Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory"

Richard W. Slatta / Jane Lucas De Grummond, Simon Bolivar's Quest For Glory. Texas A&M University Press Military History Series, 2003.

This biography of Simon Bolivar was completed by Richard W. Slatta from a manuscript left unfinished by the late Jane Lucas De Grummond. It is sad to have to report that the two authors achieve zero style, but such is the case. Although the book is aimed at a general readership and eschews (wrongly, I think) the usual scholarly apparatus of end-notes, it is not in fact that readable. A biography of Bolivar is, perforce, essentially a piece of military history; and military history is difficult to write clearly. Although one does come away from this book with an impression of the Liberator himself, who was indeed on a “quest for glory,” the blizzard of other personae, general and leaders on both the Patriot and Royalist sides, do not emerge clearly from the text, and remain easily confused names only. They needed to be introduced carefully – pictures would have helped.

You do get the major message that the leadership of both sides was rent by intense rivalries and jealousies: “In his autobiography, [Jose Antonio] Paez recorded that…he acknowledged the need for a supreme chief. He declined, however, to recognize either [Santiago] Marino or Bolivar as filling that role, preferring to visualize himself as supreme chief.”

There is a delightfully apt typo at one point, when Marino re-swears his allegiance to Bolivar: “It is now, and from this moment, our most scared duty to become a model of submission and obedience to the supreme chief!” Yes, I imagine it was his “scared” as well as “sacred” duty.

Although the book contains a number of maps in the front material, they are inadequate to the needs of the story. Many, many locations mentioned in the text are unmarked on the maps; and of the maps of specific battles and military marches that the book cries out for, there are none. It is easy to become very geographically confused as the story makes its way through modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

It is highly regrettable that the book leans to the dull and tangled, because the material is rich. Bolivar’s multiple liaisons alone provide a lot of potential side-drama that the authors fail to make much of (“Make love AND war!”, apparently). Highly dramatic episodes such as the mass killing of 22 Capuchin friars by an over-zealous Patriot officer, or the tale of the general who tosses his baby into the air on a balcony, only to watch it crash to its death below, pass without any sense of occasion.

The Bibliography and “Guide to Further Reading” are good, and further reading will be necessary if you really want to understand fully what was going on. 

Friday, September 14, 2012


At my Mexican prep school, I teach, among a number of other subjects, the year-long World History sequence for first-year students in the multicultural track (who are equivalent to American 10th graders). The course is serious and dense with information, but I try to keep a fun vein running through it as well.

The city that gets the most attention in the course, more than Paris or London even, is Constantinople/Istanbul - the gateway between East and West, Asia and Europe, Islam and Christianity. Because it features so prominently, I get a chance to use two delightful geography songs, the spelling song "C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E" from Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1928) and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" by the Four Lads (1953). When was the last time there was a pop geography song?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Commonplace Book: Cats

"You have a cat, ma'am, I see," said Mr. Bumble, glancing at one, who in the centre of her family was basking before the fire; "and kittens too, I declare!"

"I am so fond of them, Mr. Bumble, you can't think," replied the matron. "They're so happy, so frolicsome, and so cheerful, that they are quite companions for me." 

"Very nice animals, ma'am," replied Mr. Bumble approvingly; "so very domestic."

"Oh, yes!" rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; "so fond of their home too, that it's quite a pleasure, I'm sure."

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

George Cruikshank's illustration of this scene is a charmer:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stylish 60s TV Commercial

Stanley Kubrick's enthusiasm for the technique of certain television commercials, such as the early 1970s "The Night Belongs to Michelob" series, is well-known. I wonder what he would have made of this stylish early 1960s spot for Tiparillos mini-cigars? The restless panning captures the swanky nightclub energy perfectly. We never really get a good look at anyone except the vending girl; it all just slides by. The footage would not be out of place in an American knock-off of La dolce vita or La notte. It also demonstrates decisively that the Mad Men stylistic is not merely a retro imposition, but is part of the way the era felt about itself.