Sunday, September 20, 2009

Christopher S. Mackay

Christopher S. Mackay is a Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

His most recent book is Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've done a fair amount of non-professional reading this summer, so here are the last four books I've read (with a bit of relief at the end).

Right now I've just started Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country by the journalist William Greider. I have a pseudonymical blog on which I've had a lot of posts since last fall about the financial debacle, and so I've been interested in how we got to this stage in general and about the Fed's (mis)management of the financial system in particular. No idea why I decided to buy this book. It's oldish (1987), and I'm only at the preliminary stage where it talks about figures I would hear of on the news when I was young, like Arthur Burns and Paul Volcker (Fed chairmen in the '70s and '80s). Seems to have a vaguely leftist tinge to it, but I haven't really gotten into the substance of it yet.

Prior to that, I read The Prince of Darkness, the recently deceased columnist Robert Novak's memoirs about his long career as a journalist covering politics from a right-wing perspective. I'm familiar with Novak mainly from his appearances on that pompous ass John McLaughlin's political discussion show back in the late '80s, and boy, does Novak dislike McLaughlin! Anyway, the book refers occasionally to Novak's personal life (esp. his conversion to Catholicism), but for the most part it's about how he viewed important events over the years from his perspective as a reporter. That is, the chapters are chronological, and tend to focus on his coverage of electoral events (e.g., he de-emphasizes things like Watergate and the Iranian hostage situation). I found the book a breezy and interesting read, but I suspect that readers with left-wing sensibilities will find it annoying. Anyway, it was interesting to read his take on the Valerie Plame controversy, since he was at the heart of it.

Then there was A Tale of Two Subs: An Untold Story of World War II, Two Sister Ships, and Extraordinary Heroism by Jonathan McCullough (picked up on a lark at the opening of a nearby big-box bookstore). The two ships in question were the submarines Sculpin and Sailfish, which at various times had a number of prominent US submarine captains serve onboard as officers of various ranks. For those who don't know, the US submarine offensive against Japan was (unlike its German counterpart) phenomenally successful, sinking a large part of the Japanese fleet and pretty much obliterating the merchant marine. In the book, the overall narrative arc at times gets a bit obscured, but the details of what it was like to serve on such a ship are riveting. You'd never catch me doing that! (The submarine service had the highest casualty rate in the US navy, and it must have been awful to go down with one of the ships lost with all hands.) When the Sculpin is lost at the end, there are survivors, so we can experience what it was like to go through such an event. Grim times.

Speaking of which, the book I read before that was Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany by Nikolaus Wachsmann. I got this as part of the $400 in books I was paid by Yale University Press for assessing whether they should pick up the rights to distribute some other book in the UK. So this is very much an academic work. The upshot is as follows. The staff of the penal system of Weimar German wasn't too keen on the reforms introduced by the Weimar government, and so they were happy when these were repealed by the Nazis upon their assumption of office. Still, the harsher regime of the Nazis didn't materialize out of thin air, but was consonant with ideas from earlier days (sometimes these notions even had "progressive" origins). The penal regime under Nazis was certainly harsh, but through the early war period, the death rate was very low, and even well into the war it still wasn't particularly high. This is in marked contrast with the very high death rates in the SS-run concentration camps. Basically, even though the rules were harsh and sometimes these were interpreted rather loosely, nonetheless, a regular prison was by definition a bureaucratic institution rather than one of purely capricious violence. Rules are rules (rather to Hitler's annoyance). Still, the judicial system that ran the prisons did tend to become more radicalized over time in an attempt to keep Nazi "radicals" at bay. That is, in order to keep the more Nazi organs of government from taking over the prisons, the Ministry of Justice itself made the prison regime harsher in keeping with "National Socialist notions of justice." In any event, the basically conservative justice system was happy enough to cooperate with the Nazi political leaders to subjugate (and if necessary exterminate) people deemed socially destructive (like those considered habitual criminals).

This was somewhat less than happy reading, so I'd take a break re-reading my favorite H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Whisperer in Darkness." This is the story of a professor at Arkham University in Massachusetts who gets into a correspondence with a man who lives in the hills of New Hampshire (or is it Vermont?) and has had dealings with mysterious beings. As a writer, Lovecraft is something of much of a muchness, but he's certainly good at his shtick. Here we get all sorts of eeriness and foreboding out of sinister adjectives, but the denouement is very vivid and direct. I remember being totally creeped out by the story when I first read it many years ago. The science doesn't really hold up (the story's from about 1930), but with just a bit of tweaking it would make a great movie. Anyway, it's still creepy, and it's fun to analyze how Lovecraft conveys the mood.
Visit Christopher S. Mackay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue