It Was the War of the Trenches

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A gritty look at WWI, Jacques Tardi’s It was the War of the Trenches shows the dark side of World War I from the French side. Most of characters are jaded, egotistical schemers, who’re willing to break the rules. They’d inflict themselves with wounds to avoid fighting. They’d collude with the enemy if it meant survival. They would shoot women and children if that was the order given.

Nonetheless, I felt bad when a man would die, even though that same man would desert his comrades or cheat them one way or another. It’s an interesting angle to a historical book.

Well, it’s not exactly a historical book. In the forward Tardi says:

“This is not the history of the First World War told in comics form, but a non-chronological sequence of situations, lived by men who have been jerked around and dragged through the mud, clearly unhappy to find themselves in this place, whose only wish is to stay alive for just one more hour…”

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The drawings convey the horror and violence of the war, but I must remind myself and you to realize that this book is just one perspective on the war. It’s definitely worth reading, though I don’t think children under 15 should read it (maybe older still). But also, we should read and view other more historical books or films to really understand “The War to End All Wars.”

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Audubon, On the Wings of the World

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I learned so much about the life of John James Audubon from the graphic biography, Audubon, Audubon, On The Wings Of The World [Graphic Biography]. I knew nothing about his dedicated wife, who had to put up with her husband’s long absences as he worked on his magnum opus,  The Birds of America

This book tells the story of his life from his first foray into illustration and his courtship. His wife was incredibly patient and supportive. What Audubon was trying to do, illustrate birds so that they seemed fully alive, was unheard of in his day and he experienced great frustration because people kept comparing him to Alexander Wilson, an earlier illustrator, who inspired Audubon, but whom Audubon believed was inferior.

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I was shocked at the number of birds, Audubon shot in order to illustrate all the species found in American. He’d shoot many of one species and shot thousands over all. According to the book, he did not find this at odds with his love for birds or his desire to add to their conservation and our understanding of them.

On The Wings of the World, has good illustrations, though they aren’t on par with Audubon’s own work. That would be amazing — and would probably mean a much more expensive book. I feel I’ve a fuller and deeper understanding of Audubon, who’s presented warts and all. It would make a great gift and belongs in every library.

Abraham’s Well

I just finished my friend, Sharon Ewell Foster’s Abraham’s Well: A Novel. Since I know Sharon and have enjoyed her books set in modern times, Ain’t No River and Ain’t No Valley this work of historical fiction was a departure. I can’t pretend that my review is unbiased so don’t say I didn’t warn readers.

The story reminds me of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as it consists of an elderly woman looking back on her life during a significant historical period. Armentia, the main character, is African American and Cherokee. She lives in the 19th (and I suppose early 20th century) experiencing tribal life, slavery, the removal of Cherokee and other native Americans during the Trail of Tears and eventually freedom. It’s the story of an imperfect character, rather than a superhero, finding strength and courage to surmount injustice and hardship. I’m a sucker for such stories.

For me historical fiction succeeds by teaching me and entertaining me and Abraham’s Well does both. Although I’ve read a little about the Trail of Tears and knew that some African American’s are part Native American, I had no knowledge of African American involvement in this chapter of American history. Sharon includes an explanation of why she decided to write about this topic and her family heritage as it relates to the themes of the novel. I found that quite interesting. I could see this making a good movie.

The book reads very fast, as Bridget points out. Bridget’s also right about the chapters on the preaching but there’s probably less church-going in this story than the others I’ve read so I had a different view of that aspect. I didn’t mind it. I realize that Sharon’s fans will be looking for Christian fiction when they decide to read this novel.

Melting Pot or Civil War?

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Well, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s also the title of Reihan Salam’s recent book on immigration and the full title is Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders Many might feel the title says it all and there’s no reason to read the book. Well, if all you’re interested in is swapping opinions then, yes, you don’t have to read the book.

However, Salam offers a lot of facts and expert analysis, his own and others, that deepened my understanding of U.S. immigration trends and demographic data that I hadn’t known.

In general, I tend to prefer the golden mean and to extreme solutions. I took out this book hoping to find new solutions, and Salam provides some. He often uses his own family’s experiences in addition to research data to differentiate various kinds of immigrants and outcomes. Immigrants who’re among the first to come to a country tend to assimilate well. It makes sense as they must learn the language and customs since there aren’t many people to talk with and living out the past lifestyle is tough because small numbers don’t make running a business geared to a very tiny subculture profitable.  As the numbers from a country increase it’s easy to live in an enclave where you can speak your own language, eat your homeland’s food, etc.

Because Salam’s parents came to the US when few other Bangladeshi’s lived her, the family soon assimilated. Those who came later, arrived in a New York that had plenty of shops, social opportunities and Bangladeshi influence, that it was possible to live comfortably within an enclave. (Now I see assimilation as a personal choice, but it does have costs in terms of opportunities. For example, Americans can go to Asia and teach English and get by, but if they want more career opportunities, they need to speak the local language at a high level.)

(My own experiences bear this out. When I worked in Japan, I was the only non-Japanese person in my workplace who only spoke English. I had to learn Japanese and I did. I also adapted more to Japanese culture. In other countries there were more people who spoke English and hence my proficiency in Korean or Chinese never got to the level of my Japanese.)

