Monthly Archives: October 2014

“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history” by Hampton Sides

I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)

Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.

First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.

Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?

Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.

Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)

Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.

The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.

Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Book Source – Recent History (Mine!)

I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.

Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.

This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.

Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:

  • “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
  • The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
  • “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.

Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.

“Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel” by Louise Penny

This mystery, part of a series (I don’t know how many books), takes place in Canada, and is highly atmospheric. The plot was overly complex for my taste, but I enjoyed the characters. One assumption was that a painting can convey a complex (accusatory) message. I wonder how many investigators would consider that? My impression is that, here in New Jersey land, most murders are stupid acts by stupid people, and investigators don’t get to exercise their critical intelligence very often.

When I describe a novel as “atmospheric”, I’m referring to culture, and this book explores an interesting aspect of Canadian culture, or rather bi-culture. Both French and English are official languages. I believe the educational system is directed towards bilingualism. The book occasionally explores the questions of relative status and power between the two cultural groups.. which he refers to as Francophone and Anglophone. Certainly the author believes that French speaking women are sharper dressers!

Last summer I met a woman from Massachusetts who grew up in Canada and, I believe, spoke French before she learned English. I’d love to run this book past her for critical commentary! When I need something to read at the beach, I’ll return to Louise Penny.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

“Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan

To analyze this book, I am using a new, three part structure. You know, some things can be divided into “the good, the bad and the ugly”. I plan to use

  • the good,
  • the bad and
  • the just plain weird

with grateful acknowledgement to Paul Hansford, who chose that as the subtitle to his book on the Tour de France. (See my blog entry of August 1, 2013).

I’ve got the feeling lots of situations in my life can be parsed into the good, the bad and the just plain weird!

Food Rules consists of a ten-page introduction followed by 60 rules that aim to simplify the business of healthy eating.

I should begin by saying that I don’t have the food/health “thing” under control. According to the charts, I’m overweight but not obese. I’m in very good condition for my age (60 something) and am seldom sick. My cholesterol is slightly elevated. So I can use some good advice about food, but I’ve got 60+ years of habit in place and am ambivalent about change.

What are some of the “good” rules?

Rule #15. “Get out of the supermarket whenever you can.” I don’t even enter the supermarket if I can possibly convince someone else to shop. I’ve done all my family laundry for years, in return for spousal grocery shopping service. It’s the best advice I can give if you want a happy marriage. AND I live in an area blessed with farm stands. We have the luxury of arguing about who grows the best tomatoes, and sometimes we can get farm fresh eggs. That said, farm stands require a bit of caution. Sometimes they import food from out of state, or sell preserved foods that weren’t properly processed. If they sell pies, they are overpriced. I do wish the farm stand season lasted longer.

Rule #25. “Eat your colors”. I love purple cabbage, ripe red bell peppers, orange sweet potatoes. The brighter, the better!

Rule #29. “Eat like an omnivore.” OK, I think.

Rule #35. Paraphrased, eat the fruit, not the fruit juice. And there is no such thing as a healthy soda!

Rule #44. “Pay more, eat less.” Rationally, I know I could afford to eat really fine, healthy food every day. What stops me? Some kind of stinginess left over from my New England upbringing.

What about “bad” rules?

Rule #2 “Don’t eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as food.” I’ve no reason to think either of my grandmothers (one German, the other Irish) ever ate broccoli, Brussels sprouts or asparagus. Surely they never saw an avocado. My German grandmother never ate fish. My grandfather was a butcher and sausage maker – the fish seller was the competition. I’m not sure what was added to their diet of meat and potatoes. All vegetables prepared by my German grandmother were served with cream sauce. I have no idea what my Irish grandmother cooked, but I’m sure it included potatoes.

My memories of growing up in the fifties include canned vegetables only, and a very narrow selection (peas, corn, wax beans). Don’t talk to me about the good old days! I didn’t encounter pizza until I was 16. Or fresh spinach.

Consider Rule #10. “Avoid foods pretending to be something they are not.” Like margarine, which “pretends” to be butter. Why tell me to eat plants, then take away my vegetable based spread? I’ve spent my life eating margarine. When I first tasted butter (at age 7 or 8) I thought something was wrong with the margarine – spoiled, perhaps. Pollan also uses this principle to discourage soy based meat substitutes. I’m not giving up my Morningstar Farms fake sausage patties. Too good to miss! If I stuck to real sausage, I’m sure I would want to cut the quantity way down, because of the fat.

And what about the rules that are weird? Or very hard to implement?

Rule #6. “Avoid food products containing more than five ingredients.”

Rule #31. “Eat wild foods when you can.” Good luck, and be careful! I’d like to see an increase in venison consumption. Deer are so overpopulated around here that they are preventing the regeneration of oak forests. We need healthy forests as part of the fight on global warming.

Rule #55. “Eat meals.” I get it. Grazing and snacking are ways to get fat. BUT if you are going to “eat when you are hungry” (Rule #47) and “try not to eat alone” (Rule #59), this is going to get complicated. I suppose Pollan thinks you should cook and serve a meal but then not eat it if you aren’t hungry. Hmmm…

Pollan missed a rule I would suggest – check your compost bucket! (Or the stuff that would be in it if you were able to compost, which is hard if you live in an apartment.) The more parings, apple cores, orange rinds, etc., that you produce, the better! In summer, my compost bucket overflows and I empty it almost daily.

So what about this book? It you are looking for nutritional advice, it’s a break from some of the extreme approaches now going around, like the Neolithic diet. If you have a serious weight problem, better talk to your doctor and a professional nutritionist.