Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Civil War

The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Civil War, by H.W. Crocker III

This book suffers from all of the problems that one would expect from a book that tries to take up the side of the Confederacy.  None of this should be surprising to anyone who has studied, for example, the genuinely restrained nature of Northern efforts in the war [1] or the frankly racist slave-baiting arguments that secession advocates used to encourage rebellion in the Deep South after Lincoln’s election in 1860 [2] or has thoughtfully examined the socialist tendencies of the Confederacy that contemporary libertarians often ignore [3].  This book is mainly of appeal to those who wish to parrot lies about the Civil War that can encourage unreconstructed Southern nationalists to avoid facing the flaws of their worldview, and is not the sort of book that holds a lot of personal interest for me.  I knew going into this book that it would be factually inaccurate, deeply biased, and would not be particularly appealing, and that is precisely what I got, although as usual it at least was able to suggest some reading for me to tear apart if I ever feel like it.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages and is divided into five parts and fifteen chapters.  The first part of the book gives the author’s best attempts to argue (unsuccessfully) that the south was right to rebel (I), with two chapters that deal with slavery as the cause of the civil war (1) as well as Lincoln’s supposed blameworthiness in baiting the Confederacy into attacking first (2).  The second part of the book looks at the history of the Civil War in sixteen battles (II), with eleven of them being in the period leading up to and including Gettysburg (3) and the remaining five providing the somewhat happy ending of the Civil War (4).  After that, the author provides some eminent Civil War Generals (III) with a marked bias in his presentation for the rebels in discussing:  Lee, Thomas, Sherman, Longstreet, Forrest, Grant, Jackson, Hill, and McClellan in that order, each with their own chapter.  After that there is a brief discussion of four Cavalry generals (IV) in Hampton, Sheridan, Stuart, and Custer (14), followed by some vain speculation on what would have happened had the Confederacy won, like Cuba becoming a Confederate territory (15), which seems plausible enough.

There are a lot of weaknesses and flaws in this book.  The author dishonestly presents the case for rebellion and tries to sugar coat a revolutionary solution as being a constitutionally legitimate one.  The western front is downplayed, the author shows a marked case of Virginiaitis, and issues of logistics are downplayed as well.  The author tries to defend Forrest from accusations of massacring black soldiers at Ft. Pillow but does not attempt to demonstrate the larger issues of such matters at Olustee, Saltville, and other occasions.  The author, moreover, misrepresents the targeted economic destruction of elite property by Northern generals like Sherman and Sheridan as being a use of total war while celebrating similarly destructive Confederate behavior as mere “raids.”  In short, the biases of this book and the author’s deliberate misrepresentations of the historical record make this a book that cannot be relied upon.  Like all of the books in the series, it is at least entertaining at points and the author’s ready wit is certainly a positive quality, but the author’s lamentable bias and poor historical skills are not made up entirely by the author at least being witty about his incorrect perspective.  Alas, wit is not enough to make someone competent at writing about a subject as contention as the Civil War.  There is room to be politically incorrect and factually correct that this author does not even begin to discuss.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/06/27/book-review-the-civil-war-and-the-limits-of-destruction/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/01/12/non-book-review-a-more-civil-war/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/02/02/book-review-apostles-of-disunion-southern-secession-commissioners-and-the-causes-of-the-civil-war/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/10/29/book-review-why-the-south-lost-the-civil-war/

Posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Founding Fathers

The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Founding Fathers, by Brion McClanahan

When the writer of a book on the Founding Fathers sounds like he could pen the preface to a new version of the Anti-Federalist Papers without batting an eyelash or even a moment’s hesitation, it is fair to question the sort of perspective that a book provides.  While in general I could be considered a moderate nationalist in the vein of 17th century politics [1], I find the Constitution a great improvement over the Articles of Confederation.  The issue is that any government that is powerful enough to defend and protect its people and its territory and its interests is going to be powerful enough to oppress those people, and being under a government that is obviously oppressive of human rights and interested too much in interfering with natural justice has made quite a few people (including the author) long for more anarchical times.  This is certainly understandable, but lamentable.  When it comes to government there is a fatal dilemma and no amount of structural designs can relax the need for eternal vigilance on the part of the governed, which makes this book a bit disappointing shrill given the author’s obvious bias.

