Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Yellow Lighted Bookshop

If you’ve ever wanted to delve into the reasons why people who work in bookstores do then this is the book for you.

Lewis Buzbee gives you trivia about the books that survived the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, how books came to be printed on paper, what all those symbols on the back of modern books mean and lots more as he recounts his journey from being a high school book lover to a sequester of knowledge about bookstores. He recounts the ins and outs of how a bookstore functions, why he was so enamored of working there and what the future holds for them.

Reading this book is enlightening, enthralling and depressing all at nearly the same time. You are enlightened about the history of books, enthralled at how easy it is today to acquire one that demands your time but depressed about how much more time people are spending on computer games, cell phones and electronic gizmos in general.

You finally put the book down and think about your own bibliophile tendencies. In the end you have to agree with Emily Dickinson who put it as succinctly as possible when she wrote: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away…”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fatal Shore

39 shillings. A paltry amount in today’s coinage but in the late 18th century it was enough to send you to the gallows if the crime you committed was judged to be worth more than that figure.

Because there were so many corpses dangling from gibbets around the English countryside juries became averse to sending more to the gallows and since the threshold for a gibbeting was 39 shillings juries started finding that the crime in question did not meet that fatal amount.

With fewer going to the gallows the result was that more had to be imprisoned in traditional cells. The problem was that nobody wanted to build more prisons. What to do? One enterprising bureaucrat suggested that the old hulks rotting on the Thames River would do to encapsulate the criminals. That the hulks had no sanitation, were leaking both river water and rainwater and were infested with rats made no difference to the authorities that were charged with finding somewhere to house the convicts.

In spite of the benevolence of the juries the hulks began to fill to the point where the only way to take up the ever increasing number of convicts was to push more and more into the same spaces. This overcrowding resulted in early deaths for some and the desire for an early death in others.

While the hulks were keeping the convicts out of sight of the nobility and landed gentry some in the government wondered about perhaps transporting the wretched refuse to the antipodes, which was what the land of Australia was considered. The Royal Navy was adamantly against using their ships for such duty. The economic squeeze of how to pay for the transportation and the social necessity of doing something meant that some way to justify the expense of transportation had to be found.

If the prisoners could be put to work harvesting the timber that was known to be in great quantity in Australia then selling that timber would offset the cost of transportation. As with many governmental justifications this was more a hope than a reality.

The first transport was partially successful. It removed a few hundred prisoners from the hulks. However, only half of them survived the trip from their decaying home on the Thames River.

When the arrived in Australia they immediately started to replicate the society they had been part of in England. If the aborigines got in their way they simply slaughtered them.

Flogging as well as hanging were two of the methods of maintaining civil order that were used extensively by the overseers of the transportees. Applying the cat-o-nine-tails until a back was nothing more than ribbons of flesh covering bloody ribs was as much a part of the transported felons' daily lives as was the endless slave labor they were thrust into.

Punishment and slave labor were the two standouts for the first fifty years of settlement in Australia. Cannibalism, sadistic cruelty and madness were also extant during the early years of Australian settlement.

John Hughes, an Australian, has written a very detailed account of the English judicial system, the social niceties of the time and the transportation process. Not a page turner but you will have a better understanding of what Australia is all about when you finish it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wild Blue

This book could have been titled “Dakota Queen” because that was the name that George McGovern applied to any B-24 he flew during WW2.

Stephen Ambrose wrote this book at McGovern’s insistence even though another writer had started it. The result was that Ambrose not only got intimate details from McGovern but also interviewed other members of his crew and other crews who flew with him in Italy.

The training of a pilot is presented in great detail from flying the simplest of aircraft to the most advanced four-engine type of WW2. McGovern was introduced to flying before he joined the Army, which was the way you got into the Army Air Corps in WW2. His initial civilian training in an Aeronca tandem stood him in good stead for his later experiences as a fledgling bomber pilot.

