Book Review — SR-71

SR-71: The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane by Richard H. Graham is the history of America’s most mysterious aircraft. Colonel (ret) Richard Graham is the author of three books on the SR-71 Blackbird. He flew this aircraft for seven years and ended up with 756 hours in its cockpit.

When I was a kid the SR-71 had been flying for a few years. It was the model kit every kid wanted. It was the fastest and highest flying plane ever built. Its specs remained classified. There, however, was little doubt how fast it was; in 1981 it outran a North Korean ground to air missile. By that time my childhood illusions of the SR-71s maneuverability had long since been substituted for the practical. Still, it remained one of the coolest planes to ever fly.

Graham takes the reader on a heavily illustrated history of the remarkable aircraft. From its beginnings in Burbank and its stealthy road trip to Groom Lake for testing. There is something for everyone to learn including the SR-71’s piggyback drone and its initial role as an air-to-air missile carrying interceptor. Graham’s book is filled with first-person experiences from training through flight operations. Support necessities to overcome the hostile atmosphere where the SR-71 operated are included. The human body can’t breathe at the altitude where the plane performed its mission. The air is thin and very cold and yet the plane’s skin temperature was very hot. Reading through this book one sees how planning, preparation, and execution rivaled the manned space program. SR-71 pilots and astronauts had much in common with SR-71 pilots having the additional problem of mid-air refueling.

SR-71 is a richly illustrated history of the plane, the pilots, and all the supporting staff much of it told by those who worked the missions.  Official documents are also used in photos and diagrams.  This was an age of espionage where people put their lives on the line for information.  Although intelligence today may be better and safer with the use of satellites and drones it does lose that mystique.  During the Cold War years, we kids, talked about the SR-71 and to some extent the U2.  I doubt today that kids sit around and talk specs on reconnaissance satellites or imagine what its like to operate one.  This is a book of days gone by and is a tribute to the plane and people who risked it all for their country.  A timely read for this Veteran’s Day.


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Book Review — The Book of Esther


The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate reality version of World War II set in a Jewish area of the present-day Caucasus region. Barton has written three novels so far. Her first, The Testament of Yves Gundron, called “blessedly post-ironic, engaging, and heartfelt” by Thomas Pynchon, won the Bard Fiction Prize and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

With a degree in history, I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I find too many holes in the historical aspects of the story that usually ruins the book for me. I picked this book because the plot revolved around something that is not part of actual history. To my surprise, this book had very little to do with actual history. It resembles more of a fantasy story than historical or alternative fiction. The map of Europe has been redrawn with new borders and slightly different named countries. There is also a mix of magic, through kabbalism, and an unusual mix of military technologies. What remains from our historical timeline is the holocaust and refugees from the Nazis.

The book started a bit slow for my taste and this is mainly because of my preconceived perceptions. Looking at the cover the heroine, Esther, is riding a mechanical horse. This is something that bothered me throughout the book. The four-legged horse is controlled much like a motorcycle with the exception that they have a sort of consciousness. This is accomplished by mechanical means and not magic or some advanced technology. It really seems out of place in a practical sense; a motorcycle would have made a better choice. It does, however, seem to add to the fantasy sense of the story and perhaps a reminder of what happened to the Polish horse cavalry when it fought the German Panzers.

There are several things that I really liked in the story.  First, it plays on two different female heroes.  Esther, the main character’s namesake, saved the Jews from Haman in ancient Persia and it is now her role in this book to save her people.  Her leadership also rivals Joan of Arc in creating and leading an army.  There is also an interesting discussion of what it is to be human and the role of having a soul.  This was discussed in the open but its full value lived just below the surface.  One thread that remained under the surface of the story was sex and sexuality.  The later plays a bigger role than what may have been initially presented.  It creates an interesting twist in a society that runs strictly by the laws of the Torah.  The role of religion and Jewish tradition does play a major role throughout the book.

I did enjoy the story and writing once I got set into the story.  The plot is solid and flows well.  The fantasy essence of the story is within most people’s willing suspension of disbelief; it fits well within the created world.  The mix of real Judaism and history with the Barton’s created world is also a good mix.  What makes the story most enjoyable is the interconnecting weave of genres: historical fiction, Judaism, dieselpunk, military fiction, and fantasy.   The Book of Esther was a book that caught my attention from both the description and cover. I nearly lost interest when I found out it was not what I thought it would be, but then the story caught and I could not put it down.  It is a well written and thought out story that leaves the reader with the hope that there may be more to come.
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Book Review — Call of the Wild


Call of the Wild by Jack London is the fictional biography of a Santa Clara dog who finds himself on an adventure of a lifetime.  London was an American novelist, journalist, social-activist and short-story writer whose works deal romantically with elemental struggles for survival. At his peak, he was the highest paid and the most popular of all living writers. Because of early financial difficulties, he was largely self-educated past grammar school.

The story opens with Buck, a St. Bernard and German Shepard mix, who has a comfortable life in Santa Clara living with a fairly well to do family.  One day he is kidnapped and sent north to be a sled dog in the gold rush of the 1890s.  The story goes well beyond a dog’s life and perhaps is a metaphor for life.  Those who served in the military might recognize the storyline — Comfortable life, being broken down, becoming part of a team, becoming a leader, dedication, picking your battles, and of course becoming a legend.  There is a connection to the human drive.  The story itself is moving and full of rousing adventure.  It is not hard for the reader to follow the path to primitivism and its role in survival outside the comforts civilized city life.  The state of nature comes into play in both the lives of dogs and man. It is where beings thrive.

I am most familiar with Dover Thrift books but this edition is different.  It is hardcover with color prints as well as black and white artwork both by wildlife artist Paul Bransom.  This book is one for your bookshelf for the story and the artwork.  It’s a story in the same vein as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; a story one does not outgrow.


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Book Review — No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984


No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984 by Matthew Worley is a study of the Punk Rock movement and its evolution in England. Worley is Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading specializing in 20th century British politics with a particular interest in the labour movement.

America had its punk rock movement in 1970s New York. The Ramones, Television, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and the New York Dolls played to shock American rock out of its corporate rock slump and put an end to disco. In the 1980s West Coast punk came into being and was much closer to the British movement in style.

The British punk movement was built almost out of necessity. “No future” was much more than a catchphrase but it was a deeper feeling of the bleak destiny. Today, young Americans can expect not to do as well as their parents and not live as long either. Americans hide in cheap consumer goods and an abundance of processed food. The British youth fought back with music and attitude. Margaret Thatcher is still hated in England while Reagan moved quietly into history. The British economy was in shambles — high unemployment and inflation. Unions lost power most famously in the 1984-85 coal miners strike. State industries were privatized. Squatting became a common necessity. The threat of nuclear war (and the Falkland Islands) proved to many that there was no future.

The Sex Pistols and (now British Butter spokesman) Johnny Rotten (Lydon) take center stage in this book. The Buzzcocks, Crass, Malcolm McLaren, Siouxsie Sioux, The Adverts, and the Clash all make it into this book and their role in the evolution of Punk Rock. Punk rock was not a monolith but an evolving movement.  Punk was not just music.  It was art, sex, and style. It had many players from anarchists, communists, and the far right.  Neither the mainstream liberal or conservative parties accepted or considered the punk movement part of their ranks. It was not about changing just the music like in America; it was about changing society as a whole.  The youth acted out against a system that abandoned them.  

Punk evolved.  The most well known and first to gain popularity was “dole punk.”  The dole was the welfare system that was used to support those out of work.  It would eventually be cut back by Thatcher.  In 1976 England need to take out a $3.9 billion loan from the IMF.  It was the largest loan ever requested at that point.  The English government was forced into an austerity program to stabilize the pound and England’s sovereignty.  The Labour Party began to splinter giving rise to Thatcher.  

Bands like the Buzzcocks produced their own EPs in a do it yourself (DIY) fashion.  DIY became a movement of not counting on commercial production for your needs.  It was an attempt to separate from the system.  While some groups initially believed in self-reliance later these same groups worked with charity efforts. The range of music types was large from Aryan to reggae with Oi punk trying to unite the various groups.

I took plenty of notes throughout this book hoping to include them in this review.  I found myself with a pile of notes and ideas I could not fit in.  This is also a little surprising since one-third of the book is notes and source material.  The material is from a variety of reputable sources as well as Fanzines of the time which connected with the feelings and views of the youth from that period.  Well written.  Well researched and literally packed with relevant information on a pivotal point of social, music, and art history. 