This book is divided into two parts and twenty-three chapters.  The first part of the book examines the myths, realities, and issues faced by the founding generation, at least in the author’s skewed perspective.  First, the author looks at various myths, attempting to debunk what is said critically about the founding fathers and slavery (1).  After that the author views the American Revolution as a conservative one (2) and discusses the issues at stake in the Revolution concerning representation and the executive, in which he is partly right but partly wrong (3).  The second part of the book consists of the remainder of the book’s chapters, with one chapter focused on each of twenty founders (II).  The author first spends his time talking about the big six founders:  George Washington (4), Thomas Jefferson (5), John Adams, whom the author does not like nor respect (6), James Madison (7), Alexander Hamilton (8), and Benjamin Franklin (9).  The rest of the book allows the author to wax eloquent and in his biased fashion about fourteen forgotten founders, namely:  Samuel Adams, brewer extraordinaire (10), Charles Carroll of Carrollton (11), George Clinton (12), John Dickinson (13), Elbridge Gerry (14), John Hancock (15), Patrick Henry (16), Richard Henry Lee (17), Nathaniel Macon (18), Francis Marion (19), John Marshall, whom the author really dislikes (20), George Mason (21), Roger Sherman (22), and John Taylor of Caroline, whose secessionist ways the author deeply approves of, to the hurt of his credibility (23).

Overall, there are quite a few problems with this work.  For one, the author appears not to understand that while political incorrectness can be a very good thing that incorrectness from the point of view of historical reality is not ever a good thing.  Likewise, this book suffers a great deal because the author views the founding generation not on its own terms, but with at least two layers of historical hindsight, namely his unreasonable and lamentable regret for the defeat of the rebels during the Civil War on the one hand and his understandable and sensible lament for the corruption of contemporary activist government.  If the author had at least attempted to let the people of the past stand for themselves and not stand in for two centuries of political drift and decadence in our own society, he might have been charitable even to those with whom he disagreed.  Instead, the author shows a lamentable bias that is so outrageous that this book will likely only be fully enjoyed by those who share it, which does not include me.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/08/book-review-the-debate-on-the-constitution-part-one/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/08/book-review-the-debate-on-the-constitution-part-two/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/11/14/the-enduring-usefulness-of-the-electoral-college-a-constitutional-essay/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/07/30/the-fugitive-slave-clause-a-constitutional-essay/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/01/25/book-review-the-pocket-catechism-of-the-constitution-of-the-united-states/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/01/30/powers-denied-to-congress-a-constitutional-essay/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/02/09/powers-denied-to-the-states-a-constitutional-essay/

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

So Bad

For one reason or another, I recently found myself looking up the musical career of Lindsay Pagano.  While she remains one of the more obscure teen pop singers of the early 2000’s, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the music of hers I have heard.  She first came to prominence due to a song on a 2001 AOL commercial, “Everything U R,” and on the strength of that airplay she released her debut album that year, although she did not have any other successful hit singles.  The rest of her music career is a series of cameos–she had an unreleased album (like many artists [1]), a soundtrack song from Scooby Doo, and a short appearance on The Voice on Team Shakira.  Yet, for all of that, there is one moment of her career that shines through and that she must treasure despite all of the ups and downs she has faced as an artist.

Locked away on the deep album cuts of her debut release, “Love & Faith & Inspiration” is a beautiful acoustic ballad called “So Bad.”  The song itself is a spare one, with only Lindsay’s delicate soprano, an acoustic guitar, and backing vocals by Sir Paul McCartney.  yet the song is immensely effective because of its restraint, making it a song that could have easily become a classic wedding song or soundtrack hit of its own (likely on a romantic comedy).  Given the obscurity of Pagano’s career, it is unlikely that many people came across the song at all.  Even to this day, the music video to the song has fewer than 10,000 views, which is a shame, as the song stands the test of time.  It is the sort of gentle love ballad that is indeed very timeless, and one that translates well even nearly 20 years after it was recorded.

The song, though, was not an original.  Instead, “So Bad” is itself a cover of a Paul McCartney song from the early-to-mid 1980’s.  The song first appeared as an album cut on Paul McCartney’s 1983 “Pipes of Peace” release.  The music video to the original version shows Paul McCartney and his wife Linda being very cutesy together on a set while Ringo Starr (the drummer) hams it up to distract the camera from the loving couple.  The song features delicate strings and a very high voiced and innocent vocal from McCartney that is remarkable in its emotional resonance.  Yet the song was never released as a single.  Only two tracks were released from “Pipes Of Peace,” the Michael Jackson duet “Say Say Say” and the title track, and the album has not been a popular one in McCartney’s large back catalog, especially when compared to his first two solo efforts and his extensive and massively popular work with Wings and the Beatles (obviously).  When one has released as many songs as McCartney has, it is easy for some to fall through the cracks.

