Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainenen

The literary traders and raiders of the Western Comanche empire rendezvoused on the Last Thursday of the Year, to feast upon the posole of the Southwest and carry forth a spirited discussion on the merits and deficiencies of The Comanche Empire. The once proud tribe gathered once the waning crescent of the moon had passed at the tipi of SubChief Fading Embers, just west of Comancheria. 

Our brother Wandering Bison is in his winter habitat south of the Creek Nation's land of Georgia. Our brother Ailing Burro has returned from travels to the west to find a virus has come with him, one which the Arapaho call "White Man's Sniffles." Most joined the gathering by zooming with the Great Spirit.

Dear Peter, I am sorry I won't be able to join the LTBC meeting at your house at the end of the month. I am on Saint Simons Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia near Brunswick. The earliest known inhabitants here were Native American tribes of the Creek Nation. Vestiges of the past remain on the island in the form of shell rings and middens from the Guale Indians who established a village here in the early 1500s. They were unable to survive the European occupation of the area, however, first by the Spanish in the 1600s and then the English when their forces defeated the Spanish on the island in 1742. The growing number of European settlers and the emergence of cotton and rice plantations spelled the end of the Guale way of life more than a century before the collapse of the Comanche Empire. 

\Although I learned a lot from Professor Hamalainen's study of the Comanche Indians, it was not easy. Obviously, The Comanche Empire was well researched, but I found reading it very tedious--too detailed, too repetitive, and too long (for me). I was left with the feeling that it was a scholarly work written by a scholar intended for an audience that did not include me-- more like a textbook fit for academic use in a graduate-level course. On the other hand, because I live in and like to explore what was once the Comanche Empire and I had read Empire of the Summer Moon, there were elements which did pique my interest. Chapter 6 entitled "Children of the Sun" was of particular interest to me. It provided insight into Comanche culture and social structure which was helpful to me to understand how their flexibility and ability to adapt allowed them to seemingly reinvent themselves as their environment and circumstances changed. Unless you are a serious student of history, I would recommend reading perhaps Chapters 4 through 6. My grade: B

Warm regards, Jack 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes

 Six veterans of the International Brigade gathered at the old Florida Hotel in the Four Hills area of Southeast Madrid to discuss their chaotic battles against Franco and his fascist allies and their trysts with Martha Gellhorn.  Some weren't sure which were which.  

A quick poll of the attendees divulged that none had read the 4-page essay, In Search of My Brother The Communist by Howard Henry, which should have been required reading and led the host to choosing this book.  Most had read Rhodes' Preface which included this explanation of why this was not designed or presented as a history text on the war:

"Many books have been written about the Spanish Civil War.  Few of them explore the aspects of the war that interest me.  This book only incidentally concerns Spanish politics.  Spain today is a democracy.  Who was a communist, who a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull.  I was drawn, rather, to the human stories that had not yet been told or had been told only incompletely.  I was drawn as well to the technical developments of the war.  If destructive technology amplifies violence, constructive technology amplifies compassion, and the lessons of technology are universal."  

(The "Today in History" feature of the Albuquerque Journal listed today Thursday 18 November 2021, as the 45th anniversary of the Spanish Parliament declaring in 1976 that Spain is now (again) a democracy after 37 years as a dictatorship.)  

The stories of the attendees varied accordingly:

Tom:  I liked it a lot.  One could write another book with more military history and tactics, but this was not that book.  In just filling in the history between stories, Rhodes did a good job.  I was shocked that George Orwell not only participated, but took a bullet through the neck.  Just an inch or two, and we would have been deprived of 1984 and so much more.  A

Jeff:  I felt the same, would give it an A.  Because of my ignorance of the war, I wanted more background on what started the war.  This provided considerable information.  A

Charlie:  I enjoyed it.  A-  There was a lack of the antecedents of the war, could have used another chapter, plus pictures of the development process for Guernica, etc.

Keith:  Several points.  This was not a military history, it read more like a novel.  Very unique aspect.  I only found one instance of humor:  When the English nurse Patience Darton slapped the Spanish cook, she didn't exhibit patience!  (and neither were her bosses, they sent her to the front.)  The book was very stilted toward the republicans.  If one wanted to obtain a summary of the Spanish Civil War, read Part III.  Grade:  B

Peter:  I can't fake a grade - I did not read the book!

