Showing posts with label adult non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adult non-fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios

Rating: WARTY!

Dishonestly subtitled " A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World", this book was a disappointment. There is math in this - a lot of it - and it starts right there in chapter one. It isn't at all well explained. That was the biggest problem here. This author simply is not one who can competently and clearly explain complex science to the lay person.

I didn't come into this completely ignorant, but I left it with little learned, which is why this is a fail. I have read quite a lot on Quantum Mechanics, which doesn't make me an expert by any means, but I do understand some of the principles and ideas. This author but this guy did nothing to enlighten me any further. His constant footnotes were far more annoying than ever they were edifying, and his frequent references to obscure antique comic books did nothing to help his case along.

For me, Lawrence M. Krauss started all this in 1995, when he published The Physics of Star Trek which was well-written, entertaining, and educational. It spawned many imitators, few of which have been as well done as his was. I think Kakalios believed he could turn his own obsession with old comics into a similar work, but whereas Krauss actually did reference a cultural icon which is well-known, Kakalios simply appears to have indulged himself in his own personal passion, which has little, if any, relevance to anyone else.

This book was dense, humorless, and unenlightened, the illustrations unillustrative, the explanations obscure and meandering when they were not outright obfuscating, and the frequent comic book and fifties 'B' movie references irritating and distracting. I can't recommend this at all.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin

Title: The Dharma of Star Wars
Author: Matthew Bortolin (no website found)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Rating: WARTY!

Line gap between 'of' and 'misunderstanding' (p15)
"regiment" used where "regimen" was intended (p15)

After I'd done reading chapter two, I was done reading this book because it failed for me - and failed miserably. The last straw was the attempt to link Luke Skywalker's experience in the cave on Dagobah with our experience in everyday life on Earth. Yoda tells Luke that the only thing which is in the cave is what Luke takes with him, clearly implying that the only thing on Earth is what we all carry with us, and that just as Luke was responsible for his experience in seeing Vader (and contrary to what this book suggests, actually failing to realize that the dark side was in him too), so too are we all responsible for the suffering on Earth.

Now I concede that as a society overall, we all share responsibility for what that society does, good and bad, but there is no way in hell you are going to tell me that anything I could have personally done in my own life would have either caused or stopped that psycho from killing those people in the church this week.

That's not on me. It's not on any one person, and nothing any one person can do was going to stop that from happening - unless that one person had a gun and shot the guy before he could kill other people. That is one thing which would have prevented this (short of going back to that guy's childhood and taking charge of his upbringing), but this one thing is the very thing for which Luke is chided in this book: that taking his light saber (how is it even a saber? Lol!) with him somehow precipitated the appearance of the Vader/Luke hybrid! Or that while not intending to start trouble, being prepared for trouble was a mistake?! No. Being prepared is never a mistake.

Luke's experience had nothing to do with the weapon, and everything to do with Luke's own mindset, but changing his mindset would not have magically made Vader disappear from the galaxy and undone all his evil. That's what this author seems to fail to grasp. First and foremost, he is applying Buddhism to a purely fictional world, not to the real one. I haven't read all of this book, but nothing that I have read has demonstrated to me how applying the principles of Buddhism in your own life is going to change anything any more materially than simply doing what most of us do anyway - living a good, considerate, and decent life - is changing anything.

Yes, if all of us ran wild and had no respect for others, then the world would be a truly horrible place, but just because some of us choose to live a decent life - even if the majority of us did so, this will not cause the recalcitrant minority to quite hurting people or blowing up people, or shooting people, or driving like idiots, or being boorish, thoughtless, inconsiderate, and stupid. All we can do is deal with our own lives, and while what we do can indeed help keep a bad situation from escalating, what we do is not going to magically make the world a paradise. Even if everyone whole-heartedly embraced Buddhism, this would not stop volcanoes and earthquakes and floods and tornadoes from taking lives and bringing suffering into lives. The only preventative for that is for all of us to commit suicide, and the Jonestown "solution" is utterly unacceptable to me!

This is an attempt to popularize an aspect of Buddhism by linking it with a very successful movie franchise. Dharma or Dhamma has no simple or direct translation into English, but can be thought of as the natural order of things. This isn't to be thought of in any pejorative way or as some idiotic Victorian idea of superiority or one class or race over another. It's focused on the way nature works and how humans can try to live their lives in harmony with this natural system just as we used to when we were apes. If you think of all of nature as a team, then Dharma is about how we can become the best team player we can be.

In that light, the problems with approaching this topic by linking it to Star Wars are manifold. Star Wars wasn't about the natural order of things. It was about might makes right and about how the underdogs could destroy that might. You can argue that this was really more about the Jedi way of life, but the Jedi were not really a part of the natural order of things. They were a gifted and superior 'race' who far from fitting in with the natural order sought to dominate and control that order for their own ends, no matter how benign some of those ends might have been.

In this way, the Jedi vis-à-vis the galaxy were no different than humans have been vis-à-vis planet Earth. As the Jedi sought to put in place a certain order of things, so humans have done the same on Earth. Given what we 'superior' humans have done with our power, I'm far from convinced that this is really the best way we have to look at how we live our lives!

I should probably say at this point that I do not believe in any gods. There is no good or useful evidence for any, nor is there any evidence that we live more than one life or are reincarnated or are in some sort of endless loop through which we will continue moving, like a pet rat on a treadmill, until we break the cycle and move on to the next level. None of it makes any sense, and for those who believe it does, I invite then to consider how all of this works given what we now know of the appearance of life on Earth and its evolution.

Humans have no always been here. At one point, and for massively overwhelming majority of the time that life has been extant upon Earth, there was nothing human here, but about six million years ago, a species started moving towards what we have now become. For all those who believe in reincarnation, I invite them to consider what the real evidence for this is, and to explain to themselves when this all began. Was it with the first cell that arose out of the chemistry of Earth? Was it when mammals evolved? Was it when primates evolved? Was it when Australopithecus evolved? If so, which species? Was it when Homo neanderthalensis evolved? When and why did this system come into being? No one has even tried to explain this, much less explained it with supportive evidence and made sense of it! That's why I don't buy into this juvenile concept of a cycle of death and rebirth.

In short, the Buddhist claims are nonsensical and have no evidence. That doesn't mean that living decent life, or that practices like meditation and yoga are of no value. It means that we shouldn't blindly invest them with meaning and value to which they have no right, and it especially means that eastern religions do not get a bye simply because they're new-agey, and exotic, and perhaps don't even posit any gods, like the three big monotheistic ones do, or like Hinduism does.

This book begins by recalling the beginning of the Star Wars saga (episode one, The Phantom Menace), where Qui-Gon Jinn reminds Obi-Wan Kenobi to keep his mind focused on the here and now, and not some speculative future course of events. In their circumstances, this was appropriate, but in life in general, it's important to both keep your mind on the here and now, and to plan for the future. Anyone with Jedi skills ought to be able to do both! Any human who fails to do this is inevitably going to run into trouble.

We jump from this to episode 4 A New Hope and are reminded that Luke only succeeded in destroying the Death Star when he abandoned the technology at his disposal and relied purely on instinct. In real life this is nonsensical. It's like disabling the brakes on your car and relying on your natural instinct to start slowing down in good time. We know how well that works by counting the skid marks on the highway, and the bumper scrapes on the concrete walls of on and off ramps! We have brakes and air-bags for a very good reason. Technology works. Humans often don't. Anyone who disagrees is invited to compare death and injury rates from accidents prior to seat belts and air bags with the same thing now.

Yes, you can argue that if we were more mindful when driving we would have far fewer scrapes and close calls, and this is true, but to make a blanket claim that we can all rely on instinct and our inner pilot to get through life is to assume that everyone has already achieved enlightenment, and no that one is mentally ill, not in any way at all. This is nonsensical and dangerous.

The Nazis were following their inner guide when they determined that all handicapped people, homosexuals, Jews, Roma, and other 'undesirables' should be exterminated or at least neutered. They were following their inner pilot when they pursued their belief that the "Aryan" race was superior. In the same way, organized religious groups have followed their instinct when they have tried to exterminate members of competing religions, such as when the Catholics tried to purge everyone they deemed to be a witch, and later those who were Protestant, or when they tried to force "heathens" to submit. Islam is all about submission. Judaism is only for the house of Israel.

Everyone today who isn't blind knows that these people were delusional, no matter how much they acted on their instincts and inner pilot. Your inner pilot isn't always reliable, no matter how much we may fantasize that it is. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't need laws to protect people from those who act on instinct and who give no thought for the future or for others.

We're reminded of Luke on Dagobah, where Yoda loses patience with him because his mind is all over the place and we're expected to believe that Luke was a poor student when the truth is that Yoda was a really poor teacher, as was Obi-Wan Kenobi. They had years in which they could have trained Luke yet neither lifted a finger. This was precisely because they were focused on the here and now - on their own survival - instead of planning for the future! Their incompetence nearly cost them everything. A little planning for the future would have made a huge difference, but each of them was so obsessed with the here and now that they took no thought for tomorrow. The founder of Christianity advised the same short-sighted tack.

Qui-Gon Jinn wanted to train Anakin and he was refused because despite the extreme youth of the boy and despite his qualifications (as judged by his midi-chlorian levels), it was already deemed too late in his life to teach him. The fact that he was taught so late was the reason he was so easily won over to the dark side, we're given to believe. Yet not a one of them questions the teaching of Luke who is considerably older than Anakin when he starts and far less qualified midi-chlorian-wise. yet no one questions this wisdom of this move!

Yes, Luke could have applied himself better, but so could Ben and Yoda - they could also have begun his teaching a hell of a lot earlier. Yes, this is fiction, but it wasn't me who decided to use Star Wars as a teaching tool for the Dao of Buddhism!

When Qui-Gon fights with Darth Maul, we're told that he is smart enough to center himself when the doors close between them, so he's ready to fight when they open, but this is a classic example of his failing to properly plan for the future. If he'd waited just a minute or two for Ben to catch up with him, there would have been two of them to take on Maul, and Qui-Gon might well not have been killed. By taking no thought for tomorrow, and getting himself killed Qui-Gon failed Anakin. Planning for the future is important. Focusing on the now is good, but it's not all there is, as Qui-Gon himself actually realized. He was planning for the future in an unfortunately limited way when he took the time to center himself.

An example is made of Anakin's anger over his mother's death, and his slaughter of the Tusken people, but this doesn't work either, because the root of this anger is that he was taken from his mom at an early age. No attempt was made to allow him to reconnect or to bring his mom to join him, or at least bring her to safety. that would have been planning for the future, so it's forbidden, You must focus on the here and now! Immediate gratification is demanded again Obviously this preyed on Anakin's mind, and his behavior was perfectly understandable. Some thought and planning here would have made a huge difference. Clearly neither Yoda nor Qui-Gon, nor Obi-Wan meditated on this!

What this book doesn't tell us, when it discusses suffering, is how selfish and callous the Buddha himself, Siddharta Gautama, truly was. He was a married man with a child. His wife was Yaśodharā, and his son was Rāhula. He was also a wealthy ruler of a people, yet he abandoned all of that and took off on his own selfish path. He never invited his wife and child to join him and share his journey, much less the people for whom he was responsible. He purportedly rejected wealth yet there is nothing to indicate that he redistributed what he had amongst his people. How much suffering did he put them through? His actions were not admirable. They were very selfish. Abandoning a wife and child is inexcusable. Women and particularly men are rightly pilloried in this day and age for this, yet we're expected to admire and emulate a man who did exactly that when there was no reason whatsoever for him to act as he did?

We're told that before we can improve a situation we must accept it for what it is, but this is wrong. We are forced to live with it, but acceptance of it means we're not likely to be looking at how it came to be or how it can be remedied. Women would never be able to vote now if they had accepted that they were unjustly excluded from voting and took no thought for the future. It's understanding, not acceptance, that we need, because only understanding will convey to us the power to change injustice, and to prevent it happening again. I think this book represents blinkered advice - or very poorly written guidance at best.

We're told that being mindful of our daily life allows us to see suffering as it manifests, but being mindful of what is likely to happen in the future means we can take steps to avoid that suffering manifesting in the first place. This is yet another example of how focusing on the current and the state we're in to the exclusion of all else isn't the best plan at all. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging the state we're in and understanding it, because this may offer ways out or at least insights into avoiding getting into this mess again, but to sit around wallowing in it, or meditating on it isn't going to get anything done in and of itself. Ultimately it's action which changes things, even if that action must be preceded by thought.

I think the dharma of Laurel and Hardy might have been a better comparison than this one with Star Wars. They never had a problem acknowledging that this is another fine mess you've gotten me into. Their intentions were always the best, and they had no problem working diligently to fix troubles rather than simply of sitting around meditating on them. I can't recommend this book. I see little real point in it and no value to it.

The short conclusion is that this book offered me nothing that any other decent religion offers - or that abandoning religions altogether and simply being a society of good and thoughtful people would deliver. I didn't see what this had to offer and I thought it was a poor approach to teaching this topic.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts

Title: Conduct Unbecoming
Author: Randy Shilts
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

This, another success from the author of And the Band Played On is not a very original title. B&N lists over thirty books with this same title, but this is undoubtedly thee fattest of them all, weighing in at 969 pages in Bluefire Reader on the iPad. Ninety of these are notes, references, and so on, because this book is researched with the precision of the crease in Marine dress uniform pants, and like those pants, it stands out sharply despite being over twenty years old. The fear and retribution depicted in this book still goes on today, although not necessarily in the same places it went on in these stories.

The beautifully written story follows a host of different people, men and women, and the most outstanding thing that they have in common isn't the military or the fact that they are homosexuals, but the the fact that there was nothing short of a witch hunt arrayed against them - a witch hunt which was in many ways more terrifying than anything conducted by the church in the Middle Ages. It was terrifying most of all because this happened within the last forty years.

The Conduct Unbecoming of the title has nothing to do with the fact that there were gays and lesbians in the military. It's the fact of what the military did to these people who served their country and had exemplary records - exemplary that is, so the armed forces would have it, save for the fact that they loved someone of their own gender. The military is a boys' club. Always has been. Even today the stranglehold that MENtality has on it is fighting tunic and nail to maintain its death grip. These men who are trained to bond with other men and to fear nothing actually fear two things and two things only: other men who are not like them, and women, who are completely alien to their way of thinking.

Shilts walks us through a brief history of gays in the military, including dipping into stories from the revolutionary war, although he doesn't seem to have understood that the word 'intercourse' had an entirely different meaning in 1779 than it commonly bore in 1979!

That aside, the way these stories would, if you'll pardon the phrase, drag me in and hold my attention was remarkable. I'd tell myself I would just read a couple of pages before bedtime and an hour later I'd still be reading, wide awake, my eyes opened by what had been going on. I don't doubt that there are terrorists who have received better treatment than the gay and lesbian community in the military got during the seventies and eighties.

If everyone loves a parade, then these stories are a parade of one name after another who first stood up for their country and then were forced to stand up for their rights or have their lives ruined by yet another paranoid military pogrom where full-blown McCarthyism resurrected its ugly head and this time had nothing to do with any communist threat - or any threat at all for that matter. Some reviewers have argued that this book is way too long, but the truth is that it isn't long enough to do justice to these people. However, it will do for now. I recommend it.

The Human Agenda by Joe Wenke

Title: The Human Agenda
Author: Joe Wenke
Publisher: Trans-Über
Rating: WORTHY!

"Gchatted" ought really to be rendered "G-chatted" (page 11 Adobe Digital editions page counter - there is no page number on the pages themselves). I had never heard of this and thought it was a simple typo at first. It means to converse using Google chat. A bit of clarification would help to distinguish it from a typo.

Page 35 "Cindy" is rendered with a little box in place of the "i" which means the character never was translated properly from the original.

Joe Wenke's book is sub-titled "Conversations about Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity" so I tried to keep that in mind - conversations, not interviews, but I couldn't help feeling that I wanted to hear more from those he conversed with! I had one or two issues with this book (but then with which book don't I have issues?!); however, the more I read of it the more I was drawn in and in the end I consider it a worthy and educational read.

He interviews a large variety of people, all of whom have their own unique perspective on the topic. The conversation annoyed me a little to begin with, but the more I read through different conversations with different people, the more interesting they became, and the further I got into the book, the more engrossing it was to me, but let me discuss several issues I had so you get the complete picture of my impressions, and decide fro yourself if this is something which intrigues you as much as it did me.

In his first interview, with Kristin Russo, the author observes, " call your project 'Everyone is gay' which is a self evident truth. Everybody knows that it's true... what exactly do you mean when you say that 'Everyone is Gay?" I found that an extraordinary thing to say: on the one hand claiming something is universally true and then asking a person what they mean by it. It was especially curious given the comments he makes in this same interview on the use and abuse words which are employed as minority identifiers, both positively and negatively. Besides, if everyone knows it, why do we need to pursue the matter with his last question?! It just struck me as a strange thing to say.

Russo responds that it's about transparency (and in explaining, she actually delivers this transparency!). She states clearly that the name was just a joke for a website. It was never intended to be true (universally or otherwise!), or to offer any deep insight into anything; it was just a joke, which begs the question, what on Earth did the author mean?! maybe he was just carried away with his enthusiasm, but I think someone with a PhD in English ought to be more on top of his use of the language than he appeared to be in this instance - and especially if he wants to win his readers over! But as I said, things improved.

He titled this book The Human Agenda precisely because there is a farcical claim that there's a "homosexual agenda", which itself is nonsensical, unless you define merely asking for fair treatment to be some sort of an agenda. What the author meant is something which isn't explained, but it might make a reader wonder what other agendas might be in play here. Me, I just read on!

Something which is truly self-evident is that this wasn't his first interview for this project because in this one he mentions someone else he's interviewed. Given that reference, it made me wonder why that interview had not been placed before this one instead of seven places after it. He has done this later where Aiden Key's interview follows Andrew Solomon's, which is referenced in Key's interview, so why not here? It gave me a bit of an impression that this was not very well organized, but neither was it completely disorganized either, so it's fine.

With that in mind, however, I decided to read Ian Harvie's interview first (yes, I'm name-prejudiced!) and that was interesting, too. Harvie was born female to all outward appearances, but changed gender to match how he felt inside. Harvie is in his forties, but claims there is no word for what he was. Yes, there was, so I'm guessing he simply didn't know any words for it at that young of an age. Those words have been known for a long time as it happens! Tomboy has been around for half a millennium. Dyke has been around since at least the 1940s, and perhaps even the twenties. The idea of butch and femme lesbians has been around for a century as a concept if not employing those exact words. Transsexual and transgender have been around for half a century. This is nothing new. The shame is that it has taken society so long to acknowledge and accept these facts as a reality.

For me, one of the problems with this book in the early chapters was that more than one person seemed to be making sweeping statements without actually having a good broom with which to sweep! It bothers me because this is an important topic and making statements such as for example, "...every single person in that audience was struggling, on some level with not being enough in relation to their gender..." which is what Harvie says. It felt like a condescending generalization and I found myself hoping for more solid ground as the book progressed.

Fortunately, I found it, but such an all-encompassing statement is not only inaccurate (there's a big difference between saying, "I guess on occasion everyone has issues" and saying "every single person here has issues"), it doesn't help endear people to what you're saying either; it just makes the speaker sound really insecure, and it's exacerbated when the author comes in right behind that statement and makes yet another sweeping statement, again speaking for all of us!

I think my biggest problem with this book was exactly that: the author says confidently that we're all struggling with our identities, as though there is a specific identity which each of us must assume and to which we must adhere. I disagree. I think people don't try to nail themselves to that monolithic cross so rigidly. I think they understand at some level that they are different things to different people. They know, whether they actively acknowledge it or not, that they're not fulfilling the same role as a mom or a dad at home as they are as a boss or an employee at work, or as a fan at a game, or as a role-player in an on-line game, or as a son or daughter, or a grandparent.

I understand that gender roles fly a little more under the radar than these things I've listed, but this doesn't mean everyone is obsessed with them or in trouble with them. I don't doubt that some do struggle. I don't doubt that others give it some thought from time to time, and I don't doubt that others never pay any mind to it, but to suggest that everyone is struggling with it as a routine thing is to misrepresent the situation and worse, maybe marginalize those who don't share this view - or at least make them feel there's maybe something wrong with them if they're not struggling! You can't be expansive and exclusive at the same time when you're talking about he labels we give to people!

Just one person's opinion given in passing in an interview isn't a big deal. Everyone has, and is entitled to their own opinion. It's when those opinions are forced on others, either practically by literally requiring others to hold a certain view, or as it is in this case, representing everyone as holding an opinion or having an issue (which certainly has not been demonstrated) is equally objectionable and worthy only of politicians.

I also found Russo's conversation about the use and reclamation of the word "queer" to be odd. She mentioned that she has a friend who rides freight trains for fun, and seems to be suggesting, even that he and his wife are both hetero people, that he could be labeled queer because there's something inherently queer about the way he lives his life. She doesn't mean this in a pejorative sense, but to me this was nonsensical. If you make a word mean anything, then it actually means nothing! Words change all the time, but you cannot force a meaning upon them, not if you want to make intelligent use of them. Words take on whatever meaning society endows them with and accommodate a given usage at a given time. Trying to bend and stretch words beyond what they normally will bear at any one time is nothing but a way of breaking them and rendering them useless!

I really didn't get part of the conversation with Aiden Key, either, where the author says:

Sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct but also very closely bound together, and what's interesting is that both of these issues seem to be threatening to people, what one's gender identity is, particularly if it's nonconforming, or what one's sexual orientation is if one is not heterosexual if one is gay or lesbian or queer or bisexual even in my own case. I'm very attracted to transgender women.

I think he might have found a better word than 'non-conforming'! It's like on the one hand we have this book about gender agendas, and on the other we're trying to come up with labels for the very people who have been stigmatized and marginalized through the use of such labels. Indeed labels are imposed upon groups and cultures for the very purpose of sanctioning abuse against them. I don't get why we feel we must label people here. isn't it more important to accept than to label? And it takes a lot less effort!

