Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs

The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year.  The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers.   I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present.  At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.

The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons.  There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.

The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over.  Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.”  Oh, if only they knew!

In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance.  One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR.  The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat.  There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.

Let’s look at the contents.

“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world.  It goes into detail about JFK’s management style.  The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.

“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella.  The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband.  That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised.  Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story.  It’s certainly an intriguing beginning!  Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.

“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958.  95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors.  Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims.  There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961.  One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.”  (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.)  For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire

“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists.  One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee.  The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become.  I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.

“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money.  One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s.  Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.

“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the  Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia.   Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South.  You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge.  Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.

“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.  (He was found guilty and hanged.)  The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system.  “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.”  It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people.  The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan.  This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.

“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly.  It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor.  After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail.  Surprise!  It’s a federal agent!  Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy.  Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment.  Can he crack the case before innocents are killed?  It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.

“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.

Art by James Bama for "In the Best Interest of the Service."
Art by James Bama for “In the Best Interest of the Service.”

“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base.  A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness.  A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members.  This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.”  He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it?  But that does raise the stink of possible racism.  Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism.  Who will be getting transferred out?  The resolution  to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long.  Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.

“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean.  Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.

And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6.  Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company.  It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on!  The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries.  This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story.  Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead.  The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.)  Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.

There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.

This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born.  Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money.  Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/

Comic Book Review: Child of the Sun

Comic Book Review: Child of the Sun written by Michael Van Cleve, art by Mervyn McCoy

Disclaimer:  I was provided with free downloads of this comic book for the purposes of review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Child of the Sun

It is 1300 B.C.E., and the people of Israel have fallen into wickedness.  Thus they are unprepared when the People of the Sea invade and conquer their land.  But all is not lost, it seems, for a divine messenger tells of a baby soon to be born.  A baby that will be named Samson.

This is an independently published comic book series loosely based on the Biblical story of Samson.  How loosely?  One of the supporting characters is Heracles of Zorah, who may or may not be the Heracles of Greek myth.   I have to hand the first two issues.

After a nearly silent prelude showing the advent of the People of the Sea and the annunciation of Samson’s impending birth, the comic skips ahead to introduce us to Heracles, who then meets the now-teenage Samson after a drunken celebration (as Samson does not drink alcohol, he is the clear-headed one here.)  Heracles takes Samson to Timnath, and introduces him  to Adriana, a priest of Astarte, goddess of love and sex.

The naive Samson falls in love with Adriana, but her life has made her cynical about such things, and her job is, after all, to give sexual pleasure.  While Samson’s Nazirite vows don’t prevent him from having sex, they do cause some friction between the couple, and he strongly objects to Adriana having sex with people who are not him.  She seems to be warming up to him when Samson punches out a man who wanted to rape her.

And cue a flashback to Samson’s childhood and him pulling the head off an oversized cobra.

The third issue concerns “Samson’s riddle”, one of those Bible stories where no one comes off well.  At the beginning of the feast celebrating his wedding to Adriana, Samson sets a riddle that cannot be answered without knowing an experience only he had.  The guests are not well pleased, and cheat in an ugly way, causing the marriage to collapse almost immediately.

This comic is “suggested for mature readers” due to violence, sex , lots of nudity and a rape scene.   I really can’t recommend it to more conservative Christian readers.

The art is pretty good–primarily in black and white, with color for important or emotionally relevant pages by Jonathan Hunt.   The depiction of women is heavy on the “sexy”; mostly excused in these issues by the majority of women in question being in the entertainment industry, but Samson’s mother is in a distractingly iffy pose during the annunciation.

It’s not quite clear where the plot is going, as the scenes flit back and forth in time.  This series is set for seven issues, so presumably the fourth issue will be clearer as to the direction the author intends.

It’s difficult to judge a mini-series by only the beginning–the creators may pull everything together nicely, or it could fall flat.   If it sounds like it may be your sort of thing, please consider buying the individual issues to support the creators and increase the chances they’ll be able to finish and release a collected edition.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: Ben-Hur

Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Judah of the house of Hur is a handsome and wealthy seventeen-year old Judean, saddened by the death of his father, but still possessed of a wise mother and sweet sister.  He’s initially pleased when his Roman friend Messala returns to Jerusalem from several years being educated in Rome.  But Messala has learned the wrong lessons, sarcasm and arrogance, and blasphemes Judah’s deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.  The two young men quarrel.

