Non-Fiction

In World War II, every American tank became a rolling town on tracks

15 February 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Small-unit combat has held a special place in literature since the time of Herodotus. From Spartans at Thermopylae to the First Marines at Fallujah, “band of brothers” tales provide a voyeuristic glimpse into war’s charnel house and a testament to the sublime and profane within the embattled men on the spear’s tip.

At one end of the literary spectrum lie the front-line stories, real and imagined, that leave lasting images of epic heroism. Paul Bäumer huddling in a shell hole with a dying Frenchman. Audie Murphy on a burning tank destroyer, throwing back a German regiment. Hal Moore’s troopers fending off Vietnamese waves in Ia Drang Valley.

At the other end lie tales of the everyman warrior, the Tom Hanks character yanked from the terrarium of civilian life and thrust into a transient world of blood, fire and shrapnel. Books like Alex Kershaw’s “The Liberator” and Laura Hillenbrand’s monumental “Unbroken” celebrate human resilience and the latent power of the individual rarely tapped in peacetime. These stories are driven by characters who are relatable and yet possess some quality the rest of us don’t—at least, not as long as we remain ensconced in the comforting confines of civil society.

. . . .

“Spearhead” centers on a tank crew, in this case a half-dozen men packed into a Sherman dubbed “Eagle” that blasts its way across Belgium and central Germany. The crew rolls into action in September 1944, near the Belgian city of Mons, and winds up in April 1945 in Paderborn, Germany, bookending its journey with one-on-one tank duels.

The story’s everyman is Clarence Smoyer, a 21-year-old gun loader assigned to the Third Armored Division’s Easy Company. The mild-mannered Pennsylvanian seems destined to become a name, rank and serial number on a soon-forgotten casualty list, but Mr. Smoyer (whom Mr. Makos interviewed extensively for the book) discovers an unusual gift: He is a crack shot with a tank cannon. Promoted to gunner, though never formally trained as one, he also has a knack for unorthodox gun tactics when his crew faces steep odds.

In any tank tale, the steel shell becomes a rolling village in microcosm. “Spearhead” follows this well-worn path by introducing the reader to Eagle’s residents: its commander, Paul Faircloth, a half-Cherokee with a fatal devotion to duty; William “Woody” McVey, an Irish-American Michigander with an irreverent sense of humor; Bob Earley, a pipe-smoking Minnesotan whose chattering teeth are the crew’s barometer of how dangerous each mission will be; Homer “Smokey” Davis, a dour-faced Kentuckian who fancies himself a fast-draw pistolero; and “Johnny Boy” DeRiggi, an Italian-American from Scranton, Pa., whose jocularity dissipates as much of their tank platoon is wiped out near the town of Blatzheim, west of Cologne.

In the confines of an upgraded tank—a state-of-the-art Pershing—Clarence Smoyer and his fellow crewmen kill to live as enemy fire claims one platoon comrade after another. Faircloth, the crew’s father figure, falls to a German mortar blast. “The explosion lifted him from his feet and flung him askew through the smoke,” Mr. Makos writes. “Clarence’s legs became weak at the sight and he collapsed into the turret.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


The Quest for Queen Mary

13 February 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

After the death of a king or queen, a royal biography is duly commissioned. It appears, appropriately reverent, its subject cleansed of blemishes and imperfection. Such was the case in 1959, six years after Queen Mary, the wife of King George V and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, had died at the age of 85. That year a 43-year-old writer, James Pope-Hennessy, published Queen Mary’s official biography, a work of 654 pages, to high acclaim.

Pope-Hennessy’s three years of exhaustive research had taken him all over Europe to interview members of royal families—among them Mary’s German relations—and their entourages. He kept copious notes, much of their contents not included in the official biography, and insisted that they not be made public for 50 years. He died in 1974, the victim of an attempted robbery on his apartment.

The Quest for Queen Mary,” edited by Hugo Vickers, is a collection of the author’s notes and essays. The result is a delightful and highly indiscreet account of the sheer craziness of royal life. Pope-Hennessy had a novelist’s ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the absurd. The Princess Pauline of Württemberg, a cousin of Queen Mary, was “enormously fat, with a huge red face like an old baby, one tooth in her top jaw which she kept coyly covering with a potelée [plump] hand, clipped white hair like cotton wool (shaven at the neck like a general) and an expression of delighted benevolence; jammed against her table she looked like a greedy child on a high chair.”

