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Book Review: A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher is a fictional account of part of the Spanish Civil War. Fisher was born in 1961 in Kirkintilloch, Scotland and graduated with a masters degree in history from Edinburgh University in 1983. To supplement his writing Fisher teaches at a British school in Madrid. Spain has been his home for the last ten years.

In A Republic of Wolves, the Spanish Civil War did not end in April of 1939 but went on into 1940, and the trenches encroached on the city of Madrid. I wondered why the author would have the war extended into the next year, but I came to realize it created some interesting twists. First, the Communists supporting the Republican forces are neutralized by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, otherwise known as the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, in August of 1939. The Republican communists are viewed as traitors as the Soviets allied with the Nazis who supported the Nationalist fascists. It also opened up American support to the Republican forces. In the novel, America comes through with planes, tanks, and consumer goods. Propaganda posters originally showing the USSR as the Republican partner are slowly being replaced with ones showing Uncle Sam.

The story centers around Maria, a middle aged woman who delivers food to refugees in Madrid. She isolates herself from the war as much as she can. In Republican held territory, she needs to be. Her husband was a Falangist who influenced her oldest child. He was not a good husband and mistreated Maria. He did not survive in the war and appears to have been executed in the street. Maria also maintains a low profiles as her oldest son is in the trenches of Madrid, on the Nationalist side. A chance meeting with her son changes her life. She gains the attention of Captain Gregorio and Sergeant Izaguirre and is the key in meeting with Ignaz Gunter who will only meet with Maria. Maria is also cautious around Republican officials because it appears her other son is a deserter from the Republican forces. Her low profile existence is about to change.

Captain Gregorio is an interesting character in himself. He has earned the respect of his men and soldiers in general. Gregorio does something every Marine will recognize; he puts sergeants in charge of the men and lets the experienced non-commissioned officers carry out his orders. He keeps a veteran, 50 year old, sergeant with him and has the sergeant execute orders. He takes Maria in to protect her from enemies on both sides. Gregorio is also on a mission of his own that he is determined complete.

Fisher does an excellent job of showing the chaos involved in the war. The Spanish Civil War was not a two sided war. It was made up of two opposing coalitions that were by no means cohesive. Extending the war a year shows the splintering of the sides, especially on the Republican side. There are points where people could no longer trust their own friends.

A Republic of Wolves starts slow and builds up fairly quickly into a fairly intense story. Maria is a very likeable character who is dragged into the war by events beyond her control. Gregorio makes for the perfect officer, smart, determined, and unemotional. When others rant he remains calm. Sergeant Izaguirre is the model non-commissioned officer and looks out for his people including Maria. Great characters and setting make for excellent reading, and the alternative war history allows for some interesting plot twists. A City of Ghosts is plausible alternative history with a very well written story.

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Book Review: Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob by David Kinney is a mix of Bob Dylan biography and part overzealous fanbase. Kinney is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has worked for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His previous book is The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish — a book about Martha’s Vineyard. 

I would imagine that there are few people alive today who do not know who Bob Dylan is or who cannot name a few lines of one of his songs. As a child I remember listening to “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on 45, mainly because the opening line mentioned trains and I loved trains. I think the only other singer I remember from that very young age was David Bowie and that was because of his eerie reading of Peter and the Wolf. Bob Dylan seemed to follow me in my younger years. I remember the Saturday Night Live parody of “Blowing in the Wind” redone as “The answer, my friends, is Ronald Reagan” in a Dylan meets the Invasion of the Body Snatchers mashup. Although Bob Dylan did not fit into my friends Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC listening preferences in high school, I did buy Slow Train Coming. I am a fan, but nothing crazy, an occasional listener. But I will admit Dylan did have an influence on me and American culture.

To say Bob Dylan has enthusiastic fans is a huge understatement.Dylanologist brings some of the biggest fans to the spotlight. Some are so avid they make the KISS Army seem tame. Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota is a “historic” site. The residents and the media are always alert for a Bob Dylan sighting. Zimmy’s Restaurant is a shrine to Dylan and an eatery for the fans who make the pilgrimage Hibbing. Fans seek out every Bob Dylan artifact from the house he grew up in, to bootleg tapes, and everything related or touch by the singer. 

