Monthly Archives: May 2016

Book Review– By Sea, By Land: The Authorised History of the Royal Marines

By Sea, By Land by James D. Ladd

By Sea, By Land: The Authorised History of the Royal Marines by James D. Ladd is a detailed history of the Royal Marines in the 20th Century. The title comes from the Royal Marines motto: “Per Mare, Per Terram.” Ladd was a Royal Marine before he became a journalist and a widely respected military historian. He was the author of several leading military books including Commandos and Rangers of World War II. He died in 2006.

As a United States Marine, we were taught that we were the American extension of the Royal Marines. Royal Marines were formed in 1755 (U.S. Marines 1775) but trace their history back to 1664. Like the U.S. Marines, the Royal Marines were created as naval infantry serving on ships and carrying out amphibious assaults. Although sharing common roots the services seemed to split during the 20th century. This edition of the Royal Marine history covers the years from 1919 through 1997.

The Royal Marines saw cutbacks after WWI. Even today the Royal Marines are a small but specialized force with just over 8,200 members. In the interwar period, the Royal Marines worked Air defense artillery, ships guns, and light infantry. WWII saw the introduction of Marine light infantry as commandos operating with the Royal Army Commandos. They were also involved in amphibious landings in Dakar and Madagascar.

After World War II, the Royal Marines were involved in Korea but spent much of their time involved in policing the Empire. They were also involved in the Suez Crisis becoming the first service to deploy in a helicopter assault. Royal Marines played a large role in the long-running Malayan Crisis. From 1969 on the Marines patrolled Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most notable service came in the Falklands where an amphibious assault was key to retaking the islands.

By Sea, By Land offers a detailed history of the period. The Royal Marines, like American Marines, are proud of their history and who they are. Unlike other branches of service that display battle streamers with their colors, the Royal Marines simply display a globe as their area of service. Original documents and reports are regularly cited throughout the book. It is not strictly a chronological history as it is event centered with background and explanations. It is not a smoothly written narrative as it is a fact-filled record of events.

 

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Book Review — Brace for Impact: Air Crashes and Aviation Safety

Brace for Impact by Peter Pigott

Brace for Impact: Air Crashes and Aviation Safety by Peter Pigott is a history of airline crashes from the Wright brothers to March 29, 2015. Pigott is Canada’s foremost aviation author. Among his accomplishments are the histories of Air Canada, Trans Canada Airlines and Canadian Airlines. He is the author of From Far and Wide, Sailing Seven Seas, Canada in Sudan, and many more books.

Flying is the safest form travel. You are twice as likely to die in a bus or subway accident than on a plane. What makes air travel deaths seem more prevalent is they tend to happen with greater numbers. Motorcycle deaths happen at a rate of more than 4,000 a year yet get little media coverage. Plane crashes are national news. I am old enough to remember the Tenerife disaster where two 747s collided on the runway killing 583 people. More recently in 1985, Japan Airlines flight 123 crashed into a mountainside killing 520 people. In my days of frequent travel, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The plane was an MD-83 with a record of improper maintenance. Safe travel or not, I never flew on an MD-80 series plane again.

Pigot is Canadian and centers his research on Canada but includes the United States and the United Kingdom. In modern times, much centers around the type of plane Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed Electras took more than their share of bad press, deserved or not. Americans may remember the DC-10 in American Airlines flight 191 in in 1979. After taking off from O’Hare its left engine detached and the plane fell to the ground killing 273 including two on the ground. Improper maintenance was the cause of the crash but people remember the plane that crashed. Another example is the Arrow DC-8 on December 12, 1985. Flying American peacekeeping troops home from Cairo, it crashed on take off in Newfoundland after re-fueling killing 256 people. Icing on the wings was determined to be the cause but a long history of poor and missing maintenance. The late 1970s turned deadly, not necessarily from aircraft design, but arguably government deregulation.

Aircraft design improved constantly since its introduction. All one has to do is look at the 1903 Wright Flyer, a dozen years later a Fokker, twenty years later a DC-3, twenty years later a 707. Design incorporated safety. Three major improvements were ground radio guidance which kept flights on course de-icing boots on the wings and most importantly jet engines. The change from piston engines to jets nearly eliminated all engine failures as the cause of crashes. Twin engine 767s were allowed to fly over sea routes because engine failure is extremely rare — 1 in 375,000 hours. Piston engines fail at a rate of 117 times that rate.

Brace for Impact: Air Crashes and Aviation Safety show the continuing increase in aircraft safety from it’s totally unregulated beginnings to the 1970s bringing on deregulation. Although it is not spelled out directly in the book, today we see safer designed planes and it is rare that aircraft design is responsible for a crash. It is the human factor involved that is the cause today. A well-researched piece of aviation history applicable to both Canadians and Americans.

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Book Review — The Friendless Sky

The Friendless Sky by Alexander McKee

The Friendless Sky by Alexander McKee is a personalized look at aviation in the first world war. McKee was a British journalist, military historian, and diver who published nearly thirty books. Most of his books center on war and the military — Vimy Ridge, The Bounty, Dresden and many others.

As a child I was fascinated by WWI and especially the air war. I read Rickenbacker and Ernest K Gann. Other kids were interested in F-14 Tomcat or F-111. I preferred Fokkers and Sopwiths. Far from the late 20th-century cutting edge, the planes I liked were fragile and at times seemed, and were, to be held together by wire and glue. In combat the unlike modern planes that could engage from over one hundred miles away, first world war pilots were in visual sight of each other and close enough to read the markings on the each others plane. There is also a difference in the bombing. The Iraqi highway of death was something of pride while the same situation in Turkey during WWI proved to have the opposite effect. Modern cruise missiles and drones are indiscriminate in death. WWI bomber pilots, although very inefficient in causing damage, disliked bombing cities. One pilot even remarked, “What happens if I kill an old woman.”

The pilots on both sides respected each other and there are many instances where an enemy pilot would visit their opponents aerodromes and drop messages, news of shot down pilots, or even wreaths on the death of a respected pilot. Death surrounded pilots not only from air combat. Their planes could fall apart when pushed too hard. Ground fire could easily take down a plane. Easy targets became traps for pilots wanting to up their count. Death was always close but it had a glory the trenches could never claim.

Unlike many WWI air war books, McKee includes the history of bombing. From the observer dropping handheld bombs over the side of observed planes to the multiple zeppelin bombings of Great Britain. Bombing raids were not accurate and many times did little damage. A German bombing run on Paris released propaganda and bombs. The bombs killed a cow. German zeppelin raids were more successful in England. They were not very accurate and sometimes missed the target city entirely. The Gotha bombers may have appeared more threatening than zeppelins but were easier targets for air defenses.

McKee uses first-hand source material from pilots in the war as well as other sources. The effect is to give a personal look at the air war complete with individual pilot’s stories.The Friendless Sky does not read like history. It has a warmer, friendlier tone to it despite the subject matter. War on a whole is horror. It is run by governments their militaries. The armies, however, are made up of individuals, and the individuals have little to gain by putting themselves into the slaughter. Their stories bring a truthfulness to the propaganda of war.

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Book Review — The Best Small Fictions 2016

The Best Small Fictions 2016

The Best Small Fictions 2016 edited by Stuart Dybek is the second annual collection of short fictions from around the world. Dybek is the author of five collections of short stories and two poetry collections. His awards include a Lannan Prize, a PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and four O. Henry Awards. Dybek was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007.

Tara Masih, the series editor, has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. She is the author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories and has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.

This is the second year I am reviewing The Best Small Fictions. Not being a short story fan I found small fictions a welcome change. The stories range from two or three pages down to Tweets. There is also a complete story in each of the small pieces. In order to complete this with a small word count is akin to poetry. Like poetry, words need to convey more than a simple message and must be chosen carefully.

As an undergraduate, I had a history professor who would throw down a stack of blue books filled with essay answers and sarcastically say, “Why use one word when twenty will do?” We Americans tend to be wasteful with everything including words. Bigger is better and more impressive to most. Craftsmanship and intricate workings have been replaced with mass production. Short fictions aim to change this. Interestingly enough this can be seen in the first story, “Bless This Home” by Rosie Forrest. When asked how she could doubt something without even looking, the narrator responds, “My doubt is significant.” Four words take the place of a long explanation and deliver the same result but with a powerful elegance. In Paul Beckman’s “Healing Time,” the narrator refers to his sister as “Cleveland sister” which explains much about the relationship with his sister and the rest of the family without pages of details. The reader is challenged to think about the characters, setting, and story. Nothing is simply handed to the reader. It is an intellectual summons.

The stories range from a few pages down to twenty-five words. Many of the stories have a serious tone, but surprisingly Michael Martone’s twenty-five-word story also has a twenty-five-word title — playing jest with the shortness of the story. These stories have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Tahoma Literary Review, and many other publications. Also appearing are two stories from Rift, a joint effort between Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan, which I reviewed last year.

The stories this year cover a range of topics. Admittedly, some stories took reading through twice before I fully grasped the context. Stories like Amelia Gray’s “We Are the Fables” hit hard on the first read. Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores” views a family and a neighboring spider plant through the “eyes” of a Venus fly trap; it is an interesting perspective told in just three pages. “Illusions” by Curtis Smith brings together reality, fantasy and where they blur. The authors take the reader from nuclear fusion (Laird Hunt) to mental breakdown (Nancy Ludmerer) and everywhere in between.

The Best Small Fictions 2016 lives up to offering the best in the field. All the stories in the collection offer the reader something unique. Although I am fairly new to short fictions,they have been growing on me over the last year or so. These stories show that there is much more to a short fiction than being a “small” story. It is a craft and an art that shows that greater things can be delivered with fewer words.

A special thanks to Queen’s Ferry Press for allowing me early access to The Best Small Fictions 2016

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Book Review — The Stationmaster

The Stationmaster by Jirō Asada

The Stationmaster by Jiro Asada is a collection of short stories with a common theme of touching miracles. Asada is a former enlisted man in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and now a prolific writer with some seventy novels printed over seventeen years. In the introduction, Margaret Atwood explains that this book sold 2.5 million copies in Japan, a nation of 127 million people. Put into perspective that would equate to 6 million copies in America. That is completely unheard of for a collection of short stories.

I admit it. I am a sucker for a train story and that is the reason I chose this book. I was pulled in from the start — a soon to be retiring stationmaster, on a very quiet route, running old trains. Otomatsu is a man who remembers the old days when the Kiha 12 was a new and shining train. Now it is old and is limited to runs for school children. Otomatsu remembers when the long coal trains ran his route; they are all gone now. He still wears his old uniform (instead of the new style) and executes his duties with the precision of a Marine. Like a Marine, he holds a similar motto, “Once a railroad man, always a railroad man.” For Otomatsu, much of what his life was has disappeared. The railroad route will be retired. His wife has died a few years before. His daughter died as a young child. Asada writes to bring a miracle or moment of happiness to a man whose world has and is closing in on him.

The other stories were good and all a bit different. None of them took me in as The Stationmaster did. “Love Letter” was moving in a completely different manner and quite unexpected. “The Devil” was a bit eerie like a Hitchcock short or Night Gallery episode. The other stories reminded me of a Hallmark story or movie. Things worked out too nicely and too perfectly. Perhaps this style of writing is popular in Japan. Asada is known for his picaresque novels which gained my interest, however, that style is lacking here.

I have a rather mixed review of this collection. It did hold my interest, but it is not my typical read. I was pulled in with a train story and stayed for the picaresque. I wanted more of that nostalgia of growing old and seeing the what made my youth so important slowly disappear… like steel mills, handwriting letters, drive-in theaters, radio…. I should have looked at the other stories before I jumped into this book. The writing is excellent. The stories have a nice twist and some originality before the “Hallmark” moment. Recommended for readers who like those “just so” stories.

 

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Poetry Review — War is Kind and Other Poems

War Is Kind and Other Poems by Stephen Crane

War Is Kind and Other Poems by Stephen Crane is the collected poetry of the author best known for The Red Badge of Courage. Crane was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Prolific throughout his short life, he wrote notable works in the Realist tradition as well as early examples of American Naturalism and Impressionism.

