Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Book Review: HILLBILLY ELEGY by J. D. Vance (Non-fiction 2016)

“A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

J. D. Vance's book tells two simultaneous stories. One is the migration of working whites from the factories and mines of the “Rust Belt” – roughly the Appalachian mountain region – to the cities and villages of the Ohio River valley, seeking jobs. The other is about his family, trying to survive with little education but with a system of honor stretching back to the feuds of the Kentucky Hatfield and McCoy clans.
His grandfather at age 17 married his grandma, age 13, in Jackson, Kentucky in 1947. Low pay in the coal mines was the only option around Jackson, so Papaw and Mamaw joined the post-war flow of people out of Appalachia to Ohio. They settled in Middleton, where Armco Corporation was recruiting workers for its steel mills. J.D.'s Uncle Jimmy was born there, and ten years later, after eight miscarriages, Mamaw gave birth to J.D.'s mother Bev in 1961, and his aunt Lori in 1962. Just three kids. But the grandparents' marriage grew more and more violent, despite their being financially better off than those who stayed in Kentucky.
Perhaps it was Papaw's heavy drinking, perhaps Mamaw's gradual withdrawal from the world around her. Perhaps it was a “code of the hills,” with sincere love for their own children and grandchildren, but their insistence that no one outside the family must ever know about the violence within it. The grandparents wanted their children to have better education and a better future, but misread the effect that their own violent fighting caused. Yet J.D. sees his Mamaw and Papaw as the greatest people he knew in his youth. Neither had ever set foot in high school, yet Papaw would explain multiplication and division; Mamaw would see that J.D. got a library card and books to read. Both encouraged him daily.
His Mom was the smartest person he knew, salutatorian in her high school class, yet she had a growing drug habit, and many marriages. Her temper could rise from zero to murderous in a heartbeat that often made J.D. and his sister Lindsay take shelter with their grandparents. It reached a point where Mamaw told J.D. he could stay at her house whenever he chose to, and if his Mom ever had a problem with that, Mom could talk to the barrel of Mamaw's gun, “This was hillbilly justice, and it didn't fail me,” writes J.D.
He had done poorly in grade school, living with his mother, her fights and her parade of father-figure husbands, but living with grandparents during high school, his grades came up. He had time to look around him and see how others worked. On a summer job packing flooring tiles for shipment, the boss also hired another young man whose wife was expecting her first baby. The boss also gave her a job in the office. J. D. noticed the man rarely came to work on time, and took frequent toilet breaks lasting half an hour or more. His wife hardly ever came to work three days in a row. The man soon got fired, and blamed the boss, not himself – “How could he take a job away from a man whose wife was pregnant!” But J.D. knew his grandparents always expected him to do work, not just talk about it.
Not all the white working class struggles . . . My grandparents were self-reliant, hard working. My mother was another type: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful. I always straddled the two worlds, but there was always a safe place and a loving embrace if ever I needed it. Our neighbors' kids couldn't say the same.
He wanted to be the first in his family to go to college, but he couldn't afford tuition costs for even Ohio State U. Instead, he joined the Marines and found he still had a lot of growing up to do. He came out of the next four years fit and forty-five pounds lighter, a self-confident adult after deployment in Iraq and nine months as a media relations officer in a large Marine base on the east coast. J.D. entered Ohio State University in 2007, went on to study law at Yale, and met and married the woman of his dreams.
Some might accuse this reviewer of spoiling the story by telling the ending. But the point of this book is not what happened, but how and why it happened, and why it is still among the top ten best sellers on the New York Times non-fiction list, a year after being published. While so many low-income earners in USA remain chronically struggling and dis-enchanted, what choices did J.D. make differently?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book review: IT'S ME, HANNAH

Book review: IT'S ME, HANNAH by Carleen Bunde ( fiction, 2017)

A Novel About Growing Up

Hannah is an eight-year-old girl as the story opens with the sudden death of her mother in a gruesome auto accident in the town of Munich, North Dakota. Her only nearby relatives are her father, Johan, who is a Swedish immigrant farmer, and her maternal grandma, Lieula. But Munich is a small town, where most people know each other, and Hannah has many friends, especially Annabelle Murger, her same age; their mothers were best friends.
This is a well-written series of fast-forwards of Hanna's life, mostly her teen-age years. She and her father are both devastated by her mother's death, but Johan takes charge of his home, his farm, and his daughter's needs. She gets into many adolescent scrapes, tries to hide them, but ultimately can depend on both her father and her grandma for emotional support and help. She does her part well in the farm chores along with her father, and in her studies in the little one-room school; she even copes with a mentally disturbed school teacher whom the school board finally dismisses. She becomes an able cattle herder with the help of her horse Sally, and her dog Maggie.
Puberty and high school in town, both beginning in the same year, are difficult times, shared with her friend Annabelle. Hanna and an older boy are attracted to each other, causing arguments with her father. She gets a part-time job as a car-hop at Nick's Drive-In and loves it, gets along well with the other workers. Gets in trouble driving Papa's pickup without his knowledge, and gets stuck in a ditch in the middle of the night.
She is stressed out when her Papa, after several years as a widower, starts dating Lucy Swan, a newcomer to town. Some weeks later, after work, he tells Hanna, “ Get in the car and go pick up your grandma, I have something to say to you both.” When they return, Papa's best friend, Jacob, is sitting with him at the kitchen table.
Grandma arrives, worried about what trouble her son-in-law may be in. Says, “Johan, do you want us to sit in the parlor?”
No, Lieula, vat I got to say, I can say right here in the kitchen.” He took his pipe out of his mouth, leaned back in his chair . . . “Now jou know as vell as I do dat I've been courtin' Lucy Swan for some time. She's a mighty fine voman.”
He turned to me. “Hannah Marie, you're almost grown-up now.”
I nodded.
All of a sudden, I'm grown-up?
Vell, folks, vat I've got to tell you is: Lucy and I are getting married.”
The news almost took my breath away.
I can't imagine Papa married to anyone but Mama, and I really can't imagine Papa and Lucy kissing or anything like that.
Papa, did you say that you and Lucy are getting married?”
I've asked her and she said yes.”
Grandma's mouth dropped open and her face went white. “Well, I never.”
Jacob scratched his head hard and fast. “The hell you say, Yohan.”
In a faint voice, Grandma uttered, “What's this world coming to? She's half your age. Johan, you could be her father.”
Age is yust a number.”
Don't you care what people will say?”
Papa rubbed his chin and looked over his bifocals at Grandma. “Jah, I care, but I care more about Lucy. I yust told you, I'm marrying her and dat's dat.”
Jacob slapped the table with his big hand. “Goot for you, Yohan.”
Grandma pushed back her chair, stood up and strode right out the door.
Come on, Hannah,” she wailed.
In a hurry to leave the table, I nearly turned over my chair. Papa heaved himself from his seat and walked with me to the back door with his arm across my shoulders.

This story is easy reading (although an author's written version of a foreign language dialect can be a stumbling block for the reader.) It will be of interest to those parents and teen-agers hoping to someday understand each other. Author Bunde relates family conflicts in brief, vivid scenes. The constant theme is that children are much more likely to prosper if there is an adult in their life who loves them unconditionally.
The last ten pages summarize the rest of Hanna's life and end in a surprising sign-off.

Friday, July 14, 2017

book review: BLIND MAN'S BLUFF by Sontag and Drew

Book Review: BLIND MAN'S BLUFF by Sontag and Drew (1998)
“The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”

Obviously, no book available to the public is going to be up to date on this subject. Never mind; this book is a vivid history of the Cold War years between USA and Russia, and their strenuous efforts to stay ahead of each other in submarine warfare capability. It has enough detail and documentation to enthrall (and alarm?) any history buff.
The first submarine purchased by the US Navy in 1900, could hold six men. [That was three years before the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk.] A sub's purpose, in the century's first half, was to sink ships carrying supplies to enemy nations. In the latter half, the purpose was to spy on enemy naval activity and communications. A diesel-electric powered sub could travel underwater for up to 24 hours, navigating by periscope and sonar, surfacing only to recharge its batteries. Later, with nuclear power, subs can now stay submerged for three months or more, limited only by the bulk of food needed to feed a crew of 100 to 150 men and women. Presumably they extract enough oxygen and pure water from the surrounding ocean.
Admiral Hyman Rickover pioneered the first nuclear subs, with a vigor unfazed by cost or Congress. He recruited young naval engineers (future president Jimmy Carter among them) by challenging their imagination and abilities. He ordered one candidate,“Piss me off, if you can.” Without a word and with a single motion of his arm, the candidate swept all the contents of the admiral's desk onto the floor, papers, pens, books and all. (and was accepted into the program.)
Silence and stealth are the keys to discovering what the other side is up to. The Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan [the book includes good maps] has little shipping activity, and an American nuclear sub sought and found the undersea cable connecting Russia's easternmost naval base with the rest of Russia. The sea is shallow; the sub could settle on the bottom while divers attached a monitor to the cable and recorded telephone conversations for months.
The Soviet navy had some “firsts” too. One commander took his sub under the polar ice to the North Pole, and surfaced by breaking through the ice there. He confirmed that his nuclear missiles survived and could still be accurately programmed to reach almost any part of North America below him to the south. Russians regularly patrol international waters off American coasts, just as American subs do off the coast of Russia and other nations.
In 1986, with both nations realizing the increasing danger of nuclear war and total annihilation, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in a diplomatic conference at Reykjavik, Iceland. Both nations had, by that time, developed their espionage to the point where their submarine forces were second lines of nuclear war defense, able to fire missiles from unpredictable spots in answer to the other side's land-based missiles and air force, in the event that either would attempt to start a war. The expense of maintaining defense readiness was a growing economic problem. Negotiators agreed that they could cut ballistic missiles to 6,000, and delivery vehicles to 1,600 for each side to start with, and further reductions to come.
In 1991, The Soviet Union dissolved, into fifteen independent republics, including Russia. Gorbochev handed over the Union's powers, including the Soviet nuclear missile codes, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Two years later, American CIA director Robert Gates visited the Kremlin with, among other matters, a video tape of the recovery of six Russian sailors' bodies from a sunken Russian submarine and their burial at sea, years before. “Two weeks later, the tape appeared on Russian television. The families [of the long-missing Russian crew] got to see American sailors standing at attention as both national anthems were played and as the Americans added Russian prayers to the naval service for the dead. . . . They were astonished and moved that Americans, their enemies for so long, would treat their men with such respect.”
In the years since that time, new leaders have brought new distrust, and no one except perhaps the spies and the intelligence services, know how close we are now to a huge World War III, from which relatively few humans would survive. But Sontag and Drews' well-documented book will give the reader hope and desire for a diplomatic solution. “Trust, but verify” seems the best watchword we have for now.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: The Shepherd's Life

Book Review: THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE by James Rebanks non-fiction (2015)

James Rebanks dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, disgusted with teachers who wanted him to “make something of himself.” Totally uninterested in meaningless school lectures, he looks forward to working full time as a farmer, raising sheep alongside his father and his grandfather. He is proud to be part of an ongoing family, honest working folk who have lived on the hills and lakes of northwestern England since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Shepherding hundreds of sheep is more than just leading them along a country lane. There are tups (rams) to buy and mate with the ewes, with all the attention to future performance that a race horse would be given. Swaledales and Herdwicks are the two breeds of sheep best suited for the high hill country. Sheep must be sheared, lambs birthed, diseases prevented. Hundreds of sheep must be moved to the high country grass in summer so that valley fields can produce enough hay for winter. Rock walls to be built and repaired, ears to tagged for identity. Lost sheep to be searched for, flocks to be sheltered during winter blizzards and springtime rains. Every day, rain or shine. This was the life James had chosen, and loved.
But something was lacking in his life. Drinking, fighting, hanging out with friends wasn't enough to look forward to. Then he met Helen, his sister's friend. He was 21, she was 18. “She had worked hard at school, read books, and knew all the stuff that I didn't. She believed I could do anything I set my mind to. That made everything possible.”
One of the pubs in town had shelves lined with books that no one ever read. Occasionally, James would borrow one, quietly with the landlord's permission. It wasn't cool to be into books.
A Korean War vet noticed James was carrying a book one night, and said that young guys knew nothing about war; he challenged the pub crowd to even name the plane on the book cover. The crowd looked blank. “Messerschmitt one-oh-nine,” James said. He gradually discovered he knew more about things than his pub-mates. One of them told him “What are you doing here . . . with us idiots? You should go to university and do something smart . . . .”
“Sometimes you can't go back when people know something new about you,” James discovered.
“My two younger sisters turned out far smarter than me: straight-A students. Sometimes I'd help the elder one with her homework. One night she challenged me to do her history homework. I think she had a hot date or something, so she left me to it. A few days later, she was seriously pissed off because the essay came back with a rave review from her teacher. I laughed. She told me that was it, no more goes at her schoolwork. From then on, I knew I could do A-levels if I wanted, or needed to.
“I went to the local adult education center when I was twenty-one, and got straight A's. It was easy if you had read the books I had. The instructor asked me all sorts of questions, ending with “Had I thought about applying for Oxford or Cambridge?” It seemed ridiculous that I might get in. But they were apparently looking for people from 'different backgrounds', which secured me an interview. I needn't have worried. It was easy if you weren't really bothered. So, much to the amusement of the other professors, I got into a row with one of them. I like arguing. I'm good at it. When he went too far and said something a bit silly, I teased him and said he was losing his grip. As I left when my time was up, I smiled at them as if to say, “F-you. I could do this all day.”
“They all smiled back. I knew I was in.”
But he went back to full time farm work after University. His book mentions study trips to foreign lands, but doesn't doesn't say how he found time for them. He divides a year into its four seasons by detailing the work load each season demands, and most of the book is about sheep, and quite interesting. He tells about a blizzard when he trudged through a chest-high snowdrift, to break trail for his best sheep dog, leading a band of sheep to safety at lower altitude.
He and Helen married, and have three young children, all aiming toward working the farm as they grow older. He describes a springtime afternoon in lambing season, guiding his six-year-old daughter, Bea, while she manages a difficult delivery of a lamb. She is exhausted at the end, but tells him, “We have to go for breakfast, Dad, and tell Molly I lambed one. And its bigger than the one she lambed.”
This is a book to be read to the very end, including the acknowledgements. He ends his story with his father's code of ethics: “Work that needs doing should be done.”
And he adds, “This is my life. I want for no other.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: A Gentleman In Moscow


Book Review: A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, by Amor Towles (historical fiction, 2016)

Most Americans think of Twentieth Century Russia in terms of its Communist government. That is certainly the background scene throughout this novel, but in the foreground is Count Alexander Rostov, a man under house arrest for most of his adult life.
The story begins with Rostov's appearance before the People's Commissariat prosecutor in 1922: “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those among the party's senior ranks who regard you as a prerevolutionary hero. Thus, you will be returned to the Metropol Hotel where you live. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot.”
The hotel moves Rostov from his suite to a single room 10 x 10 feet on the unused fifth floor. He is permitted to keep certain personal articles; the rest become “property of the people.”
Well educated, polite, rarely at a loss for words, Rostov is cordial to all. A nine-year-old girl sits down uninvited, at his table in the hotel restaurant. “Is it true you are a count?”
“'Tis true.”
“Have you ever known a princess?”
“I have known many princesses.”
Her eyes widened. “Was it terribly hard to be a princess?”
“Terribly.”
Several days later, the girl, Nina Kulikova, has more questions. “What are the rules of being a princess? Those things expected of her?” She explains that her Papa is wonderful, and knows all about tractors, but he knows absolutely nothing about the workings of princesses.
Count Rostov patiently explains the basics of good manners and behavior of princesses, and a bond of friendship gradually grows. In return, the nine-year-old knows everything about the hotel, having purloined a pass key from somewhere, allowing access to everywhere in the hotel, from wine cellar to spying from the grand ballroom balcony, to the view of the Kremlin from from the roof. And the Count gains allies in Vasily the concierge, Andrey the the head waiter, Marina the seamstress, Emile the chef, and many others.
Months and years pass; 1930; Russia's first five-year plan has begun, which will change the nation from farming to an industrial power. Rostov is now head waiter in the exclusive Boyarsky restaurant on the hotel's second floor. Nina, now age seventeen, is part of a young team heading eastward into a farming province to oversee the exile of farm owners to Siberia; their farms now belong to the laborers. The province has only eight tractors, but factories are booming and the workers need bread. Alas, the combination of mismanagement and one of the worst droughts in history results in many deaths from starvation across the nation.

