Current Events

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What’s the Matter with Kentucky?

In John Quincy Adams, the author, Harlow Giles Unger, notes that Adams was consistent throughout his very long public career in defending the rights of all, and this included strong opposition to slavery, but he seemed to believe that a large proportion of society was too ill-informed and ignorant to make decisions in its own best interest.  In other words, he was an elitist when it came to voting and governing.   Maybe he was right.  I’ve never been able to figure why so many blue collar workers are rock ribbed Republicans.  Actually I don’t understand why anyone is a Republican other than entrepreneurs, financiers and the people who provide them with services like corporate lawyers and accountants, lobbyists and trade association and think tank staffs.  On the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post (November 10, 2015) there was a picture of Dennis Blackburn, 56, of South Williamson, Kentucky.  He says he would probably be dead, if it weren’t for the health insurance he got through Kynect, the state’s response to Obamacare. In the recent election for governor, he voted for businessman Matt Bevin, who had built his campaign around a pledge to dismantle Kynect.  Go figure.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Zero Day; The Monument Men; The Borgias, the Hidden History; The War of 1812; and John Quincy Adams

Note:  I'm having some eye trouble, so please forgive the typos.  From now on maybe it will only be recorded books.  jb

David Baldacci.  Zero Day© 2011  This is John Puller #1.  He’s an army warrant officer and CID operative, the son of Lt. Gen John Puller, who has dementia and still thinks he has a command, and younger brother of Robert Puller, a nuclear scientist in prison for life for treason.  Puller is dispatched to Drake, West Virginia to investigate the murder of an army intelligence officer.  It quickly becomes 7 murders.  Near Drake there is a concrete dome 3 feet thick and larger than two football fields.  It was constructed some 50 years early when the USG shut down some kind of secret facility on the site.  If it’s mentioned early, it has to be a player in the novel.  Think nuclear, of course.  Mason, the intelligence officer to whom Puller must report for this assignment, tells Puller that there have been two transmission in Dari from somewhere around Drake.  No middle eastern looking people have been seen anywhere in the area.  As Puller works with a local police sergeant, a woman named Sam Cole, the reader learns a little about strip mining, a nasty mine owner, and the mostly unemployed local population.   The book got good reviews and I guess the ending is a surprise, but I won’t be reading Puller #2.   Puller is too good at hand to hand combat; Baldacci seems fixated on army procedures; and the whole thing seems sort of simplistic and predictable.  September 2015

Robert M. Edsel.  The Monument Men© 2009  The movie was good but the book is so much more.  I loved Edsel’s Saving Italy and this one completes the story.  It seems incredible that the Nazis put so much effort and so many resources into stealing the art of Europe, and it’s almost as amazing that our military men at the highest levels bought into US efforts to save and return as much of it as possible.  They didn’t provide the Monument Men with much in the way of resources like Jeeps and staff, but they did cooperate.  The best story here is that of Rose Vallard, who was a minor staff member at the Jeu de Palme and managed to stay on when the Nazis took over.  She kept track of the shipments and when Paris was liberated worked with the Monument men to track them down  and recover them from their hiding places in mines and caves.   In one case she was able to get a whole trainload of art works shunted to a siding while the Nazis were evacuating Paris, so that the art works never went to Germany at all.  I’ve traveled widely in Europe and admired so many works on site and studied them and taught classes about them.  It never occurred to me that masterworks like the Ghent altar piece or Michelangelo’s Madonna in Bruges had once been hidden in places like salt mines and came close to being destroyed by vengeful Nazis as the war drew to a close.  August 2015.

`G.J. Meyers.  The Borgias, the Hidden History© 2013  The Borgia family must have the worst reputation in history, and few have questions whether it is deserved.  The family was Spanish, but it was the Borgias who move to 15th C Italy during the Renaissance who earned them their  infamous place in history.  The four main characters here are Alonzo who became Pope Calixtus III; Rodrigo, who became Pope Alexander VI;  Caesare, who became a cardinal in his teens and then left that exalted office to become a military adventurer, the Count of Valentois and married to a relative of the King of France, Duke of Romanga and a man in and out of favor with the Spanish, Neopolitan and French courts; and Caesare’s sister Lucretia, who was briefly married to one of the Sforza’s and then married Alonzo D’Este which eventually made her Duchess of Ferrara.  The amount of intriguing and betrayal  among the noble families of Italy is almost beyond belief.  I wish I had kept count of the political murders as I went along.  The Borgias were accused accused of many murders, but perhaps only Cassare was actually guilty Murder was routine in the politics of the time, but along with murder, the Borgias were accused of every kind of immorality including incest.  Supposedly Caesare and Lucretia and their siblings were sired by Alexander, and he was accused of an incestuous relationship with Lucretia.  Much of this was not written about until they were all dead and close study of historical records make it clear that Caesare et al were Alexander’s nephews and nieces, who he took in in accord with custom when their father died.  Along with the Borgias, the reader gets a nice summary of the political action in 15th C Italy among its great families, the Pope and the Papal States, the then great kingdom of Naples, Ferdinand and Isabella and King Louis XII of France, who wanted to add Naples to his holdings as a jumping off place to reconquer Palestine and become King of Jerusalem.  I think Meyer made his case that the Borgias were about as amoral as their peers.  Their main problem may have been that they were Spanish.  One final note, Lucretia, who was supposed to have been an accomplished poisoner along with her sexual  depravity, became the perfect duchess in Ferrara, beautiful, charming and much love and admired by all. She has many descendants among today's European royal families.  September 2015

Jeffrey Rogers.   The War of 1812© 2006  This seem to be an audio book only.  It is is a pretty good summary of this nearly forgotten and totally unnecessary war.   One thing mentioned that we tend to forget is that Jefferson, for all his other accomplishments, stripped the Federal Government of most of its functions.  This left Madison having to start from scratch to try to mount a defense.  At some point Jefferson did propose universal military training, but he was thinking of Greek citizen soldiers rather than a unified and permanent military establishment.  September 2015

Harlow Giles Unger.  John Quincy Adams. © 2012  John Quincy Adams had so many accomplishments that it would take pages to just list them.  Read this book and you will get a new take on just about everything that happened in American history from the Revolution to the 1830s.  Adams seems to have had a hand in everything, representing us abroad, negotiating treaties, acquiring Florida, the Monroe Doctrine.  He was an elitist, in that he thought voters and their government servants should be intelligent and educated, but he was a serious advocate for the rights of everyone and one of the earliest outspoken opponents of slavery.   As far as elitism goes, maybe he had a point.  How is it that so many blue collar people are strong supporters of the party of trickle down economics?  September 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Blood on the Water; The Johnstown Flood; Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America; Orfeo; and Latino Americans, The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation.

Anne Perry.  Blood on the Water.  © 2014  This is the author’s 20th book featuring William Monk.  If the others are all as good as this one, I may read them all.  It’s the 1860s, the French are digging the Suez Canal and the British are trying to stop it.  Monk is chief of the Thames river police and happens to be on the water when the Princess Mary, a large pleasure craft passes.  He sees a man jump overboard and a few seconds later there is an explosion which blows off the whole bow and the ship sinks in about 4 minutes with a loss of life later calculated at 179.  After rescuing as many survivors as he could, Monk immediately begins his investigation, including an exploration of the wreck in a diving suit.  The case is taken away from him and given to the city police, who know nothing about the river.  A case is made against an Egyptian man; he is tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.  Monk is not satisfied and continues to investigate until his boat is rammed and sinks and he nearly drowns.  He got a glimpse of the seahorse painted on the ramming boat’s stern and then recalls seeing that same seahorse on a boat which picked up a survivor from the Princess Mary and then disappeared.  The case is given back to Monk and the river police and they soon find the boat and its Egyptian owner.  There’s another trial and we readers get to experience combat between two barristers, those peculiar English advocates who may argue a case for a defendant one day and prosecute a different case the next.  The problem is to prove motive.  Was this Egyptian revenge against the British or a monstrous way to conceal the murder of one person by making him or her one of many victims?  Monk’s wife Hester, formerly a nurse in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale, investigates and finds the answer and then comes the surprise ending.  August 2015
David McCullough.  The Johnstown Flood.  © 1968  This was McCullough’s first book.  According to Wiki, “The flood occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, unleashing 20 million tons of water (18 million cubic meters) from the reservoir known as Lake Conemaugh. With a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River, the flood killed 2,209 people and caused US$17 million of damage (about $425 million in 2012 dollars).”  According to local residents, the rain that preceded the break in the dam was the heaviest ever experienced in the valley.  The first time I started this book I thought it was too detailed and could have moved along faster.  I’m glad I went back to it, because one of the main points of interest is exactly that detail which McCullough was able to compile from the reports of literally hundreds of journalists, public officials and the reminiscences of the survivors.  This may have been the best documented event in US history up to that time.  Clara Barton showed up with lots of nurses and stayed five months.  This really established the Red Cross as the major player in disaster relief in this country.  The story that only dribbled out was that of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which  owned the dam.  Club members were rich people from Pittsburg, including Andrew Carnegie, and they did not mix with the locals.  When they bought the dam from the Pennsylvania RR, it was in poor shape and the club’s restoration was a haphazard affair which any engineer could have told them was unsound and some did – in writing.  Just about everyone thought the dam would eventually break and then it did.  The rich guys from Pittsburg took no responsibility for the tragedy, although Carnegie did rebuild his library.  If this had happened today, the guys from Pittsburg would be paying for the damage and paying compensation to the survivors.  August 2015
Donald L. Miller.  Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America© 2014  It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this one, so much that I may read it again in a year or so.  In college I majored in history, and I have been reading history off and on for the last 60 years.  Most of what I have read stressed political and military events with a sprinkling of economic activity as a sort of seasoning.  I did read some economic history while I was in graduate school, and I have a shelf of things I meant to read.  This book is different.  I’m not sure if I should call it meta history or micro history.  It is a collection of short biographies of movers and shakers in Manhattan in the 1920s woven together to create a comprehensive history of the city and how it affected almost every aspect of our lives.  Almost all of the names were familiar to me, but I confess I knew little about them.  My impression of the 1920s was that it was an era when people drank too much, partied too much and invested recklessly, but that it was insignificant when compared with the progressive era, the New Deal, the two world wars and the civil rights era.   I was misinformed.  What follows are some notes of things I don’t want to forget.
       Mayor Jimmy Walker wanted a career writing musical comedies but ended up in politics.  He was incredibly popular with the public, a gifted speaker, a master of ceremony, a bon vivant and a good mayor who started a number of projects and pushed through some significant reforms until he was brought down by corruption and forced to resign.
       I knew the name Frank Costello, but I didn’t know he had a partner named Bill Dwyer.  Their chapter takes the reader through some of their ingenious bootlegging operations and names a few other bad guys like Owen Madden and wannabe bad guy George Raft and everyone’s friend Mae West.  Madden was the model for Damon Runyon’s Dave the Dude.  From his early teen years Madden was involved in organized crime and had become an important figure by 1912 when he survived an attack by another gangster in which he received 11 bullet wounds.  In 1923 Madden bought the Club Delux from boxer Jack Johnson and turned it into the Cotton Club, which later became a vehicle for Duke Ellington.  Madden avoided publicity and once gave Walter Winchell a Stutz Bearcat to keep his name out of the papers.  Madden had to leave New York in 1935 and became the sage of Hot Springs and advisor to gangsters still in the business, including Meyer Lansky.  Another famous entertainment venue was the 300 Club on 54th Street created by singer and former chorus girl Texas Guinan.  She served up 40 burlesque dancers, lots of booze and her own singing for the likes of Clara bow, Rudolph Valentino, Irving Berlin, Gloria Swanson along with some Chryslers, Vanderbilts, Whitneys and the like.  George Gershwin sometimes played her piano. 
      There were entrepreneurs too.  Miller tells the parallel stories of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, both of whom came for nowhere and built cosmetic empires that changed the female face of America.  From there he moves on to Fred F. French, who was the first to sell stock in real estate to ordinary people.  He was not listed on Wall Street, but he had 150 well trained salesmen that enabled him to amass the capital to build Tudor Village and a whole forest of setback high rises in Manhattan.  For construction he needed steel workers.  Many of the first workers were men who had worked aloft on square rigged sailing ships.  Then builders discovered the Mohawks from Canada who had gotten their start working on new bridges over the St. Lawrence.   There’s a complete description of the teams that heated the rivets, threw them to a catcher with a bucket  -- sometimes 60 feet up and away – and the coordination it took to fit the rivet in place and flatten the end.  In 1925 film producer Herbert Lubin conceived the idea of building the world’s largest and finest motion picture theater.  To get the job done right, he hired Samuel L. Rothafel, aka Roxy, at a high salary and promised him naming rights.  Roxy named the 5290 seat theater the Roxy and made it a smashing success with programs that combined stage shows and movies.  It was hurt badly by the stock market crash and its aftermath.  In 1932, after developing several other theaters, Roxy moved on to open and manage Radio City Music Hall.  His previous employer objected to his frequent, costly phone calls to race tracks.
      Why were there so many Jews in the movie industry?  Because it was new and there were few ethnic barriers.
      In 1922 broadcast on radio of variety shows at the Capitol Theater converted radio from communication to entertainment.  In 1915 David Sarnoff, who had started with the Marconi Company and then moved to RCA, already conceived of broadcast radio as a medium for entertainment and for mass marketing of “radio music boxes.”  Westinghouse had the first regular broadcast entertainment on KDCA in Pittsburg with a program from Frank Conrad’s garage.  The commercials were to sell Westinghouse radios, the same business plan conceived by Sarnoff for RCA in 1915.  It was Sarnoff who invented network broadcasting.  Initially he used AT&T telephone wires.  Sarnoff overemphasized classical music in his broadcast schedules on NBC until William Paley came along and livened things up with entertainment programs on a new rival network which became CBS.  The comedians that I remember from the 1940s and 1950s were the catalyst that created radio’s popularity in the 1920s and 1930s: Eddie Cantor,  Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fanny Bryce, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and many others.
      Joseph Patterson, scion of The Chicago Tribune, came to NY and founded the first tabloid, The Daily News.  The emphasis was on sensation and the medium was as much pictures as it was words.  The Daily News brought in a Tribune photographer named Tom Howard, who managed to get a picture of Ruth Snyder’s execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing with a camera strapped to his ankle.  The Daily News was a leader in another technique for building circulation.  Its sports writers developed close and mutually profitable relationships with premier athletes like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jack Dempsey.  This gives the author an opening to give us some shortsport  biographies.  For Ruth, it was a combination of his incredible eyesight, his innovative full swing at the ball and a new manufacturing process for baseballs that tightened their winding and made them livelier.  He doesn’t pass over Ruth’s eating, drinking and infidelities.  Gehrig was a really nice guy who became a great hitter by imitating the Babe’s swing.  There’s a full treatment of Jack Dempsey’s career and his relationship with manager Jack Kearns.  The best story is Dempsey’s last two knockouts in the 1960s.  He was in a cab in NY when two guys opened his door and tried to rob him.  He took one out with his right and the other with his left.
      There’s a lot about architecture and engineering.  The best three stories are about the construction of the Holland Tunnel, the Chrysler Building and the George Washington Bridge.  There’s a section on the clothing industry and how it moved uptown along 7th avenue as it evolved from manufacturing to high couture.  There’s also a lot on the development of the publishing industry in NYC.  I was intrigued by the passage on Horace Liveright, publisher and producer of Broadway plays.  He founded the Modern Library and published the works of Theodore Dreiser, T.S.Eliot, Hemingway, Pound and Faulkner.
     Ponder this: ‘NYC is the capital of lunch.”  August 2015
Richard Powers.  Orfeo.  © 2014   Peter Els is 70 and retired from teaching music composition.  He was originally trained as a microbiologist and is now experimenting in retirement with bacteria to see if he can use them to encode music.  The local police get a look at his home laboratory and call Homeland Security on the presumption that he’s a terrorist.  They seize all his gear and tell him not to leave town.  He takes off, of course.  Then we get his life story in flashbacks.  He spent most of his life trying to make it as an avant garde composer.  His music, if it was music at all, was way way out there.  Some of it was heard in New York, but it never caught on.  His adjunct professorship late in life was the alternative to continuing his life in a cabin in the woods.  Els saw music in everything, and perhaps I understood some of what was said in his conversations with colleagues and students and in his internal dialogs.  Then there is the chase which ends in a nursing home in Arizona where he has a last meeting with the producer and director with whom he had worked off and on since college.  Apparently all of Power’s novels are laced with scientific and scholarly themes, like artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2, game theory in Prisoner’s Dilemma and musicology cum genetic recombination in The Gold Bug VariationsThe review in the NYT by Jim Holt on January 10, 2014 is one of the best I have ever read.  He notes: (Powers) has every gift, it is sometimes implied, but the gift of literature.”  He goes on to talk about how music is worked into the structure of the novel.  It’s worth a look.  The link is below. August 2015

