Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm

Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.

 

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton

In the times of European colonization, the Spice Islands were a hot spot of trade.  The small archipelago is found surrounded by the Philippines to the North, Indonesia to the West, Papua-New Guinea to the East, and Australia to the South.  The islands are protected by reefs and steep, rocky coastlines, but their soils produced a wealth of spices, mainly nutmeg.  In the Sixteenth Century, European nations were pointed in the direction of these islands by traders near India.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Britain were the major countries pushing to find the source of the spices, which would reduce their cost and increase their profits, if the ships could survive the journey in between monsoons, hurricanes, and a murderous reef protecting the shoreline.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg took a strong focus in the English accounts of the period, but also provided a lot of Dutch perspective as well. These were the two main forces battling for control of the small islands.  Stories in letters from the time and company records were used to research and piece together the perilous adventures the seamen made.  While both sides were apt to brutality, this account puts the brunt of accusation on the Dutch, who even forced false confessions of an English uprising through relentless torture in Amboyna.

The book’s namesake, Nathaniel Courthope, a British subject, held control of the island, Run. For over four years, his forces starved as the nearby islands were controlled by the enemy Dutch forces.  With three ships left in the harbor, guns unloaded to fortify the island, two sailed away to secure provisions and were captured by the Dutch.  Nathaniel was trapped.  He attempted to sneak over to a nearby island to rally some troops and he was ambushed in the middle of the night in his small boat, never to be seen again.  The handful of British men left on Run gave up the island to the Dutch unopposed.

Much of the world’s history has been involved in the tale of these small islands. The book delved into the stories of adventures to find the fabled shortcuts to the islands, the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage.  It told the story of the creation of the East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, better known as the Seventeen.  It also told of how the Dutch and British came to a final agreement to settle ownership of the spice laden island of Run.  British forces captured New Amsterdam in the late Seventeenth Century, and both sides agreed to hold the respective colonies they acquired and to give up claim for the lost land in the Treaty of Breda.  This gave the English full sovereignty of New Amsterdam, which they quickly renamed New York and the rest is history.

The book was well researched and told of many aspects of the adventures seeking fortune in the spice trade.  With over two hundred years of stories, it was at times difficult to follow all of the names of the merchants and captains, along with the names of the distant islands, some now so small and insignificant they are hardly mentioned on maps. Even so, I really enjoyed learning about this subject and the book was a good source for that.

*******7/10

Twitter: @blookworm

Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story – Paul Aurandt

Hearing ‘The Rest of the Story’ programs by Paul Harvey was always a treat.  It has been several years since I’ve heard one on the radio.  I found this book last year and finally picked it up off the shelf and read it.  Most of the anecdotes are about 2-3 pages, all of them were interesting.  I’ll share a few here that I found especially captivating, without his signature suspense…

Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named for Butch O’Hare, a WWII hero, the Navy’s number-one ace, and the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The rest of the story centers around Butch’s father.  Artful Eddie worked for Al Capone in the 1920’s Chicago and lived comfortably.  He had no reason to turn on the master crook, but he did.  He made a decision to go straight for his son.  Capone’s men ended up killing Butch’s dad but without going against Capone, Artful Eddie’s son might not have ever had the opportunity to be the war hero he became.

A novel named ‘Futility’ described a gigantic ship which sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic.  The ship’s name was Titan, and along with the name and demise, it also shared similar dimensions to the real-life Titanic. With all of the similarities, ‘Futility’ is still considered a work of non-fiction, with no copyright infringements.  The reason is because the book was written in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic set off on it’s fateful voyage.

In New Zealand, an old salt known as Pelorus Jack was known for leading vessels through the dangerous Cook Straight.  For years Jack led many boats through the challenging waters for no fee, as a kind of retirement.  After a long time in service, Jack disappeared and many knew that his time had come.  The rest of the story is that the Maori natives had a story that two men fell for the same maiden.  The one who lost the woman went into a rage and killed the other man and woman. The punishment was for the man to forever be reincarnated to be the Pilot of Pelorus Sound.  Jack was a Dolphin, and many of the locals believed he was this reincarnation.

All of the stories had that Paul Harvey signature, a very enjoyable feel of suspense as you read.  As the stories are all short, it makes is so difficult not to glance at the end of the story and reveal the rest of the story too soon!  This was a great read and different twist on history.

Rating: *********9/10

Twitter: @blookworm