Archive for the ‘Reading Table’ Category

‘Roads To Moscow’

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021

Here’s a piece I shared here fourteen years ago this week. It’s been updated and edited slightly.

Being a history buff, I am fascinated by certain historical periods in specific places. I find myself drawn, for example, to the time and place of the Vikings: Scandinavia in the years from, oh, 800 to 1066. The Civil War era and the opening of the Great Plains that followed it fascinate me too, as does life in rural Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the first historical era – events in a certain time and place – that I really examined to any great degree was World War II in Europe and the Holocaust. Triggered mostly, I imagine, by having seen some of the locales where those events took place and by knowing people who lived through them, I read about the war and the Holocaust voraciously in the mid- to late 1970s.

I still pick up a new volume about those events now and then. One of the two books that spurred this post, one I read in 2007, is 1945: The War That Never Ended. Author Gregor Dallas takes the reader through the final year of World War II in Europe and postulates that the events of World War II continued to resound in world history and politics longer after the end of hostilities than anyone realized. I can’t disagree with him.

More recently, I finished Andrew Nagorski’s 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, which catalogs in detail the events of that pivotal year, which began – to simplify things considerably – with Germany waging an air war on an isolated Britain and ended with Germany declaring war on the United States soon after Pearl Harbor, while German soldiers were freezing and dying within twelve miles of the Kremlin.

And I happened to glance at the calendar this morning and realized that today is the eightieth anniversary of one of the major events of the year that Nagorski chronicled, the anniversary of one of the truly world-changing events of the Twentieth Century. It was on June 22, 1941, that Adolf Hitler sent the Wehrmacht, the German army, across the line that separated the territory occupied by Germany from that occupied by the Soviet Union. The invasion – which took place along a front about nine hundred miles wide – caught the Soviets off-guard.

(Why it did is one of the fascinating questions about the war; prevailing theory seems to be that Soviet leader Josef Stalin wanted so badly to avoid war with Germany that he ignored a multitude of signs that the invasion was imminent. And in a nation ruled by one cruel and vicious man, if the leader does not believe a specific thing will take place, no one else is allowed to prepare for that event.)

The invasion, which the Germans called “Operation Barbarossa” after an early German king, triggered one of the world’s great tragedies inside the greater tragedy of World War II. During the war, the Soviet Union had its most populous areas conquered and occupied, and more than twenty million Soviet citizens died, the majority of them civilians. (That total likely includes the more than two million Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union who were murdered in the Holocaust.)

The death and destruction the Nazis caused in the Soviet Union would be enough, but that’s only part of what I had in mind when I called the German invasion “world-changing.” I used that term because long before reading Nagorski’s book, I’ve thought that the invasion of the Soviet-held territory that started eighty years ago today ensured the downfall of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen and thus helped create the shape of today’s world.

We rarely think of World War II today. Maybe we pass a memorial in a city park or see a bit of a Veteran’s Day ceremony on television, but when we do think of it, we see it as an organic whole, albeit in several acts: The Japanese started it in Asia, the Germans started it in Europe, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we sent troops to England and the Pacific, we and the British invaded Europe and knocked down Hitler with the help of the Russians, and then we dropped two A-bombs on Japan. Final Curtain.

But as it was going on, for those who lived during those times, it was not nearly that simple. For many long years there was no guarantee of victory for those opposing Hitler and Germany. For most of 1940 and half of 1941, Britain stood alone, preparing for a German invasion across the English Channel. Why Hitler did not invade Britain is a question that has been discussed, parsed, chopped and sprinkled for the past eighty years. I imagine there’s a reason somewhere in the archives, but that’s not important today.

My point here is that the instant Hitler turned away from Britain and invaded Soviet-held territory, he lost the war. That didn’t happen right away, of course, but the failed invasion doomed the Nazis. Eventually, with the Allied invasion of France, Hitler was fighting on two fronts and the Germans’ own mistakes began to catch up to them. The Soviets – despite all the mistakes of their own leadership – eventually stopped the Germans and began what one book I read called “the long walk to Berlin.”

Again, that’s a bare bones outline, with an ending that was not at all visible until long after the fighting started. And it’s difficult to sort through the tales of armies and commanders and arrows on maps to find the individual soldiers. Some movies and books have done a good job of that: Saving Private Ryan on the screen and Band Of Brothers as a book and an HBO series come to mind.

But one of the most moving accounts of a front-line soldier in the war in Europe was a little-noticed song on Al Stewart’s 1974 album Past, Present and Future. That song, “Roads to Moscow,” tells in first person the tale of a Soviet soldier, a Russian who lived through the German invasion and made that “long walk to Berlin” only to be sent at the end to a Soviet labor camp because he had the bad luck to have been captured by the Germans for a day. (That was the fate of almost any Soviet soldier who was ever captured; those who somehow survived German prison camps were almost all sent to Soviet labor camps after the war. A pretty good analysis of Stewart’s historical allusions is available here.)

