Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

wallaceAmerican Dreamer: A Life of Henry A Wallace –  John C Culver, John Hyde

It’s fascinating to wonder what the world might have been like had Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

No Cold War perhaps, no arms race with the Russians, no domino theories to defend against global Communism, no Korean War nor Bay of Pigs debacles, no need to engage in the disastrous Vietnam War. No segregation. There’d certainly be no need for a wall between the US and Mexico.

Wallace was undone in a shameful night of chicanery at the 1944 Democratic Convention which opened the door for Harry Truman to get the VP ticket and, ultimately, the keys to the White House.

Until then, Wallace’s progressive ideas had saved US agriculture from the boom-and-bust of unfettered market forces and his wider philosophies helped shape FDR’s New Deal.

Fully two years before WW2 was won, while serving as Roosevelt’s vice-president, Wallace was thinking deeply about the peace.

How would the US switch from a military economy while maintaining full employment, how would it raise standards of education and improve health care, what kind of world would be built in the aftermath and what role should America play?

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce envisioned a post-war “American century” in which the US could “exert…the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Wallace responded with his “century of the common man” speech in which colonialism would end and there would be neither military nor economic imperialism.

By 1944 he was prophetically warning against the dangers of American Fascism, writing in the New York Times:

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Widening an existing rift in the Democratic Party, the pejoratively dubbed ‘Dreamer’ was becoming a problem and the conservative, pro-business wing wanted him out.

They persuaded FDR, unwell and still consumed by the war, to ignore progressive advisers and to allow Truman to go up against Wallace as the VP candidate. And even though Wallace won the first ballot he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination.

From there, the party machinery went to work, deals were done, Wallace was crushed and when FDR died in April, 1945, the little-known, little-regarded senator from Missouri took the helm.

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33745643431_5b4a5133cf_oGrape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulden serves up hearty slices of life in Spain fusing foodie passions with history, curiosity and the joy of discovery.

The book is part travelogue, part chef worship, part love affair and it’s zested with deep respect for what is now his adopted homeland.

He takes us to the coast of Cadiz in the hunt for endangered Bluefin tuna, a village near Salamanca for ritual slaughter of acorn-fed pigs and to the freezing waters of Galicia for the perilous business of barnacle gathering.

Each of the chapters is a self-contained essay, a stage-by-stage gourmand route map to the heart of the nation’s soul, with stories told through the eyes of shepherds and slaughterhouse workers.

The drama of the almadraba, the ancient method of netting tuna, is Hemmingway-esque and one of the best.

The excitement of what’s about to unfold is tinged with superstition and fear: Will the catch measure up? Will the marine gods be kind? These are the brooding thoughts running through the mind of Antonio Gonzales as he “takes a fisherman’s breakfast of cigarettes and silence”.

It’s the descriptive passages around the events and characters we meet where the book is best, lifting it above a mere tasting menu of food indulgences.

Where it’s not so good are the parts of overblown prose like this description of a meal:

“Adria has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion. And there was no shortage in the range of feelings he pulled out of us that night. Like a hallucinogenic experience, we cycled through stages of nervous energy and quiet contemplation, inexplicable nostalgia and intense, childlike joy. If I really look back at my romantic life, it can be boiled down to one simple objective: to find the best dining partner possible. And here she was”.

The book is rife with similar passages that would be better served up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and as my rapid and greedy consumption continued I began to experience symptoms over over-indulgence, there was just too much of it.

For that reason it slipped down in my rating which is a shame because, like a curate’s egg, it’s very good in parts though probably best savored in individual chapters rather than gutsed-down at a single sitting.

navyLife in Nelson’s Navy – Dudley Pope

You’ll get more than a whiff of sea air in this richly detailed telling of what life was really like in the “Wooden Walls” of England.

How about inhaling the funk of several hundred men and – yes – women, unwashed for months, living alongside livestock, and crammed into extremely confined quarters.

Fourteen inches were width allocations for hammocks. Floor to ceiling deck heights for hands could be as little as 4ft 10in.

As for toilet arrangements, these were, thankfully, neglected areas in Hollywood’s tales of swashbuckling heroes on the high seas.

Not so for Pope who explains how ‘heads’ in the bows were over-the-side, exposed-to-the-elements affairs. In heavy swells and chilly seas it was constipation that kept the surgeon busy.

The detail is both encyclopedic and entertaining but it’s the context that makes this such an enlightening read.

