Monthly Archives: June 2015

Book Review — Walter’s War: A Lost Memoir of the Great War 1914-18

Walter's War: A Lost Memoir of the Great War 1914-18

Walter’s War: A Lost Memoir of the Great War 1914-18 by Walter E. Young are the recollections of a British World War I infantryman. His writing were not intended for publication and Young didn’t talk about the war after his return. The passages are written in a detached way recalling the events in detail but without the emotion of a fresh experience. The result is a very informative and readable history.

Young was a postal worker before the war and signed up with the Postal Rifles. To encourage enlistments the military units were formed in groups the Royal Mail had their unit which was the above mentioned Post Office Rifles. This created comradery, but it has had devastating effects in other areas. In the mass slaughter that was the Great War units frequently were wiped out in the fighting. If a town formed a unit and it was annihilated in an offensive that town lost a large proportion of their male population.

Young volunteered for the war and reenlisted. The reenlistment was not so much out of duty, but a reasoned decision. If he reenlisted, he would remain in the Post Office Rifles and receive fifteen pounds. If he chose not to reenlist he would quite possibly be conscripted and sent to another unit as the war progressed. With the amount of death Young saw, that possibility was very real. Young served his time in the infantry and later as a stretcher bearer. The latter also resulted in becoming a prisoner of war. He remained religious and did not drink. He dealt with the horrors of war with is faith rather than a bottle like many did. I do not think he resorted to calling the Germans any of the common slurs. Even as a prisoner, he met both good and bad Germans and judged them as individuals.

He recalls once a German yelled at him to get down then fired over his squads head. That seems to support the story of soldiers deals on the front. Neither side wanted to die and both sides saw the futility of war in the trenches. Unofficial arrangements were made to fire over the heads of the opposing side. The idea was to fool the officers into thinking the fighting was real while not risking their lives. One interesting weapon that Young writes about is the trench mortar. Mortars are portable indirect fire weapons that shoot shells in an arced trajectory. The trench mortars fired at a shorter range but higher altitude. The idea was to fire at the enemy trench a hundred or so meters away. The altitude the shell reached allowed it to fall almost vertically into the enemy’s trench effectively negating its defensive advantage.

Walter’s War gives the reader a first-hand look at the war from an enlisted man’s point of view. Young does not seem to be overly patriotic, but a man who believes it was his duty to serve. His memoir is not all blood and killing. He tells of the down time and life outside the trenches. This is a very human look at a war that shocked mankind. It was the war that ended the idea of the glories of war and the blind willingness to fight for a cause that did not directly affect most of the participants. Young gives the reader a very personal look at the war.

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Book Review — Great Short Stories by African-American Writers

Great Short Stories by African-American Writers

Great Short Stories by African-American Writers edited by Christine Rudisel and Bob Blaisdell is a historical collection of short stories reflecting African-American Heritage. The stories presented are written between 1895 and 1996 and reflect the cultural history of African-Americans in the United States. The stories are a reflection of history and moral identity of a people. Some stories are simple and humorous like Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Uncle Wellington’s Wives.” Although the characters in this story speak with stereotypical poor English, the writing is professional. There is a wide variety of writers with over two dozen featured, however, Chestnutt and Du Bois are the only two writers I have any experience within this collection.
Some of the stories are simple others carry more of a historical tone. Paul Laurance Dunbar’s “The Scapegoat” (1904) is a portrayal of politics in the post-antebellum south. It captures the system that was built to give representation to the freed black men in the south. Racism and cracks in the system shown in Dorothy West’s “Mammy” written in New York City in 1940.

This collection by Dover Thrift will give the reader an overview and a chance to see the evolution of Africa-American writes. The number of writers and the one hundred plus years of published stories reveal a broad spectrum of literary history in an often overlooked field. An eye-opening book more than worth the $4.50 price tag.

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Book Review — Rank


Poetry of a world seen through the fog. It is more than a complete picture of what is being presented. Words give us pieces and the pieces combine to something greater than the whole. The lines of poetry in Rank work like the human eye. There are blind spots, but our brains compensate for this allowing us to see a complete uninterrupted picture. McCollough does this with his words. A quick glance at the lines and the reader misses the big picture. Time is needed for the brain to complete the image.

There are several themes running through the collections. Living inside to the outdoors are compared — chestnut tangles outside and coffee cups on a glass table inside. Nature fights at the man-made world — roots breaking through a wall. There is scale in the sloping shelves of the sea and the sloping shelves of the galaxy. The inside muffles our senses.

Outside the capsule of the self but not
so far you’re alone, guitar
to the fugue, a word for flower.

The fugue: the music or the loss of awareness?

McCollugh weaves together words in a near magical form. It is thinking poetry. A casual glance will not do it justice. There is a feeling of growth beyond the present, a more natural state of things. The man-made world fails in all respects except one — the guitar. It is the beacon that connects worlds and images.


Aaron McCollough’s books of poetry include Welkin, Double Venus, Little Ease, and No Grave Can Hold My Body Down. He was raised in Tennessee. He holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan as well as an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He studies the influence of “passion” on the religious poetics of late 16th and early 17th Century England.


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Book Review — Invective

Dogs of war and men of hate
With no cause, we don’t discriminate

Pink Floyd, Dogs of War

Invective by Andy  Owen

There used to be a television show called Connections hosted by James Burke. It was a history of science show that started at one place and ended back at the starting point through a long chain of events. It was an amazing series of unrelated events that brought together a final product. A similar situation happened to me. A Marine veteran of the Cold War and Reagan’s War on terrorism I came across Andy Owen, a British veteran in the current war on terror who now works in counter-terrorism. He offered his book for review and I accepted. I can almost hear James Burke saying, “A common mission but a generation apart and a continent away brought together by something we all use every day… Twitter.” as he walks off into the sunset.

Owen did tell me what he did in general terms and that the book would have a Moby Dick theme. I was expecting a stylized memoir of his service, instead what I got was completely unexpected and captivating. It is a story of a young man, Ismael, in England, raised by Indian parents. Life is a good, comfortable, middle-class existence. Ismael is a medical student who decides to do his duty and volunteer for a short tour as a medic in Afghanistan. In the process, he finds out that he is adopted. His father was a Pakistani and a suicide bomber.

Everything changes. His adoptive parents no longer feel like his parents. His volunteering, as a medic, changes to something different and more beneficial to the Royal Navy. He wants to find out about his father and if that which made his father give his life in a violent act is also part of his being. He searches for information about his father through the mosque and in the people he meets there. There is a path to finding out more about his father and that path leads to the great white sheik.

There are a few hints through the book to remind the reader that this story was inspired by Moby Dick. Most are very well done and not heavy handed. The great white sheik is as obvious as it gets. A brilliant job is done on Kwesi. He is Ismael’s friend who brought him into the select group from the mosque and to Muj, the leader of the group. Kwesi fills the role of Queequeg to a T, right down to the scars on his face.

I did grasp the Moby Dick theme fairly well. However, the best part of the writing is in the war going on inside Ismael. He is flooded with propaganda from both the British and from the cell he has found himself in. The battle between which side is right and which side is wrong perhaps boils down into which individuals are good and which are bad. Perhaps, too, the idea of sides is much more difficult in a world of grays.

I have been put off by most recent fiction, but this book shines. It captures the internal battle of a man’s life. Ismael is a character caught between his family’s past and his present as a middle-class man of immigrant parents. He is being fed propaganda from both sides and witnessing life through his own experiences. Truly, a realistic experience and accurate portrayal of jingoism on all sides in today’s world. Simply a great book and a very rare five-star rating for contemporary fiction.

Note: 70% of the proceeds of this book will go to War Child charity.


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Book Review — One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon

He was (Nixon) — as an English earl once said of warlord Oliver Cromwell — a great, bad man.

One Man Against the World by Tim Weiner
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner is a unique history of a president. Weiner reported for The New York Times for many years as a foreign correspondent and as a national security correspondent in Washington, DC. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting and the National Book Award for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

There are probably only a very few who would argue the Nixon presidency was not a failure. The very high points of his presidency should have created a lasting legacy of greatness. Man walked on the moon and returned safely on his watch. Mao and Nixon met and established diplomatic relations tilting the balance of the Cold War. Nixon was the first president to visit the Kremlin and engage the Soviets in arms control. He beat McGovern is an unprecedented landslide. Nixon should be sharing a spot with the greatest presidents.

However, the Watergate break-in and cover-up canceled everything. The House voting on three articles of impeachment and Nixon’s resignation destroyed his presidency and America’s faith in its government. Everything above is fairly well known and shouldn’t surprise many. I was barely old enough to remember the news about the Nixon tapes and executive privilege; I was ten at the time and learned what impeachment was. Of course, there was the Vietnam war too and all the peripheral secret bombing that went along with it.

