A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism in Gilded Age America by Ely M. Janis

Scholarly examinations of a political movement delve into the nature of the Irish American identity.

greater ireland

A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism in Gilded Age America, by Ely M. Janis, is a concise, meticulously researched examination of one specific thread in a shared Irish and Irish American history: the Irish National Land League of the 1880s. This organization spanned the globe, uniting citizens of both Ireland and the United States in pursuing Irish land reform and self-rule, and had lasting repercussions for Irish American identity and political involvement.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on February 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.


My rating: 3 speaking appearances, for tedious readability.

Maximum Shelf: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 9, 2015.

dead wakeIn May of 1915, a torpedo fired from a German submarine struck the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship with nearly 200 Americans aboard. She sunk off the coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes (due to a sequence of events unforeseen even by its attacker), killing 1,200 passengers and crew, fully half of whose remains were never recovered. Common knowledge has it that this event drove the United States to enter a European war that would become World War I, but, in fact, while the Lusitania‘s fate played some role in that decision, it took two full years and the secret German Zimmerman telegram for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917.

Erik Larson examines this extended U.S. isolationism, the final days aboard the Lusitania, and related events and characters in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As in his earlier books (Isaac’s Storm; In the Garden of Beasts), Larson presents exhaustive research with precision and accuracy, in extraordinarily compelling prose. Dead Wake is a masterpiece of gripping narrative nonfiction, arguably the most riveting of Larson’s works.

Nearly 2,000 people boarded the Lusitania in New York City, bound for Liverpool, including 1,300 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans. An unusually large proportion were children and babies. The Lusitania was the biggest and fastest civilian ship on the seas in that 10th month of European war. These superlatives–plus the reassurances of the captain, William Thomas Turner, and the Liverpool-based Cunard Line–allowed the ship to confidently set sail despite a German warning published in all the New York papers on the morning of the Lusitania‘s departure, that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction.” Larson provides detail and humanity by profiling several passengers and crew members, including a Vanderbilt heir; a psychic; and a Boston bookseller who boarded with a small but invaluable collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original illustrations and Charles Dickens’s own copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with the author’s marginalia.

Just weeks earlier, another vessel had departed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. German Unterseeboot-20 was captained by Walther Schwieger, a well-regarded young Kapit√§nleutnant known for his aggressive and innovative tactics. Because submarines lost radio contact with their bases almost immediately upon departure and remained out of contact for much of their cruise, Schwieger was in full charge of his boat, empowered to cruise, dive and attack on his own, with the full support of his government. In following Schwieger’s submarine in the weeks leading up to the climax, Larson gives the story dimension; far from presenting the German captain as a monster, he is humanized, for example, by the devotion of the men who worked under him, and the presence on board of a litter of puppies rescued, interestingly, from another ship sunk by torpedo.

As he builds toward the inevitable intersection of U-20 with the Lusitania, Larson introduces more characters. Captain Turner of the Cunard Line had decades of experience at sea, and had just testified in a civil case against the owners of the Titanic on behalf of the families of deceased passengers. He was known to his men as a brave and capable but old-fashioned captain, with “one foot on the deck of a sailing ship.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had had a rough year, even without the European conflict: having lost his wife Ellen in late 1914, his mourning left him unmoored and struggling to concentrate, until he met widow Edith Bolling Galt. His love for her would prove overwhelming, and their courtship strained–she rejected his first marriage proposal. This love story is affecting, and if it serves as a distraction from the sinking ship at the center of this book, that is a fine style choice by Larson: it was a distraction for Wilson, too.

Meanwhile, a secret section of the British Admiralty was tasked with intercepting and decoding German wireless messages, a purpose known to only nine senior officials, who were hampered in using any information gained for fear of having its cryptanalysis ability revealed. They would therefore fail to warn Turner of U-20’s preying presence in the waters he sailed. Such parallel plots and individual profiles add color and depth to Larson’s account, as when the chief of British naval intelligence is described as “part Machiavelli, part schoolboy.”

