Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Spanish Frontier in North America

The Spanish Frontier in North America
© 1992 David J. Weber
602 pages

Although American history books will generally mention the early exploration of North America by figures like de Soto,  little attention on the whole is given to the Spanish colonial enterprise. At its height, Spain's flag flew from the eastern coast of Florida, at St. Augustine, all the way across the continent to Baja California.  That height was reached shortly after the American Revolution, followed by a dramatic decline after the French wars erupted.  While the Southwest still retains its Spanish stamp, in places like the Carolinas or Alabama there's very little left to remember New Spain by.  The Spanish Frontier in North America offers a history of the Spanish colonial enterprise in North America as it waxed and waned with Spain's continental ambitions.

Largely a work of politics, Weber devotes some space toward the end on culture, and especially toward how Spain is remembered in architectural styles like Mission Revival.  At its most basic, it is a sweeping history of Europe's exploration and resettlement of southern North America,  The author contends that understanding American (U.S.) history is impossible without appreciating Spanish America.  It certainly can't be ignored, especially given Spain's role in the war for independence, and The Spanish Frontier opens a new world for me in demonstrating not only the expanse of Spanish exploration, but  the amount of conflict between Spain, France, and Britain which unfolded for centuries before the thirteen English colonies ever entered the international arena.  Also of note, and displayed here, are the European powers'  ever-shifting attitudes towards Native Americans, spanning war and marriage. While all three major powers attempted to cultivate their neighboring tribes as trading partners -- Spain was also very keen on Christianizing the Pueblos, Hopis, etc. This christening wasn't simply a religious introduction, either: the intent was to create Europeans out of the Pueblos, in language, farming, and dress.  Ultimately, even the españoles would adopt their diet and architecture to the new climate as the native incorporated European plants and animals into their culture, creating something closer to a dynamic than a one-way cultural conquest.

I found The Spanish Frontier dense but fascinating. I never knew how far north Spanish explorers trekked, creating posts even in the Carolinas, and that they explored deep into the American interior. I was also unaware of the amount of European warfare on the continent prior to the revolution:  Florida  exchanged hands several times!  Similarly eye-raising was the swiftness of Spain's fall: while it was able to reclaim a lot of lost territory after the Treaty of Paris which ended the American revolution, that brief moment when it stretched from coast to coast was a definite peak: shortly thereafter, Spain fell into succession crises, followed by the French revolution which isolated the colonies from Spain proper. The rising Americans made short work of claiming Florida and pushing across the Mississippi, The author has an odd detachment from European culture, sometimes writing about it as though it were foreign. He informs the readers, for instance, that the Christian rite of initiation is baptism, and that Christians worshiped in places called 'churches'.  Is he writing to Martians?    Weber's work has the heft of a textbook, and is copiously researched:  slightly less than half the text consists of notes.   Though it looks intimidating, it seems very valuable as a colonial reference book.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mideast Index

(The Pyramids, Shah Mosque, Nile River, Ishtar Gate, and Jerusalem)

Cradle of Civilization: Ancient Mesopotamia

Age of Empires

Dar al-Islam

The Turkish Span: Medieval to Modernity

The Widening Gyre


Literature, Memoirs, and Culture

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Ugly Little Boy

The Ugly Little Boy
© 1991 Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg. Based on the 1958 short story by Asimov.

How would you like to babysit a Neanderthal?   Granted, Edith Fellowes didn't realize that was the job description. She knew she'd be responsible for caring for a small boy from the past -- a wild child,  a true savage who could not discern the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork --  but never did she imagine working with a true Neanderthal. (Besides her boss, anyway.)  A  company called Stasis, Ltd. has developed the technology to pull small articles from the far past and hold them in a stasis bubble for study, and a young Neanderthal has become the unwitting subject of their experimentation.  There are of course ethical issues at hand, but so long as the newspapers continue to describe him as an ape-boy, who will raise qualms about his capture? No one but Miss Fellowes. As the boy's nurse, his constant companion, his teacher, the closest thing he has to a mother, she sees him not as an experiment but a boy. He is her Timmie, her ward,  a complete person whom she loves despite his jarring looks and growling attempts at English.  Ultimately, when push comes to shove, Fellowes loves Timmie more than she loves her job -- and when they try to end the experiment and send him back after years of isolation, she takes matters into her own hands.

Asimov often referred to "The Ugly Little Boy" as one of his very favorite short stories, though it was never one I particularly cared for. Robert Silverberg's expansion adds much of interest here, as he did with "Nightfall"  and "The Positronic Man".  The characters are fleshed out greatly, and humanized in the case of Fellowes' boss Hoskins. Silverberg  includes another sub-story, one that follows Timmie's increasingly-stressed tribe as their numbers dwindle and they find themselves surrounded by 'Others'  This provides an interesting contrast to Asimov's development of little Timmie; while the original story relied solely on archaeological evidence, Silverburg offers speculation into Neanderthal culture.  Timmie's tribe doen't create representational art not because they can't grasp creating representational images, but because they don't want to anger the spirits. (Silverberg doesn't delve much into his Neanderthal tribe's religion: it seems vaguely animistic with a central Goddess, presumably an earth mother.)  The two stories ultimately intersect at the end,  with a conclusion that invites  speculation*. Silverberg also adds another angle to the story proper, in the form of a political agitator who harries Stasis, Ltd. to make sure they are providing a healthy environment for the child. The agitator, Mannheim, is the sort who sues companies into bankruptcy, so his increasing interest in 'helping' the incredibly  well-nurtured but lonely Timmie adds urgency to Stasis, Ltd's desire to end the experiment.

While the Neanderthal chapters took some getting used to -- the characters have names like 'Dark Wind', 'Milky Fountain', 'She Who Knows' --   their conflicts with  the 'others' have interest. It is intriguing to reflect that once upon a time there were two distinct kinds of humans, very different from one another physically, but close enough to compete for the same resources and perhaps for even the same dinner dates. Modern research dates the original 1950s facts of Asimov's story, but Silverberg cushions the blow.  I found the story much more appealing in novel form, but perhaps I merely enjoyed it more these days because I am more sentimental now: I find Fellowes' passion for Timmie more engaging than the  technological aspect.   To date I've thoroughly enjoyed the Silverberg-Asimov expansions of Asimov's originals, and The Ugly Little Boy is no exception. It made a story I found fair into one which was truly enjoyable.

* Spoiler: Fellowes decides to puncture the stasis bubble and allows herself to be thrown back into time with Timmie. In the novel, they appear in a blaze of light between the increasingly confused and stressed camps of Cro Magnons and Neanderthals, who are immediately awed by her. Is she worshipped as a god? Do she and Timmie go into business as translators?  Do they all get eaten by short-faced bears?   We'll never know...

(Okay,  no being eaten by short-faced bears. They were a North American thing, and the Neanderthals never got around to doing the pilgrim thing and discovering the new world. They just wandered into the mists of history in Iberia...)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Men from Earth

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Journey Home

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ten Novels Outside the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Revolutionist, Robert Littell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable mentions:

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Country Called Amreeka

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

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

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

Crescent and Star

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

TBR: And Then There was One

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

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

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

Taken down!

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

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

Literary Converts

Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief
© 2000 Joseph Pearce
452 pages


Literary Converts is a historical survey of the 'second spring' of Anglo-Catholic literature and all that followed, covering most of the twentieth century.  Its author would call it a history of grace acting through literature, and Joseph knows about the power of literature; his own soul was rescued through it. In his youth he was the publisher of Bulldog, a vicious racial newspaper in the U.K, but while exploring economic debate he encountered Chesterton, and through Chesterton the redemptive power of the Christian faith.   In Literary Converts, he takes on nearly a century of English literary society, focusing on a group of authors  whose paths brought them closer to Rome, even as the rest of society became more secular. While the 32 sections appear to be miniature biographies, they are in fact intertwined; Pearce tells here the story of a multi-generational community, one decade’s converts inspiring the next through literature and personal conversation.  There are many familiar names here, the greatest being G.K. Chesterton, but some have passed into obscurity.  Many caused scandals when they converted, either because of their social status (R.H. Benson, the son of an Anglican archbishop), or because of their long-respected stature as libertines, like Evelyn Waugh.   What did they see in tradition and the Catholic church, amid increasing material prosperity?

