Friday, December 30, 2011

With Wings like Eagles

The Battle of Britain ranks as significant no matter who writes about it. In Michael Korda’s detailed history the significance goes beyond the participants, especially Air Vice Marshal Dowding, to include many of the men who have become synonymous With “appeasement.”

Both Stanley Baldwin and his successor Neville Chamberlain are viewed as lacking the foresight to see that Adolf Hitler was preparing for war the entire time he was consolidating power in Germany. What is not recognized in characterizing these men in such fashion is that they were struggling against a revulsion to war that had come about with the loss of so many millions of British soldiers during World War I.

Even so, both men provided the money and got out of the way of the development of airplanes and men like Dowding who not only foresaw the best way to defend England from the inevitable air attack that was foreshadowed in H.G. Wells “The Shape of Things to Come,” in which he described a devastating and catastrophic rain of explosives from the sky.

As the rearmament of Germany proceeded along with Hitler’s grand scheme to invade and conquer the low countries of The Netherlands and Belgium, various elements of the defense of England were coming together in the development of both the Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes, the perfection and deployment of radar stations and the strategic installation of telephone communication and hardened focal points from which the fighter defenses were to be coordinated.

On the other side, Herman Goring was acquiring more power, but his peculiar self-aggrandizement would have telling consequences in the air battle that would determine whether or not Nazi Germany would invade England.

Various decisions among the Nazi leaders led to the development of airplanes that were not adequate for the conquest of the air over the English Channel and England itself. The Stuka dive-bomber was an excellent machine, but was much too slow to evade destruction by English fighter planes. The two-engine “Destroyer” was supposed to be a fighter plane in its own right, but was no match for the nimble Hurricane or Spitfire flown by adroit pilots.

As the summer of 1940 progressed both sides prepared for the titanic struggle that would become the legendary Battle of Britain.

Dowding had numerous fights he had to win before his grand strategy of protecting England could reach fruition: He had to convince Winston Churchill that there was a minimum figure of fighters needed to protect the skies over their country (Churchill, leaning toward sending more fighter planes to France to help the French crush the onslaught of the Nazi armor even though the fighter planes only had bullets that would be totally ineffective against tanks); he had to make sure that there were enough planes available; he had to somehow ensure that there would be enough pilots to man those planes; and finally he had to make sure that all his sub-commanders would follow his grand plan to lay waste to the Luftwaffe before the Germans could do the same to his air armada.

As the battle progressed, it appeared as though the English might be holding their own, but the German commanders knew that to defeat the English air arm they had to put their airfields out of commission. Mistakes were made on both sides, but with the narrowest of margins, the English pilots prevailed.

Korda tries to give the reader a sense of the drama of the fight as well as the real numbers of planes, pilots and damage that actually occurred. He succeeds in what he attempted (to write a coherent history of that part of World War II) and gives the reader a feeling that the time spent reading his book was time well spent.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Emile Zola wanted to write to escape the grinding poverty he and his family endured during the 19th Century in France. This novel was his first attempt at achieving fame and fortune.

The story opens in an entertainment venue that the operator calls his “bordello.” Nana is the star in a play that attempts to show the foibles of various gods and goddesses. Nana plays Venus in a very risqué costume that delights the male attendees. Her voice, however, is less than stellar but is ruled adequate given the beauty of her body.

In the next chapter we are given detailed descriptions of a dinner that Nana hosted to show that she had come up to the level of the lower aristocracy in France. The dinner turned out to be somewhat of a fiasco since more people showed up than were invited.

To show how the real aristocracy viewed the goings on in the theater, the next chapter shows the effete ins and outs of various members of the nobility. Nana is not viewed as persona grata.

Nana wants no more of the stifling atmosphere of Paris so she adjourns to a country house that she has purchased. Many of her acquaintances accompany her. One of the young admirers whose mother is a member of the nobility has a tryst with Nana who puts off an older member of high society to “mother” the young man who has become her lover.

Returning to Paris she is pursued by a member of the nobility who is a cuckold and is below contempt as far as Nana is concerned. He attempts to bring her around to his way of thinking that they should have a relationship. She wants no part of it and informs him of his wife’s infidelities, giving him the address of the place where the tryst is taking place.

Abruptly in chapter 8 Nana takes up a conjugal relationship with Fontan, one of the men who has been pursuing her. She refuses to take up the offer of the creditors who want her to move back to her old apartment. She is “in love” and wants to relive her youth with its virginal take on life.

The relationship sours quickly but Nana accepts the beatings she gets as well as having to sell herself to get money to maintain the household (makes for juicy 19th century reading).

In an abrupt turnabout Nana returns to the stage and all the problems associated with that aspect of her life. Fontan is also an actor and she has to deal with their ruptured relationship along with the other ins and outs of the theater.

Zola strains the reader’s credulity when he takes Nana from a down and outer to one of the leading lights in Parisian society. His rationale is that she could portray a member of high society on the stage but she could do so in real life.

More ups and downs as Nana moves from one stratum of society to the next. She is never satisfied with who she is or what she has.

Ultimately Nana dies and Zola describes the intimate details of her ravaged body as it is inspected by some of those that knew her in life, but who have other things on their minds as shown by the refrain “To Berlin, to Berlin, to Berlin.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Last Train to Paradise

Flagler. The name is reminiscent of someone who did something, but what? That association would be common among those who were not familiar with either the history of Standard Oil or Key West.

Les Standiford plunged into discovering exactly what Henry M. Flagler did both as the driving force in Standard Oil and more importantly as the implacable dreamer who wanted to see his dream of a railroad that reached from Miami (then a hiccough on the east coast of Florida) to Key West (then the most metropolitan city in Florida). The only others who were remotely interested in a link between these two cities were either lacking sufficient funds, expertise or political clout to get the first steel tied to a wooden tie.

If you wish to read  my complete comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson was curious about how an American would view the rise of the Nazi phenomenon and its star attraction, Adolf Hitler, so he delved into the posting of Ambassador Dodd, a reluctant and somewhat frugal college professor, and his family to the prestigious post in Berlin.

If you wish to read  my complete comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital: