Wednesday, November 30, 2016

British Historical Fiction

Ancient and Legendary Britain
Stonehenge, Bernard Cornwell
The Winter King: A Story of Arthur, Bernard Cornwell
Enemy of God: A Story of Arthur, Bernard Cornwell
Excalibur: A Story of Arthur, Bernard Cornwell

Roman Britain
Under the Eagle, Simon Scarrow
The Eagle's Conquest, Simon Scarrow
When the Eagle Hunts, Simon Scarrow

The Birth of England: Anglo-Saxons and the Viking Era
The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell
The Pale Horseman, Bernard Cornwell
Lords of the North, Bernard Cornwell
Sword Song: the Battle for London, Bernard Cornwell
The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell
Death of Kings, Bernard Cornwell
The Pagan Lord, Bernard Cornwell
The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell
Warriors of the Storm, Bernard Cornwell
Finn Gall, James Nelson (IRISH EXTRA)
Dubh-Linn,  James Nelson. (IRISH EXTRA)

High Middle Ages
Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Acquitaine, Alison Weir
In a Dark Wood, Michael Cadnum
Here There Be Dragons, Sharon Penfield
The Archer's Tale, Bernard Cornwell
1356, Bernard Cornwell
Heretic, Bernard Cornwell
Azincourt, Bernard Cornwell

Tudors, Stewarts
Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen, Alison Weir
The Other Queen, Phillipa Gregory
The Lady Elizabeth, Alison Weir
The Marriage Game, Alison Weir
Armada, John Stack
Come Rack! Come Rope!Robert Hugh Benson
Innocent Traitor, Alison Weir

Age of Discovery and Early Empire
A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss
A Spectacle of Corruption, David Liss
The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War, Bernard Cornwell
Redcoat, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Tiger, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Triumph, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Fortress, Bernard Cornwell

England against the World: the Napoleonic Era
The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, C. Northcote Parkinson
Young Hornblower, C.S. Forester
Captain Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester
Commodore Hornblower, C.S. Forester
Lord Hornblower, C.S. Forester
Hornblower and the Hotspur, C.S. Forester
Hornblower during the Crisis, C.S. Forester
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, C.S. Forester
Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brien
Sharpe's Rifles, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Eagle, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Trafalgar, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Havoc, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Gold, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Fury, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Battle, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Company, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Sword, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Enemy, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Honor, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Regiment, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Siege, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Revenge, Bernard Cornwell
Waterloo, Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Christmas, Bernard Cornwell

...and thereafter
Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell
Aces over Ypres, John Stack (WW1)
Enigma, Robert Harris (WW2)



© 2016 Robert Harris
484 pages

Inside the Casa Santa Marta, the elders of Rome are again assembling to choose the next bishop of Rome, and thereby the governor of Catholics the world over.  The Dean of the College of Cardinals labors in sadness prompted not only by the death of his friend and boss, but by the fact that he now has to manage the conclave of cardinals,  in which over a hundred men are hidden in a secret chamber until such time as they elect St. Peter's successor.  Although it is an election covered in the shroud of holiness, it is an election still, and the cardinals who vote are men of ambition. Their desires and foibles bring endless complication -- blackmail and simony do stir the pot --  leading to numerous dramatic shifts during successive ballots. The finale, which unfolds in a Europe smoldering under terrorist attack, includes another twist ending which proved an Achilles heel, for me.  Anyone who has followed my reading here knows I read anything Harris writes, delighting in his diverse settings (Rome, Cold War Russia, Belle Epoque France...and so on!)   Everything that lead ups to it was first-rate: the descriptions of  places and processes within the Vatican usually hidden away, the arguments between the cardinals over what sort of man and what sort of direction were needed -- and then Harris has this Dan Brown, Angels and Demons moment in the last ten pages.  Ah, well.

Monday, November 28, 2016


© 2009 Dave Cullen
417 pages

Columbine. I remember it, of course.  I was in eighth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned their high school into a bloody spectacle. That day on April 20th, 1999, is always referred to as a school shooting, but that label misses the point. Harris and Klebold weren't shooters, they were failed bombers.  They didn't turn the cafeteria and library red with blood because they had a score to settle with the jocks, they wanted to depart a world of inferiors in a blaze of glory.  Dave Cullen's Columbine is a disturbing history of the April attack, one which draws extensively from the corpus of material the two deliberately left behind.  Cullen's history has a target, though, as he aims to rebuke not only the media for creating and perpetuating various myths about the horror, but the sheriff's department for negligence and deception.   Most importantly, Cullen maintains that Harris and Klebold were not abused loners who 'snapped', but psychologically disturbed individuals who planned the attack for more than a year.

Columbine is a receptively easy read. Cullen is a journalist, and knows how to grease the runners to captivate readers with a story. The problem is the grisly subject -- or subjects. The graphic nature of the shootings isn't dwelt on overmuch, but through Cullen's research considerable time is spent in the head of Harris and Klebold. This is, to say the least, a toxic atmosphere. Cullen's thesis is that Harris was a clinical psychopath, one who could lead a double life. In society, he could be productive and charming, convincing adults into purchasing guns on his behalf, and even dating a twenty-something despite being a kid working at a pizza parlor.   By himself -- in his journals, with people he regarded as confederates -- Eric was full of contempt for society, for virtually everyone.  He acted out his contempt in 'missions' of petty vandalism and theft,  and when confronted by authority figures, could always manipulate them into believing he was repentant.  Eric was joined in these missions by Dylan Klebold, a depressive misfit who nontheless managed to snag a prom date; both boys had active social lives.

