A Higher Call – Review

Adam Makos and Larry Alexander. A Higher Call. New York: Berkley, 2012. Print.

A Higher Call was given to this reviewer by a friend who said it was one of the best books he ever read. This is a very moving, eye-opening story. It might go well alongside All the Light We Cannot See.

As I got about fifty pages into this nonfiction war story, I could begin to see why my friend said what he said. This book, especially the first part, is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long time. Whatever else one may say, Messrs. Makos and Alexander know how to tell a story.

The pacing is very effective. Occasionally it alternates between Charlie Brown, an American bomber pilot flying from England to bomb Germany in World War II, and Franz Stigler, a German fighter pilot who seems to have been almost everywhere in the war. We get an excellent sense of what it was like to fly in the war, both in a bomber and in the plane whose main job was to attack the bomber.

Franz Stigler loved to fly. Even as a boy, his brother, a helpful Catholic priest, and he made a working glider. His older brother joined the German Air Force and Franz trained as a commercial pilot. Eventually in 1942, he joined the German Air Force—interestingly, until near the war’s end Nazi party members could not be pilots. The other pilots drilled into them that the Air Force Officers were not just the heirs of the Red Baron, but also of the Teutonic Knights. They understood that if they treated opposing pilots with respect, they would be treated better if they were captured.

This was largely true, as most downed Axis and Allied pilots who were captured would testify, unless they were captured by the Russian Communists or the Gestapo. Sadly, that was not the way the Japanese saw it, so Allied pilots captured by them were usually treated even worse than other prisoners of war. Unbroken is a well-known recently published example.

We follow Stigler—who flew a total of 487 combat missions from 1942 to 1945 in North Africa, Italy, and Germany. We also follow the rise and fall of the German Air Force, meeting challenges in North Africa and Sicily, to being a mere rump force greatly outnumbered once the United States turned on it manufacturing prowess.

We meet many of the top German pilots including all-time #1 and #2 aces Erich Hartmann (352 confirmed downed planes) and Gerd Barkhorn (301). We get an airman’s view of Hermann Goering, the mercurial head of the Air Force and Nazi ideologue.

And we meet bomber pilot Charlie Brown and his crew. Brown was a West Virginia native who flew 28 bombing raids out of English in 1943 and 1944.

While we get the background of both pilots and their associates, many of the events lead up to one unusual event where the lives of the two pilots crossed.

In December of 1943 after a successful bombing run over Bremem, Brown’s B-17 was shot up to the point where it could barely fly. At least one crewman was killed and several were severely injured. Stigler “escorted” Brown’s beaten-up bomber to the North Sea so that the German antiaircraft batteries did not shoot and the plane returned, crippled but safe in England.

Why did Stigler do this? Simply put, it was the chivalrous thing to do. A Higher Call briefly notes other instances of the Knights of the Air doing similar things, but the story does not end there.

Not only do we see the decline and fall of the German Air Force, once the greatest in the world, but learn about the lives of Stigler and Brown afterward. Stigler always wondered what happened to that wounded B-17. Brown wondered if the pilot of the Messerschmitt-109 was still alive and if he could find out why he did what he did.

The last few chapters describe how they two men finally got to meet each other and how their story got to be known.

The primary author, Adam Makos, tells how surprised he was that after the war there was generally great mutual respect between Allied and German airmen. Makos had made a hobby of collecting stories from World War II veterans, and even started a publishing enterprise sharing them. When he asked Charlie Brown about his story, Brown told him simply, “If you really want the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first.” (5)

Stigler was still alive, Makos contacted him, and that was how the story was told.

There is, of course, a lot more. One thing worth considering is how both men expressed hope in God. Stigler carried a rosary in his breast pocked and prayed enough during the war that the beads lost all their paint. Meanwhile, Brown carried a New Testament in his breast pocket, and even when flying would occasionally tap it as a godly reminder.

Stigler continued to pray even though he had been excommunicated for something which today might sound humorous. (If the Catholic Church in America had the same rule as that in Germany, there would never have been a Scarlett O’Hara and her Irish Catholic clan…) Ironically, that excommunication might have save Stigler’s life because the Gestapo found some anti-Nazi literature written by two German Catholic bishops in possession of his widowed sister-in-law. When he told the Gestapo that he had been excommunicated, they let him go. By the way, he was readily readmitted to the Communion years later when he told what happened.

We are reminded by both men that there are things more important than adherence to political leaders or movements. Such things as duty, honor, and God’s purpose call all of us to a higher service.

Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace

“Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace
By Benjamin J. Chase – Guest Contributor

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace reads like a modernized, land-locked Billy Budd for its depiction of vulnerable innocence. Two friends, Gene and Finny, rise and fall at the New England Devon School against the distant backdrop of World War II. The continual interplay between their tragic story and World War II events creates a message that reads on both a personal and global level: ignorance often vilifies innocence.

At first, Gene and Finny are “best pals,” a “sincere emotion” that Finny admits during their adventure at the beach. Nevertheless, Gene’s ignorance soon creates a deep rift. As he mistakenly identifies Finny’s ideas for adventures as a way to ruin his academics, Gene begins to view Finny as an enemy. When Finny finally dismantles these misconceptions by encouraging Gene to skip an adventure in order to pursue excellence in his academics, Gene’s sense of rivalry morphs into envy of Finny’s purity: “Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.”

In the next scene, the boys are jumping out of trees into the Devon River. In an episode echoing Cain and Abel, which Brinker later labels “practically fratricide,” Gene deliberately “jounces” a tree branch and sends Finny hurtling to the riverbank. Finny falls from the tree, but does not know for certain what caused his fall. Gene’s motive is not directly stated at this point because Gene himself does not fully understand his act until the end of the novel.

After learning that Finny has a shattered leg and will never play sports again, Gene, racked with guilt, visits Finny in the infirmary. Ironically, Finny is not completely demoralized about the accident, although he notes that Gene looks “worse” and “personally shocked.” At this point, the injury has poisoned Gene internally, but only affected Finny externally.

Over the summer, Gene goes to visit Finny in Boston because he feels compelled to confess his terrible secret. As he tries to confess, he is interrupted by Finny’s purity of heart: “Of course you didn’t do it. You fool.” Gene stops his confession, believing that it might actually do more damage to Gene than the accident itself: “It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this might be an even deeper injury than what I had done before.”

As the months go on, Finny continues to evade the reality of World War II and comes to represent “a separate peace” of youth and innocence.

