Books!

Howdy ...

After many years of not reading (the details of this strange condition, a side-effect of running my own publishing company, can be found in the early entries here), I got back into the habit around 2002, and in February 2004 began to post (in my main LiveJournal) little reviews of books as I read them.

In November 2005, I discovered LibraryThing and began to log in my extensive library. As there is a "review" section for every book listed there, it occurred to me that linking back to my book review posts might be a useful thing to do.

However, I didn't want to "blur the lines" dividing what I primarily use LiveJournal for and what I see LibraryThing being. As such, I started this new journal, just for my book reviews, and have copied over all the book review posts from my main journal to this new one.

- - -

Oh, hey ... would you be interested in hard-copy versions of these reviews? I had so many people suggest to me over the years that I should "do books" of them, that I eventually pulled the trigger on the concept. I'm finally caught up with this, with eleven volumes currently available, 2016 on back through 2004-6 ... click here to check them out!





IT'S FINALLY DONE!
After years of working on creating some sort of an index for this site,
it's finally here! Click on the buttons below for listings by author and title:


Index by Author


Index by Title



By the way...

EVERYTHING ON THIS SITE (http://btripp-books.livejournal.com/ and all subsidiary pages)
IS COPYRIGHT © 2007-2017 BY BRENDAN TRIPP.

Due to recent developments at LibraryThing.com relating to users' book reviews, I felt a need to make a formal statement of copyright claim.



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Books!

And, so ...

2018 was a horrible year.

So many of my fears were realized, and in ways that were far worse than I imagined.

As those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed, after numerous years of writing dozens of book reviews, I managed just one this year, back at the end of January. This arose from a number of factors, all conspiring to silence me. Of course, I did make a valiant effort to at least blog something during July and August, doing daily posts over those months, and four days into September, but that also suddenly stopped, with just a couple of echoes happening in the week following, up until now.

Again, those “following along at home” for a while will realize, the core issue was that we finally “lost our home” (or, “had to sell”, which I guess is a different thing, but less emotionally accurate), after my having dreaded that coming to be for nearly a decade.

The dynamics of this were truly horrible. I have always been a “keeper” of things, needing the physical reminders to keep the past alive. I also (as one might imagine) had built up quite a library over the years, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500-3,000 books. My wife was quite adamant that these were not going to be moving with us when we relocated, so I spent a great deal of the first few months of the year getting my library boxed and transferred to a storage locker, along with my photography (about 24 linear feet of binders), and music (both records and CDs).

I was still working on sorting and boxing things the day the “junk” people came to haul out everything that I hadn't been able to get to storage. This (the last weekend of March) was when it really got ugly. I had been putting things that “really meant something to me” (out of the thousands of items that had enough significance to me that I had kept them for years) into a couple of boxes, and had done a box of books I'd read but not reviewed yet (more on these below), books from my to-be-read stacks that I wanted to get to next, and some key bits of “must save” items such as my only copies of my first six poetry collections (and their Library of Congress forms), plus a couple of racks of my favorite CDs.

None of those made it here.

There I was, standing in the destruction of my office, trying to grab the last few shards of my past, and seeing everything I cared about unceremoniously dumped into big trash bins. There were two closets full of stuff that I'd not even gotten to yet, and much of my old writing was hiding in there. Now it's all gone.

I knew the process was going to be bad, but I had no idea just how bad it was going to be. Frankly, I had a plan sketched out for suicide last new years eve, as I really didn't want to be around for what was coming. However, I was “too busy to kill myself” then, but the concept was high on my list, and I made the mistake of discussing it in the wrong room, which got me a trip to the ER for a psych evaluation. They didn't “keep me”, but I lost four weeks or more in assorted intense therapy situations, which would have been much better spent getting they key parts of my past to safety.

On April Fools Day, we officially were out of our home (in a building I'd lived in for 37 years), and into our new place, nearly seven miles north of my neighborhood of four decades.

Needless to say, I'm still in shock. I've lost almost everything that anchored me to my personal history. In addition, it appears that both my reading and writing were in large part connected to the parks and coffee shops where I felt comfortable. There have been no replacements found up here. I have tried to develop a sense that I'd been through some natural disaster, a lava flow, a hurricane, a meteor strike, or what have you, that destroyed my home and forced me to evacuate to some totally unfamiliar location with whatever I was able to drag with me. While this puts the level of loss in some sort of conceptual frame, it doesn't really help with the emotional impact – especially given that the key piece in the “disaster” I suffered was my inability to find paying work over the past nine (soon to be 10) years. The level of rage I have percolating under the surface around this taints everything I experience.

Things have not been helped by my having a real bad year on the physical level (man, that new years' eve plan looks like a real missed opportunity), with much of the summer/fall being taken up with surgeries, radiation therapies, and, for the past couple of months, dealing with a broken ankle/fibula that I still am not supposed to put any weight onto.

Anyway, as to that box of books … I spent a lot of time over the past 8+ months churning over how to deal with not having those available to write the reviews. Of course, every time I started thinking about “getting to it”, the emotional weight of the over-all loss would come in and make me psychologically “run away” into almost anything else. However, since I've not gotten the 2017 collection of reviews done, I figured I'd combine it with 2018, and hence I'm writing this post.

The books that disappeared were:

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

Drop the Rock by Bill P., Todd W., & Sara S.

Idiots in Paris by John G. Bennett

Obama Zombies by Jason Mattera

The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden

The Enlightened Gene by Arri Eisen & Yungdrung Konchok

Ask and It Is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks

My Father at 100: A Memoir by Ron Reagan

Soundscapes by Paul Robertson

Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner

One Question by Ken Coleman

The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha

Masters of Wisdom by Edward Abdill

That list would have been a bit longer, but I still had two books in my bag that I would take out to go write at the Starbucks at Rush & Oak (where I did most of my reviews), so those are in my now somewhat refreshed to-be-reviewed pile.

What I am going to attempt to do in this (sure to be overly-long) post is to do at least minimal reviews of all of these, on recall alone. As you can imagine, this is going to be a difficult thing, and will be necessarily missing the block quotes that I like to build my reviews around. Honestly, as I put in that list, there were several books which I have only scant recall of, which means that I'm going to either have to “tap dance” extensively, or rely on others' reviews to spark my memory.

One thing that losing that box made clear to me is that I really ought to write down the info on books as they show up in my to-be-read piles, as I know there were several titles that I was quite eager to get into (heck, some I paid retail for!) but are now only hazy memories. Unfortunately, some were books on which I “owed” a review, which is a problem.

The worst part of losing that box was those early poetry collections of mine. Last year I'd put out new editions of my second six chapbooks, and was fully planning on doing the earlier ones once I'd fished them out of whatever nook or cranny of my office they'd gotten to (I knew I had a shoulder bag with copies in one of the closets – that I didn't have time to get into). Losing them has been one of the deepest cuts to my psyche.

OK, not wanting this to be 100% woe-is-me … let's get to the reviewing:


Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson, M.D.
(finished 10/30/17)
I'd been aware of this title for quite a while, but ran across something somewhere that was highly recommending it, so picked up a copy. Now, as regular readers of my reviews know, I have very little patience with “parables”, but being one of those sorts of things (it deals with mice in a maze) it's a reasonably painless read, with some fairly worthwhile bits and pieces. Of course, no longer having the book (and my bookmarks pointing out the good parts), I can't reference these, but it struck me as a worthwhile title.



Drop the Rock: Removing Character Defects - Steps Six and Seven by Bill P., Todd W., Sara S.
(finished 10/31/17)
This is a book in the wider A.A. Canon (hence the use of last name initials for the authors), and deals with two of the 12 Steps that only get passing mention in “the big book”, Six (“were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”) and Seven (“humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings”) … which follow the Step 4 “moral inventory” and Step 5 sharing of same. The title refers to releasing elements in one's psyche that are related to long-maintained “defects”, and it's a helpful expansion of these parts of recovery work.


Idiots in Paris: Diaries of J.G. Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett, 1949 by John G. Bennett
(finished 11/11/17)
If I still had this one, with my notes, this would be a very long review. I had wanted to get a copy of Idiots in Paris for a long time, and only recently (well, in relation to when I read it) scored a used copy. I've read/reviewed a lot of the Gurdjieff material, which has included a number of memoirs of his followers … this is certainly in that niche, but far more intensely so. John G. Bennett was one his main students (and became a famed teacher in his own right), along with his wife Elizabeth Bennett whose notes comprise more than half of this. One of the main differences of this compared to the other memoirs is that it covers a very brief period – the last few months of Gurdjieff's life – and deals with the Bennetts being called to be with G. in Paris at that time. I had a lot of little bookmarks in this, with “juicy” bits highlighted to share with you, as the narrative here is so direct and raw that it throws a whole new light on Gurdjieff's teachings, with many rather remarkable revelations (and re-contextifying framing) on what had been somewhat murky points. It is also a fascinating look at the thoughts of the Bennetts as they dealt with the demands leading up to Gurdjieff's passing.


Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation by Jason Mattera
(finished 11/17/17)
I hated the previous administration, and so any book casting them in a bad light is likely to be of interest to me. I'm not sue how this one got into my hands (dollar store?), but I looked forward to getting into it. Unfortunately, it primarily served to get me pissed off, with the slimy tentacles of that vile crew getting into every interest area of the younger generation and driving their falsehoods into “common knowledge” territory. I had a lot of notes in this one as well, but it would have just ended up as a rant more than a review.



The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden
(finished 11/30/17)
Over the past few decades I've read a lot of Buddhist material, and especially Tibetan material, so the broad strokes of this book were not unfamiliar. The author was a mystic seeker and adventurer who sought out “hidden knowledge”, and ended up reporting fairly straight forwardly on what she encountered. The title here is not really representative of what's in the book, which is more of an “explanation of Mahayana Buddhism” (to use Alan Watt's description) than “secrets”, oral or otherwise.



The Enlightened Gene: Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence that Explains the World by Arri Eisen & Yungdrung Konchok
(finished 12/15/17)
This was a LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program book, so I really regret losing it and my notes on it. This grew out of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, with half of it being the science side trying to engage the Tibetan traditions, and half of it being a Tibetan monk learning the Western scientific model. It was a fascinating read, and I was sharing bits from it with friends while I was working my way through it, so I know I had a lot of bookmarks in there highlighting “the good stuff”, which I wish I could be bringing to you at this point.



Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires by Esther and Jerry Hicks
(finished 12/31/17)
A friend of mine is deeply into the whole “Law of Attraction” thing, and highly recommended this title to me. While my cynical mind has a hard time with the genre in general, I found that reading this was not the battle that it often is with this sort of book. Frankly, I found a lot of concepts/tools in this appearing quite useful, and am quite miffed not to have it and my notes on it anymore. Because of the nature of this (sort of a self-development workbook), it has a reasonably good chance of being something that I might buy a replacement copy of – which is high praise indeed, coming from me.


My Father at 100: A Memoir by Ron Reagan
(finished 01/12/18)
I was a bit hesitant to get into this, as I'd heard that, unlike other reviews, Ron Jr. had been “not too kind” in addressing his father's legacy. I was pleased to find that, while not wholly glowing about the elder Reagan, the book was in no means an attack piece. In fact, the first part of the book was more of a genealogical survey of how the family found its way from Ireland, and got established in the U.S., before tracing his dad's growing up in various contexts, from sports to early jobs (including pics of R.R. as a teenage lifeguard), to discovering acting. What stood out most to me were tales of his early years, with the younger Reagan doing road trips to experience the places where his father was from.


Soundscapes: A Musician's Journey Through Life and Death by Paul Robertson
(finished 01/22/18)
Another LTER selection, I have to admit that this was one that I was a bit hazy on the recall of. It's not that the book didn't get to me (I actually ordered a CD of a piece mentioned in it), music is something that I have never quite figured out on a conceptual basis, and the author here was a musical prodigy, who basically lived it. The basis of this is his surviving a died-on-the-operating-table experience, including recall of hallucinations he had while in a long-term coma. It has reminiscences of his childhood, his musical training, his career (he was a violinist), and various other flotsam of his life, including other dream/hallucination stories. It's an interesting read, but one of those books that's not satisfactorily in a particular niche (I take it that it was a bit too weird for those looking for a “musician's memoir” title).


Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo by Grant Faulkner
(finished 01/27/18)
This LTER acquisition didn't make much of a lasting impression on me. That's not to say that my now-missing copy didn't have a bunch of little bookmarks pointing me to useful stuff, just that it didn't stick in my head. Obviously, with 52 chapters there must have been the thought that one would work on a chapter a week … not a bad idea ... and some of these deal with major writing issues (snagging from the Amazon “look inside” view of the TOC): “Embrace Constraints”, “Treating Imposter Syndrome”, “Sleep, Sleeplessness, and Creativity”, and “Trusting in The Absurd”. The author is the Executive Director of NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – and much (as it's coming back to me now) of this is tilted towards fiction writing.


One Question: Life-Changing Answers from Today's Leading Voices by Ken Coleman
(finished 02/09/18)
I seem to recall that I didn't care too much for this dollar store find. The author is a radio interviewer, host of his self-named program, and evidently gets to chat with a lot of interesting and semi-interesting folks. This book covers three dozen of primarily the latter, nearly all noted to be a “New York Times Bestselling Author”, of which I recognized about a third. In the Introduction he notes that “Occasionally, someone asks the right person the right question at the right time in the right way and magic happens ...”, which seems to be the thesis of the book. I guess the “magic” exhibited is a question of personal taste.


The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha
(finished 02/16/18)
OK, I have no memory of reading this book. I just bought it off of Amazon last fall, and evidently read it in the chaos of the early months of this year, but the more I dug into other reviews of it, the less I could place it. How odd. The author has recently been in the news for having funded some really sleazy election shenanigans. Currently, that's the most focused thing I can say about it. Some of the other reviews mention it was about running your career like a start-up, but I guess one might have been able to get that from the title.



Masters of Wisdom: The Mahatmas, Their Letters, and the Path by Edward Abdill
(finished 02/25/18)
An interesting delve into the Theosophical materials … which is likely best taken with the proverbial grain of salt. The “Mahatmas” of the sub-title are the beings who produced missives to Madame Blavatsky in variously colored crayon, as well as notes to other Theosophical Society folks. The first half of the book deals with these entities, and their communications, while the second half is a very lucid outlining of “The Path” as envisioned by the T.S. … which is certainly worth the cost of the book. This is another of the lost titles that I really wish I had back, as I'm pretty sure the stuff that I marked in it was not only info that would make for an interesting review, but material that I'd like to have floating around in my wet storage.


And, so, those are the books that I'd read before the move, put in a box (with other “best of the to-be-read piles” books, and some essential files, that ended up getting into the hands of the junk haulers rather than into mine.

Sorry that I've sort of fallen off the map this year, but things have been so terrible, that I often find myself regretting not throwing myself out the windows of our 46th floor apartment, or going through with my more complicated plans for offing myself a year ago tonight.

I won't promise anything for the new year. I still have no comfortable place to read, no functional place to write (my reviews). I'd love to get back to doing a daily post like I managed for two months earlier this year, but that met a sudden end when the pointlessness overwhelmed me, and the level of baseline depression I live with, the emptiness, feeling adrift, hopeless, makes any plan iffy. We'll see what comes.


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Books!

Writing your truth ...

This is one of those books that was sitting around in my to-be-read piles for years (I got it via one of the B&N after-Xmas on-line clearance sales), I'm guessing since '06 or '07, and it only got into the actual reading pipeline last fall. I see that there's a “revised” edition of this out, which, oddly, only followed this one by three years ('08 vs '05), but via a different publisher … needless to say, I have no idea what the difference between the two might be. I'm using links out to the listing for the copy that I have, however, so there's no confusion.

Anyway, Jeff Davis' The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing is the type of thing, that were it not so good, might well be subject to ridicule on these pages, as it is, on the surface at least, a pretty “out there” combination of Yoga and Writing (hence the odd formulation of the title). However, I find that there are over a dozen of my little bookmarks in this from my read-through, and that's usually a sign that I was very much into what the book was presenting.

Helpfully, the author is pretty much open on the whole philosophical underpinnings of the book, and starts out the introduction with defining its premise:

Yoga's philosophical principles and myriad skillful tools (upaya) can help you as a creative writer deepen your writing practice, become more versatile in your writing process, and enrich your writing style.
Davis appears to come to this professionally from the writing side (both as a writer and a writing teacher in numerous settings), with Yoga being a passion/avocation/devotion of his (he has photos of him in assorted unpleasant-looking contortions illustrating an appendix) … he does have a reality of the state of most writers, reassuring us that “if your day's most physical act has been to walk to the corner shop for a coffee and a bagel” … “being able to twist your imagination with a flexible spirit is more important for authentic writing than being able to secure your foot behind your head”. Whew, that's a relief!

The book's structured as 24 chapters unevenly distributed across four sections, which are themed to a “Journey”: Making a Few Preparations, Setting Out, Facing Emotional Crags, and Looking Back & Looking Forward, and are somewhat distinguished by varying tones, as appropriate to each. Much of this, as one might expect, shifts back and forth between Yogic material and Writing advice. Since the closest that I come to being a “Yogi” is likely to be a fondness for "pic-a-nic baskets", most of what drew my attention here was on the writer side of the fence, for example, this little gem:

If developing a regular schedule is new to you, even if you've been writing for years, you might use this simple formula: 3-60-15. Write three times a week for sixty minutes each session for fifteen days (that is, three days a week for five weeks). Or this formula: 7-60-15. Seven days a week for sixty minutes for fifteen days. The fifteen days is a marker to see if this changed habit will stay; it provides a reachable end.
He follows up with with broader guidelines, and notes of how some of his students reported that using this discipline “changed their lives”. Now, I don't want to give the impression that this flips back and forth between the Yogic and the Writing, as the various poses/practices he suggests are targeted to particular writing challenges. One of the few that didn't elicit a “that ain't gonna happen” response from me was one that was for a piece of writing “that needs expansion”, and is described as “Hold Your Breath to Make Space”, which starts with sitting in a chair, and then lying on the floor (in Savāsana - “Corpse Pose”), and working on expanding the volume of your breath, that you then imagine “literally opening up” the segment of writing you're trying to enlarge on. OK, it seems there's a bit of jump there, but hey.

So, forgive me if I seem to be ignoring the āsanas, but this really is a book for writers to use Yoga as a tool, and not a book for Yogis to improve their writing, and the material for writers is solid, and of value even if you don't throw a single mudra. An example of this is his persona/dummy/ventriloquist model for obtaining “mentors” that are only present in their words: “A remote mentor is a writer still living, yet who advises a writer solely via the mentor's texts. A dead mentor is the same, of course, just dead.”, which he notes allows one to exist in a virtual sat-sanga (“community of like-spirited individuals”), which means you never need be alone as a writer. He offers up an exercise:

      When you've found such a mentor, find a passage – fifty words, a hundred words, may suffice. Then read and heed – slowly – the syllables, the twists in syntax, the edgy wit or bawdy humor, or the saturnine gravitas that drums through the paragraphs. Let the passage wash over and in you. Then begin to record, word by word, this passage. Notice how your body feels as you handwrite these sentences' rhythms. Your inner ear cannot help but tune in … {to} … the cadences, the images, the twists, the tones.
The author goes on to detail how to apply and expand this exercise, over several very interesting (but a bit to dense to cherry-pick quotes for here) pages. Further on, he dips into advanced writing seminar stuff, looking at parallelism, antithesis, and then offering this juicy bit:

      Sometimes we write with such fury or reverie, disgust or jubilation, that our voice beckons us to repeat phrases and clauses. In such writing, our writing bodies and voice may need the shapes of anaphora or epistrophe. … anaphora, the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences. … Epistrophe … the repetition of the same word or group of words at the ends of successive clauses or sentences …
This (of course) then dovetails into a discussion of the breath, the biology of breath, and then into Prānāyāma, and eventually back to stuff like iambic word patterns and rhyme schemes – with a smattering of examples, some bordering on snark, such as:

Although writers like Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley seem content with tight breaths, some writers – like Walt Whitman, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer – seem to inhale to a count of ninety (I think Mailer inhales once a page and Faulkner once every two pages).
… and finally into additional Yogic breath work.

Another topic that gets its own chapter is that of First Drafts … frequently a major point of neurosis among writers. Any writer who produces a lot of copy knows that it's better to get words on the page and then spend as much as 3x the time it took writing it to edit it into something presentable … and the author starts out this charming chunk of text with a very wise admonition:

Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into. Even if what you start to write sounds as if you've been writing the same thing for years, write it. … If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You'll have time later to clean up the mess – the excess, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama – that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
Interestingly, this gastronomic-themed passage leads into a section describing how various writers have used darkness and/or blindfolds to generate their first drafts, which then gets around to the idea of writing from one's “third eye”, which ends up in another exercise (done seated) that involves energy channels, breath, the physical eyes, and a number of interior elements. Heck, this one I might try.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when I have a lot of little bookmarks in a volume, there are many which, when returning to the book, I have no idea what I was indicating (some days I wish I were one of those people who scrawls notes in books … but no), and most of the middle parts of this suffer from this lapse. Most so far have been pointing to passages I found enticing, but next was a “factoid” that I found fascinating (albeit somewhat stretching credulity – its prime source seems to be a newagey “research center”):

… the heartbeat's waves can be graphed on a machine called and ECG … its charge apparently is so strong that an ECG placed within three feet of you can measure your heart's waves and energy field without being directly hooked up to your physical body. That is, your charged heart casts off energy around you. Literally. You body inhabits that field. Literally.
Of course, some of these point to snippets that stood out as particularly arch, such as the note in a discussion of satire that warns that “Many readers, especially of the self-important sort, just don't get irony, wit, and satire.”, along with some rather painful examples where this miscommunication went badly.

There is so much excellent information in The Journey from the Center to the Page that I fear that I'm giving it short shrift in just highlighting the writing bits I was enthused about. As noted, most of the Yoga parts were sort of a moot point for me, although were interesting enough to read about, but there's also a whole lot of “autobiographical” material here that lent a richer matrix for the rest. At the end there's an appendix where Davis demonstrates poses mentioned in the exercises, arranged with reference to the chapters in which they appear. Also, and this was one of the things that I found very useful, there's an appendix of well over a hundred “key terms” which is primarily the Yoga vocabulary, but with a smattering of scientific and linguistic terms (“beta waves” and “syntax” as examples) … quite a handy list to have available.

Again, I don't know what's different with the (slightly) newer version than the one I have (aside from being listed with a bit longer page count), but this is available new for as little as six bucks (including shipping) from the new/used guys. It appears that the 2008 edition is still in print, so you might be able to find this at your local brick-and-mortar as well.

This surprised me in being a really superb book for writing skills (the author must teach fabulous classes) given the Yoga theme, and it should be something that every writer ought to consider for their “writing” bookshelf.


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Books!

What should be and what not ...

I thought I was done with having to “pad” orders to get up to free shipping minimums when I signed up for Amazon's “Prime” service, but since their creating the “add-on” category of products (which require a minimum order total to be able to get), I find myself digging through the Dover Thrift Editions listings again looking for just the right fit, price-wise, to nudge the total to where it needs to be. Obviously, this is not the set-up for an overly enthusiastic purchase decision on a particular book, but, as I have noted many times previously, the Dover books give me a chance to fill in gaps from my English Major, and that's the case with picking up a copy of William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916" and Other Poems.

