Monthly Archives: October 2013

Book Review: 1914: The Year the World Ended

1914 by Paul Ham

1914: The Year the World Ended by Paul Ham is a a lead up to the start of WWI. Ham earned his master’s in economics from the London School of Economics. He worked as business and investment journalist in London and later as the Australian correspondent to The London Sunday Times. Ham has since became a historian specializing in 20th century war, politics, and diplomacy. His other books have received critical acclaim in Australia and Britain. In 2014, his book Hiroshima Nagasaki will be published in the United States. 1914 will be released in Australia next year for the 100th year anniversary of World War I.

I am extremely happy to receive an advanced copy of this book. Australian publications for review are hard to come by in the United States and I am grateful for this one. World War I has always been a favorite historical topic of mine. It setup the world I grew up in. I am also thankful for the Australians who served and for the country that, unlike the US, still considers WWI an important event in its history. 

1914 a very detailed history of the events leading to war. In every history I read, I pick up a few new pieces of information or see ideas expanded upon. A few of the many points brought out are will be covered in this review. Mobilization of troops was, in the past, considered nor necessarily a prelude to war but more so saber rattling. The years leading up to the war, that changed. By 1914 mobilization was considered an act of war. The change that made this happen was railroads. Railroads allowed for the rapid deployment of troops to neighboring counties’ borders. Mobilization now became an immediate threat. There was now no lag time from mobilization to invasion.

Alliances and neutrality played a major role in the war, as everyone who has taken a world history class already knows. It is not so much the alliances that caused the problem but the players. Germany takes the lion’s share of the blame for the war. The Kaiser did agree to support Austria-Hungary in the event of attack from Russia, but never thought Austria-Hungary would drag Germany into war. The Kaiser thought Serbia was humiliated in their reply to Austria-Hungary and thought the matter was settled with honor. He promptly went on vacation. Franz Josef reaction to the assassination is not what was expected. He did not allow his son to be buried in the family vault or invite foreign heads of state to the funeral. He was not interested in going to war, but others forced his hand. 

The Ottoman Empire was called the Sick Old Man of Europe during the war, but Austria-Hungary was not far behind. Ham describes the Hapsburgs not as Emperors, but landlords. There was no real unity in the country: several languages, several nationalities with the only common thread being lines drawn on a map putting them all in the same country. There was nothing to rally behind. Evidence of this becomes clear in Austria-Hungary failed miserably in its attempt to subdue Serbia. In fact most of the war history concerns German aggression and the Western Front. The entire premise for the war, the retaliation for the assassination, all gets pushed aside in history. 

1914 is an excellent political and diplomatic history of the events leading up the the war. Ham highlights some lesser known points and downplays others like the German naval build up. I received what I was looking for in this book a view of the lead up to the war from a source other than the American perspective. The book is well written and easy to follow. The documentation is outstanding taking up nearly a quarter of the book. This is an remarkable history and recommended to anyone who can get a copy.

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Book Review: Deep Winter: A Novel

Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey

Deep Winter: A Novel by Samuel W. Gailey is a small town murder story. Gailey is from rural Pennsylvania and earned his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. His previous work was the indie comic book Sanctum. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angles. 

Rural Pennsylvania in the 1980s has always had some secrets; now it has a murder. Wyalusing is like many small towns. Everyone knows everyone and no one really changes. The story centers around Danny. Danny nearly drowned as a youth after falling through the ice in a pond. That event changed him. The lack of oxygen affected his development and he grew physically but not mentally. Most of the town’s people avoid the two hundred and fifty pound Danny. Despite his size, Danny is a kind and gentle. Some people have tormented him since childhood, including the town’s deputy. Mindy, a childhood friend who shares the same birthday with him is his only friend. Danny decides to visit Mindy on her birthday to give her a hand carved robin. Upon reaching her trailer he finds her naked and in a twisted heap on the floor. This is where the story begins. 