Stewart’s song wanders hauntingly through the soldier’s narrative. It draws the listener in and allows him or her to feel not only the horror of war but the difficulty of accepting events that make no sense – for war makes as little sense as does the remanding of one’s own people to labor camps – and the numbness that comes when events of that type pile on top of each other time after time. Here it is:

What Are The Words?

Friday, December 6th, 2019

Late last evening, I finished Steven Johnson’s book How We Got To Now: The Innovations That Made The Modern World. (The book was based on a 2014 television series that was, as I understand it, broadcast on both PBS and the BBC).

In the book, Johnson examines the history of six foundations of the modern world: glass, refrigeration, sound technology, sanitation, the measurement of time, and light. Along the way, many of Johnson’s insights and the historical nuggets he mined made me pause in thought, especially the idea that many inventions come along only when there is not only the technological skill to make them but a need for them.

The most interesting of those pairings – ability and need – was the invention of corrective lenses and the widespread demand for eyeglasses, which followed by very few years Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the proliferation of reading material in Europe. With popular reading material available, more people were reading, and they were discovering that their vision needed correcting. The demand for eyeglasses increased greatly enough to make the manufacturing of lenses a major industry. (And soon enough, there were other uses for those lenses as well, like telescopes and microscopes.)

There are connections like that – sometimes several – in all six of the main sections of the book, juxtapositions that made me stop reading and just think for a few moments. And there was one other moment that gave me pause.

In the chapter on light, Johnson links Georges Claude, the French scientist who discovered the luminescent qualities of isolated neon gas, to the book Learning From Las Vegas, a 1972 work on postmodern art and architecture by Yale professors (and married partners) Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Johnson explores several steps in the link, and acknowledges that none of those steps would have happened without electricity.

Johnson then writes, “but just about everything needed electricity in the 1960s: The moon landing, the Velvet Underground, the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech . . .”

And I put down the book and thought, if I were to use three examples to stand for the technology, the pop culture and the wider zeitgeist of America in the 1960s, could I do better than that? How long, I wondered, did he and perhaps his collaborators on the television series work at getting the right combination of three items?

In the essay on President John Kennedy’s assassination that I recently reposted here, I spent many more words than that to describe the times we now call the Sixties. Then, I called the years before Dallas “a time of Father Knows Best and the New York Yankees,” a description that still pleases me.

After pondering Johnson’s succinct characterization of the 1960s and recalling my description of the era that came before, I began to wonder how one would characterize the other decades, the other eras of American life in three brief examples. I played around with a few, but I’ll let them be today, as they need work. But if readers want to throw out some brief characterizations of any American decade/era, they’re welcome to do so.

And since we’re talking about words, here’s David Crosby’s “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves).” It’s from his 1971 album If I Could Only Remember My Name.

Wandering To A Place

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, I made my way through The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, which I found to be a pretty good book. It’s not so much about the production of the 1956 John Ford/John Wayne movie as about the story behind the movie.

And for Frankel, that starts in Texas in the mid-1830s, with the kidnapping by the Comanche of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was about 10 at the time. Her uncle’s increasingly obsessive search for her and her recapture and return to Anglo life after twenty-four years is obviously the seed behind Alan Le May’s 1954 novel The Searchers and the film that followed two years later.

Along the way, Frankel tells as much as can be determined – from many sources, some original – what life was like for Cynthia Ann both among the Comanche and when she was returned to Anglo life. (That latter portion of her life – only ten years – was unhappy, as she longed to return to the Comanche and her sons; she had brought a daughter with her when she was, in effect, recaptured by U.S. Cavalry and Texas volunteers.)

In his book, Frankel tells Cynthia Ann’s story; the story of one of her sons, Comanche chief Quanah Parker; Le May’s story; and the better-known stories of John Ford and John Wayne, as he winds his way to the tale of the making of the film version of The Searchers, discussing along the way the themes of obsession, racism, and fear of the other found in both the book and the movie. It’s a good read, one that was more compelling than I thought it would be when I opened it. (If there’s a section that moves a little slowly and seems to have more of Frankel’s attention than necessary, it’s Quanah Parker’s story.)

The book touched a lot of sweet spots for me: I’m a history buff, I have an interest in Native American culture (especially the Plains tribes), I’m a writer, and I’m a movie fan. And of course, I’m a music fan, so when Frankel got around to talking about the scoring of the movie, I paid attention. The score was written by Max Steiner, whose name I knew.