The biography covers Dylan, from his childhood through the present, and like other biographies show the changes in the singer’s persona. It is difficult to tell what Dylan’s motivation is to constantly change his image. From folk singer, to supporting social movements, to not supporting social movements, to outspoken Christian, to talking to his rabbi, to just wanting to perform music. Dylan worked to keep his fans off balanced and not knowing what to expect next from the singer. 

Dylanologist is an interesting mix of Dylan biography and the extreme fans of Bob Dylan. The intermixing of the two subjects works well and will keep the reader interested. If you have already read Dylan biographies, there is plenty of new information concerning his fans and their reactions to the various incarnations of the singer. A great book for Dylan fans and for those wanting to know what fan obsession is all about. 

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Book Review: Bayonets of the First World War

Bayonets of the First World War by Claude Bera

Bayonets of the First World War by Claude Bera and Bernard Aubry was originally written in French and translated by Schiffer Publishing. This short book provides an outstanding collection for photographs of museum quality bayonets used in the Great War. The most surprising difference is the length of the weapon. The M7 bayonet used in the Marines, when I served, had a comparably small eight inch blade when compared to the nearly twenty inch bayonets carried by the forces in World War I. 

German sawtooth blades were particularly intimidating. The double rows of teeth on the eighteen inch blade were intended to put fear into an enemy as his trench was being invaded. With bayonets fixed to the rifle, many stood taller than the solder holding them. The Japanese solved the problem of an overly cumbersome long weapon with a folding bayonet. The bayonet stayed attached to the rifle, but folded under the barrel. 

Bayonets gives a short history of the war and year by year updates to bayonets as the rifles changed during the war. It is interesting to note in 1914 that many of the bayonets dated back to the 1870s. This seems to demonstrate what many have believed. In 1914, no one was prepared for war. A basic infantryman’s tool was not improved upon in forty years. Likewise that would also have meant rifles were not updated either. Bayonets includes many nations involved directly in the war and includes China and Latin America. 

The pictures in the book are incredible in PDF format and without doubt even more so in print. There are detailed pictures of the engravings and more than enough information to help in identifying bayonets. The basic history of the war provides a chronological outline of the development and evolution of the bayonet. A remarkable picture book of the most basic infantry weapon. Well worth the read and look for the World War I historian or military historian.

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Book Review: Another Reason

That a prophet’s toil wasn’t worth the trouble,
That a shrewder man would have a chosen a softer trade. 


Another Reason by Carl Dennis

Another Reason by Carl Dennis is his newest collection of poems. Dennis is the author of eleven previous works of poetry and essay collections. He attended Oberlin College, the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota. Dennis earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1966, and that same year became became an associate professor of English at the University of Buffalo where he spent much of his career. Dennis has earned the Ruth Lilly Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.

Some poetry reaches out and grabs the reader. Some poetry takes a reader to a distant place or puts them with someone they miss. Other poetry is a look inside of the poet’s mind. Another Reason is the latter type of poetry. Dennis writes about ordinary things and ideas, hoping to capture that “aha” moment of familiarity. There is no beauty of a blossom or an exotic land. Here we see see common questions about our place in the cosmos, religion, money problems, and even Nietzsche.

Some of the poems really hit the spot. “Animal Husbandry” concerns the Noah story. Have others thought how unfair it was to the millions of animals on earth to die in the flood for man’s sins? What of those saved on the ark? What type of strain would it be on two bees trying to make a hive or two gophers attempting a colony after the waters receded? “Job: A New Edition” brought up another thought I had long ago. Doesn’t God know the outcome of Job’s trial even before it begins? Does God think Satan can prove him wrong? Why should Job suffer for a bet. Does Job feel justice when he is rewarded with a new family and servants? — “Would be Ample substitutes for the old”.

The vast majority of poems do not deal with religion and are unlikely to be as controversial as those two. Those just happened to jump out at me. “To a Novelist” is an observation of a town meeting with people taking sides of the developers (a Wal*Mart type) and others wanting to preserve the small town downtown. “Meaning” takes a view of what is meaningful in from different people’s perspective. “Achievement” likewise describes different people’s concept of achievement.

Another Reason is a collection of poem that will not hit everyone the same way. There are poems that the reader will relate to and others that seem to slip by. This is not a collection where every poem will be a hit, but those that do hit home, hit with force. Very well done.

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Book Review: Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

Train by Tom Zoellner

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner is an account of the author’s travel on some of the historic rail lines from across the globe. Zoellner earned his B.A. in History and English from Lawrence University and his M.A. from Dartmouth. He has reported for several newspapers and has published several nonfiction books on a variety of subjects: from uranium to diamonds. He has also been a speechwriter for Gabrielle Giffords which prompted him to write A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America after the tragic shooting in 2011.