Contemporary fiction is a hit but mostly a miss with me. My usual tastes run toward darker, underground fiction of the the 1970s. The “Rural Noir” tag for this book caught my attention. Not so much the rural, but the noir. Deep Winter captures the every bit of the darkness of a Selby Jr, novel and relocates it in rural Pennsylvania . Usually its the big, unknown, bleak city that sets the tone. Here in the rural Pennsylvania it is almost a claustrophobic effect. You almost feel trapped inside the town. With the exception of the state trooper, it seems that everyone in the town has always been there. No one has left and no one new has come in.

I will put Deep Winter in the hit category. The reading was quick and the pace of the story was steady and easy to follow. The story telling shifts between the main players and the story is told from their view point. Everyone has something to hide either in their past or the present. The characters, love them or hate them, are very real and very well developed. The plot is also very well developed and flows extremely well. Although, you hope things will work out well, you never can predict how things will work out or even if they will work out. Deep Winter is an exciting, fast paced novel with plenty to offer in the way of suspense. Highly recommended for crime novel fans and those who like a darker, real world story. 

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Book Review: The Railwayman’s Pocket Book: Instructions for Engine Drivers & Firemen on the Great Railways

The Railwayman's Pocket Book by Richard Hardy

The Railwayman’s Pocket Book: Instructions for Engine Drivers & Firemen on the Great Railways edited by Richard Hardy is a collection of old railroad documents, instructions, and manuals for steam engines. Hardy is a forty-two year veteran of the London & North Eastern Railway and British Railways. He began his apprenticeship in 1941 and worked his way from boiler man to electrician on the new diesel engines. He writes the introduction and gives a short biography.

The documents presented in the book range from 1893 through 1947 and cover various aspects of locomotive era railways. It was an era where apprenticeship and evaluations controlled a person’s progress. So many hours and miles were needed and a test must be passed before rising in class, duties, and responsibilities. In many ways the old railroad was run much the way the military was run when I served. Promotions were based on merit and experience and the entire operation ran like a modern military. The rail worker had responsibilities coming on to a shift, the yard were regulated and restricted. Instructions and signals were standardized and some seem a bit humorous today. “The STOP SIGNAL is shown by holding both arms straight up, thus, or by waving any object with violence.” The testing covered practical duties: “How do you make a fire with Welsh coal?” and “In what condition should the engine be in before starting with a train.” The manuals cover practical subjects of engine mechanics and configuration, the proper fire in the boiler, safety, and security. Technology of the time was covered with coal loading and the rather amazing process of scooping water from a trough to feed a boiler. This was an innovation that allowed additional water for steam to be brought on board without stopping the train. 

It is a short book, but the primary source material is an excellent reference to an era long gone. Although plenty of areas still run steam engines from outside my current home in Dallas, Texas and my hometown’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, it for recreation and nostalgia. It is part of a history that built nations and helped industrialize the world. A very good read for railroad historians and train lovers.

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Book Review: A Man

A Man by Oriana Fallaci

A Man by Oriana Fallaci is the fictionalized story of Alexandros Panagoulis’ political life. Fallaci had a long and colorful career. She was part of the anti-fascist resistance in WWII, a war correspondent in Vietnam, Indo-Pakistani War, the Middle East, and South America. She was also shot and left for dead in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Fallaci has a long list of important interviews including: Kissinger, Khomeini (who she addressed as “Tyrant”), The Shah, Gaddafi, Arafat, Golda Meir, Walesa, Zulfikar Bhutto, and Giap. Her affair with Panagoulis is the inspiration for this book.

Fallaci was no stranger to controversy and a strict supporter of all antifascist movements; she is not shy about her positions or her words. Panagoulis was arrested in the attempted assassination of the Greek dictator Papadopoulos. Sentenced to death Panagoulis, is transferred to an island prison to await execution. Hour by hour, the execution is delayed until he is transferred several times only to find out that his sentence has been commuted to life. Panagoulis plays the role of hero and endures unbelievable treatment: small cell, no cot, hands remained cuffed for months. Yet at all times he remains defiant. He makes demands, knowing that the prison wardens can not allow him to die. International pressure has spared him from the firing squad and future harm. He escapes and is captured, attempts again and is foiled in the process. He refuses amnesty, but is released under a general amnesty. From then on, he tries to find his way through the new political system until his untimely death.

Normally I would not give out so much information even though it is mostly history, but Fallaci reveals most of the history quickly in the book. At the darkest moments for Panagoulis, she inserts future events like his election to parliament or mentions his death in the future. It is a very different writing style. She write most of the book in second person which initially seemed annoying but quickly grew on me. The first section which takes up the first third of the book cover’s Panagoulis’ assassination attempt, trial, and imprisonment. This is by far the part of the book. The story telling is outstanding and the character of Panagoulis extremely well developed and detailed. You feel for him in prison. He is a man that Camus developed in The Myth of Sisyphus — he laughs in the face of the absurd. Perhaps this very Camusesque portrayal is what pulled me into the book. 

After the first section the book changes. Fallaci’s (and Panagoulis’) politics take over the book. Mistrust of the right and the left surface. America occupies a special place. A democracy, but one so powerful it does not have to respect the opinions and rights of other countries Allande’s Chile to make the point. Panagoulis visits the Soviet Union and sees that is fake. Conspiracies abound. Panagoulis sounds more like a paranoid than a politician on many occasions. Granted his years in prison and solitary did not help his mental health.

Since this book is written as fiction one is hard pressed to know what is real and what is propaganda. Even with a history degree, I knew little of modern Greek history. I knew the name Papadopoulos, but that was all, and I will admit to being surprised that a modern European county and NATO ally was ruled by a dictator. Papadopoulos was supported by the United States so his legitimacy may have been skipped over in my education. 

I absolutely loved the first section of the book. It was inspiring and extremely well written. Although I feel second half of the book is not as developed as the first it is still a worthy read. Four star rating reflects a five star first half and a three star second half.

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Book Review: Once You Break a Knuckle

Once You Break a Knuckle: Stories by D.W. Wilson is a collection of short stories based out of British Columbia. Wilson was born and raised in small towns in British Columbia. He has earned his PhD in creative writing from the University of East Angilia in Norwhich. He has the novel Ballistics to his credit as well as being shortlisted for several awards as well as winning the BBC National Short Story Award for “The Dead Roads, a short story that appears in this collection.

Short stories tend to be difficult for me. When I read a story I like it to go on for a while and have the fundamentals of a story: Setting, characters, plot, climax, conclusion. Most collections of short story collections I have read seem to lack this and are a collection of disjointed stories that seem to have the same appeal of asking some on how was work today? There might be an interesting bit here or there but most of the time its pretty slow.

As I got a story or two into Once You Break a Knuckle, I found a theme. Intended or not, I thought if Bruce Springsteen wrote short stories, it would be like this. There’s a car (cobalt colored Camaro), several women, some regrets, the guy thing, and a story of a mathematician that really reminded me of parallel universe version of “Racing in the Street.” It is otherwise very blue collar and even includes a “State Trooper” (RCMP) and a wounded veteran coming home. Intermixed are some requiring themes of Kokanee beer, t-shirts and coffee mugs with corny but applicable sayings printed on them. It’s almost like Asbury Beach, NJ and Invermere, BC are sister cities. 

This is a great collection of stories. The most of the stories interconnect and the standalones do not leave you hanging or feeling like you walked in to a middle of a conversation and left before it was over. The characters are well developed and at times it seems like you are reading a memoir rather than stories. Collections like this one restore my faith in short story collections. An excellent read for all.

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Book Review: Cutting Right to the Chase: 6×1000 Word Stories of Unusual Crimes

Cutting Right to the Chase

Cutting Right to the Chase: 6×1000 Word Stories of Unusual Crimes by Stefania Mattana is a refreshing crime chapbook. Mattana was born and raised in Italy and currently lives in London. She has a masters in sociology and uses it as a community planner. You can read her her other work on The Huffington Post UK and OnRugby.

One of the nice things about Twitter is the people you meet. The other day I got a message that Stefania Mattana was following me on Twitter. I looked at her profile and saw it was another writer so I gave her profile a quick glance through, expecting the next of many emo vampire or apocalyptic Christian novel writers. I was pleasantly surprised to see a young woman with a defiant look about her and a warning to be nice or you’ll wind up in her next he next crime novel. I was sold on giving one of her books a try.

I chose the first book of the short crime stories featuring former London Police Office Chase Williams. Williams, since leaving the police, has moved to Tursenia, Italy. His time is occupied assisting Inspector Alunni in a variety of minor, but unusual, crimes. Chase, seems like a good guy, maybe a little cocky, but he does solve the mysteries others can’t. I tried to place where I might know Chase from and it dawned on me. For those old enough to remember the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, Chase may well be who Encyclopedia Brown grew up to be.

The stories are good and very complete considering the word limit. At risk of dating myself again, they were very reminiscent of the Two Minute Mysteries series of books I read as a young adult. After a brief exchange with the author I found out that the books were intended for adults but some readers and reviewers have attached the Young Adult label to the books. The author is not bothered by this and welcomes the larger audience.

I enjoyed the writing style. English is a second language for Mattana, but her writing is clear and unaffected by any language barrier. In fact, I very much enjoyed the writing style. The English was excellent, but it had something extra. The author’s Italian came out in more than just the setting and a passing phrase. The writing seems to hold an intriguing accent to the English language in a very positive way – Think of Sophia Loren speaking. Mattana can also turn a phrase. “…he only knew that Pollicino was married to a tall woman with a nose so sharp that you could cut glass with it… “

This was quite an enjoyable book and a very nice break in my steady diet of non-fiction. It is also nice to be able to pick up a book and know that you are able to finish the chapter even if you only have ten minutes. It is also nice in modern electronic world to find new authors on other continents and make the short trip to and pick up their latest book and have it delivered to your Kindle. There are a few more books in the Chase series and I am looking forward to reading them. Truly and enjoyable experience.


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Book Review: New and Selected Poems

“What you call freedom
I call privilege
what you call law
I call biology
what you call liberty
I call pornography”

– Three “Dialogs of One”

New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

New and Selected Poems by David Lehman is a collection of poems spanning forty years and compiled from seven different collections. Lehman is the son of Holocaust refugees and grew up in northern Manhattan. He attended Columbia University and Cambridge University on a Kellett Fellowship. On his return he earn his PhD in English from Columbia. He teaches at The New School in New York City and is the editor of The Best American Poetry.

I will freely admit that I am new to reviewing poetry. I have had the college experience of iambic meter and rhyming couplets. I know the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry. I know the “Fields of Flanders” and a little Rimbaud and Blake. I read Frost and dabbled in Sackville-West. I know more that my average colleague, one who informed me that “Poetry must rhyme, but not too much. If it rhymes too much it’s rap.” So I am slightly ahead of the average American curve. Which brings me to Lehman.

His style varies I very much enjoyed “Anna K.” a poem about Anna Karenina. I saw it and recognized it as poetry. “Goethe’s Night song” a very short poem, but one of vivid imagery. “Yours the Moon” is a beautiful poem, it creates images and moves you and holds you in:

Yours the moon
mine the Milky
Way a scarf

around my neck
I love you
as the night

loves the moon’s
dark side as
the sky, distant,

endless, wears her
necklace of stars
over her dress

under my scarf
that she wears
against the cold

It’s like slow dancing, at night, under are bright sign, overlooking the whole valley. It is what someone described as “That perfect feeling when time just slips*.” That perfect moment we hope to find no matter how many years it takes. It is precisely what poetry strives to be.

Other poems go into something that is even more free than what I know as free verse. They form almost essays. “The Count” is a telling of the similarity of poker and the ball and strike count against the batter in baseball. The imagery is excellent, but it is written as a paragraph. Some poems bridge the gap between the two forms. “Election Day” is a narrative in poem form. The same with “Desolation Row.” Both poems tell a story and use line length and punctuation to give structure to the form. Also this format is used in“The World Trade Center” and how the thought of them being ugly monoliths changed in one moment in 1993. Other poems lose structure and the story becomes more important. Several poems deal with Judaism and persecution and the Holocaust. There the message is makes it poetry rather than any format. “A Little History” opens:

Some people find out they are Jews.
They can’t believe it.
They always hated Jews.

Not all the poems are serious “Sexism” is satire. “Ode“ is our perceptions. “The Code of Napoleon” is history. There is something for everyone in this collection. Not everything is what a lay person would think of as poetry in form, but where it lacks in form it more than makes up in its message. It took me sometime to adjust to some of the format, but once I did I was glad I stayed with it. His more traditional poems are really incredible, some even stunning. A very worthy collection. One that will keep and continue to bring enjoyment.

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Book Review: Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

They shall grow not old, as we that are left to grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
– “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology edited by Tim Kendall is a collection of British poems on the First World War. Kendall is Head of English at the University of Exeter and former editor of the poetry journal Thumbscrew. He has served as a lecturer and has published two collections: one of poetry and the other of essays. 

Anyone who has read my reviews knows my position on World War I. It was the starting part of the the twentieth century. Mechanized warfare, air-power, armor all saw their start as tools of war. Alliances that started the war would become alliances that kept the peace in the Cold War. Empires fell and communism rose. It would directly contribute to the start of World War II and indirectly to the Cold War. It was the decade the world lost it innocence. War lost its romance. World War I was the last war where wrote songs to support the war. It was the last war that the poets would honor. 

Each poet’s poems begin with a short biography of the poet. The poets come from all walks of life — from landed gentry to a tailor’s son. Kendall, in his introduction, goes into other aspects of the war like the change from youthful idealism to bitterness of the technological slaughter on the grandest scale. The writing of the poems range from 1914 to 1966. The poets are all from Britain or Ireland. Some lived long lives and some did not make it home from the war. There has never been a war like World War I and never one like it since. Wars have been more violent, more technological, more devastating, but never more critical in changing mankind’s view of war and of man himself. 

The poets had different views. Yeat’s wanted to see Germany defeated, but was hesitant to throw his support behind an imperialist empire that had not given his home country of Ireland Home Rule. May Sinclair was a volunteer in an Ambulance corps in Belgium. She felt betrayed and and expressed her betrayal in her poem “Journal” after finding out she was no longer welcome in the ambulance corps. Thomas Hardy only wrote three patriotic poems because he claimed he did not write patriotic poems well; most of his poems were darker and much sadder. Kipling recalled and compared the war to the Boer War and expanded to “Tin Fish” (submarines) and the well known poem “My Boy Jack.” 

Wilfrid Gibson manages to capture life of the front line soldier in “Between the Lines”although he only drove trucks in the war, in London. Margaret Postgate Cole wrote the moving “The Falling Leaves” far removed from the war. Wilfred Owen experienced the war first hand. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Disabled” show the realities of the war. That reality is reinforced by the fact that Owen was killed one week before the armistice. 

Kendall combines some well known wartime poets with some obscure poets. Not every poet is in this collection, but the range and variety are very well done. This collection is an excellent reference for anyone interested in World War I or poetry of the early twentieth century. This is a book worthy of any bookshelf.

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Book Review: Lost Beneath the Ice: The Story of HMS Investigator

Lost Beneath the Ice by Andrew Cohen


Lost Beneath the Ice: The Story of HMS Investigator by Andrew Cohen is a short history of the men of the HMS Investigator and their three winters stranded in the Arctic. Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. He writes a syndicated column for Postmedia Newspapers and is a regular commentator on television. Cohen’s previous books are While Canada Slept and Unfinished Canada

Lost Beneath the Ice is separated into four sections. The first section is the story of HMS Investigator voyage into the Arctic, its beaching, and discovery of the Northwest Passage. The mid-nineteenth century was a time of adventure. England, after the defeat of Napoleon, needed something to do with its large navy in peacetime. One use of the navy was exploration. The Arctic offered a promise of a shortcut to the Indies by means of the long sought after Northwest Passage. There was profit to be found in a shorter route and avoiding the long and dangerous trip around South America. There was the sense of adventure (and money) in the exploration, and sometimes that competition and promises of glory lead to some bad decisions. One of those bad decisions was beaching for the winter in Mercy Bay. The men would eventually spend three winters in the Arctic struggling to survive. 

