Category Archives: Uncategorized
Ash Carter, Secretary of Defense (2015-2017) RIP
I wrote TWICE about Ash Carter’s book Inside the Five-Sided Box. Now I have lost the chance to ask him the question I raised in my second post, an acknowledged RANT. I haven’t changed my mind.
Carter died of a sudden heart attack at age 68.
Carter represents an extremely valuable type of intellectual – a scientist who directs his attention to public policy. His undergraduate program at Yale was a double major in physics and medieval history. He was a critic of the “Star Wars” antiballistic weapons program advocated by Ronald Reagan, and other futuristic weapons. I recommend both his book and the New York Times obituary.
“The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri
This book is the story of an immigrant child, born in the United States to Indian parents of Bengali ethnicity. I just realized Bengal is divided between two nations, India and Bangladesh, which just emphasizes the elements of uncertainty and confusion that surround the protagonist Gogol, also known by several other names – Nikhil, Nick and even Goggles.
Gogol grows into an intelligent, handsome architect. Lahiri tells the story of his heart – who he loves, and why.
This book is richly detailed, and I recommend it highly.
“The Locked Room (Ruth Galloway Mysteries #14)” by Elly Griffiths
I didn’t MEAN to read this book! I had work to do! Obligations! Even a deadline… But I’m totally hooked on this mystery series. Why would I want to read a book set early in the Covid pandemic, see my favorite characters face lock-down? I read it anyway…
A few years have passed, and Ruth Galloway’s daughter Kate is growing up fast. Ruth and Kate discover a family secret that astonishes and then delights them. Cathbad (everybody’s favorite Druid) gets a severe case of Covid. Kate’s father Nelson gets knocked unconscious, and the two meet on the astral plain (or something like that) and save each other’s lives.
Elly Griffiths has announced there will be only one more Ruth Galloway mystery, to be released in Spring of 2023. Too bad! But I can’t wait to find out what Griffiths decides to write in the future.
“Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright
I read this book a few months ago and had to return it to the Library, so this review will be brief. President Jimmie Carter was an idealist, and in 1978 he tried to make peace in one of the world’s most troubled areas, the Middle East. Many observers thought he was naïve and foolish to bring Anwar Sadat (Egypt) and Menachem Begin (Israel) together.
This book includes extensive, fascinating biographical information about Sadat and Begin. Both were men of struggle. They had fought so long and hard that they could barely imagine peace. “Shuttle diplomacy” wasn’t getting anywhere. Sadat and Begin barely spoke to one another at Camp David, and several times the process seemed doomed to failure. The two “framework” agreements that were signed were not broad. One failed, but the other led to a treaty between Israel and Egypt. The two national leaders shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978. Sadat was murdered in his own country three years later. His security team had been infiltrated by extremists.
This very well written book seems more important that ever, as the “Palestinian problem” persists and violence continues to ruin lives.
“At Night We Walk in Circles: A Novel” by Daniel Alarcon
This novel takes place in an unnamed South American country during and after a civil war about three decades ago.
The most prominent feature of this novel is its “play within a play” structure. Everyone has a “real” identity, a “political” identity, a “theatrical” identity and maybe more. And NO ONE knows what’s going on, how to live, what he wants. Blunders and confusion abound. One comment I heard (in a book group) was “Where are the adults?” Maybe protracted warfare had completely destroyed any hope of “normal” life.
Two characters suffer unjust imprisonment. One is traumatized beyond recovery. We don’t learn the fate of the other.
One character is almost a blank. He’s there, for most of the action, but we never learn much about him. Sancho Panza?
Another structural feature of the novel is that the omniscient narrator gradually turns into a participant in the plot. Some readers found this too “cute” or a bit manipulative.
Alarcon (a Peruvian born US citizen, age 45, MacArthur Fellowship recipient) is a very vivid and dramatic writer, and I recommend him to anyone seeking to read outside the general run of recent American and European literature.
“The Back Bench” by Margaret Hope Bacon
This book can be categorized as historical fiction, but it is entirely different from “The Last White Rose” (see below). It’s very short. It covers one year in the life of a completely imaginary teenager during a very comprehensively documented historical period, namely 1837 – 1838 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, 14 year old Myra Harlan, is sent from a Westchester (PA) farm to Philadelphia after her parents die.
Myra’s family is Quaker, the most common religious denomination in Philadelphia at that time, and much of the plot is driven by the schism (or Separation) suffered by Quakerism in 1827. Elias Hicks led a walkout from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. The two factions were referred to as Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers. (Reconciliation was completed in 1955!)
Bacon makes her position clear. She depicts the Orthodox Quakers as status obsessed and materialistic, the Hicksites as salt-ot-the-earth farmers who practiced virtuous simplicity. Enrolled in the Orthodox Friends Select School for Girls, Myra is advised to keep her Hicksite background a secret.
The other emphasis in this book is on race. Quakers disowned slave owners, supported abolition (with disagreements over process) and sometimes helped escaped slaves travel to safe areas, including Canada. Myra observes discrimination during Quaker worship – people of color, acknowledged members of Quaker congregations, were seated separately from others during worship. Based on her convictions and experience, Myra ultimately feels led to sit on the back bench with her acquaintances of African descent.
Bacon wrote many books (mostly non-fiction), the best known being Valiant Friend, (1980), a biography of Lucretia Mott. I LOVE Mothers of Feminism, (1986). I had the good fortune to meet Margaret Hope Bacon at a Quaker event. She was there as a participant (not a speaker or workshop leader). Her name tag simply read “Margaret”.
“The Last White Rose – a Novel of Elizabeth of York” by Alison Weir
Historical fiction is my guilty pleasure, and I’ve read extensively about the Wars of Roses and the Protestant Reformation in England. Elizabeth of York married Henry VII of the House of Lancaster, establishing the Tudor line through their son Henry VIII. Why read this when I know the outcome? Guess I’m just a sucker for royalty, castles, etc.
One controversy about Elizabeth of York is whether she was a reigning Queen (hence her husband’s equal) or a Queen consort. By blood, it can be argued that her claim to the throne was a strong as her husband’s, and that she should be considered Queen Elizabeth I. Royal sons and daughters weren’t considered equally in matters of succession.
Reading this book is a reminder that dirty tricks, political betrayal and “alternative facts” are nothing new in public life. The consequences were unpredictable – some turncoats were pardoned, others were tortured to death. Some disappeared. And the innocent suffered. The so called “Princes in the Tower” disappeared in 1483, aged 9 and 12 years old. Their deaths remain a mystery to historians. Much about this historical period is uncertain.
Girls and women were pawns, married (sometimes as infants) and sometimes divorced for reasons of political expediency. England was trying to establish itself as an international power, not merely a northern fringe country.
The relationship of church to government was complex. A church might offer “sanctuary” under various circumstances, to criminals or potential targets of political kidnapping. Royalty were presumed to rule by the grace of God. God was assumed to determine the outcome of battle.
In the absence of science, superstition ruled in medicine and in agriculture.
Want something entertaining to read on vacation? This is it. Somewhat long winded. Not as good as Philippa Gregory, but enjoyable.
“Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal” by L David Mech (author) and Greg Breining (Contributor) – University of Minnesota Press, 2020
This is a a recent book is about research on the predator/prey relationship between wolves and moose, conducted from 1958 to 1962 at Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Most of it is taken directly from Mech’s field notes.
Field notes from ecologists provide insight (and entertainment!) that can’t easily be gleaned from peer reviewed scientific articles, of which Dr Mech published an astonishing three hundred, plus a dozen books (Wikipedia). I’m so glad this volume made it into print. We all need to know more about science.
So, most of what is written in this book is old. The dangers and challenges of remote winter field work were very great in 1958. Bush planes were temperamental and communications irregular, but Mech LOVED what he was doing as a graduate student. Later he wanted to change fields (to American Studies), but I’m glad he persisted as a biologist.
Mech is very restrained in his writing, giving us just a few glimpses into other areas of his life. We learn just a little about his family, and he also discusses religion.
A final chapter of the book discusses the amazing technological changes which subsequent decades brought to fieldwork, including radio tracking and DNA analysis.
Wildlife and wilderness management inevitably become controversial. What is “natural”? When animals and humans occupy the same space, what interests should be defended? What do we lose when biodiversity is decreased?
My mind wanders to issues of public policy. How can we make prudent decisions when our understanding of nature is so incomplete? Whenever I have an opportunity to meet young scientists, I feel encouraged that the work of groundbreakers like Mech is being carried forward.
“The Fearless Benjamin Lay – The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist” by Marcus Rediker
“The Fearless Benjamin Lay – The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist” by Marcus Rediker: Beacon Press, 2017, 150 pages plus notes, index and illustrations.
A fascinating book by a distinguished historian! Benjamin Lay was born in 1682, a third generation Quaker who was more serious about religion than his parents. He described himself as having been “born contentious”. He was radically outspoken.
Lay was a dwarf, about 4 feet tall. This had so little impact on his life and self image that I don’t know why Rediker put it into the title of the book. I also wonder why Rediker consistently referred to Lay as “Benjamin”. It seems patronizing, when everyone else in the book is identified by his or her last name or full name.
This books provided me with an expanded perception of Quaker history and the roles of George Fox and James Nayler. Several dissenting movements of the same era (Ranters, Diggers, Levellers,) were suppressed, and left no organized legacy of their aims and accomplishments. George Fox imposed discipline and saved Quakerism from that fate. But he dampened the spontaneity of the first generation of Quakers, and people like Lay wanted to get back that initial wildness sometimes referred to an antinomianism. Lay initially turned his attention to “false preachers” and prideful, dominating ministers. He raised trouble in several English meetings.
Lay worked as a shepherd, glove maker and sailor (ordinary seaman), after which he settled into trade, dealing mostly in books. His twelve years at sea gave him a wide range of experience and considerable sophistication. Time spent in Barbados opened his eyes to the violence and cruelty of slavery, and he devoted much of his life to abolition, starting with elimination of slave trading by Quakers.
This book is worth your attention.