Monday, January 2, 2012

From the Stacks: The Books of December 2011

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

I’ve felt guilty these past months for escaping so often from Germany into pages and podcasts that don’t help my immersion into the language spoken all around me or my knowledge of the land in which I’m living. William Shirer's account, in English, gave me a much richer sense of the country that rests beneath modern Germany and illuminated some of this nation's darkest moments.

Written in nearly daily entries during his time as CBS’s chief man in Berlin, Berlin Diary records the thoughts of one knowledgeable man who’s still in the dark about much which only time could reveal. Hitler gradually unrolls his ambitions onto Europe throughout this account and our narrator does his best to analyze and predict the Führer’s actions as well as their impact on the peoples of Europe, including the inhabitants of the Third Reich.

Trips to the front lines in Poland and Belgium combine with the every day annoyances of reporting in a censored Nazi society to create a vivid portrait of mankind entering some of its darkest hours. We know what the narrator cannot-- what happens next. Despite the spoiled ending, Shirer records tension and miseries seventy years past in a fashion that gives his readers a much fuller view of history than to be found in conventional battle-by-battle histories.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War

Rarely have I been driven so far down by a book of non-fiction. Unlike the A Song of Ice and Fire saga in which favorite characters can be extinguished in a chaotic moment, non-fiction tends to humor readers with relatively little unheroic behavior or early death on the part of the protagonists.

American Progress by John Gast, 1872
The closest I can recall feeling to my time with The Imperial Cruise came during Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which does an extended and thorough job of cataloging many of the misdeeds and atrocities upon which the American iceberg majestically floats. That's not to deny the greatness of America, only to temper it with the memory that even this city upon a hill can fail to live up to its creed, and grievously so.

Thanks to Zinn’s work, and an appreciation for the huddled masses that faced and formed our nation, I wasn’t wholly ignorant of early 20th century American imperialism. From Manifest Destiny to gun boat diplomacy, our nation grew in girth and power until it could claim the Pacific as an “American lake” and exercise a decisive hand in the affairs of foreign nations and distant peoples.

The problem with James Bradley’s history is not sensationalism or inaccuracies, though at one point I wanted such abuses to be true rather than adjust my framework of reference. Bradley’s most significant contribution to understanding this period rests upon his recalling American actions to the words and ways of though in which they were couched.

In practice, this means that Theodore Roosevelt, his college professors, and much of American society and soldiery operated through a racist haze that denied Filipinos and Hawaiians the right to self determination, sacrificed South Korea to please a Japan that they saw as Aryan in its right to conquest and civilize, and ignored the national spirit and human rights of Chinese people in America and their own homeland.

Bradley extrapolates too far from Roosevelt’s turn-of-the-century actions to the bombs and battles of the 1940s. But this illumination of the historical record certainly removes from his readers the illusion that inclusiveness and political correctness are without merit or historical counterpoint in the American experience.

The Abstinence Teacher

Small town politics, middle-age, religion, and sex never read so good. I had a great deal of fun throughout this novel of two divorced parents--one a secular sex ed teacher, the other a warrior for Christ saved from decades of drugs, rock and roll, and everything that goes with them--as a series of light and serious notes blended to create a hilarious book that nonetheless captures the nuance on both sides of the culture wars.

Tom Perrotta manages to treat both Christians and everyone else with the respectful empathy that are often lacking when told from one side or the other. Ruth, the teacher and mother of two, goes through struggles with her daughters, agonized mandatory abstinence courses with her students, and imperfect romances in her memory and the present.

Her chief counterpoint is Tom, whose struggles to preserve his integrity and rekindle a satisfactory life are aided and channeled by a charismatic and controlling pastor who’s leading the charge against status quo secularism in our small-town, northeast setting. All the same, escape is never easy, and by the end it seems that youth soccer is the only true good in a world gone fundamental.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

I remember the simple story of Christopher Columbus and his three ships from elementary school. In fact, I played a governor of Hispaniola in our school’s production about Columbus and his voyage of misguided discovery. 1493 filled in a lot of holes in my history, beyond the darker truths of enslavement, greed, and mass death that followed in the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria’s wakes that usually crop up by high school or college.

Charles C. Mann builds from the immediate aftermath of the Columbian Exchange into a tapestry of interactions that extends from sweet potatoes, silver, and trade wars in China to the numerous biological agents that continue to weaken people, plants, and animals around the globe to this day. 1493 is filled with fascinating anecdotes of a world transformed.

For a book that dissects the differences between strains of malaria and their impact on New World natives, as well as the first contacts between Spanish and Chinese traders in the Philippines--at a time when East looked down on a primitive West--look no further than 1493. Mann unrolls an intimate yet broad history from that year to this for all who’ll read it.

The Marriage Plot

I approached Jeffrey Eugenides’ post-Ivy League romance novel with trepidation, but as described earlier, I had a great time joining in the early adulthood angst shared by three intelligent people who managed to have just as many stumbles and struggles as the rest of us.

The Keys to the Kingdom: Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday