Monday, May 19, 2014

Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

Winston Churchill is one of the giants of the twentieth century.  I've heard and read about him all my life.  He's always been a figure that fascinated me and whom I admired.  So it came to me that I needed to buckle down and read a good biography of him.  Where did he come from?  What made him great and how exactly did he run England's government so that they successfully, with the US and Russia, won WWII?

Jenkins biography successfully answers all of these questions and more.

I realized that I knew very little about the man other than the famous photo of him glaring out of the picture with a cigar clenched between his teeth and that he was Prime Minister during WWII. 

I think I had projected too much of my American culture on him.  I assumed he came from an ordinary family, was a self-made man who had the brilliance and daring do to get his country in and out of a war, coming out on top.

Nothing of the sort.  Churchill was born into aristocracy.  His mother was an American, Brooklyn born and raised, nee Jeanette Jerome.  Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she married Lord Randolph Churchill, becoming Lady Randolph Churchill.

His mother took away any notions I had that aristocracy equated noble and honorable moral standing.  According to Jenkins and other sources, she had numerous lovers while married to Lord Randolph and, after he died, she married another man who was the same age as her son, Winston.

 She had little to do with his upbringing (who has the time with an active social life?) yet he idolized her.  As an adult he kept up a faithful correspondence with her until her death in 1921.  She encouraged his  prodigious writing and the publishing of his books. 

Churchill was 66 years old when he became Prime Minister the first time and had quite the adventurous life before that.  He fought in the Boer War, became a prisoner of war, escaped and continued to fight.  No one can accuse Churchill of lacking courage.

It was that kind of strong willed and determined character that got him into Parliament where he held several different offices, ultimately becoming Prime Minister.  That and his blinding wit.  Churchill's speeches are still legendary. 

Jenkins describes his complicated relationships with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. The descriptions of how the three of them carefully negotiated and danced around each other in order to defeat the Germans is very interesting.  It was strange to read about England's Prime Minister and America's president wining and dining such a tyrant as Stalin.  But I guess it's easy to judge through the lens of time.

Churchill's relationships with Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were equally interesting. He worked most closely with Roosevelt, briefly with Truman during and after WWII, and as much as he could with Eisenhower-who didn't care for him- during the Cold War.  In a nutshell, he was thrilled with none of them but wasn't stupid.  He needed them and they needed him as well, although Eisenhower was fairly indifferent. This was largely due to irreconcilable differences concerning nuclear weapons and their place as a war deterrent. 

The book is forty-six chapters long broken up into six parts.  It includes his personal as well as his professional relationships.  Churchill seems not to taken after his mother.  He was a devoted husband and father until his death in 1965.  He loved to vacation in France.  He made many friends in Parliament and also enemies.  His parleys and repartees to his political adversaries are good fun to read.

He is most known for rallying the English spirit by showing the gumption and backbone Chamberlain never possessed in dealing with Hitler.  He had the foresight to see through Hitler's rhetoric of "mutual peace" and understand his real malignant intentions, unlike most of the Western world that was bent on appeasing him.

Churchill ran and won Prime Minister once more in the 1951.  He stayed involved in Parliament and public life even after a series of strokes up until his death in 1965 at the age of ninety.

Jenkins' writing is in a flowing, novelistic style.  It contains a lot of information and it took me a while to read the book because it's so jam packed with detail.  It is only in one volume and is 912 pages long.  I've seen other biographies that are in three volumes.  I'm curious what they could possible include that Jenkins didn't because his biography is so thorough.  Part of me wants to read them to see how they compare.  The other part of me doesn't feel I have the time.  It took me over a year to read this single volume biography.

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was what a prolific writer Churchill was.  I have since bought his History of the English Speaking Peoples (which is in four volumes). Now that I've finally finished Jenkins' book I plan to climb that mountain.  I'll probably have a review ready in a couple of years (insert sarcastic laugh here).

All in all, I liked this book and, though a bit of a slog to get through, it is still a worth while read for anyone who is interested in WWII history and specifically of one of the greatest Prime Ministers (according to Jenkins, the greatest) in English history.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Outwitting History by Aaron Lanksy

Once again I must thank Zohar at Man of la Book  for reviewing a book I read based on his review of it.

Outwitting History is about a young man, Aaron Lansky,  who after graduating college in the early eighties developed an interest in his Jewish heritage and learning Yiddish.  This yearning led to a life long quest to collect as many Yiddish books as possible and save them from destruction and the Yiddish language from obsolescence.

Lanksy narrates in first person his mission as he and friends rush around the New York City area saving Yiddish books from garbage dumpsters, dusty attics, and even fisherman wharfs.  As his objective to save the literature of a dying language becomes known, requests start pouring in from around the country and even the globe to come retrieve Yiddish books from certain oblivion.

Lanksy describes the people who want to give him their books: elderly and from a bygone era.   They welcomed him and his friends into their house and forced traditional Jewish food on them.  He and his friends found early on that there was no such thing as picking up the books and immediately leaving.  There was a ritual of hospitality to be performed.  

As Lansky and company ate, these old people from an old country and dying culture regaled them with their stories.  The stories they told held a common theme:  Holocaust, pogroms, losing everything, displaced, learning to start over again in a new country.

Preserving Yiddish is a life long career for Lansky.  He fears that the language and the culture is disappearing.  His hope is to interest young Jewish people in learning the Yiddish language, and to be able to read the millions of Yiddish books he has helped collect and preserve over the last thirty years.

I would have liked a little more information on the books.  He spends minimal time describing the content of the books, although he lists many of the authors.  I gather that much of it is literature and folk lore.  I would be interested in reading English translations of them.

Of course, the argument brought up in the book is that translations are unreliable and books should only be read in their original language.  Be that as it may, realistically, if the books are going to be more widely read they need to be translated into vernacular languages.

A couple of things interested me that perhaps gave me insight into the Jewish mind.  Or least Aaron Lansky's mind.  He believed the only true culture of the Jews was the Yiddish culture.  Yes, Jews may have their roots in Judeasm and religion, but it's the Yiddish language and old European culture that produced it that defines Jewishness today. He describes  Jews that don't conform to this doctrine as "assimilated".

This brings up a provocative point.  Who has the authority to define others?  Must everyone of a certain ethnic background march in lockstep to a prescribed way of life or be considered outcast?  It seems to me that today there is a pervasive movement in many arenas, not only Jewish, but black and Hispanic communities and also the feminist movement where a certain group of individuals claim authority over the others of that category and take it upon themselves to narrowly define that culture or people group.  Those who don't conform are labeled traitors.

Another thing I found interesting was how the Jews who came to the United States from Europe were such loyal adherents to the Socialist and Communist ideologies.  Apparently after being thrown out or escaping from Soviet countries they wished to mirror the political pardigm of the countries they left.  I guess they don't see that the political structure of their home countries might be the reason they had to leave.

I wish Lansky had spent more time making real life individuals out of the people he writes about rather than lumping them all together as a single type.  I also wish he spent more time describing the individual books he was saving rather than lumping them all together as a type as well.

One final thing I took away from Lansky's book was the value on literature and reading that seems to be an integral of Jewish culture.  This is an attribute which causes me to hold Jews and Yiddish culture in great respect.

I wish Aaron Lansky success in preserving Yiddish literature.  May his efforts bear fruit in the next generation.

Further links:

Yiddish Book Center