The Tragic Life of Charles Schultz

I don’t go to the library nearly enough to get books – my own reading list generally precludes me from this, and any book that I really want to read, I tend to end up buying. But, every now and then, I’ll see something interesting worth reading, and will pick it up on a whim. This was the case with the first authorized biography of Charles Schultz, by David Michealis, called Schultz and Peanuts, which was released late last year.

The biography is wonderfully complete and extremely detailed, spanning the famed creator of Peanuts life from beginning to end. In addition to just talking about his life, this book is a discussion of how his life impacted his creation, and shows just how much of Schultz is revealed within the classic panels that ultimately defined his life.

Schultz was born in November of 1922, and was the only child of Dena and Carl Schultz. His early childhood seemed to be one of loneliness, isolation and insecurity – all themes which would be prevalent in Peanuts. He was extremely attached to his mother, and was devastated when she died when he was twenty-one years old. It was during his early life that he began to draw, through his time in the army to a course where he began to draw small cartoons. Li’l Folks began in June of 1947, to limited success, but which would slowly grow to be an enormous multi-media platform that would lead Schultz from his humble beginnings to becoming one of the highest paid entertainers in the United States.

In addition to an examination of Schultz’s life, this book serves as a sort of literary critique of Peanuts itself. Each character is examined, their personalities and lives compared to Schultz’s and storylines are looked at within the same context. I’ve never read over the entirety of Peanuts, but this look has really given me an extremely detailed look not only at the evolution of the comic, but its inspirations and the meanings behind each panel.

What struck me the most about Schultz was the degree to which he and Peanuts were intertwined. While he denied that he utilized his own life and his children in the comic strip, it is very clear that was just not the case, intentionally or otherwise. From the start, he seemed to be destined for art, and looking back across his life, Peanuts is the only accomplishment for which he was entirely dedicated to – his purpose was singular, but perfect. The end result is a cartoon that is widely considered one of the greatest works of American art/literature, certainly one of the greatest comics, for which we owe much of our nation’s character to. Ironically, I have been reading about NASA and the lunar missions recently, and Schultz’s influences are felt there as well, as the Apollo 10 Lander (which was the test craft to circle and evaluate landing sites for Apollo 11, which did land on the moon) was named Snoopy and the Command Capsule was named Charlie Brown. Schultz also designed the mission patch for the first Skylab mission, featuring Snoopy and the names of the three crewmen. (My review for Homesteading Space can be found here.)

While Peanuts is a widely known work, its creator isn’t – this biography allows for an unparallel look at his life. In many respects, Schultz was Charlie Brown. Throughout the book, individual strips are presented, often highlighting elements of Schultz’s personality at various stages of his life. Characters are examined, picked apart and revealed through their creator to largely be an extension of his own life and personality. In a way, it is extremely fitting that not only was Peanuts not allowed to continue after his retirement, the last strip and his death occurred on the same day.

Schultz’s life was not an unhappy or miserable one – it was he that was unhappy and miserable for much of his life. He was self-deprecating, a little vain and incredibly insecure – not unlike his famed creation. He seemed to suffer from many phobias, and clung to people throughout his life, all the while maintaining a mild-mannered and quiet presence. His first marriage, which lasted twenty or so years, pitted him against his wife, who was far more assertive and combative, while his second was far more mutually friendly. Ironically, for a creator known for his portrayal of children, Schultz seemed to be fairly distant from his own, leaving the raising of his family to Joyce (his first wife), who dominated the house and family.

Reading through the book, I was interested to find that there are a number of elements of Schultz’s personality that match my own – to a point. I’ve illustrated the desire to change some aspects of this, and looking at Schultz’s life, one can see the effects of his personality upon the direction of his life and the people around him.

In the end, there is no doubt that Schultz had created something wonderful, tragic and heartwarming. Peanuts is arguably one the quintessential American tales, rife with meaning throughout, something that inspired generations of people around the world for its simplicity and brilliant storytelling. This was Schultz’s legacy to the world – unhappy, lonely, but enlightening.

Homesteading Space

The University of Nebraska Press has undertaken a huge series that I have been paying close attention to over the past year – the Outward Odyssey Series, which examines the human endeavors into outer space. The latest installment, Homesteading Space turns to a relatively unknown element, but crucial element of our trips to orbit, Skylab. Like the prior books, Into that Silent Sea, In the Shadow of the Moon and To A Distant Day, we are not only treated to a wealth of information about the technical aspects of the program, but the implications and human element of it.

