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...

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Golem's Eye

The Golem's Eye (Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 2) by Jonathan Stroud

Something strange is afoot in London.

Nathaniel, once a mere magician-in-training, now a rising star in the government, is faced with two vexing problems - first, track down a small and persistant group of underground rebels threatening the stability of the magician's government and, more importantly, find out who or what is behind a mysterious and destructive series of magical attacks now rocking London.

The Golem's Eye is the superlative sequel to Jonathan Strauss's terrific The Amulet of Samarkand. Nathaniel must once again call on the services of the wily, shape-shifting djinni Bartimaeus, in all his devious and humorous forms, to unravel the mystery. The unlikely team of the ambitious student magician and the cynical, wise-cracking 5,000 year old djinni makes for a solid and involving page-turner. In this outing a new character is thrown into the mix - Kitty, a young leader of the resistance - whom Nathaniel must find. Toss in a dangerous, secretive mission to the enemy City of Prague, a deadly hidden menance that the resistence accidently unleashes, and the cold, devious ambitions of an unseen enemy within London itself, and even a djinni with the myrid skills of Bartimaeus ccould find themselves taxed.

Struss has written a fabulously original series of books with the Bartimaeus trilogy, the best magical series since Harry Potter. The new book, Ptolemy's Gate is due out in January 2006 and I for one, will be picking it up as soon as it hits the shelves. They are excellent. Here's a quick excerpt:

"The magician went a bit gog-eyed with forboding; rightly so as it turned out. The smoke coalesced into a muscular black form, some seven feet high, complete with four waving arms. It shuffled slowly around the perimeter of the pentacle, testing for weaknesses.

And to its evident surprise, found one.

The four arms froze for a moment, as if in doubt. Then a dribble of smoke emerged from the base of the figure and prodded the edge of the pentacle with experimental care. Two such prods were all it took. The weak spot was pinpointed: a little hole in the incantatory barrier. Instantly the pseudopodium extended forward and began to stream through the breach...

An instant later, both pentacles were empty, except for a tell-tale scorch where the magician had once stood and a charred book lying beside it.

Throughout the summoning chamber, there was stunned silence. The magicians stood dumbfounded, their clerks limp and sagging in their seats....

We higher beings began a cheery and approving chatter. I exchanged a few remarks with the green maisma and the stilt-legged bird.

'Nice one.'
'Stylishly done.'
'That lucky beggar. You could tell she could hardly believe it.'"

Be sure to visit The Bartimaeus Trilogy online for some additional excerpts.

Wondering what a 'golem' is? Wonder no longer...

Want to find out how to summon one of Bartimaeuses' kindred? It's not recommended but hey, do what you want. Check out this site or this one...but no guarantees.

Thanks for reading BookLinker!

Monday, November 28, 2005

The (Incomplete) Iraq / Afghan War Reading Review

The (Incomplete) Iraq / Afghan War Reading Review

It might be a bit of hubris to offer up a review for this many books in one fell swoop. Indeed given the sheer volume of publications on the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, particularly in the last year, any type of comprehensive review becomes... well, fairly subjective by sheer necessity.

My list is no exception.

The books below were selected for a number of different reasons (in one case because the cover just looked so damn interesting). I don't pretend that they cover the complete gamut of available books on the subject, or that they cover the complete range of political viewpoints on the war. My selections were driven by a long-standing interest in history, politics, and current events; a belief in humanity, previous good experiences with several authors, recommendations from various sources and by following my nose and my instincts on what looked worth cracking open and spending my time. I've dumped out of this review almost as many books as are included within it, mainly because they didn't impress in content or in writing quality, or because the books selected did a better job of telling that particular story. You have to draw the line somewhere, or we'll be here all day.

I don't expect people to agree with me on either my selections or my opinion - hey, it's a book review. You buy your ticket, you take your ride.

The books selected for the review were deliberately selected to cover a range of topical areas - from the battlefields to the backrooms of the White House, to the slums of Baghdad. I've always been a believer that proponents of a black and white worldview were trying to sell me something...and I generally like to make up my own mind on most things (except when my wife makes up my mind for me...). Garnering a range of information sources is the best way to develop some level of understanding but I don't pretend that I can ever know the real story, just a reflection of it.

Generally the best place to start is at the beginning, so for a good background source I recommend reading Rick Atkinson's excellent account of the first Gulf War, Crusade (reviewed previously here). It's useful in providing some context for the events today and, despite the many people wanting to paint the current conflict as one uniquely and entirely driven by George W. Bush, there are a number of forces at work and none of them are either simplistic or operate in a vacuum.

For a unique and deeply fascinating look at the backdrop behind the decision to go to war in Iraq, Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack provides a terrific "fly-on-the-wall" look at the decision-making process within the Bush White House. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty but even with this in consideration a disturbing pattern seems evident within the decision-making process of the administration that lends credence to the questioning of some of the elements behind the decision to go to war, particularly in the swift manifestation of that decision in the wake of 9/11 and the deliberate effort to interpret sometimes flimsy evidence as a smoking gun.

Woodward makes the most of his access and bases his account on exhaustive research and more than 75 interviews with high ranking officials including George W. Bush, Colin Powell and others. Despite the occasional misstep and a fairly dry and turgid writing style, the account is comprehensive and compelling.

Also of note is Richard A. Clarke's involving narrative Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror which touches briefly on similar issues (namely the swift determination of the administration to war on Iraq following 9/11 and the efforts to link Saddam to the 9/11 hijackers. Clarke's book offers an insiders look at the shadowy War on Terror and paints a disturbing picture of the early Bush White House as blithly unappreciative of the potential dangers of Al Quada and coldly manipulative of it as an opportunity in the aftermath of 9/11.

Less helpful is Clarke's failure in the book to cast a real light on the failings of the Clinton administration in recognizing the danger and the evolving threat of terrorism within the global community. You can cite the domestic political issues faced by Clinton as much as you want as an excuse for distraction, but the harsh reality is that his administration (though it did more than anyone previously) failed miserably in assessing and managing the threat. But, as was noted previously, hindsight is always twenty-twenty...

Lastly Imperial Hubris, originally published anonymously but later revealed to be written by Michael Scheuer, a CIA Middle-East expert, pulls no punches in lambasting the current public perception of the issues, heaping significant scorn on Bush's reasoning behind the war on terror and on the invasion of Iraq, calling for instead a much geographically wider, much more targeted effort (yes, using substantial military force where necessary) to defeat the Islamists and to reduce the political and strategic environment that lends them support. Imperial Hubris is a polemic, and not an altogether comfortable one, but one that seems intent on skewering all sides of the debate and forcing as many sacred cows as possible to be tossed out.

With the advent of the war against Al Quada and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a good background primer on the region is an absolute necessity. I heartily recommend Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, and Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl Ernest Meyer. These two works will give you the historical background. Then go and read some Kipling for the flavor...

For a more contemporary look at Afghanistan, the rise of Al Quada and Bin Ladin, crack open Steve Coll's superlative Pulitzer-Prize winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (detailed review can be found here). I also recommend Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile (also reviewed here). Both books are characterized by strong research, excellent writing and a highly involving look at the last thirty-years of Afghan history and its bitter aftermath.

The war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was an extraordinary one, by any definition, made moreso by the relative dearth of U.S. forces on the ground for much of the conflict. U.S. Special Forces played a key role in the Northern Alliance's overthrow of the Taliban regime and the relatively swift victory that ensued, bringing their battlefield expertise, communications, language, organizational skills, and their innovative, evolving warfare techniques to bear.

Linda Robinson's Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces takes a
careful look at the activities of the U.S. Special Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, although the book is in actuality an overview of their activities across other operational theaters such as Panama, Kosovo, Somolia, and more.

Robinson pulls together a solid account of the Special Forces, weaving together interviews with more than 30 special forces operators and delving into and contrasting the attitudes and approaches found in the Special Forces with the mainstream military forces.

By contrast Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda by Sean Naylor may have your gnashing your teeth in frustration as you read this taut, well-written account of a U.S. operation in the Shahikot mountains of south-east Afghanistan. Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down has helped drive a literary resurgence in intricate, well-researched and deeply involving accounts of battles and Not a Good Day to Die is written in a similar vein.

It is a highly engrossing, moving and involving account of Operation Anaconda, a large strike against a Taliban/Al Quada stronghold that goes dramatically wrong. Naylor's book gives a comprehensive account of how, despite all the technology and the firepower, planning can go seriously awry and how, although new technology can create more and better battlefield intelligence, the same technologies can result in information overload, coommunications friction and serious command-and-control issues.

The War in Iraq has been, by contrast, very different from Afghanistan.

John Keegan's book The Iraq War provides readers with a sound strategic and diplomatic overview of the events leading up to war, particularly in helping readers understand the context of the war, the process of the diplomatic dance and the directions of the major players.

Keegan doesn't treat the "march to war" as a process that occurs in isolation, but does a good job of drawing in the many and varied elements that contributed, not the least of which was Saddam's horrific record of human rights abuses, his wars with Iran, Kuwait and the Kurds and his overall history of belligerence. Keegan, one of the world's foremost military historians and the author of such works as Intelligence in War and the superlative The Face of Battle, has penned a dry, somewhat pedestrian work but one that provides a good and exhaustive viewpoint that is free of much of the overt political bile that mars some of the U.S. publications.

Beyond Keegan's contextual work, there are a wide range of publications that cover the actual events of the war itself. The use of "embedded" journalists provided a number of writers with the opportunity to experience the war in a way quite frankly unprecedented since World War II and at a level that lends itself to often highly personal accounts, albeit ones that are sometimes skewed through the narrow and oft-times constrained perspective of the particular journalist.

One of the first books released after the conclusion of the war (the overt formal hostilities at any rate) was The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division by Ray Smith and Bing West. Smith and West are both former Marines who traveled with the 1st Marine Division, at the "point of the spear", from Kuwait to Baghdad. Smith and West do an solid job chronicling the dangers and uncertainties the Marine's faced on the march however the book suffers from a decidely uneven editing job at points that detracts from the overall narrative. West and Smith offer little commentary on the political or diplomatic particulars of the war but offer an honest and revealing look at the men placed in harm's way.

Strangely enough, while reading The March Up, I was struck at one point with a startling and eerie sense of recognition as the authors described a skirmish that I had listened to live, courtesy of CNN and my local radio station, while driving to work one day. The contrast was jarring, disturbing and unnerving, listening to a war unfold within the banality of the everyday.

There have been a wide variety of publications being penned by the various embedded journalists but one of the better works was Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright. Wright, a writer for, of all publications, Rolling Stone Magazine, was also embedded with the Marines, specifically with the First Reconnaissance Battalion, the leading unit of the invasion (nicknamed the "First Suicide Battalion" for their position ahead of other U.S. Forces and for their role in racing ahead to trigger suspected ambushes).

Generation Kill has energy, verve and above all a taut sense of reality caught up within its pages. Wright pulls few punches, portraying the Marines, warts and all, delving into their attitudes and opinions on the war, their fears and hopes and personalities. As for the war itself, Wright builds a vivid picture of the mixed bag that was Iraq - the strange melange of little and futile organized resistance interspersed with vicious and intense Fedayeen attacks, and the horrific ongoing accidents of small groups of Iraqi civilians wandering into the crossfire. Brutally honest, involving and at times wrenching, Generation Kill is an well-written, highly charged piece of work.

In the Company of Soldiers : A Chronicle of Combat by Rick Atkinson is another example of embedded coverage. In this case Atkinson, the author of arguably the best account of the First Gulf War, Crusade, and of An Army at Dawn, was placed with the 101st Airborne Division commanded by the larger-than-life Major General David Petraeus. In the Company of Soldiers spends far less time looking at the war as a whole, as with his previous work, and little time on the individual soldiers on the battlefield.

Atkinson focuses the work on the senior commanders, looking at the logistics, planning, decision-making, communciation and adaptability of the 101st's command structure. Petraeus comes off as a caring, charismatic and intensely competitive leader and the overall image of the U.S. field commanders is one of high professionalism although there is a sense that Atkinson might have been better served in spending an equivalent amount of time with the men in the field. As a sketch of the decision-making and leadership qualities, it is a solid, but unexciting piece of work albeit not as encompassing as Crusade nor as far-reaching as An Army at Dawn.

Thunder Run by contrast is a pure battlefield account, and possibly one of the best written since Black Hawk Down. Thunder Run is a rousing and detailed account of the armored strike on Baghdad, following the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, the Spartan Brigade. A "thunder run" is an rapid, fast-moving armored attack, designed to punch through enemy defenses in a highly aggressive manner. Written by David Zucchino, Thunder Run offers an intense front-seat view of modern armor at war. The traditional strategic doctrines governing the use of armor and the "thunder runs" were, ironically enough, effectively turned on their heads when carried out in Iraq.

Zucchino pulls out subtle details on the men, the machines and the realities of war, capturing both the turmoil and the tragedy in equal measures. He also serves to shed light on one of the more erroneously reported and infamous incidents of the war - the shelling of the Palestine Hotel - offering a through after-action report with a number of witnesses to the incident, laying to rest the reports of a deliberate assault on the media. Here's a quick excerpt:

"The division had just completed the fastest sustained combat ground march in American military history - 704 kilometers in just over two weeks and 300 kilometers in one twenty-four hour sprint. It was April 4, 2003 and Jason Diaz from the Bronx - budding army lifer, husband of Monique, father of little Alondra and the twins, Alexandra and Anthony - was weary and filthy and longing to go home. But now, on this cold starry night, he was obliged to demand even more from his exhausted crew and his overextended tank. He had just been ordered to take them straight into Baghdad."

