Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Caine Mutiny

By Herman Wouk

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for 1951.

This story centers on young Willie Keith who enlists in the Navy because he doesn't want to end up in the Army. Willie is a dilettante. A smart, well-educated man from a background of wealth and privilege, Willie prefers to spend his time playing piano in seedy New York night clubs than hold down a real job. But with the war, Willie has to face the facts that he could be drafted and end up in the Army. To escape that fate, he joins the Navy. His first assignment is at headquarters on Hawaii, a cushy, easy job that enables Willie to take up, once again, playing piano and amusing the local admiral. But then the fun ends and Willie is assigned to a minesweeper, an old World War I battleship called the Caine.
The Caine is pretty much a rust bucket and on its last legs but the Navy still has some use for the old battleship. Whether it is hauling targets for practice shots, providing escort service, moving troops around, or minesweeping, the old ship has a vital role to play in the war. Willie is not to happy with his new assignment and he especially doesn't approve of the ship's captain whom he regards as lax and sloppy and on whom he blames the dilapidated condition of the vessel and the ragtag appearance of the crew.
So when the captain is assigned to a new post, Willie is pleased to see the new captain, Queeg, believes in running a tight ship. But as time passes and the new captain seems less than competent, some of the crew begin to believe their captain is not playing with a full deck.
I am not a fan of war stories but this is not really a war story. It is more a study of bad leader and the effect of his poor decisions upon the people who depended on his leadership. It is kind of a long story, but very readable. An interesting side note to the story is the on again, off again romance between Willie and a young night club singer from the wrong side of the tracks (as Willie's mom sees it).

This is another time and another place and people then were perhaps not as aware of mental illness as most people are today. They were too quick to label Queeg as mentally ill when he was probably just stupid, cowardly, nitpicking and rigid. Even at the point where the mutiny occurred, Queeg was not raving or irrational. At most, one could say he was petrified with fear as the ship faced raging seas during a typhoon. I guess the worse one could say about Queeg was that he was incompetent and one wonders how such a poor seaman rose to the position of captain.
This is an interesting and engaging story and a fascinating picture of life on a Navy ship and is well worth reading.

Review from Kirkus Reviews:

Monday, August 06, 2007

Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy

By Shlomo Ben-Ami

This is a look at the history of the Arab Israeli conflict starting with the early days before the Zionists had managed to make a state of Israel. Right from the start both sides refused to consider their opponents views as valid. To the Arabs, the Israelis are Zionist, western crusaders and invaders who have taken over what is rightfully Arab territory. To the Israelis the Arabs are backward, religious fanatics who refuse to accept the reality of the state of Israel.
The state of Israel was founded by the United Nations in 1947. The Israelis immediately found themselves under seige by their Arab neighbors who had voted against the formation of Israel and who refused to accept the presence of the Jews on Arab land, i.e., Palestine. The Israelis held on to the land and even expanded the borders beyond that stated for them in 1947. Then in the Six Day War in 1967, they acquired even more territory, including the jewel in their crown, Jerusalem.
What do the Israelis want? They want security. They want to survive. And they want the holy places that are mentioned in their holy writings. They especially want Jerusalem. What do the Arabs and Palestinians want? Well, what they really want is for the Jews to get out of the Middle East and go back where they came from. But Israel is staying put. So, what do the Arabs want if they can't get rid of Israel? They want a state for the Palestinians, a place where they can live in safety and security on their traditional homelands. They also want the right to bring back the Palestinian refuges who fled during the wars, about 5,000,000 people. And they want Jerusalem.
Back in 2000, President Clinton and his team put together the best compromise that was workable for both sides. Israel was willing to accept the terms, even to sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians and accepting Palestinian statehood. But Arafat could not accept them. He knew if he went back to his people and told them they would have to share Jerusalem, that Israel would not go back to the 1947 borders and that the refugees would not have the right to return that his ass would be grass and that civil war would be likely between the more moderate & practical Palestinians and the Islamics like Hamas and Jihad. Since then, Israel has built themselves a safety barrier to try to stop the Palestinian terrorist attacks. The Palestinians are in a state of chaos as Hamas and Fatah wrangle over who is going to lead their people. And it is still a huge mess. But as Ben-Ami points out, if responsible and brave leaders would be willing to sit down and work out a compromise, then there is still hope.
Ben-Ami takes a close look at the process of trying to bring about peace between Israel, its neighbors and the Palestinians. He shows where leadership failed on both sides, not only because of mistakes and miscalculations, but also because the respective populations of both sides would not accept the compromises required for peace.
In the last chapter of the book, Ben-Ami reccommends that an international effort must be made and a protectorate set up in the Palestinian territory that will give them the peace, security and stability that is so desperately needed in the Middle East.

