Category Archives: History

The Case for Impeachment by Allan J. Lichtman

I usually don’t get book recommendations from my mom, but when I do, they’re pretty good. About a year ago, she told me about a book called The Case for Impeachment. She’d seen the book’s author Allan J. Lichtman interviewed on TV and thought this was a book I needed to read. After a great deal of procrastination I was able to secure a copy through my public library. After leisurely making my way through Lichtman’s book I’m glad my Mom recommended it to me.

In The Case for Impeachment Lichtman (who also predicted Trump’s electoral victory) makes a straight-forward, level-headed argument for the impeachment of Donald Trump. He begins with an explanation of the impeachment process. As stated in the Constitution, the President can be removed from office if both houses of Congress find him guilty of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (According to Lichtman, unfortunately for Trump this includes crimes committed before taking office.) Lichtman also discusses how the impeachment process has played out in history by looking at the past presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. From there, it’s on to the alleged high crimes and misdemeanors of Donald Trump, a laundry list of transgressions including but not limited to: colluding with the Russians during the recent Presidential election (treason), using his office to personally profit from foreign interests (emoluments) and sexual assault and harassment.

If that wasn’t enough, Trump could be charged with abuse of power based on his personal attacks on judges, political opponents and the media. If he’s if perceived as mentally ill (Lichtman thinks based on Trump’s track record he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder) he could be declared incapacitated and removed from office, as outlined in the 25 Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Lastly, in a bit of a stretch Lichtman speculates Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his adamant refusal to promote measures to lessen America’s carbon emissions could constitute a crime against humanity and thus an impeachable high crime.

The Case for Impeachment reads like an extended article one might find in a magazine like Time, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. And frankly there’s nothing wrong with that. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like a rush job that Lichtman cranked out just to make a quick buck or two. It’s a quick read and serves up a handy and relatively concise indictment of Trump’s many transgression and failings.  Who knows, it might make the perfect birthday gift for that special Trump supporter in your life.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History

Old Books Reading Project: Toward Understanding Paul by Boyce W. Blackwelder

Last September in my review of Adam W. Miller’s 1946 edition of An Introduction to the New Testament I mentioned over the years I’d acquired several old books from book sales hosted by a small local religious college. One of those old books gathering dust in my personal library is Boyce W. Blackwelder’s Toward Understanding Paul. While not as old as Miller’s above mentioned book, nevertheless it was published in 1961, and to me that makes it an old book. With Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible sitting by my bed begging me to finally read it I figured now was as good a time as any to read an old book or two about the Bible. So one night I pulled Blackwelder’s book off the shelf and began reading it. After reading about half of it I grew bored set it aside. But a few weeks later I picked it back up and finished it in only a few sittings.

Toward Understanding Paul is short book, weighing in at just over 130 pages. I’m guessing it was written as college text, probably for introductory courses on the New Testament. Toward Understanding Paul at its heart is theologically conservative, probably evangelical. Therefore, Blackwelder stands firm on his belief Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him, and was inspired by God as he wrote them. But it’s also important to note, according to Blackwelder Paul never considered his letters scripture. In the first century AD what Jews and early Christians called scripture was the Hebrew Bible. Only years later, would Paul’s letters, plus the Gospels, Acts and Revelation be treated as scripture by the early Church.

To those who are skeptical of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, preferring to believe that Paul experienced some sort of natural phenomenon like an epileptic seizure or fit of sunstroke, Blackwelder, firm in his faith points out it’s rare for such non supernatural experiences to bring out change that’s so permanent and profound.

He also believes Paul was eventually released from prison (more like house arrest) and embarked on yet another missionary journey, probably to Spain. Later, he was arrested and executed during the reign of Nero. Even though these events aren’t specifically mentioned in the New Testament.

With a number of these kind of old books in my personal library, you’ll probably see more books like Toward Understanding Paul featured on my blog. Plus, some of you might remember last year I posted a link to Tara Isabela Burton’s outstanding and thought-provoking Atlantic article “Study Theology Even If You Don’t Believe in God.” Inspired by her article I hope to read more books on religion and related subjects. And when I do, you’ll read about it here.

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Filed under Christianity, History

About Time I Read It: Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Way back in 1995 I read a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization and it rocked my world. Cahill’s inspiring account of Irish monks in the Middle Ages working to preserve the West’s intellectual treasures against the ravages of barbarians easily made it one of my favorite books. As a writer and historian Cahill showed me history can be readable and therefore fun. From then on whenever I heard Cahill had written a new book I wanted to read it.

And I did. Over the years I’ve enjoyed his subsequent books The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter almost as much as How the Irish Saved Civilization. However, his 2006 book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me disappointed. Later, in my opinion he redeemed himself in 2013 with Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  I also enjoyed a pair of books that weren’t part of his above-mentioned Hinges of History series, namely A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green and the biography Pope John XXIII as part of the Penguin Lives. But one book eluded me. As big a Thomas Cahill junky as I am, I never got around to reading his Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That is, until now.