Noticing that Gene continues to pity Finny in some guilt-ridden fashion, Brinker decides to investigate Finny’s accident. He calls a mock trial in the First Building of Devon, which bears a symbolical crest above the door: “Here Boys Come to Be Made Men.” In an Edenic sense, this scene will contaminate Finny with the knowledge of good and evil—or at least the knowledge of Gene’s evil side.

As a part of the mock trial, Brinker examines two witnesses—Finny and Leper. Finny reveals that he harbors suspicions about the branch being shaken, but adds nothing conclusive to the case. Leper, however, adds the missing piece of information—there was in fact another figure on the branch with Finny. Although he refuses to name the other figure, Finny finally realizes that Gene has betrayed him. Leper’s special insight was also alluded to earlier when he pointedly says to Gene, “You always were a savage underneath…like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree.” For the first time in the novel, Finny begins to cry, and he tries to end the trial.

As he suddenly leaves the trial, Finny falls down the marble staircase in a passage that carefully parallels his first fall. The descriptions make this connection clear: he turns around as if he has been “attacked from behind,” “plunges” out the door, and then falls “clumsily” down the marble steps. Couched in the same language as the original fall, this is the fulfillment of Gene’s greatest fear—this is the fall of recognition.

This time when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, Finny is hostile and reveals that he has understood the betrayal. When he presses Gene for the motive, all Gene can tell him is that it was an “ignorant…crazy thing.” If Gene is to be believed, than this ignorance depicts the way that he first misunderstood Finny as a rival, and then envied his purity of heart.

In another passage that parallels Finny’s first accident, Gene finds Dr. Stanpole and asks him about Finny. Dr. Stanpole says here that Finny has died, and he describes the cause of death as the result of some “marrow” that had escaped during the resetting of his broken bone “into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it.” The symbolism could not be more apparent—this accident has killed Finny because the recognition of Gene’s betrayal has finally traveled from Finny’s broken leg to his heart. True to Gene’s own concern, the recognition has done more damage than the accident itself. This truth is only compounded by the ironic differences of severity between the accidents: Finny survives the shattered leg and even manages to have a good attitude, but he later dies of a simpler broken leg when it interferes with his heart.

The intermittent comparisons between Finny’s accident and the war further advance this point. In both the original accident and Finny’s death, the staff at Devon mention how tragically ironic it is that a boy would be so maimed in the freedom of his youth, before his military service. Similarly, after Finny has died, Dr. Stanpole notes that the risks are the same on “an operating table and a war.” The tree is also symbolically associated with war when Gene notes that “in 1942…jumping out of trees stood for abandoning a torpedoed ship.” These cross-references keep associating Gene’s act with war, thus fusing the two scenarios into a common form of human failure.

Because Gene’s life has been so symbiotically connected to Finny’s, he does not even cry at Finny’s funeral because it feels more like his own funeral, and “you do not cry in that case.” In his so-called “killing” of Finny, Gene notes that he has “killed his enemy” long before he ever joined the army. Because of this, Gene adds that he did not kill anyone during his time in the army or need some clear sense of another enemy. Nevertheless, Gene’s acknowledged loss is that in killing Finny, he has also killed a vital part of himself.

At the very end of the novel, Gene makes an observation that serves as a linchpin for the whole novel: Gene says that he believes wars are not the result of “generations and their special stupidities,” but the product of “something ignorant in the human heart.” Because this motive parrots his expressed reason for hurting Finny, this passage creates the conclusive link between Gene’s crime of “fratricide” and war at large. Both are motivated by some sort of ignorance, or misunderstanding of others.

Gene also notes that everyone except Finny needed to attack something external to themselves as “the enemy.” For example, Mr. Ludsbury developed a sense of superiority; Quackenbush developed something to attack; Brinker developed a sense of general resentment; and Leper developed a paralyzing fear of the war. In this way, everyone lost their innocence.

Gene found his enemy in Finny because he was envious and threatened by Finny’s purity. Gene uses the World War II image of “Maginot Lines” here as a symbol of the “us-them” mentality that people feel they must construct in order to feel a sense of confidence in their own identity and place. He ends the novel claiming that people instinctively attack constructed enemies, even if they are not really the enemy: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed…these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Finny himself was the only character who did not harbor this kind of malice, but his innocence led to his death.

Clearly, Finny was not Gene’s enemy, but only the threatening reminder of a purity Gene himself did not possess. By extension, the ending of A Separate Peace suggests that humans draw hard-and-fast lines between friends and foes, almost out of some depraved necessity, but often mistake the two. This conflict is primarily an interpersonal problem between Gene and Finny in the novel, but because it is so carefully linked to war throughout the whole novel, it is also applicable to international conflicts. In this sense, the novel’s closing statement suggests that people are their own worst enemies when they vilify their friends.

China Rich Girlfriend – Review

Kevin Kwan. China Rich Girlfriend. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

This reviewer had gotten a big kick out of Crazy Rich Asians by this author, so Santa very kindly gave him a copy of China Rich Girlfriend this Christmas. Thank you very much.

China Rich Girlfriend is actually a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Many of the same characters appear. It does not give too much away, for example, to say that Nick and Rachel do get married in this installment. Still there are many complications as some of the ultra rich characters seem to overdo things.

Here is an example. Imagine a rather staid but high-priced Christie’s art auction. The pièce de résistance of the day is receiving bids that are getting into the range of eighty million dollars:

Suddenly there came a commotion form the back of the auction room. Murmurs could be heard as the standing-room-only crowd began to give way. Even in a room packed with celebrities dressed to the nines, a hush came over the space as a strikingly attractive Chinese woman with jet-black hair, powdered white skin, and crimson lips, dramatically dressed in a black velvet off-the shoulder gown emerged from the crowd. Flanked by two snow-white Russian wolfhounds on long diamond leashes, the lady began to walk slowly up the central aisle as every head turned toward the sensational sight. (31)
Welcome to the world of Kevin Kwan.

I learned for example that there are VIP rooms and services, and then there are VVIP rooms and services. We see more excess as a group of young Chinese “princesses” go on a trip to Paris (via private jet, of course) to shop, shop, shop. Later on, the author describes another private jet in such a way that it sounds like a luxury ocean liner.

While the Singaporean families of Crazy Rich Asians still play a part, this time we get much more into the newly rich people from Hong Kong and mainland China. Any rich Mainlander has to be nouveau riche because in the 1970s no one was rich except for Chairman Mao. That, of course, has changed.

China Rich Girlfriend continues with some of the satire. Starlet Kitty Pong has married one of the newly rich Asians, but she senses correctly that she is not really accepted by the jet setters she is trying to associate with. She hires a kind of social makeover artist to help her make her way through the rich Asian upper class.

At first it does not go so well. She is invited to the most exclusive dining club by a friend, and not only is she asked to leave, but her friend’s membership is canceled. She attends an invitation-only church service (I guess only among rich Asians is there such a church…) but even there commits a social faux pas. Because she is rich and beautiful, we tend to laugh at her experiences as she tries to figure out her way through society.

We meet Colette, one of the new Chinese princesses. Her lifestyle seems even more extreme than the Singaporeans we met in Crazy Rich Asians. They, at least, were subtle and kept in the background. Though she is very modern, her father in some ways, though newly rich, is more traditional. When she refuses to marry the man he has selected for her, it is going to get tense. It seems she only has access to hundreds of thousands of yuan instead of millions.

Rachel Chu, the ABC (American born Chinese) fiancée of Nick, discovers that her father is now one of the Chinese business elite. She meets and seems to get along well with her half-brother, but her father’s wife understandably wants nothing to do with her. This obviously is sticky and serious, but it does raise Rachel’s social standing among Nick’s relations.

While it is fair to say that China Rich Girlfriend is satire, and parts are still very funny, there is a more serious side to this tale. A young woman dies in a car accident. There is a very well-orchestrated cover-up. While everyone knows that Carlton Bao was driving his luxury sports car much too fast and crashed it into a Jimmy Choo boutique, few people know that one of two female passengers with him died.

We have learned in the United States that even congressmen and senators usually resign or no longer run for office if something like that happens. But if they come from a very wealthy, well-connected family, they might be able to get away with it, too.

There is also an attempted murder in China Rich Girlfriend. The perpetrator is discovered fairly quickly, but we readers suspect that she is probably taking the fall for her employer. Still, the overall effect of the novel is breezy fun.

Lots of lively conflict and a number of other subplots I have not even mentioned keep the story moving. Since the novel has many of the same characters as Crazy Rich Asians, it makes sense to read that book first, but it is not necessary. Each book stands on it own.

Split Second – Review

Douglas E. Richards. Split Second. [San Diego CA]:Paragon Press, 2015. E-book.

Split Second began in a manner similar to some novels of Tom Clancy. Indeed, I had just finished reading a Clancy novel when I picked this one up. A scientist who has made some technical discovery has been kidnapped and murdered by a well-organized black-ops style crew. His fiancée witnesses his murder and enlists the help of a private detective who is a former Army Ranger.

In other words, technological high stakes, highly trained operatives, and government secrets—Split Second begins as a technothriller. However, we eventually learn that our assassinated scientist had figured out a way to engage in time travel. Granted, it was limited to a fraction of a second (hence the title), but the short term effect was to duplicate whatever or whoever was being subject to the technology.

If you think about it, the earth is traveling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at about a thousand miles an hour, so that even going back a nanosecond would place a time-traveling object about a hundred feet from where it would be in the absolute present. It could not be two places at once…so there must be two of them.

In an essay which follows the book, Richards notes that the most feasible explanation for the “transporter” in Star Trek is that the transporter uses this kind of short interval time travel, but dissolves the original person or object. Yes, there are many philosophical speculations here: does the reassembled or duplicated body have the same personality and memory? how does free will fit in—or does it? What are the ethics of duplication (cloning?)?

Richards’ speculation on time travel is clever. If we accept the concept of the space-time continuum in quantum physics, then we know we can alter the space condition or a person or object. Isn’t it mathematically feasible to alter the time condition instead?

Split Second also assumes the existence of dark matter and dark energy. I also note that I was reading this book as I read a moving obituary of Vera Rubin, who first hypothesized the existence of dark matter to account for anomalies in the motion of galaxies. The novel suggests that this alteration of the space-time continuum depends on dark energy.

I believe I have discussed this elsewhere, but other than a mathematical model, there is no evidence yet that either dark matter or dark energy actually exist. Ptolemaic epicycles worked out the mathematics of the motion of the planets, but it turned out the model itself was wrong even if the math worked.

Similarly, dark matter was first hypothesized to account for the anomaly in the motion of the planet Mercury. When Einstein’s mathematics included a fourth dimension, and then observation proved that the sun’s gravity affected light waves, there was an explanation that did not involve an unseen material object, whether a dark planet like Vulcan or diffused dark matter around the sun.

I suspect we will probably discover the same about dark matter at the galactic level. As mentioned in that earlier blog, Mordehai Milgrom has already a relatively uncomplicated mathematical model that accounts for the motion of galaxies without invisible and imperceptible “dark” matter or energy. As Einstein’s math included a fourth dimension, so Milgrom’s includes a fifth. If nothing else, Occam’s Razor suggests looking for an explanation like Milgrom’s. The simplest answer is usually the closest to the truth. The dark matter hypothesis sounds suspiciously similar to Lorentz’s ether.

At any rate, Split Second begins as a technothriller but ends up more as speculative fiction. Even if the model proposed could never work or is not based in reality since Richards’ time machine harnesses dark energy, the story still presents some interesting ideas and makes us think.

On the thriller side of the technothriller, this reviewer would not be surprised if Richards comes up with some sequels. Aaron Blake, the ex-Ranger PI, is a cool dude. The apparent “good guys” of the story are a secret black ops government agency bigger and more secretive than Clancy’s Campus. The leader of the organization would like it to be so secret that even future presidents will not know about it. It sounds like there is potential for more conflict and abuse of power. Remember the rumors that Kennedy was secretly assassinated by the CIA? A similar idea could make for entertaining speculative fiction.

Full Faith and Allegiance – Review

Mark Greaney. Tom Clancy: True Faith and Allegiance. New York: Putnam, 2016. Print.

Still another chapter in the life and saga of Jack Ryan, True Faith and Allegiance should keep the Clancy technodudes happy. It more or less follows the Clancy formula, keeping up with both the technology and politics going on in the world.

A few of the recent Clancy novels I have suggested might be prescient. So far, thankfully, that is not the case with True Faith and Allegiance. However, one of its main premises is based on a few things that had happened before the novel was written.

News reports have told us that people have gotten a hold of enormous data files from the Social Security Administration and the U. S. government’s Office of Personnel Management. Those files contain information that could be used to hurt people—Social Security numbers especially could be used not only to falsify identification for illegal immigrants (which we know has been done), but also for identity theft.