Train starts in England as Zoellner rides across the country visiting places of interest from the world’s first railway, to where the steam engine was invented, improved, and eventually made into a train. He ties aspects of the region, coal for example, from the dangerous work in the mines to Thatcher’s effective shutdown of coal mining when breaking the miners union in 1984. England is the heart of railroad history. Trains were needed to move raw materials to factories and finished goods back to port. In India, the railroads claim to be the biggest employer in the world, not true, but nonetheless and very impressive sized employer. The British brought railroads to India for their economic benefit, but in the long run the railways united the formerly fragmented Indian people and perhaps helped India on its way to independence. 

Some countries see rail as the future. China’s centralized government is spending an incredible sum of money building a rail infrastructure. People will need to move in the future and a train is far more efficient energy-wise and far more affordable for the people than automobiles. Peru is in a financial do or die railroad project. Trains, although costing more initially, will move the country’s raw materials far more efficiently than an army of trucks. China is also exporting its rail building expertise throughout the world, including the United States. 

I once heard a commentator say that the United States has a rail system that would embarrass Bulgaria; I don’t think he was lying. Zoellner covers the rise and tragic fall of the American rail system from settling the west and unifying the country to state governments refusing to allow high speed rail to be built in their states. As someone who prefers to travel by train, anywhere that is too far to bicycle to, I see the same sad system. Amtrak estimated that over 95% of Americans have never been on a train. 

Perhaps the most unexpected thing in the book is the Tran-Siberian Railroad. Zoellner is quick to explain that this is not the Orient Express. In fact, when he tells Russian passengers that he plans to ride all the way to Vladivostok, they look at him in horror. Why would anyone want to travel voluntarily across Siberia is a mystery to a Russian. For days on end the landscape is unchanging. Russians ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad only because they have to. It is more of an engineering marvel for the Czar Nicholas II to brag about to his European counterparts than it was ever for comfortable train travel. 

Train is an exciting look at some of the world’s historic and greatest railways. Zoellner adds history and ancillary stories to the these important railways. It is not just trains, but politics that create and kill railways. It is also about planning the future infrastructure of rising nations and watching the failure of up until now successful nations. Railways were and still are a sign of power and pride in many nations. Zoellner’s first hand accounts, interviews, and related history make this a great book.

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Book Review: Red Wind Howl

in the drifting wind is the perfect moment and the 
moment goes on and on

“The Space Sublime”

Red Winds Howl by Peter Standish Evans

Red Winds Howl by Peter Standish Evans is a short collection of modern poetry. Evans was born in Worcester, UK. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Natal University and his MBA from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, He has previously published the novel Omnibus: Borders: Coffee.

Over the last few years I have developed a strong appreciation for poetry– from the classic forms to free verse. I also came to find out that poetry has had its effects in my early musical preferences. My favorite singers were (and still are) poets: Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan. Red Wind Howls is advertised as something outside the mold of contemporary and historical poetry. It is described as a blend of 303 bullets and tequila, and from the “neo-metallic realist” school of poetry. I immediately thought this could be the punk rock of poetry: sharp, jagged edges, powerful, and raw. I would soon find that I was not disappointed. 

I received the book in the mail and removing it from the envelope my first thoughts were “Huh, a used book. How long has this been sitting around on a back shelf.” It took me a minute to realized that this was not a used book. The cover art (something I usually never talk about) is distressed. It looks like something you would pick up on the California desert blown around for years by the Santa Anna winds (Red Winds of Philip Marlowe). 

This collection covers a broad range of topics. From a machine gunner to a sniper and from Africa to a million, million pixels through the solitude of retinas, Evans looks beneath the veneer of our seamless world. There is a halting roughness to the words that breaks in mid thought to a new line or stanza. It gives the feeling that things are not necessarily the way we perceive them; we take things for granted and give no more than a moments notice. The Red Winds Howl is what exists beyond the sound bites and simple explanations. There is something disturbing, something the mad man sees and tries to explain to the conformist. 

