Friday, September 30, 2016

Los Alamos

Los Alamos
© 1997 Joseph Kanon
416 pages

A man lies dead in Santa Fe, but the answer to 'whodunit' lies in the hills above the city -- or on The Hill, the site of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where something very mysterious is being cooked up.  The Hill's residents, many of them foreign scientists, are not even known by name; if a local sheriff asks them for their I.D., the card they present merely has a number. They are the creators of the most secret project in human history, and easily one of the most expensive: the Manhattan Project. To find out who killed the man, and why,  Army Intelligence PR man Mike Connolly must get inside the most secret place on the planet.  Los Alamos  is a murder mystery turned spy thriller, set in the last year of the Second World War,  when man took Death in his hands and released it on the desert.

The story unfolds over the course of several months, Connolly working in secret after the 'official' cause of death is a romantic pickup turned violent. Though Connolly has arrived on the Hill to penetrate its secrets and find a murderer, he soon creates secrets of his own, beginning an affair with a bored scientist-wife, an English rose who occupies her free time studying the Anasazi.  Working with local cops and sometimes against the government, which is rightfully obsessively secretive about the Project,  Connolly struggles to connect the dots of a very mysterious murder. The man's death carries with it enormous scandal, not just because he was a security agent on the Hill, but because his body was arranged to make it look like a sexual liason gone very wrong.  Ultimately the resolution of the murder isn't love, but power -- the power the United States is working to perfect, power other nations want to share.

I have read Kanon before, starting with his The Good German, and found it dark indeed. Los Alamos isn't nearly  as dreary, though an isolated mesa in wartime doesn't lend itself to much merriment. I did enjoy the way Kanon slow-cooks the plot, minor details acquired over months creating a larger picture when they're assembled together. In a way it reminded me of NCIS, in that a character who seems rather minor turns out to be the missing piece: in NCIS, there's a rule of thumb that an adult who appears and is then forgotten about is usually the murderer.   I think Kanon captures the wartime feel well enough, a mix of optimism, wariness, and horror as the Nazis are drive back, but their retreat exposes the full horror of their ideology to the world.  It succeeds as a mystery-thriller, though as usual I could have gone without the bedroom play-by-play.

Engima, Robert Harris. Also WW2 spy thriller.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker
© 2014 David Thurlo, Aimée Thurlo
304 pages

Charlie and Gordo are two Afghan War vets returning to civilian life, but as it turns out, parts of Albuquerque aren't that much safer than Kabul. When their friend and attorney is gravely injured in a drive-by targeting someone else, the two are obliged by honor to find and wreak vengeance on the shooters. The Pawnbroker opens with the drive-by and is loaded with fist fights and shoot-outs; Charlie and Gordon's roles in these affairs is gamely tolerated by the ABQ PD, in part because one of their officers is the live-in girlfriend of the attorney . Perhaps the definitive scene is the two leads, standing back to back and taking down a gang of tattooed gangstas with Krav Maga. The scene is later described as being one out of Rush Hour. It's accurate, because this is a buddy-cop movie in book form, but instead of two suited lady-charmers, we have two working class soldiers turned business partners. The book is filled with the kind of action Rush Hour provides, although the wisecracking isn't quite as abundant. The plot is reasonably tangled, so it's an enjoyable thriller for passing time.

Comments welcome, but I'm somewhere in the mountains..

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain
© 1961 Edward Abbey
211 pages

Beneath the shadow of Thieves' Mountain, Billy Starr has arrived to spend a summer with his grandfather. He has arrived in the middle of a six-month siege, however, one of increasing intensity. The US Corps of Engineers is determined to expand its missile testing range at White Sands (Alamogordo, NM),  and has been generous with the public purse to do it. Virtually every rancher in the area has sold their land to the army -- but not Old Man Voeglin. Voeglin's ranch was established by his grandfather in the 1890s,  defended against the Apache, and has  survived both drought and depression.  Voeglin rarely breaks even on it, but neither the farm nor his will has ever broken. The  army offers money? Threats? Doesn't matter. Let them shoot the horses, break the fences, run off the cattle: this was the farm that gave life to Voeglin and his father, the place that sustained them.  There's no money that can buy out Voeglin's sense of responsibility, nor lessen his indigence that the government would presume to simply seize the land and remove him by force if he didn't roll over.  So he resists, and with him are his grandson and an old friend. Together they mend the fences, ride out into the brush to find the straying cattle, and continue to tend to the ranch's everyday needs even as they are watched by Army jeeps and bureaucrats in sweat-soaked suits.

Fire on the Mountain is a short but powerfully written piece pitting man -- affectionate and frail -- against the implacable will of the Man, personified here in the form of a judge, a marshal, and more than a few soldiers. They are not pitiless executors of a grand plan from above; while the plan itself is pitiless,  its human agents show as much mercy as the pressure pushing them from above can allow. Voeglin's obdurancy -- born of both love for his ancestral home and of contempt for those who would reduce it to test-range debris,  abandoning generations of work to occasionally-bombed fallowness  --  is such that they even decide to let him say, provided he vacates the area during monthly missile tests.  Yet he persists; the same sentimental attachment to the ground and the cause that has allowed him to stand up to neighbors, men with guns, and the entire Cold War might of the US Army,  keeps him from making even the slightest concession. For him, the story ends in heartbreak.  It's not quite so wrenching for the reader, for the ending has a certain noble appropriateness to it.

Fire on the Mountain has now become the Edward Abbey book I would give to someone who had never read him.  The book builds on devotion, not bitterness  or rancor. His main characters are three men who love the New Mexican wilderness, and their place in it: they are deeply attached to one another. Even when the twelve-year old Billy is put on a train to El Paso to save him from the rage of the marshals, such is his devotion that he escapes the train and navigates his way back to the mountains.  Abbey's bellicose attitude is still there, reflected most through Voeglin's utter refusal to back down, but it's directed at the book's 'villains'.  Add to this the writing --  over and over, Abbey's descriptions mesmerize me, both of the landscape and of the tortuous love the characters have for it.

Comments are welcome, but  I am in the Land of Enchantment until October!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Loose Ends

Roswell: Loose Ends
© 2001 Greg Cox
288 pages

The last person Liz expected to bump into in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns was the man who nearly killed her -- would have killed her, had her lab-buddy/secret admirer not been nearby to save her life. He didn't throw himself in front of a bullet or give her CPR, though, he merely dissolved the bullet and forced her molecules to speed-heal themselves. You can do that sort of thing when you're an exiled alien king.  Bumping into Grumpy Murderman is a problem, not just because it brings to earth the mental-emotional turmoil that Liz has kept suppressed in the two years since she fell to the kitchen floor, bleeding from the gun -- Murderman remembers her, too. He remembers accidentally shooting a girl, even if the papers covered it up, and now that he's laid eyes on her again he's determined to find out the truth. But first, he's gotta blackmail an army test pilot into selling him a briefcase of UFO parts.  Priorities!

The first time I read Loose Ends, when it was released, it confused me -- utterly. I'd read Roswell High, of course, multiple times. I'd memorized parts of it -- and this Roswell, while featuring a lot of the same characters, was completely different. Who were the "Skins"? Why did Maria keep talking about Czechoslovakians?   I managed to get through the novel, questions aside, and put it in my Star Trek bookcase, there to be forgotten about for well over a decade.  Now I've read it again, and -- having watched the television show on which this is based -- it makes a lot more sense.   One of the reasons I've kept the book is because its author, Greg Cox, is more familiarly known to me as an author of Trek books. The language is odd -- sort of self-censoring and clunky, as if the publishers didn't want to be as earthy as the show. "Flying saucer" is used where another F-word might appear in the real world, and sounds really silly in the mouths of teenagers. Similarly awkward is Murderman, whose lines are so wooden they're petrified. (That's not really his name, but he's a scruffy potbelly who shoots people.)

