Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Review: A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps by Chris West

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris  West is a unique take on looking at history. West is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied economics and philosophy. He wrote his first book Journey into the Middle Kingdom after the traveling to China. His fiction includes theChina Quartet four crime novels based in the the People’s Republic of China. West’s other non-fiction include books on business and entrepreneurship.

Stamps are history. I remember having stamp albums as a child and going trough the pages studying the stamps from different countries. There was almost as much to learn from stamps as there was from books. I had nearly forgotten that old hobby until I saw West’s book.

West starts with the 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and ends with the 2012 1st Class stamp featuring a young Queen Elizabeth. Most stamps feature the current monarch’s profile with the exception of 1996-2012 when a small silhouette of the queen was used and other subjects where the main art of the stamp. Through time most of the stamps in the book displayed current events or anniversaries. There is a shift in the art work too reflecting the times. All of the stamps used are British except for a single German stamp from the interwar period. A 200 Mark stamp over printed 2 Million Marks reflecting the hyperinflation in Germany.

West writes a clear and easy to follow history of Britain. Each chapter starts with a stamp and a story connecting the stamp to a piece of history. Whether it is a new king, a royal wedding, or marking the death of the former Princess of Wales there is a piece of contemporary history connected to the stamp. Some history is less obvious, like an odd looking Christmas stamp, or a misplaced “46th” on a stamp, or even a minority occupying the center spot on a stamp. It is not only the history of the stamps but the history the British Post Office. At one time mail was delivered twelve times a day in London. The price of a stamp was cheap enough so that, as the author says, people posted letters then like people text today. The Post Office was one place where everyone was equal. Post office brought a standard rate for all letters, provided decent jobs, and operated a bank. The bank, unlike others at the time, was for the common people. Also mentioned several times in the book is Britain’s most famous postal employee (and author) Anthony Trollope.

Thirty-Six Postage Stamps is a fun and rather light historical read. It is a history book for those who really don’t like getting bogged done in dates and such. A single stamps followed by a story makes makes for a nice and informative read. For those who like history or stamp collecting it is still an excellent read. From early in Victoria’s rule until the present the reader will get a taste of British culture and history. An excellent read.

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Book Review: Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize by Sean B. Carroll is an account of two Frenchmen in different fields and the friendship that will come as a result of their life events. Carroll earned his BA in biology at Washington University in St. Louis. His PhD is in Immunology from Tufts Medical School, and he conducted his postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He has written several books in his field, most dealing with evolution. His research has centered around genes that control animal body patterns and and their role in the evolution of animal diversity.

Brave Genius is a departure from evolutionary biology for Carroll; instead of biology he writes history. Most of the book centers around France and World War II. There is a great deal of history of the war particularly from the French perspective. Accounts of the French resistance fighters are recorded in “Combat” written in part by resistance member Albert Camus. Likewise a biologist, studying sugar preferences of bacteria, and musician found himself in the resistance movement. Writer Albert Camus and biologist Jacques Monod will both excel in their field and win Nobel Prizes.

Carroll gives a reader a personal look at World War II and its influence on particularly Camus. Camus’ The Plague will be an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. This was also the time Camus began work on The Myth of Sisyphus— a book on revolt and the will to live. Both Camus and communist Monod became disenchanted with Stalin’s version communism. Monod who write and editorial in “Combat”criticizing the Soviet Union’s Lysenko. Later Camus would write “The Blood of the Hungarians” in 1957. Camus would later go on to investigate two major questions. How to find meaning in existence and how could another war be prevented. Monod would reappear from the underground return to his family and continue his research. He would also become involve in Hungary by helping a colleague escape the totalitarian state.

Carroll combines World War II and Cold War history and their two forms of totalitarian governments against the want of the people to be free. Both men would also work inside France for freedom. Camus for a free Algeria and Monod with student unrest in 1968. What makes men great is their work beyond their vocations. Both risked their lives fighting Nazism. Both opposed Soviet communism. Camus lost a friend, Sartre, in that dispute. Monod saved a colleague.

Brave Genius is a very well written account of two of the greatest twentieth century Frenchmen. Carroll writes a compelling history and interlaces into it the work and lives of Camus and Monod. The historical events are written in detail and bring out the events that made the men and lead to their humanitarian actions. The book is very well documented and very well worth the read. Highly recommended for those interested in, or wanting to learn about Camus, Monod, and the world in their life time.


