Monthly Archives: June 2013

Book Review: The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran by Hooman Majd is the author’s return to live in Iran for a year with his American wife and child. He was born in Iran and educated in England and the United States and currently resides in New York, as an American citizen. He is the grandson of an ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat. Majd has served as a translator for President Mohammad Khatamiand and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadt on their trips to the United States and the United Nations. This is his second book on Iran. 

Iran is a country full of contradictions. Ministries contradict ministries and the public contradicts them both. Alcohol is banned, but available anywhere. Western media censored, but you can get satellite feeds if you pay the special fee and bootleg DVDs are available on almost every street corner. Popular internet sites are blocked, but VPNs are easy enough to get and bypass the restrictions. Women push the boundaries of the the dress code, but in interviews claim it is not a restriction. 

Iran is not a backward country, in fact it improved after the 1979 revolution. Iran boasts a 90% literacy rate and a highly educated population. Women make up 60% of the university population and a large majority of the science and engineering students. Iran also has medical tourism. Medical standards are as high as they are in the West, but the costs are minimal. One would think that if Iran dropped there demagogy and saber rattling, it would become a first world country with a prosperous economy. 

Iran’s Green Revolution failed but is was not because of the government shooting into the crowds. The government claimed fifty deaths in the protests and the protesters claimed less than 100 deaths. Iran chose to arrest protestors instead of shooting them in the streets. This action probably help save the government. Tens of thousands were arrested and many were released over time. Leaders of the Green Movement were targeted and Ahmadinejadt likened the masses to to angry fans of a losing football team, effectively making them innocent of treason. This has been enough to discourage open rebellion. There are still green bracelets worn, but an resistance to the government is quiet. There seems to be a detente between the people and the government; neither side pushing too hard. 

Hajd does a wonderful job exposing Iran. He keeps it light and does his best to keep to the more positive and local outlook on the country; even when things are not the best. There is no real mention of the darker side of the the state including executions or Iran’s support of Hezbollah. The US and international sanctions are mentioned in how they effect the common man. Hajd is more interested in the the pop culture of Iran and how it circumvents government restrictions. It’s interesting how he and his wife and son are treated by the local population. Among the locals there is a great deal of pride in being Iranian, but not necessarily supportive of the government and its policies. Hadj brings more of the paradoxes of Iran to his second book. The addition of his wife and child add depth the book as we read how an American woman handles Iran and how Iran handles her. A very good read.

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Book Review: Under the Blue Beret: A U.N. Peacekeeper in the Middle East

Under the Blue Beret: A U.N. Peacekeeper in the Middle East by Terry “Stoney” Burke is one soldier’s story of his army career, centered around United Nations peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and the Middle East. Burke joined the army in 1964 and was posted to the Royal Canadian Regiment. He has served in nine United Nations tours and active in the FLQ crisis in 1970. He is also the author of Cold War Soldier; Life on the Front Lines of the Cold War, a memoir of his military career.

For Americans, the first surprise in the book is that the author is Canadian, and yes, Canada has a n active military (with a proud, long tradition). Any veteran will recognize and relate to Burke’s stories. From standing in the hot Cypress sun in a cold weather jacket and being told to keep the jacket as a matter of uniformity to not having the proper weapon for the job at hand. Many readers will wonder how the military can function at all and veterans will chuckle, not at the misfortune or the danger but at the common ground we all shared. 

The books starts with Burke leaving Germany after his first tour, newly married, and ready to settle down with his new family in Canada and he gets orders to Cypress. He returns after six months only to be almost immediately pulled into duty for the only peacetime War Measures Act in Canadian history. His wife and two children spent there first nine months alone in a new country. 

Under the Blue Beret concentrates mostly on the United Nations missions in Cypress and the Middle East. Cypress has been in dispute since 1800s with fighting between the Greeks and the Ottomans (later the Turks). The United Nations set up the “Green Zone” across the length of the country separating the parties. It was a neutral strip that neither side could enter, lined by Greek and Turkish fortifications. The UN took the middle ground and kept the hostile parties separated. Burke tells of his three tours to the Green Zone and the changes that take place over the years. He has the unique privilege of experiencing Cyprus from the rank private through lieutenant. 

The second half of the book concerns the peace keeping in the Middle East. Burke chronicles the day to day activities of an unarmed peacekeepers in the middle of a shooting war. Burke also had the privilege of serving with Lieutenant Colonel Higgins of the United States Marines. Higgins would become a major news story as he was kidnapped and killed by the Lebanese Hezbollah. There are high and very low points in serving in the middle East.

