Wednesday, March 30, 2011

These Weeks at the Library (15 March - 30 March)

I picked up a couple of novels from the the library's bookstore (which sells discarded and donated books) during my visit to the library today; Michael Connelly's Echo Park,  one of his Harry Bosch mysteries; and Crossover, a Michael Jan Friedman story in which Scotty steals a museum ship (the Constitution-class Yorktown) and races off into Romulan territory to rescue Spock.  I'll probably read Echo Park soon, given that I've given up on trying to read the Bosch novels in order.

Selected Quotations:
I forgot to write down quotations before I returned the books, but I did post a few to my facebook news feed as I read them.

"One of my men saw something moving and challenged it. When it did not say anything, he fired his machine gun.""Oh, so there's nobody out there," Musulin said, lowering his weapon. "Only cow. Now dead cow."

- p. 215, The Forgotten 500: the Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of WWII

"We've just had the President of the United States blown to hell and gone by a lunatic. We're not going to paralyze ourself with a political fight. And as far as the courts are concerned, let's be serious: there's no way on earth the public would ever stand for a court deciding who is going to be the President."

p. 19, Then Everything Changed, the first of several references to Bush vs. Gore in 2000.

"You didn't dare have more than two shooters at a time. The little birds rocketed upward in every direction, scattering in order to confound their predators. In the excitement, hunters swung their guns about so wildly that three or more shooters would post more of a threat to each other than to the quail."

p. 11, A Man in Full. Obviously not a book Dick Cheney ever read. 

Potentials for Next Week:

  • The Heart and the Fist: the Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. Eric Greitens
  • Roman Games: A Plinius Secundus Mystery, Bruce Macbain. Pliny the Younger must settle a mystery before the games are done in Rome, or a household of slaves will be put to death.
  • Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell, set during a soldier's post-Napoleonic Wars homecoming.
  • Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal -- An African-American Anthology. Edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings
I had intended to check out a science-fiction author, but I forgot his name "DeHandler? Handel?" and the library's computers were down so I couldn't check on the recommendation. (Joe Haldeman, for future reference...)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (29 March)

Teaser Tuesday again...and for the first time in a long time, I'm almost playing by the rules! ;-)

Let us completely drive away foul habits, as we would base men who have done us great harm for a long time.
The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the agitation of the soul or give birth to remarkable joy -- nor does the honor and admiration of the crowd, nor any other of those things arising from unlimited desires. 

p. 81 and 85, The Essential Epicurus. Both of these are from his Vatican Sayings.

Monday, March 28, 2011


© 1970 Len Deighton
424 pages

June 1943. The world is at war. Hitler's armies have encompassed the bulk of Europe, and the Allies are not yet prepared for a land invasion of Europe. For now,  the United States and United Kingdom are engaged in an extensive strategic bombing campaign of Hitler's gains,  sometimes carpet-bombing whole cities in an effort to disrupt the production of arms, equipment, and munitions. One such raid has been planned for the town of Krefeld, in the Ruhr valley -- Germany's industrial heart. On the ground and in the air, Englishmen and Germans like struggle in combat against one another and against their consciences, debating the justice of their respective causes. When a pathfinder squadron jettisons its flares in a futile attempt to stay in the air,  waves of bombers assault the wrong target -- the small town of Altgarden, where all the paths of our German and English characters converge in disaster.

I first heard of Bomber as the most authentic fictional account of a bombing run ever written. It's certainly consistent with a nonfiction account of a bombing run I've read, and replete with small, technical details that provide for a gritty and realistic story, but  Deighton's unanticipated story of men at war with their consciences interested me more.  The two lead characters are Sergeant Lambert, a bombing pilot whose politics and increasing discomfort with the prospect of bombing civilians makes him a target for his superiors, and Oberleutnant Victor Löwenherz ("Lionheart"),  a German night fighter whose partner Himmel discovers chilling state secrets that force both of them to question their loyalties. Löwenherz and the other German characters who feature are written as real people. They see Hitler as a necessary evil, or as at least better than the Bolshevik alternative, but they're people -- and when reading of their efforts to resist a terrifying night attack and save their city from a firestorm,  I was hard-pressed not to root for them while at the same wishing the bomber crews a safe mission. Although this is a novel set during the 'good war', Deighton's portrayal is of decent people being forced to hurt and hate the other by circumstances beyond their control.  The villains of the novel are the petty politicians who attack Lambert and Himmel for following their consciences rather than blindly accepting  what they're "supposed" to.

It is thus a stirring and detailed account of conscience amid a bombing run gone badly, one with anti-war overtones.


  • The Airman's War, Albert Marrin

Top Ten Authors Worthy of More Recognition

This week the Broke and the Bookish are speaking up on behalf of authors whom they love, but who no one else has ever heard of...

1. Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser
These two are a married couple who have written many books in the history of science, and their "On the Shoulders of Giants" series is a recommended read if you're scientifically oblivious but want to amend that.

2. Greg Iles
A couple of summers ago, I read four Greg Iles books in one week. This was not intentional.  Iles writes mystery thrillers, often in the southern gothic style, and has an impressive way with characters.  The Quiet Game was his first Penn Cage novel.

3. Max Shulman
Possibly more famous in his day,  Shulman wrote  novels drenched in satire and absurdism in the mid-20th century. I found him through The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, an incomparably funny collection of short stories about a would-be romeo/intellectual who attends university in the fifties.

4. Sarah Vowell 
Vowell's books (Assassination Vacation,  The Wordy Shipmates) are a strange mix of history, humor, and social commentary.  The only other people I've met who have read her tend to be like me,  public radio listeners.

5. Frances and Joseph Gies 
I know three people who recognize these two, and one of those is my former medieval history professor. They're a great resource for people interested in daily life during the medieval epoch, and chances are their information will surprise those who consider themselves familiar with the period. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel shook up my perception of intellectual achievement during the era.

6. Christopher Moore
I'm not sure how popular Moore is, but I've loved everything of his I've read -- Lamb, the novel of Jesus' life told from the viewpoint of his best friend Levi (who is called Biff), is particularly good.  He's written a series of vampire comedies which I've yet to sink my teeth into  read.

7. Bernard Cornwell
I don't know if it's the circles I frequent or not, but I only know of two people who have read Bernard Cornwell: myself and  blogger Cyberkitten who introduced me to him.  Cornwell writes historical fiction. To the degree he's known, it would be for his Napoleonic-era war books, but my favorite is the Saxon Stories series, which follows a Saxon raised by Vikings named Uhtred as he works to regain his ancestral land while grudgingly serving King Alfred.  Cornwell became a great favorite of mine last year.

8. Robert Ingersoll
Chances are you've never heard of Ingersoll, but politicians used to crave his endorsement -- and Mark Twain raved about him. Ingersoll was an orator in the late 19th century, who  has left a considerable body of work in the form of essays, lectures, and speeches (available here).  Ingersoll's ideals were ahead of his time, and he wrote forcefully in defense of human creativity, liberty, democracy, and intelligence while attacking injustice, monarchy, and organized religion. He lectured on technological progress, Shakespeare, and philosophy. While I can't imagine how he sounded in his prime, even the written versions of his speech rivet me to my seat.  (I use Ingersoll as my display picture on Blogger, by the way!)

9. Robert Harris
Harris writes political/mystery thrillers, some set in the past, some set in the present, and some set in...alternate histories.  My first exposure to Harris was Fatherland, an alt-history mystery novel in which a Berlin detective stumbles upon a truth that was hidden when Nazi Germany prevailed in its struggle against the Soviet Union. I later started reading his Roman novels, including one set in Pompeii. His The Ghost, a work of political intrigue about the life of Tony Blair  "Adam Lang", is being converted into a movie.

10. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes (fantasy)
I first read Atwater-Rhodes back in high school: her In the Forests of the Night caught my eye, largely because of the title. She writes stories of vampires and witches, and her vampires intrigue me in a way that no one else's, including Anne Rice's, have.

11. Isaac Asimov.
"Hold the phone," you say? "Isaac Asimov is plenty famous?" Well, sure - he is.  But most people just know him as a science popularize and the creator of the Foundation science fiction series.  Asimov had a considerable range -- he penned mysteries and histories, provide commentaries for the Bible and Shakespeare, produced an annotated collection of poems,  wrote several collection of etymologies from mythology and history, and of course produced gobs of science-fiction short stories, science essays, and science books proper.  My favorite series by Asimov is his Black Widower collections -- short stories about a group of friends and intellectuals who meet once a month for dinner and are presented with a mystery which they must puzzle through. The solutions sometimes lie in historical, scientific, or etymological trivia -- but sometimes it's just a case of thinking outside the box.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times
© 1995, 2002 Howard Zinn
224 pages

Howard Zinn not only taught history: he helped make it. The product of a working-class family in New York, Zinn left the shipyard and union he helped create to fly bombers over Germany during World War 2, returning to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and becoming a professor of history. His approach  rejected static observation of events and tributes to Great Leaders in favor of lively accounts favoring the underdogs and victims of history. He intended to inspire those he taught, encouraging them to look to themselves to create the changes they wished to see in the world.  Practicing what he preached, Zinn took up protest banners, broke through segregation barriers, faced arrest and and imprisonment, and even gambled his life a time or two.

During a question-and-answer period following a 1992 lecture, Zinn was asked to account for the strength of his convictions and the stubbornness of his hope. He grew up in slums, saw his fellow workers beaten by policemen when they protested for their rights: his first teaching job was in the south, where he saw the brutality of segregation firsthand, in which millions of people were treated like pariahs and forced to accept substandard homes, wages, public facilities, and treatment at the hands of the law -- just because of the color of their skin. He entered his adult years as the costly Vietnam War waged, which killed millions and destroyed the trust between the government and its people.

Despite this, Zinn maintained his belief in the tenacity of the human spirit -- for in all these desperate moments, Zinn saw acts of individual courage in which people stood up for themselves and human dignity, despite the odds and power arrayed against them. Some of these moments are justly famous -- the Civil Rights marchers in Selma come to mind --  but Zinn's life saw many such heroes. He witnessed a group of young women at Spelmen college force the public libraries to integrate all by themselves, and during Vietnam he helped a group of rogue nuns hide a radical Catholic priest named Dan Berrigan, a man wanted by the FBI for his acts of civil disobedience.  Every dark hour of history saw a glimmer of light in it, as people unfailingly decided they weren't going to take this abuse lying down. Strengthened by the courage of their convictions, they refused to accept the status quo -- and they changed history for the better.

Zinn believes in using history to create consciousness about injustice, for it cannot be fought in ignorance. His  autobiography, interlaced with the story of America in the 20th century,  is effective in this: his sections on conditions for the working class and for blacks are particularly harrowing to read.  Civil Rights and the Vietnam War dominate the book, though there is a single chapter on "growing up class conscious".  The book's most prevalent theme is the importance of active dissent -- in both keeping democracy healthy and in fighting injustice.  I imagine most people who read this are already familiar with Zinn's work (I watched the documentary movie based on this book after reading one or two of his books,)  but unless you've read The Zinn Reader there should be a few surprises in store. I'd definitely recommend it to those who want a look inside the Civil Rights movement (Zinn made the history of my hometown come alive), or those interested in the justice or frailties of war.  Even those who have read The Zinn Reader would benefit from a refresher, though: I read this because I was feeling discouraged, and the hours I spent with it have left me feeling renewed.


  • The Zinn Reader, a collection of Zinn's articles and essays throughout the years on a variety of subjects.  Despite growing up in Selma, Alabama, the Civil Rights struggles that took place here never meant anything to me until I read his on-the-ground history of events. Last summer I started walking around town on foot, visiting places like Brown Chapel and the bridge.
  • A Power No Governments Can Suppress, also by Zinn and about the role of civil disobedience and protest in maintaining democracy. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A note to Wordpress users

For the past few weeks I have had a strange and recurring problem with Wordpress: when I try to comment on someone's post, my comments just seem to disappear. I hit "submit", and the page takes me to the post -- but without my comment having been added, and without a notice that it is pending moderation. At first I just started trying to reply over and over again, to no avail -- and then, hours later, I'd spot my comment right where it should be. At other times, it never appeared.  I'm not sure what is happening here, but I think all my comments were going straight to spam, for reasons unknown to me. (I only share links at Should be Reading and the Broke and the Bookish on Tuesdays).  This may be some miscommunication between my browser (Chrome) and wordpress's software.  

I'd started to assume that my comments were just floating around in the digital ether and would appear at some time, but I've talked with a wordpress user who doubles as a friend of mine, and she says none of my test comments came through.  This means that for several weeks my attempts to respond to people who have dropped by and commented here have been  for naught.  I make a point of visiting everyone who visits here: I think it only polite, so this is somewhat embarrassing.  If you're a wordpress user, I haven't been ignoring you -- my comments have just gotten lost somewhere!

In any case, I've created a wordpress username, and signing in seems to have taken care of that little problem.   ( I should be easy to recognize, as I used 'smellincoffee' just as I do here.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (22 March)

Teaser Tuesday once again! 

...Amanda Hesser, a generally very fine journalist, writing about fleur de sel, had this to say about the sea salt that is harvested in France and available in New York City for $36 a kilo: "As I ate them, fine crystals of salt sprinkled on the potatoes crackled under my teeth, releasing tiny bursts that taste of the sea and its minerals. There was no sting at the back of the mouth, no bitterness, just a silky, salty essence wrapping each bite of potato."  Sting at the back of the mouth? Bitterness? What has poor Amanda Hesser been doing all these years to add some savor to her food? Licking undeveloped Polaroids?

Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff. pp. 23-24

"They set fire to great cities and turn our society upside down in return for bits of colored ribbon. Where have we failed, Max? What manner of children will they breed, and what manner of world will they shape?"

p. 138, Bomber. Len Deighton.

Top Ten Bookish Pet Peeves

This week the Broke and the Bookish are mulling over their book publishing-related pet peeves.  Some entries were suggested by Baley of the Reader's Book Blog.

1. Teeny Tiny Text 

Aside from a touch of nearsightnedness, my vision is pretty good. Yet there are books with fonts so small that I have to bring the book close enough to my face that I can make out the threadcount, and then I can't concentrate on the novel through my admiration for the finly-textured pages. I'm told by authors that this is sometimes necessary to decrease the pagecount and avoid a price hike that will diminish sales, but too-small text doesn't welcome the reader.

