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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Certain Justice by P.D. James

By the time I was a high school teenager I had graduated from reading Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and King Arthur, to  detective novels & murder mysteries. Perhaps it was all due to the fact that my eleventh grade English teacher required ten book reports.  Somewhat, to my own amazement, I had convinced her to give me a full ten book credits for reading the Complete Sherlock Holmes, all thousand plus pages and The Count of Monte Cristo for extra credit.  Thank you Mrs. H. Of course, the fact that I left school at 2 p.m  to begin a grocery store carry out boy job till 9 P.M,  might have  helped seal the deal.   In any case, I read all  of Conan Doyle’s stories and was quite hooked on the detective genre for a few more  years.

More recently, an obituary in the New York Time reminded of that earlier interest – “Phyllis Dorothy James White, who became Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 but who was better known as “the Queen of Crime” for the multilayered mystery novels she wrote as P. D. James, died on Thursday at her home in Oxford, England. She was 94.”
I had read most of her mysteries featuring Inspector Adam Dalgleish over the years. The depth of her characterizations, and plots enhanced by wonderful and a little quant English prose cannot be exaggerated.   One I had missed was A Certain Justice.

It was very good involving the murder of a barrister in the heart of London and in Englands  highest court of law.  Many of her other novels went well beyond very good to superlative. The best ever actually and I would recommend  all.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Black River by S.M. Hulse

I don’t do “Westerns”.  Never have. Never will, though my Dad spoke to me of Zane Grey and Riders of the Purple Sage as a child.  Heck, I didn’t even watch Westerns on TV during their heyday in early television.  I do love flyfishing rivers though, so when I plucked S.M.  Hulses debut novel Black River off the library shelf, opened it to the middle and saw the word Montana three times,  I took it home. Surprise!  It wasn’t another flyfishing gem like the book A River Runs Through It or Robert Redfords movie of the same name. It turned out to be a western but not like the kind your granddaddy loved…..

 Black River is a modern-day Western that takes place in the small town Rocky Mountain West.  Stoic   sixty-year-old Wes Carver loses his wife, Claire, to cancer in the opening pages, leaves Spokane with her ashes to return to Black River a small Montana town where he worked as a CO (Corrections Officer) in a State Prison, meets his estranged step son and finds out the man who tortured him in a prison riot is up for parole.  He is invited to speak at parole hearing. Not incidentally there he would face the prisoner who had smashed all his fingers leaving him unable to exercise his favorite hobby and talent to play his beloved fiddle ever again.
Hulse has centered her novel around these and other dramatic events leaving a good but emotionally fragile man some very hard choices. I've lived in a small town all my adult life and summered in  Montana enough to have somewhat a sense of these places.  Amazingly,  Hulse captures it all perfectly with spot on detail,  spare prose and clear purpose. Yes, there are several “flashbacks” which I ordinarily abhor. Here though they give emotional depth to the unfolding events. I didn’t mind them at all

By The Way, she wrote the book as her MFA thesis at the University of Oregon.  Ah, to be so young and so talented. This book should be at the top of any list of best debut novels for 2015…..



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Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Lion's Gate by Steven Pressfield

Lot of excellent histories have been written of the Six Day War, whereby Israel against seemingly overwhelming odds overcame the combined forces of Jordan, Syria and Egypt.  Steven Pressfield, author of one of my all-time favorite combat novels, his classic "Gates of Fire" about the Greeks at Thermopylae, has shown his ability to write about a specific war in terms of its universality.   He  takes a different approach in  The Lion's Gate. It is what he calls a "hybrid history," a narrative story drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the war, documentary research and the author's imagination. The whole book is composed of first-person accounts, most factual but a few invented. And what an account it is.  That account is not “balanced”. There are no Arab stories. The author wrote it that way to tell about war as it meant to a people. We know that beliefs come down to us from history which in the Middle East seems particularly dark and confused. And so is “justice” over thousands of years.

Belief in their mission never wavers among the Israelis. "If we lose, what our enemies will do to us will make Auschwitz look like summer camp," says Danny Matt, a paratroop commander under Ariel Sharon.

