Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Tolkien Book

Some favorite Norse myths - Sigurd the Gram-wielding, dragon-slaying Volsung and the Fall of the Niflungs - will be retold by J.R.R. Tolkien in the forthcoming The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (May, 2009). Tolkien wrote the previously unpublished manuscript in Oxford in the 1920s and 1930s. His son, Christopher Tolkien, will provide commentary in the edition by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HarperCollinsUK for the British). Christopher has a good edition, by the way, of the Hervararsaga, the Norse saga that Olof Rudbeck drew a map for in Verelius' 1672 edition - the very map that would eventually lead him on his life-long quest for Atlantis.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Party that Changed the World

Wouldn't it be nice to have a clock that would slow down in times of pleasure and speed up in times of trial? That was once a wish of Austrian Emperor Francis I, who could certainly have used such a device in the autumn of 1814 when he opened his palace to a veritable royal mob who would never seem to agree, or leave. The occasion was the Congress of Vienna, a glittering peace conference at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

For a time, Vienna became the capital of Europe, the site of a massive victory celebration, and home to the most glamorous gathering since the fall of the Roman Empire. Never before have more kings, queens, and princes lived in the same place for such a long period of time.

Catering to the whims of these houseguests would sometimes be exasperating. Vienna wits soon poked fun at the early impressions made by the crowned heads who would so readily accept Emperor Francis's generosity:

The Emperor of Russia: He makes love for everyone.
The King of Prussia: He thinks for everyone.
The King of Denmark: He speaks for everyone.
The King of Bavaria: He eats for everyone.
The King of Württemberg: He eats for everyone.
The Emperor of Austria: He pays for everyone.

In the end, after nine months of negotiations, celebrations, and intrigues, the Congress of Vienna would finally wrap up, drastically reconfiguring the balance of power and ushering in a modern age.

For more, see my book Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna. I originally posted this on Wonders and Marvels, a fascinating new blog by Holly A. Tucker, Professor at the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The White House Album Collection

The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Ramones' Rocket to Russia, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Kinks' Arthur, and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run are some of the 2,200 albums that once stood in a hallway of the third floor of the White House. Under Ronald Reagan, however, the lps were packed off to the basement, where they apparently remain. David Browne, author of the well-received Sonic Youth biography (Goodbye 20th Century) writes more on the collection in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Hunt for the Blue Baron

Divers are on the trail for what some believe might well turn out to be the "richest wreck" in history - a 2.6 billion treasure just waiting some 800 feet below sea, 40 miles off Guyana. The ship, which carried ten tons of gold and seventy tons of platinum among other things, was allegedly sunk by U-Boat U-87 on way to Great Britain in June 1942. Look forward to a complicated legal battle. Read more here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On King's Road

King's Road was, at its height, a vibrant urban catwalk that showcased everything from the fashionable to the freaky, the bohemian to the punk. The Rolling Stones had their first rehearsal at No. 500, where Bill Wyman auditioned as the band's bass player; at No. 430, Johnny Lydon would join the Sex Pistols. Eric Clapton lived briefly at No. 152, often jamming at the Six Bells (No. 197). Many other artists lived here for a time from Bob Marley to Joe Strummer. It was here that Peter Sellers faked an injury to avoid playing Major T. J. "King" Kong in Dr. Strangelove, and the Rocky Horror Show, after opening in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, moved to the Classic Cinema at No. 148.

King's Road boutiques, meanwhile, dressed the stars and their creations from Sgt Pepper to Major Tom. Another icon, no surprise, would be closely associated with the scene: James Bond, who, as Ian Fleming imagined it, lived in a trendy unnamed square just off King's Road. By the 1980s, however, this legendary thoroughfare had lost its edge, degenerating into what many critics summed up as just another bland high street and tame tourist trap. The Chelsea Drug Store at 49 King's Road had become a McDonald's.

This blog is named in honor of a street that for a time symbolized innovation, nonconformity, and youthful exuberance - with the hope that none of these forces disappear anytime soon from the world of creativity.

As for books on this mythic patch of pavement, I recommend Max Décharné's King's Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World. Décharné also sings for the garage punk band The Flaming Stars.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vera and the Ambassador

Vera and her husband Donald Blinken, Ambassador to Hungary under Bill Clinton (1994-1998), will publish a dual memoir that will offer "a behind-the-scenes look at diplomacy and international relations in post-Communist Eastern Europe." It will also tell the story of Vera Blinken's return to Budapest fifty years after her escape in 1944.

In addition meeting everyone from Madonna to The Pope, the Blinkens played an important role in Budapest politics and society of the mid-1990s. Donald, for instance, negotiated Hungary's entry into NATO, and helped establish the NATO base at Taszár, the first in a former Warsaw Pact country and a strategic location for the Balkan wars and the airlift, while Vera created mobile breast cancer screening units that saved many lives. Hopefully there will be more on the Hungarian Refugee interviews following the 1956 revolution, which were digitalized here with their support and on their work lobbying the Hungarian government on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

By the way, their son Antony, a prominent foreign policy writer under Clinton, has just been named national security advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden.

Biden will blurb the book “President Clinton made a wise choice in sending Donald and Vera Blinken to Hungary. This book serves as a reminder of the critical role that ambassadors can play in advancing the interests of our country at the pivot points of history. Their teamwork was good for Hungary, good for our country, and it also makes for a great story.”

Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return will be published by SUNY Press in early February 2009.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

George W. Bush Read My Book

In 2008, according to Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, George W. Bush read "a heavy dose of history -- including David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," Rick Atkinson's "Day of Battle," Hugh Thomas's "Spanish Civil War," Stephen W. Sears's "Gettysburg" and David King's "Vienna 1814."