08-17-2017 Hue 1968: a turning point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
As of this writing, the Tet Offensive took place just a little shy of fifty years ago. The longest, bloodiest battle of that general offensive by the forces of North Vietnam was the battle for the ancient capitol of Vietnam, Hue. It was, in fact, the longest and bloodiest battle during our war in Vietnam. Bowden's research is extensive and includes interviews with participants on both sides of the battle. The lead up to the Tet offensive involved the infiltration of Viet Cong and regular NVA troops into dozens of towns, hamlets and cities throughout Vietnam.This infiltration took place over a lengthy period of time and in small increments. General William Westmoreland and others at MACV Headquarters in Saigon took little note of this enemy activity in general and in I Corps (the northernmost section of Vietnam) in particular because Westmoreland was convinced that the big battle the North was evidently planning was going to be at the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh. On the 31st of January, 1968 approximately 100 towns and villages in Vietnam were attacked to one degree or another. At Hue, several thousand enemy soldiers occupied the entire city except for the MACV compound and an enclave of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). This was the beginning of a battle that would last three and a half weeks and take the lives of over 250 US Marines and soldiers and wound another 1500. Over 450 ARVN soldiers perished along with over 2700 wounded. The story line of the book is carefully plotted to include the actions of members of both sides. Away from the house-to-house street fighting, the tremendous destruction to Hue, the stench of rotting bodies and the exhaustion of Marines who were resigned to their deaths or maiming was the hubris that prevented the general staff from fully realizing that this was no mere firefight between squads or platoons but a meat grinder. This book is a testament to the courage and tenacity of US Marines, the Air Cav, the Vietnamese troops and the enemy. In the final battle analysis, the NVA and Viet Cong were defeated; on the other hand, Walter Cronkite was a visitor to Hue before the end and brought back to America his opinion that America needed to negotiate with the enemy "...not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
06-30-2017 The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, his American guards, and what history leaves unsaid by William Bardenwerper
This is the story of the group of U.S. Army MPs who are detailed to guard Saddam Hussein in the months leading up to to his trial and subsequent execution. Their attitudes about Saddam at the beginning of their association with him are no surprise. They think he is a monster who stands rightly accused of murdering his own people in both large and small numbers. He is guilty of bringing war to his neighbors, resulting in more than a million deaths. He spawned a monster more repellent than himself, his son Uday. Yet, they also, over time, discover him to be a man of wit, charm and generosity. At the end of their 6-month "tour" with him, they find it disquieting and disturbing to deliver him to his executioners.
06-30-2017 The South Side: a portrait of Chicago and American segregation by Natalie Y Moore
This author looks at the Windy City, which she claims is the poster city for racial dysfunction as it pertains to city policies and political structure. People of a certain age will remember Mayor Richard J. Daley and his behavior (and the behavior of his police force) during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The political machine he inherited and passed along to his successors was instrumental in maintaining segregationist policies concerning all aspects of city business. Moore makes the case reasonably and coherently, that Chicago can make itself into an exemplary showcase of social and economic integration. A major stumbling block is 400 years of inequality in the relationships between Black and White Americans. Apparently a couple of generations haven't quite overcome the toxicity of our history.
06-30-2017 Not a Scientist: how politician mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science by Dave Levitan
This is the last but, most likely book to elicit a chorus of gored oxes. Logical fallacies are the hallmark of non-scientists attempting to rebut scientific research and conclusions. You would be entirely correct in assuming "climate change" is prominently featured in this analysis but it is not the only area of scientific inquiry to be examined. "Legitimate rape" and GMOs have their moment in the spotlight. Each logical fallacy has it's own chapter and examples to go with it. Some examples are: The Butter-up and Undercut, The Ridicule and Dismiss, and The Blind Eye to Follow-up. Interesting stuff, but incendiary to some. Full disclosure - although Dave Levitan writes about science, he is not a scientist.
06-23-2017 Blood at the Root: a racial cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
"Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root." These lyrics are from a song first made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939. This book contains gruesome descriptions of lynchings in and around Forsyth County, Georgia in the first quarter of the 20th Century. The how and why some people were made into "strange fruit" is terrible to envision; it is too awful not to look at. It is the first cousin to the horrors waiting for the Jews of Europe. Forsyth County may or may not have been the most racist county in the state of Georgia, but it was a contender for the title. As the result of the rape of one of the white women in the the area, one black man was lynched and three others eventually were hung after having their day in court. Their day in a court was officiated over by whites, with an all white jury sitting in judgement, in the county seat of Forsyth County, Cumming, Georgia. This county would, over the next few months, run every Black family out of the county. The night riders, who were the motivators for this exodus, were the good folk of the area who determined that their lives could be best lived by the total absence of "niggers"in their county. They accomplished their mission and so Forsyth County remained lily white until nearly the last decade of the 20th Century, nearly a generation removed from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The story of Cumming, Georgia has changed a good deal from the days when the Sheriff was a member in good standing of the KKK and it was deadly dangerous to be Black and just passing through, but as we all know human nature is slow to change. For most people, the change in the racial temperament of Cumming is welcome. For many people, the idea that this attitude was alive and well in our day and age is astonishing. For all of the above this book is a close look at a painful part of the backstory of this country. Our backstory is not all this lurid but it is part of our history.
