Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"The Fault in Our Stars" By John Green (2012)

You picked this one up at book store last week, and couldn't put it back down. That's usually a good sign.

 John Green again. You DID say that you were probably going to read all of his books pretty soon. You've already reviewed "An Abundance of Katherines," so don't buy it again (this is a problem area for you). "The Fault in Our Stars is Green's newest novel. The narrator and main character is Hazel, and Hazel has cancer. Hazel is sixteen and she has terminal cancer. The fact that you don't want to give away spoilers is going to make this review tough to write, but it's pretty safe to remind you that you cried many a tear while reading this book. You liked the book a lot, but you kind of cried your ass off.

One of the great things about novels is the variety in how they are written. Each novel can have a very different voice and style. History books pretty much have to be written in the third person, but the authors of novels can play around with their style and crawl inside people's heads. George R.R. Martin writes each chapter in the "Games of Thrones" series (A Song of Fire and Ice) from a different person's point of view, though not with a First Person voice. Suzanne Collins wrote The "Hunger Games" series in First Person, Present Tense, which you found made putting her books down very difficult. "The Fault in Our Stars" is also First Person, though not Present Tense. This style of writing feels very intimate, like Hazel is talking to herself almost, and you get to choose to either eavesdrop on her inner monologue, or actually get to become her inside the pages of the book. There have been many examples of Young Adult fiction where a female author writes from a male character's perspective (think "Harry Potter") but this is the first you've heard of a male writing as a female. John Green pulls this off beautifully. How a goofy, 30-something, computer-nerd, dad can convincingly write from the point of view of a 16-year old female cancer patient is truly a testament to the human capacity for imagination and empathy. But he does it well, and Hazel is believable and intelligent and very likeable. As with all good writing, the novelty of the style soon falls away and all you are left with is a wonderfully rich and compelling character, someone you would want to spend time with.

As the story unfolds, it reveals an unflinching look into the life of a young cancer patient, a young woman who is struggling with her mortality while fighting to keep her sense of humor. Hazel is matter of fact about her diagnosis, but she does on occasion reach out to one of her old (pre-cancer) friends, Kaitlyn, for advice, but really to grasp a lifeline back to the world of being a teenager without a death sentence hanging over her head. Hazel often drops pearls of wisdom that resonated with you, and several quotes stood out. Whether or not they come from Hazel herself, they are all filtered through her perception.

"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?"

"Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin."

“That's the thing about demands to be felt.”

“My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.”

That last quote is from Augustus Waters. Hazel meets Augustus early on in the story at a Cancer survivor support group meeting, and they get along like gangbusters. She falls in love with him pretty quickly, but not before you did. Augustus is funny, irreverent, smart, and endlessly hopeful. "The Fault in Our Stars" is about the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, how they are changed by it and how they learn to be grateful for the limited time that they know they have together. The couple spur each other on to more and more irreverent reactions to the walking-on-eggshells behavior that people tend to fall into around sick and handicapped kids (Augustus lost a leg to cancer). Some of the funniest moments in the book are when they console their friends who are going through their own dignity-stripping adventures in their fight against cancer. Evidently, no John Green novel is complete until the characters take a trip to somewhere, because these moments of great honesty and humor bring the couple closer and also inspire them to take a once in a lifetime trip together.

In fact, almost everything they do might be described as "once in a lifetime." Death is a guarantee in this book. You knew, as soon as you read the first page, that not everyone was going to make it to the last one. But that is one of the points of the book. These kids know that Death could be just around the next corner, so they feel like they need to drink in every moment, laugh at every opportunity, and suffer very little in the way of bullshit. But Death is a guarantee for all of us, not just those who are diagnosed with some fatal disease. After all, Life itself is a communicable disease, and it's 100% fatal. So shouldn't we all be behaving like Hazel and Gus? Shouldn't we all seek answers to our questions with an urgency motivated by the knowledge that if we wait too long, we may never get the answer? Shouldn't we all love deeply enough that we won't regret it on our death beds? Shouldn't we all remember that guarding ourselves from pain is ultimately a foolish and destructive act? Pain and loss make us who we are, and we only have a short time to figure out who that is.

But, even so, what gives "The Fault in Our Stars" its poignancy is that Death just feels wrong here. The people in the book are kids! They are supposed to feel invincible not fleeting, eternal not ephemeral. Sure the Sword of Damocles hangs over us all, you get that, but it feels wrong when it involves children.

You were almost done with the book (which means you were doing a lot of crying) on the day that news reports began rolling in that the unthinkable had happened in Newtown, Connecticut. A sick gunman had entered an elementary school and murdered 20 First Grade children along with six adult teachers and administrators. No novel can make that disaster make any sense. No message from a fictional dying child can explain to you why very real monsters exist in the world or why they sometimes go after very real children. But "The Fault in Our Stars" did encourage you to remember to value every moment that you have with your kids and to love them fiercely. Hopefully you and they will live long and happy lives together, but there are no guarantees, and the temporary nature of our lives is what gives them such immediacy and such importance. Love is what matters the most, because love is able to give us, to quote Hazel, "Forever within the numbered days." And for that forever we, like Hazel, should be very grateful.

On to the next book!

Monday, December 10, 2012

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Ah, Bilbo Baggins of The Shire, one of your oldest and dearest friends. This one really never gets old.

 You tried to count up the number of times you've read this book before writing this review but you couldn't even guess. In case you have forgotten (but you probably never will) this was the first real book you ever read on your own, forever ensuring your solid status as a nerd and also igniting your deep and life-long love affair with the wonder and magic of books. You were five or six when you first read "The Hobbit" and you've never really gotten over it. Naturally, you read this book to both of your boys on their first days of life. You didn't really need to review this one to remember certain details, you've got it all memorized. You wanted to read it one more time right now, because the movie by Peter Jackson comes out in a day or two and this was your last chance to read it without someone else's imagination fighting for primacy in your head. "The Lord of the Rings" movies were almost everything you had hoped they would be, but you've always been a little bit sad that you don't remember what Frodo looked like in your mind before Elijah Wood's face replaced him in there. So, once more:

"Far over misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old 
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.

The thing that strikes you every time you read Tolkien's work is how phenomenal the writing really is. Even though this book is written with children in mind much more than most of his other works, Tolkien's writing is still outstanding. His best passages aren't descriptions of landscapes or events, but of how those places and trials make the characters feel. When Bilbo and his party cross the river and head up into the valley of Rivendell, Tolkien is able in a few short paragraphs to put you in Bilbo's mind:
"Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell. The air grew warmer as they got lower, and the smell of pine trees made him drowsy, so that every now and again he nodded and nearly fell off, or bumped his nose on the pony's neck. Their spirits rose as they went down and down. The trees changed to beech and oak, and there was a comfortable feeling in the twilight... "Hmmm! it smells like elves!" thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue. Just then there came a burst of song like laughter in the trees..."
He doesn't describe the scenery or the action particularly impressive detail, but his writing somehow lifts your spirit and makes you feel renewed and enchanted just as Bilbo is feeling those same things. It is extraordinary and it is that quality that keeps bringing you back to these well-worn pages. The book doesn't make you believe in magic. It IS magic.

 One day, while you were in the middle of reading the book, as you and your family drove to the store, you were describing this magical quality of Tolkien's writing to Liz. From the back seat, your seven year old son asked if he too could start reading the book. Of course, as soon as y'all got back home, you gave Nico the better of the two copies you own, and he sat down and started reading it that instant. It's only been a few days, and he is almost half way through. This entire book review blog project has been worth it just for that experience alone. Nothing makes you more proud or hopeful than to see one of your children immersed in one of your favorite worlds. Making nerds is SO much fun!

 As we've already established, you don't really need a review to cover any plot points. Bilbo starts off as a comfortable little hobbit in his warmly domestic hole in the side of a hill, he is immediately ripped from his life of comfort and food and pipe smoking into an adventure that he never imagined. On his way to reclaim stolen dwavish treasures from a Lonely Mountain he meets trolls and elves, a shape-shifter and a creature named Gollum (I wonder if he proves important in a later story?). He fights goblins and giant spiders, he holds court with kings and warriors, and matches wits with a dragon. You're never going to forget those moments, but what you do often forget are some of the lessons that come from these familiar pages. Tolkien weaves subtle morality lessons throughout the book. This time around, maybe because you had this review in mind, you were struck by those lessons more than any other time you've read "The Hobbit".

Perhaps the most over-arching message of the book is that there is always more than there appears, so never underestimate people. Gandalf is always telling Bilbo there is more about him than anyone expects. The wizard saw the promise inherent in Bilbo and expected great things from him, but the dwarves saw in him only a small and pitiable disappointment. You've noticed that both situations are great motivators in life. When someone you respect fully believes in you, you find that you can do the great things they imagine, but when strangers or adversaries predict your failure, when they try to doom you to mediocrity, you are also often inspired to achieve surprising feats of greatness. And sometimes, you yourself are you own adversary. The adventuresome Tookish part of Bilbo (from his mother) is always surprising his homey respectable Baggins part. One of the greatest joys in life is when you, like Bilbo, are able to surprise yourself.

Once you have surprised yourself, you often feel like a new person. As he prepares to enter the secret passageway in the side of the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo quips to the dwarves, "Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days." And then Tolkien interrupts to define the old days, "-he meant last spring before he left his own house, but it seemed like centuries ago-". You love that illustration of how much someone can change in a very short amount of time. Like when you get married. Like when you have a child. Like when you have a child with Down syndrome. At some point we all go through life-changing adventures (for lack of a better word) and it is important to stop and take a moment to realize that we are no longer who we once were. Some times you really can think of your life from just a few months ago as "The Old Days". Tolkien reminded you of that and you enjoyed taking a moment to marvel at how far you yourself have come.

But what is the point of all these adventures? Of all this personal growth? Tolkien isn't arrogant enough to guess, but he does promise that there is a point. As Bilbo emerges from the long terror of the forest of Mirkwood, he has overcome a great deal. He and his friends have lost the trail, they are starving, and they are attacked and captured... twice! Bilbo's path to this point in the story has taken twists and turns that neither he nor the very wisest sages could have possibly foreseen. But what Bilbo never discovers, yet Tolkien tells you in the text, is that this twisted path was the only way Bilbo could have gotten to where he needed to be. All other paths lead to ruin and failure. The eastern exit of the forest was in such disrepair that he would never have made it to the Lonely Mountain or Smaug. Had Bilbo followed the path that wizards and elf lords had suggested, the story would have ended in disaster. But somehow the adventure continued. The story didn't end in disaster.

There is powerful hope in this revelation. This hope reminded you why you love this book so much. "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" have one underlying theme, someone is taking care of us all. We are in good hands. Someone is writing our story too, and it does not end in tragedy. No matter how long the journey there and back again takes us, no matter how many battles are fought or how many struggles the characters have to overcome, there is always the underlying truth that everything will be all right in the end, that Good can be trusted to overcome Evil. Light is stronger than the Darkness. We must each do our best and we must fight for what we believe is worth fighting for, but we must never lose hope that our story ends well.

But your favorite moment in the book was not until just before Bilbo heads to his first meeting with Smaug. Bilbo stops at the bottom of the tunnel leading into the heart of the Lonely Mountain. He is surrounded by vapors and oppressed by heat and his ears are filled with the terrifying sounds of a huge monster breathing in its sleep somewhere nearby. Just before Bilbo steps from the tunnel into the lair of the dragon Tolkien says that, "Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel, alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait." Doing great things is not really where bravery and honor lie. It's deciding to do them that makes heroes. In some ways, stepping out on a stage in the first place is more amazing than delivering a perfect performance. This small moment reminded you, not only to allow yourself to be brave, but to recognize the bravery in others all around you every day. The bravery it took for your cousin to join the Marines, or for your other cousin to come out of the closet. The bravery of your wife telling her story of sexual abuse online for other victims to read and take solace in, or of your niece to decide to keep her baby when she is still so young.  The bravery of your friend in singing in front of people on Sunday mornings, or the bravery of strangers who smile at you in the grocery store when they would rather crawl under a blanket and cry. Every day, whether you know it or not, you are surrounded by heroes who have fought their greatest battles alone in darkened doorways.

This is why you love to read. This is why no movie, however great, will ever compare to a good book. Tolkien gives you hope, he restores your sense of wonder and joy. He encourages your love of your fellow human beings.

Yes, you love this book because it was the first one you ever read. But the more you read it, the more you realize that you may also love it because it is one of the best you will ever read.

On to the next book!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Gun" by C.J. Chivers (2010)

Guns don't kill people. People kill people... 


This is a book about the history of the AK-47 assault rifle. But it is also a book, as any good book is, about much more. An author can't really tell the story of the AK-47 without also telling the history of modern warfare. So Chivers does just that. In four fascinating chapters he quickly and thoroughly took you over the bloody fields of the American Civil War where Gatling guns were first used, then through the insanity of World War One where Maxim machine guns shocked the world with their grim efficiency, and past the battlefields of WWII where assault rifles were born. After this history lesson, Chivers launches into a masterful and painstakingly detailed chronicle of the life of the most recognizable gun on Earth.

C.J. Chivers is a war correspondent for the New York Times, but before that he was a Marine who served in the first Gulf War in Iraq. He has reported for the Times from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Libya. You are convinced that Chivers, along with people like Simon Klingert and Richard Engel, is one of the finest war correspondents in the business. The man knows war and he writes like he does. It came as no surprise to you that the prologue for "The Gun" was written in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

This is a book written by an unflinching warrior about modern warfare. Chivers pulls no punches nor does he hide from hard truths. War is Hell, and the AK-47 made war even more hellacious.

After hundreds of thousands of young men were sent marching abreast into the certain death of barrages of machine gun fire in World War One (21,000 British men died in one day in the battle of The Somme), modern military tactics were forced to change. WWII saw those tactics mature into what you think of as modern warfare today, soldiers in camouflage using available cover and terrain to advance under a blanket of supporting heavy machine gun fire in order to eliminate enemy positions from fairly close range. Most of the soldiers in WWII were perfecting these tactics using either single shot long-range rifles or submachine guns firing short-range pistol rounds. Towards the end of the war the Germans developed a machine gun that combined the automatic fire of the submachine gun with the range and stopping power of the rifle. The sturmgewehr (or "assault rifle") was born. Individual soldiers now had the possibility of pouring accurate heavy-caliber fire onto targets at ranges of a few hundred yards. Germany lost the war (even though they had much better weapons than the Allies) and Russian soldiers brought home examples of this sturmgewehr. Recognizing the potential of such weapons in the inevitable future conflicts with Western nations, Russian arms makers began a contest to develop their own assault rifle.