Skylab was launched in 1973 after a number of years in development alongside the Apollo Program. While Mercury, Gemini and Apollo all had a singular purpose (to see if people could reach space and survive, to see if people could exist in space and if people could reach the moon, land and return), Skylab diverged from this main mission of lunar exploration and was essentially the start of the modern space program with vast implications: it was designed to see whether people could life in outer space. This mission has influenced our advances into orbit since – with the construction of the space shuttle, Mir and the International Space Station, and future missions to the Moon and to Mars, each owes (or will owe) much to the Skylab mission.

Skylab was interesting. As noted in the opening of the book, it was built from pre-existing parts, scraped from other programs and components. The station itself was part of the Saturn Rocket, an empty fuel tank, that was refitted and placed into orbit. From there, three crews were sent up and conducted a huge number of experiments that helped to see the effects of zero gravity on the human body during extended amounts of time (each of these crews set records for their time in space). Additionally, they were the first to conduct dedicated experiments and observations on the sun and while in the presence of zero gravity. The first solar flares were witnessed via the Apollo Telescope Mount, and a wealth of information about the Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Homesteading Space is not just about the scientific knowledge that was obtained in orbit – this is the story of the astronauts who conducted the experiments, who lived in space for weeks or months at a time, and how they coped. Skylab provided an enormous opportunity for individual cooperation and perseverance, for there were numerous problems that could have easily prevented the program from happening at all. But, each time, the astronauts and their ground support were able to overcome each problem and continue onwards.

The station was almost doomed from the start – upon its launch, solar coverings and shielding was stripped from the station, leaving it unlivable until a solution (essentially an umbrella) was improvised to protect the living quarters. The solar panels were crippled and power was limited. The first space walks were essentially rescue missions to save the station. On the second mission, two thrusters from the command module broke, leaving NASA to quickly plan a rescue mission from the ground as well as a solution for reentry with the remaining thrusters (no rescue was launched, and the crew returned safely).

The astronauts themselves were also the center of attention, and from this reading, it seems like they had quite a bit of fun in orbit. A number of jokes were played with the zero gravity, from contests and acrobatics, to leaving space suits stuffed and floating around the station for the next crew to find. This book helps to exemplify the role to which the astronauts have played in space, and their importance to the program, and does so wonderfully.

The book is not without its flaws, however. At points, it is repetitive, as I would come across the same story of astronauts losing items and then finding them in an air vent numerous times. A number of other details throughout are replicated, as are long passages from diaries and communications logs, which were likewise reprinted in the back of the book as an appendix. While these passages do provide some insight into the astronauts’ lives, it broke up the flow of the reading. Where I noted that the last book, To A Distant Day, was very short, this one seems to overcompensate and could have been stripped down a little more than it was. However, this is really the only major flaw here, and as a result, there is a rich amount of information about the Skylab program, almost literally minute by minute at points.

Homesteading Space highlights a crucial crossroads for the space program, the point between the drive to reach the moon, and the beginning of a new era. Skylab was caught in between Apollo and the Space Shuttle, and serves as a link to the two, drawing from knowledge that was obtained during the lunar missions, and influencing the future of spaceflight and habitation. The next book is due out next year, about Satellites, but I’m more excited for the following installment, Footsteps in the Dust, about the remaining lunar missions. This series is superior, detailed, exciting and enlightening, and provides a huge ray of hope for what’s to come next for us.

A Little History of the World

In history, context is vital. Events seldom make sense when presented individually, and often, the only way to fully understand, comprehend and appreciate any given event in history is to know the chain of events that led to it. Learning about the Second World War is difficult without at least a basic knowledge of the First World War and how that was influenced by the Industrial revolution. Context is vital.

Over the weekend, I picked up a book that I’ve long wanted to read, shown to me by a friend several years ago when it was first translated into English: A Little History of the World. First written and published in 1936 (written in six weeks – SIX), this book covers a staggering amount of history, starting from the very beginnings of human history and culture, from the prehistoric eras, and running up through to the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945. Needless to say, in 284 pages, this is not a book rife with specific details, names and dates. Rather, this is an extremely broad look at how human history progressed.

While there are plenty of details lacking, this book is not intended as a grand work of history. It’s written simply, for a younger audience, to tell the tale of our existence – it helps to provide a broad context for our history to anyone who is mildly interested in the subject, and at this, the book succeeds wonderfully. As a student of history, I can appreciate the task at hand, and having read through the book in a day, I was astounded at just how much information is here. Almost every major era of human history is covered, and linked to the next – reading over the pages, we move from the Egyptian dynasties to ancient Babylon, to Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages and so on, up through to the present day. Most of the major events in the world are touched upon, but only so much to move the story along from point to point.

While there is a high degree to completeness to this volume, there are aspects of history that are not examined, even lightly – the American Civil War is talked about briefly, but only in the context of the role of Slavery (which is really not the right way to examine the war) nor is the European involvements in Africa really looked at, except in the context of the buildup to the First World War. This book is largely a view of the world through Western eyes, and talk from the Americas and Asia aren’t really examined as much, which is a disappointment, not out of any sort of nationalistic sense, but to the degree to which some of the major events in US history have played in the world – the Great Depression is not mentioned (although the history here really ends after the end of the First World War), but there is very little about the history of Central and South America or Africa. Reading the preface, it was mentioned that Gombrich intended to expand the book with the translation of an English version that would have talked more about Shakespeare, the Bill of Rights and the English Civil War, but he passed away before he was able to do this. I would have been interested to see how he would have characterized the rest of the 20th century, with the incredible changes and advancements that we have experienced since the end of the Second World War.

That being said, this book is a good examination of the world from a very high level – while smaller details are largely not talked about (specific important battles, such as Marathon, Waterloo, etc, are mentioned), the notion of how all these events fit together is the dominant one – specific knowledge of battles is not really necessary at most points, save when they are truly decisive historically, changing the course of nation’s histories. In my day of reading the book, I feel that I have a somewhat better understanding about how parts of the world fit together – while I knew most of the details of what had gone on, there were points in history where I was fuzzy on the broad details. This is a book that I wish I had read when I was in middle or high school, because of the broad examination here.

An interesting point that I found here was the voice to which Gombrich takes throughout – very light, and while military matters are covered frequently, warfare is never glorified – the preface notes that the publication of the book in Germany was halted because it was deemed too pacifist in Nazi Germany.

On an aesthetic level, the book is easy to read – the language is simple, intended for somewhat older children, and is divided into forty short chapters, each with a specific section of history. One of the most interesting parts here is the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter – a simple woodcut that is best representative of the theme or period of the chapter, which is very characteristic of the work here – it adds beauty and a bit of elegance to the pages here.

I loved every minute and every page of this book. While this is the broadest possible view of human history, it is done with skill and grace, with an impartial voice throughout, that points out our successes and our flaws as a race, with an incredible amount of wisdom behind it. To best describe this book is an introduction of history, from which any reader would be inspired to find more about any aspect of history that they so wished. I’m now going to make it a point to seek out his second major work, The Story of Art. In the meantime, this will become a treasured addition to my own library of books.

The title of this book can be somewhat misleading – A Simple History of the World might be more accurate, but A History of the World would be the best, because Gombrich has done a nearly impossible task – distilled the world’s history into a concise, yet interesting story that is optimistic, critical and inspiring.

American Nerd: The Story of My People

My copy of American Nerd came in last night, and it proved to be a fairly short read, only 222 pages, which took me the better part of my evening to get through. While it is very short and somewhat abbreviated, it proves to be an interesting read that brings up some interesting points about American Nerd culture.

Ben Nugent’s book seeks to examine the roots and definition of the Nerd. In doing so, he teases out two large factors in culture that have helped bring about the popular nerd image, and that’s isolation from the main population and an affinity for rules and structure. From my own experiences and observations, these are relatively accurate assertions that these elements do help to influence those who call themselves nerds or geeks.

Nugent’s book looks to history for some of the background on the subject. What I found most fascinating was his take on elements of the progressive movement on society and how this has some root causes for nerds and for why they are generally abused by popular culture in general. One thing that is made clear – nerd/geek culture is created, in part, by isolation from the rest of the population. Nugent goes back to the 1880s to the first Ohio school that introduced mandatory physical education, through to Theodore Roosevelt and building of a ‘all American’ sort of culture. Athletics in schools, by nature are exclusionary – they seperate out the weaker, meeker and smaller. There are many tales of the nerds/geeks in high school being picked off one by one by one in dodge ball.

One aspect of this is duality, a theme that comes up multiple times throughout the book, and through different means. Nugent brings up several racial and social theories to help explain this. One example of this is how he examines and compares geeks vs. jocks. Jocks tend to draw more from the animal side of the spectrum, tend to be more empathic and emotional while geeks tend to veer more towards the machine side, where logic and reason take precedent. The animal, emotional and empathic side of things, because of the progressive movement, has become the more accepted social position in the US.

