Thursday, December 28, 2023

Favorite Books 2023

 Pile of old books ~ Education Photos on Creative Market


Another year, another list of books with the notes to remind me what each was about.  I would like to be able to summarize with the brevity and clarity of The New Yorker or Washington Post but I'm not that good; I just record my initial thoughts and let it go at that.  I do edit the selected summaries slightly when I post these year end favorites but that's mainly to slim down ones that ramble because I included more detail than really necessary.  

This year's list is heavy on non-fiction.  Most of my fiction selections, while generally entertaining, did not capture my attention that way non-fiction did in 2023.  Here's what stands out at year's end.





 One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle (2019)


Collection of essays published by friends and associates following Bryan Doyle’s death in 2017 at age 61. Doyle writes expansively and lyrically about most everything, from the wonder of hummingbirds and their rapidly beating hearts to the joys of using basketball skills of his youth to play a raucously chaotic nerf game with his young children. Nothing is too insignificant for extended examination that can easily and quite logically wander well beyond its starting point to offer insights on life, love, friendship, parenthood, nature and myriad other topics. Each essay stands alone. Together they reveal a talented, thoughtful writer who is well worth further reading.


Catching the Light, Joy Harjo (2022)


Part memoir, part reflection on her Native American heritage and part meditation on the role of poetry in her life, former US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo describes the many influences that took her from life on the Rez to the nation’s highest honor as a poet. The style is prose but presented in 50 short pieces the work has the lyrical feel of poetry and traces the many influences—personal, spiritual and natural—that informed and directed her life . At times hard-edged and gritty and other times expansive and hopeful, Harjo traces her unlikely journey with an energy that does indeed catch the light.


What If 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Monroe (2022)

 The subtitle pretty much says it all. People submit entirely ridiculous questions and Randall Monroe explains the science that would apply to the situation. Usually, the result is something either catastrophic or simply personally dangerous. It‘s all very serious (or at least as serious as the answer to an absurd hypothetical question can be). The seriousness is also leavened by Monroe’s stick figure drawings that further convey some of the absurdity involved. The science is real, even if the question is entirely preposterous so What If 2 requires some careful but fascinating reading.


American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, Adam Hochschild (2022)


Very readable account of the repression and violence unleashed in the US by America’s entry into what was then known as The Great War. A nation that was already hostile to organized labor, immigrants, socialists and Black Americans ramped up its hostility with legal and extra legal attacks against anyone who spoke out against the war or was even suspected of lacking appropriate enthusiasm for the effort. Racist president Woodrow Wilson had almost nothing to say about violence inflicted on these groups and supported repressive laws like the Espionage Act of 1917 (still on the books) which was used almost exclusively to suppress speech and not against spies. Following the end of hostilities, Hochschild shows how the victor’s peace imposed on Germany planted the seeds for WW2 barely two decades hence. At the same time, the US continued the repression and violence against Blacks, immigrants and socialists until the early 1920s.


The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War, Chad L. Williams (2023)


Although this book focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois’s attempt to write the history of Black Americans in WW1, The Wounded World provides an excellent overview the author’s work and times. By 1914, Du Bois was an established thought leader and advocate for Black Americans. As Americans debated entering the war, Du Bois argued for Black support and participation in the war with the expectation that their service would offer a path toward racial justice. The racism he encountered in pursuing that participation and the experience of Black GIs and officers in service and as veterans disillusioned him.

DuBois amassed a wealth of information, documents and first-hand observation to chronicle the service and heroism of Black soldiers, officer and enlisted, along with the discrimination they faced at the hands of the US Army. What began as a simple history continued to grow as Du Bois saw the events of 1914-1918 as part of a broad sweep of history that had systematically taken advantage of persons of color in the US and around the world. The expanded scope, along with the lack of funding for research and verification, Du Bois’s other work and the march of events overtook the effort which was never published.

The Wounded World fills that gap. It documents Black American’s WW1 service while recognizing a towering American intellectual, fully engaged in the issues of his time and the evolution of his thought.


A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South, Peter Cozzens (2023)


Peter Cozzens presents a thorough history of the American expansion into the deep South in the years following the Revolutionary War and its impact on the indigenous peoples of that region. Although the subtitle leads with Andrew Jackson, the general does not appear until Part Three which is preceded by a history of the Creeks and the split within that nation about accommodating or resisting the ongoing pressures of American influences and settlement. By the time Andrew Jackson appears on the scene traditionalist Creeks, known as Red Sticks, are at war with their more assimilated brethren who, along with other indigenous tribes such as the Cherokee, are willing to side with the Americans. Jackson’s influence is key in that not only shared the settlers hostility to hostile indigenous inhabitant occupants of the region but he also he forged an actual fighting force from a combination of regular army troops, militia volunteers and Native American allies. Cozzens lays out the history of the various contending forces and lays out a logical progression of influences among what would otherwise be a bewildering cast of Creek leaders, prophets other influencers. Overall, an excellent, readable history that presents a full spectrum of background and detail of a war that is barely a footnote, if that, in American history.


