Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Book Post from July

Pretty soon, I'll catch up and only post these once a month. But the response has been good, so have another:

CHESTY—The Life of Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Puller, USMC, by Lt. Col. John T. Hoffman :
Marshall Moore believed 1/7 was “very fortunate to have Chesty Puller as our battalion commander. He was a tough commander but was always very fair...He instilled confidence in all of us because he was so full of confidence himself” The young captain thought he knew why “the boys are sure crazy over old Louie”—“He was an outstanding leader and had that rare gift which few people have of having an outfit that would follow him to hell and back and enjoy every moment of it.” PFC Gerald White agreed: “No commander on Guadalcanal was so well-endowed with men who fairly worshipped him.” Months later, Chesty would say that “the respect of the Marines and Corpsmen serving under me is all the honor that I desire.” In that regard, he would come away from Guadalcanal with something more precious than a Medal of Honor.

Chesty Puller is the most revered marine in American history, and according to Senator Jim Webb, one of the top ten Soldiers in any division of the US Armed Services (and that’s including some guys named Washington, Lee, Grant, MacArthur and Patton). This biography takes you through the good (Guadalcanal, Inchon), the bad (propping up dictators in Nicaragua), and the ugly (Peleliu, Choisin) in the military history of both Puller and a crucial period in the development of the Marine Corps.

Puller, who was made for action and not book learning, nearly flunked out of VMI, and yet he could quote you the outcome and tactical lessons from any historical campaign from Salamis to the Russo-Japanese war. He got himself in trouble for undiplomatic statements to the press, and was famous for cussing up a blue streak, and yet the keystone (it seems to me) of his success was the way he went to the mat for his troops, getting them the hot meals and blankets they needed in the field, doing without necessities himself, if necessary. He took understandable pride in the number of medals he doled out to his men, and perversely, equal pride in the high number of casualties his men suffered.

At various times, he reminded me of Signy Mallory, General Patton, Jack Aubrey and the Jack Nicholson character from A Few Good Men. In fact, late in the book, when Puller appears at the Parris Island McKeon trial (a photograph shows him lighting a pipe and squinting like Mad Eye Moody), I was half expecting him to go off half-cocked and yell “You can’t handle the truth!”, and for it to turn out that the movie was based on something Puller had done. But no.

Here are a few more choice quotes from the life of Puller. Enjoy:
Men, we've been looking for the enemy for several days, now. We've finally found them. We're surrounded. That simplifies our problem of finding those people AND KILLING THEM!!!
We are not retreating from Koto-Ri. We are advancing on Seoul!

Puller: How many Chinese are up there?
[gets several vague, incoherent replies from South Korean officers]
American Lt. There’s a whole shitload of them, Sir!
Puller: Well, thank you! At least someone up there knows how to count!
There's too many canteens and ice cream cones in these bases...we need to throw all these girls out of the camps, get rid of the ice cream and candy, give them beer and whiskey instead! That'll help some. Get some pride in 'em. Tell 'em they're men, they don't need ice cream and candy.
The Marine Corps never tried to kid anybody. We tell our Marines that they are going to get hurt. We tell them they are going to go through Hell. But we tell them, too, that what they are called upon to do, it will be no worse than Marines have done before. We try to teach them that it is a proud thing, a glorious thing, to fight as Marines have always fought, without counting the cost. And above all, we try to teach them that there are some things worse than wounds or death.
[on the ideal commander]: Warlike. A savagely fighting leader of combat troops. Shows positive taste for fighting, but with good common sense. Won't order his men where he won't go himself. Swears at his officers and men, but knows their names and makes them feel they are intimate with him. A driving, furious, fighting type whose men both respect and fear him.

The Cheese and the Worms, by Carlo Ginzburg:
”I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos; that is, that earth, air, fire and water were mixed together, and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God, and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made Lord, with four captains: Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.”

This short but lively book was one of the pioneering works of history to focus away from pivotal events and acknowledged “great deed doers”. The 16th century miller Menocchio, had he lived today, would have been known any village’s local crackpot, spending his best days perched on his established bar stool and holding court with the regulars about black helicopters, and who killed Kennedy, and what they’re covering up about the aliens who landed at Roswell. And then one day, a couple of unsmiling guys in black suits would have come and carted him away, saying the words “suspicion of terrorism” in a loud voice, and then no one would ever see him again. Menocchio was burned by the Christians for heretical opinions and alleged “corruption” of the peasantry, and Ginzburg reconstructs the man’s life and the basis for his unorthodox opinions from the records of his trial.

