Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Perfect Horse

The year is 1945.  The war in Europe is almost over.  American troops learn that a stud farm in Hostau contains horses looted by the Nazis from all over Europe, including all the mares of the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, the pride of the Spanish Riding School.  Unless something is done to ensure the area is captured peacefully, the cream of Europe’s equine population will be at risk of destruction in the fighting.

There’s a huge problem standing in the way; Hostau is on the other side of the Czechoslovakian  border, where the U.S. Army has been forbidden to trespass.  Can the 2nd Cavalry convince command to make an exception in time?  Even if they do, can they pull it off with minimal bloodshed?

That mission is the centerpiece of this volume, but there’s considerable material both before and after it.  Author Elizabeth Letts is an equestrian herself, and it really shows in the descriptions of the bond between rider and mount.  There are also quite a few black and white illustrations that give context to the story.

One of the central figures of this history is Alois Podhajsky, introduced riding dressage for the Austrian team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics before taking the reins of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  A great lover of horses, especially the Lipizzaner, he did what he had to do to preserve the horses and the riding school, even if it meant abandoning the school building to save the stallions.

On the American side, there’s Colonel Hank Reed, cavalry commander from the days when they had been horse soldiers (not that long before–it was 1942 when the U.S. decided to make their cavalry completely mechanized!)  He was fully aware of the value of what might be lost if Hostau was not captured without a battle, and was the one to order the mission.

But there are plenty of other humans involved.  Gustav Rau was Nazi Germany’s Master of Horse, and believed that he could breed a perfect horse, superior in battle, and destined to aid the Third Reich in conquering the world.  (Since he was a civilian and not involved in any war crimes against humans, he got off scot-free at the end of the war.  Information that has come out since has made his legacy more controversial.)

Rudolph Lessing was a German Army veterinarian who’d spent the first few years of the war fighting on the Eastern Front.  It wasn’t until he was pulled back to Occupied Poland that he realized just what atrocities were happening and that his country might not be the good guys in this conflict.

And of course General George S. Patton, America’s Fightin’est General, who sort of authorized the Hostau mission, in the Mission: Impossible sense.  “If you are captured or killed, Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  He, too, was a man who appreciated a fine horse, and also helped out the stallions of the Spanish Riding School.

Of course, just capturing the stud farm didn’t actually make the horses safe, and they then had to be moved to better locations.  Some went home to the countries they’d been stolen from (and the Spanish Riding School exists to this day), others made the perilous sea voyage to America, and some found homes wherever they were.

There’s an epilogue section that details the final fates of the major figures in the story, both horses and men.  There are endnotes (including notes on when the sources used contradict each other), a bibliography and full index.

The book is movingly written and will be appreciated both by horse lovers and World War Two buffs.  There is some discussion of disturbing material, but this book should be suitable for senior high readers on up.

Older readers may be thinking, “wait, wasn’t there a Disney TV movie about this?”  Yes, there was.  The Miracle of the White Stallions was released in the early 1960s.  It was, of course, somewhat loose with the historical facts, but here’s the trailer.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Night of Delusions

Book Review:  Night of Delusions by Keith Laumer (also published as Knight of Delusion)

Florin (Colonel Florin back during the War) is a private security specialist who’s on vacation when he is called upon by government operatives.  They hire him to perform bodyguard duty for a senator.  It seems this senator has gone insane, and the treatment is subjecting the politician to a live-fire role-playing session to shock him back into sanity.  Florin’s job is making sure the senator survives the treatment.

Night of Delusions

It rapidly becomes apparent that something’s not right here; and more not right than Florin would expect from secretive government work.  Are those agents really from the government, and if so, whose?  Is the senator insane or more in tune with reality than anyone else?  Is Florin himself even really Florin?

The book is filled with short chapters, and frequent shifts in apparent planes of reality; there may or may not be a “dream machine” or psychic aliens involved.  Due to the nature of the story, the information Florin and the reader are presented with at any given moment ranges from suspect to clearly fake.  This sort of thing can be done very well, but here it is a confusing mess with an arbitrary stopping point and probable explanation.

