Saturday, November 28, 2015

This week: yep, still at war

I don't know how most people spend Thanksgiving, but after a day with family eating sweet potatoes and admiring chickens and a late-fall collard garden, I've been reading nonstop about World War 2.  I'm moving closer to the end of 1941, and the war is shifting east, as Hitler's panzers and Hirohito's carriers are on the move.

I've read two more Time-Life histories of the war: The Rising Sun and Russia Besieged.  I picked up The Rising Sun in hopes that it would address Japan's rise as an industrial and colonial power, but that is mentioned as mere prologue. Time-Life's history is principally about the high point of Japanese power, from the December 7 attacks on the Allies in the Pacific,  to the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, where Japan was first stopped and then reversed.  Russia Besieged concerns Operation Barbarossa, in which Germany launched the largest land invasion ever witnessed into the heart of Russia. There's a lengthy section on the brutal siege of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad,  and the book ends with German retreat at Moscow, driven back by "General Winter".  (Fickle, that one. Wasn't he just helping the Finns fight the Russians?!)   

The Sino-Japanese war is a massive gap for me; I'm familiar with the outlines from a survey course, but otherwise, I know little. That's why I read  The Rape of Nanking, which exacted a psychological toll. In hopes of countering it, I read Flying Tiger: Chennault of China,  which is part-memoir, part-tribute. One of the few stories from the Chinese front that I'm familiar with is that of the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer American pilots who flew old P-40s and harassed the Japanese as best they could.  I read a particularly fun book on these highs in high school, but this wasn't it.  The Tigers are touched on only briefly here, the book mostly being about the author's role in China's American air force (later America's air force in China), and his adulation of Chennault, the Tigers' leader who created the guerilla air tactics they used to counter the Japanese.

In the coming week or two, expect at least one book on the Eastern front, followed by our first forays into the Pacific!  It won't be exclusively war material, of course, as I'll throw other works just as a break. Cities, livestock, science,  Korean philosophy, murder mysteries -- you never know.  I'd like to be done with this WW2 series by the New Year, but it'll probably bleed over depending on how many books about the air war seduce me.

The Devils' Alliance

The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939 - 1941
© 2014 Roger Moorhouse
432 pages

On August 23rd, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world by entering into a nonaggression pact.  They were not merely neighbors and rival powers ruled by domineering men who loathed one another: their respective ideologies viewed the other as the chief menace to civilization.  Yet now, the fists which shook in anger were now extended in friendship, and Europe seemed doomed. Within weeks of the pact's signing, German and Soviet armies had both swept into Poland, igniting the Second World War. The Devils' Alliance is an admirable history of a marriage of convenience, recording why it happened, its effect on the beginning of the war its reception among the party faithful and a horrified Europe, and the breakup that saved civilization. The Devils' Alliance exposes the cynicism of the agreement, and the very nature of the totalitarian state.

Since its creation at the end of the Great War, the Soviet Union had been a European pariah, with a special enmity existing between it and the Nazi state after it came to power. The party line of Nazism was expressly anti-Soviet, viewing Bolshevism as a conspiracy;  fears of communist takeovers were very life of National Socialism, birthing it and giving it strength. The Soviets were no less contemptuous of the counterrevolutionary Nazis, scoffing at their worship of nation and race.  Ultimately, however, each had more in common where it mattered than not. They were the continental outlaws who rejected the political and economic systems of free Europe; both were totalitarian regimes in which the State reigned supreme, with every institution which might have softened or sapped its control either broken or rendered subservient. To regard Nazism and Communism as opposites on a left-right spectrum is inaccurate, for both supported state command of the economy: they merely disagreed on who should be in control. Each man,  Hitler and Stalin, had ambition, and for a time found his 'enemy' an ally to pursue them with. One hand washed the other. Between them, Russia and Germany divided eastern Europe, each invading Poland in turn, and each seizing a third of Scandinavia.  Russia needed help continuing to industrialize; Germany needed raw materials.  The fact that each state had more in common than not is born out by their identical treatment of the Polish, with shootings and deportations fleeing the arrival of the conquests. Poles fleeing from Nazi occupation passed their countrymen fleeing from Soviet occupation, each wondering if the other was not crazy.

"The scum of the Earth, I believe?"
"The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?"

The same reaction could be had from communists and Nazi sympathizers the world over. Overnight,  Stalin and Hitler's seemingly impulsive decision to play nice translated  into movies in both countries being pulled for demonizing the other;  for years the party faithful had been schooled in the evils of the other, and now they were instructed and propagandized to regard the other as a brother-in-arms against western liberalism.  Some, sheepishly followed, like the American communist party answering to Moscow; other fellow travelers began experiencing cognitive dissonance. How could the ideals of the party -- Nazi or Communist -- be taken seriously if it made concordance with the adversary so easily?  No doubt Moscow's turnabout demands influenced George Orwell:  Eurasia has always been at peace with Eastasia?  The communists ranks in particular would be thinned in Britain and France as people reacted to the absurdity.    Once the tree of diplomacy had stopped producing fruit, of course, Hitler would have Barbarossa hew it down. Successive chats failed to convince the Soviets to stop looking at the Balkans so hungrily, and to go bother British India instead, and since the west had by and large been reduced as a threat,  who was left to destroy but the Bolshevik menace?   Enter the panzers rolling into the Soviet Union fueled by Russian oil, attacking tanks produced with German industrial expertise.  The world breathed a sigh of relief,  from a Britain who was no longer the sole object of Nazi malice, to Germany's fellow Axis members who found Joe and Adolf a very odd couple. Ultimately,  the divorce made in heaven would lead to the downfall of Hitler's regime,  as a rebuffed Joe had to pitch woo with the Allies instead.

Juvenile history books may count the Soviet Union among the Allies, but the postwar conflict between the west and Stalin was not a tragic falling-out between brothers.  When Britain stood alone, the Nazi knife at her neck, "Uncle Joe" yawned and admired his new takings.  Nazism and Bolshevism were houses alike in infamy, both responsible for murder at industrial proportions in the millions,  and both intent on spreading the gospel of death throughout the world. They were gangsters who  agreed to stop shooting one another long enough to take care of their mutual enemies, but happily human malice is a two-edged sword, and evil ever self-destructs.  Devils' Alliance is an utterly fascinating history of realpolitik,  which extends not only to the two titular monsters but to the Allies as well.  It would have been easy for Churchill to be contemptuous of the Soviet plea for help, and when he urged Parliament to send such relief in resources as it could afford, he did so not to expand Britain's own power, but in recognition that Hitler waged war not just on Stalin and his army, but on the innocent Russian populace, whose livelihood and lives would be destroyed by the battle between the beasts.    The Devils' Alliance is an excellent take on one of the most dangerous periods in European history.  and stir readers to reflect on how much contemporary politics is driven not by idealism, but the pure lust for greater power.  How many devilish alliances have been crafted between the west and the warren of woeful powers in the middle east?

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Rape of Nanking

The Rape of Nanking
© 1997 Iris Chang
290 pages

Long before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were at war in China.  'War' is not quite the word to describe  the aftermath of their invasion of Nanking, however.  There the vilest work of man was let loose, a genuine catalog of horrors, the ancient glory of China reduced to bedlam that numbs and horrifies the soul.  Throughout history,  cities on the verge of conquest have been offered the same sadistic terms by whatever army approaches: surrender and we'll only steal from you; resist and you and your family will be brutalized and ground into the dust.  Japan's advancing army made good its threats; in the eight weeks that followed the city's capture, every dark impulse, every hidden curiosity, every taboo in the human psyche was pursued and exercised.  Approximately three hundred thousand people were murdered - shot, stabbed, beheaded for sport, thrown in rivers, set on fire, run over, etc --  publicly, coupled with systematic rape, forced sodomy and incest, and the outright desecration of anything imaginable.  The Rape of Nanking testifies to war's ability to make evil corporeal. Some meager consolation is offered in recording the outstanding bravery of the victimized, some who clawed their way out of bits of death, and of a few righteous souls in the city who stood between death and the innocent.  Such courage comes from an unexpected courage, the ranks of mild-mannered professionals, teachers, and physicians working in the city prior to its tortuous wasting. Creating a safety zone and defending it to the best of their ability -- sometimes physically separating bestial soldiers from their intended victims --   their actions preserved the lives and hope of thousands.   The Rape of Nanking was written to horrify;  its author, Iris Chang, had heard stories of it growing up and found the lack of mention in history books disturbing; the incident had become hidden by peacetime politics, the Japanese were seen as a check against postwar Soviet aggression. Chang herself was not an historian, though she does a credible job of presenting differing estimates for the slaughter and draws from Chinese, Japanese, and western accounts alike.  I suspect Chang succeeded in her goal of speaking for the dead and abused;  for this is an account so pointed and severe  that it breaks through mental callouses.  The weight of the horror is hinted at at in the fact that its author later committed suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Oil on the Brain

Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Journey to Your Tank
© 2007 Lisa Magonelli
336 pages

Every moment, oil is surging up wells, being chemically sorted in vast refineries, sloshing its way across continents in pipelines, and being dispersed throughout the country in trucks to keep over three hundred million Americans mobile. The same  miracle is effected in other nations across the globe. In Petroleum on the Brain, Lisa Margonelli begins at her local gas station and backtracks the supply line – riding with truckers, touring refineries, standing in the pit of oil exchanges,  and filling her hands with ancient dirt that hasn’t seen sunlight in millions of years at the edge of a drilling operation.  Although beginning with the American market,  Margonelli’s travels take on a geopolitical message as she scrutinizes oil’s role in the destabilization of Africa and the middle east, and looks to the future in China.   Although slightly dated (researched and written  in 2004-2005),   the majority of the book’s information remains relevant, and  is delivered in humorous style.  Petroleum brims over with personality, as Margonelli connects with lives across the globe,  and demonstrates through her travels how our lives, too, are knit together with those whose livelihood

Although gas stations are where most consumers of  gasoline/petrol enter the market, and absorb the scorn of disgruntled drivers who see the price continuing to climb,  the seemingly ubiquitous c-stations are the low men on the supply line, in control of nothing and making only a marginal profit on their gasoline during the best days. As witnessed by Margonelli as she spies fleets of trucks from different companies pulling up to the same pipelines,   gasoline sold in the United States is fairly uniform. Some companies add a detergent, but pricing varies more depending on the location and the market than the product.  Given how much oil is being produced, refined, shipped, and sold every hour, the pace of activity becomes frenetic as Margonelli travels further up the supply line, encountering harried supply dispatchers and middlemen.  Although her book is about the oil industry, it's a personal encounter with time invested in relationships on Margonelli's part. For her, the gas station owner, the driver, the genius wildcatter in Texas -- they are men and women of passion and intelligence, whose story is bound up with their profession.

Its beginnings scratch idle curiosity as to how the petroleum industry works, but Margonelli spends more time researching, her text develops broader appeal, examining the role oil plays in U.S. foreign policy.  Here the book threatens to show its age: having virtually exhausted its home reservoirs of oil, she writes that the United States has to secure new supplies across the world, and to that end has been involved in a series of wars, directly or indirectly. A chapter on Iran sees her chat with both American sailors and Iranian oilmen regarding an incident during the Iraq-Iran war, in which half the Iranian navy was sunk by an American fleet despite the United States’ official non-combatant status.  Magonelli also visits petro-states in South America and Africa, where corruption is apparently immortal;  some of the tribal warfare in sub-Saharan Africa has its roots in villages receiving unequal shares of the loot when oil companies discovered their untapped potential.   Ultimately, Magonelli believes we must look beyond petroleum, to cleaner and less volatile energy sources. In her final chapter, the story moves to China, where a then-ascendant economy was not only gobbling up goal, but dumping money into clean energy programs in the hopes of expanding China’s consumer fleet while not further destroying what little clean air remains.

The oil market has continued to evolve in the ten years since this book was originally, first doubling the highest price marked in her original next and then falling beneath it. The United States has become again (however temporarily) a net oil exporter, thanks to technological advices that make extracting oil in harder to reach places easier.  Oil's votility underscores its continuing importance to the world economy and political dramas;  in the middle east, the swinish mob that is ISIS finances itself  partially through the oil market.  Given that oil won't be bowing out to competition anytime soon, learning its cost and vagaries is utterly helpful for citizens of any country, and Magonelli's account offers entertainment value to boot. 


Monday, November 23, 2015

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

Another week gone, another entry from the 2015 reading challenge: earlier I received "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" and couldn't help reading it waaaay too early. It didn't take long, being a fifty-page play that's essentially a retelling of "A Christmas Carol", with Marley pretending to be the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, and being redeemed himself when he tries to take Scrooge's place when Death appears and Marley believes his own toils with Scrooge have not yet borne fruit.  I didn't like it nearly as much as I thought I would, in part because it's so rushed. In Dickens' original, Marley claims that for many years he has tried to reach Scrooge, but here he dies, learns he's been a bad boy, and is immediately offered a chance out of foul punishment: he has to save Scrooge.  The play picks up right where A Christmas Carol starts. There's no seven years of anguish as Marley is tormented by the weight of his selfishness, just the faint realization that all of the scorn he heaps upon Scrooge applies to him as well.  There are nice moments, though: Marley pausing during a speech on Scoorge having forged his chains link by link, yard by yard in recognition that he is damning himself, and some dark comedy when Marley and his guardian angel/demon-thing congratulate one another on a superb Death costume, only  to realize that's actually DEATH approaching Scrooge.  That does take care of a work set during Christmas, though, so all that's left is A Classic Romance.  It doesn't seem hard, but I'm constantly distracted  by war and horses and -- I've just purchased a book on the electrical grid. I'm not making it easier on myself, am I?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Horse in the City

The Horse in the City
© 2007 Clay McShane, Joel A. Tarr
242 pages

To the American imagination, horses are the stuff of country dreams, of farms and cowboys. This is a recent conceit, however, as for most of American history humans have shared their cities with a sizable if silent population of beautiful creatures, serving as engines of transportation and industry. They lived in herds of thousands inside the city, housed in stables that covered entire city blocks -- to say nothing of their leavings, which covered the streets. They were not thought of as pets, but tools, machines which happened to breathe. Their strength was calculated, their life's worth counted to the penny, and when electricity arrived, off they trotted into history to be forgotten. The Horse in the City is, in a word, unique; a social and economic history of how horses helped shape the American urban landscape in an age of transformation.