What if some foreign government or group of hackers got a hold of the files containing the applications of everyone who had applied for a government security clearance since the 1980s? This would have included several million people from all walks of life: many military personnel including all officers, many government bureaucrats and officials, and contractors who frequently work for the government.

The applications run to over a hundred pages and include all kinds of personal details. From these we can learn about any arrests, all your family members and close friends, your education, your employment history, people in certain occupations you have known or associated with.

If people wanted to target a specific government official or person in the military, not only would they get much personal information, but nowadays by following the person and others mentioned in the application like friends and family members on social media, they could get very specific information.

In True Faith and Allegiance, ISIS gets access to the information above. They begin targeting military officers, politicians, and federal law enforcement officials who have fought them. Now through making connections with social media, they know when and where such people go for coffee in the morning or attend their kids’ soccer games.

Lenin once said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.” When people begin to realize that they are being specifically targeted and killed in such a way that some of the most intimate details of their lives are known, that becomes terrifying.

I recall that during the Vietnam War captured American pilots were often confronted by their interrogators about every duty station they had been assigned. This gave the impression that America was full of spies reporting back to North Vietnam. Soon they realized that the enemy was getting information published every week in the Military Times and Navy Times. With these classified applications and social media, it is possible to find out much much more.

It even makes me wonder if I should be keeping a blog…

The folks at the Campus get involved with this combination of cybersecurity and terrorism. It is another wild ride. It follows the successful Clancy formula. Also in this one President Jack Ryan has a significant role to play. He is not at all involved in the detection or capture of the bad guys, nor is he a target. However, he does have a lot of wise things to say as he makes public observations and holds a couple of press conferences as ISIS operatives target very specific military and government officials.

For those not familiar with the Clancy novels, they usually follow the Columbo technique rather than the Sherlock Holmes method. In other words, the readers usually know what the bad guys are doing. Much of the suspense comes from seeing how the good guys figure things out. And, alas, a lot of time it is realistic. In other words, they are not able to prevent the crimes or acts of war. So it is with Full Faith and Allegiance.

Indeed, at one point it appears that the plot is just about wrapped up when the plot takes an unexpected turn, and we realize how clever the enemy operatives can be.

Many times the epilogue to the stories are fun. Sometimes they have general observations about the nature of things as quoted in Threat Vector. Sometimes there is poetic justice or a humorous twist. Rainbow Six has a very funny epilogue, for example.

Full Faith and Allegiance may go too far. There is an element of the humorous twist as one of the bad guys gets dropped off in a country that is looking for him but does not have the same rule of law that most Western countries do. Because of his heartlessness, the punishment seems to fit the crime.

However, the other part of the epilogue may have gone too far. I am not sure. I would be interested to see what others say about it.

Still, Greaney has learned pretty well from his mentor, and I am not yet tired of Jack Ryan stories.

The Great Siege: Malta 1565 – Review

Ernle Bradford. The Great Siege: Malta 1565. 1961; New York: Open Road, 2014. E-book.

Tours 732 in the West, Vienna 1683 in the East, and Malta 1565 in the South—these are the “big three” military engagements that may have indeed saved the West or Christendom as a cultural and religious entity. The author claims:

The Great Siege of Malta was one of the decisive actions in the history of the Mediterranean—indeed, of the Western World. “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” remarked Voltaire. (25)

The Great Siege tells the story. Some histories emphasize the spiritual and even miraculous aspect like Shakespeare’s take on Agincourt in Henry V. Although any reader can easily read between the lines and come to similar conclusions, that is not Bradford’s approach. He is analytical and detached.

That does not mean that the telling of the story is dull. There is remarkable bravery, certainly. There is also intelligent leadership on both sides. What a tale!

The author served in the British Army during World War II and first saw Malta when it was besieged by the Germans in 1942. He understood that when the Allies gained control of nearby North Africa and Malta, they could attack to the north into Sicily and Italy, which they proceeded to do.

It is likely that if the Ottomans had successfully taken Malta, they would have done the same. Less than 7,000 Knights of St. John and affiliated soldiers along with Maltese volunteers faced 40,000 to 50,000 Turks, allies, and privateers. The islands were surrounded, and the nearby Duke of Sicily was dragging his feet.

Much of The Great Siege focuses on the siege and fall of Fort St. Elmo. This was a small fort that guarded the main Maltese harbor, Marsaxlokk. (Bradford eschews the Maltese spelling for the less familiar Italian name here, Marsamuscetto, but the maps are clear.)1 Both sides figures it would fall in a few days and then it would be simple for the Turks to move in and take the rest of the territory.

The Turks had nearly 200 ships (Malta had three). Both sides knew that the Turks had about half a year to succeed unless they overwintered. The fall and winter winds are virtually impossible to sail in. The Bible records the shipwreck of St. Paul on Malta during such a winter storm. Still, it looked like a cakewalk.

The Turkish Sultan was Suleiman the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest of all Turkish leaders. He had successfully expanded Turkish territory north and east. He had driven the Knights of St. John off the island of Rhodes in 1530 after a six-month siege. And Malta was not nearly as well defended or such a geographical obstacle.

Suleiman dispatched two of his most trusted leaders, General Mustapha Pasha and Admiral Piali. Joining them shortly after the siege began was the most trusted pirate and political leader next to the Sultan himself, eighty-year-old Dragut (Torgut in Turkish). The Sultan’s orders were that if there were any disagreement, Dragut’s orders took precedence.

Meanwhile, the Knights of St. John were led by Jean Valette. This was the last of the Crusader orders. They had begun in Jerusalem as a holy order made up of knights. They were especially known for their hostels and hospitals for other crusaders. Indeed, they were also known as the Knights Hospitalier. To be a member, one not only took a monastic vow, but also had to prove noble ancestry for at least four generations.

When they learned about the enormous invasion force (some say the largest armada ever in history till that time), they began developing defense plans. Soon Valette also learned that promised help from Sicily would probably not come. It was up to them.

Bradford notes that most of his sources of information were either Turkish or from the Knights. Except for a few folk songs, little is said about the Maltese, though he estimates that probably three thousand men from Malta fought with the Knights, and virtually every non-combatant man, woman, and child of the island contributed in some way.

Bradford records that the Spanish Emperor Charles V gave the islands of Malta to the Knights in 1530 after their defeat at Rhodes. The locals were not especially thrilled with their aristocratic rule. But the Maltese may well be the oldest continually Christian culture in the world, tracing their Christianity back to Paul’s shipwreck there around A.D. 60.

