History

Hitler’s Last Gamble Brought to Life

Tiger Tank

The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most legendary actions of WW2.  It might not be up there with the D-Day landings, The invasion of Poland, the Siege of Stalingrad or the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it’s definitely in the second tier, and, like all the rest, many misconceptions about it survive.  I know I certainly didn’t know all that much about the details–to me it was always just about German Tiger tanks in a snowy forest demolishing numerically superior allied forces.

The truth is more complicated, of course, so we return to WWII to have a look.  Now, for those who’ve been following this blog over the years, WWII means film and excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excellent novel-in-progress, but today we turn to a nonfiction book that aims to be the definitive record of the Battle of the Bulge.

Ardennes 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge - Anthony Beevor

Now, whenever someone says the phrase “definitive history” in my presence, I’m immediately assaulted by a sense of utter ennui.  Definitive means exhaustive and authoritative, and that usually corresponds to boring.

But Anthony Beevor’s book Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, is anything but boring.  It’s a nonfiction book–an exhaustive, authoritative nonfiction book–that reads like a thriller.  The real people depicted are shown in much the same light, with their strengths and weaknesses, heroism and foibles, as would be the characters in a novel.  The effect it electrifying, and keeps you turning the pages to find out what happened next.

Of course, there is a lot of detail.  Anyone reading this will learn a lot that they never knew–or didn’t remember–about these cold days in 1944.  You’ll also be reminded that war wasn’t just about soldiers prancing around in armored vehicles–civilians were often caught in the crossfire, and played ambiguous roles as well, both as victims of atrocities and willing or unwilling accomplices to one side or the other.

Finally, the book places the battle of the bulge in strategic context with regards to the rest of the war and explains how events on the Eastern Front, as well as in the Pacific Theater created the conditions for a tremendous battle.

It is a complete book – history and entertainment in one convenient package.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  He is the author of Incursion, a novel of interstellar war played out over centuries.  You can see the novel here.

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Looking Back on New York Royalty

Prince of the City by Robert Daley

There’s something about stories of corruption, especially corruption among police officers that makes for compelling reading (and in some cases, viewing, but we’ll get to that later).  Corruption is one of the most human of vices, and seeing just where the tipping point is in different individuals adds to the interest. When you combine that with the intricate warren of life that is woven together in the tapestry that is New York City, compulsion can quickly turn to fascination.

Prince of the City is the book written by Robert Daley about the corruption and ultimate testimony of Detective Robert Leuci, a New York officer who was part of an elite investigative unit.  It was a unit that helped put more criminals in jail than any other, with conviction rates through the roof and which did more to help society solve its crime problem than any other.

But it was also rife with corruption.  These cops, while cleaning the streets, would keep the change.  Percentages of confiscated money would disappear, busts that they knew wouldn’t lead to convictions were negotiated for cash, informants were paid with drugs.

Detective Robert Leuci

Unlike a lot of books from the eighties that dealt with problems inherently seventies in nature, this one became a bestseller, was filmed and is still in print today (although I think it’s only available as en ebook at the moment).

Why?

Because apart from being compelling for the human element, it’s well-written and expertly woven together (Robert Daley was already known to me as the author of The Cruel Sport, but he does just as well in this very different milieux).

That much we already knew, but there’s another element in the mix.  Though Daley only comes out and says it in a few cases, the feeling is that the cope involved in the inevitable fall all feel that prosecuting them was a mistake perpetrated on them by small-minded parsimonious bureaucrats, people so obsessed with the rule book that they can’t see the big picture.

And one is left with a sense, that they just might be right.  There is no doubt they were corrupt, but even with all the facts on the table, one is left thinking that they were doing more harm than good.  That they were essentially good men fighting crime in the most effective way they knew… and reaping certain benefits they felt they deserved.

I recommend this one to essentially everyone.  It’s a character study and a compelling story rolled into one… and even better, it will make you think at the end of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of the well-received novel Siege, as well as several other novels and short stories.  You can find Siege here.

Celebrating the Human Need to Explain the Inexplicable

Umberto Eco

Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map.  Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.

