I’ve always found the historical figure of Eddie Rickenbacker very interesting. In one person, in one life, he combines a lot of the things that really stir my imagination: aviation (he was the leading U.S. ace in WWI), Indy car racing (he was one of the earliest competitors in the Indy 500), airliners (he was an executive of Eastern Air Lines), and the entrepreneurial spirit (he had other business enterprises, including an automobile company).
Back in Chicago, I have a book about the exploits of Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron called Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War. I began reading it before coming to Edmonton and thought it was really good. Unfortunately, they don’t have it at local libraries here so I picked up W. David Lewis’s biography (Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century) instead.
Lewis, an elderly professor of history, combines years of scholarly experience with a childlike fascination with the figure of Rickenbacker that dates to his youth. He seems to provide a balanced view of the man, revealing his positive and negative qualities.
I’m taking a course this semester about the historical memory of World War II. Today we focused on Belarus in particular and how the Lukashenko government has fostered a constant remembrance of the war as a political tool. This topic is of particular interest for me as I myself am from Belarus.
The readings and discussion today made me realize my own biases about World War II, having first learned about it while growing up in the Soviet Union. The Lukashenko narrative of the war, which is similar to the former Soviet narrative, ignores the multiplicity of Belarusian experiences of the war – there were Soviet Communists but also Belarusian nationalists, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators, and people who were neutral during the war and were only trying to live through it.
These new perspectives are challenging for me because I grew up on the black-and-white, good vs. evil perspective about the war. But I’m coming to realize that especially in the “borderlands” of Europe – places like Belarus and Ukraine – the clash of nationalism with imperialism created a really messy set of choices and circumstances for the common people during the 1940s. And judging by recent events in Ukraine, the same general trend still seems to apply today.
I find current events much more interesting when I feel like I have an insider’s view of the news. I think it comes down to having a certain sense of comprehension or even control of what’s going on in the world. Sometimes I lapse into a mindset of believing that the forces that move events around the globe are incomprehensible to those that are far from the centers of power. At that point, I begin to lose interest in current events and politics for a while.
Then certain experiences snap me out of this apathetic stupor. Once, it was watching the excellent movie Blood Diamond. More recently, it was watching the show Homeland and then reading Mark Mazzetti’s work, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Mazzetti is a journalist for The New York Times that has really dug deep into the foundations of several powerful institutions to create an insightful story about America’s new way of waging war.
In my opinion, The Way of the Knife is superbly written. It reminds me of perhaps my favorite work of nonfiction, The Metaphysical Club. Both books follow a kind of formula which has the effect of gluing my attention right to the narrative. And that formula is:
- Chapters that can stand on their own as individual pieces of excellent writing;
- Brief but revealing biographical stories of the characters (even minor ones) mentioned;
- The threads of each chapter tied loosely together into an overarching thesis or general idea.
My goal is to get better at this style of writing myself. When done well, I think it can make almost any historical topic interesting to read about.
Academic writing does not necessarily have to be boring. I was reminded of this while reading Rebecca L. Spang’s book on a specific subject in French history, titled The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. I picked this book up at the library because I have been interested in cooking lately, and one of the best ways for me to sustain my curiosity in a topic is to learn about its history.
One of the first recipes in a cookbook that has inspired my recent culinary adventures, Classic Techniques for Fine Cooking, is a beef consommé. This meal, if prepared correctly, takes many hours to make and produces basically a light appetizer of delicious broth with a few veggies thrown in for substance. It seems almost like a waste of time, but I found out that these clear soups have a special place in the history of French cuisine.
The first restaurants were opened in France in the eighteenth century and served these clear soups exclusively. These restaurants capitalized on the popular beliefs of the time that those suffering from weak digestion or “weak chests” could restore themselves with cups of bouillon, which had all of the flavors of meat and vegetables without their actual substance.
Spang traces this development in The Invention of the Restaurant. Because she incorporates biographical information and cultural detail into her narrative, her work still appeals to the public even though it’s written in an academic style. I’m enjoying reading this book, and it inspires my experiments in both the kitchen and in the library.
Sailors who sailed on Allied corvette ships on the Atlantic Ocean during WWII had an interesting experience of war. Their days were filled with repetitive strain. Escort runs accompanying Allied convoys lasted several week at a time, each day being divided into four hour on-watch and four hour off-watch segments for the crew. The Flower class corvettes were the workhorses of these escort missions, but they were tremendously unstable in heavy seas. And in the North Atlantic, the weather more often found the sailors rocking and slamming against ship parts rather than enjoying leisurely calm waters.
This routine repeated itself endlessly for many servicemen for up to six years. The nature of the fight against their main enemy — German U-boat submarines — meant that they may only see their enemy face-to-face only a handful of times during the entire war. When the corvettes were alerted to the presence of U-boats, it was more often than not in the form of a merchant ship violently and suddenly exploding in the convoy. Then the rescue of survivors and the hunting of the U-boats would begin.
