Friday, May 25, 2018

War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today by Max Boot

War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today, by Max Boot, is a survey of how technology has transformed warfare over the course of over five hundred years.  This time period involves the rise of the West as technological and military masters of the world.

As in all of Boot’s books, he uses entertaining and illustrative examples to advance the theme of the work.  Boot shows how war has shifted in orientation, often in dramatic ways, with the use of superior technology.  He also provides examples when this simple formula often does not work. But these are specific instances that buck the trend.  Ultimately, the smart bomb defeats the IED.  The missile toting drone the suicide bomber.  The are problems along the way, and inferior powers can often tackle superior ones.  Boot handles this as well.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts

Everett on the trail

Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts is a biography of an unusual young man who he refused to live by the conventions of society in the early 1930s.  At the age 16, Everett began to wander alone parts of California.  He kept diaries, wrote letters to his family and friends, painted watercolors and created woodblocks.   By the age of 17 he became enraptured by northern Arizona, and southern Utah.  Every season he would set out for this region, purchase two burros to carry his gear for extended forays in the desert wilds.

In 1934, just before his 21 birthday, he set out from the town of Escalante, Utah, heading south.  The land to the south of this town is rugged and unforgiving, and in the 1930s, it was even more isolated than today.  There were few true roads, and far less people or tourists than there are today.  This was one of the most isolated places in America.  Everett was seen by shepherds a week later, and then disappeared.  In the years to follow, he became a legend.

one of Everett's woodcuts

Most books about Ruess, even collections of his poems and letters, are cherry picked to find the most inspirational passages - sort of Thoreau meets Whitman.  Roberts shows Ruess’ darker side.  He could be misanthropic, racist, and impatient.  His dark moods were as predominant as his bright.  He contemplated suicide. He was not always content with his wandering life.  He was sometimes lonely.
He was a complicated young man, still growing and evolving as a person and artist.  He sought to translate the vast and beautiful landscapes to Utah and Arizona into words and pictures; a difficult task he often did successfully.  Everett Ruess is an appealing character.  So much of Everett is known, but more is a mystery. We never feel we get a handle on his complicated young man.  And then he disappeared into the same desert he loved, leaving scant evidence of his fate.  Roberts examines the theories that have evolved over the years.

I am not surprised the Ruess most likely died somewhere in the Escalante region of Utah.  I was there recently, and it appears to be an excellent place for a fatal accident, or  deadly misjudgment.  Despite Everett's experience with solo travel, solo travel in the desert is a risky venture.  In such an unforgiving land, a lone person is often a step or a fall away from death.  The land conspires against a person's efforts to manage their destiny.  For me, I’m glad we have not found any further evidence of Ruess’ fate; we need idealists like him.  We need heroes and mystery and legends.

Davis Gulch, a slot canyon; Everett's last camp was found here

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer, has been uniformly condemned by the official world of LDS, and I can see why.  Krakauer explores the fundamentalist element of the Mormon religion; these groups are shunned by modern LDS.  But simply because that is the case, does not mean fundamentalist Mormon's are not tied to the history of their religion.

Like all religions, LDS has (or has had ) problematic doctrines.  Groups have taken them to the point where long departed and condemned practices (polygamy, blood atonement) return as the most salient doctrines of their group.  Even through they are condemned by modern LDS, they still have their roots in the often violent past of Mormonism.  Besides telling a story of a senseless, religiously inspired murder, this is Krakauer's main point.

To take another example: West Bank settler Judaism, which makes the land of Israel an idol and subverts nearly all other Jewish values for real estate, is as much a part of the Jewish tradition as the universal elements of Reform Judaism.  I like one, and find the other abhorrent.  But the prophetical books exist alongside the book of Joshua; to ignore this is simply tunnel vision.  We have to acknowledge our problem children, even as we condemn them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Inner Worlds of Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Develop and Deepen the Prayer Experience by DovBer Pinson,

Inner Worlds of Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Develop and Deepen the Prayer Experience by DovBer Pinson, is his finest work.  Rabbi Pinson’s books have been, for the most part, small works on some aspect of Jewish practice, always filtered through the lens of non-duality.  In this work, Rabbi Pinson uses that lens to plumb the depths of the siddur, the prayer book.  Pinson moves on many levels.  The deepest and richest is the kabbalistic meanings of the passages of the prayer.  He explains the  mystery of the words of prayer; they are mighty in a literal sense, but render the cosmos whole in mystical sense.  But always, they are about the individua'ls quest for devekus, or throwing off the burden of the perceived self to merge with G-d, the Greater Whole.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

South and West: From a Notebook - Joan Didion

South and West: From a Notebook, is one of Joan Didion’s travel notebooks from the late sixties, the same time she wrote some of her strongest works.  Unfortunately, this is a thin and weak book.  Her observations are so attenuated that it all we read is Didion’s mean side (and even her best writing is mean spirited) with nothing to mitigate it. This unfortunate book not worth reading.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey has a much deserved reputation of being one of the finest book written about the American West.  Abbey spent time as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the late 60s, and in the process, traveled all around southern Utah and northern Arizona.  This book is the outcome of that stay, yet it is so much more.  

Abbey uses this book as a platform not only to make observations about the geography, fauna and flora of Utah, but as a place to vent his spleen at the destruction of the natural world, and the dehumanizing nature of our society.  The book is also filled with humor, pathos, and great sensitivity.  His prose is elastic, conversational at some points, poetic and profound at others.

Desert Solitaire is a master piece of non-fiction.  Abbey moves from topic to topic with ease.  Each piece stands alone, but they are interconnected.  In a relatively short amount of space, he writes strongly and convincingly about a host of topics.  For this skill, we can forgive him his obvious misanthropy.  He hates everyone. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman has an interesting premise.  It is 1905, and Einstein is working on his paradigm shifting work on the nature of time.  Einstein and his friend in the patent office talk about his work in part of the narrative.  The other part, the bulk of this novel, shows how time “acts” in different scenarios.  

I have two problems with this book.  I had always through that although time is relative, to the person in a particular spot, time appears to move along at the “right” speed.  Time is only faster or slower compared to the location, speed, and gravitational position of some other person in some other space. Yet the characters in this novel experience time shifts in their own worlds.  If my ideas of time’s relativity are correct (and maybe they are not) then the premise makes little sense.

Second, the time scenarios are not consistent. They are too many of them, and they are, by and large, a bit fantastical and repetitive. Overall this novel has a great premise, but the delivery is lacking.