04-25-2017 Word by Word: the secret life of dictionaries by Kory Stamper
04-22-2017 Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamera, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the lies that led to Vietnam by H. R. McMaster
If, as was said by Georges Clemenceau, "War is too important to be left to the Generals," you will come away from this book thinking entrusting that supreme policy strategy to politicians is not the straight and true path to answering the question, "To whom do we leave it?" If you pay careful attention to the whole title of this book, you will detect the course of commentary. For the record, McMaster is the current National Security Advisor and portions of this book were included in his doctoral thesis. This book is heavily researched and, fortuitously enough, numerous pertinent documents were declassified at this time so there is a substantial amount of evidence to support his viewpoint. As easy as it is to boo and hiss the villain(s) it is kind of hard to find a hero to cheer in this drama. The book begins with a short summary of what JFK seemed to have in mind for Vietnam, as well as what other goals he may have had. With that in mind, we move to the post JFK White House and are introduced to those advisors LBJ chose to be his inner circle. There really was one and it was very small. The machinations of this crowd put them right up there with the Borgias for cold blooded intrigue. The time span of this book is between 1963 and 1965. During this time our commitment in Vietnam went from several thousands of advisors to near 100,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel, and hundreds of thousands more lined up and waiting in the pipeline for the just right political moment to arrive. General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, stood alone when he said that the troop strength would need to be at least 500,000 men for at least 5 years to achieve military victory. A voice crying in the wilderness. If you are of such an age as I, you need to read this book to get an idea of what was really going on; if you are of a more tender age, you need to read this book because it is a cautionary tale. If you happen to have been there, then you really need to read this book. You think you had deep feelings for Robert McNamara before? You ain't seen nothin' yet.
If history is written by the victors, then who will record the history of a conflict for which there are no apparent winners? Andrew Bacevich has taken it upon himself to examine the involvement of the United States in the conflict in the Greater Middle East beginning in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran which led shortly thereafter to the failed attempt to free the prisoners from the American Embassy in Tehran. American involvement in this area continued without direct US military involvement, but plenty of behind the curtain machinations. until Operation Desert Storm 1990/1991. The American military presence in the Middle East has continued without pause since. To be sure, Bacevitch makes mention of all of the other ills afflicting the region: religious and tribal feuds hundreds of years old, European colonialism and it's aftermath, the disastrous breakup of the Ottoman Empire and it attendant Balfour Treaty. All of that is to set the stage for the direct American involvement. America's intentions seemed worthy- if not necessarily altruistic- but we never seemed to get the details right at all. We had plenty of military might, but what we had in incredible excess was hubris. America could never seem to get the idea that what we found desirable, instinctual and rewarding did not necessarily reflect the dreams and ideals of others. Bacevich takes us step by step through the last nearly 40 years and they are painful steps indeed. Obviously, he enjoys the luxury of hindsight, but many of deficiencies he notes of American policy were fairly evident in the early days of our efforts which makes one wonder why they still existed as late as last month. No American President escapes his scrutiny and none of them do very well. Since the end of the Cold War there has been the question, "What do we do with this hugely expensive military we have?" You know the old saw, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails." The Greater Middle East must have looked like a keg of nails and there are many carpenters still out there eager to pound them. Bacevich has some hard questions for America at the conclusion of this book. And like all hard questions, there are no easy answers.
It's a reasonable guess that any member of the voting public (and many who didn't take the time) if asked to describe the overall tenor of the recent race for the Oval Office, the response would probably be rather negative. It is also in the realm of probability that banner carriers of any of the people who had thrown their hat into the ring would call the contest along the lines of rigged, viscous, full of lies, dirty, hacked (or not) by Russians (a new entrant, possibly, into the political landscape) and a result left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans who may or may not be calling for us to all get along. There is good news for almost all of us in this small, amusing book relating details of some elections held in this fair land that were much nastier than our recent donnybrook. Not only were some political horror shows of yesteryear uglier than ours, almost no one remembers the awful details. And this pertains not only to long ago slug-fests (Jefferson-Hamilton), to which there are no living witnesses, but more recent jousting(Reagan vs Ford vs Carter in 19800. I was alive and I thought I had paid attention because I know I voted, But I certainly don't remember all of the stuff Dickerson puts on the table. Mind you, Dickerson does not examine each election in our history- who knows, there might have been some that were all grown up and mature in their conduct. Dickerson is an entertaining writer who talks to the reader on occasion as if he were in the room with you. Breaking the 4th wall, as those in the theater would say, with very witty asides. It is a pleasant accompaniment to a look at the quadrennial blood sport that passes for politics in our fair land, the Presidential elections.
History has always held a tremendous fascination for me. History, in which I was an opinionated observer as it happened, is as much revelation as it is reading. Muhammad Ali, long ago named Cassius Clay, passed from this world on June 13th of this year. Malcolm X, once named Malcolm Little was shotgunned out of this world on February 21, 1965. At his death, the former was labeled by many as The Greatest; the latter was known as a radical hater of white people who preached racial separatism. What is not well known is the fact that for a period of time while Cassius Clay was striving to become the heavyweight boxing world champion and Malcolm X was the principle spokesman for Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam the two of them formed an intensely close bond. It was a bond that would prove a terrible trial for both men. The authors of this book have done a wonderful job of weaving the many threads of the lives of these two men, the tensions of the time- both national and international- and the world of sport. If you thought that because you were alive and sort of paying attention at the time you have a good grasp of all that transpired (that would describe me) I would urge you to rethink that attitude and read this book. It is a smooth read and a bit of an eye opener. For many, the notion that Malcolm X had come to the conclusion that being white did not equal being the devil and he had begun to work with the people surrounding Martin Luther King, who Malcolm had denigrated previously. When Muhammad Ali died, he was widely known as a humanitarian, philanthropist, and a worthy role model for people of any religious or political persuasion. An engaging point to ponder: when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, it was greeted by howls of anger from every quarter and this was is 1964. Would he have the courage to make that name change in the atmosphere of 2016? In 1964 I didn't think of Ali as the greatest. In 2016 I was sad to see the passing of The Greatest. I was pretty sure over the years he had changed; I am positive I had.