There is no doubt that the April attack was a methodically planned horror instead of a loner's 'snap'.  Not only did the boys ramble and rave in their bloodlust for months prior, but the equipment took time to purchase and put together --  for their bombs were homemade concoctions, based on plans from the internet.  The April 20th attack itself was a multi-stage drama of the horrific: first, a diversionary bomb in the outskirts of the city to draw police away, then several massive explosions would rock the school cafeteria at peak traffic time.  Hundreds would be killed by the inferno, and as students streamed out of the exits, Eric and Dylan would be waiting for them with intent of sweeping up survivors with gunfire  before their inevitable demise at the hands of the police. Still worse, their cars, parked in areas where emergency services would establish a perimeter, were rigged to blow after their deaths, adding still more chaos and death.  This is no impulsive revenge quest, but a premeditated campaign of war against the humanity they loathed. Fortunately for the students of Columbine,  all of the bombs failed to explode. and the murderous pair soon lost interested in shooting people after the first dozen, resigning themselves to self-slaughter.

Their campaign of death should not have been an ambush. Cullen notes that Eric's sociopathy, his contempt for the world, often displayed itself in the arrogant way he and Dylan both leaked information.  Harris' toxic website often broadcast his hatred for the world,  and numerous people were aware that they had guns and were experimenting with pipe bombs. The police, having previously arrested the pair for breaking into a van and stealing equipment from it, even had a warrant for a search of Eric's house -- one which was never executed.  Although Cullen labors to dispatch many minor myths associated with the Columbine attack -- the pair's association with a 'trench coat Mafia', the sole targeting of 'jocks', etc --   he rebukes local authorities far more seriously for their negligence in following up on Harris, and for attempting to conceal how high he had already registered as a potential threat from the public.

Cullen's case is simple: Eric Harris was a psychopath who essentially co-opted the suicidal tendencies of his manic-depressive buddy into an attempt  to depart a world they loathed in a manner that demonstrated their superiority over the zombies.  Some parts of his argument are stronger than others: for instance, the numerous heavyweight bombs, which would have killed hundreds indiscriminately, indicate that the two weren't just after jocks. (The intense planning obviously belies any impulsive snap, of course.)    The case for Eric's sociopathy strikes me as solid as well. Less convincing is the utter denial that Harris and Klebold were bullied, as Cullen points to their circles of friends and the fact that Harris was a bully as well.  A bully can be bullied; the two categories are not exclusive, and Klebold strikes me as an easily-bullied sort of personality. While Harris' journals are nothing but wrath and rage, Klebold is more relatable, alternating between wrath and idolization of a girl.  Numerous students have also testified in interviews that the two were subjects of abuse -- but who in a modern high school is not?  

It is never easy to dwell on this kind of rage, and strong stomachs are definitely required to endure constant exposure to Harris' utter lack of humanity.  Cullen's interesting approach -- alternating build-up and aftermath chapters -- kept me glued to the pages, and I'm grateful for a history that indicates how Columbine attempted to climb back to its feet after the attack, to reclaim the school and honor those who perished.  Columbine's story after the fact is also difficult, though, riven with lawsuits and slow-to-heal psychological wounds. But the school survives still, and these days much has changed: police have different active-shooter protocols now (immediate engagement, no more waiting for SWAT)  threats of violence are often met with zero-tolerance policies, and it is doubtful in the post 9/11 world that teenagers could get away with leaving mysterious dufflebags in the school cafeteria, ticking away.  Although a cry for stricter gun laws follows every shooting in the United States -- understandably -- Columbine also points to the limits of those laws, as the culprits' most potentially dangerous weapons, the bombs, were fashioned from ordinary consumer goods. Thank heavens Harris had to put them together at the last minute for want of safe storage space, otherwise his serial bombing might  have succeeded.   Those with intent to harm will find a way to try it; good security policies are needed to counter these threats. At Columbine, I couldn't help but notice that the sole guard was off at lunch during the attack. One guard for 2000 students?!  My high school had two deputy sheriffs, and we couldn't have boasted a thousand students on a good day.  (Of course, we were post-Columbine.)

Columbine is haunting, effective reading.


  • The Ashes of Waco, Dick Reavis. The boys' April 20th assault was allegedly timed to 'honor' Timothy McVeigh, whose own bombing was allegedly revenge for the Waco massacre. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Civilian Warriors

Civilian Warriors: the Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung  Heroes of the War on Terror
© 2013 Erik Prince
413 pages

In the 21st century, the line between public and private warfare has gotten a bit fuzzy. I realized this most fully when reading a few cybersecurity books early in the year, mulling over how natural security was imperiled by cyber attacks on private firms or networks, but this fuzziness is also expressed via the world of private military contractors.     Flash back seven or so years ago, when my rage at the debacle in Iraq was white-hot, I would have never read a book about Blackwater, let alone a defense of it from its creator, Erik Prince.  Back then, Blackwater was tantamount with evil. They were lawless mercenaries, the very image of what was wrong with the military-industrial complex.  Finally released from confidentiality agreements, here Prince goes to bat for the company he created and guided through the rocky years of the War on Terror.

I purchased this book because I stumbled upon Erik Prince while listening to some podcast or another, and he sounded perfectly normal. He didn't do an evil laugh even once.  (It helped that the book was on clearance for $6.)  Prince opens with an argument that private military contractors aren't a novelty. His examples are convenient (he cites the Marquis de Lafayette, not the Hessians), but that's to be expected. He also notes that military contractors been put to more use in the 20th and 21st centuries than at any other time, but then wars are a lot more complicated they used to be. There's no more of this telling your peasants with pointy sticks to go stab the peasants with pointy sticks next door, there's logistics and such.  Prince's original idea for Blackwater was to fill the need of the American military for training facilities, since budget cuts closed or limited their options. His training lodge not only provided rented space for shooting ranges, but taught courses to interested service organizations. Prince continually responded to the needs of the US as he saw them in the news, achieving rapid success after the Columbine assaults when he began training police in active shooter response scenarios. (Prince created a school mock-up for them to practice in.)  After al-Queda bombed the USS Cole, Prince acquired a NOAA ship and turned it into a training ship for sailors to practice threat interdiction.

