December 01, 2005
Review of 'Thirty-Odd Feet Below Belgium'
Arthur Stockwin's Thirty-Odd Feet Below Belgium is a melancholy book, written about a melancholy war. Anyone who has studied the causes and consequences of WWI (for a time naively known as the "Great War" or the "War to End All Wars"), knows that it was a tragic waste. The leading nations of the world blundering clumsily into a massive, devastating war for what exactly? As Stockwin reminds us at the end of his book, "A cynic -- I forget who -- once described the Great War as 'a war to decide who controlled Strasbourg.'" Well, I've been to Strasbourg, and it wasn't worth the price.
An entire generation of Western Europe's best and brightest young men died in the war. England lost 703,000 men, France 1,385,000, Germany 1,718,000. The horrors of Stalinism, Nazism, the Holocaust and most of the other monumental human screw-ups of the 20th century directly trace their roots back to this conflict.
We know all that, but it's easy to forget, and hard to fully comprehend the human scale of this disaster. Even now, in the middle of another ugly war, where thousands of young men and women are being lost, it is hard to appreciate the finality, the suddenness of passing from life to death.
Stockwin's curious little book provides a window onto the human tragedy of war. Most of the book consists of love letters sent between his 17-year old mother, Edith Ainscow and 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Boothby, who was stationed with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium, near Ypres. The young lovers had only spent a total of four days in each others company before being forever parted by the war. Boothby died underground shortly after his 21st birthday, 30' below the surface in one of the tunnels beneath the battlefield, killed by a German mine. His body was never recovered, and he remains buried where he died beneath the "blue clay" of Flanders.
The letters themselves were unremarkable. Silly, adolescent jottings full of peculiar period slang and Victorian correctness. The war itself is only discussed in passing, and both appear to be trying not to dwell upon the morbid possibilities. But the youthful spirit of a developing romance is painful to see, in light of what we know will happen.
Stockwin discovered the letters seven years after his mother's death at age 85. His mother had never mentioned Geoff Boothby, and he had no idea that his mother had ever had a lover who died in the war. Stockwin realized that he owed his very existence to Boothby's death in Belgium and he also realized that he had never glimpsed the tragic loss that shaped his mother's life.
The tragic construct of reading letters between two unrequited lovers written nearly a century ago seems an entirely appropriate way to understand this most senseless of wars. Edith's final letter, written the day after Geoff's death, was giddy in anticipation of finally seeing him again on leave in England the following week. That joyful reunion, like so many other good, human occasions, never happened. It is a useful reminder, in this age of walking bombs, of the frail and transient nature of our existence.Update
The UK Telegraph published an interesting story about a recent archaeological exploration of some of the WWI tunnels beneath Ypres. It is amazing stuff.
November 26, 2005
Education of a Felon
I just finished reading Edward Bunker's memoir, Education of a Felon (St. Martin's Press, New York, 2000). Bunker, you may recall, is the career criminal and ex-convict who went straight in his forties and subsequently had a successful career as a novelist, screenwriter, actor and producer. He died this past July at age 67, and you can read his obituaries here.
Fascinated by his obits, I ordered (and read, which does not always follow) a couple of his novels (Animal Factory: A Novel and Dog Eat Dog). Curiously, I preferred his memoir to his fiction, though his novels were quite good. His real life story is as colorful as any of the plotlines in his fiction and has the added benefit of being true. The best bits of his novels were often the prison scenes and there are plenty of them in his memoir.
If you have an interest in the criminal mind and understanding life behind bars, I don't think you can find a better introduction than Bunker. Highly recommended.
November 20, 2005
Thirty-Odd Feet Below Belgium
As a boy, he said that his mother Edith took him to Stratford-upon-Avon several times to visit an old lady friend. The young Arthur would generally go outside to play. But one time, in the living room, he noticed a black metal plaque issued by the War Office. Such plaques commemorated a World War I soldier whose life was lost in action.
The memory of these visits naturally paled over the decades, but it was given a jolt in 1990, a full seven years after his mother's death, when Arthur returned to the family home to deal with the many belongings left there. Among them was a large wooden chest. In it he found a packet of old letters bound with string. The letters were dated 1915 and 1916, and they were sent between his mother, who was then 17, and a 20-year-old soldier named Geoffrey Boothby. They were letters exchanged between a young man and woman who knew each other for a bare four days, but whose affection and love for each other grew with every letter.