On the backs of horses have been mounted both commerce and war, but The Horse in the City examines equine contributions to peaceable ends alone. Transportation predominates, with horses pulling the carts and wagons that were the lifeblood of commerce, being the very means of exchange. People, too, were transported by horses, but rarely as single riders:  horses tied up at the saloon may be a staple shot of westerns, but in the city most walked or traveled in carriages, either private or in 'omnibuses'.   Omnibuses were a primitive form of public transportation, generally transporting people (slowly) between the city to a fixed point beyond comfortable walking distance. They didn't exist as networks, though after trains arrived the lines took on some semblance of greater connectivity.    Most horses pulled two-wheeled carts, not wagons; they were cheaper and made deliveries easier.  Mixed in with the social history are chapters of more scholarly importance, addressing the growth of equine breeding in the United States, the dispersal of stables in select cities, the development of veterinary  medicine, and the agricultural impact of having to feed so many horses.  Horses were the backbone of the economy, supporting a variety of industries directly, and providing the means for all others to be transacted. Their presence prompted city streets to widen; their pounding hooves influenced which materials were used in paving. Horses were not displaced by the industrial revolution; they were part of it. The first rail lines in cities were used not by steam engines, but horsecars replacing the calamitously bumpy omnibuses.When machines became prevalent on the farm, horses did the pulling -- machines and horses together displaced human labor long before machines displaced horses.   Ultimately, electricity would out-do the complementary relationship between steam and horses, but the mark of horse hooves lives on

Some exceptional history texts can nearly take a reader back into time, and this is one; so thorough are the authors that the urban world which horses created comes alive. We are there, in streets covered in horseflesh -- horses plodding along with their wares, leaving fresh material for the manure industry in their wake, horses  sometimes collapsing in the street under the burden and promptly being carried off to rendering factories, there to continue being grist for the economic mill.  Endings were not always so grisly; horses were often retired to less strenuous occupations. (Their training stuck, however:  horses employed by fire brigades retained the habit of running to their old station at the sound of a firebell, long after leaving the service!)   The grim scenery is countered with more lighthearted imagery, like the joy of sleighing season in winter.    The Horse in the City is excellent  history, with social appeal but loaded with invaluable information to research students of the period, like charts on equine food consumption.


Friday, November 20, 2015


© 1979 Robert Warnick
200 pages

As much as I'd hoped to read Len Deighton's Blitzkrieg, it's weeks overdue at the library and I'm ready to close out the first stage of this WW2 reading set.  This volume of the Time-Life history of World War 2 focuses on an area familiar to virtually anyone with an interest in the war; the sudden German attack on Poland, the Allied declarations of war, a winter peace save on the Atlantic and in Soviet-attacked Finland, and an even more terrible assault in the spring that took down Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in a matter of weeks.  This being part of the time-life series, graphics are lavish;  there is a full-scale diagram of the Panzer Mk IV, Germany's workhorse, and bountiful photographs. Some are even colorized, and depict diverse scenes:  French soldiers playing poker in the Maginot line, Russian soldiers frozen to death in their Finnish foxholes, an English matron serving tea to arriving French solders rescued from Dunkirk and stealing a laugh with them in the midst of the death of all they held dear.  One of the photo essays covers Hitler's art programs, and would have made this volume quite popular in the schoolroom had anyone known it existed:  aside from a few pieces lionizing strong but docile farmers, most of the prints and sculptures are nudes, and not all of the heroic Greek variety.    Content-wise, this is certainly helpful;  the text plays second fiddle to the photographs, but there are a few surprises in here. The spring invasion should not have been as large a surprise as it was, given that German pilots had crashed-landed in Belgium with sensitive information. The allies disagreed over its validity, however, and mutual distrust between them would weaken Franco-Belgian defense.  I also wasn't aware that Stalin evicted Germans living in the Baltic states. There are connections to other books in the Time-Life series, like the chapter on the invasions of Finland and Norway. Blitzkrieg gives a better rendering of the British almost-invasion of Noway than Battles for Scandinavia, I think, dwelling more on the strategy.   Blitzkrieg is fine for an outline or survey of the war's early action, but is most attractive for its full-page photographs, quite large given the proportions of the book.

Having covered the Blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain, and the war in the Atlantic, it's time to move on to 1941: bring on Barbarossa and bombers!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Convoy: The Greatest U-Boat Battle of the War
© 1976 Martin Middlebrook
384 pages

In his memoirs,  Winston Churchill admitted that nothing worried him quite so much as the U-boat menace. Britain could stand alone against a continental menace, but not without supplies from friends and her Empire abroad.  Submarine attacks on merchant shipping broke out almost as soon as war was declared, and reached their peak in 1943 as a massive wolf packs gathered and waited for convoys to appear   After an introduction which gives an intimate introduction to civilian sailors, Allied navy men, and German submariners,  Martin Middlebrook takes readers across the storm-tossed North Atlantic, following two convoys in a running battle with the greatest concentration of U-boats in the war. Dozens of merchant ships sank into the deep,  at little cost to the assailants, and Middlebrook uses the week-long drama as a case study to examine the U-boat threat and Allied responses to it. Though in part a military history, here civilian men and women are heroes as well,  fighting against their own fear and struggling together in the aftermath of attacks to survive.

 By 1943, U-boats were no longer patrolling vast areas of the ocean and pursuing alone any merchantman they came across.  They were strategic weapons, directed and controlled from Europe itself, and fed by intelligence reports that let them know when to expect victims and where.  In response to the Allied strategy of forming convoys -- scores of merchant ships flanked by a handful of escorts --   U-boats gathered en masse as well, forming picket lines where they expected a convoy to pass and then converging on it once contact had been made. As its name implies, Convoy is foremost a naval drama, but aviation is an indispensable aspect of the story.  Aircraft were the mortal enemies of submarines, providing effective screens around the coast and depth-charging vessels caught cruising on the surface.  Even B-17s could only range out so far, however, leaving an "air gap" over the mid-Atlantic,a large window of opportunity for U-boats to wreak havoc unmolested. It is in that window of space, the submarine hunting ground, that Convoy sets forth in.