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Poetry Review — The Amoeba Game


The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu is the poet’s first full collection of published poetry. Skurtu is an American poet and writer. She is a two-time U.S. Fulbright grantee, and she has received two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Marcia Keach Poetry Prize, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry.

A few years ago a friend saw me reading Kerouac’s On The Road. He told me it was one of his favorite books. I said I liked it, but maybe not loved it. The problem he told me was I wasn’t reading it right. He told me I needed to read how the author spoke. Read it with a Beat rhythm he said. I did and the book became amazing. For the readers who have not read Skurtu, look her up on Youtube and listen to her read. Her spoken word performance style will add more to already great poetry. Once you hear her voice and style, everything falls perfectly into place when reading.

This collection is broken into three sections: “The Amoeba Game”, “Tourniquet”, and “Skurtu, Romania”. The last section has been previously released as a chapbook and I gave it a very positive review. Skurtu currently lives in Romania and has a family history there. “Tourniquet” is a single poem in five sections reflecting back on snapshot images of youth.

“The Amoeba Game” strikes a chord with me. This section of the book has plenty for me to relate to. Outside of boot camp, there are few experiences that people can relate to on a deep level of similar experience. Perhaps the best example of this is that special kind of Stalinism that is found in Catholic school. There is summer Bible School, although Skurtu doesn’t mention who taught hers, but seems to be a different denomination. My experience was with the Quakers which presented a very different picture of religion to my young mind. Growing up, I think we all had our own version of the Amoeba Game in summer camp; something that only seemed to work away from home. This section is also about growing up and changes in family. We like to think we are different, but Skurtu reminds us we all share quite a bit of common ground.

An excellent collection of poetry from a poet who has put her life and experience into words. The only thing that could make this collection better is a release of an audio version read by the poet.

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Book Review — All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War, The Story of a British Deserter

All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War, The Story of a British Deserter by Andy Owen is a story of a World War II British deserter which is a personal story as well as part of a much bigger and usually not recognized consequence of war. Owen served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army reaching the rank of Captain. He completed operational tours in Northern Ireland (2003), Iraq (2004 and 2005) and on intelligence duties in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2007. East of Coker is his second novel following Invective (2014).

I would imagine that when an American thinks of a deserter, the image someone running away from the Vietnam War comes to mind and gets blurred into Jane Fonda sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. Americans rise to the challenge especially if it was a “good war” like World War II. Movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or series like Band of Brothers show that courage and sacrifice are the keys to winning a war. Vietnam was different. From July 1, 1966, through December 31, 1973, the Department of Defense reported 503,926 cases of desertion. In the Iraq War, there have been thousands of desertions (40,000 according to some sources) in the American military, but only one made the news.

The reasons for desertion are many, from fear of death to moral grounds (war for oil). One reason that is not usually discussed is mental exhaustion. Shellshock first came into being as a mental illness in the first world war. However, this was after many who suffered were executed for desertion and cowardice. Shellshock remained a problem after the war although there was little progress in treatment. In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith is a WWI veteran being treated for shellshock with a tragic outcome. Shellshock was a problem but it was far from understood. Today shellshock is more correctly called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The story of Alan Juniper who was conscripted into the Tower Hamlets Rifles and found himself in North Africa fighting Rommel’s forces is central to this book. Things were not going well for the British defeats and heavy shelling took a toll on the men. The casualty rate was high and unlike modern fighting, there was no twelve-month tours or even rotation as in trench warfare. Men stayed and fought until the end of the war, death, or severe injury. Juniper served 551 days in North Africa before deserting the first time. He did not present any indication that he was against the war or a troublemaker, in fact, he was promoted quickly. The question commonly asked is, “Why desert then?”

War is not only about killing. It is about taking away your enemies will to fight. It is easier and causes fewer casualties on your side if you can get your enemy to stop fighting. German Stukas used sirens to terrify the targets of their dive bombing. Those who survive know what the sound of the sirens meant and the fear lingered on. Constant artillery barrages and chemical weapons were to inflict physiological damage. Sleep deprivation, concussion from artillery, and general wearing down of the enemy troops is the goal. Some people can handle the stress better than others. Some people simply break down mentally. That is what happened to Juniper.

