Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sharpe's Christmas

Sharpe's Christmas
© 2003 Bernard Cornwell
104 pages

Sharpe's Christmas collects two stories which do the seemingly impossible, in honoring the Christmas spirit while simultaneously being action-adventure tales starring Richard Sharpe. Sharpe doesn't lend himself easily to Christmas stories; he is not lovely or kind. He is a soldier whose battle-scarred face has frightened women, and whose rifle and cavalry sword have frightened men, from Indian to France.  He is a wonder as a soldier, grimly effective, but dismally unlucky outside the killing fields.  His attempts at love have met in disaster as his beloved ones die or vanish, along with whatever fortune he entrusted to them.  And yet the Daily Mail asked Bernard Cornwell to write two Sharpe-related Christmas stories for them, and so he did.

 The stories are not unusual in their Christmastime setting;  the series has seen battles set around the Christmas season before.  But while there Christmas was the background, here it is the abiding theme.In the first story, "Sharpe's Christmas",  Sharpe is participating in the invasion of France, and caught between two forces of Imperial troops in a narrow mountain pass, some of them commanded by an old friend. In "Sharpe's Ransom", disgruntled Hussars break into Sharpe's postwar home in Normandy and hold his wife and child hostage unless he produces the gold  the evil masterspy Ducos framed him for stealing in Sharpe's Revenge.  After outwitting the dopes guarding him, Sharpe must effect a rescue of his family.  Readers are treated to the usual elements of a Sharpe novel -- desperate battles between riflemen and massed columns of French troops, small-scale action by Sharpe himself, plenty of humor (especially between Sharpe and his usual compatriot, Patrick) but with a Christmas twist. Sharpe creates a miraculous victory out of disaster out of nothing but cleverness, skill, and cutting remarks, but the discovery of an old friend allows him to act as an agent of mercy; in "Ransom", he doesn't take out the entire band of Hussars singlehandedly, but turns the crisis into an opportunity to win the trust and acceptance of the local villagers, who -- being French -- resent an English war hero taking up residence among them and taking as his mate a once-noble widow.  Sharpe's Christmas is as exciting, historically grounded, and funny as any Sharpe novel -- but it's also heartwarming. It's positively touching.  I thought it quite appropriate.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The View from the Summit

The View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir from the First Person to Conquer Everest
© 1999 Sir Edmund Hillary
310 pages

The Himalayan Mountain range boasts the highest peaks on the surface of the globe; its heights equal the cruising altitude of a cruising jetliner. . In 1954, Sir Edmund Hillary and  Tenzing Norgay accomplished what many before had perished attempting: they reached the summit of Mount Everest.The View from the Summit tells the story of Hillary’s ascent up the mountain,  presented within a  partial biography of his life.  Beginning with its climactic triumph, that perilous day in 1954,  View then offers a look back, to Hillary’s childhood in New Zealand, where he began as a beekeeper. However humble that might sound, it was considered duty serious enough to warrant officials attempting to prevent Hillary from risking his life,  not that he let their concerns stop him from joining the air service. Hillary never shrunk from death; even after besting Everest, he went on to a series of similarly extreme adventures.  Merely climbing Everest wasn’t good enough, no; he had to climb several other peaks in the range, shoot the rapids of the Ganges,  trek across both the North and South Poles (once with Neil Armstrong) and give a speech upon being knighted. (His first thought after becoming a Peer of the Realm: “Oh, God, I’ll have to buy new overalls.”)  He was in short quite the character, pugilistic and stubborn; even the death of loved ones didn’t stop him from taking on challenges. His many accomplishments don’t include writing like a journalist; readers will find this tale of outdoors adventure tending toward the technical  the feats are more exciting than their telling.  His sober, factful approach has its own appeal, however.   Those interested primarily in the ascent of Everest should know that this is only a partial account of that challenge;  High Adventure  is Hillary's chief Everest memoir.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Men Who United the States

 The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
© 2013 Simon Winchester
496 pages

The Men who United the States is a storied account of how the American people came to realize their ‘manifest destiny’, from the explorers who plied rivers and mapped the vast expanses to the technological tools that knit the continent together. It is organized thematically, utilizing the five elements of Chinese mythology: wood,  earth, water, fire, and metal.  Although most sections cover the full expanse of American history, the focus of each moves forward; ‘metal’ largely concerns revolutions in communications technology,  culminating in the Internet  while ‘fire’ covers the effects of the steam and combustion engines. Politics and war are downplayed: this is the tale of explorers and inventors whose dangerous  and enterprising deeds made political dreams a factual reality.  Winchester is a personable author, often inserting his attempts to retrace the tracks of some intrepid but doomed explorer along mountain passes or through river rapids. It's an odd element in a work of history, but works well enough despite sometimes bordering on off-topic.  Winchester makes for a winsome host through the annals of American explorers, and his work of adventure, history, and technological progress are sure to find a warm reception among readers.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
© 1999 Terry Brooks

The Phantom Menace was the first movie in the new 'prequel' trilogy of the Star Wars saga, which told the story of a promising young Jedi who was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, even as the Republic which he served was corrupted by the master of the dark inside into the Galactic Empire. It is easily the least-liked of the Star Wars movies, featuring a young boy who is far too precocious ("Are you an angel?") and the majestic silliness of Jar-Jar Binks.   Terry Brooks' challenge in creating a novelization of this story was thus considerable, and he tries valiantly. He cleans up parts of Jar-Jar's language; while much the psuedo-ebonics remains ("Dat", "dis", and so on),  his unique turns of phrase ("Dat's baaaad bombin'!")  are sterilized, with mixed effect.  The dialogue is fleshed out to make some of the characters' decisions more understandable; Qui-Gonn Jinn only takes a fourteen year old girl with him into a wretched hive of scum, villainy, and obnoxious aliens only after she reveals her extensive self-defense training. Anakin, too, gets a little development, demonstrating his awareness of how he can manipulate his own mental state; he tells Jar-Jar that the bumbling Gungan's fear attracts abuse to him.  There's also a scene with the Sand People that becomes more interesting when the plot of Attack of the Clones is taken into consideration, though I don't know if Brooks knew what Lucas had planned for Anakin's poor mother.  While Brooks doesn't improve the original nearly as much as Matthew Stover did with Revenge of the Sith,   it's a step in the right direction, making a previously juvenile story a bit more sensible.  Books in the EU universe like Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter and Cloak of Deception do the lion's work in that department, however.

Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover. For my money, the gold standard of movie novelizations.
Darth Maul. Shadow Hunter; Michael Reaves
Cloak of Deception, James Luceno

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This week: Christmas reads, science in the city, and social telegraphy

Dear readers:

            A blessed Yuletide and a merry Christmas to those of you in the northern hemisphere, as we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun – or the birth of the Son, if you prefer. The library is closing early today and I’m heading home for the week with an armful of books,  to be read between the caroling and snacking and time spent with family.  I’m still trying to wind the year down with lighter reading, so this week I’m carrying home two Star Wars novels (to complement my annual Christmastime rewatch of the entire Star Wars saga), and reading The View from the Summit, Sir Edmund Hillary’s telling of his travail up Mount Everest.

            In recent weeks I’ve finished two books that haven’t gotten comments previously; A Scientist in the City, which was interesting enough, and The Victorian Internet. A Scientist in the City, published in 1994, peeks into the science that makes city function.  That science is more material than social, though the behavior of people within the urban environment appears occasionally as data in traffic projections.  [author] examines the physics that define strengths and weaknesses of different building materials, and explains subjects like the generation of electricity. He doesn't cover systems by themselves, and water treatment is ignored completely. I liked it well enough, but it's definitely dated and on the thin side.  The book ends with several different projections for the City of the Future: our options are Trantor, the Matrix, and suburban sprawl with bullet trains.

