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Thursday, August 17, 2017

On the destruction of monuments

President Trump has tweeted "...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" I found this statement to be quite interesting. I love history and read a lot of it. So just what do we learn from monuments. They commemorate people or events who represent a cause or culture the community where they reside wish to celebrate. So what do statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson represent? All of them were by definition traitors. They had sworn an oath to the United States: Lee and Jackson at West Point and Davis in Congress and as Secretary of Defense under Franklin Pierce. In seceding they had taken up arms against the country they had sworn allegiance to in order to defend the odious economic system of slavery. 
(Anyone who disputes that the Civil War was not about slavery need only read the secession documents of the seceding states where they explicitly state it was about slavery. They didn't believe in states rights, they were angry with northern states who were exercising what they believed to be their moral right not to send slaves back to the south in contravention of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)  

Traditionally we don't celebrate traitors or governments we despise. I don't remember seeing any monuments to Benedict Arnold with the exception of the Boot Monument near Saratoga and his name is not even mentioned on the monument even though he was one of the seminal and important generals of the Revolutionary War.*

So just as there are no monuments to Hitler in Germany nor any to George Washington in Great Britain, it seems perfectly understandable to me that communities would wish to remove monuments that memorialize the defense of slavery. The individuals the statues represent certainly won't disappear from history any more than Hitler or Stalin have. The justification to tear down a monument to Jefferson Davis is just the same as that of East Germans ripping down statues of Lenin.


*"On the grounds of the Saratoga National Historic Park in upstate New York, the site of a key battle of the Revolutionary War, there stands a peculiar monument of a leg encased in a boot. Aptly called the Boot Monument, it marks the spot where a leg was shattered by a bullet. The back of the monument is inscribed to the memory of the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Amy, who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of Burgoyne's 'Great (Western) Redoubt' 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General, The soldier was Benedict Arnold, but because the tribute is to the leg and not to the man, his name does not appear on the monument. And perhaps that is the way it should be for a brilliant soldier whose renown was quickly eclipsed by an everlasting infamy."   From Warriors Seven: Seven American Commanders, Seven Wars, and the Irony of Battle by  Barney Sneiderman




Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: November Rain by Donald Harstad

I have read all of Harstad’s books and liked them immensely. (full disclosure: Harstad was the chief deputy sheriff in an Iowa county close by, and I had invited him to speak at the college regarding immigration issues quite a few years ago -- see Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. He’s a delightful man.) This one I had postponed reading because I shy away from books where the protagonist is transported to a foreign country and immediately seems to know his way around the culture solving crimes right and left. Michael Connelly (I’m a big fan) did this with Bosch in Nine Dragons, which was dreadful. I should not have worried, for Harstad creates a very plausible relationship between New Scotland Yard and the deputy's presence. It all makes sense and Houseman doesn't tear around trampling on the locals or their customs.

Anyway, Carl Houseman is conned by the Sheriff and other locals into traveling to England from Iowa to see what he might be able to find out about the disappearance of Emma Schiller. Thanks to interspersed chapters detailing what is happening to Emma, we know she has been kidnapped, although the precise reason is unclear. Except that after she has been taped with a message, she is to be killed.

I was disappointed to see that Harstad's editors did not do him justice. There are a couple total non-sequitors and errors any competent copy editor would have found. In one case they leave his daughters past midnight only to arrive back at the hotel by 10 pm.

I hope Harstad gets back to writing and returns us to northeastern Iowa.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I really enjoy the audiobooks of the Dalziel and Pasco series that are read by Brian Glover. Great accent, although it's occasionally hard to decipher, but the voices are great.

Dalziel witnesses the murder of a woman. Problem is that his story doesn't match those of others present in the room. As one would expect, his badgering and harassment soon reveals a host of nefarious activities.There's a side plot, the outcome of which I found a bit bizarre and unsatisfying. A woman has written to Dalziel that she intends to commit suicide and there i an underlying challenge for him to find her. He dismisses, it and it remains for Pasco, at the very end of the book to discover the woman's identity. In the meantime, Dalziel has been cast as God (!) in a local play.  

Several readers have complained the book is not one of Hill's best and that the book drags. The beauty of the series is in the language, ribaldry, and the characters and their interactions. 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Audiobook: Bill Bryson is a national treasure. I have read all of his books except the most recent and that problem will be remedied shortly. My wife and I especially enjoy listening to Bryson read his own work while driving; Bryson never fails to entertain and inform, the best combination ever.

