Friday, September 21, 2018

The Disappearances

Scott Thybony’s The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder and Mystery in the American West follows three somewhat interrelated tales in 1934 and 1935.  All take place in southern Utah and northern Arizona.  The first deals with a “lost” young explorer who was really only late emerging from the wilderness.  The second, an unfortunate murder and kidnapping.  The third, the life and disappearance of Everett Ruess, wandering painter, writer, poet.

Davis Gulch

His examination of the Ruess disappearance was my reason for reading the book. The author examines an interesting lead about the twenty year old's fate. In the 1970s, a California man boating on Lake Powell with his family hiked up Davis Gulch looking for Indian ruins, and discovered a skeleton in a crack in a rock.  The remains showed signs of a broken hip and fractured color bone.  The man took a few of the bones, put them in a bag, and flagged down a park ranger once back on the lake.  The remains were taken and the California man gave information about the location of the rest of the bones.

Thybony located the park employee in 1991 and heard a similar story.  The park employee said he gave the remains to his boss and then heard nothing.  Similarities of the California man’s description of the site of the bones and a cave where a “Nemo 1934” inscription has been found, led Thybony to examine the area anew.  

He found the description of the place matched the California man’s story. He found an area of the Nemo cave which showed signs of a brief stay many years ago.  He discovered the crag where the bones were probably discovered.  He scaled down it, and realized that anyone who was scaling down and slipped and fell would likely receive fatal, or near fatal, injuries. In all likelihood Ruess fell while exploring for Indian ruins, as he often did during his travels.

Thybony can’t prove the bones discovered in the 1970s were the remains of Ruess.  He didn’t find bones in the crag (it is flushed out yearly during floods) and the remains are nowhere to be found in Park Department storage.  There has never been any evidence that Ruess left Davis Gulch.  The 1970s bones many very well be his. But shy of finding the bones in Davis Gulch, or some shelf in the Parks Department, the mystery remains.

And excellent article on this theory can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War

If you want to eliminate your post-Cold War feeling of security regarding nuclear war, than The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg, is the book for you.  Ellsberg (of the famous Pentagon Papers) here documents all the ways and means by which a nuclear war could have accidentally occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union. He also delves into the false sense of security we all walk around with now that Russia is a second rate world power; a nuclear war between us is still very possible.

He will also burst your balloon about a ‘regional’ nuclear exchange between Indian and Pakistan.  Smoke and dust from those burning fires (along with killing hundreds of millions of people outright) would lower ground temperatures world wide for a decade.  It would be impossible to grow grain in Canada.  Widespread famine would occur.

This is an important book, but difficult to read.  Also Ellsberg is often, oddly, self-congratulatory regarding nuclear planning he did in the 60s, which now he sees as wholly misguided, and even insane.  He is aware of this, but at times can't help but be proud of his work.

Friday, September 14, 2018

American War: A novel

Omar El Akkad's American War: A novel is so tremendously successful because the author is able to transplant events and circumstances that Americans think of as happening over "there" to here.  This is the chilling aspect of the novel.  

What we see now, the shrinking of American economic and military power, our retreat into tribalism/regionalism, the massive gaps in income and ethnicity that are widening in our society, and environmental degradation become, in American War, our social and political reality.  This unmasking of American exceptionalism makes for sober and scary reading.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Cool Water: Poems and Songs by Robert Burns

Reading Poems and Songs by Robert Burns is a fascinating journey into a linguistic landscape that is like English, but also extremely different.  His Scotch-English, at times light, at others heavy, unmistakably bears the imprint of his land and culture. 

This work is deeply refreshing.  We are so hidebound to our formal language; we are afraid to write the way people speak, to create alternate spellings... to be creative and playful with our language.  Burns shows us how to do this, and it is like a swimming in cool water.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Nothing illustrates both the problems and distortions of the “American Dream” than the settlement pattern of desert west.  At once part of our mythology, and collective nightmare, the American desire 
the author in a pool in Las Vegas
to live in places (in large numbers) where rain does not fall from the sky in sufficient quantities to support human life, is far more than a footnote in our history.  Rather, it is our history.  [The wrangling over water in the west pits the environment, politics, capitalism, bureaucracy, greed, corruption, and degradation against each other – mirroring many other of our national struggles.]

The titanic struggle over water in the American West's proof text is Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, by the late Marc Reisner.  Written in the mid-eighties, when the west still had plenty of water, now, in 2018, as the west continues years of terrifying drought, Cadillac Desert reads more like prophecy than history. 

In this book American hubris is on naked display.  Our attempts to tame and control nature have only shown us how powerless we actually are in the face changing climatic conditions.  But we are not only helpless - we make things far worse.

the author in the Utah desert

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sex at Dawn

In Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, the authors set about the nearly impossible task of showing  the “original” state of human sexual nature, and how our current culture cuts across that grain of this state, making us miserable.  There are two main problems with this quest. 

First, although the authors state, quite correctly, how varied human sexual arrangements are, both cross-culturally and at various times, they ultimately decide that our hunter gatherer ancestors led free sexual lives, and that is our real sexual “state”.  The hunter gatherer social structure prevented monogamy in the modern sense; the paternity of a woman’s child was simply not important.  That is why human males appear to evolved to engage in sperm competition.  Sex was not exclusively tied to romantic love, but a more elastic act, used to cement the bonds of small groups of people.

Unfortunately, a true original “state” of any human behavior or social arrangement is very difficult to prove.  The evidence is purely conjectural.  We are pragmatic and fluid creatures; we mold our behavior to social, ecological and political circumstances.  Do we really have such a thing as human nature?

Second, the authors do not stay true to their own model.  Because of research about the different way men and woman perceive sex outside of a monogamous arrangement, they hold that woman must be accommodating to men in their efforts to provide themselves sexual novelty; they must do this in order to keep families together.

This is an odd ending, given what came before.  They destroy the very premise they have built for three fourths of the book.  Why?  It confounds me.

Truth is we will never know what sex at dawn was like; given what we know about ourselves as a species, it was probably widely variable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Girls: A Paean

Nic Kelman’s Girls: A Paean is a wide-ranging novel that really has one premise as it zig-zags around its target: the thirst of older men for younger women (in one case, an underage girl).  Kelman's men have money and power, and are able to satisfy their appetites with those two accouterments. 

Kelman wants everything in this novel, and is less than consistent.  Many of the encounters in this work are not between older men and young women, but relationships based on some foundation of equality (at least in age).  Some sections are straight out pornography, while others digress into the etymology of the rude term for the female reproductive organ. among other items.  Passages from the Iliad are interspersed here and there, seemingly to illustrate how powerful men have always had a yen for younger woman.

The results here are mixed.  Kelman is saying something with this novel, but it is difficult to say exactly what.  This in itself is fine, if the novel is exploring topics without easy or firm resolutions.  But Kelman ends up with a semi-mess because of a lack of control of the narrative, and inconsistency in the arch of his stories.  He could have done more with less.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Water Knife: a novel

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a well-written, if not a fairly conventional post-apocalyptic novel.  It takes much of its premise from Desert Cadillac, Marc Reisner’s 1986 novel on the water crisis in the American west.  The book is mentioned many times in this novel – and performs a vital function to advance the plot (one that does not, I confess, make a great deal of sense).

If this genre of speculative fiction is supposed to really be about our present, and not our future, then The Water Knife is a success.  It is stuffed to the gills with our present fears and anxieties.   

Monday, August 20, 2018

Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Rick Stroud’s Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General, is certainly entertainment history.  Terrible things occur in the recounting of this story, but Stroud does not dwell on them.  He has a factual sense of the violence of war; he tends not to judge his heroes.  Even the enemies of this tale aren’t given a firm drubbing. 

