Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

Cold Fury – Review

T. M. Goeglein. Cold Fury. New York: Putnam, 2012. Print.

This Young Adult (YA) novel has a picture of a girl on the cover. But Cold Fury is not chick lit. The main character happens to be a girl, but from my informal survey of those who have read it, the guys like it more.

Sara Jane Rispoli at the age of sixteen discovers that her family has been at the top of the Chicago mob for three generations. She learns this when her house is broken into while she is out and her family—father, mother, and younger brother—disappears.

This disappearance apparently has something to do with a power play within the Outfit (as they call the mob in Chicago), and because she is now the heiress apparent to the Rispoli position, she finds herself in danger. She has to stay on the run, and she also has to fight back. Unlike most girls, she has learned to box. One of the other main characters is her trusted mentor Willy Williams, owner of a Chicago boxing club. Mystery. Action. And, I should mention, some cool cars.

As a teenager, Sara Jane does use her newfound mob connections to take care of a high school bully. She also learns about throwaway cell phones and safe houses. But most of all, she and the reader learn about the ins and outs of the Outfit. Her father and grandfather achieved their reputation and status by resolving conflicts between different factions and families within the Outfit. Now they turn to Sara Jane for some of the same counsel.

One minor narrative thread reminds of one used by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Sara Jane is reminiscing about her nanny who died when she was nine. The nanny used to talk about her brother “poor Kevin” who disappeared. In A Tale of Two Cities, the Manette’s housekeeper Miss Pross speaks very highly of her long lost brother Solomon. Near the end of the story we discover who Solomon Pross is and that he has actually played a part in the story on several occasions, though no one realizes it at the time. So we discover “poor Kevin” has not disappeared after all.

One passage was self-consciously making fun of popular YA series. I had to laugh, but at the very end the same thing gave me a little concern:

I roll my eye at books, TV, and movies that depict people my age stuck in some moody teenage dilemma. If they’re rich kids, they’re moody rich kids, if they’re vampire kids, they’re moody vampire kids, if they’re postapocalyptic kids…you get the picture.

Yeah, we get the picture: We know about the Gossip Girls, the Twilight series, and the Hunger Games stories. Sara Jane’s story, she seems to promise, was going to be about more or less ordinary people. Nothing elitist, nothing supernatural, nothing sci-fi. Yet the sample chapter of Cold Fury 2 at the end of this book sounds like a Godfather-zombie mashup. Say it ain’t so Mr. Goeglein…

Anyway, the first two pages of Cold Fury draw the reader in, and the story keeps on rolling. But like the Harry Potter or Gallagher Girls series, to get a real resolution, you have more books to read.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew – Review

Daniel Pool. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox-hunting to Whist—The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Print.

This is a book for anyone who likes 19th century literature or the BBC/PBS shows based on them. It might be considered a book of trivia, except that it explains things that would not need explaining to the English people who first read the works when they came out.

The author writes in an engaging manner which keeps the subject matter from becoming dry. In doing so, What Jane Austen Ate covers most of society and culture in the 19th century. It includes things like coinage and the church calendar, aristocratic titles and social status. finances and government, country houses and city houses, transportation, sports, fashion, and institutions of all kinds. It has a little on the militia but otherwise not much on the military, and while it briefly explains most card games, you would have to go to Hoyle’s to get the actual rules.

The book reminds us that the England of 1800 was quite different from that of 1900, but we can see how it changed—the laws, the technology, even the culture. We learn, for example, that between 1750 and 1850 there were 380 known cases of men auctioning their wives like Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge. When we are told that Wickham and Lydia Bennet went north when they eloped, we understand a couple of things better after reading this book. Until 1823 no one could marry without parental consent in England before they were twenty-one. So they eloped. The laws in Scotland concerning marriage were more lenient because the state church was different, so English elopers would cross the border into Scotland. The town of Gretna Green right on the border was the Las Vegas of its day. Finally in 1856 Scotland required a three week residency, which slowed things down but still made it simpler than the south of the island.

Pool does a decent job of explaining inheritance laws and primogeniture. Heathcliff’s machinations to gain control of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange begin to make sense. Indeed Pool even explains what a grange is and how that differs from a hall, manor, or park.

The author cites many Victorian works and is clearly familiar with many of the authors besides Austen and Dickens: He cites the Brontes (all three sisters), Hardy, Henry James, Charles Kingsley, George Eliot (though I could not find George Meredith), Thackeray, Wilde, and especially Trollope. He also cites a few poets like Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, and most of the “major” romantics.

