“TIME JUST GETS AWAY FROM US” EDITION (Book Reports: 3/19 to 3/20)

Charles Manson, William Blake, Gettysburg, Little Rico, Catholic guilt, the Normandy Invasion, Harper Lee, Brett Kavanaugh, and spies, spies, spies….All in a year’s reading and what’s not to like?

Okay, I knew last year was a zoo and I had fallen behind but this is ridiculous….let me just review the past year’s reading in passing with brief commentary and try to do better in the future:

A Loss of Patients (1982); Getting A Way With Murder (1984); Thicker Than Water (1981); The Grass Widow (1983)
Ralph McInerny

Like most series procedural whodunits these kind of blend together. The detective is more interesting than the plots and I found the Catholic element (this is the Father Dowling series) involving, perhaps because I knew so little about it. A quick way to pass the time though I came out of this run thinking I had probably got what there was to get.

Six Armies in Normandy (1982)
John Keegan

This reads like a Cliff Notes version of Cornelius Ryan’s classics The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, covering the Normandy Invasion and subsequent actions in far less time but also with far less insight and passion (though to be fair, passion was not exactly Keegan’s forte). Still, well written and so a good book for anyone with a passing interest in an important subject. I cautiously recommend it in hopes those who find it interesting will want to dig deeper.

Passport to Peril (1951)
Robert Parker

In all honesty I picked this up cheap and used thinking it might be an early effort by Robert B. Parker of Spenser For Hire fame (whose work I keep meaning to acquaint myself with). Turns out it was by a modestly popular spy fiction writer of the early Post-war period. It was short, I’ll give it that, but despite the spy novel being an American invention (Fenimore Cooper in the 1820’s), the Brits have always done it better.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Casey Cep

The title’s a bit sensationalist. The book concerns some interesting personalities, with Lee foremost among them. There’s a little bit of new info on her, which is valuable for those of us who love her great book, but Cep’s real achievement is in giving a snapshot of rural Southern life (Alabama), especially race relations, in the Post Civil Rights 60’s and 70’s. As someone who has lived in neighboring North Florida from 1974 onward I can attest to the quality of Cep’s research, even if her insights aren’t necessarily sounder than the average carpetbagger’s. Worthwhile as long as you don’t go in with any exaggerated expectations about plumbing Harper Lee’s mysterious depths.

Justice on Trial (2019)
Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

This was the hot-off-the-presses account of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings told from the perspective of two conservative journalists. As far as perspectives go, it’s about what you would expect. No one with a strong opinion on the matter is likely to have their mind changed either way. But the book succeeds admirably in what I suspect was its real goal: As a snapshot of the purely political process everything in Washington D.C., and especially the selection and confirmation of Supreme Court justices. The sausage-making is about what you would expect in a “free” society where the important laws are made by executive order or judicial fiat. Be warned: however you felt/feel about Kavanaugh or his chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, this blow-by-blow account of the process will likely turn your stomach.

33 1/3 The Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (2019)
Ada Wolin

I plan to write about this elsewhere. Let’s say I was not entirely amused.

When Eight Bells Toll (1965)
Alistair MacLean

MacLean was already starting to wind down a bit, though he wouldn’t completely exhaust his formula for another decade. It’s no Guns of Navarone. It is, however, an efficient Cold War thriller by one of the masters of the form and I was happy to reacquaint myself with it. Recommned for completists of either MacLean or the action/espionage form he helped pioneer.

Call For the Dead (1961); A Murder of Quality (1962); The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963); The Looking Glass War (1965)
John le Carre

I’m coming at last to a project of reading all of le Carre’s George Smiley novels in order. These are the four short ones (I’m just coming to the end of the first long one, which is only Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  I’d read three of these previously though The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the only one that left an impression. It was the only one that left an impression this time either and the impression was again a deep one. It’s swiftly paced and has a claim on being the greatest spy novel ever written. Not my favorite perhaps, but it’s the one that feels the most like it could have really happened not least because it accepts the tragic view of life the author would adapt in some of the later novels, both in this series and generally. He’d never be better though. The rest here are skillful and entertaining. It’s to his credit that he was almost alone among pulp writers in improving on a good start so dramatically.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019)
Tom O’Neill

and

Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family (2018)
Jeffrey Melnick

And I swore I wasn’t going to read any more Manson books. To be fair, these aren’t really books about Manson or his family as much as attempts to make Vince Bugliosi–the prosecutor who put Manson away in a case where he had a lot less evidence to work with than, say, the prosecutors of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony–pay for his success. I didn’t find either book very convincing. If I were going to recommend one, it would be O’Neill’s. But there’s nothing here to add to Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Ed Sanders’ original version of The Family (avoid the updated versions), or Jeff Guinn’s Manson bio, which I reviewed here.