I don't see that it matters whether a woman started out as female or as male. If they identify now as female what else is there to be said? The same goes for someone who starts a female and now identifies as a male - or anyone in between. Why would we need to even have a word for a person who likes people who are female? it;s not important how they got that way! That struck me as a strange thing to say. Pigeon holes are for pigeons and mail, not people. We need to be focused on integrating, not disintegrating, and seeking to label and categorize people, especially when the topic is gender identity, people seems counter-productive at best, and abusive at worst.

That said, this book did improve. Maybe it was just me getting up to speed with it, or maybe the early interviews were just not my cup of tea, but it's not a big deal because the later ones were a delight to read and I enjoyed nearly all of them. That in mind, I consider this a worthy read. Oops, there I went and labeled it. Sorry!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Cosmic Dancer by Paul Roland

Title: Cosmic Dancer
Author: Paul Roland
Publisher: Tomahawk Press
Rating: WARTY!

Had he lived, Marc Bolan would have looked at turning 68 in 2015, but he never saw his thirtieth birthday. The reason for that is that he and the woman he was sharing his life with at the time, drove straight into a tree in a Mini, at god knows what speed. The fact that none of this is covered in Paul Roland's book (beyond the bare fact that it happened) is what I find rather curious, and is really one of the main reasons that I'm rating this negatively.

No one in their right mind wants to drag-out every last gory detail from the accident, but the fact that scarcely any details are mentioned of the aftermath is an inexcusable omission. I think the book, for as much detail as it goes into in every aspect of his life (except this), needed to say a lot more than it did. As it is, it might have people asking why the author white-washed Gloria Jones as he apparently did. I think people want to know, as far as can be determined, what went wrong here to cut his life and his career short before it had a chance - assuming it was going - to take off again. What went wrong and how could it have been prevented so others do not make the same mistakes? It's one of the few things in this book which isn't given any depth or weight.

Marc Feld's (that was always his name - he never legally changed it) father was of Russian/Polish Jewish heritage, and drove a truck (or a 'lorry' as they call them in Britain). His mother was about as British as they come and of Christian heritage, but despite this background, Bolan never was religious - he kind of made up his own. Initially this was fashion, but he also got into fantasy, particularly of the Lord of the Rings and Narnia nature, and sometimes he had a hard time telling that from reality.

This book covers his life from birth to death, and provides quite a wealth of detail for everything in between, although there are omissions, or subjects which feel like they're skated over. The the author's style was not the best in the world. He alternately seemed like he was hero-worshiping Bolan, and at other times pillorying him. He was also inconsistent with his observations on the songs, seeming like he would run one into the ground for a trait it exhibited whereas when a previous song had exhibited that same trait, it wasn't even considered worthy of mention. There were a lot of times that it felt like the author wasn't actually giving his own opinion, but was instead going along with whatever popular or critical opinion was current of Bolan in the period being addressed. This was annoying.

In addition to his music, Bolan came to be known for two things - seriously exaggerating his life, and being powerfully driven to success and acceptance one way or another. The means to this end came through music, which he broke into almost be sheer force of will. He never was a very talented guitar player, but what he knew, he really knew what to do with it.

He success began with his own band - of which he was very much the boss - which was called Tyrannosaurus Rex. This he formed after a boy band he was in, called John's Children, broke up after a disastrous tour as opener for The Who in Germany. Tyrannosaurus Rex was a two-piece band which put out four albums and garnered themselves what Bolan considered to be a hippie following, playing a run of small acoustic gigs with a steady fan base, and releasing a couple of singles, until Bolan began to realize that he was going nowhere with this, and after marrying his girlfriend, June Child, he retooled, ditching the acoustic guitar for the electric.

He also changed the band's name, shortening it to T.Rex. The first single he released was Ride a White Swan, which, after a long slow climb, made it to the number two spot on the British charts. This is one of my favorite songs. His appearance, with some glitter on his face, effectively kick-started 'glam rock', although Bolan himself never considered his band to be a glam rock band. He followed this up with Hot Love, which went all the way to number one. T.Rex was in, and Marc Bolan had started to live his dream.

There came a string of top ten hits, many of which were number one or nearly so, and Bolan's popularity in Britain came to rival that of the Beatles in their heyday, with screaming fans fighting to get up the the stage and their noise drowning out the music. For all his success in Britain, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere though, he was never accepted in the USA, where "Get it On" was his only hit, and that had to be renamed to avoid confusion with an earlier song of the same name, so it became known as "Bang a Gong" in the US.

It was at this point that Bolan became his own worst enemy, drunk on what he considered to be his single-handed success and refusing to listen to anyone. His fame started to wane as did his hits, and he reacted by indulging in drugs - something which he had avoided like the plague to this point in his life. His wife eventually gave-up on him after he started an affair with Gloria Jones, evidently thinking he could have a wife and a mistress. It turns out he couldn't.

Bolan sunk into the depths and became more of a joke or a self-parody than anything, but then Gloria became pregnant, and Bolan started turning things around, and trying to reinvent himself. He was, it seemed, on the verge of doing just that, and finding his way back when around 4:00 am on Friday, September 16, 1977, Gloria Jones was driving him home (Bolan never learned to drive) after a night out when the car hit a tree. Neither was wearing a set belt. She survived, splayed across the hood of the Mini. Lying on the road beside it, Bolan didn't. As wikipedia reports it: "She was later due to appear in court in London on charges of being unfit to drive and driving a car in a dangerous condition. She never returned to face the charges and the Coroner's Court recorded a verdict of accidental death."

Bolan's second wave of success did indeed come after his death as more and more people acknowledged his influence and contribution to rock, but he was no longer around to enjoy it. While I can definitely recommend some of his music, I can't recommend this book.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Marsh Mud and Mummichogs by Evelyn B Sherr

Title: Marsh Mud and Mummichogs
Author: Evelyn B Sherr
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Rating: WORTHY!

Evelyn Sherr has a BS in Biology and a PhD in Zoology. She's Professor Emeritus in the Oregon State University's Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry department. Judged from her writing in this book, she also has a sly sense of humor and her knowledge of salt marsh life is quite 'littorally' amazing. There is one thing on which I have her beat, though: I know that snakes are venomous, not poisonous! Although I guess some snakes might be poisonous if not cooked properly before eating...!

The book is pretty dense and strong on science, but it's not dry and unreadable. Obviously it isn't for everyone, but it is for anyone who has an interest in wildlife, especially if you live in Georgia, or plan on visiting and don't want to end up bitten or stung (or even eaten) by something nasty when all you wanted to do was enjoy the coastline.

So I know what you're wondering: what the heck is a mummichog? Well I didn't know either, and I'm not going to tell you because I have to admit the obscurity of the title was part of the attraction, as I'm sure the author planned. All I'm going to say is that it has nothing to do with killer fish.

The book is well organized and supported with a host of really nice quality gray-scale photographs. I found myself wishing for more, even so. So many animals and plants are mentioned that it would have been nice to see a few more of them. There were too many to show images of them all, but fortunately, if you're reading this on something like an iPad, you can have your browser open, and do an image search to keep up. I was doing this almost spastically. It's one of the major advantages that ebooks have over print books.