It may not be the danger that causes the breakdown but the lack of peace. US Southern Command used Van Halen at loud volumes to try and drive Noriega out of hiding in Panama. This was repeated in Afghanistan with US Marines blaring heavy metal music into the village of Marjah. Music and lights, or strobe lights, are used in interrogations to break down prisoners by depriving them of rest without leaving marks on the body. The point is that certain tactics are designed to break down the human mind. However, when it works against our own people it is seen as weakness.

Owen examines the British efforts in North Africa against the Germans and Alan Juniper’s role in the war.  The personal, as well as the big picture, are brought together in the book.  The war and its effects are described on the British forces as a whole, public opinion, and the individual soldiers.   Owen examines the war in the historical sense and in the philosophical sense too.  Just War Theory, Kant, and Camus are brought into the discussion.  Playing the role of devil’s advocate (as well as describing its origins), Owen creates and “Alan II” to serve as an “every soldier”.  Owen makes a case for effects of PTSD and its effect on those in combat.  Those who serve are expected to serve to the best of their ability.  What should happen to those who serve beyond their best ability?  Physically wounded soldiers* are expected to recover before returning to battle.  What of those who are mentally wounded?  We all have our breaking points.  For those of us who served, most have seen that breaking point exceeded by some in boot camp which is far less stressful than combat.

Another problem with military desertion is it is made into a political issue.  Sadly, the some of the toughest criticism of deserters comes from those who never served and those who did their best to avoid conscription through various means.  The system is unfair to those who break down under conditions that are meant to break them down.  A deeper understanding of PTSD and its recognition and treatment are needed.  The examination of one soldier’s experience can be used to start understanding other soldier’s experiences.  Mental wounds are just as disabling as physical wounds. They are just harder to see.  Veterans in the US have a 22% higher suicide rate than the general population.  According to the Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, twenty veterans a day took their own life.

PTSD is a major factor in many veteran’s lives.  There is not a clean and easy solution.  PTSD will not be treated by “I Support the Troops” magnets on cars.  It is easy to support the troops for war, once they come home hurt or broken it is another matter that requires more than a car magnet.  This is when the real support is needed.  All royalties from this book will be donated to PTSD charities.  Here is a chance to support the troops in a meaningful way — donating and getting educated on the effects of war on those who served.  Although the major combat is over, the battle for our soldiers is far from over.

*  I am using soldier as a convenient general term to cover all uniform services


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Book Review — Iran: A Modern History

Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat is a detailed five hundred year history of Iran. Amanat received his B.A. from Tehran University in Social Sciences in 1971 and his D.Phil. from the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford University in 1981. He is a Professor of History and International Studies and Director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies. Amanat is a historian of Iran and Shia Islam, and the modern Middle East. He specializes in Qajar Iran as well as the history of messianic and apocalyptic movements in the Islamic world.

For many, Iran became a fixture in American politics 1979 with the revolution and the taking of American hostages by college students. Iran was in the news again with talk of Reagan and the hostage release and later arms for hostages. Today Iran is the news as the US and others work to stop their nuclear weapons development. For those with a sense of history, President Hassan Rouhaniseemed to mimic Woodrow Wilson with his statement that “Death to America” is not directed to American people but to the actions of the American government.

Iran (or Persia) has a long a history and a deep culture that is detailed in Amanat’s book. Culture in arts and life adds greatly to a country’s history, changing it from a detailed listing of events and adding a human factor. This is, unfortunately, missing from many histories that are not typically Western. Culture adds to the reader’s understanding.

That being said, the revealing of the history is done with great detail and clarity. Perhaps the best thing about a well-written history is it explains how a country became what it is today. Why is Iran anti- American (government)? Why is Iran so concerned about its security? Are nuclear weapons a power grab or just a deterrent? Why do so many allies of the US have full diplomatic relations with Iran? How can one Muslim state be at odds with nearly all other Muslim states?

I found the period between World War and World War II the most interesting and, for my part, the most unexpected.  This is the birth of modern Iran and its regional and international struggles.  Here too is where the internal struggle between conservative Islam and Western culture seem to clash and continue to struggle even today.

Iran has a rich history that is a struggle.  That history also explains why present-day Iran evolved into what it is.  For many Americans, it seems more like a Cold War situation, a representation of worldwide terrorism.  To Iran, it sees a world ready to exploit any weakness and remembers every betrayal on the world stage.  This is a book that will bring a broader understanding of a country that only preconceptions exist.  The first step in better relations is understanding. Amanat does a tremendous job of educating the reader, even a reader with a background in history.

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