I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction, Kidada E. Williams (2023)


A graphic refutation of the conventional wisdom that has held for much of the past century and a half that Reconstruction—policies intended to change the economic and social structures in the South to ensure the civil and political rights of newly-emancipated enslaved persons—failed. In this telling, Reconstruction did not fail, it was attacked and subverted by an organized resistance using violence and intimidation against any Black person who sought to exercise their political and economic rights. Based on the first-person accounts recorded in hearings and investigations conducted during Reconstruction and the accounts of survivors recorded by the WPA, I Saw Death Coming recounts the many ways Blacks and their white supporters were physically attacked, murdered, driven from from their homes and dispossessed. Author Williams demonstrates that many Blacks had achieved significant economic success and independence following emancipation only to be robbed of their gains by unreconstructed Confederates intent on preserving the social structures and customs that privileged them prior to the Civil War. The opponents of emancipation were aided in this effort by the indifference/hostility of the rest of the nation that either wanted to move on from the war or did not support Black civil rights. A powerful book that shows how how resistant the United States was toward Black emancipation, a problem that has persisted to the present.


Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L. Sevigny (2023)


In 1938 when few people had traveled the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, botany professor Elzada Clover and graduate student Lois Jotter became the first non-indigenous women to accomplish this feat. Their trip came about as a result of Professor Clover’s interest in the plant life of the American southwest and the opportunity to map one of the few places left to explore. The Colorado River in that era was considered too dangerous for women who were dismissed as wholly unable to contribute to the effort needed for a successful trip. Clover managed to conspire with Norm Nevills, an experienced boatman who wanted to but had not yet taken on the Colorado through the Canyon. Melissa Sevigny provides a dramatic and detailed account of the trip. Her descriptions of running major rapids are chilling as are the many difficult portages and environmental challenges along the way. In addition, she provides backstory information about the challenges women faced in academia at the time and much history of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon before, during and since Clover and Jotter’s historic trip. Brave the Wild River is a well-written and engaging tale of determination and perseverance.





Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver (2022)


Barbara Kingsolver chronicles life on the margins in Appalachia through the eyes of Damon Fields, aka Demon Copperhead, the son of a drug impaired mother and already deceased father. The story begins with his difficult birth and follows Demon’s experiences as a ward of the state after his mother also dies (from an overdose), as he struggles to find his place in a small but difficult world. Along the way Demon finds himself exploited by foster caregivers and constantly looking for a place to simply be a kid in an environment that is stacked against him. Even when he finds something like that place, he falls into addiction and a downward spiral that threatens to kill him. Demon’s life is difficult but not without hope. Along with all of the challenges, Demon finds a few people and friends that help him deal with those challenges.


Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty (2022)


Short stories depicting the hard life on the the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. The stories follow narrator David’s family and friends over the years after he finds a jar that contains an old curse. Drugs, separation, youthful violence are all part of the story. So, too, is the endurance and perseverance of the characters. No matter what happens—and by the final story, told years later, the worse has come to pass—the family lurches on. 


Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus (2022)


Elizabeth Zott is a chemist at a research laboratory in the mid 1950s. Dismissed from the PhD program she was pursuing after reporting an attempted rape by her dissertation advisor, Elizabeth holds a relatively junior position and is the only professional level woman at the institute when she encounters Calvin Evans a brilliant chemist and the star employee of the institute. Despite an awkward introduction and their respective unstable and dysfunctional family histories, the two become lovers and intellectual partners, a relationship that engenders much gossip and hostility from other staff. Elizabeth is Calvin’s equal and entirely unwilling to accept the era’s limitations on and attitudes about women. When Calvin is killed in a freak accident and Elizabeth learns that she is pregnant, she is fired. Giving birth to a daughter and staring at unemployment entices Elizabeth to accept an offer to return to work at the institute. When she discovers that pay is less than before and her boss is using her so that he can publish her work as his own she resigns. A chance encounter with the single father parent of her daughter’s kindergarten classmate leads to an offer to host an afternoon cooking program on a local television station, a role that Elizabeth fills a with her unique perspective as a woman and a chemist. Lessons in Chemistry is a good story. Elizabeth is a likable, determined character and is accompanied by a believable cast of supporting characters.


Night Watch, Jayne Anne Phillips (2023)


Night Watch is set in the hills of West Virginia during and after the Civil War. The narrative opens in 1874 as a man seemingly abandons wife and child at the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Even as the reader is introduced to the event and characters, that initial impression is quickly dispelled as the story unfolds. The story shifts between 1864, when a medicine woman/midwife and two of her enslaver’s illicit children have escaped and found refuge from the war and slavery in Virginia’s anti-secessionist counties, and the events leading to the asylum ten years later. The bifurcated structure gradually adds the detail to the story, illustrating the main characters’ endurance and the risks, violence and loss that were a constant threat during those post-war years. The story is well-told and, once the reader gets oriented to the characters and time line, eminently engaging.


Sunday, October 15, 2023

An Inconvenient Memory

Yesterday in traffic I noticed something odd hanging from the back bumper of a car in the adjacent turn lane as I approached an intersection. It was a grayish-green rectangular box with a convex curve and looked very much like a Claymore mine. When that lane got the green light I paid attention to the car as it passed and, sure enough, it was a Claymore mine. I could clearly read the "Front Toward Enemy" markings on the outer surface. I'm guessing that it was actually only the plastic exterior casing of the mine and did not include the 700 1/8 inch steel balls or the pound and a half of C-4 plastic explosive that makes a Claymore such a deadly anti-personnel weapon. On the other hand, in an America awash in deadly weapons, I wouldn't bet on it.

Most drivers probably would not recognize that item hanging from the back of a car as a weapon, although the fact that the wording says it is pointed at the  "enemy"--in this case the viewer--might suggest something not quite right.  I, on the other hand, am familiar with Claymore mines.  I carried one for months in Vietnam, setting it up outside my position when my company established its night defensive perimeter at the end of each day.  Most everyone else did so too.  At dusk we'd put out a trip flare and wire a little farther out beyond the Claymore.  The idea was that anyone attempting to infiltrate our perimeter would set off the trip flare and the guy on radio watch could detonate the mine and blow the fucker away.  

That only happened once and was probably an animal that was immediately scared off by the flare and long gone by the time the guy fired the Claymore.  We found no sign of any body or any thing.  The few other times I recall Claymores detonating were accidents that left us with casualties.  So, yeah, I have Claymore memories.  They came rushing back when I saw that plastic case on the bumper. 

People accessorize their vehicles to express something or other.  I wonder what hanging an anti-personnel mine (even if it is entirely inoperable) on one's back bumper is saying.  Seems a bit hostile to me.  Others may not get the message.  I got it loud and clear.

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Monday, December 26, 2022

2022 Favorite Books




Vivian Maier Developed: the Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny, Ann Marks (2021)

Well-told biography of street photographer Vivian Maier who created an extensive body of work that went largely unrecognized during her lifetime working as a professional nanny. Fills in the life behind the photographer whose work in New York and Chicago during the 1950s and 60s came to the world’s attention through a storage-unit auction]

There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, Fiona Hill (2021)

Russian expert and British native Fiona Hill uses the trajectory of her own life as the daughter of a coal miner dispossessed by the closure of mines in northeast England who found opportunity and encouragement to succeed well beyond the expectations of her class and geographic origins to highlight the the ever-shrinking opportunity available to marginalized groups based on race, class, sex or geography in the 21st century. Hill contrasts the opportunities and support she found along the way with polarization and limits within both the US and UK and recommends public and private sector policies that would address the barriers that leave people and entire regions forgotten and wholly on their own

Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, Woody Holton (2021)

History professor Woody Holton delves deeply into the American Revolution to fill in the untold stories of women, enslaved persons, Native Americans and others who have been largely ignored in the conventional histories. Holton doesn’t overlook the major figures and events but shows rather how those major figures were assisted by these marginalized individuals and sometimes even changed their plans based on what they learned from them.

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, Calvin Trillin (2011)

A four -decade collection of commentary by columnist and poet Calvin Trillin on a wide range of subjects, including, but not limited to: media, politics, economics, language, literature, New York City and rich people.  No matter what the topic or year, Trillin’s columns, satirical poems and song lyrics are perceptive, clever, amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, Nicole Hannah-Jones (2021)

An expanded version of material first presented in the New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project examines the impact of slavery on the history, economics and institutions of the United States. The various essays present a convincing case that slavery was an integral part of Colonial America and was incorporated in many ways into the newly-formed Republic. The basic point is that Blacks were enslaved for almost 250 years, emancipated without any resources whatsoever, actively barred from achieving economic or political success and attacked if they ever did. It’s a compelling story that gives lie to the myth of racial progress.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War, Malcolm Gladwell (2021)

Malcolm Gladwell follows the development of strategic thought from the idea that precision bombing can end wars without mass casualties to the wholesale firebombing of Japanese cities in the last months of WW2. Along the way he provides interesting sketches of the various theories and technological developments that gave rise to the dream of precision bombing and the realities that led to the firebombing of Tokyo, followed by many other cities. Malcolm handles the technological aspects of with easily understandable prose and provides thoughtful detail on how the Air Force came to utilize aircraft in war. He even manages to (somewhat) humanize General Curtis LeMay.

E.B. White on Dogs, Martha White, ed. (2013)

Non-fiction. Spanning the years 1929 to 1984, this collection of letters, essays and the occasional poem chronicles writer E.B. White’s many dogs and his understanding of them. White experienced (suffered?) his dogs with some fondness but was always aware of that they had their own agendas. Fred--the  quick impression of a dachshund”-- is an early star in this cavalcade, sometimes warranting his own essay, other times simply making a passing appearance in a letter. His memory (or spirit) even shows up a couple of times after his death. Throughout, White is always affectionate, tolerant and warmly appreciative of the companionship his dogs provided. He understands that dogs are not always the most pleasant companions but he also understands that life wold be diminished in their absence.