In 1930, a Colonel Osip, apparently part of the Foreign Affairs office, had required Rostov to meet with him for lunch once a month not only to learn French and English, but to help Osip understand the customs of those people.
It was a couple of years later that Nina showed up again. She had married one of her team, and has a 6-year old daughter. Her husband had just been arrested and sentenced to five years at hard labor. She needs to find lodging to be near him but needs someone to look after her daughter.”Only a month or two. I have no one else to turn to. Please!” With years of friendship between them, there can be only one answer. He crosses the hotel lobby to be introduced to Sofia. He has no idea what to do with a six-year-old, but noticing that the doll she clutches has no dress, he takes her to Marina, the hotel seamstress, who bonds with her easily. Sofia will stay with the Count for eighteen years.
She is easily her mother's equal in intelligence. And in mischievousness. At age thirteen, racing up the hotel's service stairs, she falls and hits her head on the cement steps. A chambermaid finds her unconscious and bleeding and calls Rostov. Rostov picks her up carefully and hurries down the stairs, across the lobby, out the door. It's the first time in twenty years he has been outside. He tells the taxi driver “St. Anselm's Hospital!” They arrive in minutes, but in the thirty years since Rostov was last there, the hospital is no longer Moscow's finest. The young nurse receptionist drops her magazine, summons the doctor on call, who calls a surgeon. But it is a different doctor who appears. “I'm Lasovsky, chief of surgery at First Municipal. I will be seeing to this patient.” He turns. “Are you Rostov?”
“Yes,” says the Count, astounded. Lasovsky takes a brief, competent history, assigns everyone their task, reassures Rostov, who must wait in the corridor.
It's perhaps two hours later when the surgeon comes out again, with a favorable report . Simultaneously, a guard opens the door for Colonel Osip, who confers with the surgeon.
Then he led Rostov down a back stairway to a metal door. “This is where we part. It's best if you never mention to anyone that either of us were here. You have been at my service for over fifteen years. It is a pleasure for once to be at yours.” Then he was gone.
It will be another ten years before Rostov and Sofia will each find freedom. But the depth of insight shown by author Towles will lead the reader to a satisfying end, including why Osip had rescued Sofia.

Monday, April 10, 2017

book review: A Lawyer's Journey, by Morris Dees

Book Review: A LAWYER'S JOURNEY by Morris Dees (biography, 2001)

A tame-sounding title of an attention-gripping story. Those of us who lived in northern Idaho in the 1990's might have called it “Stifling The Swastika In America.” We remember Richard Butler and his militant white supremacist Aryan Nation compound in the town of Hayden Lake, just north of Coeur d'Alene. Claiming their First Amendment rights, they would parade down the street behind a Nazi flag. Many people on the sidewalks would turn their backs to them in disapproval.
In 1999, a woman and her son were driving past the Aryan compound when their car happened to backfire. Guards on the compound immediately fired live ammunition, and the pair found themselves surrounded at gun-point. Though unharmed physically, they had several bullet holes in their car.
The resulting public indignation attracted Morris Dees, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Alabama, who assisted the woman in suing Butler and his organization “for gross negligence in the selecting and supervision of his armed guards.” The six-million-dollar legal judgment bankrupted Butler, putting him out of business without bloodshed.
This was not Butler's first encounter with Mr. Dees. Butler had gone south in 1981 to assist the “Grand Dragon” of the Texas Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Louis Beam, to drive out – violently if necessary – the South Vietnamese who had immigrated to the Texas coastline after the Vietnam war ended. Many were now citizens, and some had shrimp boats in Galveston Bay. The unofficial leader of the Vietnamese in Texas, Colonel Nguyen Nam, had fought the communist North Vietnamese for years. Now the KKK leader accused Colonel Nam himself of being Communist, and accused lawyer Dees of being an agent of Satan.
The federal judge in Houston was not impressed with these assertions, and granted an injunction against the KKK, its leaders, and its illegal armed militia. The Texas KKK was forbidden to harass the Vietnamese fishermen, forbidden to ram or burn their boats, or commit other acts of violence.
Dees's book, essentially a declaration of war against racial violence, goes on to follow the Southern Poverty Law Center's activities in defending various victims of violence or threats by white supremacist groups. Son of a small-time cotton farmer in rural Mount Meigs, Alabama, he grew up working with his family's black hired hands. He saw a future as a country preacher, but his Daddy set him straight: “Bubba, you can do that on Sundays. But you need to do something you can make a living at. Be a lawyer. No boll weevil ever ruined a law book.”

His turning point came in 1963, when the dynamite bombing of a Sunday school class in Birmingham killed four small girls. Married, and back home from law school, he and his wife were good Baptists; he spoke to his adult Sunday school class about giving financial and spiritual help for another Baptist church in trouble. The class members nodded, sympathetic. “Where is the church?” someone asked.
“The Sixteenth Street [black] Church in Birmingham.” The members in the room quickly fell into two camps – those angered by even the suggestion of helping blacks, and those too shocked to be angry. Dees closed his eyes in silent prayer. When he opened them a few minutes later, only he and his wife were left in the room.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which Morris Dees helped establish, provides free legal help for those who need it, charging only those who are able to pay; financed in part from income from his private law practice and his previous businesses, or books he has published, and mass mailings soliciting contributions. The book details many of his legal battles with white supremacists. The most dramatic one pits the black mother of a young man selected at random and beaten to death and then hung from a tree by members of the United Klans of America, with the knowledge and consent of the Klan's national commanders. Dees showed the jury photographs of the victim, printed in the Klan newspaper. His questioning of those commanders [the defendants] reveals their methods of training and arming Klan members with military weapons. It took the all-white, southern jury only about four hours to bring a verdict == “guilty on all counts”, and setting damages at seven million dollars.
Dees often moves back and forth in time between chapters, mentions many clients, colleagues and opponents (but provides a detailed and helpful index.) He freely expresses his emotions, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness or amused disbelief, but rarely fear. He does his research thoroughly. Conflict neither slows him down nor keeps him from doing what he believes is right. In my opinion, he himself exemplifies the best of both Christians and social activists.
At one point he hired armed guards 24 hours a day to protect his home. The scene in his first chapter is the floor of a room where he and his fourteen year old daughter crouched in the night, while the guards, one inside and one outside the house drove off two armed invaders. “Why do you do this work?” the girl asks him. In the last chapter; now age 17, she is in the balcony of the courtroom as the verdict against the Ku Klux Klan is announced and she sends him a note: “Good work, Daddy.”

Monday, April 3, 2017

book review: Baa Baa Black Sheep

BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP by Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Bantam Books 1977
Book review: World War II in the Pacific, non-fiction

The name Flying Tigers was unknown to us when we were quartered in an obscure hotel in downtown San Francisco, waiting for a Dutch motorboat that would transport us to the Orient to join the American Volunteer Group.” Boyington's story begins in September 1941, before America was in the war. He temporarily left his Marine Corps job (captain and flight instructor) for the promise of action and good pay in China. The group's passports identified them as “missionaries”. President Roosevelt had approved this aid, but not publicly yet. Other passengers on the boat figured pretty quickly that they were anything but missionaries.

