Book Blog
The Wrecker (Review) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 06 May 2012 08:33

Cussler is a lot like Pizza - very tasty, very fun, very casual, but not much in the way of substance.

Now that I've gotten my high-brow snarkiness out of the way, lets get down to brass tacks - The Wrecker is a thriller set in 1907 or so by a writer from Cussler's stable, an effort to export the high-level, fast-paced political-action thriller back into a world we think of as kinder and gentler (don't be fooled - a decade later, men hung up on barbed wire would be machined-gunned). Interestingly, many of the causal reviewers were impressed with the historical accuracy of the novel. This is where it fell flat for me.

I've mentioned HERE my experiences with the La Mesa club, running trains under a control system used across a hundred years of railroad operations, 'Time Table & Train Order'. I know how railroads worked and how trains were moved. This simple fact killed the book for me - it was clear the author didn't know anything about this (at one point, desperados try to sabotage the railroad by interfering with the telegraph, which is stated as used for moving trains from town to town - wrong, wrong, wrong). This might seem like a minor fact, but I would expect a more modern novel (say, involving submarines) to have a basic understanding of submarine operating principles and not figure that the captain just aimed for the channel mouth when leaving port.

There was also the transposing of our modern attitude of meetings and conferences in this far-away time. There was no net-meetings, no conference calls, no flying over for three days to discuss things and then redeye home. Offices and businesses back then had more independence. Yet in the book, every time the heroes needed to get together to plot strategies, they had to commission private trains to whisk them (and airline speeds) across the country for their meetings. Again, I know how trains ran, and elevating a single train over all others in the time-tabled pecking order would cause time- and cash-intensive disruptions. This whole idea that such an effort was routine in any way broke the novel for me.

Think I'm off-base here? In Captains Courageous, the railroad-owning father, upon finding out that his son is back from the dead and in an eastern fishing port, calls all his railroad rivals to put aside their economic wars and give him such a privilege. In this, his journey is an epic with the trains of hostile railroads standing on every siding as his white-flagged extra screams eastward. In this, it is an amazing race of a desperate father willing to grant his rivals power over him, just for a few hours of critical time. The same point was made in the old flick Danger Flag, where the entire railroad is put on the siding so that one man can be raced to a top-flight brain surgeon.

What I'm saying is that critical things like special trains are rare and amazing, not just some sort of steam-powered Leer jet, permitting a man to put his ass in a seat on the other side of the country.

There were other things - I remember feeling annoyed that the villain, when thwarted once, had an extensive and expensive backup plan in place, one that he could whip out at a critical moment. I remember thinking, "Oh, come on!" when suddenly it is revealed that, per chance, the blackguard had other men, other plans, a web of evil yadda yad. Sure, sure.

I suppose the writer was hampered in that, unlike today's stories, dynamite fuses don't have a digital count-down for added suspense.

No, I'm sorry, but this book didn't cut it for me. As a historic writer, I understand that we must guess at history, filling in the gaps with the caulk of conjecture. Further, we must make a leap between our concepts and beliefs of 2012 into earlier, distant, and often alien cultures. In my view, The Wreckers did neither of these. They should have just made it anther Dirk Pitt novel and left it at that.


Last Updated on Sunday, 06 May 2012 09:15
Bartleby, The Scrivener (Review) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 29 April 2012 15:25

You'll remember my love [sic] of Herman Melville HERE, how I couldn't get his stuff down, not with a spoon-full of sugar, not at the point of a gun. I've read long windy lofty books, Atlas Shrugged, Anna Karinina, and currently, Quicksilver. I've liked them all to various degrees. But Melville, "He tasks me; he heaps me".

In other words, I could never get in tune with him. Even Billy Budd mauled me.

But my crazy sometime's daughter / sometimes groupie Denise mentioned this book years back with the old "You haven't read 'Bartleby, The Scrivener'? Oh, you gotta read it!!!'

Yeah, okay. Every reader's heard that one before.

But I happened to think of her the other day and looked online and there was Bartleby, The Scrivener listed in Project Gutenberg (old books online). I've read from their site before (Captains Courageous) so I looked both ways, made sure everyone was out at lunch, and burned 34 pages off on the work printer.

Then, walking back to the desk, I started reading it.

Found myself sneaking another glance. A further glance. Between two meetings, I bolted down a page or two.

Green Eggs and Ham Moment - I'm reading (and ENJOYING) Melville!

So the story is about a small clerking office, a shut-in, constricting, enclosed sort of employment enjoyed by people out of Dickens novels. Here, it's manually copying legal documents, page by page, line by line, word by word. And then the team sits (perhaps in pairs, perhaps collectively) and reads over the copies, word by word.

It makes me want to hug my HP Deskjet, I'll tell you.

Anyway, the office is described in its close, cubic glory. And then the three clerks are described (also in close, cubic glory). Some laughs there. And then a new man is hired, Bartleby, a quiet, slinking man. In today's media, he'd be your ax murderer or hotel keeper, the guy with no past and little presence. But no, no splatterfest here, just a guy who does what he's told, copies what's put before him, nose to the grindstone.

Until, one day, he won't.

"I would prefer not to."

Flummoxed, his employer (the narrator) tries to reason with him, to get him to do work. First, he won't read back. Then, he won't copy. He won't nip down to the post office. It's like he's shutting down. He prefers not to.

And it comes to light that he's living in the office, sleeping at his desk, never leaving.

So this is not Ahab and the Whale, crashing in backdrops of brine and spray. This is one little office worker who shuts down, and his employer who is too passive to move him. It is a battle of ineffectiveness, of minute forces slowly pushing. And as one reads, one gets the impression that the employer, in his own way, is just as ineffective as his lights-going-out employee.

But it was interesting, and haunting, and sad and expansive (in that way literature is). So skip the whales and virtuous sailor boys, have a look at Bartleby. Its good.

You can get a free copy HERE.


Last Updated on Sunday, 29 April 2012 15:57
Casca (Review) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 22 April 2012 17:25

In my science fiction stories (both the published Early ReTyrement and several others I spooled out over the years), the hero did the direct jump, either backwards or forwards. Blink and he's there. In the Casca series, the hero does it the long way, by living each year.

See, Casca Rufio Longinus is the hapless Roman soldier put on execution duty. He's on the detail putting Christ up on the cross. And in that, he takes pity on the guy and jams his spear into him if only to shorten his suffering. Christ, for all his blessings, misinterprets this action and curses the mercenary, declaring that he will remain as he is until they meet again (i.e. the second coming).

So that sucks. Casca can't do anything save soldiering. He tries farming and business, but it always fails. And he never gets old, so all his loved ones grow old and die. And on he lives, unable to be killed, good for nothing save grunting.

I got into this series years back when it first came out and bought each one as it hit the stands (I dropped off at #21, and I see they are up to #37 now). Barry Sadler, a Green Beret (and writer of the hit "The ballad of the Green Berets") put together the first few (my understanding is that the rest have been ghost written, confirmed by the fact that Sadler was shot in Mexico in 1988 under murky circumstances). But the stories keep coming out.

I suppose I should pooh-pooh these military fetish-fantasies for what they are. I haven't read them for years - they are still sitting on my "favorites" shelf. Some day, perhaps. But I do remember enjoying them. Like simple westerns (see an example HERE), there is something comforting at falling back on basic literature, of finding a yarn that doesn't try to mean anything. It's just a fun story of a guy who, thanks  to Christ, is really stuck. And like Louis L'amour books, there are always clever twists to savor (ones that big-box literature sometimes forget). For example, as I recall, as a Viking Casca sails far to the west and eventually falls afoul of the Aztecs who decide to sacrifice him. When they cut out his heart and raise it high, he reaches up and snatches it back. Very clever moment (which makes him, as I recollect, a god).

Look at them as literary trash. Look at them as textual junk food. But the fact remains that its fun to occasionally slip back and read an old thin paperback that can easily fit in your back pocket, one that's got obvious good guys and bad guys, and nobody tried to make any morality statements (other than bad guys should die).

I'm actually talking myself into considering having another go at a couple of them. I really liked when he was a Panzer Soldier in WW2.

But that's another story...


Last Updated on Sunday, 22 April 2012 17:53
Why the Allies won (Review) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 15 April 2012 18:10

Like my historical friends, I had this view of World War Two, the string of battles that constituted the path towards Allied victory (unlike those non-historical boobs in the mainstream, who don't know when it was fought and between who). But after reading Richard Overy's Why the Allies Won, the entire thing takes on a whole new meaning. Inevitable turns into improbably in a number of aspects.

When you look at the map and forces in 1941, it looked like it was time to mix cyanide into your scotch. The Germans had swept aside everyone, and controlled the continent from France to western Russia. The Russians were staggering. The British were boxed on their tiny island. The Italians were loose about the Med. And far in the east, the Japanese were oozing down towards Australia (and we'd end the year with our fleet on the bottom of Pearl Harbor). Yes, bad year indeed. Now Germany stood at the verge of world domination, combining Russian coal and crops with her own industry, to become the world's first true superpower.

Winning for us was unlikely. Survival was dicey. But somehow we did win. In the east, the Soviets held (at a cost hard to imagine). In the west, what was left of Britain had to combine with America (which hardly had anything at all). And from that, they challenged a military might beyond measure.

Overy does a good job breaking down the long road to victory, the Battle for the Atlantic (and the critical issue of closing the gap where the Uboats operated). And the airwar over Germany (one we almost lost save for the introduction of drop tanks, which closed another gap). And in the east, the Russians got their army together, modernizing it while falling back, all the time moving their entire industrial base east. And then there are the leaders themselves, and primarily Hitler's micro management, his distrust of science (no, they weren't that close to having the bomb - once Hitler referred to atomics as "Jewish Science", such weapon research became a minor interest for his military). But there are all sorts of interesting points to be made here, the difference in technologies, in production (in unification and utilization), even in the will of the various nations and their own blind spots.

Interesting reading - worth a look if you can find a copy (I got mine while nosing about Slightly Foxed in London).

Dark days indeed.


Last Updated on Sunday, 15 April 2012 18:35

Page 85 of 92