Monday, August 29, 2016

2 More by David McCullough an older one, 1776 and the newest, The Wright Brothers

2004 photo of David McCullough
I have finished two more by a favorite author,  1776,  published in 2005 but one which I  had not yet read and his newest,  The Wright Brothers, published in 2015.  As the title suggests, 1776 is  about that era of this country's history and those who served fighting for our freedom with George Washington.  It does have massive insight into the darkest hours of that war and the hearts of the men who valiantly proceeded against all odds.   I found it one of the least interesting books by McCullough until I was halfway  into it, the staging for the  battles and military strategies did not interest me as much as the personalities .  It is interesting to read about  the attitudes of the war for our independence and to reflect on today's similarities. 

Our Army was indeed a rag tag collection of volunteers from all walks of lives, teachers, shoe makers, farmers, no-accounts, shop keepers and every shape, size, and age, some "mere boys turned into soldiers." Pgs 32-33, The American militia in reality "looked more like farmers in from the fields than soldiers.  That so many were filthy, dirty was perfectly
understandable, as so many, when not drilling, spent their days digging trenches, hauling rock and throwing up great mounds of earth for defense.  ...It was dirty hard labor and there was little chance or the means ever to bathe or enjoy such luxury as a change of clothes.  Few of the men had what would pass for a uniform.  ..Not only were most men unwashed, and often unshaven, they were clad in a bewildering variety of this and that, largely whatever they had been able to throw together before they trudged off to war.  They wore heavy homespun cloth coats and shirts, often in tatters...The arms they bore were as various as their costumes, mainly muskets,"  A far different picture than the tricorner hats and breeches worn by strutting men  playing fife and drum that we have seen in musicals and movies.  There are many fine photographs of portraits again documenting the massive research efforts.

 I was amused to learn of one of George Washington's favorite quotes from Cato, by the English author Joseph Addison, the most popular play of that time.  One line, he frequently referenced as commander in chief, facing head on the realities of the situation, Pg.47, "'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."   

I was struck by  page 226, a lesson from history that we seem to have fully ignored or declared no longer fitting to our times,is that George Washington fully realized that a full time Army was a necessity that a part time Army does not work.  Yet, today that seems to be what politicians and  Americans demand.  "..war is no work of a day, he warned and must be carried on systematically.  ..Good officers were mandatory and the only means to obtain good officers was to establish the army on a permanent footing.  There must be an end to short term enlistments.  Officers must be better paid, better trained.  Soldiers must be offered a good bounty, adequate clothing and blankets, plus the promise of free land."  

1776 also covers the  British and their attitudes, particularly British commander William Howe.   The narrative begins in London , October 26, 1775 when King George goes to Parliament to gain consent to crush the American resistance.  I learned lots of tidbits seldom  reported in history thanks to the author's massive research  in both American and British archives. Pg 291, quote written a century later by Sir George Otto Trevelyan, in a classic study of the American Revolution, "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world."" I did not realize this book was written as a companion to McCullough's masterpiece biography about John Adams.  It is 294 pages of narrative, followed by acknowledgements and copious reference notes. I read this book in October and November 2015, but  just now am posting it here, as you know I have been a negligent blogger. It was an overall 3 star rating, average, middle  to the 5 stars I use, 5 being the best. ***


June and July I read The Wright Brothers, 262 pages, followed by extensive reference notes and including many photographs and the most famous of the Kitty Hawk in flight. .  It is as the title  reveals the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers, bicycle mechanics from Dayton Ohio who founded American and indeed world wide aviation after a wintry day in 1903 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I savored this book, the history of aviation, the character study of the brothers and their sister, Katherine, their father Bishop Wright. One other brother, Lorin, the oldest lost patience with Wilbur in his early years,". "What does Will do" he wrote Katherine from Kansas where he had gone to seek his fortune.  "He ought to be doing something, is he still cook and chambermaid.?". 

There is fascinating detail about their ability, courage, intellect, curiosity and  true grit, determination.  Their absolute devotion to flying was the exclusion of any other aspects of life, the brothers would remain life long bachelors.  I did not know that after their successes, the French government  was the first to want to invest in flilght,  building on their success with gliders in France.  The US government  was a bit disdainful if not skeptical of the use of aviatn in the future.  The first chapter of this book is aptly titled, "Beginnings."  and the  first lines quote Wilbur Wright, "If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother and begin life in Ohio."   It begins in 1909 when Wilbur is 42 and Orville 38 years old but goes back into the family history and the effect of the 1884 railroad and National Cash Register Company in the development of the Dayton area. 