Two years after the Great Patriotic War ended (you've always loved what Russians call WWII) a design was chosen. It was 1947, and the automatic rifle's designer was named Kalashnikov. The gun was designated the Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov. Thus, the name AK-47 was born. It was sturdy, easy to use, and extraordinarily reliable. The oversize parts of the machinery fit together loosely (as opposed to the tight, technical fit of Western weapons) and this loose fit helped the gun to effectively knock dirt and carbon build up out of the chamber as it fired. The AK-47 is almost a self-cleaning weapon. The Soviet Union immediately put the Kalashnikov into mass production.

Everything in the book after this moment reminded you of the story of The Golem of Prague. Jewish tradition tells of a rabbi who created a simple, mindless creature from clay to defend the Jews of Prague from attacks by the Holy Roman Emperor. The rabbi unleashed the Golem on the world and it destroyed the enemies of the Jews only to turn on them and eventually its own creator. This is the same story repeated again and again in human culture. It is the story of Frankenstein's monster terrorizing the population, of Darth Vader turning on The Emperor, of Sauron being defeated by the Ring of Power. It is a warning. It is the story of the AK-47.

Kalashnikov believed that he and his colleagues were creating a weapon that would be used to defend the Soviet Union, the Motherland; a weapon that peasants could use to rise up against the bourgeoisie, a weapon that an untrained farmer could use to overthrow his capitalist oppressor, a weapon that would sweep the imperialistic western world into the ash heap of history. He had created a powerful tool, and one of the most reliable guns in modern history. He could never have dreamed that his invention would be used against his own countrymen as often as it would be used by them. He could never have imagined a world where children took up his weapon to murder children at the whim of mad-men-turned-warlords in the jungles of Africa.

The USSR was eager to share the new technology with its allies throughout Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Soon Kalashnikov factories were spouting up all over the world. The weapon was on track to proliferate like no other gun in human history.

Almost as soon as the AK-47 was used in combat it was adopted by revolutionaries and enemies of the USSR. The day after a failed attempt by Russian forces to put down a growing rebellion in Hungary in 1956, photographers snapped pictures of rebels on the streets of Budapest brandishing the now iconic assault rifles. The rebels had taken the Kalashnikov's from the bodies of slain soldiers or had picked them up when surprised troops had dropped them in a mad dash to retreat to safety.  One day after its introduction to warfare, the Kalashnikov had already become the symbol of the revolutionary, of the insurgent. Even though these particular revolutionaries were eventually defeated, a powerful symbol was born.

Kalashnikov had dreamed that his gun would be used to bolster the freedom movements of people throughout the world, but on the streets of Budapest, rather than being a tool for liberation "It made its debut smashing freedom movements." And in putting down the popular national uprising in Hungary in '56, the AK-47 might have made the difference. Had it not been for the soviet soldiers' new massed fire capabilities, it is conceivable that the rebels could have held out and a symbol of resistance to the mighty USSR might have been ignited a mere decade after the Cold War began. But they couldn't answer the new increase in firepower, the Russians were just too well armed. The Kalashnikov was beginning to change modern warfare. As the Soviet emissaries reported back to Moscow, "To (the rebels') solitary shots we replied with salvos."

Thirty five years after that day, the USSR would no longer exist, but the world would be awash in millions of AK-47's. The mentality of the Cold War and the war machine of the Soviet Union ensured that this weapon would be produced in quantities numbering in the millions and in dozens of countries across the globe, from China to Cuba. Caches of thousands of Kalashnikov's were stored throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East in preparation for a Third World War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, these caches were raided and the guns were spread to every corner of every hot spot and armed dispute on Earth.

Ironically, the United States soon became the number one purchaser of the Kalashnikov as it struggled to arm freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Most ironically, in the Soviet Union's last days, it was kicked out of Afghanistan by these religious militant freedom fighters wielding none other than Kalashnikov's assault rifles.

AK's are found in every conflict around the globe, often on both side of the battlefield. They are used in crimes, and insurgencies, and revolutions. Kalashnikov's are reliable, easy to use, and pack a serious punch. As Chivers says at the beginning of the book, "When Kalashnikovs show up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave." Because AK-47's do one thing and they do it very well: They kill people. In fact, if you count up all of the people killed by all of the high-tech aircraft and submarines and nuclear missiles the USSR went bankrupt building, the number looks puny compared to how many humans have had their lives ended by the most recognizable weapon in the world.

The lesson was clear to you as you read "The Gun". Beware the things you create and let loose in the world. Like the Golem, they tend to free themselves from your control. And all too often, they turn on their masters.

One story haunted you the most from the book's last pages. Karzan Mahmoud was the driver for the Prime Minister of Iraq in 2002. He was gunned down and crippled by would-be assassins wielding AK-47's. In a letter to the author he mused what he would ask Mr. Kalashnikov if they ever met, "Why did you make this machine? You don't like living people? Why not make something to help people, not make them dead? I'm wondering... how about if you tried it on yourself, one bullet into your feet before sending it out to the market. Might that have changed your mind?"

You wished that all those who wage wars, and design weapons, far from the front lines would take Mahmoud's advice. "Why not make something to help people?"

On to the next book!

But first... a chart! The AK-47 is the one at the top. All of the others are variations on Kalashnikov's original design:

Milled receiver AKS, stock folded · Original stamped receiver AK47 · Milled receiver AK47 · AKMS · AK74 · SVD sniper rifle · Hungarian AMD65 · Yugoslavian M70B · East German MPIK.M · Yugoslavian M85 "Krinkov" SMG · South African R4 · Finnish Valmet M76 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"Red Star Rogue" by Kenneth Sewell with Clint Richmond (2005)

A Cold War mystery and the stuff of nightmares. Non-fiction is always crazier than fiction.

This is a war book. Even though we call the war "Cold", implying there were no real casualties, it was a real war and a lot of people died. This is also a mystery book. On May 7th, 1968 a Soviet submarine sank somewhere in the Pacific ocean taking 98 sailors to the bottom with it. That submarine was called K-129. For years afterwards, the United States government obsessed over gleaning every possible scrap of intelligence from the wreckage. It is clear something tragic happened aboard, but what?

In "Red Star Rogue" Kenneth Sewell makes the case that the unthinkable happened. He argues the the submarine was overtaken over by a rogue crew who attempted to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States in order to start World War III. Your reaction to this statement was simple:


In 400 pages, Sewell lays out an argument that you found pretty convincing, that the world came to the brink of nuclear war without the consent of any of the leaders of any of the Super Powers. The book moves from a charmingly written (if a bit long) personal history of K-129's captain and executive officer, into a detailed chronicle of the tragedy. Sewell draws on interviews with people in the espionage community, and guys who worked on the ships that were gathering the Top-Secret intelligence on the wreck, as well as his own first-hand experiences on board a US submarine. He gives a reasoned and rock-solid analysis of geo-political motivations before and after the sinking, and he exposes official documents that prove the government of the United States lied time and time again about what the truth really was.

Here is Sewell's case: US tracking hydrophones ( sensitive underwater microphones) tracked K-129 from her home port to the exact location where she sank (that location is still Top-Secret). There are audio recordings of the explosions that sank her, and of the sub then sinking into the crushing depths of the Pacific Ocean. A US spy satellite above recorded exactly what it was designed to record, the flash of a missile launch in the exact location and at the exact time that the hydrophones placed the K-129 disaster. Since no missile was recorded launching from the site and into the air, Sewell concludes that the missile exploded upon launch and caused the sinking of the submarine and the deaths of 98 Soviet sailors.

And here's where everything gets crazy. K-129 didn't need to surface to launch her missiles, and her missiles' range was far greater than the 350 miles from her target that Sewell places her. So here is the big question of the book. If K-129 was supposed to launch a nuclear missile at Hawaii to destroy Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, why not launch all three of her missiles from father away and from underwater, and why not have all the other submarines and bombers and ICBM's in the Soviet arsenal attack the US at the same time?

Sewell's answer is the craziest part of the book. He argues that the only logical conclusion is that a secret cabal within the Soviet Union, headed by members of the KGB and without the knowledge of Soviet Premier Brezhnev, ordered a small cadre of Special Forces warriors to seize control the K-129, imprison the officer corps of the boat, sever communications with Soviet Fleet Command, and then launch one missile at Pearl Harbor to make it look like China had attacked. The plotters in the Soviet Union would wait for the US and China to then destroy one another. In the nuclear wake of WW III, this cabal plotted for their nation to wade into the power vacuum and establish themselves as the sole dominant Super Power on Earth.

Sewell speculates that the warhead's fail safe mechanism engaged, as it was designed to do when ordered to launch without proper authorization, and the subsequent explosion destroyed the submarine.

But Sewell's argument isn't as crazy as it sounded to you at first. He frames the whole theory in a historical context. When K-129 sank, it was only 6 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 4 years after the US escalation into Vietnam, and a few months after the North Koreans had hijacked an American surveillance ship (the US Pueblo) letting Soviet espionage experts crawl all over her. International tensions between the US and the USSR were so high in 1968, that almost everyone agrees that the Russians, thinking the Americans had sunk K-129, retaliated by sinking the US Scorpion attack sub, killing 99 sailors. This act of war was widely believed by (and seemed completely reasonable to) analysts on either side of the Iron Curtain. This act of lunacy almost made sense when you put yourself in the shoes of the Russians.

And this was something you really enjoyed. Part of what made "Red Star Rogue" so fascinating was that it gave you the opportunity to place yourself in the mind of your nation's opponent circa 1968 (even though you weren't born yet). Viewing America from Russia's point of view, an America weary of war and in the midst of a cultural revolution, colored the 1960's differently for you for the first time. Instead of seeing that decade as a historical turning point in the story of America's cultural evolution, you were able to see how an external adversary could have seen it as the perfect opportunity to take advantage of an enemy who appeared to be on the ropes.

The relationship between The USSR and China had quickly soured over the course of the 1960's to the point where soldiers of both countries were clashing along their border with shocking regularity and with body counts in the hundreds. For the Soviets, China had suddenly gone from a potential ally to an alarmingly nearby enemy with a massive military freshly armed with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had even helped China develop some of those weapons and had given them submarines with which to deliver them... submarines which were identical to K-129 and which could only launch their limited range missiles from the surface of the ocean. And because China had provided Russia with the uranium in many of their warheads, any nuclear weapons fired from K-129 would carry the same radioactive signature as a Chinese weapon. Framing China as the nation who picked a nuclear fight with the united States was almost too easy.

This theory reminded you of Professor John Mearsheimer's theory of "Offensive Realism", that whenever possible, Great Powers will try to secure their influence by playing one adversarial power off a third, allowing the two adversaries to destroy one another while the Great Power survives. In addition, the conspiracy theory of a hawkish cabal inside the government of the Soviet Union didn't sound quite so far-fetched when you remembered how Generals LeMay and Taylor tried their damnedest to get JFK to start a nuclear war over Cuba in October of 1962.

The Soviet missile's one megaton warhead was about 100 times the size of the 12.5 kiloton bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima 23 years earlier and was more than enough to destroy the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and incinerate the half million residents of the city of Honolulu. This attack would certainly have drawn a swift and devastating nuclear response from the United States. The cabal inside the Soviet government made sure that their military was not at alert at all so that the US would see that the USSR was not preparing for a war and therefore couldn't be responsible for a first strike. The theory goes that US leaders would have turned to the only other nuclear armed enemy on Earth and begun a nuclear retaliation against China.

Sewell spends the rest of the book piling up a mountain of evidence to back up his claim. Just before the K-129 sailed, eleven extra men were brought on board the already cramped submarine. The identities of these men remain mysteries. After the ship sank, the US government sent spy subs into the depths and used the first deep sea remote control subs to photograph the wreckage and collect evidence to explain what had occurred. They even enlisted the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes who built a gigantic recovery ship to bring the entire Soviet sub to the surface where US espionage personnel were free to investigate what had happened. These analysts came to one conclusion, K-129 had sunk in the act of firing one of their nuclear missiles.

Once the alleged knowledge of a failed launch had been learned by the new American president, Richard Nixon, he took it to the Soviet premier Brezhnev who immediately cleaned house of all the alleged conspirators and removed control of the USSR's nuclear weapons from the hands of the KGB. Nixon then engaged in his own brand of "Offensive Realism" and took the information to the Chinese. Suddenly after hundreds of years of China being closed to the West, they opened relationship with the Nixon administration and cooled to the Soviets even more than before.

The list of evidence just kept piling up higher and higher, each bit more remarkable than the last. But here is the thing....

You didn't believe it.

You weren't convinced.

That bothered you. Why didn't you believe this? This author was much smarter than you, he had done exhaustive research, he had experience in submarines, he did interviews with people who saw the wreckage with their own eyes, he laid out a logical and intelligent theory that you were unable to argue against. And yet... you still weren't convinced.


And the you realized.... it wasn't that you didn't believe it, it was that you didn't want to believe it.

The only thing that saved the world from full on, no holds barred, nuclear war, was a mechanical fail safe. If Sewell is right, these men didn't come close to launching a nuclear weapon against the US... they launched one. They hit the button! And the US knew the submarine had come from a Russian port. Unbeknownst to the secret Russian cabal, the US had tracked K-129 all the way to the exact spot where it sank. So the gamble wouldn't have worked. The US wouldn't have attacked China. The US would have attacked Russia, and Russia would have responded in full. There is no time to investigate complex motivations of your aggressor or the sordid details of a conspiracy theory when there are missiles in the air heading for your country.

World War III would have happened. Society, as we know it, would have ceased to exist on March 7th, 1968. The nightmare would have become reality, if not for a piece of mechanical gadgetry.

You like to think that the reason that humans have not wiped ourselves out is a result of our common decency, a mark of our inherent goodness, and a byproduct of our sense of self-preservation. Sewell's theory undermines your hopes for the world, it shakes your faith in humanity as a whole. But then you remembered one small fact hidden in the piles of evidence.

Sewell reveals that declassified documents divulge that, early in his presidency, LBJ had secretly given the Soviets access to American designed Top-Secret fail safe technology for their missiles. These fail safes would detonate the conventional explosives in the warhead without setting off a nuclear blast if the missile did not receive the correct authorization codes to fire. Soviet leaders would have kept this knowledge secret too, and if any sub commander ever went rogue and tried to fire a missile without authorization, his boat would have been destroyed and sunk... exactly what happened to K-129.

President Johnson believed that both sides of the Cold War needed to have some guarantee that if it came to nuclear war, at least it wouldn't be accidental.... So he shared secret technology with his sworn enemy. This act of faith in his enemy, and selfless protection of the people of the world was what saved us from war on that day in 1968.

You finished the book and one quote kept playing over and over in your head. A quote from the movie "Thirteen Days". Kevin Costner plays the character Kenny O'Donnell, a top aide to President Kennedy. During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, O'Donell is shown sitting forlornly on his home staircase. When his wife sees him, she rushes to his side asking what is wrong.

"If the sun comes up tomorrow," he says, "It is only because of men of good will."

The sun came up after that day, and it came up after March 7th, 1968 too.

Maybe your faith in humanity is not so shaken after all...

On to the next book!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Under the Black Flag" by David Cordingly (1996)

Pirates! Argh!

Wait... did pirates really say "Argh"? I don't know. Maybe I should read a book about them.

I did already? DANG IT! I'm so bad at remembering what I've read...

"Under the Black Flag" is about the history of pirates. Well, it is a history of your stereotypical pirates; the "Pirates of the Caribbean, sailing some 500 years ago, very European" type of pirates; not the "poor kids from Somalia who take over oil tankers and who sometimes get shot by Navy SEALs" type of pirates (although you did read a book about this modern version a few years ago, but you've forgotten the coolest parts).

You found the format of the book a little off-putting. Cordingly organized his chapters by topics and categories, so the book does not adhere to any kind of linear timeline. Consequently, some stories are told out of order and characters who were killed off in previous chapters often reappear in following chapters. This robbed the book of a nice narrative arc and you kind of like the narrative arc thing, it's what makes history books accessible. Good historians are really just good story tellers, and this book missed that mark. It ended up feeling more like a collection of facts than a good story. That does not mean the book was without any redeeming stories at all though, or that you weren't interested in each individual isolated storyline; it was just that they all lacked a coherence that would have given "Under the Black Flag" a much needed boost.

The farther you got into the book, the more you began to realize that these pirates were really a kind of parasite who fed primarily on Empires. Empires that were hard at work massing piles of treasures and boat-loads of slaves. As these Empires fought war after war with one another, they quite literally created more pirates who would turn around and feed on their creators. The vast majority of pirates came from merchant ships or had been trained in one of these Empire's navies, and as soon as those wars between Empires stopped, even for a brief time, piracy along Atlantic shipping routes inevitably skyrocketed.  Sailors with nothing to do and no sources of income who had only two life skills (sailing and fighting) turned to the only thing they knew... Violence on the seas.

"Under the Black Flag" also reminded you that the world was much much more brutal 500 years ago. The casual violence practiced by some pirates needs to be remembered in the context of the extraordinary violence of the times (again, history without context is hollow). Merchant captains were brutal to their men, lording their authority in truly sadistic and cruel ways. Naval officers and courts of law were vicious to their enemies, crushing the air from prisoners' lungs or tearing off fingers to obtain confessions from the accused, both men and women alike. Torture seemed to be the default setting for most people involved in sailing the high seas. It's no wonder that many sailors preferred to escape to the relative freedom of piracy rather than suffer under the yoke of barbarous merchant captains for scant pay.

And there was freedom in piracy. Pirate crews were remarkably democratic. Captains were elected by vote and the treasure they looted was shared equally amongst all the crew members. Ships' destinations were voted on, and if a crew disapproved of a captain's leadership, he was replaced. This freedom proved a powerful temptation for many sailors, a far cry from the iron-fisted and ruthless tyranny of service aboard the merchant ships.

In light of this culture of violence and brutality, you were surprised to discover that most of the victims of pirates actually surrendered at the first sign of a black flag. Pirates worked hard to maintain a reputation for brutality, so that they wouldn't have to fight as much. Fighting threatened the goods they were out to steal in the first place. Why kill and maim, when simply running up a Jolly Roger would inspire your prey to come to and give up their treasures peacefully? In addition to their fearsome reputations, pirate crews were far more numerable than merchant crews. A merchant ship might be manned by 10-15 hands, while the same sized pirate ship would be crewed by 30-40 hands (some of the bigger ships up to 150-200!). Reading this part, you could easily see yourself on a merchant ship facing a fight against a force 3-4 times larger than yours, and against men who were running out of food and supplies 3-4 times faster than your ship. The pirates were far more desperate for a merchant ship's cargo than the merchant crew were to defend it. It is no wonder that the merchant ships gave up without a fight more often than not.

Even though their victims usually surrendered without a fight, pirates still had to be well-versed, not only in the art of sailing, but also in the art of war. They used trickery and subterfuge to evade or defeat their enemies. Some would fly false flags to lure their victims in closer, only to swap them for the pirate flag at the last second and open fire. Others would sail with full sails while dragging pots, heavy chains, and mattresses to slow them down, making their ship appear to be a heavily-laden merchant rather than a fast and well armed pirate. Entire ships were stolen without any fight by daring pirates as the ships lay at anchor, often right under the very noses of the ships' captains. Pirates would use their intimate knowledge of the small islands around the Caribbean Sea to play hide and seek with their would-be captors, often raiding ports on the exact opposite side of the island from the sips who were hunting them.

You were glad to learn that many pirate stereotypes hold true. They did enjoy parrots and they were often missing limbs. They cussed like... well, like sailors, and were fluent in the language of sailing large vessels. "Avast" and "leeward" actually have nautical definitions, they aren't just modern day piratical nonsense. Blackbeard went into battle with his fearsome beard smoldering and pistols slung from ribbons around his shoulders. But pirates weren't always what we think of when we imagine them nor how they are portrayed in movies. Sometimes their greatest exploits took place on land, not on the sea (Captain Morgan was famous for capturing the Spanish treasure city of Portobello, the greatest amphibious invasion of the 17th century).  The second ship to circumnavigate the globe was the Golden Hind. The first captain to achieve this feat was not Magellan (he died during his voyage, remember?), it was Francis Drake, captain of the Golden Hind. Francis Drake was a privateer raiding Spanish treasure ships; in other words... he was a pirate. Pirates were crafty, capable sailors. They were smart, creative, and generous with their treasure, as many a wealth Jamaican prostitute could have testified.

Sometimes pirates had the backing of kings and queens. These sailors were called privateers, not pirates. Whereas pirates attacked all shipping, privateers were commissioned by a nation to attack shipping from specific other countries.  Privateers could legally sell the ships they captured while pirates could not. Privateers were a cheap, quick way for nations to conjure a navy quickly and whenever they needed. Privateers fought for their country of origin, whereas pirates were seen as criminals. You doubted, however, whether the sailors who were being pursued on the seas and relieved of their lives and their cargo, cared much what their murderers called themselves.