As you read, many different things will “click.” One that did for me helped me see things better in a French play from the 1890s. Pool explains the hierarchy among the various people who sell goods and services on the streets. Orange sellers, who were usually women, were considered socially lower than most “costermongers” because they kept no inventory but simply resold fruits they purchased in bulk. That heightens Cyrano de Bergerac’s chivalrous treatment of the orange seller at the theater in Act 1 of the play. And what skills governesses like Jane Eyre were expected to possess. And why Magwitch was shivering when Pip first met him. And it is significant that Miss Havisham uses wax candles rather than oil lamps or tallow candles. Or why the daughter of a brewer like Miss Havisham would have a reasonably high social status. And from Castle Rackrent to Portrait of a Lady, why titled aristocrats would often look for rich heiresses to marry.

About a third of the book is a glossary to explain all kinds of terms including coins, legal terms, labels of tradespeople, articles of clothing, wheeled transportation, and many other things. There are enough pictures to amplify some of the descriptions as well. For example, the text describes an epergne, but I still had a pretty vague idea until I turned to the glossary which not only defined the term more directly but also had a picture of one. Anyone who teaches English Romantic or Victorian literature, especially the novels, should have access to this book.

The clothes people wore, the social and artistic events they attended, the transportation they use, the names and titles they possess, the types and number of servants they have, how much money they are worth—all these things were important to the English. At times such a society sounds stifling, but then I think of what America is like today. It is not all that different, and members of America’s ruling class still do their best to stifle whatever does not appeal to their prejudices.

The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I – Review

Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Vol. I. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951. Kindle e-book.

Goddard, head of the English Department at Swarthmore who died before he gave a title to this work, has some fun with Shakespeare critics. Anyone who has read Shakespeare criticism knows what he means:

The lawyer believes he must have been a lawyer, the musician a musician, the Catholic a Catholic, the Protestant a Protestant

Goddard tells us that Shakespeare above all was a humanist. That tells us more about Goddard than about Shakespeare, really. I had to laugh when I read that. Hopefully, Goddard saw the irony in his own assertion about the Bard.

Goddard notes, rightly, that Shakespeare plays acted out “discloses things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.” True enough. Shakespeare was both a playwright and a poet at the same time. Goddard’s approach proves this. Goddard—English professor that he is—is a reader.

Goddard deals with the plays chronologically. Volume I covers 21 plays from The Comedy of Errors to Hamlet. Goddard’s strength is his ability to see patterns among the plays. He is intimately familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, even ones like King John and Henry VIII which few people read and even fewer acting companies perform. His ability to see patterns are especially notable in his character analyses.

For example, Romeo, Jaques, Brutus, and Hamlet all are or become melancholy. Goddard argues that in Shakespeare melancholia is not an inborn temperament as the classics might suggest, but it is a result of being driven to act against one’s own nature. Romeo is a lover who has to maintain the family honor. Jaques is a traveler who has denied his birthright. Brutus is a philosopher who is persuaded to join a plot to murder. Hamlet is an artist who has to play realpolitik.

Another recurring theme is that of the tension between father and son—and the son usually gives in to the pressure of the father’s expectations to his own detriment. Romeo prolongs the family feud when announcing his marriage could end it. Henry V pleads with God before Agincourt to accept his penance for his father’s sins. Cassius persuades Brutus with his famous appeal to Brutus’ ancestry: “There was a Brutus once who would have brooked the eternal devil…” Hamlet ends up obeying his father’s ghost. Still, Goddard is no Freudian. While not completely dismissing Freudian analysis of Shakespeare, he points out that such interpretations are far too narrow, and, in some cases, even silly.

If Goddard reminds this reader of any Shakespeare critic, it is Coleridge. Though Emerson mocked Coleridge’s talk of “omject and sumject,” and Goddard frequently quotes Emerson, it is really Coleridge whom Goddard echoes. To understand the characters we must understand both the subjective motivations of the characters (such as Hamlet’s love of drama and music) and the objective forces surrounding them (like the “rottenness” in the court of Denmark).

Perhaps Goddard’s most pointed—and likely most controversial—analysis is that of Henry V in the three plays in which he is featured. Goddard says, as a “reader,” that Shakespeare presents Henry V as a calculating, cold-blooded tyrant. Yet every production of Henry V I have seen1 and, I suspect, every production that has been mounted show him as a heroic and inspiring leader. One could make a case that Chimes at Midnight is different, but that is from Falstaff’s point of view. Still, in virtually all productions he has the common touch because of his times with the Gadshill gang, but he is a noble leader at heart. To Goddard, Hal-Henry is disloyal, lets others do his dirty work, and is greedy for power. Several times Goddard mentions two world wars in the last three decades (note the publication date). Goddard sees King Henry V as another Bismarck or Hitler trying to prove a point by conquering France.