For several days and nights, vast and lumbering ships carrying locomotives, invasion barges, cotton, wheat, and other sundry supplies to Britain lay at the mercy of dozens of U-boats, defended by a mere handful of escorts.   These escorts were not brand new destroyers run by top-rated seaman, either, but sometimes converted civilian ships equipped with depth charges, captained by retired gentlemen who in peacetime commanded only their personal yachts. One craft in the battle was so old that the English declined to borrow it through the Lend-Lease program! The middle section of Convoy follows the constant harrying of the fleet by a formidable gathering of U-boats, and is solid historical journalism; Middlebrook constructs the story based on numerous ships' logs and survivor accounts. The appeal is not strictly military, however; as so many of the players  are civilians in extraordinary circumstances. Logs from both Allied and German sources are used, and the details and photographs communicate the combatants'  commonality as well. Though divided by war, they are no less united in their human frailty, in their vulnerability on the open oceans and their isolation and loneliness from serving from months on end in ports and waters far from home. The book is most helpful to a student of the period, however, ending with an analysis of the battle. Despite the losses inflicted on the Allies, matters could have been worse;  while the U-boat formation was engaged in confronting these two convoys,  so thick was the Atlantic with traffic that other convoys were able to hustle through other now un-guarded sea lanes.  Within two months' time, various pieces of Allied anti-submarine warfare would click together; the air gap would be closed with longer-ranging aircraft, and the daunting strength of the U-boat fleet broken.   At the moment recorded here, however, and for the three years preceding it, their hands were at Britain's very throat, and Middlebrook delivers a sense of peril quite well.

The Foxes of the Desert

The Foxes of the Desert
© 1960 Paul Carell
370 pages

When Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Africa to rescue his nation's ailing ally against the small-but-feisty English Eighth Army, he earned the lasting respect and dread of those commanders tasked with defeating him.  The Desert Foxes delivers the story of the Second World War in Africa from the German perspective, with Rommel's Africa Korps as its stars. Like the English who humbled an Italian army tasked with rebuilding the Roman empire, Rommel would box out of his weight for  two years until he was finally cornered in Tunisia, but the months between victory and defeat created for 'the Fox' a lasting reputation; he is admired even today,  hailed for his chivalry and fighting spirit.  

Although the tanks of the Afrika Korps take center stage, Carell enjoys sharing the wartime version of human interest stories, and occasionally pauses from his storytelling -- which indeed it is, being no less fact-laden for its dramatization --  to deliver accounts of commandos or extraordinary aviation heroics.The action here is frantic, pitting hundreds of tanks against one another in single battles.  Momentum shifts from side to side, and several times both forces hang on the verge of utter defeat, both experiencing victory and desperation in their turn. Time is ultimately against Rommel, as British forces in the air choke him off from what few supplies drift his way, but  sheer audacity takes him  all the way to Egypt where at last he breaks on the battle-worn English defense.  The arrival of green American troops fresh off the boat allows for a few more brazen victories, but ultimately the two allied armies corner the Africa Korps in Tunisia, where -- denied the possibility of retreat by Hitler's declaration that they fight to the last bullet -- the remnant surrenders.  The fast pace and fascinating little stories (like that of a general, separated from his legs by an explosion, using his last moments of life to pen a page-and-a-half letter to his wife) make for engaging history, and Carell's German perspective adds additional interest. His book is not simply about the Germans; here, they are the protagonists,  fighting the good fight against the 'Tommies'. While upholding the Afrika Korps as admirable soldiers and men, Carells' opinion about Germany's political leadership is far less friendly. (The word used for Hitler is "maniac".)    How genuine that contempt is I am not sure, but the book stays well away from Europe and allows the reader to enjoy the narrative of strategy and combat removed from the horror of Nazi-controlled Europe.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

War, spam, and more war

Today I finished Spam Nation, a journalistic takedown of the spam industry which is centered in Russia. The book is a strange collection of memoir and journalism on criminal relationships so entangled that I felt like I was reading about the securities market. There's a fascinating chapter on who actually buys products that are advertised via spam (mostly medicine that's illegal in Europe or too expensive in the US) and how that market compares to legitimate ones, though most of the book is about two Russian  cybercriminals who dominate the arena, whose infighting over turf exposes their dirty laundry and allows the police and other interests to take them on.  It doesn't read as neatly as @ War, but it does shed light on a murky corner of the internet. Essentially, these men use viral programs to coopt other people's computers to send billions and billions of spam messages,  chiefly marketing black market drugs and porn but also launching  other revenue-boosters like scareware, programs that hijack a computer, announce computer infection and bid the victim to buy their security program to get rid of it. I've been on the receiving side of those when trying to fix relatives' computers: they are not fun at all.  (Some disable any executable, including viral protection.)   The book is interesting, though not entirely impressive;  surely these two don't account for all spam, given how much 'real' advertising is done by email these days.  The title is ambitious.

My library is currently packing up some nonfiction books to send to a newly-created rural sister library,  and a lot of books I've kinda-sorta wanted to read but haven't gotten around to because I figured they would be there when I wanted to are on the list.  Trying to read them before they disappear is why I picked up Miracle at Dunkirk a few weeks ago and got into this World War 2 reading kick.

Earlier in the week I read Operation Compass 1940, a short work (80~  pages) on the early war in northern Africa, in which Italian troops set on seizing Egypt were savaged by a far smaller British force on the counteroffensive. The work was strictly military history, with good maps but a fairly narrow scope, focusing just on this particular battle.  The Italian humiliation here seems have prompted the Germans to take Africa more seriously as a campaign ground, so I'm following it with The Desert Foxes by Paul Carell.  It's a strange work, very sentimental and war-smitten. I looked up the author to see if he'd written anything else, and it turns out he's an honest-to-God-Nazi.  Oops. I'm still trying to find out how bad an apple he was.

The World War 2 reading will continue for the time being, though I intend on mixing other subjects in.  For instance, I have an interlibrary loan book on order about a band of Irish immigrants who fought in the US-Mexican war...for Mexico!  Another book on the way involves....horses.  As far as the 2015 Reading Challenge goes, once I take down A Classic Romance, that will be it. I have the Christmas read already purchased, and it's a quickie. (Tease: it's about Jacob Marley.)  My book with antonyms was That Was Then, This is Now. If I didn't have a mound of books on the Great War, World War 2, and cities, plus four books in the mail, I might be tempted to re-read everything Hinton.  I still may.   My self-control regarding books is on the anemic side. I know the stories, I just want to encounter the writing again.