It was their work in Iraq that made Blackwater infamous, however. They entered the area as security guards for the United States' top man in Iraq, Paul Bremer. Later on they would escort other State department officials, and as Iraq was a warzone, that entailed armored vehicles and M4 rifles. As Blackwater grew, it took on other tasks like handling airdrops in their smaller planes. Prince writes that he viewed Blackwater as a military force that had adopted the principles of lean manufacturing, a kind of Fedex to the government's post office.  If Blackwater's security convoys drove aggressively, it was to satisfy their contract stipulations:  no losses. Prince would have practiced more discretion than the government allowed him, but they insisted on ambassadors traveling in flagged SUVs, not beaten-looking Iraqi vehicles. Prince also reviews the several bloody incidents which turned Blackwater into a whipping boy for the Bush administration in the war, arguing that his men were merely defending themselves and that they made for effective scapegoats despite also using their resources  in a few humanitarian causes.

I suspect Prince is correct in maintaining that military contractors aren't going anywhere. In Afghanistan, there are more contractors than US servicemen, and I think it telling that Candidate Obama condemned Blackwater, and then -- when the group served as his security detail in Afghanistan --   President Obama commented that they were getting a 'bad rap'.   If citizens don't want war, but the  security state does, then the obvious thing to do is hire people to do the war bit on the state's behalf, or even better to use drones. Although as a candidate Trump indicated that he was less interested in foreign wars than his competitors,  I wouldn't be surprised if whatever is in the D.C. water leads to military contractors operating discretely in Syria. They're certainly in Iraq now, fighting ISIS -- at least two thousand of them.  They aren't necessarily active combatants, but filling in a lot of the logistics holes that Prince noticed and started finding people to fill here.

I found Prince to be interesting as a man -- rich boy turned volunteer fireman & Navy SEAL, then entrepreneur in his own right --  and his apologia informative about the shifting nature of war as executed   Even if war is a racket, the operation of that racket is worth noting as it changes.

  • Related:
  • The Heart and the Fist, Eric Greitens. The memoir of a humanitarian turned Navy SEAL, one recently elected as governor of Missouri. 

Lost Enlightenment

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane 
© 2015 S. Frederick Starr
618 pages

Lost Enlightenment takes readers back to a time when Central Asia was the crossroads of the world, a hub of both commercial and activity. Here are celebrated the lives of cities which, in this time, were hosts to capitals, universities, and more.  Now they are dust, at best eroded columns in a desolate landscape. In Lost Enlightenment, readers follow Starr east to Baghdad, Merv, and a few other jewels. Though he touches on the political highlights of the region between the Arab conquest and the death of Tamerlane, they are important here only as far as their role in fostering the  arts and sciences.    Although diminished slightly by the complete lack of maps -- and in Central Asia, surrounded by the great mass of Eurasia, there are precious few borders to define the area --  Lost Enlightenment is a weighty accomplishment.

Most readers have heard of the 'silk road', though much more than silk traveled its routes. The sheer bounty of thinkers and creators here, many of them polymaths and 'renaissance men'  -- though with no need for the renaissance bit.  Starr marks the beginning of this enlightened period with the Arabic invasion, but not because the Arabs came bestowing wisdom among the poor benighted natives. The area was already culturally rich and commercially sophisticated, and its geography frustrated any attempt at sustained conquests. Thus the Islamic Arabs and Central Asians of diverse ethnicities and religions --  Buddhists, Christians ,and Zoroastrians just for starters --  lived with and engaged with one another, iron sharpening iron.   There, philosophies and religions from across Eurasia came together, drawn to the trade cities of Central Asia like a savanna water hole. (They were, literally, water holes -- most were near oases). Long used to weighing opposing ideas against one another, Central Asia even tolerated (at times) freethinkers who spoke out against virtually everyone. Here, in this intellectual marketplace of ideas, this constant mental competition, the arts and science flourished -- for a time.

What caused their end?  Something as complex as a society doesn't lend itself to easy answers, and there's no shortage of little things going wrong for the area of central Asia. The most obvious agent of downfall were the Mongols, who didn't merely raid civilization: they often destroyed it utterly.  Some regions lost an estimated 90% of their population, and those who were not murdered were driven away in fear.  Genghis Khan should be condemned by all mankind if only for his destruction of Baghdad,  then a shining city upon the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, but he cut a bloody path jut getting there, leaving behind him ashes and blood-soaked dust. Khan emptied Central Asia, but even before that the arteries were hardening, people receptive to arguments made by theologian-intellectuals like al-Ghazali, who rebuked philosophical materialism in his Incoherence of the Philosophers.  This hardening meant that even when the leaders stumbled upon something revolutionary, like the printing press, it never flared into potency as it did in Europe.

Lost Enlightenment is a considerable survey, mostly intellectual and cultural with a pinch of politics. I certainly welcomed it,  knowing virtually nothing about this area. It is astonishing to hear of places like Afghanistan being hubs of civilized thought, but such is the way of history. Civilizations rise and fall, flower and perish.

* "Central Asians" seems as clumsily artificial as "Yugoslavians" , but the author uses it in lieu of anything better. I suppose it's easier than "Iranian-Turkic peoples".

Friday, November 25, 2016

TW on the Road: Mountain climbing in Alabama?

Three and a half hours north of me, and perhaps an hour or so east of Birmingham, lies Talledaga National Forest and Cheaha National Park.  The above shot is of Pulpit Rock, the apex of the park's most challenging trail.   I hastened up today, Black Friday, because I figured the  autumn scenery would be gorgeous. I also assumed I'd have the park largely to myself, since everyone else would be out shopping.  I was gloriously right about the scenery, and utterly wrong about the crowd.  The road was lined with parked cars and campers.

While I took many shots, most of them of the view, and that really doesn't translate into cameraphones very well.  Although traveling with a couple of friends, I parked myself  on a rock and gazed into the distance for a good while. I haven't seen an expanse that vast since standing atop Carlsbad Caverns, the wind blowing the grass sideways. On the way home I passed through the cozy square of Ashland, Alabama, and spotted a courthouse so lovely it demanded I swerve into a parking lot and take admiring photos.