When this book came out, Mr. Laumer was suffering from a health crisis that was preventing him from writing steadily, but this had already been partially completed beforehand.  It’s possible that his health problems were responsible for the relatively poor quality of this book; it’s much weaker than his usual.

There’s one important female character, Miss Regis, who keeps popping up in the various realities, and appears to be sucked into the action from the outside, which was not part of the plan.  She acts primarily as a sounding board for Florin’s  ramblings, and an emotional anchor.  (Notably, in a section where Florin has gained godlike power, he beds several women, and Miss Regis is completely absent, but the women seem to be echoes of her.)

Just when this story is supposed to be taking place is also confused; parts take place in what’s clearly at least a century later than when the book was written, but in other places prices are as they were in the 1950s.  This is easily handwaved by the shifting nature of reality in the story.  It may or may not take place in the same universe as the Bolo stories as one of the tanks from those makes a cameo appearance.

I can only recommend this book to Laumer completeists; if you are interested in books where the nature of reality is uncertain, the works of Philip K. Dick are better at it.

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: Conquest of Earth

Book Review: Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot twists beyond a certain point.

Today Kor Danay is a Man.  It is the distant future, when Sol has become a red star, and Kor has completed nineteen years of intense mental and physical training to become a Scarlet Sage of the Brotherhood of Man.  Only six out of a class of one hundred have managed to attain the abilities of instantaneous teleportation over galactic distances, moving so fast time seems to stand still, reading minds, etc.  And Kor is the first initiate ever to survive taking the extra credit option of summoning stellar fire to the surface of a planet.

Conquest of Earth

But Kor and his four surviving classmates (one other tried the extra credit option) are bound by oath to conceal their Dragonball Z-level powers from the world.  For the Men are not the masters of Earth.  Earth, and all civilized worlds, are under the control of energy beings called the Trisz, who may or may not be multiple manifestations of a single mind.  The Trisz have been slowly draining Earth of its water, and under the guise of benevolent protection have turned humanity into a servant race.  If the Trisz knew just how powerful the Men really were, they would simply destroy Earth, which wouldn’t necessarily kill the Men, but would eliminate the People the Men want to free.

So as far as the rest of humanity knows, the Men are just philosopher-priests with maybe some holy miracles once in a while, though few people ever see even one.  Kor is shipped off to be the new head priest of No-Ka-Si, in the desert that was once known as Kansas.  There he must match wits with the treacherous Brother Set of the Blue Brethren (those students of the Brotherhood who washed out before the training became lethal) and the beautiful Lady Soma, who leads a double life.

The Trisz want Kor eliminated as their Prognosticator (a powerful computer that can predict the future but only in vague rhyming couplets) has indicated he might be a danger to them.  After some cat and mouse games, Kor makes the Trisz think he is dead and moves into the Organization of Men, the Brotherhood’s even more secret branch.  While investigating a young, untouched planet for possible colonization, Kor undergoes a shocking tragedy.

That tragedy begins a new phase in Kor’s life, that ends with another tragedy, one that gives him the information he needs to free the galaxy of the Trisz.

This 1957 novel appears to have first been a three-part magazine serial, judging by the abrupt changes between acts.  The middle section is the weakest, as it contains a lot of psychobabble philosophy while not much actually happens.  Brother Set is a fun character, but vanishes after the first part.

The idea that humans have untapped mental and physical powers that a chosen few can manifest with the proper training and mindset was a popular one in science fiction during the 1940s and ’50s, though few works carried it to this level.  The story plays with this a bit; Kor has difficulty empathizing with the humans he’s supposed to be saving due to the fact that he’s just better than them in every way.  And concealing his powers causes him issues; he could make himself invulnerable to heat and grime, but that would tip observers off that it was possible.

The romance angle is…lacking.  Apparently, a real Man just has to do whatever he was planning to do anyway, and women will be attracted to his Manliness; Kor never has to work at a relationship.  Lady Soma has some interesting potential, but tosses away her advantages to help Kor out.  After that, she’s just a sidekick who doesn’t do anything useful on page.

Once Kor really gets to unleash towards the end, the prose picks up as the author clearly enjoyed that bit.

Overall, a forgettable book with a few good scenes.

SPOILERS beyond this point.

There’s a phenomenon in fiction that comic book fans call “fridging” after a particularly notable example.  It consists of a female character dying or suffering for the sole reason of  motivating the male main character to do something, usually revenge.  In this situation, the story is not about the woman at all, but about the man’s deep pain and sorrow at losing her or having her relationship with him threatened.

Conquest of Earth is notable in that it does this twice, first by having Lady Soma randomly eaten by the Trisz, who are apparently completely unaware of who she is and why they might want to kill her.  Then the cavegirl Eldra, who is carrying Kor’s child for bonus rage points, is killed when the Trisz invade her planet.  Both women seem to exist solely to make emotional connections to Kor (doing all the relationship work themselves) so he’ll feel bad when they die.

But that’s not all!  Once rescued from Eldra’s planet, Kor realizes that he has been subconsciously manipulating probability to bring about a future in which he eliminates the Trisz.  In other words, he himself was responsible for the Trisz killing both his love interests to advance his main goal.  Kor doesn’t seem particularly upset by this revelation, either; now he can save the universe!

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

This 1940 production stars Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer, Raymond Massey as John Brown and Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Holliday.

Santa Fe Trail

Stuart and Custer, newly graduated from West Point, are assigned to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  There they battle the rogue abolitionists under the command of Brown, while competing for the hand of Holliday.  After Brown’s forces are seemingly smashed, the soldiers are recalled to Washington, and subsequently are involved in the battle of Harper’s Ferry.

It’s actually a good movie given the obvious budget constraints it was under.  The actors perform well (especially Massey), and the team of Flynn and de Havilland continues to sell the romance angle as in their previous pictures.

On the other hand, the film is crammed to the brim with both historical inaccuracies and historical revisionism.  The trend at the time was to “whitewash” slavery and portray antebellum Southerners sympathetically so as to be able to show your movies in Dixie.  Gone With the Wind had come out just the year before.

So it’s the noble and heroic Southerner Stuart and his friends battling the evil abolitionists under the command of religious fanatic Brown (okay, John Brown was a religious fanatic.) The good guys tacitly acknowledge that slavery might possibly not be a good thing, but always follow this with a condemnation of John Brown’s tactics.  It’s implied that the Southern states would have given up slavery peacefully in their own good time had the abolitionists not stirred up hatred against them.

John Brown gets to state openly that slavery is wrong, but he’s crazy from years of trying to achieve peaceful change and getting nowhere.  And secondary villain Rader, a West Point dropout, seems more driven by class envy and greed than than actual concern for the slaves.  His complaint is that Southern gentlemen like Stuart have gotten rich off using slave labor (but doesn’t mention any of the other things that made slavery bad) and he joins Brown’s forces as a mercenary trainer.  Rader winds up betraying Brown when he doesn’t get paid.

The abolitionists are portrayed as murderous invaders of Kansas, and a station on the Underground Railroad is referred to as a “cancer” in the title cards.  Care is taken to avoid mentioning the atrocities perpetrated by pro-slavery forces in the territory.

The black people in the movie are depicted as childlike, innocent victims of John Brown’s crusade on their behalf.  They’re lured in by his promise of freedom, but he has to abandon them to fend for themselves when the cavalry comes, in order to carry on his crusade.  Meanwhile, it is Jeb Stuart (a slaveowner in real life) who saves the black family when danger threatens.  Two of the rescue-es explicitly reject freedom and decide to return to “safe” slavery, while none are heard to choose to live free.

Again, as a movie it’s pretty good.  But it is a product of another time, and those who really care about history and civil rights may find their blood boiling.  Also, there’s maybe ten minutes tops spent on the Santa Fe Trail itself.

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