Recently, during one of my Saturday trips to the public library I stumbled across a copy. Excited to find yet another one of those “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read” of course I borrowed it. Over the following days as I made my way through his 1999 book over my morning coffee I began to realize Desire of the Everlasting Hills, although not a bad book, didn’t blow me away like most of his others.

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill takes readers back to the birth of Christianity. Cahill begins by looking at ancient Palestine and environs. At the time of Jesus it was part of the Roman Empire and subject to its laws. Thanks to the conquests of Alexander, there was a great deal of Hellenic influence, with Greek being the widely spoken especially among Gentiles. Lastly, there were the Jews, heirs to hundreds of years of Jewish religious thought and culture. Out of this complex ancient environment Jesus arose and later, the Apostle Paul.  Paul, educated in Greek language, rhetoric and philosophy as well as Jewish thought and scriptures was the perfect man to bridge the gap between Gentile and Jew (or in his own words in I Corinthians “I am made All things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”) and taking what had been a local Jewish reform movement and putting it on a trajectory to become the world’s dominant religion. With, as Cahill makes a compelling case at the end of his book, Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on justice and compassion at its core.

By writing history book about Jesus, Paul and the birth of Christianity Cahill took on a thankless job. Theologically conservative Christians probably think he’s too liberal. On the other hand atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the like probably think he’s too Christian. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Like I said earlier, Desire of the Everlasting Hills isn’t my favorite Cahill book. Who knows, maybe after waiting so long to read it my expectations were too high. Not to sound like some expert some of the material he covered I’m already familiar with. But that’s OK. I’m still a huge fan of Cahill and considering his overall outstanding body of work, I’ll just live with it.

 

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About Time I Read It: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Years ago I was a member of the Quality Paperback Book Club (QPB). Looking back I think what I enjoyed the most about being a member was receiving the QPB’s monthly  catalog, happily thumbing through it and reading about all kinds promising books. A few books like Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University I ended up buying through QPB. But a number of books such as Ian Frazier’s Travels In SiberiaGuy Walters’ Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, and Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners I didn’t buy but instead borrowed from my public library. 

One book I saw advertised in the QPB catalog was Jamie Ford’s 2009 novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Even though I never purchased or borrowed it nevertheless I loved its cover art. Perhaps because of its lovely cover art I’ve always had a soft spot for this novel I’ve never yet. So, when one of my book clubs opted to read it, I borrowed a copy from my public library and gave it a read. The bad news is even though I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I didn’t make it to that month’s meeting. The good news is despite my little soft spot for this novel I kinda had low expectations of it but in the end, still managed to enjoy it.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in one of those dual timeline novels. In this case, our story begins in the 1990s with the purchase and renovation of a long-shuttered hotel in what used to be the city’s Japanese section of town. Later, action shifts to World War II and bounces back and forth between the two eras. During the war years a young Chinese-American boy falls in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American teen girl. This angers the boy’s father, who bitterly hates all Japanese blaming them for Japan’s brutal occupation of China. To make matters worse, Keiko and her family find themselves imprisoned in internment camps along with other Japanese-Americans.

Like I mentioned, this novel ended up being a pleasant surprise. Another pleasant surprise was the Seattle jazz scene (of which I knew nothing about prior to reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) playing a central role in the novel. When it comes to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I have no complaints. I can see why my book club, as well as others have chosen to read it.

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About Time I Read It: The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer

As young kid growing up there was an old back issue of Reader’s Digest magazine next to the toilet in our bathroom. Every once and awhile it would magically disappear and a different, usually slightly newer edition would appear in its place. Frequently, while sitting on the toilet during my fits of boredom I’d flip through its pages. Once while doing this I came across a condensed version of book about Jews secretly living in Germany during the Second World War. Even though I was too young to fully comprehend the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, something I read that day has stuck with me all these years. According to that piece in Reader’s Digest I learned those Jews called themselves U-boats. Like German submarines hiding beneath the waves to avoid detection so did the country’s surviving Jews employ new identities and carry counterfeit documents while trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Fast forward to the present and once again I’ve encountered the tale of a human U-boat. Published in 1999, I was gifted a copy of Edith Hahn Beer’s memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust about two years ago and I’d been itching to read it but never got around to it. However, last week I finally cracked it open. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

The product of a modest upper middle class secular Jewish family from Vienna, by the late 1930s Edith Hahn’s life was full of promise. Young, intellectually gifted, politically active and enjoying a happy love life Edith was on the verge of graduating from law school and en route to a career as a judge when Nazi Germany absorbed Austria. Stripped of her civil liberties and made to live as a third class citizen, Edith endured forced labor before escaping and securing an Aryan identity and counterfeit papers with the help a friend. (A friend who was not only humane and resourceful, but also as stylish as Marlene Dietrich.) Living in Germany with a new identity, she would meet and fall in love with Werner, a Nazi Party member and supervisor at an aircraft plant. Until the end of the war Edith would hide in plain sight from the Gestapo.

Like a lot of excellent well-written books The Nazi Officer’s Wife reads effortlessly. Even though I finished it a few days ago, several memorable passages continue to stick with me. One is the time she was in childbirth labor and refused to take any anesthesia lest she babble away any incriminating information. Another such passage, probably the saddest of the memoir is the time she was listening to the BBC on her shortwave radio (listening to foreign broadcasts in itself was a crime punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp) and heard the England’s Chief Rabbi offer prayers for the “remnants” of Europe’s Jews. It was then Edith learned something unimaginably horrific had happened to her co-religionists, not to mention her friends and family.

If you haven’t guessed by now this is a superb memoir. I have no hesitations recommending it.

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Filed under Europe, History

Focus on the Eastern Front: The Retreat by Michael Jones

Before I finally started reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust I figured it might be wise to first read The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. You see, I’ve had the book for almost ten years and considering how much I’ve enjoyed other books on the Eastern Front I’m kinda amazed I let it set on my shelf unread for so long. So one Sunday morning I grabbed my copy of Michael Jones’ 2009 book and headed to the coffee shop. Before I knew it The Retreat sucked me in and had me wishing I’d read it years ago.

As 1941 drew to a close the German military looked invisible. After smashing the Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, French, Greek, Yugoslav and British armies the Nazis stood masters of Europe. Germany’s only adversary was Great Britain, which after being driven from the Continent sat alone and beleaguered. So, in the summer of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and appeared completely unstoppable in its drive to destroy the Red Army and capture Moscow many thought the Nazis were indeed superman destined to rule if not the world then much of Eurasia. But before long, in the dead of the Russian winter something unexpected happened – they were stopped. Jones’ The Retreat takes a close look and shows how and why Germany’s initial drive to conquer the Soviet Union ended in failure.

What struck me the most about The Retreat it’s not as much a “big picture” analysis of the Eastern Front but more a collection of accounts of German and Soviet soldiers who did the fighting. Much of this is based on original sources like the combatants’ journals and letters as well as interviews done after the war. The result is a readable “boots on the ground” look at the brutal fighting in the USSR.

Germany’s plan to vanquish the Soviet Union, if successful all depended on a quick push to Moscow and successful capture of the Soviet capital. However, despite Germany’s many early victories and impressive territorial gains by late 1941 the Nazi juggernaut began to slow. Logistically, the challenge of supplying such a massive invasion force thousands of miles deep in the heart of Russia became too great. With the onset of winter the German army found itself bereft of winter clothing as well as cold-weather impervious lubricants for its tank, truck and airplane engines. The Germans also underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to rebuild its depleted armed forces both in men and material. (Also, once Stalin learned Japan was planning on striking South and attacking the Americans, British and Dutch and not the Soviet Far East he reinforced his armies defending Moscow with fresh Siberian-based troops.) Lastly, the Nazis underestimated the Soviet people’s will to resist a hated invader and once Soviet soldiers learned millions of their countrymen had died or where dying in POW camps fought even harder, preferring to die fighting than be captured.  (On the other hand, the Soviets committed errors as well, most notably engaging in costly frontal assaults against the Germans instead of attempting to encircle them.)

Fighting was savage on the Eastern Front but Jones’ includes a few accounts of shared humanity. One German soldier, after stumbling upon a Russian house with an impressive library including many books in German was told by the house’s Jewish owner to help himself since the whole place will end up getting torched in the end. Despite hearing reports of an impending Soviet attack, German forces occupying a Russian village went ahead with their impromptu Christmas Eve service . Before long local villagers flocked to the service, even though Christmas, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition isn’t celebrated until early January. Then, slowly and quietly assorted men begin to assembling at the back of the crowd. These were Red Army soldiers and partisans. In the end no shots are fired and quiet handshakes and well-wishes were exchanged between Germans and Russian fighters.

The Retreat is good book and it compliments rather well other books on the Eastern Front I’ve read like Katherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

About Time I Read It: The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I heard Selden Edwards’ 2008 novel The Little Book reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. That review must have made an impressive on me because I’ve been wanting to read this book for years. About a month ago after learning an e-book was finally available for Kindle download through my pubic library’s Overdrive account I helped myself.

One day Wheeler Burden, a middle-aged American wakes up and finds himself in Vienna in the year 1897. How and why he’s been sent back in time is a mystery. Fortunately for him, thanks to the excellent education he received as a young man Burden adapts quickly to the intellectually charged cafe culture of Fin de siècle Vienna and before long finds himself holding court in American-accented German with the city’s young intelligentsia discussing and debating.

But this is no ordinary time travel novel. It took Edwards 30 years to write The Little Book and he threw a heck of a lot into it. He incorporates a ton of backstory for Burden our time traveler like his upbringing in rural California, East Coast prep school adventures, collegiate baseball heroics and post-college rise to rock and roll stardom. While in Vienna he meets several historical figures including Sigmund Freud. Speaking of which, without revealing too much The Little Book is a time travel novel with a Freudian soul.

I’m happy to say after waiting ten years to read The Little Book I wasn’t disappointed. Like many good novels, there’s no shortage of plot twists, some I saw coming and some, well, I didn’t. I know it’s early in the year but there’s a good chance The Little Book ends up making my year-end list of best fiction.

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