Review by Ian Black from The Guardian:

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Awakening Land

By Conrad Richter

The Awakening Land is the name given to a trilogy of novels written by Richter, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. The Town won the Pulitzer Prize for 1951.
The novels follow Sayward Luckett and her family as settlers in the then wilderness of the Ohio valley, an area of deep, immense forest. In the first novel, The Trees, the Lucketts build themselves a cabin in a forest so dense and tall that the forest floor rarely gets any direct sunlight. They survive mainly on the game that abounds in the area. The forest is filled with giant trees, trees that have never been logged or known the effects of forest fires. These huge trees become the enemy of the people trying to settle there, trying to clear them away to make room for fields and pastures.
Worth, the patriarch of the family, isn't really a farmer. He's a hunter, a woodsman and loves to be out on the prowl, exploring new territory. After his wife dies and after his young daughter Sulie is lost forever in the forest, he becomes tired of the responsibility of taking care of his children and he just walks off into the forest, leaving his kids to be raised by his daughter, Sayward.
She does the best she can, but her brothers and sisters often don't acknowledge her authority and the family suffers for it. Her brother Wyitt follows in his father's footsteps into the wilderness. Her sister Genny marries a lowlife and her other sister Achsa runs off with him.
Through it all, Sayward stays strong. She hopes for the best for her siblings but accepts the fact that they have to live their own lives and make their own mistakes.
In The Fields, Sayward is married and has a family of her own. She and her husband, Portius Wheeler, live in the Luckett family's original cabin. With their own two hands, they cut the big trees and cleared fields to grow crops and raise livestock. Portius is an educated man and a lawyer and their children are taught to read and write. However, most of the money earned is produced through Sayward's farm and from her land. Life is still very hard and requires massive amounts of sheer labor just to survive.
The last book, The Town switches focus from Sayward to her youngest child, an ailing boy named Chancey. A town has grown up on Sayward's land and as the largest landowner in the area, Sayward has become wealthy. Portius even insisted on building them a large, new house although Sayward wanted to stay in the little Luckett cabin that she had lived in for so many years.
Chancey suffered from a rheumatic fever as a tot and had a weak heart as a result. In their fear for his health, his parents restricted his activity severely and he spent most of his days just quietly sitting and dreaming. When a doctor recommends to Sayward that Chancey start to take some exercise, Chancey finds his quiet world turned upside down, much to his displeasure. He has become so accustomed to think of himself as an invalid that his mother's insistence that he get off his stool convinces him that she doesn't care about him. He decides that Sayward and Portius are not his real parents and he invents a long lost family for himself, a family who will love and pamper and cater to him.

These three books are a wonderful look back at an era that is hard to envision now. What suffering they endured and what back-breaking labor! These books are almost as good as a trip back in time. They really immerse the reader in the culture and life of the people of that time and place and their language where cougars are called "painters" and wolves are "night dogs." It is hard, though, to read of the destruction of that grand old forest that used to cover so much of the eastern United States and of the destruction of the wildlife that dwelt in those shaded, ferny depths.
When I first started to read The Trees I immediately recognized the name Sayward Luckett. I remembered her from the miniseries starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Sayward and Hal Holbrook as Portius which aired in 1978. It must have made quite an impression on me that I could still remember the name and I can picture Elizabeth's face even now. I remember at the end of the show, when Sayward was an old woman, the people going and getting little trees from the forest to plant in their town at Sayward's instigation. For by then she had stopped hating the trees and had begun to appreciate how much trees add to the landscape. Ain't it the truth, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Dead Beat

By Marilyn Johnson

An interesting look at the obituary, written by a fan of the art of writing obituaries.
Who hasn't read an obituary? Reading the lives of strangers in an idle moment, or reading about a headline maker who has recently died? Or reading the obituary of someone you knew and loved. It's something virtually everyone has or will do at sometime or another. Apparently it is something that a lot of people like to do regularly. They are connoisseurs of the obits. They even have their own newsgroup: alt.obituaries.
Marilyn Johnson is one such connoisseur. She has not only written many obituaries, but she makes a point of searching out and reading the fascinating and striking little histories of those passing out of time and into eternity. She loves obituaries and this book displays her love of this special and unsung form of reporting. Well worth reading even if you aren't one who is normally given to perusing the obit page.

Review by Simon Garfield from The Guardian:

The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club

By Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro is a humor columnist from the Phoenix, Arizona area. I was not familiar with her work till I read this book. She writes a pretty funny story if you don't mind that most of her humor is based on her escapades while being three sheets to the wind.
As I was reading these stories, I couldn't help but think that Laurie Notaro is either an alcoholic or well on her way to being one. The things she writes about were very similar to what I had read in the writings of admitted alcoholic, Augusten Burroughs. The difference is that Burroughs became aware that alcohol was ruining his life, while Notaro still seems to believe that alcohol is just a good way to have fun.
This attitude bothered me. I hope that she has matured since then and now realizes that alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation and that getting drunk off your ass is never a good idea. Not even when you are young and foolish.
The "idiot girls" mentioned in the title are only dealt with very briefly, the stories mostly center on the author herself.

If you enjoy stories about stupid young women getting even more stupid abusing liquor, then you'll probably like this book. As for me, I just hope that Laurie Notaro is now clean and sober. Living life as a drunk is no life at all.

Review from Publishers Weekly: