Doing Democracy

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Rick Atkinson chose the title of his new book—The British Are Coming—not because those words ever crossed Paul Revere’s lips (Atkinson says he was much more likely to have said “The regulars are coming!” since pretty much everyone in the Colonies was British).

Instead, he chose it because at the outset of hostilities between Britain and its rebellious American colonies, the British were indeed coming, across more than 3000 miles of ocean, and in force, with their huge navy determined to defeat the colonists through seapower.

Recently, he gave a lively presentation about his new book at Washington Crossing State Park—an appropriate venue, because it’s where General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his men in preparation for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. These were the first major battles won by the colonists in the Revolutionary War. And those victories gave the colonists new hope, at a time when hope had been “all but extinguished” by their losses.

Atkinson devoted some time to reflecting on the Founding Fathers. They weren’t flawless, he said, and in recent years some of their flaws—owning slaves, especially—have been emphasized more than their accomplishments. Writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were certainly making more a statement of aspiration than of fact. Many groups (not only slaves, but Native Americans, women, indigents, and others) were not treated equally under the laws of 1775.

Nevertheless, he emphasized, no other country in the world was doing what the Founding Fathers were doing at that time, as they worked to free themselves from Britain and toward achieving a “more perfect union” among vastly different colonies. And so, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, our nation’s creation story has remained vivid and compelling to people across continents.

We learn several things by examining those early days, he says: the nation was born bickering; we thought certain truths were self-evident; good leadership was vital; and whatever trials we face today as a country, we’ve been through worse. In November 1776, General Nathanael Greene lost Manhattan’s Fort Washington to the British. After this terrible setback, when he said to his wife “be of good courage,” he was speaking to us, Atkinson said.

When he started researching this book, the author had access to a new trove of archival material, including letters and memoranda written by George III himself. He has a knack for unearthing the telling incident that illuminates a bigger story and using a modest amount of statistics in a compelling way. One new (to me) set of statistics he gave showed the difficulties the British soldiers faced. Of the hundreds of ships sent from England to bring provisions to its troops, huge numbers were lost. The animals aboard died. The flour and supplies were spoiled. As one example, of 550 Lincolnshire sheep sent, only 40 survived the long voyage.

The insight that most startled him as he worked on this 564-page volume was the strength of the myths the British held about America and the war. Certainly not King George, nor any of his ministers, ever set foot in this country, where conditions were very different than at home. Our population was growing at four times England’s rate; two-thirds of white colonial men owned land, while in England only one man in five did; and two-thirds were literate and could vote, compared to one Englishman in six. And, because Americans lived in a frontier society, they were heavily armed.

The British leaders had an even more dangerous blind spot. They didn’t realize the extent to which Americans, isolated from their mother country by an entire ocean, had simply become accustomed to governing themselves.

A point Atkinson made several times, including in the context of the political upheavals we face today, is that “Democracy is never done. It is always something we must be doing.”

If Rick Atkinson is coming to your area, don’t miss him!

Painting by William Tylee Ranney:  “George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton”; from https://www.goodfreephotos.com, public domain.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

Vittoria Colonna: A Renaissance Woman

Never heard of her, you say? Well, she was born a long time ago, in 1490, engaged at the age of three to a Spaniard, Fernando Francesco d’Ávalos, and married to him at age 15. They had no children and she saw little of him during their marriage, as he was off fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He died when she was 35.

Now a widow, with her parents also dead, Vittoria was her own boss, and she became the first woman poet published in Italy. At first she wrote love sonnets to her husband. It seems she adored him—who conspicuously did not love her—more after his death than during life. She wanted to become a nun, but Pope Clement refused—needing her to control the whims of her troublesome brother. Because of her wealthy background, she knew all the important people of her age.

Vittoria was a friend of the intellectual Marguerite de Navarre, became perhaps the closest friend of Michelangelo and fell into platonic love with Cardinal Pole, another neglected Renaissance character. Reginald Pole was an Englishman, exiled by Henry VIII because he opposed The Divorce. Pole was only two votes away from becoming Pope  in the mid-1500s and became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury after Henry’s death.

Vittoria’s later poems were devotional, not romantic, and it’s ironic that Michelangelo, also a skilled poet, wrote love poems to her, while she did not write them to him. She died in 1547.

Her story was especially interesting because of a course I took last winter about the importance of the few highly educated women in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the cultural lives of Italy and France, despite the strength of those patriarchical societies. They may not have had many rights, but they figured out a way to have influence. Vittoria herself inspired many women poets, who credited her with paving the way for them. The result was that, by 1599, Italy had 200 published women poets, compared to, say, England, with 12.

This is based on a presentation by Brandeis professor Ramie Targoff in Princeton last night. She’s the author of Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna. Writing in the New York Times, author Sarah Dunant said, “What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience.” Certainly the audience that heard her story last night in Princeton would agree.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

20 Miles, 200 Varieties, Millions of Blooms * A Visit to the Met

New Jersey Tulip Festival

Monday’s drizzle didn’t deter the tulip-lovers at Holland Ridge Farm, whose motto is “Don’t fly to Holland. Drive to Holland.” While I’ve studied the Facebook pix from friends who went to Keukenhof Gardens this spring with great envy, I realized, you know, we have tulips in New Jersey! This IS the Garden State.

On more than 150 acres in the community of Cream Ridge, Holland Ridge Farm devotes 50 acres to its colorful stripes of tulips, the largest tulip farm on the East Coast. The owners have brought their fields to the point that the farm now has an annual Tulip Festival, in full bloom this month. There must have been hundreds of people there, strolling the grounds, smiling, but the areas is so large, it never felt crowded (Easter Sunday was another story, I’ll bet).

Gift shop, café, U-pick opportunities, hayrides around the fields, and lots more, with more tulips every year! While a leisurely walk around the tulip beds may seem an old-fashioned, almost quaint pursuit, the farm’s FAQs offer a sign of the times: No, you cannot fly your drone over the tulip fields.

Only an hour from Philadelphia and New York, getting there entails a lovely drive through farmland and past horse farms. Buy tickets online.

Metropolitan Museum

Last weekend in Manhattan we saw the Met’s “The World Between Empires” exhibit, “art and identity in the Ancient Middle East,” on view through June 23. Some of those empires I’d never even heard of before, so I definitely learned something. The exhibit focuses on the Middle East conflict between the Roman and Parthian empires.

The art and objects of the period (c. 100 BCE – AD 250) came from the civilizations along the great trade routes and show the influences of Arabea, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Says The Wall Street Journal, “Nothing short of spectacular.”

Photos: Vicki Weisfeld

Two Promising Thrillers

When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.

***Secrets of the Dead

By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.

Secrets of the Dead begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.

Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a jaywalking ticket in Cairo.

Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not very realistic.

Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of everlasting life.

Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally welcome.

***Pretense

By John Di Frances This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller, the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates disenchantment with the European Unionthe assassination targets are big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be murdering top chefs or social media gurus.

The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way) and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of 640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.

The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16 variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!

The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that. Link to Amazon.

Photo: Ron Porter from Pixabay.

****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.