A former U.S. Marine, Pressfield knows war and he knows the men who fight wars. He admires the Israelis for their victory, but he does not discount the grim losses on both sides.

 Pressfield relates one soldier’s conclusion which surely rings true for all wars 

"We looked death in the eye but death did not look away," he says. "He took as many of us as he wanted."  I found this account most interesting.


Monday, March 30, 2015

A King's Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

A Kings Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

History and Historical Fiction

If you ever had the idea that history books (read textbooks & so on, thick tomes with lots of obtuse words and tons of footnotes) are invariably dull.... think again. Many of today’s great history writers be they professional historians or amateurs, write really good stuff. That are erudite and yet  fun to read. When they pack it into an exciting story like narrative, you really can’t go wrong. In my view there are two versions of this trend. Popular history and historical fiction.

Let’s start with straight history and biography. This is nonfiction based on accurate and well researched background material. The best ones tell a true story and bring  it to life. Think of authors like Steven Ambrose, David McCullough, William Manchester, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote and many others.

The other equally exciting development is the vast improvement in historical fiction writing. Here the authors knowledge of the subject combined with excellent writing/storytelling technique will surely get your attention. As long as the line between fiction and nonfiction is clear, I really don’t believe it to be a bad thing if that line narrows. That is IF the writing is honest and well done and IF it draws more interest in history. Check out British author Hillary Mantel for a good example.
Book Review:  A Kings Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

.A good read I just finished was the final book A Kings Ransom  in Sharon Kay Penman’s magnificent series on the Plantagenet’s, the Norman rulers of England in the 12th to the 14th centuries. There were five books all ot them marvelous.

. When Christ And His Saints Slept (1995)

Time And Chance (2002)

Devil's Brood (2008)

Lionheart (2011)

A King's Ransom (2014)

  Penman is one the top writers of medieval historical fiction. In 
A King’s Ransom she takes us to the twelfth century and the reign of King Richard the Lionhearted. We first meet Richard, one of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s four sons, in Time and Chance.  If you’re a movie buff this the family of the classic Lion In Winter. In Lionheart, we follow the warrior King to the Holy Lands on Crusade. 

A King’s Ransom is the follow up to Lionheart and tells the story of King Richard I’s imprisonment in Germany at the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria and Emperor Heinrich VI and of his battle to win back his Kingdom from his rapacious brother John of Magna Carta fame.

Penman is both rigorous and meticulous in her research. Most importantly she brings her characters to life as few othes.  You’ll meet the real King in this book and not the historical cliché and stereotype.

  It is November 1192 when returning home from Crusade, Richard and his crew are overcome by a sudden storm, its fierce winds propelling the ship onto an unfriendly shore. Forced to make a dangerous choice, Richard finds himself in enemy territory, where he is captured—in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders—and handed over to the Duke of Austria. Imprisoned in the notorious fortress at Trifels, from which few ever leave alive, Richard, for the first time in his life, is helpless, while his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, moves heaven and earth to secure his release. Amid betrayals, intrigues, infidelities, wars, and illness, Richard’s courage and intelligence will become legend.  Indeed……

Perhaps one should start at the beginning in this magnificent series but then again each one can stand alone. In any case, I recommend them all.....

Since I've been invited to join the Book Review Club you're invited to stop in and take a look by clicking on the icon below....:)


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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

One Good Dog

There is a genre of animal stories out there. Dogs, cats, horses, you know the routine. For my spouse it’s often cats like “Sneaky Pie Brown” from Rita Mae Browns, mystery series.  I was grew up loving Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and  later Marley from Marley and Me. More recently, knowing nothing about horses, I was enthralled by Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.  You know where I’m coming from then.  Hurt, lonely, lost, and afraid. human and animal build trust, love and companionship and help each other survive and prosper. I don’t look for these stories. They just seem to find me like our rescue dog Lily did. She showed up hungry and abandoned at our friend’s dairy farm on Easter Sunday a year ago. When our friend passed on we took Lily the GSD into our home.
Ray (Troutbirder) & Lily

