With the arrival of the hundred-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I decided to take on the task of informing myself about whatWith the arrival of the hundred-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I decided to take on the task of informing myself about what this historical event meant for us one hundred years later. It was the commencement of a search—still under way—for the best non-specialist presentation of the causes and effects of the Great War. It included BBC documentaries, a 30-session class by the Teaching Company, many hours of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast, and a voracious consumption of as many one-volume histories of the war that I could find, several of which were occasioned by the centennial itself. I'm reasonably certain that Meyer's text will not be displaced from its position at the top of the heap (though I am by no means anything close to an expert on the subject). While I approached A World Undone enjoying a greater familiarity with the major characters of the war than I did works by Strachan, Tuchman, and Keegan—which could very well explain why I was able to enjoy it more—nonetheless I do think Meyer's narrative style maintains the kind of brisk progression that avoids getting bogged down in the complexity that easily distracts and confuses the layman. Punctuated by "Background" chapters that stand alone as tightly crafted keyhole views of relevant figures and events that range from the peculiarities of individual leaders to the historical trajectory of once great empires, Meyer offers the newcomer to this rapidly receding conflict the balance of scope and perspicuity the general reader demands. (NB: I found the chapters on Kaiser Wilhelm II and the long succession of Ottoman Sultans after Suleiman to be the most interesting of all.) As Meyer states in his introduction, "From the start my objective was to weave together all the story's most compelling elements—the strange way in which it began more than a month after the assassination that supposedly was its cause; the mysterious way in which the successes and failures of both sides balanced so perfectly as to produce years of bloody deadlock; the leading personalities; the astonishing extent to which the leadership of every belligerent nation was divided against itself; the appalling blunders; the incredible (and now largely forgotten) carnage—while at the same time filling in as much as possible of the historical background. And I use the word weave advisedly. An early decision was to intertwine the stories of the war’s major fronts rather than dealing with them separately in the usual way, and to mix foreground, background, and sidelights in such a way as to make their interconnections plain. I continue to think that such an approach is essential to showing how the many elements that made up the Great War affected one another and deepened the disaster. It has long seemed to me that practically all popular histories of the Great War assume too much, expect too much of the reader, and therefore leave too much unexplained… Authors are right, of course, in making mention of the decadence of the Ottoman Empire, the frailty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the backwardness of the Russian Empire—of all the elements that gave rise to the war and that the war destroyed. The recurrent mistake, it seems to me, has been to only make mention of such things, thereby diluting the story. I believe that this volume, whether or not it has any other distinction, is unique in the extent to which it attempts to restore parts of the story that have almost always been missing. I hope that it captures at least some of the multidimensional richness of one of the most epic tragedies in the history of the world.” Readers looking for detailed analyses of battles or troop movements will be disappointed; at times, I myself was frustrated by a lack of maps that could have helped me grasp the geographical layout of battles with fronts of dozens, or even hundreds of miles; yet a brief Wikipedia search usually turns up the sorts of simplified diagrams that provide the rudimentary knowledge necessary. I listened to the lion’s share of this book while driving, and found Robin Sachs’ narration pleasant and engaging. I can state unequivocally that Meyer has accomplished his objective and by means of his “labor of love” bestowed a treasure upon the historical amateur. Highly recommended. ...more
Nothing could have interested me less, upon first hearing about this piece of narrative history, than a tale of architecture and murder. A friend whosNothing could have interested me less, upon first hearing about this piece of narrative history, than a tale of architecture and murder. A friend whose livelihood is architectural consulting had lent me the audiobook, so I’ll admit I dismissed his enthusiasm as geeking out on a subject of his own expertise. It languished in the center console of my pickup for nearly a year.
Once I began this story on a road trip, however, I was fascinated and could hardly find a reason NOT to drive somewhere on a given day, eventually snatching even three- or four-minute excursions into the Gilded Age. By far the construction of the Fair was what stirred me, though I did appreciate Larson’s portrayal of the psychopathic murderer Mudgett/Holmes. At first, the alternation between the late Victorian ambition for worldwide glory and the perverted machinations of a glossy psychopath was jarring and contrived: a case where the conceit of alternating between storylines to create dramatic tension was a little too obvious. But as Larson’s narratives progressed and it became more clear that the juxtaposition of these storylines was as remarkable to the author as it was to me, it seemed to become a sort of synechdoche not only for the contradictions and strife of the age, but of humanity itself. That a time and place could exist where the aspirations of Burnham, Atwood, Millet, Root, Olmsted, and Ferris could draw the same air as the predatory scheming of Holmes doesn’t seem so strange to us now, who inhabit the era of suspicion and narcissism as our native land. We have lost the wonder that laid hold of Pascal centuries ago, who exclaimed in his Pensées,
What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe.
