the South and the Northeast seem to be at constant political odds, and why the rest of the country seems to be constantly aligning with either side to shift the balance of power.

I don’t read/listen to a lot of books where I think I’m doing something patriotic. I mean, you can argue the philosophical merits of reading as patriotism all day, but for most of us (those of us not living in an authoritarian state, anyway), reading is just reading and you aren’t doing anything ridiculously heroic. I’d argue reading this book is actually patriotic. I believe it could be so vital to the understanding of the United States they should use it in high schools.

And I give zero fucks about bettering high schools.

(Of all my bleeding heart, blue state causes, I’m really not big on education…which I know is terrible and kind of a betrayal of my home regional nation. I don’t stay informed enough about the education system to formulate an opinion and prefer to die on other hills – the environment and animal rights hills, for example. It’s not that I don’t think education is important, it’s just not something I’m going to get personally involved in. I will, however, vote for a political candidate who supports bettering the educational landscape. I have trusted friends who pay attention and give their opinions to me on this.)

But yes. I think we’d be a better country and understand each other a lot more if we all read this books. So American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America? Read it. Listen to it. For a better #MURICA.

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Agent Zigzag and Double Cross

I listened to two books by Ben Macintyre earlier this year. I first listened to Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal and then listened to Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. It should have been done in reverse order but hindsight is 20/20. For clarity’s sake, I’ll explain them in the order I should have read them.

Double Cross was a detailed look at how a series of spies and double agents were crucial to the success of D-Day, widely considered to be the turning point in the war, and about how the Double Cross program is easily one of the most effective espionage operations in history. Basically, the Abwehr (German intelligence) never figured out that the Allies had cracked the code for their Enigma machine and MI5 had very little trouble picking up the spies that arrived in the UK. The spies were captured, and were usually easily persuaded to spy for the Allies instead.

There is a full but not complete list of double agents on the Double Cross Wikipedia page: either their information is still classified or nobody knows much about them. But the book focuses mainly on these spies in particular:

Johnny Jebsen (Artist)
Roman Czerniawaski (Brutus)
Juan Pujol Garcia (Garbo)
Mathilde Carre (Le Chat)
Nathalie Sergueiew (aka Lily Sergeyev) (Treasure)
Dušan Popov (Tricycle)
Eddie Chapman (Zigzag)

The book details how the spies were recruited, turned, and maintained by their case officers. All of them were eccentric, and in some ways very needy and needed careful handling by their case officers. They were originally used for less important tasks, but as the war went on, British Intelligence came up with the idea of using the spies to mislead the Third Reich high command about an Allied invasion of Europe. Through a carefully orchestrated, escalating series of falsehoods the spies informed their German contacts that an entire army (a large portion of which didn’t actually exist except in the reports sent through the spies) were probably going to land in northern France somewhere, probably mostly at Pas de Calais. The spies reported minutia, but accurate minutia (such as insignia on uniforms) and details that gave their German handlers confidence in their information.

As we all know now, when the D-Day invasion finally came, the bulk of the Allied forces landed at Normandy. Because of the false information the spies were able to pass to German intelligence, German forces were spread too thin to hold off the full scale Allied attack at Normandy, and afterwards, the Allies quickly advanced through France and into Europe.

Of all the spies mentioned in the book, Popov was probably my favorite to hear about. At the start of the war he was a lawyer, but he was a promiscuous playboy from a wealthy family and staunchly anti-Nazi. Germans considered him important because of his family and business connections in France and so recruited him, and he became a double agent not long after that. He’s considered one of the primary inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, throwing money around and womanizing during his missions.

The book makes clear that while most of these recruits were very strange, they were also very brave and, in their own ways, rather smart. Most of these people were in great danger of being found out. Jebsen was picked up on what is assumed now to be an unrelated charge (he had some shady financial dealings), tortured, and (presumably) executed by the Nazis, but never cracked about the Double Cross program to save himself. Some of the agents did their jobs so convincingly they were awarded the Iron Cross by Germany.

The book also explains that one of the reasons the Third Reich was so susceptible to this false information was because, in addition to a real lack of organizational structure – or maybe because of it – there was an internal power struggle going on between the German military/intelligence services and the German secret police. Hitler apparently didn’t entirely trust the German military, as he (correctly) believed the commanders weren’t entirely loyal to him. Loyal to his home country of Germany but not Hitler or the Nazi Party, the book particularly details the efforts Admiral Wilhelm Canaris to subvert Hitler’s plans, including (IIRC) approaching the British about peace negotiations. Spoiler alert: Canaris was eventually humiliated and brutally, grotesquely executed.

It also seems that Germany never really took intelligence as seriously as the Allies did, believing their forces and weapons superior. Their arrogance was a major part of their downfall.

Agent Zigzag, as you may have guessed, takes a more in depth look at Agent Eddie Chapman, who was something of a conman and petty criminal with an honorable streak. He was captured by Germans and volunteered to be a spy. He quickly became a double agent so he could see his former girlfriend and their daughter, but he remained good friends with his German handler after the war and didn’t much like betraying them.

He was motivated by both love and money and was quite difficult for his handlers to deal with. One of the reasons he became a double agent for Britain was he didn’t believe the Germans were paying him enough. His case officer, Ronnie Reed, was one of the very few people who knew how to deal with him effectively.

Chapman was part of a scheme devised to make the Germans believe they’d blown up an aircraft factory but the explosion was entirely faked. Chapman also frequently reported back to Germany that their bombs were hitting their central London targets but the bombs were actually missing by miles, causing far less damage than they should have.

I really enjoyed both of these books. Macintyre is an engaging storyteller and I like his subject matter. Don’t you feel like all the heroes of the war should be recognized?

After the war, the British government more or less discarded these people. They deserve a lot more credit than they get. Macintyre does a really good job introducing them and getting the audience to care about them, getting into their natures and characters.

Macintyre has another book called Operation Mincemeat, but I haven’t read it yet. I will add it to my list, as these two books were both so interesting.

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