Like many critics, Goddard saves his most interesting stuff for Hamlet. Like many modern critics (in the literary sense), he dismisses the ghost as a kind of psychological aberration—very differently from the way he treats the ghost in Julius Caesar, though he does draw parallels in the plot elements. The focus of his Hamlet observations is on “The Mousetrap.” The play within a play is common motif in Shakespeare as he points out: A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a literal one, but also the masquerade in Romeo and Juliet, both “setups” in Much Ado about Nothing, Hal and Falstaff’s playing the king in Henry IV Part I, and others noted by Goddard. As an artist, Hamlet enjoys the play. But he does not follow his own advice that he gave to the actors and starts to overdo his commentary in order to get an audience response. In “out-Heroding Herod,” Hamlet shows us how, if not why, he goes in a tragic direction.

There is a lot more to this book. Goddard does a great job with a number plays. In emphasizing the people and what motivates them, and looking at them from the scope of Shakespeare’s body of work, the reader cannot help but love or at least sympathize with so many of his characters. That is certainly one thing that makes Shakespeare great. Few writers get into the heart of human nature the way Shakespeare does (Goddard concedes only Dostoyevsky and maybe Tolstoy on a good day). The Meaning of Shakespeare helps us to see that.

Thanks to the colleague who gave this to me. Perhaps some day I will get to Volume II.

1 I recall two theatrical productions I have seen plus the two well-known film versions, one with Olivier, the other with Branagh.

Locked On – Review

Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. Locked On. New York: Putnam, 2011. Print.

I have been a fan of Tom Clancy from the days of Hunt for Red October. This last book did not disappoint. Sometimes called the originator of the techno-thriller, Clancy gets it. Twenty years ago when the Internet was made up of bulletin boards and online services like Prodigy and CompuServe, there were already online fan clubs of Clancy. Back then they called themselves technodudes (and “dudesses”). I was one back then.

Thanks to my time in what Flannery O’Connor called “the arm service of his country,” I became familiar with two arms of the “arm service”: submarines and the Coast Guard. Clancy’s first book, Hunt for Red October, portrayed submarines and their technology honestly and realistically. My favorite Clancy novel, Clear and Present Danger, Clancy gets the Coast Guard, too.

Locked On gets it, too. Here, though, it is not a particular branch of the service—it has been a long time since Clark and Chavez were in the SEALs or Special Forces. This book portrays another part of American culture which I have had some firsthand experience with and most of us know from the so-called mainstream media—the cultural elites. Clancy has lived most of his life just outside the beltway. He gets that, too.

Clancy’s original protagonist, Jack Ryan, is running for president to try to regain the office from President Ed Kealty who defeated him four years before. Though Ryan himself hardly appears in the story, some Kealty operatives are trying to make Ryan look bad by outing American spies Clark, Chavez, and Jack Ryan, Jr. The eminence grise behind this is Paul Laska, educated in a former Warsaw Pact nation, immigrated to the United States, earned a fortune on Wall Street, and now financing all kinds of causes that support a socialistic “empirical” big government. Any resemblance between Mr. Laska and George Soros is probably entirely intentional.

There is also a terrorist plot or two brewing involving some of the action heroes and spies in Pakistan, others in Russia, and eventually in Dagestan, a traditionally Muslim region of Russia trying to gain independence in the name of the Caliphate. There are some stops in Egypt, Qatar, and France. Vintage Clancy.

Although not as devastating as the successful terrorist actions in The Sum of All Fears and Debt of Honor, Clancy does inject a dose of realism. The good guys do not completely thwart the bad guys. Still, there is a satisfying ending that exudes irony and/or poetic justice. While nothing can beat the ending of Rainbow Six for that, Locked On has some fun at the end. Like some of Clancy’s other stories, you know there will be more coming on Clark, Chavez, the Ryans, and their cohorts. There are still too many loose ends.

Two of the major plot threads are interesting variations of plot devices Clancy has used before. Yet they are different enough that they cannot be called retreads or formulas. A male-female relationship develops with one person falling in love with a spy. This is reminiscent of the couple in The Bear and the Dragon. But it is not a traditional “honey trap,” and the spy and the victim are both agents for the same country. There is an interagency mistrust, and we are not completely clear at the end of the book exactly who the spy is working for and what the spy’s motivations are. Is Mary Pat Foley trying to bring Ryan down? Say it ain’t so, Tom! We will not know until Threat Vector (maybe).

