Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Phantom

When we visited my grandmother as children she had a box of my father's old books and one of them was a Big Little Book about the Phantom. I was a big fan of Tarzan and Batman, and the Phantom seemed to be a wonderful combination of the two. I devoured the Big Little Book and have been yearning for more of the Phantom ever since.

Now Hermes Press is reprinting the daily comic strip from the 1930s in several volumes. The first two are out and the third will be published next month. The first is already out of print and way too expensive as a second-hand book, but I did get Volume 2 and have Volume 3 on order.

Comics fans praise the wit and sophistication of Lee Falk's text and I much prefer the early drawings of Ray Moore to the later, more realistic incarnations of the character. The Phantom is credited with being the first of the masked heroes, and Batman, for one, is clearly modeled on this crime-fighter with no super powers but superb training who lives in a cave.

Ironically, many of the 1937-39 strips collected in Volume 2 take the Phantom far afield from his cave and his jungle -- to London and Paris and the Himalayas. But the wry sense of humor and derring-do are there, along with odd purple costume (though of course the color is not evident in the black-and-white of the daily strip) and eyeless mask.

The Phantom's world is an odd mix of India, the British empire between the wars, and the spirit of adventure that characterized literature in those days.

For what it's worth, I thought the 1996 movie with Billy Zane as the Phantom was pretty good, though imdb currently has a 4.9 rating on it and it bombed in the box office. It's running on cable now and I think Zane and a still relatively obscure Catherine Zeta Jones are excellent and the photography and production values are great. Script is only so-so, though many frames were story-boarded from the comic strip itself.

Anyway, it's a pleasant daily read you-know-where, though I get through several strips at a sitting and can't imagine how people actually had the patience to read one of these stories over several months, four panels at a time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book clubs

One of the blurbs on the back of The Help (I got the hardback, but it was the 54th printing) caught my eye: “A button-pushing soon to be wildly popular novel…Book groups armed with hankies will talk and talk.”

I liked The Help, but this comment by Janet Maslin at the New York Times nailed it. Just as some books are clearly framed as screenplays, this book was designed for book clubs.

Book clubs are famously dominated by women – I’m sure there are some spurious statistics somewhere but I’m willing to bet at least 80%. And here is a book featuring three women narrators and depicting a clash between white Southern women and their “colored” maids. As I noted in my blog on the novel, all the men portrayed here are weak, bewildered creatures.

I don’t currently belong to a book group, but my wife, Andrea, belongs to two. Both of them meet monthly. The one is all women and has been going more than 15 years; the other has one male member. The one for the most part abjures white male writers and prefers women authors and writers of color. The other gravitates toward bestsellers.

Many bestsellers become so because they are quickly taken up by book clubs, even when they are of questionable merit (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes to mind). These often formulaic books become the subject of what Jon Stewart would no doubt call a clusterf#@k.

I have belonged to two book clubs since I came to Washington. One was at the Albermarle apartment house, where I lived when I first came here. It was a large-ish group and picked books haphazardly. The other was formed from the Chevy Chase listserv as a kind of anti-book club – it would be composed only of men and read exclusively nonfiction, pretty much the opposite of the standard women’s club reading fiction, though it quickly moved to a mix of fiction and nonfiction.

My main problem in each case was that sometimes the book of the month was not a book I was interested in. I have stacks of books that I have bought and not yet read. When I bought them, I thought I would like to read them, and often I find myself reading a book I bought several years ago. But obviously I can hardly keep pace with reading the books I choose, and don’t really have time to read books I’m not interested in.

This is the aspect of book clubs that some people relish – precisely that they will end up reading books they would not have picked. And I understand that. What I find more efficient is to talk about books with my friends, and when they recommend something I’ve never heard about, go look for that.

The main attraction of book clubs, of course, is that you get to discuss a book with others who have read it. And that’s great. Books give us a view of life, and it can be extremely beneficial to have an opportunity to talk that over. That’s what I miss.

I’m surprised, really, that there hasn’t been a bigger movement over the Web for virtual book clubs, where people randomly come together to discuss a book they have all read. Maybe such a thing exists, but when I last researched it, a year ago or so, I didn’t find anything really corresponding to that.

That certainly would not be as satisfying as the 15-year-old group Andrea belongs to, where the people know each other so well and can talk about anything.

And perhaps there is merit in a certain kind of book becoming a national book club favorite. My concern is that it has become something of a cliché. The Help is a nice enough book, but hardly worth the sales it has racked up. But, like a big movie, such a book can become a common cultural reference.

Never say never again. I don’t want to say I won’t join a book club again, but it would have to be when I’m devoting more time to reading than now, I think.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Berlin 1961

Cross-posted on Amazon.com

Longtime journalist Frederick Kempe has turned the old saw about journalism being the first draft of history on its head – he has written an impressive historical account that reads like today’s newspaper.

Drawing on newly declassified archival material, Kempe has recreated in unprecedented fashion one of the most pivotal moments in postwar history – the building of Berlin Wall in August 1961. A wealth of American, German and Russian documents – diplomatic cables, transcripts, memoranda, letters – provided the author with rich source material. What makes the book such a compelling read, however, is Kempe’s skill in extracting the drama, the telling detail, and the colorful quote from this archival material.

Kempe, whose previous books include a personal account of his descent from German immigrants and the narrative of a trip through Siberia, is an accomplished storyteller, and he grips the reader with his opening accounts of Nikita Krushchev’s mercurial character and doesn’t let go. He casts the building of the Berlin Wall as a pas de deux between the embattled Soviet leader and a youthful and inexperienced President Kennedy.

The author documents step by step how miscues in the Kennedy administration led to the blunder of the Wall being built and becoming the symbol and mainstay of an escalated Cold War. It was Kennedy’s impotence in the face of this master-stroke of communist brazenness, Kempe argues, that emboldened the Soviets to send missiles to Cuba and led to the famous confrontation between Kennedy and Krushchev in the following year.

Kempe’s account adds a depth and context to this key historical moment that enhances the reader’s understanding of European and Russian relations today, whether the Wall is something you remember or learned from history books. It is not revisionist – most historians would agree that a year which saw the Bay of Pigs and the failed Vienna summit was already a disaster for Kennedy before the Wall went up on August 13. But Kempe documents how the best and the brightest failed to heed a hoary Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, or a youthful Henry Kissinger, then an ambitious Harvard professor, to take a harder line against Soviet aggression.

And Kempe makes it all seem like it happened yesterday. His vivid descriptions of the personalities make them come alive on the page. His authoritative familiarity with both the big players and the small players allows the drama to come across. It seems like a time when titans walked the earth, as in a White House meeting of Soviet experts in February that brought together JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, and Averell Harriman, among others. On the opposing side, the portraits of Krushchev and East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker show how formidable the challenge was facing the administration.

The centerpiece of Kempe’s account is the actual operation to seal off West Berlin in one daring maneuver executed in the middle of the night on a single day in August. The Soviet and East German officials planned and executed a monumental task of erecting concrete and barbed wire barriers around the Western enclave without tipping their hand either to intelligence agencies, the media or an unsuspecting German public. The open borders in Berlin, thought to be guaranteed by the postwar four-power agreements, were allowing an unsustainable flow of refugees from the peasant and workers’ paradise of the German Democratic Republic to the capitalistic and prosperous Federal Republic. The ever greater number of refugees threatened the collapse of the East German economy and the unraveling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.

And so Ulbricht and Kruschev concocted the plan of building a Wall, willing to brave the flagrant violation of postwar treaties and the horrible publicity of imprisoning their own citizens in order to preserve their regime.

Kempe details the military precision of the operation, from the stockpiling of material, including hundreds of tons of barbed wire, to the top secret envelopes handed to military commanders on the eve of the operation itself. Kempe has marvelous details, like that fact that Honecker bought the barbed wire from West German and British suppliers and then removed and destroyed the labels showing the provenance in order to avoid a political backlash.

Kempe, the former editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, recounts the story of the lone Reuters correspondent stationed in East Berlin, who had a source tell him on Friday, August 11, “If I were you, and were planning to leave Berlin this weekend, I would not do so.” Reuters was thus alone in providing the world with some small foreshadowing that something was afoot.

The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, in his capacity has director of the U.S. Information Service, just happened to be in Berlin that weekend. Murrow, Kempe relates, toured a despairing East Berlin on that fateful Sunday after the barbed wire shut off all exit routes and “doubted whether his friend Kennedy understood the seriousness of the situation that had been spawned by his inaction.” Murrow cabled Kennedy that evening, predicting that the crisis would undermine confidence in the U.S. far beyond Berlin itself. “What is in danger of being destroyed here is that perishable quality called hope,” Murrow wrote perceptively and poignantly.

The iconic moments are here – the East German border guard throwing aside his rifle and leaping across the barbed wire to freedom, Kennedy announcing to throngs assembled before the Berlin city hall, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – but the beauty of this tale are the many hitherto unknown or unappreciated details, the background that tells us why this action of building a Wall in the middle of Berlin prolonged the Cold War for another three decades.

Kempe, who now as chief executive of the Atlantic Council of the United States is in the thick of transatlantic policymaking, has succeeded brilliantly in recreating the drama of one of the most important moments in U.S.-European relations. Beyond its relevance to today’s issues in transatlantic relations, his portrayal of political miscalculations in the fog of epoch-making events is truly cautionary given the critical global situations we face today.