            Before that, I enjoyed Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, which tried to convey to readers that the internet now completely transforming their lives was not without precedent. It's a breezy history of how electricity transformed communications and helped create the modern world. We creatures of the 21st century can't appreciate how radically life changed for those of the 19th; our idea of technological revolution is smaller computers, or ubiquitous touchscreens. The nineteenth century took civilizations held by the same limits that had enclosed humans for millennia prior -- the speed of transportation and communication maxing out at a horse's gallop -- and threw them into a completely new world. Cities could communicate with other cities in mere seconds; economies were revolutionized by merchants' ability to keep track of broader markets and manage their inventory more efficiently. Although the comparison is slightly overstated-- for telegraphs required intermediaries for most people to use them to communicate -- the telegraph's transforming effects on society do bring to mind the way the internet worked its way into our everyday lives in the 1990s, when this book was published; the creation of military scientists and the domain of tech geeks, it has conquered so much of society that many essential functions depend on that. The telegraph didn't become quite that pervasive, but it was a tool of friendship and romance as well as business and politics, and it started our slide toward being plugged into the electronic, digital world. The Victorian Internet  is on the lighter side, but definitely useful.

    I've also finished small is beautiful in recent weeks, and thought it tremendous but I'm not ready to try to comment on it yet.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Blacks Rednecks and White Liberals
© 2005 Thomas Sowell
360 pages

Thomas Sowell's provocatively-titled Black Rednecks and White Liberals casts a critical eye toward  conventional understandings of race, class, and history, collecting a half-dozen extensive essays in one volume. Although each essay is written as a standalone piece, some concern common subjects and refer to one another.  Sowell principally writes on African-Americans and Jews here, aside from an apologia written on Germany.  His central argument essentially blames the welfare state for the continuing degradation of black Americans, by way of historical arguments, one of them deliciously twisted -- the title essay.

"Black Rednecks and White Liberals" sets the stage by contending that the woeful culture of poverty keeping urban blacks in a despairing state is not one which they created themselves, but one inherited from poor whites, and specifically the poor whites who emigrated from a border region of Scotland during a specific timeframe in which Scottish 'crackers' of the area were slobbering savages, having not yet been tamed by the graces of English civilization. The poor whites of this ‘cracker culture’  exhibited the same self-defeating behaviors lamented over in the ghetto today; a disdain for education and work, a painfully abbreviated approach to the English language,  wanton sexuality,  and a gleeful embrace of violence, along with an ‘honor’ system that promoted the use of such violence.   It is Sowell’s opinion that southern blacks were acculturated into the behaviors of the ‘white trash’ and dragged it around the country with them. Given its self-defeating nature, Sowell comments that this cracker culture largely died out among the poor whites, and even the first waves of southern blacks who carried it around the country – but after the 1960s, when the welfare state  sprang into being,  those behaviors were propped up – being no longer culled by the scythe of sheer necessity.  After arguing for this, Sowell later builds off it in an essay on education, and again in his final essay on the historical perspective, condemning modern approaches as too forgiving, too soft:  blacks and whites who lifted themselves up out of poverty and despair did so not by accepting substandard English as their cultural heritage, nor by taking self-esteem classes, but by acknowledging the relative inferioty of their station in life to others:. The Scots became intellectual titans after abandoning Gaelic for English, and consequently gaining access to the English literary world, and the Japanese adopted western means of science, government, and economics to catapult from feudal island to global power in the Meiji revolution. In putting aside defensive pride and setting a superior standards for themselves, they both catapulted themselves from backwards hinterlands to first-world countries who would be active players in shaping world history..

Thomas Sowell, it should be noted, is black himself, and is a product of this process of enlightenment, having been reared in the kind of schools he now advocates,  having set for himself superior standards.  To multicultural sensibilities, he may seem like a self-loathing black man at times, for all the abuse he heaps on poor blacks and whites and for all he waxes poetic about the glorious intellectual and moral history of the west, problematic as it was. Were he white, Sowell would almost certainly be condemned as a racist, and a cavalier of western chauvinism.  His entire argument is simultaneously thought-provoking and problematic. Some is straightforward history, like his account of slavery or the reactions of northerners to white southern emigrants, which as they are quoted sound exactly like what you might expect to hear of those participating in 'white flight' decades later.  It's not surprising that long-term residents of an area would react with hostility toward the sudden intrusion of poor immigrants, flooding into areas the residents rightfully considered their own.  Sowell's belief that the culture of contemporary 'ghetto blacks' was one passed down directly by 'crackers' is a much harder sell. Given that slaves were owned not by 'white trash', but by the plantation elite, would they really have spent enough time around the 'crackers' to acquire the values? And why would they adopted those values, considering that impoverished white sharecroppers were just as economically miserable as themselves, and loathed the former slaves to boot?  The statistics Sowell quotes to demonstrate that the black story of the 20th century is sometimes one of regress are damning: even if a reader doesn't accept his condemnation of welfare as causing the erosion of black family life, and stymieing the natural processes that would reverse self-destructive behaviors,  the  analysis is staggering in its implications.  This isn't exactly a national secret -- Bill Cosby has written books despairing about the woeful condition of black family life and communities in the latter half of the 20th century -- but Sowell's  work puts the decline into sharp focus.

Although I find Sowell's contempt for the poor, self-defeating they may be, highly uncomfortable -- especially his frequent brandishment of 'cracker', which in certain counties of the Deep South is a pejorative on the level of kike or wop -- I appreciated various elements of this collection. The almost tributary history to Germany's ancient cultural heritage, for instance, was a relief compared to the  Omnipresent Nazi approach to German history, and the statistical work offers data that can be considered regardless of one's opinion on the unintended consequences of particular welfare policies. I'm increasingly sympathetic to the idea that improperly-designed welfare can exacerbate social problems, but think it more likely that certain destructive behaviors are endemic to the human experience, rather than being the legacy of Scottish emigrants to urban ghettos. Not for nothing have humans created so many religions, philosophies, and institutions to curb the worse of our instincts. Though readers will find a lot of food for thought in this collection, it has a sometimes bitter edge. 

Things that Matter

Things that Matter: Three Decades of Passion, Pastimes, and Politics
© 2013 Charles Krauthammer
400 pages

Things that Matter collects articles spanning at three decades, largely culled from The New Republic, giving voice to psychologist-turned-cultural observer and journalist Charles Krauthammer as he watches the ebb and flow of America’s fortunes at home and on the global scene.  Although he opens with essays of a more personal note (commenting on the pleasures of ‘taking in’ baseball, especially when rooting for a perennially losing team), politics undergirds most of the collection. He describes himself as a conservative, though one whom today's standards would judge a centrist, and the body of articles bears that judgment out.

 Although Krauthammer's  opinions fall within a broad enough spectrum that he can't be dismissed as an ideologue or a reactionary (he is baffled by resistance to gay marriage, for instance, and derides Social Security as a Ponzi scheme even while proposing a way to make it financially stable),  he's liable to take the most flak for his acceptance of the notion of American Empire, and his approving attitude toward interventionist schemes in other countries. Of course, he writes, they could have been better managed --  we're always so wise after the lives and money have been wasted, aren't we? Of note is Krauthammer's various pieces concerning Jews and Israel; he sees the tiny nation-state as Jewry's best hope, but says this with a hint of anxiety, for it seems to him of his fellow Jews' putting all their eggs in one vulnerable basket. With the abiding hope of Jews for centuries past now realized,  what will the Jewish people make of their future? Will Israel sustain them, and their identity, or will some future crisis  ravage them again...perhaps permanently? It has happened before, he says, reminding readers not versed in biblical history that once there were two Hebrew kingdoms, Israel and Judah, and Israel was destroyed, its people scattered to the winds:  the children of Judah, now gathered as Israel, can be broken again.   Aside from his attitude toward war, Krauthammer is never politically obnoxious, and in fact frowns on the nature of politics today. In going negative, he offers:

      Delta Airlines, you might have noticed ,does not run negative TV ads about USAir. It does not show pictures of the crash of USAir Flight 427, with a voice-over saying "USAir, airline of death. Going to Pittsburgh? Fly Delta instead."
     And McDonalds, you might also have noticed, does not run ads reminding viewers that Jack in the Box hamburgers once killed two customers. Why? Because Delta and McDonalds know that if the airline and fast-food industries put on that kind of advertising, America would soon be riding trains and eating box-lunch tuna sandwiches.
      Yet every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practicioner in the country -- and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians."

Things that Matter is an interesting, thoughtful collection of miscellaneous pieces,  presumably of interest to Americans who have heard of him. (I hadn't, but have a weakness for reflective essay collections.) 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Into Thick Air

Into Thick Air
© 2003 Jim Mauser
388 pages

            Jim Mauser might be interested in the view from the Seven Summits, the highest points of each continent, were it not for the fact that they have accessibility issues. To Mauser, any place you can’t bike to isn’t worth bothering with. When Discovery offers to drop Mauser in the middle of nowhere and film him attempting to find his way back to civilization, Mauser has a better idea: why not finance and film his traveling to the seven lowest points on Earth – the seven anti-summits?   And so he embarks on a six-continent journey (Antarctica lowest point being covered by a very large pile of ice), through war zones and Passover, assailed by dogs, hurricanes, and crowds of children joyfully attempting to stone him,  to six of the lowest spots on Earth. Although his destinations are anticlimactic in the extreme, it’s the journeys getting there that makes this book. Mauser is rivaled only by Bill Bryson for the sheer entertainment value of his narrative, and is similar to him stylistically,  but Mauser records his world journeys with a botanist’s eye.  Those eyes are open to the full sweep of the glorious panorama of nature around them  -- the wildly divergent climates, the abundance of mesmerizing and often lethal fauna. Central to Mauser's story, like many travelers' tales, are the people he meets along the way, their kindnesses and eccentricities recorded along the way. Mauser isn't quite as vulnerable as world trekkers; his anti-summits are made in six completely different legs that take the better part of a decade to complete, and his starting locations for each leg seemed to be a week away from his destination, at best.  Even so, he's at considerable risk given his luck at pedaling into a place right before drama hits -- like a sudden case of the monsoon in South America -- and people around the world offer him friendly smiles and a stomach full of local cuisine. Into Thick Air is a fantastic cycle-touring book, treating the reader to a wide spectrum of human cultures and natural environments, with plenty of wry humor and scientific commentary on the way.

Little House on the Prairie

© 1933 Laura Ingalls Wilder

I would say that Little House on the Prairie brings back fond memories, but in truth the volume I remember so happily was Little House in the  Big Woods, which recounts author Laura Ingalls Wilder's accounts of growing up in the Wisconsin wilderness in the 19th century. In Little House in the Prairie,  little Laura and her family -- Ma, Pa, big sister Mary and baby sister Carrie --  leave the big woods behind. Wisconsin, once the frontier, is now brimming with people -- and Pa has decided to move the family to Indian country, to the plains. Little House on the Prairie is the story of their journey westward, and of their first year among the wolves, wind, and natives.

 Wilder’s account, partially based on her own childhood, is charming, beginning with its opening – "once upon a time, when all the grandparents were babies" --  exciting, and educational. There’s no end to the dangers faced by the Wilders on the frontier; not only is the landscape rife with creatures that find humans edible, like wolves and panthers, but carving a house out of the wilderness is perilous work.  Gas within the ground poisons men digging wells, the timbers of homes fall, and storms appear out of nowhere.  And then there are the Indians, to whom the country belongs and who have a pretty good idea that the increasing appearance of white settlers within their territory isn’t a harbinger of peace.  Published in 1933, this is not a book that would fare  well among publishers today, given Ma Ingall’s outright loathing fear of the Indians, and the cheerful assertions that the white men have got to take the land in hand and make something of it, creating a civilization where these Indians have let the wilderness remain.  The stories are lessons in history, as when Wilder describes Pa building the cabin in exact detail, or comments on how the settlers didn't know that the disease that swept through their farms was malaria. 

Long after publication, Little House on the Prairie remains a lovely story about American history, giving children an idea of what it was like to head into the wilderness and begin to make a home for themselves. Although today's readers are more removed from Laura's world than her initial audience, the Ingalls remain immanently relatable. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Other Side of Western Civilization

The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life,
© 1979 ed. Stanley Chodorow
363 pages

The Other Side of Western Civilization collects readings in social history ranging from antiquity to the Renaissance. Its subtitle Readings in Everyday Life is largely accurate,  for the articles contributed by diverse authors largely ignore the halls of power and tell instead the stories of the common man, or detail the historic aspects of everyday life; there are pieces on the  adventures of traveling on medieval roads, for instance, and on family life in Renaissance Italy. Others move near ‘traditional’ historiography – one article covers the Battle of Agincourt – but maintain the 'everyday' focus;  "Feudal War in Practice" examines Agincourt from the perspective of the foot soldier,  taking into consideration how much room for movement there might have been if every archer in the English line had planted a stake in front of him, as official records of the battle establish. Principally, the collection covers trade, city planning, family life, social relations, and religion. Each piece is introduced by the editor, whose commentary attempts with some success to connect them together,  comparing different articles’ coverage of medieval women for instance. While readers will no doubt find some pieces easier reading than others based on their individual interest,  it's generally accessible. Also of note is the fact that this collection doesn't have a political edge to it; the 'other side' of western civilization  simply concerns topics ignored by  conventional military-political histories, like "Ancient Ships and Shipping" or "The Operation of a Monastery".  This is accompanied by a second volume, which covers the Renaissance to the early modern period.

"Ancient Ships and Shipping"
"Cities of the Roman Empire"
"Women in Roman Society"
"The Appeal and Practice of the Mystery-Religions"
"The Conversion of the Germans"
"German Tribal Society"
"Peasants and the Agricultural Revolution"
"Jews in a Christian Society"
"The World of the Crusaders"
"The Training of a Knight"
"The Role of a Baron's Wife"
"Mother and Child"
"Traveling the Roads in the 12th Century"
"The Workday of a Bishop"
"The Operation of a Monastery"
"Hunting Subversion in the Middle Ages"
"The Peasants in Revolt"
"The Organization of the Late Medieval City"
"The Relevance of a University Education in 14th Century England"
"Touring the Holy Land"
"A Community Against the Plague"
"City Women and the French Reformation"
"Cultural Patronage in Renaissance Florence"
"Parent and Child in Renaissance Italy"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart
© 2013 Harry Turtledove
400 pages

What was the difference? Just a little timing. There wasn't a person in the world who didn't have a story like that. If you'd been a little late or a little early, if you hadn't had that fender bender, if that woman in the store with you had bought the secondhand book that changed your life when you read it, if this, if that, if the other thing, your whole life would be totally changed. | It made you wonder. It really did. Ordinary lives were so easy to jerk around that way. What about the lives of nations? If your destiny could twist like a contortionist slipping on a banana peel, what about your country's?  (p.379)

Almost ten years ago, a supervolcano buried under Yellowstone National Park erupted, vaporizing a few deer and covering most of the American west with ash. That ash and dirt filled the air, too,  killing millions and blocking out sunlight.  As a year without a summer becomes a decade without one, the odds that the planet is slipping into another ice age look increasingly large.  Like the books that preceded it, Things Fall Apart follows the lives of the scattered Ferguson family as they continue to adjust to the new facts of life -- or in one character's case, continue to whine about it.  It is essentially a soap opera with a mildly interesting background -- for ten years into the crisis, changes are everywhere.

While most of the characters live in the greater Los Angeles area, two one lives on the fringe of habitable land in Nebraska and another lives in the wintry wasteland of Maine. Their county is now virtually autonomous, forgotten about by the US Government in its attempt to find food and shelter for the millions who are still displaced, a decade after mounds of ash moved quite rudely into their neighborhoods overnight. The few who remain there eke out a living growing turnips in greenhouses, hunting moose, and chopping wood, though ten years of such harvests have fallen to meager pickings. After a decade of intermittent power and scarce resources, the 21st century has been pushed back: now typewriters sit upon desks, notes are taken by hand on paper, and virtually everyone bicycles. In the cities, many still crowd onto public transportation, but aging and overworked buses are breaking down with no parts available to replace them. As people emigrate between the states -- or in Europe, flood from the north away from a dying Gulf Stream to invade Greece and Spain -- tension between the long-time residents and newcomers surge.

All this is background, however, the scenery to a plot consisting of a police officer retiring, his oldest son having an affair with a married woman and then being dumped by her; his oldest daughter having all of her money stolen by her Serbian revolutionary-boyfriend, and his two younger sons (well, son and almost-son-in-law-who-he-thinks-of-as-a-son)   being cold and having wives in Nebraska and Maine.  Oh, and his wife begins dating a middle-aged man who can't get enough of European football and Broadway musicals.

Things Fall Down is really As the World Turns....into an Ice Age. or, The Young and the Restless and the Very Cold.  Or, Coronation Street Ice-Plow Capers.  At any rate, if you're looking for science fiction, this isn't it:  science-as-plot was over after the eruption, and now it's scenery. If you want post-apocalyptic thrills, then sorry, out of luck. Now, if you want characters eating oatmeal and taking showers and brooding over their love lives while it snows outside, then hey --  this is the book for you.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This week: Nature Wants to Kill You with Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Harry Turtledove

Craving manly tales of outdoor adventure, I checked out a handful of short-story collections by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. I started with the titular story of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilamanjaro, having seen the movie earlier in the week. and was surprised when the main character died, instead of being rescued by plane as he was when portrayed by Gregory Peck -- surprised because in the story, he was rescued by plane -- but that was, alas, the dream of a dying man.  I switched to To Build a Fire (And Other Stories), only to be treated to the account of a man freezing to death in the Yukon wilderness, having cheerfully blundered into the snow despite even his dog knowing -50 degrees is too cold for country walks.  I decided to stop reading those and find something slightly happier, like The Men Who United the States.  At the library, though, I spied that we've recently acquired Things Fall Apart, the latest piece in Harry Turtledove's supervolcano-induced ice age death of civilization series.

Thus, death-by-nature seems to be a theme among the books I'm spending time with as we head into winter, but surely all of Hemingway and London's stories collected in the volumes I have can't end in death. I intend on reading the Snows of Kilamanjaro collection through, if only because the only Hemingway I've read is The Old Man and the Sea.  He feels like an author I should have read much more of.   So, this week I'll be finishing off Small is Beautiful, then entertaining myself with tales of the outdoors. Distracting me will be The Men who United the States and The Other Side of Western History,  the latter of which contains historical pieces on everything from shipping traffic during the classical era to the daily minutia of being a  Renaissance bishop -- war in the morning, graft in the afternoons. Work, work, work!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Down the River

Down the River
© 1982 Edward Abbey

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey collected contemplative pieces he had written while a park ranger in the high desert, putting his passion for the wilderness into action by working to conserve it. The volume mixed poetic descriptions of the wild beauty of the desert with reflection on the value of wilderness; not as an avenue of resources yet-to-be-exploited, but as a place for reflection and the realization of an authentic life. Down the River follows the same course, though the pieces here are connected not to a season living as a park ranger, but to various adventures Abbey embarked upon while exploring the rivers of the American Southwest.  Abbey simultaneously recounts his journeys with friends with the thinking the landscape inspired, and since often he made a journey to find something out, those thoughts are not as random as might be supposed. In one essay Abbey explores an area that will soon be off limits to him, for it will be shut to the public to protect an incoming missile installation.  Here his descriptions of what is seen combine with condemnation of the military-industrial complex and thoughts on Cold War geopolitics in general. This at least has a happy ending, for Abbey’s kindred spirits in the region were able to rouse enough local protest to prompt President Reagan to put off building the complex. This is certainly a happier piece than the similar essay in Desert Solitaire which saw him exploring Glen Canyon River shortly before it was dammed up.  There are a few odds and ends, like his faux-review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from the perspective of a Hells Angel who critiqued the book on its mechanical advice.  This is presented in all seriousness.

Although not quite on the level of Desert Solitaire, Down the River is worth reading  purely for its opening essay, “Down the River with Henry David Thoreau”.  Abbey is a modern Thoreau, in that their works see them retreating into Nature in search of a more authentic life; they find solace and fullness in the wilderness, and distantly removed from ‘civilization’ they can reflect both on its merits and flaws more objectively. The principle difference is that while  Thoreau is a gentle Puritan from the forest; Abbey a cantankerous free spirit in the desert. Thoreau ruminates, Abbey complains, but while Thoreau is a lonely sage of the wilderness, Abbey is almost never alone and always in the middle of a good time. Whether he's touring with cowboys in Desert Solitaire or swapping jibes with boatmen here in Down the River,  Abbey is plainly enjoying the wilderness. Regardless of the sheer animal pleasure Abbey takes in the wild, he is thoughtful, as well. Thoreau appears through the volume, for in Abbey’s words his is a spirit which has only grown larger through the ages as we continue to replace the wild with lifelessness. In addition to again defending the virtues of the wilderness -- both for its own sake, in its beauty, and for the practical importance the wild has as a place of refuge or comparison for the civilized man -- Abbey continues his grousing against the 20th century's fondness for size and complexity, in abandoning small,  resilience farms run by homesteaders for massive agribusinesses run by men in suits whose every solution is even more energy- and system-dependent.

Again I owe a debt of gratitude to the commenter who suggested I might like Abbey a few years ago.

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
Walden,  I to Myself, Henry David Thoreau
The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry, which he references
Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

Sunday, December 1, 2013

This week at the library: NaNoWriMo! Victorians, Napoleon, and a cantankerous Thoreau


Is it weird that I was more excited to hit 45,000 words than to actually 'win' NaNoWriMo? I suppose that's because when I hit 45,000, it was the evening I added a few days' work from different files into the body of the text, and the word-count soared 10,000+  with one Ctrl-V and I realized I was going to do it, there were only a few days left and the odds weren't good that something could derail me completely.  The lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo is that I should take a audio recorder out with me on my morning walks and jogs, because that's when my brain starts being productive. It's terribly hard to write notes while running, especially when you're dodging puppies at the same time.

