[By Nic Lindh on Saturday, 03 March 2018]
Fantasyland is a history of the United States that attempts to unravel how America became the sort of nation that elects a person like Trump to its highest office.
It starts at America’s humble beginnings as a 1600s scam convincing British people to move to a Virginia claimed to be littered with gold. Yes, the first British immigrants weren’t religious people seeking to create their own utopia, but suckers in a gold scam.
But the religious people followed and set vigorously about building their utopias.
Andersen places a lot of weight in America’s Protestant roots, and how Protestant faith is centered on finding your own relationship with God—there are no authorities who can tell you you are wrong.
But Protestantism started in Germany, you say? So why didn’t the same ferocity of religion happen there? Andersen thinks a lot of the reason is that German culture already existed, along with deep Catholic roots, which tempered Protestantism a bit.
From there on, Fantasyland takes us through America’s centuries of fervent belief, both religious and non-religious, and a cavalcade of hucksters, grifters, and showmen.
Until we arrive in the 1960s, which, Andersen—who lived through them himself—argues, triggered the anti-reality tendencies that are flowering now.
Fantasyland is very interesting and does a lot of heavy lifting to connect the wilder pieces of America’s psyche over time with where we are today.
It’s also quite long and exhaustive and, frankly, depressing.
But if you’re interested in where America is today and not satisfied with interviews with blue-collar people in rustic diners in Iowa, it is highly recommended.
Dunkirk, the movie was fabulous—I really enjoyed it. And it made me want to learn more about Operation Dynamo. So I picked up The Miracle of Dunkirk.
Both the movie and the book do a great job of illustrating the utter, complete chaos in which Operation Dynamo took place.
If you enjoyed the movie or if you’re interested in general about World War II, I highly recommend The Miracle of Dunkirk. If you’re at all like me you’ll read this book and then watch the film again and understand the film a lot better. You will also appreciate the film more, as it does an amazing job of hinting at the real events and using them as dramatic backdrop without hitting you over the head with them.
The importance of the Miracle of Dunkirk for the rest of World War II and thus for the fate of the world simply can’t be overstated. If the Germans had managed to eradicate the British Expeditionary Force, Britain would have stood defenseless.
Britain could replace the 2,472 lost guns, the 63,879 abandoned vehicles; but the 224,686 rescued troops were irreplaceable. In the summer of 1940 they were the only trained troops Britain had left. Later, they would be the nucleus of the great Allied armies that won back the Continent.
For the Miracle to happen, the Germans had to go out of their way to fail, the weather had to hold, and British civilians in unheard-of numbers had to take their vessels to sea against the might of the Luftwaffe, German submarines, and the German guns surrounding Dunkirk, shelling the port and the sea.
Operation Dynamo really shouldn’t have succeded.
When it comes to the Germans, we can lay the blame on Göring and Hitler—Göring feared the tank units that had driven the Expeditionary Force and its French allies to the sea would get too much credit and thus too much status in the endless internecine battles that plagued Hitler’s inner circle, so he convinced Hitler the Luftwaffe could finish the job and the tanks should be pulled back.
And the weather:
The English Channel is usually rough, rarely behaves for very long. Yet a calm sea was essential to the evacuation, and during the nine days of Dunkirk the Channel was a millpond. Old-timers still say they have never seen it so smooth.
Amid all the stories of heartache, bravery and suffering that fill the book, there are also brilliant nuggets like this:
McCorquodale was one of those throwbacks to a glorious earlier age in British military history. Gleaming with polished brass and leather, he scorned the new battle dress. “I don’t mind dying for my country,” he declared, “but I’m not going to die dressed like a third-rate chauffeur.”
If by some chance you haven’t seen Dunkirk the movie, I highly recommend reading this book before you do. Reading the book and then watching the movie again will really open up the movie for you.
As you’d expect from Hastings, Das Reich is a clear and lucid tome. It covers the horrific massacre committed in the village of Oradour by the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich on its way to repel the Allied invaders at Normandy, but also puts the behavior of the SS in the context of the war.
Which is not to say that the book in any way shape or form excuses the atrocity, but simply elucidates why the Das Reich acted the way they did.
Part of the answer lies in the sociopathic and brutal culture of the SS as a whole:
The aspect of their conditioning that is most relevant to this story is the extraordinary respect with which they had been imbued for the virtues of strength, of ruthless dedication to the task in hand, and the equally extraordinary indifference to the claims of the weak and the innocent. All their virtues were reserved for others within their closed society. They possessed neither charity nor mercy for any who were not deemed to have deserved it by their own code.