A book like this has limited appeal, I suppose, being written for a teen drama that's since been forgotten by probably everyone, but if you're  a fan of the show it has its moments.

Comments welcome, but I'm lost in the desert until October!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Send More Idiots

Send More Idiots
© 2014  Tony Perez-Giese
324 pages

"What do you think of El Paso?"

"It's an armpit."
"I live here, and I don't even take offense to that."

Jon Lennox' kid brother just disappeared in Mexico. He didn't run off  with a woman, though, he disappeared in a place where the streets are paved with gunshells and which the neighbors call "Murder City",  Juarez.   Everyone else has written Chris off as another cartel casualty, even though he was a real estate broker unconnected to the drug trade, but Jon  can't let it rest.  Setting up shop in a seedy hotel in El Paso, he tries to make connections in the area that will help him discover what became of his brother.  His allies will include a telephone line-woman whose favorite word is "Cállate!", a disgraced cop, and an Iraq war vet on disability who still lingers in the Fort Bliss area to stay close to his brothers-in-arms.  In pursuit of a man's rescue, or just a strike back against the leading cartel, the three stumble into unspoken agreements between the American DEA and the lead gunman in Juarez, resulting in several shootouts and a climax at a Star Trek convention.

Send More Idiots is the opposite of bland, beginning in action and never resting. The moments between periods of active danger are filled with heated debate and discussion, as Jon tries to work out his next move and everyone tells him he's a lunatic who is going to get himself killed.  His allies are no less dangerous:  the cop has his own private revenge motive, the vet's improvised weaponry has a tendency to electrocute the user, and the linewoman's cousin is sleeping with the mob. The characters all have a vibrancy to them -- they're audacious, desperate, and completely entertaining. No less lively is the background of El Paso-Juarez,  both gritty in their ways. The narrative frame is also unusual, the story is being delivered by...the missing person. He's not very active, but every so  often he refers to 'my brother' Jon, and we're reminded, yep - -the object of Jon's search is the one telling the story, so something is up.  The characters suspect that something's up with Jon, too: instead of leaving it to the private investigators and police authorities, he's actively going into narco clubs looking for el jefe. It's as if he wants to get into trouble, and many of those who know him suspect that this episode for him is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for adventure, an opportunity to stop being the responsible-but miserable lawyer, an obedient husband-and-son, and do something outstanding and courageous.

Send More Idiots is one of the faster-paced novels I've read this year, full of comic action. Definitely one to remember..

Comments welcome, but I'm on an adventure of my own until October!

Friday, September 23, 2016

This the Land of Enchantment

Tomorrow morning, dear readers, I will wake up dark and early and scurry to an airport,   off to spend a week in New Mexico.  In the words of Bilbo Baggins, I am GOING ON AN ADVENTURE!  I have never flown before, never driven in a major city, never traveled alone, and have never even been outside the South.  I'd say I've got an interesting week ahead!  Some posts have been scheduled in my absence, and I hope to return in a week with a mind awed and a camera full.  If I do not return -- if my plane should unexpectedly land on the side of a mountain, if I am bushwhacked by highwaymen, If I become forever lost in DFW trying to find the right terminal,  or if I am kidnapped by some drug cartel to become their on-staff purveyor of  Anglo-American folk songs --  it's been a fine nine years. I'm pretty sure I'll return in one piece, though -- and so, until then!

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Deke! U.S. Manned Space Flight from Mercury to the Shuttle
© 1994 Deke Slayton and Michael Cassutt
352 pages

Don Slayton knew he wanted to fly as a kid, but he never imagined going as high as the moon  His story is singular; chosen as one of America's first astronauts, he was grounded for medical reasons shortly into the Mercury-Gemini programs. Remaining at NASA in hopes of one day restoring his active-duty status, he was charged first with being head of the Astronaut Office, and later still director of Flight Crew Operations. His memoir of the Apollo program thus covers far more ground than one-flight wonders like Scott Carpenter or John Glenn*;  it also provides extensive information about the technical planning of the Apollo missions, Skylab, and the shuttle program.

 Just as the lunar missions were concluding, Slayton's own mission to return to active service had a happy result: he flew on the last Saturn rocket in the Apollo-Soyuz project. There, he fulfilled a hopeful wish expressed to Alexei Leonov many years prior, that one day they might share a toast in space.  (The material in the "Vodka" bottles was just soup, but it's the thought that counts.) Slayton left NASA as the space shuttle became its focus,  in part exhausted after now decades of a grueling workload, and in part because Reagan's new NASA chief was a "horse's ass".  (Slayton helped inaugurate the shuttle, being head of the Approach and Landing Tests division during its development.)   Slayton wasn't grounded after NASA: he took up a hobby of racing planes, and became a leading administrator in a private space venture, developing rockets for commercial liftng. Slayton fell prey to cancer before the book's publication, but worked on it with his co-author for several years prior to his death.  Alan Shephard's 'co-authored' book with Slayton, Moon Shot, was also published just after Slayton's death, and I suspect it drew on some of the same interviews. The stories Slayton tells about his time in Russia are identical in both books, right down to the astronauts' discovery that their rooms were bugged, and their mischievious decision to put Russian ears to good advaantage. (They would comment on how sad it was they lacked something, like a pool table, only to have one arrive days later..)

Slayton's narration is professional with a hint of irreverence, like the time he hung out ofa helicopter by a rope to collect a goat he'd shot from the air. Tthe men who answered to Slayton's strigent safety procedures at the Cape would never believe his behavior on his own time.   He goes into enormous detail on matters like how he created the mission schedule, but at moments of high emotion he isn't communicative. He often speaks of his close friendship with fellow Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, but when Grissom perishes in a fire (along with Ed White and Roger Chaffey), he can only terseley say that it was the worst day ever.  Cassutt or Slayton supplement the text with the recollections of Slayton's family or other astronauts, including his son Kent.  These add a human touch and some humor of their own. (Once, Slayton and his son were enjoying a silent game of catch. After being admonished by his wife to talk to his son and bestow some fatherly advice, Slayton pondered and then informed his son to always take a nap and use the head when he had the opportunity. Kent recalls it as one of the funniest moments of his childhood.)  Overall, the memoir delivers a big picture view of the early decades of NASA, from a man who was there at the very beginning.

The Original Capcom


  • Moon Shot, Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton (forward by Neil Armstrong)
  • A Man on the Moon, Neil Chaikan. Hands down the best Apollo history. 

* Sure, Glenn flew twice, but he wasn't exactly an astronaut the second time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
© 2016 J.D. Vance
272 pages

Imagine a childhood in which the most stable person in your life once methodically marinated her passed-out drunken husband with lighter fluid, then set him on fire. (She did tell him if he came on drunk again, she'd kill him.)   That was J.D. Vance's story, born in an Ohio colony of Kentucky hillbillies, whose residents escaped the desperate poverty of the hills but brought its impoverished habits with them.  In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance recounts his turbulent childhood, his difficult coming of age, and the people through by he was able to escape the pit --  primarily his grandmother and the US Marine Corps.

Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals introduced me to the idea that a culture of poverty has gripped southern whites and blacks -- that their culture is in fact the same, one brought over from Scotland. Vance's portrayal of that culture is personal and gripping.  It's rendered through his biography;  hill people are impulsive and violent, with an acute appreciation for family honor that leads to savage reprisals with that honor is offended.  Vance witnessed chainsaws used to counter rude suggestions made toward the family women  -- although later on, the brother protecting his sister might later get into a screaming match with her over a trivial issue.   The impulsiveness isn't limited to reactions against insulting remarks; it also expresses itself in a short-sighted view towards work. A profitable job is abandoned if waking up for it  becomes viewed as a hassle.    When this approach to life fails to produce anything, outside factors are to blame: the boss, the economy, the government. Drugs enter the picture, both as pleasures in themselves and as relief from lives filled with screaming relatives, bad ol' bosses,  and the threat of poverty. All this creates an enormous amount of chaos in the lives of people, and children raised in it grow up as emotional basket cases,  with no exposure to any other life that might make the shortcomings of theirs visible.

Vance and his sister were exposed to some of the worst of this through their mother, who -- despite some vocational accomplishment as a nurse --   fell prey to substance abuse. At least five boyfriends were foisted on her children as make-believe dads, and her go-to solution for dealing with arguments in a car was to drive the car into things -- trees, perhaps even others. Vance frequently saw neighbors hauled away by the police, but one night his mother was taken away, too. They only narrowly escaped being dumped on a random family, since their relatives were not licensed state-approved caregivers. For all of his grandmother's violent temper, she believed he could have a future, and she believed he could achieve whatever he wanted if he worked for it. She urged him not to believe the lie that the odds were stacked against him: the world was his for the taking. Only when he began living with her full time did Vance manage to find some emotional stability and make plans for the future. Those plans included the Marine Corps, which taught him self-control and responsibility, and still later Yale.   Along the way Vance continues reflecting on what these moments in his life were teaching him; Yale, for instance,  illustrated to him the power of social capital, of networking. Submitting resumes and waiting is for the underemployed; those who get ahead do so by virtue of who they know.

Hillbilly Elegy has been creating a stir lately, presumably because people want to understand why Trump is popular.  They'll probably find something here, like: "Say, Trump blames other people for our problems. That's what those hillbillies do!". Of course, all parties blame other people for the problems; that's politics.  Vance's book is an eye-opening account of the social life of Appalachia and its Midwest diaspora,  but certain aspects of that culture have much broader appeal.  The complete breakdown of the family is present both here and in accounts of urban poverty. In Ain't No Shame in my Game, for instance,  Katherine Newman documented young couples from broken families who had received so little education in being an adult that they had no idea how to feed and change their baby.  Human civilization depends on knowledge constantly being passed from the old to the new -- without that inculcation, what are we?   Also repeated in both cultures of poverty is the lack of agency -- the idea, that people are not in command of their lives but at the mercy of forces greater than they. They are either in thrall to the government, or constantly point the finger at a political party, an ethnicity, etc.  There is no taking ones fate into own's own hand.  Of course, Vance's story also illustrates that escaping poverty is no matter of pulling one's self by the bootstraps: he needed his grandmother teaching him to look toward the future, as he needed the Marines to show him how to work towards it.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

America First

America First: Its History, Culture, and Politics
© 1995 Bill Kauffman
296 pages

For slightly over a year prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor, there existed a civic organization of nearly a million people called the America First Committee. It dedicated itself to stymieing the attempts of D.C. and Hollywood to embroil the United States in yet another European war  Despite its name, this book isn’t about them, though Kauffman does honor their heritage in the expanse of people it celebrates here. America First hails writers and politicians commenting on not just foreign policy, but the American spirit.   Here collected are the broadsides and literary stabs of men and women from across the political spectrum, from across the country,  from across income brackets -- who have resisted the idea that America needs to be great to be wonderful.  Politically, their concerns are straightforward: they are against foreign wars and against involvement in organizations that jeopardize American sovereignty. This isn’t merely a rehash of Ain’t my America, with added rebukes for NATO;  instead, Kauffman  shares the ardent love of these writers for America in itself via literary reflection. These authors don’t love it for what it could be – a global player, even a global savior – but for what it is, a vast land of beauty and promise, with a healthy individualistic tradition that protects people not only from the state, but the danger of social smothering.

Kauffman begins in the early 20th century, examining the populist and progressive backgrounds of many who later joined America First. They included Amos Pinchot, written out of the Progressive movement for his strident anti-imperialism. (The rough riding-Caesar, Teddy, referred to him as the party's lunatic fringe.)  Teddy's pistol-packing  daughter Alice Roosevelt also appears,  vexed at both Wilson's League of Nations and her cousin's entire administration. After the war, Kauffman pivots again to literary types -- Jack Kerouac and that magnificent son of the desert, Ed Abbey. Another dear fellow, Wendell Berry, is quoted a few times. (One reason I'm so fond of Kauffman, besides his punchy writing filled with words like katzenjammer: we're both fond of men like those two, plus Dorothy Day.)  Kauffman finishes the book with a section on the contemporary of this 'peculiar nationalism', one that wants to celebrate America as America, not as another frustrated and penniless empire. Writing in the early 1990s, he saw in the campaign of Ross Perot great promise. Here at last was a sign that Americans were escaping the bonds of the establishment -- and there were other kooky fellows like Pat Buchanan waiting to do their part, too.  (Buchanan is hailed as convert to the cause; while previously supporting military adventures in Grenada, he's since written numerous books  urging Americans to focus on the home front --  protecting American industry, discouraging immigration, etc.)  Twenty years later, here we are again, faced with the most depressing candidates in American history.

The high point of America First are the long-forgotten authors whom Kauffman exhumes. Hamlin Garland, Amos Pinchot, Harold Frederic -- who knows these names, other than Kauffman and his readers?  On the low end, a fair few of the people chronicled here carry  the faint aroma of xenophobia.  To their wholly-legitimate fear of railroad monopolies (who controlled their only means of getting produce to market) and of banks (to whom they were often in hock), they added the specter of immigrants with strange cultures swelling the ranks of New York  voting machines, or surging into the heartland and taking what few opportunities were there.  "Americanism" had its dark side, manifested most obviously in the Klan -- who, in their 1920s iteration, seduced many by targeting outsiders. Kauffman doesn't mention this, and while he always acknowledges racial tinges to populist criticism, he doesn't dwell on it. He is more interested in the quiet pride and content people can take in simply being home, in taking solace in the simple pleasures like good company and a family recipe for blackberry cobbler.   Kauffman's own embrace of homebodies from across political camps -- he is a localist with an affection for Gene Debs, who always won his conservative hometown's presidential devotes on the merits of his being a good neighbor --  is well reflected in one chapter's closing remarks:

Who should 'run' America? No one. Or 250 million single individuals.[...] As Americans from Emerson to Mencken have known, following leaders is a fool's game. Only when we restore to Americans their birthright -- local self-government in prideful communities that respect the liberties of every dentist and Baptist and socialist and lesbian and hermit and auto parts dealer -- will we remember what it means to be an American, first."