11-26-2016 Altamont: the Rolling Stones, Hell's Angels, and the inside story of rock's darkest day by Joel Selvin
Disclaimer: When I finally became a fan of the British invasion, I was a Beatles fan, not a Rolling Stoner. Having said that, I confess I like the Rolling Stones. I do wonder if Mick Jagger, as he continues in his mid 70s to seek satisfaction, ever thinks back to that 1969 December in northern California when the summer of love began to grind to a halt on his watch, and, some would say, on his watch and his fault. Woodstock happened in August of that year, and the game was afoot to make a similar event happen on the west coast. The west coast was, after all, the birthplace of the peace, love, hope and dope era. It was the music scene that produced The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape and many others that provided the musical score to the revolution of American youth. The climax of this seemingly benign goal was to take place at a windy, chilly race track located east of San Francisco called the Altamont Speedway. Golden Gate Park was the first place chosen for this outdoor event but that was not to be. Sears Point Raceway was the second choice, but alas and alack, that was not to be either. Both locations lost, mostly, to the desire of the Stones (Mick Jagger) to get all of the money. Somewhere along the line, it was assumed that the Hell's Angels would provide security for the affair. The Altamont Speedway offered virtually nothing in the way of amenities for a gathering of this size. The local authorities, meager as they were, had no warning this event was going to take place. The nature of the drug scene was undergoing a dramatic change as well, with the hit or two of acid and a couple of joints, being replaced by speed laced LSD, heavy duty pharmaceuticals, all topped off with cheap red wine. All of the elements for a really bad outcome were in place and, lo and behold it came to pass. One person, under the influence of too much, drowned in a canal trying to get on the property; one person stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel; two people killed by a flying automobile while trying to go home; uncounted overdoses, assault victims and neighbors angered at the garbage left behind, all of these things and unpaid bills- unpaid to this day- make this a really engrossing tale. As you read, you might keep Sympathy for the Devil playing in the background...in this case he needs a little.
11-04-2016 Thieves' Road: the Black Hills betrayal and Custer's path to Little Big Horn by Terry Mort
That unfortunate June 25, 1876 encounter between George Armstrong Custer, 262 men of the Seventh Cavalry and several thousand irate Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors did not occur in a vacuum. Perhaps Custer died for your sins, but that's a theological question best discussed elsewhere; it is an easier case to make that he died due to the national debt, the astonishing corruption of our government by the engine of Manifest Destiny, and the inclination of both sides to ignore both the letter and the spirit of the several treaties between the early inhabitants of the prairies and the "white eyes." And then the tale gets really convoluted.This book does not point a finger in any direction to explain the national or global forces at work on that fine day in June of 1876 when Custer's long locks left his head, but points many fingers in many directions to examine the forces at work that brought the 7th Cavalry to that day. This book primarily concerns itself with the exploratory journey of Custer into the Black Hills in the summer of 1874. The legality of this mission was somewhat suspect due to the fine print in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but a loophole was found. The stated purpose of the expedition was rather benign; the sub-text concerned itself with gold, timber, agriculture and transportation. One motivation concerned itself with the severe depression of 1873 and America's adherence to the gold standard. Rumors of great amounts of gold in the Black Hills abounded and when traces of gold were found on Custer's expedition, the curtain began to fall on the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. Lakota Chief, Fast Bear is the one who called Custer's trail the "thieves road" and Terry Mort is the one who makes clear the reason this was an appropriate term. The writing is clear, not without a wry sense of humor, and engaging. As a side note, you will find that the legislators, and indeed the national government of that era, engaged in thievery that makes politicians of our day and age seem as angelic choir boys and girls.
08-16-2016 Grunt: the curious science of humans at war by Mary Roach
You wouldn't think a book dedicated to revealing the many facets of science involved in the Art of War, as described by Sun Tzu would be even a little funny, but you'd be wrong. Mary Roach has gone behind the scenes of many government departments and describes the functions, goals and many of their efforts, while quite serious in ambition, are highly amusing in practice. There is the chicken gun, a 60 foot long "gun" that shoots chickens at 400 miles an hour into airplane windscreens to measure potential damage from bird strikes. There is a section on the use of maggots on decaying wounds that will make you look at fly larvae in a new light as well as giving you the government code for ordering them should the need or desire arise. From that section she slides smoothly into the history of the development of stink bombs. Really. And much more potent than the ones you clever science types came up with in the high school chemistry lab. And for those of you who have issues with sleep patterns, you will feel liberated after you read about the attempts to regulate the sleep patterns of submarine crews who operate without benefit of that great body clock, the sun. There are ghastly sorts of things in here as well that I will not expand upon but if you are looking to develop a sense of humor akin to that of young people in harms way, you could do worse than this book. If you are (or were) a young person who has been in harms way, you will recognize the humor immediately.
08-06-2016 When Law was in the Holster: the frontier life of Bob Paul by John Boessenecker
The Sheriff of an Arizona county is embroiled in a contested election with charges of ballot rigging and bribery coming from both candidates' camps and political bosses on both sides are up to their necks in the charges and counter charges from all directions. Sound familiar? Something ripped out of today's headlines? Actually this little boiling pot was bubbling in 1886. Proving, once again, that political chicanery and intrigue is a long established tradition in our fair state. The incumbent sheriff in this drama is named Bob Paul and his story reads like fiction. He left his home in Lowell, Massachusetts at the ripe old age of 12 to become a cabin boy on a whaling ship that was setting out on a two year voyage. The adventurous tale of his life from that watery beginning to it's dusty conclusion in the desert of Pima County is nearly too outrageous to be true, but true it is. He was a miner, a 49er, and a lawman there as well. He was a contemporary of Wyatt Earp and knew him well in Tombstone when that famous gunfight took place in the vicinity of the O.K. Corral. The people who came before us were a hardy bunch and some of them tried to bring some sense of civilization to Arizona. That is still a work in progress but for an exciting ride in The Way-Back-Machine, this book is hard to beat.
