Monthly Archives: June 2016

Book Review — Air of Battle: A Pilot’s Account of World War One

Squadron Leader William Mayes Fry was a World War I Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force fighter ace. He was credited with eleven aerial victories, piloting no fewer than four different types of fighter aircraft.

Fry enlisted in the army underage and made it all the way to the trenches before being sent home. Once back in England and of age, he tried to become an aerial observer and ended up training to be a pilot. Failing the mechanical part of the training and risking washing out of the program, he was saved by new orders. Fry records all his wartime experience in a straightforward manner reporting the facts and experiences without added emotions or exaggeration. He, also, was also one of the lucky ones despite many mishaps, he survived the war and lived to be ninety-five.

For those who read WWI history, especially the air war, most of this book seemed very familiar. There were a few times in the reading that I thought I have read this before. I know I read this before. As it turns out, I did read some of these stories before. Fry’s detailed account of the air war is perhaps one of the most complete and well-written memoirs that have survived. It is often quoted and sourced in WWI aviation histories. The writing style and storytelling make this book hard to put down. As a history, it is hard to beat. A remarkable read.

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Book Review — Hair

Hair by Scott Lowe

Hair by Scott Lowe is another in the Bloomsbury series on common items in everyday life. Lowe is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, and Co-General Editor of Nova Religio.

Humans have hair. It is a trait we share with all mammals along with live birth and lactation. The amount of hair varies and the “acceptable” hair varies with culture and time. Long hair on males has come and gone. I remember being chastised by the head football coach for being a “hair god” along with the other males with long hair. This was in 1980. After than I spent almost a decade with a Marine Corps high and tight. Currently, I haven’t had a haircut in a decade. Lowe points out that hair follicles have a limited life and produces hair length of about 18 inches on average. Perfect for me. A self-maintaining hair length.

Lowe looks at hair through a religious lens since that is his background. My old comment to the nuns “But, Jesus had long hair.” turns out is likely untrue. It seems that shorter hair on men was common. Perhaps the constant warfare and not wanting to give the enemy something to grab may have been part of it. When the Manchu conquered parts of China it required all people to adopt the Manchu hairstyle under the penalty of death. The front part of the head was shaved but a long ponytail in the back. Perhaps the most radical mullet of all time. In colonial America, Quakers refused to remove their hats before the Puritan governor. Several were put to death for failure to obey until the king intervened. The Quakers took their orders from the Bible. God was to see their bare head, not man. I remember Catholic church in the 1970s — Men removed their hats and women covered their heads with scarves or babushkas.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head” (1 Cor. 1:3-6)

Odd too that we live in a country or culture where we criticize the Hijab. There is no public concern about the Amish women keeping their head covered for religious reasons. The Amish and Islam share another similarity — Facial hair. Beards are a must for men and moustaches are trimmed in Islam or shaved away on Amish males. The moustache is a symbol of the military and the Amish are pacifists. Other religions and cultures are covered too in both the East and West.

Lowe examines hair biologically, historically, and culturally. From fascination of Blonde hair and fear of red hair to the long, short, and style of it all. A well written and researched book on a subject that is so common but has even resulted in death. The hair over our bodies as well as our head is also discussed from the perspective of history and cultures. A fascinating look into the ordinary.

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Book Review — Bread

Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow

Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow is another in the Bloomsbury Academic series. Shershow is a professor of English at UC Davis. His MA and Ph.D. are both from Harvard University,

Bread is a simple thing. It is taken for granted. It is also mentioned in the most known Christian prayer and came down from heaven to feed the fleeing Israelites. The debate between bread and beer linger on as to what actually lead man to settle in cities and cultivate the land. Shershow reminds the reader that early beer and bread did have much in common. Bread not only sustained early civilizations but it also sustains many of us who carry sandwiches to school or work. In fast food, Subway ranks 2nd in the nation between McDonald’s and Starbucks. Panera Bread and Jimmy Johns are in the top 25 fast food restaurants.

Shershow tells the reader about the simple magic of making bread and includes a few pieces of wisdom from food guru, Michael Pollan. Bread is a creation. It takes time and effort. Even more so if one uses their own living starter. There are many types of bread and many of them associated with class. The whitest of the white flour was reserved for the rich. The famous quote “Let them eat cake.” is mistranslated. The French word was “brioche.” Brioche is a white bread fortified with butter and eggs, not really cake at all. Heavy wheat breads were for the poor. These breads were even stretched farther in bad times with additives and even sand.