And this author really does cover everything. Here's a list of the chapter headers so you can gauge how thorough she is for yourself:

  1. Marine habitats of the Georgia Coast
  2. What You Don't See: Microscopic Life
  3. Marsh Grass, Live Oaks, Sea Oats
  4. Creatures of the Black Goo
  5. Mud Dwellers of Marshes and Creeks
  6. Creepy Crawlies: Insects and Spiders
  7. Marsh Life: Scales
  8. Marsh Life: Feathers and Fur
  9. What Lies Beneath; Zooplankton
  10. Attachment to Place: Settlers
  11. Sound Swimmers: Nekton
  12. On, and Under, the Beach: Living in the Sand
  13. Loggerheads
  14. Shore Birds
  15. seasons in the Sun
  16. The Once and Future Coast

There is also: three appendices, a bibliography, and an index. And there's a preface which I didn't read. I never read forewords, introductions, prefaces, prologues and whatever. Just a personal quirk.

I love the chapter titles that played on movie titles such as 'Creatures of the Black Goo', and 'What Lies Beneath', and the play on words in 'Sound Swimmers'. In the 'Feathers and Fur' chapter I learned of the rice rat - something I had never heard of before. That sounds so cute - and looks just as cute. Any budding animator needs to Disney-fy that before Disney does!

The chapters, as the list above indicates, covered everything from microscopic life to the megafauna of the area, which includes whales and squid. It covered pretty much every class of life there is, from invertebrates to vertebrates, and pretty much every group those two orders include, and it did not shy away from plant life either, which was really nice.

I don't normally pay attention to covers because the author typically has little or nothing to do with them unless they self publish, but in this case, and regardless of who chose the cover, I have to say it was part of the attraction for me. It reminded me of the time I visited a salt marsh (in Texas, not in Georgia, and I walked with my dogs along a raised boardwalk just like this one, hoping the gators wouldn't launch themselves up onto it and try to take one of the dogs! I have to say that Texas gators are pretty decent folk. I saw them in the marsh, their eyes just above the water, but they didn't try anything funny, which just goes to show why you never see a gator doing stand-up comedy. It was a bit scary, but great fun and quite bracing.

So before I wax lyrical with an ocean of comments, let me beach this review by simply saying that I loved this book, loved the way it was written, the sweet sense of humor and the extensive detail of everything to be found in nature on the Georgia coast. I recommend this.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Royal Babylon by Karl Shaw

Title: Royal Babylon
Author: Karl Shaw (no website found)
Publisher: Crown
Rating: WARTY!

Not to be confused with Royal Babylon by Heathcote Williams which actually has, believe it or not, a more amusing cover than this one does, this book is a tour of European royalty across the ages (mostly across the ages where there is sufficient documentation to support an informed conclusion). My problem with it, and the main reason I'm rating it negatively is the author's style and tone, which i did not appreciate at all. He writes in a stridently supercilious tone and he seems to relish describing royals in the worst light imaginable regardless of how they actually were. This gives me some cause for doubt as to how accurate his portrayals really are, especially when I caught him in some outright falsifications (or to be more benign, in displaying inexcusable ignorance or laziness in his research.

I doubt he even took the trouble to look at pictures of the people he describes, judged by some of the things he says. I know that portraits were (and are) deliberately painted to be flattering, but in instances where I've checked on his descriptions, they are far in excess of what the portraits indicated. In one case, it was recent enough that there was a photograph, and he was outright lying about that princess's appearance. It's like the author didn't care about veracity if he could get in a sly swipe at some royal person or other. I'm far from a supporter of the nobility, trust me, but I get the impression that Shaw either hates royals or derives a perverse pleasure from gratuitous sniping at those who are dead and cannot therefore defend themselves. Here's what he says about Crown Princess Margaret of Prussia, for example:

...Queen Victoria admitted that the Crown Princess was "not regularly Pretty." In the context of royal doublespeak, it is safe to assume that she was grotesque.
(Page 32)

This is an outright lie as you can see from the images in wikipedia. Did this author never check any image or portrait? As it happens, it was not safe to assume any such thing and the author could have verified this for himself if he had taken the trouble. The fact that he didn't speaks more erudite volumes than the one he has written here. From the photograph in wikipedia, and she looked like any random person you might consider. Now I admit that beauty (and by definition ugliness) is in the eye of the beholder, and she was not what you might describe as outstandingly beautiful or classically beautiful (for what that's worth), but she looked perfectly fine, and it seems to me to be disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst to describe a woman like that as grotesque.

In another instance, he describes on page 45, a princess as dying young and a spinster because she was ugly and/or deformed, yet I cannot even track down who this is. He names her as Princess Frederica of Saxe-Coburg, but the only such princess I can find from the period was not a spinster at all. She married, had children, and lived a long life.

With regard to Queen Charlotte, with whom king George was very much in love by all accounts, Shaw goes out of his way to repeat how ugly she supposedly was. Actual portraits, even allowing for the fact that they're typically painted in a flattering light, and also allowing for personal taste, would seem very much to label him a liar. I honestly don't get why he does this so dedicatedly, particularly towards women, whom he describes routinely as at best, "short" and at worst, "squat" or "dwarfish". He seems to fail to understand that diminutive stature was the norm back then. It's only recently that both men and women have become (relatively speaking) the towering giants we're used to today.

There's another really egregious case on page 61 where the author says, "Edward VII and his wife Alexandra raised lackluster children whose general education standard was well below average. The eldest, Prince Eddie, was by any standards a half-wit." This refers to Prince Albert who died at the terribly early age of 28, carried off by the flu. Shaw's claims are not supported in his writing; they're simply stated and left at that. According to wikipedia, which I trust significantly over this author, Prince Albert "Eddie" was nothing like Shaw claims he was.

Shaw has a fairly extensive bibliography at the end of this book, but not a single reference number anywhere in his text to support the calumny he heaps upon any of his victims. I supposed he expects us to take his word for it, or to read the scores of books he lists in the hope we can find what he was talking about. This is shoddy scholarship at best and an outrage at worst. This is not to stay that royalty of yesteryear were paragons, by any means. Some of them were heroic, but an awful lot of them were an awful lot. that doesn't mean it's fine to choose the largest most indiscriminate brush possible and blindly and randomly tar them all with it.

He plays the same kind of game with British Queen Elizabeth 2nd's uncles: Henry, John (who had epilepsy and died of a seizure). Finding what might be glaring errors, or at least questionable information, causes me to doubt his credentials as a reliable reporter. He is accurate in many things he says, but his most derogatory comments seem to be reserved for princesses, so I'm really wondering what this guy's game was in writing this!

I don't mind snark, but it's inappropriate to me when it's aimed at peoples' looks, and especially so when the looks don't even merit the snark in the first place. It's different if, for example, someone with a seriously outrageous appearance (in one way or another) sets themselves up as a standard of 'gorgeous' or 'beautiful' or fashionable when they clearly aren't. Someone like that might arguably deserve snark; however, to routinely and repeatedly take pot-shots at people not based on some eccentric peccadillo, or some absurd or obscene behavior, but purely on their looks is petty and mean, and it's especially so if their looks aren't even remotely as bad as the author claims.

To me there's a big difference in a person's behavior, of which they are largely in control, and in merely their appearance or facial features, of which they're not - not back then, anyway. If they're purposefully doing something bizarre with their looks, it's rather different, but even that must be tempered with reference to the age in which they lived.