Besides, the Turks had harassed them multiple times, especially Dragut on his piracy expeditions. They were not going to let their homeland fall, even if these outsiders were in charge.

Read Bradford’s story to get all the details. St. Elmo held out for over a month. Hundreds of defenders were killed, virtually none survived. Still, that gave the other fortresses and walled cities more time to prepare. The Turks and their allies suffered great losses. Perhaps none greater than Dragut, who died from wounds on the day St. Elmo fell.

Valette’s strategy seems to have been inspired. Most of his officers disagreed with his plans, but Bradford presents the case that if even one of his orders had been changed, Malta probably would have been lost.

There also intangibles. The Knights wore armor, which probably hindered them in the summer heat. Still most of the Turks wore robes. They were far more comfortable, but they also burst into flame easily when the defenders poured Greek fire and hot oil down from the walls on the attackers.

The Turks suffered greatly from dysentery and other diseases. One reason no doubt was that the Knights and Maltese fouled wells that could not be defended. Also the Knights, after all, were a medical as well as military order, they did oversee sanitation and cleanliness, so even the walled-in defenders remained relatively healthy during the long siege.

There are remarkable acts of bravery. St. Elmo in some way could be compared to the Alamo in Texas. It was a small and less significant fort, like the Alama, but it occupied its attackers long enough so that they did not succeed in their overall plan.

Bradford does quote from a few speeches and letter of Valette, which certainly seem inspiring. He also points out that both sides were convinced that they were fighting on the side of God. One of Soleyman’s many titles was “Allah’s deputy on earth,” and this was a jehad (both the Sultan’s name and the holy war are Bradford’s spellings). On the other side, the Pope had granted a plenary indulgence (a complete pardon of all sins) for anyone dying protecting Christian lands from pagans.

Impressive people, impressive story, it is well worth reading and sharing. At times we may wonder if the West will survive. The Great Siege certainly lets us know that it has survived so far. With God and clean living (literally as well as figuratively) it can hold out till the Lord returns.

It is the great battle of the Cross and the Koran which is now to be fought. A formidable army of infidels are on the point of investing [surrounding] our island. We, for our part, are the chosen soldiers of the Cross, and if heaven requires the sacrifice of our lives, there can be no better occasion than this. Let us hasten then, my brothers, to the sacred altar. There we will renew our vows and obtain, by our Faith in the Sacred Sacraments, that contempt for death which alone can render us invincible. (661-664)
—Jean Valette (cf. Hebrews 2:14,15)

1 As Bradford explains, the Maltese language is a distinctive Semitic language with its origins in Phoenician. It uses the Roman alphabet and includes many Roman or Italian loanwords, but the spelling is distinctly different because of the Semitic pronunciation of some of the letters. Marsaxlokk is pronounced like Marsaskalla (no long a’s).

Blood-Drenched Beard – Review

Daniel Galera. Blood-Drenched Beard. Trans. Alison Entrekin. New York: Penguin, 2016. E-book.

“Everyone who comes here goes out of their mind a little in their first winter here, swimmer. It’s a rite of passage.” (4831)

Perhaps the best way to describe Blood-Drenched Beard is say it something like Hemingway meets Jack London with a little gothic famly drama thrown in. The main character is a drifter, a slightly over-the-hill Ironman triathlete who still trains and gets by from teaching swimming lessons when he can.

The novel wanders a bit, as he gets in and out of relationships with women, but it gives us a sense of his rootlessness. At the same time, the heart of the story is the gothic search for the truth behind an apparent family crime.

His grandfather was never mentioned by his father as he was growing up, but shortly before his father kills himself, he tells our protagonist that his own father was brutally stabbed to death at a dance at the idyllic seaside village of Garopaba in the south of Brazil.

Our protagonist (I thought I found his name once in the novel, but I could not relocate it; it might have been the name of a town) moves to Garopaba to practice swimming, but also to informally investigate the story of his grandfather. Like most swimmers, he has always been clean-shaven, but he grows a beard to make himself look virtually identical to his grandfather.

Some older people in the town look shocked when they see him. A few even mention that he looks like someone they once knew. Gradually, the story of his grandfather’s murder is revealed, but nearly everyone is reluctant to talk about him or his death. In effect, this is Far Southern Gothic. (Southern Hemisphere Gothic?)

Our protagonist then goes on a quest into the nearby coastal mountain jungle region to track down even more people who may know something of his grandfather.

This ends up being a wild survival story—complete with loyal dog—that Jack London might have written if he had gone to Brazil instead of the Klondike. That in itself may be a rite of passage.

While slow-paced at first, the reader is taken into the family mystery, and our protagonist’s quest is always in the back of the mind.

I have read some comments on this story that say it is magical realism. I am inclined to think that that is only because people expect magical realism from contemporary Latin American novels and stories. It is more like Kerouac: flings with women, drinking, experimenting with Buddhism, a search for a relative, an Odyssey of sorts.

Having said that, if (and that is a big if)one takes the preface as part of the story rather than how the author was inspired to write the story, then maybe it is magical realism after all. In that case, though, the timing is off because the story was published in 2010 and mentions Obama’s election in the United States, and the events in the preface were said to have happened many years before. Of course, if the preface is meant to be from a half-century in the future…

One of Hemingway’s heroes (also unnamed, though some think it may be Nick Adams) says “we were all a little detached.” So our hero is a little detached from others. Because of that, he is modern rather than postmodern. His parents are divorced. Obviously, his father commits suicide, and his grandfather is someone no one talks about except in legendary terms. He is also estranged from his brother, his one sibling. And he comes across as a “commitment-phobe” in his relationships with women.

There is also another reason why he might be detached. He was born that way. He has a condition called prosopagnosia. That means that he is not able to remember faces. He has learned other ways to remember people—their voice, their hands, their smell—but this also makes others think he is stand-offish. Unless he has come to know someone well, he has long ago given up trying to explain it because people simply find it hard to believe. One can guess that the prosopagnosia is a symbol.

The question is whether or not his quest will get him re-attached with life. Is the outcome a shock? A disappointment? Or simply the way things are because there is nothing new under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Let us just say there are significant parallels in family relationships in this story. There is a reason why his grandfather was out of the picture even as a memory while he was growing up. There is a similar reason why he cannot reconnect with his brother and sister-in-law.

(That is where the postmodern/magical realism narrative issue may come in. The preface talks about an uncle the writer never met, and at the end of the story we learn that our protagonist is going to be an uncle. Same uncle?)