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Book Review: Beyond Birkie Fever

Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein

Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein is his personal experiences in marathon cross country skiing. He has written at least five novels in the fantasy genre, something people my age would call D&D type books, which I will need to look at. He was born and currently owns a bike and ski shop in Wisconsin. Rhein stumbled across my blog and asked if I was willing to review the book. I didn’t make the connection immediately until he said he owned a bike shop and that one of the legends of the Birkies was recently killed by a car while riding his bicycle. That knocked it up on my to read list.

The Birkie, the 41st annual Birkebeiner for 2014, is a marathon cross-country skiing race through rolling hills of Wisconsin. The race began in 1973, inspired from the Birkebeiner skiers who took the the king’s son to safety in the Norwegian civil war in 1206. Norway revived the tradition as a race in 1932, burdening the participants with a carrying a non-food item weight to symbolize the the prince. Apparently bonking and the temptation to eat the “prince” may have been too strong for many. Tony Wise started the tradition in the United States in 1973 with thirty five participants the event has grown to 13,000 participants, including the author.

Rhein’s story starts early in his life with a growing attachment to skiing and equipment and training. Skiing, I have learned, is much like cycling. There is the whole right equipment thing: right clothing, ski wax (tires), roller skiing (trainer or rollers), cross-training, and getting ready for “the season.” He captures the obsession with a clear, but you can feel the excitement, writing style. I was a bit skeptical when I first picked up the book. Skiing? It is 111 degrees in Dallas as I write this. The writing style is catchy and keeps the reader interested. Obsession is obsession and easy to relate to. From being flying to Australia, only to get sick, and race sick; to “hey why not run a marathon”. Misery sometimes makes the best memories.

Beyond Birkie Fever is definitely a fun read no matter what your opinion of skiing. There is a common ground for athletes of all sports and all levels and it can be found in this book. Highly recommended for all who ski, bike, run, swim, hike, climb mountains, or those who want to look into the the mind of those with a healthy obsession.

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Book Review: Her House and Other Poems

Her House and Other Poems by Donna Marie (Pitino) Merritt

Her House and Other Poems by Donna Marie Merritt is her fourth book of poetry. Merritt lives in Connecticut and is also the author of fifteen award winning children’s books.

Merritt has a knack for connecting her experiences in such a way that you can relate to them on the same level. I see her turtle in “Rescued by a turtle” sliding off his perch into the water in the pond on my ride to work. She captures the little things and simple things we all see and put away in the back of our minds until her words brings them back. The read will say, “Yes, exactly, I know that place.” or “I know that exact feeling.” and makes the reader wonder if he or she was there experiencing the event.

There are also the less pleasant things, like people knocking on your door soliciting their version of God or those annoying TV contestants who all have a perfectly happy well adjusted families and not “My spouse is lying, lazy loud jerk…” Or the times we need to pretend that everything is okay.

There are plenty of good times recorded in Her House. From a nice glass of wine, to making do in a power outage, and personal memories. Merritt has very unique ability to capture the ordinary and replay it back as extraordinary. Her previous two books that I have read, Job Loss and What’s Wrong with Ordinary are excellent, and here her newest is just as well done but with a wider variety poems, not limited by a theme.

Her House is a perfect book for a day at the park (even in the Texas summer heat) or a lazy Sunday afternoon. Merritt has become one of my favorite contemporary poets. Her observations and ability to retell her experiences are amazing. I am very much looking forward to her next collection.

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Book Review: What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World: Religion, Politics, Spirituality

“How consoling it is for me to know that, all over the world there are millions of people who, five times a day, bow down before God.” Pope Pius XII

What Does Islam Mean in Today's World?: Religion, Politics, Spirituality
What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World: Religion, Politics, Spirituality By William Stoddart is an examination of Islam and a comparison to other religions. Stoddart was born in southern Scotland in 1925. He studied language and later earned a medical degree. He has translated many works into English and was assistant editor to the British journal Studies in Comparative Religion. Soddart is considered one of the most important writers on Perennial Philosophy.