Under the Blue Beret presents a great deal of information and personal experience in from the little heard of world of UN Peacekeeping. Many readers will be surprised by the size of the commitment of the Canadian armed forces to peacekeeping. Burke weaves together interesting experiences combined with military and international bureaucracy. Under the Blue Beret is a very good read for any one interest in general military service and peacekeeping history and the roles of peacekeepers.

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Book Review: Airship: Design, Development and Disaster

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster by John Swinfield is a study of lighter than air ships in Europe and the United States. Swinfield holds a Master of Arts in maritime history has been widely published in newspapers as a reporter before joining ITV and the BBC. 

Today the idea of lighter than ships, especially zeppelins, seem rather benign, if at all thought about beyond a great 70’s rock band. In World War I, zeppelins flew well above the ceilings of aircraft of the day. They were safe from enemy attack and could stay in the clouds hidden from view. With their engines off the were completely silent until their bombs hit the ground. Although the zeppelin could not see through the clouds, it could lower a “cloud car” with a crew member 3,000 feet below the zeppelin to act as a spotter. Zeppelins were to cities what submarines were to shipping: pure terror. Britain, in turn, used its airships to spot submarines. 

A good portion of the book traces Britain’s attempt develop its own airship fleet for civilian use. Britain always ended up a step behind the Germans in the airship race. The Zeppelin company was almost destroyed as a result of the the Treaty of Versailles, but an American order helped save the company. In Britain, it was a struggle to develop a peace time airship program. The government did not want and could not afford to subsidize the industry. Two competing firms vied for position and promises included carrying mail and passengers to the Americas and to India. The companies projected profits. 

In America, it was the rise of the Goodyear company after the U.S. purchased airships from other countries. America used helium and converted ships it bought to helium. Countries experimented with carrying planes on the zeppelins envisioning a fleet of plane carrying zeppelins, much like an aircraft carrier in the sky. Other countries joined the airship race. Italy entered and built the Norge for Amundsen to fly to the North Pole. Germany resumed the zeppelin industry with airships flying to Brazil and the United States. It was the heyday for airships, until the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in a spectacular fireball. With the Hindenburg disaster, the airship industry also crashed. It was an end of a short era.

For a short time airships were a futuristic a terror in war and fast mode of transporting people and the mail in peace time. At over 700 feet in length, the size of an ocean liner, they were more than a bit impressive in the sky. Three times the length of a Boeing 747, twice the size of a Saturn 5 Rocket, or as long as Cleveland’s Terminal Tower is tall. To see something this size floating in the air would have been amazing. So large, it would block out the sun and cast a huge shadow when flying over an observer. Swinfield writes an interesting history of an nearly forgotten time and craft. The book is alive with competition, struggles, and some victories. A well written book with over thirty-five page of documentation and well illustrated. A very good read for aviation fans and students of the inter-war years.

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Book Review: Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs

“We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” – George Orwell (attributed)

Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs by Julia Dye is a history lesson of Marine Corps leadership shown by the actions of its Non Commissioned Officers. Dye earned a PhD in Hopology, the anthropology of human conflict. She is a partner in the consulting firm of Warriors, Inc and has worked as a weapons master in and trainer for the movie Alexander. She also oversaw historical accuracy in the HBO series The Pacific

“In the Navy, Sailors wear rating badges that identify their jobs. A Soldier wears branch of service insignia on his collar, with a metal shoulder pins and cloth sleeve patches to identify his unit. Marines, on the other hand, wear only the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor their ribbons, and their marksmanship badges. Just by looking at the uniform you cannot tell what they do each day, nor the unit which they belong. A Marine may drive and AmTrac, program computers, or fly helicopters. The tasks are unimportant. What is important is that the Marine is a Marine.” (page 8)

Marines are different; we are trained to be that way. The Marines have the lowest ratio of officers to enlisted men of the American services. The additional leadership comes from the Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), the backbone of the Marine Corps: Corporals and the various ranks of sergeants. Attaining the rank of Corporal a Marine is in a leadership position; it actually means something. There is no need for a piece of felt under your rank insignia to show that you are in a leadership position. Dye uses the 14 Leadership Traits to designate each chapter of the book. Marines learn these traits in boot camp. Why does a Marine in boot camp need to learn about leadership he is the lowest ranking member of the Marines? Even as a private, a Marine may find himself in a leadership position by default; Marine Corps history is filled with examples. Being prepared for it is a very good thing. 