The Lusitania‘s story is in itself moving, and carries great historical significance, but these events positively glitter with life in Larson’s engaging, quick-paced and captivating prose. Though it incorporates well-documented history, Dead Wake still contains elements of suspense for all but the most expert readers; as Larson acknowledges, he had his own misconceptions coming into this project, and learned surprising facts in his research, as readers surely will. The pages fly by as such details are revealed and the action ratchets up toward a climactic event that we all see coming, but that still makes us catch our breath. In spellbinding, immediate language, Larson contrasts the “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life” on the Lusitania with the “U-boat sweat,” foul odors and close air aboard U-20. His enthralling description of passengers joking about submarines and torpedoes, in the very moments before the torpedo strike, and “making polite apologies” just after, in the scramble for life jackets, keep the reader fully engaged. Appealingly, in his “Note to Readers” and “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Larson writes in a more personal voice about the joy of the research process, and about his frank difficulty in understanding the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in the face of warnings from Germany about travel in a war zone.

Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson’s fans will rejoice, and grow in number.

Rating: 8 life jackets.

How lucky am I to get to interview Erik Larson?? Come back tomorrow to read the result.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes

The Spanish Civil War, and its medical, military and artistic contributions to modernity.


The Spanish Civil War was a precursor to World War II, and served as a practice field where medical and military leaders experimented with new technologies and refined strategies. Creative minds from around the world drew inspiration and horror from the conflict, yielding Picasso’s Guernica, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Miro’s El Segador and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) examines the Spanish Civil War not in exhaustive chronology or complex international intrigue–although both are present–but in its gifts, good and bad, to the world that followed.

As Germany and Italy begrudgingly contributed to the Spanish nationalist (fascist) side, and the Soviet Union just as reluctantly supplied the republicans, new military technologies met old. Advances in aircraft were matched by new strategies, including “carpet bombing,” a term used for the carnage at Guernica. In response, doctors and nurses from Spain and abroad innovated as well: while reliable blood typing and preservation for blood banking had been under development since World War I, safe transfusions in the field were born in the Spanish Civil War, as was the autochir (a mobile, sterile surgical unit).

Rhodes follows various individuals, famous (Hemingway, Picasso) and less so (volunteer doctors, nurses and soldiers from around the world), providing a vivid, wrenching view of war, art and love. While it scrutinizes world-changing new technologies and ways of life, Hell and Good Company is also a fine, accessible introductory history of the Spanish Civil War, and an evocative human story.

This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 bombs.

movie: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

I’m really pleased to have gone to see this movie locally with my dad. It was so good that I went back a few days later to see it again with my mom, so now it’s a family affair (as these things should be). She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a recently produced history of the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was nice to see it with my parents, who were there, and involved.

The movie includes historical footage of protests, speeches, news media, and interviews; contemporary interviews of activists who were involved in that history; the odd performances by actors; and reenactments. So many things struck me, and I’d like to point out that while I was often shocked by the horror, and the bravery, I was not surprised. Does that make sense? For example, the divisiveness of the movements – civil rights, women’s rights, peace – is unsurprising but will shock and dismay me every time. When a woman leader got up to speak in front of a crowd of “New Left” men, and they booed and catcalled her, I was (sadly) unsurprised, but astounded nonetheless. When the women’s movement ostracized its lesbian members, likewise.

"Lavender Menace," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“Lavender Menace,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

I enjoyed learning for the first time about the “Lavender Menace” action at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. The need was unfortunate, but the demonstration was great fun, gave me joy. For that matter, another of the revelations of this film, for me, was the sense of fun associated with certain direct actions throughout the movement: that’s a part of the story that I hadn’t heard before, I don’t think. I also didn’t know how close we had gotten to having legislation passed supporting universal child care (thank you Nixon for this among other criminal shortcomings).

The first night I saw the movie, it was followed by a panel discussion with faculty members from local Western Washington University. These women were younger than I’d expected, in their thirties and forties, and the theatre was sold out – all good signs. We touched on the movie’s title: a criticism of the patronizing statement that we’re cute when we’re mad? or a sincere celebration of every woman’s beauty as she pursues right? (I think it’s both.)