Thunder Run is, quite bluntly, a terrific read.

Beyond the battlefield accounts and the "embeds" are another set of stories penned by a handful of reporters who remained behind in Baghdad after the war began. The Fall of Baghdad by John Lee Anderson is a highly personal, very evocative, gritty and well-written account of Baghdad before, during and immediately after the war. Anderson draws a careful and nuanced account of his days in Baghdad, sketching out the often narrow path that individual Iraqi's have had to tread between a dangerous and rampant advancing superpower and the ruthless internal security apparatus of the Saddam and the Baathists. Through experience, interviews and trenchent observation, Anderson has built an effective and gripping picture of life in the final days of Baghdad, putting an all-too-human face on the people at the other end of the rifle sight.

By the time you finish The Fall of Baghdad, you are left with a decidely mixed taste in your mouth regarding the invasion - it rid Iraq and the world of Saddam and the apparatus that supported him - but the question of what impact the occupation will have for the peoples of Iraq is decidely uncertain. Anderson's book is not an overtly political work, it is not an anti-war or pro-war polemic, but rather concerns itself with opening a window on the conditions, thoughts, hopes and fears of the people of Iraq. Some of the messages are unpleasant and unsettling, but they do need to be heard and Anderson's work is a well-written and rich first step towards a better understanding of the situation.

Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels is another solid first-person account of Baghdad at war. Anne Garrels was the NPR correspondent in Baghdad, gamely sticking to her reportage throughout the war, one of only 16 non-embedded reporters who stayed in the capital during the war. Based out of the Palestine Hotel, she dodged her Iraqi minders, cajoled the bureaucracy, scrounged supplies, and roamed the city trying to pull together stories in the face of U.S. bombing and missle strikes and a relentless Iraqi propaganda machine.

Garrels work lacks the depth of content and insight that laces through Anderson's account but her book remains a vivid and highly readable account. Interestingly enough, it too touches on the U.S. shelling of the Palestine Hotel - from the receiving end of the shells. Overall Naked in Baghdad is a fascinating personal account but at the end of the day is more of a war diary.

Overall the books covered in this brief and incomplete reader review are all well worth your time and will help you gain a better comprehension of the events that have occurred and are daily unfolding. The one element I would recommend is that you make an effort to read outside of your comfort zone, whatever side of the political fence you may find yourself on.

For more on Iraq I recommend checking out some of the many first-hand accounts of the warzone. Here are a few notable ones:

Back to Iraq by Christopher Allbritten is a weblog started by a freelance journalist who went "stumbling around Iraqi Kurdistan" in 2002 and again in 2003 during the war. He is now based in Baghdad covering the post-war events for Time Magazine. He offers a solid and involving look at the tensions of living and working in Baghdad, and some fascinating insights into the evolving Iraqi political situation.

Michael Yon's Online Magazine site is another freelance independent reporter embedded with the U.S. Forces in Iraq. Yon's work is tense, tight and highly readable, providing a window into the lives of the men on the ground and the war they face that goes far beynd the regular media.

Also notable is Kevin Sites blog of his activities in the warzone.

For other miitary bloggers of note - check out The Mudville Gazette, which provides an exhaustive and comprehensive mil-blogger list, Blackfive, CounterColumn , and The Indepundit (formerly Lt. Smash when he was in Iraq...).

Beyond the mil-bloggers, check out Riverbend, Healing Iraq, and lastly Dear Raed (the famous Iraqi blogger who blogged from Baghdad throughout the war,. His site is now in hiatus).

If you are interested in more news from Iraq, check out Iraq Daily .

All of the above sites come with fairly extensive links to additional sites, so please feel free to browse (hey, its the world wide web ain't it?) and surf. There are some fascinating sites out there and some terrific writing hidden away online in obscure little corners.

Lao Tzu once wrote that the Tao which we can perceive is never the true Tao. I fully expect that people reading this review list from all sides of the political spectrum will say "yes but he didn't read this..." or, more bluntly "this guys is full of sh*t..." and you know what...I am. You may read all of the books reviewed here and totally disagree, you may think the selections from this list leave off some spectacular works and include some ridiculous ones...Great! Go crack open a book and read one! Send me a recommendation! Write your own take on things! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, before you know it a damn civil discussion might have broken out and who knows, dare I say it - some ideas might be exchanged, despite the differences in opinions.

One reason I decided to post this review was the sheer level of acrimony and posturing I've seen demonstrated on the web from all sides of the political spectrum. They are less interested in building up their understanding of the situation, the issues and the moral choices, and more interested in tearing down and using the events for gain in their arguments. I'll be blunt - I have no idea who's right and who's wrong and on the issues regarding the war, I'm particularly torn, galloping madly off in all directions at once, idealism, pragmatism, hope and cynicism, all pushing and pulling.... Reading these works is my effort to get a handle on the ideas being tossed about, an anchor of sorts amid the rhetoric and idiocy.

I hope in the end you check out some of the books.

Thanks for visiting. I hope you've enjoyed the post. Please feel free to link and add comments...Bye.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget

For our king and our country and the promise of glory
We came from Kingston and Brighton to fight on the front line
Just lads from the farms and boys from the cities
Not meant to be soldiers we lay in the trenches
We'd face the fighting with a smile - or so we said
If only we had known what danger lay ahead

The sky turned to grey as we went into battle
On the fields of Europe young men were fallin'
I'll be back for you someday - it won't be long
If I can just hold on 'til this bloody war is over

The guns will be silent on Remembrance Day
There'll be no more fighting on Remembrance Day

By October of 18 Cambrai had fallen
Soon the war would be over and we'd be returnin'
Don't forget me while I'm gone far away
Well it won't be long 'till I'm back there in your arms again
One day soon - I don't know when
You know we'll all be free and the bells of peace will ring again
The time will come for you and me
We'll be goin' home when this bloody war is ended

The guns will be silent on Remembrance Day
We'll all say a prayer on Remembrance Day
On Remembrance Day - say a little prayer
On Remembrance Day
Well the guns will be silent
There'll be no more fighting
Oh we'll lay down our weapons
On Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day - Bryan Adams

Monday, October 31, 2005

Make Love*

Make Love* The Bruce Campbell Way by Bruce Campbell

"Hail to the King, baby" - Bruce Campbell as Ash, Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell, author of If Chins Could Kill, the most original autobiography out of Tinseltown, has struck again with an "autobiographical" fiction, an implausible "what-if" with a premise to shake the very pillers of heaven...Make Love* The Bruce Campbell Way asks that most singular of questions -- What happens when a schlock-heavy, lantern-jawed, quip-laden B-Movie star like Bruce Campbell lands an "A" film?