Steiner was one of the first composers to score a film, and Wikipedia says that he’s been called “the father of film music.” He scored more than 300 films, including Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, to name two of the more prominent. And in his discussion of Steiner’s work on The Searchers, Frankel threw out two tidbits of information that honestly made stop reading in surprise and awe: When he was a child in Vienna, Steiner studied piano under Johannes Brahms, and he later studied composition with Gustav Mahler.

Then, the other day, I saw a Facebook post about the theme to the 1959 movie A Summer Place, and I wandered off to YouTube to find versions of the theme. (I have, of course, the hit version by Percy Faith and a few more, but I wondered if there were some obscure versions I’d not heard.) And I learned that the score to the film, including the famous main theme, was composed by Max Steiner.

I found a truncated version of Steiner’s version of the main theme at YouTube, and then went wandering to Amazon and learned that a CD of the score runs more than sixty bucks, which is well out of the sanity range for me. Back at YouTube, I found a couple of videos with highlights of the score. Here’s the better of the two. It offers a good sampling of Steiner’s approach to scoring a film. (The piece at Wikipedia offers a detailed assessment of his thoughts and techniques.) And, of course, it includes what is likely Steiner’s most famous piece of music: The main theme to A Summer Place, which comes in at the four-minute mark.

‘Manifest Destiny’

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

The current book on the reading table is Measuring America, Andro Linklater’s account of how surveyors, land agents, speculators, squatters and others moved west across North America from the late 1700s onward.

The tale of what Linklater calls “the greatest land sale in history” covers the long development of tools of measurement, looking at how a pound became a pound, an acre became an acre, and so on; the development of the idea of private citizens, rather than the Crown, owning land; the creation, in most of the United States, of the grid system that anchors many states, cities and individual lots of property; and the long sad tale of the dispossession of North America’s native cultures.

It was during Linklater’s discussion of the outcome of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 that I came across the two words that reminded me of sixth grade social studies at Lincoln Elementary School just down a couple streets from here: “manifest destiny.” I learned the words during that sixth grade school year of 1964-65, and we in my class – every one of us Caucasian – learned that those words were somehow tied to the expansion of the United States from an Atlantic seaboard nation to a trans-continental empire.

I don’t know if any of us grasped what the words really meant or what they implied. I was a smart kid, and I think I had a handle on “destiny,” meaning something foreordained, but I don’t think I really knew what the word “manifest” meant, and I don’t recall that our teacher, Miss Hulteen, ever defined it for us. Google tells me this morning that the word means “clear or obvious to the eye or mind.”

In Measuring America, Linklater notes that the two-word phrase came from John L. O’Sullivan, who said that it was the United States’ “manifest destiny to overspread the continent.” As Wikipedia notes, O’Sullivan first used the words in the July-August 1845 edition of his magazine Democratic Review during the discussion over the potential annexation of Texas. The two-word phrase came to wider attention when O’Sullivan used it in a column in the December 27, 1845, edition of the New York Morning News. In that piece, O’Sullivan addressed the ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in what was called the Oregon Country:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

Okay, so I didn’t need all of that in sixth grade, but it would have been helpful if our teacher had interpreted the words for us, helping us understand that they reflected the mid-Nineteenth Century belief that the nation was clearly meant to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific. And it would have been even better, of course, had she told us that the implementation of that idea, the expansion of the United States across the continent from the already settled eastern portions, would continue the dispossession and destruction of native cultures that began soon after Caucasians first came ashore.

We didn’t get any of that, not even a clarifying definition. And of course, relatively few people in 1964-65 were thinking about imperialism or the fate of Native American cultures, and certainly none of them were in the classrooms of Lincoln Elementary School. I have a sense that the story of the westward expansion of the United States is told at least a little differently in schools these days. And that’s good.

Here’s “The Indian Prayer” by Richie Havens. Written by Roland Vargas Moussaa and Tom Pacheco, it’s from Havens’ 1974 album Mixed Bag II. Knowing at least a little bit about Havens’ and Pacheco’s world-views, I would guess that the song’s purpose was to offer respect to the Native Americans whose similar prayers in previous centuries were not answered in any affirmative way.

Saturday Single No. 479

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

My library bag was getting full. I’d already picked up the items I had on hold – five CDs, four by the Native American artists who record as Brulé and a posthumous release of music by Pops Staples – and had added three or four novels.

Then, in the new non-fiction section, I saw Coventry: November 14, 1940 by Frederick Taylor, an account of the German air attack against Coventry during World War II. I’ve read and enjoyed Taylor’s accounts of the Allied attack against the German city of Dresden in 1945 and of the history of the Berlin Wall, so I tucked Coventry into my bag and moved on.