2.  Mary Sue characters
A Mary Sue character is a transparent author avatar used for wish-fulfillment. Mary Sue has no genuine character flaws, can do anything the plot requires, and is liked by everyone -- even the villains, who may seek redemption just to earn a smile from the heroine. She (or he, in the case of a "Marty Stu") is perfect. The introduction of this kind of character is unprofessional, but my biggest beef with Mary Sue is that perfect characters are BORING.  They're who the author WANTS to be, but they're not a character with whom anyone can relate: they're never truly tested and put through a meatgrinder.

3. Poorly-Disguised Opining
Sometimes writers create characters to express a point of view about a subject they're passionate about, which I suppose is poetic license. And in nonfiction, it's sometimes the author's role to comment or judge what they're seeing, but when they take themselves too seriously,  the book becomes unreadable. I don't want to listen to a smug character drone on and on for pages about the superiority of his worldview, or to listen to another author whine and continually insult those who disagree with him. It's overly self-indulgent.

4. Brand-Name Authors
When a book's title is dwarfed by the author's name, I approach with caution. I realize that some authors have name recognition that attracts buyers more than the title would, but it's possible for authors and publishers to realize the selling advantage they have and slack in effort, coasting to the bestseller list on reputation alone and not the quality of the book.

5. Lack of Documentation
Documentation is a must when writing most kinds of nonfiction -- particularly science and history -- and I dislike popular histories that ignore  them, even if they're written as surveys.  Even survey books should have a bibliography, at the very least.

6. Shallow/Predictable Characters 
Though it's fine to play with archetypes, they're only "molds": they need to be fleshed out and painted before they can work as actual characters.  Baley's take:

"They're boring! The world is full of ordinary people---we want more from our entertainment. Characters shouldn't be transparent, but complicated and interesting. They should be people we're passionate about--we either love them or hate them, want to be their friend, or want them to die a slow and painful death."

This goes for history books, too --  I don't like it when people are reduced to mustache-twirling villains. This is bad enough in fiction, but it's inexcusable when used to portray real people.

7. Poor Illustrations
Illustrations can add a great deal to a book, but sometimes...they don't work. Most of the illustrations I see are in nonfiction books, and I've seen some sketches that made me wince with embarrassment, as well as utterly confounding graphs that added nothing to my appreciation of the subject at hand. Baley notes:

" It's important that an illustration doesn't intrude on the writing. If an illustration looks like a blurry depiction of some unknown scene, it's just taking up space."

8. Transparent Plots
Obviously most novels follow a course beginning in conflict , ascend to the climax,  then plunge downward into resolution -- but the straight and narrow path is fairly dull. Give me twists and turns, unexpected pitfalls, and predators.

9.  Errant Dust Covers
Most hardback novels come sleeved in plastic that is secured with tape or other adhesive to the body of the actual book. Sometimes the adhesive doesn't last as long as it should!

10. Uninspiring/Inaccurate Covers
Sometimes novels have novels with seemingly no connection to the contents of the book, which may not be a big deal if the cover art is good enough -- but if it's a poor design, nothing can save it. Though we're told not to judge books by their covers, the care put into cover art is an indicator of the care put into the novel as a whole.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Forgotten 500

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II
© 2007 Gregory A. Freeman
313 pages

Throughout the Second World War, Great Britain and the United States engaged in a strategic bombing campaign against Hitler's regime, hitting its industries and supplies. As the range of bombers and (more importantly) fighter escorts increased, Allied bombers began penetrating deep into the interior of Europe, striking at ball-bearing plants and oil refineries as far as Romania, determine to bring the Nazi war machine to its knees.  These far-ranging days rank as the bloodiest in the air war, as fierce resistance saw bomber after bomber drop from the skies. Many of the bombing crews assigned to the Ploesti raids bailed out over Yugoslavia, where -- rescued by sympathetic Serbian peasants -- they found shelter and open arms eager to hide them from their enemies. As their numbers increased (every abandoned bomber had a crew of at least ten), these men and their friends in the Serbian resistance contacted the Allies, who devised a daring plan: HALYARD,  in which a group of C-47 transport planes would steal into Europe, land at an improvised runway created by the grounded airmen, and take off into the night, rescuing the bomber crews under Hitler's very nose. 

This is a story worthy of being told, steeped in human interest: the compassion of the Serbians is stirring, as is the sheer audacity of the Operation of Strategic Services men who created HALYARD and the courage of the pilots who carries it out. As inspiring and dramatic as it is, though, it's not quite the story of the Forgotten 500. Their rescue, while tense, is over quickly. Instead, the tale of these airmen and their Balkgan guardians is used to frame a reappraisal of Draza Mihailovich, the leader of the loyalist Chetniks who opposed both the German occupation and the ambitions of another resistance group, Tito's Moscow-backed Partisans. Though history remembers Mihailovich as a man who eventually collaborated with the Nazis out of hatred for the Bolsheviks and engaged in ethnic cleansing,  to the airmen he is a friend, guardian, and saviour. Gregory Freeman's Mihailovich is an unassuming and noble saint, an egalitarian leader of men who refused to shed innocent blood and whose steadfast service to the Allies was ignored by history. Freeman attributes this to a Communist conspiracy within British intelligence,  the coup of a mole that was exacerbated by the "leftist, socialist" sympathies of OSS in its early years. After the war, the airmen are outraged by Mihailovich's treatment at the hands of the Allies and Tito, and protest against his trial and execution. They continue to work to redeem his reputation as the decades pass by, to little avail; their struggle is apparently adopted by Freeman, whose portrayal of the man is unabashedly charitable.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Freeman's writing bothered me, tending toward the superficial and reminding me more like sensational journalism than history.  It lacks nuance altogether, particularly in regards to politics, presenting Mihailovich as a forgotten hero. Perhaps he is. Since finishing this, I've been shifting through the evidence, trying to get a better handle on this man. The accounts of hundreds of airmen make one thing very plain: Mihailovich sheltered the grounded bomber crews and earned their affection and respect. This doesn't rule out cooperation with the Nazis in other regards: war makes strange bedfellows. People and groups who would otherwise be enemies may have slightly overlapping interests (in this case, destroying Tito) and work together to that end,  while at the same time pursuing their own private agendas. Mihailovich's kindnesses toward the Americans doesn't rule out hostility toward Croats, Bosnians, and Muslims, either -- for human beings are not storybook villains with simple, predictable characters.

Though Freeman presents a storybook hero in Mihailovich, and The Forgotten 500 seems a little amateurish because of it,  I'm glad I read it. The story of the 500 is worth knowing about, but without Freeman I don't know that I would have been exposed to the controversy surrounding Mihailovich's character. I'm still iffy about the integrity of the book itself, but it's possibly worth your while.  Caveat lector. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
© 2011 Jeff Greenfield
434 pages

"...playing with history is a small bit of payback for the way history has played with us."

Historical speculation may not be fruitful, but it's fun -- and former Kennedy speechwriter and longtime political journalist Jeff Greenfield definitely has his fill of it, presenting three alternate history scenarios spanning two decades. He begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy nearly two months before his inauguration as President,  resets the clock and jumps to a kitchen in Los Angeles, where JFK's brother Robert narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life. After following RFK's bitter election campaign, Greenfield restores reality again and moves us into the seventies, shortly before Gerald Ford informed Jimmy Carter that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and never would be under his administration. Here, though, Ford rallies and just barely beats Carter in the election.

Greenfield's fun at history's expense provides for some great stories: for instance, after his aggressive stance offends Kruschev, the latter decides to "put a hedgehog in Uncle Sam's pants" and forces Johnson to respond to Soviet missiles in Cuba. Later, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy confronts violent students  protests in Chicago in 1968, and still later Ted Kennedy is forced to debate a man who adopts Kennedy's own brother's legacy and uses RFK's words against him. Greenfield throws in little allusions to how historical events truly played out -- both during this period and beyond. Newly-minted congressman Al Gore Jr. vows to seek a constitutional amendment that will ensure the winner of the popular vote is declared president, after a member of his own party manages to win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college:  Richard Nixon grumbles that he needs a 'fair and balanced' news network that will cut him some slack; and a young Dick Cheney rants that "next, those bastards will be trying to privatize social security!".  The book ends with a particularly humorous allusion, one that shows how ludicrously history can sometimes repeat itself.

While the author is more unkind than not to Nixon and Reagan,  his bias is toward the centrist politics of Robert Kennedy rather than traditional progressivism as espoused by McGovern or Humprey. The Kennedy clan has a central role in the book: RFK's presidential campaign is its core, and the other two scenarios draw heavily on the Kennedy influence. The scenarios featured are stirringly plausible, though generally the range of the scenarios is limited. I wanted to see him explore how the space race might have unfolded with LBJ at the head, but there's no mention of it. This is part understandable, because history becomes increasingly more predictable as its scale broadens: while someone could write a book on how the early assassination of JFK altered the entire latter half of the 20th century, Greenfield doesn't -- ostensibly because there would be too many variables to deal with. He keeps the range of his scenarios small to limit the effects of chaos.

 Greenfield also works in historical ripple effects into his narrative: in a world where Watergate never happens, Bob Woodward leaves the Washington Post to become a lawyer, and MASH fails after Vietnam ends on a less-than-agreeable note.  Greenfield is a fine storyteller, but his flawless integration of real-life speeches into a completely different historical retelling impressed me the most. Dialogue abounds, but most of it -- Greenfield says -- is taken from the official Oval Office recordings that the various presidents kept. He devotes several dozen pages at the end of the book to explain how he drew from history to make the changes he did, which is always commendable when writing alternate history or historical fiction.

A fun romp through two decades of American politics that will especially appeal to those who feel the promise of America was shortchanged by acts of violence and like seeing Richard Nixon lose elections (repeatedly).


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

These Weeks at the Library (3 March - 15 March)

This week at the library..

  • I recently added a Books of Interests 'page', which is a list of books I'm itching to read. I started keeping the list for those times when I have a little money to spend on books but can't remember 'that one book' I saw last month and really wanted. It's organized into categories.
  • The Fort by Bernard Cornwell and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe were particularly good reads from this past week of reading. I've decided to dispense with recounting or listing all the books I read from week to week, as that is a bit of an anachronistic carryover from when this blog was only updated weekly. The cumulative reading list makes it all the more redundant. 

The Broke and the Bookish' 2011 Nonfiction Reading Challenge:
Two additions from this past two weeks of reading:
  • The History of Japan (history)
  • Confessions (Culture)
Selected Quotations:
"He's not the stud," said Charlie, "he's the teaser."
"The teaser?"
"Yep. You just use the teaser to get her aroused."
"And she urinates in his face?" said Howell.
"Yep. Always happens."
"And that's all he gets out of it?"
"That's about the size of it."
"Terrific," said Howell. "Reminds me of when I was in high school." 

p. 301, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe.\

"The human tongue is a furnace in which the temper of our soul is daily tried."

The Confessions, Augustine

Potentials for Next Week:

  • Bomber, Len Deighton. A novel portraying a bombing run, said by the author of With Wings Like Eagles to be one of the best aerial novels ever written.
  • Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff. No idea what it's about, but the author appeared on This American Life. 
  • The Forgotten 500: the Untold Story of the Men who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, Gregory A. Freeman
  • Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan. Jeff Greenfield. 
  • The Wellspring of Life, Isaac Asimov
  • Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins. I stopped halfway through this to tackle The Outline of History, but it's high time I resumed it.

Top Ten Literary Characters I'd Adopt

This week the Broke and the Bookish are stocking their family trees with literary figures!

1. Hari Seldon (Foundation,  Isaac Asimov)
He's the grandfather who knows eeeeeeeverything.

2. Minerva McGonnagal (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)
"Aunt Minnie", anyone?  Tough, but kindly.

3. Gred and Forge Weasley (Harry Potter)
Living in the same house as these two would be a constant riot, assuming I was IN on their jokes and not the butt of them. ("Out of the way, SERIOUSLY evil wizard coming through!)

4. Captain Sir Edward Pellew (Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester)

I'm more enamored of his character from the movies than the books (less developed in print), but he's a good man: not just a good soldier in terms of 'doing his duty', but he cares about the job he does and will bend the rules if need be.  Robert Lindsay makes the father-son dynamic between himself and Horatio come through spendidly.

Speaking of whom...

5. Horatio Hornblower
Were Hornblower a cousin or brother of mine, I could see the two of us being introspective, overly intellectual, and socially awkward at parties together.

6. Brigadier McLean (The Fort, Bernard Cornwell)
The perfect affable uncle and the most humane soldier I've ever read of.

7. Violet and Klaus Baudelaire (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Daniel Handler)

One is fiendishly inventive, the other a bookworm -- what's not to like?

...aside from the hammy villain who intends to kill/enslave/otherwise discomfit them?

8. Ellie Arroway (Contact, Carl Sagan)
No funding? No problem. She'll sit in the field and listen HERSELF. 

Cool older sister/aunt/mom?  Doesn't really matter. She's passionate about science, hopeful, and can give you a lecture on demand -- just point at a star and ask, "What's that?"

9. Either Remus Lupin or Gordianus the Finder (Roma sub Rosa series)
They'd both make good uncles.

10: Captains Jean-Luc Picard and Kathyrn Janeway (various books, including Mosaic by Jeri Taylor)

I like reading about ship captains the most when they have a paternal air about them -- not a patronizing one,  but to the point that the reader knows they care about the people under their command.  Janeway is especially noticable in this regard.

Teaser Tuesday (15 March)

Teaser Tuesday again, from Should Be Reading.

"People don't have to lease expensive office space in top-end buildings like Croker Concourse, but they can't defer their food consumption function."
"Can't defer their food consumption function?"
"They have to eat. Every day."

p. 74, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe

Next one isn't censor-friendly --

What would Epictetus have done with this bunch? What could he have done? How could you apply his lessons two thousand  years later, in this grimy gray pod,  this pigsty full of beasts who grunted about motherfuckin' this and motherfuckin' that and turning boys into B-cats and jookin' punks? And yet...were they really any worse than Nero and his Imperial Guard? Epictetus spoke to him! -- from half a world and two thousand years away! The answer was somewhere in these pages!

p. 410-411,  A Man in Full.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Man in Full

A Man in Full
© 1998 Tom Wolfe
727 pages

Zeus! Send me what trial thou wilt!

A Man in Full is an epic story of individuals grappling with life, facing trials that force them to reconsider their worth and threaten to destroy them utterly, as well as temptations for easy escape and riches. It's primarily the story of two men from radically different backgrounds living across a continent from one another whose fates are bound together as if by destiny.

