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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Dark Eagle


It was a very hot July day and we were on a vacation trip to Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Heading north though the beautiful Hudson River Valley we made a stop to examine a famous American battlefield. It was tramping through a wooded area that I came upon an unusual monument.   The monument is dedicated to “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army” though he is not mentioned by name.   Surely he was wounded though as we see a bullet hole in the boot. His name was……?


The Indians called him "Dark Eagle" out of respect for both his military genius, bravery and his ruthlessness. His men worshipped him as a hero. But as the legendary general of the Continental Army neared the pinnacle of success, things began to go wrong, drawing Benedict Arnold inexorably toward the greatest crime of the age, one that would forever make his name synonymous with the word "traitor". Meticulously researched and brilliantly rendered, Dark Eagle illuminates both sides of the Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1780.

Author   John Ensor Harr traces Arnold's spectacular rise, culminating in his victory at Saratoga and his marriage to Peggy Shippen, the beautiful loyalist daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, and Arnold's decline, culminating in his plan with Major John Andre and Peggy to betray Washington and deliver West Point to the British.

In the best of historical fiction Harr paints a  complete picture of one of the most despised men in American history. Factually accurate with believable dialogue to draw the reader into the story  makes for a really good read.  No attempt is made to justify Arnold's actions but understanding the circumstances and his personality that influenced him sheds a whole new light on a true story.   The one thing that, at least indirectly, Harr does is reinforce the realization that self-seeking politicians with very large egos are not just a modern day reality in 2016..... 


Friday, November 18, 2016

Arrival

Mrs. T. wants to go to a movie. "What's showing," she says.  I dunno  but I'll check. I did.  "Mostly the usual trash and a few kids shows. Oh and a sci fi that Time says is "for adults."  " I know you don't like those monster mash ups but maybe...."  Out of the goodness of her heart she agreed to give it a try. :) We went.
Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.
Cutting straight to the chase Arrival  definitely was for adults. Meaning no shoot em ups and bombs going off everywhere. There is plenty of suspense and more than a little tension. Amy Adams is quiet, afraid and strong, clearly the only person who can  ultimately figure out what's going on. I can't believe I'm writing this but Ms. Adams star turn is definitely in the Meryl Streep category. Also, not as a turn off, but I must admit the theme  that communication between alien  races was nigh impossible and potentially catastrophic brought to mind Republicans and Democrats during the recent horrific election season.  But I digress. It's an interesting and thoughtful movie...:)
 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Steel Wave


A tad late in acknowledging Veterans Day I review The Steel Wave. This book reminds us of the sacrifice of The Greatest Generation. It is the second volume of a historical fiction trilogy that tells the story of the Second World War in Europe.  Jeff Shaara,   following his fathers footsteps in Killer Angels , tells this story  through the points of view of some of history's most fascinating people , The Steel Wave traces the D-Day landing and subsequent days in the Normandy campaign of WWII.  Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery,  Rommel are the main characters. The author puts events and opinions into their mouths and thoughts based on his research. For the many who know this story well it’s an interesting sidelight. For those unfamiliar with the history of this shattering event it makes the vast details easy to digest.
But where this novel really stands out is in conveying what this battle, so renowned but now, with World War II veterans dying along with their first hand memories, felt like for the fighters:"The awful noises returned: screaming wails, the air above them ripped and shattered. The shells began to thunder above them, jolting him, the men tumbling again, more dust, the concrete shaking, deafening blasts. He lay flat, held his helmet to his head, curled his legs in tight, felt himself bouncing on the concrete, his hands hard on his ears, his brain screaming into the roar of fire, the terror grabbing him, pulling him into a complete and perfect hell."And here is a pitch-perfect description of what it must have been like to leave the nausea-inducing landing vessels for the nausea-inducing terror of the most nightmarish run on a beach in history: "He . . . looked straight ahead, smoke rolling past, screaming men, more blasts, more fighter planes overhead, wide flat sand, the cliffs so far away."
Shaara wrote in a very interesting introduction: "I realized that the greatest drama here is not the event but the raw and frightening uncertainty for everyone involved. It is easy to view history in hindsight, as though it were a foregone conclusion how the war, or this particular piece of it, would turn out. But for those men whose deeds and accomplishments created this history, there were no foregone conclusions at all."

The reader is left with two conclusions. The first is that William Tecumseh Sherman was right: War is hell. The second is that this is a hell of a war novel. As a matter of fact all three novels in this series are very well done.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz

A German soldier holding up Hitler’s shredded pants after a failed assassination attempt at German headquarters in East Prussia, June 20, 1944,

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

People of the Book


Geraldine Brooks historical novel People of the Book traces the journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war. 

 Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous novel, “March,” has drawn her inspiration from the real Sarajevo Haggadah. As she explains in an afterword, little is known about this book, except that it has been saved from destruction on several occasions, twice by Muslims and once by a Roman Catholic priest. 
The story begins in 1996 when Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images.  Hanna is able to trace the book’s journey from its salvation back to its creation. This makes for a fascinating story with lots of detective work.  Along the way we find art forgers and nationalist fanatics and even some romance.  What is the origin and the whole story behind the survival of this wonderful book? Lots of action will tell us along with some fascinating historical vignettes.   Perhaps a broader context and personalization of the main characters would help but then again history and historical fiction should  open our eyes and hearts to different times and places and touch our curiosity to want even more.
As a small footnote to the locale of much of this book, I am presently receiving physical therapy from a young woman who came to America as a child and war refugee during the Bosnian war. She is of Croatian ethnicity and fled Belgrade the Yugoslav and Serbian capitol during the bombing..... Small world indeed.
 

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

THE PRESIDENT'S BOOK OF SECRETS


THE PRESIDENT'S BOOK OF SECRETS
The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents from Kennedy to Obama
by David Priess


Every president has had a unique and complicated relationship with the intelligence community. While some have been coolly distant, even adversarial, others have found their intelligence agencies to be among the most valuable instruments of policy and power.
Since John F. Kennedy’s presidency, this relationship has been distilled into a personalized daily report: a short summary of what the intelligence apparatus considers the most crucial information for the president to know that day about global threats and opportunities. This top–secret document is known as the President’s Daily Brief, or, within national security circles, simply “the Book.” Presidents have spent anywhere from a few moments (Richard Nixon) to a healthy part of their day (George W. Bush) consumed by its contents; some (Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush) consider it far and away the most important document they saw on a regular basis while commander in chief.

 The details of most PDBs are highly classified, and will remain so for many years. But the process by which the intelligence community develops and presents the Book is a fascinating look into the operation of power at the highest levels. David Priess, a former intelligence officer and daily briefer, has interviewed every living president and vice president as well as more than one hundred others intimately involved with the production and delivery of the president's book of secrets. He offers an unprecedented window into the decision making of every president from Kennedy to Obama, with many character–rich stories revealed here for the first time.

I picked this book up not looking for the juicy details of secrets for the Presidents but to learn about the process.  That is the mechanism of Presidential decision making. There were few if any secrets. There was lots of information  about how choices were made, some wise, some botched  for a myriad of reasons. I delayed reading this book till after this years Presidential campaign began in earnest and then  delayed it even longer. It became a frightening book to say the very least and the reason is quite simple. I imagined this process and the contents it contains on a day by day basis in the hands of the most unqualified and dangerous MAN in American History to be nominated by a major political party for the Presidency of the United States ever………

Then after the electorate chooses Hillary, go ahead and read this most interesting book, in a calm manner, somewhat,though not perfectly  assured, that the fate of our nation rests in reasonably intelligent hands

