19 January 2009

Churchill in Four Colors - Review of 'The Happy Warrior'

The Happy Warrior: The Life Story of Sir Winston Churchill, as told through Great Britain's Eagle comic of the 1950s by Clifford Makins

This book is an interesting primary source material, but I'm having some trouble understanding exactly who the target audience is. The volume is primarily a compilation of comic-book style pages from the British boys magazine 'Eagle' from the 1950s. Pulled together into a single binding, 'The Happy Warrior' becomes a graphic-novel biography of Winston Churchill. This collection runs from his boyhood through adventures in India, Egypt, South Africa, the Western Front in WWI France, and British politics before spending the second half on his WWII leadership (leaving off his Cold War influences).

This graphical section is quite effective in showing how Churchill was viewed, especially in Britain, before more critical histories of his life and leadership were published. The problem with the volume falls in other sections. An overly long introduction gives the reader an history of the 'Eagle' magazine and a blow-by-blow description of what aspects of Sir Winston's life made it into the biography and what sections were omitted at the time, and perhaps why. From the tone, the author of this section doesn't seem to know whether he is speaking to the children (now grown) who read the 'Eagle' pages in their original form, speaking to those who had never heard of the 'Eagle' before (including me), or defending Churchill (and Churchill hero-worship) before some kind of historical jury. At the end is appended the entire Wordsworth poem "Character of the Happy Warrior" -- which I have to admit I couldn't bring myself to read. The net effect is a bit jarring.

As I've said before, I am a sucker for pulp, and Sir Winston's life sometimes reads like 'Alan Quartermain and the End of the Empire!' If you were trying to create a leader to lead a Britain who stands alone before Nazi Germany in the Fall of 1940, you really couldn't think of a better background than Churchill's.

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13 January 2009

Hiding in the House Under a Crazy Star - Review of "The Zookeeper's Wife"

Would you take someone into your home to save their life? What if getting caught meant you'd be killed, and so would your whole family?

Anyone who answeres with a quick 'Yes' to this question is a fool.

OK, there are two kinds of fools here. There are those who will would get everyone killed by their quick decsion. Then there are those fools who will do the right thing becasue it is the right thing, and then rearrange their lives to fit that decision.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a harrowing (non-fiction) tale of the an intellectual Polish family who risk everything to hide enemies of Nazi Germany (mostly Jews, but others as well) in Warsaw under occupation. The amazing thing about the book is how light-hearted it comes across. Ackerman has a real skill for conjuring the presence of her title character, Antonina. Even with all the stresses of daily Polish life under German rule, we can feel Antonina's effusive personality flowing through her crazy household.

I think that this story would make a particularly good match to more scholarly histories of the occupation of Warsaw, such as Norman Davies' Rising '44. Neither one is going to make you feel good about humanity (or maybe it will if you see defiance and perseverence as outweighing atrocity), but together they paint a deep picture of the Polish capital under seige, both physical and personal.

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