In the end, everyone involved in this story, and the kidnappers themselves, wonder if abducting one German general was worth the cost.  There is no way to know with certainty; the British intelligence people who interviewed General Kreipe certainly did not think so; he provided very little intelligence of value.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Promise and Failure of Long Island: East Meadow

East Meadow, one of the Images of America Series books, chronicles the history of this unincorporated area of the town of Hempstead, in Long Island.  East Meadow is so named because it was the meadow east of Meadow Brook. This stream once flowed from the middle of Nassau County to South Oyster Bay.  Now the stream is nearly gone, buried beneath a highway (some portions still flow to the very south). 

what is left of Meadow Brook

East Meadow was part of a 60,000 acre prairie, called the Hempstead Plains, that was primarily rural until after the Second World War, when the post-war expansion of New York City, returning GIs, and the baby boom, transformed the area.  

the Hempstead Plains in the 1900s
This book lays out the area’s transformation and development with a series of fascinating photos.  What they show, in the end, is that the promise and failure of Long Island: a rural oasis for New York City workers, green open spaces near an urban area, which has become a golem of over development that can no longer be controlled.

the Hempstead Plains Preserve, a few acres of plains remaining

Take the area around Nassau Coliseum, not far from East Meadow; it is a nearly abandoned vista of acres of parking lot.  The residents are unwilling to allow building projects to take some of the windblown, post-apocalyptic vibe from the area, fearing (rightly) the traffic and congestion such a project would bring, in an area that is no stranger to either.

parking lots surrounding the Nassau  Coliseum

In the end Long Island can no longer grow, since residents (except for real estate moguls) nearly all think that there has been too much growth; too much traffic; too many malls, roads, and concrete.  Yet there isn’t an effective strategy to create more green space; to allow areas to “revert” to nature, to give the island the initial promise it held for those who moved there: a green spot of earth.  A bit of breathing room.  An uncrowded American Dream.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Do Nothing & Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism

Qiguang Zhao’s Do Nothing & Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism is a chatty, comfortable exposition of Taoism.  

Zhao uses a great many examples from everyday life; he is showing us, quite clearly, that Tao is about living.  It is a philosophy or religion to take everywhere in existence, because the Tao, the Way, is everywhere in existence (and nowhere too, but that is another story). 

Zhao’s book is a pleasant and often corny read.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

Philip L. Fradkin’s Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife is the third book I have read about
Woodcut, Monument Valley, Everett Ruess
the legendary Ruess, a young man wandering in the American

Southwest in the early 1930s, writing passionate letters to family and friends, keeping a journal with pantheistic leanings, drawing and painting canyons and washes. In 1934 he entered Davis Gulch in Utah and was never seen again.  This is one of three books written about Ruess.  The others can be found here, and here.

Fradkin’s treatment is brisk, factual, and avoids flights of fancy.  He realizes that after Ruess went missing in 1934, and initial searches were made for him, what actually occurred to him will never be known.  The author does go into some of the theories, but comes out, in the end, with the wisest conclusion of Ruess and his life. 

In death, Ruess achieved a kind of legendary immortally he may well have never received had he lived beyond twenty.  His intensity and drive were so bright that, like James Dean, his disappearance
A stretch of Davis Gulch
and presumed death makes painful sense; he may have been done with his mission.  He died as he should have.  Edward Weston, who knew Ruess, summed this on a postcard he wrote Ruess' parents after his

"I don't forget Everett - it was kind of you to include me as one of his friends. The way of his going, I feel, is the way I would like to depart - close to the soil. But he was so young."

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life

Like most Jewish Lights books, The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life sets out to accomplish two things. It gives readers a distinctly liberal and modern format to read otherwise conservative religious Jewish texts. It also seeks to tie texts from the Jewish past to our time.

