Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The October Horse

The October Horse - Colleen McCullough

The October Horse is the latest and last in an epic series chronicling the end of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Roman Empire. You can't read The October Horse without being in awe of Colleen McCullough's scholarship, attention to detail and painstaking historical acuman. You also can't really read it without having read the previous five volumes (The First Man of Rome, The Grass Crown, Fortune's Favorites, Caesar's Women, and Caesar), so don't start in on them unless you have a lot of time on your hands (total= 4,916 pages).

I started reading them about three years ago (blame Gladiator), without any real expectation of what I was reading, either in scope, granduer or involvement. McCullough's Rome is not the Rome you typically find in historical fiction. Battles (although present and often filled with serious reprecussions) are not the driving force of the novels. It is personality that drives McCullough's vision of Rome and the Romans within. Her vivid portraits of Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Anthony, Cato and the countless others that inhabit her pages, are highly realistic, almost evocative personalities, reflecting the daily lives, ambitions, philosophies, obsessions, egos, emotions and respective madnesses of the historical personages.

The October Horse outlines the final phase of Caesar's civil war with Pompey, his dalliance with the young Queen of Egypt Cleopatra, and his subsequent reforms of Republican Rome, setting the stage for an Empire whose roots still can be found today across most of the Western world. There are no surprises here - Caesar ends up dead in the Senate - and a new character dominates the final half of the book - Octavian, Caesar's heir, who is intelligent, charismatic and ruthless by turns, jostling with Anthony and the Liberators to avenge Caesar and continue Caesar's unfinished work.

Drawn from letters (literate Romans were inveterate and constant letter-writers), original sources, historical studies and her own interpretations of the world of Rome, the books are a must-read if you are interested in the era. If not, best to stay away as the sheer bulk of the volumes makes slogging through them a herculean task.

For more information online on Roman history, check out the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, LacusCurtius: Into the Roman World, and, as cited before, Caesar's weblog.

If you are interested in Egypt and Cleopatra, be sure to check out The Theban Mapping Project, and find out about Cleopatra's royal palace in Alexandia, recently uncovered by underwater archaeologists.

Read Shakespeare's take on royal romance with Anthony & Cleopatra online. Enjoy!

Friday, February 21, 2003

The High Rise Private Eyes

The High Rise Private Eyes: The Case of the Climbing Cat - Cynthia Rylant, G. Brian Karas

It is harder and harder to find kid's books that aren't tied to some commercial enterprise such as a toy, TV show or movie. It is a shame because while it is now easy to find children's books with characters such as Scooby-Doo as they garner large tracts of shelf-space in the store, it is harder to pick out good, general, non-commercialized reads for kids.

The High Rise Private Eyes is a series of (so far) 6 children's books written by Cynthia Ryland and well illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Each book involves an unlikely pair of detectives, Bunny Brown (a rabbit naturally enough) and Jack Jones (a raccoon), a mild mystery and a snappy, gentle Nick-and-Noraesque banter between the two that makes the characters stand out. The book is terrific for the beginner reader or to read to your children directly. I couldn't resist putting a Bogart spin on Jack's sly responses when reading to my son, an imitation that fell on deaf ears when I realized that no one outside of myself thought I sounded anything like Humphrey Bogart.

So far, my son and I have worked our way through just two of the six stories (the Case of the Climbing Cat, and the Case of the Disappearing Monkey) and we will probably be looking at the others in the near future. The only minor quibble: It would have been nice to have them in a compilation instead of as separate books, but as most of the titles were released in the past year, so I expect we will see a compilation in the near future.

Monday, February 17, 2003


Crusade : The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War - Rick Atkinson

Generally, my thought was that I would alternate my reviews on this site between fiction and non-fiction, but lately I've been reading nothing but non-fiction, so my apologies for failing to provide enough variety to readers seeking good fiction. Don't worry, I'll probably swing to the other extreme in the near future....

As Gulf War II: The Sequel is now manifestly preparing to get underway, I thought it might be useful to go back and re-read Crusade, the definative overview of the 42-day Persian Gulf War, which, among other things, made SCUD a household world, and catapulted CNN into the major leagues of reporting.