 In an age of dehumanizing work and political machines, of eugenics and social 'darwinism'*,  they saw an institution which insisted on the dignity of the human person, regardless of the ideology of the hour; when populations were being shifted from the fields to the cities, when everything seemed chaotic and new, they saw stability in a  tradition that had weathered the storms of centuries and would, most likely, stand fast through these,As  monstrous factories belched smoke, armed mobs brawled in the streets, and ugliness was enthroned,  they saw in the west's tradition a preserve of beauty, truth, and love. The work produced by these authors -- a lifetime's worth of reading --  wasn't mere spiritual dabbling. Chesterton and Belloc, for interest, provided works of political economy in The Servile State, What's Wrong with the World, and An Outline of Sanity;  T.S. Eliot created The Waste Land, and Christopher Dawson contributed insightful history. Even if they did not join the Catholic church, as was the case with C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, they still drew very near it, and did so through literary engagement – and often through engagement with one another. To read this book is to eavesdrop on a great conversation, a century of  passionate and introspective men and women grappling with the fundamental question of meaning.     

While Pearce is an accessible writer, this is a book of density, and may fall on the obscure side for those who aren't passionate about -- even smitten by -- literature.  I only heard of it while listening to Pearce  lecture on the 'English spring' following the Romantic period in literature. 

Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Phillip Zaleski
The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and Davis Jones; Adam Schwartz

* With apologies to Charles Darwin, since that pernicious social policy owes its name to Herbert Spencer. 

Monday, July 11, 2016


ST TNG #32: Requiem
© 1994 Michael Jan Friedman,  Kevin Ryan
277 pages

dun-dun DA DA DA DA DA DA dun-dun DA da!

One hundred years ago, James Kirk of the USS Enterprise arrived at Cestus III to find a Federation colony in flames,  virtually all of its residents destroyed by mysterious attackers.  Kirk soon found himself in direct physical conflict with the attackers, a race of dinosaur-like creatures called the Gorn.    Kirk was able to find a way to conclude the Cestus affair without further bloodshed, and diplomatic overtures followed many decades later. Now, as the Federation and the Gorn try to keep the peace, the Federation's most experienced negotiator is lost -- lost on Cestus III.

Although Requiem begins with a flashback, Picard isn't lost in the memory of Gorn training scenarios, the historical record, or even his own experience with the Gorn as captain of the Stargazer. He is literally marooned in time, thrown to Cestus III four days before the deadly attack by a mysterious alien artifact in space. (When will Starfleet learn that mysterious artficats floating in space never lead to GOOD things?)    Picard is atonished by the coincidence: on the verge of restoring Federation-Gorn relations, he's been thrown to their beginning? He's also riven in conflict: while he knows he can't fight history, can't warn the colonists, their experimental power station is on the verge of destroying them in way. Worse yet, having been rescued by the colonists after he was transported through space and time into the middle of a landslide, he has a growing personal attachment to the colonists -- and while he's having moral crises and trying to pass himself off as Dixon Hill,  Merchant Captain and Totally Not a Spy,  Riker is being badgered by Starfleet to produce Picard and get to Gorn, pronto.

I thoroughly enjoyed Requiem, though Friedman and Ryan never explain why it is the Mysterious Alien Artifact threw Picard to, of all places, Cestus III on the eve of the Gorn attack.  Since we have seen other artifacts that can transport users to variety of places in time and space (the Guardian of Forever, for instance), perhaps this is another one -- one that is guided by the 'user's' thoughts. Perhaps when Picard activated the time-transport, his thoughts were on Cestus III -- hardly surprising given the impending negotiations.   "Arena" is one of my favorite TOS episodes, and so this look at the colony before its destruction succeeds for me. The 'b' plot also features Ro Laren being appointed acting first officer, and the book ends with Kirk and company arriving and "Arena" beginning.

It's got the Stargazer, Kirk, Ro Laren, and the Enterprise-D. What more do you want?

10% Human

10% Human: How Your Body's Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness
© 2015 Alanna Collen
336 pages

Walt Whitman wasn't thinking of bacteria when he mused -- "I am large, I contain multitudes" -- but Alanna Collen could have gotten away with quoting him. She opens her book with the bombshell that ninenty percent of the 'cells' in our bodies are actually independent mcirobes, living their own little lives, and devotes the rest of it to exploring what effect that has on our health.  We are less discrete, self-contained individuals, and closer to mobile ecosystems,  in which microbes are an integral part and not just germy villains.  Microbes are not only essential parts of the human body -- slimy oil that keeps the body's engine running smoothly,  aiding in digestion and manufacturing essential elements like Vitamin B12. In some cases, like our own cells' mitochrondia, we've even adopted microbes into the family.  But there's more to the story of microbes and health, and Collen credits our overzealous germaphobia with many modern diseases.

Semmelweis did humanity and medicine a great favor when he realized the cause of childbed sickness was sloppy sanitation, but we may have taken his prescription too far in treating all microbes as 'germs' to be eradicated.  As mentioned, many are necessary to our bodily functions: babies receive helpful bacteria with their mothers' very milk.   Animal testing has indicated that bacterial species can have intense effects on their host: mice have changed personalities when their respective strains were switched, becoming more outgoing or more reserved; similar effects were observed in populations of lean and chubby mice.  That last is especially of note to an increasingly overweight global population, but there are no easy answers. (While some microbe species allow for the uber-efficient metabolization of food, stealthily increasing our caloric  intake, others produce byproducts that put fat cells on overdrive.)  The fact that our bodies contain many different types of bacteria is important, because they compete with one another. When we disrupt the balance of power with erratic courses of antibiotics, or abruptly and dramatically alter our diets,  nasty strains can dominate to our detriment. Collen attributes a number of 'western' or modern diseases to microbial havocincluding allergies and autism.  The section on autism has fantastic human interest: after one four-year old boy suddenly developed it after an ear inefection, his mother devoted herself to research, research the boy's sister continued decades lafter when she grew up and went to grad school.

10% Human is one of the more engaging pieces of biology writing I've ever read, and immensely importance from a personal and public health perspective.  Collen's' writing is very personable, never intimidating. She even sneaks in the tiniest bit of toilet humor when she refers to 'transpoosion', or transferring one person's fecal bacteria to another person's intestines to rebuild a ravaged microbial pool. (The  body has a bacterial backup in the appendix, but sometimes reinforcements are necessary.)  It should be obvious after a half-century of mass dieting and treadmill running than the simplistic calories in vs calories consumed model isn't adequate for explaining our weight woes, and here I suspect Collen will find a lot of appeal for people.  For me,  10% Human reminds me yet again of how we are not static creatures, built of DNA legos, but dynamic creatures -- constantly being remade, not only by our experience, but by the guests in our innards.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
© 1968 Phillip K. Dick
210 pages

In a world ruined by nuclear war, most animals are extinct and most humans who can have fled for the cold, distant colonies of Mars.  Technical civilization has survived, creating artificial pets for people to cherish.  It has also created lifelike androids for people to fear-- such constructs are barred from Earth, but still prefer operating on a planet where nuclear fallout is included in weather reports to barren wastelands like Mars.  Androids who escape the colonies to return to Earth are the business of 'bounty hunters' like Rick Deckard, who hunt them down and 'retire' them --  permanently.   In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Deckard takes on the challenge of finding six recent escapees, androids  that so perfectly replicate humans that the conventional diagnostics might not even detect them. The case will, for him, blur the lines between living and dead, between reality and fiction.  It is a thriller which, halfway through, features three characters sitting in a room with trained guns on another,  two convinced of fiction and one knowing the truth. The one isn't Deckard, nor is it the reader, and the sudden plot turn succeeds magnificently.  The world of Dick's imagination is fairly dismal: empty buildings, sparsely populated by lonely people who get their emotional life from plugging into a 'mood organ' that manipulates their brains. This is part of a new religion, Mercerism, which features heavily in the confusing ending, one in which the reader is left wondering what was real and what wasn't.   This was a definite success as a thriller, though one that left me missing the safe optimism of Asimov's robots.

Asimov's Robots books, including the slightly more grim books not written by him.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Enterprise: the First Adventure

Enterprise: the First Adventure
© 1986 Vonda McIntyre
386 pages

Jim Kirk thought he was going places. Not even thirty, he's been named captain and given the Enterprise, famously captained by Chris Pike. But instead of launching out on an extended five year missions, he's...transporting the circus? Yes, Starfleet in its wisdom has decided to use a top-of-the-line Starship to transport a bunch of jugglers, magicians, and a menagerie of ill-tempered critters that includes a winged horse, on a tour of several starbases. Fortunately for the plot, they encounter not only a wacky, emotional cousin of Spock, but a rogue Klingon ship out to spite the Federati -- wait a minute, is this The Final Frontier?! The wacky Vulcan isn't going to hijack the ship and take them to meet The God Thing, is he? ...anyhoo, as billed this is the First Adventure of the Starship Enterprise. Its primary attraction is that the Enterprise crew first meet each other here, including the teenage Rand and Chekov. The characters' introductions are on the predictable side: Spock and McCoy argue, Chekov is cheerfully delusional about Russia, Sulu has swords, etc. McIntyre offers some insight into the characters: Rand, for instance, is depicted as an underage teen who joined Starfleet to escape slavery, hence her nervousness.  There's also appreciable coolness between Kirk and Spock, who interact as distant professionals. Gary Mitchell isn't the only nod to what adventures follow the crew: Kirk and Spock first bond over 3D chess (a la "Where No Man Has Gone Before") and there are feline crewmen, a nod to the Animated Adventures. The weirdest thing about the books is the flying horse: how can six limbs be imposed on a four-limb brain? While the early characterization provides some interest for hardcore fans, it's really not that engaging.

The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage
© 1895 Stephen Crane
170 pgs

Stephen Crane practically introduced Civil War historical fiction, writing this tale set during a war that was ended six years before his birth. The Red Badge of Courage is the account of a young soldier's baptism by fire when he eagerly joins Lincoln's war against the south, wondering -- as the day of battle draws near, caught in the grips of nervous anticipation -- if he can really pull it off. Will he be a daring soldier, or cower in the face of the enemy? He seems to survive his first brush with the southerners, but when they launch a second attack, an unexpected one, his inner reserve melts, and he flees the line for the safety of the wilderness. There he encounters the dead and dying, sees a friend fall before his very eyes, and responds by ashamedly returning to his regiment, where he distinguishes himself in action against the enemy, losing himself to a kind of battle madness. Crane's tale combines vivid descriptions of the landscape and battle -- the literary depiction of the enemy's fires reflected in a dark river at night is especially haunting -- with inane and repetitive dialogue. It is a pity Crane didn't live long to refine his craft.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the Way
© 2014 Ryan Holiday
224 pages

Let us say, dear reader, that you have heard of Stoicism, hailed as the go-to philosophy of mental fortitude. You want to read about it. But you don't want to take on Epictetus or Aurelius in their full, because the one time you peeked into a copy of the Meditations or the Discourses in the local bookstore, it was full of florid Victorian prose.  What if you could have  a Stoicism lite, watered down to a few punchy self-help lines, mixed in with other advice, and illustrated with a variety of various politicians, warriors, and businessmen who faced adversity head-on and triumphed? you are, The Obstacle is the Way!  One pinch Stoicism, one pinch life coach, and a spoonful of people more successful than you are. It is energetic, quotable, and  I suspect, forgettable.

 A few concepts from Stoicism wander in: first, the essential tenet that there are things under our power, and things not, and that wisdom lies in only concerning ourselves with that which is under our power, The second is 'impressions', or the automatic reactions/judgments our brains create about things, the reactions that cause us more misery than the actual events.  If we have escaped a burning home, we are in no danger; the suffering comes from lamenting over the possessions. We can choose to cease the wailing.  A few  Stoic practices appear, too, like negative visualization -- imagining the worst that could befall you, and thinking practically about the consequences in order to steel your brain for what is to come.  To this is added "The Process", or approaching a problem one step at a time, and other sundry advice that includes the gem, "What Works is Right".  This section is supported by that contemptible little soundbite from Rahm Emanuel -- "never let a crisis go to waste".   Straying a little close to the ends justifying the means, aren't we? It rather brings to mind the Reichstag fire or other machiavellian manipulation. Oh,  this advice can be made innocent, translated to truisms like 'don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good', but Holiday cares nothing for context.   That's the entire problem of the book, actually. The cohesiveness of Stoicism is abandoned altogether, and his attempt at mentioning ethics is tacked on at the end, in a "Oh, yeah, and be nice, because we're all in this together".     It's about as inspirational as a schoolroom public service announcement. ("Just say no, kiddos!")

The Obstacle is the Way has its merits, in potentially introducing people who view philosophy as academic naval-gazing to its practical benefits.  If any of this advice actually sticks, it would prove fruitful...but like most self-help books,   there's just one witticism after another and most will float right out. It doesn't help that the author devotes a section at the end to congratulating his reader for having become a philosopher, a Stoic ubermensch.  What indulgent nonsense!  Stoicism is practiced, not read, and so as rebuttal I offer Epictetus,

"Suppose I should say to a wrestler, 'Show me your muscle'. And he should answer me, 'See my dumb-bells'. Your dumb-bells are your own affair; I want to see the effect of them.
'Take the treatise 'On Choice', and see how thoroughly I have perused it.' 
I am not asking about this, O slave, but how you act in choosing and refusing, how you manage your desires and aversions, your intentions and purposes, how you meet events -- whether you are in harmony with nature's laws or opposed to them. If in harmony, give me evidence of that, and I will say you are progressing; if the contrary, you may go your way, and not only comment on your books, but write some like them yourself; and what good will it do you?

Holiday might make a good read for people with a vague interest in taking back control of their emotional life, but if you're even remotely aware of Stoicism, there's not much here for you.

For an introduction to Stoicism, the mark to beat is still A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, authored by William Irvine.

Other books of note:
The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton.
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, which casts an appraising eye on Stoicism among other philosophies, like Epicureanism

The Stoics themselves:

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our America

Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States
© 2014  Felipe Fernández-Armesto
416 pages

Spain disappears from American history books following the Spanish-American war, in which the tired old empire was given a sound thrashing and retreated from the hemisphere, but Spanish America isn't a thing of the past.  Its heritage is older than English America, not only because the Spanish arrived first but because Spanish colonialism fused itself with the peoples and culture which it found.  Our America is a history of Spanish America, principally Mexico,  delivered from the rare perspective of a Spaniard raised partially in England.  While not nearly as sweeping as Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in the United States,  it offers abounding detail on the Anglo-Spanish struggle for power, first around the Gulf Coast and then later in the southwest as English colonies developed their own identity and ambition.  It is problematic, in that a Spanish Brit spends the book lecturing a American audience on what being 'American' is, but the perspective is unusual and at times refreshing.

Fernández-Armesto examines American history not from the east to the west -- which is how, in fact, the history of the United States as a government unfolded -- but from south to north.  He sees the United States as more colonial than European, and interprets affairs like the Revolution and the Civil War as part of general new-world struggles against colonial power. He sees the South's bid for independence as very kin to Mexico's own battles between centrists and decentralists, for instance . As mentioned, Our America's focus is Mexico and the Southwest, with Cubans and Puerto Ricans receiving scant attention at the very end. Our America is thus more a history of "New Spain" -- a label which, prior to the collapse of the Spanish empire during the Napoleonic wars, encompassed both areas.  If Fernández-Armesto actually hailed from Mexico, this could be called a localist history of the United States, rather like a history of the US delivered from the perspective of the South.  The chief weakness of this book is that the author confuses the United States and 'America' when he argues that the United States began with Spanish America. While the Euro-American experience as a whole began with Spanish exploration, the 'United States' is a government formed by thirteen States along the eastern seaboard of North America, ground never trod by the Spanish.  He also attributes European success in the Americas largely to the 'stranger effect' -- an effect which included hospitality given to visiting strangers, respectful awe of travelers from afar, and  the inclusion of them in native government to swing local battles for power one way or another.  While it's a factor to take into account, he completely writes off the 'guns, germs, and steel' triad in favor of this social element.

