Novels that changed the way Americans viewed slavery and the South *UPDATED*

Uncle-Toms-CabinKen Burns’ epic Civil War documentary came out in 1990. That was during my years as a lawyer in a very big firm and as a single gal enjoying life. My lifestyle then matters because it explains why, back in 1990, I managed to watch only the first episode of the 9-part series.

Now that we’ve been to some of the Civil War’s most famous battlefields — Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Bull Run — my husband and I are taking the time, finally, to watch the Civil War series in full. There’s something about having seen the battlefields, even though they are now green and peaceful places, that makes the series reach me at a visceral level in a way that could never have happened when I was a flighty young thing. The series moves me deeply.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin appears in the very first episode, of course. As Lincoln allegedly said to the author of this phenomenal bestseller, “So you’re little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

If he did indeed say it, it was not an exaggeration. While the abolitionist movement had been agitating for around one hundred years by the time the war started, it was Stowe’s book that took the abolitionists from being a fringe religious movement to one that galvanized the general public. In the North, slavery was suddenly no longer just a peripheral issue that troubled people’s consciences; instead, it was a central issue that drove the South out of the union (“How dare those arrogant Yankees tell us what to do?”), triggering the biggest conflagration in American history.

I don’t know how many of you have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I have. It is not a literary masterpiece. Stowe’s prose is the modern equivalent of a dime store novel — but that’s completely irrelevant. What matters is that she is a writer of marvelous narrative power. The characters may be hackneyed, but they are vivid and the slaves’ travails reach out and grab you by the throat. This is especially true for an audience that wasn’t made callous by Jerry Springer and Oprah, and that wasn’t exposed to every image known to man thanks to television and the internet. Mid-19th century Americans carried their true emotions quite close to the surface.

Ironically enough, just as Stowe’s book initiated the fervor that led to a war that left more than 600,000 American dead in its wake, I think it was another woman’s book that helped keep Jim Crow alive by creating across America a passion for the romance and gallantry of the old South. I speak, of course, of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, which was published in 1936, and then kept alive for generations of Americans thanks to one of the best movies ever made in Hollywood.

I first read GWTW when I was 12, and probably read it annually for the next six or seven years. I read so often because, at least to my adolescent self, it was one of the greatest, and most tragic. romances ever written.

Scarlett O’Hara is a deeply flawed character who ought to be despicable because of her grasping, greedy, self-centered ways. That she is not — that she is peculiarly compelling and that her valiant spirit causes us to feel for her even at her worst — makes her something of a metaphor for the pre-war South itself, at least as Mitchell wrote both the character and the culture. While Southern culture may have been wedded, selfishly, to an utterly evil institution, Mitchell brought to that society the same fire, charm, courage that Scarlett had herself.  Her characterization of a lost time touched many people who still had enough moral center to condemn slavery.

Scarlett’s travails — which are also the travails of a war-torn South (and it’s worth remembering that, barring the foray into Gettysburg and some skirmishes out West, Union soil and towns saw no battles) and a Reconstruction South — inevitably elicit sympathy. How can they not? Even though Scarlett and the South were in the wrong, their sufferings were very real and their attempts to cope with that suffering had a peculiar courage.

Moreover, Margaret Mitchell, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a good writer. GWTW may not be great literature, but it’s damn good writing, so the reader inevitably begins to empathize with the lead characters — and the South itself is the true lead in this grand tragedy.

GWTW taught a generation of Americans who had no memory of the actual war that the South was gracious, genteel, mannered, gallant, valiant, brave and, when defeated, as heroic in defeat as it was during the War. (Ken Burns’ Civil War makes it very clear that the South had a much better military than did the North. A few brilliant generals with a fairly small cadre of committed troops saw victories far in excess of what their materiels and numbers should have allowed.)

autant en emporte le ventgone with the wind1939réal : Victor FlemingVivien LeighHattie Mc DanielCollection Christophel

autant en emporte le ventgone with the wind1939réal : Victor FlemingVivien LeighHattie Mc DanielCollection Christophel

GWTW also taught a generation of Americans who had little contact with black people that blacks were a fundamentally childish race and therefore were always at their best when they had good whites to look up to and take care of them. Certainly, when I was a child, the romanticized world of GWTW’s beloved house slaves (especially Mammy) seemed infinitely preferable to the realities of South Central LA, Watts, or other major American slums. My immature mind concluded that anyone with half a brain could see that it was nicer to wear clean, bright clothes, and scold spoiled Southern heiresses while lacing them tightly than it was to live in a modern American housing development.

It was actually quite a while before I was able to understand that slavery is so intrinsically evil, and so at odds with core concepts of human individualism and liberty, that it can never be accounted a good thing, no matter how superficially pleasant it may appear. I think it was this eventual understanding — when I cast off the last shackles of “Gone-With-The-Wind-ness” — that also enabled me to understand that a welfare state is just another form of slavery.

And when I say “welfare state,” please understand that I am not referring to a moral country that cares for its old and weak, its helpless and frail. Instead, I am referring to a country that systematically tells vast swaths of its citizens that they are better off living the most marginal existence possible at the government’s expense, than they would be were they to strike out on their own. The only difference in modern slavery is that the slaves are instructed not to work (“white privilege owes you”), than being instructed to work (“you owe white privilege”). Either way, the new slaves have been deprived of the ability to learn the skills and make the decisions that are the hallmarks of a free people.

I’m a more bookish person than most, but I am quite convinced that Margaret Mitchell’s powerful, romantic, tragic, gilded view of the South before, during, and after the Civil War allowed Jim Crow and other depredations against blacks to continue long after they should have died a natural death. Just as Stowe brought a generation of Americans to realize the horrors of slavery, Mitchell made a whole new generation see the beauty of a society built upon slaves’ backs and to believe that this society was as good for the slaves as it was for their masters.

Your opinion?

UPDATE:  Patrick O’Hannigan offers a typically insightful and thoughtful challenge to my post, arguing that a much more powerful book, by a much greater American writer, helped offset any message she created.

Winston Churchill’s official 8-volume biography is FREE from April 9-11

Winston ChurchillEarlier today, I told you that the Kindle edition of Nien Cheng’s autobiography is on sale for only $1.99. Thanks to a friend, I can also tell you that, starting today, and ending Saturday, you can get the Kindle versions of all eight volume’s of Winston Churchill’s official biography for free.

What an extraordinary opportunity. I’m diving for my iPad the second I finish typing this so that I can download my copies.

  1. Winston S. Churchill: Youth, 1874-1900 (Volume I)
  2. Winston S. Churchill: Young Statesman, 1901-1914 (Volume II)
  3. Winston S. Churchill: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916 (Volume III)
  4. Winston S. Churchill: World in Torment, 1916-1922 (Volume IV)
  5. Winston S. Churchill: The Prophet of Truth, 1922-1939 (Volume V)
  6. Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941 (Volume VI)
  7. Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941-1945 (Volume VII)
  8. Winston S. Churchill: Never Despair, 1945-1965 (Volume VIII)

Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — a timeless book about tyranny

Nien ChengOne of the important books I read that helped me prepare for the journey from Left to Right was Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. In 1966, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, Cheng, the widow of a Shanghai-based Shell executive, was arrested as a foreign spy. The charge was bogus. The real issue was that this bright, feisty woman refused to yield to the Cultural Revolution’s fanatic thought police.

Cheng spent six-and-a-half years in prison, constantly fighting against the mind control that would have seen her confess to crimes she had never committed. While she was in prison, her only child was murdered and her youth and health destroyed. When she was released from prison, she lived in miserable conditions, spied on by her neighbors, until she was able to leave China in 1980.

If you haven’t read the book, you must. Because it is a beautifully written first-person narrative, it is a compelling way to understand what happens when a state sets out to control how its people think. I certainly credit the book with creating in me the fear of tyranny that culminated with my breaking away from an increasingly dictatorial Democrat party.

I mention the book now because you can buy a Kindle copy for only $1.99. If you have some sort of device with the Kindle app, I urge you to read this book if you haven’t already done so.

Free for 5 days: An imaginative innovative Sci-Fi book by our own Raymond Jelli

For those of you who don’t play chess (as I don’t), Zugzwang means a situation in which “one player is put at a disadvantage because they must make a move when they would prefer to pass and not to move. The fact that the player is compelled to move means that his position will become significantly weaker. A player is said to be ‘in zugzwang’ when any possible move will worsen his position.”

I mention this intriguing definition because our own Raymond Jelli (who is kind enough to comment frequently here) has written a Sci-Fi mystery novel entitled Zugzwang. Even better, for the next five days (through March 5), you can get the book for free and see what you think of it.

At this point, I have a shameful confession to make: Raymond sent me a preview of the book about two months ago and, while I got started reading it, the sudden onslaught of legal work at about the same time meant that I ended up not reading it. A lot of things fall by the wayside when my workload surges and the pleasure of reading Raymond’s book was one of those things.

What I can tell you, though, is that, right from the first page, it’s an imaginative book envisioning a completely realized futuristic space world.  The book’s name alone also promises an intriguing, challenging plot.

I’m definitely downloading a published copy for myself and I hope you will too. After all, the price can’t be beat, and you may find yourself enjoying many hours of reading pleasure.  I certainly expect to.

The feminist focus on microaggression meets romance in the book world — a view from inside

Reggianini_Vittorio_Seduction_Oil_on_Canvas_on_Masonite-largeSome of you may recall that, a couple of years ago, I did one of my periodic posts about romance novels, arguing that the real “porn” part of the novels is the relationship, not the sex. One of my readers, Judith Lown, wrote me to say that there are traditional romances still out there and, in fact, she had written one: A Sensible Lady: A Traditional Regency Romance.

When I went to Amazon to buy A Sensible Lady, I discovered that I had already bought it, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s no insult to Lown that I didn’t quite remember it.  I read around 250 books a year (all kinds of genres) and lose track of those I’ve already read.  I enjoyed Lown’s other novel, A Match for Lady Constance, just as much.

Although I am a few years removed from having read Lown’s books, I know that what charmed me was the same thing that charms me about Georgette Heyer novels: the lead characters are people you wish you could meet, and the intellectual relationship between the protagonists is witty, fun, and understandable. In other words, Lown is a very good writer in the traditional Regency romance style: elegant, funny, and restrained.

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Book Review: C.G. Cooper’s Corps Justice novels are well-plotted, enjoyable thrillers

Carlos Cooper

C. G. Cooper, author of the Corps Justice series

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time about a thriller series that was fast and fun to read. I stumbled across C. G. Cooper’s Corps Justice series through BookBub’s daily email telling me about Amazon book deals. My practice is that, if a free book listed in BookBub looks even remotely interesting, I download it onto my Kindle. After all, since it’s free, no harm, no foul, right?

Of course, an awful lot of the time, free books are free because no one in their right mind could possibly want to buy the darn things. They’re horribly written, horribly plotted, or horribly proof-read — or sometimes a combination of all three.

However, sometimes a free book is a wonderful little marketing surprise. My assumption is that these books are marketed as free or very cheap (usually 99 cents) to function as loss leaders. After all, if you move enough books (even if you’re giving them away), you’ll still rise up in the all-important Amazon sales ranking chart.

Which gets me to C. G. Cooper’s Corps Justice novels, the first three books of which are currently available for free. The books are thrillers that feature veterans (mostly Marines) working together to foil dastardly plots against America. The two main characters are Cal Stokes, a former Marine whose father founded a hugely successful security company, and his friend Daniel Briggs, who is also a former Marine, and whose story is told here. The other recurring characters are mostly Marines, although there are vets from other branches of the service, as well as a resident computer genius.

[Read more…]

Book Review: Dennis Koller’s “Kissed By The Snow”

Early this year, after reading and enjoying Dennis Koller’s The Oath, I naturally sat down and wrote a review. Because Dennis is a local author, I sent him a copy of my review because I always like to expand my network of local conservatives.

Dennis and I began corresponding, and our correspondence quickly turned into a lunch meeting. I cannot say enough nice things about Dennis and his lovely wife (whose name I’ll omit here, out of respect for her privacy). Both are politically conservative in a really thinking way — something that’s not surprising, I guess, given Dennis’s Jesuit education. He’s a smart, analytical person and would naturally be drawn to the same kind of spouse.

It was at our first lunch that Dennis told me he was working on a new thriller. When he told me the premise, I thought it was incredibly imaginative. As we met several more times at various conservative lunches, Dennis continued to fill me in on the book. When Dennis completed the book, now named Kissed By The Snow: A Rob Kincaid Thriller (A Rob Kincaid Novel Book 1), I was delighted when he sent me an advance copy, which I felt fully lived up to Dennis’s promises.

Here’s the thing, though: I can’t tell you what that devious, clever, surprising plot twist is, because to do so would ruin the novel for you. What I’ll do instead is reprint here the book’s Amazon blurb for Kissed By The Snow, and then add my own comments:

As the highly trained leader of the Red Squadron Security Agency, Robert Kincaid is used to working under the radar—taking care of government jobs that wouldn’t exactly pass congressional oversight.

But in this case, it’s not strictly business. After a Mexican cartel murders his father, Rob is thirsty for revenge. And he’s more than willing to take the War on Drugs into his own hands when his firm is hired for Operation Snow Plow, a secret FBI plan to rid America of drug-related violence once and for all.

As Rob gets deeper and deeper into the FBI’s plan, he uncovers a tangled web of lies and conspiracies that encircle the very core of Operation Snow Plow. As he attempts to unravel that web, he finds himself in a high stakes game of odd man out, where he has been targeted as the odd man.

As with his previous novel, Dennis has a light, deft touch when writing. He doesn’t write with Tom Clancy’s incredible density or Lee Child’s blood-spattered violence. If I had to compare Dennis’s writing to anyone, I would say that he reminds me of Agatha Christie — or, how Agatha Christie would write if, instead of being a woman born in England in the waning years of Victoria’s reign, who wrote countryside and parlor murder mysteries, she was a Jesuit-educated, conservative American man who writes thrillers starring a former Navy SEAL. It’s not the subject matter that makes the two comparable; it’s the fact that both focus on the characters and their relationships (both good guys and bad) as unfolding events lead all of them to a powerful denouement.

Koller has a good technical mastery over the SEAL’s gadgets, but he never overwhelms readers with tech talk. He has a good sense of the details of conspiracies and crimes, but he doesn’t bury the reader in a sea of often irrelevant details. He just moves the story forward in lean, simple prose, adding in whatever information is necessary to keep the reader moving with the story. Agatha Christie, right?

If you’re looking for a fun, fast-moving thriller with some wonderfully surprising plot twists, I highly recommend your giving Kissed By The Snow a try. You can buy the e-book through Amazon, at the links I provided, or, if you want a discount on a hard copy version, you can check out this link.

Book Review — Bing West’s “One Million Steps : A Marine Platoon at War”

One Million StepsA new book went on sale today: Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War. I was fortunate enough to get a review copy and would like to share my impressions with you.

West, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, has now added a sixth book to his series about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In One Million Steps, he describes his experience when he was embedded with a Marine platoon in the Sangin distinct of Afghanistan during a six month period covering 2010 to 2011. As with all of West’s books, it is extremely well-written. West is a master of lyrical simplicity, something that fits very well with the way in which his book pulls us into the lives of the young Marines struggling to take back territory from the Taliban in the Sangin province of Afghanistan.

The Marines who fought these daily battles won’t be remembered in the same way as the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal.  This historical amnesia won’t arise because of any Marine failings, though.  As has been true for generations of Marines before them, the Marines in Battalion 3/5 sacrificed themselves mightily. Their battalion suffered the greatest losses of any unit in Afghanistan.  These sacrifices, however, will gain no traction in the public imagination because this is an unusual war.  While Marines fight to win, 21st century rules of engagement, combined with Obama’s political calculus, placed these Marines in an untenable situation, where winning was impossible.  Unlike previous wars, where even a lost battle, if fought with sufficient bravery, could imbue other fighters with the will to win, in Afghanistan victory was the true No Man’s Land.