Unexpectedly landing the lead role in a new Mike Nichol's romantic comedy (called Let's Make Love), Campbell is cast as a wise-cracking Southern doorman, dispensing sage relationship advice to a star-crossed Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger. He immediately starts making his presence known, researching his role as a doorman; running afoul of Colin Powell; teaching Richard Gere how to stage a real knock-down, drag-out punch-up; sourcing stunt cars for Nichols; dispensing unrequested advice to Renee Zellweger on sexing up her wardrobe and generally and liberally spreading his B-movie wisdom about like lawn fertilizer.

Broadly written but servicable, Make Love* The Bruce Campbell Way doesn't pretend to be literature. Campbell is, however, very, very funny, in his own peculiar twisted style, and Make Love* The Bruce Campbell Way, while it is never going to win an literary prizes, is something that most prize winners aren't - a fun and enjoyable read. Just don't expect Tolstoy.

For more info on Bruce Campbell and his multitudinous filmography, check out the always excellent Internet movie Database (IMDB) (Did you know that Richard Gere's middle name was Tiffeny?), or drop by Campbell's own website for an excerpt from the book and some words of wisdom on life in B-moviedom. You can also check out his work as Coach Boomer in Sky High or as the irritating theater usher who refuses entry to Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2.

Comments. links and feedback are always welcome.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Old Man's War

Old Man's War by John Scalzi


There. Now that "that" is out of the way, John Scalzi's Old Man's War is a gripping, enjoyable military science-fiction novel who's sole major fault is that it feels too damnably short.

The title is unfailingly accurate - it is the story of an old man's war. Join the Army, see the Galaxy, meet exotic aliens...and, well, kill them. Seventy-five year old widower John Perry takes a second shot at life and abandons Earth to enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces. Conveniently dropped into a new enhanced body, Perry is soon hip-deep in a decidely Darwinian conflict between various sentient species for habitable planets. The story arc follows the predictable set-up - boot camp (of a sort), first combat, the progressive hardening of the character through more varied combat experience.

Though the story arc is a familiar one, Scalzi has peppered his work with an abundance of nifty concepts, social commentary, technology and some interesting twists on the usual aliens, as well as tight writing and good characterization (and a slightly sick and off-beat sense of humor).

Aside from the story length, the only quibble I had plotwise with Old Man's War was the black-and-white, everybody versus everybody vision of the OMW's universe. This reads as a bit shallow and unbelievable - not because I couldn't believe in a Darwinian universe - but because I would have expected that the conflict would not be quite as simplistic as it seems portrayed here. I would have expected more alien species using different evolutionary tracks to succeed (i.e. some parasitical etc.) rather then just straight-forward violent competition...but hey, that's me.

If you are looking for more military science fiction to read, check out the Baen Free Library, courtesy of Baen Books (Note: not the publisher of OMW - that would be Tor Books) . The Baen Free Library includes works from such authors as David Drake, John Ringo, and David Weber (for the excellent Honor Harrington Series). I also recommend the old classic Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein if you haven't read it yet (note: I've linked to the version with the classic cover, not the trashy movie cover version) and as a bonus, I recommend my personal favorite Heinlein - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I also recommend avoiding Paul Verhovan's film version of Starship Troopers which, although I know some view it as a great exercise in satire, utterly and steadfastly manages to avoid any of the elements that make Heinlein's book a good read.

If you are interested, check out Scalzi's own website at www.scalzi.com and read the "Whatever" for some occasional scathing commentary, interesting tips on writing (and selling your writing) and info on other upcoming works. As I understand it, the sequel to Old Man's War entitled The Ghost Brigades is complete and heading for release in 2006. I for one will be waiting.

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*UPDATE* - As I am now starting to gather irritating amounts of spam in the Comments (i.e. see comment 1), I have activated Blogger's comment verification system. This should stop future spam but annoyingly Blogger offers no editorial control over existing individual spam postings so I can't delete those existing suckers....Please feel free to now post your pithy, erudite and thoughtful comments in a spamless environment.

You may now resume your regular programming.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

This is the oddest good book I've read in many a day. Reading it, I have the impression that Sarah Vowell and Mary Roach would get along like a house on fire...

Assassination Vacation is Vowell's exploration into the twisted annals of, well, Presidential assassinations, specifically Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell's odd fetish drives her on pilgramage, visiting innumerable assassination-linked locales, including the obvious ones like Ford's Theater and the more obscure such as Fort Jefferson prison on Dry Tortugas Island (where Dr. Samuel Mudd was held for his role in the Lincoln assassination), the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the Oneida Community of New York, the back roads of Maryland (and the assassination linkages found in a roadside diner's placemat and the Maryland state anthem) and even venturing up to the wilds of Buffalo (where McKinley met his demise).

Vowell's writing is tight, droll and astute, catching both the gravitas and the absurdity of both politics and history, one moment musing on the magnificence of the Lincoln Memorial and the next noting that the addition of the reflecting pool screwed up the lighting in the memorial - making Lincoln look as those someone was shining a flashlight up his nose. Of particular note is Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln who, like some dreadful jinxed Presidential Nemesis, found himself present at all three of the assassinations. Also new to me was the odd fact that Charles Guiteau (Garfield's mentally disturbed killer) blamed the doctor's at the trial for Garfield's death, claiming that he had merely shot the man, the doctor's were the ones that killed him (which, strangely enough, they did, through probing Garfield's wound with non-sterile fingers and instruments).

This odd literary pilgrimage delves into almost every conceivable "relic" of the assassinations, tracing torn bits of clothes, Presidential skull fragments, Booth's escape route and many, many side-trips into trivia, politics and culture, making a superlative, highly readable and fascinating blend.

Assassination Vacation is a page-turner, simply because you want to find out where Vowell will be dragging her readers next.

For more information on Abraham Lincoln, check out Lincoln Online, visit Ford's Theater, or check out John Wilkes Booth here. There are a number of Lincoln assassination sites on the web such as The Abraham Lincoln assassination Page (which includes (for CSI fans out there) info on Booth's autopsy), and a site with a collection of the legal trial documents.

For more on Garfield (shamelessly ignored online compared to Lincoln), visit Wikipedia, check out Georgetown University's Special Collections for Guiteau's letters and learn about Alexander Graham Bell's link to the assassination here.

For McKinley check out History.Net, this site, and the National Park Service site.

By way of interest, here's a list of the 18 attempts that failed....

Interestingly in addition to being an excellent (if obsessive) writer, Sarah Vowell is also the voice of this young lady...

