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!

THE HUNT FOR HERESY…

…Is eternal. Because every belief system requires a priesthood. “Science”–even mathematics–included:

But, that same day, the Mathematical Intelligencer’s editor-in-chief Marjorie Senechal notified us that, with “deep regret,” she was rescinding her previous acceptance of our paper. “Several colleagues,” she wrote, had warned her that publication would provoke “extremely strong reactions” and there existed a “very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.” For the second time in a single day I was left flabbergasted. Working mathematicians are usually thrilled if even five people in the world read our latest article. Now some progressive faction was worried that a fairly straightforward logical argument about male variability might encourage the conservative press to actually read and cite a science paper?

In my 40 years of publishing research papers I had never heard of the rejection of an already-accepted paper. And so I emailed Professor Senechal. She replied that she had received no criticisms on scientific grounds and that her decision to rescind was entirely about the reaction she feared our paper would elicit. By way of further explanation, Senechal even compared our paper to the Confederate statues that had recently been removed from the courthouse lawn in Lexington, Kentucky. In the interests of setting our arguments in a more responsible context, she proposed instead that Sergei and I participate in a ‘Round Table’ discussion of our hypothesis argument, the proceedings of which the Intelligencer would publish in lieu of our paper. Her decision, we learned, enjoyed the approval of Springer, one of the world’s leading publishers of scientific books and journals. An editorial director of Springer Mathematics later apologized to me twice, in person, but did nothing to reverse the decision or to support us at the time.

(Theodore P. Hill, Quillette online, Sept. 7, 2018)

If you read Hill’s entire piece at the link (highly recommended), you will note the thoroughness with which any ideas that do not conform with specifically political goals are hunted down and banished, in this case by his fellow scientists. I don’t have a great interest in modern science (or whatever particular arguments Hill and his colleagues were making). But I do have an interest in priesthoods and the way they emerge to regulate specific patterns of human behavior. Of the dozens of essays I’ve read (online and in books and magazines) about the way even the most thoroughly researched dissent is suppressed in the halls where The God of Science is worshiped (always in the name of Reason) this is at once the most detailed and succinct.

It’s also the best example I’ve seen yet of the far reach of Confederate Statue Syndrome. As I tried to point out, ad nauseam, a year-plus ago, when CSS was making almost daily headlines–and as the subsequent removals of memorials to, among others, Ohio’s William McKinley (a Union war hero), Pennsylvania’s Stephen Foster and Laura Ingalls Wilder, (who spent most of her formative years in Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota before moving on to the Dakotas) not to mention incidents like a Bernie-bro being savagely beaten by Antifa street fighters, at one of Portland, Oregon’s protests, for carrying an American flag–it was never about the Confederacy and it was never about statues.

What was it Orwell said? Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

Hey Gene, can I get an amen?

 

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE BYRDS PLAY DYLAN

The Byrds Play Dylan (2002)

“What really got me most was Dylan coming up to me and saying, ‘They beat you man,’ and he lost faith in me. He was shattered. His material had been bastardized. There we were, the defenders and protectors of his music, and we’d let Sonny & Cher get away with it.”

Roger McGuinn  (on Dylan’s response, circa 1965, to Sonny & Cher’s version of “All I Really Want To Do” besting the Byrds on the American charts–interesting insight into the spirit of the times!)

Playing Dylan was only a fraction of what the Byrds did, but there’s no denying Roger McGuinn, especially, had a knack for bringing something new and exciting to Dylan’s music almost every time he touched it. This compilation, released decades after their heyday and years after the final Byrds’ studio recordings in the early 1990s (occasioned by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a box set), is one of my favorites in a genre I sometimes affectionately, sometimes sardonically, refer to as Grab Bag.

Such albums are usually assembled for only the most cynical purposes–record labels looking to exploit familiar product one more time. But every once in a while the approach bears fruit.

This is one of those times.

At twenty tracks, The Byrds Play Dylan is expansive enough to include some illuminating live performances, alternate tracks and obscurities which manage to re-contextualize the familiar anthems from their early days (and to be re-contextualized themselves for Byrds fanatics who may have experienced the obscurities in less convincing circumstances elsewhere–that’s what a record company can do for you).