Charles Croker is a 'bull of a man', a good ol' boy who rose from the backwoods to the boardroom of Atlanta's largest real-estate company through risk-taking courage and brass. His work has shaped the very skyline of Atlanta and made him as rich as Croesus. He revels in his power, success, and influence, and no more so during his grandiose parties at a large ranch where he plays at being the master of a plantation in southern Georgia. He's a man used to everything going his way, but now his latest risk has failed: he's nearly a billion dollars in debt and sliding fast, emboldening those who see in his decline an opportunity for their own success.  Croker's foil is Conrad Hensley, a working man from San Francisco with a sense of honor and personal responsibility who's poor in opportunity. Conrad works in a refrigerated warehouse in circumstances so dire that they make the warehouse's owner -- one Mr. Charles Croker -- shiver in dread from a continent away.  Conrad accepts the brutal work because it means creating a better future for himself, but his hopes are thrown against the wall when Croker decides to institute mass layoffs rather than sell any of his five personal jets. For Conrad, it's the beginning of a tumultous downhill sldie that ends only in prison.

Though there are other characters of note, Croker and Conrad are the central actors whose personalities and lives function as counterpoints for the others. Croker's self-worth is based on his ability to control his circumstances, his accomplishments in doing so, and in the way his forceful personality makes others act around him. He puts great stock in his status as a Leader, as a ruler of men: he expects his trophy wife, children, and 'black retainers' to know their place, and feels pleasure that he, Cap'm Charlie, can take care of them.  Conrad, on the other hand, has never known the privilege of being able to change his circumstances: he only knows that he cannot allow them to get the better of them. He is driven to overcome adversity, to say "YES!" to life, and committed to the struggle. This emotional resilence and self-determination are amplified when he accidentally acquires a copy of The Stoics while in prison and encounters the life of Epictetus, a slave and prisoner-turned-philosophy who taught his students that the only posession anyone has is his or her character.  Isolated in a place seemingly designed to crush spirits, Conrad clings to Epicteus as a life preserver and learns to express courage in the face of a chorus that urges him to submit -- courage that he will later try to impress upon other people, including Charlie Croker. 

Given my interest in Stoic philosophy, this book has been on my radar for quite some time. Its presumed setting in Atlanta's business world turned me off, though, and Charles Croker is an entirely unsympathetic character from the start, whose boorishness does nothing to discredit my prejudices against  business moguls. He begins the book in self-inflicted steep decline, though, and this I watched with morbid interest while wondering what the other story threads about race and Atlanta politics had to do with his or Conrad's stories.  Conrad is the true hero of the novel, standing stall among a cast of spoiled and avarice-obsessed bankers, businessmen, politicans, and high-society members.  While Croker bitterly surrenders to the idea that his fate is in the hands of other people -- after steadily decaying in the midst of debt,  manipulation, confusion, and physical infirmity -- Conrad becomes a devotee of Stoicism and determines that he will be the 'master of his fate, the captain of his soul'*  in spite of his circumstances, being trapped in the violent world of US prisons. Ultimately the stories of Wolfe's various characters converge in triumph and redemption, giving me a satisfying conclusion after a weekend of gripping entertainment.

For this story of trials, character, and redemption alone I would reccommend the book, but Wolfe also has a visceral style that makes his characters, their environment, and their fates seem desperately real -- and often unpleasant. The sheer earthiness of his language and syntax captivated me, and works well to generate pathos. 

Though not without its faults, A Man in Full kept my attention all weekend along, and I'd reccommend it -- especially to those interested in Stoicism.

* "Invictus", William Ernest Henley


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Booking through Thursday: Multi-Tasking

Booking through Thursday wants to know:  Do you multi-task when you read? Do other things like stirring things on the stove, brushing your teeth, watching television, knitting, walking, et cetera?

"My mother always said, 'If you try to combine talking and eating, you'll end up doing neither very well!'" - Miles O'Brien

 I am rarely far from a book, and often turn to one if I have downtime. Combining reading with eating has been a habit of mine since childhood, to the effect that I'm constantly sipping water while reading -- I'm used to the combined stimuli. While living on-campus, I often brought a book with me to the dining hall in case I found no friends to eat with, and I tended to stay long after the meal sipping coffee or hot tea, immersed in my book.

Though I do not watch much television, when I do I mute the commercials and read between the breaks -- usually my 'leisure' reading, as books in history, science, philosophy, or other such serious topics demand more attention than the commercial break period provides.

I also combine music and reading -- sometimes having music on as background accompianment, but often listening to music that corresponds to the subject at hand. For instance, while reading "Our Oriental Heritage", I listened to music from India and Japan while reading the histories of those respective nations -- and when reading one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels, I put on Bosch's favorite jazz  to better immerse myself in the character's environment. Last week, while reading Augstine's "Confessions", I listened to both Benedictine chants and classical music (specifically, Beethoven), because they seemed appropriate.  I enjoy combining music and literature in this way.

I sometimes combine reading and napping, but this is entirely by accident!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Star Trek Millennium, Book III: Inferno
© 2000 Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
410 pages

"I did everything I could," Sisko cried into the silence that engulfed him.
But everything he had ever done was for nothing.
Everything that had ever been was for nothing.
Zero seconds.
It was over. (p. 366, The War of the Prophets

Well, it's over. The universe is kaput. The two Bajoran wormholes have collided and the very fabric of existence winked away, just as the Bajoran prophecies foretold.  But the competing gods of Bajor, the Prophets and the Pah-Wraiths,  are still fighting -- and while their cosmic struggle tarries for just a little while longer, hope lingers for what few survivors there are. In the final moments of the universe's existence, two ships entered the Bajoran wormholes, and were thus sheltered from oblivion. Aboard them are the crew of the Defiant,  three 'emissaries', and a scattering of civilians. As surprised as most of them are to learn that the Bajoran prophecies came to past, the wormholes -- now, truly, the Celestial Temple -- also carry within them the space station Deep Space Nine, protected -- as with the ships -- inside a bubble of existence. Deep Space Nine still exists -- though in what timeframe, no one can be sure -- and by returning home, Sisko and his crew hope to change history and prevent the end of everything.

This is truly a wild series. The first novel contained an intriguing mystery that partially buds off the station's history, while the second throws the reader into a kind of fantasy/political drama. Inferno is another beast all together: a science fiction novel in which our characters try to figure out a way to restore existence from the past without actually changing the past: every timeline, every 'universe' is like one face of a diamond which is the multiverse, and if the multiverse itself is destroyed, nothing else matters. I like time travel stories, and this novel forces Sisko, Kira, O'Brian, Jadzia Dax, Worf, Jake Sisko, Quark, Garak, and others to scurry around the station while constantly shifting to various timeframes, trying to figure out some way of preventing history from repeating itself while being harried by two madmen, the Pah-Wraith possessed Gul Dukat and  Kai Weyoun, infested by nanites that make him a loyal servant of the other Pah-Wraiths.  Though this has been a series deep in Bajoran mythology, here it takes a backseat to temporal mechanics and a race against....well, time. True to form for a book about time travel, quite a few plot developments are counterintuitive and resolve -- or create -- some of the mysteries seen in the first book. The ending shocks even the characters. While this series isn't notable for the kind of intense character drama seen in say, David Mack's work, there are some golden scenes in here -- most notably, between Sisko and his son. 