And then I saw The Man With The Golden Typewriter, subtitled Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters. I pulled the book from the shelf, replaced a couple of the novels on the new fiction shelf and headed home to begin reading Ian Fleming’s letters. Fans of James Bond – and I am one, as I’ve noted here several times – will have caught the title’s reference immediately: Fleming’s final Bond novel was the 1965 title, The Man With The Golden Gun. And I learned very early in the book – edited by Fergus Fleming, the late author’s nephew – that Ian Fleming did indeed have a golden (actually gold-plated) typewriter, purchased in 1952, when his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, had been accepted for publication by the Jonathan Cape firm.

That was almost too good an alignment of life and art, and I dove into the nearly four-hundred page book, rarely coming up for air in these past few days. (I in fact got so involved in Fleming’s letters that I found myself not reading the Thursday and Friday editions of the Minneapolis Star Tribune until late Friday evening.)

The book is arranged in chapters corresponding to the thirteen Bond novels Fleming published between 1953 and 1965, so any letters from the author about, say, Casino Royale are collected in the first chapter even though the letter might have been written in 1957. There are some side trips, as well. Chapter Four is titled “Notes From America,” and includes letters Fleming wrote to and from American friends as well as missives written during several trips stateside, during which he did research for the novels Live And Let Die (1954), Diamonds Are Forever (1956) and Goldfinger (1959).

I get the sense that America in the 1950s both appalled and fascinated Fleming, who moved in generally rarified circles in England – not quite the top shelf of that very stratified society, but not too far below that level either. Our loud and busy cities, especially New York and Las Vegas, seem to have both attracted and repelled him at the same time. A portion of Live And Let Die takes place in the Florida city of St. Petersburg, which Bond and his American companion, Felix Leiter, find an unpleasant place. That was how Fleming found it, as well; comments in Fleming’s letters and in his nephew’s commentary make clear his great disdain for the city. The younger Fleming notes that the author “wrote on the flyleaf of his personal copy, with an ill-disguised shudder, ‘St. Petersburg is just like I say it is’.”

Another “side trip” chapter in the book is Chapter Seven, titled “Conversations with the Armourer,” which details a lengthy correspondence between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd, a firearms expert from Glasgow, Scotland. Boothroyd noted in a letter that Bond’s choice of guns was poor. The .25 Beretta pistol was not powerful enough and, given its design, could become caught on Bond’s waistband or shoulder holster. Boothroyd suggested several alternative weapons for 007 to use.

Boothroyd’s letters to Fleming – some of which are also included in the book – began in early 1956, when Fleming was working on revisions to From Russia With Love. At the end of the book, which came out in 1957 (and any Bond fans who are reading this are smiling or at least nodding their heads, for they know where this is going), Bond’s Beretta pistol does get snagged on his waistband, and he nearly dies from the effects of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned shoe stiletto.

And in the opening portions of the next book, 1958’s Doctor No, Bond is lectured on proper armament by M, the head of the Secret Service, and one Major Boothroyd, the Secret Service’s armourer. Even though it’s been at least thirty years since I re-read Doctor No (and I first read it after Christmas 1964, when it showed up in my stocking), as soon as I saw the name “Boothroyd,” I remembered the scene. I especially remembered Bond reaching to take his Beretta with him at the end of the meeting, and I recalled M’s curt “Leave it.”

I’m about halfway through the book, and there have been a few other little treats like that, moments when I recognize a name, place or event in Fleming’s letters that then showed up in Bond’s adventures. It’s been a treat so far, and I have no doubt that the remaining half of the volume will be, as well.

I do know, though, that as the 1960s dawned and Fleming found himself and his creation becoming world-famous, the author became a bit weary of telling the tales; his letters even before 1960 occasionally worry about how fresh the novels could remain, given the fact that the tales were in many ways the same story: grand villain in an interesting location with the addition of at least one beautiful woman who falls for the hero. (Bond fans will recall that there is at least one exception to that last; Gala Brand of Moonraker remains loyal to her fiancé even after she and Bond save England from a nuclear missile.)

It will be interesting to see if Fleming’s later letters reflect his weariness with his creation. I imagine they will. I know Fleming tried to kill Bond in the 1964 novel, You Only Live Twice, even offering Bond’s obituary as one of the final chapters (perhaps the final chapter; it’s been years since I read the book). As was the case with another British literary favorite, Sherlock Holmes, the reaction by Bond fans around the world resulted in Fleming finding a means to resurrect his creation for the 1965 book The Man With The Golden Gun.

That was Fleming’s last novel. He’d survived a 1961 heart attack, but a second one in 1964 was fatal. I remember reading at the time – perhaps in Time magazine, which we got at home – that Fleming’s final words were “It’s all been a tremendous lark.” I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, and I’m not sure that I’ll find out in the second half of The Man With The Golden Typewriter.

As I’m only up to 1960, I’ve yet to read anything from Fleming on how he viewed the Bond films – only Doctor No and From Russia With Love had been released by the time of his death. Both of those hewed fairly close to the source novels, unlike some of the later films, so I think he might have been pleased. I’ll find out.

Anyway, it is a Saturday, and here, from John Barry’s soundtrack to 1963’s From Russia With Love, is a bit called “James Bond With Bongos,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Edited slightly after first posting.

On The Reading Table

Friday, July 17th, 2015

As noted here before, I read a lot. My reading time is generally lunch time and an hour or so before bed, and as I’ve also mentioned here before, I generally have bookmarks in three or four books at a time and move among those book pretty much on whim.

But every now and then, a book comes along that grips me enough that it’s the only thing I read, and as I get into it, I find myself squeezing out another ten or fifteen minutes of reading time here and there. And when I read late at night, I find myself reluctant to stop, moving my bedtime back bit by bit, just to absorb another twenty pages or so.

That’s what happened last week with A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm (2005). In Britain during World War II, Atkins climbed from a clerk’s position to near the top of the Special Operations Executive, the organization that sent agents behind the lines into Nazi-occupied Europe to work with local resistance movements. Atkins’ work focused on France, the most important of the occupied nations in the view of the SOE. Many of the agents Atkins sent into France were women, a fact that caused some consternation among British officials, who ended up classifying the women agents as non-military because, you know, we can’t have people thinking we sent women into dangerous combat-like situations.

Many of those agents were captured by the Nazis, and when the war ended, no one took the responsibility to look for the missing women. Except Atkins. After the liberation of France and on through the aftermath of the war, Atkins went looking for clues and information to solve the mysteries of her missing agents.

All that in itself would make for a gripping tale. But Atkins herself was mystery. No one who knew her – and Helms managed to interview a fair number of folks who knew Atkins before, during and after World War II – seems to have known her well at all. A trove of documents left with a relative seems to leave more questions than it answers. But by putting together bits and pieces from those and other documents and from interviews – and talking the reader through the process as she does – Helms assembles a story that takes us places as widely scattered in place and time as the Pale of Settlement in 19th century Russia, Bulgaria before World War I and Canada after World War II.

Along the way, it becomes clear that Vera Atkins had her own secrets, some of which Helms uncovers and some of which Helms can only offer as speculation (although with evidence that seems persuasive).

Atkins doesn’t come across as likable; she seems to have been unable – to name just one of several noted flaws – to admit to being wrong, either personally or professionally. There are several indications of the latter but only a few of the former, as Atkins seems to have let very few people very far into her life. Helms, however, isn’t interested in liking Atkins. She’s interested in solving Atkins’ mysteries. In the end, Helms seems to have solved them, which is quite a feat for a writer working sixty or more years after the fact, researching a subject who seems to have worked hard at not leaving any clues behind.

One of the things that first drew me to A Life In Secrets was the speculation I saw somewhere that Vera Atkins was the model for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, secretary to M and gentle foil to James Bond. It’s possible, Helms notes, but unlikely, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. None of the tales Fleming created for 007 were as complex and intriguing as Vera Atkins’ own story.

The Tales Of Pekkala

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Some folks binge-watch TV shows. I binge-read books.

Much of the last two weeks has seen me making my way through the Inspector Pekkala mystery/suspense novels by Sam Eastland (the pen name of Paul Watkins for the series). Set in the Stalinist Soviet Union, the five novels in the series chronicle the life and work of Pekkala – his first name is never mentioned – as chief investigator for Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and later for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The first novel – Eye Of The Red Tsar – sets the back story: Born in the later years of the Nineteenth Century, Pekkala is Finnish at a time when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Sent to join an elite military regiment in St. Petersburg, his intelligence and memory catch the attention of the tsar, and after training in police work and espionage, he becomes the tsar’s secret investigator. After the Soviet revolution of 1917, Pekkala is sentenced to thirty years in a Siberian labor camp, but Stalin – whom Pekkala had met during the revolution – brings the Finn to Moscow and asks him to serve the Soviet state as an investigator whose role is limited only by what Stalin needs investigated and accomplished.

One of the quibbles I sometimes have with historical fiction is the way fictional characters meet historical figures; it often seems forced and implausible. I think of how Herman Wouk’s fictional naval officer Pug Henry met nearly every famous personage of the World War II era in The Winds Of War and War And Remembrance. Even as I enjoyed Wouk’s massive works, it sometimes felt like Wouk was moving Pug Henry around like a chess piece; Henry’s meetings with Hitler and Stalin and others often felt forced.

That’s not a problem with Inspector Pekkala. The first meeting with Tsar Nicholas II flows naturally from the story, and Pekkala’s meeting Stalin – during a post-revolutionary interrogation – also seems like a natural outcome of Pekkala’s post and personality combined with the chaos of post-revolutionary Russia and the omnipresent surveillance and brutality of the nascent Soviet regime. That’s a fine line to find as a writer – realistically bringing historical figures into a work of fiction – and Eastland does it well.