In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.

One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us?  Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.

The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco

In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in.  So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.

Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.

On that front, I was pleasantly surprised.  Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era.  The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters.  It’s a beautiful book.

This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated.  As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  It’s quite the mix, but it works.

Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from.  Eco famously collected books of  what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.

Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs.  He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors.  Deservedly so.

In conclusion, find a copy of this book.  You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures.  You can thank me in the comments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet).  His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

A Perfect Big Dipper

 

1001 Days that Shaped the World - Peter Furtado

Those of you who have been following along (bonus points if you were here during the LJ days), know that I have a thing for list books.  I’ve been watching the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die (latest installment here) in order, and then someone gifted me the book 1001 Days that Shaped the World.

Now, I can’t really take the same approach as with the movies until my time machine gets back out of the shop.  They say it will be ready next week, but they’ve been saying that since November of the year 2472, so not sure whether to believe them anymore*.

So instead of living each of the days listed, I had to settle for another unorthodox way of enjoying this book: reading each entry in the order they printed it–which is to say reading the book cover to cover.

Now these aren’t really books that are best enjoyed by reading it that way.  These books are probably the ultimate bucket-list creators and dippers.  By dippers, I am referring to those books you dip into (hence the name) whenever you need to recall a particular fact or event.

What I particularly enjoy about this one is that the author, Peter Furtado, doesn’t let his politics shape the book.  A real risk in this kind of volume is to make evident one’s own leanings by removing events that don’t align with your political bent.  In reading this one, it’s impossible to know whether the author leans left, right or believes that unicorns are evil.  And that is wonderful in this day and age, especially in a book that would have been utterly ruined and rendered meaningless if someone’s politics had been involved. His professionalism as a curator is hugely beneficial (protip: if you’re running a book, an event or anything else that isn’t specifically political–or which doesn’t have big yellow disclaimers about the content–and your politics show, that is unprofessional).

So I enjoyed this one, learned a huge amount, and recommend to all of you on either side of the spectrum.

I like these books a lot.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer. His novel Outside tells of really important events that happened a few hundred years from today. If you don’t have a time machine, you may want to buy it here.

 

*Did you see what I did there?

The Golden Years of the Big Apple

Illustration for Manhattan 45

I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris.  The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel.  The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.

 

Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris

The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint.  The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.

Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject.  WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis.  One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right.  It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one.  Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.

It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness.  Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be.  This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later.  It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside.  You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.

The true downside?  It’s nearly impossible to share.  You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here.  “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.

Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it.  But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  Check it out!  Paperback and Ebook.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

As I’ve mentioned here before, I live about a block and a half from a beautiful Anglican church that holds a jamboree every year.  They have games for children, food and, in one delightful room, piles of used books for sale.

I particularly love this because the kind of books they have for sale tend towards the things that the British community in Argentina would have had on their shelves in the fifties, sixties and seventies: books and other periodicals in English that I never would have thought to buy for myself.  Often, they can be had for a token price and all proceeds go to charity, so there’s plenty of incentive to bring home something outside your normal comfort zone.

The White Nile by Alan Moorhead

One of these titles was The White Nile by Alan Moorehead, a hefty hardcover that I immediately grabbed out of the pile.

Now, for those of you who don’t know it, the history of the exploration and colonization of the lower reaches of the Nile in the latter half of the 19th century is fascinating, and Moorehead’s style makes for gripping reading.  The tale of Livingstone and Stanley is probably the most famous of these, but perhaps the military quests and particularly Gordon’s famous defeat at Khartoum are the most interesting parts.

Like Tarzan of the Apes, this is a book that one needs to read without falling into the revisionist trap.  Published in 1960, a time where the glories of the British Empire lived vividly in the minds of many, it doesn’t pander to modern sensibilities.  That’s not to say it’s rampantly racist or one-sided–it isn’t; Moorehead was a historian with a decent amount of sensitivity to the people he wrote about–but it IS written from the British viewpoint, and exclusively through the testimony of white explorers, many of whom truly believed that they were bringing light to a dark region of the world.  When you read their descriptions of what they found, it’s even possible for open-minded readers to understand why they felt this way.

If you can set aside modern thought patterns for a moment, this book is nearly as good as any lost race novel at transporting you to fascinating worlds… with the added benefit that the events related therein actually took place in real life.  It’s an escape from the pressures and rhythms of everyday life that make it well worth the effort of leaving one’s sensibilities aside.

And you’ll learn one heck of a lot along the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of the well-received novel Siege.

The Byzantine Story of the Buenos Aires Zoo

On a cool evening in the autumn of 2016, I got home and my wife told me that there was an event being held in the neighborhood.  The idea was that one could visit various expositions and historic sites around Belgrano R and get a stamp at each.  Once one had all seven stamps, one could claim a prize.  The only catch was that we had to do it all before 8:30 PM… it was already 6:30.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

Her kids and I (she couldn’t join due to being seven months pregnant) took off at once.  We rushed around like maniacs and visited 3 churches (including the one in the photo), 2 schools, a social club and some other stuff I can’t remember, walked about three miles and earned our prize.  The kids chose a book.

On the face of it, this book was a natural choice, as it was about the Buenos Aires Zoo.  But delving a little deeper, it wasn’t really a good book for kids at all.  It was a collection of scholarly historical essays dealing with the creation of the zoo itself in all its historical and social significance, as well as a specific focus on a Byzantine Portico commissioned for the entrance to the park.  The book, quite naturally, is entitled El Pórtico Bizantino del Jardín Zoologico de Buenos Aires.

El Portico Bizantino del Zoologico de Buenos Aires

To understand the attraction of something like this, it must be noted that, when the zoo was being planned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires was the capital of a world power which looked to Europe for its social cues.  Anyone visiting from fin de siècle Paris would have felt right at home, and did.  Transplanted victorian ladies would have been able to walk the park’s promenades without having to modify their dress–their Argentine peers would have looked exactly the same.

So the government had art experts scouring the markets in Europe and the Middle East for suitable antiquities.  Many arrived… some real, some not-so-real, and the analysis of whether the Portico’s columns are from classical antiquity or from a 19th century Italian workshop is both exhaustive and, to a modern reader, amusing.

Amusing in a sad way, though.  Firstly, because, despite having been in the zoo many, many times, I’d never really paid much attention to the semicircle of columns set on an island in a park lake.  It was just part of the background, and a difficult to see and not-very-imposing part at that.

Secondly, it’s sad because, due to unfortunate intervention of a small but vocal minority, the Buenos Aires zoo, a magnificent public space enjoyed by a city of fifteen million people, was forced to close at just about the same time as I was gaining possession of this particular volume.  It’s supposedly going to be reopened at some future date as an eco-park (the word “eco” in there should give a clue as to which special interest group needs to be appeased), but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s poignant that the Portico might disappear now.  Not because it was a major attraction–it wasn’t.  But it was part of the history of the city… To have it disappear as an unintended side effect of pressure from fanatics is a sad but accurate reflection of how the modern world works.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion was released by Severed Press in 2017.

A Stained-Glass View into a Simpler Time

A Stained Glass Tour In Italy

In the early twentieth century, tourism was mostly an upper-class pursuit.  Due to the way the upper classes were (and to a certain degree still are) educated in those days, this made for a very different kind of tourism.  The mere concept of going to Coney Island for a Hot Dog Eating Competition would have been met with a mixture of derision and outright disbelief.

While you’re not really going to find too many equivalents of the glorious Grand Tours in the years just before the Great War, you still found erudite madmen going off on interesting expeditions.  Heirs to Victorian obsessions, these adventurers were hobbyists and diarists that make the people who dress up as Stormtroopers for Comic Con (or worse, science fiction writers) look like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

Many of them left books behind regarding the unlikeliest of subjects, I was delighted but unsurprised when a volume entitled A Stained Glass Tour in Italy appeared at the annual jamboree at our local Anglican Church.

