Duck Duck Book

54 – the latke
05.19.2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The latke who couldn’t stop screaming : a Christmas story / by Lemony Snicket ; illustrations by Lisa Brown.
San Francisco : McSweeny’s Books ; c2007.
[MCL call number: j Holiday SNICKET; 17 copies, no holds]

Sometimes it is difficult to review a book with only words as tools. This book is short enough that if you were here, I could read it aloud to you, showing the pictures along the way like any good parent, babysitter, auntie, or children’s librarian. You would laugh, you might cry, and you would definitely learn some basic facts about the miracle of Hanukkah and how frustrating it is to be misunderstood.

But since this is not possible, perhaps you will take my very terse introduction to heart, seek out the book, and read it aloud to someone you know. Or ask them to read it to you.

[thanks, Markrid]


54 – berlin games
05.19.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Berlin Games : how the Nazis stole the Olympic dream / Guy Walters.
New York : William Morrow, c2006.
[MCL call number: 796.48 W235b 2006; one copy, two holds]

In the spring of 1931, twenty powerful men made their way to Barcelona for a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Their task was to decide which city would host the 1936 Olympic Games. Four were under serious consideration: Rome, Budapest, Barcelona, and Berlin. Italian members demurred that Rome was not ready to host the games in 1936, and the Hungarian representative voiced support for holding the games in Berlin. When the votes were finally counted (gathering them took several weeks, as many representatives voted by mail or telegram), Berlin was the clear winner, with 43 of 59 votes cast for the German capital.

In 1936, Spain held a general election, which resulted in the formation of a left-wing Popular Front government. The new Spanish government was sharply opposed to the politics and policies of Nazi Germany, and forbid Spanish athletes from participating in the Berlin Olympics — so they organized an alternative festival, to be held in Barcelona: the People’s Olympic Games. The People’s Olympics were planned for July 19-26, but a few short days before the games were to commence right-wing Nationalists, who controlled most of the Spanish army, began the rebellion that became the Spanish Civil War. By July 19, they held several cities and fighting had broken out across the country. The war was to last three years. Mexico and the Soviet Union were the only countries to come to the aid of Republican Spain, although tens of thousands of leftists from around the world traveled to Spain to fight against General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, as international volunteers.

I initially turned to Guy Walters’s history of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to learn more about the People’s Olympics. Who planned them? Was any part of the festival salvaged? What countries hoped to participate? What happened to foreign athletes who were already in Spain when the war broke out? Walters answers these questions, but his larger project of relating the history of the Nazi games is worthy of attention as well.

Like most Olympic festivals, Berlin’s was a major national endeavor. Vast sports complexes were erected, armies of young translators were trained, and towns along the route visiting athletes took to the games were prettied up. But the young regime had an awfully big chip on its shoulder too — after all, the 1916 Olympics had been slated for Berlin, only to be cancelled by the IOC after World War I lost its gentlemanly edge with Germany’s introduction of mustard gas as a weapon. The German establishment needed this Olympics to come off perfectly to show how much the country had changed. And so, German prosperity was highlighted — butter and other foods were hoarded in advance so there would be plenty for the athletes and international visitors. The sharp edges of Nazi policies about racial purity were softened up temporarily, for show. Jewish athletes who had been forced out of participating in German sport under the Nazis were compelled to compete for their country, to prove that Germany was playing fair. A few weeks before the games began, Sinti and Roma people in the Berlin area were rounded up and placed in a special camp in a suburb. Homeless people and beggars were cleared from the city’s streets, and more than two thousand prostitutes and women working in the edges of the sex trade were forcibly examined for venereal disease.

Distasteful as this sounds, no doubt the stories of other nations’ Olympic preparations are nearly as shameful. What contrasts the 1936 Olympics from others is the German government’s neat takeover of the entire administration of the games from the International Olympic Committee.

Here’s a taste of the intrigue: in early 1936, it looked as though the two front runners for the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize were Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, and Carl von Ossietsky, an anti-Nazi journalist who was then languishing in a German forced labor camp. One of Germany’s representatives to the IOC attempted to use the influence of the IOC to pressure the Nobel committee to award the prize to Coubertin, and bribed the financially stricken Coubertin to formally endorse the Berlin games. Walters says on page 145: “Not only were the games being organised by the regime, but they were also being run according to Nazi rules and not those of the IOC. Four thousand athletes would shortly be attending a celebration not only of sport, but of fascism.” (Despite the German IOC members’ machinations, the peace prize was eventually awarded to Ossietzky, in December 1936, well after the games were over.)