Ambrose shows how the war necessitated a rapid change in both aircraft construction and also in pilot training. Initially pilot training was rigorous and lengthy but as the war dragged on the time spent training pilots was lessened so that they could be sent to replace those men who had been either killed or captured. One sobering statistic was that the casualty rate for bomber crews was significantly higher than for any other branch of the armed services.

After his training in the United States was completed McGovern was sent to Italy to become a member of the 15th Air Force. Their job was to attack German targets from the south compared with the 8th Air Force’s job of attacking from the west. In both cases the flak and fighter attacks were devastating to the American effort.

Day after day with no letup except for the weather McGovern and his fellow pilots flew across the Alps to drop their bombs on rail yards, oil refineries and other strategic targets.

Periodically a bomb would hang up in the bomb rack of a plane necessitating the gunners to try to free it before the plane attempted a landing. On one mission McGovern had that happen to him after his plane had been damaged and was losing altitude. The gunners tried and tried to free the bomb but couldn’t. McGovern was extremely worried that they would have to bail out of the airplane since landing with a live bomb would be fatal. Finally the bomb was freed to fall toward a farm in Austria. McGovern was sickened because he knew as a farm boy that the people in that farm were probably eating lunch. As they watched the bomb fall and strike the farmhouse it exploded and blew the farmhouse and other buildings to pieces. McGovern carried that image in his mind for the rest of the war.

Sometime after the war McGovern was interviewed by an Austrian TV station and was asked about how he felt about bombing the people there. He said that it was necessary because of the inhumane things the Nazis were doing. He finally had to mention the incident of the hung bomb and destruction of the farmhouse, saying that he still carried that horrible image with him.

Sometime after the broadcast the farmer whose house had been bombed told the TV station that when they saw the bomber approach they immediately left the house so none of his family was hurt during the explosion. He added that if that event caused Hitler and his followers to be defeated even one minute sooner then he was happy to have had his house destroyed.

The TV station passed the news on to McGovern who said that he finally was able to remove that terrible image from his mind.

If you want to get a real sense of what B-24 bomber pilots and crews went through in WW2 this is the book to give it to you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies details the depredation of the famous criminals during 1933-34. Without the activities of those criminals, particularly John Dillinger, the FBI would not have become the all-powerful national police force.

In the beginning J. Edgar Hoover was a minor official in the Justice Department. With a keen sense of how he could advance his position he picked the investigatory arm of the department to be his vehicle for advancement. The original investigators had no police power and didn’t carry weapons. When they were told by Hoover to go after a particular criminal they had to enlist the help of local law enforcement.

Hoover did not like the results that he saw from his operatives. From his headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hoover sent memoranda, notes and phone calls to various members of his investigatory team. They, in turn, were expected to keep Hoover informed of every turn of events in the case they were pursuing.

The critical event in the development of both Hoover and the FBI came when the Valentine’s Day massacre occurred. This was a golden opportunity for the national news coverage to be turned to his advantage. The only problem was that there were few leads and no suspects.

In the meantime, Dillinger was gearing up to become the notorious bank robber that history has recounted. Some of the other “yeggs” (a term that was used by the criminals to identify themselves) that were not as well known but almost as destructive to local banks were Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, the Karpis/Barker gang, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

With the use of the Thompson sub-machine gun by the criminals local law enforcement with their .38 caliber pistols and shotguns were outgunned. Hoover decided after much haranguing that his men would have to be armed as well. The only problem was that they had little training in the use of firearms and even after training they were incompetent in the use of the weapons.

As their stakeouts and shadowing’s continued the FBI men made some costly errors that resulted in innocent people being gunned down and yeggs escaping to maraud the countryside again.

One man who was getting a lot of publicity (much to Hoover’s dislike) was the man in charge of the Dillinger hunt, Melvin Purvis. Even though the newspapers thought Purvis was doing a great job the truth was that he was a sloppy and somewhat incompetent leader. If he had done all the things that the papers said he did Hoover would have been even more incensed at Purvis.

