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.

Advertisements

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.”

Lonely Are the Eighteen Material Witnesses

Stacy Danielle Stephens, author and editor and frequent Classically Educated contributor returns this week with a second review of a film dealing with the JFK assassination (for last week’s review of JFK, see here).  

Executive Action (1973) Film Poster

When the DVD sleeve liner says, “written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo,” you’re hoping for something like Spartacus, or at least Exodus, but when you watch Executive Action, you’ll remember that most of Trumbo’s screenwriting was done for the sort of studio Termite Terrace parodied by having Porky Pig crank a sausage grinder in place of a camera. This is not to say Executive Action is a bad movie, only that it is the sort of movie most people watched for the first time on television, after the local news, in the days before cable. It can hold your interest, although you might check out pro wresting at the commercial break. It’s the sort of movie you’d expect to find in a four-movie TCM collection featuring Burt Lancaster.

David Miller had directed popular hits like Captain Newman, M. D. and Flying Tigers, and following on the heels of The Day of the Jackal, Executive Action, the first cinematic treatment of the JFK assassination as a conspiracy, should have been a blockbuster, and even more so for being not only controversial, but introducing that very controversy to the American movie audience. Yet somehow, Miller and Trumbo went very wrong in how they presented what they presented.

Executive Action 1973 Robert Ryan Burt Lancaster

Anyone who has seen JFK will recognize several scenes in Executive Action, particularly scenes involving Oswald. This apparent plagiarism is permissible because these depicted events are documented occurrences, with only some of the speeches in each film being invented by an author. It is in these scenes that both the failure and the reason for it become clear. James MacColl, impersonating Oswald, isn’t convincing to anyone but the used car dealer, target shooter, and gunsmith he’s been hired to deceive in order to frame Oswald as the patsy. Ironically, MacColl, who is technically playing himself rather than Oswald, gives the only impassioned performances of the film, other than the car dealer and target shooter whom he angers. Theirs are the only convincing performances, but even their dialogue is not compelling. They convey feeling, but cannot effectively draw anyone into that feeling.

So why would anyone give up ninety-one minutes to watch a failed effort which became Late Show fodder and ended as an also ran in a lesser collection of alleged classics? Well, throughout the history of television, there have been beer commercials, and a recurring trope in these is the empty glass being filled with beer. Anyone who enjoys beer will visualize just how refreshing the brand being advertised really is. And that is the main reason for watching Executive Action; it reveals how well Oliver Stone filled the aching emptiness of November 22, 1963.

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.

Greater Venice – Or How a Swampy City Dominated the Eastern Mediterranean

Venetian Fortress in Crete

Many people can name the great Empires: the Roman Empire, the British Empire and even the Mongols roll quickly from the tongues of people with even rudimentary educations.

But there existed a powerful empire that many people don’t recall offhand, and that empire was the Venetian Empire.  Yes, the tiny city of Venice, mired in a swampy lagoon once possessed the largest trade empire in the Mediterranean with colonies stretching to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, many of which they held on to for centuries.

The Arsenal Of Venice

This empire was a major actor in the crusades and in the subsequent wars between Christianity and Islam.  The Venetian Arsenal (map above) was the engine that produced most of the ships that sent crusaders on their way as well as the ships that fought–and won–the battle of Lepanto, possibly the most important naval engagement between the two warring monotheisms.

In light of its importance, it does come as a bit of a surprise that so few people know about this particular empire.  I’m a bit of a history enthusiast, but though I knew it had existed, I only recently learned the details about it.

Why is that, I asked myself.

I think there are three major reasons for its lack of fame.

The first is geographic.  This empire wasn’t a contiguous land empire in the tradition of Rome or the Mongols.  People seem to have an easier time imagining this type of structure.  For a far-flung sea empire to live in the imagination, it needs to have good marketing (the sun never sets on the British Empire).

The second and third reasons are psychological and, to the medieval / renaissance mind, possibly moral.  For one thing, the Venetian Empire’s big break came because they betrayed one (possibly two) supposed allies.  Having contracted to take a group of crusaders to the Holy Land, the Doge decided to have them sack Constantinople, an allied Christian city, instead.  The riches from that expedition were the cornerstone of the empire.

For another thing, the “crusades” fought by the Venetians were more about trade routes and money than about religion, despite claims to the contrary on both sides.  The Venetians had no problem with muslims.  They traded with them when it suited them and went to war when it suited them.  Everyone knew this, and for that reason, they never admired the Venetians in the same way as they admired the crusaders who spent time in the Holy Land (even though their own motives were also often suspect).

The Venetian Empire - A Sea Voyaye - Jan Morris

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating tale and, as you can probably imagine given my track record of buying Folio Society books, it’s one that I absorbed through reading one of their volumes.  This particular tome, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris is up to their usual standards and was a great read, mainly because of the colloquial way in which Morris (whose own story is quite interesting in itself) treats the subject: an island-hopping tour of the empire, with the history thrown in in such a way that it hardly intrudes.

This book landed squarely in our Italian period, which also helped make it interesting… even though Venice was only recently grafted on to Italy, and then by force majeure (it took Napoleon himself to do it, in fact).

I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn about this somewhat forgotten historical period…  Or to any general reader looking for something a little bit different.  A great read, and one that will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t know.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer active in several genres whose most recent science fiction novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

 

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.

Bibliophile Heaven with History

As a book lover, there are few things I enjoy more than perusing a good library.  Whether it be by looking at the spines of the books at a friend’s house or visiting the New York Public Library when I’m in the city (Protip: the original stuffed animals that inspired Winnie the Pooh are on permanent display in the Children’s section on the ground floor of the NYPL), this king of sightseeing is something I never fail to enjoy.

Abbey-of-Saint-Gall

However, it’s not always possible to hop on a plane and fly to St. Gall each time I want to view an even more impressive depository, so, as usual, my solution is to get a book.  Actually multiple books.  The first book I bought about libraries is called The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and as its name suggests, the preoccupation here is to allow the beauty to shine forth by using spectacular photography.  Fortunately, it also gives the–sometimes tortuous–history of each of them as well.

Over time, I discovered that despite its coffee-table size, this book is one of the most frequently perused volumes in my own book cases.

The Library - A World History

So I succumbed to the pressure of Amazon recommendations and bought a companion volume: The Library: A World History.  Written by James W. P. Campbell, this one, though also a large-format and lushly illustrated book goes back to the very beginnings of literary history and gives a blow-by-blow account of how the way people have stored books has evolved.  It’s bang up to date to its publication in 2013.

I found it fascinating to learn which advances permitted–and sometimes forced–the way library formats have evolved over the centuries.  Knowing why a room full of books looks the way it does is almost as enjoyable as looking at it.

Almost.

Though the focus here is definitely on the scholarship, the pictures of libraries, reading rooms, and the furniture within are worth the price of admission even if they were all that was included.  This book gets pulled out and stared at even more than the other one, mainly because, though there aren’t as many pictures of each library, there are many more libraries featured, including some in Korea, Japan and China. Those latter places are not only fascinating for themselves, but also illuminating in context; they illustrate beautifully how differences in book format created different kinds of storage rooms.

Recommended.  I think that bibliophiles will love these.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who is currently writing the sequel to his comic fantasy novel The Malakiad.

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.