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July 2004 Archives

July 23, 2004

Webb - The Emperor's General

James Webb
The Emperor's General.
New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
ISBN 0767900766

Does this count as a read or as a did-not-read? I read the first half, skipped to the end and read the last 12 pages. I had the book for over two months, and if I had it for another month I still probably would not have gotten through the rest of it.

The good - Webb has developped a mature prose style that is both powerful and mauve (not quite purple). He has created an interesting character, both capable and flawed, in his narrator. The demon lover - both corrupting and empowering - is Douglas Macarthur, another interesting character. The story tells of our hero's cooption and corruption by Macarthur, the whole set against the beginning days of Macarthur's occupation of Japan.

The bad - I found myself deciding that I did not care about the characters enough to turn the pages. The introduction of the book told us the basic path of the tragedy, the love forsaken, the honorable man murdered, the enabler fleeing. The rest of the book explains how we got there. That structure has some advantages, your foreshadowing does not get much stronger. It also loses much of the suspense. Instead of asking "what will happen" I found myself asking "how will it happen." And, well, that by itself was not compelling enough to keep me turning pages.

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Red Ted
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Bujold - Paladin of Souls

Lois McMaster Bujold
Paladin of Souls
New York : EOS, c2003.

This is the second book in the same world as her Curse of Chalion, taking a minor character from the first book and making her the focus of the second.

Like all of her stuff, it is well written.

Like Chalion it is a well thought out world.

Like many of the books that I have been very much enjoying, it is a love story involving fully mature characters. The coming of age story is a standard trope in fantasy. Modern culture has been terribly focused on kids, and for a long time fantasy has been "kids lit". Now that the boomers are aging, we are seeing more mature love stories.

Anyhow, I had a cold, the toddler was home with pink-eye, and I read a novel during his nap. It was a good novel. Yum.

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Red Ted
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July 20, 2004

Zelazny - Chronicles of Amber

Roger Zelazny
Chronicles of Amber

Nine Princes in Amber, 1970
The Guns of Avalon, 1972
The Sign of the Unicorn, 1975
The Hand of Oberon, 1976
The Courts of Chaos, 1978
This is a re-read. Yep. I like these and I have read them many a time before. I felt the urge, and since my copies are still in boxes I nipped them from the library for a quick speed through.

For some reason the encounter between Corwin and "laughing boy" in the first book, Nine Princes in Amber sticks with me.

The thought for this read through was that the first volume was written in 1970. The next couple were also written in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the female characters are largely decorative in the first couple of books, much more involved in the later books. I love watching authors evolve over time, and because science fiction is such a fun-house-mirror view of the world, some of the changes are more obvious than others.

But that was not the point I was intending to make. The first book was written in the Age of Nixon, in the height of the Vietnam war, in an era when people were seriously worried that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. And yet, those concerns are only indirectly reflected in the novel. This is a tale of brotherly intrigue with the killer hook that the solipsists are right, the world is all a thing that we imagine, and that the great men theorists were also right, for only a few special individuals have the power to imagine their own world. As such the books can be read as an exercise in adolescent wish fulfillment within the constraint of other, similarly powered, wish fulfillers. But, other than wishing the world away, or being aware that there is a lack of center at the center of the universe and that the events at the center are always reflected across all the shadow earths, it does not directly discuss the world in which it was written.

As such the books are very unlike, say, Robert Anton Wilson's illuminatti trilogy - also focusing on a cabal of superpowered beings, also written in the 1970s, but inextricably tied to the paranoia and tension of the Nixon years. Not surprisingly, Zelazny's world aged better and he was able to write interesting things in the Amber universe after the Age of Nixon ended. Wilson, by contrast, returns to his conspiracy world and the whole thing feels like an awkward exercise from sophomore creative lit.

Finally, of course, Zelazny was a brilliant prose stylist. I find his prose strongest in the first book - the underwater sword fight with blood billowing through the water like something Van Gogh would have painted - but the whole thing rings with his phrasing, imagery, and verve. The Amber Chronicles are not his best books - I am partial to Lord of Light - but they are his most popular books for good reason.

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Red Ted
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The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin, writer, director, star.

