Sunday, December 3, 2017

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

Before the United States entered WWII, a few prominent Americans played a major role in Great Britain's fight against Nazi Germany.  Two are well known, but the most influential has sadly become a footnote.  Averell Harriman was a millionaire who used his connections to be appointed the head of the Lend-Lease program.  The program helped keep Britain supplied, particularly during the early years of the war, but it also allowed Harriman to live in luxury (most of the Americans in Britain before 1942 did) and carry on an affair with Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law Pamela.  His role was important, but in Lynn Olson's book he comes across as more of a dilettante.  Edward R. Murrow is a more familiar, and more vibrant character.  Olson shows him as dedicated to the cause and to his job, a workaholic who feels constrained by the studio where he worked so well.  The third man was Gil Winat, the American ambassador to Great Britain who renounced his isolationist predecessor's policies and worked to bring the US into a real partnership with the UK.  Alongside the the stories of these men's war years, Olson tells of the personalities and personality clashes among the Malta delegates.  FDR and Churchill met with Stalin because it was necessary at the time, but reading the needling and undermining FDR aimed at his British counterpart, I can't help but wonder if it caused their dependence on Stalin and partial led to the severity of the Cold War.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign Ever

I remember watching Donald Trump's 2015 interview with Katy Tur, and thinking, "Now I know what this reminds me of.  She's Lizzy Bennet dealing with an incoherent Lady Catherine DeBourgh!" The truth was even weirder, with Tur trying to make sense of his word salad on a 500-day cross-country odyssey which started by chance.  NBC assigned Tur that interview because she was available - based at the time in London, she was in New York because she had a few free days and Make-a-Wish arranged a tour through the NBC News studios with a reporter.  "It'll be a few weeks of following Trump, and then he'll drop out.  Or he'll win and you'll be the White House correspondent."  But there was no way he could win, right?

Well, he did, and no matter how confused or horrified Tur was during the campaign, she always thought there was a chance.  So did I, by the way.  A few days after Trump announced his candidacy with paid extras cheering him on, I jumped back into the temp pool.  I shared an office with three men, all of whom though he'd be a decent President although perhaps he wouldn't get along with Angela Merkel.  Granted one was the angriest, most bitter person I've ever met and another one daily spouted conspiracy theories so outlandish that even with 30+ years of urban legend research he amazed me.  Still, it gave me pause.  I, however, didn't have a close-up view of the vitriol and venom.  I saw clips of the rallies; Tur saw a pleasant woman who'd 30 minutes earlier helped her style her hair  shouting and cheering for people to beat up the press corps.  Cameras didn't show the shirts saying "Trump that Bitch" (and other, cruder variations) or "Hillary should have married OJ" (did they realize that meant they wish Hillary Clinton had been violently hacked to death in the 90s?).  They didn't show Trump, after weeks of ignoring her questions (therefore putting her job in jeopardy) forcing a kiss on Tur before an appearance on *Morning Joe*.  The media briefly reported that Tur needed the Secret Service had to escort Tur out of an event because the candidate had incited the crowd to attack her, but not how most of the press corps had security to protect them from the crowds.  We saw the misogyny but not the Trump staffer who, after telling Tur about his wife and kids asked, "So where can I meet 30-year-old women?"

Horrifying as the campaign could be, Tur managed to find humor and camaraderie in the insanity.  Throughout the book, she keeps a sense of humor, a feeling of "Is this real?" and at least once the desire to mutate into a flying creature (it makes sense in context).  Behind the media glare, there's junk food, hookups and breakups, disorientation, friendships, and nights spent looking for something funny and non-political to watch while trying to fall asleep.  On November 7, Tur spent the evening watching with dread as the concession party turned into a victory celebration.  She turned down the White House assignment in favor of general political reporting and fill-in anchor spots, and her career is definitely on the way up. I wish her well, and hope she also finds time to write more books.

Monday, November 13, 2017

McCone and Friends

I'd already read a few of the stories in The McCone Files, Marcia Muller's first short story collections.   All of the stories in McCone and Friends were new to me, but since they were written in the 1990s, I was still visiting past lives.  Sharon's nephew/operative Mick Savage was still living with co-worker Charlotte Kiem and Rae Kelleher was dating Willie, a fence-turned-legitimate retailer (she married Ricky Savage over a dozen books ago).  Some of the stories take place at All Soul's Legal Cooperative, which dissolved before I took the bar in 1998.  Sharon's still the same - adventurous, and an engaging mix of logic and instinct, as is her friend and office manager Ted Smalley.  While some of the stories are a bit dated, they're all engaging.  Whether the issue is drug smuggling, missing persons, or an antique jukebox, Muller uses the short form to create brief but satisfying puzzles and gives us the chance to visit with old friends.

Patents: Ingenious Inventions, How They Work and How They Came to Be

Just what it says on the tin, Patents: Ingenious Inventions is a collection of patent summaries.  Ben Ikenson gives us a brief description of the invention, a few clams from the patent, and a few paragraphs about the invention's significance.  It's not quite an ideal commute book (the narrow hardback is heavier than it looks and the language is too simplistic to be fully engaging), but there are plenty of obscure facts to be amusing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Evolution of Useful Things

Form follows function - except when function follows form.  This follow-up to To Engineer is Human (which has been on my shelf, unread, for at least 15 years) traces the origins of items such as table flatware and paperclips from their origins as natural items (shells and thorns respectively) to their modern forms.  The chapter on metal cans is particularly interesting because it shows how some solutions bring up additional problems - first, how do you open it, and later how do you deal with the waste of pull tabs?