One might say that Burnham and Holmes have coexisted in every age, though the 19th century convergence of a rush of civic optimism and the anonymity of the urban landscape provided a field on which their energies could be amplified to a pitch never before seen in the history of the world. Larson’s postscript confirmed my suspicion that it was indeed his intention to find in the World’s Columbian Exposition a lens to focus our wonder upon the monstrous prodigy, the glorious shame, that is humanity.
Larson’s ability to sweep his reader up in the process of conceiving, planning, organizing, and building the Exposition is truly marvelous. There were a number of moments where his slow, even painstaking ascent to some moment of triumph left me agape, chuckling, or at the point of tears. My favorite moment of the whole book—my enjoyment of which was aided enormously by Scott Brick’s excellent pacing—was Dedication Day, 1893, as hundreds of thousands gathered in the White City for the unveiling of the Court of Honor. His narration of the scene caught me up in a rush of patriotic fervor. At the push of the button by President Cleveland, there began a clamor: steam whistles blowing, pennants and banners unfurling from the eaves of the graceful and majestic halls arrayed in harmony at the waters’ edge, the gilt Statue of the Republic blinding anyone who let their eyes rest on it for more than a moment, the guns of the USS Michigan thundering their salute and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” spontaneously bursting from the full hearts of the teary-eyed crowd. I was a happy kid for a moment, back at the Blue Angels airshow with Lee Greenwood on the loudspeaker.
And then someone steals Jane Addams’ purse.
At first, I was furious at Larson for including that detail, which seemed to spoil the whole effect. Then, more calmly, I realized this was just the thing for a story dedicated to the infuriatingly indeterminate creature that builds such cities in the full knowledge that they will last but a season. There have always been those who wait for the chance of a far-eyed reverie to despoil their mark; for every Hal, a Falstaff will be close behind.
My solitary gripe with Larson is the nearly utter exclusion of any kind of religious content to the book. Perhaps it is my suspicion over our present cultural moratorium of all things godly, but it seemed negligent to confine any mention of religious matters to Holmes' rigid Methodist upbringing and Burnham's philosophical musings as the end of life approached. The Gilded Age certainly had its prophets and preachers, and to ignore what religious figures of the time had to say about the fair (or the religious convictions of its characters) is serious lacuna.
Listening to the audiobook version was a delight, as I tend to read too fast, preventing the images from taking form in my mind’s eye. The slower pace allowed me to join the architects in designing my own imaginary city, though I certainly tried my best to use photographs to assist the weakness of my own creativity. One resource I highly recommend can be found here.
The whole story left me with a wistful longing for a time when people wondered at psychopathic criminals rather than love for the honor of city and nation. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s never wondered at either. ...more
Working one's way through the Cather oeuvre is a worthy project. I can hardly recommend an author any more highly--for all the reasons that everyone lWorking one's way through the Cather oeuvre is a worthy project. I can hardly recommend an author any more highly--for all the reasons that everyone loves her writing. I certainly don't have much that is original to say. Her landscapes and love for varied lands, as varied as the prairies of the Midwest, the deep forests of Quebec, and the desert of New Mexico is surpassed only by the simple intricacy of her characters, like a yellowed round of crocheted lace: born of steady, clear-eyed labor. As part of the WWI centennial, I'm trying to read as much as I can about the conflict, and this has provided a much needed respite from the bewildering cloud of political and military references. It has also done wonders to put the mysteries of the human heart back into my historical imagination, right where it belongs. ...more
Heyerdahl is the perfect mix between investigative theoretician and man of action--with an excellent measure of storytelling to season the dish. WhileHeyerdahl is the perfect mix between investigative theoretician and man of action--with an excellent measure of storytelling to season the dish. While I thoroughly enjoyed the story as Heyerdahl related it, and was terrified by the thought of floating on the open Pacific on a tiny wooden raft, the real value for me was the practical use of such a story to illustrate in vivid terms what is meant by the theological virtue of hope. A difficult task... inspired by evidence and reflection... an tradition of raftmaking handed on through legend... references to a white man from the land of the sun... many naysayers scoffing at the idea... a band of likeminded fellows... daring, fully aware of risks but confident in success... a long and surprisingly easy journey... many experiences of difficulty, but far more experiences of grace... a joyous and festive welcome in a tropical paradise...