Some time ago, I penned a few notes about a book called The Passage. It was the first volume of a post-apocalyptic trilogy that I sort of loosely compared to Stephen King's, The Stand. That comparison is still a fair one I think but Mr. Cronin had much more to say about his "end of civilization as we know it" tale. I found the second book, The Twelve to be kind of weak after the reasonably gripping 1st volume. It is an in-depth peek at the heart of the "disease" that has wiped out most of the population of the earth. The source of this malady (virulent vampireism) is, of course, a medical experiment gone terribly wrong involving 12 condemned criminals. (12- get it?) Much attention is also paid to our band of humans as they adapt to living under conditions vastly different from the good old days. They also scatter and become a bit hard to keep track of. If you hang through all of this and get to volume three you done good and The City of Mirrors does much to bring all of the threads together and sets the stage for the grand struggle by the final players from both sides of good and evil. If you have a certain desire to immerse yourself in epic stories and have lots of time on your hands, I think you might have a nice trip with these three.
07-27-2016 In the Kingdom of Ice: the grand and terrible voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
This book was thrust upon me by a friend and I was less than thrilled. Disastrous arctic expeditions didn't interest me in the slightest. Add another to the lengthy list of mistakes I have made in my life- literary and otherwise. This book is riveting from it's opening pages. The first fact the reader needs to absorb is the incredible geographic ignorance mankind had about our little blue marble in the middle of the 18th century. Upon reflection that should come as no surprise but as citizens of our times we make assumptions that don't acknowledge the idea that there was a time before satellites and instant communication. The theories concerning the nature of earth above the 80th parallel at that time are pretty funny from our vantage but at then, who knew? Nobody. The cast of characters (and I mean characters) in this book is astonishing; the fabulously wealthy owner of the Herald newspaper, who footed the bill, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. who sponsored Stanley's journey to find Livingstone (who wasn't lost) to the huge benefit of his newspaper, to the brave and stalwart Captain of our brave ship, George Washington De Long. Have I mentioned this book is a narrative of the grand and terrible voyage of the USS Jeannette and the search for the answers to the mysteries of the North Pole? Well it is, and before you are finished you will have a touch of frostbite and a huge respect for the astonishing bravery and endurance of the crew of the Jeannette and other courageous souls who challenged the kingdom of ice.
For me a summer of Cowboys and Indians. The latest historic read has been about the Comanche Indians and their place in the history of the American West. The central figure is Quanah Parker, the last and really only chief of all Comanche bands. There had never been such a person prior to Quanah, and ever after that person would be called Chairman. It was ironic that the last great leader of the Comanches, the man who brought them to the reservations after a long personal history of killing white people was, himself, a half-breed. The history of the Comanches prior to the time of Quanah is another tale of perfidious white eyes who were bound and determined to settle the west no matter how many of the original inhabitants they had to kill in order to expropriate the land upon which they lived. The land occupied by the Comanches- most of Texas, and chunks of neighboring states as well- was very lightly inhabited by settlers for many years because the Rangers, the army, and local volunteers were unable to stop the raids and attacks by the warriors acknowledged to be the finest armed cavalry in the world. Being a settler in Texas was more hazardous than cigarettes in that the only smoking you might do would be as you were slowly roasted over a small fire. The Comanches were not signatory to the Geneva Convention...nor for that matter were the white guys they fought. The author seems to have been meticulous about his research but this is no coldly objective read. The author has his favorites and you don't need a Comanche moon to see who they are.
06-20-2016 Texas Rander: the epic life of Frank Hamer, the man who killed Bonnie and Clyde by John Bossenecker
This book is the story of Frank Hamer (Hay-mer), the long-time Texas Ranger who led the investigation to locate and then kill Bonnie and Clyde. Interestingly enough, this was not the high point of his career. Hamer's career with the Rangers began in the early years of the 20th century and continued into the late 1940s. Texas was a wild place in those years and resisted mightily the notion that a new century might require different skills and behaviors. Lynchings were common place, government corruption at all levels was the reward for public service, and the worth of certain segments of society- anyone not a WASP- was not questioned, it was simply denied. It was in this exciting soup that our Ranger toiled for many years. By all accounts he was brave, honest, and felt that everyone regardless of race, creed or color was entitled to the same brand of justice and would knock you out if you gave him a hard time. He absolutely hated lynchings and, in a number of epic confrontations with lynch mobs, only lost one prisoner to a lynching and that was when the mob burned down the courthouse. One of the stories that might be of particular interest to people of a certain age-you know who you are- is the story of how he was chosen to take a role in a voter fraud investigation. As you might well guess voter fraud was a time honored Texas tradition. This particular fraud, and it has been pretty much proven to be the truth, involved the closest senatorial primary race in the history of the country between a former Texas governor and a young, upstart Texan named Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, and those who supported him, stole that 1948 senatorial election and we all know how and where that ended. A lot of history here about a man, a state, and a social order, but no boring history.