While the book does take a good look at the background history of nerds in the US, there are serious flaws in the book’s structure. It bounces from history to social theory to biography and guide to nerdom, with very little overall flow. While the book brings up a number of points, is up to date (items such as Robot Chicken, Freaks and Geeks, Battlestar Galactica and other geek fare) and is fun to read – it doesn’t get drowned by the bulk and density of some historical events.

This book is too short and doesn’t go far enough to examine the history and cultural factors in nerd/geek subculture. The history is abbreviated and the methodology is inconsistent. There is no bibliography, despite his criticism of another book of not having one, although there are some footnotes throughout the book.

While it purports to examine the story of Nerds in the US, there are some very obvious gaps here that undermine the history. There is no discussion of the rise of computers – I don’t believe that Steve Jobs is mentioned with the creation of Apple computers, nor is NASA talked about, which seems like a huge thing to overlook when talking about geek/nerd history. Nor is there any discussion on the impact of Sci-Fi films during the 70s and 80s. There’s some talk about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a little more about Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s precious little talk about the impact of these huge juggernauts on the geek/nerd community. While it’s unreasonable to expect that this book would be anything comprehensive (or any book on history, for that matter), leaving things out such as this seems to be a gross oversight.

To some extent, this book feels uncompleted. There are short sections that cover a broad range of subjects, so it feels like it covers a lot of ground. This is good, but unfortunately, it only seems to cover the surface of much of the issue. That being said, it is an interesting read. It’s certainly a book that can be expected as nerd-culture has gotten far more popular in recent years.

The best thing that we have here is a good definition of the term, of the entire population that’s out there. It’s a good start, and hopefully, we’ll be seeing some more work in this aspect of history soon.

Review: Order 66


Karen Traviss’s four book series based off of the Republic Commando video game came to a close with the publication of her latest Star Wars novel, Order 66. The book is a slightly uneven affair, with a number of story lines coming to a close in a quick, complete fashion. The book is by no means a bad or uninteresting read, but it’s not the best of the four.

I came across Karen Traviss when I was in High School, when I began to read Asimov’s, a long-running Science Fiction magazine. Karen had published a couple or short stories through them, and I had found that I enjoyed them very much. When it was announced that there was to be a tie-in novel about the Republic Commando game, I wasn’t all that interested until I heard that it was Traviss who would be writing it, and the first book didn’t disappoint, introducing readers to a series of new characters and a moral element that has largely been lacking in a number of the Star Wars books that have come out recently.

Order 66 picks up where True Colors leaves off- Jedi Etain Tur-Mukan has had her child, Jusik has left the Jedi Order, Fi has been brought to Mandalor, the ARC troopers are working on infiltrating the computer systems of the Republic and Skirata is working to find a way to reverse the rapid aging in order to give the clones a full and normal life after the war is over.

One of my main concerns with the series as it’s progressed over the past couple of books is the vast complexity that they have come to. There are a number of very diverse story lines that have largely taken away from the main focus of the original novel – Delta Squad, with Niner, Atin, Darman and Fi. The cast of characters has been expanded, and that goes for the story lines as well. To some extent, this is a good thing, and it falls in with what Karen has done with her other, non-Star Wars books – they’ve become extremely rich with plots and characters, turning them into books that really make you think. In the Star Wars universe, this is a rare thing, and Order 66 stands as one of the better books in the series for this trait. On the other hand, it feels somewhat overburdened at times. The first half of the book starts off fairly slowly, and its not until the last half in which the action really picks up, where Karen shows once again that she’s one of the better writers when it comes to combat situations – Clone operations here are possibly the most realistic and logical than in any other book series, save for the X-Wing Series by Michael A Stackpole and Aaron Allston.

What also sets this, and her other Republic Commando books, apart is the care and devotion that is paid to the Clone Troopers. I’ve made this point in other reviews – the clones might be genetically the same, but Karen has expertly crafted numerous characters that are wholly different from one another in different situations and in the way that they approach problems. This comes particularly at the end, when one of the team members is left behind in a battle and presumed killed. Karen doesn’t shy away from making the characters really hurt when she needs them to be, and the book ends on somewhat of an unclear and unresolved note, which seems very fitting, given how this book ends around the time of Revenge of the Sith.

The absolute strongest point is the morality of the characters, and constant questioning of right and wrong on the part of the Clone Troopers and the Jedi and Republic that brought them into battle. The reactions of many of the Clones during the order to kill the Jedi surprised me, given where I was thinking the story was going and the attitudes of the Jedi up to that point, and it makes me re-think some elements of the movie – the clones weren’t mindlessly following their orders to kill their Generals – they had legitimate issues with the way that they were treated and used in the war, and genuinely saw the Jedi as a threat.