Walters tells many other tales of this very politicized Olympiad — of athletes, government ministers, sports officials, businessmen, human rights activists, journalists, intellectuals, and the glitterati, and their role in the actual events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the public debate that accompanied it.

The text of Berlin Games is followed by a collection of incredibly readable endnotes, a thorough bibliography, and an excellent and helpful index.

54 – greetings from portland
05.19.2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

Greetings from Portland / Mary L. Martin & Kirby Brumfield.
Atglen, PA : Schiffer Pub. Ltd., c2007.
[MCL call number: 979.549 M382g 2007; 20 copies, no holds; two copies reference only at Central Library]

If you are a collector, or a public librarian, or a generalist bookseller, you are certainly familiar with the sort of books published especially for people who collect things. Recent versions of this type of book display lavish illustrations from someone’s collection of whatever-it-is, with price estimates and minimal information about each object’s date of origin, history, and perhaps its context. For people interested in history, collectors’ books are inherently frustrating for the things they deliberately leave out, as well as for their rather casual attitude to the responsibility of citing sources for information — it is expected that the author and/or publisher of a book for collectors is such an authority that readers need no other information than their pronouncement of an object’s definition, its cultural context, its historical significance, and of course, its current value.

Greetings from Portland is a collectors’ book of postcards, and although it is lovely and fascinating, like its brethren it offers little to no information about when each postcard was made, where it would have been sold, or anything else about the history of each object. Many of the captions describing postcards include historical bits and pieces such as the date the bridge in the picture was finished, but these details are spare and unsatisfying. To be fair, the book’s preface does include some instruction on dating postcards (pages 4-5), but since most of the advice is about the information on the address-and-stamp side of the cards, it’s not much help to folks who are simply enjoying the book.

So, if you’re really reading this for my critical opinion, you should know: I’m interested in Greetings from Portland because of its subject rather than simply because of the medium it describes. I do happen to think that postcards provide a particularly interesting angle on the history of the places they portray, but it is still true that it’s essentially the Portland bit that compels me to examine this book about postcards. And I am frustrated by the book’s relative lack of historical context for the cards it portrays.

The view on the past in Greetings from Portland is awfully varied — the book is arranged thematically in chapters showing postcards of fashionable houses, Portland roses and rose gardens, schools, churches, schools, hospitals, parks, statutes, hotels, bridges, harbor traffic, government and commercial buildings, the stockyards, Union Station, street scenes and city views, and the Rose Festival. Several chapters are devoted to peculiarities of the Rose City such as the old Forestry Building (“World’s Largest Log Cabin”), The Grotto, and Council Crest Amusement Park. And there are a few chapters showing of postcards that aren’t of Portland at all — one covers the bounty of Oregon’s fields, orchards, and pastures (pages 87-93), and two chapters display postcards of places luckier Portlanders might have once visited on day trips (pages 103-113). The postcards are mostly in radiant, unlikely-looking full color (thanks to the hand-tinting they so often employed), and are reproduced at nearly their original size.

And the images themselves are beautiful. On page 43, a southbound passenger train makes its way off the east end of the Steel Bridge, its elegant curve along the track accentuating the heavy, graceful lines of the bridge. On page 79, a view from the east bank of the Willamette shows the old public market building with, amazingly, six small seaplanes resting peacefully in the river, all facing west and apparently unaffected by the current. On page 127, a thrillingly gothic portrait of SW 5th Ave. features artificially gloomy streets and glowering dark clouds penetrated by a gleaming full moon. Hundreds of other postcards show the River City in a glory its real past no doubt never quite attained, with blue skies, stately houses, exuberant pink roses, and shapely modern industry gleaming from every page.

Greetings from Portland has no index or bibliography, though as I mentioned it does have an introduction with some advice about how to date postcards.

* * *

Greetings from Portland is but one of a whole series of city-themed postcard collecting books published by Schiffer Publishing, all with titles beginning “Greetings from. . .” Unfortunately, Multnomah County Library only owns this one. But, readers with an interest in postcards may also wish to consult Gideon Bosker and Jonathan Nichols’s Greetings from Oregon (Portland, OR : Graphic Arts Center Pub. Co., c1987; reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 45). It, too, is lovely.