I didn't do an enormous amount of reading last week, or writing outside of NaNoNo, so there are still reviews pending for several works. This past week I finished the excellent Sharpe's Revenge, finished No Plot? No Problem? A Low-Stress High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in Thirty Days, and read through Edward Abbey's Down the River.   No Plot No Problem is allegedly the same size text that NaNoWriMo winners produced during the month. The goal of the month is simply to write, to kickstart the creative engine of the brain and deliver to aspirin authors the less than yes, if they make themselves sit down and write  every day, they can produce something. Baty's advice ranges from the generally helpful to the NaNo-specific. He explains the basis process of figuring out setting and characters, provides in-text buttons that the reader is supposed to press to turn off their inner editor and so on, and in general does everything he can to encourage readers to just sit down and write.  In the end he offers would-be-writers some perspective: even if you never get published, maybe that' not the point. Maybe the point is the satisfaction gained in writing, in expressing yourself creatively, in seeing what worlds you can create and what inspiration strikes your brain. 

NaNoWriMo having been accomplished,  I'm going to be unwinding these last few weeks of the year, with novels. Writing fiction of a sort has made me want to read more of it, though at the moment I'm happily in the middle of a book which has arrived in the post. What book?

Into Thick Air!  When I saw it on Amazon (related reads for The Man Who Cycled the World), I couldn't resist reading it, given that I had just finished Into Thin Air.  It's a treat so far;   the author reminds me of no one more than Bill Bryson.  After that, I'm not certain -- I have a few nonfiction reads on the table, but I may poke my nose into Harry Turtledove's WW2-with-dragons-and-wizards series.  Like alien lizards and WW2, it's such an odd combination I have to investigate it.  I'm probably going to be reading more of Jack London; not only am I craving outdoor adventure books, but London's works have such philosophical interest that I want to consider more of him. 

Sharpe's Revenge

Sharpe's Revenge
© 1989 Bernard Cornwell

Englishmen in Toulouse, Prussians in Paris -- there are foreigners everywhere, and for Napoleon the war is over. Not for Sharpe, though, not by a long shot. His old enemy Pierre Ducos has seen fit to ensnare Sharpe one last time before the piece is signed, and it will cost Sharpe more than he ever imagined.  Sharpe’s Siege takes the reader  through what seem to be the last skirmishes of the war, and then into the peace, which is far more dangerous. Accused of murder and grand theft,  Sharpe is left to wander through France avoiding the armies of l’Empereur and the English Crown, for both have become his enemy.  Sharpe’s Siege is one of the more agonizing pieces in this series, but satisfies in a way few have.  The plot is vaguely familiar (I’m sure this isn't the first time Sharpe has been on the lam from his own army with no one but Patrick at his side),  but the late game is more than mere military adventurism.  Sharpe’s own soul is tortured here, and while it’s painful for him it’s great reading -- and it is moments like those crafted in here that will be remembered long after the series is finished and the epic battles scenes have evaporated from memory.  I rather doubt Sharpe’s Waterloo can top this, but we’ll see.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If the Dead Rise Not

If the Dead Rise Not
© 2011 Phillip Kerr
464 pages

            Bernie Gunther would be your standard-issue world-weary detective were it not for the fact that he just killed a Nazi.  Gunther has no love for the Nazis, who took power in his beloved Germany a year ago, and have in the year 1934 managed to reduce it to a joyless place for those who enjoy fast talk and loose women. Gunther is especially fond of both. Having quit his position in the police department to avoid having to fuss with the cretins in power, Gunther became the house detective of Berlin’s grandest hotel.  As it turns out, however, he has by no means removed himself from danger, and when an obnoxious American gangster claims a Ming dynasty artifact was stolen from his room, Gunther meets a man whose schemes will see the wisecracking detective arrested, and hauled out into the open ocean to be killed.  Though the man Max Reles appears to be a boorish businessman with a few shady operations, in actuality he’s in bed with Hitler – or intent on making der Fuhrer his purse. The political intrigue doesn't stop with Hitler, as the last fifth of the novel takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The odd coupling of time and place that also appeared in Field Grey works here as well. If the Dead Rise Not is in turns disturbing and spectacularly funny;  one of the reasons Gunther can’t avoid trouble is his tendency to shoot off his mouth, and the book features a rolling barrage of one-liners, mostly taking shots at the Nazis. There are the usual thrills, of course – chase scenes, murders, numerous points wherein he seems well and truly doomed – and the obligatory twist and turn of the plot. Disturbing comes with all of the characters tendency to live in moral grey ares; the villain, who by actions ought to be detested, is one of the most entertaining men to read. Even Bernie, for whom he is a principle villain, can’t help but be tempted by liking him.  Happily,  everyone reaps what they sow, and eventually Reles meets the usual end of people who work with those like Meyer Lanksy.


"A Nazi is someone who follows Hitler. To be anti-Nazi is to listen to what he says." p. 70

"German history is nothing more than a series of ridiculous mustaches."  p. 73

"These days a considerate German is someone who doesn't knock on your door early in the morning in case you think it's the Gestapo." p. 86

"A German is a man who manages to overcome his worst prejudices. A Nazi is a man who turns them into laws." p. 88

Monday, November 25, 2013

This week the library: NaNoWriMo, Sharpe, and histories

We're in the last week of National Novel Writing Month, and I can cheerfully report that I am not woefully behind, having faithfully plugged away almost every night. If I can make up for a couple of missed days, I should manage my 50,000 words. I'd regale fellow nano-writers out there with tales of my zany characters and oddball plot, but it's no grant adventure what I've been writing, just bits and pieces of a coming-of-age story in which a largely unsympathetic main character persists in prolonging misery by hiding from his own life, but keeps meeting people who, inexplicably, wish to draw him out into it. These include a redneck Marxist and a kindly priest.  Once I've gotten the 50,000 words, I really must on making the main character somewhat likeable. At the moment he's scarcely more than a grouch.

But speaking of books I am reading, or have read, instead of one I am pretending to write, this past week I finished a couple, including another Phillip Kerr novel which comments are largely ready for. Moments ago I finished Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, which made a lot more sense once I realized it had been written in 1998. It will receive comments later in the week. On a more serious note, last week I finished two works of history, The South vs the South and Train Time. Train Time deserves more consideration than a brief mention here, but The South was largely disappointing despite being well put together. It is largely focused with the role of slaves in the war, covering the politics of wartime emancipation splendidly. My interest in reading this was in discovering more about the effect of dissent and rebellion of white farmers and townsfolk against the Confederacy, and they are ignored wholly:  they only featured in a chapter on the border states which reveals how apathetic southerners could be about the planters' republic.  David Williams had  a far more interesting canvas, but then his didn't have nearly the detailed documentation. If only I could have the best of both worlds -- well, there's always The Free State of Jones,  which is another in this genre of historical nonfiction I've found.

This week, I'm with Richard Sharpe in France, where he's almost hoping Napoleon will give up without further fighting -- hardly surprising considering the bloody road through Spain he's taken to get to Toulouse. I am expecting in the mail another book on travel and physical adventure. It was irresistible given the title. That will probably wait until December, though -- Sharpe will keep me company as I try to finish my own little campaign.  I look forward to reporting success on Sunday or Monday!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Martin Eden

Martin Eden
© 1908 Jack London
381 pages

For its first two thirds, Martin Eden is a uplifting tale of art and romance about a man of humble means who hauls himself up to a better station in life in pursuit of a woman, discovering his own soul in the process. This inspiring story turns quickly to tragedy, however, when it reveals how quickly and utterly lost a soul can be when disappearing on the heights of achievement, boasting about its own success.