Crusade tells a complete story of the war, from its early beginnings to its questionable end, with an exhaustive account that outlines strategies, tactics, weapons and politics, and more importantly, the people behind them. From Marine recon units trapped by the Iraqi assault on Khafji to the windowless basement rooms of the command center, the book keeps rolling along, mixing anecdotes with good, solid strategic analysis and background. Atkinson does an excellent job outlining the give-and-take of structuring the plans behind the war, and delving into the sometimes acrimonious relationships between the various arms of the military (namely the proponents of air power versus ground force (with the Navy toddling along last, like an irritating little brother, continuously piping up "Me to, I wanna play!").

Of particular interest was General Norman Schwarzkopf, whose incandescent rages made him a figure of terror to much of the command staff. Atkinson spends a good deal of time examining "Stormin' Norman" and his role at the center of the storm. The book also illuminates a number of interesting side-issues that, quite frankly, still offer highly valid observations for the upcoming conflict (Assuming it actually kicks off). These include some good discussion on why the war was halted so abruptly (arguably allowing much of the Republican Guard to escape); on why, despite repeated attempts to curtail them, Iraqi mobile SCUDs still managed to pop off shots at Israel and Saudi Arabia (and why Norman Schwarzkopf hated the Special Forces and repeatedly resisted their use); how the most low-tech weapons the Iraqi's used (sea-mines) proved to be the most damaging weapon they deployed; and the marginal usefulness of the chemical and biological defenses that the military touted.

The most engrossing thing about the book by far are the characters of the people involved, from exhausted pilots ill from flying at night for a month straight, to a flamboyant British tank commander who, living in absolute dread of trigger-happy U.S. gunners, attaches an enormous British flag to his vehicle to prevent fratricide (It was somewhat successful in that he himself was not fired upon by U.S. forces however it is telling and sobering to note that all but a handful of British casulaties of the war were inflicted by U.S. troops.).

Overall Crusade is an excellent and fairly well-balanced account of the Gulf War. Whatever your war sentiments and opinions happen to be, the book should be a must-read towards understanding where we are today and how we arrived at this perilous state of affairs.

And now, for good or bad, Atkinson can write a sequal.....

There are a large number of books, studies and publications on the Gulf War, far too many to list here, but if you enjoy the ground-pounder's view of the action, try Bravo Two Zero by Andy MacNab for a riveting true account of an 8-man SAS team inserted into "SCUD-alley". Not for the faint-of-heart.

Online, you can find one of the best sites on the Gulf war at PBS. PBS's Frontline produced a number of excellent documentaries on both the war, international terrorism, biological warfare and Saddam Hussain's Iraq. Check it out at Frontline: The Gulf War. Completely engrossing.

Monday, February 10, 2003

See No Evil

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism - Robert Baer

I started reading spy thrillers and techno-thrillers back in my late-teens, at the height of Reagan's presidency and the 1980's Cold War with the "evil empire". By the time the Wall collapsed, I had moved on, more interested in history and reality than in the grandiose themes and psuedo-threats that most spy novels take for granted. Those lurid fictions of the Cold War had one unexpected progeny, in that they did spawn in me an ongoing interest in real-world spycraft. The result is that I can seldom resist a glimpse into that secret, covert world, so when I spotted See No Evil on the bookstore shelf, I had to crack it open.

See No Evil is a biography of sorts, following the author through his 25-years of service (mainly overseas) with the CIA in India, Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle East hotspots. To an extent, See No Evil is a cautionary tale. Inspired by the events of 9-11, it is a call to action for the U.S. to resume and expand the activities of the Directorate of Operations, the spies that actually spy, on the ground and in the field. Baer is at pains to note that the DO job is mainly about spycraft - recruiting and running agents, pulling in data, passing along the vital human intelligence that satellites and intercepts cannot provide. He paints a compelling and rather searing indictment of the CIA's policies and government direction in the past 20 years of moving away from relying on human intelligence to trust instead in technology, a strategy that, post-9-11, seems astonishingly naive.