Strange girl.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

The Closers

The Closers by Michael Connelly

Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch is back where he belongs, rejoining the LAPD after three years in exile as a private investigator. Bosch is dropped into the Open-Unsolved Unit, the "closers", a squad focused on cold cases - unsolved homicides - tracking down a DNA hit from a 17-year old murder of a teenage girl.
The Closers is Michael Connelly's 11th mystery featuring Harry Bosch and he delves into it with all the verve and strength of the previous novels, building a deepening mystery that slowly unfolds and develops. Connelly's Bosch is dogged, resourceful and persistent, bring his own tattered and haunted past to bear on uncovering the truth behind the killing, while tracing the echoing wake of the tragedy on the family and friends of the young victim.
The 'cold case' concept seems to be in vogue now, partially due to the success of television shows like CSI but The Closers does an excellent job building the reasoning, logic and evidence behind the case, and dropping in a enough mysterious twists to give life to the storyline that goes beyond just being a solid and robust police procedural. Well written, well-paced and taut, The Closers is well worth your time.

One notable relief in the book is the absence of any Hannibal Lector-type serial killer, a characterization that is frankly all-to-frequently used in murder mysteries - to the detriment of both the mystery and the skills of the author at drawing more vivid, purpose-driven characters, rather then another remorseless, uniquely twisted cartoon caricature. Much of the current crop of crime fiction that is replete and obsessed with serial killers reminds me a little of how the Agatha Christie school of murder (exotic poisons, locked room mysteries, esoteric motives...you get the picture) was so very out-of-touch with the real world. It took Raymond Chandler's mysteries to bring murder back to the street, back to real motives and real weapons, with real passions that spoke to the experiences of the world. Here's hoping that Connelly and some of his fellow authors are finally moving away from the serial killer writer's trap.

For more background on the author Michael Connelly, drop by his official website.
Check out Bosch's employers at the LAPD Online. For that matter learn a little bit more about Bosch's namesake Hieronymus Bosch, a painter termed by Carl Jung, the "master of the monstrous".
Lastly if you are still interested in reading serial killer mysteries, you might want to check out Elliott Leyton's classic book Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer for the definitive real-world portrait. 
Thanks for reading BookLinker. Be sure to support the site by making your Amazon purchases here. Comments and suggestions are always welcome!

Friday, July 29, 2005

"It was a gloomy, tempestuous period between sunset and sunrise...."

"It was a gloomy, tempestuous period between sunset and sunrise...."

Yes it is that time again, time for deathless prose to fall drippingly from the hissing neurons of a thousand writers brains as the results of the 2005 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are released!

The competition honors the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), best known for "The Last Days of Pompeii" and for the opening words of his wonderfully wretched work Paul Clifford (1830) which opened with "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Full results can be found at the Bulwer-Lytton website but here is a quick selection of some of the best of 2005:

"The night resembled nothing so much as the nose of a giant Labrador in excellent health: cold, black, and wet." - Devery Doleman, Brooklyn, NY

The golden-haired dawn curled back the fading face of night in a perpetual coiffure like an Ace comb in God's hand parting the day, making pompadours of mountains, crew cuts of Kansas wheat fields, and trendy cuts of the oceans' rolling waves. - Gordon Grant, Savannah, GA

Our fearless heroine (well, mostly fearless: she is deathly afraid of caterpillars, not the fuzzy little brown ones but the colossal green ones that terrorized her while she was playing in her grandmother's garden when she was just five or six years old, which, coincidentally, was also when she discovered that shaving cream really does not taste like whipped cream) awakened with a start. - Alison Heft, Lititz, PA

Long, long ago in a galaxy far away, in General Hospital born I was, and quite happy were my parents, but when a youngling still I was, moved we did. - Mary Potts, Oneco, Fl

She was standing weepily at her father's grave in the old family cemetery, where the ancient headstones tipped and tumbled like a flock of spring lambs, when she raised her weary eyes to see a shirtless man, his mighty thighs clutching the loins of a raging steed whose breath came hot as a desert wind, and made a mental note to get her hairdryer repaired. - Nancy Lee, Chapel Hill, NC

And finally the Grand Prize Winner:
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual. - Dan McKay, Fargo, ND

Once you are done laughing, drop by the the Bulwer-Lytton website for much, much more!

Thanks for visiting!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Flashman On the March

Flashman On the March by George McDonald Fraser

"When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman"- Abraham Lincoln

"For an instant, even I was appalled. But only for an instant." - H.P. Flashman

When Sir Harry Flashman (VC, KCB) finds himself in desperate need of a quiet and quick exit out of Trieste ("ain't much of town unless your in trade or banking or some other shady pursuit...") to duck the enraged uncle of yet another amorous conquest, he ends up escorting a load of silver intended to support the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1868. And with that, the twelfth packet of the Flashman Papers begins...

Flashman On the March is the latest Flashman novel penned by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser lifted Flashman wholesale out the famous Victorian book Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. In Hughes book, Flashman was the bullying, cowardly tormentor of Brown and his friends at the Rugby School, before being expelled for drunkeness. 
Fraser has asked the timeless question: what happens next? And so began the Flashman Papers, Harry Flashman's unvarnished memoirs, set down in Flashman's old age. The long-running series of historical fiction (the first of which appeared in 1968) traces Flashman's illustrious career in the British Army, dropping him into most of the major historical events and almost all of the unmitgated military disasters of the era. 
Flashman, though bluff and bold-faced in appearance, is a caddish, bullying, womanizing coward who manages, through luck, knavish skill and consummate acting, to find himself hailed as a Victorian hero in the first book. The remaining books follow a similar formula with Flashy trying desperately to get out from under while maintaining his dauntless facade and reputation, lecherously pursuing every available female in reach and pocketing any "blunt" and credit he finds along the way. His adventures include escaping the destruction of the British Army in Afghanistan in 1842 (where he accidentally develops his heroic reputation), skulking through the Sikh War and Soboran, bedding Lola Montez during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis, battling Skrang River pirates in Borneo, keeping the mad Queen of Madagascar happy, and instigating the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Other honors include the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, the March on Beijing, Little Big Horn and the American Civil War (serving on both sides, no less). And that really just covers the major engagements....
In Flashman On the March, Flashman finds himself reluctantly hooked into the British Expedition to Abysinnia. The Abysinnia Expedition was one of those stranger-than-fiction events that lurk in the back annals of history. Launched expressly for the purpose of rescuing a handful of British hostages being held by Emperor Theodore, the Abysinnia Expedition saw 12,000 British troops travel deep into the interior of Abysinnia to face down Theodore's army. 
Flashy finds himself cajoled by Robert Napier ("Bob the Bughunter" as Flashman terms him) into journeying into the interior to cement a secret alliance with the Gallas, preventing Theodore and the hostages from escaping the British by cutting off their retreat. Needless to say, Flashy finds himself on the sharp end yet again, ducking out on his enemies, cavorting with his female guide (also a jealous contender for the Galla throne), hobnobbing with the insane Emperor Theodore, and generally behaving with a reckless disregard for honor, duty or anything but the preservation of his own skin and reputation.
Flashman is very refreshing...and utterly politically incorrect. Fraser has gifted him with an unmitigated honesty that tars all the players involved with equal amounts of scorn, blame and praise (where necessary). Flashman provides Fraser with a worthy pawn for history's canvas and allows him to weave Flashman's disreputable adventures seamlessly with real historical figures (thus we've seen Flashman annoying Lord Cardigan, trying (and failing) to befuddle Lincoln, hoaxing Bismark into a boxing match...and many, many more escapades) helping to bring both the historic characters and their times into new light.

