Each month in 2009, I am reading two books (minimum), and posting reviews. One of these books must be "real," in that it cannot be about zombies or musicians.
I will rank the books on a zero to five Laser Pants Bookie Icon scale, zero being the nadir of the written word.
This month: Mollie & Other War Pieces by A.J. Liebling, and Silent Steel by Stephen Johnson.
Look for an independent bookstore at which to purchase these tomes here. I like Atomic Books in Baltimore best.
Mollie & Other War Pieces
by A.J. Liebling
Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):
Legendary New Yorker correspondent Abbott Joseph Liebling covered a variety of manly topics for that publication starting in 1935, from boxing to politics to war. This book is a compendium of some of his World War II coverage from 1943 and 1944, in northern Africa and the English Channel. The character (literally) who gives the book its title is Karl ("Molotov" or "Mollie") Warner, a peculiar sort of soldier whom Liebling learns about only upon his death. Warner hated rules and the drab uniform of the Army and following orders; he loved making deals, playing cards, dereliction of duty, and using his head in that most illogical of situations, war.
One soldier related Mollie's most legendary exploit to Liebling:
"Like this one time on the road to Maknassy [in southern Tunisia], the battalion was trying to take some hills and we were getting no place. They were just Italians in front of us, but they had plenty of stuff and they were in cover and we were in the open. Mollie stands right up, wearing the cape and the beret with the feather, and he says, 'I bet those Italians would surrender if somebody asked them to. What the hell do they want to fight for?' he says. So he walks across the minefield and up the hill to the Italians, waving his arms and making funny motions, and they shoot at him for a while and then stop, thinking he is crazy. He goes up there yelling 'Veni qua!' which he says afterward is New York Italian for 'Come here!,' and 'Feeneesh la guerre!,' which is French, and when he gets to the Italians he finds a soldier who was a barber in Astoria but went home on a visit and got drafted in the Italian Army, so the barber translates for him and the Italians say sure, they would like to surrender, and Mollie comes back to the lines with five hundred and sixty-eight prisoners."
Liebling researches this tale and discovers that it was, essentially, true.
The second recommended part of the book recounts Liebling's coverage of the D-Day operations on June 6, 1944, aboard a small troop carrying ship. It's tense and horrific and compact, and a fine snapshot of the largest amphibious invasion in history.
The rest can't hold up to the legend of Mollie, alas. In fact, the final section of the book, in which Liebling painstakingly recreates the events leading up to the oafish murder of a small group of French civilians by confused and stupid German troops, proved to be such a tiny stain upon the vile tapestry of travesties and nightmares that the Nazis would later be discovered to have inflicted upon humanity that it seems almost rude.
So, read this book for the legend of Mollie, and the D-Day sections. I'm only rating it on those parts, which is a cop out, but I make the rules around here.
The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion
By Stephen Johnson
Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):
On May 22, 1968, the USS Scorpion suffered some sort of fatal incident that sank the nuclear-powered submarine, taking the lives of 99 sailors. A definitive reason for the accident has never been established, despite many men and women having devoted years to the investigation. Stephen Johnson, who wrote about the disaster for the Houston Chronicle, has followed the most promising trails to their ends in this book. Suspects include a torpedo that somehow circled back and destroyed the boat; a malfunctioning torpedo; a reactor problem; and even a crappy garbage disposal (one that literally chewed up the mess hall's garbage and ejected it from the sub. Really? They couldn't just keep it in a bucket? I mean, this thing has a tube that leads to the hull! For garbage! I know!).
The research Johnson undertook for this book is beyond reproach; if any question ever arose in either testimony or the written record, it seems that he chased it down. And there's lots of great detail and recreation of what life was like for the men who crewed these nuclear-powered behemoths during the Cold War, often through ocean floors that had not been properly charted (the Scorpion suffered several dings as a result of plowing into unmarked undersea mounts).
While the research and the recreations are great, too often it seems that Johnson is leading us down the path to the real reason for the sub's demise only to have it revealed as yet another dead end or faulty theory. After the third instance of this, I started to get a little cranky as we investigated (very, very thoroughly) what I knew to be an ultimately fruitless idea. It kinda ticked me off. The U.S. Navy's secrecy (warranted) in the matter doesn't help things, as Johnson manages to reveal a lot of previously unknown pieces of information, but must deal with redacted and secret elements that stymie the investigative work.
But there are plenty of interesting, arresting, and humanizing elements in this book. The sailors and officers are filled in as real people, with quirks and fears and opinions and flaws that make the ultimate reasons for the accident as unclear and gray as life in general.