Mike:  I initially read this book over a year ago, when I picked it after discussing and rewriting some of Howard Henry's essay on his brother who was recruited (and killed at Belchite) at age 19.  I have since re-read sections many times.  Interesting in relation to Keith's comment, I felt that reading Part I would give any reader a feel of the brutality and the desperateness of the Spanish Civil War.  Since then, I find that one can pick up this book anywhere and read an anecdote and find an interesting story (not to compare Rhodes with Nabokov, but this is a similar feeling I had with Speak, Memory!)  Grade:  A

and by cable, far away from the front lines:

 Wish I could join in the discussion today, but I'm 1,700 miles away on St. Simons Island sitting on my balcony and watching the final phase of the operation begun two years ago to salvage the Korean car carrier Golden Ray carrying 4,200 BMWs that capsized in the sound here in September 2019. It is fascinating to watch. 
Reading Richard Rhodes' Hell and Good Company was educational for me. Although I knew about the Spanish Civil War--the timeframe, the combatants, the International Brigade, the influences on Hemingway, etc.--I knew little about the locations of the bloodier battles in Basque country and despite Picasso's famous painting little about how that war could be viewed as a preview of the role the bombing and killing of civilians would play in future wars. I thought Rhodes did a good job in using lesser-known witnesses and participants in the war to tell the story. I would certainly recommend it to my friends who are history buffs. A-
Regards, Jack

Subject: Book review Robert Simon notes on Hell and Good Company 
I did not enjoy the book as much as I thought I would. 
I was chastened by the comments at last month’s meeting on the disjointed anecdotes and lack of plot and found myself believing this book’s structure similarly contained disjointed anecdotes and lacked a coherent plot. 
This book also lacked the type of comprehensive information and coherence that other histories I have read recently contained, including Alexander Hamilton and Grant by Chernow and the earlier biography by David McCullough of Harry Truman. 
This book seemed to try to weave a narrative from bits and pieces such as personal letters and English language newspaper articles. It seemed more like a term paper to me. The closest comparison I can make is to River of Doubt by Millard that utilized notes from journals made during Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition down an Amazon tributary. It has the same myopic view. The opposite of the kind of comprehensive history I enjoy such as Blood and Thunder or Alexander Hamilton that provide a comprehensive view of the historic landscape. For example, there was very little information on the changing fronts and pitifully little information on the military maneuvering of Franco and the Republican and Communists forces and almost no information on the general populous. 
  The only facts I learned from the book about Franco were that he was educated in Spain’s military academy, he enlisted the Africa Corp soldiers as mercenaries, he failed in his attack on Madrid, and that his winning strategy was to cut the country in half by attacking the north first and then pushing to the Mediterranean along the south side of the Erbo River. If I am correct this was the same strategy employed by the Romans fo control northern Spain from Zaragoza. 
  The only thing I learned from the book about Franco’s military strategy was that he, like Grant at Vicksburg, suppressed any resistance or attack from the rear before attacking his primary target. I guess I learned that the Republican cause was lost when it failed to sever the Nationalist movement to the Mediterranean when its attempt to attack across the Erbo failed to stop Franco from cutting off the North. 
  On balance I learned a lot about wartime medical services through the experiences of the number of medical person’s involvement in the civil war. One thing that intrigued me was how soon World War II began after the Spanish Civil War ended. 
  I think that my masochistic appreciation for lengthy comprehensive histories may have started as a young person when I was fascinated by William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. 
  The moral I take away from this book is ism’s can be deadly things. It seems like the Spanish Civil War was largely driven by commitments to Communism, Fascism, and Nationalism on the winning side vs. Republicanism on the losing side.
  My grade is B.