Another difficult task that Eastland accomplishes is making Inspector Pekkala a sympathetic, even admirable character, even though his work is done in the service of the Russian Empire – with those tales shown mostly in flashbacks – and the Soviet Union, two of the least humane governments in modern history. But Pekkala’s innate integrity – reinforced by memories of his undertaker father – equips him to deal with the tsar of a threatened Russian Empire, and the later lessons of surviving the Gulag further equip Pekkala to deal with the paranoid and brutal Stalin. As unlikely as that all seems, Eastland makes it work.

Although the books do detail some of the work Pekkala did for the tsar, the focus of the books is on his work as Stalin’s investigator. The stoic Finn is, of course, up to nearly every task that Stalin lays on him, from investigating the murders of Tsar Nicholas and his family to trying to protect the famed Amber Room during the Nazi invasion in World War II. And the history into which Eastland inserts Pekkala seems accurate (as displayed in the appendices Eastland occasionally provides).

Eastland also manages to avoid one of the traps that threaten authors of historical fiction: All too often, historical figures come off as props to move the story forward instead of as characters in their own rights. That’s not the case in the Pekkala novels.

Tsar Nicholas comes across as an uncertain man, presented at times as an almost reluctant dictator and at other times as blinded by greed; Eastland’s Stalin is less conflicted, clearly the brute that history has judged him, and yet, Eastland manages to make the Soviet dictator human. In the fifth volume, The Beast In The Red Forest, Stalin is listening via radio as Pekkala, his assistant Kirov and Kirov’s fiancée eat dinner:

He opened a drawer in his desk, removed a can of sardines in tomato sauce and peeled back the top with a small key . . . But before he began his meal, Stalin lifted the headset, with which he had been listening to the conversation in Pekkala’s office . . . Now, as Stalin heard the sound of cutlery on plates, he slipped one of the greasy, headless sardines into his mouth. While he chewed, he felt the soft bones crush between his teeth. Pausing to lick the tiny, glistening fish scales from his fingertips, Stalin imagined he was there among them in that cosy little room, sharing the warmth and the laughter.

A writer who can make Josef Stalin a sympathetic character, even if only for an instant, knows what he is doing.

The mystery/suspense genre is one of my favorites; I appreciate a well-crafted tale in nearly any genre; and, of course, all things Russian fascinate me, which makes Eastland’s series a perfect fit in these parts. The sixth novel in the series, Red Icon, is set to be released in April, and when its title shows up among the upcoming acquisitions at my local library, my name will be one of the first on its waiting list.

And just to end things with music, here’s the Russian folk song, “Ah, The Steppe So Wide,” as performed by the Sretensky Monastery Choir of Moscow for its 2007 album Favorite Russian Songs:

Here is Eastland’s website for the Inspector Pekkala novels.

The Power Of One Picture

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Among the volumes on my reading table these days is a book titled simply Football with the subtitle “Great Writing About The National Sport.” The pieces in the book start with a portion of a 1954 memoir by Grantland Rice about Notre Dame’s 1920s player and frequent reprobate George Gipp and end with a 2012 piece by Roy Blount, Jr., contrasting the players and team of the modern era Pittsburgh Steelers to those of the 1970s.

Maybe the best piece I’ve read so far – I’ve gotten through about half of the book – is Gary Smith’s “Moment of Truth,” a 1999 Sports Illustrated piece that begins with a picture taken in the locker room of the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs moments before they took the field against Jim Brown and the rest of the Syracuse Orangemen in the 1957 Cotton Bowl. From there, Smith spins a gripping set of tales – tales that would be remarkable in fiction but are more so because they’re built on facts that Smith had to gather through reporting – that relate the stories of the 1956 TCU football team, its coaches, the photographer and, peripherally, Jim Brown.

As I said, I’m about halfway through the book (although I’m not reading it sequentially; I’m jumping back and forth, having first started on Page 355 with Pat Forde’s piece for ESPN.com about the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma). I might yet find a piece as affecting as Smith’s take on TCU and marvel at that. But the one thing I keep coming back to is the picture on the book’s dust jacket.

Football SchulianIf you’re a sports fan, you know the picture: Dwight Clark of the San Francisco 49ers, reaching high in the air to grip a football for the decisive touchdown of the NFC Championship Game in January 1982, with Everson Walls of the Dallas Cowboys earthbound and reaching for Clark in vain. We’ve all seen the picture thousands of times in the last thirty-two years, and it’s still an astounding shot. But the version of the picture on the cover isn’t cropped as tightly as usual, and what catches my attention these days is not the ballet of Clark and Walls, but one of the players standing utterly still in the background, watching the play: No. 71 for the 49ers, Keith Fahnhorst.