Bread takes a look at the historical health aspects of bread from the modern gluten-free craze, the paleo diet, and earlier to the chemical leavenings instead of unhealthy yeast. The discussion also includes the religious aspects of bread from the unleavened ,to the last supper, and the miracle of the loaves and fish. Bread has played a central role in the West. In bad times there were bread lines in good there are artisan breads. Even Wal-Mart has jumped on the bandwagon of hot, fresh baked bread in their stores. Bread has rebounded from ever challenge modern society has thrown at it. It outlasted the Atkins diet and will probably be around as long as man walks the earth. A nicely written tribute to an underappreciated food.



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Poetry Review — The Land

The Land by Vita Sackville-West

“The Land” is a lengthy, lyrical poem covering the Kent countryside over a period of a year. The poem begins in winter, and even in winter, there are signs of life and a new beginning. Spring begins the greening of the land. The farmer on the hill has fields that require little labor. In the valley, the farmers work rotating crops, working around the weather, and working around the rain or lack of it. They take a pride in their work and hardships and toil to make the land pay off. They look with disdain at those farming on the hill.

Summer’s heat is punctuated with rain in England — the relief from the heat and the smell of water striking the hot ground. The reader is then transported to a place where the rain does not provide relief. Sackville-West draws on her experience in the Middle East and Iran to compare the harsh desert to the lush green of England. This comparison is almost taken directly from her book Passage to Tehran. As in many of her works she draws heavily from her own experiences.

Fall is the completion of the year. The harvests and the plans for next year are gathered and formulated. The crops planted in spring are revisited in their completion and the details noted. It is also a time for cider and woodworking. All that was done since winter becomes ripe for harvest. Even the squirrels know it is time to collect food.

Although the poem concentrates on the land, the passage that appealed to me the most was the one on the constellation Orion. The constellation rises in the fall and sets in the spring. For those who spend time outdoors in the evenings and night, Orion’s march across the sky is as accurate as a calendar. It shows that more than the land changes with the time of the year. It is an example of how our view of the universe changes with time.

Sackville-West takes the reader into something deeper than a nature poem. The farmer and shepherd do not see the year as a discrete unit. To them, it is a scroll that continually loops. The reader could, also, easily fall back into the cycle by returning to the beginning of the poem.

It is a step beyond pastoral poetry and into reality. It is almost as if the reader slipped into the mind of the “ideal” farmer or shepherd. Sackville-West does not just offer descriptions; she gives the reader a three-dimensional journey. It is a virtual reality completed with words. The poem lives and breathes.

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Book Review — The Idea of Communism 3: The Seoul Conference

The Idea of Communism 3 by Alex Taek-Gwang Lee

The idea of communism to many in the West is dead. The Soviet Union is dead. China is essentially a semi-capitalist dictatorship. All that remains is North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba; none of them threatens capitalism. In 2009 Slavoj Žižek brought together leftist intellectuals to discuss the meaning of the idea of communism since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The speakers center on Asia and spend a great deal of time discussing China. The conference was held in Seoul on the Cold War divided peninsula of Korea. No one speaking at the conference accepted North Korea as part of “communism.” In fact, the Soviet Union is divided into Leninist and Stalinist periods. China is the example of where communism went wrong. There is a discussion of class difference and more importantly the state. Ideally, communism would lead to the disappearance of the state and the capitalist world’s idea of nationalism. It also opposed Stalin’s “socialism in one state.”

China as a state presents two problems to communism. The first is a dictatorial party government and second, the greater problem is the entrenched bureaucracy. Both lend themselves to the creation of a class on to their own above the worker and peasant. The conference was good at pointing out flaws in the current communist states as well as the flaws in capitalism. The problem lies in practical solutions. Leadership is needed initially, but once established refuses to let go. However, the idea of the population willing following a Rousseauian general will is impractical.