The above is all well recorded in history. What makes One Man Against the World unique in the historical perspective is that it gets inside Nixon’s head and personal habits. Nixon’s drinking was well beyond social and seemed to be his escape in much the same way a junkie would use heroin. It wasn’t used to relax. It was used to obliterate the outside world.

Perhaps the strangest part of “the most powerful man in the world” was his loneliness. It was not from the lack of people but from his fear and paranoia. Politics taught Nixon not to trust anyone and as president that paranoia reached heights that were on par with the space program. He distrusted and did not hold high opinions of those in his own party. He thought of Reagan as a light weight and Ford as a decent human being, but not the brightest guy around. Foreign policy was no different. He hated India and did what he could to covertly support Pakistan. As a president who did not win his first term with a majority, he overthrew another leader who also won with a plurality. He believed the president’s role was foreign policy and was frustrated when the most powerful nation in the world could not get its way despite overwhelming military superiority.

Weiner spends a great deal of the book on Nixon’s two greatest obsessions: Vietnam and his enemies. One Man Against the World looks more at the person Nixon actually was from newly released information. Nixon is examined outside of the historical events as the man he was and the man who lead this country. America has elected bad presidents, but Nixon devolved into being a bad person as well as president. Despite questionable recent presidents, questionable wars and drone attacks, spying on the American public, torture, and secret prisons, Nixon still stands out. Weiner presents a biography that is disturbing. It shows how little the American people actually know about the person they elect — the real person, not the image and sound bite.


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Book Review — The Crystal Curse

The Crystal Curse by Inge H. Borg

The Crystal Curse is the fourth book in the Legends of the Winged Scarab collection by Inge Borg. The series has remained fresh and holds to a world that is not beyond the reader’s usual suspension of disbelief. There is action, adventure, and treachery throughout the series. It’s a bit like Indiana Jones, but better.

The series ranges from ancient Egypt until the present. The main characters, Jonathan and Naunet, have survived shipwrecks, kidnapping, revolution, volcanic disasters, and the high seas. Together they meet their sometimes friend and sometimes foe Jabari El-Masri, former head of the Cario Museum, who seeks personal gain as much as he seeks to preserve ancient history. A few characters from the previous books also make an appearance here to add to Jonathan and Naunet’s discomfort.

With the United States out of the picture (After the Cataclysm) and Europe hurting from the effect, a group of eight have plans to divide up the world and start a new paradigm. The fifty gold plates are still in play along with their translation. There is even some “magic” in crystals when held in the right hands, but it really does not seem out of place or act as a spoiler. Borg’s knowledge of all things nautical and her knowledge of the history and geography of the Mediterranean outshine any spark of the supernatural in the series.

The novel runs a fast pace but is well thought out. The plot is solid and the settings are very well described to the smallest detail. The characters both old and new all seem real and hold real ambitions for either good, evil, or their own self-interest. Detailed new characters are limited and fill in necessary roles without overburdening the reader with an army of characters to keep straight. This is helpful as the rosters for good and evil seem to change as quickly as it benefits most of the characters. The new characters are not just to fill in the plot. They play pivotal roles, and I took an interest in Vergil from the first meeting.

The reader could pick this book up without reading the rest of the series, but that would risk missing much of the detailed story. The novels build perfectly one after another with all of them telling part of a great story. Although each story is self-contained, this one like the previous books leaves enough room to allow a continuation. Spending most of my time reading non-fiction this book came at the right time. Despite some mystical references, the story flowed unfettered through my fact processing brain. I would hate to say this is the best book in the series, but it does raise the level of the series; it just keeps getting better.

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Book Review — Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

“We were not trading arms for hostages, nor were we negotiating with terrorists”
Ronald Reagan.

Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace by Jonathan Powell is a practical look at dealing with terrorism using the historical record as an example. Powell is a British diplomat who served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff, under British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007. He was the only senior adviser to last the whole period of Blair’s leadership. During this period, Powell was also the chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland. He runs the charity Inter Mediate which works on armed conflicts around the world.Powell is currently the UK’s special envoy to Libya.

