Saturday, September 30, 2006

Just Finished: "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

Just Finished: Of Mice and Meni by John Steinbeck, 1937, 055327824X (1975 paperback edition).

Pretty good novel. I'm not sure if I have read any other Steinbeck novels, maybe The Red Pony.

I was impressed how Steinbeck had nothing superfluous in the book. He was succinct and to the point with really well done descriptions of the terrain and ranch of the setting. Everything that happened in the novel led to the ending. Talk about foreshadowing.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Checked Out: "'Words for the Hour'" edited by Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller

Checked Out: "Words for the Hour": A new anthology of American Civil War poetry edited by Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller, 2005, 1558495096.

Waste of time. I even tried the Whitman and Melville poems. Didn't even bother with Dickinson.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Read: "The Plot: the secret history of the protocols of the Elders of Zion" by Will Eisner

Read: The Plot: the secret history of the protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner, 2005, 9780393328608

Eh. Not so great. Plot works well as a succinct summary of the fraud and nonsense of the 'Protocols'. Plot kinda sucks as a comic nonfiction work. This would have been a quicker and more informative read for me as an essay.

Eisner traces the full history of the fraud from it's origins as a harsh critique of Napolean the Third, to the Russian government's plagiarization of the French publication, to the constant rebirth of the 'protocols' in different languages by different publishers.

One critique: Eisner traces how the fraud keeps popping up over and over and gives a recent list of the different countries where different publications have appeared. But, most of the publications look like fringe groups that are preaching to the anti-semitic choir. There are more 'official' publication sources like Hamas. Hamas? The only people believing those murderers are already on their side, they won't be getting many converts.

Eisner's point in Plot is that the fraud keeps living even after being repeatedly, and convincingly, debunked. How is it surprising that anti-Israeli/Jew groups still like to push it? The long legs of the protocols is no different than the crap about the Masons, the Illuminati, Catholic church, or Jack the Ripper conspiracies. I question whether Eisner was really shocked by how the stupidity stays alive.

Kinda Read: "The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers" by Michael Newton

Kinda read: The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, 2nd edition by Michael Newton, 2006, 0816061963.

Very interesting, there are so many parallels among killers. Sexual abuse, alcoholic parents, family history of mental illness, physical abuse, signs of abnormal behaviour when young are all common. Getting caught for other crimes like burglary, theft and rape are usual as well. Attempted kidnapping and rape should be a red flag about anyone.

This got to be unsettling when sitting down and reading through several articles at once. Encyclopedia is much better digested one or two articles at a time.

A neat thing to do is read about these vile people and use the inmate locator searches available through most state corrections departments to see what they look like now. This book is a good argument for the death penalty.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Finished: "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman

Finished: Stardust by Neil Gaiman, 0380804557 (pbk), 2000

A good book. I must have reserved this book after reading Gaiman's comic book novels earlier. Stardust is a fantasy novel and definitely not something I'd usually read. Gaiman's author notes mention the Victorian Era fascination with fairies and that must be where the story started out.

Set in about 1850, Stardust begins in the rural English village of Wall. Wall is named after the huge granite wall that runs through the middle of a pasture outside of town. There is one passage through the wall and the passage is guarded day and night by men from the village who deny access to everyone who wants to pass through to the pasture and woods beyond. The wall separates the rest of the world from a fairy world on the other side. The passage is opened once every nine years for a fairy festival on the other side of the wall where fairy vendors sell all sorts of "magical" stuff.

Main character Tristan is born after his father screws an elf, or something, at the fair and he is then deposited nine months later at the passage with a note naming his dad. 18 years later Tristan passes through the wall to find a falling star after the girl he is smitten with promises him anything he desires if Tristan returns the star to her. Since Tristan was born on the other side of the wall his father convinces the guards to let him through.

Gaiman adds in conversational bits and characteristics that do not fit into the fantasy novels and stories I have read before, which is good. Some of the characteristics seem anachronistic but are a nice touch. Stardust is a solid story but not a homerun like some of Gaiman's other stories like Coraline.

Finally read: “Yossel” by Joe Kubert

Finally read: Yossel by Joe Kubert, 2003, 074347516X.

Kubert wrote and drew Fax from Sarajevo which I read earlier. I had this dang thing for about three or four months until I actually read it.

Kubert's family left Poland shortly after he was born in 1926. During the war, people in their hometown, Yzeran, were "slaughtered in the streets" by the Krauts. Yossel is Kubert's "what-if" story of his family staying in Poland and sent to the Warsaw ghetto.

Yossel is told from Kubert's imagined point of view as 15 year old Yossel. Kubert uses unfinished, rough drawings because he, "wanted to convey a sense that these drawings were in Yossel's mind, even though he may never have had the opportunity to put them all to paper." The unrefined illustrations are annoying at first but I got used to them and they do have a stronger impact.