The song was also featured on the 1984 soundtrack “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” which was widely considered a flop on its release.  Yet the song was not featured as a single and did not even appear on the LP release to that album, which featured three versions of “No More Lonely Nights.”  (*sighs*)  While the cd version does feature “So Bad” in its proper placement, it also features two more versions of the album’s only single.  And so, “So Bad” is one of those obscure deep cuts from a very productive and successful career that is only known to those who are diehard fans of Sir Paul.  Some consider it among the best unknown gems of his career, and I have to agree.  Paul McCartney got a lot of guff during his career for making “silly love songs,” but he wrote them well, and one can tell from the singing as well as from the video that this song was full of genuine and mutual love between Paul and Linda.  Only the most cynical of people would be unmoved by that.

This story, then, has the makings of a classic.  Who was it that first saw in McCartney’s hidden gem a worthy cover song for a young woman making her debut album out of material that mines the same ground of sensitive and feeling love songs that McCartney has long excelled at?  Did some producer for Miss Pagano find the song and realized it would work perfectly for her own high voice, not dissimilar from McCartney’s original?  Was Lindsay herself fond of obscure classic rock and saw the song as a way of giving homage and respect to someone who likely served as an inspiration for her own music?  I don’t know, but at any rate, someone managed not only to get McCartney’s permission for the cover, but to also get him to re-record backing vocals for the song, and maybe even play the acoustic guitar for it (similar to what he did in his successful later collaborations with Kanye West where his acoustic guitar on “FourFive Seconds” gave him his most recent top ten hit).  And yet this song, like the original, was buried deep in the track list and was never released as a single.  Like the original version, the track is a hidden gem, only recognized by a few very observant fans.

But what a story it must have been.  How many fifteen year old singers making their debut can say that they cut an amazing cover of a song with a former Beatle?  Not very many.  No matter what else happens in Pagano’s music career, she will likely always have the memory of that recording experience in mind.  Her own version does Paul McCartney proud, and manages to take a sweet soft rock song and turn it into a yearning and somewhat melancholy acoustic direction.  Any artist would be proud to have a cover like that in their discography, with the hope that other people would be able to listen to it and appreciate it.  Perhaps with time, and the attention of a few worthy viewers and listeners, the original and Lindsay’s cover will receive the attention and credit they so richly deserve.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/01/04/stones-of-sisyphus/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/09/23/west-coast-time/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/09/i-can-dream-about-you/

Posted in History, Music History, Musings | Tagged | Leave a comment

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: Salad Dressing

Salad dressing is something that people like myself take for granted.  Likely you, fair reader, are in the same boat.  You want to eat healthy food and want something for your salad, so you go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of dressing for your lunch salad.  Or perhaps you go to a restaurant and the waiter or waitress asks you want dressing you want, and you ask them about their house vinaigrette or other dressings.  Yet this is not how things were during most of history.  Even considering the history of the restaurant [1], salad dressings as we know them and buy them and consume them are not all that common.  Dressings that one would think were very old indeed (like Ranch dressing, Caesar dressing, Italian Dressing, and so on) are, it turns out, not very old at all.

This struck me as very odd when I looked into it.  Italian dressing, for example, was invented in Massachusetts in 1941 by a daughter of Italian immigrants whose husband was a restaurant owner.  A few years later a competing brand came out of Kansas City, Missouri, which I grew up eating [2].  Ranch dressing comes from the 1950’s, from someone who invented the dressing while working in Alaska and first introduced to the world in a dude ranch in Southern California [3].  Caesar dressing comes from the 1920’s from Mexican restaurant owners in Southern California [4].  Similar stories of restaurant chefs and owners and the invention of dressing during the late 1800’s and early-to-mid 1900’s fill our salad dressing aisles, with Russian dressing that doesn’t come from Russia and so on.  There are a few threads that connect these different creations and that story is worth exploring and pondering upon for a bit, and so let us do so.

It is not as if salad dressing itself comes from that time period.  One can find vinaigrette dressings going back long into history, but one did not find them bottled and sold.  Rather, one imagines a situation like that in fine dining restaurants, where one goes to a restaurant and one sees the kitchen staff prepare the dressing on site by mixing the olive oil and vinegar and spices and then pouring it on the salad, similar to the way that one eats bread with olive oil and pepper, dipping the bread into the oil mixture.  From time to time I enjoy mixing my own olive oil and red wine vinegar to make dressing.  I suspect that is not a pleasure for myself alone, even if it is only an occasional one and not a regular habit.  We must account, therefore, for the fact that while salad dressings and other condiments go back a long time, the way that we eat salad dressings is not the way that was most commonly known throughout history.