There is a great deal of information about wind and velocities (Pg. 40),  equilibrium (pg.38) that I found educating and fascinating scientific reading. ( Pg. 48 As time would show, caution and close attention to all advance preparations were to be the rule for the brothers.  They would take risks when necessary, but they were no daredevils out to perform stunts and the never would be."  Pg. 49, "Wind would be all important and contrary to the old Irish wish--'May the wind be ever at your back'--a good wind had to be head on.  As would be said, for the Wrights the winds were never the enemy."  Chapter 4, titled, Unyielding Resolve, "Pg 65, "We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves." Orville Wright.  Pg. 70 "The work was unlike anything the brothers had ever undertaken and the most demanding of their time and powers of concentration.  They were often at it past midnight.   As said later in the Aeronautical Journal fo the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, "Never in the history of the world had men studied the problem with such scientific skill nor with such undaunted courage."   

 The one colleague the brothers  would have and would depend on was Charlie Taylor, a man they hired to keep their bicycle shop going while they were in North Carolina.  It was not easy going for the brothers, when they began to solicit  the manufacture of a light engine for flight  from American automobile engine  manufacturers, only one responded and that with a far too heavy motor, so  the brothers with no experience building engines had more work to do themselves. Pg 86, In time to come the brothers would b widely portrayed as a couple of clever, hometown bicycle mechanics who manged to succeed where so many others had failed because of their good old fashioned American knack for solving seemingly impossible mechanical problems.  This was true only in part."   Pgs 86 and 87 discuss Charlie Taylor's contribution early on, although distrusted by Katherine who disliked his know it all attitude, His only prior experience with a gas engine had been to try to fix one in an auto a few years previously. " But that January working in the back shop with the same metal lathe and drill press used for building bicycles, he went to work and 6 weeks later had it finished."  I was intrigued to learn  he built the engine block from cast aluminum provided b "the up and coing Aluminum Company of America, based in Pittsburgh."  The Alcoa company was a major  employer in my hometown in PA.

Pg 236, "A machine was like a horse, Wilbur said, 'If it's new you have to get used to it before it will do just as you want it to.  You have to learn its peculiarities."

This is another 5 star read by David McCullough, I found it engrossing. *****

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Land Remembers by Ben Logan

I read this lyrical book last year and from time to time I read one of its stories again, so it has been sitting alongside my upstairs reading chair.  It's that kind of book, one with stories that  to be re-read, savored and one to keep on my full book shelves.   It was first published in hardback by Viking Press in 1975 and a mass market paperback edition by Avon Books in 1976.  In 1992 a collector's edition was published by NorthWord Press and in 2000 a 25th anniversary edition.  My copy 286 pages, is the eighth edition, first printing, 2006, by Itchy Cat Press in Blue Mounds, WI.  I picked up this treasure at a local book sale and was amazed that I had never heard of it living in the area where the author writes about his farm life just down the road along the Mississippi River, up the hills on the Wisconsin side.  The stories are about life on the farm, his three brothers, mother and father and hired hand Lyle,  the people of the area, the "hilltop world in 1930's in southwestern Wisconsin."  The family farm was on a ridge top, 260 acres is  called "Seldom Seen" and the author traveled as a merchant seaman and worked as a novelist, producer and writer for film and television, living forty miles north of New York City.  But his roots remained in the southwest Wisconsin hillsides, in the mid 1980's he returned to the farm and lives there.  

Back flap
I smiled and was drawn to keep turning pages from the very introductory page, " Laurence, Lee and Lyle, the only ones left who shared that hilltop world with me, told me when we met that I didn't get all my facts straight.  We argued some about that, but mostly I just reminded them of what a neighbor used to say--"when you're trying to tell somebody who ain't been there just how hot it is in a hayfield with the temperature at a hundred degrees int he shade, it's not lying if you make it a hundred and ten."    Now only my brother Lee and I are left."  It's that kind of book, true, life,  comical, sad, whimsy, just a very enjoyable read, and beautifully written.  

Page 3, "There is no neat and easy way to tell the story of a farm.  A farm is a process where everything is related, everything happening at once.  It is a circle of life and there is no logical place to begin a perfect circle.  This is an unsolved paradox for me.  Part of the folly of our time is the idea that we can see the whole of something by looking at the pieces, one at a time."  I am a city girl you could say, but  Jerry grew up in these parts and spent his young years on his grandparents' farm, so I thought he might enjoy this book as well, he has read several of the stories too and each time, says, "this is a good book."  He enjoyed the Chapter about Haying, "Such days were agony, but there was a glory in them.  It was as though in proving ourselves equal to the harsh demands of the land, we glimpsed some hint of immortality."  

Page 13,  Chapter 3, The Awakening Land, Spring was a contradiction.  It was both creeping change and explosion.  Because the soil was frozen solid, four or five feet deep most years, and covered with snow, it held the cold.  The air warmed ahead of the soil in a false feel of spring that was only of the air---not of the entire land." Page 15, "But no one ever talked about a year without a spring.  It was as unthinkable as trying to convince someone that they had never been born."   

I have included quotes to give the flavor of how well written and why I describe it as lyrical.  It is difficult for me to choose one story that I liked better than any of the others, because they are all different, but if I were to limit to only one it would be in the winter section, Chapter 36, The Year the Corn Shredder Stayed All Winter, I have read this about 6 times, it always brings out the grins.  It begins, "Lyle claimed the old men in Petersburg could start swapping stories some morning, changing things as they went along, and go on for three days before they realized they were telling each other the same story."  This is the story of a man named Nubbin,  who works his tractor and corn shredder through the farms.  "The tractor, corn shredder, and Nubbin, the owner were all getting old.  Things kept going wrong on each job and it was early December before the rig came chugging and smoking up to the barnyard gate.  I'd been hearing about Nubbin.  I expected a giant but he was short, about the size of Lyle, had a bright red nose, big bushy eyebrows, and a scraggly beard.  The story was that he was superstitious--never shaved on a week that had a Friday in it."  See what I mean about lyrical, comical,  just reading paints the scene and the characters.

There is a new Afterword in my edition and the very last chapter, The Circle of Life describes a feeling I have shared as I try to piece together ancestry of my family, though I have no affinity for a farm or land.    Page 177, "As the changing seasons carry me forward in time, a stubborn part of me keeps reaching back to preserve, unbroken my linkage with the land. Partly I reach back to find myself at some age of innocence when the land was my whole world.  Partly I try to recapture those taken-for-granted persons I called Father and Mother."   He closes with some sense of tribute to the land, back to ice age, forward to fur trappers,  Indians, old tales.

A 5 star read *****

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Survivor by Vince Flynn and Kyle Mills

Published in 2015, this was the last Mitch Rapp book that  author, late Vince Flynn had underway before his untimely death in 2013.  Kyle Mills continued it to  produce  another Rapp thriller.  Kyle melded this with characters from his own thriller novels apparently.  It was just as good as the Flynn created Rapp series bringing the Afghanis and that rugged country along with Pakistanis  and nuclear powers head to head.  In this thriller packed with action and intrigue, Rapp, CIA operative will face an old long time nemesis, lose his mentor Stan Hurley and battle cyber threats while fighting on the ground in the same rough physical pace this character portrays best.  Irene Kennedy may face the end of her career in humiliating circumstances. 

Some of my favorite passages are as follows. Page 69, "Rapp was the pinnacle.  Most people had become resigned to the fact that he was unkillable.  Gould was one of the few people on the planet who had tried and lived to tell the tale and even he had to admit that he'd been lucky.  Twice.....Rapp wasn't just unkillable, he was in many ways unstoppable..."    Page 264, reveals a chilling consideration, likely more truth than fiction,  "It was shortly thereafter that he had joined with Mitch Rapp and the Americans.   Not because he believed in their futile and unwelcome efforts to turn Afghanistan into a modern democracy.  No, he'd simply seen them as a powerful ally in his quest to kill the men responsible for taking away his life.....The Americans were a confused and naive people, but generally the champions of peace and stability.  Occupations were not in their nature.  Unlike the fanatics who had converged on his country, the Americans could be counted on to leave." 

Page 275 rings true especially with this current inept cowardly federal regime aka administration.  " The problem was that unimaginably stupid had become a job requirement in Washington.

It's a 5 ***** read and  hopefully Kyle Mills will continue this Rapp series, a character ala Jack Bauer of the former TV show 24, something of a marvel in this time of political correctness and wussiness.  .  
Inside Flap

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

  Paperback Back and front cover 
I purchased this paperback to take with me  on my European trip along the Danube in November and December.  It went along all those miles and remained right in my tote bag as a companion, I never did open it other than on the flight to Amsterdam.  But recently I opened it and was drawn in as always with Ken Follet's fictional sagas.    Yesterday I was "resting" taking first doses of antibiotics for a UTI so that was how I read through and finished it, all 568 pages, it kept my attention, so I could remain at rest, curled up with a good book and so the afternoon passed easily.  

