Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey

One of the great things about reading history books is learning about obscure people whose lives illuminate a corner of time.  In school history classes, the emphasis tends to be on larger stories, a few “great men” (possibly a woman or two) and lots of dates to memorize.  But a book that focuses on just one minor figure can tell you a lot about the time and place they lived in.

Our Man in Charleston

This volume concerns Robert Bunch, who was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853-63.  For our younger readers, a consul is a diplomatic official that handles the interests of a country and its citizens in an area of a foreign land less important than the capital, which is covered by an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary.  The big issue when Mr. Bunch arrived in town was the Negro Seaman Act.  In South Carolina and several other states of the southern United States, if a ship landing in a port had free black people in the crew, those crew members would be imprisoned for the duration of the ship’s stay.   That meant those crew members couldn’t do the work necessary to get the ship ready to leave, as well as suffering the privations of prison.  What was more, the ship’s captain was charged for the expense of imprisoning his crew, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, his ship and cargo would be seized by the government, and the crew members enslaved to pay the debt!

Since Great Britain had freed its slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s, and any British merchant captain operating in the West Indies hired locally, this meant that British citizens were being imprisoned, ran the risk of being enslaved and having their business prospects dampened.   Her Majesty’s Government was not well pleased.  On the other hand, the previous consul had been indiscreet about saying so, and was too forthcoming about the evils of slavery, so had been forced to leave town in theoretical disgrace.   Mr. Bunch would have to be more discreet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina and its fellow Southern states were facing their own economic crisis.   Their biggest crop was cotton, and their method of producing it demanded a steady supply of slaves.  Back when the U.S. Constitution had been signed, it had been agreed to stop importing slaves from other countries (especially African ones) after 1808 as by that point, domestic production should be sufficient.  They hadn’t realized just how heavily cotton would take off.  Worse, the Northern “free” states were expanding their territory and economies faster than the slave states, and getting more disgruntled with slavery by the year.   So the Southerners wanted to guarantee their right to have slaves forever, expand into places like Cuba and Mexico to increase their territorial power, and re institute the slave trade.

The British government was not thrilled with any of those plans, but they were well aware that their textile industry depended heavily on Southern U.S. cotton, which at the time had no viable substitute.  So Mr. Bunch’s instructions were to be as subtle as possible about opposing such things.

What emerges is a remarkably sympathetic account of the two-faced behavior required of diplomats.  In his interactions with the South Carolinians, Mr. Bunch was pleasant and friendly and non-committal, slowly working behind the scenes to accomplish British goals (it took several years, but the Negro Seaman Act was repealed.)   But in his diplomatic correspondence and secret messages to his superiors, Bunch revealed his true horror about the practice of slavery and his belief that the people around him had gone insane in a fundamental way.

(Lest Northerners get too smug, most of the ships practicing illegal slave trading with Cuba and Central America at the time were built and funded by people in New York City, using their American flags to bluff their way past British anti-slavery patrols.)

When the American Civil War came, Mr. Bunch was the only competent British consul in the Confederacy.  He was required to carry out secret diplomatic missions to try to get the Confederate government to pledge not to revive the slave trade–without ever making a solid promise to have Great Britain recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.   Meanwhile, his dispatches were part of the reason the United Kingdom held off on recognizing the CSA, despite the foreign policy blunders of U.S,. Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed ready to provoke war with Britain if that’s what it took to show the Union would not be intimidated.

Mr. Seward was also completely taken in by Mr. Bunch’s smiling facade, and decided he was in cahoots with the rebels, pulling his diplomatic credentials.  When Mr. Bunch was evacuated from Charleston by a British ship in 1863, the South Carolina newspapers hailed him as a friend of the South.

The book comes with a center section of photographs, an extensive bibliography by subject (the book was vastly helped by Bunch’s diplomatic correspondence now being declassified), endnotes, acknowledgements and index.

Some thoughts:  this book is very clear about the way the South Carolinians’ dependence on slavery and their doubling down on it being the only ethical mode of life led them in a death spiral that could only result in economic destruction, even if the Civil War had not come about.  Make no mistake; at least for the elite of Charleston, the secession was all about keeping and expanding slavery (though their diplomats in European countries quickly resorted to all the other explanations you’ve heard, because slavery was a hard sell.)

Also, the peek behind the curtains of diplomacy makes me wonder what our own diplomats are up to around the world, and other countries’ diplomats are up to here.  How much double-dealing is acceptable in a good cause?  How can we ever be sure what an ambassador is really thinking?  Was that really the best treaty we could get, or is something entirely different going on behind the scenes?

Highly recommended for American Civil War buffs, history fans and those who want to know more about how diplomacy works.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.  No other compensation was involved.

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic books were still a very new thing in 1940, and the publishers were still trying to figure out what there was a market for.  Science fiction themes seemed popular, so Fiction House created the pulp-inspired Planet Comics to appeal to fans of rockets and aliens.  This volume collects the first four issues, including some of the advertisements.

Planet Comics, Vol. 1

After a brief introduction by Carmine Infantino, which is mostly about the fact that he had nothing to do with any of the included material, we get right down to some luridly colored adventures.  Dick Briefer was the artist on “Flint Baker and the One-Eyed Monsters of Mars”, the first story in the volume and perhaps the most complex.  Mr. Baker has designed and built a spaceship, but no sane people want to go on a trip to Mars with him.  So he pulls political strings to have three murderous mechanics freed from Death Row if they’ll volunteer for the voyage.

After takeoff, it’s discovered that Mimi Wilson, a reporter for the New York Globe, has stowed away on the ship.  Flint is quickly *ahem* convinced to let her stay aboard.  The three convicts tell their stories, and amazingly, all three of them were actually guilty.  The first one does claim self-defense, but the second decided to shoot his sister’s fiance at the altar on the grounds that he was “rotten.”  The third man, Grant, claims to have been forced to murder by a mysterious man with hypnotic powers.  Hmm….

It turns out that Mr. Baker’s is not the first expedition to Mars.  As the ruler of the light side of Mars and his daughter Princess Viga explain, the Earthmen were criminals, and exiled to Mars’ dark side (protip:  Mars does not have a “dark side”) where even now they plot to conquer the peaceful Martians.  The word “they” turns out to be misleading.  Their leader, Sarko, has murdered the others and seized control of an army of one-eyed monsters.

There is a fierce battle, during which the named women are captured, and the King of Mars gives up.  The Earthmen are made of sterner stuff and infiltrate the enemy headquarters.  Sarko is planning to kill Viga to prevent any opposition to his eternal rule, and is going to give Mimi immortality to be his Empress.  Turns out that Sarko was the man who forced Grant to murder and then left him in prison to rot–they both wind up dead.  But more adventures next month!

Other standout characters are the Red Comet, a mystery man who can shrink and grow at will thanks to a special belt, Amazona, last woman of a superior Arctic race, and Auro, Lord of Jupiter, who was raised by a saber-tooth tiger.  Spurt Hammond is not so special in and of himself, being a standard two-fisted space pilot, but he battles the Lunerzons, woman warriors of the Moon with a vaguely Chinese culture, who are easily defeated when their leaders both get the hots for Spurt.

Art by Dick Briefer
Just look at this car. Is it not magnificent? Art by Dick Briefer.

 

The design aesthetic is very pulp SF, which leads to some fascinating spaceships and cityscapes.  But much of the art is crude, and some of the stories have lazy pages of big panels with little art in them.  Often the stories are disjointed and somewhat nonsensical; this is most obvious with the Fletcher Hanks “Tiger Hart” piece which is apparently a medieval story with a couple of word balloons edited to make it happen on Saturn.

There’s no real depth of theme in these stories, just plenty of action.  Be warned, there’s some period racism (seriously, a global invasion by what appear to be Eskimos?) and sexism.  For most people, I’d recommend checking to see if you can find this through your public library.  Only the most fanatical Golden Age collectors (like me) are likely to want to own it.

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu is the greatest of the Yellow Peril villains, created during a time period when it was believed that “sinister Chinamen” plotted to overthrow the Western nations and bring the world under Asiatic control.  The first Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, was published in 1913, having first appeared as a series of magazine stories.

The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

In 1956, a television program aired featuring Glen Gordon as the Devil Doctor (Fu Manchu has almost never been played by an actual Chinese actor), with Lester Matthews as his long-time nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland Yard.  In the books, Fu Manchu’s motivation had evolved from smashing the British Empire and by extension all Western civilization, to taking over the world for its own good to prevent war and chaos.   For the TV series, he was portrayed as mostly wanting to create war and chaos so that he could then take over the world.

Due to rights disputes with Mr. Rohmer, the series was truncated at thirteen episodes, two of which I have on DVD.  Each episode opens with a chess game between Sir Denis and Fu Manchu, representing white and black respectively.  (The symbolism takes on a slight tinge when you remember that white attacks first.)  At the end of each episode, Dr. Fu Manchu is thwarted, and breaks one of the black pieces in anger.

Fu Manchu is aided in each episode by the lovely Egyptian slave girl Karamaneh (Laurette Luez) and the little person Kolb (John George).   Other minions are guest stars, and tend to die during the course of the episode.  Sir Denis is assisted by Dr. John Petrie (Clark Howat), who is attached to the Surgeon General’s office, and Dr. Petrie’s lab assistant Nurse Betty Leonard (Carla Balenda).

“The Prisoner of Fu Manchu”:  Fu Manchu hypnotizes Betty into injecting an Asian diplomat with a formula that puts him into a coma just before an important peace conference.  This is part of an elaborate ploy to replace the diplomat with an impostor, kill all the diplomats to ensure war, and steal a new type of radiation shielding being demonstrated at the conference.  The most interesting twist here is that the impostor pretends to be partially paralyzed from the effects of the poison, thus drawing attention to that rather than any defects in his impersonation.

“The Ships of Death”:  A ship sinks off Hong Kong in heavy weather, but the seasoned captain saves the entire crew, and some special cargo.  The captain is unaware that his precious cargo is actually stolen germ warfare samples from an American government facility.  (Naturally, they were only created  to help Americans defend against germ warfare.)  If these samples fall into the hands of the Reds, they’ll be able to use them as an excuse to step up their own germ warfare research and possibly utilization.  Fu Manchu blackmails the captain into accepting the job of delivering the cargo, and injects the samples into melons for smuggling purposes.  The captain decides he cannot be a part of this, and by the end, Fu Manchu himself narrowly escapes an infectious death.

Keeping in mind the technical limitations of 1950s TV, and the attitudes towards racism of the time, these episodes are pretty exciting and well-shot.  Glen Gordon is enjoying himself, and Laurette Luez is a sultry femme fatale.

This show is perhaps best watched in contrast with a modern depiction of Asian people to remind us how attitudes have changed, or so we would like to believe.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

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