Now, I'd certainly read some Yeats in college, but he was fixed in my head more due to his involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including his famed conflict with the notorious Aleister Crowley) than his poetry. Not that this is misplaced, Yeats himself is quoted as saying that magick was “the most important pursuit of my life … the mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write” – and I, frankly, expected this to come out more clearly in his writings than I found it to be. As is often the case of the Dover books, this volume includes a fascinating introductory essay which reports that he spent thirty years pursuing Maud Gonne, whose own metaphysical interests significantly influenced him, and led to a far more mature level of writing in his later years. As is also almost always the case with Dover books, the main body of this one is a reprint of some long-since out of copyright publication (from 1922), which itself was collected from a couple previous volumes of Yeats' writings from 1919 and 1921 (and, as he lived to 1939, these would possibly have been produced with his input).

Of course, the bulk of this is poetry, which, despite the thousands of pieces that I churned out back in the day, I find very hard to write about in a “broad strokes” manner, making it difficult for me to provide some overview of these (and I doubt that anybody has much interest of me getting into the minutia of particular poems). So, I'm going to be passing along bits and pieces that I found interesting and maybe making a few comments on those. I was disappointed that I only found that I'd stuck in two of my little bookmarks here, and these both are in one long (going on for seven pages) poem. This is further complicated that said poem, The Phases of the Moon, is one of his “conversation” pieces, where two or more characters are tossing sections back and forth, leading to the near-certainty of confusion if simply quoted here as is.

To start with, however, I'm going to be dropping in what is probably his most famous piece, The Second Coming from his 1921 collection:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Now, that was sort of what I was hoping much of this collection was going to be about … but, no. While there is mystical/spiritual stuff strewn through, much of this is fairly mundane, dealing with relationships and daily activities.

There is, however, that other theme that Yeats is famous for, being one of the voices of the Irish movement for independence from Britain. The introductory essay here notes of the second collection from which poems were selected: “It was composed in the shadow of the Easter Uprising of 1916, released in the latter days of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) and read during the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and eventual establishment of the Irish Free State (1922)”. The intro essay suggests that Yeats, “a Protestant-born Anglo-Irish aristocrat”, had not been particularly supportive of the cause in its early years, but eventually found himself “strenuously devoted” to “Irish cultural and political nationalism”, which caused his work to take up a more activist stance. Here is the last stanza (of four) of the titular Easter 1916 poem:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
As noted up top, I only had two of my bookmarks in here to point me to “the good stuff”, and both are in the long piece The Phases of the Moon. Again, these were things that I found most appealing (and, frankly, a lot of the poems here were “meh” at best to my ear), so this probably does nothing for conveying the overall tone of this collection, but I'm not going to type up something I didn't care for:

                    Robartes
Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness
To die into the labyrinth of itself.
and …
                    Robartes
And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the World’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.
Anyway, there's a taste of what's in here. Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't run into more of his writing when in college, but the turn of the last century wasn't much in my curriculum, so his was likely among those which only got touched on via the massive main English Major texts.

"Easter 1916" and Other Poems, being a Dover Thrift book, is likely to not be sitting on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, as its cover price is a mere three bucks (hence having nearly no margin for the retailer), but it's a handy thing to have on your wish list at the on-line book behemoths (where it's even at a discount at the moment), for fine tuning order totals. I'm not particularly enthused about this collection, but I'm glad to have “loaded it into my brain”, so that if the topic of Yeats comes up I'll be less vague than I would have been prior to reading it.


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Books!

Falling out ...

So, maybe it's “just me”, but this seems to be an example of how fickle the serendipity of the dollar store can be. I allow the “just me” option, because I really don't do a lot of “due diligence” when eyeballing a book there before it goes into the cart. Is it non-fiction? Check. Is it a subject that I have an interest in? Check. Does it look like a reasonable read (i.e., not 600 pages or in some itsy tiny font)? Check. Is the physical copy in good shape? Check. … That's pretty much it for how deep I get into analyzing a dollar store book purchase.

And, sometimes I get surprised.

When I picked up Jesse Schenker's All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, I assumed it to be another memoir of a life in the culinary arts. The dust cover flaps were heavy on the author's achievements in the restaurant field, James Beard, Zagat, Forbes, New York, and Iron Chef all get referenced. Sure, his problems with drugs and the law are mentioned, but the sense was more “talented Chef overcomes youthful challenges to become trendy restaurateur”, which is also the tone of the back cover quotes. However, out of a 260-page book, about 150 of those are pretty much Schenker's “drug journal”, reminding me of an extended “drunkalogue” that one might hear at an AA meeting (in fact, this book fits neatly into AA's “Big Book”'s “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.”). While a passion for the kitchen does weave its way through the main part of the book (approximately chapters 2-11 out of 16), the main take-away here is a harrowing tale of substance abuse, eventually redeemed by cooking skills.

Given that the early growth of his culinary experience runs in parallel with the less-addled times of his drug experiences, the book is pretty much half and half, which is confusing to an extent. If one takes the bio from his web site, one could walk away with no sense of the depths that he ended up hitting, and yet this book is plainly plugged on the same page (and elsewhere with a YouTube video that featured pictures of Schenker that really should have been in the book to help envision the version of him that's featured through most of its pages) … pushing out a story very different than that of the star chef.

{Arrgh … I had 2200 words written and the netbook went into some sort of spasm during which it managed to lose 2/3rds of my brilliant blitherings the review at the above point (despite the wordprocessor supposedly saving progress every 10 minutes) … I'm now attempting to pick up mid-stream three weeks later, all of which really sucks. Technology … can't live with it, can't eat it instead of cereal in the mornings!}

If one just picked up Schenker's book and flipped to the table of contents, one might assume it was primarily about cooking, as the sixteen chapters each have a culinary term as a title (and each chapter starts with a definition of the associated term). However, none of these have more than passing connection with the contents of the chapter (well, with a few exceptions, the first chapter is Mise en Place, which is the term for setting up a kitchen workstation). The book starts out at his restaurant Recette, as he's getting the staff ready for a 27-course tasting menu, and makes the segue to his back story with his getting ready to check on how a sauce is coming, pulling a tasting spoon out of a pocket:

      There had been a spoon in my back pocket for as long as I could remember, but the spoon's intended use had changed so completely that even I was caught off guard at times. Once I had carried a spoon to cook drugs on the streets of Florida, and now it was there to prepare haute cuisine for Manhattan's foodie elite. …
He starts the telling very early, with how, at age one, he had to be locked into his room at night to keep him from getting out and falling down a steep stairway right outside his room … in the mornings his mom would find him asleep on top of some furniture, where he'd spent most of the night stripping the wallpaper off the walls … he notes “I've never felt comfortable in my own skin and have always needed an outlet for uneasiness.” He soon found one outlet, although the timing seems iffy to me – he claims that at age four he became fascinated with cooking, and especially that of his great-grandmother, “Nana Mae”, who died when he was eight, so I guess the things he reports doing with her must have happened. He reports:

      For me, being in the kitchen was like taking a Xanax. I finally had an outlet for all of the emotions that were too uncomfortable for me to really feel. I had never known what to do with those feelings. In the kitchen I had a sense of freedom and space and, most important, order and clarity. It was the only time the restlessness within me subsided.
Schenker grew up in Florida, but every summer his family headed back north, and he and his sister spent June at the house of his aunt and uncle (and cousins) in New Paltz, NY. This was ideal for him, as he could be in constant motion, keeping up with his older cousins … who also introduced him to his other passion – drugs – with his first experience with marijuana at age twelve:

… as soon as I stopped coughing, it felt as though a part of myself had suddenly been lifted away. Ever since I was a baby peeling wallpaper from the walls of my room, I had never been able to get rid of that twitchy, anxious part of me. The big wool blanket that I'd been carrying around my whole life like a fucking disease suddenly lifted, and that feeling trumped any escape I'd previously found through acting out, clowning around, or even cooking.
… I was changed forever and there was no turning back.
Upon his return to Florida, his behavior changed, and while he was still way more interested in culinary arts than most kids his age, he also became a great fan of pot, and began hanging out with others who shared the latter interest. Run the calendar ahead a couple of years and he's discovered girls and found that it's a lot easier to stay supplied with weed if you're selling it, plus he “never felt so popular or important” as when kids looking to score clamored around him in the hallways at school. As one might expect, this sort of notoriety tends to spread, and he soon (at age 14) had his first arrest:“… I felt a sort of perverse excitement about being arrested … All I could think was, Wow. This is fucking cool.. He, as at this point was usual, manged to talk his parents into fighting for him, and they ended up sending him to a hippie psychologist that he actually liked, and who warned his family that he probably needed long-term rehab – warnings that they ignored. Soon after he was caught with marijuana in school, and managed to avoid getting expelled, just serving a one-week suspension during which he and his family went on a ski trip to Aspen … teaching him the lesson that he could get away with anything.

By freshman year in high school he was “young, full of nervous energy, with no respect for boundaries and a lot of extra time on {his} hands” and he “filled the void with pot, cooking, music, and sex”, and soon had another drug bust on his record – resulting in only being sentenced to 50 hours of community service, which his father managed to make go away before he'd clocked even an hour. Despite having no consequences from his actions, Schenker eventually hits that scary point in the addict's life – when his substance of choice stops working for him … this is a classic description (when he and his girlfriend are passing a bong back and forth in the bathroom at a party):

… this time something wasn't right. Finally it hit me. I was high, but I still felt the anxiety. The emptiness and anxiety were back; they were there even while I was smoking. This had never happened before. It struck me that pot was no longer enough to fill the gaping hole inside me.
He wastes no time in looking for a replacement, digging through the medicine cabinet, starting with various cold medicines but moving up to the Oxycodone that had been prescribed for his sister following dental surgery. He notes: “Nothing relieves emptiness like opiates.”, and obtaining these becomes his new obsession. In eleventh grade he starts attending a technical school which has a Culinary Arts Program, and he takes to the material immediately, and soon was cooking at an area restaurant, but he “could feel the pull in two directions, between the serenity of the kitchen and the euphoria of the drugs”. While he was a natural in the kitchen, and moved up to better restaurants, that environment provided him with access to people with access to drugs, and he moved to Percocet, Darvocet, and OxyContin, and was physically addicted by 17. He dropped out of the academic part of school (opting for a GED), while continuing with the cooking classes. He kept getting better positions at fancier restaurants, but the drugs started to make him (and his kitchen pals) a less reliable employee … so one of his buddies and he decided that a long trip to Europe would be a good idea, and connived the travel costs from their parents. They flew into London, but soon moved to Amsterdam because they figured the drugs would be easier to get there … eventually he talks his way into getting pain killers from a local doctor and “the rest of the trip was a drug-filled orgy of food, booze, sex, and of course pills” – although he did pick up a lot of culinary ideas on the way.

When he returns, he moves to Tallahassee, and soon hooks up with a methadone clinic, which eventually boots him out after a random urine test showed he was dabbling in other drugs … he notes: “Heroin gets all the notoriety when it comes to withdrawal, but kicking methadone is actually much worse.” He finds a “pain clinic” that provides him with something for the withdrawal, but he's needing more, and tries to work a deal for drugs that ends up with him being arrested as a opiate dealer – despite his not having any. His father (and therapist) steps in again and gets him into a rehab facility. He, of course, finds a way to get drugs there, using his food budget to buy them (and being lucky that the urine tests of the day didn't show OxyContin), and running a side-hustle of cooking for other folks in order to eat. He moves from rehab to a halfway house, and is able to get a job cooking again, and then convinces his parents to rent an apartment for him. The new job first exposes him to a guy who's dealing in cocaine, which Schenker uses, and eventually to another employee who hooks him up with heroin; he describes his first fix: “Pushing the plunger into that single vein was perhaps the most gratifying experience of my entire life to that point. … There was no going back from here.”