The Sentence, Louise Erdrich (2021)

Fiction. Tookie, an urban Native American in Minneapolis, gets busted for helping a friend move the friend’s ex-boyfriend’s corpse which also contained a substantial quantity of drug. Released after several years in prison and married to the (also Native American) officer who arrested her, she works in a bookstore owned and staffed by Native Americans and is haunted by the spirit of her most annoying customer. The setting is Minneapolis in 2020 and follows Tookie as she comes to terms with her neglected childhood, prison and coping with the turmoil of Covid, the George Floyd killing and the vexing presence of the bookstore ghost. Tookie is an imperfect but engaging character, shackled by memories and emotions from her difficult path but also willing to take some risks toward trust and future possibilities.

The Cold Millions, Jess Walter (2020)

Fiction. Lively tale of IWW organizing, capitalist hostility,working conditions and economic exploitation set in and around Spokane, Washington Itinerant workers serving in the logging camps and mines of the northwest create profit for the well-to-do and businesses of the region but their presence is less welcome when the radical IWW encourages the workers to demand better pay and conditions. The Cold Millions begins with violence against these “vagrants” and sets the tone for the entire novel: Wobblies arrested by the hundred for simply stating their demands, they endure squalid confinement and stage hunger strikes. The infamous 18-year-old IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley is one of many believable characters in a cast that includes a variety of Wobblies, smarmy rich people, brutally indifferent cops, and an agent provocateur.  It all builds to an explosive end.

Horse, Geraldine Brooks (2022)

Fiction. Filled with characters drawn from history and the most famous race horse of the 19th century, Horse tells a story that flows into the current century. The story begins in the 21st century with the unlikely meeting of a Black Nigerian art historian and a Smithsonian curator from Australian over a “throwaway” painting of a horse before falling back to the antebellum South and the story of the racehorse, Lexington, and his fictional enslaved groom, Jarret. Well-researched, blending much historical fact seamlessly with fiction, Horse is compelling reading that explores racism in the 19th century and now.

Forbidden City, Vanessa Hua (2022)

Fiction. Set in mid-1960’s China, Forbidden City, follows the trajectory of Mei Xiang’s life as she is selected from her rural village to serve as a dance partner to China’s Communist elite. At 16 years old, Mei’s entire life has been lived under Chairman Mao’s revolution; she experienced the revolutionary indoctrination and the hardships of the Mao’s changing policies during his first two decades in power.  Mei becomes Mao’s mistress and, steeped in revolutionary ardor, aspires to become a model revolutionary. Following her odyssey the reader gets a glimpse of life at the top and factional intrigue. Mei’s ardor encourages Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution, to purify the revolutionary spirit.  As the frenzy of denunciation grows, causing real harm to real people, Mei realizes how little Mao seems to care about the suffering of the people  Recognizing the falsehood of Chairman Mao and his cult  her to life-changing decision.


Friday, November 11, 2022

No Longer Angry at the Old Vets


Growing up in the 1950s veterans were part of my landscape. My father, four uncles and one aunt served during World War II. Almost everyone I knew had a father who served during that war or Korea. As a child, I was in awe of these veterans and often wondered how any of them survived what I imagined was a constant hail of bullets. Despite their ubiquity, the veterans themselves did not make a big deal of it. After all, just about everyone served so any one person’s service was nothing more than what everyone else did. Oh sure, a few heroes stood out but they usually dismissed their actions as something any other service member would have done had they been in the same situation. As a body the veterans of the 20th century wars represented a high standard of dedication and patriotism

That changed for me during the Vietnam war. By the late 60s patriotism seemed to demand that I fight in a war that looked increasingly dubious. There was no actual threat to the United States; the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were not attacking my country but rather fighting in an obscure corner of Southeast Asia. As the war escalated, more questions arose about both the morality and practicality of the war. The politicians’ and generals’ assurances were often at odds with the facts on the ground and I, like many of my generation, called for an end to the war.

But the veterans I admired as a child and, particularly their veterans organizations, branded our objections as unpatriotic and cowardly. I came to resent them, old men demanding that we serve simply because they had done so. They saw Vietnam through their own lens which brooked no question to the government’s decision to fight a war. The old vets were still numerous and their their collective voice carried great weight. Even though I disagreed entirely with their view, my objection was insufficient to overcome the the sense of duty that I owed my country. When my student deferments ran out and war was still on, I went to Vietnam.

During my year in-country, the Pentagon Papers were published and documented the many misjudgments, lies, and obfuscations about America’s war in Vietnam. When I returned I was angry about the entire experience and the people who sent me there, among them the old veterans. I had no interest in joining any veterans organization. I couldn’t imagine that I would have anything in common with those guys.