One of the big sticking points that I found in this was not the overall complexity, but the Mandalorian subplots that Karen has worked into the series. While it was running full tilt by the time this book came around, the plot took up a lot of the book in places, where it didn’t really seem to need to. Karen pulled it out and made it a fully-formed and well realized idea, but at points, it seems a little out of place. This was one element where I wished that the sequels were a little more in line with the first book, in that they focused a bit more on the combat actions of the Clone Commandos.

One of the interesting parts is how the issue of only a couple million Clones has been resolved, and by doing so, ties in her novel with several other pieces of Clone Wars fiction, most notably Timothy Zahn’s short stories, Hero of Cartao and his Heir to the Empire trilogy, with the use of the Spaarti cloning technology. Throughout the events of this novel, it’s clear that a vast wave of Clone Troopers, including elements of the 501st, were a much larger, quickly grown generation of Clone Troopers, coming in during the months leading up to the final battle over Coruscant. This has been a sticking point for Karen and has caused some trouble for her on message boards by irritated and annoying fans. Despite the troubles that have been caused, it is nice to see that this issue is somewhat resolved, and it is fantastic to see mention of the 501st, of which Karen is an Honorary Member, and a group that she looked at a lot in her novelization of the Clone Wars. The 501st Dune Sea Garrison is honored with a thanks in the beginning of the book.

(This should have been the cover…)

Order 66 is a fine installment in the Republic Commando and Clone Wars series, and I’m sad to see it go. It is a rich and complex read, one that is far superior to most of the novels in the Star Wars line for its stand on moral issues, its writing and genuine care that makes me remember that these books are leaps and bounds above most of the tie-in novels that are on the market nowadays.

While the book is not a perfect read (or cover, for that matter. Side note – I’m not sure who thought that the current cover was a better one than the original, but it’s not, and should be changed back. Like right now. Ahem.) but it’s a superior one that stands out from the rest of the books out there.

Review: The Clone Wars


[This review contains spoilers for The Clone Wars]


Earlier this year, the Star Wars Lit community was abuzz with the news of a couple of things – that there was an untitled Karen Traviss novel coming, and that there was a Clone Wars movie coming out. A couple of months ago, fans learned that they were both connected, as Karen turned out to have been writing the novelization.
The release of The Clone Wars brings about the first book released in the time frame since Traviss’s last Republic Commando novel, True Colors, which was released last year, and once again shows that Traviss is one of the better writers for the Clone Wars.

This novelization isn’t the best work that Karen has released. The book is a very short one, and plotwise, has a bit to be desired. In a nutshell, the Seperatists have kidnapped the son of Jabba the Hutt, hoping to anger the Hutts enough to ensure that the Republic can’t utilize their space lanes.

The book is rife with action, which is Karen’s strong point, especially when it comes to Clones. the main characters are introduced with a battle, where Karen puts her expertise gained from the Republic Commando books. What I really enjoyed was seeing an author put a level of military realism to this – the Clones talk and act like soldiers.

Karen leaves a lot of nods to the 501st, helping to further explain the role of Vader’s fist, the battalion seen in Revenge of the Sith, named for the 501st Legion. One of the more interesting characters in the book is Captain Rex, whom a number of Legion members are building in anticipation of the film’s release. Karen pushed these guys to a particular prominence in the book, which is a great nod to the group, of which, she’s an honorary member. There weren’t any mentions of Republic Commandos, which surprised me a little.

The plot of the book leaves more to be desired beyond the military sections. There are some interesting political ideas here, but the idea that the Republic would send two of their most highly regarded Jedi after a Huttling is somewhat ridiculous. While this is addressed somewhat at points, I found it hard to believe.

More so, I found the notion that the Hutts, or more particularly, Jabba, would completely base foreign policy on a kidnapped child a ridiculous notion. Granted, this is a novelization based off of an animated movie, so expecting something on the level of Karen’s other books or other Clone Wars novels such as Shatterpoint is somewhat expected.

Unfortunately, the book is short, clocking in at around 250 pages, taking me a total of five or so hours to read. Fortunately, Del Rey seems to have realized this, and as a result, I only paid $12 for the book (yay for a 40% discount at Borders).

Overall, this is a decent enough read, despite the fact that it is short and not as good as her other books. However, with four more books to go in the series, there’s plenty of room for more improvement and Clone action.