06-17-2016 Redemption Road by John Hart
Not a new author but new to me and am now looking to catch up on his work. This story is intricate without being the tangled mess of say, "Game of Thrones." The story revolves around a former police officer being released from a brutal prison. He may have been innocent of the crime that sent him there. He is closely associated with another police officer who is being harshly judged by the brutal execution by gunfire of two hideous miscreants who had brutalized a sweet young girl for a lengthy period of time. You would think that the punishment fit the crime but this is America and nothing is that simple. Throw in a beyond shady prison warden and his goons and the possibility of betrayal in high places all wrapped up in a writing style that makes you impatient to turn the page and that is this book. If you are a person who relishes the thrill in thrillers, then I suspect you will enjoy a ride down Redemption Road.
06-11-2016 The Apache Wars: the hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the captive boy who started the longest war in American history by Paul Andrew Hutton
The many different tribes, clans and splinter groups of the people known popularly as Apaches kept the lands of southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and north central Mexico as free of settlers, pioneers, soldiers, and other non-Apaches as they could manage. By and large they did an excellent job of making a naturally inhospitable land even more perilous. The author of this book maintains that the Apache Wars made up the longest conflict in American history. He contends that it began in earnest in 1861, lasted until 1890 and was precipitated by the kidnapping of one child who later came to be known as Mickey Free. Make no mistake this book is a history, but many of us saw it on the sliver screens in our younger years (If our younger years encompassed the era of Cowboy and Indian offerings from Hollywood). This time in the history of our nation is replete with example after example of broken treaties, amoral, thieving Indian agents, greedy white men, noble savages and bitter battles. These themes existed both on and off screen. This book prefaces the war years with a generous bit of background on all sides of the conflict and then takes the reader on an incredible journey around Apacheria. The distances traveled by people on foot, horse or mule is staggering. The book has maps and you will be astounded at the distances traveled. We would be reluctant to do it in our air conditioned autos. I urge people who would be more knowledgeable about this chunk of God-forsaken desert that we have chosen to call home, to read this book. I would also urge that people who have dropped a buck or two in a reservation casino to think of your loss as karma, or, if you'd rather, payback.
This is a hard book to read. The difficulties lie in both the principal event of the book and the book itself. In the end, the treatment of the event- the awful story of the railway built by the Japanese with the labor of captive civilians and the prisoners of war that had the misfortune to surrender to the Japanese- is masterfully handled. The details of the lives of the prisoners and their Japanese wardens is appalling in it's depravity.The characters are vivid and believable. It will make you look at the rugged heroism of Alec Guinness and the tidiness of his surroundings in a different light. It is the brilliant depiction of the characters during this brutal ordeal that made me like them enough to read the book. The manner in which they deal with the adversity of their lives is a mark of human triumph to which we all should aspire. For me, the first part of the book made me think about putting it down. I am delighted that I did not do so. The part of the book that is not directly about the railroad didn't give me much reason to be sympathetic toward our characters. I wouldn't presume to see into the mind of a person who has been through something like that but that doesn't stop me from having negative feelings about bad behavior. All in all, Flanagan has some important things to say and says them well. Just be aware that there be some ruts and rocks in that narrow road.
05-11-2016 These is My Words by Nancy E Turner
Sometimes you miss the Grand Opening. I missed the one for this book by nearly 20 years. It didn't appear on my radar screen until a year or so ago and, I confess it, I dismissed it as chick lit (get the torches and pitchforks) and now that I have read it I can come right out and say it. This book is chick lit- Laura Ingalls with a razor edge and something of a temper. This is the diary of a pioneer woman in the last two decades of the 19th century struggling to settle the Arizona territory. The book is complete with Apaches, the cavalry, desperados, trainrobbers, rattlesnakes, and true love. How can it miss? The story takes place in Arizona Territory south and east of Tucson. Part of the storyconcerns the last gasp raids of Geronimo. The interest to me lay in the fact that my grandfather was alive and living in this area at the time. The background this book provides, gives me a whole new way of looking at what a part of my grandpa's life might have been like. I assure you that our forbearers were made of sterner stuff than we are. The literary style of the book is of a woman who is extremely intelligent, but unschooled. That changes as the book goes from year to year. It is an unusual writing style but one quickly becomes comfortable with it. If you too have missed the Grand Opening of this book, I urge you to come late to the party.
05-11-2016 And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel
Richard Engle first went to the Middle East in 1996 to fulfill his childhood dream of being a journalist. In the ensuing years he covered all of the major stories in that region. When he began, all of the "monsters," as he called them, were still in place and seemingly in for the long haul. The "monsters" had names like Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, and Mu'ammar Gadhafi. They and their "monster" peers had a fierce grip on the reins of power in the region. The only country in the neighborhood that was anything other than a dictatorship was Israel. Israel stood alone in many other respects as well. Engle covered the stories of the region, large and small over the years and came to know the players and the drama of the region quite well. In the fall of 2001 stories from the Middle East took on a new and terrifying importance. Towers fell, armies invaded, the Arab spring turned into the cruelest month of all, and centuries of history provided the news headlines of the 21st century. This book provides a brief history of this region of the world and the nature of the roles that today's players are acting out. Engle fell in love with the area in his early years and is obviously distressed at the current state of affairs affecting the region and the larger world as well. He is generous with the blame for this mess. Some is directed at the US but by no means all. His finger pointing seems to be bi-partisan in nature. The administrations of our present leader and his predecessor are both taken to task for different reasons. He covers much ground and arrives at the unhappy conclusion that hell will be breaking loose for years to come.