Baer's ground-eye view of the CIA is refreshing, if somewhat limited in its overview of the strategic thinking that drove the organization. Baer is a field-man, working the world's terrorism hotspots, who, among other things, managed to make the DO issue two unique memos forbidding agents from a). parachuting with Russian special ops teams and b). driving T-72 tanks without a license.

The book reveals only limited surprises, as much of what it covers are the events of the 1980's and early 90's (the Beirut bombings, the hostage crisis, Iraq) but Baer does a good job in tying the events of yesterday to the post-9-11 world. At times, having followed in the headlines many of the events that Baer was on the periphery of, one is left with a maddening sense of "if only..." and how today's events may have changed as a result. Particularly moving was Baer's trip into the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon that, at a later date, was found to have taken him within a hundred yards of where several Beirut hostages were being held.

The long and short of it is that See No Evil is a good, solid account of life as a CIA field agent (if somewhat light on the analysis) and is intended as a wake-up call for anyone that thinks you can ever figure out what's going on in the world without getting your feet on the ground.

The CIA is on the web and you can go there...by clicking here. Go on, I dare you.

I especially like their homepage for kids. Yeah, that's right. No, I'm not kidding.

For some other books on spycraft, intelligence and general sneakiness, check out:

Inside the CIA: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Most Powerful Spy Agency by Ronald Kessler

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency by James Bamford (This one is particularly interesting is you are interested in codes, intercepts and electronic eavesdropping. If you are not, then probably give it a pass, as it is loooong.)

By Way of Deception by Victor Ostrovsky (A good look at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, by an insider.)

Want to go to work for the CIA? You might need this.....

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York - Herbert Asbury

My old U.S. history book from school (which unfortunately I no longer have) skipped right over the Draft Riots of New York in a sentence or two and touched only tangentially on the horrific poverty and crime endemic to certain areas of New York, and the influx of immigrants through the city. Chiefly what I recall from those days is the smell of chalk and erasers, furtive whispers, a long line of students listlessly propping their heads up on their chins as they listened to the teacher drone on about various Supreme Court decisions, Dred-Scott, Gettysburg, and other things they collectively saw as irrelevant to their lives. It was, unfortunately, akin to watching paint dry.

How sad that history is often reduced to pedantic interpretations without the verve, color, excitement, fear, emotion and lives of the people of the era.

Obviously no one ever told Herbert Asbury that he had to be boring.

The Gangs of New York vividly recreates New York life in the Five Points, Hell's Kitchen, and Paradise Square, the kingdoms of the gangs. Peopled variously with dead-eyed, slungshot-laden gangs such as the Bowry Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, the Shirt-tails, the True-Blue Americans; piratical river gangs like the Daybreak Boys, the Hookers, and the Patsy Conroys'; Fagin-like pickpocket crews, Chinese Tongs, ward-heelers, street-sweepers, gangsters and gamblers and rife with crimping bars, brothels, rancid tenements, raucous theaters, penny gin-mills and gaming hells, the subject matter alone make The Gangs of New York a rich find.

Here's a brief taste (and frankly as vivid a character sketch as you are ever likely to find in print):

"Gallus Meg was one of the notorious characters of the Fourth Ward, a giant Englishwoman well over six feet tall, who was so called because she kept her skirt up with suspenders, or galluses. She was bouncer and general factotum of the Hole-In-The-Wall, and stalked fiercely about the dive with a pistol stuck in her belt and a huge bludgeon strapped to her wrist. She was an expert in the use of both weapons, and like the celebrated Hell-Cat Maggie of the Five Points, was an extraordinary virtuoso in the art of mayham. It was her custom, after she had felled an obstreperous customers with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested and struggled, she bit off his ear, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar, in which she kept her trophies in pickle."