Ben-Hur

Judah resolves to become a soldier, but this ambition is detoured when he accidentally drops a roof tile on the new Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus.  Gratus, with the connivance of Messala, chooses to interpret this as an assassination attempt, seizes the Hur property, imprisons Judah’s relatives, and sentences Judah to the slave galleys for the rest of what is assumed to be a very short life, without an actual trial or legal conviction.

Three years later, The rowing and a certain amount of cleverness has turned young Judah into a physical marvel, and he catches the eye of a wealthy and prominent Roman admiral.  When he subsequently saves the admiral’s life (and it’s established he was never legally enslaved in the first place), that worthy adopts him as a son to learn Roman combat skills.

Some time later, Judah returns to the East, equipped for vengeance on those who wronged him, they who will learn to fear the man called “Ben-Hur.”  But maybe Judah isn’t actually the important character here.  Maybe he’s just a side story in “a tale of the Christ.”

This 1880 novel was a huge seller for former Union general Lew Wallace, who was governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, and later became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which allowed him to actually visit the area he’d written about.)  Indeed, it became the best-selling novel of the Nineteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian fiction titles of all time.  You may remember the 1959 movie with Charlton Heston.

So, how does it hold up?  To be honest, it’s aged badly.  The story moves at a crawl for most of the book, with pages upon pages of excessive description.  In fairness, when this was written, the reading public didn’t have years of movies and television shows to give them instant mental pictures of the exotic localities and clothing of ancient Judea, so Mr. Wallace needed to go into details of setting and costume.

Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t even show up for the first eighty pages, as we are treated to a retelling of the Nativity which focuses on the viewpoint of Balthasar, the Egyptian wise man who eventually befriends Judah.  The first chapter is actually a very good example of scene-setting, placing us in a desert in the middle of nowhere, with a white camel that has neither bridle or reins, ridden by a man who gives it no direction at all.  When the camel stops, the man prepares a tent with places for two others.  Two white camels, similarly not guided by human hand, approach from different directions to this rendezvous in the trackless desert.  Their riders dismount, and the three men greet each other with a prayer in their three native tongues–and all of them understand each other perfectly!

The second chapter reveals one of the difficulties for the modern reader, as the characters do not so much talk to each other as declaim at each other, making the dialogue a chore to get through.  On the other hand, this is about as much characterization as we get for the Three Wise Men in any adaptation, so that’s nice to have.

The section where we meet Mary, mother of Jesus, is also interesting.  Mr. Wallace takes a vague description of King David as artistic license to portray Mary as beautiful by Nineteenth Century America standards–blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned with delicate features.  He goes into great detail about her face, her clothing, her movements and speech…and never once mentions in the narration or in dialogue that she’s nine months pregnant at the time.  There’s just suddenly a baby a couple of chapters later that she claims to be the mother of.

I should point out that despite the archaic nature of the writing, there is a good story going on here that was lifted out for the movies.  If the reader is patient, there is much to enjoy.

One plotline that didn’t make the 1959 movie is the existence of Ben-Hur’s other love interest, Iras.  She’s the daughter of Balthasar (he presumably married late in life; there’s no mention of her mother), beautiful, musically gifted, learned in poetry and capable of acting on her own initiative.  She makes a good contrast to Daddy’s girl Esther, who is more modest and self-effacing, and Iras takes an early lead in the romantic triangle.

However, Iras’ motivation is largely based on the notion that the Jewish Messiah will be an earthly king that Judah will serve, and become powerful thereby.  The notion of a spiritual savior, so dear to her father Balthasar, doesn’t appeal.  So when Jesus turns out to be more the latter than the former, Iras falls back to her other interests.

This is pretty much Bible fanfiction, so those who don’t like “God-talk” or having a Christian viewpoint forced on them are likely to dislike this book.  Some readers might see homoeroticism in certain passages, as Judah is so handsome that even other men notice, and Messala outright uses classical allusion to hint he’s attracted.

All that said, this is an important and influential book; if you’re willing to put up with its difficulties.  On the other hand, you could just watch the movies for the chariot race.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups Volume 2 edited by Julius Schwartz

The dedicated rotating team-up series was a huge boon for DC Comics and Marvel back in the day.  A top-selling character anchors the book (in this case Superman) and rotating guest stars got a chance to shine.  Some appearances were to promote their own new series, others were to wrap up a plot of a recently canceled book, even more were to make sure DC kept the trademark on a less active character in house, and a few were just because the writer had a cool idea for a story.

Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups #2

Volume 2 covers from 1980 to 1982, including the first annual and issue #50.  We start with a three-parter introducing Jim Starlin-created villain Mongul and his quest for a Warworld of his very own.  One of the problems with writing Superman team-ups is creating menaces that both challenge the Man of Tomorrow and allow the guest star to contribute.  Mongul tended towards the “stronger than Superman” end, so it’s a good thing the guest stars were the Martian Manhunter, Supergirl and the Spectre.