Another reason—not excuse—was that the Das Reich had just been recalled from the hell that was the Russian Front, where war was total and merciless:
They abandoned shaving for weeks on end to protect their skin, forgot mail from home, for it never came, grew accustomed to seeing their own ranks shattered in battle, rebuilt and shattered once again until their old units were unrecognizable. Casualties provoked meteoric promotions to fill the gaps. Heinrich Wulf found himself commanding a battalion reduced to a tenth of its establishment, yet when he himself left Russia, only one in ten of those men was left. ‘Our only concern was not to be captured,’ he said.
The West came to seem almost a dream world. To the men of the Das Reich who emerged from the East in 1944, the rich fields and vineyards of south-west France brought them back to the glorious, happy memories of 1940. Yet they found that much had changed. Those who served there in 1940–1 had found most of the French people astonishingly relaxed and friendly. They now discovered that in public civilians addressed them coldly, or not at all. There was less to eat. The terrorist threat meant that it was impossible for vehicles or men to travel alone outside city centres. Even in Toulouse, the officers’ messes and the Soldatenheim were faced with wire mesh against grenade attack.
To add to the frustration, German High Command decided to use this elite armored regiment to suppress French Resistance activity—a task for which tanks are ill-equipped—instead of helping repel the Allied invasion.
Das Reich also spends a lot of time explaining the setup and situation of the maquis, its different factions, and how the British and Americans made half-hearted efforts to arm and train the maquis.
In the end, despite great risk, great effort, and horrific losses, the maquis only managed to delay the movement of Das Reich toward the beaches by a few days—though crucial days they were—and most of their efforts were in vain. Except, as Hastings makes sure to explain, the real victory of the maquis was to help the French self-image:
Much more than this, much more than the number of days that the maquis delayed the Das Reich, every man and woman who played his part and survived was exalted by the experience even through the terrible layer of pain. The great contribution of Resistance – that which justified all that SOE did and made worthwhile the sacrifice of all those who died – was towards the restoration of the soul of France.
The topics of The Undoing Project, the behavioral economics work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, their shattering of the economic theory foundation of the rational customer, both their incredible life stories, their intense friendship, their lives during World War II and then in an Israel at war, are great and very, very important.
But the book is a slog.
Perhaps it felt like a slog since Michael Lewis has made his career writing punchy, breezy books about difficult topics and has proven again and again he can boil the topics down to their most human essentials. Perhaps it’s this, that it feels so different from his other works, that makes it so disappointing.
However it may be, Kahneman and Tversky’s contributions to our understanding of the fallibilities of the human brain are fascinating.
Kahneman and Tversky’s lives were fascinating.
The tensions of Israel’s co-existence with Arab nations in the Middle East after World War II is interesting.
But The Undoing Project is still, disappointingly, a slog. This is the first Lewis book I had to power through. It feels like he’s in love with too many topics and has a bit of a problem deciding where to cut, so he includes everything.
Waiting for the Punch is a compilation of best moments from Maron’s successful podcast WTF in written form together with new words to introduce the sections written by Maron.
It’s great. Parts are harrowing, some are sad, some are laugh-out-loud funny. Having these great moments from what is probably the most intimate and vulnerable show in the world collected thematically is powerful.
If you’re a fan of WTF, getting the bone broth version is a strong experience, and if you’re not a listener, this is a good introduction.
For me, personally, this kind of material is not something I want to listen to, but would rather read, so Waiting for the Punch provides a great entry into the best of the show.
And if I were to get all WTF on it, perhaps wanting to read instead of listen to all the hours of audio says something about how I want a layer of separation between myself and the human voices, or perhaps it shows my neurotic fixation with time management, or perhaps it just shows I like to read.
Who can tell? But it is a great, powerful read with lots of grit.
Hodgman made a nice career for himself being an offbeat tweedy goofball who manufactures lies. The media climate in 2017 being what it was, he decided to stop lying and start telling the truth. And his truth is a wonderful place, a warm bath to slip into.
As he himself calls out in the book, Hodgman performs “white privilege comedy,” and it doesn’t get much more white privilege than having not one but two summer homes, one in Maine and one in Massachusetts and worrying a lot about being, as the people up there say, “from away.”
Which is not a criticism. Vacationland is gentle and warm, a tonic for these troubled times, and while not laugh-out-loud funny, very much droll.
I enjoyed my time in Hodgman’s brain a lot.
Points of Impact is the 6th novel in the Frontlines series, which it continues with aplomb.
Obviously, being the 6th in a series, it’s not the place to start, but if you’re already a fan of the series wondering if you should pick this one up: Yes, you should.
It moves briskly along with some good battle sequences and some character growth for our protagonist Grayson, who, in his 10th year of war and with most people from his past dead, is starting to suffer from PTSD and Weltschmerz.
My one frustration with Points of Impact is that it still feels a bit stuck in neutral. Sure, lots of things happen, but the main storyline needs to start progressing; we need to learn more about the Lankies.
I’m hoping the next installment kicks in the afterburners.
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