Ray Suarez.  Latino Americans, The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation.   © 2013  Suarez draws together the various strands of Hispanic American history and leaves the reader somewhat awestruck at the effects Latin Americans have had on our history and the much greater role they are likely to play in the future, partly  by sheer force of numbers.  There are the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, the Hispanics who occupied the southwest and California long before Anglos got there, and the waves of immigrant workers, who have come since we owned those territories.  (He could have mentioned that Santa Fe, founded in 1608, is the second oldest permanent settlement in the US).  The most impressive immigrant story is that of Guy Galbadon, who moved in with a Japanese American family when he was 12 and learned the language and Japanese customs.  On Saipan and Tinian, he single-handedly captured 1500 Japanese soldiers, 10 times more than Medal of Honor winner Sgt. York in WW I.  His captain recommended him for the Medal of Honor.  He was awarded the Silver Star.  Suarez doesn’t say where Galbdon’s Japanese family was during the war, but I think we can presume they were in an internment camp in the desert.  The saddest story is that of the Hispanic American soldier who did win a Medal of Honor.  While in uniform he was refused service at a soda fountain in Texas.   August 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Painting

The Painting  2011  119 minutes   I regret that I haven’t had time to watch or comment on many movies lately, but this is just too good to pass up.  An artist left a painting unfinished, and the people in the painting who weren’t finished want the artist to come back and complete the job.  There’s conflict between the arrogant and privileged figures who were finished and those who were only sketched in or at least need some degree of touching up.  The film is animated in beautiful colors.  Some of the characters are right out of Saturday morning cartoons, but some seem to have come off of Modigliani’s sketch pad.  The artist doesn’t come back -- he's old and only paints landscapes now -- but the incomplete figures discover a way to make themselves whole.  Did I mention the colors?  August 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Democracy in America; The Assassination Option; The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards; Peace and War, Britain in 1914; Thunderstruck; Damage; The Ophelia Cut; The Day of Atonement; The 500; Bad Blood; and Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses

Alexis de Tocqueville.  Democracy in America: ExcerptsOriginally published in 1835.  A modern introduction to de Tocqueville’s work summarizes the struggle in post-Napoleonic  France between the aristocracy and democracy that wasn’t resolved until the Third Republic and adds some perspective to de Tocqueville’s commentaries and reminds us that he was an aristocrat writing from an aristocrat’s perspective.  De Tocqueville begins by identifying five characteristics of Americans and American society: (1) lack of distinction between the classes, (2) the relative absence of military personnel and civil servants, (3) the violence of the language of the press, (4) the importance of religion in maintenance of morality, and (5) the excess love of profit to the neglect of the fine arts.  These are probably the good old days that conservatives would like to bring back, although they would probably like to keep enough of the military around to wage continuous war in the Middle East and their politicians and their spokes people seem to have taken over the violent language role from the press.  De Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, started in New York and traveled widely to do their study of the American penal system for the French government, which they published in 1833. For me the most interesting part of de Tocqueville’s own work (Vol. I, 1835 and Vol. 2, 1840) was his description of the wretched plight of the Indians in the Mohawk Valley, former allies of France, who had been reduced to alcoholism and begging.  His main themes were our Puritan beginning, the Federal Constitution and the status of women.  John Stuart Mill praised the second volume, which is considered the foundation of modern sociology.  De Tocqueville’s direct heir was Max Weber.  June 2015

W.E.B.  Griffin.  The Assassination Option.   © 2014  This is a thriller built around the transition after WW II of the OSS into what eventually became the CIA.  A young second lieutenant is bumped up to captain and made director of intelligence in Germany in an effort by the White House to create an intelligence structure that would not be dominated by the military.  There’s lots of bureaucratic infighting, but the only real action is a successful extraction from Eastern Europe of the family of a KGB defector.  It was o.k., but I won’t be going back for more  …. Unless I forget. That sometimes happens.  June 2015

Kristopher Jansma.  The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.  © 2013  The unreliable narrator is an aspiring writer, who was raised in North Carolina by his single mom, a flight attendant.  From early childhood his ambition is to write the Great American Novel.  At a small college he rooms with another aspiring writer, Julian McC ann, a rich kid who is more sophisticated and later in the book more successful.  (Julian has three different names in the novel).  The two of them get most of the attention from the freshman writing professor as they compete for success at school and eventual fame and fortune.  What he professor tells them over and over is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson .  All the reviews say the narrator is unnamed, but in the writing class the professor addresses them as Pinkerton and McCann.  Through Julian the narrator meets Evelyn, an aspiring actress, and falls madly in love.  They stay in love but later perhaps she marries an Indian geologist or a Japanese royal or a Luxemburg prince.  In the years after college the narrator gets a few short pieces published but is never able to write that novel.  He does produce an occasional manuscript but always loses it, one of them down an ice hole in New England.  Using a stolen identity he teaches a wildly successful writing course at a New York university.  Julian writes one incredibly successful novel, an international bestseller, but is never able to repeat that initial success and spends much of his life having nervous breakdowns.  In the second half of the novel, the narrator travels to exotic places, does some reporting and criticism and keeps working on a novel.  It never works out.  I read several reviews.  I was amazed at how many different interpretations there were.  I think this means Jansma accomplished what he set out to do in this first novel.  The best of the reviews with the least annoying pop-ups were in The Village Voice and Popmatters, a blog, I think.  June 2015

Nigel Jones.  Peace and War, Britain in 1914© 2014  This turned out to be a great read.  It’s like a trip through the daily papers in London in 1914.  I wish I had retained more of what I read; I plan to go back and read this again, because there is so much there both about everyday life in Britain that was so radically altered by WW I and about the events that led up to the war.  One of the things that struck me was a short history of the women’s campaign for the fight to vote.  The women were really serious and endured, i.a., arrest and forced feeding to prevent hunger strikes.  When forced feeding became politically risky, the authorities adopted a new policy:  When women in prison lost too much weight, they were released for five days and then put back in prison.  Not everyone survived the protests.  Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) was a militant activist who fought for women's suffrage in Britain. She was jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times.  She is best known for stepping in front of King George V's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913, She died four days later from her injuries.  July 2015

Erik Larson.  Thunderstruck.   © 2006  Larson has carved out his own place as an author who turns real events into thrillers.  In this one he tells two stories in parallel and then brings them together at the end.    The first is the struggle of Guglielmo Marconi to develop wireless communication, prove its utility and then defend his interests against other inventors, several of whom he used badly.  The other is about Hawley Harvey Crippen, a patent medicine man, who murdered his overbearing wife, dismembered her body, burned or otherwise disposed of her head, hands and feet and buried what was left under the floor of his coal bin.  When questions started to be asked about her disappearance, he fled Britain with his young mistress dressed as a boy and posing as his son.  Scotland Yard was hot on his heels.  The murder was a sensation in Britain second only to Jack the Ripper.  In the introduction the reader already learns that the captain of the ship on which Crippen sailed for Quebec recognized the couple and reported this by wireless.  Nevertheless all the way through I wondered why Larson didn’t just tell Marconi’s story, which is fascinating all by itself, but in the end it all becomes clear.  The apprehension of Crippen thanks to the availability of ship to shore wireless communication was what finally proved to the public, to investors, and to shipping lines the value of Marconi’s invention.  July 2015

John Lescroart.  Damage.  © 2011   Ro Curtlee was  convicted as a serial rapist and murderer of at least one of his rape victims.  His parents were the very rich and influential publishers of one of San Francisco’s newspapers.  As revenge for the conviction, they ruined the careers of everyone on the prosecution side.   Now, ten years later, the Curtlee’s lawyers have succeeded in an appeal to have the conviction thrown out on a technicality, and Ro is out until a new trial can be convened.  Within 24 hours after Ro’s release, the key witness in the first trial is found dead and so badly burned that there are doubts about whether she can be positively identified.  Abe Glitsky, who had been the lead detective for Ro’s first arrest and trial, has recovered from his reassignment to the police payroll office and is now Chief of Homicide.  When the wife of the jury foreman is found strangled and immolated, Glitsky and Wes Farrell, the recently elected DA, are convinced that Ro is out for revenge and some insurance against being convicted in the retrial.  Glitsky has no evidence, and he and Farrell are constantly harassed by the Curtlees directly and in their newspaper.  Lescroart finds a way out for Glitsky  that is sort deus ex machina.  It’s an ending, but…..  June 2015

John Lescroart.  The Ophelia Cut.  © 2013  Brittany Mcquire is drugged and raped  by Rick Jessup, the chief of staff for a San Francisco City Councilman who aspires to be mayor.  24 hours later Jessup is found murdered.  Everyone assumes it was Brittany’s  father, Moses McGuire, who did it.  His attorney brother-in-law, Dismas Hardy, takes on his defense.  There’s another agenda here.  Hardy and Detective Abe Glitsky don’t want Moses in jail, because they are afraid he will talk about something the three of them did ten years earlier.  They took the law into their own hands to waste a couple of truly bad guys.  It turns out the councilman and a Korean businessman who runs a string of massage parlors have reasons for wanting Jessup dead.  There’s lots going on here and the best of the action is in the courtroom.  July 2015

David Liss.  The  Day of Atonement.  © 2014  Benjamin Weaver, an ex-boxer and a thief catcher, takes in  a 13-year-old Portuguese boy, Sebastião Raposa, who has been smuggled to London from Lisbon, where the Portuguese Inquisition has imprisoned and killed his parents.  The family is of Jewish heritage, but they have been “new Christians” for several generations.  This means nothing to the Inquisition; the priests want their money.  Weaver trains the boy in his craft, and the boy changes his name to Sebastian Foxx.  When Foxx is old enough, he returns to Lisbon intending to rescue his childhood sweetheart Gabriela and avenge his parent’s murder.  Nothing is as it seems at first.  Everyone has an agenda he doesn’t expect, friends become enemies and enemies become friends.   To right a perceived wrong, he steals a hoard of gold bullion and during the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1, 1755 he rescues Gabriela and her family from the Inquisition’s prison and gets them and some others on a boat out of Lisbon to safety.  Until I read a review of this book, I didn’t know that the Benjamin Weaver character has been the principal character in earlier novels by David Liss.  I’ll be looking for them.  July 2015

Matthew Quirk.  The 500.  © 2012  Mike Ford, a former juvenile delinquent and son of a con-man, finishes Harvard Law and takes a job with the Davies group, a powerful Washington law firm that specializes in lobbying.  This is somewhat like John Grisham’s The Firm, but there are problems.  Washington isn’t run by 500 people, DC police detectives don’t investigate the Federal Government and Washington law firms don’t keep hired killers on the payroll.  It seems the Davies Group wants to control everything and is even up to murdering a Supreme Court Justice.  As James Grady said in his review in June 2012 in the Washington Post: “In the end, what might have been the sleek story of a conflicted hero battling for his skin and soul becomes an overburdened saga of a superhero trying to save the world from a megalomaniac who seeks to dominate it.  Quirk is a proven journalist and a fine writer with, presumably, other novels to come. But for his fiction debut, one cliche he should have embraced is that sometimes less is more.”  July 2015

John Sandford.  Bad Blood.   © 2010    I don’t know how it would be to read this book off the printed page, but I have to say that the audio book as read by Eric Conger is an experience.  My favorite flaky detective, Virgil F. Flowers, simply comes alive.  It all starts when a young guy just out of high school and working at a grain elevator, hits a farmer on the head with a baseball bat and then buries him under the load of farmer soy beans he was delivering to the elevator.  When he was sure the farmer was dead from suffocation if the bat hadn’t killed him already, he called the police to report the “accident.”  The boy was actually avenging some really nasty crimes by the farmer.  As the story spins out, Flowers and the very attractive sheriff uncover a perverse religion that the settlers brought over from Germany generations ago.  It practices forced wife swapping, group sex, and sexual abuse of children including incest.  The group will do anything to keep their secret including murder.  July 2015

Allison Weir.  Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses© 1995  How does one keep track of all those English kings and their horses and men?  The House of Lancaster started when Henry IV usurped the throne.  He was followed by Henry V and then the infant heir Henry VI.  Henry VI was anything but a dynamic leader, but his Queen, Margaret of Anjou more than made up for his lack of initiative.  This book is mostly about the struggle between Edward IV of York and Henry VI and Margaret.  There were lots of other players including especially the Earl of Warwick who was Edward’s mainstay and then turned against him.   It’s amazing how often the two sides fought and how their fortunes waxed and waned.  It’s a great read, but there is almost too much information.  It would be interesting to have a statistical appendix.  I’d like to know just how many noble heads got cut off.  Just so you’ll know, the only problem at Henry VI’s coronation was head lice.  There is a nice summary all the way from Henry IV to Henry VII in Wikipedia.  July 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

But Enough about You; The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures; Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin; and Ten Days that Shook the World -- десять дней, которые потрясли мир

Christopher Buckley.  But Enough about You.  © 2013  The book is a collection of short, humorous pieces Buckley has written over the years for the likes of Forbes and The New Yorker.  His reader for this audio version is fantastic, and if Buckley doesn’t sound just like him, he should take voice lessons until he does.   Buckley has also written 15 novels, and I hope to find some of them at my library.  Buckley seems to have traveled everywhere, and much of what he writes for this book is based on those travels.  He can give you a substantive tour of Machu Picchu and keep you amused with the funny things that happen along the way.  I got through about 4 disks and enjoyed every minute of it, but as my Pennsylvania ancestors used to say: “Too much is enough.”   This might be a good book to read trip by trip on a shuttle bus.  June 2015
Joel M. Hoffman.  The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor:  The Holy Scriptures   © 2014 Somewhere between 38 and 70 ancient books were left out of the Bible and the Torah, and the abridged versions that we know were often changed by errors in translation or interpretation of ancient languages and sometimes changes were made to reflect changing times.  Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provides an opportunity to revisit the whole question of what scripture was meant to mean.  In chapter one, Hoffman gives the reader a short review of the ancient history of the Middle East to provide a context for his discussions of the narratives in the Bible and the books excluded from it.  His main focus from then on is the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Septuagint, which was a translation into Greek ordered by Ptolemy II in the 3rd C BCE, and the writings of the historian Josephus (half a million words) in the 1st C CE.  2000 years ago there were three groups working on interpreting the ancient books, the Christians, the Rabbinic Jews and the people in the desert who prepared the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I had thought that they were the Essenes and some have called them the people of Qumran, but Hoffman says we really don’t know.  Sometimes all three agreed, sometimes they all disagreed and often their different interpretations were two to one in every possible combination.  Hoffman spends most of his time filling out the story of Adam and Eve, mainly from the “Book of Enoch,” and filling in the blanks in Abraham’s story from “The Apocalypse of Abraham,” including how he came to discover monotheism.  One point Hoffman makes along the way was that it was in the times that the three versions of the ancient texts were being compiled that Judaism shifted from a sacrificial religion to its current rabbinic form.  One thing for sure, all those angels were more trouble than they were worth.  June 2015
Jill Lepore.  Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.  © 2013   I recently tried Jill Lepore’s   New York Burning and had to set it aside.  Not this time.  After seeing what Lepore came up with after she set out to write a book about Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, I can only regret that I chose a career in government instead of sticking with my original plan to become an historian.  Franklin and Jane rarely saw each other after he left home at 20 when she was just six, but they conducted a lifelong correspondence.  Many of Franklin’s letters to Jane survive and a few of hers from their later years.  She kept what he sent her, but most of what she sent him has never been found.  Among the things we learn about Franklin is that he was a devoted brother, who guided her, helped her from afar with her various businesses and provided substantial financial support to Jane over the years.  What we learn about Jane is how hard her life was and something of how frustrating it was for her to have a good mind and a strong interest in learning but little education.  Then there were 13 births, a war, several epidemics and a somewhat shiftless husband.  Most interesting of all to me were Lepore’s account of how research was conducted in the early 19th C and what later historians and archivists had to do to repair some of the damage.  Her account of her own research – much of it a search for letters – is equally interesting.  June 2015
John Reed.  Ten Days that Shook the World© 1919  I had meant to read this back in the 1960s after I had finished Russian language training and I even had a copy of it in Russian.  I didn’t get around to it, and I’m glad I didn’t, because now there’s no Cold War (just the Putin Annoyance) and no leftover McCarthyism, so I’m able to read it as history.  Yes, Reed was a socialist and leaned toward Bolshevism, but his account of the ten days of October Revolution is about as straightforward as one could ask for.  He wrote the book in two to three weeks using the documents he had collected, a small Russian dictionary and his own rudimentary knowledge of Russian.  When I finished, what I said to myself was:  “What a great job of reporting!”  Then I punched his name into Wiki and here’s an excerpt of what I found:
George F. Kennan, an American diplomat and historian who had no love for Bolshevism and is best known as “the father of containment,” praised the book: “Reed’s account of the events of that time rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, its command of detail” and would be “remembered when all others are forgotten.” Kennan saw it as “a reflection of blazing honesty and a purity of idealism that did unintended credit to the American society that produced him, the merits of which he himself understood so poorly.”  On March 1, 1999, The New York Times reported New York University’s “Top 100 Works of Journalism” list, which placed Ten Days that Shook the World at in seventh position.  Project director Mitchell Stephens explains the reasoning behind the judges’ decision:
“Perhaps the most controversial work on our list is the seventh, John Reed’s book, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” reporting on the October revolution in Russia in 1917. Yes, as conservative critics have noted, Reed was a partisan. Yes, historians would do better. But this was probably the most consequential news story of the century, and Reed was there, and Reed could write. The magnitude of the event being reported on and the quality of the writing were other important standards in our considerations.
“But not all responses were positive. Joseph Stalin argued in 1924 that Reed was misleading in regards to Leon Trotsky.  The book portrays Trotsky (head of the Red Army) as a man who co-led the revolution with Lenin and mentions Stalin only twice—one of them being only in the recitation of a list of names, as both Lenin and Trotsky were internationally known, whereas the activities of other Bolshevik militants were virtually unknown.   Russian writer Anatoly Rybakov elaborates on Stalinist Soviet Union’s ban on Ten Days that Shook the World: “The main task was to build a mighty socialist state. For that, mighty power was needed. Stalin was at the head of that power, which mean that he stood at its source with Lenin. Together with Lenin he led the October Revolution. John Reed had presented the history of October differently. That wasn’t the John Reed we needed.”   After Stalin’s death, the book was allowed to recirculate.