Shaw's book purports to be highlighting wacky and outrageous royal behavior, with which I have no problem even if it might be exaggerated somewhat, but he's just as much jumping all over them for purely for how their face appeared or whether they were overweight or had a physical deformity as he is for truly oddball behavior. To me, it's unnecessarily cruel, especially when he has so much real wacky material to play with. Had he turned the same cruel eye upon contemporary people, he would have been rightly censured for it. I don't see that removing his slurs a few hundred years gets him a free pass, and I refuse to recommend this particular and cruel view.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Darwin A Graphic Biography by Eugene Byrne

Title: Darwin A Graphic Biography
Author: Eugene Byrne
Publisher: Smithsonian Books
Rating: WORTHY!

Very neatly illustrated by Simon Gurr.

This is a remarkable and charming graphic novel briefly explaining how Charles Darwin arrived at the Theory of Evolution, and telling us something about his life. It’s told accurately and to a significant depth, without going into way too much detail, and it’s told with a great sense of humor.

As a young man, Darwin was rather rudderless. He was pointed in the direction of family tradition (for men) which was medicine, but he couldn’t stand the sight of blood and had to leave the OR during one surgery he was supposed to be witnessing. Of course, medicine was far more of an experimental – if not just plain mental – endeavor back in his day than it is now, and far more bloody and painful (there was no anesthesia). Perhaps Darwin was wise in deciding that he would much rather spend his time taking nature rambles and looking at beetles, plants, and life in tidal pools.

His father determined that he should become a clergyman in default of a medical career, and though he was religious, Darwin wasn’t interested in that, either. He did manage, with some help, to complete his schooling, but before he had a chance to lose his way in the church, he had the opportunity to take a sea voyage on a ship called The Beagle. The idea was to finish mapping South America’s coast line and estuaries for trade and naval use.

The voyage was supposed to last two years, but Darwin was gone for five, and when he returned, he was quite a celebrity in scientific circles, having documented geology and life, both plant an animal, extensively, and sent back hundreds and hundreds of specimens, some of them live, along with letters and reports. One of these live specimens was a giant tortoise from the Galapagos, which ended up in Australia and died only in 2006.

The idea of organisms changing over time is inescapable to anyone with eyes and a decent amount of smarts. It’s evident even in living species, and it’s blatantly evident from the fossil record, but because of the power of the church, it was very much a taboo subject. Nonetheless, the evidence forced it into the light, and Darwin wasn’t the first person ever to think about this. He was the first to marshal so great a wealth of evidence, supported by a working, testable explanation, that the subject could no longer be ignored by the populace, dismissed by scientists, or repressed by religious authorities.

This book describes his life leading up to the Beagle voyage, the voyage itself, and the years of hesitation and agonizing over the theory before he finally published his land-mark work late in 1859. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species… was a best-seller, and was read not only by scientists and the wealthy, but by ordinary people for whom it was an expensive purchase. When he learned that everyday people were reading it, Darwin even produced a “mass market” version – using smaller print so it cost less to produce and buy.

This graphic novel explains lucidly and accurately what the theory was all about, and details some of the extensive evidence that supports it. It also cuts the legs out from under a lot of the lies which young-Earth creationists have been forced to ‘create’ in their attempts at character-assassination of Darwin over the years, as they realized their attempts at ‘science’ have failed dismally and repeatedly. I thoroughly recommend this book.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Browned Off and Bloody-Minded by Alan Allport

Title: Browned Off and Bloody-Minded
Author: Alan Allport
Publisher: Yale University Press
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is non-fiction, yet some of the stories in it rival fiction for how engrossing they are. The author has put together a record of World War Two, told from the perspective of the British army, and he relates this history unflinchingly, warts and all.

Some of the chapter titles might give you an idea of what's involved here: Gentlemen and old Sweats, Strange Defeat, Army of Shopkeepers, Britain Blancoes While Russia Bleeds, Come to Sunny Italy, Fighting Bloody Nature, The Grammar of War, What a Colossal Waste of Time War is.

Unlike fiction, this isn't necessarily the kind of book where you start at the beginning and proceed sequentially to the end. I felt it was more of a dip-in and browse, but even in doing that, I found myself becoming engrossed and reading on and on, past the chapter I'd begun in and onto the next. I have an interest in this war, having grown up next door, and having traveled in Europe, so you might not find this quite as enthralling as I did, but if you have watched any World War Two movies - ones based on actual events - and found them engrossing, then this will more than likely interest you, too.

Some of the stories are downright disturbing. Being a big fan of tanks, there's one which made a lasting impression on me, regarding an encounter between a British Sherman tank and a German Tiger tank, which you can read
here. The book is full of these stories of heroism and incompetence, of life-wasting bad plans and of strokes of genius, of bravery and foolishness, and of victory and disaster. And this is what we ask our young men - and now young women - to put up with. Is it worth it, and if not, then what's a viable alternative to squandering youth on death?

The book doesn't flinch about discussing personal lives and predilections either, such as relating a story about soldier 'Dicky' Buckle, who was not only openly gay (something which was largely accepted during World War Two, and then turned into a crime post-war: Alan Turing I'm thinking of you, and many others), but he was one of the bravest men in his entire battalion. One time he found a wedding dress in amongst German possessions and wore it to the officer's mess that same evening. He was not a rarity, either. no one batted an eyelid at this. Not then.

Women are do not go unnoticed here, although most of the references to them are to those who suffered because hostile nations were fighting over territory which they called home, or who out of sheer necessity found themselves selling their bodies in return for the most basic things they needed just to live from one day to the next. During the war, Britain not only mobilized almost six million men, it also mobilized well over half a million women. A hoard of those who did not enter service in the military did enter it in industry in place of the men who were no longer available. You cannot indulge a nation in those activities on such a massive scale without the consequences, good and bad, permeating every stratum of a society.

This book is really long - some 540 pages, although the last one hundred or so are appendices and exhaustive end notes, but that said, it didn't feel like it was long. It was too interesting. I recommend this for anyone interested in what the conflicts should really be about and how they should be approached.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Hillary Doctrine by Valerie M Hudson and Patricia Leidl

Title: The Hillary Doctrine
Author: Valerie M Hudson and Patricia Leidl
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Professor Valerie M. Hudson holds the George HW Bush Chair at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and has written several books. Patricia Leidl is a Vancouver-based international communications advisor who has worked with USAID.

I recommend reading his. I’d call for it to be required reading except for the fact that it’s written more as an academic paper than it is for popular reading, and it’s really quite long (430 pages, although that’s reduced to 308 pages when notes, prefaces, forewords, etc (which I didn’t read, as is my ‘doctrine’!) are excluded. Also, it's very densely-packed with information. For me this wasn’t a problem because I enjoyed reading this and educating myself. For others it might feel rather more like cramming for finals than reading for some other purpose!

Let me start with a disturbing revelation: “The United States is also one of only three nations worldwide that has not legislated any paid maternity leave whatsoever, the others being Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.”. I can’t say anything about Swaziland, but I know that Papua New Guinea has a rape problem of terrifying proportions, which I shall get back to later. Note that another perspective substitutes Oman for Swaziland (I don;t know which is right, but it doesn't make it any better for the US! US, Papua New Guinea, Oman are only nations without paid maternity leave - UN. Indeed, the US is hardly family friendly: The U.S. ranks last in every measure when it comes to family policy, in 10 charts

So this is what women in the 'land of opportunity' are up against. As the book blurb says, “Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first Secretary of State to declare the subjugation of women worldwide a serious threat to U.S. national security.” This is what the Hillary Doctrine refers to, and what this book investigates, looking at both the positive and the negative perspectives. How much more of a threat to security is it when those subjugated women are resident in and citizens of the USA itself? The conclusions may well disturb you as they disturbed me. The book references Hillary Clinton's speech at the Fourth World Conference on Women, organized by the United Nations, in 1995 in Beijing. It's well worth the listening, although I felt that the book over-dramatized it somewhat.