There are likely at least a few reasons for this.  For one, it is likely that the eating of green salads on the scale that we like to eat them as well as the use of mayonnaise as a salad dressing base (common in most creamy dressings) required the reliability of refrigeration, so that the food would not spoil.  There is no sense in bottling salad dressing if one cannot keep it for long periods of time so that they can be used.  There is nowhere the dressing can be sold unless there are factories that are able to make the dressings in industrial quantities.  So, unsurprisingly, the history of salad dressings is somewhat chaotic.  Initially restaurants make their own dressings in vats or sell their customers bottles as well as salad dressing mixes in packets to be fully prepared at home.  Later on these successful early restaurant-based dressings were largely bought out by larger food companies that saw the profit in expanding their portfolio of condiments to salad dressings.

Interestingly enough, American salad dressings appear to belong to one of two families.  The dressings that I prefer are part of the vinaigrette family, and are based on olive oil and vinegar.  There are a great many dressings in this family, including Italian dressing as well as Caesar dressing (which adds mustard and often anchovies, among other things).  The other base of salad dressings in North America is mayonnaise, which serves as the base for creamy Italian, Ranch, Russian, and other related dressings.  Some dressings, like Thousand Island, as well as the German style “spicy” ranch dressing, include tomatoes or ketchup as part of the salad base.  Despite the variety of salad dressings, though, there are often very few materials that serve as the basis of dressings.  Either they are a bit sour from vinegar and go down easy because of the olive oil or they are creamy because of mayonnaise.  Americans are strange eaters of salad, it must be admitted, but the varied creators of America’s salad dressings deserve a great deal of praise from us for turning the topping of salad into products that can be appreciated by mass consumer audiences.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/04/19/venite-ad-me-omnes-qui-stomacho-laboratis-et-ego-vos-restaurabo/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_dressing

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranch_dressing

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar_salad

Posted in American History, History, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Presidents: Part 2: From Wilson To Obama

The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Presidents:  Part 2:  From Wilson To Obama, by Steven F. Hayward

I was not surprised, given how highly the first volume of this series viewed the presidents of the late 18th and 19th centuries, that there would be a lot of negative comments made about the presidents of the 20th century as a whole.  By and large, this book did not therefore present the same sort of surprises that the first volume did.  I enjoyed reading the book and lamented the lack of constitutionality among so many of the presidents included on this list, but I must admit I was not surprised by what was said [1].  I was not even surprised by the wit that the author showed when writing about the more contemporary presidents who have been a part of the massive expansion of government power far beyond anything the Founding Fathers would have conceived or approved of.  Moreover, there is no change in our society that justifies such expansion of power, for our society is in no more need of such a paternalistic government than was the America of our founding, perhaps even less in need of one.

Like the first volume of this collection, the general format and size and scope of the work is similar, except that there are many more details–some of them quite tawdry–about the presidents from Wilson to Obama, largely because there are fewer of them.  At any rate, there is a grade, some funny quotes, some detailed discussion of their backgrounds and presidencies, and some suggestions for further reading if you agree with the perspective of the author and want something worthwhile to read about one or another of the presidents included.  While it is not surprising, the author gives a large number of poor marks, giving an F grade to Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.  Indeed, JFK, whose grossly sensual life and poor health earn him a great deal of criticism from the author, is the last of the Democrats to receive a passing grade, although the author has considerable praise for Truman along with some pointed criticism.  The author, it should be noted, does not only look at the constitutionality of the presidents but also the extent to which they defended America’s best interests and brought credit upon their office, and on those grounds a lot of presidents, especially Democrats, did especially poorly, although the author certainly finds much to criticize Republicans for as well.

In looking at this book, it is pretty clear that the authors envision some drastic changes when it comes to the presidency.  In the face of an electorate that has often been satiated on populist promises on the part of political candidates for more being done for them and less by themselves, the authors urge future presidents to be dignified and restrained, to do what is best for Americans and defend the Constitution even if it means, as it will, being continually libeled and slandered by leftists of all persuasions, especially in academia, trusting that history will eventually be just even if historians are seldom just, especially contemporary ones.  I cannot say that these circumstances would encourage anyone to become president as a constitutional president, but it is probably true, unfortunately, that anyone who wants to be president and is filled to the brim with ambition for the office is unworthy of it, and anyone who views it as a solemn duty and even a burden to be handled with courage and dignity and fortitude is likely not to enjoy it very much, alas.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/04/08/book-review-the-death-of-american-virtue/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/01/18/dont-leave-home-a-discussion-of-presidential-farewell-addresses/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/12/book-review-president-reagan-the-triumph-of-imagination/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/08/book-review-the-routledge-historical-atlas-of-presidential-elections/

