All posts by alicemg2013

“The Zig Zag Girl” a Magic Men Mystery by Elly Griffiths

I don’t like the cover of this book, a jaunty yellow with a cheerful, stylized “showgirl” whose costume includes a top hat. Way too upbeat for a novel that begins with the discovery of a woman’s dismembered body. 

I love the cast of characters Griffiths has generated. But I kind of wish they could be handed over to Stephen King for storytelling purposes.

This series is a little dark for me (right now), but I’ll probably come back to it in the future. 

“The Janus Stone” by Elly Griffiths – A Ruth Galloway Mystery

The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway Series Book 2)

How often does anyone write fiction about an academic forensic archaeologist? And female, no less? Griffiths’ protagonist, Dr. Ruth Galloway, kind of spooked me at first. I mean, she’s got the same first name as my sister, and her last name is my hometown! But the setting is in England, so I soon forgot about those two coincidences.

Dr. Galloway is an expert on bones who lives in a part of England littered with archeological sites. The timing is contemporary. Two locations are involved – one out in the country, the other in a small city where a developer needs archeological clearance to tear down an old mansion and erect luxury apartments. (Griffiths is not a fan of developers.)

Griffiths offers us a fairly convincing lunatic, plus other outside-the-box characters. There’s plenty of action, references to mythical figures (like Janus, the two faced god), and some romance. A winning combination!

Griffiths has written two mystery series (totaling 19 titles) and a handful of books under her REAL name, Domenica De Rosa. Looks like she can keep me entertained for a long time!

“Rain of Gold” by Victor E. Villasenor

Rain of Gold

Copyright 1991, 562 pages, including photos, map, family trees, author’s notes and acknowledgments.  Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Texas Commission on the Arts. Publisher Laurel/Dell/Bantam Doubleday. (Go figure that out.)

Here’s a NEW reason to buy a book! A late colleague of ours, Alphonso Corpus, Stockton University Associate Professor of Art, painted the picture used on this paperback edition of the book. We bought a used copy.

This book is the saga of Villasenor’s ancestors. His parents came as children, with their families, to the United States around 1910 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. I quickly realized I know almost nothing about the Mexican Revolution. Wikipedia describes it as triggered by failure of the regime to manage the issue of presidential succession, with agrarian insurrection as an opportunistic reaction to the social unrest. I don’t think Villasenor’s family would agree! The Revolution was presented in Rain of Gold as struggle of the poor against the wealthy. The violence and suffering were immense, which sometimes makes for harsh reading.

This history of two families is packed with energy and love. They were among 200,000 refugees who entered the United States in the course of the conflict (Wikipedia again).

Both of Villasenor’s parents were considered exceptional within their families. His father was the last child of 14. His mother, also a youngest child, was conceived when a meteor strike caused her terrified parents to assume the world was ending. One of his grandmothers was an indigenous child (Yaqai tribe) adopted into a Hispanic family.

Villasenor dedicates his book to his two grandmothers. They and many others in the extended family were powerful storytellers. Villasenor initially thought much of what they said was exaggerated or fanciful, but as he investigated, he realized most of what they recounted was true.

One thread through this account is the evolution of gender roles in a variety of settings, from remote Mexico to the tumultuous border region and into the Prohibition era in the southwestern United States. Now I want to learn more about the impact of Prohibition on American society.

Another thread in this book is the role of religious belief among “marginalized” families.

I certainly recommend this book highly, and suggest you check out Victor Villasenor to learn about his current activities and interests.

Note! A very interesting feature of this used book is the presence of an embossed seal on the front page. The occasional “Ex Libris” sticker is to be expected, but a high-quality seal? It says “Library of Catherine A Brazil – CAB”. Who was this unknown bibliophile? The “usual sources” do not provide any hint. Rest in peace, unknown friend.

“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght

I loved this book! We all need to escape sometimes. What better way than to follow a scientist into “the field”, when the field is in Eastern Siberia. And who can resist the idea of research on owls?

This is the story of Jonathan Slaght’s doctoral dissertation. His goal was to learn about Blakeston’s fish owl (Bubo blakestoni) and to use his data to generate a conservation plan to preserve this endangered but little understood species. Who knew there is such a thing as an aquatic owl, one capable of catching a fish twice its own weight? Other Asian species like tigers and bears generate considerably more popular interest.

Getting into “the field” is a big project in itself when you have to travel to a distant continent and then to a remote location with sketchy transportation and hostile weather, and then conduct your daily business in a foreign language (Russian).

In a Facebook Live interview a few days ago, Slaght discussed the issue of language. His research was done with Russians and mostly IN Russian, but he also kept a personal journal in English. What a challenge! Before writing Owls of the Eastern Ice, Slaght translated the travel and adventure classic Across the Ussuri Kray by V Arsenyev (1921), which documents the cultural and natural history of northeast Asia. (Available from Amazon, formerly unavailable in English.)