Hoover finally sent a somewhat nondescript man to be Purvis’ boss. Hoover didn’t bother to tell Purvis that he had a new boss and the relationship went on in a very murky fashion with men not knowing whether their orders were “official” or not.

The gunning down of two very petty gas station and grocery store robbers who lived in their car or camped in the rough: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker sensationalized the hunt for the marauders of the Midwest.

Since the heat was on many of the yeggs lit out for less heated space, ending up in Reno Nevada and San Francisco.

Ultimately the call of the home territory brought the criminals back to the Midwest and ultimately to a very bloody end. Dillinger was betrayed by a girlfriend and killed near the Biograph Theater. The others died ignominious deaths from multiple gunshot wounds except for Alvin Karpis who was tried, convicted and sent to Alcatraz to spend many years for his crimes.

The book is a fascinating and thoroughly documented look at a short period in American history in which one of the most well known of Federal institutions got its start.

Monday, July 20, 2009

LA Confidential (the novel)

Don’t expect either a Dashiell Hammett rerun or anything like the movie when you decide to read Elroy’s tome. 

The stream of consciousness is a bit hard to follow (not knowing whose stream it is until the narrative identifies the POV) but the language is exactly right for the story. The dialog is cop-speak and is also right for the story that takes place in 1953-58 with a returning explanatory sequence in the 1930s that is unclear until the end of the novel.

If you’ve seen the movie be prepared to understand that it was a highly sanitized version of the story. Elroy revels in the most degrading, disgusting and violent aspects of the lowlife he uses for the story’s setting. You’ll also note that the characters shift from the film to something more in tune with everybody having flaws as well as golden moments. 

Elroy uses very short chapters to move the story along and it does move along although his plot is so complicated that it takes all of the 495 pages (paperback) to bring it to a conclusion. 

Would I read any more of Elroy’s stories? Probably not. Just not my cup of tea.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Irregulars

Was Roald Dahl really a spy? That’s the question this book attempts to answer. Most of us know Mr. Dahl as the author of children’s books (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc.) but after he was injured in a crash as a fighter pilot in World War II he was sent to Washington to complete his recuperation. There he immediately swept into the swirl of social activities with his bon vivant attitude. Though the British spy network that was operating in Washington (to the immense displeasure of J. Edgar Hoover) didn’t want to integrate Mr. Dahl into its fold they realized that his cachet with the political crowd and their backers could be invaluable in getting a sense of where the US was heading relative to Britain’s desperate need of an ally in the war against Nazism.

Not only was Dahl encouraged to glean as much gossip as possible but he was also encouraged to bed as many of the potential gossipers as he could. Initially his sexual prowess was tested to the limit but when that limit was reached he expressed his sexual fatigue. Nevertheless he was virtually ordered to continue with his conquests.

The upshot of his social arrangements was that he became virtually the protégé of Mr. Marsh, a Texas king maker who was very wealthy. As Dahl continued to extract gossipy pillow talk he also found that his circle of political friends grew to include Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt as well as an up and coming politician from Texas, Lyndon Johnson.

The Marsh’s marriage was more or less one of convenience which gave LBJ the opening that his hormones demanded and he began an affair with Mrs. Marsh that lasted until he decided not to run for his second term as president.

As Dahl dealt with the peccadilloes of representatives and senators he also began to write—short stories that were based on both the factual experienced he’d had as a pilot and his imagination as to what made them more interesting. C.S. Forester (of Horatio Hornblower fame) read one of Dahl’s stories and was impressed enough to recommend the story to a magazine that published it. After that Dahl continued to write more war stories as he was continuing to glean bits and pieces of political gossip.

After the war ended Dahl was at loose ends. War stories were passé and he needed some kind of an income. Marsh came to his rescue providing a stipend that allowed him to return to England where he rejoined his female dominated family.

During the ensuing years, Dahl married Patricia Neal, had children with her and then after her stroke and semi-recovery decided to abandon her for a younger woman (this after 30 years of marriage).