“In 2000, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed Ten Days That Shook the World among its “50 Worst Books” of the Twentieth Century.”  And then they ordered that George Kennan’s body be exhumed so that it could be beaten and dismembered.  June 2015

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot; The Lincoln Myth; The Second Machine Age; The Final Detail; Stranger; Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor; The Zhivago Affair; The Last of the Doughboys; New York Burning; Satanic Verses; and Cleopatra, A Life

Ace Atkins.  Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot© 2014  Several authors have picked up where Parker left off.  This is #43 in the PI Spenser series and the third for Atkins.  New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood suspects he’s being followed and hires Spenser to find out what’s going on.  Then Heywood’s son Akira is kidnapped and Spenser has to figure out how to get him back.  Behind all of this is an old beef about a shooting in a New York nightclub involving Heywood and some Italian mob figures.  I had never heard of Parker, but apparently there’s a regular readership out there approaching something like cult status.  As thrillers go, this was pretty good.  April 2015

Steve Berry.  The Lincoln Myth  © 2014  Cotton Malone has retired from intelligence work to his bookstore in Copenhagen .  He gets a call from Washington and is asked to find a missing agent.  It turns out there is a plot by a senior senator and elder of the Mormon Church to prove that States have the right to secede any time they want.  Supposedly George Washington had a document that confirmed this and passed it to his successor.  It got passed on to each succeeding president until it reached Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln gave it to Brigham Young for safekeeping in return for Young’s promise not to disrupt transcontinental communications.  Because Lincoln was assassinated, the document was never returned to the White House.  It was presumed to be in the church archives in Salt Lake or hidden elsewhere in Utah.  Actually Young had hidden it in Washington.  Malone stays on the case and eventually has a showdown with the senator at a remote Mormon site in Utah.  I think I prefer my historical fiction within the realm of the possible.  April 2015
Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee.  The Second Machine Age, Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant technologies.  © 2014   The authors begin with some historical perspective:  60,000 BCE Homo sapiens, 25,000 BCE Homo sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals, 14,000 BCE end of the ice age, 8,000 BCE beginnings of agriculture, 3,200 BCE writing, 800-200 BCE serious thinking begins in Middle East, India and China.  Nothing much happened after that until James Watt perfected the steam engine in 1775-76. This led to the biggest transformation in the history of the world.  For most people life before Watt wasn’t much different from life among common people 1,000, 2,000 even 5,000 years earlier.  After Watt, daily life steadily improved as steam technology spread through the economy.  A second major surge came in the late 19th C with the arrival of electric power and the internal combustion engine.  And then came computers, automation and big data.  This recent development is all familiar because it happened in our lifetimes, but just one statistic kind of sums it up: The number of words in English increased by 70% between 1950 and 2000.  Since 1810-1817, when the Luddites tried to destroy machines in English textile mills, there have been concerns that automation would displace more and more workers.  Up until recently we always seemed to be able to adjust, but now we have our track record since about 1980 to suggest that displaced workers may not find new well paying jobs.  The authors note that the human capabilities developed in the last several thousand years like arithmetic are the ones most easily replicated by machines.  Things like facial recognition, which go back millions of years, are different.  They’re harder to replicate, but harder doesn’t mean impossible.  There seems to be almost no limit to what machines may eventually be able to do.  What’s left for us?  For those of us who aren’t CEO’s or coders, film actors and short stops, there’s not much out there other than home health care provider, and there’s already a robot prototype for that.  The authors foresee a winner take all market.  If entrepreneurs can replicate and deliver their products cheaply, people will buy the best and there will be no market for the second best or the tenth best.  Turbo Tax is an example of what can happen.  I think they said it was developed by a team of 15 people.  It put 100,000s of tax preparers out of work. The bounty from automation is real, but the result is going to be an economy of superstars, where truly extraordinary performers will be richly rewarded; others will not.  I don’t recall the authors using the word “redistribution,” but that is exactly what they propose in the form of various taxes that would have that effect.  My own conclusion: we have a social problem and we must find a social solution.  The market economy was a great boon for everyone, while there was still a place in it for labor, but it no longer works.  One can chant education, education, education but who needs a PhD barista and how much longer will there be baristas?  May 2015
Harlan Coben.  The Final Detail.  © 1999  (Bolitar 6)  Win Lockwood , Myron Bolitar’s friend and financial advisor, summons Myron back to New York from three weeks incognito on a Caribbean Island.  Esperanza Diaz, Myron’s assistant in his sports agent business, has been arrested for the murder of Myron’s client, Clu Haid, a pitcher for the New York Yankees, who had just failed a drug test.  Myron proves himself to be a first rate detective as he sorts things out among Esperanza, Clu’s ex-wife, the denizens of a transsexual nightclub, the Ache brothers again, and the woman who recently bought the Yankees and hired Clu, her consultant on training and motivation and her daughter who has been missing for two decades.  May 2015