This book brings an important message to aspiring scientists. Science is not all white lab coats and precision! Slaght didn’t know much about the fish owls when he began his work. He had almost no idea of how to find them, and less information about how to CATCH one! Later, he had to fit them with transmitters and track their movements. I’m amazed at how much he accomplished. Interpreting the data was crucial, and he successfully generated a conservation plan for his target species.

Alongside the science, Slaght presented cultural and personal information about the people he worked among.

I read this book using the Kindle app on my phone. Not optimal when you want to look at a map frequently. I hope my public library acquires a copy soon.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves to travel or spends time enjoying nature. It would make a great gift for anyone in high school or college who likes science but wonders what real scientists do!

 

“From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776” by George C Herring, book 8 of 12 in “Oxford History of the United States” series

Published 2008, with a second edition was published in 2018.

We keep listening to the Oxford History of the United States. So much to learn! These books hold my interest. Often I feel I should take notes, but it’s inconvenient in the car. So I remembers bits and pieces…

This volume covered the Reagan years (1981 – 1989), when I ignored a great deal of news due to parenting and related challenges. And so much of what happened wasn’t IN the news. Whew! Reagan and his administration did a great deal that what questionable, unethical or outright illegal. The “Iran-Contra affair” has its own, extensive Wikipedia entry, including a long list of indictments. George H W Bush was tainted, and would probably not have been elected President if he hadn’t lied so convincingly.

What else? Reagan is given credit for “ending the Cold War”. Herring feels the record is somewhat different. Most interesting is the discussion of Reagan’s relationship to Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan hated nuclear weapons and feared nuclear war. Gorbachev wanted to shift the Soviet Union away from Marxism towards social democracy. Together, they changed the world, sometimes in ways they didn’t expect.

So these long and ponderous looking Oxford History books are, in fact, good listening and good background for understanding these, our very crazy times.

“Archangel: Fiction” by Andrea Barrett, and a further look at “Ship Fever”

“Archangel” deals with the history of scientific knowledge. (I’m quoting from the description on Amazon.) Characters wrestle with scientific questions and respond to change in their various fields. What’s it like to give up a major scientific model when a better one comes along? Think about evolution. Relativity. BIG concepts, and their importance spills into many aspects of life, including religion. Two stories deal with the intersection of science and war. X-ray imaging saved lives in World War I. Did it make the war longer? Worse? Better? Good writing, but I found the book choppy.

I finally read the title story of the “Ship Fever”collection, a fictionalized account of one aspect of the Irish “potato famine” of 1845 to 1849. To me, this is family history. My Irish grandmother (maiden name Lynch) was born in the United States about a generation after the famine. I regret that I didn’t ask more questions about her parents and what she knew of her family’s experiences.

The famine caused emigration. Many desperate souls left Ireland in illicit “coffin ships”, on which the death rate was about 20% of passengers.

Barrett’s story (novella?) recounts the catastrophic conditions at one Canadian entry port, on an island near Toronto. The protagonist is a young doctor who unwittingly plunges into the maelstrom of dead, dying and suffering immigrants. Eventually he catches the disease and succumbs. The remainder of the narrative follows a young immigrant woman who survived, nursed the doctor and eventually contacted his loved ones in the aftermath.

So… a rough read for me, in the midst of Covid. Consider the issue of “aftermath”. The whole famine covered a period of a few years. The book runs across a few months.

Andrea Barrett is still on my list of authors who merit further attention.

Why I read military history

When someone asks why I read military memoirs, I generally say that I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, and I want to know what’s being done in my name. But there’s another reason.

Memorial Day is when Americans plan to visit cemeteries, to honor the military veterans of our wars. But I ended up at my local cemetery recently, on the eve of Independence Day, standing at the grave of a 19 year old soldier who died eleven years ago. He was a neighbor. He went to high school with my son.

There are many ways to die in military service:

  • Combat
  • Training
  • Disease
  • Friendly fire
  • Suicide

I don’t know exactly what happened to my young neighbor. He was an Army Private, at the bottom of the military hierarchy. He died in Tallil, Iraq. He worked in the Military Police and, according to his family, had been considered for officer training. I searched the local newspaper for further information.

I read in order to learn. I want to understand war. The Middle East is a conspicuously complex part of the world.

“Call Sign Chaos – Learning to Lead” by Jim Mattis and Bing West

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

Published 2019, 300 pages including maps, color pictures, notes, index and seven appendices.

I don’t need to review this book. It was released in September of 2019 and Amazon posts 1658 reviews. If you are looking for biographical information about Mattis, Wikipedia is a good place to start. There’s no personal information in Call Sign Chaos. The book ends when Mattis left the  United States Central Command in 2013, and does not cover his experiences as Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump, January 2017 to December 2018.

This book is divided into three sections

  • Direct leadership
  • Executive leadership
  • Strategic leadership.

