Saturday, July 23, 2016

Men from Earth

Men from Earth
© 1989 Buzz Aldrin and Malcom McConnell
314 pages

Forty-seven years ago, men from Earth first stepped foot on the moon. There, they left medals commemorating the men of Apollo and Soyuz who perished in this quest for fire in the sky, and a plaque that declared their intentions: "We came in peace for all mankind."    Buzz Aldrin was one of the first men to step foot upon the grey dust of the lunar surface, and in this account -- published in 1989,  twenty years after the triumph of Apollo -- he provides a history of the early space race, a memoir of his own time in the Gemini and Apollo programs, and a final thought about the future.

While there is no shortage of astronaut memoirs, Aldrin's intrigued me at the start because I knew from other books that he  helped create the orbital rendezvous procedures that were practiced in Gemini and essential to pulling Apollo off.  The astronauts weren't just fighter jocks: advanced degrees were required of any astronaut candidate. While the account of the first-ever lunar landing is interesting in its own right, Aldrin attempts to record the whole of the space race. Not only does he devote early chapters to the beginning of German, American, and Russian rocketry, but throughout the book he follows developments on the Soviet side as well.  He draws from other books here,  then-recent scholarship. While sometimes the supporting authors are forced to speculate, given Soviet secrecy, the look across the iron curtain is most welcome. Both programs were beset with similar problems -- not only technical, but political, as program coordinators were being pushed for results by their respective governments for moral and propaganda purposes.

Aldrin's writing is detailed, but shouldn't scare off readers who are wary of too much technical detail. The descriptive writing is sound -- not poetic, but it's hard to compete with A Man on the Moon on that note.  One  sight is especially well conveyed, the eerie and abrupt transition of light when Armstrong and Aldrin left the shadow cast by their lander. According to Aldrin, the effect was total: if he stepped out of the shadow and cast his arm behind him back into it, it almost seem to disappear into another realm.  There was no transition between dark and light; when they left the shadow, the blinding drama was though they'd transported from the depths of Carlsbad Caverns into the middle of the Sahara. Also of note here is a final chapter, covering '1969-2009'.    Writing in the eighties, when the shuttle fleet was active and routine, with the International Space Station still in the future, Aldrin seemed  disappointed but optimistic. He is wary of the Soviets, who continue to support manned spaceflight. While they would collapse within a year or so of this book being published, these days NASA astronauts still hitch rides with Soyuz up to the ISS, so Aldrin's concern is not that far off.   Aldrin remains a space booster, recently writing a book encouraging a manned mission to Mars.

Men from Earth is a shorter history of the space race than A Man on the Moon,  but if you're looking for a history of Apollo as whole it might not satisfy,. He ends with Apollo 11, and some of the most interesting lunar missions -- scientific endeavors with go-karts! -- were thus not mentioned. Still, for a recap of Mercury and Gemini it's quite good, and especially so when the coverage of the Russians is taken into account.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Journey Home

The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West
© 1977 Edward Abbey
242 pages

The desert is no place for decent men, which is why Edward Abbey likes it so much. Born on the eastern seaboard,  on a farm between the cities and the woods,  young Abbey was seized by wanderlust and wandered westward. There he found mysterious monoliths, painted deserts, winding canyons penetrated only by the foolhardy, and interminable expanses of prickly plants and even pricklier critters.  Prickly might  well describe Abbey -- or irascible, or cantankerous, or resentful, even indolent.  Most of those  terms are self-applied here as Abbey describes first his journey to the American west, his finding a home in Arizona, and his disgust at realizing that Industrial Civilization was following close on his heels.  They ruined the view with power lines, flooded canyons with dams, and filled the air with smoke -- and so he writes, not to defend pretty views but to defend the very idea of wildness. Man  is wild, can't be broken completely -- and he needs undisturbed space to go crazy in every once in a while.