This work about the fictional Pilaster banking family begins in 1866...from the beginning, Follet sets a scene that will work its way through generations and the primary characters. Page 1, ""On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfield School had been confined to their rooms. It was a hot Saturday in May and they would normally have spent the afternoon on the south field, some playing cricket and others watching from the shady fringes of Bishop's Wood.  But a crime had been committed.  Six gold sovereigns had been stolen from the desk of Mr. Offerton, the Latin master, and the whole school was under suspicion."    In another few lines we meet Micky Miranda and Edward Pilaster, two friends, students.  Their  friendship will remain lifelong through years and events and the attachment will become deadly over decades.  

I enjoy Follet's works and this one was first published in 1993. His characters are reflective of all human traits, good and bad,  adorable and detestable.  It's difficult to pin one word to the genre, some reviews reference  "political and amorous intrigue, cold blooded murder, gripping complex plot, fascinating characters, financial crises" but consistently reviews applaud "old fashioned entertainment."   

Hugh Pilaster is the unworthy cousin whose father died disgraced and who is generously taken in by his uncle Joseph and aunt Augusta, a character who makes Cruella deVille seem angelic. But Hugh is the essence of a man who will always do the right thing, while cousin Edward, son of Augusta and Joseph is a weak character at best, a pervert at worst.  Kind of a Cinderella tale of male cousins, and in the end good triumphs.  The story based in London, reaches to a  fictional South American country, Cordova, and the  nitrate mines there amidst extreme political disruptions.  Scenes weave from ballrooms to board rooms to brothels to the exclusive men's clubs in London.  The Pilaster family legacy of success holds intrigue, deception, tragedy, triumph all the while reflective of wealth of the times, the influences,  and the impact of markets across the ocean in America and globally.  Besides Augusta, Mickey Miranda is a true devious villain character and another one who opposes Hugh.  There are several other characters all with different  attributes.  What I enjoy about Follett's work is his characters are revealed in depth,  they are  lifelike, some detestable, some shaky, some likeable.  Humanity portrayed back in time perhaps not so different today.. 

The last  lines of the novel, "But it was over now.  The debts were paid. If there had been an evil spirit it had returned to the bottom of the pond.  And Hugh had survived.  He stood up.  It was time to return to his family.  He walked away, then took a last look back.   The ripples fom the stone had disappeared and the surface of the water was immaculately still once again. "  

This is a 5 ***** read, an excellent novel that kept my attention til the end.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake is another excellent historical research nonfiction novel by Erik Larson, published 2015 by Crown Publishers, 353 pages, 6 pages of Acknowledgements, 50 pages of Notes, 8 pages of Bibliography and the Index  all together to offer a complete story of the sinking of the Lusitania.  This is the 3rd novel  of Larson's I have read and enjoyed.  This relates the voyage of the commercial Cunard cruise ship, Lucy aka Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German U20 boat near the end of its sailing across the Atlantic from New York  to Liverpool.  The sinking of this ship, death of the American passengers including some who were very prominent precipitated the entry of the United States in WWI.   May  7, 1915 making good their threat to sink commercial liners as well as military, the Germans stepped up U-2 boats off the coastal waters surrounding England. Captain Walther Schwieger of the Unterseeboot-20 aka U-20, submarine was responsible for the disaster.  As stated on the inside cover flap, " an array of forces both grand and achingly small--hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more--all converged to produce of the the great disasters of history." Of the 1959 passengers there were 189 Americans.  

With all the historical information, the author does an excellent job introducing characters such as Captain Turner of the Lusitania, the German Captain  Schwieger, and many passengers and President Woodrow Wilson.  There is intrigue about the British Room 40, the secret decoders a system which was kept fully secret.  I had thought and recalled that the sinking of the Lusitania immediately drove President Wilson to enter WWI when actually the US did not enter the war for another two years. 

Erik Larson, author
I absolutely enjoyed reading this and learned a lot about the era, the technical aspects of the German submarines and President Woodrow Wilson. I felt sorry for Captain Turner being made the scapegoat by the Cunard line and the British Admirality. Pg. 355, Acknowledgements by the author:" What especially drew me was the rich array of materials available to help tell the story in as vivid a manner as possible, --such archival treasures  as telegrams, intercepted wireless messages, survivor depositions, secret intelligence ledgers, Kapitanleutnant Schwieger's actual war log, Edith Galt's love letters and even a film of the Lusitania's final departure from New York.  .....Finding these things was half the fun.  Every book is an expedition into unfamiliar realms, with both an intellectual and a physical component..  The intellectual journey takes you deep into a subject, to the point where you achieve a level of expertise...."  

Near the end  page 326 takes the reader down the lane of "what ifs", "if only ....Captain Turner had not had to wit the extra two hours for the transfer of passengers from the Cameronia he likely would have passed Schwieger in the fog, when the U-20 was submerged and on its way home.  ...More importantly had Turner not been compelled to shut down the fourth boiler room....." 