With Christmas approaching, it may be a month or so before I jet off again. I passed right by the entrance to DeSoto Caverns today, though...

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Works

The Works: Anatomy of a City
© 2005  Kate Ascher
240 pages

Cities are, for my money, mankind's most astonishing invention. Their complexity is stupefying -- system within system, handling tons of material at any given time, whether the subject is cars across a bridge or the contents of a thousand home's flushing toilets. And the stakes are always high, with the health and happiness of millions on the line -- or at least, thousands. The Works is a dream of a book, a visual-rich guide to the many systems that keep cities thriving.  Author Kate Ascher throws light not on just the expected -- roads and utilities, say -- but also minor things like the postal service.  Using New York City as case study, Ascher explores systems for transportation, energy, communication, and sanitation in turn.

The Works stunned me again and again with its visuals. Readers are treated to an astonishing array of informative little diagrams: cutaways that show what's inside the Holland tunnel, for instance, or the underbelly of a street-sweeper, or the waterworks inside your average skyscraper. The pictures also demonstrate systems -- the chain of equipment required to convey power from a generating station into the average home, the links involved in a cell phone conversation,  Some of the visuals are clever: for instance, to illustrate the variety of goods a train might carry,  a cartoon representation of a real train runs along the bottom of every page in the chapter, each car marked with its contents. The same tactic is used to illustrate the electromagnetic spectrum in the chapter on communication.  The bounty of visual information here is ludicrous -- showcasing fleets of sanitation vehicles and subway cars,  mapping out train yards and container ship docks, -- it's staggering, really.  Statistics are presented visually, too, and of course there are tons of maps -- including one that shows all the traffic cameras in the city. There are a few sample pages on Streetsblog, all from the chapter on streets.

That's not to say The Works is merely a picture book, because there's no small amount of text here explaining the importance of all these systems, reviewing their evolution within New York City, and sharing the particulars of their operation.  Reading this book is kind of like reading Gone Tomorrow, Picking Up, The Grid,  Flushed! On the Grid, etc, all at once, all rolled into one, and with gobs and gobs and gobs of illustration.   It does lack a chapter on  the infrastructure of the internet, which isn't an oversight that would be made if it were published today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Truck This For A Living

Truck This for a Living: Tales of a UK Lorry Driver
© 2014  Gary Mottram
226 pages

After hand-manufacturing woodwind instruments for thirteen years, Gary Mottram was laid off. So naturally, he took up driving. Working through a temp agency, he delivered all manner of loads via vans and small trucks before trying for Class 2 and Class 1 licenses. Truck This for a Living  collects stories from his workdays as he took on ever-more ambitious jobs. Beginning as a lowly delivery man who has to schlep around boxes and do his own unloading, Mottram eventually hits the big-time: hauling containers and then cozying up with a DVD while other guys take over.  

While this is a self-published memoir, the writing is very serviceable and even includes little illustrations to convey the difficulties inherent in squeezing a trailer with a mind of its own into a tight spot.  Having grown up among drivers -- my father and uncle -- I'm fairly familiar with American trucking and was most curious about driving in the United Kingdom and Europe. As it happens, Mottram never quite makes it to Europe -- a buddy of his gets that gig --  but I still picked up a wealth of British trucking lingo. At first  I thought an "artic" might be a refrigerated trailer, but it proved to be short for 'articulated', or a tractor-trailer.   All of the vehicles Mottram mentions were cabovers, like that on the cover. That was a change, as the only time I ever see those on American roads are buses or Isuzu daycabs. Mottram is definitely unlike any truck driver I've met, constantly fretting about the environment and  holding fast to a vegetarian diet. He carries a little pot with him and cooks on the road! From the faint horror he had for most of his fellow drivers, I'm going to guess Mottram is atypical in the UK as well.  I'm waiting for a similar book in the post, memoirs from a driver who has worked in both Britain and across Europe. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Motel in America

The Motel in America
© 1996 Jefferson S. Rogers, John A Jakle, and Keith A. Sculle
408 pages

At some point in high school I pulled out a dictionary to find out what, exactly, was the difference between a motel and a hotel. They seemed much the same to me: "A place to sleep when traveling".  A motel, the dictionary informed me, was typified by guests' easy access to their cars.  It was cars that built motels, or rather motorists: The Motel in America is a history of how the first "auto camps" came into being, in a fairly organic fashion, which follows their maturation from mom and pop shops to national franchises. Also included are special sections on the evolution of the motel room, and a case study of motels and their impact on urban form, using Albuquerque as a case-study.  It's thus a mix of topics with some popular appeal (social history) interspersed with more academic sections, like the comparative brand distribution of various chains.

The story of motels begins decades before the auto-oriented boom of the 1950s,   Americans began touring by car almost as soon as there were roads fit to drive on -- sometimes before --  but downtown hotels didn't lend themselves towards motoring hospitality. They were enmeshed in an urban fabric, after all;  their travelers disembarked from downtown passenger rail stations and got where they needed via trolley or on foot. That 'urban fabric' meant a lot of buildings in a small space, with precious  little to spare for parked automobiles. So people began improvising and camping out on the outskirts, and through the magic of free enterprise, a new business was created to cater to them. One woman who allowed travelers to camp in a grassy area near her gas station put up small cottages for rent -- followed by more cottages, until the cabin rentals were better earners than the gasoline. 'Campgrounds', initially roped-off areas created by cities to keep motor-gypsies from running amok,  attracted food-and-service vendors and quickly became a commercial form in their own right. The first 'motels' were essentially campgrounds with little cottages or cabins that motorists rented for the night; the owner-operators, typically a family, often served meals on the premises. Kentucky Fried Chicken actually began its life as the lunch option of the Sanders Motor Court.