Galera speculates on the significance of these things:

Either there is free will, or there isn’t. If we have choices, we are responsible for them. If there’s no free will, if the universe is predetermined by the laws of nature and everything is just the result of what has gone before, then no one is to blame for what they do. (5128)

It’s the same old question of moral responsibility and action.

We are not going to find any “solution” to the question of free will. As Milton famously wrote about those in hell:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and eveil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame.
Vain wisdom all and false philosophy;
Yet with pleasing sorcery could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm the obdurèd breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel. (Paradise Lost 2.557-569)

Yes, alas, vain wisdom, though not our hero’s original intent, but Blood-Drenched Beard still includes some pleasing sorcery even if its wisdom is all “under the sun.”

N.B.: References to passages in the novel are Amazon Kindle locations, not page numbers.

Standish of Standish – Review

Jane G. Austin. Standish of Standish. 1889; Gutenberg.org, 12 July 2007. E-book.

Did you know that there was a popular nineteenth century novelist by the name of Jane Austin (not Austen)? American writer Jane G. Austin was a prolific writer of Americana, especially historical novels such as Standish of Standish.

Standish of Standish
is really a fictionalized account of the first four years of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. While it does focus on Myles Standish, all of the early Pilgrims cross the pages of the novel at some point. The Indians Hobomok and Tisquantum (“Squanto”) also figure prominently in places.

Compared to the contemporary works of the Plymouth Pilgrims that we have (Of Plymouth Plantation, Mourt’s Relation, etc.), Standish of Standish focuses much more on the female characters. There is clearly a lot of made-up dialogue and romantic intrigue, but it does not appear to be made completely out of whole cloth like Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”

The beginning is a bit of a slog because so many people (half the population) die the first winter. But here we begin to see character develop. One young woman cannot take the wilderness any longer and goes back to England. Most who survive hang on.

The author leaves the death of Dorothy Bradford a mystery. She also describes in some detail the settlers who would come in following years to join the Mayflower Pilgrims. She implies that many of the single women who came over on subsequent voyages already had a man picked out. We certainly cannot say that for sure, but many marriages took place after only a few months.

We see Standish leading the pilgrims in various military and political forays with the native Americans. For the most part, the relations were amicable, but Standish proved the settlers’ bravery when necessary.

Austin has a more realistic twist then Longfellow’s “Courtship.” The father of Priscilla Mullins (or Molines, as Austin prefers the original French) was one of the men who died the first winter. In this version, her dying father asks Standish to take care of his young daughter of 18 or 19 years. Standish promises to do that, but some others suggest that means he ought to marry her. She is nearly half his age, and there is no mutual attraction, so they are both in a somewhat awkward position.

John Alden is also. He likes Priscilla, but he also respects Captain Standish. It is all resolved happily for everyone.

Austin also suggests that William Bradford and Alice Carpenter were an item but her father made her marry Mr. Southworth. When Alice was widowed in Holland and heard that Mrs. Bradford had died, she came across to her true love.

Similarly, Barbara Standish came over when she heard Rose Standish had died because she had been carrying the torch, or at least great respect, for her second cousin Myles whom she had known since they were children.

The person at the Plymouth Hall Museum who told me of this book warned me that it was full of “florid Victorian prose.” Yes, there is some of that, but it is not too annoying. Like Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, she tries to present dialogue using the language of the early 1600s. I would not be surprised if some of those actors at Plimoth Plantation may use Jane G. Austin as a crib.

The novel is a good reminder of what the early settlers of North America encountered, and how they had to learn to live and to live together. Yes, it may be fictionalized some, but we see beliefs and character traits that would continue to be accepted and admired to the present day. Reading Standish of Standish reminds us of why Plymouth, Massachusetts, calls itself America’s Home Town.

P.S. If the reader can keep track, Austin also notes the relations of the Pilgrims to one another. That Susannah White was the sister of the Surgeon Samuel Fuller; that John Howland served William Bradford as his assistant; that Thomas Cushman, orphaned like a number of others, became a disciple of Elder Brewster; that Mrs. Brewster was the daughter of an Anglican bishop; that among Peter Browne’s descendants was John Brown of Kansas and Harper’s Ferry fame.

P.P.S. The actors at Plimoth Plantation might not agree with Austin’s conflating the role of surgeon and physician together. The “Samuel Fuller” there argues that he is no doctor but a surgeon and a barber. A “doctor of physic” is something else altogether.

The Language of Stars – Review

Louise Hawes. The Language of Stars. New York: Simon, 2016. Print.

The Language of Stars is marketed as a young adult (YA) book. However, it is a young adult book only in the sense that the narrator and main character is a teenager and literate teens would like this story. Its approach and writing style reminded this reviewer of All the Light We Cannot See. In other words, it is as much for adults as it is for teens.
The Language of the Stars Cover

Sarah Ryan has somehow (miraculously?) become the girlfriend of the “hottest” guy in her coastal North Carolina high school. She had hung out with a more artsy group, but now she is hanging out with the “cool” kids and their wannabe friends.

One week her newly-adopted fast crowd she now hangs out with decided to break into a shoreline cottage that is now a designated historical site. It was the cottage where the world-famous poet Rufus Baylor spent his summers for years. Sarah lived near the place and often peeked through its windows and imagined the lives of the people she saw in the photographs inside.

That party night, however, there are no poetic meditations. There are a couple of kegs of beer and a few bottles of harder liquor, and by the time the police arrive, the house is on fire. Sarah and a dozen and a half others are arrested and have to do community service which includes repairing the cottage.

Since the perpetrators are all juveniles, the judge also requires them to take a six-lesson course on the poetry of Rufus Baylor. A young professor at the local community college is willing to teach the class until Rufus Baylor himself shows up in town. Most of the kids have assumed he died a long time ago, but he is indeed very much alive, although it has been years since he has had anything published.

What really stands out in The Language of the Stars is the quality of the writing. There are a number of “Baylor” poems interspersed in the text, but even the prose sings. And those poems are really good!

Louise Hawes has written a number of YA novels, but her heart may be in poetry—something that is, alas, ignored and barely publishable today. She has a great ear and a tender sense of transience that comes alive in the poetry and the character of Mr. Baylor.

Pick up the book for the story. Keep it for the poetry.

There is a lot of teen conflict in the story. Sarah’s single mother wants her to go to med school. Sarah is inclined towards drama—the best poem by Sarah in the book is about the ambiguities of acting:

                    Who have I really been?
In the end, I’m nothing to speak of,
A sort of go-between, a messenger of love.