As West ably explains, the Marines were ordered to an area of Afghanistan that Britain, which had previously tried to occupy it, had basically ceded to the Taliban. The British left the Americans a single fortified area surrounded by the Taliban; by farmers who were both victims of and collaborators with, the Taliban; and by thousands of IEDs buried in land that was an inhospitable combination of canals, marshes, primitive compounds, and small open fields surrounded by dense foliage. The correct way to have subdued this region, of course, would have to take every piece of modern land and air technology available and go in with guns blazing — perhaps preceded by Israeli-style warnings to non-combatants that they should vacate the land or prepare to die.

What happened instead were Sisyphean Rules of Engagement (“ROEs”) that prohibited Marines from firing offensively, instead limiting them to defensive fire after they’d already run the risk of casualties. Worse, if the Marines sought to engage in any more than a running skirmish in response to shots fired while they were out on patrol, a battalion, not of fellow warriors but of lawyers, had to review the proposed fight plan first to make sure that it didn’t violate the ROEs.  Even knowing about this bureaucratic, legalistic twist on warfare, reading about it in One Million Steps is still a shock.  It’s just mind-boggling that lawyers were calling the shots in a genuine ground war (as opposed to the lawyer’s usual field of battle — a courtroom). Wars are fluid, dynamic situations; lawyers are stolid, cautious, and risk-averse. To make fighters in the war dependent on lawyers is insane.

Even worse for the Marines in Sangin was that they were fighting under a Commander-in-Chief who was committed to defeat and retreat. That these young men willingly put themselves in the line of fire every day, day after day, under the most dreadful circumstances, all in service of a Commander who had already erased the word victory from his vocabulary, and who would soon spell out for the enemy the exact date and circumstances of the surrender is another mind-boggler.

Despite the adversity pressing down on them, the Marines in Battalion 3/5 never lost their commitment to the Marine ethos. Whatever the job demanded of them, no matter how pointless, quixotic, or dangerous, they would do their best to get the job done. Using a combination of brute strength, craftiness, and moral and physical courage, all under the umbrella of masterful leadership that encouraged both team playing and personal responsibility, they went out every single day through hostile Sangin territory and killed the Taliban in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole .  .  . only in this game, the mole was doing its best to whack back.

One of the strengths of West’s writing is his own service as a Marine forty-years before. West has a visceral understanding of what faces a grunt fighting an often chimerical enemy who observes no rules of war; who has the entire untouchable civilian community under his thumb; and who has had years to prepare the ground for war in the enemies’ favor. Although West’s language never becomes heated or bombastic, his descriptions of the Marines’ circumstances are vivid, realistic, and manifestly accurate. West is manifestly not a desk jockey suddenly playing with the big boys.

West also conveys admirably the strong connection between the individual Marines, all of whom are stuck in the middle of nowhere, seeing their comrades fall in often fatal and always devastating welters of blood, and putting their lives on the line every day. While these young men’s peers are at college, or holding down jobs, or just slacking off, these men, all of whom are volunteers, are living by the rules their much-admired Sargeant Matt Abbate wrote on a piece of plywood that he then hammered onto a wall:

1) Young warriors die
2) You cannot change Rule #1
3) Someone must walk the point (where you are sure to die)
4) Nothing matters more than thy brethren . . . thou shalt protect no matter what
5) Going out in a hail of gunfire . . . pop dem nugs until they body runs dry of blood . . . AND LOOK HELLASICK

Another great virtue of West’s writing is that each of the young men he mentions, even if only briefly, is a real person. West is not a Marxist who sees soldiers as cogs, units, victims, representatives of their race or class, statistics, or any other socialist group designation. To him, each is an individual with a name and a story. Moreover, to the extent too many of these young men died, each is a person who deserves the dignity of being remembered once more as the person he was, someone with hopes, family, and plans for a future that was never realized.

One Million Steps often makes for painful reading because we are seeing a tragedy play out in real-time. At the national level, the Marines were contending with two administrations that were, and have continued to be, terrified of the prospect of fighting a full-blooded war.  Worse, the second of these two administrations was frightened even of the possibility of victory. Serving on the ground under this schizophrenic, neurotic, diffident, sclerotic bureaucracy were men who, for whatever reason (a thirst for adventure, a fear of boredom, a craving for the camaraderie that only military services brings), chose to fight in an army governed by fear, constrained by counter-productive rules, and opposed to victory. There is no way this could end well.

Nevertheless, uncomfortable reading or not, Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War is a book that deserves to be read. We need to read it to understand the nature of our enemy, even if our political class continues to turn a blind eye. We need to read it to appreciate that this country is still capable of producing men of high-caliber, discipline, commitment and bravery. And lastly, we need to read it because young men, tucked away in a forgotten corner of an unpopular war, deserve to be recognized for their courage and sacrifice.

A Dean Koontz bargain: “Odd Thomas”

Thanks to a post I did mentioning Dean Koontz’s libertarian leanings, I learned that several of you are Dean Koontz fans.  Because I’m now a Dean Koontz fan myself (having read several of his books in a weekend frenzy), I wanted to let you know that one of his books — Odd Thomas: An Odd Thomas Novel — is on sale for $1.99.  I got the book (I can never resist a bargain) and wanted to make sure you had a chance too, before the sale goes away on September 20.

Incidentally, if you like the book, there’s also a fairly well-rated Odd Thomas movie that came out last year.

The suggested list of books for a high school government class

Rear view of class raising handsIf you’re wondering why the younger generation blindly supported Obama through two elections; why they are reflexively hostile to conservatives and Republicans; and why, even though Obama has dismally failed them, they are incapable of considering another, less intrusive, approach to governance, just contemplate the list of books a local high school Government teacher recommended for the class’s mandatory reading requirement:



I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking most (or all) of those books hew Left, way, way, way Left.

Since the list is supposed to consist of suggestions only, I’m trying to think of a few counter suggestions.  I need books that present conservative approaches to government and economics. Moreover, to the extent that a high schooler is going to be reading the book, I think my counter suggestion should be eminently readable and entertaining.  Of course, since I’m trying desperately to think of something quickly, before the weekend is over, I’m pulling a big, fat blank.

Still, keeping my requirements in mind (accessible, entertaining, easy-to-read), my top choice for a suggestion is Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change, which I think is one of the most readable political books out there. Goldberg has an incredibly deft touch. He makes his points lightly, often humorously, without ever resorting to browbeating.

What do you guys think?

Blame it on Kathy Open Thread

Thought-Bubble-White-Board_8296556In an earlier post, I mentioned that, given Dean Koontz’s libertarian outlook, which apparently seeps into his books, I should try reading some of his stuff. In response, Kathy from Kansas wrote:

My own favorite (and one of Koontz’s personal favorites) is From the Corner of His Eye: A Novel, a long epic whose narrative spans many years.

That’s quite a recommendation so, when I discovered that I could download a Kindle version for free from my library’s online site, I started reading the book yesterday and couldn’t stop. I’m at the quite thrilling, magical, thought-provoking moral denouement that comes 93% of the way through the book, and I still can’t stop. I’ve just got to finish it. If you took the book away from me now, I’d burst into tears and become effectively useless.

I will blog this afternoon, but I have to finish reading From the Corner of his Eye first. Until then, please enjoy yourselves with an Open Thread.  And if you miss my writing, just remember to blame it on Kathy.  (Just kidding, of course. I am deeply grateful to Kathy for her recommendation.)

Book Review: Don Mann’s four thrillers about Thomas Crocker and his SEAL Team Six guys

Hunt the JackalWhen it comes to Navy SEALS, Don Mann is the real deal.  He was an active duty Navy SEAL for seventeen years, including eight years on SEAL Team Six.  As he describes his experiences:

As a member of Seal Team Six for over eight years and a SEAL for over 17 years, he worked in countless covert operations, operating from land, sea, and air, and facing shootings, decapitations, and stabbings. He was captured by the enemy and lived to tell the tale, and he participated in highly classified missions all over the globe, including Somalia, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In addition to (or as augmentation for) his role as a SEAL, Mann is also a high endurance athlete, who has been in over 1,000 races (mostly extreme runs that make marathons look like a walk in the park).  At one time, he was the 38th highest ranked triathlete in the world.