In commenting on the Harold Frederic novel for which he did a screenplay, Copperhead, Kauffman wrote that the essential tragedy of the story was that its characters had lost sight of the human. They contended against one another not as neighbors, but as ideological nemeses.  That is how the Civil War nearly destroyed their town -- not by artillery fire, but by the fire of their self-righteous rage.   While American money and attention is constantly devoted to defending Europe, defending  southeast Asia, managing the middle east,  and policing the seven seas, there's little time or opportunity for tending to each other.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Words from little America

"There are many, many Americas -- there's a televised America, one that consists of The View and Katie Couric and Jenner -- there's that America. But then there's the America I experience, the America you never see on television. It's the America of little churches and baseball and backyard gardens and's much more modest, humane, and interconnected. It's produced most of the good things we have in this country -- the most interesting pieces of art, novels, literature, political eruptions..." (Bill Kauffman, interview on Poetry Night at the Ballpark

Spring in Town, Grant Wood. Used as the cover for Kauffman's Look Homeward, America!
And now, selections from yet another Kauffman survey of literature:

"American literature, in order to be great, but must be national, and in order to be national must deal with conditions peculiar to our own land and climate. Every sincere writer must write of the life he knows best and for which he cares most." (Hamlin Garland, p. 29)

"The privileged classes will profit by this war. It takes attention of the people off economic issues, and perpetuates the unjust system they have put upon us. Politicians profit by this war. It buries issues they dare not meet. What do the people get out of this war? The fighting, and the taxes. What are we going to get out of this war? Endless trouble, complications, expense. Republics cannot go into the conquering business and remain republics." (Tom Watson speaking of the Spanish-American War, p. 36)

"Liberty is what we're for, That's why we're progressive. We hate the modern increases of governmental powers and functions. We do not want government big. We want it small. That's why we're conservative. A true progressive must at this time often be a conservative."  (William Hard, The Nation, p. 59)

"But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center, corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the
monster's feet there are left the mountains." 
 (Robinson Jeffers, p.73)

"America -- the literary map of it, apparently, shows three cities;  New York, Chicago, and New Orleans; then a stretch inhabited by industrious Swedes who invariably (after an edifying struggle) become college professors or rich farmers; then a noble waste still populated by cowpunchers speaking the purest 1870; finally, a vast domain called Hollywood. But actually, there are portions of the United States not included in this favorite chart." (Sinclair Lewis, p. 122)

"John, it is empire you all want, and it is empire that you have got, and at such a small price when you come to think of it."
"What price is that?" Hay could tell from the glitter in Adams' eye that the reply would be highly unpleasant.
"The American republic. You've finally got rid of it. For good."
(pp. 133-134, Gore Vidal. Quoting Empire.)

"The shameful abandonment of early American political values -- liberty, decentralism, self-rule -- explains, I submit, the strident hostility to Gore Vidal. For Vidal is an authentic champion of a peculiarly American patriotism, vastly nobler than that of the typewriter hawks and blow-dried Republicans of Washington, D.C.

With the countenance of an antebellum aristocrat and a flair for the eloquent savagery once so common in America political writing, Gore Vidal is the avenging wraith of Henry Adams made flesh, merciless in dissecting the Empire-lovers and power-lusting intellectuals. He is the finest writer of our age, [...] a polemicist at least the equal -- probably the superior -- of Mencken and Paine. So let the heathen rage. Vidal's historical novels and fulgurant essays will outlast his carping contemporaries."
(Bill Kauffman, 139-140)

"The price of empire is America's soul, and that price is too high." (William Fulbright, p. 143)

"Where're your papers?"
"My what?"
"Your I.D. -- draft card, social security, driver's license."
"Don't have none. Don't need none. I already know who I am."
(Edward Abbey, p. 158. Quoting The Brave Cowboy)

"Patriotism is not the love of air conditioning or the interstate highway system or the government or the flag or power or money or munitions. It is the love country." (Wendell Berry, p.  163)

"I heard a great laugh, the greatest laugh in the world, and there came this rawhide old-timer Nebraska farmer with a bunch of other boys into the diner; you could hear his raspy crises clear across the plains, across the whole gray world of that day. Everybody else laughed with him. He didn't have a care in the world and had the hugest regard for everybody. I said to myself, 'Wham, listen to that man laugh. That's the West, here I am in the West....It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me. I wish I knew his whole raw life and what the hell he'd been doing all these years besides laughing and yelling like that. Whooee, I told my soul."  
(Jack Kerouac, p. 170. Quoted from On the Road)

"Our ever loyal press, famously ignorant of history, panicked at the prospect of revolt by the lowing herd of revenue cows, and insisted that this queer [left-right] coalition was a freakish thing, spectacular but brief and (thank God) unstable. It had been whipped up into a frenzy by irresponsible demagogues, and once the dust cleared the kine would revert to kind. A little rebellion now and then isn't such a bad thing, after all, as long as the dissenters know that it's just a game and when the morning dawns they've got to get up and go to work and do their eight-hour stint as cogs in the great wheel of the interdependent global economy."
(Bill Kauffman, pp. 187-188, on press reaction to NAFTA resistance.)

"No construct is more holy to the priests of the establishment than the comfy seesaw of Left and Right, with its utterly predictable motions. Those sit astride the plans can be sure of a pleasant ride; they need never fear being thrown. Bullies who threaten the playground, such as Huey Long, Malcolm X, and George Wallace, are disposed of with impressive dispatch."
(Bill Kauffman, p. 218)

"Who should 'run' America? No one. Or 250 million single individuals. Every man a king, every woman a queen, as the martyr Huey Long once sang. [...] As Americans from Emerson to Mencken have known, following leaders is a fool's game. Only when we restore to Americans their birthright -- local self-government in prideful communities that respect the liberties of every dentist and Baptist and socialist and lesbian and hermit and auto parts dealer -- will we remember what it means to be an American, first."
(Bill Kauffman, p. 231)

All quotations from:

Notable books:
Caesar's Column, Ignatius Donnelly
Crumbling Idols, Hamlin Garland
The Adventures of Wesley Jackson,  William Saroyan
The Brave Cowboy, Edward Abbey

Turbulent Skies

Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation
© 1995 T. H. Heppenheimer
408 pages

What a century was the 20th, which turned everyday life into the stuff of yesteryear's science fiction. Who would believe at its dawning that one day people would travel the world primarily through the air, soaring through it in great machines made of iron?  Turbulent Skies is a history of commercial aviation in the United States, Great Britain, and (occasionally) Europe. Part of the Sloan Technology Series, it mixes business and social history with extensive commentary on aviation engineering.  Between the generous expanses devoted to airframe and compressor problems to the play-by-play of mergers and expansion plans, Turbulent Skies is a through bit of reference reading.   The author includes as many diagrams of jet engines as he does of the planes themselves, which I found curious.

Turbulent Skies largely focuses on the United States, with occasional chapters on Britain and a few mentions of French and German development.  The chapter on World War 2 features Germany heavily, but this is not a book of aerial strategy; instead, Heppenheimer records the respective powers'  pursuit of jet technology.  (Germany was able to produce the Me-262, a potential fighter that was thankfully squandered as a light bomber.  Considerable resources were diverted from planes to the V2 bombing programs,  again mercifully.)   What leaps out in Turbulent Skies is how utterly the creature of government air travel is. Unlike trains, which had their origin in commercial mining, the first air-commerce companies in the United States  balanced their budgets on mail contracts.  The world wars were likewise a boon to aviation, producing technologies like radar that were put to use in the consumer market. The amount of airplanes produced for military service and then dumped onto the consumer market likewise produced a multitude of small companies buying planes for pennies and trying to build regional empires.  The government  also bankrolled municipal airports and then forbade city governments from making a fuss about the noise. (Mind your business, peasants...)