This series was written after the television show's end, and is set before "Tears of the Prophets", in which a canon Pah-Wraiths v. Prophets storyline erupts. (Jadzia Dax is killed there, while she's still alive and kicking here.)  Foreshadowing for the rest of the sixth season and the whole of the seventh season abound,  though they tend toward the depressing -- the writers allude to Jadzia's future death on several occasional throughout the series. 

As good as I remembered. Though a different kind of epic story than Destiny,  Millennium is grand storytelling in its own class.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The War of the Prophets

Star Trek Millenium: Book II, The War of the Prophets
© 2000 Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
372 pages

Riker reappeared on the virwer, eyes afire with rage. "The War of the Prophets is coming! Choose your side, Emissary -- because this is your war now!"  - p. 408, The Fall of Terok Nor

When Captain Sisko and the rest of the Ds9 crew recovered three lost Bajoran artifacts -- the lost Orbs of Jalbador -- they thought a great mystery and the murderous schemes surrounding it had finally been put to rest. When when the three orbs spontaneously gathered together and opened a second wormhole, glowing crimson,  the Defiant and all aboard her were thrown into the future while attempting to escape the destruction of Deep Space Nine.  They found themselves trapped in a nightmarish future, where Klingons, Cardassians, and humans were all but extinct species -- where the remnant of Starfleet which remained is allied with the Borg and dedicated to the wholesale destruction of Bajor --a Bajor which is the seat of power for a new, mighty empire intent on enacting the Apocalypse.

Defiant jumps 25 years into the future and is immediately caught between the opposing forces: the Ascendancy need Sisko alive to fulfill prophecy, while Starfleet is determined to kill or capture Sisko to prevent his taking a role in the things to come. Gone is the Prime Directive and Starfleet's scientific, diplomatic culture:  the universe may very well be doomed if Bajor is not eradicated. It's a bizarre, disturbing future the authors introduce us to, and when Defiant's crew is captured by both warring parties, the readers are able to see how truly demented the powers that be have become. Weyoun, formerly an agent of the Dominion, is now Kai of the Bajoran people -- and while he happily waits for the universe to end in two weeks, Starfleet --  and specifically, Fleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard and Captain Nog -- are sending a timeship 25,000 years into the past to prevent cosmic catastrophe.

Sheer morbid curiosity in this strange world kept me reading the first time, but now I enjoy it more for the fun the authors had with their characters. Kira is the only weak point, reduced to a religious fanatic who yells "That's blasphemy" and does little else. Garak, the station's longterm resident Cardassian and former covert operative for the Obsidian Order, gives a unique perspective on the end of things, commenting surreally as he awaits the inevitable.  The drama ramps up toward the end, when Starfleet's master plan is supposed to unfold....but it all goes to hell.

I had no intention of reading this so soon after The Fall of Terok Nor, but I picked it up to read with supper...and didn't stop until I was done. If I can find the third book, I just may read the entire trilogy in as many days.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Top Ten Dynamic Duos

This week the Broke and the Bookish are discussing powerful duos -- best friends, nemeses, and couples.

1. Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)

These two are tied together by prophecy, destined for mutual destruction -- for neither can live while the other survives. Potter's role in Voldemort's first defeat, his rebirth, and his eventual downfall drive the Potter series. They're also tied together in a more...personal way, which i'll not mention for those who haven't read from Order of the Phoenix on.

2. Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw  (Robots series, Isaac Asimov)
Elijah Baley is a curmudgeonly detective who doesn't like robots and has no interest in space. Naturally, he's paired with a robot and sent into space to solve crimes. I loved seeing Baley mature to the point that he regarded Daneel as a friend.

3. Gene and Phineas, A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
These two are best friends, but the relationship is clearly unhealthy and  antagonistic at times. I'd comment further, but for fear of spoiling a classic for someone who's not read it...

4. Risika and Aubrey, In the Forests of the Night
Risika and Aubrey are both vampires taken by the same woman, Aether, and locked in a relationship of mutual hatred.  They are two of the most powerful vampires living, and both pride and contempt for the other keep them one from acknowledging the other as greater. Their cat-and-mouse game drives the book until they finally descend into a final conflict.

5. Kirk and Spock
The picture that launched a thousand fanzines...

Possibly cheating even that their relationship first appeared on television, but it's been further developed in countless novels. Besides, I'd be remiss in not mentioning them! According to Michael Okuda,  Kirk and his two best friends were complements of the other:  Spock represented logic, McCoy humanistic emotion, and Kirk the strength of will. (Okuda contributed heavily to TOS and TNG: his comments on the trio come from "The Conscience of the King"'s text commentary.)

6. David and Goliath, Hebrew texts
You undoubtedly recognize the reference and know what it means, but I doubt that many people are aware of the original story -- in which a boy, disgusted by the cowardice of his kin, takes up the sling and throws rocks at a giant's head,  knocking him unconscious and then slaying him with his own sword.  That's actually more impressive to me than the stone-throwing, because how did a little kid manage to saw off a grown man's head with a sword bigger than himself?

7, Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It's been years since I read any of the Holmes stories, but these two sprang to mind fairly quickly upon reading the subject for this week.

8. Horatio Hornblower and William Bush (Horatio Hornblower series, C.S. Forester)

Hornblower and Bush are introduced in Captain Horatio Hornblower, and the A&E movies show their meeting. Their close camaraderie -- Bush is as close to a friend as Hornblower ever has in the book series -- makes the end of the Napoleonic wars particularly poignant. Hornblower is marked by his formality, reserve, and introspection, but he and Mr. Bush are obviously fond of each other:  Bush, the ever-faithful lieutenant, made Hornblower more human.

9. The Narrator and Merlin, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
The narrator is a 19th century man thrown back into the 700s or so, where he decides to remake the medieval world into a semblance of his own. Progressive and intellectual, his greatest foe is Merlin -- who represents tradition, authority, and superstition. When I read this for the first time, I remember despising Merlin and even today...

10. Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay, A Tale of Two Cities & A Far Better Rest, Charles Dickens and Suzanne Alleyn.

The lives of these two lookalikes converge repeatedly before and during the French Revolution, and their love for the same woman will save the one and redeem the other.

Teaser Tuesday (8 March)

Ah, teaser Tuesday time again.

"And the sea-monsters here are extraordinary," McLean went on, "like dragons, wouldn't you say, John? Pink dragons with green spots?"
"Indeed, sir," Moore said, then gave a start as he belatedly realized the brigadier was teasing him.

p. 51, The Fort. Bernard Cornwell

Garak regarded the doctor warily, the reptilian nobs of his forehead bunching together in deep furrows."Oh, doctor, I'm afraid that in matters of mysterious deaths, I am entirely bereft of experience."
Quark took some comfort in noting that no one in the infirmary seemed to believe Garak any more than they believed him.

- 108, The Fall of Terok Nor. Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

The Fall of Terok Nor

Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Millennium, Book I, The Fall of Terok Nor
© 2000 Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
464 pages

The Millenium trilogy was, prior to Destiny, the most epic story ever approached in Trek literature, and  in fact even spawned a PC game -- a third-person action/adventure shooter called The Fallen.  It's a story of the past and future, of grand mythology, in which the good guys battle for nothing less than the existence of the Universe -- and lose. It brings together characters from all the Next Generation-era shows,  and is responsible for many of my favorite scenes in Trek literature. But it all started when an Andorian merchantman of questionable repute was found dead in the lower levels of the station...and flooded  Deep Space Nine with mysteries.