Here's a brief excerpt:
"You gather from this that I was in a tranquil, optimistic mood as I set off on my Abyssinian odyssey, ass that I was. You'd ha' thought, after all I'd seen and suffered in my time, that I'd have remembered all the occasions when I'd set off carefree and unsuspecting along some seemingly primrose path only to go head first into the pit of damnation at t'other end. But you never can tell.

I couldn't foresee as I stood content in the bow, watching green fire foaming up from the forefoot, feeling the soft Adriatic breeze on my face, hearing the oaths and laughter of the Jollies and the strangled wailing of some frenzied tenor in the crew - I couldn't foresee the screaming charge of long-haired warriors swinging their hideous sickle-blades against the Sikh bayonets, or the huge mound of rotting corpses under the precipice at Islamgee, or the ghastly forest of crucifixes at Gondar, or feel the agonizing bite of steel bars against my body as I swung caged in the freezing gale above a yawning void...

Aye, it's an interesting country Abyssinia"

The Flashman novels are more then just an adventurous farce however. Fraser's descriptions of Flashman's many battles quite literally take the reader into the heart of the fight, presenting, alongside the humor and comic aspects of Flashman's adventures, a deep and abiding feel for the horror, chaos and confusion that permeates the martial engagements. Given that Fraser fought in Burma in WWII (see "Quartered Safe Out Here", his war memoirs for details) in an environment that had far more in common with 19th century warfare then with the 20th, it is not surprising that he can bring both a historian's acumen and personal experience to bear on events.

Fraser's latest Flashman book (and frankly all the books in the series) is a throughly enjoyable romp and highly recommended.

For some information on Abyssinia, check out the Abyssinia Cyber Gateway. Intersted ina quick primer on Abyssinnia? Check out the ever dependable Wikipedia.

One of the many figures who pops up in Flashman's latest is George A, Henty, a British author who basically started the "boy's own" series of adventure novels in the 19th century. Henty also wrote about the Abyssinia Expedition (and accompanied it)in The March to Magdala. You can peruse some of his works online here, but alas, not his book on Abyssinia.

There's a fair number of Flashman sites online including The Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada, The Flashman Society, and the Royal Flashman Society of Southwest Virginia, which includes the Flashman Macropedia site which is bursting with Flashman background and trivia.

Lastly, here's a peek at Tisisat Falls, which plays a key role in Flashy's latest tome and provides yet another opportunity for Flashman to give readers keen insight into the deplorable depths of his character...no I'm not going to explain it, but it is, bluntly, classic Flashman.
Comments and links are always welcome.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

102 Minutes : The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

102 Minutes : The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer & Kevin Flynn

It is shocking to look back and absorb that it only took 102 minutes. Almost 4 years later, we are still dealing with the fallout.

102 Minutes serves up a well-written, absorbing and highly detailed, moment-by-moment account of the 102 minutes from the impact of Flight 11 until the collapse of the second tower. Dwyer and Flynn, two reporters for the New York Times, have drawn on interviews, first-hand accounts, radio and 9-11 phone transcripts, cell phone and email messages, and official reports, to put together a staggeringly detailed and vividly realized account that weaves together lives, observations, stories and testimony into an absorbing and comprehensive whole.
102 Minutes is a very difficult book to pick up and even harder to put down. The book traces the events of the day, the paths of the survivors, the observations, structural forensic engineering studies, and the many heart-breaking communiques of the trapped. 102 Minutes is THE account to read.
Of particular note is the authors work at examining the base causes that often determined who lived and who died - both from the engineering side, examining the construction of the towers - and the short-sighted, preventable mistakes that ultimately contributed to high losses of rescue personnel in the disaster (of particular note - the lack of coordination between the various police and fire units, the inability of the older radio sets being used to enable communication with firefighters in the towers, the lack of communication between structural engineers who were observing the disaster and predicting a potential collapse - the list goes on...).

The book is strictly limited to the events at the WTC - not covering the attack on the Pentagon or the events on Flight 93 but in covering the WTC the way they have, the authors have put together an account that is hard, but brilliant.

102 Minutes is hard to top, both for the strength of its well-written prose, or for the careful detailed investigation that it reflects.
For more reading on 9/11 I also recommend Dennis Smith's superlative Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center.

Dennis Smith is a retired New York City firefighter turned author (Report from Engine Co. 92 is probably his most notable work). Smith has written a deeply personal and intensely moving account of the events of the day and the grim aftermath of three months working on The Pile, sifting the wreckage for the fallen and the lost. Smith's story is a chronicle of that loss, pulling out the first-hand accounts of firefighters, police and emergency workers and looking at the emotional aftermath and impact on the NYFD
Also of note is, naturally enough, The 9/11 Commission Report...

For a good account of the engineering background on the collapse, check out this civil engineering site and for some background on the WTC, check out Great Buildings Online
Visit the somewhat controversial plans for the WTC Memorial here, or view the site itself through EarthCams.
For still more info, drop by the September 11th Digital Archive. You might also want to have a look at Time Magazine's online photo essay, Shattered.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Himalaya by Michael Palin

"Buddhism is a very steep religion."

This type of trenchent observation is what makes Michael Palin's travels a genuine joy to behold.
Having gone "Around the World in 80 Days", travelled "Full Circle" and traipsed across the Sahara. Michael Palin and his indefatigable BBC crew elected to visit the high peaks of the Himalaya. Covering 1800 miles, from Afghanistan to the China, the Himalaya is the highest mountain range in the world encompassing the top 14 tallest mountains in the world and some 30 peaks higher than 25,000 feet.
Palin and his crew delve into the peaks of K2 and Everest, the mysteries of Lhasa, Nagaland, Nepal, Kashmir, Tibet as well as the fringes of the range in Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, wandering pell-mell in a 3,000 mile journey that took them the better part of 6 months. Among other areas they trace the major river systems down into India (Ganges), Bangladesh (Brahmaputra) and China (Yangtze), exploring the peoples and the politics that permeate the region. Palin brings his extraordinary good humor, patience and off-beat charm to their travels, whether it is chatting with the Dalai Lama in exile, or watching a cricket match in the high peaks of Nagaland.

One of the most enjoyable elements of Palin's travels is the sheer joy of the act of travel that is clearly evident in his work. The other key element is his focus less on history, geography and poltiics and more on the people that live in the region and their day-to-day lives. He makes deliberate efforts to avoid the usual meetings with authority figures, concentrating instead on the everyday encounters of life and the travails of survival in the high ranges.
In short, Himalaya is fun, effortless read that really does make a reader want to walk a mile in Palin's shoes, or perhaps just alongside him on one of his wayward treks.
You can watch Himayala on DVD, but I also recommend checking out Basil Pao's amazing photography of the journey in Inside Himalaya. He does an excellent job capturing the sheer immensity and scale of the landscape in question.
Find out about trekking the Himalaya here (also with some very nice photography) and here, visit Everest or learn about the culture and anthropology of the region at Digital Himalaya.
Here's a nice satellite image, courtesy of NASA's Visible Earth site, of Everest from orbit...damn big, isn't it?

Find out about how the Himalaya were created at Nova Online's Everest site and check out this famous fellow...no, he's not another member of Monty Python.

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Comments and links are always welcome. Please click on some of our sponsors and please remember to support the site by making your Amazon purchases here.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Amulet of Samarkand

The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1)- Jonathan Stroud

Whenever an author finds exceptional success in their field, it tends to spawn wave after wave of second-rate imitations, generally poorly written and badly executed.
J.K. Rowlings' Harrry Potter series has been no exception. The bookshelves are sagging under the sheer weight of witches, wizards, and magicians - the vast majority of which range from the forgettable and mundane to the abysmal.

There are some notable exceptions.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Triology is one of those notable exceptions.

The Amulet of Samarkand introduces us to a different type of magic - gone are the magical school of wizardry, muggles and quidditch and instead Stroud's world draws on a darker source of magic - demonic efrits, djinni and spirits, summoned and controlled through elaborate, cryptic rituals and protections that force the djinni's and many lesser demons into unwilling servitude to those with enough magical knowledge to harness their deadly power.
Enter the two main characters: Nathaniel, a magician-in-training, sold to the government at five and apprenticed to a master magician; and Bartimaeus, a 5,000 year old djinni, summoned by Nathaniel to steal the magical Amulet of Samarkand and effect Nathaniel's revenge on the famous London magician Simon Lovelace. Stroud has created a fascinating Dickensian alternate London, where the government is dominated and ruled by magicians and their magical servants. Rich, intricate, yet with a bleak understory that belies the magical trappings, The Amulet of Samarkand is a terrifically enjoyable read, albeit one with a dark undercurrent, at times too dark for younger readers.

The standout aspect of the book is however the cynical, wisecracking, shape-shifting Bartimaeus, whose character leaps off the page and springs utterly to life. Whether it is musing over what manifestation would be most off-putting for its summoner or cracking wise on the history of magic (much of which is found in the many, many footnotes that permeate the Bartimaeus sections of the book - word to the wise - do not skip reading the footnotes), Bartimaeus is hilarious (and witheringly sarcastic) and nigh on unforgettable. Unwillingly, Bartimaeus finds himself thrown together with Nathaniel and the unlikely pair find themselves taxed to uncover a sinister conspiracy designed to overthrow the government.

Stroud does an excellent job of pulling together a comprehensive tale, alternating the viewpoint from Nathanial to Bartimaeus and building in a nice, well-rounded world, with just enough of the familiar to give the magical world they inhabit some solidity and depth. One notable (and somewhat unsettling) aspect of the book is that the magicians for the most part are an unpleasant, ambitious and power-hungry crew. The question of whether Nathanial will drift into this mindset is one that makes the tale much more ambiguous then is typical.

An excellent book and well-worth a look.

You can visit the real Samarkand online at Tashkent.org or here. You can also drop in on the real London here.
Drop by The Bartimaeus Triology online and read an excerpt from The Amulet of Samarkand and from the second book The Golem's Eye
Here's a quick magic spell for you (hope it is helpful), courtesy of William Shakespeare:

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

Thursday, May 5, 2005

The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway - Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil's Highway, El Camino del Diablo, lies sere, bleak , arid and forbidding, a calescent trail across the Mexican-US border for illegals seeking salvation and opportunity in the north.

The Devil's Highway is the true story of a group of 26 Mexican illegals who crossed the US-Mexican border heading through the desert for Ajo, Arizona on May 19th, 2001. By May 25th, only 12 came out.

Luis Alberto Urrea's book is a powerful piece of work. Urrea can sling a phrase with the best of them, weaving politics, desert myth, history and culture in an evocative, poetic style that captures both the facts and the heavy weight of the heart.

The author paints a horrifying and vivid portrayal of the events on the border, putting names, and faces in place behind the walkers, outlining the hidden necessities and motivations behind the illegal trek north. Urrea puts a human face on both the 400 dead illegals that the border claims annually and on the Border Patrol officers who stem the illegal flood of "tonks" (a name derived from the distinctive sound a flashlight makes when busted over an illegal's head) - sometimes hunting them down, sometimes rescuing them and sometimes burying them.

The Devil's Highway looks at the practices of the smugglers, who for an usurious fee take the illegals over the border to their low-wage jobs in the north and in the case of the Yuma 14 (the dead out of the 26), abandoned their charges to their fate - (first taking all of their customer's cash with them). Urrea also examines the politics and practices of the border (what he terms "the politics of stupidity"), the Border Patrol's approaches and attitudes towards their role (a blend of weary cynicism, professionalism and humanity) and, among other things, what it is like to die of hyperthermia.

Urrea excels in detailing the presence of the Devil's Highway, a bleak and searing hot stretch of forbidding desert that stretches across 250 miles, painting a lasting picture of the character of the land the walkers tried to cross - a desert littered with the bleached bones of countless travelers lured into a quicker route to California. Here's a brief excerpt:

"As long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert. When the Devil's Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters ran along it, someone died. But the brown and red men who ran the paths left no record outside of faded songs and rock paintings we still don't understand.

Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace - those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain."

Powerful, terrifying and illuminating, The Devil's Highway is by far one of the best books I've read in several years. Don't just rely on my judgement, it was also up for a Pulitzer.

For more on the Desolation and the Devil's Highway, check out the National Park Services site on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - reputed to be the most dangerous national park in the US due to the ongoing smuggling routes that wind across it.