Or Chance, another dog in big trouble, who I found in One Good Dog by Susan Wilson, on the shelf of our local library.    Chance is a  mixed-breed pit bull who was trained to fight for the entertainment of cruel people.  When Chance escapes this miserable life and meets up with Adam a fascinating tale of struggle and redemption follows. Adam is an arrogant “high roller"  living the  good life until he snaps, hits his secretary and loses it all.   Adams job, wife, house are all gone in a flash. Adam is assigned “volunteer” work at a shelter for the indigent by a judge who is bent on teaching him to become “a better person.” Adam meets Chance and a homeless man with dementia at the shelter. The somewhat predictable plot follows.   Still you gotta cheer for the flawed man and feisty dog.
I was put off briefly by the dog narrating part of the story.  Mr. Ed, the talking horse of sixties TV, never appealed to me. But then this book began to work as I and Chance became better acquainted. Rescued animals, and rescued people can make for a very compelling story of second chances and unqualified loyalty and love.  I liked the book a lot... 

And as a side note I've been invited to join "The Book Review Club."   Sponsored by children's book author Barrie Summy  the first Wednesday of each month sees book reviews in both young adult and adult fiction and non- fiction genre.  Take a look......

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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl


I left this place (St. Paul) “a provincial capital of the middling sort” (in Gogol’s words), as a callow young teacher, never to return. Left it for a small rural crossroads, in Bluff Country, married there, raised a family and now live there in mostly contented retirement. Award winning author, Patricia Hampl, has remained in St. Paul all her life, rooted to the city of her birth in the “blameless middle” of America. Her latest memoir, The Florists Daughter, tells the intriguing story of her relationship with her parents, the city of her birth and her desire to escape it and them. It culminated with the realization, sitting by the bedside of her dying mother, as to why she chose to remain there all her life. The Florists Daughter was highly recommended to me by two dear friends. Partly, I'm sure, because there are many allusions to places I knew intimately, as a child growing up. For instance, as Hampl reflects on her life and the influences of parent and place on that life, she was sitting at the hospital beside her dying mother. It turns out to be the very hospital in which I was born.
I'm not very familiar with the genre "memoirs." So, perhaps, I was expecting a literary version of a "chick flick." Not to be. Hampl, who is a Professor of English Literature at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, takes on far deeper issues. I suspect that is why the critics love her writing which also includes poetry and essays.
It's probably sacrilege to compare the fundamental premise of this book to a trashy novel like The Bridges of Madison County but it comes to mind. Francesca Johnson is a romantic stereotype of dreams and disillusionment. Patricia Hampl seems torn between two incompatible and unfathomable choices.  Yet both protagonists make the choice of what now are identified as "traditional values." Still, the Hampls  memoir is deeply rich into the self and human values.    That is surely  the difference between literature and trash. I liked this memoir a lot.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

One Million Steps by Bing West

In the tranquil atmosphere of Daydream Cottage, on the Nature Coast of Westcentral Florida, I got lots of reading done along with dog hiking and birding. The first book was a most interesting, inspiring and yet troubling book by Bing West on Americans longest war – Afghanistan……
Battalion 3/5 suffered the highest number of casualties in the war in Afghanistan. This is the story of one platoon in that distinguished battalion.
Every day brought a new skirmish. Each footfall might trigger an IED. Half the Marines in 3rd Platoon didn’t make it intact to the end of the tour. One Million Steps is the story of the fifty brave men who faced these grim odds and refused to back down. Based on Bing West’s embeds with 3rd Platoon, as well as on their handwritten log, this is a gripping grunt’s-eye view of life on the front lines of America’s longest war.   Each time a leader was struck down, another rose up to take his place. How does one man instill courage in another? What welded these men together as firmly as steel plates? 

West is at his best describing the tactical decisions of small-unit leaders. The opening chapters give a heart-pounding portrayal of the battalion’s brutal first month. . . . What makes these Marines so impressive is not that they are superhumans for whom danger and exhaustion are their natural habitat and killing a joy, but very young men for whom the prospect of walking 2.6 miles a day for six months over IED-riddled ground is no more appealing than it would be for anyone

Yet "One Million Steps," even as it focuses on the relentlessness of the Marines in Sangin, also offers a blistering assault on America's senior military leadership for purportedly adopting a new counterinsurgency approach that Mr. West depicts as a "quixotic strategy of a benevolent war," one that "replaced war with social evangelism" and is more "an exercise in civics" than a type of military strategy
Lambasting military leaders for turning American warriors into "community organizers" is attention-grabbing, but it isn't convincing. Neither the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. James Amos, nor an assessment of the COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan square with Mr. West's take. The two generals assert in the manual's preface that a "counterinsurgency campaign is . . . a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations," which hardly sounds like "an exercise in civics." Moreover, Gen. Petraeus's September 2007 report to Congress on the Iraq surge doesn't focus on schools but on "significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq.

In the end I’d rate the book A as a revelation of the what the war was like for our young Marines. And a D for strategy analysis.  Which seems about right considering how the Iraq conflict was botched from unnecessary beginning to end and The Afghan one wasn’t much better after it switched from rooting out the terrorists to “nation building.”  in tribal, ethnically and religiously divided place on the map.  What a disaster….


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Normandy, France

It’s been more than twelve years now since I retired from teaching and two years less for Mrs. T. from the same profession. The two years difference came from her decision to go on a little longer than me to pay off the mortgage on our new house in the woods. I took on the role of “house husband” to her infinite satisfaction.  I had promised to take her to France on her retirement but that was delayed for one year as she successfully fought off a bout with ovarian cancer. The delay proved fortuitous in that our good friends Steve and Jewel could join us. It turned out Steve had taught high school French for a few years before turning to dairy farm. That allowed us more opportunities to venture further out on our own on "free" days from the tour group.

 A direct flight from the Twin Cities brought us to Paris where a quick city tour and a good night’s sleep prepared us for the trip to Normandy and the D Day invasion beaches.

I had been urged by Mrs. T's cousin Joe to be sure and sample Normandies most famous adult beverage - Calvados.  Sure enough the program included a visit to a place where the apples were converted into the famous beverage.It was all very interesting but the highlight for me was (given my perverted sense of humor) the "tasting" that followed the tour. It seems the majority of the elderly entourage had missed the part about Calvados being a rather strong applebrandy. Given the gasps and chokes that followed our group toast with the beverage, it seems the majority of people had expected to be imbibing an fruity apple cider!

Our first city stop was  Rouen which had a long and exciting history. Here the French kings had been crowned and Joan of Arc burned as a heritic by the English. Naturally, we visited the famous cathedral.

Standing in the square, looking back at the cathedral, I
recalled that the French impressionist, Claude Monet, had
spent many hours here drawing it. His studies of light and
shadow fueled much of his later work.

We had lunch in the town center, visited a market
and walked in the garden surrounding the marker to the martyrdom of St. Joan

The next morning found us approaching the famous bridge crossing over the Orne River - Pegasus. The significance of the bridge on D-Day was simple but key. Allied deception had persuaded to leave their major Panzer formations near Caen to the north. The allied landings were to the south. Holding the left flank bridges across the Orne against German counter attacks would vastly increase the probablity of success for the Allied landing.
That task was assigned to the 6th British Airborne Divison. On the night of 5/6 June 1944, a force of 181 men, led by Major John Howard, landed in six Horsa gliders to capture Pegasus Bridge, and also "Horsa Bridge", a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River.

It was given the permanent name of Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation. This name derives from the shoulder emblem worn by the attacking British, which is the flying horse Pegasus.

The events around Pegasus Bridge are depicted in the movie The Longest Day. The role of Major Howard was played by Richard Todd, who actually participated in the real Allied defence of Pegasus Bridge, having been the 7th Parachute Battalion's Intelligence Officer on D-Day.

The original bridge was replaced in the 1990's. During our visit to France every day except one was sunny and warm. Our D Day visit, though, was dark and somber. The weather that day was actually perfect, setting the mood, as we visited the places where thousands died to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

The soldiers killed in these actions are mostly buried in the cemetery at nearby Ranville. There is a commemorative plaque that was installed by the family Gondrée, whose house near Pegasus Bridge was the first to be liberated during D-Day. It still exists and nowadays contains a café and a small museum shop that sells Pegasus Bridge related material. The lady who runs this café was a small child living in the home when it was liberated. Yes, we stopped in for some postcards.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Citizen Soldiers

In Citizen Soldiers – The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches To The Bulge To The Surrender Of Germany author Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the American foot soldier's experience in Europe.  Ambrose, one of my favorite military historians also wrote my favorite history book. It was Undaunted Courage the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition And what a story it is,  all from the point of view of the men who did the actual fighting.  Down and dirty….

This point of view is somewhat new and fresh considering the thousands of books published on this war by and about  the leaders and politicians whose perspective was from the top down.  Mr. Hull’s review in the New York Times gives us a hint of why this is so.

By Michael D. Hull

One chilly morning in November 1944, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps, climbed into a jeep and was driven to the front to "smell this new American battlefield." The untested U.S. 84th Infantry Division had been placed under his command for the attack on Geilenkirchen, north of Aachen, on the Dutch-German border. When he reached the division area, Horrocks was halted abruptly by an American sentry, who leaped out from behind a tree, pointed his rifle menacingly at the general's stomach and shouted, "Who the hell are you?"

Horrocks got out of the jeep gingerly and replied, "I am a Britisher–and what's more, your division has just been placed under my command."

The GI looked at him incredulously and asked his rank.

"A three-star general," answered Horrocks.

"Holy Moses!" said the soldier. "We don't see many of them up here."

Horrocks reported later that he was "able to meet and chat to a number of these fine-looking young soldiers." And he soon discovered a front-line problem that reminded him all too much of his grim World War I experiences in the trenches.

"It soon became obvious that, with the exception of the U.S. paratroop divisions, whose commanders literally lived with their forward troops (and, of course, with the exception of Patton), the normal U.S. corps and divisional commanders rarely, if ever, visited their forward troops," recalled Horrocks. "This was something I had to put right without delay, because of the appalling wintry conditions which the 84th were likely to meet in this their first experience of battle, opposed by experienced, battle-hardened German troops."

Horrocks ordered the 43rd Wessex Division, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and artillery and specialized tank units to support the Americans. He also ensured that the U.S. troops received hot food and dry socks, in order to boost morale.

The 84th Division secured its objectives in the Battle of Geilenkirchen, one of the hardest fought actions at the battalion, company and platoon level in the European theater. General Horrocks said he was "filled with admiration for the extreme gallantry displayed by the raw GIs."

The problem of commanders being out of touch with their troops was becoming endemic throughout the U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), says Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), his compelling foxhole-level history of the soldiers' war from Normandy to the German surrender. Not even battalion commanders were going to the front. It was humiliating, Ambrose says, that a British general had to order American staff officers and their commanding officers to go check on their soldiers. The American officers' absence was costly, for tens of thousands of young Americans and Germans died that November in battles–most notably in the Hürtgen Forest–that did little to hasten the end of the war and should have been avoided.

The hardships endured by American troops in the hedgerows and foxholes of northwest Europe–and the courage, resilience and adaptability with which they faced them–are chronicled vividly in this masterpiece of historical narrative. It is a stunning account–affectionate, yet honest–of ordinary men learning to beat a stubborn, well-trained foe at his own game. From Omaha Beach to St. Lô, and from Bastogne to Cologne, they marched, shivered, fought, groused, bled, died and triumphed magnificently.

One of the most articulate and informed historians writing today, Stephen Ambrose has distilled in brilliant clarity the essence of the American character that helped to preserve global freedom. Without doubt, his book will enthrall every veteran, scholar and general reader.

When the GIs sailed for Europe, as the author points out, they were going not as conquerors but as liberators. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, told them their mission in his June 6, 1944, order of the day: "The destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

The U.S. troops accomplished their mission. And, in the process, they helped to liberate the peoples of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and the Germans living west of the Elbe River.