Being the third of the books I've read by Cather, I've come to expect a certain ecstatic experience from her work, and Shadows is no exception. In facBeing the third of the books I've read by Cather, I've come to expect a certain ecstatic experience from her work, and Shadows is no exception. In fact, compared to the other two, the utter simplicity and straightforwardness of the characters and emotions depicted has made this by far the most enjoyable of what I've read (the other two being My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop). There is a rhythm to her composition, in which characters are introduced, back story is discovered, an intensely rich interaction is recounted, and they recede to the background, to be recalled later in an aside. It's a lot like life, actually, if you think about it!
Interspersed within the events of a plot that could not be described as anything but slow, Cather's own wonder at simple folk and the way they "make the common fine" glows with true warmth. The little happenings in the life of a 12-year old Canadian girl and her colonial friends and family are small matters indeed, but Cather managed to infuse them with such grace that one cannot help but be drawn in to the heartfelt joys and sorrows that are the stuff of every human life--and in particular, constitute the life of a civilized colonist on a barren rock in the New World.
It is hard not to let one's heart expand with Cecile's as she hauls her little friend behind her on his sled up the hill and rejoices in her contentment even as she wonders at the possibility of being moved back to France. "Would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one's own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea."
Cather's style is always understated, a feature of what I consider to be a particularly romantic style--one that finds in the plodding rhythm of life carved out of the land all the wonder and contentment that any soul could want. Coupled with the French sensibilities of her characters, there is something quite venerable about even the least significant of them. Of course, in this sort of "romanticism" there is very little sentimentality here, and while there is much that is charming, in the end it is the simple matter-of-fact expectation that you, dear reader, will of course be charmed by it all as well that proved to be what I found most enjoyable.
If you are a "plot" person, stay away from this book, because very little happens. If you are willing to spend a little time in a world that has come and gone but nonetheless abides in each human heart--for now, but a shadow on the rock--then give this one a try....more
October 7th is the Church's memorial of our Lady of the Rosary, formerly known as Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the sea battle between the HOctober 7th is the Church's memorial of our Lady of the Rosary, formerly known as Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the sea battle between the Holy League and the Turkish navy of Selim II. I had to preach a homily on the day, and I cobbled together some tidbits and second-hand references, with a dash of Thermopylae and Actium to taste; but I felt like a fraud, and decided to read up on the day so as not to mislead anyone as to the true nature of the conflict. A friend's recommendation led me to Beeching's excellent telling, and I blew through it on a train ride to Chicago. Stirring, indeed!
I was corrected on several points, the most important of which being a less dramatic difference between the forces of the Christian and Turkish navies. The battle was more equal than I'd been given to believe; though the Turks were nearly always victorious at sea, and the whole of Christendom was indeed on the line. The Holy League was an alliance between the Catholic states of Venice, Genoa, Spain, and the Papal holdings--France and the Protestant nations tended to ally themselves with the Turk on the policy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Beeching gives a helpful background to the main generals of the battle, including Don John of Spain (half-brother to Philip II) and Ochiali (admiral of the Turkish navy). The narrative provides a great window into the brutality of life in the 16th century, in which galleys were manned by slaves taken in village raids and chained to oars where they would eat, sleep, and defecate. In a sense, our present freedoms are built on the gravestones of the nameless hordes who slew and were slain in the battles of yesteryear. I am grateful for a taste of this forgotten struggle....more
This review only covers the "Life on the Mississipi" portion of this edition.
A great book of memoirs of Twain's years as a steamboat pilot on the MissThis review only covers the "Life on the Mississipi" portion of this edition.
A great book of memoirs of Twain's years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, before levees and dredging and electric lights to guide boat pilots on their frequent voyages up and down the river. After becoming a famous author, Twain returned to the Mississippi (incognito at first) to learn how much things had changed in the 20-odd years he'd spent since his tour of duty on the river. The pilots of his day had to memorize 1,200 miles of twisting, turning, ever-changing river so as never to put their vessel in danger of sinking or running aground, and they had to be able to do so in all weather, at all flood levels, and all times of day or night. Such expertise perished with the proliferation of railroads, having been rendered unnecessary, and so Twain's remembrances are bittersweet as he recounts the most memorable of the many thousands of hours spent behind the ship's wheel mastering the art of piloting. Along with his many stories of life on the river and the outrageous personalities encountered along the way, he recounts his memories of the many river towns and how changes in commerce and even in the riverbed itself influences the communities that were nourished by the steamboat.