Geoffrey Boothby was killed on April 28, 1916, buried in a tunnel 10 meters below the ground at Ypres in Flanders. Arthur's mother, Edith, was never to see him again. Yet she married, had a child and lived a happy and productive life until her death at age 86. Long after World War I was over, she continued to visit Geoffrey's bereaved mother in Stratford-upon-Avon.
November 17, 2005
Pulling a Boxer
California Senator Barbara "Braindead" Boxer's new novel appears to be even more amusing than we had thought. James Taranto links to a review by John J. Miller in the National Review, and the excerpts he quotes ain't pretty. Take for example, this sex scene:
The bed was huge and soft with a blue and white comforter. He didn't notice Jane taking her clothes off but suddenly she was naked: long legged, lithe, and bronzed. The sheets were cool, her body warm, her limbs strong and supple, and they meshed with his just as he remembered. "Oh Greg, dearheart," she whispered in his ear, "I've missed you so. Welcome home."
Meshing? It must be some new-fangled Californian thing.
There are also sex scenes featuring animals and a cast of human helpers:
A ton of finely tuned muscle, hide glistening, the crest of his mane risen in full sexual display, and his neck curved in an exaggerated arch that reminded Greg of a horse he'd seen in an old tapestry in some castle in Europe Jane had dragged him to. The stallion approached, nostrils flared, hooves lifting with delicate precision, the wranglers hanging on grimly. ... The stallion rubbed his nose against the mare's neck and nuzzled her withers. She promptly bit him on the shoulder and, when he attempted to mount, instantly became a plunging devil of teeth and hooves. ... Greg clutched the rails with white knuckles, wondering, as these two fierce animals were coerced into the majestic coupling by at least six people, how foals ever got born in the wild.
I may actually have to buy this book.
November 16, 2005
Jacqueline Susann Meets Primary Colors. . .
Why do I suspect that this first novel has endless comedic possibilities?
October 30, 2005
I just finished reading Shadowbrook : A Novel of Love, War, and the Birth of America, the new novel by Beverly Swerling, author of the equally superb City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan.
Swerling's novels are a wonderful blend of well-researched history and gripping story selling. Set in familiar places, she does a great job of presenting interesting facts about our past (18th century surgical techniques, the role of slavery in the NY economy, the role of American Indians in the French and Indian wars, etc.) in the context of a compelling story.
I heartily recommend both her books. They are thoroughly engrossing, informative and well worth the time.
One interesting theme of contemporary interest appearing in Shadowbrook is the desire for martyrdom expressed by some of the Catholic priests and nuns in the story. It is helpful to be reminded that our jihadi pals do not have a monopoly on seekers of martyrdom in the service of their vision of god.
As an aside, I am curious about Swerling's background. Her author bio is exceedingly vague: "Beverly Swerling is a writer, consultant, and amateur historian. She lives in New York City with her husband." She has an interesting web site for her first book, which includes an interview, some background on how City of Dreams came to be, and some helpful ideas for would-be authors of historical fiction. But the site has little further information about her life (i.e. where did she grow up? go to school? what kind of consultant, etc.). Some enterprising magazine editor should commission a piece about her.
October 05, 2005
Ethel, Julius and their friends
Today's NY Sun had a review of an interesting new book exploring the history of two Soviet spies recruited by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were famously convicted of spying and executed at Sing Sing in 1953. The two spies, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, are the subject of Steven Usdin's Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.
The review was written by Ronald Radosh, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and co-author of The Rosenberg File, a well regarded examination of the case in light of information from Soviet and American archives that became available over the last twenty years.
Not surprisingly, Radosh sees Usdin's book primarily in terms of the light it sheds upon the Rosenbergs, confirming that they were important Soviet agents whose actions had a serious impact on US national security. (Barr and Sarant played a major role in developing the Soviet microelectronics industry and designed the computer guidance system for torpedoes used in Kilo class submarines. They also turned over to the Soviets plans for American fighter aircraft and fire control radar systems used to develop weapons employed against US troops in Korea and Vietnam.) However, there is also an interesting human interest angle in the complicated personal lives of the two spies. This is how a press release from Yale University Press puts it:
Engineering Communism tells an incredible personal story of Barr’s dual lives in Leningrad with his Czech wife and children and with a married Russian mistress who bore him two children. It follows the two spies through Sarant’s death, Barr’s unbelievable return to the United States after more than four decades, and the reconciliation of Sarant’s common-law wife with the husband and children she had abandoned in America.