The nobility, Pope-Hennessy observes, are self-absorbed and have short attention spans. “They usually forget what they have asked you when you are in the midst of a reply, and you find they have moved on to a discussion of flying-saucers or drinking habits in Zanzibar.” Moreover, they have to stand all the time. When he asks why, a lady-in-waiting explains this was so as not to embarrass people when the royal walked away. “Royalties,” she noted, “have very good legs.”

. . . .

The Queen of Sweden is an example of how disconnected from the real world the royals were. She was extremely modest and when in London stayed at the Hyde Park Hotel, always carrying a note in her handbag that read, “I am the Queen of Sweden,” in case she was knocked over. Members of her family thought that was the surest way to get locked up.

Pope-Hennessy describes Queen Mary’s third son, the hard-drinking Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, as “one of the finest and most authentic specimens of the race available for study today. He is tall and bulky, and his head is wonderfully Hanoverian, flat at the back and rising to the real pineapple point of William the Fourth. He has protruding Guelph eyes.” The Duke’s laugh was “an hysterical piglet squeal which becomes uncontrollable and which I found very infectious.” Prince Henry disliked the constant handshaking required of royals. “It broke my father’s hand once. And the Duke of Windsor’s hand. Broke ’em.” And he comes up with one of the book’s best lines. “Funny shape for a country, Holland. Damn funny shape.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Rescue from Slavery

11 February 2019

From Fishwrap:

During the mid-19th century, the abolitionist movement gained strength in the Northern United States. Free states prohibited slavery, but many of those living in slave states were forced to suffer backbreaking work and constant forms of degradation. In 1847, one heroic mother, a freed slave, received a letter from the master of her two daughters. She had given birth to the girls while still a slave, making her daughters slaves according to the law. In the letter, the master threatened to sell the girls and send them to Louisiana unless she could raise $400 to buy their freedom. She had no way to get the money but was determined to save her daughters. This is her story, told from clippings from the Green-Mountain Freeman in October 1847:

After finding a few men who were sympathetic to her story, and able to help transport and hide the girls after their rescue, the mother devised a rescue plan. She immediately set out on foot, walking about 35 miles to the home where her girls were kept. Arriving at night, she waited in the woods until the following morning. Not wanting to raise suspicion, she went to the house as she always did when she visited her children. “I stayed there on Saturday and Sunday, til Monday evening; cooked and washed for them, and then bid my children goodbye, as if I should never see them again; for I told ‘master’ that I could not raise the money.”

After leaving the house, the mother again hid in the woods until 11:00 pm. As she quietly approached the house, two dogs began to bark furiously. “I stopped a moment, and hid behind the fence, and saw ‘master’ get up and open the window, and look out. Not seeing anything, he shut down the window. I waited till I thought he was asleep, and then went forward. I hurried quick into the cellar kitchen, where my children slept.”

She waited until she heard the master snoring, then quietly woke the children and told them not to speak a word. “I got on their clothes as soon as I could, and fearing that if I went out by the door the dogs would bark again, I determined to go out by the back window. I found it fastened. I got up on the window sill to take out the nail, and as I was pulling at it, I prayed, ‘O Lord, defend me and my dear children this night; I commit myself and them to thee.’ At length I got out the nail, and opened the window, and lifted my children out; and then got out myself. The two dogs were there, but they only stood and looked at us, and never even growled.”

The three of them ran through the garden, over three different fences and palings, and walked four miles to a waiting carriage, reaching it about 1:00 am. Boarding the carriage, they drove as fast as they could towards the city, but had no intention of going to the city, “For I knew that ‘master’ would be there as soon as he could, after he waked up and found the children gone,” said the mother.

Instead, the three were secreted in a series of safe houses and transported first to Pennsylvania and then to Boston. Once in Boston, the mother was able to obtain work and her daughters enrolled in school and learned to read and sew.

Link to the rest at Fishwrap

No Beast so Fierce

5 February 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

 According to Dane Huckelbridge, a little more than 100 years ago in India and Nepal a “prolific serial killer . . . stalked the foothills of the Himalayas.” Marauding with “shocking impunity” and “almost supernatural efficacy” for nearly a decade, the murderer evaded “police, bounty hunters, [and] an entire regiment of Nepalese Gurkhas.” Before its trail of death came to a violent end in 1907, the monster killed—and ate—436 men, women and children, “more, some believe, than any other individual killer, man or animal, before or since.” Mr. Huckelbridge tells the tale of this “Beowulfian” assassin in his well-written, informative and at times thrilling new book, “No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History.”