7/10

To A Distant Day

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I had a really nice surprise on Friday afternoon – a package from the University of Nebraska Press with a copy of the next installment of their Outward Odyssey series, To A Distant Day, by Chris Gainor, about the human history of space exploration. I was a big fan of the first two books in the series, Into that Silent Sea and In The Shadow of the Moon, both of which dealt heavily with human space flight, with Silent Sea taking much of the earlier days from Mercury to very early Apollo and with Shadows taking the lead up to and half of the first lunar landings. In both, I was incredibly impressed with the amount of detail and narrative style of history that laid the American and Russian space programs out in the open, almost comprehensively. After reading both, I have been eagerly awaiting the next one, To A Distant Day, which is due out in April of this year, with the fourth installment due out in the fall of 2008.
To A Distant Day takes a step back in the development of human space flight. Where the first two books took care of the rock-star elements of the space program, this book went back – far back to the birth of rocketry. Mercury, Gemni and Apollo would never have taken flight without the vast history of rockets behind them. Gainor’s book covers the history of the development of the rocket, from Ancient China’s development of gunpower and tracing the development of military rockets across Asia to Europe, through to the First and Second World Wars, while looking at some of the major figures who worked out the mathmatics and physics of rocketry.
While it’s arguably a more important and vast history, this book is the shortest yet of the Outward Odyssey series, clocking in at 264 pages. The earlier developments of the rocket is gone over a bit briefly, while a bulk of the attention is paid to the efforts of the German Scientists in and around the Second World War, and the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Russia. What we get is facinating, and the shorter read holds the same level of detail and care that the first two books contained.
One of the things that I noted was the influence that Jules Verne, whose works constitute the first Science Fiction, had on a number of the early rocket scientists, sparking their imagination as to what was possible in the future. What’s even more facinating is at how the rocket scientists around the world, linked by this book, shared a vision of a human in space.
Having just started my Master’s Degree in Military History through Norwich University’s graduate school, it was interesting to me as to the degree to which military elements helped influence the creation of the US and Soviet space programs, especially when one considers the reluctance of multiple governments to weaponize space. The common sci-fi phrase “We come in peace” seems like hypocrisy when one considers the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, which helped influence both the Russian and US space programs to a huge degree.
Like in the first two books, we also get a good look at how the US and Russians built up for the Cold War. This book provides a better look at the military aspects of the arms race, as much of the rocket science that the US government used was also used to build bigger and better missiles, and takes a good look at some of the technical aspects of the arms race.
The author does skirt around some issues, such as the use of German scientists in the space program. A number, who had joined the Nazi party and utilized concentration camp labor, were used by the US government to build up a space program that would eventually superceed that of the USSR. While NASA and it’s predecessors would not have succeeded without then, it’s an uncomfortable topic that’s not really addressed.
This aspect of history in the space program is a lot more vast, touching on social and military aspects, and covers a lot more ground than the first two books. It’s a weighty task, and the book succeeds extremely well at it, covering everything in a fair amount of detail that is neither dry nor hard to get into. I can’t wait for the next installment.

Book Blog

An update on what I’ve been reading recently, covering World War II, Science Fiction and the Grand Canyon.

I finally finished my copy of Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer-winning book An Army At Dawn, the first in his ongoing Liberation Trilogy. I had started the book a long time ago, when I was in college, but for whatever reason, I’d never gotten around to finishing it.
This time around, I was able to get through the whole thing, although it is a bit of a dense read. However, the book is chock full of details about the North African Campaign of 1942, from the beginning of the war, where the origins of the invasion were first explored, to the final battles when the German and Italian forces were driven off of the continent.
This book isn’t written in a vacuum either – all aspects of the campaign are explored in vivid detail. The logistics, politics, tactics, the soldiers on the front, and more is looked at over the course of the entire segment of the Second World War, one that hasn’t really been explored to the extent to which other battles have been. By far, this is the best book that I’ve read about the African campaign during WWII.