We all have heard it. Political leaders have repeated it. Hollywood loves to use it in everything from cop shows to blockbuster movies — “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” It seems to be an immutable law in contemporary international relations but is it? Even if it is, is it correct? Powell looks at several cases in the recent past. Northern Ireland, FMLN in El Salvador, Nepalese Maoists, South Africa and Mandella, Sri Lanka, and other conflicts are all included.

It must be recognized that there are several different groups with different structures and goals. The group responsible for the Japanese subway attack quickly disappeared after its leader was captured effectively ending the organization. The Maoist terrorists in Nepal became the ruling party in a democratic election, creating their own legitimacy. Groups like the PLO have stood their ground for so long they have become recognized. The PLO holds observer status at the United Nations. Other groups or opinions of groups change over time. There was a time Mandela was considered a terrorist (Reagan put Mandela and the ANC on the terrorist watch list) and bin Ladin a freedom fighter. Some groups combine others simply disappear like the Symbionese Liberation Army.

There are groups with permanence that need to be addressed. The IRA, Sri Lanka, and South Africa are prime examples where a negotiation was required. In Sri Lanka, both sides tired from the killing. South Africa was under great international pressure to end apartheid and free Mandela. The IRA was seeing very negative effects by their violence. It created a negative image for the movement rather than support. The became the oppressor and not the victim in many people’s eyes.

Perhaps the most spectacular and focused act against a government was the ETA attack on the prime minister of Spain in 1973. A bomb built under the road lifted the prime minister’s car over sixty feet in the air clearing the building it was driving past and depositing the car on the second story balcony of the inside terrace. Four decades later the ETA is asking for a negotiated settlement.

Once it decided by both sides that the violence needs to end, the real work begins. Making initial contact, when to use a mediator, when to meet face to face, what issues will be discussed, where can the meeting take place safely for both parties all come into play. Powell spends most of his words on these topics and uses the same historical cases to make his points. Not all the situations are the same and not all groups need to be negotiated with. The key to everything is building trust. Taking up arms against a system demonstrates a lack of trust and successful groups have, what they believe are, valid claims. Negotiation is not a magical moment of changing people’s long-held views, but establishing trust so that problems can be worked out peacefully through the political system. Powell explains how this is done and has been done.

Quite a remarkable book on a controversial subject. If peace is the desired outcome, fighting usually will not give that result. Bomb one terrorist group into submission, and another will rise. It will possibly be worse than the previous group as we are seeing with the rise of ISIS. It also seems that the longer we go without negotiations the less desirable the groups we are fighting become.Terrorists at the Table is a well thought out and practical guide of the problem of terrorism and what to do about it. Government’s stance on not negotiating with terrorists is like people and the speed limit law. We all know the law, but we all break it. Unlike speeding, negotiating may save lives and build a safe society.

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Book Review — Chaos and Identity; From World War I to Today

Chaos and Identity; From World War I to Today by Mr. P. Clark Souers, PhD

Chaos and Identity; From World War I to Today, by P. Clark Souers is the history of the countries trapped between Western Europe and the Russian SFSR. Souers does not claim to be a historian but a weapons scientist who owes his job to the fracturing of Europe.

I don’t remember what exactly got me interested in studying history, but one thing that certainly helped was stamp collecting as a child. Souers also has a fascination for stamps and uses them as examples in the changing borders of Europe and the Middle East. There are stamps from countries that no longer exist, and stamps of new countries’ with their names overstamped on the former’s stamps. There are also flags. Flags show the evolution countries and nationalities flags. Flags range from the Pan-Slavism movement to United Arab Republic to ISIS. Souers even presents the only flag with a mathematical symbol in it.

As an undergraduate history major, I thought I knew quite a bit about Europe. I have read piles of books on World War I and its aftermath, but still there are places and groups that are unfamiliar to me. Granted American history of Europe centers on Western Europe and Russia. Eastern Europe seemed to be first mostly ignored in WWI and generally lumped together, in the Cold War, as simply Soviet satellites. Souers delves into the histories of these small groups and nations and examines their history as individual states, not artificial countries. Many Americans didn’t realize the complexities, in say, the Balkans until Yugoslavia broke up into several nations with even more national identities. The same with the Soviet Union at its breakup. Thirty years ago how many people would have known where Chechnya was? Even for the more geographically savvy there are mentions of countries like Abhazia.

Souers writes with a folksy style that makes this book different from a standard academic history. I was a little put off by the style at the start, but the stamps and flags drew me in, and the new, to me, information kept me reading. Chaos and Identitydoes an excellent job at presenting and telling the history of a region that usually slips through the cracks in contemporary history books.