I am a fan of all sorts of poetry from classic to modern. I came to enjoy poetry in the doldrums of middle age. Poetry was that college class I struggled through as an undergraduate. I was anxious to learn more important things of the world. Now, I see that there is little that is not dark and confrontational in my chosen field of study, political science. I turned to poetry for a brighter look at life. My original thoughts, and few still linger at present, is that poetry is overly sentimental and idealistic. There like all things is good and bad poetry. Poetry you like. Poetry you dislike.

If there was a starting point for the non-poetry reader to get a feel for the art instead of dropping into dactylic hexameter meter of the Greeks or the romantic or pastoral poets. Something for the average male to pick up without embarrassment that someone might see him reading and reading of all things poetry. This is where Crane steps in. He is a bit sarcastic, doesn’t rhyme, and pretty much fearless, even when talking about God. There is no overly sentimental matter, cute cats, lucky clover, helping angels, or even romance. The title poem opens:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the
sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

It is difficult not to feel the mocking sarcasm in the poem. The reader wanting to his or her place in the universe will find Crane’s feelings on the matter:

A man said to the universe
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Crane is straightforward and to the point in his writing. Rather than calling his work poetry or verse, he went with more a simple, but actually more descriptive term of “lines.” In the big picture, he wrote without regard for the rules but made it work. In like thinking, it is like the difference between classical and rock music. They both serve their purpose but are very different in form. Crane takes the art and strips away everything that is not necessary to convey his message. This is a collection that is perfect for readers who do not like poetry as well as those who savor it.

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Book Review — The Edwardians

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

The Edwardians might pass as a novel that presents a good surface story or something to waste away an afternoon or two with. It is well written and contains a small cast of characters. Sebastian is the center character, the dashing nineteen-year-old, who rebels against his mother, but still stays within the norms of society. Viola is his younger sister who is awkward and cares less about society and position than Sebastian. The Duchess is firmly in the society scene and lives by image and proper appearances. Then there is Chevron which could be the main character as well as the setting. It is the estate Sebastian is set to inherit — the massive building and the surrounding property and houses.

A close look at the author, Vita Sackville-West, will show that this book is more than just a novel. The opening imprint reads “No character in this book is wholly fictitious.” Lucy, Duchess of Chevron, is a thinly veiled portrayal of Victoria Sackville-West’s controlling mother of Vita Sackville-West. Chevron is without a doubt Knole the one true love of Vita. Sebastian and Viola are two different Vitas. Sebastian is the idealized Vita. The one with the true connection to the land and estate. Vita regretted the fact that because she was a woman she had no claim on her family’s estate. It would be taken from her. Sebastian plays her male alter-ego. Viola is the more realistic Vita — A bit awkward, not a society person, and at odds with her mother.

The story is also an examination and a criticism of the waning days and fall of the Edwardian period. “Appearances must be respected, though morals may be neglected.” is the theme of the upper class. An affair was not bad unless it was exposed either through indiscretion or someone with a grudge. Affairs did not end marriages although they did hurt. Marriage was designed and arranged for stability and preserving the family name. Affairs, on the other hand, were expressions of love. This idea did not hold true outside of the nobility. The middle class did marry for love and took their vows much more serious as Sebastian finds out. The morals are too in this book outside of religion. It is not mentioned by the middle-class wife Teresa Spedding in determining what is right and what is wrong.

The Edwardians is a well-written examination of the period. Although Vita Sackville-West exaggerated at times, it is, after all, a work of fiction. She did write about what she knew. This book like a few other of her works is loosely based on her life. Although I do not watch much television, I have watch Downton Abbey and many themes in The Edwardian are reflected there. Relations between the nobility and the staff, the rise of a middle class, socialism, and the coming of the motor age are told in both. Also, the coming fall of the landed class is expected in both also. The Edwardians is an interesting book and made even better once the reader knows of the life of the author.

 

(Read for enjoyment and not for review)

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