Dahl was finally able to make his own way with the books that we are familiar with. He continued to write and hope that he would receive a knighthood for his contribution to Britain’s coffers and reputation but that never happened.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Jury Duty II

As I thought it would be the jury parking lot was full so I had to park in one of the city lots. I didn’t have a clue whether I would be reimbursed or not. Anyway I was on time to the fifth floor, department 40. The hall was packed with the other jurors in the pool. We waited and waited and finally had to be cleared away from the pass through because a prisoner was going to be taken from the secure area across our waiting area to another secure area. He was finally brought through (in chains). Shortly thereafter we watched one juror after another go into the court room and then come out (for private meetings with the judge we were not told). After this went on for the better part of an hour we went into the room and 12 of the pool were seated in the jury “box.”

The judge asked the defense counsel to begin his questioning. Each of the jurors in the box was asked about the questionnaire we completed on Wednesday last. The sticking points to the defense was whether jurors could bypass relatives who were in law enforcement, jobs that they had wanted that were in law enforcement or any other activity that would predispose them to lean toward the prosecution.

After an hour and a half we got a ten minute break (bladder nearly bursting) and when we came back the same routine was started again. With each juror’s dismissal (excused was the word used) a new juror was asked by the judge whether he or she understood all the questions and comments that had been made during the previous juror’s interrogation. With positive answers the questions began again. At the end of each juror’s interrogation they were asked whether there was anything over the weekend that they wanted to mention.

Just before the lunch break the judge asked whether any in the audience had anything they wanted to bring up based on a weekend’s reflection. He was flabbergasted at the number of jurors he had to excuse based on their inability to set aside various prejudices (against murder, against violence, etc.) commenting on whether he should have even asked the audience that question.

We got an hour and a half for lunch (coffee and a power bar with my son Thomas). After lunch the final jurors were accepted as were two alternates. After that the judge excused the rest of us and we went back to the jury pool to get our day in court recorded so that we wouldn’t be called for another year. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jury Duty

The summons arrives in the mail along with an explanation of the judicial process and the necessity of juries. On the summons is a parking pass, juror badge and an explanation of the parking arrangements and a phone number to call to find out whether I have to make the trip to the county courthouse.

Day number one and my group is not picked; call back after 5:00 p.m. tomorrow.

Day number two and my group is told to report to the county courthouse at 8:00 a.m.

The parking lot on the appointed day is relatively empty at 7:45 a.m. However, there is a line into the hall from the reception area in the jury waiting room. The line moves quickly and I pick up a holder for my juror badge and a four-part questionnaire. The four-parter asks for a variety of personal information but I do have the option to mark a question “P” for private, meaning that the other jurors will not hear my answer but it will be recorded for the public at large to peruse.

The first panel is not called until sometime after 9:00. My name isn’t on the list. I wait listening to numerous cell phone conversations, griping about the process, chit-chat about numerous mundane things and then it’s time for lunch (from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.).

Back in the jury assembly room the second panel is called and my name is not heard among the “here” responses. More waiting with the same kind of aural activity as the morning.

The P.A. system directs me back to the jury assembly room and for the third panel I hear my name called along with the designated court room.

Arriving at the court room I find that the hall outside the room is as packed as the bleachers at a closely contested sports game. The panel before mine is told to take a questionnaire and complete it before they leave to get a parking pass for their return on Monday.

In a few minutes the large black man who is attending to the jury panel announces that my group will take seats in the court room. He admonishes hat wearers to remove their lids and for all electronic gadgets to go dark.

Inside the court room a clerk reads the indictment of the defendant (a non death penalty murder charge)and the judge introduces himself and provides a brief glimpse into the principle that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Then it’s time to find out whether there are any “hardships” in the potential juror group. Numerous indications are given but few are excused.

After the hardships are discussed we file out of the court room and take the voluminous questionnaires and complete them before leaving the original questionnaire with the new one in a box outside the court room.