Growing up in NYC, I remember hearing one of the Rosenberg's sons come to my high school and speak about his parent's case. (This was probably in connection with the release of their book We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) At the time, I was a good lefty, and believed that his parents were innocent victims of McCarthyism and cold war hysteria. For better or worse, we all now have a better understanding of where the truth actually lay.
September 15, 2005
Steven Vincent's In the Red Zone
There are two schools of thought on the morality of the US-led coalition's 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the left, there is the widely held view that this war was unjust and immoral. The leading justification for war -- the infamous weapons of mass destruction -- were never found, and the invasion and subsequent occupation have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi people and untold suffering among millions of others. While the left (when pressed) will acknowledge that removing the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, it was not the responsibility of the US government to do so and, in any case, life in Iraq after Saddam was just as bad (if not worse) than it had been before the war.
On the right, defenders of the invasion believe that it was legally and morally justified to act against a long term supporter of international terrorism whose regime had developed (and used) weapons of mass destruction in the past against both its neighbors and their own people. More worryingly, Saddam also appeared to be trying to retain his WMD capabilities for future use. Finally, deposing Saddam and helping the Iraqi people establish a democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious government was expected to improve the life of all Iraqis and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the troubled Arab world, thereby undermining the repression that fostered the growth of Islamist terrorism.
Ultimately, history will decide whether the war was a humane war of liberation or an unwarranted attack. However, it was, in part, to answer this question for himself that Steven Vincent decided to travel to Iraq and write In The Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq.
In those heady days and months after the fall of Saddam's statue in Firdus Square in April of 2003, there was a lively debate in the West about the Iraqi people's reaction to the war and the occupation. Polls were commissioned by western press organizations to assess Iraqi public opinion. Spreadsheets were published comparing pre and post-war levels of electricity production, unemployment, telephone usage and other measures of well being.
After foreign journalists became favorite targets for Jihadist murderers, the mainstream press largely stopped trying to assess the mood of the Iraqi public. (And who can blame them when traveling alone among ordinary Iraqis can lead to a short run in a starring role in one of Zarqawi's gruesome videos?) These days, most journalists stay inside their sandbagged offices or hotel rooms, reporting on the press conferences held within Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The only glimpse we get of day-to-day life in Iraq is video footage of the aftermath of the latest suicide bombing. It is this information vacuum that makes Vincent's first hand account of his months traveling with and among the Iraqi people particularly valuable.
Before 9/11, Vincent was an art critic living on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Radicalized by watching mass murder from the vantage point of his own rooftop, Vincent came to see the effort to bring democracy to Iraq as a noble experiment, one he wanted to personally participate in the only way he knew how, as a writer. When he learned that New York artist Steve Mumford was going to Iraq as a freelancer to document the war, he was hooked. On Mumford's return to NYC in the summer of 2003, Vincent began planning to go to Iraq that fall.
In the Red Zone is the story of Vincent's first trip to Iraq, during the fall of 2003. During that period, he traveled widely in the country, talking to Iraqis in all walks of life. His book is part travelogue and part internal debate over the meaning of what he sees and whether or not the "noble experiment" of democracy in Iraq is working (or can ever work). A masterful writer and a keen observer, he brings to life some of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Iraqi society as well as some of the history of this ancient region.
His book is organized thematically with each of the chapters addressing one of the questions that illuminated his travels. Like most good pieces of non-fiction, he asks (and seeks to answer) all the questions an informed reader hopes the book will address. In this case:
- Why did he go to Iraq and what were the preconceptions and prejudices that shaped his experience?
- What is day-to-day life in Baghdad like for the various social classes, and what do they think about the invasion and the fall of Saddam?
- What is it like to live in Baghdad's expatriate community and interact with the largely middle class Iraqis who work with them in the interim government? (Including some great vignettes about what the Iraqis really think about the "People of the Slogans" who came to Iraq before and after the war on their anti-western pity tours as well as the anti-American bias of most of journalists and NGOs.)