But, before I talk about the book let’s talk about this church.  I’m not religious in the least (and certainly not Anglican), but I love the place.  It is a lovely stone building that looks like it should be situated somewhere in fictional Wessex in the early 19th century and not a block from my house in the middle of a heavily built up sector of one of the world’s megacities.  It was the perfect spot to find a book like the one above, my copy of the Stained-Glass tome.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

The book itself is a first edition, albeit worn frayed around the edges and well-aged, and probably the thing that I loved most about it was the fact that I was the first person in its over 100 years of history to read the thing completely.  How did I know this?  Because some of the pages were still uncut.  So, for two dollars, I purchased a journey back in time and the thrill of trying to separate pages with a steak knife (long story) without tearing them.

The book itself was a charming example of something that would never have been touched by a modern day publishing house.  A couple of wealthy friends go on a tour of northern Italy for the express and arcane purpose of viewing significant works of stained glass in the regions churches.  As they guide us through the towns they visit, the focus is on the glass and a brief history of the art form, but glimpses of life in the Italian countryside before WWI peek nostalgically through.  My lasting impression of this book is one of sunlight bathing dusty country roads and sand-colored buildings, slightly crumbling but once magnificent.

The book itself is interesting, too, with a number of laid in photographs and a strangely folded map, its production values would be dismissed as an amateur production today, but carries the stamp of the Bodley Head, a major publisher in 1911.

But it’s the writing which carries the day.  This book functions as neither a comprehensive guide to Italian stained glass nor as a reasonable tour guide for the era.  A labor of love, written – and likely published – with little or no consideration for any commercial value, in a tone that is as affectionate towards the subject as it is to any reader interested enough to open the volume.  It’s the work of a generalist who happened to love stained glass, a product of a polymath and a man of his time (Charles Hitchcock Sherrill – ambassador, athlete and stained-glassophile) that we like to think would be an avid reader of Classically Educated today.

We were definitely avid readers of his book!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  His best-known book is the science fiction novel Siege.

Museums by Proxy

National Museum of American History

Here at Classically Educated, we love museums.  We visit them whenever we’re in a new city, we rank them whenever we’ve seen all that a certain city has to offer, and we try to enjoy all sorts.   Most people spend their time in art galleries, but we also enjoy history museums, science museums and even transport museums.  If you’ve never been to Brooklyn’s New York Transit Museum, you’re missing out.

But as I can’t spend all my time visiting museums (well, I could, but only if someone wants to a) pay for the trips and b) pay for the resulting reams of copy – operators are standing by), I have found another way to do so.  Find the official museum book for a couple of dollars at some used bookstore.

That’s what I did with the National Museum of American History.  I didn’t need and wasn’t particularly looking for a three ton tome (all right it might be a little lighter than that) about the museum, but once I saw it, it was mine (especially at the price they were asking).

National Museum of American History - Shirley Abbott

And I’m glad I bought it.  The book was published in 1981, so it covers most of the interesting bits of history (or at least the bits I don’t remember for myself) and is production values are so high that, in many shots, you feel like you’re standing in the museum itself nearly forty years ago.  As the museum was set up to bring to life many earlier eras, the excellent photography can take you back to 1891, or even 1650.

The book was written by Shirley Abbott and is split into three sections: At Home in America, The Headlong Century and Our Times (remember it was published some time ago) and the text around the images is well-written and engaging, bringing to light the often misunderstood times it highlights.

But as in the museum itself, it’s the visual experience that predominates, and I’m grateful that museums take the time to publish books like these.  Yes, it’s a big block of a book, but it truly is the next best thing to being there.  Even modern vido tours necessarily have to take a back seat to productions of this caliber.

And the nicest thing about this museum and the US in general?  It doesn’t get sniffy about showing machinery.  Is there anything more evocative of the age of steam than a huge bronze boiler and piston?  The stuff that made life what it was, from guns to toys, is all here – and it’s from 1981, remember, so no revisionism to fit with 21st century sensibilities, which is always nice.

Grab a copy if you can (they’re cheap), but spend some time in the gym first.  This is not a book for people with slipped discs or serious hernias.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His latest book is a humorous fantasy novel: The Malakiad.