One of the major players in Locked On is a variation of Captain Marko Ramius, the commanding officer of the submarine Red October. The Captain, you may recall, was considered a Great Russian on his Soviet internal passport. His father had been a high-ranking military hero, so he was granted the privilege of being called Russian even though he was Lithuanian. Captain Ramius, though, identified with Lithuania more than the U.S.S.R.. When he sailed Red October to North America, he did for the sake of his overrun homeland to thwart Soviet imperial designs.

In Locked On Georgi Safronov is considered a native Russian in post-Soviet Russia. He is a wealthy industrialist who has made his fortune designing missiles and rockets both for the Russians and for businesses all over the world who need satellites launched. However, Safronov knows that he was adopted by a Russian couple from an orphanage in Dagestan and that his birth parents would have been Muslim. He begins to identify with Dagestan and secretly trains with a hardened corps of Dagestani freedom fighters with connections to the Pakistan security service and Al Qaeda.

Like Captain Ramius, Safronov identifies with a minority that has been subjugated by the Russians. However, instead of trying to disable a war machine like Ramius, Safronov tries to start a war—indeed, two wars. If there are formulas, there are enough variations that the stories are anything but retreads.

Childhood’s End – Review

Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End. New York: Harcourt, 1962. Print.

After reading From Narnia to a Space Odyssey, it behooved me to read Childhood’s End. Lewis mentions it in his essay “On Science Fiction,” and it is the book that established Clarke’s reputation.

The problem with reviewing this book is that there are numerous plot twists, and I do not want to write a spoiler.

Perhaps the best way to describe the first two-thirds of Childhood’s End is as a cross between “Voyage to Laputa” in Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World.

A large spaceship, or perhaps fleet of spaceships (the tale is ambiguous on this), arrives on earth. The ship does not land but rather hovers over the earth the way the island of Laputa hovers over Balnibarbi in Gulliver’s Travels. These extraterrestrials impose a kind of Pax Romana over the whole earth. If men start a war, disrupt the environment, or commit a crime, the space ships immediately cause some kind of harm to the perpetrators or their region just as Laputa blocks the sun and rain from a rebellious town in Balnibarbi. These extraterrestrials, called Overlords by the earthlings, sometimes hinder the sun’s rays over an area causing a quick repentance.

The Overlords stay for a hundred years and their oversight creates a kind of utopia. Earth has peace. Crime is nearly nonexistent. It appears that humankind has achieved its humanistic potential.

Of course, this order is imposed in a peaceable, but nevertheless secretive and authoritarian manner. For example, no Overlord is seen by earth men for the first fifty years of the occupation. The family is weakened as in Brave New World by legal acceptance of extramarital sex and having marriage as a mere contract for a limited number of years. After the contract date is up, the contract can be renewed or, more frequently, the spouses are free to pair up with others. A ten-year contract is considered unusually long, though romantic in the thought behind it.

According to Huxley expert David Bradshaw of Oxford, Aldous Huxley was fascinated with planned societies, as were many intellectuals during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Huxley thought both Communism and Nazism had potential for creating a just society. So his Brave New World describes an amoral communal society (like Communism) based on genetics (like Nazism) and run by scientific planners (like both). After the Hitler-Stalin Pact and World War II, Huxley changed his perspective so that his 1946 introduction to Brave New World presents the novel as a dystopia—somewhat different from his original purpose when the book came out in 1932.

Like Huxley’s novel, Clarke’s Overlord utopia is presented as “scientific.” Mankind, thanks to the long-lived aliens, is able to live at peace. Thought Clarke presents this positively, like Huxley he notes some shortcomings:

The world’s now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason’s obvious. There’s nothing left to struggle for, and there are too many distractions and entertainments…do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?…No wonder people are becoming passive sponges—absorbing but never creating.

Cable TV anyone?

There is a group of “alternative” people that the Overlords, who appear to be benevolent elitists, permit—the island community of New Athens. Just as ancient Athens was the only state not conquered by the Dorians and so preserved the stories and myths of the Mycenaean culture and kept the arts and learning alive in the region—the island of New Athens is meant to be a place for people to be creative in both the arts and sciences. Indeed, it sounds like Clarke here was influenced by Kitto’s The Greeks, especially his chapter “The Polis.”

There is a lot more to the story, but I am reluctant to share it without giving too much away. There are some characters we do become interested in; even some of the Overlords are portrayed sympathetically. One character does resemble Gulliver. But this book is ultimately no Brave New World. The utopia, or the dystopia, whichever you believe it is, does not last.

There is a reason Clarke called the story Childhood’s End. It ultimately is neither utopian nor dystopian. It is apocalyptic. Just as Clarke’s “Jupiter Five” may have inspired Richard Dawkins with his evolutionary theories, Childhood’s End may have inspired Stephen Jay Gould’s with his. At least Clarke was honest in calling his work fiction.

From Narnia to A Space Odyssey – Review

From Narnia to A Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis. Ed. Ryder W. Miller. New York: iBooks, 2003. Print.

The title got my attention. I have been a fan, perhaps even a follower, of C. S. Lewis since I read “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in high school. And I am old enough to have seen the original 2001: A Space Odyssey film in a Cinerama theater. Cinerama was a large screen, almost like IMax, with depth, not gimmicky 3-D.

The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading, but attention-getting since it implies conflict. Yes, Lewis and Clarke (that sounds funny to an American…) did not agree on some religious and political issues, but their correspondence was mostly about science fiction and space travel. One curious detail this book points out is that Clarke was a long-time friend of Joy Gresham, who would become Mrs. Lewis. Clarke writes here that he could never bring himself to see the play Shadowlands or read Lewis’s A Grief Observed because they were about her death.

Actually, even the title, not just the subtitle, is slightly misleading because both writers considered the Narnia stories fantasy, not science fiction, so neither one wrote about them in their letters or in the works printed in this book. Since Lewis died before Clarke wrote any of his Space Odyssey works and Clarke left England before Lewis had completed the Narnia series, the title really signals the works the respective writers are best known for, not what they actually wrote about in this collection.

Lewis and Clarke wrote each other a few times over eleven years beginning in 1943 after Lewis had published his Space Trilogy until Clarke left England for good in 1954, four years before Lewis married. Most of the letters concern space travel and ethical issues of space exploration. Clarke is slightly more sanguine than Lewis about human nature. One of Lewis’s themes is that colonizing space would mean bringing sin into places that may have not known sin before. Yet Clarke’s essay “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” written around 1946 expresses an equally skeptical view of man colonizing space. The editor Mr. Ryder calls Lewis anti-imperialist, and Clarke’s essay could be called the same. Perhaps because Clarke was a scientist, he was more interested in discovery more than Lewis.

The books begins with a collection (likely the collection) of letters that Clarke and Lewis wrote to each other. They are fun to read to get an idea of what they were thinking at the time, but there is hardly the conflict implied either in the book’s subtitle or in the editor’s introduction. Most of the differences were professional–Clarke worked as a scientist, Lewis as a professor of literature. It actually appears that Lewis was curious to understand some of the science Clarke employed in his stories.

Although both men were acquainted with Ms. Gresham, they lived in different parts of England. Clarke moved to Australia in 1954 and eventually settled in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The two men only met once at a pub in Oxford, each with some friends in tow. Clarke did not recall the name of Lewis’s friend at the time, but he realized later that it was J.R.R. Tolkien.

The letters are interesting to read, but the bulk of the book consists of science fiction stories by each of the men, two by Lewis and five by Clarke. “Ministering Angels” expresses Lewis’s skepticism on interplanetary imperialism as well as slamming “liberated” academics. The irony is that many of today’s readers would say to themselves, “So what is wrong with that?” in a manner analogous to today’s President of the United States referring to gay marriage as a “right.” The scientific mumbo-jumbo used to encourage questionable behavior and policy is funny if not sad–it is reminiscent of the “scientific” arguments used by the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength, the third book of the Space Trilogy.

The second Lewis story, “Forms of Things Unknown,” was deliberately chosen to compare with Clarke’s first story here, “A Meeting with Medusa.” Both stories echo the Medusa myth, but reading these tales reminds us that Lewis a literary scholar and Clarke a scientist with a specialty in marine biology. Both stories are quite clever.

Clarke’s “Jupiter Five” is fiction that has been adapted as a possibility for origins of life in the Solar System, most famously (or notoriously) by Richard Dawkins. Two of the other three stories are clever stories that deal with religious issues that Lewis might bring up as well (one Christian, one Buddhist). The last Clarke story is another clever tale that takes place on earth. Today it would probably be considered a short “techno-thriller” à la Tom Clancy rather than science fiction.

The meatiest part of the book is the three essays, one by Lewis and two by Clarke. Lewis’s essay “On Science Fiction” is an overview of the genre at the time, in the early to mid 1950s, starting with Jules Verne and mentioning Clarke (whose writing he admired) several times. Like so much of Lewis’s professional writing, this is well done literary criticism. Perhaps his most pointed remark is that critics should never write about something they hate. Lewis said he hates detective stories, so he never reviews them. “Hatred obscures all distinctions,” so one cannot critique the subject clearly.

Lewis also makes a point about a lot of good science fiction and fantasy writing–including his own:

Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his stories are, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. (74)

Good advice certainly.

Clarke’s two essays are both about the possibilities of space travel. The first, “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth,” as mentioned already, expresses Clarke’s own version of skepticism about space imperialism. The second essay would be considered current and publishable in Wired magazine this month: “When Will the Real Space Age Begin?” This is written from the perspective of a scientist who has been able to imagine “star drive” and other “future” technologies.

Perhaps the best analogy he uses is comparing space exploration with the exploration of Antarctica. Men reached the South Pole in 1912 “by the most primitive means imaginable,” ponies and sled dogs.(172) Not until forty years later did people actually establish permanent bases there. By then they had the technology to make such bases practical. Even today, it is inhabited but not colonized–no one lives there permanently, and only Argentina’s Esperanza base has anything approaching family living.

Similarly, the moon landing in 1969 using expendable multi-stage rockets got us there, but such technology was hardly enough for establishing bases or regular voyages there. With greater miniaturizing, more scientific discoveries, greater understanding of human metabolism, and more efficient energy sources, regular space travel might be possible in the future, just as Antarctic exploration and studies had to wait until the development of better icebreakers, more practical snowmobiles, prefabricated Quonset huts, and so on.

Both men were brilliant thinkers, and this slim volume gives a sense of some of the things they thought about, and, really, how they did have a lot of respect for each other.

P.S. Lewis’s quotation from Beowulf (“Nis þæt feor heonan/Mil-gemearces”) is from lines 1362 and 1363 of the epic and says “It’s not that far hence in mile-markers,” describing the distance between Heorot Hall and Grendel’s mere.

The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History – Review

Jim Baker and Bernard M. Corbett. The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History: An Oral History of a Legendary Team. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012. Print.

A great book that covers the highlights of the history of the New England (né Boston) Patriots. While it focuses on 13 games, the book has plenty of information about what was going on between the acts.

As the subtitle tells us, a good part of this book is oral history. A cast of about fifty players, managers, sports journalists, and others reminisce about the background of the Patriots and about those games. Some of the most interesting stories and perspectives come from the non-players. Patrick Sullivan, long-time Patriots general manager and son of one of the original owners, tells a lot about the origin of the team and of the American Football League in 1960.

The book goes back in time to tell of other professional football franchises in Boston. For example, I had known that the Washington Redskins had started in Boston and had moved to Washington not too long after their founding. I did not know that in 1932 they were originally called the Boston Braves, after the baseball team whose stadium they shared. When the baseball Braves did not renew the stadium contract, they changed their name to the Redskins.

People who follow the Patriots will recognize many of the contributors, story tellers, and teammates they talk about: Gino Capelletti, Babe Parilli, Houston Antwine, Mosi Tatupu, Steve Grogan, Jim Plunkett, and on through modern players–including a few story tellers from other teams. One thing I did not realize–that in 1977 the Patriots lost to the Raiders in a nail-biting playoff game thanks to a misapplied penalty call (the book says the replays were clear that the call was wrong). It puts the 2002 “Tuck Rule” Snow Bowl game versus Oakland in perspective. The mills of the gods grind slowly…

One of the 13 game the book focuses on was the 2002 game which I remember vividly. I was visiting Boston that weekend, and my wife and I realized we would have to spend the night because of the weather. (I had some friends in the suburbs, but it was not great driving weather even for a few miles). I got to see the game on TV in the motel where we were staying just outside of Boston. I seldom get to see NFL games because we do not have the luxury of cable, so I was looking forward to seeing that game–and what a game it was!

One of the men sharing his story is Mark Henderson. No, you won’t find his name on any football trading card. He was the guy who drove the tractor in the 1982 “Snowplow Game.” He cleared the spot for kicker John Smith so he could kick what proved to be the game’s only score in the 3-0 win against Miami. The book is clear to point out that it was a tractor with a brush, not an actual snowplow.

John Smith’s own story is quite interesting, too. He was a British soccer player. As he puts it, “The first game of football I ever saw, I was in. I did not even know what a down was.”

More recent players who contribute their stories include Kevin Faulk, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown, Adam Vinatieri, and Vince Wilfork. Some of the older contributors like Mosi Tatupu have died, so clearly the reminiscences are not all from recent interviews.

The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History also has short chapters that act as statistical and historical sidebars that illuminate the specific games or periods in Patriots’ history: most yards in a game, history of tiebreaker games before 1974, last ties by a franchise, single score games, largest comebacks, most years between playoff victories, etc. etc. Some are Patriots records, but most focus on NFL and AFL records. A few bring in other professional football leagues.

This book is fun for a fan. Yes, some of the stories and a lot of the accounts of other games are about losses like that 1977 playoff game, but that is a factor in any sport. Since the NFL has a lot of parity, it does make certain teams stand out, especially in the Super Bowl era. It is a tribute to a few teams that they can be competitive for a number of years: the Cowboys and Steelers in the 70s, the 49ers in the 80s and early 90s, and perhaps the Patriots since 2001.

N.B.: I am writing this the day after the Patriots’ loss to the Ravens in the 2013 AFC Championship Game. While I do not consider myself superstitious, I have always felt that the sportscaster (and I do not recall who it was) who called the Patriots a dynasty at the end of the 2005 Super Bowl jinxed them. Although they continue to get into the playoffs nearly every year, that was the last time they won it all.

Building for War — Review

Bonita Gilbert. Building for War: The Epic Saga of the Civilian Contractors and Marines of Wake Island in World War II. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2012. Print.

When I was a boy, I remember my father once getting a new book that he was unusually excited about. My father was a reader and belonged to the Book of the Month Club and the Readers Digest Book Club, so we were always getting new books. But this stood out to me because he was enthusiastically awaiting the publication of this particular book. I am pretty sure he picked it up at a bookstore the day it arrived there.

The book was Wake Island Command written by Commander W. Scott Cunningham, the Commanding Officer of the Naval Air Base on Wake Island at the beginning of World War II. The story of the defense of Wake Island is inspiring. Though Cdr. Cunningham ultimately had to surrender the island, Wake Island held out against a much larger Japanese force for nearly three weeks, diverting Japanese resources needed elsewhere. Wake would rightly be called the Alamo of the Pacific.

However, my father was disappointed with the book. Cdr. Cunningham retold the story that had been recorded a number of times. He included additional information about why the Navy’s rescue force turned back when only a day’s sail from the island and why he believed he had to surrender. But there was—once again—virtually nothing about the civilians on Wake Island. There were about 500 servicemen there, mostly Marines, but there were also nearly 1200 civilian construction workers as well. Dad was hoping to find out more about the fate of the civilians there, but Wake Island Command had very little on them.

You see, my father had a first cousin who was a construction worker on Wake. That young man, Frank Miller, Jr., would eventually be taken to Japan as a prisoner where he died in a slave labor camp on the island of Kyushu. Even twenty years later, very little was written about the men taken captive by the Japanese and forced to work under appalling conditions. These were non-combatant construction workers, but the Japanese treated them even more harshly than most of the military POWs.

Finally, there is a book that tells their story. Bonita Gilbert, daughter and granddaughter of two of the men who worked on Wake Island, has done a lot to put together the story of these workers in her book Building for War.

By most estimates, Wake Island is the most solitary island in the world, six hundred miles to the nearest land (in the Marshall Islands). Gilbert gives some background to the American interest in and claims on the island. The first permanent structure there was a Pan American Airways terminal built in 1936 for the Philippine Clipper flights. It was one of the stops in this famous trans-Pacific air route from San Francisco to Manila. (The first plane to do this run was named China Clipper, but because the war had started in China in 1931, the route never actually went to China.)

The book then explains how the Navy became interested in the island’s strategic location and finally persuaded a reluctant Congress to build a base there. A consortium of contractors including Morrison-Knudsen and Bechtel were hired for construction work on a number of Pacific Islands including Wake, Midway, Johnson, Palmyra, and Oahu. This consortium became known as Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases, or CPNAB. We learn a lot more about the history of CPNAB and about a number of the men who ended up working on Wake Island beginning in January 1941.

Running parallel with the story of the construction work and the lives of the men and Marines on Wake Island are political details. We can see how things were leading to war, especially after General Tojo took over the Japanese government in October 1941.

Japanese planes out of the Marshall Islands, which had been given to Japan by treaty after World War I, attacked Wake Island four hours after Pearl Harbor. The attack was recorded at December 8 in the United States because both Wake and Japan are on the other side of the International Date Line from Hawaii, but to the Japanese it was the same day.

Gilbert is a good story teller. She uses many quotations from news sources, letters, and diaries to project what it was really like on this bare coral atoll–wind-blown magnolias and morning-glory vines, no palm trees. We can say now that the story of the Wake Island construction workers has been told.