Their ship reached Rangoon, Burma, about a month before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the World War that China had already been fighting for years. They joined Colonel Chenault's Flying Tigers, about a hundred American pilots attached to Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek's Chinese army in Kunming, Southern China. Supplies came via the “Burma Road” connecting with British India. Japan outflanked their supply line by invading all of Southeast Asia in January 1942. Boyington returned to USA with six downed Japanese planes to his credit and an injured leg.

His service record in the Marines was lost in red tape for a year, reducing him to taking a job as parking lot attendant in Seattle. As one reads further into his life, a unique type of personality emerges. A thirty-year-old independent who not only figures situations out for himself, but acts on his conclusions, divorced, alcoholic, chain-smoker, often ignoring his physical pain; caring about his subordinates, unafraid to go over the heads of incompetent superior officers to reach someone who knows what the score is. Observes details. And gets results.

When Boyington got back to the war in 1943, the battle for Guadalcanal was winding down and his squadron was based on the Russell Island group while the Japanese were gradually being forced to retreat northward. The Japanese “zero” plane was the equal of any of the American planes of the time, and battle outcomes depended on the skill and experience of individual pilots. Boyington, already an ace, and several years older than his squadron mates, earned the nickname “Pappy”, or “Gramps” from his guidance of his fliers. His squadron named itself the “Black Sheep” for their independent manner of fighting, both in the air and off duty.

His attack on Kahili, the well-armed air base on Bouganville caught the Japanese entirely by surprise. With twelve planes staying high in the sky, he led three others at a low level up the east side of the island chain, as though inspecting the coastline; then on farther north and around to the west of the airfield, flying back at tree-top level, four planes wing-tip to wing-tip, strafing the length of the field, reversing and strafing again, then up and homeward, leaving his other twelve planes to bomb the harbor at will.

He soon approached the Allied Forces' shoot-down record – twenty six planes. Buddies and news reporters alike were urging him to get one more before his third and final tour of duty was up. He did, but was also shot down himself. He bailed out into the sea with multiple injuries. He inflated his life raft and was picked up by a Japanese submarine next day. The pharmacist mate spoke English, “You have nothing to fear on this sub.” A six-hour trip brought them to Rabaul, the regional Japanese headquarters. Pappy was a prisoner of war for the next two years. Americans presumed him dead.

He experienced brutality from some guards, kindness from others. Japanese had respect for a hero, no matter what his nationality. And some were already seeing the inevitable outcome of the war. Pappy learned to understand and speak Japanese during his internment, and continued to observe and reflect. His story is worth reading thoughtfully.

To us in the Northwest, he is a local author, having grown up near Okanagen, Washington. Coeur d'Alene, Idaho has named its airfield after him.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker
book review, fiction, 2006

Julia Win's father disappeared the day after the family had celebrated her graduation from law school. He had waked her early that next morning to say he was flying to Boston and would be back in two or three days. That was four years ago.
      Investigation showed that he had bought a ticket, not to Boston but to Los Angeles and onward to Thailand. Investigation by both the FBI and American embassies in Thailand and in Burma, his country of birth, had no record of his arrival, except his discarded passport.
      Now, she finds a package from her mother waiting at her New York apartment. A collection of her father's old letters and papers her mother had found in the attic; her mother didn't need them anymore. Among them, a love letter dated 1955, addressed to “My beloved Mi Mi”, in Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.
      Although Julia knew her parents' marriage was lukewarm at best, she had missed her father very much these past four years, and was perplexed at where and why he had gone. This clue was the first that offered a way to find out. She had never been to Burma, but she went now.
      Kalaw is a medium-sized town near the end of a branch railroad line, and shares an airstrip with a larger town of Taunggyi; both are vacation spots for people to escape the tropical heat of cities down on the plains. Julia finds herself in a small, squalid tea-house under the scrutiny of townspeople curious about why this foreigner has come. All except one elderly man who has watched her since she entered.
      He politely introduces himself, U Ba, addresses her by name, and says he has been waiting for her arrival for four years. Yes, he has known her father, almost since birth. He can help her find him, “but first I must ask you a question: Julia, do you believe in love?”
      Julia shakes her head, her lawyer's mind wondering what kind of scam is coming . But U Ba continues, “Your father's words were, 'I am not a religious man, and love, U Ba, is the only force I truly believe in.'” He got up and left, after suggesting they meet again the next day.
      She got up to pay her bill. The waiter did not want her money. “U Ba's friends are our guests,” he said, and left her tip on the table.
      U Ba returned next day to tell her about Tin Win (her father's Burmese name). His mother's little brother had drowned while she was watching him. She never got over her sense of guilt and worthlessness. She married Khin Maung, a kind man and a good worker, but a man of few words. Two weeks after Tin Win's birth half of the chickens got sick and died. It was custom to consult the local astrologer to find out whether the child's birth was the cause. The astrologer said the child would bring great sorrow. Something in his head. He also foresaw great talent in the child, but the stunned parents were no longer listening. They accepted the prophesy as inevitable and never expressed much love for their son. Especially after the father died in an accident, the mother distanced herself from her son.
      When Tin Win was eight, she packed her few belongings and left, telling him she would be back “soon.” He sat on a tree stump and waited, refusing all food a neighbor brought him. On the fourth day, he sipped some water. And waited. On the sixth day his eyesight began to blur. On the seventh, the neighbor thought he had died. She took him into her home and gradually she became Tin Win's first ally. But he was now blind, distinguishing only light and darkness.
      He compensated by developing his hearing and his touch. He knew every obstacle in his daily path. He could hear the heartbeats of those around him, and could tell much about their owners' mood and personality. He did well in the village monastery's school, One day he was waiting at school for his neighbor to return from the market, he heard the soft steady beating of a heart he didn't recognize; he took a few steps forward, heard it louder. “Is someone there?” he whispered.
      “Yes. Right at your feet.” It was a girl's voice. “You're about to trip over me.”
      “Who are you? What's your name?”
      “Mi Mi.”
      Thus began a lasting friendship. She was a cripple from birth, unable to stand or walk. Her brothers or mother would carry her on their backs. Tin Win learned to do the same, and she would guide him where to go. He was her feet; she was his eyes, as she rode on his back. They went everywhere together.
Julia had never known her successful American attorney father had been blind in his youth. “When are you going to let me see him?” she asked U Ba.
      “You are not yet ready,” he told her. First she must know how Tin Win had had an obligation to fulfill. At age eighteen,Tin Win was summoned to Rangoon, the capital city, by an uncle he had never met. To a Burmese Buddhist, such a summons by an aged head of family must be obeyed. He went with the two men his uncle had sent, expecting to return in a few days. But it was fifty years before he saw his loved one again. Tin Win's story is a poignant but serious examination of the many aspects of human love.

Note to my new subscribers: I do not sell books, except the few I have authored. I review others to improve my writing skill, but do not want to spoil the ending for my readers. You can find most of the books in your local library, or favorite bookstore, or online.  I welcome discussion and questions, but am still learning the basics of operating this gadget, and communicate best through email.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Subscription requests

I am suddenly getting multiple requests to subscribe to my website and /or my blogs. I’m pleased at your interest, but the site is free; no need to subscribe. just go to www.dahlbergbooks.net and get on the blog site from the menu. If you copy any of my stuff, please include my name and website as the source. No ads, please; and I’m not into facebook, twitter, etc.
 I have authored seven books to date (fiction, memoir, and medical), available from Amazon.com  and have been doing weekly book reviews for the Shoshone News-Press for the past nine months. I welcome comments and questions on my work, via email. Also am curious about this sudden spate of requests – what got it started? And who are you as a person, besides an email address?
Keith R. Dahlberg