The Killer Angels (1974)
Michael Shaara

A re-read. One of the great historical novels and one of the great war novels. If you want to be inside the minds of the commanders on both sides who decided the fate of the Union by what they did or did not do during three days in July, 1863, this is as close as you can come without doing the research Shaara did yourself. That task wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and I doubt you would learn all that much more. He was good on the facts and even better on the Truth that facts cannot contain. As may times as I’ve seen Gettysburg, Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film based on the book, in the years since, reading the novel again still brought fresh appreciation of everyone involved. One fo the few novels that’s a must read for anyone who cares about the American Experiment.

Little Caesar (1929)
W.R. Burnett

Burnett was a well known novelist and screenwriter of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. His prose style was so spare he made Dashiell Hammett read like Henry James. It’s as subtle–and effective–as the movie still at the top of this page, taken from the classic gangster film it became. You’ve been warned!

The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics Edition) (1977)
William Blake

Hey, it took me almost thirty years, but I got there. At the beginning of 2019, I set myself the task of reading the 600 or so pages left when I dropped it on the shelf back in the early 90’s. Finished Christmas day. Well worth it. Helps to read aloud. I promise.

Fr 2020, I’m taking on the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe…Have to average four pages a day to get there by New Year’s. We’ll see…

And now back to our regular programming!

FATHERS (Book Report: 3/19)

Founding and Catholic (the mystery-solving kind)…

As expected, life caught up with me in March and slowed my reading time down. I only finished two books. Two good ones though.


(Ralph McInerny, left, and Roger G. Kennedy)

Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (2000)
Roger G. Kennedy

An adroit rendering of personal and political relationships between three key founders. Kennedy is an elegant writer and his portrayals of his three principals are appropriately novelistic.

It’s not the prettiest picture he paints–the scoundrel Burr comes off best, a man with just enough old-fashioned honor to be continually taken by surprise at the low cunning of his peers. In Kennedy’s view, he seems to have been continually convinced that, at last, his enemies will leave him alone.

It never happened. Jefferson was sufficiently vindictive to bring Burr to trail three times (on charges like treason–lest you think the Establishment laying endless traps for Donald Trump is anything new under the sun, or that he would be left alone if, like Burr, he were banished to the wilderness), and Kennedy does the reader the service of taking sides, of giving his elegant prose moral force.

Perhaps not a major book, given just how often these subjects have been subjected to the most meticulous scruity, but a welcome and entertaining addendum to the canon just the same. Recommended in tandem with Gore Vidal’s Burr, one of the greatest American novels, now mostly forgotten. As with Kennedy, it will make useful reading for whoever takes our place after the fall.

Her Death of Cold (1977)
Ralph McInerny

I saw three Father Dowling mysteries in a bookstall inside one of the local antique malls. Three bucks apiece in a matching edition so I decided to give them a throw.

It happened this was the first in the series. I never watched the TV show based on the novels so I didn’t have much background, but something I noticed in the first few chapters was that casting Tom Bosley as Father Dowling was perverse. Based on McInerny’s rendering of the character, the genial Bosley was the last actor I’d have thought of, either physically or psychically.

That said, once the thing got rolling it worked. It’s no classic, but you can see how it might go somewhere. McInerny was a Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and author of a number of religious and philosophical treatises as well as a prolific author of pulp fiction. All of which means he doesn’t let Father Dowling’s inevitable contemplative side get in the way of the basics: plot, character, and setting are all handled with maximum efficiency.

A good swift read then. Whether the series amounted to more than that, I’ll look forward to finding out.

SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

HITHER AND YON (Book Report: January, 2019)

I promised myself I would read a minimum of five books a month in 2019. I made the grade in January at least, and that’s longer than most of my New Year’s resolutions ever last!