My anger slowly dissipated over the next decade and allowed me to realize that I did in fact have something in common with the old veterans. The realization became particularly clear when I found a collection of Edward Steichen WW2 photographs. Steichen was an established fashion and fine art photographer in his 60s when the war broke out. He had served in the Army as a colonel during WW1 but was refused enlistment because of his age. The Navy invited him to serve as director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit and his work, along with a coterie of photographers he recruited, documented the carrier war in the Pacific. Those photographs showed a lot of very young men whose young faces looked a lot like us in Vietnam.

Those faces spoke to me in a very different way than my previous characterization of the old veterans. Whatever our differences about Vietnam, I recognized a common experience that overrides those differences. Instead of advocates for a dubious war, I saw men who were little different from me, just doing what the country asked of them. Seeing those faces reminded me that despite our different experiences we were very much the same.

That realization defused my anger toward the old veterans. We may still differ in our assessment of the American war in Vietnam but I believe that they came to their opinions honestly from their experiences in war. They were “fortunate” (if that word is ever appropriate to describe serving in war) enough to serve in a war that had genuine meaning whereas my generation faced a war that was conceived in ignorance and continued under lies. If you have any doubts about that difference, consider the consequences America suffered by its defeat in Vietnam (little to none except for the service members and their families) to the potential consequences of defeat by the Axis forces.

These days I know a great deal more about war and its consequences for those who serve than I knew in my youth. The veterans I first saw as childhood heroes and later as blind advocates for an unnecessary war are now simply comrades.


Sunday, January 30, 2022

Some Years Ending in the Number Two

This year being 2022 memories from previous years ending in the number two are on my mind. 1972 is the earliest. In January of that year I was fresh off the plane home from Vietnam, happy to be alive and looking forward to beginning life after the Army and war. I had plans but it took some effort to get back into civilian life. I soon discovered that much of the war came home with me. Not in the sense of flashbacks and nightmares but rather just sheer dumbfoundedness at the whole experience. But those thoughts, while ubiquitous, were compartmentalized—always there but not particularly controlling over my life. As it turned out, I was accepted into the public administration master’s degree program at the University of Virginia and even landed an research assistant position at the university’s Institute of Government. By May I was back in Charlottesville where I had spent four years as an undergraduate before the Army and Vietnam

The surroundings were familiar but I felt detached from them, especially since everyone I knew from my undergraduate days was long gone. Meeting new people during the slow days of summer was difficult. I spent a fair amount of time on my own hiking and camping in Virginia’s mountains where it dawned on me that I was unlikely to ever walk in the woods without thinking about walking in the jungle. It also dawned on me that I was unlikely to be actually be at risk in those mountains except due to inexperience or carelessness. I did find a couple friends from my undergraduate days still in town, Peyton Coyner and Gordon Kerby. I hung out with Peyton a lot that summer and to a lesser extent with Gordon. Both kindly listened to my Vietnam stories and we have been close friends ever since. Once school began in September my world opened up considerably and I began to feel more like a normal person rather than a war veteran.

Ten years later, also in January, I wrestled with the decision to move to Arizona. By that time I had long ago finished my master’s degree and worked over seven years as an analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in Richmond. It was interesting work in a good environment. By late 1981, though, future opportunities within JLARC were limited—the senior management positions were not likely to turn over any time soon. I was restless and looking about for other opportunities in Richmond when a colleague returned from a conference and told me that the Arizona Auditor General was looking for a performance audit manager. I was definitely interested although it would mean a big change. That opportunity fell through when the position was filled before I could arrange an interview but the director suggested I might consider a Senior Auditor position at a decently higher salary. I was less interested in simply doing the same work in a different place but decided to interview anyway even though I would have to pay my own travel costs. I figured that, if nothing else, I would get a chance to see another part of the country. I flew out to Phoenix for an interview and they were sufficiently impressed to offer me the position at an attractive salary. That meant I had to make a decision.

At first, I was not inclined to take the offer. Phoenix did not impress me—it looked like an endless procession of strip malls and housing developments stretching into the desert infinity. Even worse, moving to Arizona would mean leaving everything and everyone I knew. But I was restless in my job and my life. I was recently divorced and I had no family remaining in Virginia; my mother died a few years earlier. Several things finally convinced me to make the move. A brief excursion into the Verde Valley, Oak Creek Canyon and Flagstaff during my interview visit gave me a glimpse of Arizona’s grandeur beyond Phoenix. So did looking an Arizona map and seeing vast swaths of national forest and the Grand Canyon. I figured I could do some bodacious hiking there. Ten years earlier I had considered moving to Washington State after being impressed with what I saw there during Army training at Fort Lewis. I chose not to make that move and wondered ever since where that would have led. In 1982 I was more open to taking a chance so I accepted the position and made the move. It was emotionally difficult. It was also one of the best decisions of my life.