This books asks many disturbing questions which need to continue to be asked until we get useful answers. One of them is: “Does the insecurity of women make nations less secure? How has the doctrine changed the foreign policy of the United States and altered its relationship with other countries, such as China and Mexico?” It incorporates views from a wide assortment of people, both favorable and not, and considers studies conducted in nations from Afghanistan to Yemen. It also considers how the US actively undermines its own gender policy with its own agenda policy.

Clinton, the most widely-traveled of all US Secretaries of State, who was a republican before she switched sides many, many years back, has pretty much been a lifelong advocate on women’s issues, and never so strongly as when she became SoS (for women!) for four years under the Obama administration. “I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century. We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings.” This is what she told Newsweek magazine.

After Beijing, Alyse Nelson, president of Vital Voices Global Partnership said, “What Mrs. Clinton so clearly realized in Beijing was that she had a voice and she had power, and she could use that voice to help those who had no power.” There are far too many women in this world without power, without equal rights, without food in their bellies, or clothes on their backs (or too many clothes covering them up and hiding them from sight), and without even a basic education in their brains.

Curiously, Clinton herself has had something to say about Papua New Guinea: One of her highest priorities was “…enabling more women to have access to their rights, to take their position in society” and after a short visit there, she announced her intention to have a trusted aid follow up in that nation where almost incredibly, some 55% of women have experienced forced sex.

I highly recommend this book, sad as it made me to read it because of the god-awfully distressing facts that it piled up inescapably.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Stands in a Storm by Kim Cross

Title: What Stands in a Storm
Author: Kim Cross
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Page 109 "...right bicep..." should be "...right biceps..."

Most of what I review is fiction, however rooted in reality it night be, but occasionally I review non-fiction where I think it’s important, and those reviews tend mostly towards books about the environment. This one falls into that category and it’s the first one of which I haven't felt merited a passing grade.

Wikipedia has a brief introduction to this storm, but author Kim Cross (not to be confused with author Kimberley Cross Teter) makes it personal and goes much deeper so you get a real feel for what it might have been like to be there as this storm was brewing. There is a problem with this approach, however, in that a certain amount of fiction, however unintended, necessarily creeps into a story written this way. In my opinion, this fictional element detracted from the humanization of the story.

For example, a lot of conversations are reported where those conversations were not recorded as they happened, and are clearly made-up. By made-up, I mean reconstructed, not made-up to distort or misrepresent. They're constructed to convey what people were saying and feeling, and even though they're based on personal recollections, no one can recall verbatim what was precisely said and exactly felt at times like those. It’s interesting and important to know how people felt looking back, of course, but it’s also rather misleading to present recollection as though it was 'happening live".

Where we don’t have actual texts or recordings, these recollections are necessarily based upon what people reported after the fact, but they nevertheless are to one extent or another a fictional representation of events and conversations which are in this case and in my opinion, biased towards the emotional. For me, I felt that the story was emotional enough without this "augmentation", and while a tedious recital of plain facts would have done an equal disservice, I'm by no means convinced that this was the smartest approach to reporting these particular stories.

I know that the author comes from a journalistic background and journalists are all-but-brainwashed into going after the human angle, but in this day and age, people are more mature in their view of stories (although nonetheless gullible, unfortunately) and don’t necessarily respond in the same way to a traditional journalistic approach. The author does tell us that the quotations were taken from recordings in some cases and eye-witnesses in others, but eye-witness testimony is the most unreliable of all evidence.

I don’t doubt that the author conveyed her interviews accurately, and I don’t doubt that people told it they way they remembered it without consciously changing anything, but memory is an extraordinarily malleable entity. I don't believe that these people accurately recalled precise reactions and verbatim conversations from times when they were highly (and understandably) emotional and to represent it here as though they did seems unfortunately misleading at best.

It's not that they were lying or attempting to mislead or obfuscate, but the fact is that no-one save an eidetic can accurately report word-for-word conversations, especially not from traumatic events like these. I felt that the reporting here ought to have striven for less "verbatim" and more general representation of how people behaved, what they thought, and how they felt and reacted. For me that would have made a more authentic story and it would have been better for it.

The story is split into three parts: the storm, the aftermath, and picking up the pieces. We follow not only the people it affected, but also the weather forecasters who were trying to predict what it would do, and when and where, and the rescuers who had to find the victims after the storm passed. There had already been an outbreak earlier that same month - indeed, April 2011 currently holds the record for most prolific tornado month with a total of 757 reported overall. In the outbreak of 25 -27 April, 348 people died, 316 of these on April 27th, which spawned four EF5 tornadoes. The writer tells us that "Only one EF5 is reported in the United States in a typical year. In 2011 there were six. Four of these struck on April 27th." It’s pretty scary stuff even when stated baldly like that.

This was an horrific event by any measure. Or series of events more accurately. The storm-front spewed-out tornado after tornado, some of those splitting themselves. At least one of those which didn’t split grew to be a mile wide. When people thought it had passed, it meant only that they were in the eye (and remember this is a tornado, not a hurricane!), and the winds would come again, this time in the opposite direction, finishing off damage which the first massive wall of wind had begun.

A power transmission tower was literally bent in half, a school bus was stripped to its chassis. Not only were homes removed, but the concrete slabs beneath them were lifted. Motor vehicles took to the air. Entire apartment complexes were raised. It was lifting asphalt off the roads. It was lifting bulldozers and dump trucks. It lifted an SUV into a water tower. Community after community was savaged. In addition to the irreplaceable lives lost, property damage totaled eleven billion dollars.

The story mentions many forecasters and storm-chasers, but the weather forecasters it focuses most strongly on are James Spann and Jason Simpson, and there's some back story on Spann, which I skipped since it wasn't interesting to me. It may be more interesting to people who watch these guys on TV (apparently they have quite a following). I was much more interested in exactly what happened that day, and that's pretty gripping. Frankly I’d have preferred it if that story had not been broken-up with flashbacks. I’d also have preferred it if we had learned much more about it. To me this was one of several lost opportunities in this book.

The book focused tightly on people and personal experiences, and I can see why a journalist would take that approach, but in doing so, a much bigger and ultimately more important picture was missed in my opinion. The bigger picture concerns climate change, and personal safety in the event of a natural disaster. There was also a bigger picture in other dimensions, too. In focusing on people, nature was missed. We learn nothing of animals - wildlife, domesticated animals, and pets - it’s like they didn’t exist in this book. We learn something of damage to trees, but only in passing, and nothing of how nature suffered and eventually recovered afterwards. I was sad that all of this was lost in a welter of personal stories, important as those are.

Even on that personal level we missed a golden teaching opportunity to wise-up readers on how to avoid the mistakes and about poor decisions which people can make during catastrophes like this one. I can see how this would conflict with telling a tale of loss and tragedy: no one wants to say "your child/sibling/parent/relative died because they made bad decisions." Of course not, but people even in their best light do not act rationally when understandably overwhelming disasters envelop them.

Ultimately it’s more important and practical to try to prevent deaths than it is to dwell on the past, tragic as it was, and painful and meaningful as those losses were. A chapter on what might have been done to prevent, to ameliorate, to avoid, wouldn't have been out of place in this book. The author does touch on these things in a rather half-hearted and widely-scattered manner, but a solid statement in a chapter of its own would have been more useful and practical. How did those who survived actually survive? Why didn't those who died actually survive? People always ask "Why me?" after events like this, but this book not only fails to offer answers, it doesn't even attempt them. I think that was a sad omission and a disservice to those who died and those who survived them.