With such support behind it, little wonder the airplanes had a quick triumph over their transport rivals, the train companies. (The quickness of aerial ascent is made obvious in the life of Juan Trippe: he created Pan-Am in the early days of aviation, and was still its lord and master when the 747 was created.) Of course, air travel had honest advantages -- speed and novelty.  Passenger ships also lost out to the planes, but the industry as a whole survived by shifting its focus to cruises. The seagoing experience, rather than being a comfortable means of transportation, became instead a vacation in itself: the ship was the party.  (Heppenheimer doesn't mention this, but trains tried doubling-down on luxury, too; unfortunately, toodling along at 30 mph speed limits inside cities isn't quite as relaxing as cruising the Caribbean.)     The happy days didn't last forever, though; in the 1970s, oil crises and recession saw some of the mainstays begin to flounder and perish.  The most notable death, prolonged until 1991, was Pan-Am. It  achieved early success by focusing on connecting the United States to the outside world, snagging a government-granted monopoly of the  Central-South American routes.   The recession and energy spike caught Pan-Am at just the wrong time, when it was borrowing billions to launch a vast period of expansion with 747s.  Perhaps it will be revived when we begin passenger service to the Moon.

Though informative, casual readers should be aware this is more about technology and business contracts than the social/human side of air transport.

Getting There: The Epic Battle Between Road and Rail, Stephen Goddard
The Great Railroad Revolution, Christian Wolmar

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Crewshiplife: or, the Love boat

Behold, the story of a hotel manager whose steady gal runs away to university and leaves him heartbroken. Ready for a change, he applies for a position on a cruise ship as a junior assistant purser, and delivers a memoir regaling us with a play-by-play of his social life, of nights spent dancing, drinking, and going to bed with similarly emotionally wrecked and lonely young people who stumble from hangover to hangover. The book is largely about their chain of using one another, nights of dancing, drunken hook-ups, and days of working as clerks and continually answering the same questions from those swinish masses, the customers. It's just like passengers to wreck what seems to be a college keg party afloat in uniform.

There is very little information in here about the actual operation of a cruise ship, merely the training experience of one fellow who devotes far more page space to his dating play-by-plays than to what duties he was actually performing on the ship.  I'm sure he's a nice guy, and I feel bad for not liking his book, but..seriously, it'a s chronicle of dating. If I want that, I can listen to Taylor Swift.

(Amazon recommended this to me after reading Cargo Ship Diaries...which was mostly about one man chasing skirts throughout Eurasia. Guess I should have seen that coming, but both were read via through a free trial of Kindle Unlimited.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Selections from Musonius Rufus

These are a few passages from Ben White's modern interpretation of Musonius Rufus' lessons and fragments.

Of everything that exists, God has put some in our control, some not. He has put the noblest and most excellent thing in our control, the power of using our impressions. When correctly used, this means serenity, cheerfulness, constancy, justice, law, self control - virtue, overall.

From The Good:

If you do a good thing through your hard work, the work passes and the good remains. If you gain pleasure through dishonor, the pleasure will pass, but the dishonor remains.

None of the things which people believe they suffer as personal injuries are an injury or a disgrace to those experiencing them -- even being insulted, struck, or spat upon. Disgrace lies not in enduring them, but rather in doing them. For what does the man who accepts insult do that is wrong? It is the doer of wrong who puts themselves to shame.  To be sure -- a good person can never be wronged by a bad. "

From Women:

Women and men have the gift of reason from the gods. Both are naturally inclined toward virtue and the ability to acquire it. Both are pleased by good, just, acts, and reject their opposites. If this is true, how can we say that men should search out how they may live good lives, but women should not? Should men be good, but not women? 

Shun selfishness, revere fairness, and, being a human being, wish to help your fellow human --- this is the noblest lesson, making those learn it Just. Why is it more appropriate for a man to learn this?  If women should be Just they must learn the same lessons; they are eminently appropriate to the character of each.

From Leadership:

With the exception of philosophy, there is no study that develops self-control. It teaches you to be above pleasure and greed, admire thrift and avoid extravagance -- in trains you to have a sense of shame, and to control your tongue - it produces discipline, order, and courtesy - in general, appropriate action. When these qualities are present in an ordinary person, they impart dignity and self-command - if present in a king they make him more godlike and worthy of reverence. 

Courage breeds the fearless, the intrepid, the bold - how else would you acquire these characteristics other than by having a firm conviction that death and hardships are not evil?  For these are the things that unbalance and frighten you -- philosophy is the only teacher that they are not evils. If kings ought to possess courage, and they should more than anyone else, they must study philosophy. They cannot become courageous by any other means.

From Resilience:

If you wish to be healthy, you must spend your life taking care of yourself. Reason shouldn't be cast out after an illness is cured; let it remain in the soul to guard your judgment. The power of reason shouldn't be compared to medicines, but to healthy foods -- it introduces a good frame of mind to those where it becomes habitual. However, when emotions are at their greatest heat, wise words and warnings have barely any effect at all. They are like the scents that revive those fallen in a fit, yet don't cure the disease.

Anyone will admit how much better it is instead of:
- struggling to win someone else's wife, struggle to discipline your desires?
- enduring hardship for money -- train yourself to want little?
- trying to injure an envied person -- ask how to stifle envy?

Hard work and hardship are a necessity for all -- both for those who seek better ends and for those who seek the worse -- it is ridiculous that those who are pursuing the better are not much more eager in their efforts than those who have small hope of reward for all their pains. 

If we were to measure what is good by how much pleasure it brings, nothing would be better than self-control -- if we were to measure what is to be avoided by its pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control.

Virtue isn't simply theoretical knowledge -- it is the practical application, just like the arts of medicine and music. If you wish to become good, you must not only know the precepts conducive to virtue, you must be constantly applying these principles. 

From Marriage:

In marriage, there must be above all, perfect companionship and mutual love -- both in sickness and in health, under all conditions. It should be with desire for this and children that both enter upon marriage.

If you say that each one should look out for their own interests alone, you represent mankind as no different from the wild animals, born to live by violence and plunder, doing anything to gain some selfish advantage -- having no part in a shared life, no part of cooperation with others, no share of any concept of justice.  

It is each man's duty to consider his own city, making his home a rampart for its protection. But the first step towards this is marriage. Whoever destroys the human marriage destroys the home, the city, the whole human race.

The home or the city doesn't depend on women or men alone, but their union with one another.

From Obedience

If your father or the archon or even the tyrant orders something wrong, unjust, or shameful, and you do not carry out the order -- you are in no way disobeying, as you do no wrong nor fail to do write. Disobedience is disregarding and refusing to carry out good, honourable, and useful orders.

From Food:
Surely a good man should be as robust as a slave; for that reason, Zeno thought he ought to beware of dietary delicacy. If he gave in just once, then he would go the whole way, since when it comes to food and drink, pleasure accelerates its pace alarmingly.

From True Wealth
We shall condemn the treasures of Croesus and Cinyras as deepest poverty. One man alone is rich, the man who has acquired the ability to want nothing, always and everywhere. 

I choose sickness over luxury, for sickness only harms the body -- luxury destroys body and soul, bringing with it weakness, feebleness, a lack of  self control, and cowardice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


© 1993 K.W. Jeter
276 pages

Constable Odo has noticed something very strange about the Cardassian freighter docked with Deep Space Nine. Despite its identification as an utterly harmless freighter, dangerous only to the subspace version of bugs splattered on the windshield, there are subtle tells that the ship was created for exclusively military purposes. In fact, the Cardassians mean to establish an outpost on the far end of the Wormhole connecting the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants, compromising Bajor's own control of the etheral tunnel. While Commander Sisko has expected this kind of move, he's using it to force Starfleet to, increase funding to Deep Space Nine. A quick mission to establish Starfleet's own permanent outpost on the Gamma side will also get Kira out of his hair, because (1) this is season one and he hasn't adopted the awesome-bald look, and (2) Major Kira is a Major Pain. No sooner did she let a bunch of Bajoran Wahhabis onto the station than did people start mysteriously dying, and she's so stubborn that he's been forced to assume every aspect of station management.