 These auto camps, motor courts, or 'motels' flourished in the Great Depression even as the downtown hotels struggled under the burden of the economy and urban reformers out to destroy them. World War 2 put expansion on pause, but after that -- and especially given the free range of the in-progress interstate system --  the business quickly grew into the network of massive chains  that now fill the continent.  The strings of cabins largely gave way to more space-efficient barracks, though they were organized around pools and prettied up in pastel.While the loss of mom and pop shops can easily be mourned, the chains came into being largely because it was more beneficial for motels to exist as part of a network. That network could be built from the ground up (in the manner of Best Western) or organized from the top down, if  one motel was owned by an especially ambitious and savvy man as in the case of the Alamo line.  Networks of motels could refer travelers along a route to one another,  present a united front against other motels by maintaining uniform standards, and lower their prices through bulk purchases.(They might even purchase the same 'room sets', as furnishings were standardized.)  The authors also cover the franchise approach, used as effectively in motels as in fast food restaurants.

The Motel in America proved itself an interesting little bit of history, demonstrating another facet of the genuinely revolutionary impact automobiles have had on American urbanism. The case study of Albuquerque -- a city which was known primarily as a train layover until it began expanding rapidly through Route 66 and the interstates, with gobs and gobs of motels to service them -- was a welcome surprise.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

When It Was Worth Playing For

When it was Worth Playing For: My Experiences Writing About the TV Show, 'Survivor'
© 2015 Mario Lanza
466 pages


Once upon a time, there was a show called Survivor, which promised to chuck sixteen Americans on an island and give $1,000,000  to the last man or woman standing.  Or so Mario Lanza thought. Turns out the show was more like high school meets the World's Worst Camping Trip (with narration!), but it still fascinated people from a psychological point of view.   After all, CBS was going to  be encouraging sociopathy on live television. Who wouldn't want to watch it? (They tune into elections every four years, don't they?) Sure enough, its finale would be one of the most-watched shows in television history, rivaling those of sitcoms which had cultivated audiences over a span of decades. Mario Lanza was watching Survivor from the beginning, and found it so interesting he had to write about it, eventually being partner in a site that featured a Survivor contestant as a writer. In When the Game Was Worth Playing, Lanza reviews the first three series -- the 'pure' ones -- highlighting the most extraordinary moments as the game evolved.  Those 'moments' aren't just ones witnessed onscreen, as central to Lanza's writing is the fan experience, the gossiping and spoilers -- and he also includes a few tales from the production side, having interviewed several contestants.

What Lanza quickly realized about Survivor, especially during season two, was that it wasn't so much a story as a confluence of them --  at least seventeen, those of the contestants and those of the producers.  Survivor is not reality television, Lanza says by way of the producers, but 'unscripted drama': the show's producers create storylines out of the contestants'  camera footage. More than one villain has been created solely through judicious editing.  This is always done in the name of better television, of course,  creating drama to stave off boredom. (Or creating the pretense of drama, as with the constant previews that the dominating Tagi alliance was fracturing, or that Kucha in Australia were on the verge of an epic comeback.)   Lanza comments at length on moments when the game changed -- the ambush of Gretchen demonstrating that this was a game of  ruthless politics, where those outside the power alliance were doomed regardless of their survival skills or personableness.   But Lanza's theme is the fan experience, and he contends that the second season can't be appreciated without the first -- for there the players were attempting to differentiate themselves from the original contestants.  Derided as merely the "new" incarnations of favorite characters -- Mad Dog as the new Rudy,   Elisabeth as the new Colleen --  and unhappy with the Machiavellian triumph of the Tagi alliance -- Colby, Tina, and others tried to make it to the end with their honor intact.     I didn't begin watching Survivor until Thailand,  and so especially enjoyed this glimpse into the speculative life of the fans in the first few seasons of the game, constantly teased as they were by the producers' tricks. (A graphic of the 'final four' was released that proved to have nothing to do with the actual final four)  Also of interest is Lanzo's speculation as to how the third season altered every Survivor which followed. It introduced twists, which the producers use to squelch power-alliances from running amok, and led to a return to more predictable island settings that didn't actually jeopardize contestants' lives. According to Lanza, one Australia player -- not just Mike Fall in a Fire Skupin -- was airlifted out for malnutrition.

While I haven't watched Survivor since the days of Guatemela and Fiji, I knew from the moment I saw this book that I'd enjoy it. I discovered Lanza's writing years ago, via his Survivor Funny 115, and have revisited that list of Survivor's 115 funniest moments several times since. Not only that, but I have DVD copies of Borneo and Australia and have watched them both....several times. I know who wins each and every challenge, but I still like to watch them for the sheer goofiness.  How can you beat Greg Buis bursting into "Who Knows?" from West Side Story, or running around the beach after discovering a  bloody chicken corpse, demanding to know who counted the chicken before it hatched?    I'm therefore an utterly biased audience, one who stayed up until 2 am to finish the book and didn't even care so much about the time. Definitely a fun one for Survivor fans.

Psst, in joke:  the first sentence of my review for Lord of the Flies was taken straight from Jeff Probst's intro Survivor Borneo, with a little adaption.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Road Taken

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure
336 pages
© 2016 Henry Petroski

What, exactly, is The Road Taken?   Its title declares it a history, which is mostly true. It does have a bounty of historic sketches on the creation of paved roads and interstates in the United States, along with material on the evolution of traffic lights, curbs, and sidewalks. But there are loving tributes to bridges in New York and San Francisco here, with much chatter about cantilever versus suspension. There's even a chapter or two with a focus on finance, which is quite brave indeed -- there's a reason Jim Kunstler titled his own chapter on property taxes in Home from Nowhere, "A Mercifully Brief Chapter On A Frightening, Tedious, But Important Subject". The ending chapter looks to the future of infrastructure, but with the exception of cement mixtures that heal themselves (cracks open and expose bacteria to water, bacteria produce limestone), that's really more about the future of cars than roads.   It's all interesting, but the further along the reader gets the more miscellaneous  it all seems. The author obviously believes that interstates and bridges are a good thing and produce jobs, but the book itself isn't an argument.  He doesn't try to make any connections between infrastructure and economic growth; the jobs mentioned are always in building interstates.

I'd say this is for people who want to read a chapter about the history of interstates instead of a whole book. It's right between the chapter on asphalt and the chapter on stop signs.

Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton;  Divided Highways, Tom Lewis

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ad Astra Per Aspera

A reading from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, set to utterly perfect music.

We were hunters and foragers -- the frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls; our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand, millions of worlds. We, who cannot put even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds, are we to venture out into space? 
 By the time we're able to settle even the nearest planetary systems, we will have changed., The simple passing of so many generations will have changed us. Necessity will have changed us. We're... an adaptable species.  It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri, or the other nearby stars --  it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, far-seeing, capable, and prudent. For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.
What new wonders, undreamt of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation, and another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered by the end of the next century, and the next millennium? Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds in the solar system and beyond, will be unified -- by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge whatever life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth.

They will gaze up and strain to find the Blue Dot in their sky. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings -- how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.


Friday, November 11, 2016

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away
© 1999 Bill Bryson
288 pages

"It's been a funny  old night, when you think of it. I mean to say, wife drowns, ship sinks, and there was no Montrachet '07 at dinner.I had to settle for a very middling '05."

After living in Yorkshire for twenty years, Bill Bryson and his family decided to go for a change of scenery and moved to America. For him, it was a return, though not to his home.  To be sure, New Hampshire was much different from his native Iowa, but America itself had changed in the intermin, in ways both bewildering and delighting.  I'm a Stranger Here Myself collects various columns Bryson wrote about life in late-90s America, most of them funny.  Bryson is not the cranky old man of Road to Little Dribbling, but here only a late-middle age father who insists on inflicting his childhood memories on his children, only to discover that dumpy motels and drive-in movie theaters aren't nearly as fun as they used to be. There are also a couple of satirical pieces -- fake computer instructions, fake IRS directions, and a morbidly funny story from the last night of the Titanic. (Inspired, no doubt, by the move release.) A few of the pieces are personal in nature, merely Bryson making fun of himself for being an absent-minded fuddy-duddy who has a tendency to  mail his pipe tobacco instead of his letters and frequently needs to phone his wife to be reminded why exactly he's in town.  Other times, he is more serious, as when he comments on the loss of local accents and the impending doom threatened by everyone driving everywhere instead of walking, like the English do. (The one time he tries walk across the street  in America, he is nearly run over.)   There's also a chapter called 'Our Town', which mourns the loss of small-town America -- which I was happily surprised by. I've been thinking about buying Bryson's book about travels through small towns,but assumed Bryson would sneer at them for being provincial. Instead, he's as sentimental about them as I am, so don't be surprised to see The Lost Continent pop up here within the next few months or so.

Armistice Day

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But still in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play "The Last Post" and chorus?

Did the pipes play "The Flowers of the Forest"?

And I can't help but wonder now, Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?

Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe this war would end war? 
Well, the sufferin', the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killin', the dyin', it was all done in vain --
Oh, Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't Get Above Your Raisin'

Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class
© 2002 Bill C. Malone
432 pages

Friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song, and he told me that it was the perfect country-and-western song. I wrote him back and told him he had not written the perfect country and western song, 'cause he hadn't said anything at all about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk.  (David Allen Coe, "You Never Even Call Me By My Name")

Don't get above your raisin', stay down to Earth with me -- Bill Malone never quotes the song that serves as the title of his book, a history of country music in its southern context...but its spirit is ever present. Using the lives of country's most passionate and storied performers, Malone reflects on the tradition and finds it a lovable mess -- alternatively humble and bragging, pious and rowdy.  Malone's deep familiarity with the tradition, and his love for it, are obvious. He doesn't simply treat readers to a barrage of chronology, but rather examines how certain aspects of the genre have evolved throughout  the last two centuries, so tumultuous to the South.

Country is as the name implies a tradition of music created and sustained by rural populations -- farmers first, and now people who live and play in the backwoods.  Its beginnings mix traditional romantic ballads, dances, and religious music.  Religious music is an especially strong influence on country, the stuff of lullabies and tent revivals that created generation after generation of musicians and singers.  In religiosity, the South remains stridently Protestant, but there's no puritanism to be found in country music. Inst ed, piety and partying mix together freely --  with no better witness than Hank Williams, who penned "I Saw the Light" and died an early death, plagued by depression and substance abuse.  The tangled, wonderful messiness of country  envelops more than religion. Country songs simultaneously embrace Mama's hearth and home, while celebrating rambling men and the freedom of the open road. Politics, too, finds contradictions -- zealous law-and-order mixed with praise of rowdy outlaws who give the Man what-for.  Not for nothing are truckers and cowboys, the ramblers who come home eventually, so popular -- as are repentant sinners who will invariably go chasing cigareetes, whuskey, and wild, wild women.  Additionally, Malone delves into the connections between country and its daughters, bluegrass and political folk, as well as the changing country-dance scene.  There's also a good chapter on country's connection with comedy in general, focusing on the Grand Ol Opry and Hee Haw, mentioning people like Andy Griffith and Jerry Clower.

Malone's piece is a labor of love, though with most others his age he despairs of the way country music headed in the 1990s, with more synthesizers and less fiddles.  That trend has certainly continued,  Taylor Swift's seamless transition into pop being an obvious example.  There are many traditionalists in the ranks, though.  Travis Tritt is quoted as sneering at Billy Ray Cyrus, who dressed in a body shirt  and 'turning country music into an ass-wiggling contest'.   Considering the posterior antics of Cyrus' daughter Miley, who does more than wiggling,  I suppose apples still don't fall very far from trees.  Still, Malone looks for the best even in then contemporary music, and concedes that every genre is in constant motion.

