Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tales from the Non-Fiction Section, Part II

 I'm writing about non-fiction. Shit gets real here. Shit will get made-up again in my next blog.

Last blog, I wrote about John McWhorter and his illustrious career. I don't know anything about Jason Vuic's career, but he's written a quite good book called The Yugo:The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. He qualifies, or rather negates, his subtitle in the introduction, with a short list of cars worse than the Yugo, but goes on to make a case for the Yugo's status as popularly acknowledged worst car ever. This book is funny. I'm not a car guy, but I like Top Gear and I thought this book would be the next best thing to watching Top Gear at work. Then I realized that this book is better than watching Top Gear at work because I don't have to haul my laptop back and forth.

The Yugo is a very short history of the Yugo in America, as it went from Yugomania in 1986 to utter collapse in 1989. The rest of the book is about the history of Yugoslavia, small car marketing in America in the '70s and '80s, and a man named Malcolm Bricklin. Bricklin is a chronic business starter-upper of the most alarming kind. Vuic never suggests that he's mentally ill as well as incompetent, but it rather comes across. Bricklin started his first company operating a chain of hardware stores, which allowed him to sell the licensing rights to more hardware stores than he had the capacity to supply. After that bankruptucy, he imported small Japanese cars until he nearly went belly-up again and was bought out by competent people, which is why you've heard of Nissan. Bricklin then went on a collaborative venture with the government of New Brunswick, for heaven's sake, to produce an acryllic-bodied car called... The Bricklin. Had the technology existed, the car would have been revolutionary. But it didn't. Have you ever seen an acryllic-bodied car? No you haven't.

The Yugoslav Zastava factory made munitions during World War II, switched to producing a small Fiat-based no-frills automobile, and continued making that same little off-brand Fiat until Yugoslavia's break-up in the '90s when it started producing munitions again. Zastava was already exporting to some European companies, but was not near competent to make a car that would pass American safety and pollution standards. However, Bricklin made promises and everyone worked like dogs and the Yugo was approved for US import. Paying $3,500 for a car was enough to get a segment of Americans extremely excited, and the novelty of an import from a Communist, but not Soviet Bloc country (because Yugoslavia, under Tito, was not part of the Bloc. They were in fact, an American ally. Who knew? I need to research this further, but allying with Tito seems like an unspeakably bad thing.) appealed to an American sense of internationalism that was wafting around in the '80s. The Yugo cheerfully arrived in America, as thousands of people had pre-ordered them. People bought Yugos en masse. One dealer had a "buy a Mercedes, get a free Yugo" scheme. It was all downhill from there. Consumer Reports gave the Yugo an F and the US government gave Yugo a low, but not the lowest, safety rating. The Yugo chronicles a company crumble, restructure, and end, from which Bricklin walked away with $15 million. The Yugo is remembered as a colossal failure, unlike the Crimean War, which we've all forgotten. Honestly, the only person in common memory from the Crimean War is Florence Nightingale, and what other war has ever been remembered only for a female non-combatant? After Florence, people know The Charge of the Light Brigade, which, as a battle, was a clusterfuck on par with the rest of the war. General Raglan sent an messenger to the commander of the Light Brigade, with word to seize back some English guns that the Russians were seizing. The commander said, "Which guns?" The messenger said, "Those guns," pointing at some Russian guns far away across a plain. The commander said, "Really?" and then sent the Light Brigade out to capture them. "It is not ours to question why." The Light Brigade had been itching to do something anyway, as they were underutilized in the first few conflicts of the war.

The Crimean War started out as a bad idea. Orlando Figes starts out with a hundred and fifty pages of the politcial climates of Turkey (sick man of Europe), England (Russophobic newspapers), France (we had an empire), and Russia (God-appointed tsar gone batty). The war itself started out with a Russian invasion of the Danube delta, which failed miserably. With Russia out of the Danube, England had a choice to invade Russia, go home, or leave its soldiers in the delta for another few months to die of cholera. England partially chose against the latter and sailed for Sevastopol, with plans to sail home again in a month or two. The assessment was: the war would be quick, and if it wasn't, they'd be fine. Why send in winter provisions? How bad could a Russian winter be? (If you are ever in an army that underestimates Russia's winter, please desert immediately.) Really, the French were the only army that encouraged the survival of their own troops. England's army was made up of anyone too drunk to have enlisted to go to India, Canada, China, etc., led by a geriatric aristocracy. Russia had a set of equally incompetent generals ruling a serf army fed on bread that dogs wouldn't eat. France, with universal conscription and The Rights of Man, gave their people soup and mittens and Minie rifles, the most important development of the war. France was first army to issue accurate, long-rang rifles to their troops, which proved decisive in most of the first battles of the war.  The Crimean War chronicles the confusing, badly planned battles leading to mostly English/French victories and the eventual taking of Sevastopol.  Along with Minie rifles, the Crimean War introduced newspaper readers to war photography and pioneered the use of the train and telegraph.  

My colleague Ethan, a fiction enthusiast, says he wants to read the definitive work on any non-fiction topic, to save himself the trouble of having to read more than one book about something unliterary and leave himself more lifetime time for novels. Well, Ethan, The Crimean War by Orlando Figes is the only book you ever need to read about the Crimean War. It is the definitive history of the Crimean War for this generation. At only 493 pages, excluding the index, The Crimean War is significantly shorter than Mr. Figes other books. The Whisperers, about Stalinist Russia, which I read a while ago, and Natasha's Dance, which I haven't read yet.  Orlando Figes is good stuff. Read it. Give it a couple months. You'll get through it.

Next up: Places you never ever want to visit.

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