She has a part-time job at the restaurant her father manages, though he always seems distant. And Fry, her surfer boyfriend, sends conflicting messages as well.

One perhaps predictable plot point reminded me of a letter by one Lady Montagu in the eighteenth century to her granddaughter on the importance of a good education. She told her how a girlfriend of hers received a lovely poem from a boy and began to think dreamily of him. Lady Montague recognized the lines as from a poem by Thomas Randolph and, in her words, “the unfortunate transcriber was dismissed with the scorn he deserved.”

Still, The Language of Stars transcends teen problem or romance novels. It really focuses on the impact of words and how sound and sense can go hand in hand. It also suggests that a self-revealing mentor can change lives.

Though “his” poetry reminded this reader of Emily Dickinson’s, Hawes’s Rufus Baylor’s career is more like that of Robert Frost. Imagine Frost in the Great Smokies instead of the Green Mountains. At the beginning of the book, Sarah assumes Baylor has died. She has a vague recollection of him reading something at the White House and losing his place.

I had to laugh. My introduction to Robert Frost when I was a boy was President Kennedy’s inauguration which I watched on television. Like Sarah with Baylor, I was not impressed with Frost back then. He stammered. I think he lost his place. And, of course, I had no idea what he was saying. My mother told me that he was a great poet and that I should listen.

I have come to appreciate some of Frost’s work. I have roots and relatives in Vermont, and Frost portrays the honest working stiffs accurately and sympathetically. So Sarah learns to love Rufus Baylor and his work.

Baylor does a lot more than teach poetry in this book. B-movie magnate Roger Corman once said, “There is only one plot: A stranger comes to town.” The Language of Stars manages that plot device in an unforgettable way.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan – Review

Daniel Mark Epstein. The Ballad of Bob Dylan. New York: Harper, 2011. E-book.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan is a biography of our recent Nobel laureate focusing on his works, but done in a manner of an appreciation. It notes a few different stages or reinventions in Dylan’s career and includes the author’s own experiences at concerts and with a production company that Dylan considered hiring.

The author describes four concerts he attended and much of the book focuses on the significance in Dylan’s career of each of those concerts. This becomes a cultural retrospective for many readers.

The first concert was in 1963 in Washington DC. The author was a teenager and interested in the guitar and folk music. Dylan was still in his folk and protest music stage then. Epstein noted that the audience tended to be primarily people of his parents’ age, though more artsy than the average Joe of 1963. Many were familiar with folk tunes that had been popularized by the Lomax recordings and such older folkies as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and even the Weavers.

While introducing us to Dylan through his music (I have to admit limited knowledge of the guitar chords and musical techniques the book sometimes refers to), we get Dylan’s backstory. First, there is the “legend” he tried to created by telling reporters how he rambled around the country as an orphan picking up jobs and learning the guitar. Of course, this contrasts with his actual middle class background from northern Minnesota.

I am a few years younger than the author, but this does bring memories. I cannot say I totally followed folk music in the early sixties, but I was not unfamiliar with it. Everyone knew who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, and they sang some Dylan songs. I had a friend whose older sister was a big fan of the Smothers Brothers and the Kingston Trio. Later I would latch onto Dave Van Ronk, who was apparently an early mentor of Dylan’s. Many other names drop: Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Maria Muldaur, and on and on.

A friend once told me that popular musicians have to reinvent themselves about every four years to keep on top, otherwise they will mostly be known for their “oldies.” He said, for example, the Beatles did that in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper and left their Beatlemania ballads behind.

Dylan did that in 1964 when he went electric. For the author it was a surprise. I guess I was younger enough that I really liked rock better. For example, the Byrds turned Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” into hits because they electrified them. I suspect that may be one reason Dylan switched.

What is interesting to me is the audience reactions described by Epstein. When Dylan began touring with his “plugged in” band, audiences booed. Perhaps at first this is understandable—people had paid money to see an acoustic folk singer. But certainly once news got out, people could have decided not to attend or sell their tickets to someone who liked the rockier stuff. But nearly everywhere he went in 1964 and 1965, Dylan was booed.

Of course, Dylan had first become famous for so-called protest tunes like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Masters of War.” He attracted likeminded people in his audiences. On the other hand, he admired Seeger and especially Guthrie who were often criticized for their protest songs and political leanings. Dylan was having a similar experience, but for his music.

Though Epstein does not emphasize it, I am certain that regardless of audience reactions, Dylan was selling more “folk rock” albums than he ever did with his acoustic albums. That is when this writer, for one, started finding Dylan appealing. I heard the Byrds do “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the radio, but when I heard all the verses in a Dylan recording, I recognized that this was poetry.

Once back in the nineties a couple of students asked me about my favorite albums. (Now many students do not even know what those are.) Yes, I said, I listened to the Beatles and the Doors and Jimi Hendrix like most of my contemporaries, but I had to admit that I think my favorite album of that era was Blonde on Blonde. Some of it seemed nonsense, yes, but the best was rich. “Sad Eyed-Lady of the Lowlands” was a gem about a city that had seen better days. It reminded me a little of Phil Ochs’ “Pleasures of the Harbor,” but much richer and poignant.

Even Dylan’s songs about love and relationships had an edge that most pop songs did not have: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” Even here Dylan was his own person.

From here we go into Dylan’s marriage and family life in upstate New York. Epstein gets a lot of information from Robbie Robertson of The Band. During this time Don McLean’s “American Pie” reminds us that Dylan was the Joker. Not the Batman nemesis, but the wild card, you never knew what he was going to do. The sojourn in New York reminded me of the line from the song “the joker on the sideline in a cast.”

The ostensible reason Dylan did not perform publicly or put out a new album for a long time was because of his motorcycle accident. The image I always had was Dylan “flying free” like a Brando Wild One singing “Born to Be Wild” and taking one too many turns or bumps too hard. (That is how I broke my leg when I was 22).

Epstein reports that the accident was actually kind of humorous. There had been an old motorcycle abandoned in the barn of the farmhouse where he was living. He decided to get it fixed. The tires were flat. He was simply wheeling the motorcycle, walking next to it, and he slipped on some wet pavement and the bike fell on him and broke his leg!

Epstein suggests that this “time out” for Dylan may have been some of the happiest of his life. He married, had a family, and lived out of the limelight until word began to get around that Dylan was in Woodstock and Saugerties, New York. He escaped by moving back to Greenwich Village, but then people camped out by his apartment building night and day, some with bullhorns.