As a general history of Latin America, I think Harvest of Empire superior; but the amount of detail given to Spain and England's colonial wrangling, and later the American conquest of the southwest, makes it a book of note. It's certainly gotten my interest in the Spanish colonial period fired up!

American Colonies, Allen Taylor. Colonial history of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and even Russian America.
The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, James Wilson
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Juan Gonzales

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop
© 1927 Willa Cather
297 pages

Poor New Mexico -- so far from God, so close to the United States. The Pope can't help the tide of American -- and very Protestant -- settlement that is sure to follow Polk's war against Mexico, but the church in the southwest can be strengthened. To that end he dispatches Jean-Marie Latour to Santa Fe, there to serve as bishop.  Aided by his faithful friend, Joseph Vaillant,  Latour tarries with the people of New Mexico for decades before being buried by a doting multitude.  Cather combines beautiful descriptions of the landscape -- especially of the Sangre de Cristo mountains -- with lovely little stories about the bishop growing to know and love his new parishioners. Theirs is a world of danger, of ferocious storms, unforgiving heat,  occasional Apache raids, and plenty of brigands. Worse yet, the Americans are coming, and as they continue gaining land at Mexico's expense, the bishop's province grows, stretching from the Rockies to Mexico. He complains, good-naturedly, that it is hard for a poor bishop on a mule to keep pace with the march of history, with thousands of square miles of responsibility placed under his care.

The bishop and his companion compel interest for their gentleness; while he has come to restore discipline in a land where the priests have taken to siring families instead of nurturing the family of the church, he does not rush in where angels fear to tread. He realizes he is in a wholly new environment, and sees in the Indians -- the Apache, the Hopi, the Pueblo, and other peoples who were never reached by Spanish missionaries or forgot them -- a civilization with wisdom and conviction as deep as his.  He is awed by the ancientness of the land and the people upon it,  When he is wronged, as he is by a schismatic priest who refuses to accept oversight, he is still quick to forgive.  The sheer abundance of tenderness here, as generously proportioned as the western skies, make it a perfectly lovely read -- and all the more when Cather's brilliant descriptive writing is taken into account, creating an image of the Southwest with beauty that penetrates even the viewers' bones.

So You Want to Read about the Revolution

Although I'm reading American literature for Independence Day instead of history, why not share some favorites from previous years' Independence Day salutes?

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin from HBO's John Adams.

Founding Biographies
John Adams, David McCullough
First Family: John and Abigail Adams, Joseph Ellis
American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Bradley Birzer
The Cost of Liberty: the Life of John Dickinson, William Murchinson
Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow
American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis
His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph Ellis

Give me Liberty...
Common Sense, Tom Paine
Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis
Chainbreaker's War: a Seneca Chief Remembers the Revolution, Jeanne Adler
A People's History of the American Revolution, Ray Ralphael

...or Give Me Death
George Washington's Secret Six: the Spy Ring that Saved the Revolution, Brian Kilmead
1776, David McCullough

God Save the King
The Men Who Lost America,  Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy
The American Tory, ed. Morten Borden and Penn Borden

A More Perfect Union: the Early Republic
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Joseph Ellis
Founding Rivals: Madison vs Monroe, Chris DeRose

The Fort, Bernard Cornwell
Redcoat, Bernard Cornwell

Books of note but which I don't have review for are McCullough's 1776, and Jeff Shaara's revolutionary war fiction, beginning with The Glorious Cause.  Looking at a list of the books makes me realize I've read virtually nothing about the military aspect of the war, aside from 1776.   Something to remedy!