He starts stealing to support his addiction, goes through a number of drug centers, always just playing the game to get by, and ends up getting into another halfway house that lets him work, and he's back in a kitchen, but he bails on both to crash with a friend, and remarkably gets yet another job, savoring his time cooking “despite being completely drowned in drugs”. However, this doesn't last, and he ends up “running” for a dealer, who he eventually rips off for a whole safe full of drugs. Amazingly, in all this time he keeps getting hired to cook, although most of these gigs don't last long for obvious reasons. He keeps getting in deeper and deeper, discovers crack, starts posing as a male prostitute (although he only reports stealing from the Johns), and can't even keep a job at a deli. He and his buddies move to following around dealers to rip them off (while not getting killed). The sordid stories continue for pages and pages and pages, and he eventually hits bottom, there's a warrant out for his arrest, and when a cop picks him up in a horrendous area of Fort Lauderdale, he ends up smiling in the back of the car saying “I'm going to get my life back.” He spends three months in county jail before getting transferred to a jail-based rehab program where he starts to get the AA/NA message: “… I was dry and sober for the longest time since I was twelve years old, and something was different. I had been beaten down so low that I knew the only way was up from here, and I was finally willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

He discovers that there is a “kitchen detail” and he gets on the midnight to 5am shift, and he starts to organize the processes there. This makes that part of his rehab … although hardly gourmet … passable for him, and after another six months he's transferred to a work release center, which was still very rigidly confined. He was all of 21 at this time. After a couple of months his parents came to visit, after four months, he'd earned the ability to go get a job … which, of course, he got immediately, and after a while he gets offered a position of sous chef at another property the owners were opening. His passion for cuisine began to accelerate, and he writes: “Without drugs to spend my paychecks on, I bought cookbooks instead, devouring at least ten new cookbooks each week.” Soon after, he moves out of the halfway house and gets a small apartment in Miami.

His sister moves to New York, and his parents set up a celebratory dinner, which Schenker pleads with them to be at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant there. He is totally blown away by the menu, and on the way out, he button-holes the manager to say he's a chef from Miami and he'd love to work there … and the manager tells him to send an email to him, that he'd forward to Ramsay. Schenker doesn't expect much, but as he's just about to board his flight back to Florida, he gets a call offering him a “stage” (a sort of trial run) … he goes back to Florida, explains he's going to need to take some time off, and is back in New York a couple of days later. This (after 70% of the book) is where the culinary story starts.

If it seems remarkably lucky that he got that call back, after one day (and voluntarily staying until 1am cleaning), he's hired. What follows is a look into what happens in a restaurant kitchen of that caliber, highlighted by Chef Ramsay being the demanding perfectionist with every bit of the “charm” he exhibits on TV. Schenker stayed (despite the pressure, and sometimes outright harassment) for quite a while, but the idea of moving out to his own place was gelling in his mind. He began “staging” in other restaurants, and goes into detail about several of these, and the techniques he picked up at them. He and two other chefs were talking about options, and they ended up with the idea of doing an after-hours dinner service at a bakery location where they hung out and sometimes cooked … and this became Recette, initially being a one-night-a-week event, but soon expanded, as the management at Ramsay's restaurant essentially forced his resignation there. Recette presented a particular challenge, as the space operated as a bakery until 5pm, and they had to spend the time to clean the place up, convert over to culinary cooking, and switch to a fine dining setting … every night.

A gal he'd been close to in eighth grade also re-entered the picture, both as his girlfriend and something of a manager for the non-cooking parts of the Recette operation. He was also doing a fairly strenuous program of private dining, both for events and as a “private chef” for a (wealthy) guy in New Jersey … a drive he'd make with all the food. Schenker details some mind-numbing schedules and points out that his attending AA/NA meetings tailed off to nothing … always a bad sign:

      Of course, recovery requires rigorous honesty, not only with other people but also with yourself. As I slid down the slippery slope of addiction once again – this time to work instead of drugs – I stopped being honest with myself. Instead of accepting that I was powerless and relinquishing control, I feverishly grabbed the reins and drove myself further and further away from the peace I had finally found.
Obviously, the situation with the original Recette wasn't scalable, and he began thinking of a free-standing restaurant. He pulled in his dad as a business partner, who hooked him up with an old friend who was a venture capitalist, and got his New Jersey client financially involved as well, and soon had the money to get a place. He goes into a lot of detail of getting ready to open a new restaurant, still called Recette, and it was a success as soon as it opened. He keeps dipping into perceptions about his recovery, and the chaos of the restaurant. There's a long section about the process of getting reviewed by the New York Times, and the excitement of the resulting star rating (and rave).

More family stuff follows, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, his mother's cancer, his grandfather passing, etc.; the industry kudos as well, nominations for James Beard awards, Iron Chef, etc. He also has some health issues (getting sent to a diet doctor), which escalated to what seems like outright hypochondria. His internist finally sends him to a shrink who prescribes an antidepressant, that he's, understandably, hesitant to get on: “I worried that Celexa would lead to a stronger pill, and then a stronger one, and then a stronger one, and then an even stronger one after that.” He does start taking it, with good results, and his wife points him back to AA, along with working with various therapists.

He eventually finds “a dream” space in a restaurant that was about to go under, and he and his backers manage to get it, and he opens his second (much larger) place, The Gander, right as his wife is having their third child. And, the book pretty much just ends there (admittedly, that's in April 2014, and the book came out that September, so it is arguably “up to the moment”). As I indicated above, this is pretty much two books, the descent into a drug-fueled Hell, and his exploding onto the New York restaurant scene. While the latter is only about 30% of the book, there is plenty of “food porn” (although, sadly no pictures) to enjoy in the telling for those looking for the kitchen memoir material.

All or Nothing has only been out about 3 years at this writing, so I guess I really lucked out in getting a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store. It's still in print (both in the original and a paperback edition that came out mid-2015), and the on-line big boys presently have both at deep discounts (72% and 58% off respectively) … however, if you want to go lower, the new/used guys have new copies of the hardcover for under five bucks delivered. Which, of course, means that if this sounds like something you might enjoy, you don't have much of an excuse for not picking up a copy.

While I wasn't expecting this to be the book that it was, it does touch on two of my interest areas, addiction/recovery and restaurants/cuisine, so I found it fascinating on a number of levels (if it not being a particularly comfortable read at numerous points). You might find it similarly engaging.


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Books!

“Brent Cross Blues”

Once again the “Almighty Algorithm” over at LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program matched me with a very odd book. Of course, I have something to do with this, as it was one of the books I put in requests for a few months back, but it's always such a crap shoot on that, as the publishers typically toss up a perfunctory paragraph or two describing the book, and one will generally go with those to determine what to raise one's hand on as being willing to get a copy to review. If you'll indulge me in a bit of a gripe, the LTER primarily offers fiction, which I have been notably avoiding for the past decade or so, and the pickings for non-fiction can be quite slim, so my gauge for what I'll request is not too finely calibrated, being something along the lines of “oh, that sounds reasonably interesting, I guess”, which does leave me open to getting books that I might not typically pick up in a retail environment.

It would be easy to assume that the main attraction I had towards Anthony McGowan's The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog would be that particular “art”, with which I've had way too much experience, however, the description provided was evocative, asks if I've been “rubbish at life”, and even name-checks Morrissey, so I was hooked. What would have been more useful would have been to clue me in to just how, English this book is (yes, “rubbish” in that context could have been a hint), because that's the number one take-away I had on it … not that this is a bad thing, per se, but it's not just a wry diary composed by an English writer, it is a series of personal scenarios absolutely steeped in English culture (which, oddly, sort of put me off a slight bit). The author has a dozen or so books out, but mainly in the youth market (some of which sound like they're actually surrealist gay porn, like The Bare Bum Gang and the Holy Grail … but I digress), with the current title apparently being a bit of a new voice for him.

Anyway, I have about a half dozen of my little bookmarks in this, pointing to the places I thought were particularly arch, and I'm probably going to be leaning on these heavily, as there's not much of a “story arc” here, except as a “year in the life” sense. The book is set up in four parts, Autumn, Winter, Spring, & Summer, and is composed of little essays/scenes that range from just a title (“There Isn't A Pool”), to as much as five pages in length. My OCD was certainly triggered by the first entry being September 5 of one (not specified, but since this just came out in October 2017, I'm guessing it's 2015) year, and the last entry is September 13 of the next … and while most days have copy, there are quite a few that don't (I talked myself out of counting them), so it's not quite the obsessive journal/diary of that time that it might have been.

This jumps right into a continuity, with the opening paragraph giving both some of the key players, and a sense of what tone the book tends to:

      A limp dappling of autumn sunshine persuaded me that I should walk Mrs McG down to the underground station, efficiently combining this act of conjugal kindness with Monty's urgent need for a morning constitutional. The surging horror of the early commute was over, leaving just the aimless milling of the stragglers and idlers. They reminded me of those defective spermatozoa one reads about, destined never to meet with a comely egg, thrashing in circles, or slumped, broken, at the side of the fallopian tube, or blindly swimming the wrong way through murky uterine seas.
A good deal of the text wanders around like this, which, one might suppose, could be a fairly accurate detailing of what is actually bubbling up in McGowan's head when he sits down to extrude words to page. A couple of paragraphs later in this section (“Bum Ball” – it's a bit too convoluted to explain here) he uses a word that is simultaneously huge, charming, and an interesting alternative to “yuppification”, which I just had to share … in his description of “the embourgeoisification of my part of North London”. You're welcome. Oh, another note I should get in here is about the cover graphic. One of the repeated settings of the book is the British Library, where he goes to write. And, while one is not supposed to bring food to the desks in the reading rooms, the author likes to sneak in a banana for a mid-morning snack, and he had discovered a certain level of amusement with using a marker to add some text to the banana – in the early going here there's an embarrassing scenario played out via this, which (no doubt after much editorial/promotional discussion) is how the title ends up written across a piece of fruit on the cover.

Run the calendar ahead to December 28, with the author visiting his childhood home town:

… Leeds has always been brittle, superficial, vain; less friendly than the other great northern cities. The kind of place where you can get your head kicked in for spilling a pint or looking at another lad's bird. We didn't invent football hooliganism, but we raised it to a kind of Platonic perfection, back in the late 1970s, bringing to it the clarity of line, the mastery of form and colour, of early Renaissance art. Everything that came after was mere decadence and decay.
McGowan goes on (visiting a drinking establishment dating from 1715, Whitelocks) into reminiscing about his youth, which I figured was worth sharing (especially the first and last sentences):

      The patterns in the faded flock wallpaper, every stain in the carpet, even the ancient nicotine shadows on the ceiling were the ghosts of my old friends from teenage drinking days. And though I thought I saw them among the heavy coats of the crowd by the bar, I was looking for a version of the way we were then. Now we wouldn't recognize each other, or what we've become. Nothing to do but dilute my beer with the tears of nostalgia and loss.
Perhaps it's my own refined sense of failure that caused these sorts of bits to particularly grasp my attention, but that does seem to be the case. Given my near-endless job search (seriously, people, it's been 9.5 years at this point!), the following reflection had to be noted … from January 7:

      Few things are as depressing as job applications. You feel the despair and desolation wash over you like Bangladeshi flood waters. And then you realize that the only people qualified to give you a reference are retired, dead or hate you.

And then you hit send with relief but no hope, like a drunk urinating in a bus shelter.
The last bit of that being the title of the section (of which I opted to spare you the middle ten lines). The next piece I'd tagged had to do with the author's 50th birthday party. I have to admit that the attraction of this probably hinged on one word (being something of a vocabulary junkie, I obsess over words that sound great, but I don't know), plus a neat bit of composition surrounding it (from January 20):

      But there's always sadness to parties, isn't there? The party begins to die from the moment it is born. And when it's gone, it's gone forever. That party will never come back.
      Rosie made Mojitos. It was kind of cute seeing a twelve-year-old girl professionally mashing up the lime and rum. She was the hit of the party. I moved from group to group, trying to be attentive, trying to give everyone that flensed sliver of my soul. But I couldn't summon up the panache and vigour. I didn't have a meaningful conversation, or even a humorous exchange, all evening, and my speech narrowly missed the mark.
{This term, in a more defined setting, also appears in the section from July 8.}

There are various sub-themes (or scenarios) that repeatedly come up, including his doing classes at various schools' creative writing programs, shopping excursions with Mrs McG, book industry events, adventures while walking Monty, and encounters with his “dwarf doppelgänger” who he names (although never actually meets) Heimlich. Many of these get set up with intros like “It being a while since I've enjoyed one of my clothes-shop humiliations ...” or “My bad luck with jumpers continues ...” (another of those British context things – that section would be quite more depressing if it was from an American “first responder” setting). I wish I could efficiently communicate how funny (to me, at least) much of this is. Unfortunately, the parts that had me (literally) LOL'ing tended to crop up in sentence fragments that were hilarious in context, but the background text necessary to make those funny here would take more blockquoting than I think either of us want to deal with. However, I'm going to put in a couple of paragraphs to give you a last-line payoff that I thought was excellent (yeah, “your mileage may vary”, and all … oh, and it's part of “Three Annoying Things”, hence the numbered paragraphs):

      2. I've had some new photos done to replace the absurd one that's on the internet, and which makes anyone who books me on the basis that I might look like it weep or guffaw. The new photos are excellent, except for the fact that they look like me. Or at least a Dorian Gray-like portrait of my soul. So there, staring out with filmy eyes is a narrow-lipped, dissolute, shabby roué, on the lookout for a countess to fleece.
      3. Nobody liked the pan-fried mackerel I made the family for dinner. They didn't like it because it wasn't very nice. And there, glistening unwanted in the pan, grey stripes on paler grey, exuding a vague aroma of failure and helplessness, it looked even more like me than the photos.
The following is another bit that I'm guessing snagged me with enticing multisyllabicisms, but it deals with him meeting a lady at a party. I'm snipping this from several paragraphs to give the flow of what I found most interesting … but it gives the main part of “generational connection”, a topic I've recently been contemplating via making the acquaintance of a couple of gals who are two and three years my junior (and hence “get” most of my now-ancient pop culture references).

June 16. Went to a little drinks party for the Faber Academy tutors. It was fine, although none of the other tutors had the faintest idea of who I was. I'm used to that – there's a fundamental asymmetry at work. Most children's writers read adult books, but few adult writers (unless compelled by their reproductive mishaps) go the other way. So I swallowed down my ego, with as much beer as was necessary.
      One sweet moment was provided by finding out that one of the tutors was exactly the same age as me. It was deeply strange and rather wonderful. She's from Cornwall and I'm generic northern, but we had precisely the same frame of reference. …
      It all made me think how much texture, how much richness, you lose, when you're just a few years apart in age. …
      It also generated a very slight erotic energy – one based not at all on physical attraction, but purely on the fact that we were epistemologically conterminous. …
I think by now you're getting the gist of the book, but I wanted to leave you with another bit of the funny to further the impression that this provided me with more LOL moments that any other few dozen volumes I've read of late. This one's from September 1's “God Bless You, Plucky Norway”, which deals with the author getting an unexpected royalty check for his sales in said country:

      The windfall meant I could thicken the children's gruel with lard, while I feasted on Scandy delicacies – Ryveta and some kind of disgusting raw fish, apparently “cured”, although if it was cured, how come it was still dead, eh?
Badum tish!

As you've no doubt sussed out at this point The Art of Failing was a quite interesting read, especially for a vocabulary geek, full of wry observations, a window into the Brits on a level equal to the Graham Norton Show, and some really delightful composition. That said, it is a bit strange, being sort of a collection of near-daily observations cranked out over just a few days beyond a year, with no unifying theme or specific point to it all. As noted, this just came out a couple of months back, so it's no doubt obtainable in the brick-and-mortars, which could be your number one option for this, as the on-line big boys aren't presently knocking anything off of the (very reasonable) cover price. While this might not be an “all & sundry” recommendation, it is well worth the reading – if nothing else I found out about a near-endless stream of ephemera regarding English to-go food items and their accouterments (wooden forks for curry on chips?), and you're likely to similarly expand your world by reading this.


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Books!

“And I guess I just don't know …”

I'd thrown in this Dover Thrift Edition of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater at some point in the past few years to nudge the total of an Amazon order up towards either free shipping, or the point where one can get “add on” products (with a $3 cover price, it's a great way to both do this and get some “classic” I'd missed previously). This had sat around for a while, but it was mentioned a number of times in a book I'd recently reviewed, so it seemed like a good time to throw it into the “currently reading” mix.

To be frank, I expected something more. That book on dreams made this sound practically psychedelic, which it hardly is, and copy like that in the introductory essay (which introduces De Quincey as “one of the great prose stylists of the English language, and a singular and interesting figure in the British literary milieu of the early nineteenth century”) sets it up to be something far more substantial than it struck me to be. It is also fairly short, at 70 pages, and was initially published in London Magazine in September and October of 1821. The introductory essay additionally notes that this reprint of the original release is considered the “best edition”, as De Quincey's expansions and revisions (such as an 1856 version that is three times the length of this) did nothing positive for the literary value of the piece.

As it is, the book is in two parts, the first consisting of “To the Reader” and “Preliminary Confessions”, and the second having “The Pleasures of Opium”, “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, and “The Pains of Opium”. The introductory essay notes that De Quincey was generally (although this hardly seems the case in most of the book, where his descriptions seem to be of some solid form) taking laudanum, “a tincture of opium commonly used and legally available in early nineteenth-century England”, which the author echoes in the first chapter, when he's discussing the availability: “Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me, that the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was, at this time, immense ...”.

A bit of biographical background might be useful here … the author appears to have been a sickly child, and had health issues which initially led him to taking opium to reduce pain. He was born into an aristocratic family, but not one with great wealth. He seems to have been quite taken with the class thing, and certainly had impressive surroundings (when not penniless). He is reported to have been a bit of a prodigy at languages, having been an expert at Greek by age 15. He also was rather aimless, having a hard time staying at any school long enough to actually graduate, and spent a lot of time searching out the famed writers (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb) of the day. When he did have money (he got an inheritance at age 21), he tended to fritter it away, and repeatedly ended up totally destitute (which seems to be the main reality of this book), only attaining financial stability in his 60's.

While I have a couple of my little bookmarks in this, there weren't many “must use” passages that came up as I read it … and, honestly, my general take-away was that he was whiny, unfocused on anything other than his fix (oh, and this one girl), and constantly complaining. It's hardly an “autobiography” in the sense that it brings any linearity to his telling, and while there is a general arc of his life, with the writing coming from (it would appear from what I could tease out of the introduction, the book, and assorted biographical materials) ages 19-36 (although I'm not sure when he initially finished this, that would be his age at its serialized publication). The fact that this is (at least nominally) a “drug journal”, brings with it the predictable downsides of the genre – the writer is on drugs while trying to write (despite the famous quote mis-attributed to Ernest Hemingway) – leading to a certain degree of haziness in the product.

Anyway, I'm going to dip into this to grab some bits to use that I hope will at least give my readers a sense of De Quincey's book. The “Preliminary Confessions” section starts off with a bit of his history, how he was much smarter than any of his professors, and his attempt at sneaking away from Oxford in the middle of the night (he gets away, but not without issues). Oh, one thing I should mention about the writing … it is fairly small type, tightly set, which goes on and on and on, with a paragraph break every three pages or so … making the flow of the narrative just a fire-hose. At one point he gets some money from his family and goes on a hike through Wales, occasionally trading letter-writing for shelter. This, like most of his plans, falls apart, and he eventually finds himself in London. Here is a little of his description of his state there:

And now began the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, of my agony. For I now suffered, for upwards of sixteen weeks, the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity; but as bitter, perhaps, as ever any human being can have suffered who has survived it.
Really, this is pretty much the tone of most of the book. For a time he seems to be “squatting” in a house, with a young girl, it's cold, they have no food, but it's shelter. He eventually finds some of his aristocratic contacts, and at least gets fed on occasion. He loses track of his “Ann” (he never got a last name), who he was infatuated with. I won't burden you with the text dealing with that, but it, like most of this, goes on and on.

Part II begins with a section which is pretty much just the author showing off his knowledge of Greek drama, myth, and footnotes set in Greek that “the scholar will know”. He starts “The Pleasures of Opium” section with a recalling of his first encounter with the drug:

By accident I met a college acquaintance who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it was I had of manna or of Ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound was it at that time! what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time, and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards led through Oxford-street and near “the stately Pantheon,” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. This druggist – unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! – as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look of a Sunday: and, when I asked him for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.
OK … so, he then gets into discussing other reports of opium, comparisons with it and alcohol, goes on about “the Turk” as a source of opium, and how other cultures view it, spins back off into his aristocratic friends and their relationships to alcohol and drugs, and into places for experiencing drugs, such as the theater, orchestra, or opera house (and where it's worth it to pay more for better seating).

Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor, but that, on the contrary, it has often led me into markets and theaters. Yet, in candour, I will admit that markets and theaters are not the appropriate haunts of the opium-eater, when in the divinest state incident to his enjoyment.
So, we next move to “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, which, I must confess is so much of a blither that I can't find a coherent bit to excerpt for your illumination. There are pages that go along just fine, and then swerve off into sub-references that would, unfortunately, take paragraphs to put in a reasonable context (the whole tale of “the Malay” who comes unannounced to his house is particularly bizarre, as well as the “painting” parts). So, I will spare you.

I do, however, have a bookmark in “The Pains of Opium” section … this, however, is not that, but something that might more plainly illustrate this point in the book:

… This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct; and, instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labor dedicated to the exaltation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect. In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy; my understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all) sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state, that though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again re-acts on each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been for too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, no to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. …
What I had marked was a discussion of his “re-awakening to a state of eye generally incident to childhood”, which while fascinatingly expounding “four facts” on the topic (and, perhaps, being the most useful part of the book), runs a solid two pages. which doesn't seem to have much chance of abbreviation. The rest of the section sort of drifts off, with a couple of additional brief sections (from 1818 and 1819) tacked on at the end.

Needless to say, while Confessions of an English Opium Eater had its charms (both as a historical window to its time, and some rather entertaining writing), it wasn't exactly a pleasant read. Of course, as a Dover Thrift Edition, the cover price on this is a mere three bucks, so you're not going to be out-of-pocket much to give it a go.


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Books!

“… as long as there's a sucker …”

This one almost didn't make it into my cart up at the dollar store … a mix of it being a paperback (hardcovers survive the after-market so much better), having a near-hideous cover, and being touted as being the book on which a movie that I'd never heard of was based. Given that Robert W. Greene's The Sting Man: Inside Abscam was a quite interesting read, I'm glad that it got past my resistance. Since reading the book, I dug into the stuff around it, and discovered that American Hustle looks like a movie I should check out at some point (it has quite an impressive cast). It's also notable that this book originally came out way back in 1981, and was only resurrected by Penguin Books in 2013 when the movie premiered.

The main character here, Mel Weinberg (doubtful to ever be confused with Christian Bale, who plays him in the movie!), was a life-long criminal (a con artist into all sorts of scams across the globe in the 70's), who ended up being the engine that drove the Abscam investigation, which broke in February 1980.

One interesting thing is that this book came out as quickly as it did … Greene did 237 interviews with Weinberg in less than a year, plus had access to both government files and confiscated material in evidence, as well as the hours of videotape that were key to the prosecutions. The author, who died in 2008, was a well-established investigative journalist, who had even worked for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee in the early 50's. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, he spent most of his career at Long Island's Newsday, where he built up quite a resume of impactful reports. Anybody who grows up in a major urban center suspects this, but it's also something of a hope … hard-boiled newspaper guys having a real connection with devoted denizens of the criminal underworld. In the Preface (one of the few places where Greene injects himself into the telling), there's this little gem to get things going:

I like Mel Weinberg. He is different. But, in many ways, he is more honest than many of the people that I know. And when he lies, he does it with verve.
Oh, one more thing to note … I only have one of my little bookmarks in here, and that in the introductory chapter at a point where all the subjects of Abscam are listed … so I'm going to be winging this with impressions from the reading, but there are so many amazing stories in here that I'm sure you'll be getting numerous random blockquotes foisted on you.

The book starts out with Weinberg's arrival to testify in court in August 1980 … it allows Greene to sketch out some basics (as Weinberg's waiting to be called in and mulling things over) of the main character's career, some of the key players on the FBI side, and a general arc of how things got to this point (including the listing of various politicians either indicted or implicated). This also is where the broad strokes are set in place regarding Weinberg:

Mel Weinberg does not look like the smooth, prototypical con man. He is squat, resembling a gray-bearded fireplug; a few strands of carefully arranged brown hair tenuously bridge his bald pate. He speaks with a gravelly voice in the rich accents of his native Bronx and he talks the slang of the underworld.

Weinberg was the difference. He had run every con game in the business for more than thirty-five years and had been arrested only once. He was a master of the sine qua non of the confidence world: the plausible story. He could talk his way into and out of any situation. He knew how to stall, cajole, inveigle and entice.
One thing to note about the book is that it uses some interesting format elements to bring in assorted bits of information. There are “SCENE” sections in the regular flow of the text that present a “snapshot” of a particular moment, which might be otherwise a bit of a non-sequitur, there are sections set in a different type which appear to be excerpts from the author's interviews (not just with Weinberg, there are some with FBI agents and other figures) which are broken out as “TAPE ONE” through eighteen, and then there are back-and-forth transcriptions from evidence tapes (both audio and video, I'm assuming) which just show up at appropriate points in the narrative. These all make for a richer read, if somewhat choppy at times.

I really liked that about the first third of the book covered Weinberg's delinquent youth through his growth into a high-grossing con man. Perhaps most charming of the early stories deal with glass – his dad had a small-time glass factory, that was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Weinberg had gotten into a deal with the local Glazier Union, where he'd go around at night, and bust out windows (with metal bolts shot with a slingshot from a moving car) at stores, etc. that had been installed by non-union workers. This little scam evolved into a various permutations, including stealing newly installed glass from construction sites – in one case talking his way out of being busted in the act so efficiently that he had the cops helping him load the sheets (that were the “wrong glass” that his boss insisted he fix “on his own time”, in the middle of the evening) onto his truck. He had another scam where he'd install a lesser glass (“demiglass”, that was polished on only one side) instead of what the clients paid for … his con here was to have had a bunch of stickers printed with “made in” and various countries identified – he'd match the country with the buyer's ethnicity and say something like “this is supposed to be the best glass there is”, and showing them where it was (supposedly) imported from – he claims that he never once had to replace it (while pocketing the difference). These cons eventually worked their way up the foodchain, and he was working with crooked (glass) insurance companies … the money from that went into investing into several legitimate businesses, including one where some of the partners were relatives of a major Mob figure. At one point, these partners decided they wanted Weinberg's part of the business:

“The mob plays for keeps,” Weinberg explained. “Smart con men stay on the good side of those fellas. If they want you to step away from something, you step away. Tomorrow's always another day; you keep on livin', and you can always go to them for a favor.”
The various permutations on the glass swindle eventually fell apart (although not until he'd played out a scenario with a cousin who was causing problems which involved a very large “enforcer” that Weinberg shot with blanks, got his cousin to come up with cash to pay folks to “make the body disappear”, and subsequently more money for “protection”), and he had to move into new ventures.

Weinberg always had at least one lady on the side, and in 1970 he met Diane, who was English, and had culture and taste that he found “impossible to define and imitate”, but he figured “if he couldn't be it, he'd own it” and convinced her to be his mistress. She must have liked him, as she took him back to England to meet her parents … on which trip his new career opened up. While there, he met an unnamed con man who “specialized in front-end schemes” where businesses looking for loans (but not able to get any legitimate banks to help), would find the con man, who'd offer to put through a loan application for a fee, depending on the size of the loan. This fee was supposed to cover research and reporting on the business and transfers with the banks. Weinberg ended up with a whole directory of fake banks in various locations around the world, which were usually just names and numbers – which would all go to a “bank” in some less-regulated country that wouldn't have more than a few thousand dollars of “deposits”, but would have a “Telex” (this was in a far different tech environment) and a person there to respond. The con was to stall as long as possible (a Weinberg specialty) before “the bank” responded with a letter regretfully declining the loan. There was another level of this, where the mark would be sold fake CDs, saying his company had X amount of funds on deposit with the fake bank, for a fee of 5-15% of the face value. This ended up putting the mark in the position of committing bank fraud, as he could take those CDs and use them to get local loans … in that earlier tech world, the local banks would typically just Telex the issuing “bank”, and be told that the mark, indeed, had that much on deposit there. Weinberg saw this as “a scheme of sheer beauty”, and jumped into it with enthusiasm.

So, “Swiss Bank Associates” was born, with “offices” in New York, London, and Zurich – the latter two being there not only for cachet, but that two top-tier hotels in those locations had a policy of taking messages for anybody, assuming that a guest had simply not as yet checked in. This worked like a charm, and Weinberg started clearing a quarter million a year (in 1970's dollars), after a lot of “business costs” to keep up appearances. He also didn't pay any taxes, as there wasn't any “there” there … the only physical presence was a phone line in the apartment he had set up for Diane, and he “kept all his records in his head”.

Eventually, this scam grew, and Weinberg aimed to be “the biggest”, with a permanent office, and “franchised agents” (con men in various ports of call) feeding business in. The name changed to London Investors … setting it up had cost him $70k, but he made that back in the first month. Aside from on-site staff, there were also paid-off cops working as limo drivers (to bring marks in from the airport or their NYC offices), and bugged limos and conference rooms. At this point the book runs through lots of “scenes” with fascinating looks at the array of scams he was running around the world.

One thing that seems a little odd is that, over the years, Weinberg had been acting as an occasional tip source for the FBI … which almost got him in trouble at one point … he was involved in a scam with the aging owner of a casino hotel in St. Martin, which ended up, through some convoluted turns, in Weinberg's name. A few days after the transfer, he gets a call from famed Mob figure Meyer Lansky, who informed him that he no longer owned the hotel, and he would be sending associates down to complete the deal … which involved Weinberg handing over the papers to an “obvious hoodlum”, who ripped them up and threw them on the floor. As in previous situations, Weinberg decided that living was the best option in some situations.

London Investors came to an abrupt halt in 1977 when one mark opted to be aggressive (being enraged at not getting his loan), and took the entire matter to the FBI and local prosecutors which led to Weinberg's one conviction (and a 3-year sentence). Because “Lady Diane” was a co-defendant in this, he didn't really fight the case, opting instead to get a deal where she was totally off the hook, with him pleading guilty (he insists that he could have beat the charges on his own). An interesting side-lite to this is in one of the “tapes”, which notes that he never sent stuff via the post office (using package courier services by the airlines), specifically to avoid mail-fraud charges!

The next chapter starts with profiling some of the FBI agents who were key parts of Abscam, and a case they were working on while Weinberg was in jail … they realized that the particulars of the investigation and Weinberg's skill set were a very good match, and both his previous tipsterism and his deal to save Diane appealed to the agents, so they reached out to him. Needless to say, he was very eager to help. The scam he was going to be developing in that case involved a phantom Arab, which eventually became Abdul of Weinberg's new Abdul Enterprises, and eventually the Ab in Abscam.

In March 1978, he was meeting with the FBI team, trying to come up with a theme for the sting:

… OPEC and oil still dominated the headlines and Weinberg's hint of ties with Arab investors over the past few months had brought the hustlers swarming. Weinberg suggested the idea of naming a specific Arab … he decided to use the name of the aging Arab millionaire he had befriended a year or so before … The original theme, quickly approved by {the FBI agents}, fleshed out over the following few months …
      The emphasis sometimes changed, but the basic version of the sting had Weinberg acting as the American agent of his old pal, millionaire Arab businessman Kambir Abdul Rahman … According to the scenario, Abdul, who supposedly resided in one of the Arab Emirates, when he wasn't living in Switzerland, Beirut or Cannes, was related to Arab royalty.
      Some targets of the scam were told that Abdul's money could not be loaned out at interest because of Islamic laws against usury. As a result, these marks were told, Abdul needed an unlimited supply of bogus certificates of deposit from offshore banks or forged certificates from legitimate banks. These certificates would be given by Abdul to his Moslem banks and he would then be able to withdraw cash equal to the face amount of the certificates and quickly invest the cash at interest elsewhere.
      Other targets were merely told that Abdul wanted to invest as much of his millions in the U.S. as possible because he felt it was only a matter of time before he would have to flee the wrath of his ripped-off citizenry. This version was used more often as the scam progressed and Weinberg promoted his friend Abdul to the ruling rank of Emir.
Between Weinberg and the FBI, they created a fairly air-tight background for “Abdul”, including depositing a million dollars in a Chase account, with an executive there who was privy to the scam, and would vouch for the wealth of the Arab, should targets get into deep due diligence (which many did). There were also letters from the State Department (ginned up by Weinberg – not sure if the FBI agents would have gotten involved with that) attesting to Abdul Enterprises working for the “Emir”.

One fallout from Abscam was the change in a lot of regulations for investigations of the kind … working with Weinberg was certainly a “grey area” in the law, although carefully keeping their toes on the “just legal” side of the line.

… like all great swindles, Abscam was an illusion built on careful attention to details, subtle presell and the target's own greed.
… Weinberg was widely known in the business as a crook and swindler. If he pretended to be anything else, he would raise suspicion. … He created the impression that he was hugely paid by Abdul and didn't want to do anything so outrageously crooked or disloyal that he would lose his cushy job. On the other hand, he let it be known, he was a crook at heart and wasn't averse to jacking up the price of something that he was purchasing for Abdul and splitting the difference privately either with the seller or the agent who set up the deal. The Arab, he said, would never notice an odd million here or there.
Honestly, the scam, as it grew, got too convoluted to really follow in the reading, and it's certainly not being condensed here. Suffice it to say, it went from a few specific corruption cases to a much wider net of public figures. One of these holds a fairly pivotal role, Camden, N.J. Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who became a close confidant and partner-in-crime with Weinberg … although never knowing that Weinberg was working with the FBI the whole time. Errichetti was one of those politicians who knows everyone and has his fingers into everything … in the transcription from Tape Eleven, Weinberg describes him:

He always looks relaxed, but his mind's goin' a mile a minute. He's got deals goin' all over the place and he's always lookin' for a new one.
Through him, the investigation got into the casinos, the unions, and dozens of corrupt governments all across New Jersey and surrounding areas. His contacts (and contacts of contacts) were key to getting in front of the Congressmen that ended up going to jail. As noted above, there were various twists on “the story” (they even set up another “Emir” to work a parallel and connected probe down in Florida), but the tale of Abdul wanting to come to the U.S. was central to most of the high-level work … as Weinberg and the FBI team would be presenting opportunities for personal and district gain if things were made easy for the “Emir” to get established in the U.S. As things progressed, the meetings were shifted (at the insistence of the FBI) to a townhouse in Georgetown they had set up for recording, etc. While this had a certain panache as the “Emir's” local pied-à-terre, Weinberg worried that somebody checking background might find that it had been being used by the Feds for a while in another investigation.