I recall when the first album by The Band came out. It was the closest thing to a new Dylan album. He wrote some of the songs, and most of The Band had toured with Dylan before. The style was a little more blues and country, but it did sound a lot like Dylan’s style. When he finally came out with a new album, it was called Nashville Skyline and was very much country. Still, it was popular with many of his fans. Perhaps he had reinvented himself again?

Epstein does not mention another Dylan album that came out shortly after that, one that I enjoyed a lot, called Self-Portrait. It was eclectic, including country and more blues (I was a fan of the blues), but it did not sell well. It was revealing Dylan in a relatively contented state.

The next concert Epstein describes in detail is in 1974. This was in Madison Square Garden, New York, during his first real tour in eight years. The author’s sister came with him and pointed out about a dozen celebrities in the audience. This was a big deal. The sound system was elaborate—nothing acoustical here. Epstein notes that even in 1966 Dylan was a “niche act,” but by the time he started touring again, his fame was acknowledged.

Epstein says a “second generation” were becoming fans. If that first generation consisted of the folkies who first followed him, then that was clearly true. His music and his lyrics had a greater impact than any other songwriter of the era.

Epstein notes that John Sebastian, lead singer and songwriter of the Lovin’ Spoonful, turned down an offer to tour with Dylan. It might have kept Sebastian more in the limelight, but he said, “You can’t get too close to Dylan. He burns with such a bright flame you can get burned.” (2068)

Epstein suggests that is why ultimately his marriages would end in divorce, and even the most talented musicians could only tour with him for so long. Still, Dylan attracted many of the best for his musicians and his producers. Sometimes he was impulsive. A fiddler joined his tour for a while when Dylan saw her walking along a city sidewalk carrying a violin case.

Unfortunately, Epstein pretty much passes over Dylan’s next reinvention. He does tell us:

In January 1979 Bob Dylan accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into his life as his personal savior. He met with the pastors of the Vineyard Fellowship in West Los Angeles and “prayed that day and received the Lord.” He began attending Bible study classes at the School of Discipleship, studying the life of Jesus four days a week for the rest of the winter. (4226-4228)

Epstein largely dismisses Dylan’s next few albums because they are Christian. He says they were “preachy.” If by preachy, he means “religious,” then that is true. But, frankly, even Dylan admits that his early folk songs (“Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Hard Rain,” for example) were much more didactic attempts to persuade. They were sometimes downright lectures. In his song “My Back Pages” he calls his singing “the instant that I preach.” Most of his Christian songs were still ballads or perhaps hymn-like, rather than rants.

I would submit that Dylan had musical reasons as well as personal ones for looking into Christianity at the time. Even Epstein admits that the popular music scene was bland or unmusical at the time. He mentions the disco Bee Gees and Christopher Cross as examples. On the other hand, the Christian music scene—ironically tolerated on mainstream radio in Europe but ignored except on religious stations and networks in the USA—was flourishing. Artists like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Annie Herring, and Keith Green were writing original music. Christian music festivals and the so-called Jesus movement were peaking. It is no wonder that Dylan became a part of it.

If I were to add an chapter to The Ballad of Bob Dylan, it would be introduced by the one time this reviewer saw Dylan in concert. That was in 1980. He had just come out with his Saved album, and the songs were nearly all from his last two albums. Although not like the way Epstein describes the audiences in 1964 after he went electric, there were some audience members who acted disgruntled and gave a few catcalls. By then, of course, everyone knew what to expect. And because of his experience with his post-folk audiences, he did not appear upset at all over any hisses he might have received. It had been a lot worse in ’64 and ’65.

I still recall when I first heard Slow Train Coming, the first album out after his conversion. A friend had said that Dylan had come to the Lord. By then many Christians were skeptical of celebrity conversions, though I had to admit that, whatever one could say about Dylan, it was hard to imagine him as a phony. He would not be doing it for the money. Within a day or two another friend had bought a copy of the album and came to our house to play it on our stereo. Tears came to my eyes as he sang “I believe in you…” I especially liked “Precious Angel,”

Sister, lemme tell you about a vision that I saw:
You were drawing water for your husband,
You were suffering under the law.
You were telling him about Buddha,
You were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath.
You never mentioned one time the Man who came
And died a criminal’s death.

The third concert Epstein attended was at Tanglewood, the famous summer outdoor concert series in western Massachusetts, in 1997. Here Epstein describes Dylan’s so-called Neverending Tour. He has to a great degree been touring 100 or more days a year for the last twenty-five years. He has teamed up with many different artists. At times Dylan changes enough that he gets rid of some musicians and hires others.

This section is as much about Epstein as Dylan. He brings his teenage son to the concert to try to get him to see this important and significant figure.

Now it dawns on me with some sadness that there was no Bob Dylan in my son’s life, as there had been in mine. Dylan had been a giant in my world, a poet and something of a prophet, someone you could trust to tell the truth of his perceptions. He saw deeply into history and the human heart. The poet was a reliable moral quantity—incorruptible, in this sense. (4318,4319)

The single song that really excited both father and son from this time period was “Jokerman.” That was Dylan, the “real Dylan” to Epstein. Epstein also realized or believed that his son’s generation had no songwriter like that.

As strange as it seems, when I was growing up there were a dozen poets writing such profuse song lyrics. Now perhaps there was only one, or two if the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen had emerged from the monastery and taken up his pencil. (4638,4639) [Cohen did come out of the monastery and do some touring, but, I guess, now there is just one poet since Leonard is no longer with us.]

One curious note. Epstein tells us that Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature first in 1999 by a professor in Virginia. I guess persistence paid off. It seems also during this time Dylan won several awards and was happy to pick them up. On the other hand, he rarely broke concert dates.

It is also interesting to note that after the mid-eighties, we hear little of the new songs Dylan writes and performs. By then, Dylan already had an oeuvre. This part is mostly biographical.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan also briefly tells about the songwriter’s forays into film, including a few that he produced himself. Epstein is a Hollywood writer and tells about the time his agency was consulted about working on a Dylan idea. It apparently never got off the ground.

Epstein’s final section takes up to nearly the time the book was published: 2009. The author is back home in the Baltimore area, and Dylan is playing at nearby Aberdeen. Mostly Epstein tells about the old songs he plays, such as “My Back Pages.” It is a kind of retrospective to conclude the story.

Any fan of folk, the sixties, or Dylan will appreciate this book. We do learn a lot about Dylan. He is a writer. But even today he is still putting on a show. As soon the book mentions many of the songs or lines from the songs, I can hear them. Dylan really has been a part of the lives of many of us.

Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
‘Cause I believe in you.


Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language