Fast forward to early 2002 and I was preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail—2,000 miles north from Georgia to Maine. In January I had relocated back to Phoenix after working as a audit manager for the Navajo Nation Auditor General for almost five years. Life was much more complex than 20 years earlier and figuring out how to just step away from it all for eight months was daunting, especially the part about making a living without a job. As it turned out, I didn’t actually figure it out so much as I just made it work—with much help from my partner, Maggie, many friends along the way and even some complete strangers. Many loose ends remained when I departed Phoenix in late March for the trailhead in Georgia. I never entirely escaped them on the trail but I did make it all the way to Maine. Along the way I had my share of trials but I also met many amazing people and experienced many moments of joy and wonder.

As with every hike since Vietnam, my thru-hike brought back memories of walking in the jungle carrying a weapon. Unlike those previous hikes, the lengthy duration and many hours walking alone on the trail gave me an opportunity (or forced me)  to sort through those memories and come to terms with that experience in a way that had eluded me for three decades. Intrusive war memories not withstanding, my thru-hike remains one of my most memorable life experiences.

Not all of my major life decisions occurred in years ending in the number 2 but these three sure did.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

2021 Favorite Books


Of the books I read in 2021these are the ones that stand out in my mind as the year comes to an end.



Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, Ty Seidule (2020)

Ty Seidule grew up idolizing the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee. The infatuation lasted until somewhere in his Army career when he began looking at the Confederate symbols and traditions embedded in American life and the institutions he served. This memoir provides extensive detail about how those symbols and traditions became part of the the American story rather than evidence of treason. Writing as a retired general with 40 years of service, Seidule contrasts the idealized history of his southern hometowns and the Antebellum South against the brutal reality of slavery and the lingering consequences of racism into the the following centuries. He does the same with his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, which he describes as “the shrine of the Lost Cause” and the Army which continues to glorify Confederates up to the present day. He notes especially how the myth of Robert E. Lee is woven into the atmosphere of the US Military Academy at West Point where Seidule served as history professor in the years prior to his retirement. That chapter is particularly interesting in that Seidule details the hostility in the decades following the Civil War (memorialized in those years as the “War of Rebellion”) toward the graduates who betrayed their oath of allegiance to the US when they served the Confederacy and shows how that hostility faded into accepting treason as less than consequential. Seidule also shows that, contrary to the traditional biographies, Lee’s choice was not ordained by family and geography. The Lee family was far from wholly secessionist and many of his fellow Virginians serving in the US Army remained loyal. If you are a Southerner who grew up steeped in Confederate traditions and cannot understand why that history is no longer acceptable, Robert E. Lee and Me provides a well-documented examination of why that change is taking place.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, Tony Horwitz (2019)

In the mid 1850s, as the US was fracturing through the years leading to secession and civil war, Frederick Law Olmstead traveled through the South looking to explore the growing divisions with the leading men of the region with the hope of finding some common understanding that would bridge the divide. His travels were documented in a series of articles published by the New York Times and offer a picture of a nation at odds with itself. His journals also reveal his appreciation and understanding of landscape that later informed his later career as a pioneering landscape architect. Author Tony Horwitz follows Olmstead’s routes in 2016 with much the same intent: to look across the divide that separates Americans in the second decade of the 20th century. Like his predecessor, Horwitz examines the American South in some detail, spending much time meeting and talking with people very different from himself. He writes with empathy and understanding, willing to hear out what others think and believe without judgment. He often disapproves of what he sees and hears but follows their logic and context to see where the ideas come from. He also quotes liberally from Olmstead’s writings and is especially cognizant of Olmstead’s attention to the details of nature and humans’ interactions with their environment. Spying on the South fascinating, both as history and a snapshot of modern America and the link between the two.

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Heather Cox Richardson (2020)

An illuminating history of the enduring paradox of American history, where the liberty and equality for all espoused in the nation’s founding documents is based on the subordination of some. While the Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” that equality is limited to white males and is based on the denial of equality for certain classes of people: women, Blacks and other minorities. The paradox flourished in the early 19th century as southern planters and their political allies asserted the superiority of their slave labor system and ultimately refused to accept election results in 1860 that threatened the survival of that system. Along the way, southern oligarchs accorded some privileges for lower class whites who were warned that any change in the system would come at their expense Although the South lost the military conflict and the federal government made serious efforts toward supporting equality and political participation of the newly freed slaves, the trope continued into the west under the guise of the hard-working independent westerner and hostility toward foreigners and labor organizers who would redistribute the wealth in their own interests. It waned considerably after the New Deal and WW2 when Americans saw the value of active government but found new momentum during the Civil Rights era and blossomed under Ronald Reagan and Movement Conservatism. Richardson’s analysis is thorough and well-argued and points to the conclusion that Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a “new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg remains unfulfilled more than 150 years later.

Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy The Nazis, Jeffery H. Jackson (2020)

Riveting story of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, avant-garde French artists and lovers living on the occupied Channel Island of Jersey off the French coast during WW2. Although the Channel Islands were British territory, proximity to France enabled German troops to occupy the islands in 1940. Schwob and Malherbe had relocated to Jersey after actively participating in the robust and iconoclastic artistic movements that emerge in France after the first World War. The two women were openly lovers in that environment and and developed an intimate, gender-fluid body of work that was well ahead of its time although not widely recognized beyond their artistic community. Their life on Jersey removed them from that milieu to a more isolated life. Once war broke out and German troops took control of the island, they began their resistance by leaving small notes, leaflets and photmontages in German (Suzanne was a fluent German speaker) addressed to rank and file German soldiers questioning the war, mocking Nazi leaders and urging mutiny. They were not the only resisters on the island but they were fortunate to have the wealth and privacy to conduct their campaign and made effective use of their tresources to challenge the occupation for four years until caught by the Germans. Imprisoned for almost a year and condemned to death for their activities, Schwob and Malherbe took full responsibility for their work and managed to confound the Germans with their matter-of-fact acceptance of their fate, refusing even to ask for clemency, which was granted over their refusal, as the war was coming to its inevitable end in the spring of 1945. Author Jeffery Jackson presents a lively account of the two women drawn from a variety of sources, clearly linking their resistance activities to their art and their interpersonal relationship. Although history has tended to recognize Schwob as the primary artist, Jackson describes a full partnership and collaboration that made their work so effective. The cover quotes historian Douglas Brinkley describing “every page” of Paper Bullets as “gripping”. This book lives up to that praise.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Fred Kaplan (2014)

An impressively detailed biography of America’s sixth president. JQ Adams didn’t get much attention in the history I learned as a child, I got a bit of appreciation of him in my college diplomatic history of the US course but can’t say I was in any way knowledgeable about him beyond that and the disputed 1824 election that made him president for a single term. Fred Kaplan rectifies that deficiency with a thoroughly documented history of Adams’ life. Kaplan presents Adams as a man whose destiny was set by his birth but also a man who rose to the occasion during a life of public service. Adams was a dedicated diarist throughout his entire life, beginning at age 14 when he accompanied his father to Paris when the latter served as an American representative there during the Revolution. The diary entries, along with his prolific correspondence, provide an unvarnished view of Adams’ hopes, fears, beliefs and tribulations the early years of the American Constitutional experiment. Adams life was unique in many ways and while he is remembered as the sixth president, those years rate only 38 pages out of 570 total. I come away from this history thinking of Adams as a cross between two other one-term presidents: James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Like Buchanan, Adams brought a wealth of experience to the office, although Adams’ tenure is not regarded as the disaster that Buchanan made of his time in office. Like Carter, Adams left office poorly regarded but earned a reputation for integrity and service in his post-presidential years. Aside from the depth of his research, Kaplan presents the story in an easy to read style that always left me looking forward to the next chapter whenever I had to put I down.

The Gun, The Ship and the Pen: Warfare Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, Linda Colley (2021)

Although the United States has one of the world’s oldest constitutions, it was hardly the first and certainly not the last. Linda Colley explores the rise of the constitutional era that began in the late 18th century, starting with Corsica and ending with the Japanese Constitution of 1889, a period that continues to influence aspiring nation builders into the modern era. She notes that the nature of warfare that emerged in the late 18th century involved both large land armies and powerful navies, both expensive and difficult propositions. Constitutions provided rulers with the ability to raise revenue and call on citizens/subjects for service. At the same time citizen/subjects could assert some claim to their own rights in return for their treasure and blood. Some constitutions, as in the US, were formal affairs while others, like the system of government for Pitcairn Island were drafted by outsiders. In all cases, constitutions formalized powers and rights but in to widely varying degrees. Constitutions were also a means of defense—a nation with a formal governing document could assert its legitimacy and independence in a world of predatory great power colonialism. Some were more successful than others. Hawai’i managed this feat for decades but in the end still fell victim to US annexation. Linda Colley presents all this in a lively and thorough history that makes easy reading of what would otherwise be a rather obscure and dry topic.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and he Forging of American Science, John Tresch (2021)

This biography of Edgar Allan Poe puts him in the middle of the philosophical and scientific debates of the early 19th century. In this telling much of Poe’s work reflects the emerging knowledge and discoveries that expanded human understanding beyond the traditional religious/mystical beliefs that were accepted wisdom in earlier times. Not only did Poe incorporate much of this emerging knowledge in his stories and poems, he also engaged fully in the scientific debates during a time when the difference between learned scientist and well-informed amateur was ill-defined. Author John Tresch illustrates Poe’s active participation in scientific discussions with extensive citations from and analyses of his works and notes that while Poe respected the scientific method of observation and measurement, he also advocated using imagination and creativity as an important element of scientific discovery. Among the ideas that Poe theorized or advocated were the nebular theory of star formation, the impact of industrialization on the earth and an early version of the big bang theory—all refined and more fully developed by scientists in the century following Poe’s death. While recognizing Poe’s personal shortcomings that have tarnished Poe’s reputation, Tresch’s biography balances that narrative with much evidence that Poe was well-regarded by many and recognized as a talented genius even by his enemies during his lifetime.