“Your mother is not crazy. Neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother. He is merely miscast in a play. He would have made the perfect knight in a different century, or a very good pagan prince in a time of heroes. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to do anything and finding nothing he wants to do."

(Rumble Fish, S.E. Hinton)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

That Was Then, This is Now

That Was Then, This is Now
© 1971
160 pages

Mark and Byron were more than best friends; they were brothers. They grew up half-feral, raised by a struggling mom and struck by violence at an early age. Their fond childhood memories included fighting with other 'greasers', and staying up all night smoking and drinking to impress chicks. No matter what kind of trouble came their way, Mark and Bryon could charm or wiggle their way out of it...but the magic is wearing off with age.  At sixteen, adulthood is not as far away as it once was, and Bryon in particular is starting to sense his age. He can recall his youthful self in the idiotic young teenyboppers trying to strut their stuff across the street, and is beginning to wonder what the meaning of it all is.  That Was Then, This Is Now is a tragic story of the two boys as they grow apart, divided  by the choices they make and the people they are becoming.  The story is tragic not simply because relationships die, because in the end the narrator is left with nothing but anguished questions.

I read That Was Then countless times in high school, and even today it holds a coveted place in my headboard book shelf.  It's a short tale full of  emotion, a gritty story of working-class toughs trying to figure out their place in the world. In the early part of the book,  Mark and Bryon drift along aimlessly; they fight, they hustle, they hit on girls. They both seem conscious that their lives are changing, or about to, but Mark resists and hardens himself, while Bryon is taken along by it. He becomes involved with a girl, Cathy, and for once it's more than chemical infatuation; she becomes his friend in a way that no other girl ever has. For the first time, he's emotionally engaged with someone who isn't Mark, who isn't just a beautiful lion who only cares for himself and his brother.  When Mark and Bryon witness a friend shot down for defending them,  the crack between the two widens.   Bryon begins to feel the weight of consequence, which Mark continues to shrug off, and when Bryon realizes Mark is involved in something so serious it can't be ignored, he makes a fateful decision to hold his brother accountable.  There is no happy ending, only the realization that some things destroyed can never be rebuilt.

I read everything of Hinton I could find after encountering this book in high school, attracted by working-class characters whose lives were nevertheless completely different than my own sheltered one. (My neighborhood's idea of a gang war involved mud balls and plums, not switchblades and broken beer bottles.) Some of Hinton's characters have a vividness about them that despite not having read the books for well over a decade,  they still persist in my memory; That was Then's M&M is one such character, unforgettable despite his supporting role.  For the uninitiated, there's a curious period charm to this as well, set as it is in the early 1970s,  with ample hippies. For me, reading this only restored in sharper detail a story which I've never forgotten, even though why its hooks are in me so deep I don't quite know.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Battles for Scandinavia

Battles for Scandinavia
© 1981 John Elton
203 pages
Time-Life History of WW2

In Battles for Scandinavia, John Elton takes readers into the three nations who had the distinct bad luck to lay between the warring powers of World War 2.  Norway, Sweden, and Finland lay to the north of Germany, the east of Britain, and the west of Russia,  guarding the sea access to both Russia and Germany's heartland.  In the opening year of World War 2,  Finland and Norway would fall to the Soviets and Nazis respectively, while Sweden armed itself to the teeth and dared the evil empires -- "Molon labe!"   Although devoured by separate empires, the Scandinavian nations shared a common plight, and Battles combines three distinct conflicts: Russia's attempted takeover of Finland, the German seizure of Norway and Denmark, and the shoving match between Germany and Russia that entangled Finland once more. In Battles we see three nations over their heads but resisting as best they can.

I knew little of the Winter War except that Finnish soldiers defending their land from Soviet aggression exacted a heavy price from the invading army, inflicting five times as many casualties as they took. Throughout a savage winter, Soviet ineptitude at fighting in novel terrain and Finnish guerilla tactics that made the most of limited resources made Soviet ambition cost them dearly.  In the end, their sheer weight of numbers did force the Finns into a settlement, but no sooner had a cease-fire been declared there than did German troops launch an invasion of Norway. They were competing with English troops who wanted to seize key ports to prevent their being used to aid the Nazi war effort, but fortunately the Norwegians overlooked that little detail and welcomed any assistance against their new peril.   The English fared well on the high seas, but an attempt to fracture the German offensive at Trondheim ended only in retreat.  Norway would remain Germany's for most of the war, providing space for airfields and submarine pens to launch attacks against Britain.   Immediately after the conquest of Norway, of course, Germany invaded France and then spent a deadly summer threatening Britain with its own invasion until the weather changed and Germany shifted its focus to invading Russia, instead.    When the devils' alliance ended with Panzers racing through the rodina, the Germans found an interesting ally -- Finland, who had not been conquered, merely temporarily pacified.  The Germano-Finnish invasion put the Allies in a difficult place:  the Finns were counterattacking, not building empire, but Stalin demanded somebody do something to help.  Britain did declare war on Finland, but mercifully never crossed swords with it.  The book is full of little anecdotes, and a favorite is an Finnish soldier who sighs at the English declaration: "We shall have to shave now, we are fighting 'gentlemen'!"    Finland's alliance with the Nazis would ultimately backfire, however;  kept alive by English blood and American resources, the Soviets would recover and drive back the Germans. Threatened with Soviet wrath, Finland made a separate peace and found itself ravaged instead by its one-time ally, who slammed the door and burned everything on the way out, with an indignant "Thanks for nothing, 'comrades-in-arms!".   Poor Finland -- so far from God, so close to nations with dreams of world conquest.

Battles for Scandinavia also covers Sweden and Denmark, though more briefly. Denmark was taken by Germany so quickly that its dazed population woke up to find Germany already in control of the country; only later did resistance break out.  Along among the north countries, Sweden remained free: refusing to entangle itself in alliances, its people and its leaders determined to make themselves as "indigestible" as possible. Sweden became an armed camp,  a nation prepared to fight for its life.  Much of the combat around Scandinavia happened literally around it,  in the sealanes that allowed the Allies to transport war material to Russia. The nearness of combat to the pole made such sea transit doubly dangerous: the Artic seas are harsh and unforgiving, and Allied ships sailed through months wintry gloom under a blackout,  waiting for an enemy to shoot from the dark.The Germans were late to realize the importance of the convoys to Russia, but once they do an extensive chapter on naval warfare follows. As with other Time-Life books, photographs here are ample, and include paintings depicting life in the snowy wastes.  Maps are very good, and the writing well communicates the suffering of men fighting in intense conditions.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

We Who Dared Say No to War

We Who Dared Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now
© 2008 Murray Polner, Tom Woods
368 pages

The image of anti-war protesters in America is of the left, especially the student left, haranguing the government for overseas debacles, bloodbaths like Vietnam and Iraq that seem to rival the Trojan War in their length. As We Who Dared Say No to War demonstrates, however,  bipartisan public outcry against government bellicosity has been around since the creation of the Republic.  The joint work of a progressive and a libertarian,  this anthology of anti-war literature demonstrates that war is the enemy of us all, destroying lives and turning governments into monsters.