The conference does lend insight to the problems of communism in the 21st century. There is criticism and theory, but little in the way of practical solutions. Granted many of the same problems exist in capitalism and are starting to be recognized: Class difference, racial discrimination, pay difference between men and women, police abusing their authority, rising college costs preventing many attending or leaving them with near impossible debt, exporting manufacturing jobs, and European austerity programs. The point that problems, rejections of current and past government models, are being examined and criticized shows that at least on an intellectual level the idea of change and refinement is possible. This collection of opinions, however, is written for a very limited audience. An understanding of Maoist China and the current Chinese government is almost necessary.

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Poetry Review — Whiskey Words & a Shovel II

Interlude for the survivor.

the pain means you’re alive
the scars mean
you’ve always survived

Whiskey Words & a Shovel II by r.h. Sin
Whiskey Words & a Shovel II by r.h. Sin is the author’s second collection of poetry. Mr. Sin is a minimalist when it comes to a biography — An old Facebook page, a closed Twitter account, and an Instagram account with plenty of pictures of his poems.

Sometimes great things happen by accident. I saw this book and immediately started it. A few years ago I read a similar sounding collection called The Shovel and The Hare and assumed this was the sequel. I was wrong but wrong in the best way.

Poetry, for many, is something that offers a warm embrace either with love, nature, or observations on life. Sin offers an embrace that is more of a bear hug, or a gentle tap with a 12lb hammer. As with his public biography, Sin is also a minimalist with his words. Many poems are a few lines but hit deeper than paragraphs or pages. Counterfeit love, loss, and pain run deep in this collection. But, it is not depressing; it is more of a sharing. For all the readers share the same experiences to some extent, the same feelings; you are not alone is the message. Sin gives the reader a blinding white light of emotion and awakens our own memories.

Sin gives advice perhaps it is selfish or maybe it is altruistic. Women must take charge of their lives stop being the person a man wants you to be. Start being the person you deserve to be. Be your own person not an attachment to a male. One might guess Sin is a woman proclaiming liberation, but Sin is male. Perhaps he is the man who has seen too many women he holds in esteem fall and fall again for the wrong person — Treated poorly, not appreciated, not allowed to be who they are.

There are a few “happy” poems. One I shared with a friend, who responded along the lines of true but facile. That reaction had me look again at the poem and the collection. I thought it was a clearing in the darkness of the collection, but after some thought, yes it did seem trite. Why does the happy poem seem so shallow compared to the depth of the others? My reflections took me to the opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Happiness seems to be the same. If someone is happy the reason is not important. Sadness or loss requires explanation. It sits deeper in our being and is not fleeting like happiness. Loss or death takes much longer to get past than happiness. People refer to moments of happiness and an eternity of struggle. We want happiness while we endure the struggles of life. We create mental and emotional records that last our entire lives. They are scars that offer proof that we endured and survived. Deeply emotional, dark, realistic, and a moving collection. Perhaps the most stimulating collection I have read in a long time.

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Book Review –To Reach the Sea: The Creation of Bolivia and Its Extraordinary Struggle to Survive

To Reach the Sea: The Creation of Bolivia and Its Extraordinary Struggle to Survive by John Josemaria Fulford is a study of Latin America’s least known country. Fulford has hitchhiked through every country in the Western Hemisphere, worked at many occupations, taught school grades K-12 and college, John delivers his memories in books that are both memoir and detailed travel accounts, some of the worlds no longer in exist. His thirst for knowledge led to a thirty-year project deciphering Webster’s Dictionary to find the rules Noah Webster held in his head when he codified American English two hundred years ago.

It has been two decades since I sat through Latin American history as an undergraduate and almost as long since I did it as a grad student. The history is unique and interesting. From colonization to independence and from dictatorships to democracy Latin America had and has promise but tends to be held back by their own doings and interference from the outside. It is unique from North America where the idea of self-government was built on English tradition. Here native people mixed, and intermixed, with Spanish settlers trying to establish their own identity, governments, and democracy in vaguely defined borders without the experience of self-government on any level. It was not an easy transition. Economically some countries were better than others, notably Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Others were trampled over and held back, notably Bolivia.

