Never dull reading: Random Reviews in Random order from the Inestimable, Mr. Von Hatch, library volunteer and patron.
Read a Book. It’s good for what ails you. Especially if what ails you is a dearth of reading! Need ideas? There is no lack of ideas in our world and here are a few (in alpha-order, no less) to pique your interest.
13 SOLDIERS: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF AMERICANS AT WAR by John McCain & Mark Salter
(Yes, that John McCain) This book is made up of brief tales of citizen soldiers from each of our major wars. These 13 Americans could have been any 13 Americans who have gone in harm’s way over the past 240 odd years because so many others have done what they did. They refused to give into the logical feeling to turn and run like crazy away from the carnage that lay to their front and instead went to the sound of the muskets or the AK-47s. The rightness or not of the particular conflict seems not to matter as much as the dread of failing to be there for your comrades. There are no new revelations made in this book but its value is in the re-examination of the men and women who answer the call; citizen soldiers in the main, wanting to do their duty and return home to their interrupted lives. Most of them are able to do so.
THE FALL OF THE OTTOMANS: THE GREAT WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST by Eugene Rogan
The White Man’s Burden is indeed a heavy load to pack around, particularly when considering the mess that is the Middle East. Granted, the residents of that region shoulder a significant responsibility for the seemingly nonstop high drama that provides endless headlines, pitiful refugees and mind numbing body counts. What had been the remnants of a centuries old Islamic empire was caught up in the intrigue of European empires as they jockeyed for position to expand their own interests. As Europe began it’s descent into war after Sarajevo, the Ottomans, who had their own interests to protect, began shopping around for European allies that would provide the best partnership for the powers in Istanbul. They chose Germany. One of the first results of that decision was to make the European War a World War due, in great part, to the size of the Ottoman Empire which reached from The Aegean Sea to the Indian Ocean and from the Red Sea to The Persian Gulf. Once upon a time it was much larger. It is estimated that the numbers of troops deployed by both sides in WW I to battle in the Ottoman area of operations lengthened the awful blood bath that was the war on the Western Front appreciably. It’s all in this book: The Balfour Agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lawrence of Arabia, the Armenian Genocide, and more. The duplicity of the great powers and their “allies” south of the Dardanelles make the Borgias and Medicis seem like bridge clubs. The events of this era are with us still, including the fear that arises at the word jihad.
IT IS ABOUT ISLAM by Glenn Beck
In this fairly compact dissertation about the dangers ISIS and others of their ilk present to, not only our country, but the non-Muslim rest of the world, Glenn Beck goes to great lengths to differentiate between Islam and Islamists. Islam being the religion practiced by most of the 1.5 billion adherents to the religion who don’t behead journalists and Islamists who do. Then he goes on to mostly lump them together. To be sure he is addressing a clear and present danger presented by a large group of terrorists who are Muslims. He then proceeds to indict the teachings of that religion and to state that because Muslims everywhere are bound by the teachings of the Quran they are mostly helpless to divorce themselves from its doctrines. Unlike Mr. Beck, I am no scholar of comparative religions, but I’m not convinced. Nor am I persuaded by his arguments that such well known events as the Inquisition, the bloody European wars that followed the reformation, and the finer points of the Crusades should be seen in radically different light than 9/11 and many other actions of Islamists. While this book raises many valid points, it also comes with the Glenn Beck world view. You have been alerted.
KILLING REAGAN: THE VIOLENT ASSAULT THAT CHANGED A PRESDIDENCY by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
As you might well guess, reactions to this book span the emotional globe. It seems to me that Dugard has done his usual, voluminous amount of research and no doubt did some cherry picking in order to make this book come in at just under three hundred pages. There seems to be a good deal of nitpicking about his cherry-picking but it seemed to me to be relatively even-handed. Most people don’t doubt the conservative creds of Mr. O’Reilly but the tone of the book struck me as well-balanced. The story of Ronald Reagan is a very intriguing American tale and makes for compelling reading from womb to tomb. For those of us who were alive and presumably paying some attention, the book reminds us of certain things, further explains some things, reinforces the virtues of the President that many wish to believe, and gives credence to the huge failings of the Reagan Presidency that many others devoutly insist upon. It’s an All-American book: you can have it your way.
KING SOLOMON’S MINES by H. Rider Haggard
As a young boy, I dreamed of adventures in far-off lands, of exciting treks and fierce battles, of dusky maidens…well, maybe not so much the maidens, and treasure beyond counting. Strangely enough I discovered this book and I read it. It fulfilled all of those fantasies and more and in a really strange form of English. It is the English of the mid-19th century as spoken in Africa by our hero, Allan Quatermain, big game hunter and explorer. He is given a proposition by a rich guy to go find the rich guy’s brother who is missing from a journey to find a fabulous treasure. He says, “OK,” and off we go into the unknown reaches of deepest Africa. Adventure ensues. What I didn’t really notice on the first reading was the attitude toward big game hunting and the racial attitudes of the White guys. Not that there are any surprises there but 150 years have passed and, hopefully, so have some of the attitudes. Be all of that as it may, it’s a pretty cool adventure yarn. Go ahead, live dangerously.
MISSOULA: THE RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN by Jon Krakauer
When you read this book, you will want to run to the “first we kill all the lawyers” list and add a few new names. They will all live somewhere near Missoula, Montana. The sub-title to this book is: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Here are the stories of several women who were raped in or near the campus of the University of Montana, home of the Grizzlies. What follows is the search for truth and justice in the legal system of both the state and the university. The rapes for which they are seeking redress did not last very long; the violations visited upon them by the system lasted much longer. The debate about the numbers of rape taking place in our college towns, and elsewhere, does go on. The figures and attitudes examined by this author are fairly convincing. The events described in this book are about three years old and none of the convicted remain behind bars but many people are still serving time in their minds. Montana is in the process of changing their attitude about the handling of rape cases and the victims. But there are still tens of thousands of untested rape kits across the nation, which may indicate attitudes need to be changed in more places than Montana.
It is reasonably safe to say that most people have heard of Auschwitz, Dachau, and, perhaps, even Buchenwald, but Ravensbruck is rarely recognized by most of us. Ravensbruck was unique in that it was the only concentration camp that housed only women. Unlike Auschwitz it was not, strictly speaking, a death camp but if the brutality and harsh conditions found in the camp were killing you, there would be nearly nothing done to prevent your dying. First opened in May of 1939 as a concentration camp for undesirables, Gypsies, prostitutes, communists, and other groups, Ravensbruck was mostly a labor camp where its inmates wore worked to death. As time went on, the camp added medical experiments, gassing, mass sterilizations, and a crematorium to its available services. The systematic murder of the inmates continued to the last week of the war even as Russian and American troops were within miles. This is an awful book to read. It is awful to see what otherwise normal humans are capable of doing to one another. It is awful to see how callous international organizations dedicated to the well-being of mankind can be. It is awful to see how governments disregarded the carnage. It is awful to know that the world lied when we all said, “Never again.” In the shadow of this book, it is awful to contemplate words and deeds we are exposed to today. It is awful that the concept of “the banality of evil” is alive and well. And it is awful that this book might well serve as a distant mirror.
SATURN RUN by John Sanford and Ctein
I don’t usually do pop-fiction because everyone reads their favorites in any event and who cares what I have to say? Please, that is rhetorical and I’m not looking for an answer. This is a call out to all fans of Science Fiction wherever you are. A devoted Sci-Fi maniac wouldn’t touch John Sanford with a ten foot light saber but I’m telling you this book is worth your while. It has all of the meticulous plot movement of the Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers series but it all takes place in outer space and in the future. What more do you need? And I am pleased to report there are no “wantum mechanics” involved. I sort of had to take that on faith because I wouldn’t know quantum from wantum if I were sitting in a bucket of either. However I do know a bit about plot, suspense and character development and there are oodles of it here. It all starts with a decelerating object in the rings of Saturn and we ALL know that nothing in space decelerates unless it is a contrivance of some life form or the other. We are one and the source of this object is the other. Other what? You will find out near the end of this book I am trying to persuade you to read. And there is more. Be still my heart.
SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson
There are no Adams in this book, just the seven Eves. I waded into Science Fiction waters again and it was mostly pleasant but there be piranha, too. I found the premise of the book to be intriguing: the moon is broken into pieces and it is determined that there remains only a couple of years to get out of the building that will soon be burning, i.e., earth. This is accomplished by expanding the ISS…a lot. The earth burns up as predicted and there is much drama among the survivors, as they are incapable of modifying the behaviors that make mankind so very entertaining. This part of the drama ends with just seven survivors that, you might have guessed by this point, are all women. Seven women and a lot of high tech information stored in chips. Part of that information verifies the attitude held in some circles that men are mostly superfluous. Then, as we say in film editing, jump-cut 5,000 years into the future. We are still in the neighborhood of earth, still not getting along and eventually come to some sort of resolution…sort of. I found that part to be a bit underwhelming. This book runs to nearly 900 pages and the first 500 are ripping good, the next 200 worthwhile, and the last 200 akin to the last 10 minutes in the dentist’s chair. Are we done yet?
THE SHORT NOVELS OF JACK SCHAEFER by Jack Schaefer
Working the front desk at the library (many of my stories begin this way) I noticed the title, Shane along with a couple of others on a book and I was amazed because I didn’t know Alan Ladd had written a book. Another hole in my English studies as it turned out. Shane was the product of the mind of Jack Schaefer, as were a number of other Western type books, including Monte Walsh. I figured I would read Shane and let the others go. Didn’t happen. The other short novels of this anthology are, First Blood, a tale of reaching manhood, The Canyon, the quest of a young Indian for the Native American Dream, Company of Cowards, does being charged with cowardice make a person a coward?, and The Kean Land, a tale of shady land grabs that happened somewhere besides Arizona. The story of Shane and the image of encroaching society being opposed by the violent proponents of the status quo and the mysterious stranger who comes from nowhere to ensure the triumph of civilization almost made me put on my English Major hat. Fortunately for all of us I couldn’t find it, but that doesn’t prevent me from saying this is good stuff.
In the midst of the current furor over immigration, here is the story of an immigrant to this country that exemplifies the potential these good folk bring to our country. It is the tale of Tibor “Teddy” Rubin, born in Hungary just in time to spend his early teen years as an inmate of the Mauthausen death camp. After its liberation by American troops, Teddy swore he would immigrate to the US and join the Army. As it happened, the confusion of post-WW II conspired to spit him out in NYC. Speaking almost no English, he was able to find work and eventually made his way into the Army. He made it just in time to find himself in Korea in the dark, first days of that conflict. For his feats of incredible valor, his commanding officer instructed the company First Sergeant to prepare the paperwork for the recommendation of a Medal of Honor. Not once but twice. The First Sergeant, unfortunately, was a hater of Jews, Negroes, and others of less than Aryan bloodlines, and the paperwork was never processed. Private Rubin, along with thousands of others, was taken prisoner in the ill-advised pursuit of the bad guys toward the Yalu River, where the bad guys were joined by other bad guys and the arms race turned south once again. Private Rubin then spent nearly 3 years as a guest of the Communist Chinese and survived. Many didn’t. He came home and then there was a really long trial to secure his Medal of Honor. It involved many twists and turns including anti-Semitism and disdain of soldier prisoners of the Chinese (think Manchurian Candidate). George Bush finally awarded the medal and it all ends happy ever after…sort of. This is riveting stuff. By the way, Teddy Rubin died this December. An American hero by way of Hungary.