The next book that I picked up is a new one from Adam Roberts, called the History Of Science Fiction. This is a field that holds great interest for me – and this book certainly explores the course that Science Fiction has taken – in this case, since the Ancient Greeks.
This book was a little mixed for me. While it holds an incredible amount of information on the field, it’s a little densely written – this book is more academic than other books that I’ve looked at, such as Geeks, Gangsters and the Men of Tomorrow, but it’s still a fairly accessible read.
Robert’s main thesis concerns the changes in Science Fiction dating back to the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, between I and It and humanity (soft scifi) vs science (hard sci-fi). The thesis is interesting, but I’m not wholly won over by his arguments to this.
The historical content here is in depth and fascinating. Exploring various definitions of Science Fiction based on what numerous critics have come up with, and tracing the roots of the genre since the Ancient Greeks, further expanding the field. However, it’s once we reach the late 19th – 20th century with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that the story really picks up and gets interesting, going through the golden age, new wave and modern science fiction. Once up to the 1990s, the pace drops off and seems much more constrained to the real contemporary items. Authors such as Alistair Reynolds, Ben Bova, Nancy Kress, Ken McLeod, Charles Stross, Karen Traviss and Richard Morgan are either mentioned briefly or not at all, while Science Fiction TV, is passed over with little mention at all, with only the new Battlestar Galactica really talked about. Other shows, such as Babylon 5, the various Star Treks, Stargate SG-1, Firefly and several others have had huge impacts on the field of science fiction, and by and large, media tie-ins aren’t really discussed. Furthermore, the impact of fan groups isn’t discussed in too much detail either.
Overall, it’s a good read, but some aspects of discussion were a bit of a letdown, particularly with the 1990s. However, the passages that cover the 1930s through the 1970s are very well done.

Finally, the last book that I’ve finished recently was entitled How The Canyon Became Grand, a short read on the cultural and scientific history on the Grand Canyon, from the earliest encounters from explorers to today.
The book is a fascinating read, one that covers a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from science, art, exploration and society. The canyon, fittingly, is the result of several geologic events coming together: the rise of the Colorado Plateau, the earlier deposition and depression of seafloor sediments and the Colorado River flowing during the uplift. Like its creation, the canyon lies at a number of intersections of American culture, helping build the United States Geological survey, becoming a corner stone of western exploration and now tourism and the National Park Service. This is explored as a perennial American creation, as the views of the canyon first appear as an impediment to exploration, a blemish on the landscape, to one of sheer beauty and majesty.

Look to the Skies

I finally finished the first two books in the Outward Odyssey series, both by Colin Burgess and Francis French, about some of the earlier days of the human space exploration. The first book, Into That Silent Sea, covers the first space missions, from Yuri Gagarin’s training and historic flight to the stars, to the end of the Soyuz missions, as well as the Mercury and Gemini flights that were the precursor to the famous Apollo missions. In the Shadow of the Moon, the second book, we start with Gemini and go through Apollo 11. Future books in the series will cover the rest of space flight.
For years, I have been interested in the moon, sharing with many young boys the dreams of becoming an astronaut and flying to space. I had a book on the moon landings with some fantastic illustrations of how everything worked that captured my imagination, and in 1997, when the Star Wars movies were re-released, my interests in space took another direction, and eventually, I’ve settled on history.

These books are essentially the culmination of everything that I’ve been interested in and have sought to study. Rather than a technical history of the space agency, looking largely at the science involved, these two books look at the raw history of the the earlier space projects, going into painstaking detail to tell what seems to be the most complete story of human space exploration yet.
Both books capture the human side of this elegantly, capturing the joys, determination and frustrations on both the American and Russian spacefarers alike, and introduces the reader to a host of characters that are deserving, if not more so, of the fame that has really only been bestowed upon Neil Armstrong. We meet Yuri Gagarin, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and numerous other astronauts and cosmonauts that have given so much for what has proven to be an incredible realization of a dream that has since stalled.
These books examine each of the astronauts and their missions in exacting detail, while also looking at the side events going along around them, mainly, the Cold War, and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is really put out there, examined largely without much of the military connotations that the cold war generally gets.

These books are incredibly dense and rich in history and detail that it might be hard for a regular reader to really pick up, but these two books are really what the public needs to read – this is the story of, in my opinion, the last heroes that the world has seen in years, and unfortunately, their impact in the public consciousness has really waned. This is not a bad thing, because these books are well written accounts of history that do not pander down to a lower denominator – this isn’t part of the popular history that seems to have plagued the World War II bookshelves at bookstores. While events such as Challenger and Columbia grab headlines and even to the point where minor technical problems are highlighted in the hourly news, there has been little in the space program that has galvanized the public like those early missions.

A Real Vermont Writer

I just finished Archer Mayor’s newest release, The Second Mouse, which is book #17 in his much loved Joe Gunther series (At least here in Vermont). Every fall, he’s got a new book out, the fruits of a year’s work of writing and researching, and it’s usually a 14 week wait on the library waiting list to get one of his books.