It was a lonely grind of a job. Most of the time, serving on an escort ship meant enduring the violent seas rather than fighting furtive German submarines. That is why Nicholas Monsarrat named his classic novel about two British escort ships in the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea. A movie was made in 1953 based on the book. I watched the movie first and then read Monsarrat’s novel. Both are excellent, but I enjoyed the film a little more. The latter, directed by Charles Frend, was a rare find for me because it’s the closest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of style to that other classic film of naval warfare, “Das Boot,” a personal favorite of mine.
For many years, I’ve been interested in submarine warfare during WWII. Reading and watching a film about the hunters on the other side of the periscope opened my eyes to the interesting experiences of the Allied sailors on corvettes, frigates, and destroyers who protected merchant convoys like shepherds against the wolves that lurked beneath the waves.
Having moved back from New York City, I discovered that my familiar public library in northwest Chicagoland got a facelift. The wall between the children and adult sections has been torn down, creating a pleasant sense of open space. While browsing there last week, I chanced upon a movie I had never heard about before: “The Hunley.”
A TNT movie from 1999, it didn’t win any awards for acting (though it did win an Emmy for sound editing). I enjoyed watching “The Hunley” because it recreates what it may have been like to serve aboard the first effective combat submarine in history. Starring Armand Assante, it has a bit of an action movie feel to it. For a film taking place inside of a weapons platform propelled by the underwhelming power of half a dozen men cranking away at the propeller shaft by hand, the high-intensity aesthetic is a bit of a mismatch. (more…)
A few days ago, I started reading a book that I bought about a year ago in a bookstore’s bargain aisle. The book is Paul by E.P. Sanders from the “A Brief Insight” series. The letters of the Apostle Paul form a big chunk of the New Testament. In those letters, his unique way of addressing problems in religious communities have had an enormous influence on the development of Christianity.
But Sanders’s 200-page work is the first book I’ve ever read focused specifically on Paul. Before I even finished reading the first chapter, I already started thinking about what the next book would be that I would read about Paul. I do this often: whenever I get interested in a new topic, I go on Amazon.com and try to find the most authoritative book on that subject. It’s handy information. Sometimes I even make a short bibliography of what the first books would be that I would read if I were to study the topic more closely.
It’s always satisfying to find the one definitive book on a subject: a recently-published and comprehensive resource you can turn to that will bring you up to speed on a subject in one fell swoop. Interested in Johannes Brahms? A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal that Jan Swafford’s biography, a 752-page tome decorated with 33 reviews averaging 4.5/5 stars, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the place to turn for all your Brahms needs. (more…)
I really like the kind of reality shows where you get to watch experts performing complex jobs with great skill. I enjoy it all: from Ice Pilots NWT, where aviators brave extreme winter conditions to fly in northern Canada, to Big Shrimpin’, a show about fishermen plying their trade off of the southern coast of the United States.
These past couple of weeks I’ve been interested in a show called Tank Overhaul. Each episode features a crew of a few men restoring rusty and battle-damaged tanks (from the World War II era and later) to like-new condition. There’s just something about sand-blasting decades-old rust from a tank chassis to reveal a brilliant metallic surface underneath that gets me going. With a wave of a wand (literally) time is reversed and these half-decayed battle tanks come to life again.
Truth be told, though, I’m not a big tank enthusiast. But this show got me thinking about the restoration and preservation of two types of machines that I do have a passion for: (no surprise here to anyone who reads this blog) submarines and airplanes. So I got to imagining: is there anywhere in the Chicago area where I can see or even volunteer in the restoration of these historical artifacts?
A simple search revealed a few interesting leads. (more…)
I’ve been mulling over two new ideas for 2013. First, I want to try posting more informal articles charting my day-to-day thoughts about history and the material I read about. I often put in a lot of time into preparing each blog post and have strayed from my original intention of making this blog more of a semi-daily journal of intellectual impressions. I still hope to keep the quality of writing and ideas as high as I can, and hopefully this more casual style will even help with that.
On to the second idea. It’s difficult for me to keep up a habit of research outside an academic community like a university. Nevertheless, I miss the challenge of sustaining a focused examination of a single topic like when I wrote my senior thesis in college. At first, I considered the idea of creating a history-themed website like uboat.net or The Aerodrome. I then thought that sites such as those are like a topic-specific data warehouse. I am more interested in telling the stories of the past through narratives rather than catalogs of data. But I also realize that conducting original research in the military history topics that I’m interested in would take up more time than I would like. So currently I’m toying with the idea of making a history podcast along the lines of the History of Rome Podcast or the History of WWII Podcast. The level of detail in these podcasts — in especially the latter example — gives listeners a sense of immersion in the time period and events being discussed. Making a podcast would encourage me to do a good amount of research about a single subject without the need for a comprehensive mastery of the sources. I’ve already started doing background reading on my first topic of interest: U.S. submarine operations against Japan, 1941-1945. I’ll write more about what I’ve read so far and what I will read in the future.
The next post will be about the new history books for January. I’ll also be reviewing Adam Makos’s A Higher Call, which I just finished reading. Will write again soon!