I'd planned to buy this work years ago purely on the face of it, especially given its unlikely neighbors: Howard Zinn and Russell Kirk, both of whom are represented here. Aside from some more famous names, like President Eisenhower , most of the contributors are nigh-anonymous, largely forgotten by history. Their motivations for opposing war are diverse, but of this collection there are two predominant objections, moral and constitutional.  Arguments opposing the war from the perspective of Christian pacifism pepper the work, from an early piece written to the Confederate president maintaining that Christians cannot be forced to fight a war against God's commands, to the Berrigan brothers (both Catholic priests) who raised a righteous ruckus during Vietnam, at one point sneaking into a courthouse to burn draft documentation.  Another well-represented motive is Constitutional corruption; both authors decrying the fact that the president has forced the country into war despite the fact that this is Congress's purview, and those warning that wars are the lethal enemy of democracy and republican government, reliably leading to a worship of the State and the severe curtailing of liberties both civil and political.  Political objections to war run the gamut, from conservatives like Robert Taft denouncing it a menace to public health, to conservatives in the person of Eugene Debs pointing out that wars are invariably fought by a subject class who gain nothing from it but families destroyed and survivors haunted by the horrors of the battlefield.

The book covers every conflict from 1812 'til the present day, if not by name then by association: The War of 1812, the invasion of Mexico, the Civil War,  the Spanish-American war, the world wars, the "Cold War", Vietnam,  and the War on Terror, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.    Early on, a fair bit of the moral objection is patriotic: authors see in the United States an unstained and free republic, one which has never raised the sword except in its own defense.  Do not reduce us, they plead, to the level of the old world,  constantly invading and advancing the flag of conquest. May the stars and stripes, they pray, remain free of the imperial eagle. Alas for them, between Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines,  under the swagger stick of executives like McKinley and Roosevelt, the great experiment deferred to the familiar path of empire -- and even after a momentary retreat during the Depression, it came back for a vengeance after World War 2, and remains with us today.  Of all the wars covered here, World War 2 is addressed most lightly; one author maintains he's sitting this one out because history seems to indicate the futility of it. How many resources were poured into Europe to defeat the Kaiser in an alleged crusade to make the world safe for democracy, only to release a fouler creature?  We traded Hohenzollern for Hitler;   dispatch him, and what fresh hell do we risk?    There is slight drift from idealism to resignation within the book; the authors are not oblivious to the fact that they were preceded in their arguments by other generations, and eventually one wonders if we're not damned to the same mistake over and over again.  Our enemy, one author writes, is not fascism,  or even materialism, but the beast within man. Til it be tamed with reason -- til, as Plato mused, the love of wisdom commands cities -- we will defeat one enemy only to create another.

This is a work brimming with quotability, with utterly delicious surprises.  We find, for instance, Abraham Lincoln denouncing a war started on suspicious grounds only a decade before he becomes the author of a similar conflict.   Later on, a Democratic presidential candidate,  George McGovern, hails the virtue of paleo-conservative arguments against war and chastises Congressional republicans by quoting Edmund Burke and declaring that the legislative chamber stinks of blood.  Though most of the material is primary sources -- essays, poems, and songs --  Woods and Polner also provide some narrative introduction to each chapter that provides some cohesion and historical analysis -- decrying, for instance,  the rise of liberals eager to wage war in other countries for Wilsonian ends, and the rise of neo-conservatives who abandoning contempt for interventionism and profligate spending to play war across the globe.

Although the subject  here is American anti-war writing, the book commends itself to general reading. The motives and consequences of war affect other nations no less than the United States, a fact born out by the fact that many of the contributors here point to examples in history. The role of war in centralizing power, in corrupting a nation -  enriching defense contractors with the right connections, forcing a disconnect between the morality of home and the  desire of the state -- in turning perfectly friendly people into frenzied madmen -- is a universal human problem, particularly so in that there is no easy fix. Fighting  is second nature to us,  though at the level of state versus state it is virtually indefensible.  Beyond war,  We Who Dared Say No communicates important values;  moral authority and a state that is kept within its limits by the people.   Unfortunately, it is a work that will never lose least, not this side of a coronal mass ejection.  While we can never stop the state's wars, we can refuse to participate, awaken others to its obscenities, and sap ever so slightly its power.  This is invigorating and encouraging,  demonstrating that parties that disagree on other subjects can come together to resist  and overcome the beast that is war, and the beast it makes of those who surrender themselves to it.


  • Weapons of Satire, Mark Twain. A collection of Twain's rebuke of American imperalism in the wake of the Spanish-American war.
  • Voices of a People's History, ed. Howard Zinn. An anthology of first-hand accounts railing against imperialism among other subjects. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Lost History of Christianity

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- And How It Died
© 2008 Philip Jenkins
315 pages

For the first millennium of the church's history, Europe was less Christendom than a dismissed backwater. The heart of the faith was its fount in the middle east, where it saturated the landscape and spread through two empires across the vast expanse of Eurasia. Within five hundred years of Christianity's millennial birthday, however, its reach had vanished, lost in political upheaval and newly arrived competition. Though advertising itself as a history of the global church,   Lost History is principally about religious transformation  in the middle east, with Christianity as its case model. 

There is immediate intrigue in Jenkins' history merely for the fact that his primary subjects are unrecognizable to most as Christian.  Around the Mediterranean,  Rome -- in the person of the emperor -- maintained a faith common to all.  Achieving and enforcing orthodoxy was the reason Constantine urged on the Council of Nicaea. Outside the empire, however,  Christianity grew wild, running bramble-like clear to Asia.  Aside from stray missionaries from the Latin and Greek church,  most of the Christians covered here belonged to the Nestorian church,  which retained an orthodox-like hierarchy outside the authority of  the Greco-Roman sphere, with hundreds of metropolitans and bishops. How much of "Christianity" really survives the trek to Asia is a question Jenkins does not pursue, though the mention of a "second Jesus" buried in India allows a lot of room for doubt.   The Nestrian branch found a particularly cozy home in the Persian realm, safe from Orthodux rebuke, but the African church would vanish almost overnight, save for the impressively resilient Copts. 