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Monkey Wrench Gang

The Monkey Wrench Gang
© 1975 Edward Abbey
352 pages

"Three things my daddy tried to learn me. 'Son', he always said, 'remember these three precepts and you can't go wrong. One, never eat at a place called Mom's. Two, never play cards with a man named Doc.'
'That's only two.'
'I can never recollect the third, and that's what worries me.'"

They say you can't stop progress, but with with plastic explosives, thermite, and a few friends, it's worth a shot.  The Monkey Wrench Gang is the madcap adventure story of four very disgruntled folk -- a brain surgeon with a predilection for chainsawing billboards, a wayward Mormon, a Green Beret out to wage a one-man war, and a lady-type --  who join together to wage a war of sabotage against the industrialists despoiling the Southwest. New Mexico, Utah, Arizona -- wherever there's an unguarded bulldozer, they'll gum its workings and set it on fire.  Where there's a bridge built at public expense for private gain, with smoggy air thrown in as a bonus gift, they'll blow it. And where there's a dam...they will dream and pray for a way to destroy it. The Monkey Wrench Gang chronicles their private beginnings, their chance meeting at the Grand Canyon, and their joint missions which draw down not only entirely too many helicopters, but the wrath of a bishop of the Mormons, who is working on his gubernatorial prospects and can't have a bunch of anarchists running around setting fire to his plans.   Time and again they narrowly escape, but eventually things go south. This is a novel for those who see in the wilderness relief from lunacy, who have wished for a "pre-cision" earthquake to topple the godawful constructs that often mar it.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is a adventure novel in which explosive sabotage mixes with similarly fiery dialogue and humor.  A reader who has already encountered Edward Abbey will see him again in these characters; his ardent love for the southwestern wilderness, the thoughtful yearning that it not be ruined, both for its sake and for humanity's, the contempt for the outsized.  It comes through in his characters' conversations with one another, in their narrative of their ambitions and plight.  Abbey is sometimes serious, sometimes farcical.  What he takes seriously is the desert wilderness, a vast landscape of breathtaking beauty: what he does not take seriously is ego of man, who thinks he can tame it. Tame it, never -- ruin it for others, maybe.  That's what Abbey and his characters aim against. They are against coal factories puffing vile plumes into the open air of the desert, against power lines and roads that only said factories and mines put to use;  against the invasion of the southwest by 'consumers" who want to check the Grand Canyon off their list, for whom the desert is not a profoundly moving  -- challenging, even -- experience, and merely a section of the photo album.   Each of the characters have their separate motives:  the Green Beret is furious that his home is being ruined by the same corporate SOBs who sent him to Vietnam, Seldom Seen Smith has lost his living because of the damned dam damming up the damned river, and the brain surgeon attributes growing health problems to the increasing amount of factories and mines. (The lady-type is involved because she majored in Classic French Literature, and what else are you going to do with that degree but blow up billboards?) .  Mostly, however, there is the conflict between the grand wilderness and the corporate-government complex that has delusions of grandeur but is only a major pain in the tuchus for the common man.  Abbey is, and his characters are shadows, of a kind of anarchism. Not the bomb-throwing type (they carefully set their bombs, no reckless flinging-about), but the kind that rages against the Man, embodied in the corporate-government complexes of power plants, mines, and the like.

I enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang,  having long found in Abbey a kindred spirit, at least as far as his small-is-beautiful political convictions and love for the wilderness go. (I hasten to add that I do not share Abbey's habit of billboard-sawing.)   Although Abbey's books were written during the dawn of the environmentalist movement, no one will find in him a stereotype. His characters, for instance, enthusiastically litter the highways they hate with beer cans,   because the vista has been so bespoiled that they are really only defacing the defacement.   While the Monkey Wrench Gang isn't exactly a moral mark to aim at, the dialogue makes this a fun novel, especially if you share Abbey's preference for decentralization. It's a nice rebels against the Man sort of tale, at any rate. Abbey is a man to spend time with. What a kick he must have been a few sheets to the wind...