04-23-2016 Psychological Nudity by Michael Savage
I never figured out the genesis of the title, which is only a part of what I don't understand about this book. I am told that Michael Savage is a radio talk show host of some renown. At this point I will exclaim that I do not listen to talk radio of any political bent. I find talk radio bereft of empirical facts, and, as entertainment, thin soup indeed. End of rant and editorial section of this note. I didn't care much for this book, not because of Mr. Savage’s points of view, but because of the delivery. He may well be one of the top talents in his field, but his field is the spoken word and sometimes the spoken word suffers in the transformation to the page. The book is a series of one and two page "stories." Some of them have very promising possibilities but he never seems to get them all the way there. Here's the deal: if you're a Michael Savage fan and you've got this far, I expect you'll be happy with it. Maybe it would go over better to me as an audio book.
04-18-2016 The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-1945 Citizens and Soldiers by Nicholas Stargardt
It would be facetious of me to say that reading this book is nearly as difficult as combat at Stalingrad, but in a literary sense, not too far off the mark. The intent of the author is to examine the idea that the atrocities and nightmarish behavior of the Germans toward the peoples of Europe could be solely laid at the feet of the hard core Nazis in general and the SS in particular. The author's conclusion is that very few Germans can escape some share of the blame. Stargardt examines military and civil records that the Germans meticulously kept and preserved. He brings the reader to the conclusion that the extermination of the majority of the Jews of Europe plus millions of other "social undesirables", Russian prisoners of war, millions of Ukrainians who miraculously escaped Joseph Stalin's attempts to eradicate them, and various and sundry groups of people who happened to be in the way of the Third Reich could not have been accomplished without the active participation of common German civilians and many members of the Wehrmacht - the regular German armed services. There was an evil genius to the propaganda that was the backbone of the Nazi movement. It played on the basic anti-Semitism of Europeans (which is not to say Europeans were alone in this prejudice, then or now), the supremacy of the "race" of the Germanic tribes, and the need to spread their values far and wide. The refusal of the Nazis to surrender when all was lost in late 1944 and into '45 can be found not in military actions but in the output of their propaganda machine which, unlike the armament factories, never ceased to produce. This is a very meticulous, well researched and highly detailed book. Right on the edge of too much, perhaps.
04-09-2016 Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
I just started reading this book without examining the "Also by..." page and later discovered that I had read and enjoyed several books by this author. But, not the same way I liked this book. The pain is apparent from the beginning. Gus Murphy, our miserable hero and former cop, works in a kind of flea bag, not quite at the bottom motel as a van driver/bouncer/house detective where he has plenty of time to swim in his misery. His misery has to do with the sudden death of a son, the not so sudden death of his marriage, and the seeming slide into the dark side by his daughter. The course of his life begins to change with a visit by a loser that he used to arrest when he was a cop. The loser’s problem has to do with the murder of his son. Gus throws him out. Humanity ensues after the murder of this loser. Then it gets complicated. Then it gets violent. Then, if you're like me, you start reading madly to get to the end. And a very satisfying end it is. Then I looked at the page that says "also by..." and realized that I've always liked this guy. Just maybe not this much. "Where It Hurts" hurts all over. I had no idea that Mike Hammer and "I, the Jury" could ever be beat down so completely. That hurts.
03-25-2016 Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton
I first saw "Humans of New York" (no stories) while working the front desk at the library. It was a book of pictures taken of random New Yorkers with an occasional blurb from the subject or from the photographer about the subject. It was a very pleasant, amusing, and, at times, are you kidding me look at some citizens of the Big Apple. I know for some of us in flyover country, humans and New York placed in juxtaposition may be a foreign concept. But amazingly enough it is true. Stanton knew right away that a version of his first work but with more stories would be needed. And here it is. Some of the stories that go with the pictures are only a few words long and others are a bit longer. I have always been a sucker for books full of pictures of people. How many of you remember "The Family of Man?” Raise your hands. I nearly wore out my copy of it. Here is the 21st Century version of that book only on a smaller scale. It won't take long to go through the book...once. This is a wonderful opportunity to look at some of our space partners and just marvel at their uniqueness.
03-24-2016 The Passage by Justin Cronin
"The Stand" may not be Stephen King's best novel, but it is my favorite. I love a good post-apocalyptic bedtime story. "The Passage" should rest very comfortably next to it on the bookshelf. Flu in one and contagious vampire-ism in the other. In general, I am not a big vampire fan but was more than delighted to make an exception in this case. The story had my attention pretty much from the beginning. I found myself wondering if I was reading the same story after a while, but my doubt was resolved quickly when the story dramatically increased in scope. We have good guys, really good guys as well as their counterparts on the dark side. We have babies being born and entire communities disappearing. We have your basic journey in search of answers or redemption, or a Circle K that still has ice cream. Some of you who are crazy fans of "The Stand" might want to cry foul at the closeness of parts of the storyline here, but, if Cronin was influenced in some manner by "The Stand", he does it no disservice and it is different enough to deserve no further comment from me. It is a hefty work so set aside more than an evening to get through it. You will want to keep the lights on at night and if someone starts tearing off their clothes in front of you, it might not mean what you first think it does, you devil, you.
02-16-2016 The Speechwriter: a Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim
In this already lengthy and seemingly endless election cycle this is not a bad book to read. It is a memoir of a speechwriter for South Carolina Governor Mark Sandford. You know, the one who gave "hiking The Appalachian Trail" a whole new meaning. The book does deal with that embarrassment but it mostly depicts the work done by speechwriters in politics in general. The words that come from the mouths of our elected leaders are not necessarily their own and the letter to the editor singing the praises of that leader you just read may come from the office of that politician without anyone being the wiser. Have you written the Governor a letter to praise or to make a suggestion? Your reply is unlikely to have been written by him and the chances that he read it are pretty slim. This book deals with the governorship of Mark Sandford but the larger point seems to be that his is not an unusual story and the fact that he was caught in an illicit relationship does not change the narrative. He is not the first public servant discovered to be violating public and private trust and when all is said and done, it seems to be all about them. Swaim quotes an excerpt from Catherine Zucker's essay, "Tom Sawyer: Potential President."
