I had promised a different piece this week, but had a friend and his wife stop in for the weekend and that threw me off my game. They were up from Paso Robles, California, where they raise wine grapes – Syrah, Petite Syrah — on a magnificent chunk of the central coast, and also to pick up some elk meat I’d been holding for them in our freezer since our hunt last fall. And, as things go, the weekend vanished in an insalubrious 72-hour fete that left me feeling like I’d spent the weekend with Robert Plant and the boys in some second-go at Hammer of the Gods.
I’m getting too old for that shit — and for the making excuses for it — and mostly it is counter-productive to the business of writing. That said, the work I promised is underway and continues – research is at a premium in this piece. But in the meantime I thought I’d toss a few recommendations your way: two memoirs and a fascinating historical read you won’t want to miss.
First up is Bomber Pilot, by Philip Ardery. Ardery was a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross (twice) recipient from the second-world war. He flew in the raid over the oil refineries of Ploesti, where 53 airplanes and 446 airmen were lost, finished numerous missions over North Africa and Europe, and eventually returned home to Kentucky where he lawyered out the rest of his life. Self-deprecating to a fault, with a terrific eye for exactly the right detail, Ardery puts the reader in the cockpit of those giant Liberators as they did their bit against the Nazi’s. Want to know what the life was like? Read this book.
Next is Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser. Fans of the Flashman series will know of Fraser, and his razor wit, which he puts to good use in this memoir of his experiences with the British 14thArmy, last of the Border Guards, in the fight for Burma. Fraser builds his memoir around the experiences of his Nine Section, which he would later come to lead, and writes brilliantly about his experiences fighting the Japanese to clear the road south to Rangoon. From craits, monsoons, and centipedes, to Japanese ambushes and banzai attacks, from his love-affair with the Lee-Enfield to his laugh out loud funny experience teaching an Asiatic British officer how to employ the Piat, an unwieldy British anti-tank gun, one need look no further than John Keegan’s review: “No doubt one of the great memoirs of the Second World War.” If Keegan, who is the finest military historian to have graced the earth, says it, you can take it to the bank. Which is what I did, and I can assure you the deposit will put a very large smile on your face for years to come. Fraser also has some choice moments for revisionist historians, which are frankly overdue, under publicized, and terribly important as we go about this business of thinking critically. He spares no venom for those who would question the use of the atomic bomb, and with a Scotsman’s flair. Read this book.
Finally, do whatever it takes to get your hands on God’s Wolf, by Jeffrey Lee. Lee took a degree from Oxford in Arab and Islamic History, and this book is a fabulous read concerning the life of Reynald de Chatillon, a lower-level Frank crusader who took his show on the road and became the scourge of Islam during the Second Crusade. Reynald has been sadly disparaged by many, including the chroniclers who were his contemporaries, but also by modern historians — who tend to inject contemporary thinking into ancient scenarios and therefore invent bizarre conclusions. But Lee takes another look and concludes that Monsieur de Chatillon was something quite beyond his soiled reputation. So much so that, during the late unpleasantness with modern Islamists, Al Qaida addressed their FedEx bomb, programmed to detonate over Chicago, to Mr. Chatillon, some 800 years after his beheading by Saladin. He certainly left an impression on the Islamists of his own era, and this book explores why and how. Students of the crusades — I am one, will find in this eminently readable book, which makes a terrific companion piece to Peter Frankopan’s writings on the Crusades and the Silk Roads, a quiet little masterpiece of history.
That is all. Do with this what you must. And for now, I am back to reading about The culleus, which was the Roman practice of confining an inmate into a sack with an ape, a dog, and a serpent, and throwing the whole works into the ocean. It was a punishment reserved for those who had killed close relatives, but a punishment nonetheless, which is part and parcel of the work I keep promising.