I’m glad to have been reminded of that slogan of the women’s movement, that “the personal is political.” I’ve used some variation on this myself, because it makes so much sense: when politicians talk about forcing ultrasounds, we are quite literally talking about the inside of my reproductive organs; what could possibly be more personal? And I’m sure I knew on some level that I was citing my parents and their fellows, but I’m glad to have been reminded.

I cried when the movie got to present-day Texas, all those women in the capital protesting Senate Bill 5. I’m sorry I wasn’t there; I should have been there. Other interesting or affecting points in the film: the portrayal of our rage as a good thing (when emotion has come to be something we’re supposed to be ashamed of); and the excellent statement that the United States doesn’t like to credit radical movements with positive change in our history. Of course this only makes sense: it doesn’t behoove the powers to acknowledge that protest and civil disobedience do good. But revision of our history is a vile and insidious weapon being used all around us, and it bears noting (over and over again). Another statement of the film – I forget who made it – is that merely speaking truth aloud is a revolutionary and powerful act. Let’s not forget it.

"8-26-1970 March," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“8-26-1970 March,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

Thanks, ladies. I owe you.

Rating: 9 consciousness-raising groups.

Teaser Tuesdays: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

dead wake

Unsurprisingly, Erik Larson’s newest release is outstanding, a masterpiece of gripping narrative writing with its own momentum. No one would ever think to compare this to a standard, old-fashioned book of history.

One of the things I think he does well is juxtaposition. For example, read these few lines, and imagine them side-by-side with a description of life aboard a German military submarine.

Aboard the Lusitania, there was quiet. There were books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life: strolling the deck, chatting at the rails, doing crochet, and just sitting still in a deck chair in the sea breeze. Now and then a ship appeared in the distance; closer at hand, whales.

It’s the whales that do it for me.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman

Begin with Maus I and Maus II. And then move on to MetaMaus, filled with images from the book and discussions with Art, and his wife and two children, about what it all means, his process, his motivations, and the impact these powerful little books have had on all of them.
At the outset, let me say, holy magnificent book. MetaMaus asks the questions (according to its back cover), why the Holocaust? why mice? why comics? And of course, the Holocaust is the easiest to answer, to me: the Holocaust because it was what he knew (“write what you know”), except that he didn’t know the Holocaust. He emphasizes that. (And I confess it surprised me, that a survivors’ son could have grown up with such a limited knowledge of what happened so recently, and so centrally to his own personal and family history. I had a fairly decent, basic grasp of the Holocaust in grade school. But then, I grew up a full generation after the author did. Clearly a lot had changed.) Still, it was what arced over him, what oppressed him or at least leaned against him; what else was there? In fact, my surprise was that it wasn’t that obvious – that he wasn’t driven to write (draw) about the Holocaust, at least not that he knew: “What consciously motivated me was the impulse of wanting to do a long comic that needed a bookmark.” He needed to make a full-length comic, as it turned out. Who knew. I am baffled by the visual arts, at least as much as I am stimulated and inspired by the written/verbal ones; most of the visual artistry of Maus escaped me before reading this book, which is part of why I found it so wonderful. Unlike many monographs meant to elucidate the visual arts for us plebeians, this really brought it home to me, exposed so much more, increased my understanding & appreciation.

But the real question I was here for: why mice? Honestly, this was my chief concern (followed by: why cats, why pigs, why dogs…) and all those questions are answered, happily. And of course there are only more questions behind them, much discussion of the imagery and symbolism that belongs to animals in different cultures, for example, and some of that taking-back of the derogatory where Jews were called rats by the Nazis, for example. MetaMaus follows these paths, and lets us get to know the author. I found it very satisfying, after getting to know a version of him and feel him so strongly. We should always be so lucky.

And then the CD! This book is accompanied by a CD with complete images of both of the books; over 7,000 early sketches & studies & the like; video and audio files including recordings of interviews with Vladek; and some of the pamphlets off his mother’s bookshelf that Art used in his research. I think there were about 4 hours of Vladek interviews – the man’s actual voice! – and an hour-long home movie made by Art and Francoise on a visit to Auschwitz. Holy smokes, the CD is chock-full of goodies. I did not exhaustively study it, I confess. There was just so much; and I felt so well-served by the reading of the book itself. I did enjoy listening to Vladek’s voice, though: it brought everything to life, and was an interesting counterpoint to the relative unreality of comics.