"People like Tom Sawyer serve others not for the sake of the others, they serve because they glory in receiving glory...We should reward such people with the fame they so desire- if and when they perform real public services. But we should not trust them." Too cynical? Maybe, maybe not.
02-12-2016 Black Man in a White Coat: a Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, MD
In a country with no shortage of hot buttons, push the Race Button and the "Obamacare" button and afterburners ignite immediately. This book deals with those two issues, as well as a number of peripheral topics. The race issue begins at the beginning. Dr. Tweedy began his medical education at Duke University in the early nineties and attitudes carrying the whiff of Jim Crow North Carolina were still very evident. The body of the book concerns his experiences and interactions with medical personnel as well as patients. During his education as he began to treat patients, he couldn't help but recognize the cultural and socioeconomic environment that contributed to the sorry health habits and status of large numbers of Black citizens. He is candid about the self-destructive attitudes of many black people about health and health care. He is very forthcoming in examining his own biases and prejudices and he had a number. The redeeming quality of this book, besides his observations about people, medical inequities, health problems, some sort of national access to health care, and personal responsibility in all of these areas, are his proposed solutions. None of them are terribly original, but they hang together well and have the perspective of a man who served in the trenches of this particular war. It takes a while to warm up to the author but he becomes a more likable person as the story progresses. There are many people who are sick and tired of all aspects of this debate, but hating the problem will not make it go away or solve it.
02-11-2016 Ardennes 1944: the Battle of the Bulge by Antony Beevor
The Generals were clawing, scratching, kicking and biting each other while struggling to place the knife where it would do the most harm. And these were the Generals ostensibly fighting the Germans. You know, the good guys, our Generals. This family squabble might have been amusing, in a Three Stooges way, but for the bloody fight going on that would be known as, The Battle of the Bulge. This book examines the planning on the part of Adolf Hitler, the unpreparedness of the allied forces, the savagery of the combat, the pitiful plight of the civilians and the atrocities committed by soldiers on both sides. The chaos of the battle was accompanied by freezing rain, sleet, snow and the coldest temperatures in many years. Most nonfatal wounds were from frostbite and trench foot. It was impossible to dig a foxhole in frozen, thick rooted ground so many frozen corpses were used as sand bags. Many movies have been made of bits and pieces of this battle: "To Hell and Back" starring Audie Murphy as himself. The young Henry Kissinger was here, Earnest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Captain Dick Winters of "Band of Brother's" fame and, of course, "The Battle of the Bulge" with Henry Fonda. The major problem I had with the book is maps. There were many but they were all over and I have only so many fingers to mark places with while I read. If I had one I would have pinned it to the wall so I could keep track of all of the players. This book is a testament to the fortitude of the common soldiers on both sides and will make you really glad you weren't there. If you were...thank you.
02-03-2016 Inside ISIS: the Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army by Benjamin Hall
Writing about ISIS is becoming quite a cottage industry and here is another example. In general, most works are broken into a scholarly approach and an anecdotal style. This book seems to be much more of the latter but its author has spent much time in the region over the years so his treatment of the issue must be given some credence. His assessment of the history and future direction of ISIS falls into the same general view as others who have written about the group. That is to say, from a rather accidental genesis, ISIS has grown in size, influence and viciousnes and shows few signs of going away. Mr. Hall is not an unbiased reporter but his observations of the internal workings of Middle Eastern countries and their competing religious goals seem to be very plausible and accurate. The incredible mess that is the Middle East has many players, feuds several hundred years old, clashing agendas from all over the world and instant accessibility via the internet. Hall's suggestion that it will be an effort whose length will be measured in generations to try and bring stability to the region is probably accurate. He also indicates that the US must be a major player in the struggle. He seems to disregard America's apparent inability to sustain conflicts for more than a decade. Excepting the one between our political parties.
01-28-2016 The Balfour Declaration: the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonathan Schneer
The body of the Balfour Declaration consists of one sentence 168 words long. Not all of the words are big ones; there are a number of prepositions and articles. The intended and unintended consequences of those 168 words would, and have, filled volumes. They have and continue to fill cemeteries in many nations of the world. In the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, arrogance shone just as brightly on Old Blighty. During the awful days of the great slaughter known as WW I, the Ottoman Empire, after much deliberating, became an ally of the Germans. After that fact, the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire called for jihad against the British and their allies. This made the British very nervous. Sounding familiar? In order to avoid that possibility, the English enlisted Arabs who were disenchanted with the rule imposed by Constantinople and agreed to aid in British efforts to defeat the Turks. Remember Lawrence of Arabia? This is where that movie started. How do we get the Arabs on our side? Promise them a bunch of land after the war. That land includes a strip of desert called Palestine. How do we keep the French happy and involved in the slaughter? Promise them a bunch of land that include Syria and that little patch called Palestine. How do we insure that the international money and organization of the Jews will remain on our side? Promise them access to the Holy Land. How do the British maintain that mighty Empire? Make sure they will be administrators of that tiny piece of earth. These events are worthy of a Masterpiece Theater that the BBC will never undertake. This book reveals amazing stuff. It is very much a cloak and dagger book. The actions of our cousins from across the sea, bearing the white man's burden, while cloaked in duplicity, sliding the dagger into friend and foe alike, most generally in the back. Those wounds continue to seep blood 100 years later.