Martin  Eden is a working-class sailor, positively rippling with masculine virility and sharply intelligent.  When he saves the life of a soft, pampered Oakland scion named Arthur Morse, he's invited to dinner by him in gratitude. Arthur warns his family that he's bringing home a wild man, but his sister Ruth is positively undone by Martin's sheer presence. He, too, is wowed by her; while he embodies everything wild, masculine, and rough, she embodies (very prettily) everything civilized, feminine, classy, and tender. The two worship one another within their own minds, but he realizes she is as far above his grasp as the angels, unless he can learn to talk as her family talks, and about the same subjects they deem fit: art, literature, and philosophy. Armed with curiosity, will, and the ability to master any subject through independent study, Martin submits to Ruth's desire to civilize him. But Ruth unwittingly creates a monster: drunk with love, idealism, and the thought of becoming a great author, Eden abandons all but study and art. The book records his quest of self-cultivation through study, self-expression through his struggling writer's career, and ultimately, self-aggrandizement. It is the latter that turns this story of accomplishment into tragedy, for Martin's triumph is achieved only by the loss of everything  within him worthwhile.

Martin Eden bears a close resemblance to Wolf Larsen, the fearful beast-man antagonist of The Sea Wolf, who like Eden was a self-taught intellectual master, but simultaneously a physical titan.  Both hold themselves to the ideal of the Nietzschean superman, the man shackled by nothing -- no chains on their thoughts, their bodies, or their hearts.  They were to be men without limit, who conquered the world before them and recognized no law save that of the wild: kill or be killed, triumph or perish. While Wolf Larsen was countered by a soft professor who became a 'man in full', full of wild strength but tempering it with civilized morality,  Martin encounters no worthy adversary. Having rejecting all, he is without anything, and though having achieved his goal he feels no joy in it  he is left with nothing but bitter loneliness, the kind of deep-seated alienation that leads inevitably downward.  I found it profoundly depressing, and imagine this to be London's goal; Martin is a tragic figure, almost Lucifer-like in his fall , and the greatest sadness is that he never recognizes that he  has done himself a disservice in embracing the philosophy of the Self over all.  Martin Eden has beautiful prose, and inspired characters, but the cautionary tale has such a harrowing ending that it almost prompts regret in having read it, thought nothing so thought-provoking and insightful should be ignored.

The Sea Wolf, Jack London
The Pearl, John Steinbeck

The Man Who Cycled the World

The Man Who Cycled the World
© 2011 Mark Beaumont
400 pages

Why did Mark Beaumont decide to try and break the world record for circumnavigating the world by bicycle? Well, it beat law school. In his early twenties, with his life's course unclear but full of energy and thirsty for adventure, Beaumont decided to tackle what few had before: cycling the world. His ambition was high, to break the record for doing it by at least two months, and the road ahead along. For nearly three hundred days, he pedaled -- starting in Paris, traveling to Istanbul, and then on to Calcutta via Iran and Pakistan, finally taking ships to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States to cycle them in turn before returning to Europe at Portugal and ending in Paris again. Beaumont’s journey takes the reader with him through pleasant villages, congested cities, mesmerizing country scenes and desolate wildernesses beset by war. Though he largely escapes physical harm, (aside from being hit by a car in Texas, and mugged in Louisiana)  both he and his bike are put to the test by the 100-mile  days.  Through sickness and broken wheels, Beaumont had to struggle with not only  pedaling  upwards to 200 kilometers some days through hills and valleys, on roads that were sometimes scarcely more than dirt ruts, but cultural obstacles as well.  Although the English language is a world empire of its own,  communicating with the people whom he met and arranging food, lodging proved a constant struggle once outside of Europe.  Try finding a bike shop in the middle of a warzone, or worse -- in the United States.

Beaumont didn't do this alone;  shielded in part by the British embassy (presumably because of the BBC's interest in filming him) and guided by his dear mother in Scotland, he was also aided by the many strangers he met along the way.  Although the world is not filled with saints, it is peppered with them, and Beaumont was given a helping hand,  and a meal and a bed in a private home more often than he was scowled at or attacked. A global journey such as his offers the reader plenty of scope for adventure, peril, and a variety of landscapes, and Beaumont's account makes the most of these while minimizing  those portions of the journey which were more tedious.  This is one of the better cycling memoirs I've read, and I'm happy to learn that Beaumont has another. In his epilogue, he mentioned that after this journey he decided to climb the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley in Alaska,  then cycle down the coasts of North, Central, and South America to climb the highest peak there, Mt. Aconcagua.  He has now cycled in every continent save Africa and Antartica, and I intend on reading his The Man who Cycled the Americas as soon as it is available in US markets. (Or, I may just buy one from the UK. It certainly wouldn't be the first book of mine which has arrived bearing the marks of the Royal airmail.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaser Tuesday 19 Nov: Martin Eden

"Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for -- ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world."

p. 8, Martin Eden; Jack London

Share your own 'teases' at Should Be Reading!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

This week at the library: Jack London, the e-lectric telegraph, and the consequences of sex

Today I made my monthly trip to my university library, where under skies threatening thunderstorms I happily lost myself in the stacks for a few hours. I came home with a bag of books, including...

  • The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage
  • Martin Eden, Jack London
  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature,  Matt Ridley
  • A Scientist in the City, James Trefil
  • small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered,  E.F. Schumacher

I'd hoped to find books relating to Mount Everest or the Appalachian Trail, but alas! None were to be found. I'm sure they're in there; I've never had luck searching the catalogue of libraries using Library of Science classification.  Earlier in the week I checked out High Into the Thin Cold Air by Sir Edmund Hillary, which I thought would chronicle his ascent, the first known successful one. Turns out it's about his attempt to look for the Abominable Snowman. I can't say I expected that..

This next week I'll be reading from the books listed above, but some items from my home library will get priority; I have Sharpe's Revenge and The Men Who United the States, the latter of which seems to be a little adventure and a little economic history.

Inside the library, they were celebrating No-Shave November in amusing style.


You may recognize that volume on the bottom from a couple of years ago..

Well, 'til next week -- happy reading! 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
291 pages
© 1997 Jon Krakauer

When Outside magazine dispatched Jon Krakauer to join an expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1996 to investigate its commercialization, the opportunity allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream of climbing to its top -- but in May 1996, that dream turned quickly into a nightmare, as Krakauer was intimate witness to one of Everest's greatest climbing disasters.  Into thin Air is his record of the experience, written less to fulfill Outside's hopes for an examination of profiteering and more as a way of coming to terms with the loss of so many people he'd spent nearly four weeks with.  It is at first exciting, then harrowing; an inspiring, longer climb up to the heights of human endeavor  that crashes quickly, sliding down a boulder-filled crevasse into the abyss.

Mount Everest stands as the highest above-ground mountain in the world, being part of the Himalayan mountain range that forms the border of Tibet and Nepal. The difficulty in ascending it lies not merely with the frequent winds, biting cold, or the fact that parts of the approach are icy, narrow, or so steep that they require technical skills with ropes to surmount. Nor is the difficulty limited to Everest's status as a natural gauntlet resembling an old-school video game, in which climbers must dodge falling rocks and ice missles from above while simutaneously hoping the ground underneath them doesn't give way. The greatest obstacle to human ascent is the fact that much of the peak towers so high that oxygen levels are but a third of what they are at sea level. Even ordinary respiatory requirements would find that amount insufficient, and a person dropped onto the peak by magic or a transporter would find himself unconscious in minutes. But climbing nearly 30,000 feet -- the cruising altitude of a transcontinental jet, like the Airbus Krakauer took to Nepal --   requires considerably more. Even when relying on canisters of bottled oxygen,   those who near the peak are operating on mental and physical vapors; their bodies find the effort of digestion so hard at that height that they prefer to consume muscle tissue for fuel. Physically exhausted and mentally handicapped at the peak, the difficulty in scaling Everest is returning to the ground safely. This proves tragically true with Krakauer's expedition.

