Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President. Three days later, I read a nice piece in the Washington Post by Wil Haygood. "A Butler Well Served by this Election" was the too brief story of Eugene Allen, a Black butler who served eight presidents, retiring during the Reagan administration. Later, watching the inaugural on television, the camera panned to Allen, and a commentator mentioned he was there as a special guest of the President's. Allen must have had interesting stories, but he was discrete and I thought they had died with him in 2010.
I was thrilled to find "The Butler: A Witness to History" (2013) at the top of the Audible crawl. "Wow," I thought. "A story I always wanted to hear more of, and one of the narrators is Forest Whitaker!" I like his voice so much I'd listen to him reading a refrigerator repair manual. It was the fastest Audible purchase I've made, and I don't regret it.
I thought I would be listening to a lengthier biography of Allen, or perhaps a novelization of the movie, but "The Butler" book is really a companion to the movie. According to this book, the movie "The Butler" is partially fictionalized, and a dramatic conflict was created between Allen and a radicalized son. This book first discusses how Haygood came up with the original story idea, and his lovely interviews with Allen and his wife, Helene. The book discusses Allen's relationships with the presidents he served, but briefly -it's a short book. It also discusses the tragedy Allen honored to vote for Obama, and then his physical struggle to attend the inauguration.
There's also a section on the difficulty bringing "The Butler" to the screen. Oprah Winfrey discusses the history of Blacks in film, as actors, directors and producers. I am familiar with all of the actors she mentioned, but the directors in the 1920's and 30's were new to me.
I'm giving the book a story rating of "3" because, as an Audible, it wandered. I wasn't always sure what point was being raised.
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I started exploring WWII on Audible with Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance". I loved both, but I was left wondering "How much is true?" and "What is historically accurate?" An afterword in "War and Remembrance" assured me that the basic history was true, but I wasn't sure how much.
"Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945" answers my questions, from the American perspective: although the characters were fictional, the places and facts were true.
That's not to say that David M. Kennedy needs any assistance from the very capable Herman Wouk - he doesn't. Mr. Kennedy delves into a 16 year period that changed the United States in a crucial way. That period is only equalled by the American Revolution and the Civil War. In each case, the outcome determined the path of a nation.
Kennedy's description of macroeconomics (the economic relationship between nations) is especially adept. The exploration of the measures taken to relieve the dire economic straights the US was in at the time is clear. I can't say it was concise, because the actions themselves were not concise. "The New Deal" was a brave plan, but sub\bject to extensive political wrangling that finally collapsed during WWII.
I also found the discussion of the use of nuclear bombs against Japan fascinating. Having read John Hersey's "Hiroshima" more than a quarter century ago, I had longed believed that the Enola Gay's successful mission was as inexplicable as it was inexcusable. The use of such a horrific weapon is, after its use, grotesque and cruel - but not there was a reason for it.
I definitely recommend this book.
I have one criticism of the performance, and it's one I've never had of an Audible book before. The narration was faster than any other book I've listened to, and I would have like to have it about 15% slower. Of course, that would have made a 31 hour book into a 37 hour book.
In 1642, Dutch Golden Age Master Rembrandt van Rijn completed "The Night Watch". The three most important subjects of the painting are in sunlight, and the other 31 people - the military company of the two men in sunlight - are shaded, using a technique called chiaroscuro. Someone looking at "The Night Watch" quickly would notice the featured soldiers and the girl watching them, but miss the other people in the background, who are doing very interesting things - and make up most of the picture.
When I listened to Denise Kiernan's "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" (2013) I realized that I knew about the stars of the atomic program - Robert J. Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, General Leslie Groves - but the whole story of making the atomic bomb has been in chiaroscuro.
Kiernan focuses on the women involved in the project, from Caddy (spelling may be wrong, since I was listening), a black woman janitor who worked overtime to help buy a B-25 bomber; unskilled high school graduates recruited from the surrounding area; well educated female statisticians and scientists who, before the war, had been discouraged from their 'unsuitable choices' for degrees; to Lise Meitner, a German physicist of Jewish descent who fled Nazi Europe whose research on fission was crucial to engineering the bomb itself. Clinton Engineering Works (CEW) was the operation of huge plants that extracted enriched uranium. One of the largest plants was built by woman-owned HK Ferguson, Inc, in just 66 days.
These accomplishments are astounding - especially for blacks and women who were paid less for doing the same jobs as white men, because, after all . . . Well, they could. That was as stupid then as it is now. I was pretty saddened to hear that blacks were segregated both from whites, and men from women - even if they were married. One black man, injured in an accident, had medical experiments conducted on him without his consent. A very well qualified black scientist wasn't sent to Oak Ridge because he would have had to live in a Hutment (shack).
"The Girls of Atomic City" made me realize that, like a quick glance at "The Night Watch," I'd missed most of the picture - and I didn't even know it. It's a great listen.
About the audio - well, I wasn't wild about Cassandra Campbell's narration. Her character narration was good, and I particularly liked the Italian accent she needed to use for some people. However, on the explanatory prose - well, there's no reason to elongate one syllable words interminably.
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This is a horrifying and depressing story, but an important one. Richard Evans is a careful historian, not given to hyperbole and dramatic flourishes, and Sean Pratt matches his tone with a comfortable pace and even tone. Yet in its methodical way, the book lays out a gripping tale.
One point Evans makes is that the Nazis did NOT come to power democratically; they never won more than about 38% of the popular vote. Their victory was a result of PR, brutal street violence, and "backstairs intrigue," with their participation in the electoral process mostly for show. Once in, they proceeded to infiltrate and dominate every aspect of German society, down to the smallest blue-collar singing club in the smallest rural village. Everything was made to point in the same direction in a massive program of "coordination."
One of the most depressing aspects of this whole dismal saga, to me, is the way the Nazis were able to take over German culture, science, and higher education. Jewish musicians were fired; "non-Aryan" physicists and biologists were forced out of the universities and out of the country, to the great impoverishment of German science; philosophy was dominated by Martin Heidegger, who fully embraced the Nazi program. Gung-ho college students tore through bookshops and libraries, seizing "anti-German" material and throwing it onto a bonfire.
The book stops in the spring of 1933, just after the Nazi revolution and before the brown shirts were decimated in the "Night of the Long Knives." The second volume in the trilogy, "The Third Reich in Power," is available on Audible with the same narrator. (I'm going to wait a few weeks before I tackle that one: I need some time to recover from the first volume.)