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Gunther is the main character in the Vermont-set mystery series. Over the past seventeen or so years, he’s gone through a lot. His girlfriend was brutally raped, he’s been shot and stabbed a couple of times, gone all over the place, and remained a good guy, clear morals and all that, and is now the head of the VBI (Vermont Bureau of Investigation), or at least one of the branches of it.
This is also the fifth book that Mayor has written in the third person (To many a loyal reader’s apprehension or dismay). Prior to The Sniper’s Wife, Joe Gunther was the only character that you could really see, because it was from his perspective. Personally, I think that the approach worked better. All of my favourites, Ragman’s Memory, Bellow’s Falls (My birthplace, oddly enough), The Skeleton’s Knee, Open Season, Tucker Peak, and Occam’s Razor are all in the first person. They seem much longer and richer, (not to mention that most of them have the gorgeous woodcut covers), while the newer ones, Sniper’s Wife, Gatekeeper,
Surrogate Thief, St. Alban’s Fire and now the Second Mouse, feel much more cinematic and faster paced, while the story seems to suffer a little as a result. Not that they’re bad reads, they’re not. Mayor’s maintained a similar complexity of plot and storytelling. It’s just in the third person and the story seems to get spread out quite a bit more. The Second Mouse is like this. The first two thirds seemed to be hopelessly scattered, with the VBI squad looking into one mystery, while we watch the three villains (Nancy, Ellis and Mel) go about their own crime spree. It’s not until the end, in true Archer Mayor fashion, that everything is wrapped up, and to further the cinematic qualities, in a gunfight and climax that I could very easily see in it’s own television series. (You hear that, NBC, ABC, CBS?).
Still, the ending seemed a little disconnected, and I’m thinking of going back to re-reading the older favourites, such as Ragman’s Memory, the first one that I ever picked up, to relive the extremely tight plot and lead up. Mayor’s strengths are in his extremely complex stories, and his use of Vermont. It was nice to see this story take place almost entirely in Vermont, whereas some of his others have taken Joe and the gang out of state for a lot longer than is usual. (They stay in New England for the entire time this time around.)

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The older books just seem to have more of a Vermont feel to them. This is when Joe, Willy and Sam (the main three characters, there’s a couple others) were working for the Brattleboro PD, and much of the crime that they dealt with was more Vermont-centric. The murders were locally motivated, crimes that would take them an hour out of town, three at the most (for the occasional trip over to Burlington). In addition to being a convinent plot point for the characters being able to move around easily, it really gave the books a traditional Vermont feel, where the cops are good, the bad guys clearly at fault and the politicians and newspapers something that could be annoying. However, you can’t stop progress, and it seems that the newer Joe Gunther Books are something that’s progressing along with Vermont, becoming more modern, slick, sexy and ready to roll.
Mayor’s stories take place in Vermont, and they feel like Vermont. One of the biggest thrills is reading about the locations – Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Burlington, Rutland, and any number of smaller towns that he tends to visit. Bratt. is one of the main places, and every time that I visit, I feel like I’m in the book, it really translates well.
In addition to location, Mayor’s earlier works have a very cynical view of the usual small town viewpoint that a lot of people, especially out-of-state visitors have of the place. This isn’t too surprising, considering the subject matter of the novels. Yes, we have crime, murders, drug problems, corruption and probably any other crime that is in existance. (This is not to deter anyone from visiting of course, VT’s still much safer than anywhere else.) But Mayor does show a different side to what the tourists see – and a lot of it’s fairly accurate. Much of his year goes into research, usually on topics that Mayor doesn’t know much about, and as a result, some of his books are themed. Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, for example, is about rape. Dark Root : Illegal Immigration. Borderlines : Crazy cults, Occam’s Razor : Industrial waste and corruption. Tucker Peak: The Ski Industry, Gatekeeper : The VT Heroin Highway, and so on. Because of this, a number of his books reach a level of critical acclaim here, because he works closely with law enforcement for his research. The Heroin Highway comes very close to where I live, and there’s definently some very real parts here.

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I think one of the things that I’m really struggling with is the shift in first to third person narration, because it takes some of the storytelling out of Joe’s eyes, and into everyone else’s. Along with the switch, there’s a subtle difference in the types of stories being told. While the stories told under the told person narration are genuinely Vermont stories, the ones under the third person narrration are typically larger in scale, more important, and to some extent, more relevant to the public’s eye. Not to say that a lot of the stories told under the first person narration aren’t important, they are, but they’re more personal to the character of Joe Gunther. The stories that are coming out now are more personal to Vermont as a whole, with the problems cropping up mainly as the drug problems, It’s with this change that we also have the newer, more modern covers, as well as plotlines that as mentioned before, are a little more cinematic in feel.

I really need to reread the series. And you should too.