Why? Well, I watched that NFC title game back in 1982, of course, the Other Half and I cozy in our mobile home just outside of Monticello and making plans for our annual Super Bowl party. And as we partied with a few friends two weeks hence, we watched the 49ers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals for their first Super Bowl championship. In the aftermath of that game, as we and our friends scooped up the last of the chip dip, one of the players interviewed on television was 49ers tackle Keith Fahnhorst, battered and jubilant.

I knew him and had followed his football career. I knew that he’d played tight end at the University of Minnesota, and I knew that after the 49ers drafted him in 1974, they’d moved him to the offensive line. I knew that before he’d been at the University of Minnesota, he’d played on the offensive line at St. Cloud Tech High School. That was where my first year as a manager for the football team coincided with Keith’s senior year, a season when the Tigers were ranked as one of Minnesota’s top ten teams by the Minneapolis Tribune. So there was a little bit of vicarious joy on that long-ago Sunday when I saw Keith’s champagne-drenched grin on my television.

That’s a pretty slender thread, I guess. And I don’t know that it’s all that important. But seeing Keith Fahnhorst on the cover of Football this week, seeing him looking on in the background as one of the most important moments of his football life was taking place, reminded me of a lot of things, things like the skrich sound that athletic tape makes when it’s pulled off the roll; the celebratory feeling of a winning locker room and the tomb-like atmosphere in that same room after a loss; the intimidation of being an underclassman manager in an organization dominated by senior athletes; the visceral tug I still get when I think back to the sight of the Orange & Black under the lights at St. Cloud’s Clark Field; the pleasant but odd feeling you get when someone you knew years earlier reaches the apex of his very public profession; and the comfort of small gatherings of friends, a comfort that was absent from my life for many years but one that has now returned in greater measure than I once might have hoped.

That’s a pretty good haul from just one photo.

Filling Gaps

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

I keep kicking around in 1974 these days. The most interesting book currently on my reading shelf is Elizabeth Drew’s Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. The bulk of the book comes from Drew’s reporting for the New Yorker magazine from September 1973 through August 9, 1974, the day President Nixon resigned and left Washington.

The first time I saw the book on the shelves of the local library, I was hesitant. “I lived through that,” I thought, adding to that thought the memory of reading maybe a half-dozen of the other books that arose from the vast swath of illegalities and misdeeds that were eventually clustered under the label of “Watergate.” “Is there more I should know?”

Actually, there is. I told myself that I’d lived through it, and that’s true, but I was out of the country from September 1973 into May 1974, and I didn’t experience Watergate the way folks did here at home. The big pieces came to me in Denmark, including the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, the Saturday Night Massacre and the gaps in the White House tapes, and those big things surprised me and worried me, but there were gaps as well in what I learned, as the flow of news in those days was delayed and diminished by my being overseas in a way that it would not be today. So I’m filling those gaps as I read, and I get the real sense from Drew’s account of how unsettling it was when each new week – at times, each new day – brought new and often multiple revelations and accusations; numerous times, Drew writes that she pretty much thought things were as bad as they could get, and the next day (or week) things got worse.

My reading has so far brought me into the spring of 1974, and soon, I’ll move into reports about things that happened after I got back to the U.S., and it will be interesting to see if my perception of those things is different in any way.

As is often the case, it’s hard to find a way from the reading table to the mp3 shelves. So we’ll just take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 from this week in 1974 – with St. Cloud State’s fall quarter either imminent or already begun – and see what treasure we might find in its lower levels. And we come across “America” by David Essex sitting at No. 109. Sonically, it’s nearly a twin to Essex’ “Rock On,” which went to No. 5 in early 1974, but I have no idea what the lyrics mean or if they mean anything at all. (And that’s appropriate, as that’s kind of how things felt in 1974.) “America” never hit the Hot 100, bubbling under at No. 101.

‘Nightfall’

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

John W. Campbell, the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death in 1971, didn’t agree with Emerson. Rather, he said, “I think men would go mad.”

That contention formed the basis for Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story, “Nightfall.” As related in Asimov’s autobiography,* Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after the two discussed Emerson’s quote. And Asimov put together a story that combines psychology, astronomy, archeology and religion, a story that remains potent today, even more than seventy years after its publication. How potent? It’s been some decades since I last read the story, but it’s stayed vivid enough in my memory for me to discuss it at length yesterday with a clerk at a downtown used bookstore.

Asimov’s story takes place on a planet called Lagash. Here’s the synopsis, somewhat abridged and edited, from Wikipedia:

The fictional planet Lagash . . . is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story), which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are all the stars outside the planet’s stellar system.