The story starts in Warsaw with Yossel and other Jews hiding in the sewer from the dirty Nazis, then told through flashbacks of Yossel and his family and the story of a concentration camp inmate who escaped from camp during a thunderstorm and returned to Warsaw. This was a decent book but not that great.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Read: "The Wreck of the Batavia: a true story" by Simon Leys

Read: The Wreck of the Batavia: a true story by Simon Leys, 2006 (US edition), 1560258217.

A curious book. Leys spent 18 years collecting information to write a book on the wreck of the Batavia in 1629 on coastal islands off Australia. In the foreword he writes that he worked very slowly and, "From time to time, I learned that some new book had been published on my topic - invariably sending me into a cold sweat - and each time, I would rush to get a copy of it." Finding that each book "missed the target" Leys would relax and continue to dawdle. "Then came Mike Dash. With his Batavia's Graveyard, published in 2002, this author hit the bull's eye and left me nothing more to say."

So, right from the start, Leys tells us, 'don't read this, buy Dash's book.' Wreck numbers 110 pages and Leys spends just 59 of those giving a brief account of the Batavia's maiden voyage, wreck and aftermath. The aftermath is the real story. Led by a charismatic sociopath, and failed apothecary, named Jeronimus Cornelisz, most of the surviving 180 crew and passengers were murdered in a bizarre mutiny plot begun at sea. I guess I'll have to read the Dash book to learn all the extra details.

The second half of the 110 pages is devoted to Leys' work on a fishing boat in Breton, France. One of only a dozen commercial, sail powered vessels left in 1958, Leys signed on for a month long trip during a school break.

Both halves are well written and kept my interest. But, the two disjointed and unrelated halves make Wreck a curious item and both read like long magazine articles. I liked it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Finished: "Lost" by Michael Robotham

Finished: Lost by Michael Robotham, 2006, 0385508662

Very, very good. Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz wakes up in the Thames hallucinating that the yellow buoy his arms are wrapped around is Marilyn Monrow. Ruiz has been stricken with trauma-induced amnesia and has to find out why he was in the river, missing his Glock, and has a massive rifle wound in his thigh.

Ruiz is in trouble with his boss after a boat covered in bullet holes and blood is found drifting on the river. Ruiz is suspected of foul play and faking amnesia to avoid investigators. The only clue Ruiz has is a photo in his wallet of a seven year old girl whose disappearance he investigated three years ago – and whose convicted murderer sits in prison. Ruiz works his case with the help of a psychiatrist friend and his memory returns in sharp bursts filling in gaps of the mystery. Ruiz finds that the girl may be alive and he was following a ransom demand to the child's mother.

Lost is a real good book. I was left guessing what happened to the girl until the end. The ending itself could have been better since some parts of the plot I wanted to know more about are unreconciled.

The author's website lists one author novel by him and the book jacket says he co-wrote autobiographies. Lost was sold as Drowning Man in the UK.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Just read: "The Right Madness" by James Crumley

Just Read: The Right Madness by James Crumley, 2005, 0670034061.

Another brilliant Crumley novel. Serpentine plotting with really good characters. People are not who they seem and their treacherous and insane behaviour is commonplace. Casual violence and conspiracy go hand in hand.

Next time I read a Crumley novel I'll need to keep better track of the characters though. The geographic distances and varied characters gave me trouble in remembering locations and names.

Right Madness sparks the return of CW Sughrue after 2001's The Final Country with Milo Milodragovitch. Sughrue is hired by his best friend, Mac, to find out which of his patients burglarized the patient records in his psychiatric practice. Sudden and unexpected death follows two patients surveilled by Sughrue and a third death points directly to Mac as the murderer. Sughrue's investigation ties into a years old case he pursued for Mac and things go downhill in a typically Crumley manner with violence, scotch, beer, and drug fueled days and nights.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Returned: "How to Think Like a Survivor" by Tom Watson

Returned: How to think like a survivor: a guide for wilderness emergencies by Tom Watson, 2006, 1589232178

Why did I request this? I don't remember. I looked through and read some parts though. Was reminded of some things and learned some others.

Read Sections: "Drinks: Enjoying, choosing, storing, serving, and appreciating wines, beers, cocktails, spirits, aperitifs, liquers, and ciders"

Read Sections: Drinks: Enjoying, choosing, storing, serving, and appreciating wines, beers, cocktails, spirits, aperitifs, liquers, and ciders by Vincent Gasnier, 2005, 075661323X.