Harlan Coben.  Stranger.  © 2015  Reviewers call this one of Coben’s stand alone mysteries, because he is so well known for his Myron Bolitar series.  In this one an unnamed NBA player who is obviously Bolitar is mentioned as one of the players in twice a week pickup basketball games in Cedarfield, NJ.  Our protagonist is Adam Price, a lawyer.  At the American Legion hall, a complete stranger comes up to Adam and tells him that his wife Corinne faked her last pregnancy that supposedly ended in a miscarriage.  Adam finds out it is true and confronts Corinne, who doesn’t deny it and then disappears.  Adam searches for her through so many plot twists and turns that you start to wonder if even Coben will eventually figure it out.  It’s grim, but it’s a winner.  April 2015
Anthony Everitt.  Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor.   © 2006  I have been reading this and that in Roman history for close to 70 years.  This is really an excellent biography of Octavius, or Caesar Augustus as he was known late in life.  For the first time I feel like I can sort out who was who, how Octavius took power and held it, and the roles of Anthony, of Octavius’s wife Livia and of her son, Tiberius, whom Octavius adopted after other potential heirs died young.  In his lifetime, Rome went from republic, to dictatorship to a fully established imperial regime with more or less established borders.  As I listened, I was thinking how nice it would have been to have footnotes, because I am still curious about just  exactly  which ancient sources have come down to us and what we can learn from them.  Everitt is very careful to qualify anything he is not sure of and comments frequently on the reliability of various sources.   May 2015
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.  The Zhivago Affair, The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book© 2014  This tells the story of how and why the book got written and how it got published.   There was  an Italian publisher authorized by Pasternak; the CIA arranged an edition; and so did the University of Michigan.  It’s a messy, even bizarre history, but two things are really clear:  the Soviets didn’t want it published, and Russians really wanted to read it.  I guess I understand why the Writers Union went along with the government.  They had already sold their integrity and didn’t want to lose the privileged status that that had bought them.  The best line in the book is Pasternak talking to the other writers: “If you’re going to yell at me, at least don’t do it in unison.”  What I can’t understand is why the Soviets were so afraid of this book.  I’ve read it and seen the movie, and I can’t find anything to get excited about except a very good story.  Besides describing the official machinations, the book gives one a nice look into Pasternak’s life and his motivation for shifting from poetry, of which he was a master, to trying to create a great novel.  April 2015
Richard Rubin.  The Last of the Doughboys: the Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten War.  © 2013  In 2003 Rubin set out to find the few remaining veterans of WW I and interview them.  It wasn’t easy to figure out who was still around, but he did find many ranging in age from 101 to 113. He travelled all over the country to interview them, some of them several times.  He ran into a few difficult cases but for the most part they were in good health and alert.  Like other old people, their memories of recent events didn’t come easily, but most of them remembered their war years very well.  One of the things that surprised me was what they had to say about gas attacks.  Apparently gas was part of the daily routine and everyone got a whiff of it now and then.  They didn’t seem to have the horror of it that I do.  My favorite interviewee was Frank Buckle, who was honored with a ceremony at the Pentagon in 2008.  I think he’s the only one whose story Rubin followed into the postwar years.  He travelled a lot overseas for business.  One of things he mentioned was the anti-Semitism he found in Germany in 1931.  In an interview, Rubin said there were two important things that he learned.  First, he had always thought that America had played only a minor role in the Allied victory, but he learned that the prospect of the arrival of the four million strong American Expeditionary Force and the massive offensive the AEF launched at Meuse-Argonne in September 1918   probably made the difference between victory and defeat.  The US didn’t win the war by itself, but without the US, it would likely have been lost.  The other thing he said he learned was the profound effect the war had on America.  In effect WW I “created the America we recognize – and live in – today.  Before it, America was a regional power; that war made us a global power. But that’s just the most obvious manifestation. Every facet of life at home was changed by the war, too, most of it permanently.  Just about everything you think of, from civil rights and gender equality to agricultural policy and modern population trends, can be traced back to World War I.”  It’s well worth Googling the book’s author and title.  There’s a lot there.  Here’s the last few lines of Amazon’s blurb: “The Last of the Doughboys is the most sweeping look at America’s First World War in a generation, a glorious reminder of the tremendously important role America played in the war to end all wars, as well as a moving meditation on character, grace, aging, and memory.”  April 2015
Here are three books I didn’t try to finish:
Jill Lepore.  New York Burning, Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan.  © 2005  I read about a quarter of this one which tells the story of an alleged plot by slaves in NYC to burn the place down, kill the whites and take over.  It took a nice piece of scholarship to dig out all the details of this bit of history from the early 1740s, but I kept wondering why I was reading it.  I think I already knew that slaves in the North didn’t want to be slaves and the owners there weren’t very different from their counterparts in the south. Since I put this aside, I’ve started another book by this author about Benjamin Franklin and his youngest sister, Jane.  It’s based on the same careful scholarship and I will stay with it.  May 2015
Salman Rushdie.  Satanic Verses.  © 1988  I’ve enjoined several of his books, but I found this one unreadable.  From the few chapters I did read, I couldn’t figure out why the Muslims cared about what Rushdie wrote.  April 2015

Stacy Schiff.  Cleopatra, A Life.  © 2010  Apparently we know so little about Cleopatra that there isn’t enough there for a biography.  I quit.  April 2015