Of course another theme of the book is the power and faultiness of memory. I love memoir, and I love that memoir almost inevitably has to confront this obstacle: the ‘mem’ in memoir is unavoidably problematic, at least enough to raise questions. In Maus‘s case, the clearest example comes when Vladek describes leaving Auschwitz and denies that there was an orchestra playing at the gates. As Art has documented, there is substantial support for the existence of this orchestra: there are photographs, and there are eyewitnesses among the Nazis, the Jews, and the musicians. But Vladek is sure there was no orchestra. What to do? I love Art’s discussion of the problem: how he could have represented Vladek’s version, or the official one, or left the whole question out of his story; but he instead elected to show the actual question. There is a panel in which there is an orchestra – followed by Vladek’s denial of the orchestra – followed by a panel in which the orchestra is no longer present, except that if you look closely, you can see the tips and shadows of their presence behind the marching prisoners. This is really something. Of course, when I read the comic, I didn’t catch that visual shadow, just the discussion of the question.

I learned a lot of intriguing details. Who knew the size of these (quite small) comics was so important to Spiegelman? Or more surprising, that he drew the originals in that same small size? And the details about the different reactions to the books in different countries (it’s been translated into some thirty languages) were fascinating to me. I had innumerable little details of the comics pointed out to me and elucidated – things I would never, in 100 readings, have figured out for myself, but value greatly once they were explained to me. But I most enjoyed the feeling of greater intimacy with a very talented, and unique artist. And I remain boggled by the dual artistry of the composition of this book as narrative, next to the visual artistry of the comic aspect. Art Spiegelman is a special man. The two Maus books were special, and should be required reading (for, I don’t know, everyone). And then if you like those – do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this behind-the-scenes look. If you appreciate art (in any format) and are interested in process, also check this one out. And for those of you who prefer other formats than plain old reading, the CD has a great deal to offer in formats all over the map. Major win!

Additionally, I had to mark many passages for further consideration, so many philosophies I found valuable…

On communication vs. High Arts:

I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure. And as soon as one is involved with communication, one’s already suspect in the High Arts. A lot of what happens in the more rarefied precincts of art is that the word “communication” gets replaced by “communion,” and one is involved in a kind of religious experience with the artist as shaman. And that’s really different than, “Hey, I’ll tell you a yarn.” Or even “I’ll tell you a parable,” if you want to be didactic. And it’s always been either a skill or a deficiency that I try to make contact with with people.

I appreciate this, because I think High Arts (his phrase, but I like it) can sometimes let us down a great deal when it gets religious, or mysterious, or snooty. I’m not saying everything has to be forever perfectly literal and transparent, and I do enjoy moments of inexplicable beauty. But I think it’s exclusive and elitist to shun honest communication.

On the authenticity of his way of story-telling:

Everything drawn in the so-called past in the story that Vladek is telling is very clearly an attempt by the son to show what the father is telling. And that offered a margin within which to operate authentically. The fact that you’re told that I’m trying to show you what I understand of what Vladek is telling me is built into the fabric of the narrative itself, and allows that narrative to get told.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, 2 Seconds. There is an extended sequence where Lorenzo is telling Laurie the story of his professional bike racing career and how it ended. He speaks, and we see the action he is describing – but we see it as imagined by Laurie as she listens – but apparently Lorenzo can see it too, because he corrects it here and there. For example, he’s describing walking down a country road, and we see a young man doing just that, and kind of waddling on his clipless cycling shoes, with the cleats on them. And then we skip back to Lorenzo and Laurie sitting and talking, and he corrects her: “no no, we didn’t waddle, our shoes were soft leather” (I paraphrase). Skip back to the young man walking down the country road, smoothly on his smooth soles. I love love love this effect. In the same way, for example, in the question of the orchestra at Auschwitz, Spiegelman makes it clear that his father is correctly his visualization as they go. And this makes it honest and clear that he is only telling a story as told to him and as he understands it, which I appreciate deeply for its honesty.

On nihilism and ethics:

One night, we’re going down to feed the cats after one of our snooze-and-probe sessions, and he’s carrying those scraps downstairs and he says, apropos of I don’t remember what, that basically he’s a nihilist. And I ask him how this involves getting up in the middle of the night to talk to dying AIDS patients, and being so available to patients way past the point of it being good for his health, and he says something that one might take as just an off-the-cuff remark, but I found profound: “Well, I decided that behaving ethically was the most nihilistic thing I could do.” It delighted me as an idea, as a way of living one’s life.

This quotation launched a lengthy discussion for my father and I of the different meanings of ‘values,’ ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’

On stories:

[The word ‘story’] comes from medieval Latin historia. It refers to those very early comic strips made before the invention of newsprint: the stained-glass windows that told a superhero story about that guy who could walk on water and turn it into wine. This is how in English, the word ‘story’ has come to mean both story as in stories of a building and story as a narrative. And at that point one is steered toward an architectural model for what a comic is, something very basic about comics narrative. Comics pages are structures made up of panels, sort of the way the windows in a church articulate a story. Thinking of these pages as units that have to be joined together, as if each page was some kind of building with windows init, was something that often happens overtly in Maus, and sometimes is just implicit in the DNA of the medium.

Story as architecture was a little mind-blowing to me, too. Allow these few examples to show how deeply thought-provoking I found this book. It’s a really dense, exciting experience.

So, to sum up: I found each Maus book thrilling and touching it itself. MetaMaus was equally thrilling and touching, increased the experience of both Mauses, and additionally set loose all kind of thought threads for me, that I have listed here as briefly as I could stand so as to not ramble on all day. Clearly I’m a fan. Pick up this book, and keep your notebook handy as you go.

Rating: what the hell, 10 sketches.

Maus II, A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Following Maus I, in a word: every bit as good.

maus iiMaus II picks up Art Spiegelman’s, and his father’s, stories more or less where they left us last. Art continues to have difficulty relating to his dad, but still needs to hear the story, and his father just wants him around at whatever cost. We get the full details of father Vladek’s stay at Auschwitz and Dachau (it is of the latter camp that Vladek gives the line that becomes a subtitle, “and here my troubles began”), and a vague sketching of mother Anja’s time at Auschwitz: she is no longer around to tell her side, and Vladek is a little blurry on that account. Art continues to mourn the loss of her notes on her own wartime experience – destroyed by Vladek in a quest for forgetfulness.

In this book we also get to know Art a little better, as well as his wife Francoise. We meet his therapist, another Holocaust survivor. We see some of the fame earned by Maus I, which was not a force for good in Art’s life.

The art is still amazing. Detailed, and so representative of so much, despite the characters being portrayed not as people but as animals. To review: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, and as we see here, Americans are dogs. Maus II opens with an exchange I found charming, where Art worries about how to draw his wife, Francoise: originally a frog, he suggests, since she is French, but she insists she is a mouse, having converted to Judaism to satisfy Vladek’s need for appearances in the marriage. The use of animals for people, and their categorization in this way, is one of the most striking, interesting choices of this book – after, I guess, the choice to make it a comic at all. More on that when I get to MetaMaus.

I digress. The art is still beautiful, impactful, and communicative. The storyline is evocative and strangely universal, even while it is the unique story of a Holocaust survivor and his family; most people have experienced these difficulties relating to their parents, who are loved but hard to understand. The dialog between Art and Vladek is funny, and heartrending, familiar and true, even while it is also disturbingly stereotypical of Jews – a tension that Art and Francoise discuss. They acknowledge that this is how Vladek really is, so this is how he must be portrayed. Okay. I’m good with that, especially after it’s been acknowledged, owned in this way.

This is an astounding book. I am a total amateur at appreciating the visual arts, so I can barely claim to understand that aspect of it, but I like it. And as a work of memoir, love, portrayal, language, and history, I am deeply impressed. Read these books.

Rating: 9 cigarettes.

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