Visit the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness at Wilderness.net or here, and take a close look at the Devil's Highway at Desert USA and the US Fish & Wildlife Service site.

Interested in learning more about the US-Mexican border relations? Check out Borderlands at the International Relations Center for some interesting articles or read Time Magazine's excellent look at the border and the Coyotes . You can also drop by the Border Patrol homepage for a look at how they are fulfilling their role in the post-9/11 era. Be sure to check out BORSTAR which handles the search and rescue across the Devil's Highway.

You can also check out Humane Borders, for a look at yet another player in the borderlands.

For more reading on the borderlands, check out Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover, Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border by Sebastian Rotella and Hard Line : Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Ken Ellingwood.

Finally, you can visit Urrea's website here.

Thanks for dropping by! Tell your friends, link to the site, throw up some comments and feedback...oh and buying a book might be nice too!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 1, 2005

The Sex Lives of Cannibals

The Sex Lives of Cannibals : Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

It is a flyspeck on the map, the merest hint of a place, a lonely tropical coral atoll in the middle of a cerulean Pacific. The place is the Republic of Kiribati, in the Gilbert Islands, an island that, while not quite at the back end of nowhere, certainly lives in that general neighborhood.

J. Maarten Troost's book The Sex Lives of Cannibals chronicles his two-year stay on the island of Tarawa. Accompanying his wife (who works for a non-governmental aid organization), Troost meanders into Tarawa with unrealistic expectations of a tropical south seas paradise. What he found was an over-populated, stiflingly hot, polluted (and occassionally toxic) island, infested with stray dogs, lackadasical and corrupt bureaucracy, and an overabundance of La Macarena playing at every turn.

Troost looks at life among the Kiribati (whom he seems to regard with a fairly odd mix of wonderment, fondness, respect and bemusement), moving from varied discussions on the general attitudes towards work, the desperate quest for some island foodstuffs not based on fish, encounters with sharks (and some flotsum that is too disagreeable to outline here), the Kiribati fondness for stray dogs (think back to what I said about foodstuffs...'nuff said), and the daily trials of infrequent and intermittant electrical power, poor water supplies and government bureaucracy. Of particular note is when the beer ran out...on the entire island....for four weeks.

He also, on occasion, seems to have captured part of that particular magic that the south seas seems to possess...

Here's a brief excerpt From The Sex Lives of Cannibals:

"Landing on a rock-strewn strip cleared of coconut trees was exactly as I expected it would be. Terrifying. The passenger door jammed, and we scrambled out through the rear cargo door and soon we began to feel like Martian invaders. I-Matang I-Matang, said a chorus of tiny voices. But they quieted when I bared my teeth, and the youngest even scattered into the bush. Parents in Kiribati tell their children to behave or otherwise an I-Matang will devour them, which has led to the wonderful result that the younger segement of the population believes I-Matang to be cannibals.

I, of course, did nothing to dissuade them."

As an added bonus, the lurid title of the book seems to excite some interest, particularly when reading it on crowded subway trains...again, 'nuff said. All in all a throughly enjoyable, highly funny read.

For more on Tarawa and Kiribati, visit Lonely Planet. Also recommended is Janes Kiribati page and this Kiribati site.

Tarawa was the site of a particular nasty battle in World War II. Find out more at Eyewitness to History and Tarawa on the Web. Visit Tarawa's namesake here.

Want a look at Kiribati? Here is Kiribati and Christmas Island from space....

Comments are always welcome. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 9, 2005


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond

"I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculpter well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stampt on these lifeless things,
The hand that mockt them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)

About ten years ago, sweating profusely in the Yucatan humidity and liberally gulping down bottled water, I hauled myself up a vine-strewn pyramid in the Mayan city of Coba, and stared out at the view. Coba was a comparatively new site (only located in the early 70's) and remains somewhat isolated and still, with a few exceptions, pristinely covered in jungle. From our vantage point you could see the remains of another four massive structures that poked out of the green foliage canopy. We watched red kites circling languidly in the humid air and snapped our photos before scrambling back down to mull over the ruins that lay before us. Nothing focuses your attention like a disaster. Ruin is a source of wonder.

Collapse looks at ruin.

Jared Diamond has followed up on his superlative Pulitzer Prize-winning work Guns, Germs and Steel with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

He is very specific in his choice of titles - Collapse is about the choices that societies make, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, that in the end determine failure or success.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond examined what made certain civilizations succeed, what were the catalysts of their success and growth. In Collapse, he flips the coin and looks closely at what makes them fail, drawing on a number of comparative examples to illustrate his key points.

Diamond looks variously at such locales as modern-day Montana ranch country, the remote Easter Island, Pitcairn & Henderson islands, the American south-west's Anasazi culture and Chaco Canyon, the Mayan Empire of Central American (my old friends from Coba), and the Norse Vikings of Greenland, Vinland and Iceland. Diamond also takes a look at modern day disasters and societal collapses such as the Malthusian events of Rwanda (which he tellingly ties to population overpressure, demographics and the cultural inheritance traditions), the horrific conditions of Haiti (and the telling opposite across the border, the Dominican Republic). He also looks at conditions in Australia, China and his own native southern California.

Diamond postulates five primary sets of factors consisting of: 1)damage people inadvertently inflict on their environment, 2) climate change, 3) hostile neighbor's, 4) decreased support from friendly neighbors, 5) the society's response to the problems. Diamond is careful not to cite a single reason for any collapse, but rather does a solid job of drawing together the varying elements and their collective impact on the society.

Collapse is long and, bluntly, at times a bleak and repetitive read, however Diamond exhibits a solid grasp of his subject, drawing out the particular threads and weaving them together into a coherent and compelling, if depressing, whole. The key role of how societies interact with the environment in their various states of social disintegration is chillingly convincing, particularly the well-documented collapse of Easter Island and the connections that Diamond draws between the factors such as deforestation, environmental stress, and ecological breakdown.

The implications for the near future for modern society is clear and stark - it is choice. Interestingly enough, Diamond refuses to rest as a Cassandra-like prophet of doom and gloom, and spends the remainder of the book carefully examining the tremendous success stories that are also in evidence.

After all the last thing that flew out of Pandora's Box was hope.

Interested in learning more about Easter Island? Check out Rapa Nui, the Navel of the World here, here and here.

Investigate the lost Vikings of Greenland here or read Archaology's online article.

Live in the American South-west? Learn more about the Anasazi and the Chaco Canyon civilization (including their sophisticated astronomical observatories).

Check out the Maya at this site, or learn about Mayan culture at Rabbit in the Moon.

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Comments, links and feedback are always welcome. Working on the six degrees of separation theory, someone who knows someone who knows someone please impose on Instapundit for a link, I'd love to see the traffic levels rise!

Thanks for reading!