An excellent bedtime read that managed to hold my interest throughout--even the appendix of a few Native American myths that he'd overheard among his fellow passengers. If you enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea, this one's less polished, but of the same genre and style. ...more
"To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and"To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over." These words near the close of Slocum's memoir capture for me all my fascination with this time in human history--the mastery of a craft long since dead, or at the least bronzed and lifeless; the seaman at home on land, comfortable perhaps, but beguiled by dreams painted in fog and aquamarine; a dance of proficiency at the edge of its competence, dallying at the edge of disaster for no other reason than the excellence it calls forth. Slocum, unbenknownst to me until I came across this volume at a display near the cashier at a bookstore, has made lively and fresh the struggles of navigation of which I'd read but simply had no clue as to their substance. I'd read about passing through the Straits of Magellan, and its deadly dangers, but until I pictured the desolation of Tierra del Fuego, and the terrible loneliness of the place (punctuated only by natives looking to trade or find easy prey), and the unpredictability of the harsh weather here described, it was all an empty gesture. For "at lonely stations like this hearts grow responsive and sympathetic, and even poetic." Each outpost of civilization, more or less refined in comparison to the company kept on the open seas, presents its parade of characters and snippets of conversation treasured up by a man who speaks only to himself, if at all, for months at a time. All of it observed disinterestedly, for it won't be long before the sails are set again and the journey continues: only to return from whence it started. A bit of a fairy tale perhaps, or as best can be mustered in these latter days. ...more
When reading historical novels like this, I've found they take a while to pay off. This can go one of two ways: one, you keep waiting for things to geWhen reading historical novels like this, I've found they take a while to pay off. This can go one of two ways: one, you keep waiting for things to get interesting, and they don't, but you have enough of the book read to keep telling yourself there might be a really great ending, and you finally turn the last page to find that there's nothing more to read. Two, there's an authorial flourish at the end that imbues the whole thing with an unexpected profundity and weight. What's incredible about this book is that it really does feel like the former until the very, very, very last page--a quite incredible and highly effective conclusion that brought me to tears and made me realize how much I really did care about the characters Ms Beckett had crafted. A good portion of the book tends to be a little too heavily philosophical/political, and it comes off at times as if the author is having a conversation with herself; the arguments and controversies lack sufficient grounding in the characters to be convincing. she has done her research, however, and I certainly did learn a lot. My encouragement to readers attempting this one is that they do persevere to the end, and you may discover some things about Max and his comrades that their chronicler couldn't possibly tell you:
that with their bones they left much more, left what still is The look of things, left what they felt
Well, coming to the Middle East, I can safely say I knew nothing of the history of the Israeli State beyond the fact that it existed and mostly JewishWell, coming to the Middle East, I can safely say I knew nothing of the history of the Israeli State beyond the fact that it existed and mostly Jewish people ran it. Staying here in Bethlehem for over a month meant we got a great deal of the Palestinian perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but as far as the events that led to the creation of the State of Israel and the circumstances under which the Israeli Army eventually occupied those territories, no one was able to fill me in. This book happened to be on the shelf in the retreat center, and so I sank my teeth into it--and it's a fun book to read, that's for sure. Less a plodding chronicle than a look at what happened from the perspective of eyewitnesses on the ground and in positions of diplomatic and political responsibility, the authors manage to craft a narrative that is quite gripping.
It is most definitely written from the Jewish perspective, though a great deal of the research comes from Arab sources from within the city during the years and months leading up to the outbreak of armed warfare in 1947-8 and the creation of the State of Israel by a U.N. Mandate (known among the Palestinians as "the catastrophe"). There is no doubt that there were acts of tremendous bravery and outrageous barbarity on both sides, especially in the months leading up to the withdrawal of British forces. The siege of Jerusalem put the 1,500 residents of the Jewish quarter of the Old City through starvation and the prospect of instant death at the hands of Arab artillery shelling the skyline for over a month. An estimated 750,000 Arabs fled their villages before the advancement of the Israeli army and were confined to refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, many of which exist to this day. Atrocities on both sides fed the righteous fury of disciplined soldiers and terrorists alike, and reading about the mutual slaughter carried out in a city revered by three world religions is one of the most frustrating and sickening accounts of armed conflict I've ever come across. Yet pinning the contradictions and insanity of these conflicts on religion alone would be inaccurate, as it would be more appropriate to assign them to religion taken captive by political ends.
The book concludes with the armistice of 1948 and the assassination of 4 of the 5 Arab leaders involved in the conflict (presumably by other Arabs indignant at their failure to follow through with their intention to resist any peace plan that included the UN Partition plan that allowed an Israeli State). Much has intervened since then to create the state of affairs that now obtains in this region, but I'm a little better equipped to understand what drives the passionate struggle for independence and statehood on both sides of the wall. ...more
Good Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever comeGood Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever come across in literature. I find myself wanting to pray for him at Mass, like I'd heard the tragic story of my taciturn grandfather for the first time. Except he never existed beyond Undset's imagination--and now mine.
I won't say more. This, friends, is literature....more