On the opposite end of the scale is Issue #39’s team-up with Plastic Man, where they fought dueling villains Toyman and Dollface.  This one required heavy use of Kryptonite to slow Superman down.  Some nice Joe Staton art, and a Karl Malden joke.

#41 brings us the cover story, which is not so much Superman teaming up with the Joker, as the Joker wanting revenge on the Prankster after the very similar villain double-crosses him during their team-up.  The whole story feels very much like Martin Pasko took a Los Angeles vacation and decided to work the location into a paid script.  The story sidelines Batman with an injury as this is not World’s Finest.

#42 has one of the weirder crossovers, with the Unknown Soldier, a disguise expert (real name unknown) who died in World War Two.  The Paul Levitz script is based heavily on the paranoia about nuclear war being imminent so common in the early 1980s before the Soviets blinked.

The Global Guardians had been introduced in the Superfriends tie-in comic book, but issue #46 of this series brought them into the main DC continuity.  A fun issue with some interesting wizard villains from different cultures.

#47 was a crossover with the Masters of the Universe tie-in comic book DC was doing at the time.  He-Man mentions that his mother (who is originally from Earth) had told him tales of Superman.

Annual #1 has a rare team-up of the Golden Age Superman with the then-current Man of Steel.  Their versions of Luthor change places, but still fail to overcome the other Supermen; but then they head to Earth-3 and team up with that world’s evil Ultraman (who becomes stronger from Kryptonite exposure.)  Our heroes must team up with Alex Luthor, who becomes Earth-3’s first superhero at the request of Lois Lane.  (This is a bit confusing as named characters on Earth-Three have flipped morality…so does this mean that regular Lois is evil?)

And we wrap up with #50, which has Superman team up with…Clark Kent?!  Alien science has separated the two, making Superman lose touch with humanity, while Clark loses much of his timid persona.  They must work together to save an alien world and California, before finding a way to merge again.

As with all the Showcase volume, these reprints are in black and white.  This is only a bit of a problem in the Plastic Man story as one of the running gags of that character is that he can look like anything and you can only spot him by his costume colors.

Sadly, the decision to concentrate only on the Superman stories means that we don’t get to see the “Whatever Happened To…?” backup stories that gave some closure to obscure characters.  Some of these were small gems–I was especially affected by the sad yet stirring tale of the Crimson Avenger, who will remain in the Land of the Remembered.

Overall, the writing quality is good to excellent, with art to match (with a couple of clunkers.)  Worth looking into if one of your favorites got a team-up slot.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

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

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and the final product (due out September 2014) will have some changes, including a full index.

Death of a King

This book covers the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, from April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968.  It focuses strongly on Dr. King’s state of mind and thoughts as the year progresses (based on his own words and the memories of his friends and family), with a few digressions to important past events.  As a way to make it feel more personal, the writers refer to him as “Doc,” the nickname his friends called him.

It was a tumultuous year, and not a high point in Dr. King’s life.  It opens with his speech coming out publicly against the Vietnam War, still a deeply unpopular position at the time.  He also worked to widen his civil rights focus to concentrate on the problem of systemic poverty, which cost him support among his followers who felt he should stick to racial issues.  In addition, he was being challenged by younger black leaders who favored the threat (and actual use if necessary) of violence to get their way.

According to this book, during this time Dr. King struggled with issues of depression, his marital infidelity, ill health and private moments when alcohol caused him to lose control of his temper.  But the dark night of the soul was not his only concern, and it talks of his preaching, of his willingness to reach out to his critics and enemies to learn their viewpoints, and of his desire to serve.

Towards the end of the book, it creates a refrain with the end of each chapter leading towards Memphis.  That city’s callous attitude towards its sanitation workers, which had led to the entirely preventable death of two of them, had become intolerable, and led to a strike.   Dr. King was there to elevate the strike into the national spotlight, and to help bring the city to the negotiating table.  But instead, he was assassinated.

This is by no means a complete biography, nor is it meant to be.  Younger readers, or those reading about Dr. King for the first time, will want to read a more general biography first.  That said, the book strongly evokes a particular time in American history, and an important figure in that history.  Snippets of favorite songs and Dr. King’s famous speeches set the tone.

The writing style is intimate, but easy to follow, and moves along quickly.

Recommended to those who want to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  Parents should be aware that due to its subject matter, some racist language is used in quotes.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...