Cordingly is clearly an expert on pirate movies, plays, and novels and devotes an entire chapter to them. You thought this was fun, but a little distracting from the history that was supposed to be the point of the book. If the book hadn't been written before Johnny Depp and Disney partnered up for their take on the topic, you were sure Cordingly would have included a whole chapter dedicated to the entire "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Maybe the best chapter in the book included the fascinating appearances of an assortment of women in the world of pirates. There were women who pretended to be men, and there were those who fought as women. In fact, the greatest pirate in history was a woman. Mrs. Cheng was the Commander in Chief of an entire pirate Confederation, comprising hundreds of ships, who ruled the South China Sea in the early decades of the nineteenth century. For a decade or so, she was able to defeat every naval force various Asian governments threw at her. Only when the Chinese joined with the Portuguese and the British and offered her amnesty, did Mrs. Cheng abandon her piratical ways.

Also, this book taught you that you love the word 'piratical'. God, that is a great word.

There should be a word for when you feel both sympathy and jealousy for someone. Whatever that word is, that's what you ended up feeling for the pirates you read about in "Under the Black Flag". You gave them your sympathy because they so often lead short lives of uncertainty and violence, and were so often faced with the impossible choice of embracing a path of lawless piracy or a life of brutal and monotonous suppression at the hands of their superiors, knowing that either path was likely a dead end. But you were jealous of the freedom these men tasted, even if for a brief time; the freedom to choose their destination and to sail on warm winds seeking fortune and adventure. Their lives embodied what you and everyone long for, to be free of the shackles of society and repression, to be responsible for your own fate. You were jealous that whenever these pirates looked at the horizon, they only thought of what possibilities lay beyond, they only thought of adventure, and the whole world was accessible to them.

Argh! indeed.

On to the next book!


Friday, October 12, 2012

"An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green (2006)

See, man? You CAN read fiction!

Let's clear one thing up right off the bat: The only reason you read this book is because you've become a tiny bit obsessed with the vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. John Green is one of the brothers and he writes Young Adult Fiction. This is his second book, and you will most likely read his other ones in due time because you really are a little bit obsessed. There... I'm glad we cleared that up.

Your love of non-fiction (specifically war) books makes it easy for you (and other people) to forget that you do enjoy novels occasionally. In fact, when you get a novel in your hands, you usually read it faster than you do non-fiction books. Maybe that's one reason you don't read as many novels. You like to savor the experience but you tend to burn through novels too fast to do that. Or maybe you're just a big nerd. Either one works...

"An Abundance of Katherines" is the story of two boys, Colin and Hassan, fresh out of high school, on a road trip to help mend a broken heart who end up in a tiny town in Tennessee. Colin is despondent because his girlfriend recently dumped him, although he shouldn't really be shocked. He's dated nineteen girls and they have all dumped him, never the other way around. Oh, and they are all named Katherine. Every one. Thus, the title of the book.

All of the characters in "An Abundance of Katherine's" are quirky and weird, but very charming and capable of moments of brutal honesty and wonderful insight. You know... kind of like real people. Colin is a former child prodigy and his best friend, Hassan, is more of a smart ass than a smarty pants. The two best friends speak to each other in a familiar "best friend code" of inside jokes and random phrases that perfectly reminded you of being in high school and immediately brought you inside their world. Both boys are outsiders. They're nerds. Colin is a nerd for being a child prodigy who could read the newspaper at the age of two, and Hassan is an outsider for being fat and for being Muslim. And when Lindsey was introduced, sitting behind the counter of the General Store, she seemed so familiar... like, you were pretty sure you'd met that character in real life before. You might even be related to her.

The boys' road trip lands them in Gutshot, Tennessee, of all places, and they quickly come to know several of the inhabitants very well (Lindsey, Katrina, Hollis). The boys are hired to chronicle the history of Gutshot through personal interviews with the town's older citizens. While this main plot unfolds, Colin is also feverishly busy trying to create a mathematical theorem that will accurately predict when any given relationship will end and who will do the breaking up with whom. He hopes that this theorem will finally allow him to "matter" in the world, thereby escaping the curse of child prodigies who so often fade into adult obscurity.

"An Abundance of Katherines" is written the way John Green talks, with a lot of shorter sentences punctuated by very long and profound ones. It makes the book quite readable. The book also has one of the funniest fight scenes you've ever read (pg 177), especially when you consider that it takes place on the grave of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination started the First World War).

Colin's persistent heartache (and other characters') reminded you of how catastrophic everything can feel when you are young. That's a good thing to remember, because you are a parent. Being empathetic with your boys when "catastrophes" hit will help you be able to guide them, or at least it will keep you from being alienated by them for being so callous and uncaring.

The book also reminded you that being a child prodigy isn't really that great. In fact, it's usually kind of tragic (or at least anti-climactic). So, if Nico isn't a prodigy, that might not be something to lament, it might be something to celebrate. And it also reminded you that Linc is going to be just fine in this world even if he has no chance of ever being a genius. And man, that is always a good reminder.

The whole book has a positive feel to it, an unembarrassed optimism that you couldn't help but be infected by. Lindsey's realization that she had always been wearing the personalities that she thought would best please the people around her reminded you that that living a more authentic life, one that isn't concerned with pleasing or impressing others, is a worthy goal. It reminded you that you truly believe that if being a nerd means that you are a more authentic human being (and it usually does), then you'd rather be a nerd every day of the week.

Your only real complaint about the book was the recurring use of the word 'retard'. Yes, it was only ever in dialogue, and yes, it was only to show that the characters in the book talked like kids in the real world, but it still bothered you. In the same way that black people (and the rest of society too) don't want to read or hear the slur 'nigger', parents of children with Down syndrome don't want to read or hear the slur 'retard'. In a way though, the N-word being in books like "Huck Finn" shows us how far American society has come from the bad old days. If this book taught you one thing, it was that the future isn't written and it is not predictable, and that gave you hope. Hope that maybe ten years from now, the use of the R-word in "An Abundance of Katherines" will seem so out of place that it too will illustrate how far we've come as a society.

On to the next book!


Friday, September 28, 2012

"Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen (1995)

A book about history textbooks? Yes please!

This book is a scathing indictment of the way American History is taught (or at least how history textbooks are made) in The United States. It points out how willfully misleading and politicized our education system is when it comes to Social Studies or American History in a way that it is not when it comes to any other subject. The premise of the book is that textbook authors cater to textbook selection panels and their blatant Euro-centric biases. The results are textbooks that distort and omit truth, rather than ones that teach actual history.

Dude, there are so many great facts in this book, facts that are not widely known or admitted, that it would be pretty understandable if this whole post was just a big long list of them. This is kind of why you made this blog, to create a giant list of things that you don't want to forget. But making a blog post that was just one long list would be a bit lame, so here is a short list for you.