Anyway, lots and lots of crooked politicians, etc., took the bait, got videotaped accepting large payoffs, and ended up going to trial. Which brings us back to the start of the book. I don't even want to get into the complexities of the trials, but Weinberg's presence was a complicating element, as he was always what the defense attorneys focused on – although he took this as a personal challenge. There is also a nagging sub-theme (that never gets fully fleshed out) about the Newark FBI office which was constantly trying to sabotage the investigation – but the implication that they were affiliated with one or more of the targets (if not outright crooked on their own), is pretty clear.

As noted up top, The Sting Man initially came out way back in 1981 (and you can still get “good” used copies of that hardcover for about five and a half bucks delivered), but was re-released as a paperback in 2013 to support the movie. Oddly, this does appear to be out-of-print except for the ebook version, but you can get “like new” copies from the new/used guys for under five bucks delivered. I found this surprisingly engaging, and quite enjoyed the way the book was broken up with the assorted elements noted above. If you have an interest in crime, corruption, and the dank inner workings of a professional con, you should consider checking this out!


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Books!

Everybody's looking for something ...

Sometime I think my epitaph might end up being “they were all odd books”, as often as I start off noting that the title being reviewed “was an odd one”, but this is certainly well among the ranks of the odd books. I picked up Andrew Burstein's Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud at the dollar store, which could be considered the natural habitat of “odd” books, ones that didn't manage to get traction via the retail channels. Frankly, from the title, I'd expected this to be more woo-woo than it ended up being. I suppose that, had I checked out the author's bio before getting into it, I would have been less off-base, as he's a history professor with a dozen books out (primarily about Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary-era figures), as well as presence in various media. Interestingly, this book had been offered in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program back when it was coming out in May 2013, and for some reason I'd not requested it then.

In contrast to one of my on-going gripes, the subtitle here is closer to what the book is about than what the title might imply. This could be due to the author's son coming up with the title (and most of the chapter titles), as a more descriptive title would have been “Dreams In Early America”. Burstein does go into a bit of a defining in the Preface:

      Let me underscore that this book, while an emotional history, is not an “interpretation of dreams” sort of book. Dream-interpretation guides have been disseminated across centuries and across cultures. Their chief value is as cultural artifacts. Modern neuroscience has determined that the symbolic character of dreaming, so central to past analysis, has been overdrawn. This includes the work of Freud, whose sexualization of dream symbols is now widely discredited. Yet dream researchers around the world are asking more questions than ever before about the meaning of our dreams. Influenced by their writings, I engage repeatedly with imagery, labyrinthian stagecraft, and identifiable feelings exposed in dreams. We may not understand them fully, but to any historian, impulses matter.

      This book is about Americans who lived from the late colonial era to the opening of the twentieth century. Its cutoff date is the arrival of modern psychoanalysis with the publication of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. I say with confidence that you cannot understand the twentieth century's fascination with psychology unless you first understand prior generations and their fascination with dreams. We know how our American ancestors communicated across distance. We have a pretty good sense of how the modern world became modern. We tend to be less sensitive to the subtler changes taking place across time and space in the moral imagination and in face-to-face communication. As a product of culture, dreams offer new clues to the boundaries within which emotions were allowed to be revealed and recorded.
The book's eight chapters (plus Epilogue) are set out across three Parts, which are chronological divisions, “To 1800”, “1801 – 1860”, and “1861 – 1900”. The chapters themselves have titles like “From a Lofty Scaffold, John Adams Spies an Elephant”, which don't represent themes, but pull particular images from a random story in each chapter (they don't even seem to be targeting famous names, as three of the eight didn't ring a bell for me). The book pretty much starts out with Revolutionary figure Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, despite being a scientist, wrote down many of his dreams. Indeed, it appears that writing to one's friends and relatives notes that included the content of one's dreams seemed to be a fairly common thing at the time. Unfortunately, I only have a handful of my little bookmarks in here, which means that few among the multitude of stories particularly stood out. Certainly, it's interesting in the opening chapters to read about dreams (an personal situations they revealed) of notables such as John Adams, but few of these appeared essential towards understanding the book as a whole.

The subject of dreams appears to have been widely integrated across colonial society. Not only did Dr. Rush lecture on the subject, and dreams were topics of letters, but they also appeared in popular booklets and even newspapers, where readers would send in reports of their dreams (and get them published). Burstein further notes that the Philadelphia Magazine (edited in 1775-6 by the great Thomas Paine) included articles which “addressed the dream state”. There were additionally those who were attempting to create a national mythos via “epic poetry”, which often used dreams as set-ups for the “visionary strains” of “an empire of imagination”. A popular genre in the late 1700's was the “dream book”, in which angel dreams were a frequent theme.

Why did so many early Americans dream of guiding angels and dead relatives, receiving glimpses of heaven from their keen, all-knowing nocturnal visitors? Think of the regular church-bell ringing as funerals took place in every community. This was their world: burying children, burying neighbors.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of the Revolution didn't do anything to lessen the frequency of funerary activity. The author goes into the various permutations of these books, and has the following (where I did have a bookmark) which I thought was very interesting in terms of putting this all in classical context:

      Nary a one of the dream guides of this era failed to highlight Artemidorus, the Roman dream master from the second century A.D., who lived in what is today western Turkey. The greatest of ancient interpreters to have had his teachings preserved, Artemidorus saw nocturnal vision as lighting the way to the future. Greek temples as early as the seventh century B.C. show dream therapy being practiced, and Artemidorus famously placed all dreams into one of two categories, as either oneroi, the future-directed, or enhypnia, the mundane and meaningless. Consistent with the eighteenth-century medicalized association of anxiety dreams with obvious biological processes, he dismissed dreams that taught nothing or simply went over the day's events – dreams that did not predict – as deriving “from an irrational desire and extraordinary fear, or from a surfeit or lack of food.” And he added “People who live an upright, moral life do not have enhypnia or any other irrational fantasies …, for their minds are not muddled by fears or expectations.” Instead of wasting their time on bad dreams, they allow their souls to wander into the place of oracles.
As well as dipping back into the Greco-Roman world, there are some digressions here into Native American use of dreams, both as direct reports, and the records of missionaries. This then leads at a look at some Afro-Carribean dream work, which leads back to Dr. Rush, who was “an early and vehement opponent of slavery” and “used the dream formula in putting forward his view in opposition” to it.

Again, the bulk of the book is what Burstein dug up in his research, organized in a general chronological flow, yet grouped together to illustrate certain themes. Unfortunately, it's beyond what I'm able to bring to this page to create a sensible set of highlights (such as long-time president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, “kept a diary in which he occasionally noted the dreams others told to him that he found especially curious” – with numerous examples). He gets into some of the developing religious groups such as the Shakers and the Quakers, and how dreams manifested in those and numerous other organizations of enthusiasts of “the all-important subject of vital religion”. This then sort of morphs into a look at the Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, etc.), who were widely read in America (Byron appears to have been a favorite of Abraham Lincoln). Playing off of this, at one point the author notes:

Citizens in the early years of the republic, rather than stigmatize themselves, limited themselves to acceptable scenarios in dreams that they narrated. They wrote down dreams that they could nearly understand. As the nineteenth century proceeded, the necessity of doing that diminished. Workaday people marveled as the poets captured the wild beauty of dreams and artfully imagined the outer limits of what a dream can say.
The book moves on to some American authors, such as Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (oddly) tales of several mid-level political figures whose dreams managed to survive in a form that Burstein could discover a century or more later. There are a number of rambling looks at people who were “noted dreamers” (as I suppose one would put it), and how dreams wove through their experiences … some of which are presented as pages of excerpts from diary entries. The second part of the book ends with a brief name-check of Walt Whitman, who “assimilated the song of nation into the song of self”, standing in for the general “nostalgic or utopian visions” of the mid 1800s.

The last section deals with dreams of the latter half of the 1800s, which means, of course, the Civil War. The topic of dreams seems to have been all over the board, from dreams pressing the stances of both sides of the abolitionist cause, then the war, to dreams involving Lincoln, among many other political and military figures. Needless to say, a large percentage of these were “invented dreams” put out for their propaganda value. Still,

In their letters and diaries, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts, families caught between the warring sides, and hapless prisoners enduring miserable conditions all contributed errant dreams to the emotion-packed literature of the day.
This listing of voices pretty much defines what's in a good deal of the last Part of the book. In between narratives of forlorn dreamers, there's a couple of digressions into thing such as music in dreams. The Civil War material leads up, as one might expect, to the dreaming of the title character, with a good amount about what Lincoln thought about dreams, and a few of his own (including the prophetic one). The post-war period again returns to authors (who, I'd guess, make for good source material, being in the habit of writing things down), with Louisa May Alcott (and her hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was still keeping “a reliable journal in the postbellum years”), and Mark Twain – who is the subject of a chapter's title. Twain's well-documented career gets several pages, before serving as a pivot point to William James and the Society for Psychical Research, for which dreams were just one of a number of ways of reaching other realities. The author notes:

More or less from the day the Civil War ended, both published and unpublished dream reports took on an increasingly sensational character. It was not by chance: they were meant to be deliberately shocking.
Much of what follows this revelation sound quite like what one might find blaring from the covers of check-out line racks at the grocery store. Needless to say, the newspapers of the day used these sorts of dream reports as ways to build circulation, involving contests to find a “Champion Dreamer”, etc., … “Dreams made good copy.” However:

The final two decades of the nineteenth century have been dubbed the “golden age” of memory studies, when the fast-developing discipline of pschology turned to the nature of memory and related pathologies. … Thus, a movement was under way in the study of the human will and the nature of introspection, even before Freud and his younger associate Carl Jung burst onto the scene.
In the Epilogue (titled “Were They Like Us?”) Burstein attempts to pull together many of the threads and metadata run through the rest of the book. Frankly, I think I'd recommend folks to read this first, as it puts a context around everything else that goes before, and it would make quite an interesting free-standing essay. Although I have half of my little bookmarks in this section, none of them point to “pithy” quotes to drop in here, just places where the author's arguments appear to be particularly solid, given the preceding material.

Lincoln Dreamt He Died appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I have, but seems to be available as either a paperback or an e-book. The new/used guys have the hardcover for a few bucks (new), which, with shipping, is still less than what the paperback is going for. While I rather liked the over-all thrust of this book (and the Epilogue), I must admit that reading lots and lots and lots of ordinary people's dreams got to be a bit of a drag. However, I'm a cranky cynic, and if you're more open to that sort of thing, you probably would find this a perfectly engaging read.


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Books!

On such a timeless flight …

In internet security, there's a form of hacking called a “brute force attack”, where vast numbers of permutations of characters are thrown at a log-in, assuming that sooner or later the password will be entered. The number one take-away I had from this book reminds me of that. The author dedicates this to the “400,000 men and women” who made the Apollo program happen. That's one heck of a lot of people working towards one goal.

I found Craig Nelson's Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon up at the dollar store, and as it was a nice hardcover on a subject that I was generally interested in (tech/space), it ended up in my cart … and in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. While I do have an interest in the space program (what kid who grew up in the 60's doesn't?), it's not exactly one of my passions, and, to be honest, this is really more than I needed to know about the Apollo program. When I got around to doing this review, I had sort of anticipated having a bunch of my little bookmarks in it to point me to what I thought were specifically notable passages … unfortunately, I seem to only have dropped in four, and all of those in one section … so, I'll be doing some “tap dancing” here to pull out enough to give you at least a broad-stroke look at the book.