The book weaves the sordid history and practices of the gangs, mainly the enormous Five Points gangs in the first half of the book (often with members numbering in the thousands) that literally controlled whole sections of the city, followed by the more common criminal gangs and the early beginnings of what would, ultimately, evolve into the more recognizable classic "gangster" of the 1920's. If there is a fault in Asbury's account (which he styles an "informal history of the New York underworld") is that while the linkages between the political corruption of Tammany Hall that encouraged, protected and promoted the gangs are outlined, it is somewhat sparse and subjective, without the clear connections that linked money, property, immigrant votes, protection rackets and other vices to the political structure of the city and the nascent NYPD.

Realistically the book culminates with the Draft Riots in 1863, which saw more than 2,000 people killed during a week-long riot that ravaged New York (That's the same number of Union forces that died at Antietam (or Sharpsburg, if you are from the South), one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War). Unfortunately the Draft Riots occur at roughly the half-way point of the book, with the remaining, more anti-climatic chapters outlining the final heydays of the gangs and the slow erosion of their dominance and control as political corruption was rooted out. Though the book is somewhat archaic (first published in 1928) and the language is somewhat lurid at points, it offers a insiders look at the underbelly of the city that most histories ignore entirely.

The only other failing of note is that, for a non-New York reader unfamiliar with the city's geography, a good map would have been a priceless addition.

The Gangs of New York is, at the most basic, a rich, exciting, bloody and base tapestry, populated by some of the most appalling personages you can imagine. In other words: a damn fine read.

Asbury authored a number of other books over the years including The Gangs of Chicago, The Barbary Coast (a look at the underworld of San Francisco), and The Sucker's Progress (gambling), among others. For more about Asbury visit this site.

For another look at the Five Points, check out Tyler Anbinder's book Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum.

For a good (if heavy and lengthy) history of New York, read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows.

You can find some background on the Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury and the infamous Bill the Butcher here.

Take a tour of the archeological work being done on historic New York and the Five Points, or check out a good list of sites related to the history of New York, and a quick (if a little mundane) look at Hell's Kitchen today.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

In Memoriam

In Memoriam

Colonel Rick Husband
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson
Commander Laurel Clark
Captain David Brown
Commander William McCool
Dr. Kalpana Chawla
Ilan Ramon

"I remember, for my part, another of those hours in which a pilot finds suddenly that he has slipped beyond the confines of this world. All that night the radio messages sent from the ports in the Sahara concerning our position had been inaccurate, and my radio operator, Neri, and I had been drawn off our course....

We had no means of angular orientation, were already deafened, and were bit by bit growing blind. The moon like a pallid ember began to go out in the banks of fog. Overhead the sky was filling with clouds, and we flew thenceforth between cloud and fog in a world voided of all substance and all light. The ports that signalled us had given up trying to tell us where we were. 'No bearings, no bearings," was all their message, for our voice reached them from everywhere and nowhere. With sinking hearts Neri and I leaned out, he on his side and I on mine, to see if anything, anything at all, was distinguishable in this void. Already our tired eyes were seeing things - errant signs, delusive flashes, phantoms.

And suddenly, when already we were in despair, low on the horizon a brilliant point was unveiled on our port bow. A wave of joy went through me. Neri leaned forward, and I could hear him singing. It could not but be the beacon of an airport, for after dark the whole Sahara goes black and forms a great dead expanse. That light twinkled for a space - and then went out! We had been steering for a star which was visible for a few minutes only, just before setting on the horizon between the layer of fog and the clouds.

Then the other stars took up the game, and with a sort of dogged hope we set our course for each of them in turn. Each time the light lingered a while, we performed the same crucial experiment. Neri would send his message to the airport at Ciseneros: 'Beacon in view. Put out your light and flash three times.' And Ciseneros would put out its beacon and flash three times while the hard light at which we gazed would not, incorruptible star, so much as wink. And despite our dwindling fuel we continued to nibble at the golden bait which each time seemed more surely the true light of a beacon and was each time a promise of a landing and of life - and we had each time to change our star.

And with that we knew ourselves to be lost in interplanetary space among a thousand inaccessible planets, we who sought only the one veritable planet, our own, that planet on which alone we should find our familiar countryside, the houses of our friends, our treasures."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars