Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs

The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year.  The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers.   I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present.  At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.

The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons.  There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.

The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over.  Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.”  Oh, if only they knew!

In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance.  One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR.  The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat.  There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.

Let’s look at the contents.

“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world.  It goes into detail about JFK’s management style.  The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.

“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella.  The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband.  That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised.  Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story.  It’s certainly an intriguing beginning!  Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.

“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958.  95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors.  Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims.  There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961.  One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.”  (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.)  For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire

“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists.  One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee.  The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become.  I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.

“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money.  One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s.  Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.

“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the  Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia.   Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South.  You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge.  Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.

“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.  (He was found guilty and hanged.)  The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system.  “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.”  It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people.  The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan.  This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.

“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly.  It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor.  After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail.  Surprise!  It’s a federal agent!  Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy.  Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment.  Can he crack the case before innocents are killed?  It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.

“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.

Art by James Bama for "In the Best Interest of the Service."
Art by James Bama for “In the Best Interest of the Service.”

“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base.  A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness.  A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members.  This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.”  He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it?  But that does raise the stink of possible racism.  Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism.  Who will be getting transferred out?  The resolution  to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long.  Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.

“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean.  Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.

And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6.  Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company.  It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on!  The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries.  This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story.  Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead.  The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.)  Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.

There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.

This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born.  Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money.  Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba by L. Sprague de Camp (Also published as Cosmic Manhunt)

It started out as a normal missing person case.  Victor Hasselborg was hired to find runaway heiress Julnar Batruni.  Her trail is easy to pick up, as she used her own name to buy tickets off-planet with her lover, one Anthony Fallon.  Victor pursues them to the distant world of Krishna, where he runs into a snag.

The Queen of Zamba

It seems that Krishna is under a technological interdict, to prevent the warlike natives from gaining the ability to destroy themselves (and others) before their civilizations advance to more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.  Thus Victor must shed most of his advanced equipment and disguise himself as a native to search for the lovers.  Can a man used to automatic pistols and fast cars survive with a sword and aya-drawn buggy?  And once he does find his targets, will he survive his encounter with the Queen of Zamba?

This story is part of the Viagens Interplanetarias setting, created by Mr. de Camp as a way to use many of the tropes of “planetary romance” in a more plausible way than had previously been the case.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the founder of the subgenre with A Princess of Mars, had focused more on the fiction side of “science fiction” and most authors writing in the same vein had stuck with that.)   So the Krishnans, while appearing close enough to Terrans so that they can easily disguise themselves as each other, can make whoopee with humans but not babies.  There’s a reasonable explanation for using swords and riding animals when more technologically advanced items exist.  And our protagonists can’t just zip between worlds–thanks to relativistic effects, voyages that take months for the traveling characters take years for the people left behind.  Even with improved human longevity and safe suspended animation, normal people with settled lives aren’t keen on repeated space travel.

Thus our protagonist, Victor Hasselborg.  In some ways, he’s a typical fictional private eye.  Disappointed in love, recovering alcoholic, tough talker, will kill if he has to.  But he’s also a germ-phobic hypochondriac who is skittish around attractive women who seem a bit too interested, and none too interested in the adventurous life.

There’s also some inventiveness in the general setting–after World War 3, the Soviet Union was gone and the United States crippled to the point it had to merge with Canada to survive.  And Brazil became the world’s leading power, aided by having invented starships.  On the other hand, people still smoke cigars in this 22nd Century, and the number one occupation of Earthwomen is “housewife.”  (A Krishnan woman expresses her desire to become one as the rumors she hears of Earth romanticize the position.)

During the story, Victor runs into treachery and eventually must team up with another Terran in disguise to prevent technological horror from being unleashed on Krishna.

Originally written in the late 1940s, this story was reprinted by Ace Books under the title Cosmic Manhunt and with the ethnicity of one of the characters changed due to politics.  This “Asimov’s Choice” edition restores the original title and character.

To fill out the volume, a longish story entitled “Perpetual Motion” has been added.  Con artist Felix Borel comes to Krishna to fleece the natives with a twist on the technology ban.  He can’t introduce any innovation that is beyond current Krishnan science or technology, but since perpetual motion machines are impossible, they don’t count, right?  Felix is not a good person, though he can twist events to make himself look better–right up until his luck runs out.  This story shares a minor character with the main event.

This is light adventure and fast reading; even with the added plausibility, you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Recommended for planetary romance fans.  There are quite a few Viagens Interplanetarias stories; I also recommend Rogue Queen if you can find it.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales by Seabury Quinn

Seabury Grandin Quinn (1889-1969) was a prolific pulp author, producing more than five hundred short stories.  He’s best remembered for his Jules de Grandin stories appearing in Weird Tales, featuring a French-accented occult detective.  This particular collection, however, is focused around his other early work.

Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

The title of the first story and the Greg Hildebrandt cover might fool you into thinking this is a “sexy horror” collection, but Mr. Quinn had a wider range than that.  “Demons of the Night” is really more a version of the “Phantom Hitchhiker” urban legend, with an amusing twist.  “Was She Mad?” concerns a homeless woman offered a job that’s too good to be true.  “The Stone Image” is about an apparently evil Oriental statue , and also about a married couple that has very different tastes in art.  The best of the “weird” stories is “The Cloth of Madness” about an interior decorator who decides to take vengeance on his cheating wife and best friend.  It would have made a good EC Comics story.

Then there are a couple of straight-up romance stories, “Painted Gold” and “Romance Unawares”, both of which feature thirty-something lawyers discovering love for the first time.  (By the way, Mr. Quinn’s day job was as an attorney.)  They’re light and humorous.

Two stories involve Major Sturdevant of the Secret Service, “Ravished Shrines” in which he investigates a series of thefts of religious artifacts, and “Out of the Land of Egypt”, which involves the Major hijacking his reporter friend’s date to involve him in international intrigue.

Two more tales are told of Professor Harvey Forrester, head of the Anthropology department at Benjamin Franklin University.  “In the Fog” has him stumbling about in smog, spotting a woman who seems to be in distress and going to rescue her.  “The Black Widow” involves a seemingly cursed mummy.  A nice feature is that instead of the distressed damsel of the first story becoming his girlfriend, she becomes Professor Forrester’s ward, as she’s way too young for him.

Mr. Quinn has a good humorous touch, even in his weird tales, which he knows to turn off at appropriate moments in the story.  Most of these tales are still very readable.  However, there are some outdated ethnic stereotypes (and overuse of phonetic accents, one of the most annoying parts of the de Grandin stories) and period sexism.

Also included are his first published non-fiction article about the way Hollywood gets law wrong in movies, and a very comprehensive list of known Seabury Quinn stories.

Highly recommended to Seabury Quinn fans, recommended to pulp fans and lovers of short stories.

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1 edited by John Locke

Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) was a newspaper reporter who decided to try his hand at writing fiction.  As it happened, he turned out to be very good at it, making a huge hit with his most famous character, scientific detective Craig Kennedy.  He became America’s most popular detective story writer from 1910-1920, and continued to do pretty well thereafter (despite a bankruptcy when a man who’d commissioned a  bunch of work failed to pay) until his death.  Mr. Reeve also worked on films and radio, and did true crime reporting as well.

From Ghouls to Gangsters

This first volume is a collection of short stories; the second volume has non-fiction by and about Mr. Reeve.  The first story appears to be his first sale, “The Cat that Didn’t Come Back” (1907), a gruesome but comedic tale of a man attempting to dispose of a cat’s corpse.  The majority of stories are about Craig Kennedy, a professor of chemistry who decides to use his knowledge of science to solve crimes.  He’s assisted by newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, the Watson-like narrator.

We begin with the 1910 story “The Case of Helen Bond.”  A man has died of a heart attack, but the fact that his safe was burgled the same night casts a suspicion of foul play.  Mr. Kennedy uses a primitive type of lie detector (and his brain) to crack the case.   The professor owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, but is considerably less eccentric.  In the Holmes tradition, the reader is not given all the clues, but must wait for Mr. Kennedy to sum up the case and how the science plays in.

That story was published in Cosmopolitan, but Kennedy stories appeared in many places, including Boys’ Life (which introduced a young nephew for him) and Country Gentleman.  By the 1930s, Mr. Reeve’s stories mostly appeared in the detective pulps, and took on a more “gangbusters” feel.  He was also beginning to reuse plot beats from earlier, out of print stories.

The science in some of the stories is a bit dated, particularly the case that’s solved by Freudian dream analysis.   As well, period ethnic prejudice pops up from time to time.  Mr. Reeve appears to have been progressive in his views of women for 1910, but some bits look odd from a modern perspective.

Mr. Reeve wrote several stories with female protagonists as detectives, including medical Dr. Mary Mannix and “secret agent” Clare Kendall.  One of the latter’s stories closes out the volume, “The Royal Racket” (1935).  Clare helps identify two corpses, and is then asked to advise a young couple that suspects some of their new social crowd might be less than honest.   The two cases are of course connected.

The Boys’ Life story “The Polar Flight of the ZR-10” (1924) is notable for not being so much a mystery as a speculative fiction story.  The title dirigible is being used to test a transpolar flight route between America and Europe, and finds a long-lost colony of Vikings.  The mystery subplot arises from a “beat the Reds” race that feels more 1950s than 1920s.

Overall, the stories are good, if mostly dated, and demonstrate Mr. Reeve’s ability to write to a specific magazine’s intended audience.  Most of the earlier stories were heavily edited for book publication to make them pseudo-novels, and the later ones have never been reprinted before, which makes this a good collector’s item for detective story fans.

 

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China by Brandon Ferdig

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book free from the author in the expectation that I would write a review.  No other compensation is involved.

The traveler’s tale is one of the oldest forms of narrative; going to a faraway place and telling those at home what was seen and learned there.  The rise of low-cost independent publishing has made such memoirs easy to make available to the public, even if it is still just as hard to convince them to read it.

Life Learned Abroad

Mr. Ferdig is a Minnesota resident who spent a year in China, primarily to teach English.  He spent most of the year in Zhuhai, a modern city in southern China, and close to both Hong Kong and Macau.  Towards the end of the year he also managed to travel to Beijing, a village in rural China, and a mountain where he spent two weeks learning Tai Chi.

This book is heavily illustrated with photos (in black and white) taken on the journey; this makes it easier in many places to understand what Mr. Ferdig is saying in the narrative.  While the vocabulary is suitable for junior high students on up, some discussion of intercultural romantic relationships and China’s sex industry may convince parents it’s best for senior high students and up.

As the subtitle indicates, the main theme of the book is the lessons learned on this voyage; about humanity, about China and also about himself.  Mr. Ferdig tried to be open to any lessons that could be learned from his experiences; some he sought out, and others were thrust upon him.  And like all of us, the author sometimes had to learn from his mistakes.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to modern China from an outsider’s perspective, as it gently brings in various topics of interest.  (A book about modern China from the perspective of a resident would be a good counterpart.)  The paperback is a bit bulky, about the size of a college textbook, so the space-conscious person may be more comfortable with the Kindle edition.

Come to think of it, with a little revision to tighten up the narrative, and appropriate study materials, this might make a good text for a community education class on China.

Book Review: The Partnership

Book Review: The Partnership by Pamela Katz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This copy was a bound galley, and changes have been made in the published edition (most notably, a proper index.)

The Partnership

The Weimar Republic, Germany after World War One and before the rise of the Nazis, was a time of great change.  The Kaiser had been dethroned, militarism had been discredited with large sections of the population, and social movement was greater than ever before.  But at the same time, the economy was dreadful, many in Germany felt they could have won the war if they weren’t “betrayed”, and political extremists rioted in the streets.  This was the crucible in which the partnership of playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was born.

The two men, brilliant on their own, inspired each other to greatness in their two most famous collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as a handful of lesser works.  This volume concentrates on the years of their partnership and how it was facilitated by three important women, actors Lotte Lenya and Helene Weigel, and writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The partnership only lasted a few years, with brief reprises necessitated by their joint ownership of their plays.  While there were many factors involved in the breakup (political differences, diverging artistic aims, Weill becoming independently successful in America), the author posits that the main reason the team splintered was that neither man could stand not being in charge.  They hadn’t quite realized this during their initial creative period, but as the political climate changed, and each had his own goals in mind, it became obvious.

Brecht comes across as a deeply unpleasant person, the type of man who has three children by three different women before he even had a proper career.   It feels like the biographer bends over backwards to excuse Brecht’s behavior towards his wives and mistresses (especially as he hypocritically expected them to be faithful to him.)  He seems to have believed that his superior creativity and artistic vision gave him license to run roughshod over anyone in his path.  It didn’t go over so well in America, where no one was impressed by his European reputation and he didn’t speak the language.

Weill, by contrast, though he had his flaws, seems to have known how to adapt his desire for creative control to the demands of Broadway, working with many excellent writers.

The book goes into great detail about the production of Threepenny; rehearsals were disastrous, entire parts had to be cut at the last minute, and it took several scenes in before the audience figured out which play they were watching.  The song “Mack the Knife” was written and scored in 24 hours as a simultaneous concession to and dig at the actor playing MacHeath, as he’d demanded a song about how awesome his character was.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on the women; Lenya and Weigel brought their husbands’ work to life on the stage, and after they became widows truly kept the legacies alive as well as coming into their own careers.  Hauptmann is a bit harder to read; as the translator who brought Brecht many of the works he freely adapted, and probably much more involved in his writing than was ever acknowledged by either of them, she’s a shadowy figure.  The Weimar Republic gave women new freedom, but it was still in relation to powerful or creative men.

The book skimps on the parts of Brecht and Weill’s careers that did not involve each other; you’ll need to read their separate biographies for those. The writing gets a bit pompous at times, and there’s some use of gratuitous mind-reading, along the lines of “Weill would have enjoyed the breezes.”

There are extensive end-notes with bits that didn’t fit into the main text, and a good bibliography.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Brecht, Weill and theater in general.

And if somehow you haven’t heard it before, here’s Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” for the BBC.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

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