This month, a real grab-bag: a pulp thriller that kept me guessing about something that had nothing to do with the plot; an Evelyn Waugh-style satire aimed at the UN and other feckless do-gooders;  a history of world exploration in the age of sail and steam; a study of the Republican party in the secession crisis; and a wide-ranging history of Vietnam.

The Eighth Day of the Week (1994)
Alfred Coppel

I picked this one up cheap in a local antique store that is rechanneling a big haul from an estate sale. Nothing special about its doomsday scenario, cardboard characterizations or tick tock plot. But, about two chapters in,  I started wondering whether Coppel might have been one of those writers the CIA recruited to churn out pulp novels during the Cold War (he was known mostly for science fiction it seems, though he wrote in a number of genres) and then just kept going–either on his own or at someone’s behest–when the show was over. I never came to a conclusion, but that seemed a more plausible reason for an intelligent man to have written this than any other.

By the way, the world is saved…and from the Russians no less! I mean, who but the CIA was pushing that line in 1994?

The Missionaries (2016)
Owen Stanley

Stanley’s scant author-bio describes him as a man of adventure but this, his first novel, is no action thriller.

It’s an Evelyn Waugh-style satire which, most of the time, reads more like a documentary. It’s a little too on-the-nose to catch the nuances of our post-modern, post-colonial absurdity. The point that post-colonials, dripping with concern for humanity,  are a dread race, is one that can’t be made too often or emphasized too much. But the people who might benefit from the insights Stanley offers into their character here are beyond reach. Since the book was meant for skeptics like me, I had hoped for a little less telling and a little more showing, for more than a few wry smiles and, near the end, a single belly laugh.

Then again, it isn’t Stanley’s fault that we’ve created a world beyond satire. His second book is out now, and this has just enough going for it that I can’t rule out giving it a look. A near-miss is hardly as good as a mile in this dreary day and age. He already deserves at least enough success for an author picture to appear online somewhere, though I wouldn’t blame him if my inability to find one was somply a matter of his unwillingness to provide one.

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (2007)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

An overview–given the size of the subject it could be no more, nearly every explorer discussed here has been worthy of several books himself and some a library–but a satisfying one. Fernandez-Armesto is authoritative, opinionated and a smooth stylist, all the things you want in a guide to a massive, important subject.

His takes on individual explorers are more sketches than portraits–again a matter of big topic, limited space. But they give a flavor of the kind of men who once circled the globe, and explored the continents, unaware of what lay beyond the next wave or over the next hill. They did it for money and fame, of course, and later on for causes (the missionary Christian one being first and foremost). But Fernandez-Armesto does not give short shrift to the addictive qualities of simply meeting the challenge. For many, it really was an adventure, first and foremost. That they succeeded in mapping the globe and setting Europe on a five-hundred-year winning streak which is just now coming to a close, the author does not lose sight of (often, in fact, tsk-tsking his disapproval). But he can’t help conceding their merits and that gives the book a sweep that compares favorably to a volume I would suggest as a companion, John Noble Wilford’s The Mapmakers. Read both books and you’ll have a good idea of just how much the explorers and the cartographers reinforced each others’ interests and, in some cases, very existence. I promise that no one with any curiosity about where man has been and how he came to his present plight, will be bored.

Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942)
David M. Potter

For once, an account that is true to its title and more about Lincoln’s party than Lincoln. Not that Lincoln is ever less than fascinating, but he does tend to take over any Narrative that includes hime. This effort, scholarly but pungent, keeps him in his real place in the months between his election in November 1860, and his inauguration in March 1861.

It was a moment when almost no one, certainly not Lincoln, believed the United States was really on the brink of Civil War. Moderates on both sides thought the idea ridiculous. The fire-eaters, Abolitionist in the North, Secessionist in the South, were convinced that their far more numerous moderate brethren didn’t have the stomach for a fight and that their side would be the loser in any attempt at peaceful “reconstruction.”

And yet, inexorably, the war came. Potter is an excellent guide to both the political logistics and the emotional tenor of the times–and of how one aspect continually eroded the authority or common sense of the other. He never loses sight of the fact that the real issue, as it had been for most of the nineteenth century to that point, was not the eradication of slavery where it existed (almost no one with any political power, again, certainly not Lincoln, was suggesting even a modest move in that direction), but whether it would be expanded to U.S. territories and eventually become the law of new states.

