Archive for May, 2012

30
May
12

CBR4 #26: War by Sebastian Junger

I’ve been putting this book off for a while, but decided to finally read it in honor of Memorial Day. It was worth it, and the only reason I give it four stars instead of five is that I have no desire to read it ever again.

There is quite a bit of military in my blood, though I’m a generation removed from it. All three of my grandfathers served in the military–two in the Navy and one in the Army. One of my uncles served briefly, and at least one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI. I have a few friends who either have served or are currently serving in various branches of the armed forces. This book makes me realize that no matter how much I may want to understand their experiences, nothing I can read will ever make that truly possible.

Sebastian Junger spent fifteen months on and off embedded with troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley, easily the most dangerous and fatal area in all of Afghanistan for American soldiers. He goes on patrols with them, spends time with them during the interminable hours between firefights, gets shot at with them, and even gets hit by an IED with them. The book is basically documenting the experiences he witnesses while he is observing, and the way that his perceptions of the soldiers change. He also uses research to discuss the way the soldiers (both those he is embedded with and those throughout history) cope with the things they’ve done and seen.

Junger spends a lot of time talking about the difficulty for these men of transitioning back into civilian society after spending more than a year isolated in the wilds of Afghanistan. His position is that the problem is less about the violence, stress, and trauma they encountered and more about the lack thereof on their returns. These men spent months bonding with one another, and functioning amid a level of never-ending lethal tension. At any moment–while they sleep, eat, piss, or simply sit around–they could die. Every single moment of the day could be their last, and they spend all available mental and physical energy dealing with that fact. Every action has to be considered as to whether it will beneficial or detrimental to the group. They begin to act almost like ants or bees–every individual gives himself over to the group, and behaves accordingly. And the group in turn protects each member. The men know that no matter what happens, their brothers-in-arms would each give his life to save the others. Everything beyond that fact is more or less unimportant. This behavior is what keeps them alive on the battlefield, but becomes problematic in a civilian setting. The men aren’t used to having to deal with subtleties. They can become frustrated by the minutia of daily life–car payments, arguments with wives or girlfriends, the small decisions that those of us on the outside take for granted. After spending a year on constant high-alert, watching friends die or be injured, living in a place where not only the population but the land itself is hostile, it’s difficult to muster up an interest in working an office job or mowing the lawn. Not to mention that they’ve gone from being in a place where every man has his back–whether they like one another or not–to having to survive entirely on their own. Reading this made me surprised not that there are so many soldiers who have trouble returning from duty, but rather that so many manage so well.

It’s a great book, and not really political in any way. Aside from a very brief mention at the end, the President is not mentioned at all. The military leadership are not mentioned often, and when they are, it’s usually questions from the author, not from the soldiers. Frankly, most of them have little interest in the broader politics of the campaign, and are only focused on doing the job they’ve been assigned. The author’s questions about why they are in Korengal in the first place are mostly met with shrugs. The only question the soldiers seem to have is not why they are at war in Afghanistan but why they are NOT at war with Pakistan (a prescient question at the time, considering what we now know about Pakistan’s role in harboring Osama Bin Laden). For the most part though, they are merely interested in keeping their fellow soldiers alive.

I found this book pretty emotional–several of the soldiers featured do die–but not graphic. The language is a bit salty, but that’s to be expected. On the whole, I thought it was a well-written, well-researched story of a world I can never truly understand.

And to all members of the military–past, future, and present–thank you for your service to our country. Maybe we don’t say it as much as we should, but your courage and sacrifices are appreciated.

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16
May
12

CBR4 #25: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

On its surface, this book sounded like something I would like. A movie critic/historian sets out to write a book about Tubby Thackeray, a silent-era film star who has been all but forgotten by the modern era. Unfortunately, it turns out that things would have been a lot better if Tubby had stayed forgotten.