The Champawat man-eater was a Bengal tiger, a creature with “innate predatory gifts . . . infinitely superior to our own.” Perfectly camouflaged and stalking on “silent, padded feet,” Bengal tigers are capable of bursts of speed of up to 40 miles an hour and generally weigh 400 to 500 pounds. The kinetic impact of their “blindingly fast” surprise attacks can snap necks and crush ribs. Once latched onto their prey, these tigers rake their victims with 3- to 4-inch flesh-shredding claws and bite with fangs that pulverize bones. Accounts document hungry Bengal tigers “ripping 15-foot crocodiles to pieces, tearing the heads off 20-foot pythons, and dragging 300-pound harbor seals out of the ocean.” When prey isn’t plentiful, they have killed and eaten rhinoceroses and elephants.

One species is “notably and thankfully absent” from the Bengal tiger’s usual diet—our own. For all their lethal magnificence, Bengal tigers under “normal circumstances” don’t prey on humans. But by the early years of the 20th century the circumstances on the Indian subcontinent had diverged far from normal. According to Mr. Huckelbridge, the Champawat tiger’s rampage was the result of “a full century of disastrous ecological mismanagement in the Indian subcontinent that drove [the tiger] out of the wild forests and grasslands it should have called home.” Seen in that light, the Champawat tiger, and the people it killed, were the victims—as was India itself.

By the time the Champawat tiger killed and ate its first human around the turn of the 20th century, British colonists had been in India for nearly 300 years. The colonial administration had spent the last of those three centuries pillaging the country’s natural resources “on a massive, multifaceted scale,” clearcutting forests and putting immense tracts of wildland to the plow. The availability of unspoiled natural habitat to tigers in the lowland jungles and grasslands of India and Nepal plummeted. Prey populations shriveled. In the endless struggle among tigers to hold ever more scarce habitat, wounded or physically impaired tigers couldn’t compete with stronger animals. Many lesser tigers took to preying on human beings.

For seven or eight years, as the Champawat man-eater eluded all extermination attempts, its tally of human victims increased by about one a week. The tiger’s relentless predations forced the abandonment of entire villages. One man lost his wife and both his sons to the monster. Finally, in 1907, the British colonial government tasked an obscure railroad employee with ending the Champawat tiger’s reign of terror: Jim Corbett, the fascinating hero of Mr. Huckelbridge’s tale.

. . . .

Corbett had little interest in hunting tigers, but he also recognized that it was his duty to try and rid the hill people of a bloodthirsty menace. To avoid having himself “mistaken for either a pompous aristocrat bagging tigers for fun, or as a desperate poacher looking to make a few rupees,” Corbett required that the government recall all other hunters pursuing the tiger and withdraw the bounty it had put on the tiger’s life before he would hunt the man-eating cat.

The final confrontation between Corbett and the murderous tiger is as exciting in Mr. Huckelbridge’s account as it was in Corbett’s own memoir, “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” (1944), which sold more than half a million copies in its first two years in print.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that, when he checked, the book reviewed in the OP was the #1 bestseller on Amazon’s Cats, Lions & Tigers Biology list, something he hadn’t known existed prior to learning about Mr. Corbett’s experiences with the Champawat man-eater.



And Jim Corbett’s own accounts of his experiences with Bengal tigers:

The Whiggish View of History

27 January 2019
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From The Wall Street Journal:

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel “A Handful of Dust” (1934), Lady Brenda Last remarks of her husband’s beloved ancestral home, Hetton Abbey: “I detest it . . . at least I don’t mean that really, but I do wish sometimes that it wasn’t all, every bit of it, so appallingly ugly.” Her husband, Tony Last, will do anything to keep up the old ways. Though lacking any semblance of religious feeling, he dutifully attends the village church every Sunday and sits in the pine pew that his great-grandfather installed there generations ago. While Tony is fussing over his neo-Gothic pile, Brenda takes a flat in London “with limitless hot water and every transatlantic refinement.”

These two figures represent opposite strains of the approach of the English to their own history: One, the Tory disposition, is backward-looking, full of reverence for authority and the shared continuities that the past provides; the other is forward-looking, ever conscious of the seemingly steady march of progress—the Whig view. The two strains were well in evidence in the 18th century, the so-called Georgian era in which differing versions of English self-definition jostled for ascendancy.

In “Charting the Past,” the prolific British historian Jeremy Black aims to examine the ways in which 18th-century English writers and thinkers studied their country’s past and, often, formed narratives to serve their own ends or special causes.

. . . .