There are two reasons to read books by Edward Abbey; the first is for his descriptive writing, which wholly absorbed me when I first read Desert Solitaire years ago. The man is a grumpy poet writing prose; he describes the land like a lover, though he doesn't use so intimate a language as say, the author of Song of Solomon.   Certainly he finds enough here to wax poetic about. Making cloudbanks marvelous in Desert Solitaire was child's play; here  he even makes a poisonous tick sound intriguing.   The early book is biographical, but once he arrives at the mountains, they take over, for there are small ranges all over the southwest. The second is for Abbey's personality, which is...colorful, to say the least, and a delight in small doses.  Rough-hewn is Abbey; there's no machine-made box to slide him in. He is a passionate loather of big business and big government, but his contempt for the EPA lies in the fact that it isn't doing enough to curb the industrialization of the west, that it sides with the power plants and oilers over the small ranchers and rambling eccentrics.  His passion borders on reckless. He writes that his motto regarding wilderness hikes is  "be prepared", but that his practice is to go off half-cocked, daring Nature to do its worst. One story has him utterly destroying his fiance's brand new gift-from-daddy convertible to transverse a washed-out road. That particular relationship didn't survive the long hike back. In another account, he follows a mountain lion's tracks and encounters the fearsome creature, poetry and power in one awe-inspiring package.

What Abbey fears most is the triumph of deary mediocrity. He can appreciate the city, as he does in here in a piece on Hoboken and Manhattan. It's not a loving appreciation, but he does recognize that urban life has its consolations. But man is too wild a thing for the city, and the city itself can only be endured for long if there is some place to escape to. Abbey likens it to prisoners of Siberia, able to endure their brutal treatment by the sight of the beckoning expanse of forest; never mind that the forest has its own dangers,  it is there -- unconquered, open, a warren of escape.   Abbey shudders to see Tuscon and Arizona marching toward one another, soon to form one long contiguous blob of parking lots  and neon -- and not just because their unchecked growth is draining water reserves or concentrating filth, but because it makes escape ever more difficult.  We crave adventure, Abbey writes, danger  -- the wilderness offers it.  Abbey If we live in constant security and predictability, we're effectively living the life of zoo animals.  We climb mountains for the same reason we fill the air with soaring music and vibrant poetry: our souls are restless and craving.  Craving what? Something to do, some meaning, some thrusting of ourselves into reality.

There is a lot to ponder in this slim little collection of essays and bar-room ramblings given life in paper.  Certainly, as far as 'current' crises go, the book is dated. I am certain many battles have been lost since the decades since Abbey first discovered the soul-stilling expanse of the west.  Given Abbey's gruffness here, I would refer new readers to Desert Solitaire...but once a friendlier introduction is made then by all means return here to experience more of that beautiful description, that delightful cussedness, that adventurous what-the-hell-carpe-diem view Abbey took to life, its appeal aided by his thoughtfulness.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ten Novels Outside the United States

Today the Broke and the Bookish queries their readers: what are your favorite books set outside the United States?   For my list, I am purposely avoiding 'classics', and am casting my net wide as as not to simply present a list of ten books  by Bernard Cornwell. I am, however, focusing on historical fiction, and not just because my contemporary fiction consists, novels by Michael Connolly and John Grisham.

1. The Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani. Blood of Flowers gives life to an anonymous artisan of Persian rugs, a young woman who is a master of intricate design. The novel is set in 17th century Persia, near Isfahan, and was the first bit of historical fiction I read outside of Civil War novels.  What really stood out about Amirrezvani's writing for me was her use of Persian folk stories -- this joining together of story and oral history also appeared in her Equal of the Sun.

2. A Far Better Rest, Susan Alleyn.  A Tale of Two Cities told through the eyes of Sidney Carton, set largely in France.

3. December 6th, Martin Cruz. The story of an American who grew up in Tokyo,  and is torn between his two countries as Japan stirs restlessly, drawing Anglo-American ire for advancing into China and threatening their own territories in the South Pacific.

4. A Conspiracy of Paper / The Coffee Trader, David Liss

David Liss has  discovered a niche in the historic business-mystery thriller, with novels set in Age of Discovery-era England and Holland, and featuring those countries' Jewish communities heavily.  Liss is an aesthetic-conscious writer, using elegant fonts and attempting to invoke the flavor of 17th century conversation in his narrative.

5. The Revolutionist, Robert Littell

A disgruntled son of Russian immigrants returns to his parents' home when it collapses in revolution. All afire with purpose, Alexander Til becomes a propagandist for the Communists, living in a communal home with some fellow travelers. Virtually all of them become disheartened by the men who emerge from the revolution, by the quick establishment of a new elite; one monster simply breeds another.  Very much the thriller, philosophically interesting, haunting at times, but also funny:

Before the evening was out she had seduced him into seducing her, a conquest that the young Tuohy lived to regret when he discovered, at roughly the same time as the dean, that his latest mistress was the dean's youngest daughter. Which is how Tuohy, despite his passing grades, came to be expelled from the Columbia University School of Mines.

