So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Auschwitz Volunteer

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery by Captain Witold Pilecki

The Auschwitz Volunteer is a newly available English translation of a report written by Witold Pilecki, a Polish military officer, in the late summer of 1945 about the 3 years he spent inside the Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940-1943. Auschwitz was young then: Pilecki was on the second transport of prisoners to what had been a Polish cavalry base converted by the Germans into a camp for Polish prisoners. When the first transport was sent, Pilecki volunteered to infiltrate the prison, organize resistance, and send out reports. His was the second group of prisoners to arrive.

As a military report this work is extremely well written. Advised to "stick to bare facts without any kind of commentary," he has created a memoir that reveals not only the horror of Auschwitz, but also the soul of this brave man. Through his eyes, we see the infamous camp develop and grow. We learn how he and others survived and organized, preparing for a revolt that never became a reality.

Right after writing this Polish narrative of World War II, Pilecki went back to Poland to carry out intelligence operations for the Allies and the Polish government in exile. Rather than becoming a war hero, he was arrested in May 1947, convicted of activities against the state, and killed by the Polish communist government. After decades of silence and ostracism, this important memoir has finally become available in English.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Mandingo by Kyle Onstott

First published in 1959, before the civil rights movement had changed much in the USA, Mandingo is a book that takes a harsh and simplistic view of slavery in the 1830's South. As the author recreates this period, slaves are animals to be bred, worked, and sold as the owners see fit. The N-word is used frequently, and slaves are represented as simple-minded and devoted to their owners. Bored by their rural life, young white men enjoy sex with their female slaves and wagering on fights between their most muscular male slaves. Slave breeding and prices are about the only things that the plantation owners seem to have enough knowledge about and interest to discuss.

Hammond Maxwell is 18 years old and an only child. His mother died when he was young, and his father is disabled by rheumatism. He and his father Warren are the only whites on a large Alabama plantation. Since he reached puberty he has had his choice of bedmates from the slaves of the plantation. His father is pressuring Hammond to marry his cousin Blanche, who he hasn't seen since she was a baby, and who lives on a distant plantation. Although Hammond has had many children by his female slaves, his father is looking for a white child who can be an heir to their plantation, Falconhurst. Blanche's father is eager to arrange a match because he is deep in debt and hopes to secure a "loan" from Hammond in exchange for his parental approval. Hammond, on his side is willing to do his duty to provide his father with progeny, but finds sex with slaves much more satisfying than with his wife. Blanche, neglected by a husband who finds more time for his pure-bred Mandingo fighter than for her, turns to drink and eventually to infidelity to ease her loneliness.

The plot is simplistic and the characters two-dimensional. One would hope that the author portrayed them that way intentionally rather than through lack of skill. In either case, the reader gets a glimpse into the dehumanizing effects of slavery on both the owner and the owned. This is a difficult book that gives a harsh glimpse at a brutal way of life.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Flying Cars, Amphibious Vehicles and Other Dual Mode Transports: An Illustrated Worldwide History

Flying Cars, Amphibious Vehicles and Other Dual Mode Transports: An Illustrated Worldwide History, by George W. Green

This book provides six chapters of varying lengths on different forms of dual mode vehicles: Road-Air (126 pp.), Amphibious (53 pp.), Road-Rail (6 pp.), Water-Air (10 pp.), Other Duals (3 pp.) and, Triphibious (11 pp.). Within each chapter, the vehicles are listed chronologically. Many entries are brief paragraphs listing the inventor and a short description of the vehicle's significant features. More significant vehicles have longer descriptions listing important achievements and accompanied by photos and illustrations.

Vehicles are carefully designed for specific uses. Designing a vehicle for such radically different uses as flying and driving is a challenge that has captured the attention of many designers. This is an interesting engineering history of the main attempts that have been made in this area.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Carlovingian Coins

The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne by Eugene Sue

The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne by Eugene Sue, set in the 9th century, is the 9th volume of a history of France in novel form. The first part takes place is the court of Charlemagne at Aix-la Chapelle in the year 811 where two Gauls, old Amael and his grandson Vortigern, are hostages taken by Charlemagne's Frankish troops in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Brittany. Charlemagne attempts to convince them of the benefits to Brittany were they to capitulate and become a part of his vast empire. They argue back for their independence, saying if he did conquer, they would never submit, and constantly be preparing a revolt that would be a drain on him. They convince him to leave Brittany alone so he can focus his resources on other enemies.

Part two takes place 7 years later when Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious attacks Brittany, and shows Vortigern leading the fierce resistance of the Gallic people defending their last homeland.

Amael, who is now ancient, was the young warrior of the previous novel in the series, The Abbatial Crosier, which was set set in the year 737 AD. Each book stands on its own, but together they show the ongoing struggle between the native Gauls of France and their Frankish conquerors.

The Age of Charlemagne is the watershed of the history of the present era. The rough barbarian flood that poured over Western Europe reaches in that age a turning point of which Charlemagne is eminently the incarnation. The primitive physical features of the barbarian begin to be blunted, or toned down by a new force that has lain latent in him, but that only then begins to step into activity—the spiritual, the intellectual powers. The Age of Charlemagne is the age of the first conflict between the intellectual and the brute in the principal branches of the races that occupied Europe. The conflict raged on a national scale, and it raged in each particular individual. The colossal stature, physical and mental, of Charlemagne himself typifies the epoch. Brute instincts of the most primitive and savage, intellectual aspirations of the loftiest are intermingled, each contends for supremacy—and alternately wins it, in the monarch, in his court and in his people.
The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne is the ninth of the brilliant series of historical novels written by Eugene Sue under the title, The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages. The age and its people are portrayed in a charming and chaste narrative, that is fittingly and artistically brought to a close by a veritable epopee—the Frankish conquest of Brittany, and, as fittingly, serves to introduce the next epopee— the Northman's invasion of Gaul—dealt with in the following story, The Iron Arrow Head; or, The Buckler Maiden.
Daniel De Leon.
New York, May, 1905.