01-05-2016 Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale
Clash of something. This book revises history and makes some up. Normally this is nothing but a sign of a creative mind at work and that is the case here but there is something about the presentation I found a little off-putting. The premise of the tale is pretty cool: the New World has come to the attention of the not declined or fallen Roman Empire and the 33rd Roman Legion is here to do what Rome was famous for doing. They will kill a lot of people, enslave a bunch more, and then make the survivors into taxpayers. Surprise! The Romans get their butts kicked by a very technologically advanced bunch of Indians and only one Italian is left to tell the tale. Coincidentally, the remaining Roman is the boss. The remainder of the book (most of it) is an attempt to blend the industrial expertise of Rome with the technology of the Indians which turns out to be a version of flight. By and large it is an interesting, mostly entertaining read but as I alluded earlier, I was uneasy with the author as author. It seemed he advances his characters by fits and starts and it would have been kind of him to include some sketches of the living environment of the Indians. By all means read it for yourself but before you do, go to the ether and find out something about Cahokia. It won't hurt.
01-04-2016 Last Bus for Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Ivan Doig died last year and that's a shame, in part, because I had just discovered him. He leaves an extensive body of work but there could have been more. This particular book takes place in the early '50s and is the tale of an 11 year old boy sent to live with distant, barely known relatives while his grandmother undergoes some never named surgery for female issues. He is sent from the wilds of Montana to the far-off land of Michigan. He discovers that the aunt to whom he has been sent is not that Kate Smith. Not only does she not sing "God Bless America" she manages to hit all of the wrong notes with our young traveler, Donal. Crisis ensues. Aunt sends Donal back to Montana where his grandmother is recovering from surgery and is unable to care for him. All he sees in his future are orphanages and foster homes. He is joined in this journey by Aunt Kate's long suffering partner Herman the German. Much adventure, suspense, and fun stuff ensues. This book is character driven and the characters are all what we would call "characters." Happy ending? You bet. Feel good when you're done? You bet. Worth the time? Totally, including the time you spend Googling "horse driven hay stacker" prior to opening the book.
12-30-2015 The Rent Collector by Camron Steve Wright
I had problems with this book. I didn't like the cover and the premise seemed too lame for words. After I brought it home, it gathered dust as I read more appealing titles. I renewed it once and it was coming due for another and I held my nose and began to read. For a bit, I could see no reason to alter my attitude and then, change my attitude I did. In the end, this book provided much joy and laughter. If you love the written word and the magic of literature, then this is a book you will want to read. It does take place in the largest garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and it does involve a person who collects the rent from people who live in the dump's squalor and there is much to arouse outrage at the desperate lives they lead. There is also much cause for rejoicing: the universality of hope, the love of mothers, and the power of the written word. There is much to pick at in the book and frustrated English majors will make much of its imperfections, but they need to remember that the joy derived from a book is its true measure of goodness. This book brings much pleasure and reminds word lovers why they have a library card.
12-26-2015 A More Perfect Union:what we the people can do to protect our constitutional liberties by Ben Carson, MD and Candy Carson
This book is, mostly, a quick review for some and an enlightening exposure to some others of the Constitution of these here United States. Dr. Carson and his wife present a small book that presents a brief overview of the founding father's vision of how this country ought to function. Beginning with, "We the People..." and going right on to Congress cannot vote itself a big, old fat pay raise in the middle of the night (27th Amendment). Dr. and Mrs. Carson arrive at some conclusions that approximately 1/2 of the voting population would enthusiastically support and the other 1/2 enthusiastically question, but their treatment of the ins and outs of this document are presented in an enlightened and intelligent fashion. This book, if properly embraced, could make a citizen almost as sharp as any newly naturalized citizen. They have to take a test on it that many voters would be hard pressed to pass. Good job, Ben!
12-13-2016 On Combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
This book should be required reading for all of you pistol packin' mommas and poppas out there. Col. Grossman is a combat veteran and warrior trainer. He works extensively with the FBI, the military, as well as many police forces around the country. His bona fides seem substantial and his approach to the intricacies of combat, both psychological and physiological, are spot on. His examination of the physical aspects of the human organism during combat are eye opening, and his observations on the stresses the mind endures are astonishing. The training required to be an automatic warrior runs into the hundreds if not thousands of hours and many, many rounds down range. He touches on many topics in the book including his take on the impact of video shooting games on the youth of the world. If you think that these games do nothing good for our youth, you will find him largely in agreement. He will also outline how it is not so unusual to understand why a young man was shot 16 times. Nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the act, just the sheer volume of fire involved. There are many, many parts to being a sheep dog as opposed to a sheep and not many who are willing to accept the mission. The upshot of it all is that once you think of lifting that firearm everything that follows is way more involved than just pulling the trigger.
11-10-2015 Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from Afghanistan by Sveltana Alexievich
The zinky boys were the returning sons of Russia who came home from Afghanistan in coffins lined with zinc. Afghanistan has been called Russia's Vietnam and after reading this book, that comparison seems accurate. There are some aspects that seem different. The government of the Soviet Union apparently lied to the public more than the government of the United States did, but both kept sending young men into harm's way for questionable causes. This book is a compilation of letters, and stories from survivors or the kin of the dead. Their tales reflect the story of the Universal Soldier. Some of you may be of an age to remember that song from Donovan, and it is an oversimplification of the problem, but the sentiment is sincere...in the Age of Aquarius fashion of the mid-sixties. November 11 will be appropriate to honor the Zinky Boys as well as our own veterans. In fact, it would be a good day to honor the Universal Soldier.