Let’s talk of pleasant(ish) things

I discovered that I was too nervous about the election even to read my usual round of blogs this morning.  After I saw a post about shenanigans in Pennsylvania, my stomach did a little slip-sloppy thing, and I closed all the political blog tabs I had open.  Until I get my equilibrium back, I thought I’d make this a book post.

I’m reading Dakota Meyer’s Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, which he wrote with Bing West.  I’m about halfway through and can already tell you a few things about it:  First, it’s extremely well written.  In the beginning, West’s voice was a little too strong, as he set the scene (making it more West novel than Meyer story), but either I got used to that voice or West sublimated his own writing style as the book went along.  Second, it’s very interesting.  This is a very different take (for me) on Afghanistan.  Meyer was stationed in Afghanistan for quite a while before he found himself in the fight that earned him his Medal of Honor.  Meyer describes the slightly dysfunctional relationship American troops have with Afghani troops, the difficulty dealing with Afghani villagers, and the terrain that allowed the Taliban to hold off both Soviets and Americans for so many years.

The only problem with the book is that I know how it ends:  good people die.  That’s why I’m reading it more slowly than usual, despite its being interesting and well-written.  I just keep putting off those chapters where real people die real, painful, lonely deaths.  That’s the problem with true war stories.  In a novel, you can remind yourself that a fictional creation bit the dust.  When reading a true war story, though, you can’t get out of your mind that a father will never again see his children or that a mother back home has lost her child forever.  It’s rather pathetic that, sitting in my comfy reading chair at home, I’m less courageous than the men and women on the front lines, but that probably explains why I’m in my living room and they’re in Afghanistan.

On the subject of books, I continue to be fascinated by that Folio Society website I told you about.  The link I just gave you is to another war story, although this one is fiction:  Erich Maria Remarque’ All Quiet on the Western Front.”  This is another book I’ve been meaning to read forever, but somehow haven’t gotten around to.  After reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, I’m as emotionally cowardly about WWI as I am about events in Afghanistan.  Still, maybe I’ll be brave and try to entice myself into reading the book by buying a copy that’s aesthetically pleasing.

That’s the thing about these Folio Society books — they are so beautiful.  They also make me feel kind of bad about getting rid of childhood classics.  One of my craven secrets is that I never really liked Charlotte’s Web.  I liked Stuart Little and The Once and Future King but Charlotte’s Web never worked for me.  So, I got rid of my copy once I left my parent’s house for good.  Too bad I didn’t realize it was a first edition.  You can get a gorgeous Folio Society reprint of that first edition for only $40 at the Folio Society.  My copy probably cost $3 back in the day.  Oy!

Are you reading anything interesting today?  Funny would be good.  I need a funny book in my life.

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  • dustoffmom

    I read…a lot….myself and have been stuck in a non-fiction mode for the past few months.  At the rate of sounding gratuitous on Sunday I finished The Bookworm Turns (quite a good read btw) and next up on my Kindle are Churchhill’s 6 tomes on WWII.  But as my stomach is so acid filled and touchy these days and I have developed a horrid tendancy to be pacing I decided I needed something ‘lighter’ to help quiet my mind.  I started Amazing Gracie by Dan Dye yesterday and it is just what I needed.  Rather light overall, but it’s a ‘dog’ story, it’s charming, it’s so humorous and heartwarming it soothes my soul when I need it.  It makes me smile, and frequently laugh out loud and it is Exactly the ticket for a long, stressful day. 

  • JKB

    I suppose I’ve been so stressed out I’ve reverted back to an earlier simple time.  I’ve been reading ‘Basic Machines and How They Work’ which is a revision of a Navy training manual for recruits.  I had it laying around as good to have, picked it up and became interested.  Like when I read “A Natural History of the Senses,’ I’ve found a renewed emphasis on the parts we come to blur into the whole to give me a new appreciation, whether it be one of the five senses or the basic machines that make up our complex world.  

    If you keep a big picture perspective it has some amusing, unintentional stories.  Originally developed prior to WWII, there are some, now amusing, attempts to provide real world examples of the machines.  Such as the opening of the discussion of block and tackle, suggesting the reader had seen movers effortlessly lower a piano from a 4th floor window using block and tackle.  I have to say even at 50 years, I’ve never seen such a thing outside of cartoons and comedy sketches.  Or relating the inclined plane to seeing workmen roll barrels up a ramp into a truck.  Uhm, no, never seen that with forklifts and all.  

    This reminded me of how far a kid today is from any real experience with basic physics/machines with our power tools and electronics.  Physics and engineering education used to be providing a mathematical analysis of everyday experience but today, we just don’t experience the physical world so closely.  In the past, growing up on a farm, a kid had used and vocationally understood many basic concepts.  Even the Beaver had to figure out the way the world works as he played out in the neighborhood.  But for far to many kids today, the need to devise basic machines to amuse him or herself is no longer required.  