Apparently, poor Menocchio’s theological ideas are considered way-out, wacky nuttiness, and Ginzburg invites us to share several good laughs at his expense, as if he were explaining the theory of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to an old-fashioned but good-humored Unitarian minister. Unfortunately, I don’t get the joke. For one thing, Menocchio’s ideas, while unique, have a certain Buddhist-ish logic to them, and they’re certainly no wackier than passages of, say, Revelation or Leviticus, that are accepted as the Sacred Word of God by millions. For another thing, it’s hard for me to laugh when I’ve been told that someone has been murdered by the authorities because of the alleged harmfulness of said “funny” ideas.

And he didn’t even get to go down in history like Socrates. Until now.

Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse :
I have all the same good reason to suppose that he was brought up by devoted but severe and very pious parents and teachers in accordance with that doctrine that makes the breaking of the will the corner-stone of education and upbringing. But in this case, the attempt to destroy the personality and to break the will did not succeed. He was much too strong and hardy, too proud and spirited. Instead of destroying his personality, they succeeded only in teaching him to hate himself. It was against himself that, innocent and noble as he was, he directed during his whole life the whole wealth of his fancy, the whole of his thought; and in so far as he let loose upon himself every barbed criticism, every anger and hate he could command, he was in spite of all, a real Christian and a real martyr. As for others and the world around him, he never ceased in his heroic and earnest endeavor to love them, to be just to them, to do them no harm, for the love of his neighbor was as deeply in him as the hatred of himself, and so his whole life was an example that love of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself, and that self-hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair.

I think I found this book too late in life to enjoy it. It was written for college sophomores who still carry The Catcher in the Rye in their back pockets and think Ducky from Pretty in Pink is a great role model. It is about the age-old conflict of the disenfranchised misfit, torn between the need to conform and the desire to be free. And yes, there was a period in my youth where I agonized over such things as if I had to choose between the trappings and comforts of polite civilization and being true to the real me on the inside. I got over it, as most people who ever hope to be happy often do. I found that being part of civilized society does NOT mean selling your soul and handcuffing yourself to a grey flannel suit, a briefcase, and a rattle-brained trophy wife, while checking your imagination at the door. I learned that NerdCons, LARPs, poetry and song lyrics, medieval recreators, civil war recreators, carnivals, salons, theater, even blogs and internet dramaz are all part of society, too. And that you don’t have to be a lone wolf of the steppes just because you feel different from other people. More than anything, I registered that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and that nobody has to be the same person every day of their lives. If Harry Haller of Steppenwolf had learned these things, he wouldn’t have spent so much time going around with thunderclouds over his head, trying to decide whether or not to kill himself.

The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather :
She was only six, but he found her a square-dealing, dependable little creature. They worked out a satisfactory plan of life together. She was to play in the garden all morning, and was not on any account to disturb him in his study. After lunch, he would take her to the lake or the woods, or he would read to her at home. She took pride in keeping her part of the contract. One day when he came out of his study at noon, he found her sitting on the third floor stairs, just outside his door, with the arnica bottle in one hand and the fingers of the other puffed up like wee pink sausages. A bee had stung her in the garden, and she had waited half the morning for sympathy. She was very independent, and would tug at her leggings or overshoes a great while before she asked for help.

Unlike the other Cather stories I’ve read this year, it’s hard to say what this one is about. We go from a wholesome midwestern family having difficulties between the blood relatives and various in-laws to a long digression about an old family friend’s adventures discovering and exploring an extinct indian culture on a Southwestern mesa, and then back to the professor, brooding about the changes in his life.

I’m starting to see themes in Cather. Stories about people winning by being true to their own values are giving way to stories about people losing to unscrupulous sharks by having too much integrity to stick up for themselves in unseemly business deals. That saddens me.

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling :
A Punjabi constable in yellow linen trousers slouched across the road. He had seen the money pass.
‘Halt!’ he cried in impressive English. ‘Know ye not that there is a takkus of two annas a head, which is four annas, on those who enter the Road from this side-road. It is the order of the Sirkar, and the money is spent for the planting of trees and the beautification of the ways.’
‘And the bellies of the police’, said Kim, skipping out of arm’s reach. ‘Consider for a while, man with a mud head. Think you we came from the nearest pond like the frog, thy father-in-law. Hast thou ever heard the name of thy brother?’
‘And who was he? Leave the boy alone,’ cried a senior constable, immensely delighted, as he squatted down to smoke his pipe in the veranda.
‘He took the label from a bottle of Belaitee Pani (soda water), and affixing it to a bridge, collected taxes for a month from those who passed, saying that it was the Sirkar’s order. Then came an Englishman and broke his head. Ah, brother, I am a town crow, not a village crow!’
The policeman drew back abashed, and Kim hooted at him all down the road.
‘Was there ever such a disciple as i?’ he cried merrily to the lama. ‘All earth would have picked thy bones within ten miles of Lahore city if I had not guarded thee.’