Most of Bloodletter's oddities are the result of being written in the show's infancy, back when writers were still relying on the rough-outline series bible to give them general ideas. ("Kira used to be a terrorist, and now she's an authority figure. Discuss.") Consequently, to use Kira as an example, her relations with Sisko are a lot more rough than they ever were in the show: she actually interupts and argues with him during staff briefings, which is probably why he's willing to send her into the gamma quadrant on her lonesome to establish an official Bajoran presence there. She's not the only one acting not just out of character, but grossly unprofessional: Bashir actually asks Kira out on a date while IN HER QUARTERS. She walks in, ready for a night of listening to fundamentalist Bajoran preachers threatening to purge Bajor of foreigners and red-headed majors, and there's the doc waiting for her and poking through her bookcases. Other aspects of the book are simply weird: Odo catches wind of the Cardies' plan because they've stopped at DS9 to have 'impulse buffers' installed. Starfleet demands that every ship passing through the Wormhole have these buffers installed, because otherwise the ships might kill the beings who live inside the portal. To borrow from Kirk, "Why do the gods need protection from starships?" I'm guessing that was a bit of  series-development speculation that went the way of TNG's 55 mph warp speed limit.

Jeter used plot elements later employed in the show "Past Prologue", in which Bajoran jihadists test Kira's loyalty and their plot involves rudely exploding things near the wormhole. Frankly, I found the odd character-and-plot elements more enjoyable than the actual plot, since obviously Odo would get his man. Bashir receive a bit of odd character background here: he's a 24th century hipster, rebuilding an old audio system because the sound is sooooooo much better than digital, man. Really intense. It's not just a quirk, of course; his experience playing with audio helps him with the plot later on.

Monday, September 12, 2016

War Drums

ST TNG: War Drums
© 1992 John Vornholt
276 pages

Imagine Lord of the Flies with Klingons, and set the pack of nigh-feral boys against a small community of settlers who only just arrived themselves.  Such is the set up of War Drums, the story of a besieged human colony which solicits the Enterprise's help. When the people of New Reykjavík broke ground at a stable spot on the strange planet Selva, they didn't realize it already had residents -- a group of Klingon adolescents, marooned as children when their refugee ship crashed here. Now, after months of raids by the Klingons, the humans are lead by a bitter and xenophobic man who prefers the Enterprise's sensors and phasers to her crew's diplomatic savvy.   Created by John Vornholt, War Drums is Ro Laren's first appearance in Treklit, and an interesting predictor of several TNG and DS9 episodes. The main plot -- desperate settlers increasingly held in the grips of a fear taking racial overtones, Worf struggling to make contact with the raiders and teach them - -has much human interest, but the obligatory B thread involves imminent geologic catastrophe that is uncovered by Ro and a twelve-year-old colonial girl, Myra.  Truth to be told, I tend to skip through the B-scenes in older Trek books, because they tend to be  engineering problems rendered in complete technobabble. ("The tech is going to go teching tech! We need to tech the tech, quickly! We did it! Now the A plot is safe!) This one features a science investigation with Earth-relatable terms, so it actually merited paying attention to.

 TNG later featured an episode in which Worf tries to connect long-abandoned Klingon youths to their glorious heritage ("Birthright"), and a DS9 episode involved a mostly-human colony with Klingon neighbors ("Children of Time").  Kudos to Vornholt for predicting that.   He also uses the same exact quote that Picard quotes later on in the episode "Drumhead" -- 'when drums beat, the law is silent'.  (Speaking of:  what with the violent boys, their worship of the Chief, and their obsession with drums and encircling trials, Vornholt had to be drawing on Lord of the Flies!)   I probably wouldn't have tried this novel but for two things: Ro Laren was on the cover, and John Vornholt penned it.  He's not a particularly well-known author, but I'm familiar with him from his TNG Dominion War duology, which were the first TNG books I ever read. I read them multiple times, actually, and considering the heavy use of Ro Laren there he's probably to blame for her being such a favorite character of mine.  She comes off well here, both as action hero and Starfleet scientist; Worf, too, gets some depth beyond "Grrr! Honor! WORF SMASH!"

Unfortunately, I think this is my last TNG novel with Ro Laren on the cover.  All good things...

BONUS POINTS: At one point, Worf literally turns his phaser up to 11.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Better Man

ST: The Better Man
© 1994 Howard Weinstein
294 pages

McCoy: "I should have told you about this in my quarters, not yours."
Kirk: "Why? Some kind of weird protocol?"
McCoy: "No, I've got a better liquor selection."

Fresh from a refit, the Enterprise has been summoned to the planet Empyrea. Or rather, Dr. McCoy has. In his days as a young officer, he and his captain-buddy Mark Rousseau discovered there an isolationist colony of human beings, dedicated to perfecting their own gene pool. Though the Emyreans were stridently against outside contamination, Rousseau did manage to win permission for Starfleet to set up a science station on the planet to monitor unusual star activity. Shortly after their ship, the Feynman, left Empyrea,  McCoy sought transfer away from both it and his now ex-best friend, Rousseau. Whatever happened? And why have McCoy and Rousseau been asked back?  (Was it a woman? Of course it was a woman. Discover new life and go to bed with it, that's the StarFleet way!)

The Better Man is a rare TOS book in that McCoy is the primary character, with Kirk stuck on the Enterprise.  Though it takes place two years after The Motion Picture, the plot could have easily fit within the five-year mission:  two main threads quickly emerge, with a third crisis tying them together. When McCoy visited the planet eighteen years ago, he worked with a local scientist, and now -- almost  eighteen years later -- she has a daughter, just about eighteen years old.  And that's a problem, because when the child is given her customary bioscan at eighteen to make sure she's worthy breeding potential, the government is going to realize her daddy is Not of This World. She'll be sterilized, or worse yet, killed, because that's the sort of thing that happens when people start controlling others to make things...Perfect.  You get mass killings or reavers,  and so in the fashion of Captain Mal,  people here are aiming to misbehave. Specifically, McCoy manages to get himself kidnapped by the Empyrean Liberation Front, which is even more embarrassing than it sounds: the ELF is one teenager who wants to start a revolution and use McCoy as leverage. 

I found A  Better Man a fun, quick read. Weinstein gets the subtleties of McCoy's language fairly well, and there's several fun lines:
McCoy: "Y'know, that day Spock threw that bowl of soup at Christine Chapel will always be one of the highlights of my life."
Kirk: "I suppose that says something about your life."

Kirk: "I thought you wanted to have as little to do with them as possible."
Scott: "I do, sir, I just want it to be my idea -- not theirs!"

Scott: "Looks like so-called genetic perfection has doesn't away with the occasional horse's ass."
Spock: "A correct observation, Mr. Scott, if I understand the reference.
Scott: "That y'do, sir."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to Live

Musonius Rufus on How to Live
© 2012 Ben White
112 pages

Virtus isn't just for the men any more.  Musonius Rufus is the forgotten Stoic, a man hailed alongside Socrates as nigh-saintly by Origen, but now almost forgotten. More's the pity, because Rufus didn't offer just another collection of admonishments to keep in mind what you can control and what you can't.   What works remain of his are simply known as Lectures and Sayings, recorded not by him but by a student. They apply the lessons of philosophy across the entire experience of human existence, giving modern readers a taste for how broad the day to day lessons of the Stoics actually ran -- from the meaning of life to proper beard grooming.