While Nelson dedicates the book to those involved in the whole endeavor, the book's core is the story of Apollo 11, the mission that brought the first human beings to the Moon (and safely back to Earth – something that was not necessarily a given). Structured in three parts (which are not specifically defined), the narrative is a bit meandering … while it gets where it needs to go (the Moon, eh?), it doesn't exactly take an overly linear path to get there. It starts with the Saturn V launch vehicle being moved out of the over-50-stories-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, and towards the launch pad. Needless to say, the book would be briefer than its 400 pages if the story started there and just progressed through the mission.

One gets the sense of how much research went into this in the sheer mass of detail involved in descriptions of everything – and how many hours of interviews (both archival from NASA and other sources, as well as ones done specifically for this project) provided the constant flow of insights about who was doing what, thinking what, saying what, etc. While these elements make the book a rich and vivid read, they also make it a bit hard to encapsulate here. At some points one gets the sense that all four hundred thousand people involved are going to get name-checked, and so it's also a bit challenging to sort through the key personnel. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there may be quotes from three different figures in a single paragraph, meaning that a particularly notable turn of phrase encountered in the reading might actually be the reminiscences of multiple voices (such as in the descriptions of the sound of the ready-for-launch rocket).

Here, however, is one bit that directly addresses the complexity of the hardware, and how risky the entire venture was:

The missile had six million parts, which meant that, under NASA's rigorous target of 99.9 percent reliability, six thousand of its elements statistically might fail.
At one point “something was leaking, somewhere” in the week before the launch, and they had to figure out what, where (once located – the sub-system would have taken the better part of a week to swap out), and how it could be fixed … Nelson reports that “one tech very carefully tightened a nut to see if that would fix the problem … and it did”, enabling the pad crew to resume their 1,700-page launch control plan! There are also a large number of surprising details, such as that the early programs' capsules were capable of doing landings on land as well in the water, but they were designed for emergency escape from the Florida launch pads, and were iffy on their targeting (and NASA didn't want to be planning a landing in “White Sands and ending up in Albuquerque”).

From here the book takes a look at the predecessor programs, both of the Air Force (before NASA, an civilian agency, was formed), NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs, and von Braun's German work. There are some stories of both how the Nazi scientists got over to the American lines at the end of WW2, and how some of them were quite the characters (and several being not as politically “reformed” as NASA's public relations would have people believe at the time). Speaking of the P.R., the book notes that the very most hated activity for the Apollo 11 astronauts, Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, were not hours spent in assorted simulators, but the press conferences that they were required to participate in. Nelson says that the agency, while nominally “transparent”, had a significant anti-press bias (despite having inked an exclusive deal with Life magazine) – but for a generally unsuspected reality: “other reasons for institutional secrecy were NASA's fears of revealing to Congress and taxpayers just how risky its missions actually were”. Some transcripts of these media events are included, and the divergence from what the press was looking for (“how do you feel about X?”) and how these engineers and test pilots responded (Armstrong answered a question about what he'd take with him if he could take anything, and he responded “more fuel”) is telling.

Again, there's massive amounts of detail here, and a flow that swerves between looking at the technology, its place in historical development, the astronauts themselves, both those on the Apollo 11 mission and those around them, over-views of their backgrounds and family lives, and a certain look at the culture of the less-than-swinging 60's. Some politics drifts through, as the project to reach the Moon was put forth by Kennedy, shepherded through by Johnson, and came to pass under Nixon.

There also are lots of fascinating data bits, which are sort of hard to extract from context here, from the number of hours of training the various astronauts spent in readying for the flight, how those broke down between simulators and other “experiential” locations (various points in the southwest to experience working in craters, etc.), and the like. An interesting digression is into the history of simulators, which date back to the very infancy of flight, in 1910, with the first “VR” version coming in 1929 when the Link Piano and Organ Company adapted organ bellows to work as the pneumatics for simulating pitch, roll, and yaw. The same company designed the first trainer for Project Mercury.

One quote (and there are chunks of this which are reports from a half a dozen key non-astronaut figures in a row) describes the astronauts as being “over-trained”, and it goes into a good bit on how the stress played out on them and their families … this is a sample:

In time, Armstrong's, Aldrin's, and Collins' training grew unbearable. Aldrin got so overworked that, while commuting one day in a T-38 jet, he had to double-check the compass to remember whether he was on his way to Florida or Houston.
Of course, it didn't help that most people involved didn't really expect the mission to outright succeed … there were so many essential points in the process where things could go very badly wrong (as had been the history of our unmanned Moon probes previously), that there were contingencies for aborting all along the way, and, for the worse case scenario, writer William Safire famously had developed a speech for Nixon to give in the event that the astronauts were lost.

To give an example of how the telling gets convoluted, early on in the book Nelson starts plugging in mission times, with “T minus 5.25 hours” appearing with nearly 300 pages yet to go. This time stamp is from their wake-up call on the day of the launch, but the narrative goes into a listing of many of the items that were going out with them, some jokes the astronauts made about thing things they could have done (sprinkling gold dust on some of the rocks – ensuring that they'd be back to the Moon sooner than later), and then going off into a description of the intricacies of their spacesuits, and how they differed from previous versions. This then leads to the process of getting them into the capsule and ready for launch. The remainder of Part I walks the reader through the rest of the countdown and to the actual launch.

Part II is fascinating, and worth picking up Rocket Men on its own … I'm pretty sure that it's not the first time that the material's been covered, but I think it's the first time I've seen it. This set of chapters largely looks at the cold war context of the space race, and has details on how von Braun rose through the Nazi hierarchy to get to head their rocket program, how his team mainly got to the American lines at the end of the war, and how they got settled in various small towns in the U.S., which became primary hubs for NASA's development programs. What is amazing here is all the info on the Russian space program, how they picked up the remaining rocket scientists from Germany, and had them working with the existing designers in the U.S.S.R., the arc of the Soviet space program (and political issues – one of the main excuses given for the construction of the Berlin Wall was to stem the tide of high-value individuals fleeing to the west), and how many disasters and near-disasters they had (but never admitted to until after Soviet Union collapsed). One chapter is a walk-through from the launch of Mercury-Redstone 2 (with a chimpanzee, “Ham”, on January 31, 1961), on to Yuri Gagarin's successful manned flight a couple of months later, to Kennedy's somewhat panicked response, and buying into a “Manhattan Project” style program to catch up and go beyond the Russian's achievements (which was quoted as having only a 50/50 chance of success), with the disastrous Bay of Pigs as a background, a whole lot about U.S. politics around “selling” the space program including the actions of JFK, LBJ, and RFK, among many others in the Congress.

Run the clock forward to 1962, and the Cuban missile crisis, which led eventually more communications between the Kennedy administration and members of Khrushchev's hierarchy, which eventually resulted in Kennedy's address to the United Nations on September 20, 1963, in which he proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both bringing their expertise to the project. This was rejected by the House of Representative three weeks later (despite a note here of Khrushchev's son saying that his father had been open to the deal). Two months after the speech, Kennedy was dead, and Johnson (who was very involved in the space program, due to the main HQ for it all being in Texas) in control. Jim Webb, the head of NASA, along with Johnson, used Kennedy's death to enshrine the space race in popular culture (by October 1964, 77 percent of voters were in favor of the massive project), and to leverage congressional support. Also in October 1964, the Soviet Central Committee removed Khrushchev from power, altering the entire international dynamic of the previous few years.

The last chapter in this part starts out with the Apollo 1 accident (on February 21, 1967, a fire erupted in the cabin during a test, killing all three astronauts), and the renewal of the chase between the two superpowers, with each moving ahead and then falling behind (a similar disaster happened in the Russian program four months later, when Soyuz 1 failed and crashed to Earth from orbit). It's noted that “NASA history would now be divided into two distinct periods: Before and After the Fire.”, as it “led to an across-the-board overhaul of NASA and its subcontractors”. This was, evidently, needed, as it's detailed how neither North American (the Command Module), nor Grumman (the Lunar Module) were making trouble-free deliveries. Still, NASA went ahead with the Apollo 8 mission (which was the first manned orbit of the Moon, although the Soviet Zond 5 had orbited the Moon with “a collection of bacteria, seeds, plants, flies, worms, and turtles” – all of which were incinerated when the capsule reach 23,432° F when returning to Earth), which appears to have succeeded more on luck than anything else. Oh, there are also some “special” descriptions of what vomiting in a space capsule is like, as well as the scatalogical inefficiencies of some of the other systems on board, plus how the famed “blue marble” shot almost didn't get taken.

The last part of the book starts off with time stamp “GET 00:01:00” (and I can't figure out what “GET” means, and I spent a chunk of time Googling it, but it's evidently after launch, as “T” is before launch), and walks through most of the mission, interspersed with background info and assorted digressions (such as the 20-point checklist for the procedure to urinate – which, if you're interested, gets dumped “overboard”, creating a unique type of “space junk” out there). The details of how the astronauts worked in the capsule are quite engaging. This is the section where I had my little bookmarks, but most of them seem to be pointing to “factoids” such as the fuel mix needed to fire the engines in space (where, in the absence of oxygen, they'd have to self-ignite), or that the computers (each module had a “17.5-pound Raytheon” computer) on board had a whopping (not) memory of 36K each (roughly a million times less than a low-end desktop PC at this writing). Another thing that gets tossed out there (when backgrounding stuff about the Moon) is:

Though a quarter of Earth's diameter and an eightieth of its mass, the Moon is so large – of 150 moons in the solar system, ours is the largest in relation to its host – that many believe it should be properly considered a planet, and that together we form a double-planet system.
Another thing that “I did not know” is that there was a procedure failure when moving into the Lunar Module, and instead of going to a vacuum in the connecting tunnel, there was still air in there, and when the modules separated, that “puff of air” contributed to navigation errors that led to the Moon landing being five miles off target (and having some tense time looking for a flat place to set down – they landed with less than 30 seconds left before Houston would have instituted an abort).

So, at GET 102:45:58, Neil Armstrong radios “The Eagle has landed.”, and the rest is history. Well, not for the book, of course … there's a look at what's happening back on Earth, both at NASA and with the astronauts' families, plus, of course, a detailed review of what it was like for the first two men to walk on the Moon to get through their mission. An interesting detail is: “Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the cabin door after exiting Eagle, since the designers had neglected including a handle on the outside.” … oops! Because of the first Moon walk being televised, there were something like six hundred million (with some estimates running up to a billion) people around the globe (something that figured into a particularly excellent Doctor Who episode) watching it live.

There were a number of risky actions still to come, a successful launch of the cabin portion of the Lunar Module (which was “considered the most perilous moment of their voyage”), a successful docking with the Command Module (involving some fancy flying by Michael Collins), a successful “Trans Earth Injection” (where the computer fires the engines at the right time and right angle to get the Command Module back to Earth, rather than randomly out into space), and successfully doing a re-entry that would let them splash down in the general area of where the Navy was waiting for them.

The final chapters of the book address the changes that the Apollo 11 mission made in science, the view of space exploration, and even international politics (and how, in the disappointing American decision to not expand exploratory missions in favor of the Earth-orbit shuttle program, other nations such as China and India have moved forward with their own projects).

Rocket Men is a lot to take in, and I've sort of skimmed the surface here, focusing on the stuff that mainly interested me (hey, it's my review), and skipping over the rest (political, social, family, etc.). It is an amazing book for the level of detail brought to the reader, and I highly recommend it to anybody with any interest in the space program, the cold war, (recent) American history, or related topics (I've enjoyed some of Nelson's previous books, so it's an easy thumbs-up).

There appears to have been a newer version than this 2009 hardcover released, but both of the hardcovers seem to be out of print, with just a paperback edition (plus e-books, etc.) currently out there … however the new/used guys on the online big boys' sites have copies of this hardcover that will only set you back five or six bucks … and I encourage you to check it out!


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