The second part of the book deals with the project locate the wreck of the Investigator in 2010 by Parks Canada. The second half of the book are pictures. The first part are drawings of the the ship, the captain’s notes, and some remarkable paintings. The final part of the book is pictures from the Parks Canada search for the Investigator. There are photographs of the ship still underwater, team members, and relics left from the ship and men. 

Lost Beneath the Ice is a short history and the report of the recent discovery of the HMS Investigator. The illustrations make up an important part of the book both the historical and recent photographs. The history is very concise, but very good. It does make me wonder what the men of the HMS Investigator thought about their discovery of the Northwest Passage and the realization that is was ultimately useless for navigation. Three long winters in isolation, on limited rations, waiting for a thaw that never came…I guess something practical would have made most of the men happy– to make it home alive. A very good read on a very limited topic.

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Book Review: Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church

Papal Bull by Joe Wenke

Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church by Dr. Joe Wenke is shows a side of the Catholic Church that few know about. Wenke is the oldest of eleven children from a strict Catholic family from Philadelphia. He received his BA in English from Notre Dame, a MA in English from Penn State, and his PhD in English from the University of Connecticut. Wenke previous book is You Have to Be Kidding: The Cultural Arsonist’s Satirical Reading of the Bible.

A word of warning: This book is not for everyone. Some will find it very offensive. But get real. Papal Bull is a play on Papal Bulla. Bulla being the seal used on a formal announcement of policy from the pope. They are commonly know as “bulls.” A Papal Bull by Alexander VI divided South America between Portugal and Spain (Alexander was from Spain, so you know who got the better deal). Secondly, the cover art features a transsexual dressed as the pope. That sets the tone for the book. For some reason, I kept falling into a George Carlin voice as I read the book. 

In his preface, I could relate to many points Wenke makes about growing up Catholic. Large families and not enough room to live in. Public schools were not acceptable and although not well off there was always money to go to Catholic school. (I had to get a paper route to pay my way through school, even though I would have preferred J.B. Hart and South High). Of course there were the nuns and their system of discipline. I could also relate to the quality of the education. I don’t think we ever got through a single text book in the five years I went to Catholic school. We did get in plenty of prayer time, church time, preparation for the sacraments. It seemed like I lived a parallel life with the author. 

Wenke shows that there is quite a bit of Bull in the Catholic church. He takes a realistic look at the history of the church from the crusades to the popes and anti-popes. The first thirty-five popes became saints including the anti-pope Hippolytus. The church has a long history of saints, both real and imagined. There is a whole section of events and people called “According to Tradition ….Legend has it.” 

Doctrine is examined. Wenke has some questions for God come judgment day. Why does God need to be constantly worshiped? There is no such thing as freewill if God is omnipotent, so any personal failings are are God’s fault not yours. God knew your whole life path before you or even the universe existed. Why are we held bound to Adam and Eve’s sin (mostly Eve’s fault according to the church) until a priest pours water on us and says magical words. What about a baby who dies before being baptized? Purgatory is invented for that and for people who need to get punished a bit before going to heaven. There is also the story of Joey and a baloney sandwich and a partial lists of common sins that will bar your way to heaven. 

If you are a former Catholic you will probably love this book especially if you were brought up in the latter half of the twentieth century. The satire is heavy. You’ll laugh and probably say “Huh!?!” several times through this book. Although Wenke offers his personal opinions on the Church, the historical information is documented. For some this will be a fun read, for others eye-opening, and yet still for others kindling. I enjoyed the book and am a little sad that George Carlin isn’t around to read the the audiobook version. 

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