Don't Get Above Your Raisin' surprised me. I knew it would be a history of country music, but -- even as someone who grew up with country, who loves and collects the older artists -- Malone shared artists and stories I'd never heard of. Who knew that square dancing was borrowed from French aristocrats?  If you have any interest in country music at all, this book is worth picking up just for the discography in the back,  where Malone lists all of the albums and songs he's been referencing throughout the text. I've been able to find a lot of older artists via youtube's "also reccommended" feature, but this kind of shortcut is welcome!


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Love > Despair

Since 2007 I have found Playing for Change -- an organization that brings people from around the world together to make music together, their different instruments and instruments blending together beautifully -- a glorious beacon of joy,  hope, and goodness. So, I'd like to use them to deliver a  broadside against the sheer meanness of today and the year that has led to it.

"About ten years ago my town suffered a terrible terrorist atrocity. There has been a divide in our country which has unsettled the nation for such a long time...and I decided soon after this atrocity that I would try and bring people closer together. "

Love, rescue me.
Come forth and speak to me.
Raise me up, and don't
let me fall...

No man is my enemy
My own hands imprison me.
I say -- "Love, rescue me."

The group singing above was organized in response to an explosion in Northern Ireland which killed over thirty people, two of them unborn babies, and wounded hundreds more.

A few more songs of defiant joy and love abundant:

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Divided Highways

Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life
©  Tom Lewis 2007, 2013
416 pages

No engineering project in the United States is more impressive than the interstate system; dense with the connections of a street grid, it serves not blocks but an entire continent.  In Divided Highways,  Tom Lewis tells the story of that system's creation, inside a broader history of how motoring in general transformed American life.  Lewis principally concerns himself with the political rise of the highways, and the problems that followed once the ideal became a reality and people realized that reality comes with smells, noises, shadows, and bills.  Lewis connects the drama of the highways with ever-changing American society as a whole. though, integrating their story in which whatever else was happening (the oil crises of the 1970s, for instance) and commenting on the morphing nature of urbanism as downtowns bled out into the broad puddles of edge cities.  Though Lewis is enamored of the interstate, motoring, and the American dedication to constant motion, he doesn't shy away from giving critics a voice.

The story of the highways begins with the automobile, of course, since before then road building wasn't a priority: given the distances involved. water transportation dominated until the train made overland transit more competitive. The rising popularity of automobiles and bicycles -- an individualistic alternative to crowded trolleys and trains controlled by some of the more powerful corporations of the day-- led to a demand for places to  use them, and no road is worth much if it doesn't connect you to other  roads going other places. Enter Thomas Harris MacDonald,  an intensely thorough, dedicated,  and prudent fellow who would dominate the Bureau of Public Roads from the Wilson administration to that of Eisenhower's. MacDonald's prudence was such that he only built roads when they were deemed immediately necessary -- much different from today's build-it-and-they-will-come-and-pay-taxes attitude.  Although not aggressive,  his thoroughness did produce sketches of what a national highway system might look like, and how it might be ordered. Such a system was well underway when he died in retirement, his own fledging highways being supplanted by the limited access freeways that now create a massive asphalt circulatory system for the nation.

Building interstates involved a bit of juggling of responsibility between the state governments and D.C, and this became particularly thorny in regards to cities. The interstate system didn't just connect cities; from the beginning, many cut through cities themselves, becoming a kind of rapid transit system. When President Eisenhower became entangled in freeway construction enroute to Camp David, he made a few terse inquiries as to who was responsible for plowing this great road into the city, whereupon some Nathan-like figure informed him...Mr. President, thou art the man.  (Apparently, the interstate bill he signed was one of the 'we have to pass it to see what's in it' variety....) Running interstates through cities proved the source of most of the system's political problems, as the city spans became quickly congested, occupied large swathes of formerly tax-paying real estate, and functioned as a massive wall running through the cheapest real estate that could be found...that of the poor, who became poorer still when industry began following the interstate out of the city.  In New Orleans, the destruction of the French Quarter's charm by an interstate was narrowly avoided by citizen protests, and in our own time other cities (San Francisco, for instance) have gone to the mattresses to get rid of view-obstructing spurs.

As mentioned, Lewis also comments on the ongoing transformation of American society, the rise of franchise chain stores and the like. This was done with far more detail in Asphalt Nation, but presumably he wanted to write on something more than the exciting world of transportation finance. The connections made to broader US history -- the anti-interstate reaction concurring with the civil rights movement and youth rebellion --  not only make the history more 'personable', but provide welcome  context.  The subtitle of 'transforming American society' isn't a big component of the book, though, and he doesn't mention  influences of the freeway on other transportation infrastructure in general, like the worrisome tendency of larger roads to mimic interstates even though it's dangerous to encourage higher speeds in areas with pedestrians, buildings, and cross traffic.

Useful as a history of how the interstates happened, Divided Highways  deserves praise for hailing the interstate system  while simultaneously delivering the stories of people disrupted by it and rebelling against it.

"We could do anything, then, and do it to excess; our Interstates boldly proclaimed the triumph of engineering. Like our cars, whose fins could not be too high, they made a statement with adolescent vigor. We thought little of the Interstate's ability to rend the landscape, to divide communities, and to alienate citizens. The roads were a concrete snapshot of ourselves when we believed nothing was beyond our reach."


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hidden Order

Hidden Order
© 2013 Brad Thor
383 pages

The five people on the short list to succeed to the chair of the Federal Reserve have just disappeared, and Scott Harvath -- former Navy SEAL,  now private security action hero -- is hired to find out why.  When the five begin appearing as the victim-players in dramatic executions making homage to Boston's revolutionary history,  only Harvath, a saucy Portuguese lady-cop, their smartphones, and their Berettas stand between the world economy and total disruption!   As with The Last Patriot, Hidden Order  combines fun-with-trivia history with action heroics, though it's not as silly as that National Treasure-esque book.  I read it because I happened to hear the author being interviewed, and he quoted Star Trek.