A group of scientists from Saro University begin to make a series of related discoveries: Sheerin 501, a psychologist, researches the effects of prolonged exposure to darkness; Siferra 89, an archaeologist, finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of civilization which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years, and Beenay 25 is an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash around its primary sun. Beenay takes his findings to his superior at the university, Aton, who formulated the Theory of Universal Gravitation. This prompts the astronomers at Saro University to seek the cause of this anomaly. Eventually they discover that the only possible cause of the deviation is an astronomical body that orbits Lagash.

Beenay, through his friend Theremon 762, a reporter, has learned some of the beliefs of the group known as the Cult. They believe the world would be destroyed in a darkness with the appearance of stars that unleash a torrent of fire. Beenay combines what he has learned about the repetitive collapses at the archaeological site, and the new theory of potential eclipses; he concludes that once every 2049 years the one sun visible is eclipsed, resulting in a brief “night.” His theory is that this “night” was so horrifying to the people who experienced it that they desperately sought out any light source to try to drive it away, particularly by frantically starting fires which burned down and destroyed their successive civilizations.

Since the current population of Lagash has never experienced general darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness would traumatize the people and that they would need to prepare for it. When nightfall occurs, however, the scientists (who have prepared themselves for darkness) and the rest of the planet are most surprised by the sight of hitherto invisible stars outside the six-star system filling the sky. Unfortunately, because the inhabitants of Lagash never saw other stars in the sky, their civilization had come to believe that their six-star system contained the entirety of the universe. In one horrifying instant, anyone gazing at the night sky – the first night sky which they have ever known – is suddenly faced with the reality that the universe contains many millions upon billions of stars: the awesome, horrifying realization of just how vast the universe truly is drives them insane. The short story concludes with the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was “not the glow of a sun,” with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.

I first came across “Nightfall” in the early 1970s, when nearly all of my leisure reading was science fiction, clearing the shelves of the work of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury (whose fiction, as I’ve noted here before, frequently crossed the barrier into fantasy) and any other writer whose work crossed my path in company with the work of those four giants. And one day, I chanced in a bookstore to find a volume titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And in its pages, I found “Nightfall.”

It turns out that, in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America had established the Nebula Awards, a science fiction equivalent of the Grammys or the Oscars. (The Nebula Awards thus joined the Hugo Awards given by the World Science Fiction Society since 1953.) And in 1968, in an attempt to honor deserving work published before the Nebula Awards were established, the American writers group selected the contents of, and then published, three volumes of its Hall of Fame: one volume of short stories and two of novellas. I had chanced upon the first volume, and in its foreword, I believe, it was noted that of all the short stories selected for the Hall of Fame, Asimov’s “Nightfall” had received the most votes and was thus considered the best science fiction story written before 1965.

I finished the first volume, concurring with the voters’ opinions about the quality of “Nightfall,” and I soon bought and read the two companion volumes. About twenty-five years later, during my scuffling in the mid-1990s, I sold the three volumes and the rest of my science fiction collection so that my cats could eat. In recent years, I’ve thought about replacing those three volumes, perhaps in hardcover. And I’ve pondered the tale of “Nightfall” at various and odd times over the years; like all good fiction, it’s stayed with me. And in an entirely unexpected manner, it came back into my life again yesterday.

I had books to return to the public library, and the Texas Gal and I had things to get at the grocery store, so I thought I’d run to the library, find something new to read and then pick her up from work. A fine plan, except that the library was closed for yesterday’s Presidents Day holiday. I put my books into the exterior book drop and looked at my watch. I had more time available than I wanted to spend sitting in the car with nothing to read, and not quite enough time to make it worthwhile to go home. So I headed to the used bookstore on St. Germain, a couple blocks upstream from the Texas Gal’s office, looking for something in paperback that I’d not read before or at least for a few decades.

I’d recently posted at Facebook a meme offering a cogent quote from Isaac Asimov, so I headed to the beginning of the science fiction shelves. And I found Nightfall, a 1990 novel written by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, another name well-remembered from my early 1970s’ science fiction binge. The blurb on the back cites the 1941 short story, and goes on: “But the short story isn’t the whole story. Now, Dr. Asimov has teamed with multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robert Silverberg to explore and expand one of the most awe-inspiring concepts in the history of science fiction. In this novel, you will witness Nightfall – and much more. You will learn what happens at Daybreak.”

There are a few changes: The planet is now called Kalgash, and the suns have different names, but there are familiar characters beginning to face familiar circumstances. I’m forty pages in, and I’m hooked.

And to close this with music, here’s the spare and somewhat unsettling track “Nightfall” by the Incredible String Band. It’s the last track on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which came out, coincidentally, the same year as that first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: 1968.

*Wikipedia does not specify which of Asimov’s autobiographies includes the tale of the writing of “Nightfall.” Asimov wrote three autobiographies, and after his 1992 death, his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, edited the three into one volume, supplemented with some of the writer’s letters. That fourth volume is titled It’s Been A Good Life.