America Walks Into a Bar

If you look hard enough, there's a book about anything.  I've read the histories of the zipper and the cookstove, salt and aniline dyes, and of course I have all of Mary Roach's books.  I love used and remaindered bookstores because I can browse the odder reaches of non-fiction at less risk to my budget.  America Walks Into a Bar is a perfect example of the sort of book I love and which makes most people say, "There's a book about that?"  Christine Sismondo traces the history of the American bar from Colonial days to their current, often characterless incarnation.  We're all taught that beer was the standard beverage in the 17th and 18th Centuries because the water wasn't safe to drink, but Sismondo tells us how those necessary businesses (sometimes with cause, sometimes because they were run by women or African Americans) were also seen as a source of crime and moral turpitude.  They remained suspect throughout history, with that hint of danger leading both to crackdowns (as happened in Teddy Roosevelt's NYC), the propagation of stereotypes (the drunken Irishman, in both his belligerent and comic incarnations), and safe rebellion by slumming socialites.  Bars also led to real revolution.  The Sons of Liberty plotted the opening shots of the American Revolution while drinking in public houses, and the fear of revolution as well as snobbery led to crackdowns on working men's bars.  Feminists in the 60s and 70s fought to get into exclusive bars because that's where lawyers and businessmen met and made deals; opening those clubs was as important to allowing women into Ivy League colleges.  Without the inn, the saloon, the speakeasy, and your local, we wouldn't be who we are without a place to drink.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Lost Abbot

If I'd read The Lost Abbot before Death of a Scholar, I might not have felt like I was missing something while reading the latter.  Or perhaps not, because I was alternating chapters of Susanna Gregory's novel with articles on recent developments in treating drug resistant bacterial infections.  While reading The Lost Abbot, my mind was clear of almost everything but whether Expressway traffic would allow me to finish the chapter before the bus reached the train station.

The Abbot of Peterborough has disappeared and the order has sent Brother Michael (scholar, courtier, and Matthew Bartholomew's closest friend) to investigate.  He's accompanied by several Michaelhouse colleagues.  Master Ralph de Langelee is a retired soldier who's still good in a fight (and his latest lover's husband has discovered the relationship), Brother William has once again alienated much of Cambridge, Matt has become too close to the surgeon's wife, and gentle Clippsby can't be separated from his protectors.  Once in Peterborough, they find an abbey full of intrigue and a town whipped to the edge of revolution by the 14th Century version of a millionaire socialist.  Gregory wrote a satisfying mystery with hints of workplace comedy.  We've known Matt, his book bearer Cynric, Michael, and William for 19 books and the other two travelers for more than a dozen.  We see how they know and play to each other's strengths and foibles, and how even prickly and unlikable William is a friend who the other can count on to "have their backs."  Once again, I want to binge-read the series from the beginning so I can see how the friendships have developed.

Wrath of the Furies

Warning - mild spoilers for Raiders of the Nile and The Seven Wonders

After Gordianus rescued Bethesda from the Cuckoo's Nest in Raiders of the Nile, the couple return to the relative safety of a fishing village near Alexandria.  While guests of retired court eunuchs Kettel and Berynus, Gordianus get word that his former tutor, Antipater of Sidon is still alive.  Antipater had two purposes in escorting Gordianus to the Seven Wonders - showing his pupil the world and helping overthrow the Roman Empire.  Despite this, and the danger any Roman will encounter traveling in the outer reaches of the Empire, Gordianus feels a duty to rescue his mentor.  Posing as a mute to disguise his obvious accent and bringing Bethesda as a translator, Gordianus finds Antipater in a lower tier of Mithridates court and possibly regretting his decision.  Thanks to his disguise and his encounter with an undercover diplomat, Gordianus ends up witnessing the Ephesian Vespers, but can he save his tutor?  Or any of the Romans scheduled for execution?  Steven Saylor's latest Roman sub Rosa mystery is thoroughly engrossing and taught me about an ancient massacre I'd never heard of.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Brush Back

I've got mixed feelings about Brush Back, Sara Paretsky's most recent VI Warshawski novel.  At its heart is a murder in retrospect (one of my favorite tropes), but Paretsky's awkward use of retcon kept pulling me out of the story.  She probably though that rooting her novel in the past would emphasize VI's new age instead of reminding me that a character once just a few years younger than my mother is now barely older than I am.

If you can ignore Vic's obvious age shift, Brush Back fits in well with the other late Warshski novels. Vic's high school boyfriend Frank (the one who comforted her after her mother's death) wants her to investigate his sister Annie's murder, a crime for which their mother Stella served 25 years in prison.  There's no reason for Vic to take on the case - it's technically been solved, Stella hated (and hates) the Warshawski family, and Vic was slightly jealous of the striving girl her late mother took under her wing.  Vic's also hosting her late cousin Boom-Boom's goddaughter, a Canadian hockey prodigy whose presence both leads to the book's climax and helps set Boom-Boom's hockey career in the early 90s (7 or 8 years after his character was killed in Deadlock).  I enjoyed watching Vic dive into the past, unraveling her usual blend of political, financial, and police corruption, but would have enjoyed t even more if the time shift had been more subtle.