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Thoughts on — Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man

Birdseye by Mark Kurlansky

Another audiobook review.

I was expecting a more traditional biography than what was presented. Birdseye seems to be the jumping off point to many of the tangents in the book. Although the tangents present useful information and a historical background, it distracts from the biography to the point of being filler material. Much of the book, in fact, seems to be a historical background with Clarence Birdseye making an appearance. For example, there is a great deal of information on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever because Birdseye was part of the government study of the disease.

Birdseye, himself seems to be quite a character. He was a naturalist, which meant the shooting, stuffing, and eating as many and as many types of animals he could find. His desire to eat odd animals (field mice and starlings are two I recall) reminded me of a carnivorous Euell Gibbons parody. Birdseye was curious and that curiosity lead him through life. He lived in the American Southwest, Labrador, and South America looking at ways to improve industry.

There are many fallacies of Birdseye’s life brought out in the book. He did not invent frozen food. Frozen food was around before he was born, but it was low quality and far worse than canned food. Birdseye did make frozen food commercially viable and changed the way America bought food. That is the real story of Birdseye. His other inventions that made him more money are also covered. He was a curious man who saw something and immediately asked questions and began thinking on how it could be improved. It’s a good story, but the audiobook did seem choppy. I am not sure if this was because of the reader or the writing.

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Book Review — Into the Fire: The Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War

“You cannot exaggerate about the Marines. They are convinced to the point of arrogance, that they are the most ferocious fighters on earth- and the amusing thing about it is that they are.”
Father Kevin Keaney, 1st Marine Division Chaplain

Into the Fire by Dakota Meyer

Yes, I am a Marine so my view may be a bit biased. Unlike Meyer, I served in the rather peaceful post-Vietnam Era. I read many of the Marine combat stories through the years and most were written by lieutenants, captains, on up to generals. There were also a few written by senior NCOs (NonCommissioned Officers). I always wondered what a lance corporal or a corporal would write on combat. That is the point where you are no longer a boot private and before your career takes priority. If you are a corporal and get busted it’s a year before you get your rank back. It happens. It happened to me. If you are a senior NCO, you’ll probably never get your rank back. If you are an officer, well, your career is finished. A corporal has that unique view of not being totally indoctrinated and yet relatively free to speak his mind.

Meyer starts a story typical of many Marines: Small town background, hunter, not really attached and looking for direction. He joined the Marines, went to Parris Island, Infantry school, and eventually sniper school. The book centers on his experience in the bloody fighting at Ganjgal. Meyer pulls no punches when it comes the disastrous planning and execution of the mission. Meyer and his team were advisors to the Afghan forces and stationed at an army compound. Meyer was ordered to stay back on this mission while the rest of his team went into Ganjgal. Essentially what happened was that the men walked into a kill zone. Stuck in the open and facing well-armed Taliban who crossed over from Pakistan, chaos ensued. The senior leadership located many miles away had their own impressions of what was happening on the battlefield, despite the radio communication from the people actually there. It was a disaster and one that could have been avoided. The description of the battle reminded me of the French generals, in World War I,miles away from the front line sending wave after wave of soldiers to their death thinking, “War’s not so bad.”

Meyer in this situation sees or rather hears what is going on and requests to enter Ganjgal to bring back his team. Refused several times he breaks orders. For a Marine, your fellow Marines are your brothers and you will do what is necessary to save them. Marines focus on teamwork and small groups. Your life is in the hands of those with you. There is a bond stronger than orders. Meyer’s story is one of incredible bravery and selflessness that follows in a long tradition in the Marine Corps. Meyer gives credit where credit is due. He spoke up for the bravery of Army Captain Swenson, whose Medal of Honor package was “lost” by those “controlling” the battle from afar. He praises the actions of the army helicopter pilots. Meyer, however, shows his disgust of the higher headquarter’s actions. He also explains the personal results that sometimes follow the action he saw.

Into the Fire is a raw, fast-paced, simply spoken, and spoken like a Marine account of Meyer’s service in Afghanistan. He is not a disgruntled veteran. He loved the Marine Corps and was proud of his service. He presents the reader with an “I was there. I saw everything and it is not how the command structure reported it.” Very well done and exactly what I would expect from a fellow Marine. Semper Fi, Sergeant Meyer.

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