The catholic reader A Lunch Community <![CDATA[ Talking a good game]]>

As Kipling said with more clarity and in far fewer words, the Great Game was a shadowy battle between shady characters who majored in disguises, stealth, cartography, and solitary treks across the length and breadth (and deep valleys and high passes) of the disputed territories.  Hopkirk documents the many placenames and game players in breathless hyperbole, sweeping stereotypes, and too often shameless racism.  

Writing in 1990 more than a century after most of the events his attitudes and words are inexcusable.  When describing set battles Hopkirk devotes pages and counts casualties to precision while ignoring or providing broad brush attention to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of native soldiers or supporters.  The English and Russian spies and generals are drawn in heroic details while the local leaders and characters are dismissed as pathetic, treacherous, grasping, or bloodthirsty.  The many names of places and players are confusing and left me flipping back and forth to the maps in the front of the book and skimming over many paragraphs and pages.  He gets lost in the trees so readers can't see the forest. 

There are fascinating stories to be told about this time and place.  A century later the same geography would be center stage for many world-changing events that owe their roots to the Great Game.  Unfortunately pulling these stories and events out of Hopkirk's prose isn't worth the effort.

]]> Sun, 11 Jan 2015 03:10:01 +0000
<![CDATA[ Is light a wave or a particle?]]>

As physicists looked closer at atomic structure early in the 20th century they found that describing atoms revealed very specific constants controlling rotation and location of electrons in orbit around the atomic nucleus.  These quanta introduced a new discontinuity at very microscopic levels that broke Newtonian laws of motion, force, and momentum.  This discontinuity opened a Pandora's box of conclusions  and corollaries that shattered our assumptions about reality.  Such earth shattering ideas were bound to have impacts on language, culture, and art beyond the strictly scientific realm, and The Quantum Moment examines these impacts from the perspectives of a physicist (Goldhaber) and a philosopher (Crease).

As the book focuses on the intersection of science and culture, the scientific ideas are explained at a high level.  Perhaps these definitions are too simple and superficial to explain such obscure concepts, or perhaps quantum mechanics is just too dense and bizarre to be concretely understandable to average non-scientist readers.  Either way I feel like I have a very tenuous grasp of the concepts in play.  So I was a bit disappointed in this aspect of the book.

But the authors were trying to describe the concepts just well enough to establish a foundation against which to examine their cultural impacts, which is the meat of the book (and the undergraduate course the authors co-teach).  Here I felt that the authors introduced and surveyed the impacts without being as exhaustive and systematic as they might have been.   They basically look at examples of novels, movies, cartoons, and art to show how they incorporate the bizarre concepts of quantum mechanics like uncertainty, complementarity, and Schrodinger's cat, the scientists' own metaphorical attempt to explain how scientific observation and instrumentation may in fact change the system and materials they are measuring at the quantum level.  An expanded or more exhaustive study of the cultural impacts would have bumped my rating higher.

]]> Wed, 31 Dec 2014 15:26:01 +0000
<![CDATA[ The railroad that created a country, won and lost a war, and proved the downfall of a country]]>

Planning for this line uniting European Russia with its distant Asian and Arctic territories began early in the 19th century Railroad era under the ruling Tsars but took decades to begin under the decision making and direction of the Tsars and their top heavy autocratic bureaucracy.  The route was envisioned as a way to politically unite the widely separated regions of the country, carry new emigrants to an underpopulated region that could become a Russian bread basket, bring back the abundant natural resources of the Siberian region, and provide a military highway for Russian troops to defend and expand national interests in Asia.  The climactic, geographical, geological, technical, logistical and management difficulties of such a massive undertaking weighed heavily against the projected benefits, but the decision was finally made by Tsar Alexander III in 1886 to begin.  Once begun, government funds and resources were poured into the purely public project in an attempt to realize the benefits within ridiculously short time lines.  The difficulties were overcome or at least papered over by sheer numbers and effort, and within less than ten years sections of the road began carrying freight and passenger traffic.

And just as quickly the Trans-Siberian began to dismantle its builders. Japan, already rattling imperialist sabres, initiated the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 early to strike before Russia could fully utilize the road to move troops and material to the end of the line.  Japan's stunning victory, combined with the huge expenditures to build the Trans-Siberian, were key destabilizing effects that weakened the tsarist regime and led to the period of revolutions culminating in the October Revolution that established Communist Russia.

Repairs, improvements, and expansion continued with Soviet government funding and planning, and by World War II the railroad was essential at moving troops, natural resources, and Allied supplies westward to the European front, while enabling Russia to move its industrial base eastward away from the German front lines.  The Trans-Siberian contributed to the Allied victory in Europe, but just as under the Tsars, the continuing expense of upgrades and expansion to the road contributed to the destabilization of the Soviet government after years of fighting the Cold War, helping to being down the Soviet government it helped into power.

Wolmar tells this history on the broad scale while at the same time zooming in to tell the story of what travel was like on the railroad by quoting first hand accounts.  The macro and micro story of the Trans-Siberian are both riveting and well told.   The only small detractions that keep this book from classic rating:  the pictures included are too few and too small, and Wolmar references his own 2012 journey on the length of the Trans-Siberian but doesn't provide enough details about what would be a fascinating state of the railroad report.

]]> Mon, 29 Dec 2014 13:35:11 +0000
<![CDATA[ Vibrant tale of India and imperialism]]>
So let me begin my review of Kim by saying that it can be enjoyed today without reservation as both a vibrant tale of India of the time and a gripping, exciting, funny, and moving adventure story.  While he was clearly an imperialist, Kipling was no racist.   This Barnes and Noble Classics edition includes a brief annotated bibliography of works about Kim, which references this quote by famous literary critic Lionel Trilling:  "The dominant emotions of Kim are love and respect for the aspects of Indian life that the ethos of the west does not usually regard even with leniency."  Trilling wrote those words in 1943 midway between the unconscious racism of Kipling's era and the hyper-conscious political correctness of today, but they still hold true.  Kipling was no racist.

He was in fact writing of an india he knew well.  Born to English parents on station in India in 1865 he spent his first six years there and in fact in his autobiography says that he "spoke, thought, and dreamed in Hindi" until being sent to be educated n England from 1871 to 1882.  Kim, the young teenaged hero of this novel, was the son of deceased English parents raised from infancy by an Indian guardian but mostly survived as a streetwise urchin who while white could pass as native and spoke both English and Hindi.  A key component of the novel is the ability of  Kim and other characters to shift language, personality, culture and worldview to adapt and apply meaning to different situations they faced.  No racist author could accomplish this shift of perspective with "love and respect" (in Trilling's words).

Kim befriends a Tibetan monk seeking a mystical river and becomes his disciple.  He is also friends with and performs small errands for a shady horse dealer, who it turns out is a British spy involved in the "Great Game" of Asian politics.  Kim employs his knowledge of both English and Indian languages and personalities along with his very quick intelligence to forge his way in life and become, as he is called sometimes by his companions "Friend of all the World".   Kipling sees inside of Kim, though, and paints not just a shape-shifting facade but a three dimensional character.  As Kim grows through his teens and with training and skill becomes a powerful player of the Great Game in his many interesting and exciting adventures in the plot, he sometimes struggles to understand his own identity.  At key moments of the story after Kim has made some hard decisions in the heat of the moment, when he has time to reflect on his actions he asks himself "Who is Kim?" or "What is Kim?" 

It is this very real question and the intelligence and skill of the plot and language that Kipling employs to pose it that make Kim such a vibrant classic tale.

]]> Fri, 26 Dec 2014 17:56:44 +0000
<![CDATA[ The greatest living American hero]]>
Gwynne's biography focuses on the war time Jackson and the parts of his life that contributed to the man.  An orphan as a young boy (which Gwynne cautions the reader from over emphasizing since many children of that era shared the characteristic) Jackson was largely self-educated until being barely accepted to West Point.  At a disadvantage socially and educationally he none the less rose from the bottom of his class to finish in the top half.  While his odd personality kept him from being popular he was respected by many and served well if briefly in the Mexican War that served as a training ground for so many of his Civil War peers.

Back in civilian life he served as professor of artillery at VMI where for the decade or so leading to the war he forged his reputation as a misfit.  With his laser sharp focus on the task at hand, his personal and very active spiritual life, his very literal approach to the world, and his rules based chain of command personality influenced by the military he often seemed harsh to his students and inconveniently literal to his superiors.  But unlike Union General Ulysses Grant to whom he is often compared for their seeming similarities before the war, Jackson was not a complete failure at civilian life.  In private he was a devoted romantic and fun loving husband, a spiritual leader in the community, and an advocate of spiritual training for slaves; typical to his personality he did not back down from the slave Sunday School he founded and often personally taught even when faced with the challenge that he was illegally teaching his students to read.  A small slave owner, he was a kind master freeing some of his slaves during his life, and fighting for the Confederate cause only in defense of Virginia and not slavery; again, typical to his personality, this stance cost him two of his closest personal relationships, with his beloved sister and the father of his deceased first wife, with whom Jackson had a very close father-son relationship.  Both were staunch abolitionists, neither would ever talk to Jackson again in the few years he had left.

As a soldier in the great American Civil War, however, Jackson's personality traits would make him not only comfortable but incomparable as a leader of men in battle.  While he was first thought harsh by his men for long forced marches and strict adherence to commands, his men came first to obey him (given Jackson's willing and frequent use of courts marshal and strict penalties both his officers and privates had little choice), then respect, trust, and finally love him as their leader.   They knew if they obeyed, trusted and followed he would lead them into battle with a great aggressive plan and a great chance to win the day.  They were renowned and feared by both North and South (Gwynne claims they were the best known military unit in the world) as the Stonewall Brigade.  The revolving door of Northern generals who were beaten by Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and then by Lee and Jackson as the compatible and complementary heads of the main Confederate body consistently overestimated the size of Jackson's force and underestimated the speed and aggression with which he would deploy them.

This adulation (which Jackson always deflected as due to the power and providence of the God he honored and served) is the more amazing because it came to him while still alive and leading the fight.  So many of our heroes have feet of clay, as it were, and their flaws and faults so obvious in life are only whitewashed by immortal fame after their glorious death.  Gwynne certainly does not whitewash Jackson's life, documenting his often unlikable personality, his hypochondria, and his unwillingness to explain his actions and orders to his officers even in battle.  But these few small detractions both before and after Jackson's death never served to detract from the worship and respect he earned in life.  He was indeed the greatest living American hero.

Another standard by which I judge this biography as a classic is the fair and objective way that Gwynne treats the potentially divisive fact of Jackson's strong and outspoken Christianity.  Gwynne never questions Jackson's sincerity or his actions in light of his faith.  As did Jackson's contemporaries, Gwynne accepts them at face value, and indeed the historical record gives no historian or biographer reason to do so.  Still, given the way that publicly expressed faith has been either suppressed or belittled today (imagine how a modern American military leader of today would be treated if he had a personality and faith like Jackson's!) it is fair to say that many modern biographers or historians would have been critical of Jackson regardless of the historical record.

With this rigorously fair approach we see the heroic Jackson shine through: the misfit civilian who was an authentic living hero even before his untimely death.   Gwynne compares Jackson to Lincoln in each man's early untimely martyrdom at the peak if his career and soon after his most significant victory.  Jackson's death in the midst of the violent civil war was mourned deeply by the South and recognized as significant and sad by his foes in the North.  In effect he had no declared enemies in death, unlike Lincoln who was still hated in some sections of the country and only grudgingly respected in others.  Jackson's was, argues Gwynne, the first national American funeral.

Would he have changed the outcome of the war had he lived?  It is a what-if game we really can't play, although Lee stated in a private letter after the war he believes Jackson would have held the high ground at Gettysburg that, surrendered to the North, enabled that army to win the battle.  However, Gwynne is quick to point out that the Southern cause was probably irretrievably lost because of the North's superiority in men and material, plus the moral rightness of their cause.  Regardless of how much we and his contemporaries respected and worshiped Jackson, we can not deny from the standpoint of today that he was fighting on the wrong side.  But let that take nothing away from his story.

I finished Rebel Yell and wrote this review while my family and i were at  Walt Disney World and after seeing the Hall of Presidents and American Adventure shows.  It is fair to say that both of these shows highlight the great leaders and successes of American history, while giving short attention to flaws like acceptance of slavery, the conquest of the land from the native population, and the treatment of women and African-Americans as second class political citizens. My wife and children have often had discussions about our  misgivings about the way these aspects of American history are presented.

The key is that all of our heroes and leaders are alloyed with faults, Stonewall Jackson included.   But this country was founded as an extreme experiment in liberty in an age of kings and empires, as Franklin said at the beginning of the American Adventure show in a statement that could easily be glossed over but must not be.  Americans today can only focus on the faults because the experiment has to date succeeded gloriously  beyond all expectations and against all odds.  This success is the reason so many people of so many languages and lands come here to Disney World to enjoy what we have and have created.   We should welcome those who want to stay and live (legally of course) with open arms because they will help us continue this grand experiment.  We are after all a nation of imperfect but progressing immigrants.

We should continue to celebrate America and continue to work to perfect it.  In the same spirit we can celebrate Stonewall Jackson as a true living American hero.

]]> Wed, 24 Dec 2014 19:40:15 +0000
<![CDATA[ In the long run, the trench wins]]>
In. the first section of The Long Shadow, Reynolds traces the legacies of World War I, not least of which that it would be seen as the forerunner and to some the driving cause of the second and much larger world wide war that would displace the conflict from its designation as "Great" to just the first of the century's World Wars.  Johnson cautions the reader of the fallacy and folly of viewing these years after the war as the interest years between the two World Wars, which is a perspective available to us only by hindsight and was not a factor in the perception of the Great War by contemporaries who had lived through it.   Johnson devotes chapters to these legacies in nations and empire, economics, politics and peace movements, and civilization (how did the war shape the modern art movement, and more early how did the evils of the war drive the rise of greater evils in Italy and then Germany?).

Johnson's approach is unique in not focusing on the causes of the war, or the history of the war itself (although he tells enough of the history to set his stage) but on its influence in the post war years.  While his narrative is interesting, what it doesn't do is prove casualty.  Certainly events in the past influence the present but are those influences causal or merely casual?  Johnson doesn't speak definitely on the question, which may be the safest approach but isn't the the most impactful.

In the second half, entitled "Refractions", Reynolds turns the telescope around to look backwards at how remembrances of the war after the fact changed perceptions of the war. Here he posits that the overshadowing of the first by the second and subsequent major conflicts had a major influence in the war countries, politicians, military leaders, and ordinary people remembered and commemorated the Great War.  One major thread here is the interruption of the Russian Revolution which directly impacted the War, then the post-war Soviet consolidation leading to the Stalinist regime with its internal terrorism and great  famine of collectivism, followed almost immediately by the immense sacrifice of Russian soldiers and civilians in the Second World War and the the Cold War that froze Eastern Europe and Asiatic Russia for another 40 years, all of which also froze Russian remembrances and studies of the Great War.

A second major thread is British post-war experience which focused on one tragic day early in the war (the battle of the Somme) which was then and since recognized as a disastrous and unnecessary waste of the youth and soul of the British army.  This drove remembrance toward commemoration of the individual "Tommy", oral and family histories of the events of the war, and a mini-industry of war time poetry, much of it by soldiers in the trenches.  Johnson documents how this influenced official national memories and anniversary celebrations of the war, up through and even especially as late as the 50th anniversary of the war, when a peak of interest lead to and was influenced by the new power of television to reach audiences and reshape histories to match.

With an approach that is at times novel but at other times seems simply narratively pedestrian, The Long shadow is worth reading but not as inspiring or engaging as I had hoped.  But it is a unique antidote to the over documented topics of the causes of the war, and to the standard "how it happened" accounts of the war itself.

]]> Sat, 6 Dec 2014 17:31:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Comet in the system of science, politics, and faith]]> How we got to now,  I found this book from 2008 on the shelf in my excellent local public library, and discovered that it contains a tightly argued statement of Johnson's cultural ecosystem approach to science and history. applies the approach to six key innovations, but The Invention of air gives the approach a solid logical foundation.  And in case a reader wanted to question the current relevance of the intersection of science, politics, and faith, Johnson provides a telling list of issues that are centered on this flash point:  "global warming, stem-cell research, intelligent design, neuroscience, atomic energy, the genomic revolution, not to mention the massive social disruptions introduced by computer science in the form of the Internet."  (p. 205).

Joseph Priestley is the man who first isolated oxygen in the title "discovery", just one of the paradigm shifts driven by Priestley in chemistry, electricity, faith, and politics.  He was a key participant in the transition from rise and fall to steady state cultural progress.  Johnson identifies three theories of why this transition occurred:

  1. Marx's theory of class, capital and technology that focused on the interaction of these resources over long time horizons driving inevitable outcomes not influenced by "great men" actors.
  2. Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts from normal to revolutionary science that drive progress forward in revolutionary leaps.
  3. His own ecosystem theory that traces progress across multiple disciplines (including "soft" and non-sciences) and multiple languages, vocabularies, metrics, and time scales in the "long zoom" view he further elaborates in

Johnson doesn't dismiss "great man" theories out of hand, recognizing the biographical element in discovery present in the case of a rare man like Priestley:

  • Hunches driven by curiosity to know the "why?" of things.
  • Intelligence capable of exploring the hunches.
  • Time to explore the hunches (leisure time made available by economic growth driven by the rise of industry).
  • Time to allow the hunches to develop by not being focused only on the short term gain.
  • Integration into a "neural network" of informal information exchange that serendipitously and exponentially drives innovative thinking.

Johnson takes a short but fascinating aside into the role of the London coffeehouse mania of the period in providing that neural network for men like Priestley.  These informal (not bound or burdened by procedural rules), multidisciplinary (free flowing between branches of science, politics, and faith), and caffeine-fueled (not alcohol dulled) discussions were essential and highly-valued by the men who had the ideas, the intelligence, and leisure time to join with their colleagues at the local coffeehouse.

At some of these sessions Priestley was able to meet and exchange ideas with fellow scientist and political observer Ben Franklin.  While Franklin would find his career driven increasingly into politics and statesmanship (to his expressed regret in his letters to Priestley) their initial introductions and conversations were about understanding the results and ramifications of their scientific studies, and sharing knowledge and speculation in conversations (at the coffeehouse and in letters) that were literally  "inventing . . . the ecosystem view of the world." (p. 82).

The third input (in addition to cultural and biographical drivers) into the invention of air was energy.  "Major advances . . . are almost invariably triggered by dramatic increases in the flow of energy through society" (p. 113).    In Priestley's day the transition was from wind and horsepower to coal and steam power.  The link is that increased energy applied to industrial production increases wealth and makes leisure time available.   It takes personal time and energy to innovate, and Priestly did most of his scientific work when he was supported either by a wealthy noble patron or by industrial sponsors who funded him essentially as an independent research and development adjunct to their industrial organizations.

So Priestley "invented" air.  But he never compartmentalized his science, his faith (he was by trade a minister), and his politics (continuing correspondence with his American colleagues even in the midst of the revolutionary split between the colonies and England.).  His religious ideas (Unitarian and denying the divinity of Jesus) were considered heretical by mainstream Christians and his political ideas were considered radical.  He was sympathetic with the French ferment for revolution, and he was falsely accused of being a French spy.  Facing persecution for his unpopular views culminating in the burning of his house and laboratory by a mob, he fled to America, where even there he was held at arms length by correspondents Adams and Jefferson because of his religious views and their political positions.  But he never wavered in his optimism or approach, and both Adams and Jefferson, even 20 years after Priestley's death, remembered him in their famous final correspondence with respect and fondness.

Because of the depth to which Johnson develops his long zoom approach to science and history I found this book more focused and rate it slightly higher as a classic than How . . . now.  But both are fast, fun, and easy to read whether your interest is in science, history, politics, and faith.  Leave your compartments at the door and enter with your whole mind.

]]> Fri, 5 Dec 2014 21:50:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ Science at the intersections]]> The Ghost map and Everything bad is good for you as examples) and hits this minor classic with the perfect blend of science, history, and and the "intercrossing" (a term coined by Darwin) between the two.

The six innovations Johnson documents are so common (glass? time?) that describing their invention is deceptively simple.  But Johnson quickly broadens the application of the innovation to  scales, solutions, and places beyond the immediate and here the intercrossings get interesting.   This "long-zoom approach" is able to highlight the "chance collisions" that drive innovation and opens the discussion of when innovation becomes possible, when it becomes inevitable, and how we replicate, encourage and best understand it. 

This book is the companion to a PBS series, for which Johnson's conversational style is perfectly suited.  While the illustrations are small to fit the book's small format, they are well chosen to complement the narrative.  I haven't seen the series, but the book stands very well on its own.

]]> Wed, 26 Nov 2014 02:22:09 +0000
<![CDATA[ With God on our side]]>

I use the term "spiritual" intentionally, as Armstrong identifies "religion" as a separate sphere of life as a modern idea arising around the time of the Enlightenment.   Before then, the recognition and worship of a deity was both a universal and a constant in human life; all life, all pursuits, all culture, was spiritual.  Beginning with Gilgamesh and the first documented civilization in Sumer, Armstrong proceeds east through India and China then back to the Hebrews in the Middle East documenting the rise of each civilization, its spiritual component, and the relationship of the spiritual to the force needed to maintain and sustain the civilization and the government of it.  This is the heavy lifting portion of the argument, with lots of obscure names and concepts that can leave eyes glazed over and lead to pages flipped over without close attention.

Armstrong argues that the transition to an agrarian form of civilization inevitably led to the use of force to protect first cities then ever-expanding regions from nomads or other outside agrarians who wanted to steal food crops or land.  Since the spiritual was central to life, religion had to accept or address violent force in some way within its purview, and Armstrong shows that, contrary to the assumption of bloody religion, most religious traditions restrict if not abhor violence, while recognizing its necessity.  Fourth century Chinese leader Shang preceded Machiavelli by a millennium when he wrote "A state that uses good people to govern the wicked will be plagued by disorder and be destroyed.  A state that uses the wicked to govern the good always enjoys peace and becomes strong."

Even in the most egregious cases of "religious violence"--the Crusades and Islamic terrorism-Armstrong lays the blame on the political not the spiritual.  She sees the rising tide of violence in the  modern era driven by the industrial ability to produce more violence faster (rifles, then machine guns, then the mobile mechanized horrors of the 20th Century) and by the rise of the nation-state, whose mandate to govern all within its borders lead to pressure to conform to a common national religion then to suppression of minorities through violence.  As nation states expanded beyond their borders into empires, religion was often a political justification but not a driver.  It was easier to imperialize religion, writes Armstrong, than to purify politics. 

More history than philosophy or theology, this book wasn't quite what I expected, and I found the first 200 pages heavy going.  But the second half, as she settled into the 18th Century down to today's Middle Eastern mess, rewarded with valuable insights based on the grounding from those early chapters.

]]> Mon, 24 Nov 2014 23:39:01 +0000
<![CDATA[ What's so funny bout peace, love, and understanding?]]>

But it isn't for want of theories.  Warner and McGraw document existing theories of comedy such as Aristotle's superiority theory (we laugh at the misfortune of others) and Freud's relief theory (we laugh to release pent up psychic energy), to which McGraw adds his own benign violation theory:  humor consists of a situation which is wrong, unsettling, or threatening, and a resolution (read punch line) that makes the situation okay, acceptable, or safe.  Such theorizing seems counter intuitive to comedy (if you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny), but our guides alternate such freeze dried theorizing with visits to the real comic world.

They try open mike stand up, improv sketch comedy, cartooning, comedy training in places as disparate as Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan (apparently the comedy capitol of a culture that alternates between deadpan and frantically tasteless comedy), and therapeutic clowning in extreme poverty in Peru.  They look for humor in humorless settings like religious controversy, Middle Eastern conflict, and the Holocaust.

The result of all this theorizing and real world practice is more thought provoking than funny which is the point, I think.  Comedy, as a business or as a politically destabilizing influence, and in its ability to both unite and divide, deserves more than a forced attempt at laugh out loud or laugh a minute comedy routines.  McGraw and Warner do find funny, but they also find the meaningful core of comedy in ways that demonstrate the essential nature of humor in understanding and surviving our often desperately sad world.

]]> Mon, 17 Nov 2014 00:28:34 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lost without a map]]>

As we learn from Blanding's quick and understandable background on map making and the market for buying and selling  rare maps,  maps are uniquely vulnerable to theft.

1.  They are beautiful and sometimes very rare pieces of artwork, so they are highly prized by collectors..  Early maps were decorated with bizarre features like speculative paintings of native wildlife and geographic oddities, they were often brightly and intricately colored and surrounded by text and pictures of patrons or the mapmakers themselves.   Smiley helped a couple of major collectors build collections of great artistic and historical value by focusing on maps of specific areas.

2. While rare and even beautiful pieces of art, they are not unique.  Maps are drawn to be published and used in multiple copies.  They are often bound into books or atlases which may not list the maps included in a table of contents or index.  And the library or archive that owns the map may not have detailed records or catalogs of the maps in each book, so that after Smiley was arrested for his crime, we learn that it was very difficult for the victimized libraries to say for sure which of the recovered maps were theirs, or if and how many maps they had even lost.  Blanding includes two lists at the back of the book, one of the maps Smiley admitted stealing when he was arrested and then cooperated with police to reduce his sentence,and a second list of maps reported missing that he may have stolen.  Most of these have never been recovered, some have been proven not to be stolen by Smiley, and most are suspected to be in private collections (possibly with owners who know they are stolen!).

3.  Maps are not static one of a kind art pieces, but are repubished and revised over time.    This feature makes maps valuable research tools as the revisions can show advances in geographic, cultural or historical knowledge, and changes in political power, influence, and ownership.  It also makes tracing individual maps more difficult   A stolen map may be one of several versions published in different sources and housed in different archives.  One of the greatest mysteries in this account is how Smiley, who was a serious scholar of North American maps, could deface the source material he was studying by slicing or tearing  it out of atlases and folding it up to fit in a pocket or briefcase.

4.   Unlike art museums which display their artifacts on walls behind barriers where they can only be admired at a distance and never touched, maps (all but the rarest of the most rare) are housed in libraries and archives where they are made accessible to scholars to study and handle.   The combination of relatively easy access, the number of maps and books in major archives, and the relatively lower level of funding and investment in security mean that maps can be stolen more easily than art.   Smiley was a frequent visitor to the libraries and archives he victimized and was well known and mostly liked (with a few very strong exceptions) by staff, dealers, and collectors, so the boldness of his thefts was both surprising and an incentive to institutions to increase their security measures.

5.   Stolen maps,  except for only those rarest of the rare,  because they have been published and revised and are not unique and not easily traceable, are easier to sell.   Establishing provenance-an unbroken documented chain of ownership and transference--is very difficult.  Map dealers often deal exclusively in cash deals on a handshake basis so that tracing "fenced" maps is impossible.  Blanding even claims that some private collectors who know their maps are stolen are unwilling to give them up because they believe they have better security and control over the maps in a private collection than libraries, archives, and dealers do.

Blanding was able to meet and interview Smiley early in his project when a magazine article was the target, but as he gathered more material and expanded the manuscript to book length, Smiley refused to cooperate with additional interviews, so while there is some first person attribution, Blanding relies on interviews with his personal friends, fellow map dealers, collectors, librarians and archivists, and law enforcement officials.  The result is a well rounded portrait that neither exonerates or excuses Smiley, nor paints him as a criminal mastermind or evil genius (although some interview subjects, particularly fellow map deal Graham Arader, clearly believe he is).  One can almost feel sympathy, if not empathy, for a man who lost his way in life if not for want of a map.

]]> Sat, 15 Nov 2014 17:42:30 +0000
<![CDATA[ Restoring the meaning of death]]>

As a young woman with a penchant for Goth culture and a degree in medieval history (and fascinated by its close embrace of death), Doughty got a job at a crematory in Oakland and began her transition from a dabbler in death to a practitioner's understanding of the death industry and how it affects the way modern culture lives and approaches death.  Along the way she took notes on her sometimes bizarre experiences and conversations with coworkers with decades of experience to write this memoir, history, and philosophical symposium on the journey.

Even as (or perhaps because) we live longer and typically have a longer decline to a more predictable death than any time past in history, we have removed death from our culture, surroundings, language, and physical presence.  What used to be processed privately, dying at home with processing of the body and presentation for ceremony and burial handled by family or neighbors, is now industrialized with most people dying in an institution and the body immediately embalmed and buried or cremated by a paid professional.  This distance, Doughty writes, separates us from a true appreciation for both life and death and diminishes the opportunities for families to process the death of a loved one with dignity.

Early in her crematory career Doughty wanted to start her own funeral home where she could offer "the postmodern designer funeral experience . . . the twenty-first century spectacle funeral.". But watching families struggle with grief and the bureaucratic and often jarring process that processing death has become, she applied her personal obsessions and academic interests to the study of how life and death became so estranged and looked for ways she could make a difference to reunite them.

This book is one of those ways.  It is an eclectic mix of all the threads Doughty was fashioning and forming into her approach.  It effortlessly mixes humor, history, religion, philosophy, technology, medicine, and economics into a fast-moving extended essay (I easily  finished it in a couple of hours reading).  She describes how she went on to attend mortuary college and get her license so she could understand and help to reshape the funeral industry from inside and not as an unpractical critic.  She started an "Ask a Mortician" web site and the Order of the Good Death "death acceptance collective.". Note that she is not a suicide advocate, a point she makes quite clear when she describes how she faced her own suicidal thoughts at a low point in her progress and walked away with a strong desire to make a difference to the living as long as she can and face death with contentment when it came.

]]> Thu, 13 Nov 2014 22:58:27 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lukewarm]]>

Hardy names his heroine Paula Power, for once a modern sounding name and one suited to a modern woman with power--in this case the power of inherited money from her late railroad builder father, which he used to buy the estate of a faded family of once great landed gentry.  She hires a young London architect to restore the tumbledown country castle, and starts an on-again, off-again courtship with him, which goes decidedly off-again when she meets the last male heir of the name and estate that her new money was able to buy.  Romance and some mild mannered mystery ensues.  Not a bad story but as I said at the start its shortcomings lie elsewhere.

The first and most serious is the characters, which lack the usual sharply-drawn strengths and weaknesses of Hardy men and women.  Power, despite her name, money and "modern woman" status compared to most of Hardy's women, is mostly indecisive, capricious, shallow, and downright annoying at times.  George Somerset, the young architect, fares even worse, coming across as a simpering petulant boy when Paula treats him badly in her capriciously off-again moods.  William de Stancy, the third wheel heir, might have made a good easy-to-hate bad guy, but uncharacteristically Hardy de-fangs him by taking the potentially bad side of his situation and personality and writing them into another character who is drawn with such unremittingly whole unlikeability that he loses plausibility.

This flaw reaches its height when this badly-drawn (in both the literal and the Jessica Rabbit meanings) character acts as the dues ex machina during a rambling chase around Europe by the now off-again love triangle of Paula, George, and William.  This is where the second flaw of environment afflicts Laodicean.  Removed from his "native" setting of Wessex, Hardy's European scenes seem like shallow travelogues of name-checked locations,and his characters seem literally rootless.   Hardy's best characters (and their characters) are grounded and rounded  into full personalities in Wessex;  these characters lack that third dimension.

Hardy based his title on Revelation 3, where John records the heavenly condemnation of the church at Laodicea for being neither hot nor cold, and the prophetic warning that God will spit the lukewarm church out of His mouth.  While Hardy puts these warnings in the mouth of a preacher condemning Paula, he might also have applied it to the whole novel.   Laodicean moves quickly and  has some moments of enjoyment for the reader, but it is too lukewarm to be considered among Hardy's best.

]]> Wed, 12 Nov 2014 23:40:50 +0000
<![CDATA[ Historiography of the long Nineteenth Century]]>
To do the massive scope justice, he starts his equally massive book with a section documenting his usage of the bounds of time, space, and methods of observation as they relate to his subject.  The grounding is fascinating--as the first century to be photographed and (by century's end) audibly recorded, how do those forms of recorded memory affect both the time and our recounting of it?  This section also serves notice that with his academic historian's grounding this is going to be a work as much of historiography (the "how" of writing the global history of the 19th Century) as of the history of the world during that century.  This is no narrative history covering popular highlights of the time and world it captures. 

It is a daunting undertaking.  More than 900 pages of text are followed by 100 pages of end notes and another 100 pages of bibliography!  After the first section describing his approaches, Osterhammel uses the largest center section of the book to describe broad-stroke "Panoramas" such as cities, frontiers, imperialism, and revolutions.  Taking the global view, much of the text consists of comparisons and contrasts of Europe, England, India, China, Japan, Africa and the colonies of the major world powers as they relate to these broad topics.  As befits the age, the paired topics of imperialism and colonialism are drivers that touch nearly every page of the book.  And staying true to his historiographic approach, Osterhammel seldom makes sweeping generalizations or settles for describing the "average" without documenting the differences.

In the final section of the book the author focuses on narrower themes such as "Energy and Industry" (he makes much of the 19th Century's replacement of man, animal, and wind power for cultivation and transportation with coal, steam, and electricity), labor, knowledge, racism, and religion.  Here is where I felt that Osterhammel missed his chance to really grab readers (including me) with powerful insights into the history of these topics.  He remains focused on his balanced approach and as a result seems to hold the history and the reader at arm's length away from really engaging in the history and not the historiography.  Part of the problem may be that Transformation was written in German and translated by Patrick Camiller.  While capable, there are some places where the sentence structure and vocabulary of the translation seems stilted and contributes to the stand-offish aura of the text.  I would not be surprised if the German readers of the original text have a more intimate reading experience, and I'll bet that hearing Osterhammel teach the topic in person would be not just enlightening but fun.

So there it is.  Transformation, like the global view of the long century it describes, is a serious and weighty volume worthy of respect and consideration.   The world we live in now truly was transformed by the 19th Century world in every way that Osterhammel documents (and he does a good job projecting those transformations forward beyond the bounds of even the long 19th Century).  If you approach the book and its topic the way Oserhammel does, and take the "how" of his historiography as serious as the "what" of the history it informs, you will come away with a deeper understanding of the globe you stand on today.]]> Sun, 9 Nov 2014 14:00:05 +0000
<![CDATA[The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Quick Tip by MichaelN]]> Wed, 5 Nov 2014 20:22:14 +0000 <![CDATA[ Sketch comedy]]>

The style is light satiric comedy driven by recognizable characteristics comically overdrawn to  poke holes in inflated self-worth where needed and mild correctives to produce wry smiles.  The writing styles are similar enough that they might have been written by the same person as was likely assumed by the few readers who took note: the Sketches didn't sell well and quickly fell out of print.  They mostly have interest now because of Dickens's authorship. 

This is not to dismiss them as poor writing.  Far from it.  They are well done and mildly fun to read and at times (even at the remove of 150-plus years and an even more vast cultural divide) provoke timely insight into still-extant personalities and social situations.  If you've ever read any Dickens or other 19th century literature you will be able to draw instant mental images from the sketches.  And most likely if you are reading this review and are considering reading or buying Sketches, you have.  Read or buy, you won't be disappointed. 

If you are just starting out with Dickens, start with something more mainstream:   David Copperfield or Great Expectations.  Said Sketches for later.

]]> Mon, 13 Oct 2014 22:30:59 +0000
<![CDATA[ Money murder mystery]]>
In fact, money isn't what--or who, if we accept the conceit of Martin's subtitle--we think it is.  The reason money's biography isn't about coins and bills is because bills and coins aren't money!  Instead, defines Martin, "Money is the system of credit accounts and their clearing that currency represents.". Martin's survey of the history of money and its uses in societies as diverse as classical Greece and industrial England is both surprisingly interesting and enables him to develop the theory even further.

Money is . . . a social technology composed of three fundamental elements.  The first is an abstract unit of value in which money is denominated.  The second is a system of accounts , which keeps track of the individuals' or the institutions' credit or debit balances as they engage in trade with one another.  The third is the possibility that the original creditor in a relationship can transfer their debtor's obligation to a third party in settlement of some unrelated debt.

With this definition as his basis Martin traces the life of money with special attention to the recent world banking crisis and the way in which the general misunderstanding of money by politicians, bankers and academic economists both helped precipitate the crisis and have prevented solutions that could address its core causes.  Martin has a lively expository style that makes the history and theory both interesting and understandable to the layman.  He uses the framework of a conversation with an entrepreneur and friend to organize the biography and the conversational style carries through to the end, when the friend recaps Martin's thesis and likens it more to a murder mystery than a biography. 

At the center of the murder (or the "unauthorized" portion of the biography) is the incorrect definition of money as a physical standard (like the measure of length or weight) measured in a commodity like gold or silver.    This error leads to a second--that the standard value of money is thus a technical and not a political or moral valuation.  The solutions proposed by Martin look to address these errors in ways which both preserve economic value and provide for political solutions at address social standards of fairness and justice., that in short solve the murder and save the society that the immense promise and capability of money to provide stability and value have enabled.  The stakes are high, and the story is both vital and  interesting.

]]> Sun, 12 Oct 2014 12:59:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ Seeing past the future]]>

Long before his myopic praise of the Russian Revolution, Steffins gained fame and respect as one of the first and best of the progressive "muckraking" journalists of the early years of the 20th century.  Along with Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White, Steffins wrote meticulously researched factual exposes of business, governments, politicians, and monopolies. Their writing was extremely popular and influential--Steffins was a friend and confidant of the first President Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  The quality of his research and writing was evidenced by the fact that despite his hard-hitting, naming-names  style neither he or his publishers were ever sued for libel.

Behind the successful journalist and later radical supporter of the Russian version of communism was a man almost universally loved as a teacher, friend, colleague, and eventually father.  Indeed his likable personality was frequently cited as the key to the success of his interviewing style which enabled him to get often surly and. close-mouthed "grafters" and political bosses to open up to him.  Hartshorn refers to his "knack for intimacy" and quotes a friend who memorialized Steffins as "one of the very few real humanitarians."

But Hartshorn does not whitewash his subject.  He documents Steffins's sometimes tone-deaf way of treating the women in his life, particularly an early girlfriend whom he engaged with no apparent intention of marrying then.  After breaking it off remotely, he later befriended the girlfriend again after his first wife had died, and continued the relationship for several years before breaking it off again to marry a second time to a different woman.  Hartshorn doesn't shy away from the charge that Steffins was a wealthy capitalist (he invested his earnings from his writing career wisely) just playing at being a radical because he didn't have to bear the personal hardships of the frontline revolutionaries and labor leaders.

And of course there was The Future.  When Steffins first made the statement he had just come from a first hand look at the fledgling months-old experiment in Communism, so in light of the context and Steffins''s meaning behind the statement, it might even have been justifiable at the time.  But Steffins persisted in repeating and believing it long after the future (with Stalin's rise and the continuing and worsening political, economic, and physical brutality of the now entrenched Communist dictatorship) at been clearly proven to be a failure by any measure.

Hartshorn's biography is balanced and fair to his subject.  His success as a biographer is evident because in the end we can understand why Steffins was successful personally and professionally and why his writing and lecturing was so popular.  We can also understand his failures and the reasons behind them.  In the end we feel like we know Lincoln Steffins through the eyes and words of Peter Hartshorn.

]]> Thu, 9 Oct 2014 02:52:41 +0000
<![CDATA[ When will a hero arise?]]>
Add to this heady mix the fictional Wessex area of southern coastal England that Hardy has created for his novels, which might seem a surprising twist for a novel about England's preparation for a French channel-crossing invasion except for the fact that Wessex if it were real would be a natural landing spot for French marines.  And the familiar territory enables Hardy to economically decorate his stage and focus on the characters.

The widow Garland and her pretty young daughter Anne rent half of the Overcombe Mill house from the widowed miller Lovejoy and his two sons:  merchant marine sailor Bob ( who is offstage for most of the novel) and John, the trumpet-major of the title.  When John and his troop are stationed  on the downs near the mill, John's snappy uniform and musical skills are attractive to Anne, but she has long carried a torch for Bob.  And as the most eligible young lady in close company with an entire regiment of love-starved young soldiers she attracts other suitors, whether wanted or not.

While the romantic entanglements are the melody of the plot, the tension of impending war and local invasion are the underlying rhythm.   Rumors of Napoleon's movements and intentions beat on the ears and in the hearts of the young soldiers, and stories of past French imprecations and British glories are borne on the lips of their elders  With this score driving his characters to the breaking point, Hardy uses his skill to examine the heroism, hypocrisy, honesty, and opportunism of his characters.  As is typical of a Hardy novel, each character is a complex alloy of imperfection, in mixtures that will surprise and keep you reading intently.

What also surprised me is how the historical bounds of the Trumpet-Major actually enhanced the story.  Hardy, in the prime of his  literary skills, has proven he does not flinch from the harshest assessments of his heroes or the darkest implications of the  imperfections he sees in the human condition.  The result is that some of his classic novels while great and insightful achievements can be hard to enjoy.  Here, staying true to his setting, Hardy portrays both the heroic and the shallow, allowing some grace even to the worst.

in the end, as you know if you paid attention in your history classes, there was no Channel crossing by Napoleon.  But in the end, the history is just Hardy's stage for another classic story of heroes in the making and the breaking.

]]> Sat, 4 Oct 2014 15:43:09 +0000
<![CDATA[The Fifties Quick Tip by mikedraper]]> Thu, 2 Oct 2014 21:46:56 +0000 <![CDATA[ Flying off the handle]]>

The other side of the story is Glenn Curtiss who while initially friendly with the Wrights while they were both innovating quickly became a protagonist in court when the brothers switched to patent warfare to try to protect their monopoly on powered flight.  Curtiss was an engineering equal and in Goldstone's estimation a superior builder of engines and airframes.  But to the Wrights he was a thief who stole their ideas and profited from them. 

While the Wrights lawyered up and withheld their planes from the market to try to drive up interest to bring in maximum profits, Curtiss and other competitors took the opposite tack, flying their latest inventions in public exhibitions that became increasingly more daring, dangerous, and popular.   The barnstorming pilots, according to Goldstone, would later be recognized for their essential role in the advancement of aviation innovation, but were prized by contemporaries for their flamboyant displays of showmanship.  While during one dire stretch of mishaps Goldstone records that a pilot was crashing fatally on average every ten days, it was only the onset of war in 1914 that kept the European pilots home and turned attention toward military applications of the new transportation technology and brought an end to the barnstorming era.

Even though he tries to balance out his criticism, Goldstone focuses on the negatives in the brothers' personalities, relationships with peers in the industry, business decisions, and engineering solutions.  He seems to have intentionally taken on the role of singlehandedly balancing out any positive assessment of Wilbur and Orville's position in history.  As such Birdmen is at times annoying and tedious to read; Goldstone seems as sour as he claims his subjects to be.  The balancing effort may have been necessary (there is little doubt that their approach held back the advancement of aviation after their initial success in those early years) but is not necessarily fun to read.

]]> Thu, 25 Sep 2014 22:58:20 +0000
<![CDATA[ His stories about the Fifties]]>

  • Halberstam writes in classic narrative history style when tackling a subject as a broad as a decade.  He doesn't limit his topics to politics, wars, economics or "great people" biographies, but tells the history of the decade in stories about television (then reshaping marketing. news and entertainment with its always-on eye in a growing number of households), music (Elvis made "race music" safe for white teenagers) and changing cultural mores (The Pill gave women sexual freedom, but affluence and suburban single family living left them stranded in ennui inducing isolation).  This story telling approach to history by definition is episodic but Halberstam does a good job weaving his stories into a narrative flow, and besides how else is he to keep his book to its barely manageable 700-plus pages?
  • Halberstam like so many of his readers lived through the decade, so at least some of these are by definition his stories.  Since the Fifties are a decade often remembered and captured in movies, songs, novels, and Broadway plays with longing and nostalgia, even those who didn't experience it first hand (I was born in the last six months of the decade so I only "remember" it second hand) can claim some stake in the stories as well.  The long memory of television, movies, music, and even the technological artifacts (the 57 Chevy, the first Corvette and Thunderbird) keep the decade alive as if it never ended and we all still live there, or could wish we did.

Of course a Cold War cold dose of reality in some of Halberstam's stories should serve to convince us otherwise.  The Korean and nascent Vietnam wars, McCarthyism, the specter of nuclear war abroad and violent racism at home bent on denying African-Americans their rights and even their lives, are all stories Halberstam tracks through the decade.  Even the escapist entertainment world saw the fragile and exploited Marilyn Monroe planting seeds of self destruction and the wildly popular quiz shows proven to be fixed.  Seemingly simple stories raise questions of moral complexity that cast a shade on the Eden of popular shared memory.  In Halberstam's capable story-telling hands we learn the history through the stories.

]]> Wed, 24 Sep 2014 14:02:35 +0000
<![CDATA[ Heroes and villains go down with the ship]]>
Let's start with Roosevelt for after all, doesn't every story in which Roosevelt plays a part have to start with him--so boisterous, so smart, such a bundle of pure energy and action that he is always the hero.  Fighting corruption in the New York City police and the New York state legislature, taming the West as a working ranch owner, publishing on a broad variety of topics, Roughriding up San Juan Hill, surviving an assassin's bullet, taming wildlife on African safari, American bear hunt, and South American river exploration.  Oh yeah, he was even President of the United States in there somewhere.  The word "hero" was invented in every language for men and women like Roosevelt.

Succeeding Roosevelt as President and often obscured in the glare of his brilliance was William Howard Taft.  He too had a bright career as a respected lawyer, Solicitor General for the US, young Ohio Judge and up and coming candidate for the US Supreme Court.  A quiet hero, he crafted decisions that validated and shaped the Progressive legislation politicians like Roosevelt were drafting.  A charismatic and respected second in command, his success as Governor General of the occupied Philippine Islands and then Secretary of War for his friend Roosevelt, along with the urging of his wife and Roosevelt, steered him away from a quiet career of jurisprudence into the rough and tumble of Presidential politics.

Painted as villains by conservative historians (and high school history teachers) the investigative journalists of McClure's Magazine were in fact the fact finding and documentation driven heroes of  Progressivism, that turn of the 20th century realization that the Industrial Revolution in a laissez-faire capitalist economy had unleashed not just vast wealth but equally broad and deep economic,social, and human suffering that government could and should take steps to address.  Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffins, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White, given time to investigate and write while being held to high standards of proof by the mercurial but generous S. S. McClure, uncovered the history behind the vast corporate monopolies and interlocking boards then called "Trusts", documented corrupt relations within and between the Trusts and city, state, and federal elected officials, and documenting the interlocks between these special interests and the political party machines that made the system self perpetuating.  Truly heroic given the tenor of the times, they were befriended by Roosevelt to help shape his political platform and uncover abuses he could address through his adoption of Progressive policies.

Doris Kearns Goodwin (fresh off the triumph of her classic Lincoln political biography) outlines these stories and is at her best when she draws the intersections and connections between them, in the process uncovering for me an unsung hero and an unexpected villain.   Despite and because of their polar opposite personalities and spouses, Roosevelt and Taft became good social and political friends early in their careers, as they arrived at similar political philosophies from different starting points and took different routes to solve political problems with compatible (if not similar) solutions.  When Roosevelt declined to run for a "third" term ( his first being the completion of McKinley's brief tenure terminated by an assassin's bullet) he did so in part because of his friendship with Taft and trust that his policies would be continued.  He also left behind his friend and valuable aide Archie Butts to serve in the same role for Taft.  Butts becomes for me the unsung (and then stunningly tragic) hero of the piece as the relationship between Taft and Teddy unravels and as Taft's political career unwinds as well.  Butts was loved and respected by both men and reciprocated the feelings, served both honorably and without dissembling or disrespecting either even when there was a complete break between the men and their families politically and personally.  It is clear from her writing and footnotes that Butts official communications and personal letters and notes both document and verify Goodwin's account.

Behind the break is the unexpected villain of the piece for me--Teddy himself.  Always Type A direct, full of bluster and bravado and eager to use the bully pulpit of the presidency and the Progressive press, as he watches Taft veer even minutely from his own policies and paths to achieve them, he just becomes--a bully.  Taft, by his own admission not a natural or very good political operator, feels his way falteringly to some great successes in progressive legislation but has offsetting failures that prove damaging politically.  Rather than credit Taft or provide guidance as a mentor, Roosevelt abandons him, first geographically as he leaves the country for over a year on his African safari and refuses to answer Taft's letters, and then politically when he returns and turns savagely on his former friend in very public forums including finally the unsuccessful Bull Moose challenge to wrest away the Republican presidential nomination.  While Teddy was and will always be a great American hero for his whole body of life and work and unassailable accomplishments, for this period of his life his outsized personality and ego drove  him to equally oversized mistakes and paint him into the villain's role.

Goodwin has established herself with these two presidential accounts as one of the premier narrative historians of our time, and one mark of the narrative historian s success for me is leaving me with notes and bibliographies for further reading.  While a bibliographic essay would have been valuable here but isn't included, the notes are full and well documented.  I definitely plan to follow up with a biography of Archie Butts and volumes of the collected writings of the muckrakers of McClure's Magazine.

]]> Sun, 31 Aug 2014 17:12:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ Stones crying out]]>
I have never been to Jerusalem and am reaching the stage and age of life where (never say never but . . . ) all things still being possible, many things probably won't happen.  So if I never get there, this book lets me feel and see the city from the perspectives as if I had been an experienced traveler there.  I almost feel as if I had been there, or even f I had been without reading Gladhill I would be missing essential details about what I had seen.

He starts with chapters (each with simple maps and pictures of the highlighted places) on the central location for each of the three world religions that contest for the hearts and minds of Christians (the Church of the Holy Sepulchure), Jews (The Western Wall) and Muslims (the Dome of the Rock).  The immediacy of Jerusalem (and this book) is that here, they also contend for streets, ruins, and rocks in very virulent and sometimes physically violent conflicts.  He walks you around and through the monuments, the people who control them, and the history (often disputed) and archeology (sometimes dubious) that gives them spiritual meaning.

He then expands out to look at the city around the monumental centers, the "oldest" city underground still being discovered and mapped by archaeologists, and the Victorian and then the modern city that surrounds the City of David.  I was surprised to learn of the 19th and 20th century interest in the city by Germany, Russia, France and of course England in building in and around Jerusalem.  Gladhill calls it a surprisingly Victorian city.

I must confess to being serendipitously surprised at how much I enjoyed and how quickly I devoured this book.  Finding it was a small testament to the power of browsing books on paper in even a moderately well stocked library or bookstore.  Gladhill writes with quick simple pace and brings all the elements in to play in a way that always caught my attention, my eye, and my humor.  If this is your only trip to Jerusalem, as it is likely to be mine, it will be a rewarding trip.

]]> Fri, 15 Aug 2014 22:43:50 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Five W's of the end of the Bronze Age]]>

Problem is, no one knows for sure who these "Sea People" were, or where they came from.  Cline pulls together the evidence and then discusses multiple possibilities to answer that question and consider a broader range of factors including climate change, natural disaster, international trading and diplomatic relationships, the rise of private economic business relationships and internal  rebellion, and complex systems collapse (citing Jared Diamond's book Collapse which I have read and reviewed).

Along the way, while the book seems targeted to a popular audience, Cline gets deep in the weeds of people and place names and what seems like a fascinating premise gets really dry.  There is lots of citing of scholarly disagreements that mean something to the professional archaeologists, obviously, but not to the layman like me.  I appreciate his attempt to balance the evidence and not make unsupported or unsupportable assertions but a better narrative writer (like Diamond for instance) would do a better job of handling the information without losing the narrative interest.

The key driver of Cline's argument is that the Bronze Age, much like today's world, was one of the first eras in world history where international trade and relations made societies interdependent, multicultural, and both materially and culturally richer but at the same time more vulnerable to complex interactions not then (or even now) well understood.  His point does seem valid and well argued, and gives the book relevance even if it isn't as interesting as I had hoped.

]]> Tue, 12 Aug 2014 03:11:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lost, but never for words]]> French Revolution, American history, and now this history of the Jewish people.  I've read all three of those, and they usually leave me wanting something missing.

This story starts strong as Schama describes the transition of the Jews from scattered wanderers to, well, scattered wanderers in different places but with a remembered homeland in Jerusalem.   The early story is as much about archaeology as history and Schama shines in describing the early diggers looking to prove the Biblical accounts, the modern correction to extreme "minimalist" skepticism, and the most recent correction to the center as the latest findings have proven the core of many geographical and political accounts once thought impossible.

At the core of the story is not the architecture, though, but the words.   It was fascinating to learn that the early Jewish places of worship are distinguished and even solely identifiable by the absence of statues and alters of stone to gods of stone; they are instead storehouses and display cases for--just words.  The scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, the written words (some of them spoken words transcribed) themselves, are the focus of attention, memory, and worship.  The writer of Deuteronomy told the Jews to write these words on their hearts and even wear them; the "New" testament writer John would say with the certitude of centuries and a new revelation (that the Jews would reject) that in fact the "Word was God" (and God was in the Words).

Rather than a continuous narrative, Schama stays with his theme of words as he time hops through sometimes obscure events and archives, and there is where he lost me.  Not that the writing flags or fails to tell the history he wants to tell, but that for a casual reader like me wanting and needing in my inexpertise  to know the ligaments connecting the bones of the history, I was left studying bones in isolated detail without seeing the full body.  The text of the book was written as a companion to a PBS/BBC television series, so in the context of the accompanying visuals such an episodic approach may work better, but as an isolated text I was a little disappointed.

And that is the key to my review.  "A little disappointed" doesn't mean a book that can be bypassed by those with interest in the topic.  Indeed, the early sections (roughly the first four chapters comprising Part One) are well worth reading for those who don't understand the devotion to the Word by the peoples of the Book.

]]> Sat, 9 Aug 2014 11:55:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ What science isn't]]>

While written in direct and acknowledged response to Richard Dawkins and other "New Atheists", Aczel doesn't craft his argument around point by point refutation of their arguments that God is not only dead but never existed.  Rather he goes to the source--the scientific and mathematical principles of cosmology, infinity, anthropism, and quantum physics to show how these leading edge and sometimes bizarre and puzzling theories and equations do not disprove God.

Notice his use of the phrase "do not":  while the reader might conclude that these theories "can not" or "never will" disprove God, Aczel does not use those phrases.  While I suspect he might lean in that direction in the near term, he lets the science and math speak for itself, and there are some pretty powerful theoretical limits to what these tools of the human mind "can know" today. 

He is no friend of Christianity or the polar opposites and special targets of Dawkins and crew, creationists, but neither is he dismissive of any faith or belief in God as a creator or intelligent force in, outside, or pre-existent of the universe.  He also doesn't use the "separate but equal" argument, which I have always found demeaning to both religion and science and as stupid and despicable as the same argument applied to civil rights.

In fact, his main line of argument reminds me of Paul's early declaration of the scientific evidence in favor of God (Romans 1:20):

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

How much of God and creation remain--despite man's vast knowledge and discovery about the world from the quark to the universe--invisible, eternal, divine, and unknown, even when clearly seen.  By showing us the invisible, eternal, and divine outside the reaches of science, Aczel may help us more clearly see.

]]> Fri, 1 Aug 2014 00:59:13 +0000
<![CDATA[ Why read what matters?]]>
  • The place of ink on paper reading vs pixels on screen
  • The place of long form prose (literature) vs. wikipedia sized blocks of text

Books have been losing ground for several years, as libraries stock ebooks and bookstores close doors.  I travel for work quite frequently and it is now clear that serious traveling readers all have an ereader, and it is only the occasional traveler who buys a disposable paperback to read on the plane.  I travel with my Nook HD as well and have read some books on it (Google's digitization project makes access to free classics attractive) but still much prefer paper-based reading.  But other than personal preference, is there some intrinsic benefit to ink on paper reading that makes it better and in fact essential for learning, for comprehension, for retention, and for development of critical perception, judgment, and thinking?  Is the solitary and disconnected nature of reading a book a nostalgic quirk, a restorative break from the online world, or do its benefits even exist at all?

The second tangent is perhaps the more serious--if we lose literature, do we lose some essential element of humanity, the skill of contemplation, of empathy, of thinking critically for oneself?  While my review is probably making this sound boorishly highbrow, the serious philosophy and literary criticism is lightened and enlivened with personal stories, common sense, and real world considerations. The essayists are from a range of countries (with a bit of a Canadian bias befitting the publisher's location) and careers, including literary professors, librarians, translators, and archivists.

Along the way I learned something about why I prefer books that I had not thought of or known about myself that is a common benefit of reading literature on paper-the writer has to finish before the reader can start the conversation that occurs in contemplation of the writer's words.  So this is why I tried carrying my Nook to church but found it not right.  It was the wrong format for the conversation between me and God that the Bible represents.  In some sections of my Bible I have written so many notes in and around the text that it almost over writes the original text.  Literature is a two-way internal conversation that is powerful, personal, and essential.

If you read as a hobby and an obsession this book will make you a better reader and thinker.  In my last review, I talked about a genre of writing and book publishing that has been thankfully and appropriately replaced by the search engines and 140-character creators of the world.  But literate writing on paper is a genre of writing and a reason for reading that will never be replaced or replaceable by GooglApple.

]]> Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:13:21 +0000
<![CDATA[ Google is for this]]>
Feldman had established a pretty profitable niche in the reference section of your local bookstore and library with a series of books answering odd and inconsequential questions that seem either because of obscurity or tradition to be unanswerable.  When I saw this collection of three of the books under one cover at a book sale for $2 I picked it up.

And was instantly reminded of how much the world of information and technology has changed in less than a generation.  What were questions that made you go "Hmmmm" then are now things you google without thinking twice.  Are the answers from Google or Wikipedia searches  better than the ones here?  Maybe, due to the much broader reach of possible expertise (crowdsourcing being the popular technical term for that phenomenon), but one thing for sure the questions can be asked and answered far faster on a vastly larger range of questions than on any ink and paper format.  There are perhaps 500 questions answered in the 800 pages of the volume I just read, and Feldman acknowledges contributions and input from probably several thousand people.  Google records that many searches every nanosecond, and Wikipedia is build on the input of millions of contributors (and even the validation and verification of their contributions are crowdsourced).

A quick search of my local library system's catalog (in seconds from my tablet sitting on my front porch where I am writing this review) found that the most recent publication in Feldman's series was 2004.  Which would have been right about the time when my kids along with a whole generation would start to quickly answer any random question my wife or I would ask about trivia, history, or other "imponderables", not because they were suddenly smart, but because they instantly and seemingly instinctively understood the power of immediate information through an internet search.  Overnight the market for books like Feldman's was gone so that within less than 20 years the book sitting on the stand beside me is literally a waste of paper, which is my lowest book review rating reserved for the worst of the worst.

But I can't be so harsh on Imponderables.  I gave it a "waste of time" rating because while I really will throw it away (shelf space being too valuable here at home unlike at my local library system which still retains several of the series at some local branches) it did serve to remind me that I have read, kept, and cherished many books written decades and even centuries ago that are more timely than yesterday's newspaper.  Technology may quickly out date the sources of our information or how it is delivered, but technology can not create or out date  the information and ideas that make us human.  Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Cervantes, De foe, Shakespeare, Cooper, Melville, Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy, Dos Passos, Twain, writing from the perspectives of millienia and centuries and decades ago tell me more about who I am and why things are as they are than anything written yesterday or last week or last year.  These truly are classics and deserve every five star rating readers like myself post to

And they deserve your time and attention.  Find that copy of Moby Dick you never finished in English 101 and read it the whole way through this time.  You might find it is deep, and interesting, and even funny at times.    I wouldn't be surprised if you go to a book sale or used book store or the clearance table at your local Barnes and Noble you will find a copy of Moby Dick alongside of Life's Imponderables.  Buy them both.  Spend a few minutes with Imponderables.  The true classic will stay with you for life.

]]> Sat, 19 Jul 2014 14:36:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ Adventure stories with a serious bite]]>
The subtitle "from Alaska to Africa" is not a range as the usage may suggest, but actually binary values as Nolan alternates between stories of bear hunting and salmon fishing in Alaska with leopard and lion tracking in Africa.  Some of the stories involve stupid human tricks but most involve well prepared professionals caught in situations where the weather or the wildlife acted in unpredictable and life threatening ways.  Wade points out several times that most bears in wilderness areas who are unfamiliar with human contact will avoid it at all cost and run the other way--but most isn't all, and it is the exceptions that put the training and experience of even the best to the test.

We read of human endurance and decision making at its best.  Nolan is a good story teller, pacing his accounts with the right level of detail, description, realism, and humor.  While some of the survival accounts seem impossible, survival in the wild isn't a matter of luck, but a combination of knowledge with preparation, and Nolan is never cavalier in his accounts of real human risk and danger.  At the same time, while not minimizing the risks, Nolan is adamant in decrying the softness and risk avoidance that dominates our cultures and pastimes in the 21st century.

In fact, Nolan's stories are intense and often as serious as life and death and he brings the book to a close by linking these narrow escapes from the "death dance" with the ultimate reality that we must all die and face eternity.  He uses this opportunity to tell his own personal spiritual journey to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.  After his first skeptical encounter with Christian wildlife guides and professional hunters, Nolan not only made his life changing decision to accept Christ but to devote his career to Christian ministry through his professional and personal interest in wildlife biology,  films, and guiding.

]]> Sun, 13 Jul 2014 19:32:57 +0000
<![CDATA[ You can go home again--but it might not be a good idea]]> "comedy in chapters" (The Hand of Ethelberta), where superficially or potentially tragic events turned out for the good, with "Return of the native", where everything that appears tragic is tragic and almost nothing ends well.  What raises this to classic level is Hardy's unflinching (and daring for its time) realism as his characters think, act, and speak in words and ways that are recognizably human, personal, and even modern.  Hardy draws the reader into the pace of events in such a way that, like the best mystery novel, Native reaches a point of must-finish reading about half way through.  This is uncommon praise for "classic literature" and the tragic drama that Hardy is best known for writing.

Clym Yeobright is the native returning to the heath wastelands of fictional Wessex, after "making it" in exotic Paris as a diamond dealer.  There he finds his country cousin Thomasin entangled in a romantic triangle with aloof outsider Eustachia Vye and scheming innkeeper Wildeve (Hardy as always goes way off the beaten track with his character names).  Clym has his own secret--he has no plans to return to Paris--and when he gets pulled back into the tight knit ebb and flow of personalities and relationships in the small and sometimes constricting confines of the community, the web of romance, tragedy, marriage, love, hate, understandings, misunderstandings and death expands. 

Hardy's characters are powerful actors with free will driven by morality but confined by the social boundaries and expectations of family, class, and community.  They make mistakes but they also make tough decisions without flinching from them--and when they do they understand the consequences and suffer from them.  For example when Eustachia keeps a secret from her husband that results in his mother's death and nearly drives him mad, she defends her action but punishes herself more severely than he could ever have done.  There is no place in Hardy's world for escaping the consequences or shirking the sure hand of responsibility or fate. 

Despite the seemingly bottomless doom and relentless spiral of tragedy, Hardy's power as a writer keeps the reader's eye riveted.  His description of people and place is precise in its realism, and his capture of dialogue and emotion is sure and passionate, and the community, events, and people are by turn recognizable and real in a way that never strikes a false note that this is "just" a fiction about a people and a place that do not exist.  They do at times find humor and pleasure in their world and their place in it even in the midst of tragedy, and that is the true measure of Native's position as a classic.

]]> Wed, 9 Jul 2014 01:41:23 +0000
<![CDATA[ Not much masquerading as something]]>

But after making his thesis statement McMillian really has little more to go on than the basic broad brush histories of the two groups.  At the risk of spoiling the book for you, but in the interest of saving you the couple of hours of reading you might otherwise waste, here is the whole of his thesis:  The four Beatles, while marketed as cute, cuddly, middle class clean cut boys, were actually from rough hewn lower class backgrounds in Liverpool, while the surly, scary, and scandalous Stones were actually wealthier, better educated, middle class London youths.  The rest is just episodic parallel pastiches from secondary sources.  And even even these seem poorly chosen to prove the argument.  For example, the Stones Altamont concert where Hells Angels guarding the stage killed one concert fan and attacked many more gets just a couple short paragraphs, while Charles Manson's pathological obsession with the Beatles White Album and his pathetic attempts to establish himself as a hanger on in the era s pop music scene are not mentioned at all.

This isn't a disaster by any means and you won't hate yourself in the morning after reading this book, but neither will it engage you with interesting insights or leave you pondering new possibilities about what was or might have been.  And maybe my blase review says more about my cynical 21st century expectation that of course that good boys vs. bad boys pose was all just that--a marketing ploy; didn't we already know this?   McMillian never really gives any in depth history of the marketing machines behind the groups, or serious argument about how the Beatles and Stones were the nexus for transitioning pop music from its "pure" artistic roots into cynical modern corporate sponsorship and marketing.

]]> Sat, 28 Jun 2014 12:02:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ The uninevitable]]>

For example, even something as simple as the name for an event shapes our perception of it.  The Great War only became "World War I" after history threw a second great worldwide war in our path a generation later, but the participants and the societies touched by that first war knew nothing of another to come that would make the Great War into the first of a series.

Emmerson's approach is a valid and valuable antidote to this hyperactive and sometimes incorrect attribution of portents and causes to people, places, and events when these building blocks of history in fact had no intention or awareness of their role in the unfolding cataclysm.  This is not to say that Emmerson writes with a blind eye to the war we all know was coming, but it is go say that not everyone saw the war coming in 1913.  In fact, he makes a good case from his historical research that most of the world did NOT see the war coming; despite some potential clouds (the Ottoman Empire in collapse, cracks in the massive monolith of the British Empire, expanding navies in Germany and Japan) there were valid and generally accepted causes for optimism.

The book is organized geographically into four sections:  Europe, the Americas (intriguingly titled "the Old New World"), the emerging regions (he labels them the "The World Beyond," but might have appropriately used the title "The New New World"), and finally "Twilight Powers".  In the first three sections he surveys the news, population, politics, arts, and mood of the major cities in each region as they were reported, discussed and lived in 1913.  It is a world more modern than we tend to think from our supposedly superior position a century later.  The major transportation (cars, trains, and  steamships) and communication technologies (telephone, telegraph, and movies) are already in place and starting to shrink the globe and spreading the globalization we arrogantly claim as a distinctive for our current generation.

In the final section he visits or revisits empires in transit to or from their position of strength.  The collapsing Ottoman, the possibly eclipsing British, the shattered Chinese, and the rising Japanese offer perhaps for the first time the portents for the future we are used to reading in the manifold studies on the origins and root causes of World War I.  But even here the tea leaves are only suggestive and not universal in predicting the inevitability of a coming great war.

By peeling away this layer of interpretation, Emmerson is able to show us a world that is more dimensional and complete in its strengths and flaws than the usual recitation of "Since...Therefore" constructs that a single minded search for causation leads us towards.  The picture is recognizable as a real world where people lived, died, hoped, and feared.  Sure there were fears of war that might come, but hopes of peace and prosperity as well.  Emmerson's account provides a background that helps us place the coming war in context and contrast to the world that was in 1913.

]]> Tue, 24 Jun 2014 10:56:15 +0000
<![CDATA[ What's in a name? Thomas Hardy's Dickens gone Wilde]]> Far from the Madding Crowd, the great classic just preceding it, but in comparison it has not stood up as well critically.  The comparison really isn't fair to Ethelberta which on its own is an enjoyable addition to the Hardy shelf.

Maybe its the name. Ethelberta might have been a common name and even considered a pretty name then, but it clanks off the 21st century ear and certainly makes it hard to warm up to the central character.  Berta, as her family calls her, is the next in the cast of strong Hardy female characters: the strong-willed daughter of a butler marries upstairs for love, but ends up a young widow when her husband dies in the first month of marriage.  Hardly a comic setup, Hardy turns the situation into a sharp commentary on gender,, upstairs/downstairs relationships, occupational prejudices, class, and class consciousness.

Having crossed the great class divide, Ethelberta finds herself caught in a bind:  she can support her family through her new upper class connections, but she can't acknowledge them as family as it would jeopardize her position in the society that enabled her to support them.  The still very young and attractive widow is reconnected to an old flame who is condemned to a life of genteel poverty by his career choice as a musician.  Ethelberta rejects his overtures and decides to play on her beauty, wit and social position to assay a short career as a romantic storyteller in London to supplement her mother-in-law's bestowed income and support her mother and numerous siblings (albeit disguised as servants and laborers hired to maintain the household).  Thus thrust in the public eye by her career choice, she attracts the glances and overtures of a higher class of suitors, and the pursuit of the hand of Ethelberta is on.

The setup reads like a lost Dickens novel, and indeed the reader familiar with both can't help making the comparison.  And because Ethelberta is known for her wit as a public speaker  and  a published poet, Hardy is able to unleash frequent bon mots that also remind of Oscar Wilde.  Writing just a few years after Dickens and nearly contemporary with Wilde the comparison is apt, and one wonders if Hardy took on the challenge intentionally to show his range as a writer and dispel his reputation as a tragic romantic.

The setup and the execution allow opportunities for comedy, tragedy, and romance to intertwine, but Hardy turns the setups to satiric comedy most often.  The comedy is seldom ha-ha funny and mostly avoids Hardy's characteristic rustic Wessex humor, relying instead on sharp-edged interplay of word play and relationships between gender and class.

Despite its initial success, this is one of Hardy's least known books, but one that I found has stood up well and was well worth my time to read.  Maybe its the name.

]]> Thu, 19 Jun 2014 11:17:46 +0000
<![CDATA[ Worlds apart: Christianity divided to conquer the world]]>
Perhaps the most insightful part of this early history is the less-traveled road documenting the early
church as it spread east all the way to India, China, Korea, and even Japan.  While Prester John would remain a myth, very real missions established churches in these Asian realms, to establish their own history even as they disappeared from attention until rediscovered by astonished western explorers centuries later.  MacCulloch's point in describing these far flung churches and doctrines is fascinating to consider in its implications:  while perhaps driven by God's will from afar, there were still multiple alternative paths by which Christianity might have grown.

Similarly, he refers to "Christian Reformations" plural when his history reaches the era of Martin Luther who was neither the first who pointed back to the good new of grace to return to a more perfect religion nor was his insight only from outside the established church in Rome.  MacCulloch again walks through Europe west to east and north to south as he looks at the many variations of the Reformation both outside the Catholic church and the positive and negative influences within.  The unintentional outcome was a further splintering of the Christianities, especially in the former Eastern Orthodox empire.

It was only with technological advances in communication and transportation that the worlds of Christianity were brought back together, but the reunions were not always happy ones.  Doctrine,history and tradition were divisions that kept Christianity plural as nations and governments also struggled adjusting to the new realities.  MacCulloch documents how individual denominations responded to the new technological and political realities, some thriving, some barely surviving, but always disunited. 

Its a thousand page saga and a fascinating reminder of the depth and breadth of human history reflected in the history of the church.

]]> Sat, 14 Jun 2014 15:55:17 +0000
<![CDATA[ Music history allegro]]>

But where Goodall  and his subject really come to life are in tracing the early history of music.  The technical explanations of what music sounded like before recording and how and why it sounded the way it did are deeply fascinating.  We often say a person can read music as if musical notation were a single universal language and as if reading musical notation was the same as making music.  After reading Goodall  (even if you can't read music) you will start to see and hear the difference--it was centuries after humans were making music (20,000 year old cave paintings show musicians playing flutes) that we figured out how to write it down.

And the why is equally interesting.  Much of the early musical innovation was driven by worship music--David's Psalms name musical instruments and gives their purpose as making a "joyful noise" into God (he must have known about my future drum playing), and Martin Luther adopted and adapted popular secular tunes with worshipful lyrics because he wanted his congregation to worship actively not just listen passively.

So if you want to learn about the distinctions between the numerous shadings of musical genres on your iPad, this probably isn't the place to end up, but it might be a good (and enjoyable) place to start.

]]> Thu, 8 May 2014 23:58:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ Pay it backward]]>

Jake Epping is just an ordinary school teacher with a failed marriage in modern day Maine but when he is introduced to the portal by his  friend Al he quickly buys into the rules of engagement with the past that Al has documented:  you always start at the same moment in time, each trip is a reset (a straight lift from the movie Groundhog Day, but it doesn't feel like a rip off but more of a familiar place we have visited before) and you don't retain anything except what you are carrying.   Obviously out of place things like technology, fashion, language, and music have to be left at home in 2011 (a key moment in the story hinges on a still-future Rolling Stones lyric).  Oh and "the past is obdurate" (doesn't want to be changed) and even the smallest changes can have multiplying ramifications (the "butterfly" effect).

King does a great job placing Jake in the cultural, political, and material world of 1958.  Less than 60 years in the past, and within the life time of many of his readers, it is amazing how much has changed in just that time, and King clearly is having fun putting his character there.  While racism, smoking, and medical technology are negative reminders of modern progress, Jake comes to love the time and the people, especially one particular woman.  The plot revolves around how Jake is able to walk the tightrope between being at home in the past with Sadie and carry out a task his knowledge of the future requires of him, all without revealing his own history and avoiding the snares the past (or is it the future?) throws in his path.

The task should be obvious by the title for those of the generation that spans 1958 to to 2011.  Jake's mentor Al had prepared a notebook of details on JFKs assassin in the years between 1958 and 1963, but age and health prevented him from changing history and saving the President.  Will Jake be able to do it?  Does he want to?  Should he?

And there is the weakness of 11/22 that while fun and satisfying comes up short of a 5-star classic.  The task seems too pat and the action preordained.  The world of 11/22 feels like a fully furnished apartment with tasteful but unobtrusive and decorations that leaves not quite enough room for the reader to populate with the furniture of their own imagination.  The return to 2011 seems rushed and jarring, but the ending coda is tender and feels right, leaving the reader happy to have spent time in King's place and time.

]]> Sat, 3 May 2014 19:41:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ Progressing maturity yields Hardy's first classic]]>

We meet Gabriel Oak first,the kind of quiet heroic character who might not hold the spotlight but will always be the core of the story.  He doesn't demand respect but earns it, and is recognized as a leader by his peers without seeking leadership.  A poor shepherd  who was attempting to establish his position as an independent farmer but lost his growing capital when his sheep herd was killed, he is left early in the book with just enough money to pay off his creditors and the clothes on his back.

Next we meet Bathsheba Everdene, a strong beautiful woman who catches Oak's eye while tending cattle on her aunt's farm.  She rejects his approach because she is of a slightly higher class in the rigidly stratified world of Wessex, a class difference that is exacerbated when she inherits her own farm in a neighboring community and is reunited with the homeless and jobless Oak.  In my review of Hardy's previous book A Pair of Blue Eyes I said that Hardy did not seem to like or respect women, but here is a female character that even with her flaws (and they will prove fateful and nearly fatal) is appealing and worthy of respect.  Even when she makes mistakes that make you cringe, you still want things to work out for her in the end.

Around this central pair Hardy builds his tale on a small but richly detailed canvas of time and space.  Characters make decisions right or wrong and deal with the consequences large and small.  He neither punishes his characters for their flaws nor allows them to excuse or disguise them.  Just like real life, everyday events make up the most of life but can also have life-changing consequences.  Pay attention to Hardy's chapter headings, which offer clues to these juxtapositions of the simple and the significant.

Through it all to the very end, the faithful Oak and the forceful but sometimes faltering Bathsheba find their paths always crossing and sometimes star crossed.  Says Hardy, "Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on."   This is the romance and adventure that arises from real life and real people and makes Madding Crowd a classic.

]]> Sun, 27 Apr 2014 12:28:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Hardy opens the door to his future fame]]> Desperate Remedies was a derivative genre novel, Under the Greenwood Tree was a picturesque but slight prose painting.  In A Pair of Blue Eyes Hardy starts to speak in his own voice and establish his fictional Wessex as his home base.

Elfride Swancourt is the girl with the blue eyes, and she finds herself romantically torn between the young architect with some clumsily kept secrets, and the mature magazine writer and critic with no secrets but also no experience in dating or romance.  Elfride is a pretty girl with enough intelligence to be interesting and no guile to use it to her advantage in the field where all is fair.  The architect wins her heart but their time together turns tragic and the book ends darkly.  Hardy doesn't do happy endings.

With his later heroines, most notably Tess,  Hardy would further develop the moral principles of love,fate, desire, and class which he introduces here in Elfride.  Still not a mature writer, his treatment of the character is sometimes more like a caricature than a three dimensional woman in her surroundings.  The treatment is so harsh at times that it made me wonder if Hardy did not personally like women, not in a homosexual way, but in an apparent lack of respect for the power, will, and value of women as equal partners with men.  To condemn Hardy for this attitude may be to judge him unfairly against the standards of his day,. for Tess would be a more complete character and a woman Hardy clearly respected.

Blue Eyes is not bad even though it pales next to Hardy's later work.  His awareness of class and culture in the English society of his day is trenchant and sharp (indeed much of Elfride's tragedy turns on the fulcrum of class) and his fictional Wessex is a fully realized and attractive setting for his family of characters.  Read it to watch Hard develop his skill in painting characters to match his landscape.

]]> Wed, 16 Apr 2014 02:06:52 +0000
<![CDATA[ The classic Mark Twain never wrote]]>

First, while Mark Twain made a couple of different starts on an autobiography, he never finished or published one. Each time he got part way through a standard chronological account t of his history, he got bored and quit, and assumed his readers would too.  Then Twain made a "discovery"--that "news is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form, and that history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it."  Autobiography, as history, in Twain's eyes was a bore, but if he could write it like a newspaper reporter talking about whatever had captured his mind that day, it would come to life.

And second, while Twain did say that he wanted his autobiography to be sealed for a century, it was not for any bombshells hidden within it, but for the simple truth that he never finished it, a side effect  of his discovery.  Bored by his written notes on his previous starts, Twain hit on the idea of dictating his ideas not in any chronological order but on the principal that "the thing uppermost in a person's mind is the thing to talk about or write about."  He hired a stenographer to take down his notes and assemble his references to current new paper articles and letters and writings from his past.  While he passed away before this mass of material was assembled into a finished book, other editors were given permission to mine it for material, resulting in those autobiographies you found on  These were highly selective and re-edited into forms Twain would never have approved.

So with the passing of the century mark since Twain's death, the Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library undertook to publish all of the source material of the classic autobiography that Mark Twain never wrote.  Editor Harriet Elinor Smith and a host of associate editors assembled what Testing had written and dictated, organized it into the sequences that Twain wrote or dictated it, and footnoted its many contemporary characters and events that are not known today.  The 700-plus pages of the current volume are just the first of three planned to encompass this amazing effort obviously undertaken with love and care (but beware the paperback edition which is not complete, and thus risks the limitations of those past efforts to edit Twain).

When you read this book, then, you are reading a book that Twain never wrote, the complete session recordings of your favorite band, if you will.  It is full of the irreverent and cynical sharpness of Twain, which stripped of any editorial gloss and those named names of legend, can veer toward bitterness that rankles. There is no holding back for propriety's sake here, and in that respect this Twain reads surprisingly modern at times.  But where this first volume comes alive is when he talks during the dictation sessions about his wife Olivia and daughter Suzy who had tragically passed away.  Here you can hear the voice of a man speaking honestly and tenderly about people and events he truly loved and remembered fondly.  Stripped of the protective covering of the professional comic, you hear the man born Samuel Clemens speaking to you as if you were sitting next to the bed where he liked to lounge while dictating his notes.

In the end, that is the reason to invest the time it takes to work through this volume.  And in retrospect,Twain was right, this is a better way to do autobiography.  Because it isn't a chronological recitation of facts, but rambles from present to past in Twain's free flowing conversation, it is easy to read in the daily dictation chunks of three to four pages each (with a second bookmark for the explanatory notes you'll want to track as well). You'll want to check in and spend a few minutes with Mr.Twain for your daily dose of straight talk.

]]> Mon, 7 Apr 2014 01:13:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ Ley of the land]]>
Thinking that perhaps the deficiencies were due more to the difficult of massaging well worn legends into readable (and believable) fiction for modern readers, when I was offered a copy of The Skin map as a loaner with a request for a recommendation I decided to give it a spin.  Perhaps Lawhead has had the same misgivings about his source material, because here he writes an original story with roots in a couple of different ideas but no pre-existing back story or fan base he has to appease.

1.  Alternative history.  While this has been a popular genre, particularly when it comes to dead leaders like Lincoln, Hitler, and JFK, here the framework isn't explored very deeply.  When Kit Livingstone finds that his long dead great grandfather is both still alive and engaged in time traveling to alternative histories, there is some talk about parallel tracks that can take greatly divergent paths based on minor input changes, little is done with the idea.  For example, when Kit leaps with his great grandfather from modern day London to London the day before the great fire of 1666, other than the mild irritants of hard to understand accents and archaic vocabulary, everything seems pretty much as the history books tell us it was.

2.  The physics of time.  While time seems such a simple and pervasive thing in everyday life, scientific attempts to understand and explain how time works end up more complex and speculative than we would expect.  Lawhead weaves in the ideas that some scientists have proposed, driven by some of Einstein's most bizarre theories, that time is actually a seemingly infinite number of parallel dimensions that are all simultaneously occurring.  Where we are at any point in time depends on probabilities or providence, the latter Lawhead's preference based on his Christian worldview, which holds that God is directly engaged in real time history and that probabilities, fate, or chaos are wrongheaded explanations for events based on limited perceptions of the full context of time and place.

3.  The ley of the land.  Some early British archaeologists, notably Alfred Watkins, began to realize that Stonehenge was not just an isolated pile of rocks but one of a series of Stone Age monumental architectures, landscapes, and roadways connected along immense tracks that Watkins dubbed "ley lines.". Aerial photography and satellite and radar mapping have confirmed the existence of these alignments all over the United Kingdom, but not their purpose.  Lawhead uses ley lines as the mechanism by which his characters move amongst time and alternative histories.  His characters "leap" from time to time and place to place, very reminiscent of the American TV show "Quantuum Leap" of several years ago.

Lawhead is a good story teller and decent if not great writer of characters and dialogue, so he keeps the story moving nicely along.  The biggest problem with this kind of fiction is establishing the "rules" of the world and applying them consistently, and Lawhead makes a few basic errors.  For example, Kit is told that he should interact with people and events in his alternative worlds as little as possible, yet fellow time travelers  like Kit's great grandfather do it all the time, even establishing new scientific societies and starting new businesses.  But of course this is clearly a fantasy novel,  not a serious "science" fiction about the possibilities and theories of time travel.

While different sets of characters leap to different times and places, whether for fun, research and mapping (via a complex set of tattoos, hence the "skin map"), or in search of each other, they start to converge near the end of the book, but the ending comes too abruptly with too little explanation.  But not to worry, this is the first part of a trilogy which Lawhead has already finished so I can continue reading the second in the series in search of answers to the sudden events in book one of the "Bright Empires" series.

]]> Mon, 31 Mar 2014 11:49:42 +0000
<![CDATA[ North and South in Western PA]]>
As with most books about the War years President Lincoln is a key figure, figuring in stories about his pre-war campaign visit and his comments to Pittsburgh visitors to Washington about the city as reported in the paper, or more accurately, papers.  The pre merger Post and Gazette were rivals in reporting on opposite sides of the political divide, the Gazette staunchly Republican and strong supporters of Lincoln, the Post Unionist but Democratic and consistently critical of the President and his conduct of the war.

The book concludes with a brief story about Pittsburgh's last Civil War veteran, who did not die until 1946-after the Spanish-American War of the late 19th Century, and the two great World Wars of the 20th!  This book, just over 100 small-format pages, doesn't last quite as long.

]]> Sat, 22 Mar 2014 12:08:50 +0000
<![CDATA[ Renaissance born, Reformation raised]]> Jewish and Greek roots filtered through the world-changing appearance of Jesus Christ, and communicated and filtered through the Irish and the Middle Ages.

Here Cahill brings the story up through the Renaissance, where an explosion of art and knowledge (the printing press serving its time much like the internet of today) help to establish the modern concept of the individual as a worthy subject of both study and the state.  In parallel the Reformation sparked by Luther and other religious thinkers (again aided mightily by the power of the press) applies the power of the individual to interpret and act on Scripture in a way which splintered the Christian church and sundered the forming nations of Europe for good.

Cahill's style is not tightly argumented narrative in prescriptive form ("this is how it happened"), but suggestive narrative in broad-ranging descriptive form ("these are factors that contributed to what happened").   Along the way he uses portraits of renaissance figures both famous and unknown to prove his point on the ascendancy of the individual, and gives perhaps the simplest and best layman's explanation I've read of the Church's theological justification of the sale of indulgences that set off Other and leaves Cahill (and most modern readers) shaking his head with a quizzical and questioning "Huh?" (p. 149-151)

I don't always agree with his theology, but that's okay, because he's weaving history, language, art, science, technology, and even sometimes theology in a brilliant, fun, and inventive style that teaches and opens up new connections and ideas and makes sense of how these threads make us so-called moderns just human beings Renaissance born and Reformation reformed.  One thing I have appreciated about his writing is that Cahill neither places religious creed at the core of everything (it is clear here, for example, how much of the Reformation was driven by politics and influenced by individual personalities) nor diminishes or denigrates the points where real belief and faith operate on people, places,  and historical events.

With one more volume in the series planned, I look forward with great interest to how he will weave these many threads into a finished tapestry of history.

]]> Tue, 18 Mar 2014 01:14:56 +0000
<![CDATA[ Little white ball, big Red game]]>

You may, as I did, have a similar reaction to reading this book and its bizarre stranger than fiction retelling of the role that table tennis (Ping Pong is a trademarked name for a brand of table tennis equipment) played in bringing the US and China together after decades of political and diplomatic silence.  Surely Ping Pong never changed the world!  Ah, but it did, and Griffin does an excellent job of letting the story tell itself, writing in short staccato sentences and chapters that mimic the rapid fire exchange of points in a table tennis match.

The story starts in the most unlikely of places, a younger son of British nobility whose older siblings will inherit the land and titles, so is seeking his own place in the world.  Ivor Montagu found his niche in table tennis--and Communism, in the early decades of the 20th Century when it was still possible, no matter how misguided, to sincerely support and believe in the Communist cause and Russia's guidance of the movement.  But unlike most of his generation he never wavered from his views despite the horrors of Communism in practice under Stalin, and in fact became and remained a Soviet spy, using his leadership of the table tennis governing bodies which he founded and lead for decades as his hiding-in-plain-sight disguise.

Griffin tells Montagu's story as the foundation but this isn't just his biography.  The history broadens and deepens as Ping Pong is introduce to Asia and becomes a favorite of Red China's revolutionaries and then a weapon of state diplomacy, all of which lead to the historic meeting of American and Chinese players across the table and across political borders never before breached.

Thanks to Griffin's research and writing we can now see these events in their true place in history.  What at the time seemed coincidental and unscripted was in fact very much the result of political motives, plans, and actions undertaken by young players of a seemingly insignificant game on the highest stakes stage of world history.  It was Ivor Montagu's vision for his game and his political worldview realized in its full potential. It was a tiny white ball that changed the world.

]]> Sun, 9 Mar 2014 04:04:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ Pop-up book]]>

While cola wars are about money and marketing, pop (the drink as well as the music) has helped win real wars, influence political elections, and bring down the Iron Curtain.  The science and technology of carbonating water has uncovered new natural laws and driven core technological innovations that changed the landscape.  The business of bottling and selling pop created the franchising model that changed the landscape of American business--and the American landscape.

Donovan surveys the surface of all this territory at a fast clip, so don't expect depth, in a book with just over 200 pages.  While Donovan cites an extensive bibliography, it feels like most of the book is based on just a few secondary sources.  It is pop history for a fast food world--yeah, the low price and high profit margins of colas, along with the franchising model, enabled the rapid growth of that industry, too.

When I saw this book on my library's new-arrivals shelf near the book on the history of candy that I just reviewed, it was a foregone conclusion that I had to read the two together. Samira Kawash's candy history was more satisfying because it has more depth, but each achieves its purpose and delivers fun fast reading.   The two stories really intertwine in the most recent decades as nutrition and health concerns have forced each industry to retrench and innovate into new product areas, and as each industry has had to reconsider its roots after decades of massive growth and profits.  What are candy and pop after all but food fantasies, edible escapism driven by billion-dollar companies and global influence?  Sure we all love to indulge in their products but perhaps it is time to place them in the proper perspective.

Now if you'll excuse me, it is Oscar night, so I have an ice cold diet Mountain Dew and lots of snacks including candy waiting to fuel my night of celebration of the escapism of Hollywood.  See, it's all a matter of perspective.

]]> Mon, 3 Mar 2014 03:08:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Candyland]]>
Kawash argues convincingly that candy isn't bad, evil, poison, a gateway drug-or good food, all accusations or accolades directed at the varied products labelled candy throughout the last century.  Part of the problem is the amazing variety of snack items that can be shoehorned into the category.  While a basic definition of candy includes small., sweet, and hand-held, perhaps the essential identifier is that candy is "not food", a scapegoat for nutritionists and nagging mothers who use candy to define what is food.

But this is far from a colorless academic course;  candy after all is colorful and fun. Kawash documents the early history of candy from the rare and expensive entered fruit or nut treat of colonial times to the home made fudge and taffy of the 19th century kitchen to the mechanized (and often dirty) candy factories of the early industrial revolution.  While social perceptions of candy has bounced from fun to fortified food to evil to military ration and back through the centuries, Kawash finds that in recent years candy has lost its identity as other foods have become processed, enhanced, hand-friendly,portable, and between-meals marketable.  Now, concludes Kawash,, the distinction isn't between candy and all other foods, it is between ultraprocessed industrial foods and foods that are still made of basic food ingredients. 

And yes, there is still a place for candy, even in the face of the modern nutritionista soccer moms who stared Kawash down for allowing her daughter to eat a candy snack in front of their children, and gave her the impetus to write this book.  Neither a defense nor a condemnation nor an apologia for candy, this is a fun vindication of its worth and continued existence in the world, the grocery store, and the shelves of your pantry.

]]> Sat, 1 Mar 2014 03:07:18 +0000
<![CDATA[ The music of sound]]>

Passarello is a writer and actor who has written this collection of essays about the music of sounds, and even sometimes the sound of music; chapters on soprano castratos, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra describe the techniques, anatomy and training behind the timbre and tone of notes and lyrics. 

Other essays about spoken sounds take on the Wilhelm Scream that has has been used in many Hollywood movies (google it to find a Youtube compilation), how to spell or sound out the Rebel Yell, and or to recreate that classic Brando screen scream of "Stella!".   This last topic is of close personal interest to the author as she entered the annual New Orleans Stella Scream contest a few years back (and yes women are allowed to enter, and that year Passarello was not the only female entry, and she did very well).

An essay about Howard Dean's ill-fated and often-parodied campaign scream from 2004 bridges the gap between the spoken word--and Robert Plant's primal scream singing on Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown".  The connection is not so bizarre as you may think, and Passarello has some prescient points to make about how much that scream did and should have influenced voters' decisions on Dean.

This little collection isn't easy to categorize.  In my personal book list I classified it first as pop culture for all the pop references I described above, but that seemed too trivializing, then briefly considered labeling it as science for the author's explanations of the anatomy, physics, biology, and psychology of sounds, but that seemed too stifling.  In the end I went with "Other", a middle ground that represents the multidisciplinary and indeed literary (where my local library placed it in the Dewey Decimal System) approach and intent of the volume; it isn't primarily intended to entertain or to educate (though it does both well) but to make the reader listen to sounds in different ways, and it does that very well.

]]> Mon, 24 Feb 2014 23:20:44 +0000
<![CDATA[ A story about nothing]]>
While his opening novel Desperate Remedies felt like a mechanical chess match, here Hardy appears as relaxed and happy as his characters are comfortable in their own skin and their fictiona,l humble, rural, fictional Wessex.  The dramatic action centers on the replacement of the Mellstock church "quire" by the modern technological innovation of the pump organ, and the choir's confrontation with the vicar over their removal from the church program after years of service.  The romantic interest centers on the attraction of one of the replaced musicians to the lovely new member of the community brought there to be the new school teacher--and to play the organ under the too-watchful and admiring eye of the vicar.  When the wonderfully-named Fancy Day attracts the unwanted attention of a third suitor, we know by then that Hardy will handle his cast with care and kindness--and with a sharpness of tongue and observation that demonstrates his trust and respect for their intelligence and independence. 

The Penguin edition introduction calls this Hardy's best loved and happiest novel, and indeed it would be had to argue with either superlative.  I left the Greenwood Tree behind with a wish that it was a place that I could go to on earth, and a feeling of contentedness that it is a place I have known in my imagination.]]> Sat, 22 Feb 2014 13:32:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ Chess piece sensation novel]]>
The plot turns on a fading beauty and a young heroine sharing the same unusual first name which we will learn through a series of too-remarkable coincidences is more than coincidental.  Hardy manipulates the action by controlling the characters like chess pieces, and the young Cytherea is too passive, too cliched damsel-in-distress to earn our sympathy.  If the plot were stronger the weakness of the heroine would be the more regrettable.

Sensation novels were a Victorian genre that relied on "surprise" but telegraphed twists like concealed marriages, out-of-wedlock births, and characters "returning from the dead.".  They were  criticized then and later for their lack of subtlety, reliance on impossible coincidence, and generally clumsy writing, even though such well known and acclaimed writers as Hardy, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins contributed to the genre.

Here, Hardy relies on the usual sensation plot elements, but his skill as a writer are apparent in the dialog and description.  Even with the weaknesses, Remedies reads as well as a decent modern mystery and certainly isn't a waste of time.

]]> Sat, 15 Feb 2014 17:55:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ Larger than life]]>

Forster was a long time friend and the first biographer of Dickens, close enough to be named as recipient of his manuscripts, copyrights, and some personal effects in Dickens's will printed here as an appendix.

This quote from p. 211-212 is indicative of much of Forster's biography

"Ah," he said to me, "when I saw those places, how I thought that to leave one's hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves, and stand upon a giant's staircase that Sampson couldn't overthrow!"

  • It is adoring, never critical, and also commissioned by Dickens before his death, so what else is to be expected?  He never mentions Dickens's long time mistress Ellen Ternan, dismisses out of hand and on his evidence alone rumors of an affair with his wife's sister, and passes over Dickens's rude and demeaning public separation from his wife with no comment beyond bare reporting of the event.
  • It is written passed very largely on Dickens's letters to Forster.  This makes Forster nearly a primary source but it also makes it feel as if we are seeing Dickens through a very small pinhole.
  • Forster is almost always on the page or just off the margin.  One contemporary review referred to the biography as "The autobiography of John Forster with recollections of Charles Dickens."

These are both strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses leaving especially this edition (with its quotes from contemporaries, quotes from Dickens's writings, pictures of people and scenes from his life, and sidebars on people, places, and literary criticism) to be read more as history than as biography.

While Dickens had surely started life as one of the "toiling people" he so pities here, he had since risen far above and was writing these words from a year long sojourn in Italy with stays in fabulous villas and terrace homes far from the dark streets and dank hovels of London he had known and would always write about.  He would also remember that impoverished beginning, perhaps subconsciously, certainly to his detriment, for it was at least (but only) partially his fear of financial ruin that drove him to his physically exhausting reading tours that weakened his healthy and pointed him to an early death.

All these things make Dickens endlessly fascinating, and Forster a worthy addition, especially in this edition, to the Dickens fan's library.  Quoting yet again from a letter from Dickens:  "I think it is my infirmity to fancy or perceive relations in things which are not apparent generally."--which Forster defines as "one of those exquisite properties of humor by which are discovered . . . the level of a common humanity.". It is also a very near paraphrase of the purpose of The catholic reader, the collection of my book reviews you are reading now.

]]> Thu, 6 Feb 2014 02:37:37 +0000