Around this, there might have been a way, but, as Potter presents the case, the failure to find one was complete on all sides. Lincoln’s genius would emerge only in conflict. Here he is only a crafty politician, holding his cards close to his vest (perhaps too close as it turned out if the avoidance of war really was his main goal, as Potter convincingly argues), while Wiliam Seward and others pursue every alternative under the sun, including war with Spain, France and/or Great Britain, in the firm belief that, in such event, South Carolina would rally to the defense of New York in a heartbeat!

We escaped the consequences of such folly once. It’s not especially comforting to be reminded of how near a run it was when men of actual goodwill and no small degree of common sense were in charge, and a man of Lincoln’s caliber stood ready to put things straight again if worst came to worst.

We won’t be able to count on any of that next time around.

Understanding Vietnam (1993)
Neil Jamieson

Despite being dominated by a dry, academic tone, only occasionally leavened by the author’s personal experiences and a wry turn of phrase, this is the best book I’ve read about either the country called Vietnam or the centuries of conflict that had shaped it long before we arrived.

Our political and military ignorance of that history provided the real architecture of our defeat, a defeat that came despite inflicting many more casualties than we received. The absurdity and shallowness of our attempt at bringing the country to heel, following a millennium of Chinese and a century of French failure to do the same, doesn’t come clear until the very end. Jamieson, concentrating far more on cultural forces than military hardware, builds a wall of convincing evidence, brick-by-brick, that leaves no doubt of his narrative’s consummate irony.

The North Vietnamese Communists, supported here by those they would have jailed, tortured and executed without mercy if they caught them objecting to torture and execution in their own land (or simply getting high), won by adhering to the old-fashioned family and village-centered values they intended to eradicate once victory was secure.

Meanwhile, the extent to which freewheeling “American” (or just “Western”) values began to dominate in the South, acted like termites on glue. Once the glue was gone, we were too. South Vietnam collapsed with tragic and terrifying speed.

Jamieson does not moralize. He doesn’t say whether it was or was not a good or bad idea for us to intervene in Vietnam at all, or to intervene in the manner which we did.

He doesn’t have to.

We all know how it turned out.

Boy this reading bit is fun. I hope I can keep it up!

 

THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.

BERLIN NOIR (Monthly Book Report: April through July, 2018)

Berlin Noir: March Violets (1989); The Pale Criminal (1990); A German Requiem (1991)
Philip Kerr (1956–2018)

I first read these back in the nineties, when Nazi Germany (and its inglorious aftermath) were not so much on everyone’s mind. Aided and abetted by some sporadic non-fiction reading I’ve been doing on the period, I decided to take these back up, with an eye toward reading the rest of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series before the end of the year.

They were good enough for me to keep to that goal, with roughly the same strengths and weaknesses I remembered. On the latter side are Kerr’s bread-and-butter style, more suited to lengthy historical romances than backstreet crime novels, his penchant for subpar Chandlerisms (if you can’t make the similes sing or sting, you should probably avoid them) and the pulp writer’s standard search for ever more horrifying violence (though with a Nazi setting it’s at least more appropriate here than most places).

Against all that, you have quite a lot of good things: snapshot portraits of Nazi bigwigs that serve as effective mini-biographies; an incisive, even intimate, look at the pre and post-war styles of corruption in a modern nation gone off the rails; well-ordered and convincing plots; Gunther’s own world-weariness; and, not least, real visceral impact when the characters meet their usually gruesome fates.

Kerr might not have had the gift of making you care about his characters (few writers do and the percentage goes down a bit in pulp), but he had the equally rare gift of making you care about civilization itself–and he never lets you forget how fragile it is. A passage from the early part of March Violets, the first and best of the trilogy, can serve to illustrate–with Gunther, recently retired from the police force and finding most of his private detective cases relating to dead or murdered Jews, interrogating a friendly acquaintance from the coroner’s office:

“So you want to know about the poor Haupturmfuhrer and his little wife, eh?” I nodded. “This is an interesting case, and, I don’t mind telling you, the interesting ones are becoming increasingly rare. With all the people who windup dead in this city you would think I was busy. But of course, there is usually little or no mystery about how most of them got that way. Half the time I find myself presenting the forensic evidence of a homicide to the very people who committed it.”