Dye delivers a history of excellence. The forward opens with the Marine NCO Creed. Marines portrayed in the book are all real from Dan Daley the Marines that boarded Magellan Star rescuing the ship and crew from Somali pirates. Some of the Marines I recall from Marine Corps history like Dan Daly and Leland Diamond. Some are civilians and and relate how being a Marine helped them, such as Terry Anderson. Terry Anderson was captured by Hezbollah and held hostage for more than six years in Lebanon in the 1980s. He explains how the Marine training helped him survive and gain leverage on his captors. Many of the stories, however, are from combat experiences. 

Marines portrayed in Backbone are far from perfect some went up and down the ranks. Some were offered commissions they all refused except for one. Many left the Marine Corps and went into the business world. Dye shows how the traits that made successful Marines translates to success in the business world. Overall the book is about leadership. Leadership works the same in the military as it does in the civilian world. The difference is that in the Marine Corps, poor leaders do not last. 

I when I first saw this book I knew I wanted to read it. I served in the Marines in the 1980s and earned the rank of Corporal (twice), so my opinion might be a bit biased, but remember Marines have integrity. In the acknowledgments I saw her note to her husband Captain Dale Dye, USMC, Retired. My first thought was “Oh, a book on NCOs by an officer’s wife, too bad.” I was completely wrong in my initial thoughts. Julia Dye does an outstanding job with Backbone and does an excellent job of not only capturing the history, but also the spirit of the Marine Corps and Non Commissioned Officers. She offers an more than adequate bibliography of cited works and interviews. I was so impressed with the book that I shared several quotes with friends including Marines I served with. I highly recommend this book to Marines and everyone else. Semper Fi

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Book Review: November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913

November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 by Michael Schumacher presents a detailed account of the worst storm on the Great Lakes in recorded history. Michael Schumacher is the author of several books including The Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Biographical information on the author is scarce, but his other books include biographies of Allen Ginsberg and Eric Clapton among others. 

From November 7th through November 11th a perfect storm swept though the Great Lakes region. Two major storm fronts converged over the region of warm water creating hurricane force winds and blinding snow storms and huge waves. The city of Cleveland was isolated from the rest of the world as the storm knocked out electrical and communications lines. On the waters of the Great Lakes, over 250 sailors would lose their lives as 40 ships were damaged. Among the damaged ships 12 sank and five have yet to be found. 

It is hard to believe today that so many ships could be lost in a storm. The Great Lakes are no where near the size of the Gulf of Mexico or the oceans where hurricanes form. The ships on the Great Lakes hauling ore and coal were 400 – 550 feet long. These ships are huge for freshwater shipping and looking at them, its unimaginable that they could sink in a storm. This was before radar, GPS, and storm tracking. Granted the weather service did issue warnings a combination of hubris, greed, and bad planning caused a large loss of life. For the residents of Cleveland there was little that could be done. Winter storms and lake effect snow are expected yearly, however, he severity cannot prevented or at that time accurately anticipated. 

Cleveland lay in white and mighty solitude, mute and death to the outside world, a city of lonesome snowiness, storm swept from end to end – The Cleveland Plain Dealer

I grew up in Cleveland and studied Cleveland history in grade school, but don’t recall the reading about the storm of November 1913. We were aware or the shipping dangers of Great Lakes and lake effect storms. I am old enough to remember when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm on Lake Superior. Even 60 years more modern than the ships lost in 1913 and it immense size of 729 feet, it too could not stand up to the punishment the Great Lakes can dish out. This is a tragedy that hopefully can be avoided in the future with current storm tracking and navigation technology.

November’s Fury is well written and tells an amazing story. At times it is hard to believe that you are reading non-fiction. The damage storm and loss of life seem beyond anything experienced real life. Schumacher weaves together the individual accounts of each ship into a compelling story. There are courageous acts as well as foolish acts (which many were just standard procedure at the time) as well. This book is a valuable history and recommended to those interested in maritime history or the Great Lakes.

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Book Review: Buton’s History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet: A Treasury of Priceless Scripture

Buton’s History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet: A Treasury of Priceless Scripture by Buton Richen Drup is a bit of an unexpected read. The author is a 14th Century Tibetan Buddhist leader and the 11th abbot of Shalu Monastery. In addition to running the monastery, he also cataloged 4,569 religious and philosophical works in writing The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet. 

To start, as a history it is not what is expected. There is no date by date structure or mention of dates. There also is no cultural study or even how Buddhism spread to Tibet. Rather it is a collection of Buddhists texts . The first section of the book is a detailed study of Buddhism as it was taught at the time . That is followed up with two hundred pages of Buddhist text as history. Finally, there is a a short section on Buddhist history in Tibet. 

The writing is mostly ancient texts and the reading is very educational. This book is a great reference and a worthwhile read for those who want a very detailed study on Buddhism or the serious student or disciple. This book goes far beyond the Eight-fold Path and the Four Noble Truths. For Westerners the book may be compared to Leviticus opposed to the Ten Commandments. Most people can name a couple commandments but few can give a detailed accounts of the laws in Leviticus; the same with The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet. 

The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet is a difficult book to review because it is mostly religious texts. It is difficult to critique something written 700 years ago from texts that are even older. If Buddhism is something that interests you in a deep or scholarly way, by all means read this book; it is an excellent study. If you have a passing interest in Buddhism or just starting out, come back for it when you are ready.

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Book Review: The New York Times: The Times of the Eighties: The Culture, Politics, and Personalities That Shaped the Decade

The New York Times: The Times of the Eighties: The Culture, Politics, and Personalities That Shaped the Decade by William Grimes. Is a snap of a decade of American pop culture. Grimes is the author of four books on food and drink and the current obituary writer for the New York Times. Previously he has been a magazine writer, book reviewer, theater columnist and food critic. 

I became a young adult in the early 1980s and hold that decade as the best time of my life. This book was a pleasant trip back to my younger years. Each chapter starts with a brief description of the subject: ranging from International News, Business, Science and Technology, Fashion and Style, Arts and Entertainment, Sports, and New York. The chapters are filled with color pictures and New York Times articles. The only writing is in the chapter introductions. The original articles and pictures make up the bulk of the chapter. 

I thought I would remember so much of the 1980s, but this book brought back so much and so many memories. Walter Cronkite left the CBS Evening News. Japan out produced the United States in car production. Many things I remember are in the book too. I remember cutting gym class in high school to go to the library and watch the launch of the first space shuttle: Columbia. I remember coming home to Cleveland from Europe (where I also found myself closer to the Chernobyl accident than I would have liked) and trying to buy leaded gas…it was gone. 

Some of the technology that blossomed in the 1980s, are already obsolete like the VCR, Walkman, and the disposable camera. The VCR was an amazing device back in the day; it was really something to record a show and watch it later; something taken for granted today. Some things went away quickly likeNew Coke and others lingered like the death sentence on Salmon Rushdie. Other things are still going like the Voyager spacecrafts that took the pictures of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s. The internet is one of the big successes of the 1980s, now matured and common as radio and newspapers back then. 

Any one remember Matthias Rust? That was quite a coup he pulled off. Remember the barge Mobro?

The New York section is particularly interesting, not being from New York I remember many of the stories: Koch, Goetz, the homeless problem, and the horrible rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. New York was the place where big things happened, good or bad and much more of a cultural center than Los Angles. 

This is an excellent book, the print copy will make an excellent coffee table book. I would recommend it to anyone in the forty-five to sixty age group. This was a great decade and those of us who lived it. So much history, culture, and, now, primitive technology. The new stories and pictures will bring the decade back to you. 

(I would also recommend this book to the younger crowd so that they can see what they missed out on.) 

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Book Review: The Last Girl On Earth: A Novel

The Last Girl On Earth: A Novel by Thomas Ryerson is one of Tom Ryerson’s latest works of fiction. Ryerson has released ten books, nine of which are fiction. This is my third book by the author and the second work of science fiction.

The Last Girl on Earth centers around Steve Hart and Clare Lomas two Ohio high school kids on a field trip with their class to Florida. After a prank at a party, the two find themselves locked in a fallout shelter. It is the next day when they find their way out, they find to their horror everyone is dead. Not just their classmates, but everyone. They are the last two people in the world. 

The two with little in common, except for Steve’s secret crush on Clare, plan their way home. The characters are likable and well developed in the story. Although they are in high school, they act more mature and the reader may think they are adults, but hints in the story remind you of their age. In the trauma or shock Clare becomes an animal rights activist for a short time and Steve does his best to keep everything together. Conversations begin as the two try to figure out what happened. Was it God who allowed this or Satan? Steve replies “You are going to think I am crazy Clare, but I don’t believe in Satan. Personally think that God is bi-polar, seriously. He or she has good days and bad days.” 

This is good escapist science fiction and the events are believable in the setting they are given. The trip home is filled with adventure. Questions play out in the story such as is it better to be alone or would new people be a relief? If there are others, would they be friendly or out to harm others? How long can you live on snack food? And will these two be able to tolerate each other? The plot answer these questions and keeps the readers interest. It is well thought out and flows well. 

The Last Girl on Earth is a great book for an afternoon escape. It is just the thing after a long hard work week. It was the perfect book for me this Sunday sitting on the front porch recovering a long work week and a pile of non-fiction books. For fans of science fiction, this book and writer deserves a look.