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

book review:The Shape Shifter, by Tony Hillerman

Book Review: THE SHAPE SHIFTER, by Tony Hillerman (2006) Crime Fiction

Hillerman's novels feature the Navajo Tribal Police (A real police force, HQ in Shiprock, New Mexico) and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his sidekick Sgt. Jim Chee. As this story opens, Leaphorn is newly retired, has just come up to headquarters to pick up his mail.
      There is a letter from Mel Bork, a guy he knew when they were both rookie cops years ago, investigating suspected arson in a tourist shop where some very rare Indian artifacts had been burned up. Mel encloses a magazine photo “Hey, Joe, ain't this that rug you kept telling me about, one of a kind, and destroyed in the fire, and we agreed that maybe the fire really was a crime, not just a careless drunk and some talk about witchcraft? If you're interested, give me a call.”
      Bored with retirement, Joe thought why not? He phoned the number in the letter. Mrs. Bork answered, and when she learned Leaphorn was an old police friend, she said he was just who she needed to talk to. Mel had gone two days ago to see a man who owned an old valuable Indian rug, and he hadn't returned. The local sheriff's office yesterday had said not to worry yet, but then she had received a threatening phone message. She played it back to Leaphorn. A man's deep voice: “Mr. Bork, you need to get back to minding your own business. Keep poking at old bones and they'll jump out and bite you.” A chuckle. “You'll be just a set of new bones.”
      “Mrs. Bork, keep that tape in a safe place. Call Sgt. Garcia at the sheriff's office down there and have him listen to the tape. Did Mel mention any one he was going to see?”
      “I think maybe a Mr. Tarkington; he has an art gallery here in Flagstaff.”
When Tarkington finds out the Navajo police are investigating 'The mystical rug' said to be destroyed by fire years ago, he tells Leaphorn, “I think we need to talk about this, but not over the phone. Where are you?”
      “In Window Rock.”
      “How about coming to the gallery tomorrow?” Flagstaff is 200 miles from Window Rock, but that's not far in the southwest. Leaphorn went.
      The picture of a very expensive home with a very rare artifact hanging on the wall is a house not far from Flagstaff, Tarkington says. Owned by a man named Jason Delos. The man came up from California for his wife's health. Nobody has ever seen her. He has an Asian man as a sort of butler and cook. Gossip has him to be ex-CIA from the Vietnam war, whether retired or fired depends on who you listen to. The rug hanging on the wall? Impossible to duplicate it – too many variables – dyes, weaving styles, age. Some say it depicts the Navajos in exile 150 years ago, a tale of sorrows, hatreds, curses, evil spirits of the worst kind, 'shape shifters' who could change from human form to animal in an instant – not at all what Navajos usually commemorate. Some say it was destroyed in that fire that Leaphorn investigated years ago.
      Leaphorn meets Sgt. Garcia in a coffee shop near the sheriff's office in Flagstaff. “I've worked with Bork a few times. Private investigator; seems like a nice guy. This tape his wife had me listen to has me worried. What's he into? You talk to this man Delos yet?
      "Tell him you're investigating a crime? What crime? We don''t have one yet, do we?”
      “I'll see him tomorrow. Just wondering about that one-of-a-kind rug that was said to be burned up all those years ago.” They decide to go up to the old crime scene, and they find one of the original robber gang digging there, Tomas Delonie, just out of his 25-year prison sentence. He admits he is looking for any part of Shewnack's loot that might be buried there.
      Leaphorn remembers now how he had stopped at old Grandma Peshlakai's, who had just been robbed of two bucketsful of pinyon sap. He had explained to her that he had to leave on a call to Totter's Trading Post where a fire had just killed an important murder suspect.
      “He's dead?” she had asked. Leaphorn agreed.He can't run then. This man I want you to catch is running away with my buckets of pinyon sap.” She still scowls at him every time they meet, even though he had recovered her empty buckets from the site of the fire.
      “You find anything yet?” Garcia now asks Delonie.
      “Not yet.”
      “You think you will?”
      “I wanted to just see that the bastard is really dead. Get closure. The Navajos, like Mr. Leaphorn here, have that curing ceremony to help them forgive and forget. My tribe has never had such a ceremony. But maybe just seeing where the bastard burned up will work for me. ”
      Back in Flagstaff next morning, Leaphorn places a call to Mr. Delos. A polite voice asks him to wait a moment. “Mr. Leaphorn, Mr. Delos say he can see you. He ask you to be here at eleven.”
A small man waits for him. In his early forties, he had a smooth, flawless complexion. A Hopi or Zuni, he thought at first, then changed it to probably Vietnamese or Lao. “I am Tommy Vang,” he said, smiling. “He say bring you to the office.”
      Mr. Delos was cordial but non-committal. Leaphorn came away with little more than he knew before, except for a neatly packaged lunch Tommy Vang had packed for his trip home.
Back home, the ten o'clock news caught his attention, about a fatal car accident. State police would not identify the driver until next-of-kin had been notified; bystanders said it was a prominent Flagstaff businessman . . . .

      I don't want to spoil the end of this story for you readers. Author Hillerman is justly famous as an interpreter of Navajo culture and those of other minority groups. His many awards include former president of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award. This is one of the last books he wrote before his death in 2008 at age 83.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN by Mitch Albom; 2003, Hyperion.


Eddie is the maintenance man at Ruby's Pier, a seaside amusement park. It's his job to keep the rides safe and in good working condition. The story opens on his 83rd birthday. His wife died many years ago; they had no children. Dominguez, one of the pier workers, wishes him a happy birthday; otherwise it looks like just another boring day, checking brakes, tightening a bolt, listening for mechanical trouble everywhere he walks, limping along with his bad knee, an old war wound.
      A woman screams and points up at the tower of Freddy's Free Fall, where a cart holding four people is hanging at a crooked angle. Eddie moves as fast as he can to the platform base and the gathering crowd. He sends two young workers up to get the terrified four safely out of the car and onto the upper platform. When he sees the cable beginning to unravel, he turns and shouts to the crowd GET BACK!! He turns back to the platform to see a little girl lying on it, crying. The empty cart above breaks loose and starts to fall. The last thing Eddie remembers is his lunge toward the kid and feeling two small hands in his grasp. A stunning impact. Then nothing.
     . . . Where . . . where is this . . . where has my pain gone . . . Gradually, a scene materializes around him, Ruby's Pier of years ago. He is in the “freak tent” where the fat lady, the wolf boy and other oddities of nature are exhibited. A middle aged man with blue skin sits alone on the stage. “Hello, Edward. I've been waiting for you . . . Where is this, you ask? Heaven.”
       Heaven? Can't be. I've spent most of my adult life trying to get away from Ruby's Pier, and this is where I end up ? No.
      “There are five people you will meet here; each was in your life for a reason. That's what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth. I am the first of the five.”
      “What killed you?”
      The blue-skinned man smiles. “You did.”

      Young Eddie had run out in the street after his ball one day; a driver slams on his brakes, skids, drives on slowly, dizzy, pain in his chest. A policeman finds the man dead beside his car.
     “I don't understand,” whispers Eddie now. What good came from your death?”
      “You lived,” the blue man said. “I am leaving now. This step in heaven is over for me. But there are others for you to meet.”
      “Tell me; the little girl at the pier – did I save her?”
Blue Man doesn't answer.
      Eddie slumps. “Then my death was a waste, just like my life.”
       “No life is a waste,” blue man says. “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.” And he is gone.
    
      The second person Eddie meets is in a tall palm tree, smoking a cigarette. He tells Eddie to climb up. Eddie does and sees the captain who commanded his unit in the Philippine liberation in 1945. The Captain, Eddie, and three other soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent four months in a prison camp, forced to dig coal.   When one soldier grew sick and collapsed, a guard shot him.
       On the day American bombers could be heard approaching, the prisoners distract and kill all four remaining guards, capture weapons and flame throwers and burn the camp. Captain orders them into a truck; “ Hurry! The bombers won't know we're not the enemy.” But Eddie sees something or someone moving inside the largest flaming building, a crawling child-sized figure. “Wait!” He starts toward the building
      “We can't wait! C'MON, EDDIE!” A moment later a gun-shot. Eddie falls, his knee wounded.
      The Captain in the tree grins now.”The other guys got you on a stretcher and drove out of here fast. I kept the promise I made – I didn't leave anyone behind. You would have died in that burning building if I hadn't shot you in the leg. You made a sacrifice, I made one, too, stepping onto that land mine ahead of the truck. Forgive me about the leg?” He offers his hand. Slowly, Eddie offers his. The Captain grips it. “That's what I've been waiting for.” And he's gone.

      The third person Eddie meets, he's never seen before. A woman, standing in the snow outside a diner; its blinking sign says EAT. She introduces herself as Ruby, and is there to explain to Eddie how and why his father died.
And there will be a fourth person, and a fifth . . . .
 
     You who read these book reviews know by now that they don't tell second half of a story; you need to read the whole book at the library, bookstore, or borrow it from a friend.
      And although I realize this story is fiction, I found myself wondering seriously, who are the five people I would meet, and why? The end of this book will surprise and please you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Last Days of Night

Graham Moore: Historical Novel ( 2016 RandomHouse)
The major characters and events in this historical thriller are real; the connecting conversations and timing are from author Graham Moore's creative imagination, to produce an intriguing . portrait of American big business in the 1880's. Electric lighting is just beginning to replace coal gas lights in America's homes and streets, and whoever controls the manufacture of light bulbs will reap billions of dollars. George Westinghouse, creator of sturdily built electric appliances, Thomas Edison, creator of new ideas, and Nikola Tesla, an unsociable, introverted genius whose thick Serbian accent is understood only with difficulty; all three are in conflict over the best way to develop electricity.
Central to “the current war” is the nature of electricity itself. Edison powers his light bulbs with direct current (D/C) which at that time could not travel more than a few hundred yards from its generator. He holds the patent for light bulbs, and is inundating Westinghouse with paperwork, three hundred twelve separate lawsuits, to drive him out of business. If Westinghouse can devise a different type of light bulb – not necessarily better, but different design – he can win his own patent; if not, he will go bankrupt.
Edison fired Tesla as a nut case four years previously, and Tesla has only just now reappeared on the scene with a new concept of alternating current (A/C) which can travel many miles through wires. He demonstrates his simple generator at a lecture at New York's Columbia University.
The story's leading character, Paul Cravath, has just joined a law partnership in New York. He will soon have two clients. One is George Westinghouse, the other is a twenty-four year old woman, already a celebrity in Europe, Agnes Huntington, now bringing her singing voice and beauty to her native America. She is suing a fraudulent tour-manager for back pay.
Paul, in his role as Westinghouse's counsel, attends Tesla's demonstration. When he sees the audience, mostly electrical engineers, busily taking notes he realizes that this man, scorned by Edison, has something important going, and he recommends that Westinghouse hire Tesla to his engineering staff.
Tesla's strange personality has made him the social amusement of the month for partying young socialites in Manhattan. Paul arranges to meet him socially by asking his client, Miss Huntington, to act as his access to a party where Tesla will be “on exhibit.” She agrees, not because he is her lawyer, but because it will give her an evening's freedom from her mother's close supervision. The meeting is a success, and Tesla invites Paul to tour his laboratory.
Paul's tour of the lab turns into disaster when fire breaks out and he is severely injured when the burning roof falls in on him. He is in the hospital for three months, and Tesla has disappeared again. The New York police suspect arson. Paul believes that he, and perhaps Tesla, are being targeted by Edison's cohorts. Westinghouse's finances grow more endangered with each passing month. Things take a turn for the better when a note arrives from Miss Huntington, urgently summoning Paul to her dressing rooms at the Metropolitan Opera House. Tesla is there; he sought her out as a friend he remembers while he is recovering from the emotional shock of his lab fire.
She agrees that both men may be in danger from some one in Edison's employ, and shelters Tesla in her home (over her mother's objections) where Paul can communicate with Tesla under the guise of his visiting her. As the “current war” heats up, Edison asserts that A/C current is deadly dangerous, and tries to prove it with the invention of the electric chair. Paul, Tesla, and Agnes flee New York for Paul's father's home in Tennessee, where Tesla develops a way of using the new Roentgen rays to produce “shadow pictures” of human bones, giving Westinghouse's factories profitable new vistas to explore.
Author Moore creates a picture of New York City and its denizens where no one trusts anyone else –- no, not even Paul and Miss Huntington–-and where Thomas Edison is forced to retire from his own company, Edison General Electric, whose new owners shorten the name by cutting out the first word. Moore thoughtfully supplies a few pages of research notes at the end of his book, separating fact from fiction. And his revelation of which is which will surprise you.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

Downfall, book review

DOWNFALL, A Suspense Novel by J. A. Jance; Book Review (2016, Harper)

Sheriff Joanna Brady, of Cochise County, Arizona, investigates a possible double homicide when the bodies of two women are discovered at the base of a cliff. No gunshot or knife wounds. A single car and campsite nearby, and a phone with several unanswered calls identify one body's address in Tucson, a hundred miles away, and one of Joanna's deputies is sent there to notify next-of-kin. The other body has no ID, but fingerprints taken at autopsy match those of Mrs. Susan Nelson, a school teacher at a charter school in nearby Sierra Vista.
Joanna and a deputy go to her husband, the pastor of a small congregation in that town. Reverend Nelson is relieved to learn his wife is dead; she has been nothing but trouble to him for the past four years. When Joanna asks where he wants her buried, he is dismissive. “The nearest landfill, for all I care,” he replies.
At the school where she taught English and coached the state champion debate team, faculty and students alike are devastated, and can't praise her enough. But no one the detectives question can offer any information connecting the two women. The one from Tucson was a graduate student at the U. of Arizona, doing research on a rare variant of cactus found growing at the top of “Geronimo”, as the locals call the small mountain where the women died.
The two boys who discovered them had been on their way to swim in a small pool nearby, and had been prompt and cooperative in notifying the police. The crime scene yielded no evidence beyond the cell phone and wounds consistent with the hundred-foot fall to the rocks below the cliff. Security cameras at Susan's school show her walking out of the school Saturday afternoon in the grip of a tall man whose face is obscured by a hoodie. It looks like the whole school, faculty and students, will have to be interviewed. It also raises the issue of a possible kidnapping, which brings in the FBI from their Tucson office.
Joanna already has a lot on her personal plate: sending her nineteen-year-old daughter Jenny off to college, her five-year-old son Denny to start kindergarten, being five months into her third pregnancy, and making arrangements for a memorial service for her parents, both of whom died in a freak highway accident on their way home from vacation in Minnesota. But she is the sheriff of a large county, and has a job to do.
Five booths are set up in the school library next morning, each with a trained homicide investigator. Debate team members are seen first; they had closest contact with their coach, who has often given them individual sessions after school. At the end of the day, only one or two students maybe should be re-interviewed. The debate club members thought Susan walked on water and took an active interest in their lives. Susan's fellow teachers also spoke of her favorably. One teacher who had co-chaired last spring's junior/senior prom with her, remembered that Susan's husband demanded his wife be removed from the committee because he believed dancing was the devil's handiwork. Susan had commented later that her husband could be “a real jerk on occasion.”
As Joanna is getting into her car, a student approaches her. “Sheriff Brady? Can I talk to you for a minute?” She recognized him as Kevin, a student who had once interviewed her for his journalism class. “I didn't exactly come in for an interview . . .”
Why?”
Because I'm not a snitch and because I didn't want to get someone else in trouble.
But you want to talk now?”
Yes.”
Why?”
Because Mrs. Nelson is dead, and I may know who did it.”
According to his story, Mrs. Nelson had been having an affair with his sixteen-year-old buddy Travis for the past year and she had become pregnant. Travis had asked her to marry him; she had refused. “Now I'm scared,” Kevin said.
Scared that he killed her?”
Scared that he might maybe kill himself. That's what he said he was going to do if she wouldn't marry him.”
Sheriff Brady had contacted parents prior to the interviews that day; now she gets a search warrant for Susan Nelson's home. One of Susan's bedroom drawers holds a collection of intimate letters from quite a few of her students, some of whom had already graduated. Susan appeared to be a sexual predator, preying on her teen-age students.
Joanna has an ever-widening group of “persons of interest”, including a new homicide by a grand-mother-like golfer, who freely admits killing her husband with a golf club on hole seven in front of witnesses. Joanna knew how Susan Nelson was killed, and probably why, but still no “who.” .
She is in her office clearing up paperwork and having a last-minute conference with her chief deputy, Tom Hadlock. She will be off work Friday for her parents' memorial service. She clears her desk, turns out the lights and steps outside to go to her car. Someone fires a taser at her shoulder. She falls on her back, cracking her head on the sidewalk. That's when everything went black. . . .