6. The Lords of the North, Bernard Cornwell.   I've been trying to restrain myself in regards to Cornwell. Once he appears on the list he'll take over it -- but The Lords of the North  is possibly my favorite of the Saxon Stories series. The main character, Uhtred, is a Saxon prince turned Danish warlord, adopted by them in his youth. His loyalties are neither to the Danes nor to England, but to his friends -- and with good reason, for here he is betrayed by 'lords' and abandoned to slavery.  Lords  is the most fatefully dark moment for Uhtred of Bebbanberg, but it is there he is most appealing.

Also by Cornwell: ANYTHING! ..but I also considered including his King Arthur trilogy here, beginning with The Winter King.  The second novel is set near the Celtic holiday of Samhain, and is creepy in the best horror-movie sense.

7. Pompeii, Robert Harris.  In truth, Harris' Cicero trilogy is more impressive from a creative point of view, as Harris was able to work in Cicero's courtroom oratory and his philosophic writing into the account of that defender of the Republic's life. Pompeii, however, has explosions, and towns being buried under ashflows.

8. Roma, Steven Saylor. I was hard-pressed to pick one of the Gordianus books -- which one could take precedence over the other?  So let's bypass our Roman detective altogether for this massive novel,  telling the story of Rome from its beginnings as a meeting ground for salt-traders until the rise of Augustus.

9. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini.   The story of a timid boy who betrays his best friend through cowardice, who later returns to an Afghanistan caught in the grips of the Taliban to redeem himself. It is beautiful, but disturbing. One line in the book -- "For you, a thousand times over!" -- still carries me away.

10. Here be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penfield. The daughter of King John, married to a Welsh prince to keep the peace.....what can go wrong?  There's a lot of historical exposition in here for a novel, which -- having been a history major, -- I didn't mind, but it's worth it for the way Penfield handles King John.  You know he's awful, but he's the main character's daddy-dear, so it is possible to look on him with long-developed but now-fading affection.

Honorable mentions:

  • The Mao Case, a detective-mystery with political implications set in China;  
  • Kokoro, a coming of age piece set in  late-Meiji Japan
  • Gates of Fire, a novel of Thermopylae 
  • and
  • Belt of Gold, Ceclia Holland, a rare piece of Byzantine fiction. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Country Called Amreeka

A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold through Arab-American Lives
Alternate subtitle: Arab Roots, American Stories
© 2009 Alia Malek
320 pages

I discovered  A Country Called Amreeka while looking for the film Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian woman who emigrates to the United States with her son Fadi.  (Trailer) Ms. Malek's book is a history of thousands of men and women who have made the same journey, escaping civil war and poverty by journeying to America.  Ms. Malek does not endeavor to give a survey of Arab immigration to the United States spanning a century, as the title hints she may; instead, she uses the personal stories of various families to visit  20th century American history through their eyes.  The book begins with American factories soliciting immigration from Europe, and unexpectedly receiving it from Greece, Syria, and other areas around the Med's eastern rim.  Although these first Arabs would draw the wrath of nativists like the Klan for both their appearances and their faith (the Syrians were predominately Catholics),  these first immigrants largely sought assimilation within the American melting pot.  Later and larger waves coincided with the civil rights movement within the United States, and total assimilation was resisted.  America's foreign policy in the same period gave Arab-Americans from diverse countries a cause to unite around, chiefly opposing the United States government's unqualified support of Israel.

The collection of stories here has quite a few  strengths; the heavy use of Christian Arabs, which runs against American media stereotypes;   a few interesting tales like an Arab-American soldier in the Iraq war, or the two women who fought fiercely for opposite sides in the Bush-Gore presidential battle. (Set as it was before 2003, how strange now to think of Bush being courted by Arab-American civil associations..)  The book suffers from an over-emphasis on politics,   with more ink devoted to Palestine than the Arab-American immigrant experience.  Considering that the author is a civil rights attorney who once worked in the West Bank, the focus isn't surprising. Still, more interesting information filters through this repetition: in Michigan, for instance, Arab auto workers went on strike against their union after it began buying Israeli bonds with dues money.  While a book like this is presumably useful to hypothetical Americans who think everyone in the middle east gets around on a camel,  what it mostly amounts to is accounts of Arabs experiencing racism during events like the hostage crisis and the post 9/11 period, and then fighting for Palestine through political activism.  While these are aspects that deserve thought, there is far more to life -- and to the immigrant experience -- than mere politics.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


created 14th century Dante Alighieri
translated © 2002 Anthony Esolen
528 pages

If Dante's Inferno is to be believed, Hell is mostly populated by Italians.  The first piece in the Divine Comedy, Inferno takes the reader down into the depths of the infernal abyss,  through ring after ring of the damned. Fire is the exception, not the rule down here;  Hell is a vast geography of misery.  The ground is rocky and steep, the air filled with cold and lashing rain, or noxious fumes.  The reader, taking Dante's place as he wanders off the straight roads of life into the wilderness, is guided through Hell in safety by Virgil -- the greatest of all classical poets.

 Inferno contains two things in abundance:  classical allusions and Italian politics.  The world of the Inferno is peopled by characters, beasts, and places that draw on the rich vocabulary of the classical tradition. We see here not only the 'virtuous pagans' hanging around a medieval version of the Asphodel Plains, denied entry into paradise but not damned either, but more than a few heroes of the canon. Odysseus is here, condemned as a liar -- and so is Brutus, a traitor in the gnawing maw of an angry devil.  My original intent was to read the Inferno as part of a series of medieval history and medieval literature -- and considering the amount of Florentine politics here, that may have been helpful. Dante can't so much as move without tripping over a corrupt pope, an exposed friend, or some hapless Florentine giving a  dire warning about impending civil war. (And I do mean tripping -- people are stuck into the ground head first, or trapped in a frozen river with only their heads exposed..) The ranks of the traitors are especially Italian-rich. A little familiarity with medieval cosmology helps in understanding the text -- the idea that the universe is a series of spheres, each level nesting inside the other.  Dante also displays an intriguing imagination, creating poetic punishments. (Schismatics who create division within the church or society are themselves divided with an axe to the head.) At the bottom of the pit is a frozen wasteland, with the greatest of traitors entrapped by darkness and ice. The artic winds that create the ice are created by Satan's wings, constantly beating in his eternal attempt to rise.

When the year's young in season, 
and the spray washes the sun beams in Aquarius
and the nights dwindle south toward half a day
When the frost  paints a copy on the ground
of her white sister's snowy image, but
Her feather's sharpness doesn't last for long [...]   (Canto 24)

 Esolen errs on the side of accuracy rather than rhyme with his translation,  but he does achieve a certain lyric quality and uses footnotes judiciously, creating a text neither confusing nor cluttered. Esolen's appendices are unusually rich, containing textually similar lines from The Aenid, text from the non-canonical "Vision of St. Paul", which describes different  degrees of punishments for sinners, and theological writings from Aquinas and Boniface that would have informed Dante's view.  More extensive notes follow the end of Canto XXXIV, but of course that's not the end of the story -- it continues on the mount of Purgatory.

Crescent and Star

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds
© 2001 Stephen Kinzer
288 pages

Turkey is an anomaly. For centuries, it was the dreaded foe of Christendom, twice pushing at the very gates of Vienna. After the Great War, when the victorious west disassembled the Ottoman Empire and reduced the Turks to mere Antaolia, it seemed a total defeat -- but shortly thereafter, a rare Turkish hero of the Great War led a revolution and established a new Turkish Republic, one that -- phoenix like -- drove away its exhausted enemies and even reclaimed a foothold into Europe. It was to Europe that the new  lord looked: not as an object of conquest, but an object of emulation. Like Peter the Great,  Mustafa Kemal would make his life's ambition to modernize and westernize the Turks  whether they wanted it or not.  Using the military to carry forth his will, he declared war on the past: out with fezzes and  zithers, in with fedoras and Bach!  While the other mideastern countries that emerged from the Ottoman disintegration  drifted into tyranny -- religious in Afghanistan, secular in Iraq, both in Iran --  Turkey remained anomalous, discretely controlled by a military that had enforced liberalization, and counted itself the enemy of Taliban-style religious rule, but itself imposed limits on democracy and speech.  But the forced liberalization of Turkey at the hands of an illiberal power, the military state, has long since showed its age. Turks today want more from their 'devlet', their state, than being patronized; they want genuine democracy, genuine freedom to talk about issues the military order would rather have stay buried.