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Book Review: Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert that Changed the World

Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert that Changed the World by Eric Kirschbaum is a look back a at 1988 and the improbable concert that took place in East Germany. For those of us who are old enugh to remember a place called East Germany, it will take you back. Kirschbaum got the idea for the book in a taxi cab coming back from the 2002 Springsteen concert in Berlin. The cabby told him about the most incredible concert in Berlin that shook up the entire country.

Growing up in Cleveland, Bruce Springsteen was the patron saint of the city, so said WMMS. Every Friday at 5:00pm Born to Run would play as part of the weekend kick off. Long before Born in the USA, Springsteen sang of the blue collar life and trying to get ahead that really struck home. Well into adulthood and back at a blue collar job, Springsteen never left my music library. I remember him ranting against Reagan who wanted to use Born in the USA as a campaign song because it sounded patriotic, rather than a story of a veteran abandoned by his country.

In 1987, West German concerts at the Reichstag caused concern in East Germany as the building stood near the wall. Crowds of East Germans gathered at the wall to listen to the concerts which lead to confrontations with the East German Police. After attempts to negotiate with West Berlin to prevent the overflow of concert music from the isolated city of West Berlin failed, East Germany decided to hold their own concerts to appease the young and prevent violence.

The Free German Youth came up with a plan to get Springsteen to play East Berlin. Springsteen, not a Reagan supporter, seemed like a good choice. A liberal singer who wrote about the failure of the American dream would be the perfect person to appease the youth without harming the government’s authority. It was said that he also donated a printing press to Nicaragua. That printing press was used to sell the concert to the East German hierarchy and the Nicaragua connection almost ruined the concert the day before it started.

American music had a political voice and in my generation it was Bruce Springsteen and to some extent Patti Smith. takes you behind the scenes to the largest concert ever in East Germany. It is intriguing look back into the final days of the Cold War and the down fall of an entire political system. The system was cracking by the late 1980s, Glasnost, perestroika, and the general feeling of discontent by the youth of Eastern Europe became an unstoppable wave. Many people claim the have a role in bring down The Wall from Al Gore to David Hasselhoff, but only one was in East Germany in front of 300,000 people with a message of Rock and Roll and a message to take down the barriers separating people. A worthwhile read and look at a time that seems so far away.

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Book Review: The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman is a detailed account of historical philosophy in Western civilization. Herman earned his PhD from John Hopkins University. He has taught at several universities including Georgetown. Herman also won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age.

Western philosophy with its roots deeply set in ancient Greece and names familiar to all: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It’s modest beginnings with Socrates volunteering to drink hemlock as it is better to suffer a wrong than inflict it. His faithful student carries on and Plato keeps Socrates “alive” in his dialogs. It is Plato’s student that rises and breaks from him: Aristotle. The painting The School in Athens by Raphael shows the two great philosophers, center stage among many other philosophers. Plato is pointing to the heavens showing that all perfection, all knowledge and virtue, comes from above. Aristotle, pointing to the earth all knowledge is experienced. The other philosophers are discussed in the book, but clearly the two who made the greatest impact in the West were Plato and Aristotle. 

From Greece, we are taken to Rome and to early Christianity and through Medieval Europe. There is a battle between Aristotle and Plato. Plato worked well into the early thinking of the Church, but Aristotle did not fit as well but provided a realistic description of earth. Plato’s perfection in heaven and corruption on earth fit well with Christianity. Aristotle was science orientated. The story continues through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment. The French Revolution and Rousseau, all leave their mark on history and the story expands to Mill, Hegel, and Marx Then Modern times bloom in science with Darwin, Maxwell, and Einstein. Plato and Aristotle move through Western history competing for dominance only hitting a speed bump at Nietzsche, before moving ahead again. It moves through the rise of America and two bloody world wars to the current world situation. All these events and all this this history are connected back to a thought experiment of shadows on a cave wall. 

The Cave and the Light is an outstanding book covering the history of Western Philosophy. I have highlighted and noted more passages in this book than I have another book since graduate school. My background in philosophy mostly limited to political philosophy as and undergraduate and graduate student. I was pleasantly surprised to see an accurate portrayal of Machiavelli and that his support for a republic as well as his major work The Discourses on Livy, rather than the basic “ends justify the means” of the Cliff Note version of The Prince. The writing flows well,everything is connected, and concise. Herman provides sixty-seven pages of notes and a very useful eighteen pages of bibliography. This is an excellent read and reference book for those interested in Western Philosophy . Although it is not needed a basic background in history and philosophy is helpful. The Cave and the Light is a must read book: Five stars.

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