Cuyahoga, Pete Beatty (2021)

A lively tale set in the frontier towns Ohio City and Cleveland in the mid-1830s. Told mostly in the local vernacular from the Ohio City side of the Cuyahoga River, the story features a cast of unique characters, including a horse and a good-natured ox, who fit well into the raw, undefined spaces of a still developing country. Much of the focus is on the extraordinary feats of Big Son and his quest to find a place in a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. His brother Meed (short for Medium Son) narrates the story and fills in the detail for all the others. The two towns are rivals but also understand their interdependence and there is much debate bridging the river that separates them—whether it should be one bridge, two bridges or no bridge—along with some humorous but practical observations about the utility of coffins. The plot twists and turns among characters and events and unfolds imperceptibly into a surprising but not unbelievable conclusion.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E Schwab (2021)

Desperately seeking escape from an arranged marriage that would consign her to the confines of her small, early 18th century French village, Adeline LaRue makes a deal with a “god that answers after dark.” She gains her freedom and never-ending life at the cost of her identity: fated to not be remembered by anyone she meets. Adeline becomes Addie because she can no longer even speak her given name. She exists across the succeeding centuries free of all entanglements save for occasional visits from the dark god who is always seeking her surrender, which she stubbornly refuses to give, until she is unexpectedly recognized and remembered by Henry, a young book store clerk in 21st century New York. V.A. Schwab builds this narrative through the centuries in parallel with the unfolding relationship between Addie and Henry who has his own dark secret. The historical interludes bring Addie into the present, establishing her as a resourceful woman, able to navigate both the advantages and tribulations of near invisibility and her ongoing relationship with the dark god. When the stories come together in New York, Addie is both vulnerable, wily and able to engage the dark god on his own terms. A clever story, well-executed that compels the reader’s interest.

Big Girl, Small Town, Michelle Gallen (2020)

A week in the life of Majella O’Niell in Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. The Troubles ended a few years before but not so long ago. It’s still a presence. Her father disappeared during the violence and his brother died assembling an IRA bomb. People still get “lifted” by the security forces. Majella’s life is mostly simple—work, her alcoholic enfeebled mother, their house in the Catholic sector, her bedroom and the unanswered questions about her grandmother’s murder. Work is an eight hour or longer shift to 2 AM taking orders, frying chips, talking with and reacting to customers and the goings on outside of a fish and chips shop named A Salt and Battery, and interacting with co-worker Marty (including the occasional post-shift shag in the storeroom). The shop gives author Michelle Gallen ample opportunity to introduce a wide variety of characters whose lives chronicle life in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. The town and landscape are also well-rendered. It’s all kind of gray and worn but still full of life despite an uncertain future. Best of all, Majella is likable, practical, dedicated, irreverent and in one memorable scene, strong enough to eject a drunken “lover” threatening violence against her mother from their house. Time flows naturally so the story feels like you are sharing Majella’s week from inside her head.

How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pham Yang (2020)

Lucy and Sam are the young (early teen) daughters of a itinerant Chinese miner and prospector during the California Gold Rush, about the lowest caste in that society. Their mother, Ma, is long gone and when the father Ba dies, the two girls abandon the hostile mining town/camp environment on a stolen horse with their father’s remains. With that murky beginning the story begins to emerge. Each sibling develops essential survival skills. Younger sibling Sam learns to pass as a boy and is proficient and clever. Lucy is smart and practical. Once what’s left of Ba is buried, the story shifts to an earlier time where we learn how Ba and Ma came together and how Lucy found an education. The parents make plans, and accumulate savings which are all lost to an angry anti-Chinese mob when times go bad. Another time shift fills in Ba’s story, including how he met Ma and their dark secret. A final jump in time finds Lucy hovering on the edge of acceptability and Sam returning form a log absence and hounded by creditors. Throughout this odyssey, author Yang demonstrates that Lucy, Sam, Ba and Ma are outcasts from society, at the mercy of whatever society wants from them. The book’s epigraph says it clearly: “This land is not your land”

The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2021)

This follow-up to Nguyen’s acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer, finds the nameless narrator of that novel, a confession written in a re-education camp, writing a confession about his life as a Vietnamese exile in Paris. Free of the re-education camp, the narrator is still haunted by the ghosts of his victims and the French colonialism and his uncertain place in the world. No longer the committed cadre double agent of The Sympathizer, the narrator becomes part of the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris and enters the world of “the Other”, living in France but not French. The colonial mentality that gripped his native land remains a fact of life as he wrestles with the contradictions that are readily apparent to a man “with two heads” who is able to see both sides of any situation. Filled with subplots and well-crafted characters, The Committed explores questions of identity, colonialism, racism and ideology in a taut, engaging narrative.