Saturday, January 12, 2019

James L. Cambias

James Cambias has been nominated for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He lives in Western Massachusetts.

His new book is Arkad's World.

Recently I asked Cambias about what he was reading. His reply:
I typically have an "upstairs book" and a "downstairs book" so I'm never more than a few steps from some reading matter. I'm currently reading biographies of two very different men.

Upstairs I'm reading African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi. It's a great book about one of my favorite historical figures: Colonel (later General) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who commanded the Imperial German troops in East Africa during the First World War.

Von Lettow was an amazing military commander, who kept British and Commonwealth forces twenty times the size of his own army busy chasing him around Africa. When the war ended he was Germany's only undefeated general.

But beyond his military prowess, he seems to have been a genuinely good guy. One reason his little army was so effective was that he integrated white and black troops into the same units, and considered them all equally soldiers of the Kaiser like himself. He spent decades lobbying the German government to give his African soldiers the wartime pay they were owed (and finally succeeded in 1964).

Over the years I've been amused and/or irritated by fictional depiction of the African campaigns in the Great War because they're a perfect example of how the winners write the histories. In pretty much all films about that war — from The African Queen to Shout at the Devil to the Young Indiana Jones TV series — the British are depicted as rag-tag plucky underdogs taking on overwhelmingly powerful German forces. The historical truth was literally the exact opposite.

The only portrayal of von Lettow in film (outside of Germany, at least) was in the Young Indiana Jones episode, which depicted him as a genius — but also a rigid martinet, while the man himself seems to have been extremely flexible about military regulations (to the point of near insubordination in his dealings with German East Africa's idealistic governor Schnee).

Gaudi's book is thoroughly researched, and includes quite a few entertaining digressions about the various eccentric and colorful characters involved in the African theater of World War I. (It must be admitted that at least some of von Lettow's success was due to the fact that the British didn't send their best commanders against him.) It's a good read and I'll probably come back to it again.

Downstairs I'm reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Unlike von Lettow, Leonardo needs no introduction — although there's quite a lot of his life which most readers probably don't know about. I haven't finished it yet (spoiler alert: Leonardo dies at the end) but Isaacson does an excellent job of describing Florence as Leonardo knew it, and setting the artist in his proper context.

Refreshingly, Isaacson steers away from the quasi-mystical depiction of Leonardo as some kind of otherworldly genius, a saintly innocent misunderstood by mere mortals. His Leonardo is a man actively involved in the world and in Italian society of the 15th Century — even a bit of a hustler and self-promoter.

Like Gaudi's book about von Lettow, this one is very well-researched and fun to read. Right now I have something fascinating at hand whether I'm upstairs or down.
Visit James L. Cambias's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Darkling Sea.

--Marshal Zeringue