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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/20/20

Happy Tuesday, PARALLEL LIVES An interesting genre of history and biography is the “dual biography,” or an attempt to put into perspective two lives—typically perceived as rivals or of a similar era. There are a number of great books in this area:

  • Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives, by Alan Bullock. A monumental analysis of these two political outsiders rose to become ruthless authoritarian rulers that inevitably clashed in historically violent manner. They both believed in their destiny to world history and both were responsible for the deaths of millions of those they deemed unworthy or lesser. This book was a gift from my parents at Hanukkah 1994.

  • Lincoln and Douglas, The Debates that Defined America, by Allen C. Guelzo. We think of the notion of “popular sovereignty” in the slave states and the new territories as reprehensible today. Lincoln won these seven debates and become the standard-bearer for the Republican party and the anti-slavery, pro-Union positions that gave way to the Civil War. But Douglas articulated a view, held by a meaningful number of Americans of the day and was one of its chief and most articulate proponents. While Lincoln’s star rose, Douglas’s descended. These debates were actually for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate—an election Douglas won. This is a debater’s joy, as it breaks down the arguments and the historical impact of the 1858 debates.

  • Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen E. Ambrose. A number of great observations on the lives of these two noble warriors and the clash of their civilizations. There are many stories of these civilizations, including the movement to make peace with the Indians, the destruction of the Plains Indian way of life resulting from the influx of settlers, and the back-stories of these men within the context of their culture. If Hitler and Stalin are two vile human beings, this book paints Custer and Crazy Horse as human, intelligent, sensitive leaders.

  • 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs—the Election that Changed the County, by James Chace. Also a book centered around a year, one of my favorite categories of history! Here was a time when the moniker “progressive” was shared by all the candidates. It was clear that progress was in the air—and that America had to respond to that progress, brought on by immigration, factories and labor, America’s expanding role in the world, and unfettered capitalism. The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Theodore Rex, the second of Edmund Morris’s great biography of TR, are great books about the era (but which do not share names in their titles, which is the premise of this list…).

  • Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes. This is a wonderful “biography of an era” that paints a great picture of the era, the advances in science and the rivalries that defined the future of electrical development. Edison clearly was one of the greatest inventive geniuses in history. Tesla is a fantastic character, who was right in the support of alternating current but couldn’t withstand the marketing and public relations juggernaut that was Edison. Plus, Electricity was the star of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (the sight of the Devil in the White City). Tesla was played by David Bowie in The Prestige, a great Christopher Nolan film starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (with Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine)

  • Cagney & Lacey, by Barry Rozenzweig. Okay, not really a biography, and perhaps not as historically important as the others, but I have the book. I acquired it at a USC Libraries Literary Luncheon at which I introduced the author—and he’s related to Bridget Gless Keller, who always is worthy of mention!


ENTERTAINMENT


I have waxed poetic about Deadwood (which I still rank up there with The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad.


I had little interest in Better Call Saul, the back-story to Saul Goodman, a secondary, yet colorful, character from Breaking Bad. Then we started watching it. It’s really a treat and quite the star-turn for Bob Odenkirk. Worth a watch.


MUSING SOME MORE…


If the Musings only whet your appetite for more quirky commentary, I have a few additional options for you. These are examples of thoughtful people sharing their introspections, observations, and recommendations:


Hello, kith. My name is Maria Popova. I am a reader and writer, and I write about what I read here on Brain Pickings — my one-woman labor of love exploring what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life. Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, eventually brought online and now included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive, it is a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically — drawn from my extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.


A BRIEF DAILY EMAIL WITH AN EXCERPT OR QUOTE WE VIEW AS INTERESTING OR NOTEWORTHY, OFFERED WITH COMMENTARY TO PROVIDE CONTEXT. THERE IS NO THEME, EXCEPT THAT MOST EXCERPTS WILL COME FROM A NON-FICTION WORK, MAINLY WORKS OF HISTORY, ARE OCCASIONALLY CONTROVERSIAL, AND WE HOPE WILL HAVE A MORE UNIVERSAL RELEVANCE THAN SIMPLY THE SUBJECT OF THE BOOK FROM WHICH THEY CAME.


  • Letters from an American, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/ . By Heather Cox Richardson, a daily commentary on today’s news and events.

A BOOK ON HITLER AND STALIN FOR HANUKKAH? What sort of parents buy a heart-warming dual biography of two of the three greatest murdering, psychopathic tyrants of the 20th century (indeed, in human history) as a gift for their son? It’s pretty nuts… But then we always were into giving books to each other as presents. The great part of giving books is that it’s a gift for the giver as well, as that’s one more thing to share. The fun postscript is that when I picked up the book to write this Musing, I read the note they inscribed inside, which included the following: “…You have been a most joyful child—a credit to us, Mom and Dad” Well, compared to these two guys, I should hope so! Have a great week, Glenn

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