Very nice reference book by DK. I read through the whiskey and beer sections. Covering all the beers, wines, and spirits in the world is likely impossible and the book would be quickly out of date. A very good book for what the author did cover.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Finished a while ago: "Gunner" by Donald Nijboer

Finished a while ago: Gunner: an illustrated history of World War II aircraft turrets and gun positions, by Donald Nijboer, photos by Dan Patterson, 2001, 1550463322.

I always thought B-17s and B-24s were like sturdy porcupines that would scare away or shoot down any enemy air opposition. Nope. 'Flying Fortress' was a misnomer. A quote on the fate of gunners: "Failure of their leaders to see the limits of the self-defending bomber and to develop the long-range fighter sooner sealed their fate."

The theory of the self-defending bomber was the rage in the '30s. Fast bombers flying at high speed with a defensive armament were thought to be immune to fighter attack. British bombing raids in 1939 tested the self-defending bomber theory during daylight raids and the losses - 12 of 22 Wellington bombers lost in one Dec, '39 raid - forced a switch to night bombing in April, 1940.

The hand-aimed guns of the first bombers were inadequate. The powerful slipstream and speedy fighters ruined the gunners' accuracy. Different powered turrets were adopted over the next couple of years and the number of machine guns increased. Some British fighters were stuck with smaller .30 caliber guns unlike the honking .50 caliber guns the U.S. AAF used.

Even powered turrets proved inadequate. Only fighter escort could effectively defend the fighters from German planes. The Pacific campaign was different though. The spread-out island fighting meant there were few large bomber formations and fewer flak defenses. The experienced and well-trained Japanese pilots died out early in the war leaving the Japanese without a strong fighter force.

Gunner covers several different aircraft and divides them into four, two, and single engine sections. Each section includes a history of the aircraft and its pluses and minuses. Quotes and stories from gunners and photo and cross section illustrations of gun positions are included.

Here are a couple good stories:

"We were flying in the tail-end-Charlie position of the formation when the next thing I noticed was an Me 109 level at about 7, 8 o'clock and in a position where I couldn't reach him with my guns. He lowered his gear and flaps and flew along with us. He sat there while the ball turret gunner and I instructed the pilot to move the plane so we could get a clear shot, but the German pilot knew the blind spot of the B-17 very well. I watched as he took off his oxygen mask and smoked a cigarette. After about two or three minutes, he pulled up his gear and dropped below like a rock. He apparently had run out of ammunition. That was the closest I ever got to seeing the face of the enemy."

"To be honest with you, I though the front turret was a bit of a bummer. You couldn't swing the turret because it would throw the airplane trim off. The pilot would say, 'Leave the goddamn turret alone.' [W]hen you moved the turret, the slipstream would come howling through. The bombardier and navigator would scream like a son of a bitch because the wind coming through was as low as sixty degrees below zero."

"As effective as this system [B-29's gun system] was, the fact remained that many B-29s were shot down by Japanese fighters. Throughout the Second World War, the fighter always had the advantage over the bomber, no matter how sophisticated the defensive armament was. With the introduction of jet fighters at the conclusion of the war, the days of the multi-turret armed bomber came to an end."

Luke and Han's gunnery heroics were definitely science fiction.

Finished: "Sharpe's Fury" by Bernard Cornwell

Finished: Sharpe's Fury: Richard Sharpe and Battle of Barrosa, March 1811 by Bernard Cornwell, 2006, 9780060530488.

This Sharpe novel has a different flavour than the others. The battle can be considered significant but was not as big as the ones in the other novels and Wellington was not there. I had not read any Sharpe books in a while so I cannot pinpoint the differences in the storyline but Fury just seemed out of tune compared the other books in the series. The novel is still enjoyable but it does not have the same flavor as the others.

Fury starts out with Sharpe assisting in the capture of a French fort in Spain so they can then destroy a pontoon bridge over a river. In the process of destroying the bridge Sharpe, Sergeant Harper, several riflemen and the force's commanding general are separated from the main force. Swept downstream on a barge from the pontoon bridge the group makes its way to Cadiz, Spain. Sharpe is then recruited by the British Ambassador in Cadiz to recover damning letters that the Ambassador wrote to his whore girlfriend.

Recovering the letters takes about half the novel and then Cornwell contrives a way to get Sharpe into the Battle of Barrosa to the south of the city.

Cornwell paints the Spanish army in a very unflattering light. The Spanish general commanding the joint British and Spanish force at Barrosa sucked. The Spanish troops in the Peninsular War could be very good but the commander at Barrosa, General Lapena was awful. General Lapena drove his attacking force around in the middle of night with constant starts and stops and turns. The Battle itself had Lapena refusing to fight while the British fought off and beat away a force outnumbering them 7 to 5, including an uphill British attack to clear the right flank. Lapena had his Spanish troops halt a mile or so from the battle on the beach while the British stopped the French from driving them all into the sea.