In What Does Islam Mean Soddart attempts give an unbiased opinion of Islam. He shows that Islam historically had made exceptions for “people of the book” – Christians and Jews and to some extent Hinduism. In 1097 when the crusaders took Jerusalem they killed all the people in the city, Jews, Muslims, Non-Catholic Christians: men women and children. When Saladin’s troops entered Jerusalem no one was killed. Catholics were given safe passage out of the city and Jews ans Eastern Catholics stayed. Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans all had their episodes of violence. Christianity has changed in modern times. It has become more humanist and its growing indifference had lead to the toleration of other religions. 

The indifference has spread to the treatment of women. The Bible, Old and New Testament, allow for rather harsh treatment women, even when compared to Islam today. Polygamy in Islam is brought by Christians while ignoring King David, King Solomon, and prophets had more, some many more than one wife. 

What does religion mean. Many say Christianity means, democracy, all men are created equal, free press, modern science (except for evolution and the Big Bang), and peace. All are incorrect. “I come not to bring peace but the sword.” are words attributed to Jesus and not Mohamed (Mathew 34:10). Islam is not a monolithic religion. It has it zealots like the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia, revolutionaries of Iran, Secularist in Iraq and what can be called ordinary Muslims like the former King of Jordan or the worshipers of the mosque on the corner of my street. 

Soddart tries to explain Islam from a neutral point. I think he succeeds, but many Christians and Muslims will disagree. Just like Catholics and Pentecostals or Sunni and Shiite won’t agree. For those with an open mind and a willingness to listen (or read), this short book provides much insight. The author attempts to provide some neutral information in the wake of September 11th and help set the record straight.

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Book Review: Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” …”(Sisyphus) is superior to his fate. He is Stronger than his rock.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Stay by Jennifer Michael Hecht
Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht is a history of suicide and the historical views of suicides though time. Hecht earned her PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and studied at the Universite de Caen and Universite d’ Angers. She teaches poetry and philosophy in the Graduate Writing Program of The New School. Hecht has published three other books on history and two books of poetry along with numerous articles.

This is a book that I wanted to read but still harbored some hesitation about reading. Like the author, I lost a close friend through suicide just over six years ago. It is something that changes your views and begin to question many previously held ideas. I makes you think, “How could I have not seen this coming.” and makes you second guess many things. The reason I chose to read this book was on the expectation that a favorite writer’s work would be included: Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus. Ironically, I first picked this book up at the library on March 14th. It would be a few days later I found out my friend killed herself that same day.

Suicide has been around since man has been around. From Socrates choosing to to drink hemlock before the state forced him to do so, to (although not covered in the book) a soldier diving on a grenade to save his colleagues lives in Iraq; it can be considered heroic. Other times it is viewed as a weak and cowardly act. Seldom it it viewed as a neutral act. Religion has played a role in stopping suicide. Islam expressly forbids it. Christianity has never embraced it except for a few instances. Martyrs who kept their faith rather than denying it and living were embraced. Augustine and later Aquinas both debated that Jesus’ death was in fact suicide, since he could have saved himself at any time but chose to give up his spirit. Otherwise suicide is considered stealing from God; God gave you life and only he has the right to take it away. Jews typically forbid suicide, but Masada is an exception. There always seems to be exceptions.

There are more suicides worldwide than murders. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. More people take their own lives than are murdered, but the news and TV drama shows are filled with stories of murder, but rarely suicide. When suicide is in the news it is usually a celebrity, which in turn causes a spike in suicides. Suicide Clusters are seen in sociological studies. Where one suicide takes place there is an increase in suicides nearby. There is also a link inside families. Sylvia Plath killed herself and forty-six years later her son killed himself. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway’s father killed himself, in 1961 Hemingway killed himself and in 1996 his granddaughter, Margaux took her own life.

Suicide is an issue that although most people, philosophers, and religions find wrong, there are always loopholes. No matter how hard we try to understand or just out right ban suicide, it is still with us. We seem no closer to finding a solution. In fact suicide rates are on the rise; 30% from 1999 to 2010. Hecht brings together some of the great thinkers and religions to bring rational thought to an act that most of us cannot understand and could not go through with. The writing is clear and well documented. Most importantly, she reminds the reader that no matter what, first chose to stay.

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Book Review: The Battle over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism through the Media

The Battle over Marriage by Leigh Moscowitz

The Battle over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism through the Media by Leigh Moscowitz is a look at the gay marriage through the media and public opinion. Moscowitz is an associate professor of communications at the College of Charleston and teaches Mass Media in the Digital Age, Gender in Media, and graduate level courses in Gender, Race, and Media. She earned her PhD in Mass Communications from Indiana University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

We have seen all the bumper stickers from “It’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” to “I’m sorry if gay marriage ruins the sanctity of your fourth marriage” and everything in between. Today it seems that gay marriage is well on its way to being accepted or at least the law. Thirteen states have legalized same sex marriage. These states are considered progressive, liberal, or blue states, with the notable exception of Iowa. This is a huge change in the last ten years since the overturning of sodomy laws (in Texas and thirteen other states) with Lawrence v. Texas.

Battle tells the history of media coverage and the history of gay rights in the United States. From the 1940s gays being considered deviants and unfit to serve in WWII, to the 1950s and being in league with communists, to Anita Bryant’s crusade and seedy bathhouses of the 1970s, to ACT UP in the 1980s, to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell of the 1990s, to gradual acceptance in the new century. Change has came from two areas. One is how the media covers gay marriage putting it in a more tasteful light than two guys passionately kissing on camera. Secondly, the gay rights movement’s own growing up and making themselves seem acceptable to the average American (Christian, conservative, fence sitter, or other non-liberal). Having “acceptable” spokes couple who talk about their relationship in the same way other couples do, sends a better message than a wild 1970s Gay Pride parades. It has become a matter of image – much like using the almost cliché comparison if the civil rights movement, but who had the bigger effect on the civil rights movement Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers? I fully believe in civil rights for all, but to sell it to the American public it needs to be packaged right.

I am old enough to remember the 1970s gay rights and Anita Bryant. I also remember being in the Marines were it was a punishable offense for not reporting a fellow Marine who was a homosexual. Times change and The Battle over Gay Marriagetakes you through the times and shows you the changes and with the changes in public opinion. Moscowitz writes an excellent history and makes full use of her educational background to show the evolution of what can only be described as a civil rights issue in America. The writing is excellent and well documented. A very good read for anyone interested in the the Gay Marriage issue and its history.

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Book Review: Assault From the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam

Assault from the Sky by Dick Camp

Assault From the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam by Dick Camp is a comprehensive history of Marine Corps’ helicopter operations in Vietnam from 1962 through 1975. Camp, Colonel Camp USMC retired, is the author of several books on the combat history of the US Marines. His books cover World War I to Fallujah. Camp served as a company commander at Khe Sanh and retired in 1988. He is currently the Vice President for Museum Operations at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

During the thirteen years of the Marine Corps’ involvement in Vietnam, over four hundred helicopters were lost along with eight hundred Marines either as crew or passengers. Each chapter of the book contains the citations of medals earned by Marines in helicopter missions. Descriptions of heroism fill the book. Numerous Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Naval Commendation Medals, and even a few Medals of Honor.

In the first section of the book, Buildup 1962-1966, Marines begin their involvement in Vietnam. Marines started transporting South Vietnamese troops in 1962 in UH-34 helicopters. Helicopters that the army considered out of date and no longer used. The Marines used these helicopters with distinction. Marines, although not in direct combat, still needed to defend their air bases from Vietnamese sappers — Company sized units armed with explosives and grenades lead organized attacks against the bases and helicopters.

In the second section, Heavy Combat 1967-1969, Marines are involved in combat, transporting troops, and picking up wounded. Marines again demonstrate the highest traditions of the Corps. Flying into danger to rescue wounded and trapped Marines became common practice for the Marine helicopter crews. Actions at Khe Sanh are covered in detail.

In the final section of the book, The Bitter End 1975, Marines are involved in the evacuation of Americans from Vietnam. In the previous section I ran across the name Lt. Colonel Richard E. Carey as he described the Super Gaggle and what made it a success. In this section Colonel Carey is referred to as Brigadier General Carey and plays an important role in the evacuation of Vietnam.

I met General Carey a year ago. He happened to stop at the bicycle shop where I work. Carey was my commanding general when I was at Quantico. We talked for a bit about Quantico and the Marine Corps Marathon and it was quite a bit different talking to the general now then it was 30 years ago when I had been a private fresh out of Parris Island standing in a CG inspection. He had an outstanding career and it is even more remarkable the role he played in the evacuation of Vietnam.