To take one rather fanciful example, the anonymous pamphlet “Letter From a Gentleman in Worcestershire to a Member of the Parliament” (1727) invoked the ninth-century Viking invasions to urge the importance of fending off a Russian-led invasion from Norway–Denmark. Other lessons were more explicitly political. The Whig historian (and member of Parliament) George Lyttelton in 1735, touted the idea of an “ancient constitution” that had originated with the Saxons, survived the Norman Conquest and continued on in common law as England’s guarantor of freedom from tyranny—that is, in his view, freedom from the divine-right absolutism of the Tories. Meanwhile the Toryish Mary Astell could argue by analogy for a strong contemporary monarchy in 1704 by maintaining that “there were many causes that contributed to the felicity of Q. Elizabeth’s reign, but her magnanimous resolution and stout exertion of her just authority, were none the least of it.”

. . . .

History now shows us that the accession of the staunchly Protestant William and Mary in 1689, replacing the Catholic James II, ensured that a Catholic would not again sit on England’s throne. But the threat (or thrilling prospect) of Catholicism was rarely far from the minds of English historians. To some, the suppression of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745—aimed at restoring the Stuarts by installing the descendants of James II—suggested that the “papists” were defeated and would not menace England again. But to others, the uprisings meant that the Catholic threat would be ever-present. Bishop Lavington of Exeter—in a tract called “The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compar’d” (1749)—even argued that Methodists were crypto-papists.

. . . .

Here we encounter men like William Hutchinson, “a solicitor and topographer, who found time, as clerk to the Lord Lieutenant of Durham, to write history,” wherein he gloried in the Druids and blamed the ancient Romans for introducing licentiousness to the British Isles. And though learned men are well represented in Mr. Black’s account, he is also attuned to the many chancers on the scene, such as Thomas Percy, “a grocer’s son who sought to show his descent from the medieval Dukes of Northumberland.” Percy chased fame by publishing “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” (1765), “an edition of old ballads, which promoted a revival of interest in the subject.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Why I Started Publishing an ‘Indigenous Version’ of My Articles

21 January 2019

From The Literary Hub:

Two years ago on Thanksgiving Day, I reported from North Dakota along the muddy banks of Canté Peta Creek on the borderlands of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The Indigenous-led movement to try and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline had drawn a massive crowd.

The demonstrations happening that day had little to do with observing Thanksgiving, a highly problematic holiday for many Native Americans. This aspect, however, was seemingly lost on my editor, a middle-aged white man residing a few states away.

Today, the link to that story is evidence of what happens, journalistically speaking, when editorial decisions are determined by those less familiar with Indigenous-minded points of view.

“Thanksgiving at Standing Rock, Activists Dig In,” reads a segment of the URL linked to that article. The coded language in the address bar is all that remains of my editor’s original headline, one that I requested be changed immediately after the piece went live.

“Natives and Thanksgiving?” I wrote to him.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to explain why Thanksgiving for many Native Americans is historically contentious, or for that matter, why his branding of my article with this holiday was entirely irrelevant to the scope of my reporting (the afternoon protests during the monthslong campaign went on just like it did any other day). Yet as an independent journalist, the exchange was deeply reflective of the kind of delicate diplomacy that is as much a part of my craft as the actual journalism itself—caretaking of my client relations alongside caretaking of the authentic Indigenous narrative.

It’s a sensitive balance.

In a pursuit to expand the Indigenous narrative to wider audiences, I have seen what I consider to be relevant and worthy Indigenous perspective routinely gutted from the articles I write. Rarely do these omissions see the light of day by readers.

. . . .

In October, I began self-publishing an “Indigenous version” or an author’s edition to accompany my commissioned works. It followed one of the more lengthy and arduous edit sessions I’ve endured with a team of non-Indigenous editors. The process, for me, felt more strenuous than the actual field reporting—and the results were underwhelming. Certain lexicon and ideology central to Indigenous preferences were tonally off, I told my client. The photo layout also felt wayward.

The story was about a tent city made up of mostly Native Americans in downtown Minneapolis. It resulted in a 2,500-word feature article, almost double from what was earlier assigned. I was grateful for the extra space that my client allowed and for their brand-name distribution.

The truth is, though, I was also embarrassed to see my byline associated with what went online, particularly with regard to the spelling of the acronym for the American Indian Movement, or AIM. In the published article, it is lower-cased as “Aim.” I quickly emailed my editor to try and change this.

“I respect style guides but Indian Country (my own people) will judge me greatly as if I don’t know anything about this legendary org,” I wrote.

. . . .

Most fascinating to me, in all this editorial banter, was the omission of a line describing the Indigenous people living at the tent city as a demographic “literally homeless on their own homelands.” That this phrase was cut across three rigorous rounds of edit sessions typifies my struggle: I am often met with subtle condescension by decision-makers who seem to see Indigenous perspectives as advocacy-laced or, perhaps in their view, unreasonable.

. . . .

To understand what it means to colonize the Indigenous narrative, one can easily turn to the colonizer itself for further review. The Economist recently published an article about the rise of Native American politicians in the United States which has since been described by some critics as nothing short of insulting, and it is.

Littered throughout the piece is the use of out-of-touch language, points of view, and cringe-worthy art which describe tribal community, at once, as a “picture of wretchedness” while also stirring lingering stereotypes linked to the environment, casinos and what’s known as the Cherokee Grandma Syndrome (a phenomenon of people who claim Cherokee ancestry). At one point, the unidentified author writes how Oklahoma’s first Native American governor-elect, Kevin Stitt, a Cherokee, “does not look Indian at all.”

The article, which features an illustration of the US Capitol topped with a feathered headdress, is maybe the worst display of modern journalism about Indigenous Peoples I’ve seen. But it’s fitting in describing the lazy, discriminatory and damaging writing that comes from the deep roots of colonization in our newsrooms.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG says the experiences of the author of the OP are the reasons that some traditionally-published authors go indie.

He is also reminded of three quotes:

I do one Xanth novel a year, because at the moment that is all that publishers will accept; they don’t want any other type of fiction from me, so Xanth pays my way.

~ Piers Anthony

Performers have the right to say what they want to, and anyone paying money has the right to accept or reject the art and entertainment that’s available.

~ Penn Jillette

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Verbarian

16 January 2019

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

 verbarian, adj. and n.

A. adj.

Of or relating to words.

  • 1830   S. T. Coleridge On Constit. Church & State 19 (note)    A verbarian Attorney-General, authorized to bring information..against the writer or editor of any work..who..should persevere in misusing a word.

. . . .

B. n.

1. A word game in which players compete to see who can form the most words from the letters of a given word. Obsolete.

  • 1872   Our Young Folks Mar. 191/2   There is a game we play among ourselves… It is called Verbarian, and may be played by any number. We select some long word [etc.].

. . . .

2. An inventor or coiner of words; (also) a person who is interested in words.

  • 1873   F. Hall Mod. Eng. 21   In The Doctor, Southey gives himself free scope as a verbarian.
  • 1926   Brandon (Manitoba) Daily Sun 3 Dec. 10/2   Collections of two or three hundred [words], coined by some enthusiastic verbarian for the purpose of exploiting a pet theory.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

A Book That Captures the Singular Life of Marie Colvin

14 January 2019
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From The New Yorker:

In Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” there is a passage describing Colvin’s ordeal behind Chechen-rebel lines over Christmas of 1999. After coming under sustained Russian bombardment outside Grozny, the American-born reporter, then aged forty-four, was forced to trek out of the war zone over the snow-covered Caucasus mountain range to reach safety in neighboring Georgia. There were many bad moments, and, at one point, driven to exhaustion, Colvin considered lying down in the snow and sleeping. It was the opposite impulse of the one that drove her forward throughout her life. Colvin survived her Chechen experience and a dozen or more equally dangerous episodes during her twenty-five years as a war reporter, but, a month after her fifty-sixth birthday, in February, 2012, her luck ran out, in Syria. The Assad regime’s forces fired mortars into the house where she was staying, in the rebel-held quarter of Homs, and she was killed.

Colvin’s life has been memorably chronicled by Hilsum, a friend and colleague who lived and worked alongside Colvin in many of the same war zones, and whose home base was also London. (Full disclosure: I knew Colvin and am a friend of Hilsum’s.) At a time when the role of women is being reëxamined and has rightly galvanized public attention, Colvin’s tumultuous life has inspired a number of recent accounts, including the feature film “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. But it is Hilsum’s biography, written by a woman who both knew Colvin and had access to her unpublished reporting notes and private diaries—a trove of some three hundred notebooks—that seems to most closely capture her spirit.

As told by Hilsum, Colvin’s life was an unreconciled whirl of firsthand war experiences—many of them extremely dangerous and highly traumatic—London parties, and ultimately unhappy love affairs, laced through with a penchant for vodka martinis and struggles with P.T.S.D. Colvin was a Yank from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Yale-educated, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—her Bible was Gellhorn’s “The Face of War”—but she never wrote a book herself, and was little known to her countrymen, making her name, and the bulk of her career, instead, inside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a British broadsheet with a tabloid soul. From 1986 onward, when the Sunday Timeshired Colvin, the editors appear to have happily taken advantage of her lifelong hunger for professional affirmation, a chronic willingness to throw herself into danger in order to get scoops, and her considerable personal charm, which, early on, earned her the trust of roguish political players like Yasir Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker




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