I think I would have split it in two – leading from the top (direct leadership) and leading from below. (In the military, a strict hierarchal framework is assumed.) Certainly, in either an executive or strategic leadership position, leading “up” becomes essential, and I found those parts of Mattis’s memoir most interesting. He dealt with elected and appointed office holders, ambassadors, contractors, consultants and a wide range of “influencers”.

Mattis is an avid reader and sensitive to language. He includes several of his own letters as appendices to Call Sign Chaos. In Holding the Line, Guy Snodgrass talked about learning to write in General Mattis’ “voice”, so he would sound consistent and could speak comfortably. Interestingly, one review on Amazon (by “Kyrkie”) said Call Sign Chaos was more reflective of co-author Bing West’s voice than of Mattis. West published ten books, including one novel. Several look interesting to me.

Mattis liked aphorisms. “Semper fi” (always faithful) is, of course, the Marine motto. “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” was his favorite description of the Marine Corps. Mattis added “First, do no harm” (from the medical Hippocratic oath) to his statement of intent or “letter to all hands” (February 2004) before he led Marines back to occupied Baghdad as the city spiraled into chaos and towards civil war.

What does Mattis mean when he enjoins his troops to “Do no harm”? It’s war. The General is asserting the importance of protecting non-combatants, a tough goal during “irregular” warfare in a densely populated urban setting. He says “The enemy will try to manipulate you into hating all Iraqis. Do not allow…that victory.” He refers to honor, precision and crushing battle capabilities. His letters of intent are included on pages 93 and 119 of the book (not cited in index).

Mattis is big on “process”, which interests me since I deal with process in the tiny microcosm of a Quaker congregation. (Quakers call it “discernment”.) He cites Albert Einstein as having said, when asked what he would do if told the world would end in one hour, that he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes saving the world. Hmmm…

At the end of the book, Mattis falls back on “E Pluribus Unum” in a short, pained discussion of the Trump administration. In summer of 2019, Mattis said “we all know that we are better than our current politics.” That was before the pandemic. Recently he denounced Trump as “a threat to the Constitution”. “E Pluribus Unum” (from many, one) now feels ever more distant.

This book is worth a careful read, with special attention to the book list in Appendix B. There’s another, shorter booklist in Chapter 12 (“Essential NATO”). Transitioning to the international arena, Mattis read 22 books, consulted various experts and met with “practitioners of strategic leadership” including Henry Kissinger.

War is still hell.

“Race in America” in my blog

Once in a while, I review my blog. The no-fee WordPress platform has worked well for me. I would like a more accessible indexing system, but I’m really not motivated to make changes.

Since early 2013, I’ve posted 475 entries, with a few interruptions for illness or travel. I keep an index of my own devising (using Excel). In that document, I’ve got a sub-list of posts related to the environment, numbering 29 but not recently updated.

Recently I started numbering blog entries in two categories – Covid19 and “Race in America”.

I decided to look back and see what I had written that pertains to race/white supremacy. I picked out 32 posts. Most are about books, and most pertain to African American experience. Some are about lectures, performances and personal experiences. Rather than dump the whole list here, I’ll write about a few that seem important, with more to follow.

I have the biggest emotional investment in the three entries I wrote about Lillie Belle Allen. Her story haunts me. “Say her name”MLK Day (1) and MLK Day (2).

For the reader who wonders about my point of view, I recommend Women’s March and protest memories written in early 2017, and the two subsequent posts. It includes the story of a protest that “went bad”, and explains why it is hard for me to engage in street activism. I also reported on a wonderful, prophetic woman, Ms. Edith Savage-Jennings.

Perhaps most relevant to Black Lives Matter is the essay I wrote on jury duty in early 2015, My Days in Court. I was called (but not empaneled) to serve on a civil case involving police brutality in Atlantic City, NJ.

Here’s a really fine book that you may have missed, “Son of the Rough South” by Karl Flemming, published in 2005. Fleming grew up in the Depression South and became a journalist, covering the Civil Rights movement during its violent years.

And here’s something that lifted my heart! A number Facebook friends linked to You-Tube videos of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in honor of Juneteenth. I heard a wonderful LIVE rendition a few years ago. Central State University Chorus

So that’s a selection from my blog. Comments are always welcome!

“The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25

This book is #3 in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (1485 to 1540), who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England. The title of this book is perfectly clear – King Henry is the light and Thomas Cromwell is the mirror. Reading this book and knowing Thomas Cromwell was executed by order of King Henry, I kept wanting to yell out a warning. “Get out! Now! While you can!”

Serious question: Was hereditary monarchy worse or better than the democratic chaos we now face? Trump will not hold office as long as Henry VIII. What kinds of change can a leader impose? How can those around a powerful leader maintain both sanity and self-respect? Will any Trump cabinet member be beheaded?

For your consideration, I offer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,

Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

And in themselves their pride lies buried,

For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved

Where I may not remove nor be removed.

If you don’t want to entertain yourself with historical fiction, why not memorize a sonnet? And share it with someone you love!