The book tells a lively and sobering story, and it is told from the perspective of the construction team. While she naturally describes the fighting, she does not reinvent the wheel, so she does not go into great detail on that. Books like Cunningham’s or, especially, Facing Fearful Odds by Gregory Urwin do that in much greater detail.

Although she draws out what she can, she also does not go into great detail about the captivity of the workers under the Japanese, except while they were still on Wake Island. There are individual testimonies and books on POWs that do more of that. Probably the two best readable books on the overall Japanese POW experience of allied prisoners are George Weller’s First into Nagasaki and Gavan Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese. Both books include testimonies of Wake Island civilian prisoners. Many testimonies and archived documents are available online at The Center for Research–Allied POWs under the Japanese at

Still, Building for War makes a major contribution to the story of the Wake workers. It does mention in passing the smaller groups of CPNAB workers captured on Guam and the Philippines (Cavite). It also presents the most accurate list of the 250 CPNAB employees who died during the war: 34 who died in the attacks on Wake, 4 who died on Wake Island in 1942 (3 executions, 1 natural causes), the 98 executed en masse on the island in 1943, and 114 who died in Japanese slave labor and POW camps.

Unlike some of the “official” records, it does include my father’s cousin. For that reason alone, but mainly for telling the story of the CPNAB workers, my father would have loved to have had a chance to read this book.

Guilty Wives — Review

James Patterson and David Ellis. Guilty Wives. Boston: Little Brown, 2012. Print.

Hey, this is strictly junk food reading, but who does not like potato chips once in a while? Amazon offered the first twenty chapters of this page-turner (there are some 150 all told) free, and it was enough to get me interested.

Told in the first person, four American wives of American expats (one millionaire, a couple of diplomats) decide to leave their home and diplomatic station in Switzerland for a long weekend in Monte Carlo. Wives only. Girls just wanna have fun.

Our narrator is a 42 year old mother who still looks OK. The ladies have their wild night on a yacht with some men that pick them up. The next morning they wake up to find their hotel is surrounded by a SWAT team, and two men from France that they were with the night before have been murdered.

The story begins in medias res. Our narrator is trying to survive a brutal French prison along with her three other friends. From that point we learn how she got there—the wild weekend and the subsequent trial. Without giving away too much of the plot, one of the victims turns out to be a popular public figure so that the French authorities and most of the French populace are out for blood.

Much of the story is about prison survival and the extremes our narrator had to go to in order to exonerate her friends and herself. Wild plot twists, corrupt officials, sadistic prison guards, false witnesses—how can justice prevail? How can you stop reading? Why would anyone ever want to visit France after reading this book?

The Gallagher Girls Series — Review

Ally Carter. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy. New York: Hyperion, 2008. Print.
___. Don’t Judge a Girl by her Cover. New York: Hyperion, 2010. Print.
___. Only the Good Spy Young. New York: Hyperion, 2010. Print.
___. Out of Sight, Out of Time. New York: Hyperion, 2012. Print.

These are four out of the five current books in the Gallagher Girls series. Sorry, if I read the first one it was too long ago to discuss it. According to Amazon, there will be seven in the series altogether.

Cross Harry Potter with James Bond, make her a girl, and this is what you’ve got. It is fun if you like spy stories. There is a lot of self-referential humor here—you can probably tell that even from the titles. But like Harry Potter, and unlike Fleming’s Bond, the stories continue and are best read in order.

Cammie Morgan, our narrator, is a high schooler at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Girls. Instead of magicians, this school trains spies. They take courses like Nations of the World and Covert Operations (“CoveOps”). The girls have a crush on their “hot” CoveOps teacher. Cammie lives up to her name and is very good at disappearing in plain sight (Cammie/Camouflage…get it?).

In Don’t Judge a Girl by her Cover, our heroine helps her roommate, whose father is running for Vice-President of the USA, from an abduction. As James Bond fought SMERSH and Harry Potter fought Voldemort, so Cammie finds herself in an ongoing conflict with the shadowy Circle. (Think of THRUSH from the Man from UNCLE TV series).

It is complicated, but it is kind of fun. It is also pretty low on the “chick lit” stuff, so guys would get a kick out of it, too.

There has to be at least one and probably two more books in the series. Cammie in the latest book, Out of Sight, Out of Time, is a senior at the Academy, but she is still in school and there are still a lot of loose ends. Once she graduates from high school, she will probably cease to be a Young Adult attraction and will have to go completely undercover.