The most extraordinary aspect of Rufus' teaching for the modern reader is that he maintained that philosophy was fit for women as well as men. The pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of manliness, for the Greco-Roman mind, were one in the same;  virtue was manliness. Not one to be limited by etymology, Rufus argues that women can profit just as well by philosophy as men. They carry the same inner spark, and the fruits of a philosophically-tamed soul are just as salutatory for a woman as man. Does a woman not need courage to defend her young against those who would harm them? Does she not need clear thinking to balance the household accounts, and does she not need self control to maintain peace in the home, and to protect herself against the same foibles of humanity as her husband?

Rufus does not merely maintain that women can be philosophers, too;  given that men and women share the same divine gift, Reason, they can perceive and are thus subject to the same natural law. The same rules apply to everyone, and from them there is no escape. Rufus admonishes men and women alike to practice sex only within the bounds of marriage, and only with one another. Rufus is not a prude;  in regards to pleasure, he is consistent across the board. Don't wear more clothes than you need; excessive protection from the elements only creates a soft, fragile body, and a frail constitution. Rich foods? Nonsense.  Fruit, cheese, and vegetables -- a simple diet is best. Why build a mansion? You only need  shelter from the elements, no need of luxurious colonnades and precious gems.  To fill a home with silver is to fill it with worry;  no thief would take off with wooden cups and earthenware plates.

Another singular aspect of Rufus is his perception of man as a political animal. While Marcus Aurelius often alluded to man being a social creature, his Meditations are largely counsel to himself; Epictetus' works are the equivalent of philosophical boot camp, focused on the individual steeling himself for life. Seneca, in his letters counseling friends, is convivial, but he is surpassed by Rufus. There are numerous sections in this book which focus on humans in relationship with one another,  with the most important bond being marriage.  For Rufus, the family is the cell upon which society is based: marriage not only renews human life, creating new generations, but it provides its members  one of the vital lessons of life: we are made for one another. Marriage should be engaged not for looks or money, but to be a companion to another -- to love, not merely with passion but with will, with duty. Philosophy is the art of life, and to practice it means to discern man's duty to his creator, to himself, to his fellows with whom he is made to work alongside.

Although I still plan to read a formal translation of Rufus (Lectures and Sayings, Cynthia King) to make sure that Ben White's adaptation here is faithful, I thoroughly enjoyed this little book by Rufus. His commitment to a simple, authentic life on all fronts is admirable, more  detailed than Epictetus and carrying with it an integrity that Seneca can't quite muster. Rufus didn't just write pretty words about how exile was nothing; he practiced it.  Like Epictetus, he makes Stoicism and philosophy matter of day to day life, but these lectures here cover more of the practicalities of human existence than Epictetus' boot camp does.  Rufus is both challenging and bracing!


The other Stoics:

Friday, September 9, 2016

How the Scots Invented the Modern World

How the Scots Invented the Modern World:The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It 
© 2001  Arthur Herman
400 pages

An elderly patron at the library has adopted me as his go-to source for history books. These days he merely arrives at my desk and announces, "You know what I like. Let's find something!". As a reward for my literary services, he decided to lend me one of his books, How the Scots Invented the Modern World.   As it happens, I know very little about Scottish history, except in connection with English and American history -- so I dived in, and found it a most interesting book.  At its best, it's a history and reflection on the Scottish enlightenment, sweeping enough to bring to mind Will Durant's approach for history.  The author addresses -- for starters -- religion, philosophy, architecture, politics, economics, and literature. At a middling level, it's social history of a sort, recounting the Scottish experience in America in a manner very much like previous books I've read on the Scots-Irish.  At its most trivial, it is merely a narrative recollection of this Scotsman inventing this and that Scotsman inventing that, and oh, by the way, that fellow invented steamboats in America, and he was born in Scotland.   Fortunately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World is only trivial toward the end.

 The bulk of the book is taken up with Scotland's intellectual and economic development as a developed and 'enlightened' nation, though the author favors those who celebrated Scotland's romanticized wildness, like Sir Walter Scott.   Some very familiar names, like David Hume and Adam Smith appear here, along with names wholly new to me, like Francis Hutcheson.  These figures do not appear sans context; instead, their arguments are rooted in Scotland's political history, from the various revolts against Anglicanism and Catholic kings, to Scotland's matrimonial bond to England.  In the authors view, Scotland was not a victim of empire, but helped author it, and indeed we see Scots exploring Africa,  arguing for a remolding of India in the British form, and penetrating deep into the American interior as Scots-Irish settlers.

I would recommend this book solely on the treatment of Enlightenment-era political philosophy along, as the author is strongest here. That section won me over despite some early black marks, as when he identified a founder of the Jesuits as a figure of the Reformation, and declared that the Protestant revolution made the Bible no longer a closed book.  Now anyone could hear it read, or read it themselves. What were they up to at church in the centuries prior, playing tiddlywinks?  The entire structure of Judeo-Catholic-Orthodox liturgical tradition is based on the reading of scripture! Still, the author managed to redeem himself wonderfully after that.

The Scotch-Irish:  A Social History,  James Leyburn
Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Jim Webb
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Images of CS Lewis' World

CS Lewis: Images of his World
© 1973  Douglas R Gilbert, Clyde S Kilby
144 pages

Last year I was tasked with the lamentable duty of weeding our history, literature, and science sections, and so in consequence spent several weeks methodically going through the stacks, book by book, making several discoveries. One,  in regards to literature, evidently my city became CouchPotato-ville in the 1970s. I found book after book which had enjoyed steady attention from the 1930s to the  1960s, but once the 1970s hit -- nothing. A precipitous drop off. I suppose everyone started watching Family Feud.  I also encountered a great many books I'd never seen before, like CS Lewis: Images of his World. As the title suggests, it is a photographic treatment of Lewis' life, illustrating the towns, universities, and pubs wherein he lived, along with some biographical exposition as  extended captions.

Personalities central to Lewis' life appear here, like his wife Joy, his stepsons, and of course his numerous colleague and fellow writers, namely Tolkien. There are also unexpected supporting characters like his long-term gardener. The latter inspired a character in The Silver Chair, and the book smartly combines letters or biographical narration about Lewis' life with photographs. A photograph of several young Cambridge students cycling down High Street is the backdrop for a letter in which Lewis details an early social outing, getting together for 'brekker' before pedaling off through town. Similarly, his recollection of the many ferry trips from Ireland to boarding schools in England is accompanied by a large photograph of two boys crossing the same ferry, looking at the approaching coast in anticipation.  These shots of others, while illustrating Lewis' life, don't appear staged;  there's at least one fellow on a bicycle who didn't look pleased at all to find a camera aiming in his general direction, though the intended subject was the street.  There are also photographs of Lewis' earliest creativity, of his schoolboy notebooks filled with the history of "Animal-Land", accompanied by little drawings. I've been meaning to enjoy this book in full for a few months now, as  I often glance inside it while shelving just to savor the photographs of Cambridge, Oxford, and the Irish countryside. Many of the photographs are only greyscale, but even so they're delightful. As someone who has read and enjoyed thoroughly his autobiography, I am grateful to have discovered this piece.

Images of America (Selma, Montevallo) series

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Smoking Guns, Sinister Schemes, and Still More Dangerous Blondes

Faced with the specter of a three-day weekend, but late-summer heat still too oppressive to venture out in, I enjoyed a little classic-movie marathon. I mention this here because while it's not a read-to-reels post, all three movies are based on books (or a play).   The collection gathers The Big Sleep, Dial M for Murder, and The Postman Always Rings Twice.   (It also includes The Maltese Falcon, but I've seen it a few times already.) Reader Cyberkitten mentioned that he would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite from among these three, and having watched them I now sympathize. They're all exceptionally well done.

