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.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.
It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.
The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps. (more…)
I’ve been interested in submarine warfare 0f the Second World War since I was in middle school. There are a lot of books written in English about the German U-boat campaign targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic and also the American submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping in the Pacific. Relatively little has been written in recent times, though, about submarine operations of any nation during the First World War.
That’s why I was happy to discover a copy of Edwyn Gray’s book, The U-boat War: 1914-1918 (which was originally published in the 1970s as The Killing Time) in Manhattan’s mecca for rare books: the Strand Book Store. I’m really glad I bought this book, because after reading it, I disabused myself of several erroneous notions about these early German submarine operations.
For example, I previously believed that German submarines during WWI in comparison to their counterparts in WWII
- were generally smaller, slower, and carried less fuel, crew, and torpedoes,
- exclusively operated in the coastal waters of Western Europe, and
- did not wage as large or effective of a campaign against merchant shipping.
All of these preconceptions turned out to be false. By way of comparing the U-boat campaigns of the First and Second World War, I turned to some data from uboat.net, an ongoing research project by an amateur historian which I’ve enjoyed visiting since I first started using the internet in the mid-1990s.
Just looking at how many ships U-boats attacked during each war, it’s evident that the number of ships hit by submarines in the 1910s surpasses the totals of the 1940s: (more…)
The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last Saturday. The last American to have served in the war, Frank Buckles, as well as the last veteran to have actually seen combat, Claude Choules, died last year. Their generation saw the accumulation of European culture and technology–the hope of the world–burn for four years on the pyre of war. Theirs was also the first generation to sweep away the ashes and sculpt new strains of Western culture. But almost everything that they (and others after them) wrote, painted, said, and filmed bore the mark of the trauma of World War I.
With the death of these last veterans, we have lost the eyewitnesses to these events. All data now about that time will be secondhand. And collective memory fades quicker when individual memories are stored on hard drives, manuscripts, and film than in human heads.
But there are important lessons to be learned from the experiences this generation recorded. These lessons are best not forgotten, as the men and women would once have told us, who witnessed the radiant procession of humanity in the brilliant summer of 1914 unwittingly march to their oblivion.
Vladimir Vysotsky wrote such evocative songs about World War II that it’s impossible to tell that he himself didn’t serve in that conflict. His verse on the theme of friendship is especially amazing.
Because of songs like his and the Russian culture of my upbringing, the symbolism of World War II (or, as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War) has stayed with me as a kind of arch-metaphor for the human condition.
I was listening today to one of my favorite songs by Vysotsky called Pesnya lyotchika-istrebitelya: “Song of a Fighter Pilot”. It is one of the greatest poems about friendship that I have ever read, and I decided to translate it into English. My translations skills are limited, but though my version inevitably may have errors, I have done my best to convey both the meaning and the flow of the song. The original, like most Russian poems and songs, has a rhyme scheme.
The song is about two Russian fighter pilots in World War II that find themselves embroiled in a losing battle with a larger German fighter formation. You can listen to the original song on YouTube and read the lyrics in Russian here.
Song of a Fighter Pilot
By Vladimir Vysotsky
(Translated by Alex L.)
Eight of them and two of us. Our prospects before battle
Aren’t bright, but we’ve committed to the fight.
Seryozha!* Hold on, it’s looking dim,
But we we have to get an edge in the game. (more…)
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).
My 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…)
Swords to plowshares
President Obama recently announced that the United States will recall all of its armed forces personnel from Iraq by the end of 2011. This is a strange outcome for those of us who remember the seemingly insurmountable setbacks created by the insurgency before the 2007 surge of American troops unraveled the extremists’ grip on the country. It was hard to see back then that the situation in Iraq could improve. But it did. The following books explore in a unique way the nature of organized violence in the contemporary world.
Although we may not realize it from all of the news dispatches dripping with depressing forebodings of disaster either due to economic or glacial meltdown, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current state of the world. Joshua S. Goldstein, in a new book called Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, makes the case that the human race is freer from war now than it has ever been. The facts tell a counterintuitive but inspiring story: there are currently no nations at war in the world (only civil wars are going on) and last year had one of the lowest death rates from armed conflict in history.
Along similar lines, Steven Pinker has just published a similar work. Pinker makes the same observation – “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence” – but approaches the subject from the perspective of psychology, his field of study, rather than international affairs. Both of these perspectives are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pundit on cable news or a sensationalistic author prophesying apocalypse for Western civilization just to get your attention. (more…)
I can’t say I enjoy Jay Leno’s jokes as much as I do the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman. But man does the guy have an awesome car collection.
I know next to nothing about vintage car restoration, but I can appreciate a sleek-looking and rumble-producing automobile. When I came across Jay Leno’s video of his 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine Car restoration (see part 1, part 2 and part 3), though, I almost started drooling. The reason is because the restored car combines in an engaging package some things that, well, just make me salivate like a dog sensing dinner: aviation, World War I history, craftsmanship, and speed.
The 1915 machine is no ordinary automobile. It’s fitted with an engine taken from a World War I fighter airplane. As Wikipedia informed me, after the First World War ended, surplus airplane engines were relatively cheap and vastly more powerful than what cars were then using. Some auto engineers decided not to let this opportunity pass and created cars with automobile chassis and airplane engines. Such aero-engined cars were a brief trend in auto racing during the inter-war period.
The Hispano-Suiza engine is the motor that was used to power the S.E.5, a British fighter plane during World War I. This was the primary aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC (Royal Flying Corps), the famous unit of expert flyers and warriors—such as James McCudden, Albert Ball, and Cecil Lewis (the last of whom wrote a now-rare but fascinating and honest memoir of his war years, titled Sagittarius Rising)—who helped defeat the imperial German air force. (more…)
Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.
Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.
Fighting to the last
Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”. (more…)
There are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.
What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”
Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:
- Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
- Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.
In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration. (more…)