This tale of a merry street ragamuffin and the conflicts between his white English heritage and his cultural upbringing in the teeming slums of India (I’m still wondering whether India has any normal slums, or whether they all teem) was billed as an exciting good spy novel for adults and children alike. I may have been tired, but I kept drowsily losing track of the plot, as the Huck Finn of the Ganges and his friend the spiritually wise but worldly foolish holy lama wander from one disjointed encounter to another. The stiff upper-lipped English and their Indian officials, semi-independent tribal chiefs and their officials, Hindus, Buddhists, peasants and spies pretending to be same make for a fancy and often confusing portrait of one of the most contradictory cultures ever to exist.

I daydream about India a lot. But it’s a fantasy India, with a dozen Taj Mahals, pleasant curry smells, and everybody smiling for the tourists in a safe environment. The real experience, now and a century ago, is more likely a darker, more pungent version of down the rabbit hole, in which everyone speaks nonsense and you can get hurt.

Two Adloescents, by Alberto Moravia:
One evening, there was a short circuit and the lights went out. Luca, at the sound of his mother’s voice calling him through the dark rooms, was quickly on the scene with his tools. But, whether he failed to take the precaution of not touching the ground or whether by the dim light of the candle he had not noticed that the wires were touching, the electric current suddenly sprayed and crackled through his fingers and ran through his body. Luca started shouting, and at the same time involuntarily tightened his grip on the wiring, thus intensifying the shock, which in turn made him powerless to loosen his hold on the wire. His mother, terrified and not knowing what to do, hovered around him, while Luca yelled and the electric current continued to vibrate through his body with a malignant power which seemed to come, not from the wires, but from the whole mysterious, hostile world which—although he had no knowledge of it—he hated. At last, after a long interval of confusion, somebody turned off the current at the main switch, and Luca, his hands released, threw himself sobbing into his mother’s arms. She did not understand why he was crying in such despair and hugged him mechanically, stroking his head. For a long time, Luca continued to weep, his whole body trembling, at the same time feeling bitterly that his mother’s caresses no longer protected and comforted him as they had once done.

These two novellas under one cover expertly describe the state of mind of a troubled teenager. The infinite pains and alienation. The obsession with an emerging sexuality you don’t understand. The unfamiliarity with the great wide hostile world out there, and the seething irrational anger, the terror, the mock indifference, with which you react to what you don’t understand.

What makes these tales good, highly recommended stories instead of unbearable tragedies is the hint at resolution that the character is really emerging from a harsh, rough chrysalis into a light that may become familiar and comforting over time after all. Reading them was like bittersweet chocolate, although I had to put them down at times as long-dormant, painful memories of my own kept coming to the surface.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman :
Preemptive penance and absolution were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed, intense and fervent penance accompanied by scourging and flagellation, so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit. When the penance had reached the appropriate level for a particular sin, the penitent was granted absolution in advance, though he might never be called upon to commit the sin. It was sometimes necessary to kill people, for example, and it was so much less troubling for the assassin if he could do so in a state of grace.

I found the whole “His Dark Materials” series to be awesome, although by the time we got around to the end, I half expected “God” to turn out to have been Father MacPhail in a costume the whole time, and he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for Those Meddling Kids. But what really happens is every bit as awesome as that would have been. And it was great to meet again a certain character that [Bad username: weekendpbs/] and I both like.

Is Pullman more preachy on his end of the theological argument than CS Lewis? If by “preachy” you mean he’s more obvious and strident in pushing his allegory, sure. It’s about what I’d expect from any author attacking the dominant worldview as compared to any author trying to reinforce the dominant worldview. And I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m not the one who claimed there was something wrong with CS Lewis writing a wink-wink, nudge-nudge children’s story with undertones. In fact I tend to prefer tales that can be appreciated on several levels. The only people who wouldn’t like both tales, it seems to me, are the ones who think they have to choose between them.