Bolivia takes its name from the liberator Simon Bolivar, It was part of the Inca Empire and during colonization, it was referred to as Upper Peru. The Spanish were better conquerors and looters than administrators. Regional borders remained mostly undefined. It really didn’t matter because it was all Spain, except for Brazil. In North America, people defined themselves by their states, so Virginia had a definite meaning to its inhabitants and to the charter companies. In Spanish America, more concern was on where you were from. A hierarchy was developed: Peninsulares (Those born in Spain), Criollos (Whites born in the Americas), Indios, and Mestizos (Mixed race, originally viewed as illegitimate). Priorities were different between North and South during colonization.

Fulford gives a detailed and well-researched history of Bolivia, but it also places Bolivia in South American history. Bolivia is a product of its neighbors. Through poor leaders and aggressive neighbors, Bolivia lost territory and access to the Pacific and at times access to the Atlantic. Landlocked and trapped between powerful countries, Bolivia struggled just to survive. Rich mineral deposits have not lead to prosperity. Bolivia ranks 96th in GDP compared the Chile at 42 Argentina at 21, and Brazil at 9. To Reach the Sea is a detailed and very readable history of South America’s least known country.

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Book Review — When Tigers Ruled the Sky: The Flying Tigers: American Outlaw Pilots over China in World War II

“This was the beginning of the greatest adventure I would ever hope to experience. It wasn’t until years later that I fully realized the magnitude and significance of this first step, to be a lifelong adventure in the mystic Far East.”
Erik Shilling

When Tigers Ruled the Sky: The Flying Tigers: American Outlaw Pilots over China in World War II
When Tigers Ruled the Sky: The Flying Tigers: American Outlaw Pilots over China in World War II by Bill Yenne is a look at the American fighting force in China before America entered the war. Yenne is the author of more than three dozen nonfiction books, as well as several novels and he has contributed to encyclopedias of both world wars, and has been featured in several documentaries which have aired on the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Smithsonian Channel and ARD German Television.

In times of peace, some Americans still long for the adventure of war. In WWI there was the Lafayette Escadrille flying for the French. In the Spanish Civil War the was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In World War II it was the American Volunteer Group later to be known as the Flying Tigers. Their P-40 fighters bearing the famous shark-toothed mouth on the engine cowling. The flying tiger logo and its origins remain unknown. One of the members joked that it was odd to be a flying tiger when the planes have shark’s teeth painted on them.

Claire Lee Chennault persuaded FDR to allow the creation of this unit and recruited men from the army, navy, and Marines. The men would resign from service and essentially become mercenaries for the Chinese. There would be a one-year contract which began on July 4th, 1941. Many of the details were left out of the contract like the bonus for shooting down Japanese planes and the ability of the group members to rejoin the military after the contract. This was an opportunity many had looked for to gain experience in combat. Between the world wars, America cut back the military and flying time was severely limited.

There are mini-biographies of the key figures in the book. Gregory Hallenbeck applied to become a pilot under the Aviation Cadet Act, closed to married men. Hallenbeck applied anyway and when he received his birth certificate his name was listed as Gregory Boyington. His mother divorced when he was an infant and his stepfather raised him as his own. Gregory Boyington became a Marine pilot and a member of the Flying Tigers.

The Flying Tigers in action reads like a Hollywood adventure movie. Outnumbered by as much as 14-1 , they never lost an air battle. Pilot and plane loss was unbelievably low. The group as a whole was divided into three squadrons: The Adam and Eves, The Panda Bears, and The Hell’s Angels. Early conditions were horrible and only a few broke their contracts. Boyington would later pack up and leave in April of 1942 and rejoin the Marines. The duty schedule was heavy and understaffed mechanics had their work cut out for them repairing planes with limited supplies. The difficult duty, bad food, and lack of social contact led some to hard drinking on off-duty time.

Yenne writes a history that comes to life. Although the reputation of the Flying Tiger was well earned, there were hard times too. Being at war is difficult. Being at war with no official support from your own country is even more difficult. Still the Flying Tigers are credited with 297 enemy planes destroyed. Twenty Tiger’s lost their lives in service: 14 in combat, 2 as a result of bombings, and 6 in accidents. Many of the pilots re-entered the military after their contract as second lieutenants and were promoted to major in a matter of months putting them in leadership positions and making use of their experience. The military learned it lesson from WWI when it completely ignored the experience of the Lafayette Escadrille and considered them equal or less than untrained pilots. A remarkable read in real history.

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