I give this the full 5*****.  Another excellent example of why historical nonfiction, properly researched and presented by a good author is my preference in reading.   

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Whole Truth by David Baldacci

The Whole Truth, fast paced  401 pages, by David Baldacci, one of my go to authors is another book I read earlier in the year but haven't posted here.  It's time to gather books to donate to our local library's monthly  book sale,  and this one which is  a first edition from April 2008 is going despite my fondness for the author.  I am trying to not accumulate more books because I have over flowed the  shelves in the study once again.  According to the inside jacket this is the first international thriller Baldacci has written and with it introduces new characters,  the  protagonist, Shaw, a man without first or other names with a colorful past, who is "reluctantly" following directions of  a secret multinational intelligence agency, traveling the globe to keep it safe. Shades of the New World Order are reflected in this novel.   Nicolas Creed administers the Ares Corporation, the world's largest defense contractor.  Katie James, journalist striving for the story or interview that will place her at the top of her profession.  In a note at the end of the book, the author writes about "perception management" defined by the Department of Defense in its manuals and offered by public relations firms today.  "Apparently if you want to be exceptional at creating the Big Lie, you really need to specialize in it.  Perception managers are not spin doctors because they don't spin facts.  The create facts and then sell them to the world as the truth.  And that to quote Mark Twain who would've had a field day with the PM guys is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."  Another excellent thriller by Baldacci.  5 *****   

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Hometown history Little Chicago by Dennis L Marsilli

To appreciate this book, you would have to be from New Kensington, Pa and have lived there or grown up during the best of times, it's heyday when employment was full and the city was a population of some 20,000. the 1950's and 60's as I did.   We lived there in the American Dream, but e didn't know it.  The book back cover states it is the story of how two Italian American brothers from a small Pennsylvania "factory town" became influential power brokers as part of the most successful criminal organization in US history.  The Mannarino brothers, Samuel and Kelly, their family ancestral history, reaching back across the ocean to Italy as well as their influence and some admit control of our town, New Kensington  are the focus of this book  written by a retired New Kensington police detective, Dennis Marsili.  Today New Kensington is not even a good slum, no downtown businesses although from time to time a few try to establish themselves. The steel mills closed and Alcoa left, employment disappeared along with many people.  Homes were sold, the  old timers who stayed lock their doors and  try to maintain their homes.  I worried constantly about my mother living there but she would not move and now all my family is dead and residing in Greenwood Cemetery.  Most of us who lived there left long ago, after high school or college for many other parts of the country.  We return sporadically for family visits, funerals, perhaps class reunions.   I doubt there will ever again be a thriving New Kensington, it is not even a good suburb of Pittsburgh, although now there are highway bypasses and people commute to parts of Pittsburgh to work.  It is a ghetto overrun by druggies and  prostitutes, filth and unorganized crime.  The mob ran things well, clearly organized crime is different from the unorganized. The streets of that town were safe, day and night.  The available evening entertainment for the adults was first class at a time when men wore suits to go out and women dressed up in their finest.  The best of times. Problems were dealt with expediently and justice was swift. Charity happened anonymously often and when needed.  The author mentions that old timers are defensive of the mob days, yes for good reasons, no fright but respect and appreciation for what once was.  We grew up knowing about the mob, but thought nothing of them.  They were respectable church going people, and as Marsilli reveals, they controlled everything even the politicians from local to the state level.  I awaited the publishing and release of  this book for years and followed the author's occasional Facebook posts.  He has filled it with research and history back to the 1920"s and before.  Parts made me laugh,  the humorous explanations by Monsignor Fusco of the St Pete's ( the Italian) Catholic church about how "gambling is not a sin."  The town had 3 major Catholic churches when I grew up there, St. Mary's where I and those of Polish descent attended, St. Peter's for the Italians, and St. Joseph for the Irish and all the rest of the Catholics.  There was often almost an envy among the churches of the majesty and magnificence of St. Pete's compared to our parishes, and it was easily explained, "the mob goes there."  This book raises that speculation again about how they supported their church and how their church indeed supported them.  In only 174 pages there are fascinating tidbits.  It starts slow but then drew me in to where I had to read it in a  couple evenings.  Today when I visit "home" and talk with friends, we agree, "The boys ran a good town."  It was also amusing to read the names of the local politicians affiliated, "on the take" owing to the Mannarino's.  I suppose because some of those last names were relatives of some school mates who thought they were the high class of the area, I had to laugh.  Still I enjoyed this book, nothing shockingly revealing but insights and names.  I recommend it to anyone from "home."  5 *****