J. A. Jance has written more than sixty novels including more than a dozen featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady in Arizona and two dozen of Detective J. P. Beaumont in Seattle. Her writing is notable for both the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and the life-like functioning of the police with whom they work. Ms. Jance has given several book readings and signings in Spokane, and her knowledge of Seattle and Washington State qualifies her as a regional author.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hidden Figures, a book review

Book Review: HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly; 2016; history

Although slavery was outlawed in USA in the 1860's, non-white people were still treated as inferior for the next hundred years. Excluded from “white” schools, universities, restaurants, and all but the most menial jobs; even required in southern states to use separate toilets and drinking fountains, and separate seating on public buses. “Colored” women working outside their own homes, could only hope for work as servants, laundry, or cleaning. They could become teachers, but only in “black” schools.

The second World War began to change all that. Firstly, air power became dominant over tanks and ships. Secondly, most men were required to join the armed forces. Women often filled the vacancies on factory assembly lines, a la “Rosie the Riveter”. By 1943, America was building tens of thousands of planes per year, not only for its own needs, but for its allies. President Roosevelt signed an executive order desegregating the defense industry, making government jobs open to blacks – including black women. The application form for the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory required no photograph, only the applicant's qualifications. Black teachers studied mathematics, and some of them excelled at it.
Dorothy Vaughan was one such. Her step-mother taught her to read before she entered school. She was valedictorian of her high school class and earned a full-tuition scholarship to
Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private Negro college. She chose mathematics as her major. Then came the Great Depression; she switched to a degree in education and become a teacher to help support her family. In 1943 she saw a notice in the post office about a federal agency in Hampton, Virginia, seeking women to fill mathematics jobs relating to airplanes.
Katherine Coleman was another girl with special talent in math. She graduated from high school at age fourteen, then attended West Virginia State Institute, where a
math professor, one of the first black PhDs, created advanced classes just for her. Kathrine married a fellow school teacher, Jimmy Goble, and raised a family. but in 1952, she and Jimmy moved to Newport News, Virginia, where he had a good job and she heard that there were jobs for female mathematicians. She applied, and found she already knew her boss, Dorothy Vaughan as a neighbor from West Virginia days. She was hired, and assigned to the Flight Research Division. Three years later, Jimmy died of a brain tumor. Katherine was a single mom to her daughters for three years, while continuing her work at Langley. Then she met an army captain in church, Jim Johnson. In 1959 they married.

In May, 1957, Soviet Russia launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, causing panic among many Americans. Russia, once America's ally against Hitler's Germany, now had the atomic bomb, and with Sputnik, had the ability to drop one anywhere in America. The nation entered the space age, and the Langley Research Center, including its staff of mathematicians became the first home of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA).

NASA's task was more complicated than just handling aircraft. A spacecraft had to be launched like a missile, had to attain a speed sufficient to maintain it in continuous orbit. Then, most critical of all, bring its human cargo safely back to earth in an area of a few square miles of water where a ship or aircraft will already be waiting. The “brakes” (retro-rockets) must be applied at a precise spot with precise force to hit that target area thousands of miles ahead, considering many factors such as temperature, weight, shape of the earth (not a perfect sphere, but flattened by a few miles at its poles.) What if a power source failed in the mechanical computers? A human computer needed to stand by during the critical entry mode. For that first spacecraft flight, the human was Katherine Johnson standing by. In that first re-entry landing, her own brain's data matched that of the mechanical computer almost exactly.

Vaughan and Johnson are representative of several hundred human computers, of course, female and male, white and colored. Their importance is not only about space travel, but even more about human equality. The black women mathematicians proved beyond any doubt that high intelligence and ability occur in humans of any race or gender.

Author Shetterly provides an interesting corollary to her research: In the popular TV series “Star Trek” the producer populated the officer crew of the star ship Enterprise with many races – among them Lieutenant Uhura, the ship's communications officer and fourth in command, played by actress Nichelle Nichols. Ms Nichols wrote a letter of resignation after the first year, in order to pursue her stage career. At an NAACP fundraiser, she was told that her greatest fan wanted to meet her. She found herself facing Martin Luther King, Jr. King never missed an episode, and it was the only TV show his children were allowed to watch. She thanked him, and mentioned her resignation. King interrupted her. “You can't leave the show. We are there because you are there. . . . This is not a black role, this is not a female role. This is a unique role that brings to life what we are marching for: equality.” And that is what the black mathematicians fought for too.

The book is inspiring but hard to follow, switching back and forth among several dozen characters. The movie of the same name is easier to follow, but is without the very helpful index.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Gray Mountain

Book Review: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham; Action novel, 2014; Dell Publishing

The year is 2008, two weeks after Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Samantha Kofer, 29-year-old third-year associate in a large Manhattan law firm finds herself suddenly on unpaid leave, being escorted out the company door with a list of ten volunteer organizations that might be accepting interns. Hundreds of young lawyers are in similar straits, and most openings are already filled. The last on her list, Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, in Brady, Virginia, population 2,200, has other applicants, but is willing to interview her.
She is stopped on the outskirts of Brady “for speeding”. Suspicious of her New York ID and her rental car's Vermont plates, the cop arrests her, allowing no argument. As she sits alone in the county jail waiting area, a young man enters. “Miss Kofer? My name is Donovan Gray and I'm your attorney. I've just gotten all your charges dismissed.” He hands her a business card which looks legitimate. He turns out to be the nephew of Mattie Wyatt, the director of Mountain Legal Aid, and explains that his aunt is in court, but wants to see Samantha at five.
He drives her back to her car, then guides her to the Aid Clinic.
So, do I owe you a fee?”
Sure. A cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. You have time to kill before Mattie is free.” This is her introduction to small town law practice in the Appalachian coal country. Much different from the big firm in New York.
Mattie's clients are mostly unemployed coal miners, or chronically ill, or victims of con men, unable to afford a lawyer. Nephew Donovan has his own separate practice, mostly suing coal companies for victimizing their employees, or for environmental pollution. Mattie's orientation advice is practical: “Just take notes, frown a lot, and try and look intelligent.”
The first client's husband had been arrested in the next county, fined for a minor infraction, had no money and was jailed. His debt was turned over to a collection agency, who added multiple “service charges” that he also couldn't pay. Debtors' prison has been outlawed in USA for 200 years, but the collection agency counted on their victim's inability to afford a lawyer. Mattie had dealt with them before, and rattled off a dozen ways she would deal with them.
Another client's husband beats her severely when he gets drunk, and is now enraged that she called the police. She is terrified of him, wants a divorce, and protection.
An old lady wants her will changed. Her only asset is eighty acres of land that a coal mine wants. She fears that her five children will sell the property as soon as she dies, and the coal mine will strip the land to get the coal beneath it. She wants to cut her children out of her will and donate the land to a non-profit organization.
A divorced woman and her two kids are homeless after a collection agency garnisheed her wages, her employer fired her, and her landlord evicted her. She and the kids have been living in her small car for two weeks; she is down to her last two dollars and needs gas for the car and food for the kids.
But the big case of the year is one of Samantha's new clients. Buddy Ryzer has had 'black lung disease' – a common disability in coal miners – for ten years, but Lonerock Mining Co.. refuses to pay compensation. Their lawyers routinely appeal the government's order, and have goons to punish anyone who objects. “We gotta have a lawyer, but nobody will take our case.” Buddy had no choice but to go on working, but he can barely breathe. He and his wife brought two shopping bags of papers – who's gonna look through all those, right? Samantha does, and finds incriminating evidence that the company has known all along that Buddy is disabled and they chose to ignore it.
By the the time the dust settles, Donovan has died under suspicious circumstances; his younger brother, Jeff Gray – not a lawyer, but a bulldog who won't let go – vows to avenge him. The FBI has seized the Clinic's computers, Samantha's life is endangered, and she has to decide her next move.
Author John Gresham is justly famous for his legal action novels. I have read several and enjoy his style, except that he often ends them with the hero or heroine safe from danger and with $10,000,000 stashed away somewhere. Not this time. But the reader will identify with the parade of down-in-their-luck clients and the way he handles them and their toxic surroundings in this story. Well worth reading.

