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An insider’s view

Posted in American, Books, Foreign Affairs, War by Alex L. on September 5, 2013

The Way of the Knife coverI 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:

  1. Chapters that can stand on their own as individual pieces of excellent writing;
  2. Brief but revealing biographical stories of the characters (even minor ones) mentioned;
  3. 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.

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“The Hunley” movie

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on February 16, 2013

Close up of Mort Kunstler's painting, The Final Mission

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…)

New history books (June 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Culture by Alex L. on July 24, 2012

History off the Book header

U.S. intellectual history

Mansion-of-HappinessWell-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).

Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.

The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi). (more…)

New history books (May 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on July 3, 2012

History off the Book header

Origins of institutions

Book coverFour years ago, I wrote my senior history thesis about the beginnings of philosophical ideas in three ancient cultures. One of the most satisfying experiences in studying history is to learn the backstory of something ancient that still has a prominent place in current life. The following new books describe the origins of long-lasting institutions. Andrew Shryrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s new work, published last November, combines essays about language, food, kinship, and other topics related to life before humans started writing.

Half a year before that, political theorist Francis Fukuyama released a popular book about how bureaucratic and democratic political systems evolved from tribal societies and why imposing these sophisticated institutions on tribal cultures today causes problems. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s book, also published last year, about the evolution of religion seems a bit dry to read, but the ideas of this ambitious project are worth considering (my senior thesis was equally ambitious but only benefited from a year’s worth of work rather than a lifetime’s). Finally, rounding out the list is a new work coauthored by Kent Flanner and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. They describe their take on the origins of inequality in various social contexts and how to prevent it in the future.

book-iconMoral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Christopher Boehm. Since the days of Peter Kropotkin, scientists have tried to restrain the impulse to turn descriptive Darwinism into prescriptive selfishness. Boehm here argues that altruism in human society is as favored by evolution as selfishness. (more…)

200 mph is the easy part

Posted in American, Just for Fun, Sports, Television by Alex L. on June 28, 2012

Photo from IndyCar.comAs a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.

I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.

But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).

IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development). (more…)

New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read). (more…)

New history books (March 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on April 21, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Soldiers’ stories

Book coverGreat books temporarily lend the reader a new set of senses to experience a different reality. Sometimes as readers we recognize the types of books that propel us into a world that we have learned to enjoy, and we crave this release. Often I want to read military memoirs and observe how courageous individuals dealt with extreme adversity in moments of intense pressure. Of course I am witnessing their stories from a comfortable distance (often from a comfortable couch too) but then again I wouldn’t want to actually go through what those soldiers did firsthand. I just finished reading Tom Johnson’s excellent memoir, To the Limit, about his service as a Huey helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. It gave me — a fixed-wing aviation buff — a newfound appreciation for the skill and warrior spirit of military helicopter pilots.

In February, Vietnam veteran Philip Keith published a book about a unit of tank troops in Vietnam — part of the Blackhorse Regiment — that responded to a distress call from an encircled company of American infantry. This group of men who fought through the enemy-held jungle to rescue their countrymen was not publicly recognized for their courageous deeds until 2009 when President Obama awarded their outfit the Presidential Unit Citation. Accounts of tank combat are inexplicably rare and Keith’s seems like an engrossing one. (more…)

That constitution is best which…

Posted in American, Politics, Press by Alex L. on February 7, 2012

Detail of the U.S. ConstitutionAn upcoming study in the New York University Law Review finds that the U.S. Constitution is losing favor as a model for new constitutions around the world, reports the New York Times. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the American document witnessed its height of popularity, foreign governments have turned to more progressive constitutions such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for inspiration.

The N.Y. Times article suggests three reasons for the decline in popularity worldwide of our Constitution: (1) America’s decreasing influence and reputation, (2) conservative judges’  insistence that the original intent of the Founding Fathers be considered in rulings, and (3) the absence of rights that are featured in other nations’ constitutions (e.g. rights to travel, food, education, and healthcare).

Should these be causes for concern for Americans?

Addressing the first reason, I think the greatest blows to American reputation happen when the U.S. initiates wars of questionable cause. American involvement in Vietnam and Iraq (2003-2011) soured America’s image around the world during a time when we needed support for broader conflicts (Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively). We should become more wary of beginning a war. (more…)

New history books (January 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on February 2, 2012

History Off the Book

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

War of 1812

Knights-of-the-SeaThis year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Many overlook this conflict, but it inaugurated important changes for America. During the war, America tried unsuccessfully to invade Canada, Washington D.C. was invaded and burned by the British, American Indian unification efforts (which were supported by the British) against the colonists were dealt a punishing blow, and the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner” were composed. After the war, British and American relations began to improve until eventually the two nations became each other’s closest ally in the 20th Century.

Several new books are being published in commemoration of the anniversary. Three that were released last year—two popular ones by George C. Daughan and Stephen Budiansky and a more scholarly one by Kevin D. McCranie—focus on the naval conflict. But the best new overview of the War of 1812 is by J.C.A. Stagg and is due to come out on March 31 of this year.

The book I’m most excited to read, though, is David Hanna’s Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812. The ships HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise dueled off the coast of Maine on a brisk autumn day. The captains of the opposing vessels were later buried together in a dual funeral on the American shore, inspiring the poem “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (more…)

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History off the press (November ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, European, Russian by Alex L. on December 2, 2011

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Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverMy parents’ generation grew up in the Soviet Union reading and owning volumes of classical literature. Despite my parents’ polemics, my friends and I somehow found playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the SEGA Genesis video game console when we were younger more compelling than reading James Fenimore Cooper. Where did this cultural gap come from? A new book by Katerina Clark examines how the Soviet fascination with world literature began in the 1930s as Soviet leaders and intellectuals tried to cast Moscow as a cosmopolitan beacon of secular culture for the world. This mindset during the Stalinist era must have, it seems to me, influenced my parents’ generation to become voracious readers.

Soviet life is still a rich field for contemporary historical study and literature. But the Western imagination is more captivated by an earlier time in Russian history: the dynasty of the Romanovs. Robert K. Massie has just published a book titled Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. His previous biography of a Romanov monarch, Peter the Great, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Catherine continued the project begun by Peter of making Russia one of the preeminent nations of Europe and was friends with the likes of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and even John Paul Jones. Massie’s new work about the most influential female ruler in all of Russian history will likely remain the definitive biography on Catherine for many years. (more…)