The investigation of the Andorian's murder leads to two more bodies -- old bodies, which had been fused into the station's bulkheads at some point around the Day of Withdrawal, when the Cardassian Union ended its occupation of Bajor and abandoned its ore-mining station -- a day, strangely enough, that three of the station's residents who were around back then can't remember.  Suddenly smugglers are coming to the station in droves, which frustrates Captain Sisko mightily, given that he's in the middle of the Federation's equivalent of World War 2.  All the little threads seem to lead to three religious artifacts, the Red Orbs of Jalbador -- which could open a second wormhole. Though dismissed by most Bajorans as apocryphal,  the various smugglers, a sect of Bajoran cultists, and three Cardassian operatives pretending to be humanitarian officials are all quite obviously interested in finding them.

This first volume of the trilogy is an impressive start: mystery and adventure seem to end in resolution, only things to go badly wrong: Terok Nor ends with the destruction of the station and the DS9 crew aboard the Defiant being thrown into a nightmare.

I had no intention of re-reading this: I just found the first volume while digging through a trunk of books looking for The Ancestor's Tale,  and foolishly opened it up to see if it was good as I remembered. I read 200+ pages that very night and 200+ more the next day. It would appear my fond memories do it justice.

Reap the Whirlwind

Star Trek Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind (Book Three)
© 2007 David Mack
464 pages, including a 'Vanguard Minipedia', which combines a glossary and dramatis personae

Cover art by Doug Drexler, depicting the scoutship USS Sagittarius being pursued by a Klingon cruiser

 At the edge of known space, at the borders of three great powers -- the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Tholian Assembly -- lies the mysterious Taurus Reach, a region dominated by solar systems bearing the mark of having once been the seat of power for an ancient, immensely powerful, organizations. The Federation is eager to learn the Reach's secrets, but given the immense power they may unearth, their investigation must be done largely in secret. Vanguard Station sits at the edge of the reach, but only a select few of its officers know its importance in administrating this top-secret project. Lives have already been lost, but this pandora's box is only just beginning to spill out its contents -- and they will change the lives of individuals aboard Vanguard and stagger the powers involved.

David Mack created the Vanguard series with this vast mystery already in mind, and in Reap the Whirlwind the drama skyrockets. The Federation's secret is costing lives, and the awakened power is increasingly unpredictable and aggressive. Reap is easily the most eventful book in the series thus far, radically changing the destinies of several of Vanguard's officers by book's end. Commodore Diego Reyes commands most of the reader's attention, as he struggles to keep a lid on a situation that proves more deadly by the day. Meanwhile, the resident agent of Starfleet Intelligence realizes her manipulations have consequences, both personally and professionally. Though there's a fair bit of character development, the rise of the 'Shedai' and the havoc they wreak predominate the novel. Reap also introduces Dr. Carol Marcus, and given that 'Clark Terrell' is also present, it looks like this novel may tie-in to The Wrath of KHAAAAAAAAAAN! KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN! KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN! 

Even though some of my favorite characters are being sorely absused, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Augustine of Hippo, 354 - 430
Translation © 1961 R.S. Pine-Coffin
346 pages

At the age of nineteen a young man encountered the golden voice of Cicero. Inspired by Cicero's lush oratory, this boy began to pursue the love of wisdom, philosophy; truth. Ultimately this journey brought him to the faith of his mother, to the Catholic church, and he became a saint -- molding the minds of generations to come through his books, now part of the canon of western literature. Confessions records the ten years Augustine spent shifting from Manichaeism  and contempt of Christianity to becoming an ardent saint, one with an impressive talent for self-loathing.

The bulk of the Confessions is a prayerful biographical narrative, in which Augustine monitors his slow transformation -- constantly lamenting over the errors of youth and offering earnest prayers of thanks and adoration toward the god he eventually found. Following his conversion-in-heart and conversion-in-fact, Augustine muses on memory, the senses, temptation, and theology before devoting a final book to more praise. The praise and adoration Augustine lavishes upon his god and the church are rivaled only by the amount of scorn he heaps upon himself, others, the cares of life, and earthly pressures. The man is a prodigy, a raging Puritan before his time. I found this self-debasement rather dreary and depressing, and it's part of the reason I've been pecking at the book since mid-November while thinking of Augustine as "that miserable bishop" and "Gloomy Gus".  This is not a man who I want to emulate.

I approached the book in the first place as a student of philosophy and the humanities, and I hoped to find in Augustine a brother-spirit. This was not the case, for in spite of his praise and quest of 'truth',  Augustine accepts the dogma of scriptures freely, never so much as questioning it, and regards those who are interested in the world with derision. The Platonic contempt for material things is fully present here, and rather than studying science, Augustine would advise us to keep our minds on more spiritual things, like the dozens of pages he devoted to sorting out what 'Moses' really meant when he wrote that God created "the earth and heavens" and that earth was a 'formless void', where 'darkness was upon the face of the deep'.  He wrote page after page, which I read in utter bafflement. Theology, like debating the meaning of the trinity, often has this effect on me, for it seems no more potent than debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It's minds like Augustine's that made the medieval world, and I do not say that as a compliment. In principle, I admire his desire to find truth and to be a better person,  but I found nothing of inspiration here. I appreciated his skepticism toward astrology and horoscopes (which he developed through reason and the lack of evidential proof), and  I gleaned some historical knowledge from his biographical account -- for instance, the Academics were still around in Rome at this time, and apparently influenced by the Skeptical belief that nothing could be known for certain -- but that was it.  Augustine is a man whose mind was fixated on the ethereal, consumed by ideological commitment.  He'd make an excellent Muslim (very keen on submission to God, this one) or a Christian puritan, someone who regards 'orthodoxy' as a word more obscene than any of George Carlin's famous "seven", I felt discouraged by his utter lack of spirit.

Reading the book did help me though, in that it made me realize how easily the contemplative life can turn people into sanctimonious sourpusses. As someone interested in this kind of reflection, but also insistence on enjoying life, it prompted me to decide to err on the side of pleasure -- in Bernard Cornwell's words, to be more of a cavalier than a puritan.

The Fort

The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War
© 2010 Bernard Cornwell
480 pages

It's the summer of 1799, and Britain's attempts to restore their wayward colonies to the Crown are not going well. Following the battle of Saratoga, the French and Spanish have declared common cause with the rebels. Though the course of the war has moved to the southern colonies, Britain has seen fit to establish a small outpost at the mouth of the Penobscot River (in what is today Maine) in order to establish a safe harbor for fighting privateers and provide sanctuary for political refugees, particularly Loyalists fleeing persecution.  In response, the Massachusetts and Continental governments have sent a fleet to drive the invaders away. They find the outpost, Fort George, still in the early stages of construction -- and scarcely defended, for its commander lacks the men to take even the high bluffs on the river. The Fort begins with the arrival of the British in what they call 'New Ireland' and carries through the last weeks of July until the defeated party flees downriver, utterly ruined.

