When Cigarettes are Currency

War Profiteering in Blue Helmets and Black Markets

Most of us have spent more time than usual at home over the past few months. I spent some of that time reviewing my current events/history bookshelf (yep, I’m the kind of person who has organized and dedicated bookshelves). It’s interesting how current events become history. Today’s newspaper is nothing more than tomorrow’s fish wrapper if we don’t take the time to study, analyze, and learn from current events, history, and were the two meet. We should all keep a current events/history bookshelf and review it on a regular basis. One of the books I recently reviewed is Peter Andreas’ Blue Helmets and Black Markets The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo. Its message is as timely today as it was over a decade ago.

Blue Helmets and Black Markets (book cover)
Blue Helmets and Black Markets by Peter Andreas

History can be viewed as a series of specific events over a general period of time. Some of these historical events can be too specific to appeal to a wide audience. Andreas’ book covers the Siege of Sarajevo which lasted from 1992 to 1995. This event, and time period, may be too narrow to appeal to some readers but it shouldn’t be a surprise that wars tend to be wars and politics tends to be politics. Andreas contends that various political and military groups, including UN soldiers, profited from the black market that existed during the siege. This profiteering also served to prolong the siege for the citizens of Sarajevo. Andreas states, “Cigarettes were so valued in wartime Sarajevo that they became an alternative form of currency.” At another point in the book reporter Maggie O’Kane states, “The UN soldiers here are making themselves and the Sarajevo mafia rich. The soldiers are the importers and the locals are the middlemen for a trade in cigarettes…worth millions of dollars.” This is not the first, or last, time soldiers and politicians have profited from war, but without analysis of historical events it is difficult to develop an understanding and learn from history.

Peter Andreas’ book is an insightful look into the lives of the citizens who lived through the Siege of Sarajevo and the politicians and soldiers who prolonged and profited from the siege. It is a book worth study and analysis for its historical context. It is also worth a read in a time when current events are fraught with individuals who willingly manipulate and prolong conflict for profit.

-K-

Blue Helmets and Black Markets The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo (2008) by Peter Andreas.

Brand Preference

Why Some People Don’t Mind Being a Billboard 

In a world of posts, pics, updates, likes, and follows image can become more important than preference. The ‘gram, the ‘book, and the twit’ may not have created posturing but they sure as hell have turned it into a martial art of sorts. There are many individuals out there that feel having classy things will make them classy people. Mark Twain addresses posturing, price, and pretentiousness in “Concerning Tobacco.”

Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing
Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing

Twain begins his essay by establishing a couple common superstitions. These superstitions concern an individual’s preferences and standards concerning tobacco. Twain states that many of his friends will only smoke expensive cigars and take great pride in showing off the labels of their cigars whenever they smoke. These friends also berate Twain for his choice of cheap cigars and state they could not bear to smoke such sub-standard tobacco. In an act of subterfuge Twain places the labels of his cheap cigars on some expensive cigars he secretly took from a friend. His friends, self-proclaimed experts with high standards, could not tell the difference and thought they were smoking cheap cigars. Twain ends the essay by returning to the superstitions he establishes at the beginning. He states that the only real standard concerning tobacco is an individual’s preference, but it may be a preference to brand and not necessarily flavor.

Twain wrote “Concerning Tobacco” in 1917. If the ‘gram, the ‘book’ and the twit’ were around a hundred years ago I would wager his friends would have posts, pics, updates, and likes about their expensive cigars. They would be posturing and bragging about the price of their stogie selections.  Mark Twain wouldn’t be so pretentious. He wouldn’t use a brand to make himself look better, to end up being a billboard for that brand. Take Twain’s advice and embrace your preferences, even if they are on the less expensive side.  Better to be you than a billboard.

-K-

“Concerning Tobacco” by Mark Twain from Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing (1994) edited by Sara Nickles.

How We Spend Our Time

May Be How Others Spent Their Time

How often do we wish we could have a little time to ourselves? Time is something that we can keep to ourselves. Time is also something we can borrow (and steal), but it is also something we can share with others. I find how others spend, or spent, their time fascinating. I’ve felt this way ever since reading The Diary of Anne Frank way back in 8th grade. Learning how somebody else spent their time can be informative, entertaining, and even humbling. Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s is one such example.

Sartor’s diary can be read on a couple of levels. If you want to take an academic approach to the diary it can be read as a first person account of life in the American South in the 1970s. Reading the diary as a historical document can provide you with as much insight as some textbooks covering the same time period and geography. You can also approach the diary as a record of an adolescent girl’s struggles, defeats, and triumphs.