Assault From the Sky is an excellent history of the Marine Corps’ helicopter missions in Vietnam. The book is very well cited in the text and in the bibliography. Information comes from published sources, units records, and personal interviews. Camp does an excellent job of presenting the strategic history as well as the views of the Marines who were actually there. This is an outstanding book for readers interested in Vietnam, military aviation, or the Marine Corps.

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Book Review: Francis of Assisi: The Life

Francis of Assisi: The Life by Augustine Thompson is a comprehensive biography about one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved saints. Thompson earned is BA and MA at John Hopkins. He earned a second BA in Philosophy and a MDiv from Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. His PhD is from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at several universities, published several book and articles.

St. Francis has quite a romanticized history. Pictures of him surrounded by small animals and a missionary of peace, kindness, and genteelness is how I remember him from my days in Catholic school. Thompson mentions some newer views of Francis:

“Francis was a free spirit, a wild religious genius, a kind of medieval hippie, misunderstood and then exploited by the”Medieval Church.” Or perhaps they know him as the man who spoke to animals, a nature mystic, an ecologist, a pacifist, a feminist, a voice for our time.”

Francis was born into a well off home, was educated, and quite a party guy. He went to war, fought, held as a prisoner, and was quite a changed man on his return. He was haunted by strange dreams and from the descriptions of his behavior sound much like post traumatic stress syndrome. Francis felt a great guilt and openly gave alms to the poor. He drifted from his family and displayed eccentric behavior. He began a life of poverty. He exchanged manual labor for food and shelter and worked with lepers. Along with two other penitents he went to Rome to ask to start an order. He managed to see the pope and was told to go on his quest see if he could bring in new followers. He spent his life dedicated to hard work, giving to the poor, and embracing the cross. Francis called this as leaving the world.

As far as the animals, Francis did have a way with them. There are numerous stores from before his sainthood that show a special connection, although not as great as his post sainthood stories. Interestingly, although he is known for releasing animals given to him and his circle for food, he had no prohibition against eating meat. Francis took the bible’s “Then let us eat what is put before us.” literally when it came to eating meat.

Thompson shows that Francis did exhibit some questionable behavior that would seem not too rational. Despite everything, Francis is dedicated to his mission. He would not accept money in exchange for his labor, only food or shelter. He does many things to show his faith and never waivers. Whether or not the reader is Catholic or Christian there is much to be learned and admired from St. Francis. Thompson writes an excellent biography and documents his work very well. It is quite an accomplishment to retrieve this much detailed information on a man who lived almost 1,200 years ago. A very good read for anyone interested in the Medieval Church, the Franciscan Order, or a story of a great man.

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Book Review: A Garden of Fools

A Garden of Fools by Greg Logsted

A Garden of Fools by Greg Logsted is a book about… well, it’s like what Douglas Adams did to space, but done to 1970 New York City. Logsted has written a few other books and according to his biography likes climbing ladders and drinking coffee. Connecticut seems to be a gravity well that allows him to escape for only short periods of time before being pulled back.

This is not going to be a typical review by me. This is not a typical book. It’s like Douglas Adams meets, Selby Jr, meets Mellick III. It has something of everything from the early 1970s New York. There’s Abbie Hoffman, John and Yoko, Richard Nixon, Bob Dylan, a U.S. Senator,The Village People, Vietnam, Kent State, politics, and, why not, Clint Eastwood too.

The Story begins when Everett Dewitt, nephew of U.S. Senator “Dimwit” Dewitt believes he sees God occupying the body of Bartholomew, a man who seems to look like a long haired version of Michael Moore. There is Bartholomew’s girl friend Tayna who is a communist and is constantly pestered by Bob Dylan. There is a police detective who think Everette and Bartholomew are part of a criminal conspiracy. There is Senator Dewitt’s re-election campaign and to complicate things a bit farther one or more of the characters may have taken LSD. It is reminiscent of the TV show SOAP, but instead of The Major it has The Colonel.

This book is a riot. I am not usually a fan of comedies, but I was drawn in with the the 1970 New York City description. There is comedy on the surface as well as a bit of subsurface comedy those around in the ’70s will catch. I was completely pulled into the story, or rather the characters. The plot is unimportant and will keep you wondering where you are headed too. The cliché “it’s not the destination, but the journey” describes this book well. I usually keep myself to non-fiction or classic literature, but every once in a while a book will jump out say “read me, read me!” and I listen. I was not disappointed with A Garden of Fools. A great read for all.

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