Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Matuszak: New titles at Bexley Public Library.

As our local libraries struggle with maintaining resources in the face of state funding cuts, I thought I'd offer a few book suggestions that should serve as a reminder of the reservoir of information available - a deep ocean of knowledge that could be lost.

On the Waterfront: The Pulitzer Prize-winning articles that inspired the classic movie and transformed New York Harbor - It was a routine assignment for the New York Sun's ace veteran reporter, Malcolm "Mike" Johnson - look into the murder of a hiring boss on the city's tough waterfront. What Johnson discovered, through months of dogged investigation, was a virtually lawless society where corruption was the rule and violence was the final word. Before Johnson's articles began to appear in 1948, most Americans had never heard of the international criminal syndicate that extorted millions from shippers and truckers, jacking up the costs of consumer goods across the country and fueling gambling, smuggling and other illegal activities. Johnson also showed that the gangsters had allies in labor unions, the halls of Congress and even the Pentagon. The courageous reporter, who had served as a combat correspondent during World War II, endured threats to his life and reputation to tell this story that earned him the Pulitzer. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg was inspired by Johnson to take on his own investigation, that led to the screenplay for On the Waterfront. More importantly, the articles and the movie led to important reforms. The book includes Schulberg's articles, as well as an introduction by Johnson's son, Haynes Johnson, an historian and also a Pulitzer Prize winner, the only instance of a father and son both earning the award.

A Stupid and Futile Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon changed comedy forever - by Josh Karp - An insightful and often funny behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a comedy empire and the man who gave it its smarts and its soul. Without Doug Kenney - who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio before attending Harvard - there would have been no National Lampoon magazine, which he headed, no Animal House or Caddyshack, screenplays he co-wrote before his untimely death in 1980. National Lampoon, in print, on records and on tour, launched the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest and many others. The book follows Kenney (who also played Stork in Animal House) through his formative Midwestern years as an intelligent outsider, to the intellectual ferment of university life and the highly charged, competitive New York offices of Lampoon. It also chronicles Kenney's descent into the cocaine-crazed world of late '70s Hollywood. A must for those whose own sense of humor was happily warped by the nothing-sacred pages of National Lampoon.

No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 - by Richard Slotkin - In the summer of 1864, as Union and Confederate troops endured a long, hot stalemate in trenches before Petersburg, Va., Union General Ambrose Burnside formulated an audacious plan: tunnel under the rebel lines, pack the mine with tons of explosives and blow a gigantic hole in the enemy defenses. On paper the plan seemed ingenious. In practice, it turned out to be one of the major disasters of the war. Slotkin, one of the country's most respected cultural historians, shows that the failure of the assault and the slaughter that followed had as much to do with racial politics as military missteps. At that time, Union leaders were struggling with the necessity of sending black troops into combat, an act that southerners (and many northerners) viewed with horror. Hanging over the Battle of the Crater was the memory of the brutal massacre of black prisoners by Confederates at earlier engagements, which led to the order of "no quarter" that led to atrocities on both sides - with Yankees even killing their own black comrades. Slotkin is also the author of a novel about the assault on the Crater, which confronts the moral dilemma of fighting a counter-insurgency. Other books include his trilogy on the impact of the frontier mythology on American society, and Lost Battalions, which chronicles the struggle of black troops for recognition during and after World War I. That is a battle still being fought. In No Quarter, Slotkin points out that white soldiers from both sides are memorialized at Petersburg - but that there is no memorial for the black troops who fought and died there.

IBM and the Holocuast: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation - by Edwin Black. When the Nazis formulated the Final Solution for the Jews of Germany and the rest of Europe, how did they come up with the lists of names of the millions whose ancestry condemned them to death? How did they move and massacre all of these people with such ruthless efficiency? The answer, Black discovers, is through the use of IBM's high-speed tabulating machines, the forerunner of the computer. He also shows that the company did not merely sell the machines, but worked actively to train the technicians of the Third Reich and create systems specifically for their needs. IBM's president, Thomas Watson, who created a cult of personality around himself as "The Leader," also found an affinity with Hitler and his demand for absolute loyalty. Black, an investigative reporter, has also authored Internal Combustion, on how corporations and governments crafted the transportation policies that keep us addicted to oil; and War Against the Weak, revealing that Germany's ideas about creating a master race originated in America with the study of eugenics.

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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. John Matuszak.

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