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Presidents: Part 1: From Washington To Taft

The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Presidents:  Part 1:  From Washington To Taft, by Larry Schweikart

I have to admit that I found a great deal more to enjoy about this book than I thought would be the case.  In general, as I have read through a great many of the books in this series, I have in general found them to be excellent, but often I find that people who write about the presidents tend to have agendas that I do not necessarily share.  In this case, though, I happened to like the author’s perspective about the presidents and their administrations a great deal [1].  In general, the author looked at presidents from a point of view that was complicated enough to include their devotion to the standards of the Constitution as well as their labor on behalf of the well-being of the Union as a whole.  Refreshingly as well, this guide also graded presidents based on their views towards racial justice, which is not only politically incorrect but also brave based on the prejudices that one might assume from the readers of the series.  In sum, this was a book that I could wholeheartedly enjoy as a reader.

This particular book of about 300 pages covers the presidents who served under the constitution from George Washington to Taft.  The author shows a great deal of wit in describing their personal background as well as how they came to be president and what they did in office, and often what happened after they left office as well.  The author considers the way that presidents did or did not serve in the consultative Whig sense with Congress as being of great importance and had a view of the presidents that was remarkable and fair.  Unlike a great many writers who have looked at the presidents of the United States, this author shows a great deal of insight into the way that presidents did or did not serve the well-being of the United States during their time in office.  Neither does he judge presidents by the sort of libertarian standards that would make Grover Cleveland a hero while damning Abraham Lincoln–both of those presidents end up getting high marks and both have reasonable criticisms made of some of their decisions.  In addition to his own writing, moreover, the author provides a great deal of encouragement to read books about the presidents, many of which I have already read and reviewed, that have a lot to say about Lincoln as well.

Overall, the most striking aspect of this book is the way that the author ends his writing about the American presidents in 1912, when Taft’s attempts at re-election are foiled by the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt to win a third term that divided the Republicans and handed the Oval Office to the racist Progressive Woodrow Wilson, and it is intriguing to note how 1912 serves as a worthwhile point at determining how the presidency got off the rails and became a problem rather than a solution to the concerns of a strong executive as well as the upholding of republican virtue.  Overall, it appears as if the presidents of the first century or so of the American Republic had a few problems that they had to deal with over and over again, namely the problem of how slavery was to be eradicated given its mocking of American ideals of liberty and justice, and how it was that the problem of creeping government expansion was to be rolled back, neither of which were handled in the best way.  Even though this story ends on a bit of a melancholy note, there is much to appreciate here, especially in the author’s fair-minded views.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/04/book-review-abraham-lincoln-great-american-historians-on-our-sixteenth-president/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/09/14/book-review-slavemaster-president/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/01/18/dont-leave-home-a-discussion-of-presidential-farewell-addresses/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/07/book-review-almost-president/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/08/book-review-the-routledge-historical-atlas-of-presidential-elections/

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, History | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

So Much To Say, So Little Time

Earlier this week, I spent several days largely incommunicado at a church preteen summer camp where I served a variety of administrative tasks.  During the course of that time I had scheduled some blogs to post, including quite a few book reviews, but at least one of my loyal readers noticed I did not reply quickly to a comment of his, even to make my customary short replies when my book reviews are reblogged, and so he requested an e-mail to know that I was alright.  Sometimes I make posts ahead of time letting others know where I am at a given time, and this time I was so hurried that I was unable to do so.  Perhaps in the future I will make that more of a habit as well.

Given that I feel particularly short on time, I would like to comment on at least some of the things I am working on in the hope that at least some of them will find their way on the blog:

The Blood Of The Innocent Crying Out:  Part Two:  I’ve been working on this for some time, but I am still doing some research and will likely add to it, possibly with some of the other people involved, and I don’t know when I will finish.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due:  Salad Dressings:  For some reason, I end up researching the invention of salad dressings often and have found that there was a golden age of the invention of salad dressings in the United States that is worth exploring and not very well-known, so I will write about this subject, perhaps even later today.

There are other topics that I am not planning to write about but which may spark larger thoughts, and I would like to share them at least in brief.  Recently, for example, I read some comments that were quoted by a former chess champion that cited the Washington Post [1] as an authoritative source.  Knowing that newspaper’s massive ideological bias and distortions of truth as I (and many other Americans) do, I found it somewhat amusing that someone would attempt to prove a point by choosing such a pitiful source to back their opinions up on.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of sources that I consider authoritative that others would have little respect or regard for, and that indicates that the question of sources is something that is less straightforward than we would like it to be, something worth investigating.  At any rate, I have much to say and little to say it, so I will marinate a while on some of these and hopefully something worthwhile will come out.  After all, the only people who hear much about what I have to say are the slow motorists on my way on my long commute.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/16/an-open-letter-to-the-washington-post/

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Book Review: The Third Man And The Fallen Idol

The Third Man And The Fallen Idol, by Graham Greene

While I am slightly familiar with the writings of Graham Greene, I decided to make myself much more familiar with his writings by reading about twenty of his works over the course of the next month or so, and this happens to be the one I picked up first.  One notable aspect of Greene’s writing was that it was very popular in his age of Hollywood, as numerous stories of his as well as novels have been turned into films.  Obviously, those who like his somewhat cynical style (something that has been present in nearly all of the works of his I have read) are going to appreciate the comparison between his writing and the way that writing has been visualized, and in this book there are two stories of considerable significance within his body of work.  To be sure, he wrote a lot more stories than that, but these two stories, one of which is far longer than the other, have a great deal to say about Greene’s thoughtful reflection on deception and human dignity and the problem of violence, all of which were his stock and trade as a writer.

The first of these two stories is the novella Greene wrote as the initial treatment for the film The Third Man.  This story is set in postwar Vienna when it was under the joint rule of the four victorious powers of World War II, the Americans, English, French, and Russians.  This story takes advantage of the complexity of that period and shows the dangerous results of a man getting caught up in a penicillin racket and manages to keep a great deal of suspense about a series of deaths that results from the various plotting and scheming of the characters involved in the story.  The author is quick to praise the director and producer of the film with making his story come alive in stellar fashion, although the story is definitely well worth appreciating for its own considerable merits.  The second, and shorter, story here, “The Fallen Idol,” is a very clever one that is told from the point of view of a boy whose world is filled with all kinds of lies and disguises, and whose innocent attempts at piercing the veil of deception lead to horrific consequences as his true state is revealed.  It is impossible not to have at least some sympathy for the character’s plight, and Greeene ably stacks the deck to create a compelling story with a dramatic outcome.

Both of these two stories, therefore, are a good entrance into Greene’s literature as a whole, which is a substantial and accomplished body of work.  While Greene was certainly a person who wrote with a rather cynical touch, there was always something deeper in his works, a poignancy that was capable of creating deep insights for the reader.  Both of these stories have that effect, as the Third Man shows someone trying to investigate the supposed death of a “friend” of his who is involved in some shady business of adulterating penicillin for profit despite the damage it does to others that involves a series of murders in Vienna, and the Fallen Idol shows a kidnapped boy who belatedly realizes his precarious position and the fact that the kidnapper who he respects, perhaps even idolizes, is someone capable of great evil, including adultery and murder, as the police become involved in his troubled existence.  Overall, the two stories are excellent and they do a good job at showing Greene’s work for its insight as well as its craft.

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Book Review: The Last Word And Other Stories

The Last Word And Other Stories, by Graham Greene

Graham Greene was a writer who had a lot of stories, and this book does a good job at showing the wide variety of his work and his mastery at painting worthwhile and interesting situations.  This book is certainly full of varied and interesting material and without question if you like the longer writings of Greene there are characters here that you would likely want to get to know better.  I can think of about half a dozen of the stories that rank in the first rank of short stories as a whole, and they are varied to an extent that they demonstrate Greene’s skill as a writer with stories of all kinds.  This is the sort of collection of stories that were not included in previous works that will make you laugh, or cry, or make you wonder what is going on to a great extent until the author finishes the story with some kind of dramatic turnabout that leaves the reader impressed and sometimes even genuinely surprised.  There is a lot to like about this collection, not least the fact that one gets a dozen Greene stories in about 150 pages of reading, a high degree of bang for one’s buck.