The rise of Islam set the stage for the middle-eastern church's downfall, but it was not strictly a matter of religious competition.  Jenkins records Islam and Christianity meshing at first; considering the  power of Arian-like sects which effectively denied the divinity of Jesus,  they shared much more common ground than not. (So much so that medieval personalities denounced Muhammad not as a false prophet, but as a schismatic!) The golden age of  Islam was built on such ground,  flourishing through  the communities of Christian Syrian scribes and researchers.As Islam grew in self-confidence, however, and especially after it began brawling with outside powers, the  Christians within its midst were viewed as suspect. When the Black Death reared its head for the first time, a wave of persecution followed --  Christians playing the part of scapegoat that was assigned to Jews in Europe. When new powers arrived on the scene, like the Mongols and Turks, they frequently inaugurated a new era of religious oppression; the Crusades were a response  to Turkish abuses, not the nigh half-century old occupation of Jerusalem by Islamic forces.  (Interestingly, the Mongols who destroyed the high water mark of golden-age Islam, Baghdad, first persecuted  Islam and then became its champions, persecuting Christians.) Political stress turned into religious persecution again and again, a theme that runs  clear to the 20th century, when an on-the-ropes Turkey decided to rid itself of minorities with suspect loyalties. The Armenian genocide was the result.  Early Christian activity in China and Japan perished after upsurges in nationalism, as well.

This history of religious transformation in the middle east is then used by Jenkins to examine the life of religions in general, their 'struggle to survive'.  Though Christianity and Islam were rivals, they wore off on one another:  the Eastern Orthodox church's iconclastic period (that ghastly preview of Puritanism) marks Islamic influence, and mosques modeled themselves on the architecture of churches. Such architectural borrowing went the other way in Spain, where rebuilding churches incorporated elements of Islamic design  into their structure.  Even after Christianity vanished from an area, it left its mark: in rural Turkey, for instance, parents continued to have their children baptized to ensure the blessing of God.  Jenkins  speculates on various reasons regions thrive or perish amid competition; he notes that the church in Egypt became part of the culture, while in other parts of Africa it merely existed as outposts, like Roman military encampments that disappeared when the Romans left. Those churches were sustained from without, rather than from within. Faiths can also hedge their bets by expanding;  when Christianity virtually perished in the middle east, it continued to flourish in Europe; even as it fades in Europe, it grows again in Africa.

All this fairly interesting, though the book has certain frustrations. Belief, for Jenkins, is a moot point;  Nestorian doctrine or what Jacobites practiced, none of this matters. All the reader is really given is politics and labels; there were people here, they called themselves Christians, and then they were killed.  Jenkins has a peculiar understanding of Christianity, announcing to the reader that understanding the early church is impossible because Christianity was driven from its home region.  Since when is Christianity like Temple Judaism or Islam, fixated on a certain patch of earth?  What is revealed is how unimaginative humans are at creating ways to persecute one another:  Just as Christians were made to wear patches identifying them as an underclass and forced to dismount at the approach of a Muslim, so in the 20th century German Jews were made to wear patches and blacks had to vacate the sidewalk at the approach of a white.  One wonders how ubiquitous these shaming behaviors are -- did the Japanese practice them in China, for instance? The Lost History of Christianity is certainly relevant, given the ongoing slaughter of innocents at the hands of ISIS. It is a fascinating history of the middle east's religious evolution,  though of limited use for truly learning about the ancient church outside of Rome and Constantinople.

One Year After

One Year After
© 2015 William Forstchen
304 pages

It's been two years since an EMP blast reduced most of the United States to medieval conditions. After cars and the electrical grid failed, everything went to hell -- complete with hordes of the damned, mobs of men and women given over to madness attacking anything in their path. In the aftermath, starvation and disease again reared their heads, killing millions. Colonel John Matherson was a history professor on the Day of the attack, but in the wake of the chaos became the commander of his community's defensive forces.  He could do nothing against the death of his daughter and other loved ones by disease, but he could fight gangs, and so stand for the rule of law as to prevent his own friends from becoming monsters themselves.  In One Year After, we find Matherson and the town council of Black Mountain attempting to rebuild, nearly on the verge of establishing a electric generator. But beyond the mountains there is a continent of forces fighting for chaos and order, and  the fair city of Black Mountain has caught their eye.  As Matherson attempts to negotiate a peace between his city and a smaller community nearby, the area becomes of interest to a Federal government attempting to reconstitute itself.  Torn between hope that this is a genuine start to national recovery and his fears that the 'federal administrator' isn't on the level,  Matherson and Black Mountain stand cautious, and are ultimately caught up in another life-and-death struggle.

One Second After read like a science-fiction horror story, chronicling a catastrophic breakdown of society; One Year After's story is far less harrowing, being mostly politics and combat as Matherson works with his neighbors and the government in nearby Bluemont that claims to be the legitimate government.  Black Mountain has weathered the worst of the breakdown, but  its neighbors spell trouble. Not only is there constant feuding between mountain clans that frequently bleeds over into his city, but those warring tribes have caught the attention of the Bluemont government. The United States'  overseas meddling has for once paid off;  the troops and equipment stationed outside of the EMP bursts are alive, kicking, and back in the states to restore order.  At the novel's opening, a draft has been imposed on the populations in contact with Bluemont, as it is attempting to create an Army of National Recovery to put an end to the multitude of highwaymen and cults now peppering the landscape.  Faint broadcasts from the BBC hint that interesting goings-on are happening around the globe, dropping secret messages to 'friends in Montreal' or Prauge, and detailing the ongoing failure of Bluemont to  put down a monster ruling in Chicago while the Chinese occupy California.. As the plot of the book unfolds, Matherson increasingly suspects that this new Federal authority isn't one worth of trust, and eventually has to make a decision:  conscience or convenience.   Temptation is an ongoing theme here in his social balancing act;  how easy would it be to say to hell with his raiding mountain neighbors, instead of swallowing pride to make a peace with them; how simple his life would be if he would simply throw his lot in with Bluemont. Time and again Matherson hovers between what he believes is right, and what seems right, with Forstchen using cigarettes as a visual clue.  Accept an offered smoke and enjoy immediate satisfaction...but at the price of reviving a long-beaten addiction.

Although One Year After doesn't  have the immediate punch that One Second After did,  the firefights amid abandoned and repurposed sights of urban decade are well done, especially as they happen alongside Matherson's frequent soul-searching bouts of tough decision making. I appreciated the nuance here; unlike Patriots,  antagonists are redeemable -- even the Feds.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of Britain
© 1977 Barrie Pitt, series editor William Goolrick
208 pages
Time-Life History of WW2

Long before panzers roared through Paris and Stukas littered the fields of France with burned-out machines, the Phony War existed only in name. The months of silence on land in Europe that prevailed between the Allied declaration of war and Hitler's spring seizure of everything in grabbing distance were loud indeed on the sea -- filled with crashing waves as U-boats and raiders  plowed through the waves hunting for supply ships to sink.  So sooner had the war begun than ships inbound to England were being sent to the bottom, and with them precious lives and supplies.  The threat of strangulation by U-boat had imperiled Britain before, during the Great War, but naive trust that future conflicts would abstain from a now verboten weapon  meant Britain's neck was again on the line. Battle of the Atlantic, part of the Time-Life history of World War 2,  combines full-page spreads and photo essays to deliver a sense of the action and peril at sea, where civilians were military targets and the stakes were never higher for the Allies.