Monday, October 3, 2016

Victory at Yorktown


The man who did everything but stand on his head (Newt Gingrich) to get Bill Clinton impeached for messing around with a "aide" is now a semi-successful writer of historical fiction. Of course, Newt, the disgraced former Speaker of the House of Representatives, was busy playing the same game as Bubba about the same time. Along with his co- partner William R Forstchen, a college Professor of History, he has written a series of American historical fiction novels. Several years ago I borrowed To Try Men’s Souls and gave it a C+ review. More recently, having read about his “endorsement” of Donald Trump, I decided to check out one of his more recent literary efforts. This on the theory that his literary talent couldn’t possibly have sunk lower than his already rock bottom political judgments as evidenced   by endorsing Donald Trump, the most unqualified Presidential candidate,  ever….   The book was Victory at Yorktown. Being careful that any money exchange would not go from the author to The Man Who Would Be King, I purchased the book for $1 at Goodwill in the cause of teaching employment skills.
Although Victory at Yorktown  is a historical fiction book it is obvious that it mirrors realistic events and characters of the Revolutionary War.  George Washington and his British counterparts are central to the story. It intertwines war, friendship, and heroism to make a very powerful and compelling story.  The authors explain in the prologue why they chose to tell this event as a fictional story instead of nonfiction: “We are historians, but we also love a good story and believe that neglect of good stories has always been the failure of most traditional histories, which turn such exciting adventures and personas into dull and lifeless facts.”  As a retired history teacher, I couldn’t agree more with that premise.

Actually, if you’re looking for a readable primer on the conclusion of the Revolutionary Was it’s rather good. The book seems basically accurate in its depiction of the characters, real and imagined. The authors have obviously made a special effort to humanize the stiff and faultless figure of  Washington.  The desperation of a last throw of the dice chance for victory over British colonialism clearly comes through. Some of the scenes wander off into other venues but don’t seriously hamper the story. All in all,I’d rate Victory at Yorktown a B+.

 

 
 

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@Barrie Summy

Friday, September 23, 2016

Salem Falls


History, Biography, and Historical fiction  are my reading favorites but then I occasionally find a fiction author I really like.  Jodi Picoult is one of those whose themes and writing style have totally won me over. She published her first book in 1992 and has come up with a new one just about every year since then. I’ve just finished my fifth one so have a ways to go…J

Salem Falls published in 2007 caught my eye because it’s about a teacher. As a retired teacher, I knew personally both men and women who abused their position of authority in both sexual and non-sexual ways. I also knew several others who were falsely accused of abuse.   Picoult's books usually deal with ethical issues and are told from a variety of viewpoints, with each chapter written in a different character's voice. Picoult uses this technique to show multiple sides of a situation and underscore areas of moral ambiguity.
Jack St. Bride was once a beloved teacher and soccer coach at a girls' prep school - until a student's crush sparked a powder keg of accusation and robbed him of his career and reputation. Now, after a devastatingly public ordeal that left him with an eight-month jail sentence and no job, Jack resolves to pick up the pieces of his life. He takes a job washing dishes at Addie Peabody's diner and slowly starts to form a relationship with her in the quiet New England village of Salem Falls. But amid the rustic calm of Salem Falls, a quartet of teenage girls harbor dark secrets -- and they maliciously target Jack with a shattering allegation.  Now, at the center of a modern-day witch hunt, Jack is forced once again to proclaim his innocence: to a town searching for answers, to a justice system where truth becomes a slippery concept written in shades of gray.

 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz


After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hamilton



I’d been reading for some time now about the huge Broadway musical hit…. Hamilton. “Huh?”, I thought. Not one of the most well-known nor beloved of the Founding Fathers. Hoping to learn more, I’d realized my chances of seeing the play on Broadway were slim and none…..   I also knew that most of the high school texts had written him off as a wannabe monarchist and conniver at best.. It was time to get Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton to read. Maybe it was also time to broaden my view of the man.

 

Put quite simply, Ron Chernow argues that Hamilton’s early death at age 49 left his record to be reinterpreted and even re-written by his more long-lived enemies, among them: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.  Hamilton’s achievements starting with his role as Washington’s aide during the Revolution, soldier, and later member of the Constitutional Convention, co-author of The Federalist Papers and   first Secretary of the Treasury, were clouded after his death by strident claims that he was an arrogant, self-serving monarchist..

 To  Hamilton’s credit he had a very modern view of the future of the fledgling nation.  Hamilton was "the prophet of the capitalist revolution" in which American would become an industrial giant of cities and modernization. As Treasury secretary he created the modern financial and economic systems that are the basis for American might today.

The writing of American history and biography has reached a very high  peak in recent decades in both research, brilliance and accessibility. Ron Chernow's masterly Alexander Hamilton clearly reaches that high level.

 
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Friday, September 2, 2016

Historic Photography Quiz

At the instigation of the Soviet Union, the East German government begins the construction of the Berlin Wall.  It is intended to prevent the exodus of thousands more East Germans fleeing the "workers paradise" to the West.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Reluctant Admiral



Sometimes you just stumble on an obscure book and pick it up. Thus was the case at my bargain book stop recently…. The Goodwill.  It was The Reluctant Admiral. It is the story of both an individual and an organization. The individual is Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor raid and commander of the Combined Fleet until his dramatic death in the South Pacific. One of the best-known Japanese wartime leaders -- complex, tough, sympathetic, and realistic -- he believed from the start that Japan was bound to lose the war. The organization is the Imperial Navy, whose gentlemanly traditions and international outlook contrasted strongly with those of the army. Based on interviews with people who knew him well, private and intimate correspondence, and secret and official documents, it is -- as the New Yorker said -- a "brilliant" book. Fascinating is how I would describe it but then I'm a military history junkie and the book surely wasn't a "best seller". My only critique would be lots of unfamiliar names that were hard to keep track of. Still the basic story brings a subject clearly to light...:)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

History Photography Quiz (Part V)

Leo Tolstoy telling a story to his grandchildren in 1909.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dead Wake - The Last Crossing of the Lusitania


One of my favorite authors is Erik Larson a modern master of popular narrative nonfiction. No dull history tomes for him as he’s  proven time and again  adept at rescuing relatively significant but mostly obscure episodes in history and turning them novel like into best sellers. Two of my favorites were The Devil in the White City and In The Garden of Beasts.


2015 brought us Dead Wake – The last Crossing of the Lusitania.
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a huge and fast luxury ocean liner sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying thousands of people including a record number of children and infants. Trying to starve Britain into submission, Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. Still most believed the “rules” of warfare kept civilian passenger ships safe from attack.
Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, following new orders was ready to shoot. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
The fate of many of the passengers we know but it was the secrets which lay behind the decisions of the hunted and the hunter which drew my attention and kept me focused on the story.  Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history. How it all happened and why was quite unexpected. A historical mystery as it were. I loved it. 
 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz Part IV.

Construction of Christ the Redeemer in Rio da Janeiro, Brazil.
Overlooking the city of Rio, site of this years Olympic games, it was constructed over a ten year period beginning in 1922.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Kindly Ones

I took a group of high school students to Germany. We went to Dachau outside of Munich. I had explained carefully what happened here. Still, as we approached the bus parking lot, the area around it was neatly mowed and had a park-like appearance. Across the street was a McDonalds. Incongrous to say the least....

On the way to Williamsburg, I pressed my companions for a stop in Washington, to see the new Holocaust museum. We were given an identity tag to wear of an actual victim. As we entered the elevator it had the appearance of a railroad boxcar. We spent hours looking at photgraphs and artifacts like thousands of shoes of children murdered by the Nazi killing machine. When we left I had the worst migraine of my life.

Each generation needs to learn of this human atrocity and never forget it. I have read many books on this subject in that spirit. With that in mind, I obtained and read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. Nearly a thousand pages long, it has been falsely compared to Tolstoys War and Peace. Awarded the top prize for literature in France, I had hoped that it would measure up to that standard. It didn't.



I must say that I did intend to write a real review of this book. The fact is, I am unable to articulate all the reasons I found it to be the worst book I ever read. Opinion among the experts is somewhat divided about it. Mine is not. If you want to learn about the historical unfolding of the German invasion of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and its consequences, there are hundreds of books that do a better job. Hannah Arendt, watching Adoph Eichmann at his trial, explained the psychology of the bureaucrats who managed the murder operation. She coined the phrase,
the "banality of evil." My phrase to characterize this awful book would be "historical pornography." I will let it rest there.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Photographic History Quiz (Part 3)



Fidel Castro lays a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Historical Photography Quiz (Part 2)

 
The Microsoft staff in 1978
Bill Gates, front row left.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

History Quiz

An airman being captured by Vietnamese in Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi in 1967. The airman is future Senator John McCain who spent over five years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp. Donald J. Trump recently mocked his service.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Pagan Lord


Ok, I’ll own up to it. I’ve been a lot into English historical fiction in recent years. Favorite authors include Bernard Cornwell - 10th century (The Saxon Chronicles),   Sharon Kay Penman - (12th century The Plantagenet series),  and Hilary Mantel - (16th century (The Thomas Cromwell Trilogy).  This month it was The Pagan Lord by Cornwell….

Alfred the Great is dead and Edward his son reigns as king.  The Kingdom of Wessex survives but peace is tenuous at best. The Danes in the north, led by Viking Cnut Longsword, stand ready to invade and will never rest until all of England is theirs.

Uhtred, once Alfred’s great warrior but now out of favor with the new king, must lead a band of outcasts north to recapture his old family home, that great Northumbrian fortress, Bebbanburg.

Loyalties are transitory for some and  every Saxon kingdom is drawn into the bloodiest battle yet with the Danes; a war which will decide the fate of every king, and the entire English nation.

Uhtred, the hero and narrator of the Saxon series, is a fascinating mixture of divided loyalties and internal contradictions. Born a Saxon, he was raised by Danes and has the temperament of a genuine Viking. He disdains the “nailed god” of the Christians and favors older gods, such as Thor, whose symbol (a hammer) Uhtred carries with him everywhere. He served Alfred loyally and effectively but never really liked or sympathized with him. Uhtred’s one overriding ambition is to recover the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg, which was stolen from him years before.  They called this era The Dark Ages for a reason. Nobody writes the twists and turns, the chaos and battle scenes as well  as Cornwell. When  Untred winds down the Saxon Chronicles we can even see a small light at the end of the tunnel. The birth of England….

 

 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Invictus


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,

 And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

 I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 William Ernest Henley
 

Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) survives 27 years of imprisonment. His guide is the Victorian age poem Invictus. He emerges to lead a reconciliation of blacks and whites into a new South Africa. Matt Damon plays the captain of the countries white dominated and beloved rugby team. The team is also a symbol of white racism and despised by the nations blacks. Clint Eastwood finds just the right touch, avoiding an over the top sports movie and a deep psychological analyses of character motivations. The result is exciting action in a sport that most American wouldn't have a clue about, and a truly dramatic portrayal of real political leadership. It was also something that I found downright inspiring. I recall teaching world history to my senior high students and feeling that the apartheid state in South Africa was as intractible a problem as the issue of Palestine, the Arabs and the Jewish state. Sometimes it's nice to be wrong.
The poem and the movie are both oldies but goodies.
I highly recommend them both.....

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Conqueror


He built the biggest empire history has ever seen.

He ruled one fifth of the planets landmass.

He shaped the modern world as we know it today.

Alexander?

Caesar?


Napolean?


No!

The creator of the greatest empire since the fall of Rome was????