Especially since Kerr (who, sadly, passed away in March of this year) let his detective wander through the years after the war (beginning with the third book here), chasing the criminals who destroyed his country with I imagine will be mixed success, I’m looking forward to continuing the series.

In the meantime, I recommend these first three to all who are currently sustaining the romance that they are already living inside a fascist nightmare or soon will be.

Also to those who imagine their principled resistance to real tyranny, should it arise, would be anything but futile.

Alas, those who need to read such books seldom do…and never learn.

R.I.P., brother.

HISTORY RHYMING (Mini Book Review)

I think I’m going to start calling these lengthy passages from my current reading Mini Book Reports. Here’s the first:

From Eugene Davidson’s The Unmaking of Adolph Hitler (1996)

Circa May, 1938:

The Sudeten Germans considered themselves as the prime target of discrimination–socially, economically and politically. They were forbidden on  grounds of national security to work on the fortifications  between the Czech borders with the Reich, nor could their enterprises bid on contracts. Thousands of Germans lost their employment in the postal services after the state was founded (NOTE: in the early 1920s) because examinations were conducted in Czech, which not many of them spoke or wrote. In 1924 a Czech minister, Jiri Stribrny, boasted that forty thousand German postal and railroad workers had been dismissed and replaced by Czechs, and Sudeten Deputy Taub pointed out to the parliamentary budget committee that seven thousand of them had been dismissed even though they had passed the language examination. Moreover the examinations included questions involving details of Czech literary history that were little known to Czechs themselves. As one Sudeten leader, Wenzel Jaksch, wrote, a railway construction foreman might be dismissed for not knowing the birth date or works of a fourth-rate Czech author, and a German employee in a cigar factory (the tobacco industry was state controlled) was expected to know the difference between the durative and iterative of a Czech verb, while Czech members of parliament often themselves failed to understand the expressions in a bill and had to ask for the German or international terminology to be sure of what they were voting for or against. All state employees were required to be proficient in Czech, and the requirement extended to notaries, court interpreters in any language, surveyors, and engineers, as well as district and municipal physicians. Licensed businesses, including taverns, had to display signs in Czech, and German could be used in dealing with the state authorities only when German speakers made up at least twenty percent of the local population. Such requirements were far more severe than those in force in Austria where Czechs had long been protesting any official restrictions on the use of their language. 

The Sudetenland was the last of Adolph Hitler’s bloodless conquests, taken, like the Rhineland and Austria, “without firing a shot.” His next incursion, sixteen months later, would be into Poland, where Germans were not begging to be rescued, and resulted in the proper onset of World War II…which, as even the minimalist history laid out in the passage above demonstrates, was really just an extension and (from Hitler’s standpoint) exploitation of grievances that stretched back decades, if not centuries.

I came across this during my lunchtime cafe reading time today, and it stayed with me when I got home, probably because not a few eminent historians have been noting of late that we are quite likely at the end of the Pax Americana that Hitler’s overreach (and the feckless, though, as Davidson makes clear a few pages later, understandable, response of those ruling the previous World Order) made all but inevitable.

It is a reminder that the losers never forget and “multi” cultures are only ever imposed and papered over by force. The foundational cracks are always lying underneath, awaiting exposure.

I don’t read history to feel better about the world. I read it so I won’t be surprised by the inevitable. The periods of human peace and prosperity, such as we are living through now, tend to be brief and are always followed by one of two results:

Tyranny.

Or Chaos…and then Tyranny.

Of course it’s possible I’m just crabby, the way a man gets when he has an unexpected week off and it rains every day and his web site gets hacked. I’ll get back to reading now.

THE TURNING POINT (Monthly Book Report: 4/18)

High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania (1958)
Glenn Tucker

The only book i finished in April was Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg, which I quoted from a couple of times along the way.

I could have quoted a lot more. Tucker’s history of the most important battle in American history yielded insights on nearly every page, even to a long time student of both the battle and the Civil War. The author was Indiana born and raised, spent his career as a Yankee journalist, and retired to North Carolina in the late forties to concentrate on writing history.

I mention his biography because this particular book could be accused of having a pro-Southern bias, especially in our current climate. Tucker is as prone to romanticizing southern gallantry and courage on the battlefield as some actual southerners have been. Here as elsewhere, it’s more a matter of tilting perspectives a bit, as opposed to cheering for one side over the other.