The Death Bed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters largely accomplishes these goals. The fit between modern practices at death and the sages of the Chasidic movement are not always a great fit; but these tales are worth reading nevertheless. The very humanity, and moral rigor, of these masters in their final moments of life is inspirational.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire

Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire, like so many family histories of and by African Americans (or in the case, African Caribbeans), is really the story of America.  The kidnapping, enslaving, and abuse of Africans in North and South America is one of our founding original sins. What it says about power, race, gender, and capitalism still informs our world today.

Stuart has written a work which explores all this through the lens of her multi-racial Barbadian family.  Her research into the island’s history gives voice to the voiceless, the slaves in her background.  Barbados and its people come alive in her prose.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

Craig Childs’ House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest is an exceptional book, handling the history of the so-called Anasazi people.  Childs truly knows the material culture of this people, and has been to the ruins and sites. He has a vivid and strong use of language in conjuring up such places as Mesa Verde and isolated kivas in canyons in northern Mexico.

We get the sense in reading this book the Childs is our guide, and is guiding us well.  He is not afraid to introduce us to him as an author, explorer, and man.  The next best thing to reading this work is going out to the desert ourselves.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Second World War: A Complete History

Martin Gilbert’s The Second World War: A Complete History, is indeed a complete history.  This an all-encompassing book, but Gilbert does leave out some crucial parts of the war.  He does not begin World War II with the hostilities between Japan and China.  This is a general trend in this work: the Pacific theater gets short shrift; Gilbert is far more interested in Europe.  Gilbert was British, and this book is also written far more from the British prospective than any other.  At times, it seems Gilbert forgets the American involvement in the war.

His prose is also flat and uninspired.  Often, it reads with all the verve of a Wikipedia entry.  For such a long work, some clever use of language would have been a welcome element.

Monday, July 16, 2018

SS-GB a novel

SS-GB, an alternate history novel by Len Deighton, takes place a year after Great Britain capitulates to Nazi Germany.  As an alternate history genre book, this work is of high quality.  Deighton has a precise and controlled prose; his powers of observation and description are high.

This book is also a mystery novel, so it follows the conventions of that genre.  Not a big fan myself; these novels always feel compressed and forced at the conclusion (as does this novel).  But overall this novel is expertly wrought and masterfully written.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is supposed to be his best novel.  Abbey is primarily known for this novel, and his non-fiction book, Desert Solitaire.  This, unfortunately, is not an entirely successful book.  Abbey paints in a broad strokes, and often gets lost in those details.  He juggles too many characters, and in the process, we never really see much beneath their surfaces.

But Abbey is writing a comic novel, so perhaps the point is not an in depth treatment of human nature. But even the comedy falls flat after a while.  The novel is too long for its subject matter and grows repetitive. This book works as a political statement, perhaps, but not as a work of art.

Monday, June 25, 2018

White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing

In White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik, the author tells the story of solving the long mystery of her mother’s ethnicity.  

Lukasik’s mother was a Creole (a person of mixed ethnicity) in New Orleans.  During World War Two, she married a GI and moved north, passing for white. The author discovers her mother’s secret accidentally, and in the process, learns how much of a social construct race and ethnicity actually is; especially for those people who straddle the line between two “races.”

Lukasik tells a fascinating, and distinctly American tale, which has all too often has been expunged from our history.   

Friday, June 22, 2018

Smith Woods: The Environmental History of an Old Growth Forest Remnant in Central New York State by Warren D. Allmon

Smith Woods: The Environmental History of an Old Growth Forest Remnant in Central New York State by Warren D. Allmon, takes a fascinating look at a small patch of old growth forest in my hometown.  This book explores the geographical, historical, and ecological history of the region, and how numerous changes in the human and natural world has affected this unique woodland.

In a time when we can get a “street view” of nearly any place in the world, but do not understand what we are seeing, this is a great example how a book can give you greater insights into your local world.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, by Elie Wiesel

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, by Elie Wiesel, explores the bible from a very literal perspective.  His readings are informed by the biblical text and the Midrash, and are overwhelmingly concerned with gaps and questions about human and godly nature in the texts.  Why does Job accept G-d’s “answer” to the source of his sufferings; why is Joseph a zaddik when he is so crass and pragmatic?