Kublai Khan


Scholar Warrior Brother


Read the epic story of the worlds less known conqueror by Conn Igguiden.


A rip-roarin’ read, and inspiration to go and sack a few cities on your own.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Gamble


Not that anyone really wants to relive the invasion of  Iraq but if you missed the part about how it all went even more wrong after the initial misjudgment of doing it in the first place, Thomas E. Rick's #1 New York Times bestseller Fiasco says it all in the title.   

Next came his  book The Gamble which is the definitive account of the insurgency within the U.S. military that led to a radical shift in America's strategy. Based on unprecedented real-time access to the military's entire chain of command, Ricks examines the events that took place as the military was forced to reckon with itself, the surge was launched, and a very different war began. His stunning conclusion, stated in the last line of the book, is that "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

This accurate prediction is evidenced in the  horrors emanating today in the daily news from the Middle East. When it comes to military matters Mr. Ricks is as good as it gets for journalism and analysis. He clearly shows us in these two books the devastating consequences of an ill- conceived and ill-planned war….

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@Barrie Summy

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Home Waters


I just started reading Home Waters edited by Gary Soucie. It's a fly-fishing anthology. Home waters would be that place or places which the fly fisherman considers his own. Not in the literal sense, of course, but in the sense of being at home there. The place with which he is most familiar and most comfortable. A place to which he returns most often in body and spirit.
For me, it is the spring fed limestone creeks and rivers of Bluff Country, the karst region of southeastern Minnesota. There are several rivers and innumerable streams and tiny brooks in this unglaciated countryside. Over a forty year period I have fished most of them.
 
South Branch Root River


 The South Branch of the Root River is closest to my home and heart. It is the place to which I now return in my retirement years.
This is where I first learned how to entice the wily brown trout with the fly. Then taught my two sons the same art. Later, as they grew up, we wandered far afield to the fabulous waters of Montana and Yellowstone National Park. The Boulder, the Gallatin, the West Fork of the Madison, The Big Hole, The Lamar, Slough Creek and countless others became part of our vocabulary.
  
 Son Ted and I in Yellowstone

 Vertigo and other infirmities of aging limit my stream time now but the memories live on as strong as ever. Not to sound elitist but fly fishing for trout has produced among the sporting endeavors the closest thing to real literature  Thus  Home Waters whereby a host of writers take readers to their favorite fishing spots in a captivating collection of 55 pieces touched close to my heart and memories of similar places and experiences.

Monday, May 2, 2016

And Then All Hell Broke Loose


Richard Engel  is the chief foreign correspondent for NBC and has  spent much of his 20-year award-winning career  in war zones in the Middle East. As an enterprising freelance reporter,  he initially  got himself into Iraq as a “human shield” for a peace organization in early 2003, and struck a deal with ABC News; he would become the last American television reporter left in Baghdad.

In 2005, his Baghdad hotel was badly rocked by a truck bomb across the street, and as the entire region exploded into war and revolution, he would have other close calls — including being kidnapped in Syria in 2012. To characterize him ad an intrepid reporter would be more than an understatement.

Mr. Engel’s harrowing adventures make for gripping reading in his new book, “And Then All Hell Broke Loose,”.    He deftly uses them as a portal to look at how the Middle East has changed since he arrived in the region as a young reporter back in 1996. The result is a book that gives readers a brisk but wide-angled understanding of the calamities that have unfurled there over the last two decades — most notably, the still unspooling consequences of the careless and botched invasion by the United States invasion of Iraq, and the sad unfolding  of revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria
Engel has interviewed most of the key players in these tragedies writ large as well as having a good background in the history of the region. The book is relatively short and snappy  but one couldn’t do much better to gain good insights into the present chaos…..
 



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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ken Follet: The Century Trilogy


As a young author, beginning some three decades, ago he wrote suspense/thrillers. Although not a big fan of that genre, I liked Eye Of The Needle, The Man From St. Petersburg and Lie Down With Lions. Then, in 1989, he wrote something completely different. It was Pillars Of The Earth, a wonderful story of love and devotion surrounding the building of a cathedral in the early Middle Ages. That novel of historical fiction remains, to this day, as one of my all time favorites.

 
 
I write, of course, of Welsh author Ken Follet, who’s historical novel, Fall of Giants, I just reread.

It is the first novel in The Century Trilogy, and follows the fates of five interrelated families-American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh, as they move through the world-shaking events of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women's suffrage.

So what did I think of the series? It’s well done on the vast scale of historical events. The cast of characters, ranging from the real to the imagined, keeps you interested. Follett  always tells good stories. Still, it's not War and Peace nor Pillars of the Earth. This somewhat lesser interest for me is fairly easy to explain . In Pillars I knew little about life in the twelfth century and even less about building a cathedral. The history in those two books, as well as the characters was quite fascinating. That combination was not quite there for me in Fall of Giants. The history of WWI and the countries involved were well known to me. And, of course, to Follets specialty is always the tale which pulls you along rather than the depth of characterization. He weaves the tapestry of people and events together extremely well.

In many ways this book reminded me a good deal of another authors great historical novels. That would be Herman Wouk, whose best sellers set in World War II, Winds of War & War and War and Remembrance, had the same format.

As a history teacher, I like to see good history accurately portrayed in an engaging story. If that’s your cup of tea, I’d recommend it The Century Trilogy most wholeheartedly......

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Revenant by Michael Punke

It was a few weeks before the Academy Awards show that Barb and I went to see the highly touted movie The Revenant starring Leonardo Dicaprio. I followed that up with a review post here on   Sunday, January 17, 2016.  I found the cinematography fabulous, the mostly true story interesting and the main characters lacking depth, especially the Oscar winning stars portrayal. Naturally  reading the book was the only way to find out of the impasse...

 
I suppose it was reading Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo as a youth that first peeked my interest in stories  of this genre. The Revenant by Michael Punke is a thrilling tale of betrayal and revenge set against the nineteenth-century American frontier, the astonishing story of real-life trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass
The year is 1823, and the trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company live a brutal frontier life. Hugh Glass is among the company’s finest men, an experienced frontiersman and an expert tracker. But when a scouting mission puts him face-to-face with a grizzly bear, he is viciously mauled and not expected to survive. Two company men are dispatched to stay behind and tend to Glass before he dies. When the men abandon him instead, Glass is driven to survive by one desire: revenge. With shocking grit and determination, Glass sets out, crawling at first, across hundreds of miles of uncharted American frontier. Based on a true story, The Revenant is a remarkable tale of obsession, the human will stretched to its limits, and the lengths that one man will go to for retribution. The movie was fun. The books depth even better...
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Monday, March 21, 2016

My Sisters Keeper


In recent years I’ve returned a bit to fiction and found Barbara Kingsolver and Jodi Picoult to be two new (to me) favorites. My most recent was Picoult’s My Sisters Keeper. I picked it out because I knew it was one of the authors most popular and had also been made into a movie.
It tells the story of 13-year-old Anna, who sues her parents for medical emancipation when she is expected to donate a kidney to her older sister Kate, who is dying from leukemia. Actually, she was conceived and genetically programed for this purpose and has been “donating” various fluids and bodily parts for some time. As young teenagers are sometimes wont to do she rebels and a family crises of the worst and most heart wrenching kind ensues. If you feel drawn to books involving serious ethical challenges this one’s for you. And I both loved and hated this book at the same time….
It was, after a good start,  way too  contrived and manipulative.  An unbelievably precocious teenager who hires a lawyer and cracks wise? The perfect father who take sides in a court hearing against his wifes’ judgment. She, the mother who risks all to save all. Even Judge Judy couldn’t make sense out of this soap opera. Yes, I was very conflicted about this book reading it anxiously to the very end…..