In spite of the difficulty, Mount Everest is enormously popular both among serious mountaineers as well as rich would-be outdoorsmen who are anxious to prove their manliness by subduing the world's greatest physical challenges. When Krakauer joined a commercial expedition -- Adventure Consulants, run by an enthusiastic mountaineer named Rob Hall -- he was among nearly fifty people intending to climb up at once. That number included not only another commercial group, Mountain Madness, but various teams from Taiwan and South Africa, and a few enterprising individuals like a young Swede who bicycled from Europe to Nepal before hoofing it up the mountain.  The price for trying is enormous; even before equipment and plane fare are factored in, Nepal requires licenses to climb that start at $10,000 a head -- or $25,000 for individuals working alone.  Commercial guides like Hall and his nascent rival Scott Fischer (of Mountain Madness) charge even more, up to $65,000 in Hall's case.  That cost overs not only the guides' expertise, but their prepatory work; not only had Hall made the summit seven times prior, but he employed a crew of local Sherpas to establish ropes and create caches of supplies for his clients. For all their experience and preparation, however, humans high upon the peak of Everest are very subject to the wrath of Nature.

Though Jon Krakauer -- an experienced mountaineer -- was the first of his group to make the summit, and returned safely to one of their staging camps before nightfall, few of his team were as lucky. A fantastic storm hit the mountain as dozens of individuals were in the middle of climbing or descending, and it would be their undoing. Fierce winds not only destroyed physical guides, like the ropes, and flattened tents, but they prevented climbers from making progress at all; on narrow ledges and icy paths, any movement in the wrong direction could lead to death -- and it did.  They had to stay where they were, and every moment brough them closer to disaster, because once they exhausted their oxygen bottles, they would quickly become weak and delerious, if not not fatally hill;   high altitude and low pressure are lethal to a human body unadapted for either. As their brains were deteriorating, their bodies were increasingly numbed by the cold. Even those who had found a secure place to rest were not exempt from dangers of low oxygen or prolonged exposure.  Once the storm hit on May 10,   a disaster was born and people began to die at rates unseen outside of a slasher film.  Some were taken by the cold, others thrown into darkness by the wind.  Those involved in the commercial expeditions were the most badly ravaged,  in part because of their location and in part because they lost their leadership -- and once the guides were gone, a team of mountain-climbing novices were no match for the fury of of an awakened mount.  In a final chapter, Krakaurer -- whose authorial voice loses its edge as the disaster waxes, becoming increasingly desperate -- tries to explain what happened. Why was the 1996 expedition so lethal?   He puts forth a few guesses; the sheer number of people on the slopes, practically inviting catastophe, and the fact that their guide had never encountered a storm before. His prior ascents had all been blessed with clear skies, so reliably perfect for climbing that Hall regarded May 10 as an auspicious day for himself: all of his  summits were achieved on that day.

Into thin Air is a gripping look into what it takes -- and what it can cost -- to climb Mount Everest,  though it leaves one wondering why on Earth anyone would do it after Sir Edmund Hillary.  There is no reward for the hours of agony; the vista is barren and lifeless. Even Krakauer, who had dreamed of Everest, recorded that at the peak, he was too exhausted to care about his success.

Monday, November 11, 2013

This week at the library: NaNoWriMo, rebels against the rebellion, death on Everest, and maaaaybe Richard Sharpe

Dear readers:

For the first time in the five or so years I've been aware of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, I am attempting to participate. For those who have not heard of this, it's a challenge in which participants commit to write, in the month of November, a 50,000 word novel. This amounts to writing ~1700 words a day,  which is more difficult than it sounds considering not only the tendency of life to pop up and claim time meant for writing, but the fact that you have to have something to write about.  I'm participating not because I have a coherent novel to write, but because  I like the idea of forcing myself to sit down every night and work on on growing one thing. I've missed two days, but am off this Saturday and intend on catching up...providing I think can of something to write. At present I have decided to have my main character chased into the woods by dogs. I assume I can get a few thousand words out of him trying to get back to civilization.

Over the last week or so I've finished a handful of books, both fiction and non-. I resumed Wendell Berry's "Port William" series with Nathan Coulter, which was the first book I've read by Berry that didn't bowl me over. It's the first book in the series, and is principally about the relationship between three generations of Coulter men after Nathan's mother dies. Nathan is a short novel, and lacking completely the commentary characters add in Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter on the changes they see in town. It helps that very little time passes in Nathan Coulter, for the title character is still a boy at its end.

Another book I've finished with is The Last Human, a "guide to 22 species of extinct humans".  This work is essentially a catalog of fossils, with a few brief documentary 'stories' about the man-apes included, and supplemented with lots of fetching photos. Each chapter details the fossils for a given species (which can be very scant; sometimes amounting to nothing more than bits and pieces of a skull), technical descriptions of the remains (describing, for instance, the thickness of brow ridges or the orientation of a given orifice), and speculations on their behavior and diet given their bones as we have them, and the environment of the time. It's more suitable as a reference, a snapshot of how little we know presently, than as a popular introduction to the natural history of humans.

I also finished two works which will get comments: CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters, which I was taken by, and Train Time, a bit of business projection.

In the next week, I intend for my reading to remain light: I have a book on interlibrary loan, The South vs. The South, and have checked out Sharpe's Revenge. However, earlier today someone posted a link to a story detailing -- of all things -- the number of bodies laying about Mount Everest of would-be climbers who succumbed to the elements, and who are not retrievable because of the ravages of the environment. Because of the extreme cold, there are people up there who've been deceased for nearly a century. Anyhoo, after that I spent several hours reading about Mount Everest expeditions and learned that not only is it very dangerous and wretchedly painful, but costs $25,000 for permission from the Nepalese government to try. I may be reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, who participated in an infamously lethal expedition back in 1996.   If I had that much money to spend on one recreational trip, I would not use it to climb a mountain that killed one in four people . I'd learn to fly and rent a P-51, I think...

Happy reading -- and happy writing, to my fellow nanowrimo participants.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Consumers' Republic

A Consumers' Republic
© 2002 Lizbeth Cohen
576 pages

What is the meaning of citizenship? To the Romans, and to the early Americans, citizenship was an exclusive state of being that depended on owning land, and so a stake in society. In the early twentieth century, however, as suffrage waxed more universal and markets were flooded with goods made for the masses, citizenship took on a different meaning. To be a citizen of a modern, capitalist  democracy was to be a Consumer;  voices rang out most strongly at the marketplace, not the ballot box.  In A Consumer's Republic, author Lizbeth Cohen examines the way the burgeoning consumer market effected political activism.  Beginning with consumer activist groups who protested high prices amid the Depression, her history examines the Civil Rights and feminist movements through the lens of consumption.  Consumer equality, not income distribution, would create a classless society. Women fought for the right to have their own bank accounts and lines of credit in addition to equal wages;  blacks labored for just prices in stores as well as unhindered access to the vote.  This is an account of social, political, marketing history, intertwined together.  Consumption didn't just serve individual desires; as Keynsianism became the dominant economic philosophy, intellectuals and citizen-consumers alike saw their compulsive buying as not only fun, but patriotic: their every new gadget grew the economy.  The consumers' republic began to die in the 1970s  and 1980s amid economic turbulence; even though people continued to buy more and more,  the political aspect of their purchasing, the meaning they had given it, fell away, both because the economy no longer responded as Keynes promised and their motives became more purely self-focused and only tangently connected to the thought of improving the nation's fortunes.