Miss American Pie by Margaret Sartor

I took the second approach when I read Sartor’s book and was amazed with how much I had in common with her. Upon closer study I realized that it isn’t so much that Ms. Sartor and I are some sort of kindred spirits as much as we were, at one time, both adolescents. I’m not implying that all adolescents have the same experiences, but that time period of our lives does present similar struggles. This is what I find most appealing about Miss American Pie. We all may be individuals moving through life on our own paths that on occasion run parallel and sometimes intersect, but we often share similar struggles during the same time periods of our lives.

Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie is at turns informative, entertaining, and subtlety humbling at times. Seeing how somebody else spent their time (even if it is a decade or century a part from your own) can help us put our own lives and times in perspective.

-K-

Miss American Pie A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s (2006) by Margaret Sartor.

Charlie Schroeder: Time Traveler

What We Can Learn From Historical Reenactments

Did you ever play ‘war’ as a child (maybe a few of you played ‘doctor’ but that’s a topic for a different post)? Have you ever played Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, or some other similar video game and wondered about its historical accuracy and what it would be like to participate in historical battles? My experience with historical military video games is limited, but I have engaged in a wide variety of war games ranging from cap guns as a child to paintball games in my twenties. I think those experiences combined with my interest in history has drawn me to visit several historical reenactments overs the years. This same interest is what drew me to Charlie Schroeder’s book Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments. If you want to learn about historical reenactments and the people who participate in them you will want to read Schroeder’s book.

Schroeder began thinking about history and reenacting after a visit to Old Fort MacArthur Days outside Los Angeles. He wondered, “What if I could reenact my way through history?” The answer to that question is an informative and entertaining memoir that spans over a half dozen time periods with reenactments ranging from the Roman Empire to the Vietnam War. Schroeder’s first hand experiences provide an informative look into the motivations of many historical reenactors while also entertaining the reader with Schroeder’s growing obsession with history. He states, “When I started my journey, I didn’t think I’d become so enamored with the past….” This growing obsession with the past leads Schroeder to one of the primary motivations for reenacting historical events, “Reenacting shrinks the broad subject of history to a personal scale, away from the dates and ideas to something we can all relate to, the human experience.”

Charlie Schroeder’s Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactments is informative and enjoyable on a couple levels. It is an entertaining memoir of one man’s experiences in the world of historical reenactments. It also provides an informative insight into why men and women participate in historical reenactments, and how we as audience members can learn a little more about the human experience through their hard work at reenactments.

-K-

Man of War My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment (2012) by Charlie Schroeder

When Comic Books Offered X-Ray Vision

Advertising and Historical Perspective

Do you remember a time when there were advertisements for odd, wondrous, and absolutely need to have items in comic books? If you don’t remember that time you should know that X-Ray Spexs, Kryptonite Rocks, Switchblade Combs, and numerous other novelty items were sold through advertisements placed in comic books. If you are feeling a bit nostalgic for days past or are interested in comic book history then Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! by Kirk Demarais is worth a read.

Mail-Order Mysteries is a fascinating look into the world of novelty product advertising in comic books primarily from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Kirk Demarais reviews over 150 mail order items that promise all things from “Super Powers and Special Abilities” to “Better Living Through Mail Order.” Demarais breaks the reviews of the mail order items into sections that include: what the potential purchaser would imagine the item to be, what was actually sent to the purchaser, and an often humorous customer satisfaction review. Demarais also includes copies of the original print advertisements and photographs of the actual items for comparison.

There are many informative books about the history and importance of comic books (see my entry about Grant Morrison’s Supergods), but none that I’ve read address product advertising in comic books. Demarais’ book gives the reader some insight into who, according to advertisers, was reading comic books in the 60s and 70s. These readers were interested in “Super Powers and Special Abilities” such X-Ray Spex and Charles Atlas Fitness Programs to “Oddities” such as Sea-Monkeys and Venus Fly Traps. Mail-Order Mysteries provides a historical context of a time when print advertising was an essential component of comic books, and that advertising was a reflection of the demographic that read comic books.

Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! will provide a bit of nostalgia for some readers and an interesting historical perspective for any reader interested in comic book history. Demarais’ book is worth a read whether you are looking for relive days gone by or further your study of comic books.

-K-

Mail-Order Mysteries Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! (2011) by Kirk Demarais

Reading Comics vs Being a Reader of Comic Books

or Why You Should Read Supergods

There is a difference between reading comics and being a reader of comic books. Reading comic books is a form of escapism (this argument can be made for most all fiction). There is nothing wrong with a bit of escapism now and again but it is passive form of entertainment at best. Critical readers of comic books (or any type of literature for that matter) are analytical in their process. To be a critical reader of comic books requires that one actively analyze the text, culture, ourselves, and how all three interact. Grant Morrison’s Supergods is required reading for anybody who wants to become a critical reader of comic books.

