SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

HATE HOAXES AND ALL THAT (Sunday Reading: 2/24/19)

How many had been exterminated? In the first shock of the discovery no one could even estimate. But it was clear as reports came in from all along the front that the total would be astronomical. As to who the victims were, that was only too obvious. They were, by the Third Reich’s definition, the “non-Aryans,” the “culture-tainting inferiors,” peoples of a dozen nations and of a dozen faiths, but predominately Jews. Among them were Poles, Frenchman, Czechs, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Russians, Germans. In history’s most diabolical mass murder, they had been slain in a variety of unnatural ways. Some were used as guinea pigs in laboratory experiments. Thousands were shot, poisoned, hanged or gassed, others were simply allowed to starve to death.

In the camp of Ohrdruf, overrun by the U.S. Third Army on April 12, General George S. Patton, one of the U.S. Army’s most hard-bitten officers, walked through the death houses, then turned away, his face wet with tears, and was uncontrollably ill. The next day Patton ordered the population of a nearby village, whose inhabitants claimed ignorance of the situation within the camp, to view it for themselves; those who hung back were escorted at rifle point. The following morning the mayor of the village and his wife hanged themselves.

(The Last Battle, Cornelius Ryan, 1966)

Jonah Goldberg, one of those “conservative” commentators who has long been hated far more by the right than the left, recently posted a column in response to the Jussie Smollett Hate Hoax (the latest of hundreds staged in recent years, each initially received with more breathless credulity by the “professional” media than the last and each more plummily explained away when the hoax is revealed) which begins:

Here’s something you might not know: In Nazi Germany, very few Jews staged bogus hate crimes against themselves.

By all means, read the rest. His take on the Smollett story is interesting in a stopped-clock, blind-squirrel sort of way. A reminder that we are where we are and are who we are because, in the process of dismantling all tradition, we’ve forgotten literally everything. We are a silly, absurdist, country where no one–especially the self-proclaimed “decent” people–even pretends to be horrified by the specter of the gas chamber or the dead baby anymore because we’ve accepted that horror itself is a thing of the past unless it can be blamed on somebody wearing a MAGA hat.

We’ve forgotten everything, even as we bring a future filled with the next round of rotting corpses and crematoriums for the living closer and closer by our ignorance.

Remember how it goes: there will be Tyranny.

Or there will be Chaos.

And then Tyranny.

And whichever path we choose, it will almost certainly begin from within.

THE LIGHTS GO DOWN (Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Richard Adams, R.I.P.)

The best line anyone will write about Carrie Fisher is in Sheila O’Malley’s lovely tribute at Roger Ebert’s site: “It’s rare to have your father leave your mother for Elizabeth Taylor.”

Fame’s a beast, an especially hungry one if you didn’t ask for it. Star Wars, which must have seemed like a job of work when she signed on, probably derailed any chance she had at fulfilling herself as herself and the performances she gave in Shampoo, When Harry Met Sally, Hannah and Her Sisters, hint at who that might have been, as surely as the biting wit in Postcards From the Edge provides the best glimpse into who she became instead–who she probably had to become to survive.

Her death in proximity to George Michael’s is one of those instructive coincidences. Two fine people  made–and then unmade–by late boomer excess. The kind that kills you at 50, 60, instead of 27.

On the rise, though, they each left a mark beyond mere fame: Fisher was one of the earliest to speak and write openly about addiction, star-childness, bipolarity. According to reports that have circulated here and there over the years, she also kept Alec Guinness engaged on the sets of the only Star Wars movies that will matter in the end (and will matter, in part, because Guinness, under her influence, didn’t totally phone them in). In light of her becoming a legendary script doctor and best selling novelist, rumors will always persist that one reason those early movies are the only ones that have life–that matter as anything more than a cash register–is because she was there to deliver the best lines, uncredited, especially to her own character. Given the quality of dialogue George Lucas has tended to write when left on his own, those rumors will never die.

Michael was one of the few white artists to cross over to the R&B charts in the rock and roll era proper–to take full advantage of the space Elvis had opened up in the fifties. He beat “Blurred Lines” to the punch by thirty years and he did it with better records, many of which he wrote and produced himself. And, for better or worse, there’s no boy in “boy band” without him to provide the template.

All Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, did was whip up an entire universe–and a beautiful, enchanting novel–out of stories he invented to amuse his young daughters. Years later he revealed that the stories had been shaped by his experience–and those of his unit–in Operation Market Garden, the WWII expedition that culminated in the Allied failure at the bridge at Arnhem, which inspired the poet-journalist Cornelius Ryan to give the phrase “A Bridge Too Far” to the English language.

The epic adventure of the rabbits, the Star Wars universe, the rise of the boy band.

Turns out they all had one thing in common and it was the single element you would bet against being the key to such artificial worlds: Travel to whatever faraway land you can find or imagine and it’s the people who matter after all.

Just like Paul Simon said in the song he wrote about the one who was his wife for a while:


The Last Tycoon (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1941)

So I finally decided to read the Great Unfinished American Novel because I wanted to identify the full context of its most famous line (i.e., “There are no second acts in American lives.”)**

It turns out the full context is what five minutes of research on the internet says it is:

It’s a line from the “notes”–a rough outline edited by Edmund Wilson after Fitzgerald’s untimely demise and included in standard editions of the novel ever since.

Which means it is a line that:

May or may not have actually ended up in the finished novel.

May or may not have been something Fitzgerald believed himself at the moment he wrote it.

May or may not have been something he would have continued to believe upon further reflection.

May or may not have been something he would have come to disbelieve upon further reflection.

May or may not have been something one of his characters believed and would have continued to believe.

May or may not have been something one of his characters believed and would have come to disbelieve.

May or may not have been something one of his characters was going to say to another character and then actually said (with or without believing it).

May or may not have been something one of his characters was going to say, with or without believing, to either the reader or another character, and then thought better of.

May or may not have represented any of several dozen other easily imaginable permutations–any or all of which may or may not have passed through Fitzgerald’s mind before he died; any one of which may or may not have been accepted or rejected while he lived (there’s no way of knowing); and any one of which may or may not have continued to be accepted or rejected had he lived long enough to complete the novel (as there’s also no way of knowing).

So how has the line gotten to be so famous?

By being used this way:

“F. Scott Fitzgerald was all wet when he claimed that ‘there are no second acts in American lives.'” (Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2012)

There’s no need to pick on Teachout (no need the pick on him even though the specifically American life he is claiming a second act for here is that of the exceptionally British Charles Laughton–that stuff happens on deadline). I’m just using him as an example because his standard abuse of the quote happens to be the one I read most recently. It followed on what I’ll very conservatively estimate as dozens of similar abuses I’ve encountered in various forms of book-chat for the last thirty years or so.

The sad part about all the attention this stray quote has gotten and the ever-comforting degrees of intellectual laziness and smugness it has continually inspired for generations now, is that it serves to distract from a very real achievement–namely Fitzgerald’s early, perhaps original, identification of the sort of man (Monroe Stahr) who has increasingly come to dominate the modern world.

Of course, Fitzgerald being Fitzgerald, he was bound to romanticize his discovery. Wherever you find them nowadays: running Hollywood, Langley, Wall Street, the happening war (real or imagined) of any given moment, the national committees of the major political parties, Silicon Valley (God knows), whatever passes for quality control at CNN or FOX, they’re routinely exposed as the pungent, dichotomous blend of predatory sphincter-holes and major league suck-ups they always were.

So you won’t find Monroe Stahr–the acquisitive, obsessive-compulsive multi-tasker who is just beginning to reveal the soul of a poet when the finished part of the novel ends and whom those notes, which give no context whatever to second acts in American lives, clearly indicate was going to become an even greater figure of romance before it was all over–anywhere near the real world of today anymore than you would have the world of nineteen-thirties Hollywood.

Still, fiction isn’t fact and he was a potentially great fictional character. And certainly Fitzgerald’s observational powers and remarkable skill with language were sufficient to the task of providing at least a strong outline of the real characters who have come further and further into the light since.

It’s a crying shame he didn’t get to finish.

Had he done so, there’s every chance he would have left us with a lie even more beautiful and useful than Gatsby.

And we would be able to fairly judge whether or not he really–in any way, shape or form–was so far lost he thought American lives had no second acts.

As it stands, the blame for his famous quote’s ready abuse should be made to lie where it belongs–with the abusers.

A Bridge Too Far (Cornelius Ryan, 1974)

This is a rare feat of both journalistic skill and dedicated research. It’s second chronologically, though third published, in Ryan’s massive trilogy of the Western Front from D-Day to the fall of Berlin.

There are those who have placed Ryan at the forefront of New Journalism and I can’t argue, except to note that his topic was too great to be bounded by even such a considerable achievement.

In the story of the last major Allied defeat of World War II, he made available, for anyone who wants to access it in taught, lucid prose, one grim reminder after another of the terrible costs war extracts; why war–all war–is finally about victory and defeat; and why victory and defeat are always and forever measured by taking the ground and holding the ground.

And lest we think today’s headlines–drawn from wars where victory and defeat have never been anything but a matter of contemptuous indifference to the entire stratum of political and military leadership (and most of the populace)–passing strange:

As Brace bandaged the man, he was aware of a strange hooting sound behind him. Turning he saw a totally naked paratrooper, pumping his arms up and down and “sounding like a locomotive.” As Brace caught his eye, the soldier began to curse. “Blast this fireman,” the trooper said, “he never was any good.” In one house near the perimeter Brace, arriving with a casualty, heard a man softly singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Thinking the trooper was soothing the other injured, Brace smiled at him and nodded encouragement. The soldier lunged at Brace and tried to choke him. “I’ll kill you,” he yelled. “What do you know about Dover?” Brace loosened the fingers at his throat. “It’s all right,” he said gently, “I’ve been there.” The man stepped back. “Oh,” he said, “that’s all right then.” Minutes later he began to sing again. Others remember a shell-shocked trooper who walked among them at night. Bending over the huddled forms of men trying to sleep he would shake them roughly awake, stare into their eyes and ask them all the same question: “Have you got faith?”

**NOTE: I’ve since discovered that Fitzgerald used the line in a 1932 essay and in a context which buries the logic of his abusers even deeper. I am not surprised.