Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by Volker Ullrich

This is the first part of a two-part biography of Hitler. It takes him up to his 50th birthday in 1939, a few months before he started World War 2. I came away with a much clearer understanding of who he was and what his goals were (although the book covers German politics in more detail than I needed).

In a sense, therefore, the book “humanizes” or “normalizes” him. For example, he could be charming. He wasn’t an ignoramus. He could be a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t appear to have been monstrous or even especially anti-Semitic from the beginning. He was certainly a ruthless demagogue even in the 1920s and 1930s as he gained power. Maybe being worshiped by millions of Germans helped turn him into a monster.

I guess what I’m saying is that if he had become a dictator; seized the Rhineland; negotiated Germany’s absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland (the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia) without a shot being fired; and brutally forced the emigration of millions of Jews from Germany, he might have been considered an especially ruthless but successful leader. There have been dictators in the past and will be more in the future. It seems that he descended into the absolute abyss in the six years not covered by Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939. Presumably, Ullrich’s second volume will be called Hitler: Descent 1939 – 1945.


Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist whose previous book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller. In this one, he tells a familiar story: the history of physics from ancient Greece to the present day. But he tells it in such a charming and enlightening way that the story feels new.

One of the lessons from the book that will stick with me is that, according to current physics, the universe isn’t infinitely divisible. At some point, you’ll get to the bottom where the quanta (or tiniest pieces) are. The surprising part of that idea is that these quanta apparently include the quanta or tiny pieces of spacetime. But these tiniest pieces of spacetime aren’t in space or time. They compose space and time. Here’s how he sums it up at the end of the book:

The world is more extraordinary and profound than any of the fables told by our forefathers…. It is a world that does not exist in space and does not develop in time. A world made up solely of interacting quantum fields, the swarming of which generates — through a dense network of reciprocal interactions — space, time, particles, waves and light….

A world without infinity, where the infinitely small does not exist, because there is a minimum scale to this teeming, beneath which there is nothing. Quanta of space mingle with the foam of spacetime, and the structure of things is born from reciprocal information that weaves the correlations among the regions of the world. A world that we know how to describe with a set of equations. Perhaps to be corrected.

The biggest puzzle Rovelli and his colleagues are working on is how to reconcile the small-scale physics of quantum mechanics and the large-scale physics of general relativity. They aren’t consistent. Currently, the most popular way to resolve the inconsistency is string theory, but Rovelli’s preferred solution is loop quantum gravity. Unfortunately, his explanation of loop quantum gravity was the part of the book where he lost me. Maybe a second or third or fifteenth reading of that section would clear things up.

The other idea that will stick with me is from quantum field theory: among the fields that make up reality, such as the electron field and the Higgs boson field, is the gravitational field. But the gravitational field is just another name for spacetime. Spacetime is the gravitational field and vice versa. That’s what Rovelli claims anyway, although he ends the book by pointing out that all scientific conclusions are open to revision given new evidence and insights.

The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford

The Short-Timers is the novel that was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s great Vietnam war movie, Full-Metal Jacket. I always assumed it wasn’t much of a novel, never having heard any praise for it and assuming that, as people often say, good movies are usually based on bad novels. But this isn’t a bad novel. It’s a great novel.

The book tells the story of Private Joker, a U.S. Marine combat correspondent. He trains at Parris Island and then travels to Vietnam, where he’s involved in the battle for Hue and the fighting at Khe Sanh. The major difference between the book and the movie is that what happens at Khe Sanh in the book happens in Hue in the movie. And there are scenes involving Vietnamese prostitutes in the movie that don’t appear in the book.

The author, Gustav Hasford, was himself a Marine correspondent in Vietnam. That’s probably why the book, especially the dialog, feels so realistic. It’s a very ugly story but worth reading if you’re at all interested in what it was like to be a Marine in Vietnam.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

There are two principal topics in this book: time travel and time. Since time travel is fiction, the history of time travel presented in the book is the history of ideas about time travel, mostly ideas expressed in novels like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, short stories like Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and movies like The Terminator. Time travel can be fun to think about, and ideas about time travel are suggestive of what people have thought about time, but I quickly lost interest in the topic. So I ended up skimming those sections of the book.

On the other hand, Gleick’s discussion of time itself was worth reading. He covers both physics and philosophy, and does an excellent job explaining complex, competing ideas about time. For example:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it space-time for the convenience of reasoning….

You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

It’s an interesting question whether the calculations of the physicists are so accurate because the universe really is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. And is the passage of time some kind of illusion, like many physicists believe? Gleick leans toward time being quite real and physicists taking their models a bit too seriously. I think this would have been a better book if he spent more time on the physics and philosophy and less time on the fiction.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes

Reading this book was a mistake. I saw a reference to it somewhere and discovered it was the basis for the classic 1950 movie also called In a Lonely Place. The movie starred Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame and was directed by Nicholas Ray. The main character, Dixon Steele, is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter with a bad temper who’s suspected of being a killer. In the book, Steele is a veteran with delusions of grandeur who lives off his rich uncle and kills young women for no apparent reason. Apparently, the book was one of the first depictions of the mind of a serial killer. That’s probably one reason it was included in the distinguished Library of America’s Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. From that perspective, it was good enough. The post-war Los Angeles setting was also interesting at times (although the characters spend an awful lot of time smoking and drinking). I didn’t especially enjoy seeing the world from Dixon Steel’s perspective and mainly stuck with it out of curiosity. I wish I hadn’t.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

Cutter and Bone, a novel from 1976, was the basis for the excellent movie Cutter’s Way. The story is set in Santa Barbara, California. An especially disturbing murder is committed. Bone (Jeff Bridges in the movie) is a witness but doesn’t get a good look at the killer. His friend Cutter (played by the recently-deceased John Heard) becomes convinced that the killer is a wealthy businessman. 

The characters of Cutter, Bone and Cutter’s common-law wife Mo make the story stand out. Cutter was severely wounded in Viet Nam and is now a fast-talking maniac. Bone is a good-looking deadbeat. Mo has her own problems. None of them are happy, but they’re interesting, somewhat in the way a car crash can be if you’re not in the car.