It’s not perfect–such things never are. But it’s been my go-to album by my favorite band in the Age of Trump. I wouldn’t suggest it’s as mind-blowing as their first five albums, as epochal as Sweetheart of the Rodeo or even Ballad of Easy Rider (an album McGuinn made with his third best band that’s worn better than the movie that inspired it or that movie’s fine soundtrack) or any sort of replacement for The Byrds’ Greatest Hits (nothing could be).

But it is a statement worth hearing.

“All I Really Want To Do”–Dylan was being a little harsh. (And why did Lonesome Hobo Bob* care so much about the charts anyway?) “All I Really Want To Do” is a long way from either his most inspired tune or their most inspired interpretation. But it’s a nice opening day curve-ball for a collection that throws a lot of them (“Mr. Tambourine Man” would have been the obvious choice). And you can measure how great he and they were by listening close and realizing how far past nearly everything else it still is.

“Chimes of Freedom”–As great as any cover of Dylan or anyone else. This album could also have been titled McGuinn Sings Dylan. His voice was always the one best suited for Dylan (hell it was often better suited for Dylan than Dylan, a claim that can me made by exactly no one else). But they were also inventing a new kind of harmony and, considered as a clarion call, this might be their pure pinnacle (the competition is stiff). It remains a mystery how they, and they alone, managed to intertwine so much passion with so much detachment. They really did sound like they were soaring above the earth, catching a glimpse of something over the horizon that was not yet visible to ground control–and, given what’s happened to ground control in the half-century since, still isn’t.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”–Recorded in the sessions for the band’s second album, this version wasn’t released until 1996, as a bonus track for a reissue of Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s inclusion here is a little odd, since McGuinn’s later band did a superior, beautifully re-imagined version for the official release of Ballad of Easy Rider. This is fine. It sustains the collection’s developing mood and gains by the company. But I think the later version would have done the same, only better.

“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”–This, on the other hand, is a track that always struck me as pedestrian on Turn, Turn, Turn. Here, though, it takes hold. The lyric still sounds like Dylan learning to imitate himself, but there’s no better example of McGuinn’s early Rickenbacker magic and his disorienting technique of plying dissonance under the verses, then ringing out rhythmic, anthemic chords in the fills (the opposite of what everyone else does, then and now). After a while (okay, a long while, but still), the lyrics even start to sound….inspired?

“Lay Lady Lay” (Single Version)–A single from the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde sessions which didn’t make the album (which ought to say something). In many ways misbegotten–a female choir that doesn’t work, overbearing late-sixties uber-production style, jarring juxtapositions between the lyric and the chorus. Notable for one element: A dry, pleading McGuinn vocal which makes it sound as though he sees the lady laying across the big, brass bed in human, rather than mystical, terms, as though he might be speaking to someone specific with whom he had been through a lot of changes. That quality alone guaranteed it wouldn’t be a hit up against Dylan’s lovely original, but gives it a poignance not found in any other version, including the one below, which, for all I can tell, is the same vocal with a different, more conventional backing. In this context: Odd and disorienting, as I’m sure was intended.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”–The first official Byrds’ single, a natural Number One and one of the most important records of the twentieth century. Here, it sounds almost off-hand, as though the startling new thing were no more spectacular than breathing. The marriage of Dylan and the Beatles was nowhere near as inevitable as McGuinn (the only Byrd who played on the track due to the record company’s lack of faith–soon rendered laughable–in the young band’s musical prowess) made it sound. As always happens when some visionary renders the far-fetched inevitable, the world–including Bob Dylan, who laid down Highway 61 Revisited as this sat atop the charts–went “Of Course!” (And it’s a fine segue: straight from the human-scale “Lay Lady Lay,” to the era-defining anthem that made this album’s concept possible in the first place.) Why should you wait any longer for the world to begin, this record asked, years before Dylan wrote the words to that other song.

“My Back Pages”–Another in competition for Greatest-Ever Dylan cover. It has–impossibly–grown with the years, precisely because those years have failed to catch up to it.