That said, it wasn’t enough to impede my enjoyment of Tucker’s account. If you want a concise, well-written, relatively brief but comprehensive, account of a subject everyone should know at least a little about, you could hardly do better.

As an example of Tucker’s grasp of the blend of events, gossip and coverage that go into making History what it is–including his own–here’s his take on a little known aspect of the Third Day at Gettysburg (and why it is little known):

Members of Davis’ brigade, this company was part of he regiment that pursued Cutler’s men north of the railroad cutting on the first day of the battle. The point of farthest advance was established–at least to the content of the North Carolinians, and the apparent satisfaction of the Gettysburg battlefield authorities of that day–when Lieutenant T.D. Falls, of Fallstown, Cleveland County, North Carolina, and Sergeant Augustus Whitley, of Everitts, in Martin County, visited the terrain, made affidavits about the point they had reached, and had it marked by the Gettysburg Commission. This testimony, according to Adjutant Charles M. Cooke, of the 55th, had other corroboration.

Taken with the advance of Lane and D.H. Hill in the pre-Manassas affair on the Peninsula, and the fact that Cox’s brigade fired the final round of the Army of Northern Virginia, this bold feat of the 55th Regiment went to establish North Carolina’s most cherished tradition of its part in the Confederate War: “First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg and last at Appomattox.”

Unhappily for the North Carolinians, the principal press accounts of the battle were from the Richmond correspondents. In one of the first conspicuous dispatches to the Enquirer, Pettigrew’s (North Carolina) command, containing some of the staunchest veteran regiments of the army, was termed “raw troops” and Pickett’s defeat was attributed to Pettigrew’s “faltering.” North Carolina has not yet recovered.

Against that gimlet-eyed view of the means and motives of nineteenth century Fake News, here is Tucker’s account of one of the battle’s most poignant anecdotes:

When the results were reviewed, it was recognized that Culp’s Hill had been the scene of some of the most determined, sanguinary fighting of the war. Geary always thought that the main battle of Gettysburg was won by Meade’s army on Culp’s Hill. (called by the Confederates “The Hill of Death.”)

Kane’s brigade found 500 dead Confederates in its front. Somewhere among them was a squat little man, Wesley Culp, a private in Company B, 2nd Virginia, of the Stonewall Brigade. He was twenty-four and because he was only five feet tall, Colonel Douglas had had a special gun made for him. Where he fell he could look at the house where he was born. Like Henry Wentz, he had gone to Virginia to sell Gettysburg carriages and Southern eyes made him stay.

No one who appreciates those two descriptions of lost causes–the public cause of a battle unit’s reputation and the private cause of a young man killed fighting with an enemy army to capture his father’s land at what was, literally, the Confederacy’s high tide–would be remiss in adding this little volume to any list of a completist’s interest in this, or any, “high tide.”

Same for anyone who knows nothing and is looking for a place to begin learning.

POLITICS AND PARIS (Quarterly Book Report: 1/18 through 3/18)

I didn’t have time to do monthly reports on the one or two books I was finishing each month in the first quarter, so I decided just to round them all up here. I’ve got mini-reviews of a ready made bestseller about Hillary Clinton’s almost successful presidential campaign and the first four novels in the Inspector Maigret series. The latter are better than the former…

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017)
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

We’ve since moved on to other things, and swiftly enough that this book is already forgotten. It probably deserves to be, but it’s not without interest.as a window on the world Hilary Clinton (and her husband) moved in for decades, a world in which the authors themselves are so thoroughly entrenched they’re hardly aware of their own insularity. It would take a skilled novelist to do the job of tackling the roiling psychodrama that is Hillary Clinton right. Allen and Parnes are barely competent as lackey journalists.

But, perhaps for that reason, they’re less likely to have any sort of filter. Expecting to do what Theodore White did for the 1960 election and what Mark Halperin and John Heillemann did for the 2008 election (i.e., insinuate themselves into history on the winning side) they were just as shocked as you were when Ms. Clinton lost. And, like many people, they were also not only shocked but hurt–not just because it was likely to cut sales in half. At no point do they draw any kind of bead on Donald Trump (the real story of the 2016 election even if he had lost). Having set out to write a book with a preconceived narrative–the first woman president’s stroll to victory–they were forced to backtrack.