I think the role of religion was overplayed here too. Yes, churches do contribute in important ways at times like these, but that's the church. No god did anything to save lives here, and while a small issue was made out of a stained glass window which withstood the storm, four churches were completely demolished in one community (as well as others elsewhere, no doubt), yet this was rather glossed over because that one window was what stands in a storm! I found that distasteful.

Climate change, aka 'global warming' doesn’t necessarily account for every super-storm which breaks out, but what we can count on is that climate change will without a doubt exacerbate such storms; winters will become more harsh, summers will become more baking, and hurricanes and tornadoes will become more prevalent and stronger. This is why this is important, because instead of being a rarity, the events of late April 2011 could become the norm. I felt that a valuable educational opportunity was squandered when this book didn’t even mention climate, climate change, or global warming - not even once.

Be forewarned that a lot of this story is going to be really hard to read. It doesn't matter that this isn’t a news item on TV, that's it’s 'past history' - it was only three years ago and there are people out there still living with this as fresh and raw on their minds and hearts as if it happened this morning. The description of the tornado assault in part one is very well done, but I wished that there was more of it and more explanation for what it did and how it did it so people can understand it better and be better prepared for the future.

It’s the rescue stories afterwards - specifically the rescues that were already too late before the rescue teams even set out - that grab you, though. It’s the babies in the rubble and the loved ones lost, where not even experience can prepare you for the next one you find. And the next one. If we don’t want ever more of this in the future we need to start fighting now: fighting against climate change and fighting for safer buildings and a better educated public. I just wish the author had come down stronger on that.

As it is, I can't recommend this book. I think it got off to a strong start, but it faded quickly and became lost, for me, in parts two and three. The winds may blow differently for you.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Title: Romantic Outlaws
Author: Charlotte Gordon
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is a true story (if a bit overly dramatized here and there!) of two Marys: mother and daughter, the elder of whom, Mary Wollstonecraft, pretty much single-handedly founded feminism, and the younger of whom, best known as Mary Shelley, became famous for her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written when she was eighteen (and which was almost universally panned upon its initial publication).

The title of this book is oddly ironic since there's nothing either romantic or outlaw-ish about either of these two women unless you think of outlaw as the opposite of in-law and consider Mary the younger's circumstances once she eloped with Percy Shelley, the pretentious poet. Outlandish Scofflaws might have been a better title!

What this history is, above and beyond all else, is a shocking account of abuse, cruelty, and injustice heaped upon women by the very men they loved and counted on: Imlay, Godwin, Shelley, and Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft, before she ever met Mary Shelley's father, was doing a great job of being the very thing she stood for - a strong and independent woman, until she met a complete jerk by the name of George Imlay, whom she allowed to take advantage of her before he then abandoned her for someone younger.

She fell apart at this point, betraying her feminist principles, going into a funk, and twice trying to commit suicide, selfishly sparing not a thought for her young daughter, Imlay's daughter and Mary Shelley's sister-in-law, Fanny, who herself committed suicide later in her own life. This is the same woman who competed with men on equal terms as a writer, who lived in and lived through the French revolution, becoming perhaps the world's first foreign correspondent, working for a news and social commentary magazine.

In turn, Mary Shelley, who never knew her mother, spent her whole life missing her, and took off with Percy Shelley in what was superficially a romantic elopement, but which proved to be nothing for than delusional juvenile folly which turned into a dire marriage sabotaged by Shelley's selfish and self-absorbed inability to love, and exacerbated by Mary's crushing loss of her first two children. Mary was partly to blame for the death of her second child, William, since she knew that Rome was subject to the fever (malaria) in the summer but selfishly refused to move away from the city. She never forgave herself for that poor decision.

The contrast between these two women's lives is as stark as the similarities. Mary Wollstonecraft had to fight for everything she admirably gained only to lose it willingly as she allowed herself to become a slave to her ironic dependency upon Gilbert Imlay. Mary Shelley was spoiled rotten except for her perennial longing for her father's affection, which never came. She got everything she wanted, although it came with the pain of being in dire financial straits and with social ostracism for her running away with a married noble man who turned out to be about as ignoble as they come.

Percy Shelley seduced his wife-to-be, Harriet, blinded by some asinine "romantic" notion that he was saving her - a notion which came to him again when he met Mary Godwin, and yet again when he met an Italian noble woman while still married to Mary. As soon as Harriet, and then Mary became pregnant, Shelley pretty much lost interest in them since they were no longer romantic, and he evidently had no idea how to be anything other than a distant lover. He preferred to go off by himself writing grandiose, but ultimately shallow poetry than to sit with his bereaved and grieving wife and hold her hand. Mary's cold withdrawal after the death of William didn’t help. No romance there.

Mary and Percy's relationship was lived in the pale shadow of Mary's other half sister, Claire, who traveled with them everywhere, adding to the scandal under which they lived, making Mary look (and in some ways feel) like one of two female concubines to the poet. This pressure came to a head more than once in fights between Mary and Claire.

Lord Byron was no better. He joined them on their extended vacation, seducing Claire and then abandoning her when she had his child. This so-called god of the romantic poem was himself nothing but a lowlife and a complete jerk around women. Why he's held in such high regard today is a mysterious as it is scandalous. He was present that dark and stormy night when the four (Byron, Shelley, his doctor John Polidori, and Mary) all agreed to write a ghost story. Mary and John were the only two who actually did, and neither one of them actually wrote a ghost story. Mary came up with Frankenstein, which was disturbingly autobiographical in many (metaphorical) ways and John wrote a vampire story which in turn inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula. Polidori killed himself only a few years later.

Mary's father, Godwin, had no idea how to show affection to a child, and Mary felt the loss of her mother and her father's icy demeanor throughout her life. Godwin, supposedly a free-thinker and an advocate of free love, ostracized Mary after her elopement, even as he hypocritically harangued Shelley for loans to pay off his own debts! He did not come around until Shelley's wife, Harriet, killed herself, and Mary and Shelley finally married against their own "principles". Shelley then hypocritically tried to gain control of the two children which he had until then quite effectively rejected!

Later in life, Godwin appallingly withheld Mary's novel Mathilda, from publication, refusing to submit it and refusing to return her own manuscript to her. It wasn't published until 150 years after her death! In short, this is the story of two women who were remarkable, each in her own way, but who fell afoul of bad men and ended-up on bad relationships, yet who seemed unable to stick to their principles and extricate themselves.

To be fair, society and the law were harshly stacked against women in those times, even more so than they are now. It’s remarkable that these two Marys achieved what they did, and in the long term, both did prove to be strong. After her two suicide bids, Mary Wollstonecraft came back to life, restoring her career, meeting and became involved with Godwin, and finally giving birth to Mary, but dying shortly afterwards - the fate of all too many women back then.

Mary, having lost her step-sister fanny, lost her first two children, and been sorely used by Shelley, wrote many novels, survived the death, tragedy and suicides around her, survived Shelley's sad death in a boating mishap, and lived to fairly ripe old age, becoming revered and an institution in her own lifetime.

This is a long, long book - almost six hundred pages (of which about ten percent is chapter notes) - packed with detail, anecdotes, and pictures. It’s remarkable history of the lives and times of two remarkable and very memorable women. I recommend it.