Crescent and Star  is the product of one man falling in love with Turkey while living there for years for the New York Times;  It combines vignettes about life in Turkey with historical-political reporting, both heavily steeped in obvious affection for Turkey as a whole.  It us romantic and at times naive -- Kinzer bubbles that  Turkey could be a world power and admits that portraits of Kemal hang in his office, as they do around Turkey --  but to the total outsider like myself, informative.  Kinzer's passion for Kemalism is never hidden: he wants Turkey to become not merely a member of the European Union, but a genuine European power. Again and again he asserts the cultural bonds that link Turkey and eastern Europe. Greece and Turkey are divided by political bickering over Aegean islands more than anything else, and towards the end he presents a heartwarming account of trans-Aegean brotherhood in the wake of a series of earthquakes. As one earthquake near Istanbul shattered belief in the devlet's competency and humanitarian interests, it also shattered belief in malevolent Greeks:  the Greeks were first to come with aide, and when Greece had its own earthquake days later, the Turks responded to that charity in kind -- charity in the truest sense of the word, caritas, love in action.  For Turkey to fulfill its destiny, Kinzer writes, the military must acknowledge that its paternalism has kept Turkish domestic politics immature.  Its protective intervention in the past, removing incompetent officials whose blundering were pushing the country toward civil war,  have served their purpose: for Turks to become truly European,  they must be set free to create their own destinies.

Crescent and Star brims over with human interest,  created by personal research. Kinzer lived in Turkey for at least four years during his tenure as bureau chief for the New York Times, and he cultivated a variety of friendships, even hosting a blues radio show in Istanbul.  He interviewed Turks and Kurds extensively, and his obvious love for Turkey is not in the least dampened by the stories of Armenians and Kurds who have suffered at the hand of the state.  The Turks have his affection, not  the Turkish government.  While the book's optimism -- stemming from a quiet Kurdish front and ongoing negotiations with the EU -- now dates it,  given how the chaos in Iraq and Syria has turned Turkey's borders into a war zone,  Kinzer's account nontheless illustrates how Turkey's history has given it a pecuilar stamp, a place able to bridge Europe and the middle east not only geographically.  Turkey's close involvement with the Syrian war, its frequent brushes with the Russians and Irans, make it a country worth knowing about. Considering that a faction within the military attempted to assert itself politically once again, there's no denying this kind of book's relevance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

TBR: And Then There was One

Dear readers,  we approach the end for the To be Read Takedown Challenge!

Richard Francis' Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World proved disappointing, not because of the quality of content but the focus thereof.  Although Domesticated sells itself as a work on animal domestication, and does provide natural histories of various animals like pets, horses, camels, pigs, and rodents, a section on human evolution consumes a fourth of the book, and there's not a non-mammal species to  be found.  Why devote sections to guinea pigs and creatures that aren't actually domesticated (raccoons) and ignore the 2nd most common foodsource on the planet, the chicken?  The answer lies in Francis seeing humanity as domesticated, too, albeit self-domesticated, and he uses the examples of species like the raccoon to argue that we selected 'tame' traits in ourselves, like prosociality.  He mixes the science with entertaining personal accounts, like his misfortunes attempting to ride a camel, and similarly clumsy but appreciated attempts to mix in some cultural history.

If you've been playing at home, you'll know the official TBR list is now down to one item: Trucking Country: the Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy. There's a bonus round of sorts consisting of the books I didn't add to the list at the start, in part to preserve some mystery and in part so it wouldn't look so daunting.  The bonus round has a mix of law, history, religion, and tech.  The only heavyweight is Trucking Country.  There are some reviews pending.

Taken down!

Liberty, Defined, Ron Paul
Big Box Swindle, Stacy Mitchell
Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security, Richard Clarke
When Asia Was the World, Stewart  Gordon
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,  Andrew Blum
The Orthodox Church, Kallistos (Timothy) Ware
Green, Blue, and Grey: The Irish in the American Civil War, Cal McCarthy
Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff, Matt Kibbe
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, Yural Levin.
Freedom and Virtue, ed. George Carey
 The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday.
Literary Converts, Joseph Pearce
Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World,  Richard Francis
10% Human, Alanna Collen.

Coming Attractions
Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy, Shane Hamilton.