  • 11B40


    Speaking of reading and the Afghan War, I’m about two-thirds of the way through “Not a Good Day to Die” by Sean Naylor.  It’s about Operation Anaconda in the early days of that war and deals well with the complexity of so-called “joint” operations, in this case involving several different groups of “special forces”, American light infantry, several different Afghan militias and all those whirlybirds and aeroplaneys we so love.  

    As seems to often happen, I’m put off by the higher echelons’ ability to slip into “group think” mode and disregard the basics that any still breathing infantryman of any rank holds dear.  Inexperienced higher ranks, poorly circulated and disregarded intelligence, and force limitations concocted by leaders half a world away, all combined in the worst possible way to give rising to an impending disaster.

    Due to the organizational complexity of the operation and the many planners and players, keeping all the characters straight slows the reading somewhat and, as almost always these days, the maps would be better if they included all the locations referenced in the text or were fold-outs so that they could be referenced without flipping back and forth through the pages.  That stated though, I would rank it up with Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” as an interesting war story.  I especially enjoyed the performances of the light infantry units, for the most obvious of reasons, and their commitment to their leadership and their craft.  In these days of “special operators” this and “special operators” that, it’s nice to see the guys that the “special operators” call when they get in a jam get a share of the limelight.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Re All Quiet on the Western Front….Remarque wrote another book, called The Road Back, which is the story of a group of WWI soldiers after returning home…I think it is actually even better-written than All Quiet. The action tends to be more psychological than physical, although there are flashbacks of combat. I reviewed it HERE…this is in my view an essential work, along with Fussell, for understanding what WWI did to Western civilization.

  • dustoffmom

    11B40.  How I smiled when I saw your monikor.  Greetings from the widow of another die-hard 11B40!

  • jj

    The book story is interesting, probably because I can relate so well – I have no idea how many first editions I’ve probably tossed over the years – or were tossed for me by an efficient mother.  “I was a millionaire until Mom threw out my comic books.”  (I can’t think about that one too closely, it’s probably true – though they were my brother’s comics.)  My father was a constant traveler for much of his life, and he was also a pretty constant reader, so I am the recipient of some interesting stuff.  He often bought paperbacks, for ease in transport, and I have some fascinating stuff. 
    One of my favorites is a Bantam mass-market edition, published in March of 1949, of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which cost a quarter.  The coolest thing about this is the cover, which is a picture of Marilyn Monroe with dark hair, tied to a post by bedsheets, wearing a bright cherry-red dress with an off-the-shoulder top and Marilyn’s chest, bright red lipstick, etc., etc.  She’s basically hotter than the oven right after you’ve taken the turkey out – which is, you might think, a hell of an illustration for a classic Sherlock Holmes story, but I guess, but I guess the thinking in those days was that breasts sell books, because it’s not the only one.
    I also have a Signet paperback of 1984, which would set you back thirty-five cents.  The cover of this thing is a mob of people, all dressed the same, and a glaring representative of Big brother who looks rather Neanderthal at best.  But the focus of the cover is a man and woman standing back to back, but very conscious of each other, from the corners of their eyes.  Clearly these two are Winston and Julia.  Julia is dressed as all the woman are.  She’s wearing a blue dress, gathered at her wasp-waist with a red sash, with a zipper that’s down nearly to her navel, making it clear that despite her dimensions Julia neither believes in – nor has any use for – a bra.  Above her right breast she wears a white button, announcing her as a member of the Anti-Sex League.  Breasts sell books.  (Though given the way the women of 1984 look on this cover, Big Brother”s operation was a non-starter right from the beginning: he was doomed. n Nobody would be listening.)
    There is also a Cardinal paperback, from 1960 and costing thirty-five cents, of Agatha Christie’s on Murder in the Calais Coach.  The cover of this one features a woman in bed, becomingly tousled, wearing a spaghetti-strap nightgown (I guess it’s a nightgown), sitting up and leaning forward a bit, the better to flaunt the usual wonderful, firm, upright, perky bosom.  What it has to do with the story is even more evanescent than the previous two examples – but I suppose them things sell books!
    A Signet edition of Faulkner’s Wild Palms from 1954 features a young lady on her back, one leg raised, wearing nothing but underwear from Victoria’s Secret (from 1939 Mississippi?  In reality her legs probably wouldn’t have been shaved at that time in that place), disposing herself seductively beneath a young feller, the side of whose head she’s stroking.  Because of the angle of the illustration we’re much more focused on the leg with this one than the chest, but by God: there she is!
    These wonderful, lurid covers are all, mind you, on some pretty serious literature!  God only knows what the cover of Mickey the Shiv’s Busy Weekend would have looked like.!  (I also have Faulkner’s Sanctuary in an edition from April, 1947.  I won’t even tell you – go ahead, use your imagination.)    These things are all worth considerably more than thirty-five cents these days, too.  A book collector in Santa Monica offered me $300 for the Holmes some years ago, but I think it’s kind of fun, so I kept it.
    Lots of first editions floating around here, and a Burton Society privately printed (#841 of a thousand) 17-volume set of the Thousand Nights and A Night, and a four-volume set of The Facetious Nights by Straparola from 1898, privately printed (#505 of a thousand) for members only by the Society of Bibliophiles – and Holy Cow, you can’t believe what either of these things are worth!  Time just does that.  The Folio Society is trying to recreate some of that quality and feel, and they do it well.  Instant classic editions, but the interesting thing is that their editions are generally much nicer than the genuine originals, or firsts, that have the intrinsic value.  Tolkien – just to take the big-name example – considered the firsts of all his books to be so full of errors they should have been fed to the boiler: keeping the joint warm might have been their highest and best use.
    I’m moving to e-books, though.  The house requires extra space just for books, and its space that has to be dehumidified 24/7 (all that paper collects moisture), and could probably have other uses, too.  We’d like to get out of here and into a smaller space, but it’s difficult, as we need at least one – maybe two, depending on size – extra room just for the books.  That gets a little old.  And painful.

  • Gringo

    Re. David Foster’s reading choice: The Road Back was made into a movie. Graham Greene reviewed the movie.

    Early on, during his stint as a film reviewer, he wrote apropos of The Road Back (1937), of “the eternal adolescence of the American mind, to which literature means the poetry of Longfellow and morality means keeping Mother’s Day and looking after the kid sister’s purity . . . the same adolescent features, plump, smug, sentimental, ready for the easy tear and the hearty laugh and the fraternity yell. What use in pretending that with these allies it was ever possible to fight for civilization?”

    Given the international composition of those involved in making the film, Graham Greene’s diatribe against America is even more gratuitous. The author of the book , Erich Maria Remarque, was German. James Whale, the film’s director, was English. The film had two screenwriters: Robert Cedric Sherriff, an Englishman, and Charles Kenyon, an American.
    This movie review gave an early example of Graham Greene’s gratuitous anti-Americanism.

  • Old Buckeye

    I just finished Robin Yocum’s The Essay which is his second novel (I think he wrote some nonfiction prior). I highly recommend this book and his first novel, Favorite Sons. I’d be hard pressed to say which one I liked better. He used to cover the crime beat in Columbus, Ohio, and his writing reflects that journalism background I think. In The Essay, he paints a vivid picture of a depressed area of Ohio while weaving a story that really grabbed me. 

  • Charles Martel

    Last Sunday I took a class in how to shoot a shotgun. I figure that no matter how the election goes, California will continue teetering at the edge of financial anarchy. I’m just not very impressed by the will or ability of our podunk police force to defend my neighborhood if some of Obama’s 47 percenters get their benefits cut off and decide to plunder.
    Interesting group of people in the class: A wiry young fitness trainer from San Francisco; an older couple who had dragged their 40-something daughter along with them (she was toting a brand new Mossberg 20-gauge shotgun); and a fiftyish lesbian couple from Bookworm’s town, both of whom were experienced pistol users but wanted to move up to more stopping power.
    The instructor (I knew him from a previous class on pistols that my son and I took with him) was a hoot. A former Marine tank gunner, police officer, and deputy sheriff, he had that easygoing, self-assured, often hilariously funny demeanor that physically brave men seem to radiate. So everybody got into a nice groove from the start as he led us through basic terminology, loading and unloading with dummy bullets, and practicing stances and aiming. 
    Finally we got to go down to the shooting range and fire at paper targets. I worked my way through a box of 12-gauge buckshot, smiling all the time. John, the instructor, told me to try to split a target in two with six shots and I almost did it. Not bad for a tyro! (After they’d nearly obliterated their target, he told the lesbian couple that hanging its shreds on their front door would do more to dissuade bad guys than any burglar alarm company warning.)
    Anyway, I’m hooked. I plan to spend a lot of time becoming familiar with shotguns and shooting them, and plan to buy one in the near future. The only drawback is that I have an old shoulder injury and some old-man aches and pains that get aggravated by recoil. But the beauty of getting older is that you learn to never let a little pain get in the way of a great pleasure–in this case, the awesome power of a firearm and the reassuring knowledge that I will soon be able to have a little more say in my self-defense.

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    A friend and former student sent me Louis Zamperini’s biography by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit).  I’m 30 pages in and it’s pretty gripping.  Look him up – before he was a war hero, he was pretty much a juvenile delinquent, as well as a world-class track star!

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Gringo…fascinating about the Graham Greene review. It’s quite an “achievement” on Greene’s part to be able to work anti-Americanism into a review of a movie that is set in Germany with all German characters.

    The only actual reference to America that occurs in the actual book, IIRC, is a pretty funny scene where a blowhard who was in reality totally incompetent at the Front is trying to impress some girl as to what a hero he was by bragging about a (totally imaginary) encounter in which he “killed three Negroes who were trying to butcher Herr Hohmeyer with their tomahawks.”

  • Gringo

    Earl, I recently read Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. It is difficult to put down. It is an inspiring tale of the resilience of the human spirit.