Morrison’s Supergods is a well balanced mix of comic book history, critical analysis of comic book heroes, and personal memoir. All three elements can help develop the skills necessary to critically analyze comic books. Morrison provides a history of comics starting with the Golden Age and wraps up around about 2010. This history of comic books is a helpful resource for anybody who wants to know how comic books fit into our culture and what roles they have played in society for the past eighty-odd years. Morrison also provides the reader with some interesting analyses of comic book characters (heroes and villains alike). These analyses show the reader how comic book characters are often representations of society and/or ourselves. This is evident where Morrison states, “We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.” Finally, Supergods is part memoir. Morrison shares with the reader his personal history with comic books and the impact they’ve had on his life as both reader and creator. This memoir gives the reader insight into the writers and artists who breathe life into the comic books and how their lives influence their work.

Reading a comic book is a great way to spend some time, but it is short sighted to think that comic books are nothing more than passive escapism. Comic books, like any other type of literature, can offer insights about society and ourselves. In order to recognize these insights it is important to become a critical reader, and Supergods is a great resource for such an endeavor.

-K-

Supergods (2011) by Grant Morrison

Valor, Sacrifice, and the American Soldier

Clinton Romesha and the Battle of Command Outpost Keating

We can easily follow, friend, and like somebody we don’t even know these days with a swipe of a finger, yet many of us don’t know much about the individuals serving our country overseas.  Regardless of politics and personal beliefs about the government it is vital to take a moment now and again to think about these men and women who serve, and to try and understand what they experience.  Clinton Romesha’s Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor is a remarkable book that provides a harrowing account of the courage and sacrifice of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor recounts the events of the fourteen hour battle between U.S. forces and Taliban insurgents at Command Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. Romesha was vital in the defense of Keating and would lead a counter attack to push back the Taliban.  Many books, essays, documentaries, and such usually approach combat with a reporter’s sense of detachment.  In a few unfortunate instances the topic is approached with sensationalistic melodrama.  Neither is the case with Romesha’s book.  The reader gets to know the soldiers of Red Platoon.  Romesha makes certain that we know these are men with families, friends, and plans for the future.  Knowing these men makes it, at times, difficult to turn the page because we are uncertain about the fates of these soldiers.  The reality of life and death in a combat zone is succinctly expressed by Romesha.  This is a difficult book to put down.  I felt compelled to read on and at times I was afraid to turn the page knowing that some of these brave men did not survive the battle of Keating.

It is important to try to develop an understanding of the experiences that the men and women of our armed forces must deal with.  Clinton Romesha’s Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor provides us with an insight into some of the experiences and a better understanding of the valor and sacrifice of our American soldiers.

-K-

Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor (2016) by Clinton Romesha

Lonely or Alone? Loneliness or Loner?

There is a difference between being lonely and being alone. This is one of those topics that frequently pop up in an introduction to psychology class. The discussion tends to focus on the potential dangers concerning feelings of loneliness and depression, but I don’t remember any discussion about being alone and/or being a loner. Some questions were left unanswered concerning what it meant to be a loner and if it is acceptable to desire to be alone. These questions, and many more, are addressed in Party of One The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus. I’ve focused on “Lonely Places” this month, but Rufus’ book shows us that being lonely is not synonymous with being alone.

Rufus’ book, as the title suggests, sets out to provide insight and assistance in living life as a loner. The book addresses several aspects of life from childhood and community to friendship and religion and how each aspect relates to the life of a loner. Rufus also discusses how popular culture such as film, literature, and even clothes play a role in how the world views loners and how loners view themselves. These topics, along with several others, are well researched (the book is over fifteen years old so some data may be dated) and is presented in any easy to understand manifesto.

I read Rufus’ book around the first half of 2005 and it has remained on my shelf ever since. It has margin notes from at least four different pens so I have revisited the text  a few times since that first reading. Before I read Rufus’ book I didn’t have a solid understanding of what it meant to be a loner let alone how a loner could get by in a world that imposes social interaction and forced community. Although I don’t agree with all of Rufus’ assertions I’ve found it informative and helpful over the years.

If you, like me, felt those lonely vs. alone conversations in introduction to psychology were a bit lacking then I suggest Party of One A Loners’ Manifesto. Rufus’ book is essential reading for anybody who is a  loner. This month focuses on “Lonely Places” but it is important to realize that loners don’t always feel lonely.

-K-

Party of One The Loners’ Manifesto (2003) by Anneli Rufus

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