“Johnny’s Locker” is about a boxer who likes dancing with knives and breaking heads on Sundays, but Johnny is more than what people see he is a poet and runs deep, deep inside the wind. “The Extremist” tells of the view and patience of a vulture circling high above Mogadishu riding the thermals waiting for its moment. There is rebellion too. “Turning Faces” begins:

out of the mighty side streets sirens fly,
window mouthing obscenities 
forced through loud hailers 
firmly between thumb and Jupiter
decision and ambition fixated on the eye of the target
like a dart posed in flight
powered, pulsing, probing
endlessly racing, seeking victory
chasing the tail feathers down the alleys of time

Red Wind Howl is a very readable collection of poetry with a modern twist. Evans has captured the modern world with raw and powerful imagery. This is a collection for the modern urban man who sees the cracks in the foundation of modern society and is not afraid to express those thoughts. This is the punk rock of modern poetry.

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Book Review: The Royal Navy Officer’s Pocket-Book, 1944

The Royal Navy Officer's Pocket-Book by Brian Lavery

The Royal Navy Officer’s Pocket-Book, 1944 with introduction, compiled by Brian Lavery is a reprint of the World War II naval officers pocket-book. Lavery is a leading British naval historian he has also published Churchill’s Navy (2006). 

As a former US Marine, I have read the tomes that are the Marine Corps’ non-commissioned officers and officers handbook and guide. Although it has been well over twenty years since I looked at either book, I remember a great deal from them that applied to my time in the Marines and afterwards. As a student of history and formerly serving under the Department of the Navy, I thought this British naval hand-book would be an make a nice comparison to that I have learned. 

After the introduction by Captain J. N. Pelly, the book begins:

Leadership is the one attribute which is common and necessary to all who wear the uniform of an officer in His Majesty’s Forces, whatever their technical qualifications. 

It is followed by Bearing and Example, Knowledge, Firmness and Fairness, Loyalty, and Smartness. This is much of what I expected; what makes a leader a leader and more importantly an effective leader. This first section of the book is a fairly detailed coverage of what it takes to be an effective leader. Know you men, by name. No one likes to be called “Hey, you.” Address your non-commissioned officers by rank and name. It shows respect for what they have earned and your faith in their abilities. Don’t raise men’s hope of leave or liberty, unless you are one hundred percent sure you can deliver on it. Disappointment makes for poor morale. There is several mentions about conduct of the men and more than a few mentions of dealing with drunkenness (but also the importance of maintaining adequate rum rations for the men). 

The book goes on to more ship related matters and spends a great deal of time on the ship’s medical officers. There is a section on correcting courses, converting magnetic compass readings to true compass readings, and correcting for drift. The ship’s medical officer section is disproportionately large, primarily because doctors serving on ships during the war were civilian doctors and not naval trained doctors. They had a major adjustment to make. Doctors are also told that the navy cannot afford x-ray machine and microscopes for all the ships in the navy and doctors must make use of the medical training and not rely only on technology. The final chapter starts with the warning that this book is to remain locked up when not in use then proceeds to cover the subject of mutiny. I saw that as a little odd to find in a modern democratic nations naval hand-book, but it was on the minds of leaders. WWII pulled many men into the navy who would much rather being doing something else than fighting a global war. There was a realistic concern that some would choose to rebel. The solution basically boils down to good leadership. 

It is interesting to see all the changes in the modern military and how much of this hand-book is now obsolete. One thing that never changes though is leadership and being an effective leader. That leadership also plays a role in the civilian world today’s leaders and supervisors could learn much from this short hand-book. Military leadership is not yelling and screaming. It is building a team, setting the example, and motivating people to complete a task. Militaries know this and it has remained effective over the years. This hand-book may be more in more in line for military historians and naval historians, but it has great advice for all leaders. 

No star rating because this is a historic training manual written for a specific purpose and time, but well worth the read. 

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Book Review: How to be Vegan: Tips, Tricks, and Strategies for Cruelty-Free Eating, Living, Dating, Travel, Decorating, and More

How to be Vegan: Tips, Tricks, and Strategies for Cruelty-Free Eating, Living, Dating, Travel, Decorating, and More by Elizabeth Castoria is an introduction and guide to the vegan lifestyle. Castoria is the former editorial director of VegNews. 

One of my biggest peeves with vegans stems from definitions. In this book I see the same thing. Vegans do not eat or use any animal products which is clear and concise. However vegetarians eat eggs and dairy according to Castoria. As a vegetarian, that is news to me. Vegetarians are by definition herbivores. There are hyphenated exceptions such as lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy and ovo-vegetarians who eat eggs. Castoria sees no difference. What separates vegetarians from vegans is the use of animal products, which is rather a blurry area. Vegans won’t eat honey because bees are animals, but very few would think twice about fumigating their house to get rid of termites. There is a sliding scale of acceptability. 

The book on the whole provides good information on why giving up the consumption of animal products is a worthwhile endeavour. There are personal benefits for your health and environmental benefits. Cattle rank as the greatest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. There is also the animal rights portion too. There is an overall loss in food production by raising animals for slaughter. Animals require much more food than they provide. And, yes, you can get all your protein through plants. 

There are also useful “pro-tips” and celebrity tidbits throughout the book. Most aspects of everyday life are covered from being vegan while traveling, what to eat at the airport, and how to order vegan meals when the options are not on the menu. There is a chapter on household and beauty item and a list some that are vegan. Most aspects of life are covered with the exception of automobiles. Our car society impacts animals a great deal from road kill, destroying habitats for new roads, sprawling suburbia destroying any meaningful wildlife refuge. Not to mention the destruction of the environment from oil spills and pollution. But, giving up a car is harder than giving up meat, I guess. 

All in all a decent introduction to veganism. The recipes at the end of the book are an added bonus, and from reading through them, they seem like they would taste good and look easy to make. I would recommend this book to anyone looking at changing their life to a healthier one and one that is gentler on the planet. Even with what this book lacks it does give an encouraging boost to those interested in veganism (or vegetarianism).

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Book Review: Achievement: The Righting of a Great Wrong 1914-1918

Achievement The Righting of a Great Wrong 1914-1918

Achievement: Righting the Great Wrong 1914-1918 by Ian W. Hall gives a contemporary look back at the First World War in plain language. Hall was born in northern England in 1935 and served as a junior officer in the Royal Signals. After the military, he worked for thirty years in personnel management in the chemical, engineering, and construction industries. Since retiring, he has concentrated on writing.

Achievement presents a different history of the war from the British perspective. Instead of a chronological listing of events, Hall is topic driven. In “The Approach March” he takes us back in time to set the stage for the war: politically and militarily. Another chapter discusses army organization and the operations, and another the German perspective of the war.

In Achievement the overwhelming point was how unprepared everyone was for the war. Britain an island nation put its military spending into its navy. It needed to protect itself from European aggressions and protect its far flung empire. It did not have a real standing army in country. The author jokes that the British loved their army because it was overseas and not causing problems inside the country. Kaiser William (Willie as the author calls him) was doomed by buying into the idea of a naval arms race with Britain and the Schlieffen Plan. The naval race because it was planned on the idea that Britain would not react to the growing German navy, and the Schlieffen plan because no plan ever lasts beyond initial contact with the enemy.

There is some humor in the book like describing Russia’s value to France as an ally: Russia was a basket case nation in terminal decline; as an ally no more use than a busted flush to a blind poker player. 

He also makes light of the Czarina’s military experience in her convincing the Czar to take charge of the military. In England, the King or Queen was in command of the navy and parliament in charge of the army. That explains why the army was so ill prepared equipment wise for the war . There was a point that each artillery gun was limited to firing four shells a day. British logistics also takes up an entire chapter in the book and gives an good look at its evolution. Meanwhile, the navy was all dressed up with no place to go in this war. Just as confusing to the outsider was that America’s military is lead by the president, but only congress can declare war.

One item that was repeated a few times in the book was one advantage the British soldiers had over the Germans: grenades. Although the German potato masher grenades looked cool, they were awkward. The British grenades, Mills bomb, were fairly close to a modern grenade. A steel shell filled with explosives. Once detonated, the steel shell became shrapnel and had a ten meter kill zone. What gave the British the extra advantage was the grenade was roughly ball shaped. Most British soldiers played cricket at one time or another and learned to throw a ball accurately (the same can be said of forces of the empire too). Throwing a grenade accurately was the same skill, unlike the Germans trying to throw a can with a stick attached to it.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I many books have been published and luckily I have been able to read a fair number of them. This book is different because it is the first that has not been written by someone with a PhD or even a master’s degree. The only education listed in the author’s short biography is grammar school. This is an educational and enjoyable book on World War I. The fresh perspective and plain language make it easy to read and understand. A good book for any war historian and an excellent book for the interested, non-historian.


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Open Road Media Sale

Up to 80% off today on a huge selection of ebooks. 

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December 2, 2013 · 10:20