I began with The Big Sleep, which continues a trend of Humphrey Bogart movies for me. This wasn't like the rest, though, as they (Across the Pacific, Passage to Marseilles, Action in the North Atlantic) were all WW2 movies.   The Big Sleep was actually filmed and finished before World War 2 was over, but its release was delayed to make room for a few war movies to air. Instead, it's another detective mystery like The Maltese Falcon.  Bogart is employed by an elderly general to find out who is blackmailing him, and to pay the money if need be. When the blackmailer is mysteriously murdered -- lots of murder in this movie -- Bogart realizes there's more to the story, especially when everyone (including the general's family) insists he drop the issue.  The plot is very complicated, but Lauren Bacall is amazing at being Bogart's slightly antagonistic client-love interest. Her hautiness is matched only Bogarts' utter refusal to take anyone's nonsense seriously. (One of their better scenes here:

Dial M for Murder featured the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, who has never failed to deliver a gripping tale.  M for Murder immediately introduces the reader to a confident seller of sports equipment, Tony Wendice. Though he  seems to dote on his beautiful blonde wife (Grace Kelly!), nevertheless Wendice plans to do her in. In years past, while he was traveling the world playing tennis, she was having a little dalliance with an American criminal novelist. His revenge? To arrange for her murder, via blackmail of a morally dubious classmate, and to use the novelist as his alibi. The perfect crime, but when it goes awry he  seems achieve an even greater revenge by quick thinking  -- but the devil is in the details!  Part of the fun is that several important characters are concealing key information from not only the murder-mastermind, but the viewer.  The novelist character adds a certain flair. The ending, when  Wendice closes a door and recognizes that something profound has happened,  has a marvelous touch of class.

Lastly, I finished the weekend out with The Postman Always Rings Twice, which featured neither familiar acting nor  direction. The story begins with a hitchhiker arriving at a roadside cafe and deciding to put in a little work there.  The owner is a happy-albeit-doddering old fellow, Nick, who is married to another beautiful blonde who enters rooms one hip at a time.  I knew  right away she was trouble,  and soon enough she and the hitchhiker have fallen in love and have decided to use Nick's frequent bouts of drunken stupor to arrange for a fatal accident.  Their first attempt fails, but the second try succeeds...albeit with unwanted results, and soon the two are fighting each other as well as resisting justice -- justice that the movie's end supplies, with an artful level of tragedy.

If I had to choose a favorite, I would select Dial M for Murder; as masterfully performed as Bogart and Bacall's roles were,   M for Murder's deceptively straightforward plot won me completely.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Murder at Fenway Park

Murder at Fenway Park
© 1994 Troy Soos
252 pages

1912, Boston. The Titanic is only a few weeks lost to the North Atlantic bottom, but Mickey Rawling's mind isn't on one of the biggest maritime disasters of history. No, he's just been inducted into the Major Leagues, hired to play with the Boston Red Sox, and his first night he's stumbled upon a man beaten so badly the victim's face no longer exists. And then Mickey threw up on it, just for good measure. Murder at Fenway Park is the story of a rookie ball player who turns amateur detective when he realizes the police intend on fingering him for the crime. While the cozy relationship between the Red Sox and the police might protect him during the baseball season, come fall he'll be left to his own devices.

The first in Trey Soos' baseball-murder mysteries,  Murder at Fenway takes readers through a violence summer, in which Rawlings rubs shoulders with baseball greats like Ty Cobb,  and does his best -- with the aide of a nickelodeon musician and a Socialist working on the garment factory-version of The Jungle --  to figure out who did it before either being arrested or beaten to a pulp by the original murderer.   The writing is sometimes unpolished, but the opening framing device -- an old man wandering through the Baseball Hall of Fame, feeling he and the sport have become long-distant strangers, then flashing back to the murder story on seeing the victim on a baseball card -- was well executed.  I suspect readers will find the setting more interesting than the mystery, considering how dramatic this era was in baseball. This was the decade that produce legends who gave their names to awards -- Cy Young, Ty Cobb -- although we're two years away from Babe Ruth stepping up to the plate. This is technically alt-history, considering that Soos kills off a player who -- in reality, died of a heart attack in 1959.

Murder at Fenway Park is by no means amazing literature, but it's enjoyable if you like early-20th century mysteries, or golden age baseball.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes
© 2009 David Helvarg
384 pages

When Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Coast Guard was the first on the scene, with helicopters in the air saving lives long before FEMA stirred. Though one of the United States’ military branches, the Coast Guard is an unusual institution;  best-known for its high profile search and rescue missions. Far and away the smallest military branch – and the most physically and academically rigorous in terms of its recruiting requirements --  the Coast Guard’s mission takes it far beyond safe and shallow coastal waters.   Rescue Warriors provides both a history of and a tribute to this oft-overlooked service, mixing history of its various missions and interviews with men and women working overtime to preserve lives and keep the coasts safe.

Although the Coast Guard was officially organized in 1915, it prefers to trace its history back to the revenue cutters of George Washington’s administration, which enforced and collected customs and tariff fees.  Another parent organization was that of the lighthouse and lightship service. The present Coast Guard has maintained that duel-purpose organization, simultaneously enforcing maritime law and rescuing those in danger.  Its mission portfolio is vast: in Rescue Warriors,  Helvarg interviews search-and-rescue teams,  drug-enforcement patrols,  counter-terrorism missions, environmental cleanup crews, science stations, and even more.  Helvarg spent time with servicemen and officers from around the United States’ territorial waters: the Gulf Coast,  New England,  California, Alaska, Hawaii, and even (with Canadian ‘permission’) in the Artic northwest passage.  Despite its ‘coast’ guard name,  Coasties may be found throughout the world: their boarding teams are especially relied upon in the Persian Gulf,  boarding local boats (with consent) to ask about  pirate concerns – and fishing for information on parties hostile toward the governments of Iraq and the United States.  (If the Coast Guard being a military branch simultaneously providing law enforcement seems constitutionally questionable, that isn’t surprising given that Wilson presided over their formal creation:  he never met a constitutional curb he wouldn’t drive over.)

The demands placed on the Coast Guard only seem to be increasing: a global economy means more ships to monitor, and with the Artic now open for commercial traffic and industry,  there will be still more ground to cover. The Coast Guard is much smaller than even the closest other service, the US Marines, but the gulf between its responsibilities and resources has demanded a great deal of efficiency. The average age of a Coast Guard ship is thirty-five years, and its officers’ training vessel, the Eagle,  was built in 1936.   That’s resource conservation, though when a helicopter requires 40 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.... The reason for the Guard’s physical and mental demands becomes obvious in reading this:  they are operational every day, not simply training for the next big conflict, and they often go against nature at its hairiest – flying helicopters into punishing winds to seek out those in peril on the sea.  They’re also up against human nature: in the opening chapter on rescue operations in Hurricane Katrina,  the Guard’s Seahawk helicopters took ground fire from locals; another man threatened to shoot a helo crew if they didn’t rescue him, and when they dropped people off at a CG station, it was promptly looted –  though the ammunition locker refused to give up its contents.  At least against cartel gunmen, the Coast Guard  is authorized for “Airborne Use of Force”.

Rescue Warriors  makes for encouraging reading, filled with  tales of rescue, of men and women stretching themselves so that others might live.  Helvarg sees the Coast Guard’s historical legacy and current role as exemplary, highlighting the early employment of women in the lighthouse service, and urges that the Coast Guard be given more resources so that it might serve the United States’ expanding needs.   Ultimately, this is a fun read, a mix of history, present-day history stories, and a fair bit of editorializing by the author whenever there is an environmental connection.

The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens. The memoirs of a humanitarian-turned-Navy SEAL, another mix of service and force.