Review of Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes 
  Before reading this book, I knew practically nothing about the Spanish Civil War. I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about it, either. Nevertheless, I read the book and did learn something.
  At first I thought this was an historical account of the war with an excessive amount of unnecessarily detailed information about weaponry and military equipment. Then, the war seemed to move from the focal point of the narrative to the backdrop as a number of human stories took center stage. The rest of the book fluctuated between the two perspectives.
   Based on the notes, the book is well-researched and responsible. I found it to be readable, though not particularly enjoyable. I did find the stories of the literary crew, the doctors, nurse Darton, and the artists interesting -- not fascinating nor essential to getting a picture of the actual war, but interesting, nevertheless. The focus on the advances in medical techniques and procedures resulting from the necessities of war that runs throughout the book, I believe, is an important contribution to the reporting.
 My criticisms: 
1) Eleanor Roosevelt, Hemingway, Orwell, Dos Passos, Robles, Picasso, Míro, et. al. – it felt at times like the author was deliberately “name-dropping” rather than providing other sets of eyes through which to view the conflict. Most of the stories weren’t developed particularly thoroughly. 
2) I generally shudder at the supposedly erudite over-interpreting works of art. And that’s how I reacted to the discussions of Guernica and Catalan Peasant in Revolt. I found the ever-so-long-and-detailed description of Picasso’s Guernica and its creation, for example, to be calorie-less fodder and pointless. The power of the piece – which is enormous – was not in any way enhanced by Rhodes’ writings and (presumably borrowed) observations.
3) The afore-mentioned military detail could – and probably should, in my view – have been put in footnotes rather than in the text. 
4) Even though there is a tremendous amount of detail in the early parts of the book, I can’t help but feel as if the war itself was treated somewhat superficially. 

  So, even though I’m undecided as to whether this book is a fair recounting of the Spanish Civil War with interesting but mostly unnecessary human-interest stories or whether it is a collection of human interest stories about famous people who had various interactions with the war as a backdrop, I found the book to be a decent read and of satisfactory interest. And I learned some things, about the war, about medicine, and about the characters highlighted. Thus, reading Hell and Good Company wasn’t a waste of time. I rate it a B+

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

 Eight little Indians gathered for pemmican and venison around the Lunch Counter on Park Avenue.  Some thought The Night Watchman was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.  Most did not.  Their comments follow:

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Nine road-weary former warriors gathered at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial, turned left past the Center for Visitors and headed for the Rose Garden. No dogs were present, but it was Americana in the morning. Hot dogs were on the grill, sweet relish for all, and the discussions began.

from well beyond the range of Rocinante:
I am sorry I won't be able to attend this meeting of the LTBC.  I will be attending a reunion at Ghost Ranch.  I would have enjoyed hearing what others had to say about your selection and certainly would have enjoyed eating the hot dogs.  My comments regarding Travels With Charley follow.
  I was delighted when Keith selected Travels With Charley. I read it the first time over 30 years ago when I was ten years younger than Steinbeck was when he went on his search for America. Reading it now after reaching my “greater age” and after doing my share of wandering, I believe I have even a better appreciation for his experience and his ability to describe it. 
  Reading the first page of Steinbeck’s travelogue where he describes his urge to travel, I was immediately reminded of the opening lines of my own memoir, the creation of which none other than Keith had assigned each member of the LTBC to complete three years ago: “I’ve always been a wanderer…. I’ve always been on the move looking for something different. It comes naturally and started early. It’s in my blood.” Steinbeck claims his itch to travel was not cured as he aged and concludes “once a bum always a bum.” I was hooked and found it difficult to put the book down. 
  Often, I felt like I was riding along. Many segments of the journey Steinbeck describes reminded me of some of the observations I had made when traveling the “red and black roads” (avoiding interstates) crisscrossing the country. His conclusions seem prophetic when I think about what we have seen over the past 60 years since he made his trip—feelings of uncertainty, racial tensions, technological changes, environmental destruction. I am glad I read it again. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to my friends. A+
   Regards,  Jack

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Nine proud Fruits of the Loom gathered in the backyard of Park Ave SW to discuss The Myth of Yacub and Growing Up Islam.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Prince by Nicollo Machiavelli

Nine Medici rejects gathered at the Greenside Cafe, and then transferred to Cedar Crest to discuss the 1512 "How To" book.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

 Behind the Beautiful Forevers details life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and its residents, who are electric with hope for a prosperous future. The narrative follows key residents: Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, who sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away; Asha, a woman of formidable wit who has identified an alternate route to the middle class in the form of political corruption; and her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—who is expected to become its first female college graduate.