The Fort  is a remarkable departure from Cornwell's usual approach. Instead of focusing on one central character and have him live through the events of history, Cornwell instead draws on an ensemble cast of historical characters, both American and British (specifically, Scottish soldiers and Royal Marines). His main characters are a generally sympathetic lot, with the exception of the emotionally turbulent Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere. The Americans tended toward the grumpy, though, and I far more enjoyed the company of General Francis McLean, commanding the fort, and his young ward John Moore -- the future Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore.  They were consistently in high spirits despite the presumed certainty of their defeat,  and both possessed a wicked sense of humor that left me looking forward to their viewpoint sections. Cornwell also ties the chapters together with excerpts from historical letters, memos, and other literature concerning the battle -- including a legal document indicting one of the book's characters for disobedience and cowardice, and letters from the ever-pleasant General McLean. Unlike Redcoat, The Fort contains plenty of combat, both on land and on the river. I didn't realize that there were rivers big enough for frigates to move through -- rivers are fascinating areas for battle.

This is a fascinating, generally untold story of the American Revolution:  definitely above average if not Cornwell's best.


  • Jeff Shaara's Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, his novels of the war. (And speaking of which, his Pacific War novel is due in May....!)
  • Cornwell's own Redcoat, which focuses more on character drama than combat, but which enthralled me.

The History of Japan

The History of Japan
© 1918, 1947 Kenneth Scott Latourette
282 pages
""Under a Wave off Kanagawa", Katsushika Hokusai

In Fall 2009 I took a class in Japanese history and enjoyed it tremendously, but given that it's been well over a year, I figure I'm due for a refresher. My home library carried this slim narrative, which did the trick despite being a bit dated -- the most current revision was written in 1946, only months after Japan surrendered and ended the last conflict of the Second World War.

After describing the initial settlement and climate of the Japanese islands (complete with lovely photographs), Latourette begins the long story of the Japanese empire (legendarily declared thus in 660 BCE, around the same time Egypt and Assyria were arguing over who should rule Egypt). It's remarkable to me that a single institution has managed to survive over 1500 years of history, though largely in an impotent fashion. Japan was more strongly unified under the varying shogunates -- military administrations -- but emerged as a world power only in the late 19th century, when the warlords were ousted and the Emperor "restored".  Modernization -- and westernization, for the new government formed itself by drawing from various European powers like Germany and France -- followed, and Japan shifted from late-medievalism to modernity in scarcely more than a couple of decades, a remarkably dramatic transformation. Japan also pursued economic growth in the tried-and-true way of Europe's great powers and the United States -- invading other people, borrowing their resources, and turning them into markets for goods. This eventually led to war, defeat, and revival -- though the book doesn't cover Japan's resurgence.

Latourette is a generally fair author, easy to read for the most part. He doesn't have the patronizing tone I would've expected from an author of this period, though his partiality amused me at times. He cheerily reports the 'peaceful' Perry expedition's role in opening Japan up to the west by saying it was fortunate that this was led by the United States, who had no interests in the Far East.  When writing on the increase of tensions between the United States and Japan, he finally admits the presence of American interests by saying it was the 'unavoidable result of the force of circumstances' that the United States happened to be all over the Philippines and Guam. I'm not sure I carry his meaning.  Did a freak storm carry the US Navy all the way across the Pacific where it bumped into the Spanish navy and accidentally threw invasion troops into the islands, where they were trapped for four years?  Did Spain refuse to treat in peace with the United States unless America agreed met them on the field of battle in Manila? Inquiring minds want to know what this unavoidable force of circumstances was.

Aside from that, which elicited more laughter than anything else, the book proved amply adequate (by which I mean it skirted the line between average and above average)  at reminding me of what I'd learned in class previously. Indeed, it supplemented my knowledge because it placed more emphasis on Japan's rivalry with Russia than I'd witnessed in class, and the author frequently paused in his general narrative to explain how Japan was transforming from decade to decade, economically as well as socially.  It's thus useful, but dated -- and apparently obscure, because I couldn't so much as find a cover for it.


  • A Modern History of Japan (Andrew Gordon)
  • Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, by Mikiso Hane. These two books were used in my course, along with Kokoro, but that's a novel. 
  • The Japanese Experience, W.G. Beasley, which I read in preparation for said class.
  • Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant, which covers the ancient-to-modern histories of India, Japan, and China along with the ancient-era Mesopotamian history.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

These Weeks at the Library (15 Feb - 2 March)

The tail end of this month has seen me finally getting around to reading some history, H.G. Wells' The Outline of History consuming the better part of the week before last. I've also been reading from The History of Japan, and finished With Wings Like Eagles, an excellent narrative of the Battle of Britain.  It stands out along with The Revolutionist, a novel of the Bolshevik Revolution and the first thirty years of the Soviet Union.  That marked my first time reading Littell, and if it's any indication of the kind of quality I can expect, I may dive into his The Company, a history of the CIA,  at some point in the future.  Outstandingly gritty.

In addition, I completed the Typhon Pact miniseries with Paths of Disharmony,   which provides a stunning political shakeup to the Trek  litverse.

Selected Quotations:

...two smart brigs, both armed with fourteen six-pounder cannons and both anchored close to the Warren, flew the Massachusetts Navy flag, which showed a green pine tree on a white field and bore the words "An Appeal to Heaven"".
"An appeal to nonsense," Saltonstall growled.
"Sir?"  the midshipman asked nervously.
"If our cause is just, Mister Conigsby, why need we appeal to heaven? Let us rather appeal to force, to justice, to reason."
"Aye aye, air," the midshipman said, unsettled by the captain's habit of looking past the man he spoke to.
"Appeal to heaven!" Salton sneered. "In war, Mister Conigsby, one might do better to appeal to hell." 

p. 21, The Fort. Bernard Cornwell.

Eppler collected his thoughts. "A self-appointed vanguard has come to think of itself as the working class in whose name it speaks. So first the vanguard party substitutes itself for the entire working class, yes? Then the party organization substitutes itself for the entire party, yes? Then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the party organization, yes? You see where it leads? It is inevitable! One day a single dictator will substitute himself for the Central Committee, yes?"   

Lili, furious, cried, "In the name of what cause do you betray us?"
Eppler smiled tiredly. "In the name of common sense," he said. "In the name of pure Marxism. In the name of the millions of people who will suffer if this king of communism has his way, yes?" Eppler addressed himself to Zander. "I started to tell you one night when I had a bit too much to drink. You remember, yes? This Lenin of yours is taking communism down the wrong road. No good will come of it. No good at all. He is an elitist, yes? He creates elites. And he -- yes? -- he is the elite of the Central Committee. He is making footsteps, yes? After him others will folow in his path. The dictatorship of the proletariat will become the dictatorship of a single man."

p. 76 and p. 147, The Revolutionist. Robert Littell.
Lenin was not amused. "There are no accidents in history, young man," he said. Suddenly his brow pleated like a curtain. Was he in pain, Znder wondered, or was he thinking about what lay ahead? "There are only leaders who correctly analyze the forces at work," Lenin mumbled, "and then exploit this knowledge."
Which was another way of saying, Zander thought, that a revolutionist is someone who gives history a push.
p. 138, The Revolutionist. Littell.

Potentials for next week:
I'm almost done with The History of Japan, and -- having finished that volume of Wells which so grabbed my attention -- I've returned in earnest to The Confessions.  I'll also be reading Bernard Cornwell's The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War and (assumedly) another Trek novel, probably Reap the Whirlwind, third in the Vanguard series.