If anyone is qualified to write thrillers about a Navy SEAL Six team, Mann is the one.  To date, Mann has actually written four such thrillers (in addition to a slew of non-fiction books about SEALS).  The four thrillers are (1) Hunt the Wolf: A SEAL Team Six Novel; (2) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Scorpion; (3) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Falcon; and (4) SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Jackal. (For all but Hunt the Falcon, Ralph Pezzullo is listed as co-author.)

I received Kindle copies of all four SEAL Team Six novels from a book review site with which I’m affiliated.  The reason behind this largesse was the fact that the official publication date for the fourth book is May 13.  With my fondness for Navy SEALs and for thrillers, it was a foregone conclusion that I would gobble the books down all at once.  I managed to read all four in a day-and-a-half.  Looking back, this was a mistake.  Because they are formulaic, reading them one on top of each other, without a decent interval of a few months between each one, highlighted their mechanical qualities and threw their flaws into relief.  I think I would have liked them more had I read them less.

Before I get too deep into this, let me say that I have no problem with formulaic books.  Most authors have a template they use, and readers keep returning to their books because they like that template.  A perfect example of this is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, the 18th of which (Never Go Back : A Jack Reacher Novel) I had just finished reading just before I picked up Mann’s series.

The Reacher novels are pleasantly predictable:  Ex-military cop Jack Reacher wanders aimlessly and across the United States and invariably stumbles upon grotesquely violent criminals who leave a wide swath of destruction in their wake until Reacher comes along and turns them into mulch.  What makes the books work is Reacher’s character.  He should be ridiculous, because he’s something of a superman, able to out-reason and out-fight every bad guy he comes across.  Take away his impulse to be on the side of the gods, and he’d be a monster.

In fact, though, Child has made Reacher a very interesting character, because he walks us through Reacher’s logical process:  What does Reacher notice as the bad guys approach him?  How does he analyze the situation?  What moral decisions is he making as part of this analysis?  What tactics does he decide upon and why?  And finally, how effective were his chosen tactics when he finally used them?  Child puts you directly into the brain of a type of savant, a man preternaturally skilled at analyzing dangerous situations and turning them to his advantage.

Child’s books are also meticulously plotted.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that Child is a massive stoner.  He’s got the kind of obsessive attention to detail that makes sense only if someone is ripped on a drug that makes the hard work of imagining and writing such details fun, rather than deadly dull.  Indeed, Child’s attention to fascinating details is so good that one can forgive the absence of an actual plot.  For example, Child’s last book,  Never Go Back, had an insanely stupid, lame denouement, something that’s antithetical to denouements.  After all, a thriller, even if it can’t be thrilling, should at least be interesting.

When it comes to Never Go Back, though, Child didn’t even try.  Still, Reacher is such an enjoyable character, you want to read the book anyway, and are willing to forgive Child his sins as a writer at least long enough to read the next Reacher book (should there be one).

Mann’s formulaic novels aren’t as good as Child’s book, but they’re not bad.  Had I read them spread out over months, in the order in which they were published, I probably would have enjoyed them more than I did.

I know this sounds as if I’m damning Mann’s books with faint praise, and maybe I am.  I need to make a full disclosure here, which is that I soured on the books about halfway through the third and in the beginning of the fourth.  My low-level ill-will arose for a very specific reason, which is that Mann’s and my biases clashed.

In both the third and fourth books, Mann attacks the Israeli military.  In the third book, it’s a completely gratuitous swipe about the Israeli special forces not being as good as they think they are.  In the fourth book, the opening scene includes a quite detailed swipe at the Israeli military, implying that its members are rule-bound, cold-blooded, vindictive cowards.  This might have been forgivable if this detailed scene had related to the rest of the book, but it didn’t.  By book’s end, it’s clear that this anti-IDF sideline wasn’t necessary to the main plot.  Mann just felt he wanted it in there.

There is absolutely nothing antisemitic about Mann’s negative attitude towards the Israeli military, and I respect that fact.  It’s clear that Mann dislikes it as a military, not as a Jewish military.  I got the strong feeling that, at one time, or over a period of several times, Mann had some bad experiences with the IDF and he’s using his novels as a place to vent his negative feelings.

Being spiteful is Mann’s prerogative — and it’s my prerogative to get unpleasantly ruffled because of that spite.  I’m certain that the IDF has rotten apples in it, since all militaries do.  I have no idea whether the IDF and its special forces are overrated, but it’s entirely possible that they are . . . or not.  Nevertheless, I do feel that it was wrong for Mann to take self-serving, unnecessary swipes at a military that is on the side of the angels in the long war against the worldwide hydra of Islamic militants (along with the American military).  Israel is a sufficiently beleaguered nation to deserve some respite from creative vindictiveness.  The clash between Mann’s bias (not thrilled about the Israeli military) and my bias (supportive of the IDF) definitely dimmed my pleasure in his writing.

And now, finally, my review.  All four books have the same pattern.  Thomas Crocker is Mann’s alter ego:  he looks like Mann (mustache and thinning hair), he exercises like Mann (taking his team on extreme climbs in the Himalayas or extreme runs in the Sahara desert), and he works like Mann once did, heading a SEAL Team Six unit tasked with dangerous secret missions.  The book isn’t written in the first person, but we see everything through Crocker’s eyes and hear his thoughts.  He loves his country; hates the enemy; worries about the damage to his soul from the deaths he’s caused; cares for his team; loves his wife and his daughter, whom he constantly leaves behind because missions take precedence; looks at his rough childhood as the crucible that created the warrior that he now is; sublimates fear; and manages to continue moving despite the fact that he’s invariably concussed, wounded, bleeding, and sleep deprived.

Crocker’s teammates are more literary ciphers than real characters.  They exist to move the plot forward.  Akil, the team’s navigator, is the Egyptian-born Muslim who came to America as a child, is a stalwart defender of America’s freedoms against Iran’s Islamic totalitarianism and, when he’s not being incredibly brave and disciplined, thinks only of sex.  Mancini, the team’s weapons expert, is also the book’s expositor.  He’s a know-it-all with a photographic memory/  Wherever the book takes the team, he will offer commentary about the sights they see, the nature of the enemy, the weather, etc.  In other words, because the omniscient narrator never drops away from Crocker’s viewpoint, it’s up to Mancini to fill the reader in on everything Crocker cannot know.  The other term members are given names and details (beard, wife, smile, fiancée, etc.), but are sufficiently ill-defined as characters to be completely forgettable.

One of the two things I’ve taken away about SEALs from the non-fiction books I’ve read is that they are trained, and trained, and trained, and then trained some more.  The other thing that sticks in my brain is that they meticulously prepare for every mission.  Mann has realized that an action novel that spends too much time detailing all of the SEAL’s meticulous preparation will work best as a sleep aid, rather than a thriller.  Ironically, though, by avoiding all the mission detail, what Mann ends up with is a group of SEALs who rush unprepared into just about everything.  If it weren’t for their highly trained skills and their really cool weapons, these guys would be morons, doing everything by the seat of their pants and getting into big trouble because of it.

In the first three books, the team’s missions involve Iranian infiltration in North Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  In the last book, his team takes on a Mexican drug cartel.  In all four books, the team is constantly frustrated by politics, especially those emanating from the CIA, which is given over to extreme political cowardice.  In all four books, good people die, good people get wounded, bad people get horribly killed, and innocents get rescued.  The good guys usually prevail, but it’s a painful, demoralizing, bloody, bloody process.

I’d be more specific at this point, but I can’t.  Having read all four of the books in the same 48-hour period, they’ve run together in my mind, leaving only an overarching pattern without any defining details jumping out at me.

Looking at all four books a little temporal distance (I read the last one on Tuesday), I think the following is a fairly objective summary:  These books are not great, but they’re not bad.  They’re workmanlike thrillers that give some insight into (1) the never-ending training in which SEALs engage; (2) the enormous toll their work takes on their private life; (3) the terrible risks they take, partly out of love of country and partly because they’re very courageous adrenalin junkies; and (4) the genuine dangers in today’s world against which our armed forces and special forces protect us.  If you’re looking for a quick, easy-to-read, fairly interesting military thriller, you could do a lot worse than Don Mann’s SEAL Team Six series.  They won’t win any prizes, but they’ll definitely keep you entertained.