- Helen Keller was a raging communist! Once she was able to interact with her world, her (metaphorical) eyes were opened to the plight of the under classes in modern societies. She did speaking tours, not on overcoming disabilities (like you thought she did) but on reforming society. She realized that treating disabilities was just treating symptoms; reforming our social class systems would actually be treating the causes.
- Woodrow Wilson was a raging racist and a major military interventionist. He racially segregated the federal government and he invaded Russia! Wilson's term as President saw the KKK grow and dominate the Democratic Party and lynchings became acceptable public activities. At the behest of big business interests, he ordered the invasion of more central American nations than any other president.
- The gold extracted from the Americas by Europeans really shaped the world we think of when we think of "The West". It collapsed the Saharan trade routes, usurped Muslim primacy, altered the economy of the world, made Africa suddenly attractive to Imperialists only for its slaves not its natural resources, probably ignited the modern concept of capitalism, and surely sparked the Industrial Revolution.
- Native American cultures were EXTREMELY attractive and influential to most European settlers. The democratic and egalitarian  nature of the Iroqouis nation inspired philosophers like More, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau's ideas of liberty and equality. These philosophers had direct influence on America's founding generation. Benjamin Franklin said, "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." Early European settlements had to put up walls and post guards to keep the settlers IN, not to keep the natives OUT. When the Berlin Wall went up we all asked why, if communism was so nice, they had to keep their citizens from leaving. The same question could be applied to early American settlements.
- John Brown was long considered to be a noble hero before he was accused of insanity. Union soldiers marched to battle singing 'John Brown's Body'. They don't do that for insane people, they do that for heroes.
- Abraham Lincoln was much more of an abolitionist than most books make him out to be. A lot of his more moderate quotes were taken out of context. The quote, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," was followed by, "...I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free." See? Much more abolitionist, much less moderate.

This list could go on and on, but it shouldn't. This list of omitted and ignored historical truths (however fascinating to you) is not really what this book was about. The fun and enlightening historical facts were really just an appetizer to the main point of the book. The main point being, Truth and history are complicated things that resist simplicity. Teaching them in simplified, pro-American ways is easy but not often wise, and it does a disservice to the students and to the rest of our society.

History is fraught with controversy and contradictions. Bringing these complications to students honestly, shows them why history happened, and why is a more important question than how or who or what. Learning why history unfolded the way it did is important because it teaches citizens (and that's what students are) how to judge current events, how to regard current laws, and why their votes on current politicians and policies actually do matter. Context is everything. Deleting the context of history (which this book proves is happening in our schools) robs citizens of the real story of American History.

Textbook authors are not interested in explaining why America did the things that it did. Page 229, "Instead, textbooks merely assume that the government (always) tried to do the right thing." But America doesn't always mean well. That doesn't, however, mean that America isn't a major force for good in the world. In fact, ignoring the bad things we've done dilutes how great the good things we've done really are. Electing our first black president is not nearly as significant if it is not placed in the context of a century of slavery followed by a century of racial repression and decades of Civil Rights struggles.

The case could be made that the authors of textbooks and the selection committees that chose them  love America so much that they only want to show their students its best face. But the truth is that if you truly love something, you have to be able to recognize what it really is. you have to be able to recognize and admit its faults and shortcomings. If you gloss over the sins and failures of the United States, you make it harder to make the country better, to make it a "More Perfect Union".

But what struck you the most while reading this book was the knowledge that good teachers can overcome bad textbooks. What it reminded you of was how you learned very little in your high School history classes, but just one great teacher lit a fire under you that ignited a passion to discover more truths about history, and to try and put the world in its proper context. You finished the book with the hope in your heart that there are enough good teachers out there, that the battle against bad textbooks can and will be won.

Maybe someday you should be one of those teachers.

On to the next book!


Monday, September 24, 2012

"Undaunted Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose (1996)

Good old Ambrose.

Man, you miss this guy. You've read lots of Ambrose's books before, "D-Day", "Citizen Soldiers", and "Band of Brothers" to name a few. This is the author who cemented your love of military history, specifically WWII, in your heart. You will probably remember the day he died for the rest of your life. This was the first non-WWII book of his that you'd ever read. You picked it up because your cousin, Eric, said he was reading it and the thought of one of your best friends having read an Ambrose book before you bothered the crap out of you. There is that old "gotta be the first one there" syndrome again. You really need to work on that, man. It's not pretty.

This book is about the Lewis and Clark expedition. It follows Meriwether Lewis (the book's main character) from his youthful beginnings to his death. William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Sacagawea, York (Clark's slave) and George Drouillard (a hunter-trapper, woodsman, and scout of French-Canadian and Shawnee descent) play charming and often pivotal co-starring roles along the way.

Now this book has good maps! Six different ones strategically placed throughout the book as the famous expedition unfolded. You promptly dog-eared every map page so that you could quickly flip to them at the appropriate time to orient your Eagle Scout brain in the map and also on the squiggly lines representing the path the expedition took. You did this a lot while reading the book because you really really like maps. Yeah, your thing with maps is weird too.

This is a big book, over 500 pages with a font size so small that Mom actually refused to read it (one of the few times she has ignored your book recommendations). It is a big book, but it is a long story so that makes sense.

The idea for the expedition was conceived by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself in 1785, even before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. During the late 1700's there were many entities racing to be the first to explore the Pacific Northwest in order to establish trading bases with the natives there. Beaver pelts were in impossibly high demand throughout the world, and this region had more beavers than we can really conceive of today.The Spanish, the French, the British and even the Russians had all begun to jockey for influence in the region but after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (in which Napolean sold the French claims to the massive territory) President Jefferson kicked his plans into high gear. He was determined to create a United States that spanned the continent. Trade moved by water routes back then and finding a water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was the ostensible goal of the expedition.

One quick side note to explain why water ways were so important; when Jefferson took the Oath of Office in 1801, "Two-thirds of the people (of the United States) lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian mountains..." also, "The United States was only eighteen years old, had itself come into existence by an act of rebellion and secession, had changed its form of government just twelve years earlier and... it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent." But, more fascinatingly, "Nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse," and, "Nothing had ever moved any faster and, as far as Jefferson's contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would."

One hundred years later, when Woodrow Wilson took the same Oath, humans flew for the first time. In that intervening century, trains and telegraphs were invented. Human could communicate over vast distances virtually at the speed of light. One hundred years after that, humans had a permanent space station in orbit, had been to the moon a dozen times, had created the internet, and were planning on visiting Mars within the next fifty years. This thought fascinated you for weeks (and probably still does). Ten thousand years of human evolution produce almost no major change in technology until the 17th Century. And since then technology has exploded at a geometric rate! It's just crazy!

Anyway, Back to the book review! One of the things that was really brought to light in the book was how utterly dependent on the natives the expedition was, and I don't just mean dependent on Sacajawea. Everywhere they went (especially when they camped for the winters) they relied on trade and good relations with the tribes around them. The men of the expedition took part in ceremonies with the tribes, ate the food the tribes provided, and had sex with their women (most of the men returned from the trip with raging cases of Syphilis). Not to impugn the impressive skills inherent in the men who embarked on the trip, but without the natives providing the expedition with sustenance and guidance, Lewis and Clark would never have lived to see the Rockies, much less the Pacific.