The problems I had with this book were probably mostly personal. I didn’t like the narrator at all–I found him to be something of a spineless twerp–and none of the other characters appealed to me either. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that Tubby didn’t crawl out of the screen Ring-style and eat everybody in the first 100 pages. Plus, I am very iffy about unreliable narrators. Although sometimes the effect can be used really well, in this one I found it extremely obvious and therefore a bit lame.

Some of the imagery was good, and I did appreciate the tone of ever-rising paranoia and tension, but there were long bits that consisted of the narrator arguing via message board with an anonymous commenter…who spelled terribly.  I know it was intentional, but as a word nerd, that just irked me no end. I got what the author was going for, I just didn’t like it very much.

Allegedly, this book is very Lovecraftian. I don’t know about that, as I haven’t gotten around to reading any Lovecraft yet. I’ll just say that while others might enjoy this book, it wasn’t for me.

16
May
12

CBR4 #24: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

In some ways, this is a stereo-typical noir parody. The detective, Eddie LaCrosse is an embittered cynic, just trying to get by and deal with his dark past. His office is above a bar peopled with tough characters and an even tougher barmaid. An old friend (who is now a pretty important guy) drops by with a problem — it seems that his wife has gone crazy and killed their son. The friend wants Eddie to investigate and see if everything is as it seems to be (hint: it’s not.) Eddie has to not only solve the mystery, but also confront some of the demons of his past.

Now take that story, and move it to a time of swords and horses. Eddie’s friend is a king, and magic is involved in daily life. Eddie still has to solve the mystery, but now there are sword battles and curses and all the tropes of fantasy.

It’s an odd cross between Sam Spade and Lord of the Rings, but it somehow works. The character of Eddie is great, and the mystery was intriguing. It’s particularly entertaining for anyone who enjoys both of the parodied genres, but the author–while certainly working the parody angle–is serious about the plot and making the story work on its own. The details are great, and I often found myself chuckling aloud at the dialogue or at Eddie’s take on how events unfold.

I really enjoyed this, and look forward to picking up the other books in the series.

15
May
12

CBR4 #23: What the Corpse Revealed by Hugh Miller

As you well know, I’ve read several of these medical examiner books, and frankly, I was least impressed with this one. It’s not that it was bad, necessarily. There were several cases laid out wherein forensics were used to find out what had happened to the victims. The writing was clear and relatively easy to read. The main issue was that all the stories were second-hand–the author, unlike the authors of the previous works I’ve read on this subject, was not personally involved as a forensic professional, but is just documenting the cases of others.

While I don’t like TOO much personal stuff intruding into the case histories (see this season of Bones for an example of a perfectly-balanced procedural tipped over into “crappy family drama”) there is something to be said for seeing a glimpse of the forensic pathologist behind the mask. The kind of people who seem to get into this profession are often interesting characters, and have a lot to add to any story that may involve them. It seems a shame to go too far the other way, leaving out the personal touch almost entirely.

As I said, this isn’t a bad book for the genre, but it doesn’t have any additional spark or personality to lift it above “informative” and into “exciting reading” territory.

11
May
12

CBR4 #22: Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky

Strangely, this is another book I picked up due to my viewing habits. I am a huge fan of the film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Although it’s obviously very fictitious historical fiction, it’s still a tremendous film full of amazing performances. My favorite character in it is definitely Sir Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush as a cunning strategist and loyal ally. I figured that while he’s obviously been made more interesting for the film, somewhere there must be a grain of truth to his role, and I bought this book to try and find it.

Walsingham was in fact one of Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted advisers. He was a devout protestant who had spent a great deal of time outside of England, acting as an ambassador. He was a quiet, frugal person, a devoted family man and conscientious civil servant. He was also a master of strategy; he managed to place double agents, crack codes, use misinformation to achieve his goals, and handle a rather indecisive monarch. At the time, there were plots against the queen from every direction, and Walsingham used his network of spies to stay one step ahead of every one.

The other historical personalities who appear in the piece are pretty well fleshed out as well. The queen herself doesn’t come off very well–she’s shown as often refusing to take action until circumstances are already out of hand, making Walsingham’s job more difficult than it needed to be. There is also a lot of petty jealousy from other members of court, as well as some traitors within the walls.

The book is well-researched, but it is not entirely chronological, which leads to some confusion about the sequence in which events happened. However, it’s a fascinating depiction of the work of a man far ahead of his time.

09
May
12

CBR4 #21: Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Anne Seagraves

I am a big fan of westerns. I love the old ones–anything with Clint Eastwood on a horse will probably make me happy–and I like the newer ones, like Tombstone and the Coen brothers’ excellent remake of True Grit. I am especially fond of HBO’s (entirely too short-lived) TV show Deadwood. If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you run out and get seasons one and two immediately (season three is…not as good.) The show is graphic (it’s HBO, there are going to be boobs), the language is EXTREMELY salty, and some characters require the use of subtitles to get anything out of their dialogue. However, the acting is top-notch, the plots and dialogue are nearly Shakespearean, and Al Swearengen is about the coolest character to ever grace my television.

I told you that story to tell you this one:

Several of the characters on Deadwood are prostitutes. During the first season, pretty much the only women in the fledgling city are the hookers that were brought in to make money off the miners. The actresses who play them were great at their jobs, and they made me wonder about the lives of the real women who made their living on the wild frontier. Hence, this book.

Soiled Doves is not a bad book. It is filled with interesting anecdotes about famous prostitutes and madams of the time. However, I feel like the author glossed over some of the reality of their situations. While she does point out that many of the women who ended up as wild west hookers did so out of desperation, she tends to focus more on the ones who were successful. I realize that that makes for a more entertaining and enjoyable book, but sometimes I felt like the message was “Here’s some adorable stories about prostitutes!” The writing is a bit repetitious, and could have used a more strict editor.

The other problem I have is that while I am sure the author did extensive research, I wonder how accurate many of these stories are. They seem very tall-tale-ish to me, just as the stories of Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp have become more palatable over time (for example, Kurt Russell’s portrayal aside, Wyatt Earp was in reality kind of a scumbag con-artist — still an interesting guy, but not the folk-hero he’s made out to be). The danger of a book like this is while Seagraves does point out the downside of prostitution in the era, she also does a certain amount of romanticizing. I wonder if she would find the habits of modern prostitutes as quirky and their drive to survive in difficult situations as “courageous”.

This is not a bad book to start with if one is interested in the subject, but I think I may have to dig a little deeper to get any real information.

Also, seriously, watch Deadwood. It’s tremendous.

09
May
12

CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the young city of San Francisco. While still suffering the aftershocks of the quake, fires broke out in several locations. Due to poor preparation and some very poor decision-making by those in authority, the fires would grow and rage out of control for days, destroying large swaths of the coastal city.

This book did a great job of explaining the events that led to the fires, as well as the context of how the city functioned at the time. Corruption in the local government was indirectly responsible for the lack of available water to fight the fire, and an unclear chain of command resulted in an unqualified member of the military taking charge of the fire-fighting process. His decisions to evacuate citizens (instead of allowing them to stay and try to save their homes), authorize the use of dynamite (by unqualified, untrained soldiers) to create firebreaks, and to declare martial law in the city resulted in the death of many people and the destruction of much of the city.The local firefighters, some local businessmen, and some members of the military–particularly the Navy–are portrayed well in the tale, but for the most part it is a litany of incompetence and poor planning.

The book is written well, and is clearly well-researched. My main issue with it is the switch back and forth between somewhat dry historical tome and historical fiction. I feel that the author should have gone in one direction or the other. However, I find this is often the case in books about historical events like this, since they can get very dry and impersonal if left without the emotional impact of having relateable “characters”.

On the whole, I’d recommend this to any history buffs who might be interested in the event, but not to someone looking for pleasure reading.