Additionally, Pullman’s tale is a refreshing, different perspective, and I believe his story is unique. Lewis tells his story in a magnificent new way, but the tale itself is the same old, old theme pushed by kings and preachers since the earliest times, that blind faith and obedience to authority are the natural order of things and that peasants are happiest when they get in line and don’t ask questions. I like reading the other side of that coin. Very high recommendations.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell :
Dixon was not unconscious of the awed reverence which was given to her; nor did she dislike it; it flattered her much as Louis the Fourteenth was flattered by his courtiers shading their eyes from the dazzling light of his presence. But nothing short of her faithful love for Mrs. Hale could have made her endure the rough independent way in which all the Milton girls, who made application for the servant’s place, replied to her inquiries respecting their qualifications. They even went the length of questioning her back again, having doubts and fears of their own as to the solvency of a family who lived in a house of 30 pounds a year and yet gave themselves airs and kept two servants, one of them so very high and mighty. Mr. Hale was no longer looked upon as the Vicar of Helstone, but as a man who only spent at a certain rate.

I once went to a Richard Thompson concert at which he introduced a song as “from an era of Industrial Strife”. I knew that this meant he was about to sing “Blackleg Miner”, and applauded loudly in anticipation. Thompson peered out into the audience and said, in a bemused voice, “Ah--fans of Industrial Strife, I take it?” Well, no—I don’t exactly like industrial strife, but my Scots-Irish, Wobbly ancestry responds well to rip roaring tales about it, at least.

This one is one of the first such, combining a little Jane Austen with a little Dickens, as it plops the usual morally superior but worldly-foolish female protagonist down into a thinly disguised 19th century Manchester where she may gaze with wide-eyed confusion at all those modern, noisy machines and the frenetic pace of industry, burn with indignation at social injustice, and get the vapors as all the big manly captains of capital and labor pound their chests and roar for her attention.

Most of the characters are stock caricatures placed there to illustrate the positive and negative aspects of the genteel landed aristocracy contrasted with the new capitalist overlords, and the yeoman peasants with the new urban working class, all of whom somewhat embarrassed and apologetic at having to let their anger and political struggles throw a wet blanket on such an important love story. There is, of course a “good” capitalist boss on hand to rationally discuss Adam Smith and explain endlessly how any good industrialist understands that enlightened self-interest is best served by the humane treatment of his employees; while the rest of the factory owners are calling for public hangings to whip the serfs back in line and teach them not to dispute wages with their masters. Also on hand are noble laborers, bursting at the seams with honor, dignity, and the extremity of desperation that brings them into the streets seeking reformation; and there are drunken, slothful wastrels reduced to demanding free handouts from the bosses, since government welfare programs haven’t been invented yet. (“Food stamps? What would those be? The government’s job is not to feed the hungry, but to kick the hungry, kick them hard, show them how foolish they are being by choosing to be hungry!”). So that we may consider various aspects of obligations to authority, Gaskell has included a subplot involving a mutiny on a British warship.

Consider how none of these themes had yet been explored in such detail at the time of writing, and the work is fresh and appealing. It doesn’t say much that is new to us today, but it reminds us of ideals the value of which we may have forgotten, as we pause in celebrating life in the most free governmental and economic system in the world, to line up for our daily security screenings and random drug tests.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings :
The family had come. Ora Baxter was plainly built for child bearing. But it seemed as though his seed were as puny as himself...the babies were frail, and, almost as fast as they came, they sickened and died. Penny had buried them one by one in a cleared place among the blackjack oaks, where the poor loose soil made the digging easier. The plot grew in size until he was compelled to fence it in against the vandalism of hogs and polecats. He had carved little wooden tombstones for all. He could picture them now, standing white and straight in the moonlight. Some of them had names: Ezra, Jr.; Little Ora; William T. The others bore only such legends as Baby Baxter, aged 3 mos. 6 days. On one, Penny had scratched laboriously with his pocketknife, “She never saw the light of day.” His mind moved back down the years, touching them, as a man touches fence posts in his passing.
There had been a hiatus in the births. Then, when the loneliness of the place had begun to frighten him a little, and his wife was almost past the age of bearing, Jody Baxter was born and thrived. When the baby was a toddling two year old, Penny had gone to the war. He had taken his wife and child to the river, to live with his crony, Grandma Hutto, for the few months he expected to be away. He had come back at the end of four years with the mark of age on him. He had gathered up his wife and boy, and taken them back to the scrub with gratitude for its peace and isolation.