This is Chaplins big political movie and his first talkie. He wrote the screenplay in 1938, filmed it over 450 odd days in 1939 and 1940, and released the movie in the fall of 1940.

I have to admit that I watched it more because I thought I ought to watch it, and because I am a big Chaplin fan, than because I found it compelling. I can see why it was a risky thing for Chaplin to start in 1938 - when racism and the German American Bund were prevalent in America - and I can see why Chaplin said after the war that if he had known about the forthcoming Holocaust he would never have made that movie. It is awkward to watch a comedy about persecution and yet, Chaplin does have that famous knack of making you laugh and cry at the same time. He mingles the funny with the tragic to creat art.

I am glad I watched it.

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Red Ted
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Hoffer - Devil's Disciples

Peter Charles Hoffer
The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

Hoffer offers another retelling of the Salem story. Unlike Boyer's focus on conflict within Salem town and Salem village, Karlsen's focus on systematic misogyny and constructed social behavior, Hall's focus on the world of wonders, and Carlson's explanation grounded in disease, Hoffer tells the tale as a prosopography. In his interpretation, the trials took place because of a combination of individuals, each with their own histories and motivations, connected by the vagaries of the Atlantic economy, and each responding to the others. It is a multivariate interpretation focusing on individual agency. As such it does a good job of telling the tale, a good job of using the tale to dig into some of the social interactions of the late seventeenth century, and a poor job - because he is not trying to do that job - of providing sweeping interpretations that could be used elsewhere. In that he bows strongly to the microhistorians - he is telling his tale, not trying to elucidate the rest of time and space in some grand theory of human behavior. As a result, the book works internally. We do get a good feel for the individuals, we do see how and why they act, and we do see some of the combination of motives and pressures that led the community to go along with the prosecutions.

Hoffer focuses on Tituba the black slave, Parrish the minister, and the three afflicted girls, with a later discussion of Cotton Mather's vindication of the trials as part of Mather's deep need to be seen to be useful to his society. He claims in his introduction that he is setting his tale in the Atlantic world, and to the extent that he focuses on the story of Tituba and Parrish this is true - the two met in Barbados, moved to Salem, and were caught up in a crisis driven in part by the Glorious Revolution in England, the Dominion of New England at home, and the legal difficulties of the colony. Still, his core explanation for the continued trials is that the three girls were colluding in their evidence, coaching one another in their behavior, and making up tales for the sheer pleasure of taking down the obnoxious people in their community and the great people in the colony. They went from nobodies to celebrities, and thus they must have been making up their tales. For the rest, he explains why people felt the need to accept the girls' tales, and he tells the overall story of the witch trials as a tragedy stemming from fallible humans each trying to solve their own problems and collectively creating a disaster. This is a common narrative mode in history writing, and an effective mode, but it can be a depressing mode when you think about it.

I think I will use this as part of my class on Salem.

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Red Ted
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Carlson - A Fever in Salem

Laurie Winn Carlson
A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999

Carlson argues that the Salem epidemic was lethargic encephalitis, the same disease that hit the US and parts of Europe in epidemic force in 1919 and 1920. The 1920 variety of encephalitis, a generic name for inflammations and infections of the brain, appears to have been carried by bugs and animals, and produced paralysis, hallucinations, and painful prickings. The symptoms match the accounts of the afflicted people in Salem. She postulates that this form of encephalitis is one that emerges and disappears at long intervals, and she finds another outbreak in New England in the 1740s that was interpreted as disease not as witchcraft, and some accounts from the early 17th century that also match the Salem symptoms.

It is an interesting proposal, one worth testing.
It does explain why afflictions and accusations were found outside of Salem - answering Boyer and Nussenbaum, and why both men and women were afflicted, answering Karlsen.
It does not explain the fits that the girls went through when confronted by some of the accused witches, unless the symptoms could somehow be provoked. Remember the trial of Martha Carey, where the girls trembled when Martha looked at them, and exhibited physical reactions mirroring what the accused did - she tilted her head, and they almost broke their necks.

Reviews have been skeptical, the most favorable pointing out that Carlson's explanation for why the accused acted this way is largely irrelevant to the historian's question of why the actions were interpreted as they were. Others have been less kind, jumping on her many errors of fact or poking holes in her hypothesis about the transmission and scope of the disease.

Mention in class as a possibility for the crisis, but don't use it as the "real" explanation.

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Red Ted
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July 19, 2004

Shaara - The Killer Angels

Shaara, Michael - The killer angels : a novel
Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p1991.
ISBN 0788739808 :
"Originally published in 1974 by David McKay Co., Inc., New York"

I read Killer Angels a few years back when the movie Gettysburg came out, and I grabbed this on CD as a car reading.

I did not finish it, got about halfway through and then no longer wanted to listen. I made it as far as the afternoon on the second day, with Longstreet preparing his assault late in the day, getting off slowly, and then discovering Sickles in the peach orchard.

The following comment will upset both fans of the Confederate Army and people who care about the Holocaust, but I find reading about Gettysburg to be distressingly like reading about Hitler in his bunker in 1945. In both cases I am very glad that the right people won the war. And, in both cases I have trouble reading the accounts of the losers -- they are making bad decisions that will have bad consequences for themselves, their nation, and the people whose lives depend on those decisions. So I am left torn, wishing that Lee had listened to Longstreed and moved to the right behind Meade, or that Longstreet and turned Hood loose to swing around behind the round tops into the Union baggage train; wishing that Hitler had issued moving retreat orders rather than stand and die orders, or that he remembered enough from his own wartime service to know that the icons on the map no longer represented large, powerful, military units. And yet, at the same time that I wish that Lee and Hitler had been more effective and made better decisions, I am also glad that they did make the wrong decisions.

I think that these mixed emotions are a reflection of the way that I read. I read for pleasure. My work reading is about people who try to accomplish things and generally fail, or generate unexpected consequences, or blind themselves to the bad outcomes that come with their desired goals. History, as a discipline, spends a lot of time looking at the warts, if only to explain the mistakes of the past. So, when I read for fun, I want to read about sucess, not failure. At that level fiction is a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment for me.

And, yet, if a piece of fiction is too easy, too obvious, I put it down unfinished. So when I read something like David Weber's Honor Harrington Series I get frustrated in the second quarter of the series because the villains are so stupid. There is as little vicarious pleasure in reading about a fictional character trouncing a stupid enemy as there is in reading, oh, yet another theory-driven screed ripping through selected aspects of the past in order to make an argument that can be countered by basic logic or basic awareness of the rest of the evidence.

I don't know if this makes sense. Time to go back to the real work.

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Red Ted
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Williams - The Sundering

Walter Jon Williams - Dread Empire's Fall: The Sundering
New York : Harpertorch, 2004. ISBN 0380820218 (pbk.)

This is the second volume in the WJW trilogy, and the book I finished last night.

More than the first, this is a book that I enjoyed reading but do not expect to re-read.

The interesting thing about this one is that Williams is wrestling with how to keep the careers of two highly capable people interesting for the reader - how can he cause complications that do not appear to be either MaGuffins or author-imposed plot twists? His answer comes in the form of story - the characters act according to their nature and their fears, and as a result things do not go as well for them as they might. One of the things that separates Williams from other space opera or light science fiction authors is that he really does believe in Aristote's notion of characters who strength is their weakness. All his people have tragic flaws, all have attractive qualities, all have their own compelling story. This is a very good thing.

Alas, other than the love triangle and an interesting plot twist at the end, the book left me a little flat. A good book grabs me and I can not put it down. This one was nibbled to death over about six weeks.

I am increasingly intrigued by the juxtaposition of Ajah from his Metropolitan and City of Fire and Sula from these two. Both are powerful and compelling characters. Oddly, two of his three most compelling characters are women, the third is the KKK sheriff from The Rift - his attempt to make some retirement money by writing a big blockbuster disaster novel. Hmm, well, maybe the sherrif from Days of Atonement also qualifies - I wonder why Williams is best at writing about strong willed but morally ambiguous women, and charismatic, ambitious, lawmen?

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Williams - The Praxis

Walter Jon Williams - Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis
New York : Harpertorch, 2003. ISBN 038082020X

This is the first in a science-fiction trilogy by WJW.