- Who are the groups supporting the "Resistance" and what motivates them?
- What is life like among the Shia majority and what is it like to be in Karbala during Ashura?
- Finally, knowing what he does now, having lived among the Iraqi people and seen at first hand the blunders and triumphs marking the post-invasion period, was it all just a huge mistake?
The last part of the book describes his evolving relationship with "Nour", a beautiful Iraqi woman in her late 20's or early 30's who became his colleague and translator in Basra. Nour was a poet, a university graduate in English literature, single, who was employed doing press relations by an American NGO. Her real name was Nour Weidi, and Vincent only referred to her by her first name to protect her from the religious extremists who would ultimately shoot her four times and murder him. The foreknowledge that Vincent would be killed months after the publication of the book makes his discussion of the plight of Iraqi women and the rise of Shia religious extremists in Basra even more poignant.
* * *
I would be remiss if I did not address the ugly controversy that has arisen since Vincent's death over the cause of his murder and the motivation of his killers. Vincent was abducted and killed two days after the Sunday NYT published his OpEd criticizing British authorities for allowing extremists affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shia religious parties to dominate Basra's police and security forces. Less than a week later, the UK Telegraph's Colin Freeman wrote an article quoting a police investigator's theory that Vincent may have been the victim of an "honor killing" because he planned to marry Nour in order to get her a visa to leave Iraq and move to the USA. The following day, University of Michigan historian, blogger and noted critic of the war in Iraq, Juan Cole, cited Freeman's article and commented:
. . Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface, and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner.
This gratuitous slap at Vincent's alleged lack of "serious" knowledge of Arab culture infuriated Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, who posted a letter tearing into Cole on the blog Murdoc Online. She argued (in my view persuasively) that her husband and Nour were not having an affair, and that therefore the "honor killing" theory was entirely bogus.
I don't know why Steven Vincent was murdered, but I do know that we lost a talented writer and a brave and honorable man. I never had the chance to meet him, but through his writing, I feel as though I have lost a friend. If, like me, you continue to debate the wisdom of having intervened in Iraq and its centrality (or lack thereof) to the efforts to protect ourselves from Al Queda and its Islamist allies, I can't think of better place to start than with this book.
Finally, I was moved by this epitaph for Steven Vincent, written by Greyhawk of the Mudville Gazette. The title, And Then There were None, refers to the fact that Vincent was the only American journalist working in Iraq outside of the "Green Zone, away from the protection of US forces." And now he is gone.
May 15, 2005
Rich people behaving badly
One of life's guilty pleasures is enjoying the sight of overpriveleged assholes being publicly humiliated in print. Based upon Joyce Wadler's fascinating article in today's NYT Sunday Styles section (aptly-titled "A Tale of Diamonds and Mud"), Sean Wilsey's soon-to-be-released memoir promises to be a lot of fun, assuming you like your schadenfreude served raw. Social X-rays on the half-shell, anyone?
The book did not disappoint, though there is more to it than simply the appalling behavior of spoiled rich people. It is also a surprisingly moving story about the love between a son and his (deeply flawed) father. The portraits of life among the rich and chic of San Francisco during the sixties and seventies was also fascinating. Definitely worth reading.
April 24, 2005
Vince Flynn's Memorial Day
I just finished a great "thriller" (though I hate that term, and generally the genre as well), Memorial Day. It is the story of a group of Islamist terrorists trying to blow up Washington DC with a nuclear weapon and the small group of elite CIA operatives who are struggling to stop them in time. Think old-school Tom Clancy for the post-9/11 world.
It's not great literature, but I couldn't put it down for the five or six hours it took to devour it. One aspect that wrankled, however, was Flynn's occasional flirtations with misogyny. While many of the "good guys" are women (like the Director of the CIA and the leader of a DOE NEST team), one of the leading "bad guys" is a six foot tall blonde dominatrix-wannabe whose day-time job is Deputy Attorney General responsible for counter-terrorism. Predictably, she is more concerned with the political implications of the Patriot Act than she is about stopping terrorists. But aside from these occasional annoyances, it's a great beach or airplane read.