My reading eyes very rarely see Science Fiction. An old chum of mine, whose eyes rarely see anything but, recently either twisted my arm painfully or smoothly convinced me (I’m not sure which) to give Sci-Fi a try. I did. I’m not unhappy I did. Book one: “1632” by Eric Flint. A tale of a small W. Virginia town that finds itself plunked down in the German countryside in the middle of The 30 Years War. The story is an interesting rewrite of European (therefore our) history. While reading this book I found myself returning time after time to Google to check the history of the era. The author is spot-on as near as I can tell. Fast moving, humorous, lots of little love stories and the good guys mostly win. The science of how this event occurred is in the preface. After reading the book, you’ll want to go back and re-read it. Book two: “Darwin’s Radio”, by Greg Bear. This one gave me a migraine. It has a lot of information about DNA, RNA and other scientific stuff at the beginning. To me it ruined the book as successfully as Melville killed(for me) the joy of reading about a white whale with way too much information about whales. Third’s the charm book: “Old Man’s War”, by John Scalizi. In the future, in several galaxies far away the armies of humankind’s descendants fight to keep the universe safe for our colonizers and crush the bad colonizers. This army is comprised of geezers. You have to be 75 to sign up and then the good times begin. You get a REALLY complete makeover that makes you a better man (or woman) than you ever dreamed you could be and off you go to boot camp and the deep corners of the universe. Space ships, exotic weapons, a little in the way of renewed hormonal life, conspiracies and the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way…all that I imagine Science Fiction to be and more. Good stuff. And that new bod under the 75 year old brain? Sign me up. Reminiscent of that old song, “When you wish upon a star…”
If you are like me, when hearing about “string theory,” the “big bang,” and the idea of an ever expanding universe (what is out there where the universe is not?) you ask yourself, “Who thinks this stuff up?” This book by Bill Nye (yes the science guy) examines the notions of evolution – past, present and future. This book is not “Evolution for Dummies” but it is sort of understandable even to less than mediocre biology students such as myself. Mr. Nye does not address the concept of a divine creator but concentrates his energies instead on the exploration of scientifically verifiable evidence. In short, the how as opposed to the Who. Bill methodically builds his case and comes to his conclusions with clarity and wit. Mr. Nye had a sympathetic reader here, but for those who lean toward creationism I expect he would arouse a different emotion. He had a celebrated debate with Ken Ham, a prominent and vocal proponent of creationism, last year. The debate is available online if you have two and a half hours to devote to the cause… whichever one you champion.
WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE: THE SOUNDTRACK OF THE VIETNAM WAR by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner
Over There and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With anyone else but Me) are two songs from the great wars in the first half of the last century. But when was the last time you heard them? Don’t know of any songs from the Korean kerfuffle and if there were any they, like that war, have been forgotten. The songs that form the soundtrack for Vietnam are heard every day on “Golden Oldie” stations all over the country. Admittedly there are more Vietnam vets still with us, but just as that war ripped at the fabric of what we thought our nation was about, so did the music of that era shred what had gone before, musically. The lyrics, the presentation, and the actions of those who performed it were unlike anything that had gone before. You don’t have to like it, you just need to admit it. Accept I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag as the pulse of a huge chunk of the youth of America at the time and you’ll be onboard. This book covers many of the songs of that time, along with narratives by men and women who served and how the music touched them then and in many instances continues to do so. The authors had some idea of making a Top Twenty List and came to the conclusion it was an impossible mission. But they made a list of way more than twenty songs and by popular acclaim, Eric Burdon and the Animals’ hit, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place was number one, with a bullet.
ZERO: THE BIOGRAPHY OF DANGEROUS IDEAS by Charles Seife
I have yet to comment on a book I haven’t read. I’m breaking new ground today. This book caught my eye one day while I was toiling at the front desk of the library and iT sounded too interesting to not read. It was billed as the biography of a dangerous idea. How could I resist? The book begins with a bang. A billion dollar missile cruiser is brought to a shuddering halt when its computer system dies because a zero was not removed from the system after testing. Wow! Then the math starts. I should have guessed it would. I was an indifferent math student at best and this book beat me into submission in a hurry. Unlike the flea approaching the elephant with lust in his heart, I wept at my shortcomings but admitted them. And this, from the book cover, hints at my zero aptitude for this book and this concept. “Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything.” If that excites instead of terrifying you, this might be a book for you.