I used to read a lot of books like this when I was a child. All the usual cliches are there. The child grows up poor in a happier, simpler time, develops character by farming land and doing chores that we do with machines in a tenth of the time, if at all, today; they hunt the livestock-eating varmint with the distinctive track-mark; and of course, there’s the beloved animal companion who provides the coming-of-age moment by dutifully going the way of Old Yeller.
I’ve been reading Willa Cather lately, and books that glorify the pioneer spirit. This book is the anti-Willa Cather. Instead of a cozy house on the rolling big sky prairie (or even in the big woods), the hapless Baxter family has to farm for meager rations on a smelly, fetid half-swamp in the Florida scrubland (not too far from where my actual father used to live, in fact. I wonder if he read this book), surrounded by bears, gators, wolves, wildcats, venomous snakes, panthers and roughnecks. The roughnecks are the worst. Rawlings never loses an opportunity to compare the gigantic, mean, usually drunk Forrester family with the scrawny, underfed Baxters, until you feel like you’re watching Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, snowbound in a cabin with those two hulking, hungry prospectors. A few chapters later, you wonder whether the Baxters are going to start eating their shoes like Chaplin, too.
These days, a lot of folks are talking about going back to the land and living like simple humble peasants, prancing about like Flag the Spotted Fawn. Me, I’m grateful to be in the modern world, neoconservatives or no.

Hundred Dollar Baby, by Robert B. Parker:
”Will you be all right alone?” April said to Hawk.
What she meant of course was, Will we be all right with only one of you on guard? Hawk knew what she meant. He smiled.
“Be too many of them,” Hawk said, “I can always run and hide.”
April looked uncertain.
“He’s teasing,” I said. “Unless you expect to be invaded by China, Hawk will be sufficient.”
“You think I not sufficient for China?” Hawk said.
I waffled my hand.
“You might need me for backup,” I said.

Spenser and I have grown up together over the decades. When I first started reading him, I hated his guts because he was a wiseguy with all the muscles and all the street connections and the girl of my dreams. A little later on, he became more of a role model. Nowadays, when I read Spenser, I’m just sort of proud and wistful at the same time, proud because I’m now doing some of what he does, if you squint hard enough—the hunting information, the adoption of lost causes, and the banter with would-be tough guys (and I really did deflate someone once after he told me to vamoose and I cocked an eyebrow and said “Vamoose? Did you really just say Vamoose?” That was originally a Spenser trick)—but without the gunshots, which, really, I don’t miss. And wistful because, in my sillier moments, I still want to be him and be big enough to rescue anybody at all--or sometimes because every so often I wish there was a hot girl version of him to rescue me from my more wretched jams.

In this new one, April Kyle is back, having traveled her own path from teenage prostitute to having her own upscale establishment, which the bad men are trying to take from her. And so Spenser and Hawk step in to keep it for her. The usual fights, betrayals, investigations, dead bodies and Spenser-Hawk banter ensue.

The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle :
The Admiral flicked a thick sheaf of papers. “Know what these are, Captain?”
“No, sir.”
“Requests that you be dismissed from the service. Half the faculty at Imperial University. Couple of padres from the church and one Bishop. Secretary of the Humanity League. Every bleeding heart this side of the coal Sack wants your scalp.”
“Yes, sir.” There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. Rod stood at stiff attention, waiting for it to be over. What would his father think? Would anyone understand?
“The man who fired on the first alien contact the human race ever made,” Cranston said coldly. “Crippled their probe. You know we only found one passenger, and he’s dead? Life-system failure, maybe.” Cranston fingered the sheaf of papers and viciously thrust them away. “Damned civilians, they always end up influencing the Navy. They leave me no choice.
“All right. Captain Blaine, as Fleet Admiral of this sector, I hereby confirm your promotion to Captain, and assign you to command of His Majesty’s battle cruiser MacArthur. Now sit down.” As Rod dazedly looked for a chair, Cranston grunted. “That’ll show the bastards. Try to tell me how to run my command, will they? Blaine, you’re the luckiest officer in the Service. A board would have confirmed your promotion anyway, but without this, you’d never have kept that ship.”

It’s hard to talk about this one without spoiling the plot; every couple of chapters there’s a new surprising revelation that shakes up the whole plot. I’ll just mention that the book, written in 1974, not too long after the first moon landing, explores the issue of first human contact with an alien race, and does it very well.

And yes, I’m real glad that the leader of the Human Interplanetary empire is not George W. Bush.

And yes, I want that coffeemaker!

I’ve seen more spaceship sci-fi on television than I have in books, and it’s made me sort of jaded. Also, The Redhead recently introduced me to the Stargate series, and so, as I read this, I couldn’t stop visualising the main ship’s captain as Richard Dean Anderson, and every Admiral, Vice Admiral and Fleet Admiral who outranks him as Don Davis about to blow his top. And, you know—it kinda works that way. Maybe these spaceship characters are all the same people.

The most original thing about this book is that it concentrates on the aspects of human-alien contact and relations that other stories either skip past entirely or accept as given circumstances. Very high recommendations.

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