Salam examines the need for low skilled labor and the economic results of various ways of getting such labor as used in the US, South Korea, Sweden and elsewhere. He also does a good job of considering how the increase of automated labor will impact low skilled workers. He explains how the influx of low skilled labor impacts the current workers who are on par with them.

What is the solution — or solutions? Salam proposes a few including the development of charter cities and new ways of supporting poor children.

Yes, Salam is a conservative, but his tone is rational and his ideas, for me were new. He sympathizes with immigrants and acknowledges people’s desire to find a solution that is kind and fair.

A good summary of with more details is here.

Out of the Silent Planet

In fact, I’ve Out-of-the-Silent-Planet-9780684833644I’m not a big science-fi fan. I rarely read the genre, but I loved C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. I’ve already ordered book two in this tragedy.

In Out of the Silent Planet, average Joe, Dr. Ransom, happens upon and old schoolmate Devine and Devine’s new evil scientist buddy Weston. Ransom had been tramping around the countryside and, as a favor to a woman he met, went to this house to see why her son, a servant there was late and her mother was apprehensive. It turns out that she had good cause. When Ransom arrived, the two men were fighting, physically, with the boy. In the end Weston and Devine were in the process of abducting the boy. In the end the boy is freed and Ransom, when he comes to after being knocked unconscious. Ransom realizes he’s hurtling through space kidnapped by Weston and Devine.

Ransom overhears Weston and Devine. They’ve been to Malacandria, the planet they’re heading to, before and were returning to offer up Ransom to the aliens there. They’re hoping to load up on valuable resources and hand over Ransom to the sorns, a species of aliens on Malacandria.

Ransom’s forewarned and planned to escape. He manages to run off though a bizarre environment with pink sticky earth, odd food, three homo sapien species that can see angels and that get along with each other. As a philologist, Ransom is quickly able to learn the aliens’ language. (Well, one of them, as it turns out each species has its own language and one shared language.)

As Ransom evades and eventually is captured by the aliens, he learns to look at life in a completely different and wise way.

This is a book I relished. Lewis has such a gift for language and made me want to improve the book I’m working on currently. The themes are related to Christianity, but even if that’s not your faith, it makes you think about human life and our foibles.

I read that C.S. Lewis once criticized sci-fi because in most stories the writer takes you to the end of the universe, but everything is basically the same with the substitutions being basically the same as what we now have. For example, here we have guns while in outer space in most stories they just use lasers and use them in the same instances we  would. In Out of the Silent Planet, the aliens’ philosophy and approach to life is just about completely different from humans. They’re quite impressive on the whole.

Good Quotations

“And how could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back–if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?”

“A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmán, as if pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.”

“But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.”

The Screwtape Letters

screwtape-lettersC.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters has been on my mental list of books I should read for years. Boy, do I regret not getting to this witty, wise book sooner.

Written from the point of view of a modern devil, Lewis’ book is a collection of letters between Screwtape, an uncle mentoring Wormwood, a young tempter as he tries to win a human over to the side of evil. The letters are clever as well as perceptive. Screwtape must make his thoughts on temptation and salvation clear to Wormwood, who’s something of a blockhead. Screwtape makes it crystal clear that for the Devil to win, he doesn’t care about the “quality” of the fallen as much as about the quantity and the modern world where people’s thinking have become sloppy and morality fuzzy, allows for evil to win boatloads of souls. The book takes you on an interesting journey as Wormwood bungles his mission.

Reading from Screwtape’s point of view was tricky. I had to constantly remind myself that for him the “Enemy” was God and that he flipped his opinion of Above (heaven) and Below (hell). I’m used to seeing as the Above being the home of the good guys.

Much of the book examines modern British society’s failings but Lewis’ criticisms are still true, at least they fit in the US where morals have been shrugged aside as irrelevant, education’s been watered down and the word “democracy” is misunderstood.

Here are a few quotations:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”

“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”

“Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”

“When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this easily managed.”

The Adventures of Sally

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When Sally Nichols inherits a fortune and leaves New York to . She’s dreamed of going to France and off she goes. she’s the sort of girl every man falls for, through no fault of her own.

Soon she winds up in in London and gets roped into helping her hapless brother Philmore, who’s constantly bungling into financial difficulty whether it’s through a disastrous theatrical production or some hare-brained business venture. She meets red-haired Ginger, who falls for her, but whom she keeps at a distance prior to discovering that her fiancé has married. Shortly after unconsciously winning Ginger’s love, she meets his grouchy uncle on a train and he’s soon smitten. The story goes on to follow the ups and downs of Sally’s financial and romantic life. It’s a pleasant, witty story that had me laughing out loud.

I was a worried that I wouldn’t enjoy a P.G. Wodehouse book without Jeeves, but while I think the Jeeves stories are of a higher order, I did enjoy The Adventures of Sally.

I listened to the Jonathan Cecil’s narration and highly recommend that audiobook.

Quotable Quotes:

“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”

“Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious.”

“It seems to be one of Nature’s laws that the most attractive girls should have the least attractive brothers. Fillmore Nicholas had not worn well. At the age of seven he had been an extraordinarily beautiful child, but after that he had gone all to pieces; and now, at the age of twenty-five, it would be idle to deny that he was something of a mess.”