The dozen stories included here are as follows.  We begin with “The Last Word,” a compelling and dramatic story of the execution of the last pope and an authoritarian state confident that it has vanquished Christianity from existence.  “The News In English” provides a dramatic tale of an English spy who escapes Nazi Germany and shows himself to be heroic, to the enjoyment of his wife but the disappointment of his mother.  “The Moment Of Truth” provides a poignant tale of a man dying of cancer while being a lonely server at a beloved restaurant.  “The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower” gives a compelling story of a dramatic and clever work in Paris by the narrator.  “The Lieutenant Died Last” is a dramatic story of a cat-and-mouse game between German paratroopers taking over a quiet English village in World War II and a man avenging the death of his son in World War I who is determined to stop them.  “A Branch Of The Service” shows the travails of a food critic turned spy that shows that even critics can have their time serving in espionage efforts.  “An Old Man’s Memory” gives a story of terrorism in the Chunnel.  “The Lottery Ticket” is a compelling story of naive Westerners dealing with corrupt Mexican politics and the danger of political labels.  “The New House” tells an odd story of a man’s attempt to build an intriguing and strange house.  “Work Not In Progress” provides an example of Greene’s writing that attempts to be suitable for little ones, and is certainly a humorous tale.  “Murder For The Wrong Reasons” tells a noir story of a corrupt cop and a dead blackmailer and a tale of twisted love and hidden identities that deserves to be made into an awesome movie.  Finally, “Appointment With The General” tells of a compelling interview between an ambiguous journalist with some personal problems and a general who dreams of death even as various factions seek to kill him for not turning to socialism or Communism fast enough for their tastes.

As one can readily imagine, there are a lot of different elements of Greene’s work that show themselves in these stories.  As one might expect, politics, intrigue, and violence play a heavy role in these stories–often some or all of these at once.  However, Greene’s deeper worth as a writer of classic literature springs from more than this.  He shows himself deeply attentive to people and their personal struggles, and he has a firm grasp not only of surprising twists but also of character.  This attention to character shows itself in dialogue, in the character’s thoughts and flashbacks and the way that Greene is able to provide compelling back stories for many of his protagonists, even in the form of short stories.  Likewise, a few of the stories play on the author’s interest in religion, which serves as a compelling reminder of Greene’s larger cultural importance, in that he considered the fate of Christianity in the modern world to be a subject worthy of a noir tale of intrigue and violence, showing how even without political power religion has the way of inspiring doubts among those who hold civil authority and who cannot help but wonder if there is some secret truth that defies all of their attempts to coerce the world into their own liking.  This is definitely a great, if eclectic series of stories.

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An Encounter With A Frozen Prey Animal

It is sometimes hard to keep the children in focus, to
get them to stop trying to climb one like a tree or to
put their hands one’s pockets or to want to be carried
back to their dorms, when one is on a mission. After
all, I had a car to move, which was parked somewhere it
should not be, and after that I wanted to get some rest
for these tired eyes. I did not want to interrupt the
joy of some small children merely because two of their
number knew me and were in a playful mood. And so it
was that with some difficulty I managed to get the small
children to walk along with their dormmates down the
road towards their dorm. Only by the time I got into
my car and drove it to where it should be parked, I found
my way to be blocked by that same troop of small children
frozen on the road, focused on something, I knew not what
that kept them from either moving along towards their dorm
or moving out of the way so that I could park my car in
the gravel parking lot next to the pool and gym. But by
the time that I reached them, after most of them had
slowly and shyly gotten out of the way, I saw what made
them freeze, a glorious doe staring out at them and frozen
itself, wondering whether these small children were the
dangerous sort of beings, or whether they were safe to
be around. But I had things to do, so I did not stop and
stare along with them, and I slowly made my way to a
parking spot as far away as possible from the deer, so that
I would not disturb either the kids or the doe, but someone
was looking for the location of the building where the
extra shirts were, and by the time I finished telling him
where to go to get the shirt he was looking for, and having
gotten my car parked, I turned to where the deer was to see
that it was gone, and that the children were continuing their
walk towards their dorm. Perhaps I had scared it after
all with my loud voice or with the sound of my tires driving
on the gravel. Perhaps without even trying to I had scared
a being whose presence was perhaps only in my way, but only
for a short time before both it and I went to where we were
going, and where the others there might have assumed that
I did not see the deer at all, so consumed I was by the
business I was about.

***

This poem is, as one might imagine, a faithful recording of a scene that happened to me this evening (as I write this, not as it is published, since as I write this on my laptop I am not in a place where the internet is working). Whether or not this poem is a successful effort at painting a somewhat complicated picture of my interactions with several different beings or groups of beings, it certainly is my attempt to convey the reality of that complex interaction as honestly as I can. Perhaps as a poet greatly influenced by the modest but immensely talented poet William Stafford [1], it is easy to paint myself in a self-effacing portrait of someone whose action is clearly at cross purposes with those around me. My mission throughout was a simple and straightfoward one, to walk to my car and drive the car from the side of the road to the place where the car was supposed to be parked, in the gravel parking lot by the pool where I serve as a staff member for a church pre-teen camp. Yet this simple mission was made not very simple by at least three groups of blocking characters. First, my mission to get the car was made more difficult by the fact that there were a couple of girls in the dorm I was walking with that were in a particularly playful mood, wanting to hold hands and have me walk to their cabin, which I was unwilling to do, being a homme solo being surrounded by small children around the age of seven or eight. Then, once I got into my car, with some difficulty, those same children were standing in the road directly in my way. By the time that I was passing them I realized why this was the case, as a doe was standing very close to them, very intent at knowing what kind of strange beings were around her, another complicating factor, as now I was distracted from the simple task of parking my car by feeling it necessary to avoid as much as possible spooking this deer. Finally, this task was made more difficult by the fact that someone asked me a question, and so I had to turn my attention from the doe to another task that was interrupting me, namely the need to point the person to the location of the extra shirts that they were looking for so that theirs could be washed tomorrow.

This is perhaps too many things to have happen at the same time. Certainly there are only a few things one can successfully accomplish at the same time. Getting one’s car to where it should be is a simple task, so is being kind but firm with somewhat silly and playful small children, so is gently herding those children off of the road so that one can get one’s car where it needs to be, so is driving gently so that one does not spook a nearby doe, and so does is giving directions to someone who is himself on a mission. Many of these tasks are at cross purposes with others, and certainly at cross-purposes with the other beings in the scene. What was the deer interested in, aside from a pleasant place to eat something green and tasty? What did the kids want? They wanted to be playful and friendly and invite a friend to their cabin, and they wanted to stand in the road as close as possible as they could be with the doe, who was larger than they were and among whom there was perhaps an equal sense of concern about which was the predator and which was the prey. Perhaps there were no predators there at all. The doe was certainly no predator, except perhaps to the greenery that she was trying to eat. The children, as playful as they were, were certainly innocent in their desire to have a guy travel to their cabin, even if that was not appropriate. Most of the adults there–myself certainly as well as the gentleman looking for the extra shirts–were not engaged in any predatory behavior, but rather we simply were on a mission, a mission that we did not want to involve disappointing or frustration or harm to others, to be sure, but which we wanted to get done far more than we wanted to stand around staring at a doe who was frozen in terror, wondering whether to stay or run, who was staring at us. Sometimes there are no predators around, only people who are either frightened at what they see or who simply want to get something done even if others keep on getting in the way.

What does it mean that one of these overly busy and task-oriented adults then sat down on his bunk and spent a considerable amount of time, when he was tired enough to sleep and probably should have been sleeping after a long and hot and tiring and frustrating day, to write a poem and an analysis/commentary on that poem, about an incident that took place over only a couple of minutes from beginning to end. From beginning to end the incident was only two or three minutes, at most, yet it took more than half an hour to write the foregoing text about that incident. While I was in a hurry trying to park my car initially, I was not in a hurry once the mission was done, rather I had a lot of things on my mind. Why was it that a deer thought that a camp full of preteen children and their adult staff was something worth treating as one’s own private salad bar? What did either the deer or the little children expect from each other, given that each was torn between intense curiosity and a certain amount of fear? Was it wrong that I was so task-oriented to not want to humor the children for a few minutes, or that I felt irritated that they were in my way when I was trying to drive my car to its parking spot, or that I felt irritated again when I had to turn my attention from a graceful doe in fine form to answer the question of where the other driver next to me could pick up a t-shirt? Why then, if I was a character so much in the wrong, so busy and so hurried and so unable to do any one thing but to try to do a great number of things, perhaps not very well, at the same time, did I feel that it was appropriate or necessary to then sit around and write about it? If one is too busy in the moment to do what is graceful and elegant and thoughtful, why then does one think that things will go any better when one spends the time reflecting on it and writing about a story that might be seen as somewhat embarrassing to oneself, that paints oneself in a bad light as one of those adults who simply rushes from task to task while missing those aspects of critical moments that are the most touching and the most significant and the most glorious, such as the interaction between two of God’s creatures, people and deer, in a place that is likely very enjoyable for the both of them, far more than from the task-oriented adults who simply want to get things done, so much so that they sometimes forget to be, or to wonder, or to appreciate what they are seeing until it is too late to do anything but write a post mortem about it.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/27/book-review-the-darkness-around-us-is-deep/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/27/book-review-even-in-quiet-places/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/26/book-review-an-oregon-message/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/26/book-review-my-name-is-william-tell/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/25/book-review-allegiances/

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