 Here, Brad Thor takes on the considerable task of making a thriller out of the deceitfully-named Federal Reserve, which protects itself from public awareness  by making every discussion of it glaze eyes and put listeners to sleep. Thor avoids the word monetary altogether and focuses entirely on the conspiratorial aspects of the Fed, chiefly the interesting manner in which it was arranged: a band of New York bankers retreating to a small island off of Georgia under the guise of hunting, then planning a national bank  with  control over the nation's money. The 'fed'  remains a private entity with control over public finance.  Thor lays it on a bit thick, with Harvath's chief source  for this living in a fortified warehouse after a long history with the CIA and secret programs. (This is one of the few instances that gumshoe work is actually present. Harvath and Lara Cordero, the cop,  do most of their  research on their phones. Deus ex telemachina!)  One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is the repeated use of Revolutionary-era landmarks and symbols. I  also generally enjoy the sarcastic banter between Harvath and others, though the b-plot regarding a plot to topple the Jordanian government didn't too much interest me. The action hero there was a CIA operative with the last name of Ryan, which sometimes made my brain twitch because I kept thinking of Jack Ryan. Ultimately the two plots prove to be part of a larger conspiracy, connecting in an explosion in downtown Boston.

Hidden Order is light fun with an ending air of wish fulfillment. I wouldn't rely on it for too many facts -- Thor refers to the Boston massacre as soldiers shooting 'innocent civilians', as though the men standing guard that day started shooting people to break the monotony of standing there. They weren't surrounded by an armed mob pelting them with rocks and snow, no sir.. Presumably the Jekyll island conspiracy has a similarly impassioned twist to it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Heretics and Heroes

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
© 2013 Thomas Cahill
368 pages

It seems the more I read of Cahill, the less I enjoy his cavalier histories, which at this point border on gossipy. Part of Cahill's hinges of history series, covering pivotal moments in western history where there was a sea change, the crucial shift here is the emergence of the Individual -- demonstrated in art, and shown at work in disintegrating Christendom into a multitude of violently passionate sects, all supremely secure in their 'truthiness'. In attempting to tell this story, though, Cahill covers everything from the Reconquista and Columbus to the Counter-Reformation. Perhaps as a consequence of the Renaissance and Reformation occurring concurrently, Cahill isn't nearly as well-organized here as he usually is, and readers go back and fort from art to history to theology in a higgedly-piggedly fashion.

I enjoyed the sections on art, since Cahill provides readers with a bounty of colorful plates to aide his commentary, but viewed the theological bits suspiciously. It's hard to take seriously an author who dismisses the Great Schism as a mere ethnic division, especially since that schism's key issue, papal authority, had a massive potential connection to his chief subject, the reformation. Cahill seems fairly oblivious about Orthodoxy altogether, referring to it as the 'Greek church' and apparently not realizing that ecumenical councils to weigh orthodoxy are not some Protestant invention, but have been part of the Orthodox-Catholic church from its inception. Cahill constantly editorializes, often on things that have nothing at all to do with the subject -- complaining about his grammar school, or reminding readers of how terribly racist the Greeks were, and how evil certain modern people are. The more I read Cahill, the more trivial and whiggishly narrow-minded he seems. (There are occasional glimpses of nuance, though, as when he defends the much-abused Mary Tudor despite a pronounced contempt for her cause.)

In the end, if you want a taste of Renaissance art, try Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation". There you shall find erudition and glorious music -- and Cahill keeps referring to Clark, anyway, so why not save the step? As far as the Reformation goes, Will Durant's volume is much more intelligent, and daunting only in its size. I'm sure there also better histories of how the individual burst on the western scene as well.

The Renaissance, Will Durant; The Reformation, Will Durant

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Greeks

The Greeks
© 1950 HDF Kitto
256 pages

HDF Kitto's history of the Greeks came highly recommended to me by another author, and I found it utterly delightful.  Here we have history written not by an archaeologist, but by a classicist whose head is brimming over with the life of his subject, who knows not only their stories but their language.  Kitto begins with a political overview,  from the first settlers to the rise of Alexander the Great, before covering the Greek mind in philosophy and myth.  Kitto brings to this little history great affection for his subject, praising the Greeks despite their faults, as he might a friend.  His style makes the reading enjoyable -- affable, readily knowledgeable, and with just the right amount of wry self-deprecation.

Most fundamentally, Kitto appreciates the Greeks for their rustic well-roundness. They valued autarchy, not specialization, which was one of the reasons their governance often filled important positions with amateurs, choosing citizens by ballot to assume offices.  Related to this is the Greek concept of the polis; for them, the polis wasn't merely a city in which they lived, it was the community through which they fulfilled human nature itself.  The polis was a place in full, supplying its own needs, just as the people it created were men in full. Odyessus, the king of Ithaca, prides himself not on his palace but on his straight furrows: he is a farmer first, a man whose own hands produce works he can take pride in.  Greek appreciation for the fullness of the human condition is exemplified by  art and philosophy which took the body seriously, delighted in the senses while never forgetting the higher things. (Plato would change things, of course, with a dualism that scorned the flesh.)  If we condemn them for not abandoning the free nature of the poleis for a greater empire,  Kitto warns his readers, then we should consider how the Soviets view the west. We have refused their planned society in the name of our liberty, so did the Greeks.  And when we hail the Greeks, is it Alexander's underlings we have in mind? Or is the multitude of men who flourished in Ionia and Athens' golden age?  There's a trace of sadness with Kitto; having judged postwar England against Athens, he finds it inferior -- not in material terms, but in those of human flourishing. Specialization brings with it enormous material prosperity, but men are narrower, less experienced with life in the main;  lost is the Greek man in full, one who could farm and think and craft and love, who put to the test every sinew of his body and mind.  GK Chesterton and Wendell Berry's judgment of modernity is much the same.