The two co-captains were phenomenal leaders. They drove their men to feats that were considered near impossible and they accomplished their mission (even though no all-water passageway from one ocean to the other exists). They established a strong American presence in contested territory, confirmed the actual borders of our nation, and discovered hundred of species of plants and animals new to the world of Western science. But, even so, it truly was a team effort. Sacejawea translating and smoothing relations with new tribes, Drouillard hunting and scouting ahead, York (the slave) intriguing and entertaining the fascinated Indians.

The moments where translation was required were particularly funny. With so many different languages involved they often ended up reading something like, "...a native would speak to Sacajawea, she would speak  to Charbonneau (her husband), who would translate to Drouillard, who could then relay the meaning of the original message to Lewis or Clark." It all reminded you of those games of 'telephone' you used to play as kid, and it is a miracle anyone knew what was going on at all!

The book has and adventurous quality, a hum of excitement throughout it that kept you turning pages. Ambrose's enthusiasm is infectious. While reading his breathless descriptions of the trail the expedition took around Yellowstone national park's future northern borders, you remembered being a kid in the park and it made you want to go back there as soon as you can to experience it again, this time through new eyes.

But you will never be able to see the world that they saw. The descriptions of North America before Lewis and Clark is as close to Heaven on Earth as you can get. Herds of buffalo and pronghorn from horizon to horizon, miles of the Missouri river covered by a blanket of floating swan feathers from migrating flocks molting in unison, unexplored wilderness stretching for a thousand miles in every direction; these things are gone. But it feels like the book helped you reclaim some of that inheritance.

The part of the book after the expedition is over begins to drag a bit, understandably, but it is all a build-up to a moment of historical melodrama that shocked you. How could you not have known of such a prominent suicide? How could you have never heard of that? That's what is so great about being a student of history, no matter how much you think you know, there always something more out there to learn!

"Undaunted Courage" brought to life some of America's greatest names, Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, Sacajawea, Merriwether Lewis. But it also brought to life America's ancient past, a past that is often romanticized and whose loss is often lamented. But don't despair. Stephen Ambrose's unyielding sense of wonder and always accessible prose guided you to a place where you were able to revisit a long gone era and walk with men who truly were explorers in their prime on the adventure of a lifetime.

On to the next book!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"In The Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson (2011)

Yeah... This one was awesome.

Larson also wrote "Devil in the White City" which you really want to read... it's the one about the serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair that your artsy friends got way too excited about, but not this one. This one is about the years leading up to WWII. So, naturally, you read this one first.

So, the FIVE PAGES of glowing blurb reviews at the front of the book were a little obnoxious, to be honest, and they didn't really make you want to read the book any more than you already did. In fact they were a bit of a turn off since you, like most other male humans, have a need to feel like you got there first and you are the only one who knows about how awesome something is, which is juvenile and foolish. You should really get over that. It's not helpful. But you forged on to the main body of the book anyway, and boy were you glad that you did (even though the maps were terrible! I mean, how are you going to write a good WWII story with crappy maps?).

This book reads like a novel even though it's a non-fiction history book (one of those that everyone makes fun of you for reading). But, Oh My God, it was good! It was fast paced and personable, told from the point of view of FDR's Ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933 and '34... and the ambassador's daughter, Martha. Oh... Martha....

The ambassador (William E. Dodd) arrives in Germany with Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor, but not yet the all-powerful Fuhrer. Hindenberg is still President and barely keeps Hitler's ambitions in check, but the Nazi party is consolidating their new positions of power and the Dodd family is (and, by extension, you are) granted a first hand view of the de-evolution of a modern Western society, the death of civility and liberty, and the rise of a monstrous state hell-bent on domination and racial purity. But the Nazis' penchant for pageantry and style proves intoxicating for the ambassador's daughter who has affairs with many of them, thereby allowing you to finally view the Nazis through the eyes of a star struck, hedonistic, worldly woman eager to drink in life as deeply as she can. And she certainly does.

Martha falls for several men while living in Germany (even though she has a husband back in the states). Among these several men are, noteably, Rudolf Diels, the head of the gestapo, and Boris Winogradav, first secretary of the the Soviet embassy (and member of the NKVD {read as KGB}). Her experience takes you through both wild unofficial parties and spectacular official Party functions of the State, and her heartbreaks, and heartbreaking, lends the book a personal, feminine quality that you don't often experience in WWII books.

Although Ambassador Dodd is ostensibly the main character in this book, Martha contends for the title. Later in life she became a published author and her gift with writing shows clearly in her journals, which Larson uses as source materials for the book. His writing combined with hers makes some passages read more like well crafted fiction, not historical non-fiction (check out pages 182 & 183).

There is hope throughout the book, even as tragedy after atrocity pile up. Enemies of the Nazis quietly dissapear, Americans are beaten for not giving the Hitler salute, Jews are rounded up and "Jew-lovers" are dragged through streets as examples for the rest of the citizenry to "Stay pure". Some prominent members of Berlin society even commit suicide after it is revealed to the public (and in some cases to themselves) that they have Jewish blood in their veins. And the SA storm troopers are always marching and rallying and burning books.

But there is always hope.

Even as he sends warnings back to America, the ever humble and likeable ambassador Dodd is convinced that Hitler and his thugs will be brought down by the stalwart and reliable voices of their more sane contemporaries in the government. To help them out, Dodd even commits an incredibly brave act and gives a speech to a room full of German government officials in which he condemns totalitarianism and extreme nationalism. Using his credentials as a history professor and published author in the US as his cover, Dodd carefully couches the speech in terms of the Roman Empire's downfall, not Nazi Germany's rise, but everyone knows what he is really talking about. The speech elicits praise and cheers from the moderate members of Berlin society, and howls of outrage and vitriol from the Nazis.

In this moment you were able to see the years leading up to the war, not as an inevitable march to ruin, but as a series of events which were preventable, but whose occurrences piled up on top of one another to culminate in the greatest event in human history (WW II, dummy).  It is often easy to get lost in all the foregone conclusions of history books (Of course the US will win the Revolution, and of course America will declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor), but books like "In the Garden of Beasts" help you remember that nothing is a foregone conclusion. History is not inevitable. As historic events unfold we have to choose to fight them or embrace them, but we must choose. History IS us, WE make it.

Studying how and, more importantly why, things happened is the education you have been trying to give yourself for twenty years now. This book took you a long way down that road.

Also, "In the Garden of Beasts" helped you with a problem you've always had. It helped you get the Nazis hierarchy straight in your head. You remember how you were always confusing Goering and Goebbles? Well not after this book. The two men are given such memorable presence that you'll never again confuse the scrawny, mouse-like propaganda minister (Goebbles) with the rotund gregarious head of the Luftwaffe (Goering).

The book climaxes with the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler and his pals kill or imprison the members of the SA that brought them to power in the first place. It's kind of like that scene in Star Wars when the Emperor orders all the clones to kill the Jedi, except this really happened. It is a cataclysm of violence that Germany hadn't seen before and it sets the stage for Hitler to seize all control throughout Germany a few weeks later when President Hindenburg dies. What a perfect place to leave you on the verge of the greatest war in the history of mankind.

This was one you couldn't put down, man. Seriously. you were vacuuming while reading it a few times.

On to the next book!