This book is no exception. He uses the year 1927 as a springboard to recount events and people that defined early 20th century culture such as Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth’s prowess, Tilden’s unusual skill, and Herbert Hoover’s self-aggrandizement. Some of the events have been forgotten and startled me. I don't remember ever hearing of the Bath Massacre. Andrew Kehoe was about to lose his farm to foreclosure and he blamed the school district taxes for his dilemma (ironically he was school board treasurer who had just been defeated for reelection). He packed hundreds of pounds of explosives in the basement of a local school and then watched from his car as children’s body parts were hurled into the air from the massive explosion. 38 elementary school children and six adults were killed with over fifty others injured. That the death was not higher was only because the explosives under other wings of the building did not ignite. More people were killed when he blew up his shrapnel-filled truck with himself in it while rescuers were trying to get children out of the destroyed building. It was shortly discovered he had murdered his wife who was dying of tuberculosis and set fire to all his farm buildings. Sandy Hook pales by comparison.

Another interesting tidbit. When Lindbergh made his famous flight, no one was quite sure how he would be received. The United states was hated by most of Europe, but France and Britain in particular, as they had been forced to take out loans to aid Austria after the war. Congress had forbidding American money to be spent on current or former enemies, so this was a way around that prohibition. Austria then defaulted on the loans, but Congress insisted that France and Britain repay the loans, with interest, even though the U.S. had prospered since a requirement of the transaction was that all the money had to be spent in the United States, a clever form of double-dipping.

Prohibition was one of those curious American phenomena and probably the only case in which of government deliberately poisoned its citizens. Because of the nature of alcohol being used for so many different other purposes besides drinking Industrial alcohol was often denatured and adulterated by the government with all sorts of these are poisons including strychnine so that those people who drank it illegally would suffer the consequences. It was another interesting fact was that many states were upset about the Volstead Act because they lost so much revenue in fact New York's revenue was cut in half when they lost the tax revenue from the sale of alcohol. It made criminals out of honest people, too. (War Against Drugs, anyone?) Churches had an exception (of course) and one church in California offered fourteen different vintages of communion wine. Doctors could prescribe whiskey and it’s estimated that loophole brought them some $40,000,000 in revenue. And, it was dangerous. The murder rate went up by 30%. The revenue agents themselves killed 23 innocent bystanders in a short period of time.

Henry Ford is highlighted. Brilliant in some ways, obnoxious and bigoted in most, he was the only American to have been mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf. Among his more interesting failures was Fordlandia, an attempt to build an all-American city in the middle of the Brazilian jungles. Those who worry about Amazon’s desire to control, will only marvel at Ford’s obsession to control all aspects of his care production so as to keep costs to an absolute minimum in order to produce the best car for the least amount of money. (Part of the reason why he invented the forty-hour week and double his workers pay was to help keep workers from leaving but also so they would have enough money to be able to buy his cars.) Fordlandia was an effort to return Brazil to its former glory as a rubber producer. Ford, the largest consumer of rubber in the world, wanted to control prices. He failed miserably. His manager was a thug, diseases and noxious animals were rampant. Greg Grandin has written a history of the city, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, which I have acquired and look forward to reading.

Another fascinating section discusses the development of radio and television and that greatest of unknown 20th century inventors Philo Farnsworth who came up for the idea of using a cathode ray tube to display images while plowing his father’s field. Ironically, it was a businessman with no inkling of the mechanics of radio that made it ubiquitous. David Sarnoff’s genius was making the connection between content and device. Who would buy a radio if there was nothing to listen to? The first public demonstration, a broadcast of a boxing match turned out to be a fraud as a technical difficulty prevented the live broadcast, but the huge crowd in Times Square listening on speakers to an imaginative reader of ticker tape thought it was live, and that’s all that mattered. Soon NBC was having to create all sorts of expensive content to be delivered for free to radio listeners. Enter advertising.

Bryson’s writing is a delicious melding words and phrases together that routinely bring a smile to your face (the Tribune’s lawyers revealed the shallow waters of his mind - re Ford). Or after talking about the number of flying accidents he mentioned the man who was injured by a whirling propeller being hit on the head and having his arm sliced off, “leaving him much diminished.”

Bryson’s audio narrative whets the reading appetite.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Huckleberry Murders by Patrick McManus

This is a marvelous series: delightful characters, humor, a decent mystery. What more could you ask for.

Sheriff Bo Tully is off to collect huckleberries so his mother can bake him some pies when he meets three hysterical women who have discovered three bodies. There are three hard looking men in town worth investigating. And a local wife who insists her ex-husband has been murdered. Because the bodies were found on federal land, the FBI sends an agent to verify that the investigation is done properly. She soon falls under the spell of doing things the "Blight" way. There's also some raft poling. :)

Series keeps getting better.