As usual for Williams, the world is well thought out, the characters attractive but morally ambiguous (one hero murdered two people to get out of poverty and is now impersonating one of her victims - and doing far more for her society than the drunken drone she replaced would have done), and yet I don't expect to re-read the book very often. For some reason, while I really like WJW and own almost all his books, I don't re-read him more than twice. The exception is his wonderful Metropolitan and City on Fire, although there as well I know the books well enough that I do not have to re-read them, they are so powerful that they remain imprinted in memory.

The Praxis is not up to that standard, few works are. Instead it is what it appears to be: a perfectly reasonable space opera about the civil war that follows the death of the last member of the species that had welded the known universe into a single totalitarian empire where the most important rule was that things must not change. And now things are changing, not for the better.

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July 14, 2004

A Mighty Wind

A Mighty Wind

A cast of thousands makes fun of folk music. No, they make fun of a certain style of commercially popular folk music from the 1960s - if you liked the Kingsmen, Ian and Sylvia, or the something or other singers you will probably find this hilarious. I never listened to those guys. I still don't. I am more in the David Grismon, Doc Watson, Phil Cunningham, Mary Black school of folkies. As a result, I did not get the in jokes and the whole thing was just a parade of grotesques. Now, a parade of grotesques can be very amusing - consider Strictly Ballroom but these grotesques were more tedious and annoying than they were amusing.

I finished it, but I was reading a book during the second half of the movie. Not recommended.

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Red Ted
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Conason & Lyons - The Hunting of the President

Joe Conason, Gene Lyons
The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton
Thomas Dunne Books; (February 2000)

I dug this out and read it while waiting for the library to get Bill Clinton's autobiography to me.

I knew the general story, but I did not know the details of the Whitewater investegation. The frustrating thing about the whole Clinton hunt is that I now effectively give them a free pass anytime I hear a story about financial skulldugerry on their part - there has been so much meaningless smoke that I assume that where there is smoke there is a cleverly placed smudge pot.

The other thing to watch in Conason & Lyons work is their use of "must have". They criticize most of the people who wrote anti-Clinton books for jumping to conclusions or making arguments by juxtaposing "facts" without proving the connections between those facts. This is fair, as is the fact that from time to time Lyons and Conason talk about what people "must have known" or "probably intended" and then tell their story without accounting for the implicit error bars in their chain of argument.

Their case stands up despite those holes, in part because they are discussing a "loose cabal" of people who for various reasons hated Bill and were very willing to dig for dirt or make up stories in order to get him. However, when the core to their argument is that the national news media fell down on its duty to check its facts and sources, and ended up in an echo chamber repeating accusations without ever going back to check each other's work, well, it makes the reader hold Lyons and Conason to a higher standard.

It was a nice quick read, and now I am working on Clinton's big book. I won't finish it before the library will want it back, but in the early pages of Clinton's autobiography I do see some comparisons with the early pages of Grant's autobiography.

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Red Ted
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July 07, 2004

Clancy & Horner - Every Man a Tiger

Tom Clancy and Chuck Horner - Every Man a Tiger

This is the second in Clancy's commanders series. I am reading all of them because I want the context for the fourth one, the one in which Clancy of all people turns on the Bush adminstration for being too militaristic (and, more importantly for Clancy, for being ineffective.)

Where Franks' Into the Storm was a self-conscious discussion of leadership in the modern Army, Horner's story discusses leadership by giving examples leaving the explanation for the reader.

Still, a couple of good points jump out. The first is leadership by example: do as I do. Horner is a strong believer in this, in part because fighter pilot generals are expected to keep up their airplane driving chops.

The lesson for the Iraq war is slightly different. Horner was the first general on the ground for the Gulph War. He organized the early phases of Desert Sheild before Stormin Norman moved to Arabia and he continued to be an important player holding the coalition together. And, he repeatedly emphasizes that the whole thing would NOT have worked without the coaliton - it was the presence of other nations, the strong UN resolutions, and the committment to let everyone talk, let everyone have decision-making power, and not simply go it alone that made it possible for the thing to go in the first place.

I find in the classroom that the way to loose the class is to try to control it; the way to get the class where you want it to go is to relax and let them drive, then steer their energy to the desired points. War coalitions follow the same recipe - you only keep control by ceding control.

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Red Ted
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The General

The General

Buster Keaton is considered a comic genius. Having finally seen his most famous movie, I can see why folks praise him so highly.