We go back to the jury assembly room and get parking passes for our return engagement on Monday at 9:30 a.m.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

American Lightning

As Howard Blum was researching his book he thought about 911 and how it correlated to the terror bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in the early 1900s. Into the story of the bombing and the apprehensive times Blum wove the lives of three of the men involved in shaping those times: William Burns, a renowned detective, Clarence Darrow, a renowned defense attorney and David Wark Griffith, one of the pioneers of motion pictures.

If you wish to read more of my comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reclaimed Trivet

Old houses need new pipes periodically and when that happens some parts of the house, particularly those parts where the old pipes are hidden have to be taken apart. When part of the bathroom tile had to be removed to make way for the new PEX piping I saved as many of the cobalt blue squares as possible knowing that I'd use them sometime in the future. This is the result of that thinking.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Big Russ and Me

Tim Russert’s dad didn’t think he had that much to do with winning World War Two since he was only a parachute rigger, far removed from the actual fighting. Even at that he experienced the horror of what war is all about when the plane he and a friend had snagged a ride in crashed almost killing Big Russ.

If you wish to read more of my comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital:

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Man who loved China

What do you do if you're a gifted linguist? Why, you find a compatible teacher and learn Chinese. With that accomplished what do you do next? You finagle your way into a diplomatic post, destination China in the midst of a horrendous war with Japan. Now that you're in China what do you do? If you're Joseph Needham you exercise your curiosity by asking innumerable questions and observing all the ins and outs of Chinese society and then you make one of the epic journeys of all time to the westernmost reaches of the vastness of China.

If you wish to read more of my comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Exiting the labyrinth

Minotaur Books put me through their labyrinth but today I exited without benefit of string. All this has to do with a mystery contest they are sponsoring. This is a very conservative publisher as can be observed by how the contest is organized and run. First you must send an SASE to get the entry form. When that arrives you can peruse the 3 pages to find out the exact requirements and where you should send your contest entry. When you're ready you must print a double-spaced sequentially numbered copy of your script. Next you must write some sort of cover page with your vitals and any published credits. Then you must complete the entry form. Finally you must burn a copy of your script onto a CD. When all those materials have been stuffed into a mailer envelope you're almost out of the labyrinth. All that's left is going to the Post Office and shipping the materials via Media Mail with delivery confirmation. Whew. Now it's the usual wait.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Soul of Battle

I just finished reading this book by Victor Hanson. He examines the motivation of Epaminondas (an ancient Greek who called Thebes home), William Tecumseh Sherman (Uncle Billie) and George Patton to find out why these men were such brilliant leaders and why they were able to achieve the victories ascribed to them.

If you wish to read more of my comments on this book, as well as comments on 64 other books then you can find all of them in "Book Blogs," available on Amazon in either softcover or digital:

Alternative Reality

Woodworking is the number one hobby in the U.S. I am one of those hobbyists. Here's the latest project to come out of my woodshop: a replacement keyholder for one that served for years.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Brain maze

Once the decision says "go" then you enter the brain maze. If, in my case, you're writing a sequel then the characters (at least some of them) are already in print with developed foibles, personality traits, etc. but they aren't any more static than Joe or Jane on the street so new things have to be adhered to them and those things lie hidden inside the brain maze.

Larry McMurtry said that once he has a title ("Lonesome Dove") he can begin to write. His brain maze probably has a toll gate that requires the currency of a title. I can get behind that. I'm peeking and poking in my own maze for a title for the sequel to "Massacre at Fort Sage."

Even with some preliminary notes as to a direction for the story, the title still remains encased in a conundrum. Funny but the title for the book that this will be the sequel to was magically there before one word jumped onto the page. Ah, that this one would be that straightforward.

And the kicker is that this sequel has to take a backseat to a mystery that I'm finishing for a contest sponsored by Minotaur Books.

Interesting that the brain maze can allow you to wander in various paths some of which relate to the sequel, some to the other works that are suggested by friends, family and etheric happenstances. The maze is also a prompter suggesting things that have to be an amalgamation of experience, observation and craft. The maze is truly a work of magic.