When it was all said and done, they found every vindictive Clinton loyalist under every rock on the road meant to pave Hillary’s Napoleonic assault on the presidency. The Little Corporal’s field commanders were likely kinder to their fallen leader on the retreat from Moscow than the toadies interviewed here.

That said, Ms. Clinton must take full responsibility for the quality of her help. She handpicked them and, worse yet (displaying a quality Trump will never be accused of), trusted them.

This was her principal failing and the real reason for her downfall. Unable to organize a boat race in a bathtub–a fact that has been in evidence since at least those early days when her husband set her up to botch HillaryCare back in his first administration and a weakness which Allen and Parnes zero in on early and often, like mosquitoes feasting on a bulging vein–she also demonstrated, through two presidential campaigns and a disastrous reign as Secretary of State, that she had no capacity for choosing people who could do the job for her.

What that meant, in the end, was a constant need to intervene–or have blind loyalist toadies like Huma Abadin do it for her.

We all saw how that worked out.

Now it’s possible that the talent pool in our modern political parties is so dry no one can be rescued from themselves. Clinton did at least get within shouting distance of the prize. That’s more than you can say for Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who started with just as much love from the people whose job it is to limit our choices each election cycle. Trump’s nomination (let alone his election) was an Establishment failure all around–their first since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and one with, I suspect, more far-reaching consequences.

Donald Trump is president because he was/is opposed by those who, like the ubiquitous sources–named and unnamed–quoted endlessly here, tend to describe anyone who opposes them as shit-for-brains.

Like Hillary Clinton, and the authors themselves, they cannot quite grasp their fundamental error–refusal to look in the mirror.

Worth reading, then, for those who need reminding.

Pietr the Latvian (1931)
The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931)
The Carter of La Providence (1931)
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931)
Georges Simenon

These are the first four novels in Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, which eventually ran to the 1970s and 75 volumes. Simenon wrote good mysteries. Maigret is an interesting character sketch (who perhaps became more than a sketch over so many books–I’ve only read a handful of the others before so I’m not prepared to make a judgment on that as yet).

But the principal merit of the Maigret novels is in capturing a time and place–Europe, France, Paris, before, during and after WWII.

That’s a sufficiently daunting task–and broad pallete–that, in combination with Simenon’s skill in choosing, page after page, just-right details to both establish a pointillist milieu and sustain a world-weary mood, it would stand as a considerable literary achievement even if Europe, France, Paris (before, during and after WWII), were of a great deal less interest to the present and future than they are.

All the books held my interest. But that Simenon (already incredibly prolific–he published all these in the same year) was just beginning to hit his stride is suggested by the fourth, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, being by far the strongest. It’s the first to pass from standard, if well-made, mystery plotting to a brush with both psychological horror and the air of political menace we all assume was an essential component of so many personal and national moods between the wars. It’s one thing to have written such novels after the war, with the benefit of hindsight. But this precedes even Hitler’s rise to power–and you can still feel something stirring that won’t be contained by mere politics. Meaning, in a presumably pulp form, you find conversation like this, as part of an explanation for three dead bodies:

‘And it was if we were rediscovering the world all on our own, naturally! We were full of opinions on every great problem, and full of scorn for society, established truths and everything bourgeois. When we’d had a few drinks and smoked up a storm, we’d spout the most cock-eyed nonsense, a hodgepodge of Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Moses, Confucius, Jesus Christ…

‘Here’s an example: I don’t remember which one of us discovered that pain doesn’t exist, the brain’s simply imagining it. One night I became so enthralled with the idea that, surrounded by my excited audience, I stabbed myself in the upper arm with a pocket knife and forced myself to smile about it.

‘And we had other wild inspirations like that…We were an elite, a coterie of geniuses who’d come together by chance and were way above the conventional world with its laws and preconceived opinions. A gathering of the gods, hey? Gods who were sometimes dying of hunger but strode through the streets with their heads high, crushing passers-by with their contempt.

….I don’t remember anymore who shouted, “True genius is destructive!”

It ends in murder, of course. And that’s only the beginning…of course. The survivors of the blood bath learn the hard way that it isn’t genius that’s destructive but nonsense and the only thing they end up destroying is each other.