Monday, January 16, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air: book review

Book Review: WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi 2016 Penguin/Random Publishing
As a boy growing up in the desert town of Kingman, Arizona, Paul Kalanithi was certain he would never become a doctor like his father or so many others in his family. His father was never home until late at night. Friendly, offering brief encouragement or advice, but hardly ever available. If asked what he wanted to study in college, Paul was vague---maybe writing; maybe something about life's meaning . . . something about the mind . . .
During his senior year in college, his class visited a home for people who had had severe brain injuries. The place was a storehouse, really; a place for those whose families had long ago given up visiting them, a place to exist, but not to live. “Only later would I realize that brains give rise to our ability to form relationships and make life meaningful. Sometimes, they break.”
Some of his classmates graduating from Stanford headed for New York to pursue life in the arts, but that didn't quite seem to fit him. He couldn't let go of the question: Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy all come together? The answer came to hm, “Set aside the books and practice medicine.” It would take him a couple of years to make up for the lack of chemistry and physics in his previous studies, but he gained admission to a whole new world at Yale Medical school.
Many books have been written about the medical school experience and the exotic diseases the student may encounter. Kalanithi's visit to 'the home for broken brains' apparently stuck firmly in his mind. He thought he might become a psychiatrist, studying diseases of the mind.
But he saw that the brain was the physical engine that operated the mind, and he resolved to become a neurosurgeon. Speculation on theories of psychiatry gave way to what he called the 'moral mission of medicine' which is fixing what is wrong. “The patient is more important than the paperwork.”
The training period for a brain surgeon is among the most demanding and lengthy that a medical school graduate can undergo---six to eight more years beyond the four years of college plus the four years of medical school. Increasing responsibility of the senior surgical resident requires twelve- to fourteen-hour days on duty, regardless of fatigue. Speed and technique are not the only things that matter. Talking with the patient and family at the right pace; always leaving room for hope, takes time and empathy. It almost destroyed his marriage. He and Lucy met in first-year med school---she entered internal medicine--- and they were very much in love, but she was beginning to feel the strain of his continual duties in the hospital, and suggested marriage counseling.
During the last year of training – chief neurosurgical resident – he experienced chest pain and weight loss. He and Lucy have a rare afternoon taking in the sun at a San Francisco park. Lucy glimpses his phone screen displaying some search results: “frequency of cancers in thirty- to forty-year-olds.” He didn't want to discuss it. She didn't accompany him on a trip a few days later; said she had some things she needed to sort out. He began suffering intolerable, screaming-in-pain back spasms; cut his trip short. Back at home he told her he had cancer. She knew. The distance between them vanished. “I will never leave you,” she promised.
Paul was admitted to the hospital as a patient. His new doctor, Emma Hayward, came into the room to introduce herself to him and his family (most of them doctors too.) He supposed she could tell him about survival statistics.
No,” she said, “Absolutely not. We can talk about treatment later. And about going back to work, too, if that's what you'd like to do. I'll see you Thursday after the tests I've ordered are back.” His family contacted many of their fellow doctors to find out the best treatment for him. To their surprise they found that most recommended Dr. Hayward as not only world-renowned, but compassionate, knowing when to push and when to hold back.
And with that, the future Paul and Lucy had anticipated for so long evaporated. But his curiosity and intellect remained fully active. Some conditions are universal; one he had always seen and accepted was that death comes to each one of us. What is it that makes my life worth living? he asked. Dr. Hayward laid it out for him: What do you want to accomplish?
There were several things. He had already begun healing his marriage by opening his thoughts to Lucy. They discussed whether to have a child. Whether to return to the practice of surgery, or to take a professorship. Above all, he wanted to write this book, to encourage people to not give up living just because of a diagnosis. “A diagnosis is not the end,” to quote Dr. Hayward, “or even the beginning of the end. It is just the end of the beginning.”


Monday, January 9, 2017

Endangered: book review

Book Review: ENDANGERED, by C. J. Box (regional author) fiction Penguin Publishing, 2015
Wyoming State Fish and Game Warden Joe Pickett finds twenty-one dead sage grouse among shotgun shells at the side of a back-country road. Not only is Joe offended by the wanton killing, but the federal government has been talking about putting sage grouse on the endangered list. Placing their wide-spread prairie habitat off-limits to ranchers, coal miners, timber companies, and clean energy developers would affect Wyoming's whole economy.
While Joe collects the necessary scene photos and a sampling of empty shotgun shells, he gets a call from the county sheriff. A deputy has found a trauma victim in a ditch, barely alive, no ID. “But from the description, Joe, it could be your daughter April.” April Pickett had turned eighteen the previous year, and had run off with a local rodeo cowboy, Dallas Cates. They have rarely heard from her since.
Joe hurries back to town to meet his wife Marybeth at the local hospital. The victim is indeed April, unconscious and unresponsive from blunt head injuries. The Life Flight helicopter arrives from the trauma center in Billings, Montana; Marybeth is allowed to ride with her daughter, with Joe to follow. Joe is certain that Dallas did it.
The Cates family is a scraggly lot, living on twelve acres about twenty miles from town.The father, Eldon, runs a hunters guide business, and services septic tanks outside hunting season. Bull, the oldest son, is not very bright, but powerfully muscled. Joe had once caught Bull and his wife Cora Lee with a six by six elk three days before hunting season opened, and has won their permanent anger. The second son, Timber, is doing a three-year sentence at Rawlins state prison, for carjacking a tourist when his own car ran out of gas. Dallas is the youngest, and his mother's favorite, because he's going to make the family famous with his rodeo stardom. The mother, Brenda, is the brains of the outfit. She now makes a pre-emptive visit to the sheriff''s office to express her sympathy for the Pickett family. She would have brought Dallas too, she says, but he is recovering from serious injuries from his latest bull ride at the rodeo in Houston. She says April left her son severalweeks ago for another rodeo star and they haven't seen her since.
Sheriff Mike Reed and county prosecutor Dulcie Schalk share Joe's doubts about Brenda's story, but have no hard evidence to go on. Things get complicated when April's purse is found on loner Tilden Cardmore's property, not far from where April had been found. Tilden is totally anti-government and uncooperative, defending his home with multiple firearms.
Further, Annie Hatch and Revis Wentworth, of the federal Sage Grouse Task Force arrive to investigate the “sage grouse massacre”, demanding details and documentation when Joe needs to keep ahead of the Cates family. The outlook for April is still in doubt; the neurosurgeon is keeping her in induced coma until the swelling in her brain decreases. And Nate, an old friend of Joe's appears on the scene in time to get shot by Eldon Cates and get admitted to the same intensive care unit, just down the hall from April. His girl friend, Liv Brannon, gets kidnapped by Brenda to keep her from contacting the police.
Brenda appears to be getting more mentally deranged with each passing day. She keeps the girl she has kidnapped in a pit under her husband's machine shop out back. Brenda has never had a daughter, and wants a woman to talk to and comb her hair. At the same time, Liv is made aware that Brenda intends her never to leave this pit alive.

Author C. J. Box handles his characterizations and many-faceted plot very well. This action subgenre can get out of hand if too many characters find themselves improbably situated in just the right place at just the right time---the reader may feel that his stamina and belief are being tested, thus breaking the story's spell. But this story kept me reading to the end. Box lives in Wyoming; this is his fifth Joe Pickett novel.