We’ve all read or seen stories about the floggings, the weevils, the press gangs and the brutality of life at sea; while they are largely true they neglect the context of the times and have to be seen as part of a bigger picture.

Only a small proportion of men were conscripted into the navy: for London the quota was 5,700 out of a population of 750,000. Pope sets that against WWII conscription rates in which every able-bodied man was called up unless they could prove their civilian job was essential war work.

Life was violent and harsh at sea, but life was harsh and violent on land too. This was a time when there was no police system and only a small standing army was retained lest it threatened overthrow of government.

Corruption and nepotism was evident in all areas of the navy – just as it was throughout the country – and disease was rife too.

It’s in the area of plague and pestilence that soldiers and sailors really suffered, especially those dispatched to the tropics where typhus, yellow fever, and fevers and agues took a heavy toll.

In the 20-plus years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the navy lost 1,875 men in a series of battles compared with more than 72,000 who succumbed to disease or died in accidents on board.

I still like reading yarns and seeing movies about the days of sail, but it’s also good to have a grasp of the grim and not-so-glamorous reality too.

bryson2The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson Cantankerous in the nicest possible way, Britain’s favourite grumpy old man shows us in all our eccentricity, boorishness and surliness.

It’s impossible to take offence at his wry observations because at heart he’s an admiring Anglophile who finds much to amuse in our foibles and foolishness.

Get him on pet topics of sullen service, dog shit on pavements and littering though, and he reveals an entirely different side to his character. He’s a grammar Nazi too, so watch your punctuation.

For the most part it’s a journey in which he finds much to like, an extended love letter to his adopted country.

There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, he declares, and suggests it might be Britain’s most glorious achievement.

Britain, he judges, is calm, measured and quite grown up, a nation that appreciates small pleasures and is made up of “the only people in the world who become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit”.

Under cover of advancing age, he does a nice line in bafflement at the world around him and incomprehension at living in a country full of celebrities whose “names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern”.

He’s an ideal travelling companion with a sharp eye, an inquisitive mind and an opinion on everything. He’s probably seen more of the British Isles than anyone who lives there – and still manages to like us.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.

FolioYou have to admire the chutzpah of Seattle entrepreneur David Brewster and his latest notion – an athenaeum in the heart of the city of Amazon.

Not only does it cock a snook at digitization of the printed word, it’s housed just a block away from the city’s acclaimed public library, home to nearly 1.5m books.

What on earth is he thinking? There hasn’t been a new athenaeum in the US since 1899 and it’s little wonder. Why would anyone pay to join a library when the excellent public network is ubiquitous and free?

Why, in the age of eBooks, would anyone forgo the convenience of digital downloads to brave Seattle’s notorious congestion and go to a physical address downtown?

Brewster smiles patiently as I trot out the objections. He has a gleam in his eye and a vision of his bibliophile’s heaven.

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum will be a social hub, a curated collection, a quiet place to read and contemplate and work. It’ll be a place for discussion groups and literary seminars, for concerts and serendipitous connections – a place to cultivate ideas.

It’s housed in part of the Y building at Fourth and Marion which is currently being refurbished ahead of an anticipated opening in October. There are already hundreds of books on the shelves and more stacked in piles awaiting classification.

Many have been donated from the private libraries of individuals. Folio aims to keep these as collections that might otherwise have been broken up.

The focus is on “quality books” so it’s not the place for the latest bodice ripper or Dan Brown. Its curation favors art, architecture, literature, history, economics, political science, journalism, philosophy, law and natural sciences. It’s especially strong on books about the Pacific Northwest.

All these, of course, can be found at the public library up the hill and while Brewster is careful not to denigrate its efforts, he points out that it has an ever-widening remit in its provision of information services.

His focus is much narrower – readers who cherish physical books and the tangible pleasures of reading, and authors who need a place to research, to write and to connect with other authors.

If it sounds like an elitist home for the literati it isn’t meant to be. Anyone can pop in and read books at Folio, just not take them away, and free or low-cost public programs are promised. Borrowing books requires membership which is $125 a year.

Brewster is especially keen for Folio to become a hub for young, up-and-coming writers in the area and board member Steve Scher, the journalist and former KUOW commentator, sees it as a potential space from which he can produce live podcasts on books.

So far the enterprise – a tax exempt, non-profit – has raised almost $100,000 towards running costs. The gamble for donors is whether the niche is strong enough and distinctive enough to attract and retain members in a whirlwind of digital disruption and changing consumer habits.