Good stuff, great physical comedy, a good enough story, and they really DO drive a railroad train off a bridge and into a ravine. Gotta love that.

What I found striking about the movie was the way that it reflected one of the common sentiments of the 1920s. The story is simple: a railroad engineer loves his train and loves a lady. When the civil war breaks out he tries to enlist but is told he is more valuable driving trains than carrying a gun; she decides he is a coward and refuses to have anything to do with him. A year later, the opposing army has a clever attack plan that involves stealing a train and wrecking the railroad, thus disrupting supplies. They steal our hero's train, his lady happens to be on board the part they steal; he tries to rescue her, discovers the enemies plans, returns safely after another wonderful chase sequence, rallies the troops, and leads them to victory over the invaders. At the end, the old general rewards him by inducting him into the army as an officer, and the lady now loves him a lot. All is well.

Now, that basic plot summary works well enough regardless of whether our hero is fighting for the union or the confederacy. Sure, Confederate women were more aggressive about using shame and honor to pressure men to join the war; sure, the Union was on the offensive for most of the war. But still, thought about a unified nation "our side needs you" was more common in the Union than in the Confederacy in the Spring of 1861 -- much of the movie's confederate national awareness is a little jarring, for most Secessionists thought in terms of state citizenship long before they thought of citizenship in their new nation.

As you have gathered, our hero is a Confederate. And, Buster Keaton clearly chose to make his hero a Confederate - the story works well enough either way. Why do it? Well, the hero is a little guy and you want the audience to root for him. So, lets make him a member of the more sympathetic side. In the 1920s, that means you dress him in grey.

The Gettysburg movie deified both Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I have not seen Gods and Generals. I suspect that the more sympathetic characters in that will be the Southern generals, if only because they better fit Michael Shaara's image of honor-bound gentlemen awkwardly adjusting themselves to industrialized warfare.

Still, by and large these days the sympathetic underdog is not a Confederate soldier. He is also not usually a Union soldier, or at least not a white male. If The General were remade today, I somehow suspect that Buster Keaton's character would be cast as a black man living in the North and forbidden to join the army because of his race.

And, the train would explode when it went off the ravine. In fact, there would be a lot more explosions, and someone would find and use a machine gun. Modern hollywood action adventures all have to have a machine gun in them. I don't know why.

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Red Ted
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Weber - Honor Harrington

I really should make 14 entries here, because I read over some 14 books last month.

All were e-books - Baen books has been putting out parts of their backlist on the web, and more of it on CD-rom on selected new hardbacks. So, I have all of Weber's Honor Harrington books sitting on my hard drive where it is easy to re-read them as long as I don't mind being at the computer.

The first few are wonderful space opera. The latest, _Crown of Slaves_ is a pretty good future political history and has one of the BEST character names of all time: an escaped slave and political scientist who renamed himself WEB du Havel.

That last book was co-written by Eric Flint, and it is sort of fun watching Flint's labor sensitivies interact with Weber's world where the Crown Loyalists are the heros while the liberals and the reactionaries are all stupid villains.

Anyhow, I made it into War of Honor and bogged down.

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Paine - Age of Reason

Thomas Paine - Age of Reason

I realized that I needed a paragraph on civil religion in Paine's Age of Reason. So, I did exactly what I tell the undergraduates to do: I sat down with the book and a yellow pad, I read the book commonplacing the various points where he talked about civil religion - a line or two to summarize the point and the page number where I found it -- and then I went back and wrote the paragraph from my notes.

I was distracted by, well, not focusing well, so it took me almost 24 hours to write that paragraph, starting from "oh bother, I need to re-read Paine" and ending with writing the transition at the head of the next paragraph.

Not all paragraphs take quite that long, thank goodness.

Perhaps I should try writing more fiction - it can't go any slower, can it?

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Red Ted
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This is a test of the new database.

EDIT - archive templates were lost in the transition. Bother.

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July 06, 2004

O Brother

O Brother Where Art Thou

Clever idea.

Terrific soundtrack.

Not a good movie.

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Red Ted
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Brazile - Cooking With Grease

Donna Brazile, Cooking With Grease

Read it, liked it, don't have much to say about it.

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Red Ted
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