“Nothing Was Delivered”–A highlight from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s worth remembering that Sweetheart inspired reams of musicians, not one of whom ever came close to sounding like the original–maybe because no one else really thought Dylan and country music belonged together, no matter that Bob made the greatest albums of his life in Nashville.

“Positively 4th Street” (Live)–This is where the concept comes in handy. This isn’t the kind of song where Roger McGuinn or anyone else could go toe-to-toe with Dylan and come out ahead. And McGuinn, in particular, never did anger (or spite) well. But, here, his ability to turn the concept around is put to the test–and passes. Suddenly, I hear You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend as a plea, even a world-weary sigh of regret. I’m not saying I like it better, or even as well, but who else could come so close to Dylan’s timbre and completely reverse his meaning?

“Spanish Harlem Incident”–Back to the beginning and a reminder of how rife with possibilities it was. This sounds like they did it on their lunch break–and fifty years haven’t worn it out.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'”–From their second album, where, like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” it came across as a bit of a letdown. One wonders if they were being careful not to become too tied to Dylan’s material as he matched, then eclipsed, their fame. Then again, this wasn’t the only take–see below! This one is saved, barely, by the usual impeccable harmonies and McGuinn’s witty guitar licks, which made it sound like Dylan was Stephen Foster’s natural heir (amplified by his take on “Oh Susanna”…but that’s what the original albums are for).

“Wheel’s on Fire”–The opening cut from Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, their weakest album from the sixties (and if you want to know how great Roger McGuinn was, listen to Dr. Byrds sometime and consider he made seven better albums with three different bands in five years). I prefer it to the Band’s contemporaneous version. Still, the era-bound production tricks don’t really work and this lumbers more than it should. The concept wavers a bit….

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”–And then snaps right back in place. I’m among those who think the real strength of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (from which this is the opener) is the juxtaposition of McGuinn and Parsons’ sensibilities. Of course, that’s not at play here, so this is a completely different context…which works every bit as well.

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (Live)–It took a while but this one has grown on me. This is one case where Dylan’s original is so definitive it doesn’t seem to leave any room for anyone else to breathe. McGuinn’s voice isn’t nearly as commanding….but once more a human, conversational tone lets the song gain a new dimension. It isn’t the prophet proclaiming. It’s the poor boy figuring things out without being the least bit certain he likes what he sees. Plus some fine harp work.

“Just Like a Woman”–Nice enough. Maybe too nice. All the qualities I mentioned before about McGuinn cutting down the scale are present, but, somehow, the song doesn’t offer the same rewards. Until you notice the country phrasing of her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls is right where you least expect it. At which point, I believe it’s time for us to quit offers a reward all its own.

“Lay Lady Lay” (Alternate Version)–Straightforward alternative to the tricked up version above. More tasteful without necessarily being more effective. Somewhere in the middle, a great version might have been waiting. For the purposes of this collection, a tease that doesn’t distract.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Early Version)–I like the charge they put into this version better than the tongue they put in their cheek on the released master (which nonetheless had its values, see above). Still not as good as the Beach Boys’ complete subversion on Party! and, oddly enough, it doesn’t sound like anything is changing at all.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (Live)–From ’70. The old anthem sounds tired, the new guitar dynamics show-offy. And it’s a lesson in how much those harmonies in the original group really meant and how rarefied they were that their absence speaks louder than anything present here. Still, if you wanted to hear this as a symbol of how things had gone astray, I wouldn’t argue with you.

“Chimes of Freedom” (Live)–From ’69 and the harmonies are still missed. But McGuinn at least sounds committed and, while it’s almost too bad they didn’t substitute the more poorly recorded, but near-desperate version heard here, this still pushes back hard enough for what comes next to feel like a setup they earned.

“Paths of Victory”–After listening to later versions of the band wander around a bit, perhaps even lose the plot, this summoning of the old magic by the survivors, harmonies intact one last time, puts a smile on my face every time. A tired smile maybe, but at this point in the American Experiment, I’ll take what I can get.

More than that, it always makes me want to go back and listen from the beginning and maybe ask one more time just what it is I see flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight?

God bless them, every one. Yes, David, even you.

*Hat tip Nik Cohn and Rock Dreams.