Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts (2011)

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts, published in the UK in 2009 and in the US in 2011.

British historian Andrew Roberts.
Andrew Roberts’ 2011 book The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War is a superb and fascinating look at the deadliest conflict in human history. I previously read Roberts’ excellent 2014 biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon: A Life, which I reviewed here. Roberts has a knack for choosing the telling historical detail that gets his point across in an entertaining way, and although he writes about very broad subjects, he never gets bogged down in historical minutiae.

I read The Storm of War because I realized recently, as I was teaching World War II to my 10th grade World History students, that I had never read an overview of the war that examined all of the different fronts. So I picked up The Storm of War, in large part because I enjoyed Roberts’ biography of Napoleon so much. 

The Storm of War is an excellent read, as Roberts summarizes the military history of the war, while also examining the political currents that informed the actions of the major players. Roberts focuses more on the European theater than the Pacific, but for a British historian, that’s quite understandable. 

Roberts isn’t afraid to add his two cents when he feels it’s called for. Joseph Goebbels is described as “a man who fully deserves the cliché ‘evil genius,’” (p.23) and General Hans Krebs was “straight out of Nazi central casting.” (p.560) I enjoyed these little asides, as it added more color to the book.

Roberts is perhaps strongest in his writing on the Eastern front of the European theater, and he proves that Germany’s losses on the Eastern front doomed their war effort. Part of Germany’s losing the war was simple arithmetic. As Roberts writes, “In 1941 the USSR had more soldiers and more tanks than, and the same number of aircraft as, the whole of the rest of the world’s armed forces combined.” (p.139) When Hitler launched his invasion of Russia in June of 1941, the Wehrmacht was in much better shape than the Red Army, largely due to Stalin’s disastrous purge of the Red Army leadership in the late 1930’s, but the numbers were never going to be in Germany’s favor. The Russians were simply able to absorb a seemingly infinite amount of casualties and yet still keep reinforcing their troops. Stalin should not have been taken so much by surprise at the German invasion, since “…Stalin received no fewer than eighty warnings of Hitler’s intentions over the previous eight months.” (p.155) 

The chapter about the battle of Stalingrad is superb and haunting. The criticism that Roberts hands out to Stalin is well deserved, as he points out “During the battle of Stalingrad, the NKVD shot around 13,500 Russian soldiers-the size of an entire fully manned division-for treachery, cowardice, desertion, drunkenness and ‘anti-Soviet agitation.’” (p.326) For the average Russian soldier there was simply no alternative than to fight the Germans tooth and nail, street by street in places like Stalingrad.

Roberts puts Russia’s huge sacrifice in context, as he writes, “…between D-Day and VE Day {June 6, 1944 to May 8, 1945} the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together. It is worth considering whether democracies could ever have tolerated that level of sacrifice, or whether-as seems likely-it required the whole horrific apparatus of the NKVD and domestic terror to keep the Soviet Union in the war.” (p.520) That’s a sobering thought, but it’s certainly true, and it’s frightening to think how the war would have gone if Hitler had not made the disastrous decision to invade Russia and had instead been able to use the entire force of the Wehrmacht to repel the D-Day invasion. 

One thing I enjoyed about Roberts’ writing is that while he is by no means writing an alternate history of World War II, he is able to show how the Allies’ victory was by no means preordained, and he isn’t afraid to briefly explore alternate paths of action the main players could have taken. 

Examining these other paths of action inevitably means taking a look at how Adolf Hitler made decisions, since he made most of his decisions unilaterally, with a minimum of input from anyone else, usually to the detriment of the German war effort. Roberts also shows how Hitler’s Nazism led him to make decisions that ultimately undermined Germany’s chances of success. It would have been more beneficial for Germany to enlist the Slavic people of Eastern Europe to fight with Germany against the Russians, rather than make them victims of a horrific genocide, but that simply wasn’t how Hitler’s mind worked. 

Roberts relates some interesting anecdotes about the way Hitler’s mind did work, as he writes of Hitler at the Berghof: “Staggeringly beautiful scenery clearly had an effect on Hitler that was opposite to how most other people reacted: rather than softening and humanizing him it hardened his heart and filled him with power-lust.” (p.147) 

We also learn that Hitler had an amazing memory for random military facts, which I was not previously aware of:

 “Instances when Hitler displayed his technical interest in weaponry during the war are legion. When not asking pointed questions at his Führer-conferences with senior OKW figures and military commanders, he liked nothing better than showing off his detailed knowledge. Subjects upon which he would dilate included the horsepower needed for wheeled tractors to pull heavy field howitzers (85 hp); gearshift problems in the Tiger tank; the ricochet hazards associated with the 15cm anti-tank gun…” (p.50-1)

In another instance, “…when {Franz} Halder remarked that the Russians boasted 10,000 tanks, the statement ‘unleashed a more than quarter-hour retort from Hitler, in which he cited from memory the Russians’ annual production for the last twenty years.’” (p.140) Sounds like a fascinating guy.

During a war in which technology produced frightening advances in the ways in which men can kill each other, sometimes old-fashioned technology still played an important part, as during the battle of Berlin when “{German} Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German.” (p.551)

One of Roberts’ wittiest lines comes late in the book, as he makes a reference to a famous line from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, writing of Hermann Göring: “Since the Reichsmarschall was unquestioningly loyal to Hitler until almost the very end, his fidelity as a Nazi mattered more to the Führer than his competence as an air commander. Furthermore, after Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland, to lose one deputy Führer might be considered unfortunate, but to lose two might look like carelessness.” (p.587) If you can make people laugh when writing about Nazis, so much the better. 

The Storm of War is a marvelous book, one that captures the global scope and sweep of World War II while still reminding us of the stark tragedies that each one of the 50 million deaths in that conflict represent.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: In Our Time by Tom Wolfe (1980)

The cover of the 1999 paperback reissue of In Our Time, by Tom Wolfe, originally published in 1980. As usual, it's photographed on my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

Tom Wolfe.
In Our Time is surely the most inessential Tom Wolfe book. Released in 1980, it’s a grab bag of very short articles and drawings, some of which had already been released in other Wolfe collections. To be cynical, one might think that it was issued purely as a cash grab, riding closely on the coattails of Wolfe’s hugely successful 1979 bestseller The Right Stuff. 

The title comes from a column that Wolfe had in Harper’s magazine, which featured drawings by Wolfe and text to accompany them. These are collected in chapter three of the book. I like Wolfe’s drawings in this section the best, as I find them more nuanced than his earlier work. 

The first chapter, “Stiffened Giblets,” is the most substantive part of In Our Time, and is very good as a short social history of the 1970’s and why they were such a transformative decade. Wolfe writes about co-ed dorms, marijuana, divorces, and other trends of the ten-year stretch that he so smartly called “the Me Decade.”

The second chapter, entitled “Entr’actes and Canapes” reads like memos Wolfe wrote to himself of ideas for articles that he never found the time or energy to write. As such it’s frustrating at best, as you get little glimpses of Wolfe’s sharp eye, but not the satisfaction that comes from reading his longer pieces. My favorite nugget from this section is Wolfe’s comment about the 1974 movie of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow: “Nevertheless, Gatsby, followed as it was nearly four years later by Saturday Night Fever, ruined one of the main joys of my life: wearing white suits.” (In Our Time, p.19) 

After the “In Our Time” chapter, the rest of the book is filled with Wolfe’s drawings, and precious little of his writing. In these sections of the book, there are drawings recycled from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House Gang, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, and The Painted Word. This recycling begs the question, what’s the purpose of In Our Time? It might have made more sense if it were just a collection of Wolfe’s drawings, rather than a bunch of drawings plus a couple of half-baked chapters. It’s just so obviously a literary smorgasbord of whatever he had lying around, plus some stuff that had already been published. Maybe Wolfe cobbled together In Our Time as a diversion while he was planning his first novel. 

In Our Time is the one book of Wolfe’s that isn’t even mentioned at all in Conversations with Tom Wolfe. No one ever asked Tom Wolfe about it! No one had any questions about it! It’s surely Wolfe’s most obscure book, and it’s one for the die-hard fans only.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, by Richard Beeman (2010)

Paperback cover of The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, by Richard Beeman, 2010. That's my shelf of Founding Fathers books. Photo by Mark C. Taylor.

Professor Richard Beeman.
Because I’m a huge history and political science nerd, I recently read The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, by Richard Beeman. No, it’s not a guide for flightless fowl like Opus from Bloom County; rather it comes from the Penguin publishing house. It’s an excellent compact and concise guide to the Constitution of the United States, and should be required reading for every American. Beeman annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as he explains what the different articles meant at the time, and how they are interpreted now. It’s remarkable how durable the Constitution has been over the more than 200 years it has been the law of the land. 

In addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the book also features three of the Federalist Papers, numbers 10, 51, and 78. My only annoyance is that the Federalist Papers are edited slightly, which is odd, because presenting them unedited only would have added a couple of more pages to the book. But that’s a small quibble. 

The rest of the book features essays by Beeman about the early years of the American republic, from the American Revolution until 1801. These essays provide a good brief glimpse at the struggles and debates of those years. Beeman also has a short essay at the end of the book that highlights important Supreme Court decisions throughout the history of the United States, which gives the reader insight about how the Constitution has been interpreted over the years. 

While there are many books about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution is an excellent short introduction to the most important document in the history of the United States.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Review: Lonely Boy, a documentary about Paul Anka, directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig (1962)

Paul Anka in the documentary Lonely Boy, 1962.

Paul Anka with his adoring female fans.

Paul Anka after his nose job, 1961.
Lonely Boy is a 1962 documentary about the career of teen idol Paul Anka, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig. Lonely Boy is only 26 minutes long, but it’s a fascinating glimpse of pop stardom at a very specific and brief moment in history, just after the first wave of rock and roll and before the British Invasion.

Paul Anka had become a pop star from out of nowhere, rising to fame at the age of 16 in 1957 with his first hit, the self-penned “Diana,” which hit number 2 on the Billboard chart. By 1961, when Lonely Boy was filmed, Anka had scored 7 Top Ten singles in the United States. As the documentary and Anka’s manager Irvin Feld make clear, the goal now was to turn Anka into an “all around entertainer.” The thought was that rock and roll wouldn’t last, that it was still just a passing fad, and pop stars needed to branch out and find an older audience if they were to succeed long term in the field of entertainment. Of course, that sounds silly now. But it was the thought behind booking teen idols like Bobby Darin and Anka into the Copacabana nightclub. The models for these young pop stars were Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, singers who had appealed to swooning teenagers, but had found stable careers and wide audiences. The thought was that you had to “mature” along with your audience. It’s the reason why Elvis Presley started a concerted move towards the middle of the road after he returned home from the Army in 1960. Gone was the dangerous rebel Elvis of movies like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, replaced by the bland, safe, wholesome Elvis of G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii. Bobby Darin and Paul Anka both released live albums recorded at the Copacabana nightclub in 1960, and Anka’s album featured standards like “You Made Me Love You,” “Swanee,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” Darin had started recording standards with his 1959 album That’s All, which featured his versions of “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Darin’s Darin at the Copa album also included his own version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Darin’s move towards standards was more motivated by his own eclectic tastes than by pure commercialism, but it was similar to what many other teen idols of the time were doing. The idea of trying to be an “all around entertainer” was one that didn’t have much influence on the British Invasion generation of rock stars. No one could imagine Mick Jagger cutting his own “Jagger at the Copa” album. 

While the teen idols of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s are often lumped together as a talentless bunch of manufactured heartthrobs who could barely sing on key, Anka was a truly talented musician who played piano and wrote nearly all of his own hits. Anka also wrote many hits for other people, he penned “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which was Buddy Holly’s last hit, as well as “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones, and the English language lyrics to the French song “Comme d’habitude,” which became “My Way.” Anka also wrote the theme song for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Anka’s career closely mirrors that of Neil Sedaka, another piano-playing singer and songwriter who scored pop hits in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Both Anka and Sedaka saw their careers as hit makers wiped out by the British Invasion, but they would both mount successful comebacks in the mid-1970’s, as they each scored several more Top Ten singles. 

Lonely Boy follows Anka on several live performances, from the Copacabana to Freedomland, the amusement park in the Bronx. What’s amazing to see in Lonely Boy is the adulation that Anka inspired in his fans. While we’re used to seeing footage of female fans going nuts over Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it’s really interesting to see the same thing happen with Paul Anka, whose fame has not lasted in the same way as Elvis or the Beatles. The first time we see Paul Anka offstage in Lonely Boy, he is signing autographs and kissing the cheeks of his female fans. Anka’s fans are just beside themselves when they see him. It is like a kind of religious experience, as they are literally beyond words when they meet him. To his credit, Anka comes off as a really nice guy in the movie, as he treats all of his fans with kindness, even when they cannot form a sentence in his presence. 

The other theme in Lonely Boy, besides the abiding love that teenage girls harbored for Paul Anka in 1961, is the manufacture of Paul Anka as a pop star. Anka’s manager Irvin Feld, and Anka himself, are very candid about this. Anka says that he was a fat kid as a young teenager, and when he decided to pursue show business as a career, he lost weight and grew his hair out. Feld speaks quite openly about Anka’s nose job, an attempt to perfect Anka’s teen idol looks. 

Feld is open about his unstinting admiration for his client, as he says that he told Paul, “God gave you something that I don’t think he’s given anyone in the past 500 years.” A master of hyperbole, just a moment later Feld says, “I truthfully believe that Paul will be the biggest star, with an overall career, that this world has ever known.” Of course, now both of those quotes sound rather humorous, as no one, probably not even Paul Anka himself, would claim that either of those statements is true. But to be fair to Feld, he’s Paul Anka’s manager, so he’d better think Paul Anka is pretty amazing, right? And since viewers in 2016 know the future-that the Beatles and the other British Invasion groups will sweep Anka off the charts for the rest of the 1960’s, it’s easy to laugh at Feld’s long-range planning. Personally, I thought the funniest thing in the movie is to hear Anka’s Canadian accent suddenly appear when he says “out.”

Lonely Boy is an interesting look at a very talented young man, as we see how hard he has worked to become a star, and imagine how hard he will have to work in the future to remain one in the fickle world of pop music. You can watch Lonely Boy for free here, at the National Film Board of Canada’s website.