Unlike the Battles of France and Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic stretches out over not weeks or months, but years. Despite catastrophic losses -- over half the boats and lives committed by German to the U-boat fleet would be claimed by the sea --  Germany continued producing and sending out submarines against Allied shipping until the very end of the war.  The worst ravages would be over by 1943, but for Britain and her allies, the struggle was uphill. Lessons of the Great War's  anti-submarine campaigns had to be relearned, and new strategies created as the U-boats came this time not alone, but in radio-coordinated packs.   The convoy system was Britain's best hope, comprising multiple cargo ships guarded by whatever escorts could be found.  Escorts were not necessarily warships, even aged ones; a fishing trawler equipped with racks for depth charges might qualify for duty.  The U-boat menace could have been even more dire had Hitler committed naval resources to a full undersea fleet, instead of insisting on a 'balanced' fleet that involved big and shiny surface ships like the Bismarck, which made for great press but poor strategic weapons.   The Allies also produced new weapons to take down the U-boats, developing shipboard radar that could locate vessels on the surface of the sea, where -- despite their name -- Unterseebooten spent most of their time.  They also learned to use the U-boats' frequent radio communication  (vital in coordinating the wolf packs) to triangulate on their position, and began to incorporate airplane patrols to boot.    By the time the German command realized  how advanced British radar had become and began to develop countermeasures,  Germany was waist-deep in Russia and fighting an Allied invasion of Rome. The combination of bitter experience, new tactics, new weapons, and increasingly green and scattered German mariners, broke the wolf packs' control of the sea.

The Battle of the Atlantic is valuable as a brief overview of the naval war between the Allies and Axis, providing raw data as well as first-hand accounts by both British and German mariners (sometimes from the same battles) to put the reader on the deck of their subjects. There is also a collection of art produced by  sailors who wanted to recreate the scenes burned into their memory, like the despair of huddling lifeboats, watching as their home sinks into the deep. I appreciated the attention given surface ships at the beginning, and the surprising chapter on Caribbean altercations. The data presented is also surprising --  while I knew U-boats patrolled the eastern seaboard of the United States, the amount of tonnage sunk places the seaboard as one of the most perilous places to sail, along with the 'western approaches' that paralleled German U-boat bases in France.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta
© 1988 Alan Moore and David Lloyd
300 pages

Remember, remember the Fifth of November.  The Britain of 1998 is a nation that has lost its spirit,. After nuclear war and crop failures, widespread disorder was quelled only by the face of a fascist order, Norsefire.  Controlling the country through ideology, violence, and a computer known as Fate, they rule over a bleak place whose greatest claim to fame is that it at least survived the nuclear war. Vast portions of Earth -- including Africa -- are simply "not there".     Enter "V", however,  a mysterious masked marauder who dreams of inspiring the people of this Airstrip One-in-the-making to revolution. Channeling the story of Guy Fawkes, who was caught attempting to blow Parliament to perdition,  V is at the story's start engaging in a two-year propaganda campaign involving blowing up symbolic institutions, while at the same time close to finishing a vendetta against people involved in an insidious concentration camp experiment.   The story is much the same as the movie based on it -- a woman named Evey falls in with V as a detective named Finch tries to find the man responsible for so much bedlam -- but there is significant characterization here completely missed on the big screen. Detective Finch, for instance, nearly destroys his mind with drugs attempting to get a handle on who V is and what he wants.  Although V orates on the distinction between anarchism and chaos -- "without rulers" and "without order" --  the story is more effective at communicating the importance of myth to the human imagination, of legends and symbols.  The historical story V appropriates has little bearing to his actual ideal; Guy Fawkes intended no revolution, but the restoration of England's traditional order against rising Puritanism in Parliament.  What matters to V, however, is that people see and remember him as a revolutionist; ultimately, V himself becomes the symbol.   As much as I like the movie (I watched it three times in two weeks), this graphic novel did a better job reminding me of and supplementing the dramatized version that it did winning me over in its own right.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Teaser Tuesday

"They believed in the righteousness of their cause, the inevitability of their victory, and the immortality of their young souls. And as they wheeled around to the east and pulled out their Michelin maps of Tunisia, they believed they had actually been to war."

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942- 1943. Rick Atkinson.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A War, a Challenge, and a Goal

I've been on a World War 2 kick recently, and have now connected it with the remains of the 2015 Reading Challenge. An Army at Dawn, the first in a nonfiction trilogy about the liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression, begins with the Anglo-American invasion of Africa. I'm halfway through to finishing my Pulitzer-prize winning book, leaving only "A Classic Romance" and "Title with Antonyms" as the only categories needing any real attention.   This 1942 work skews my WW2 set a bit, as I'd been trying to generally follow the course of the war, but no matter. As it continues I'd like to poke into areas of the conflict I know virtually nothing about, like the Nazi/Soviet invasion of Norway/Finland respectively, and the early stages of Axis involvement in Africa.  In 2016 I should return to the Great War, as the titles I listed last year will then be selling cheaper, or at the very least, no longer on the 'new releases' shelves and thus barred from interlibrary loan.  

My WW2 kick has extended to movies, as well.  In the last couple of weeks I''ve watched two titles new to me:  The Scarlet and the Black, featuring Gregory Peck as an Irish priest hiding Allied P.O.W.s from the Nazis, and Good,  the descent of a German literary professor into Faustian moral degradation.   I bought these two together, intentionally; I knew Good would be utterly depressing, and needed some good old-fashioned heroics to recover from it.   The central character is an professor approached by the SS: they liked his novel about a man who killed his wife to save her from a prolonged and painful death by cancer, and want to enlist his services in promoting the Reich's euthenasia programs.  Bit by bit he drifts into the Nazi camp, losing his wife and best friend in the bargain, until at movie's he finds himself supervising a death camp, an SS-skull perched stop his head, and realizes that hell is real and it owns his soul.'s a bit of a downer, so if you watch it I advise you to take my remedy, and follow it immediately with something inspiring or at the very least funny. As the theme of Good was that evil triumphs when good men do nothing, I had in The Scarlet and the Black a good man doing..something, and it's a true story to boot. (It's worth watching, incidentally, just for Peck doing an Irish accent.)  I have a few more WW2 movies on the way, including The Battle of Britain,  Run Silent Run Deep, and A Bridge Too Far.

This being November, I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the third year in a row, but it's nothing serious. I'm doing game fan fic with Maxis as my source material.  It's really just for fun. Honestly, in the years I've done NaNoWriMo I've not yet done a proper story. I just sandbox around for 50,000 words and collect my "WINNER!" graphics.

Well, it'll be an interesting month, that's for sure!