Wiesel reads these stories very differently than I do.  For me, the literal elements of the biblical stories are the least interesting.  The mystical dimension is the goal; the details of the bible are only, but not exclusively, stepping stones to greater realities.

But it is informative to read Wiesel struggle with the texts.  It is certainly a deeply tradition Jewish concern.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Place No One Knew - Glen Canyon on the Colorado

The Place No One Knew - Glen Canyon on the Colorado by Eliot Porter (Photographer), Daniel P Beard (Preface), and David Brower (Foreword) is an elegy to a natural wonder buried beneath water under the auspices of so-called human progress. 

Glen Canyon was dammed in order to create Lake Powell, which generates electricity, and is a holding tank, of sorts, for Lake Mead.  Lake Mead, and other places along the Colorado River, provide water to nearly 40 million people and agriculture.

This book provides photographs of the canyon before it was lost to the depths.  Now, nature appears to be laughing at both environmentalists attempts to bring back the canyon through human effort, and those in the Bureau of Land Management to continue to exploit it. through human effort  Since 1999, when Lake Powell was last full, the area has suffered severe drought.  The canyon is emerging once more regardless of human efforts.  At times the lack has been below 30% capacity.

There is a sense of poetry and justice to all this.  Nature eventually wins - if we receive benefit or harm from this, it is entirely accidental. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Mystery of Everett Ruess, by W. L. Rusho (Author), W.L Rusho (Editor)

Mystery of Everett Ruess, by W. L. Rusho (Author), W.L Rusho (Editor), is the first full length book about the disappearance of Ruess, a young man who wandered the dessert south-west only to disappear at the age of twenty in the Escalante region of southern Utah.

Rusho wrote this book in the 80s, so he had the benefit of interviewing people who were still alive and had know Ruess.  So, there is an immediacy to this account that is lacking in the other two books about Ruess.  

This book is a pastiche . Part narrative, part explication, part mystery drama, Rusho fills in the narrative of Ruess' life with skill.

With only three books about Ruess out there, this is a necessary read.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West

Davis Gulch, a side canyon to Glen Canyon

Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West by Annette McGivney (Author) and James Kay (Photographer), is a book of photos and text when an extended drought (from 2000 to 2008) occurred in northern Arizona; parts of Glen Canyon, long covered by Lake Powell and its dam, were exposed for the first time in over 30 years.

Glen Canyon has become cautionary tale for the environmental movement in the west.  In the era of big dams following WWII, Glen Canyon received scant attention from environmental advocates.  The canyon was little visited, but contained environmental and archaeological treasures.  Once it was flooded, many realized what was lost, it became a galvanizing force to save open space in the west.

But nature is asserting herself.  It looks as if the Glen Canyon dam does not need to be destroyed to restore the canyon.  The drought continues, and has exposed more previously flooded areas, which in a few years, have restored themselves.  As of this writing, Lake Powell is below 50% capacity.  Nature will have its way.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Here in Berlin: A Novel, by Cristina Garcia

Here in Berlin: A Novel, by Cristina Garcia, is certainly a highly competent novel, with few surprises.  

Garcia’s novel is one of conversations, with an unknown author walking about Berlin, gauging the layers of this city through the tales of its often marginalized characters.  

Garcia achieves her goal; we get a long view of the city, its inhabitants, and how they have succeeded and failed in the recent history of Berlin.  Certainly a novel worth reading - even without any fireworks.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles

Many recent books, particularly memoirs, have taken aim at modern Hasidism, and with great justification.  An often hostile and insular world, many Hasidic communities stifle freedom of expression, use economic and social pressures to force conformity, abuse government social services, fail to punish sex offenders in their midst, among other things.

Certainly, this is all true.  But in The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, by Joseph Berger, the author tries a middle road in his treatment of the many branches of Hasidism.  Unlike the recent, harsh memoirs, or the idealized portraits of Hasidism by the likes of Elie Wiesel, Berger treats Hasids as real people, warts and all.  

The biographical portraits he presents are of people who more or less "fit" into the Hasidic; for some Jews, Hasidism works.  Berger tells their stories with compassion and understanding.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Pathos & Glory: The Work of Everertt Ruess

On Desert Trails With Everett Ruess (by Gary James Bergera, Editor, Afterword, W.L Rusho, Editor), is a collection of Ruess’ letters, diary entries, poems, watercolors, and ink prints.

Ruess had a strong urge to leave civilization, and from the age of 17 until his disappearance at 20, he spent much of his time wandering southern Utah, northern Arizona, and western Colorado.  He wrote passionately about his experiences.  In 1934 he set off in Davis Gulch, in the Escalante region of southern Utah, the last area of America to be mapped, and disappeared.

His parents kept alive his memory, and this book, and its predecessors, initiated his legend and myth.  The fact that he vanished with very little evidence of his ultimate fate adds an aura of charmed mystery to his story; it punctuates his young and expressive life with pathos and glory.

Monday, June 4, 2018

To Buff or Not to Buff: The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson

As I grow older, I grow into a Civil War buff.  Why is that?  I read many books.  Will I don Union Blue at a Gettysburg reenactment?  Unlikely. 

However, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson, is a soup to nuts exploration of the social, political, economic and military elements of the war.  This book explores the antecedents to the conflict, the conflict, but not the aftermath.  That is part of another volume.

So here is one stop Civil War shopping, whether one is a buff or not.  Fold your Union Blues. If you have a Civil War itch, scratch it here.

Friday, June 1, 2018

There are No Accidents

The Hasidic Story Book, complied by Harry Rabinowicz, features some of the great tales of the early Hasidic masters, especially the Baal Shem Tov and his immediate followers.

This was the time when Hasidism was forming, and it was still a very democratic version of Judaism. Mastery of the Talmud or Jewish Law did not necessarily bring one closer to G-d as an open and honest heart.  Strict adherence to Jewish law could be foregone in the service of a fellow human in dire trouble.

This collection is filled with such stories.  Early Hasidism was a  reaction against Jewish formalism, but also against the rising surge of the Enlightenment.  As such, supernatural events are not a dominant feature in these stories.  Rather, G-d works through the nature and society to seek divine ends. The seeming coincidences in these tales are not the byproduct of an accidental universe.  Rather, it is G-d working behind the scenes.

A great book to read on Shabbat. This is old school Judaism at its best

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Life and Death in the Jet Stream

Jon Krakauer writes well, and Into Thin Air is probably his finest book.  Tapped to climb Mount Everest in 1996 to write a story about the then new trend in guided ascents up the mountain, Krakauer witnesses the deaths of several climbers and guides in a blizzard, and nearly dies himself.

Even seasoned climbers die on Mount Everest.  Its summit is in the jet stream.  The human body was not designed to climb to 29,029 above sea level.  Even with oxygen and trained guides, accidents and bad weather kill climbers. 

They may be no other reason to read this book than the sheer entertainment of it; and this despite the fact that people die, and Krakauer depicts those deaths in detail.

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.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway, is part of the “Little History” series, which I was not well aware of; the author does a fine job of zeroing in and out of nearly all world religions.  

Inevitably, in the act of summation, he misses elements.  His chapter on Judaism fails to treat it as a living religion.  He must, in order to keep the narrative moving forward, portray it as the mother religion of Christianity and Islam.

Things like this worry me; if there is a glaring flaw in a topic I know well, what of other traditions, like Bahia, for which I know close to nothing?  

Yet I can’t fault the book for its clarity and scope.  For people who know only a smattering about religion, this is a great jumping off point to further study.