  Although occasionally touching on the negative aspects of the rapidly expanding consumer culture -- the growth of suburbia, for instance --  A Consumers' Republic is not a polemic raging against consumerism, and effects open to interpretation,  like the consequences of consumerism on citizens' peace of mind, are not touched on. It has a scholarly feel, though a 'popular' look;  the art is well-done, including plenty of large black and white photographs that demonstrate the point at hand, and stylized headings that bring to mind advertisements from the 1950s. One particularly effective illustration shows the evolution of advertising in Ebony magazine from the 1950s to the 1970s, as white-owned haircare manufactures realized that (1) blacks were a market and (2) that black people were a different market. They gradually transition from a white model demonstrating hair treatment lotion to a black model advertising products related to 'natural' hair.   Republic is a fascinating look at another side of the rise of consumption,  impressively thorough in that respect, and free of scathing criticism if not critical substance.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sharpe's Siege

Sharpe's Siege
© 1987 Bernard Cornwell
352 pages

               Napoleon may not realize it, but his wars are lost. The English have achieved total naval supremacy,  and are free to raid the coasts of the imperial hexagon at their leisure. Richard Sharpe, whose sturdy Riflemen are in part responsible for l’Empereur’s imminent job loss, has been dispatched on one such raid. His orders are to capture a small but potentially bothersome fort, and possibly wander over to Bordeaux, where it is said the people are clamoring for the restoration of the Bourbons. Alas for Sharpe,  he is a pawn twice over; he has been invited to join the raid only so the bumbling generals in charge of it will have hope of victory, or at the very least a good scapegoat – and the generals themselves are operating on suspect intelligence fed to them by French counterintelligence mastermind, Pierre Ducos.  When Ducos learns that the redcoats are up for a little raiding and Sharpe is with him, he takes a personal interest in not only rendering their plans moot, but condemning Sharpe to die.  In short order, the good rifleman is trapped in France with no hope of escape but an American pirate who was to have hung for crimes against the Crown.   Sharpe’s  Siege distinguishes itself from many other Sharpe novels in that the military action is wholly fabricated; the raid he participates in never took place.  Although the military scenes are full of excitement and explosions and the like,  they take second place to Ducos’ scheming; there’s no doubt that Sharpe will capture the fort and then defend it against a host of embarrassed Frenchmen, but getting out of the greater trap is an altogether different feat. What I appreciated most about it was the mixing-in of naval action. Alas for me, there are only two more Sharpe books waiting – Sharpe’s  Revenge, which is next, and then  Sharpe’s Waterloo.

Hitler's Peace

Hitler's Peace
© 2006 Phillip Kerr
464 pages

Willard Mayer has the strangest luck. How many people get to dine with FDR, talk about the worries of life with Winston Churchill, annoy Joseph Stalin, and shake hands with Adolf Hitler? And this after they've  been arrested several times for espionage given a string of bodies trailing behind them. Mayer's no murderer or spy, even if once in his impressionable youth he was a member of the Communist party and passed information to the Soviet intelligence service, the NKVD.  The year is 1943, and Mayer is a philosopher-turned-OSS agent who is accompanying FDR to an ultra top-secret conference as a German translator/intelligence strategist. The confidential conference in Tehran -- the one so concealed that everyone and their twitchy uncle knows about - is the first coming together of the Big Three: FDR,Churchill, and Stalin. But more will happen there than will ever be publicly known, for while some Germans are planning the assassinations  of the allied trio, others intend to entice them into an early peace.

Hitler's Peace is exciting from beginning to end, a bit of historical fiction that occupies a grey area between historical and alternate fiction. Although history is fundamentally unchanged, Kerr's plot explores facts considered odd and provides a highly speculative explanation. Truth is stranger than fiction, however; I was astonished to learn that some events within the novel which strained credibility actually occurred, like the string of calamities that beset the Willie D. Porter, one of the ships escorting FDR to the conference. Within hours, the ship backed into and destroyed another ship, saw a man vanish into the sea, blew a boiler, dropped a depth charge, and just for good measure, fired a torpedo directly at FDR's ship. "She's not what you would call a lucky ship", the baffled president noted shortly before ordering the ship to detach itself from the convoy and deliver its crew for total arrest at the nearest port.  The cast of characters is largely German (Mayer is the son of German immigrants),which is a refreshing change.  They're all antagonists who are neither sympathetic nor overtly villainous; the Nazi regime's crimes against humanity are not ignored, but neither are those of the Russians, and the revelation of several Soviet slaughters features as a plot point. The novel plays fast and loose with history, but touches on aspects of the war largely ignored (Soviet war crimes, for instance, or "Operation Long Jump"). I found it entertaining, though Mayer is only marginally more sympathetic than the book's 'baddies'.

Monday, November 4, 2013

This week at the library: airborne hell, David Sedaris, and coffee with evil

Last week I broke off from The City in History to do some light reading, beginning with Phillip Kerr's Hitler's Peace, a bit of speculative historical fiction which will be getting full comments tonight. The novel features an Office of Strategic Services agent accompanying President Roosevelt to the Big Three conference at Tehran in 1943, where he keeps getting arrested after insisting there are German spies at work. Considering the string of murders and catastrophes that follow him and Roosevelt,  he might be on to something.  It's a fun WW2 thriller, but the big attraction is how often the lead character rubs shoulders with titanic personalities --  and not just the Big Three.

After that I read through Elliot Hester's Plane Insanity, which collects outrageous tales taken from his years of service as an airline steward. Most of the stories concern the bad behavior of passengers --who break into fist fights and sneak pythons aboard -- though there are some involving the airline crew's own flubs, like the time the author opened an emergency door and witnessed the jump chute (the inflatable tube that allows passengers to escape).   It's an entertaining enough read, though it certainly makes the life of airline service unappealing: Hester's experience reveals  nothing but fourteen-hour days filled with the worst experiences in customer service, with air turbulence thrown into the mix, and a life lived in hotel rooms and buses sometimes enlivened by raucous parties and meaningless sex. Neither Hester nor any of his coworkers seem to take much pleasure, let alone fulfillment, from their jobs.

After that I enjoyed thoroughly David Sedaris' Lets Explore Diabetes with Owls, a curious collection of essays and short pieces of fiction. The fiction defies classification;  the only stories told are presented as true tales from Sedaris' life (delivered in his dry, inappropriate, and pathos-inspiring way) , but mixed in with them are oddities like a letter written from a lady to her sister, chiding her for giving a pizza coupon as a wedding gift. (Nevermind that  the lady's driving led to her sister being crippled and dumped by her boyfriend, and that said boyfriend just happened to be the man the lady was marrying..) A few of the pieces can be tenatively tied together under the heading travel, but it's largely a collection of miscllenaeous pieces. Sedaris writes on the usual topics: his dyfunctional family, the oddities of life, and the ocassional animal fixation. It's a second-tier Sedaris book, I think; far better than Holidays on Ice, which I read for the Santaland Diaries and nothing else,  but not quite as funny as say, Me Talk Pretty One Day

This week, I am engaged in Sharpe's Siege, where the good rifleman is once again running around doing the impossible with thrilling heroics and not a few one-liners from his compatriots. This one mixes in naval action with the land engagment, and features an American privateer.  So far, so good. Once that's finished I''ll return to The City in History. I think if I can make it to the medieval epoch, I'll be all right.  Waiting in the wings is Wendell Berry's Nathan Coulter, which is not at all as spellbinding as Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter were.