The denouement has some real emotional power, unusual in detective novels and almost unheard of in procedurals. There was a reason Simenon drew raves from the likes of William Faulkner and Andre Gide.

I’m planning to read all the Maigret’s before I die. I read Maigret’s First Case before I started on these (being under the mistaken assumption it was the first written), so I’ve got seventy to go. I’m thinking I’ll need to live a few years at least…but I’m happy they’ve been put out in handsome, uniform editions. The spines will make a nice display on whatever shelf they finally adorn en toto.

But, on the strength of these, I suspect that what’s inside will always be more valuable.

EAST AND WEST(ERN) (Book Report: 12/17)

Last month’s reading was an all-time great spy novel, a treatise on the “Custer controversy” and another of the Louis L’Amour novels I began picking up last month…All proof that the past never ceases to speak to the present and the present never ceases to ignore the past.

Judgment on Deltchev (1951)
Eric Ambler

Ambler was the twentieth century’s greatest spy novelist. He took John Buchan’s basic premise (ordinary Englishman caught up in larger events he barely comprehends: see The Thirty-Nine Steps) and wound it tighter, gave it more dimension.

Never more than here, in what might be his masterpiece (there’s heavy competition from any of the five novels he wrote between 1937 and 1940). Deltchev was his first novel in more than a decade and his first since the War.

The War had changed things. Though perhaps never as deeply committed as the typical idealist, Ambler had been what was known as a Man of the Left (i.e., pro-Soviet). He was soured by Stalin’s duplicity in his dealings with Hitler and wound up a Man of the West (despite being in his thirties, he volunteered for the Royal Artillery when the War came…as a private). Judgment on Deltchev is his judgment on the police state, one that rings truer and is far more entertaining than say, 1984. Perhaps for that reason, those who had followed wherever Stalin led never forgave him.

History certainly has. On a re-read, I didn’t feel this had quite the tragic weight of Dystopia’s two real stomach-punchers: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. But it still induces plenty of dread and–given the long arc of history no one could have foreseen with any confidence in 1951–may not be the lesser achievement for ending on a note of earned optimism.

Earned or not, Ambler paid a price. He was a different writer after Deltchev. He had stared into the abyss and the abyss had stared back. The Cold War had changed things, too.

Essential.

Custer and the Great Controversy (1962)
Robert Utley

Robert Utley is one of the great historians of the American West. This is an early work, basically an extended monograph on the cult of celebrity that rose around George Armstrong Custer and had already sustained for nearly a century when this was published.

Utley just about defines the term “sober historian,” so he’s a good man to tackle the legacy of Custer and the Little Big Horn Massacre.

That is was, for decades after, known as “the Custer fight,” is a testimony to Custer’s force of personality, living and dead. Very few commanders get their name attached as an honorific for leading their men into an unmitigated military disaster. The book is not after debating Custer’s military acumen (though Utley doesn’t short-shrift it), but simply detailing the steps by which Custer and his “fight” passed into legend. On that level, it’s hard to imagine a better treatment of the subject. It’s a book by a cautious and fair-minded man, and, despite its brevity, has more than a little to say about the ways in which history and myth are forever destined to shape each other no matter how often we tell ourselves we’re past all that.

Heller With a Gun (1955)
Louis L’Amour

An early effort and solid. I have no idea what the title means. Once I figured out no one named Heller was going to show up, I thought I might run into some old coot saying somebody or other (hero or villain) was “A heller with a gun!” That didn’t happen either so I’ll assume it was implied.

As per usual, the gunman–heller or not–is reluctant to use his gun, or to be drawn into helping tenderfoots (in this case a second-rate theatrical company barnstorming the wilds) who have bitten off more than they can chew and fallen in with bad company to boot.

L’Amour’s style wasn’t yet fully formed. But he could already pack a lot into a phrase:

Then one night when drinking, Forrest bragged. He knew what a reputation could do to a man, but he was drinking and he bragged. A tough puncher from down on the Pecos started hunting the kid to prove Forrest wrong.

They buried the tough puncher on a windy hilltop near old Tascosa...

It doesn’t get any cleaner or swifter than that.

Anyway, the basics are here and well-managed. Notable for a complicated love quadrangle which–against odds I had decided were insurmountable long before the denouement–sustains interest to the last sentence and works out beautifully. Never underestimate a pulp master.