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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review of Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History's Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History's Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure:

A short, bizarre little book, about a very bizarre adventure by a bizarre man obsessed with an idea to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Ironically, he succeeded in becoming the first and only person to ever circumnavigate the globe on land and sea in the same vehicle.  This vehicle he was so enamored of was a discard of the army, an amphibious jeep that proved so useless it was abandoned by the army and production canceled.
    Ben Carlin and his girl-friend, Elinore, were sure that a voyage around the world in this odd contraption would bring them riches and fame. It did nothing of the kind, but you have to admire Ben's single-minded compulsion despite numerous brushes with calamity he slogged on. Elinore finally gave up on the hardships (the cabin when traveling through the warmer countries would reach 170 degrees melting plastic items.)  She abandoned Ben after several years of hardship and a marriage of constant bickering.
     "Finally, on May 13, 1958—seven years and 10 months after he set out across the Atlantic—Ben drove west toward Montreal, where he and Elinore had stopped in 1948. He was older now, 45, gray in the beard, and heavier. Over the past decade, Ben had traveled 39,000 miles over land and 11,000 miles over water. He had crossed four oceans and five continents to become the only person in history to circumnavigate the globe by both land and sea in the same vehicle—a distinction he still holds"

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review of Extreme Malice

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Extreme Malice:

This had the potential to be a really good perfect murder story.  It suffered from some poor editing and some inconsistencies, but it really kept the pages turning.

Extremely interesting story about a cop (Dean) obsessed with finding his good friend (Jack) guilty of the murder of his wife. Jack was three hundred miles away when the strangulation occurred and the evidence against the neighbor teen (Josh) appears overwhelming. There was DNA evidence proving that Josh was having an affair with Jack's wife. There was evidence that Josh had used his guitar strings to commit the crime. There was phone call tracing that showed phone calls between the murdered woman and Josh.  Yet Dean remembered a conversation from months before when Jack had insisted he could commit a crime with impunity and Dean's gut  telling him Josh could not have killed anyone, but he's totally stumped as to how the crime was committed.  And then there's the 3.5 million in insurance.  And why is that kid taking photographs?  It's really quite clever.

The author's premise is that we have become so reliant on DNA evidence with its certainty that perhaps sometimes that sure thing might be used against us.  Maybe.

It unfortunate that the ebook was marred by several grammatical errors that should have been caught, e.g. possessives instead of plurals.  There were also some legal errors.  It was always my impression that witnesses who had yet to testify were not permitted in the courtroom until after they had given testimony, yet here, Jack sits in and makes some decisions based on what he hears, all before he has been called to the stand.  I checked a couple of sources and that's also the rule in Canada where the trial takes place.  Still giving it 3 stars for a great plot.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review of How to Talk to a Widower

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of How to Talk to a Widower:

This is the third Tropper novel I have read, the first being This is Where I Leave You. I liked both of them a lot. They are poignant, sweet, funny, vicious, and insightful.  His family dinner scenes are classic.  They have you laughing out loud only to get sucker punched by the perceptiveness.  He does this through the classic comedian's technique of hyperbole, but it's not exaggerated so much that it becomes caricature.  We've all seen elements of his dysfunctional family in ourselves and others.

His books (from what I've read his others do also) also relate to how we deal with death; in this one Doug Parker, age twenty-nine, wallows in self-pity after the death of his wife, Hailey, in a plane crash.  She was older than he and came with a twelve-year-old son, Russ.

At the dinner celebrating  his sister Deb's upcoming marriage, as things go from bad to worse,

Russ [Doug's stepson] excuses himself for a minute, is gone for fifteen, and comes back with his eyes glazed over. “You had to get high right now?” I whisper to him. “It was so important?” “It was a biological imperative, dude. It is fucking intense in here.” “It’s just dinner with the family.” “Come on, man. It’s like there’s a hunk of C4 strapped to the table and we’re all just waiting to see when it will detonate. I can’t believe you dragged me here.”

It’s a tricky enough business forming a friendship with a pissed-off teenager under the best of circumstances. Now try it when you’re sleeping with his mother, when you are, quite literally, a motherfucker. Let me tell you, that requires a whole other skill set. When I first moved in, I knew I’d have to make an effort to bond with Russ so that Hailey could feel good about the whole arrangement. If she didn’t, it wasn’t like she was going to give her kid the boot. Last one hired, first one fired. And so I applied myself like a laid-back uncle, giving him lifts to school or the mall to meet his friends, taking him to the occasional weeknight movie, editing his term papers, and, more recently, taking him out for driving practice in my secondhand Saab. I was a lazy boy and I am a lazy man, and the beauty of the situation was that I wasn’t really expected to be a parent to Russ, which, based on the limited wisdom I have to offer, was a win-win situation for all involved.

They had not been married long and Doug refuses to admit that life goes on: his twin sister is leaving her husband after becoming pregnant and his younger sister, Deb, is getting married to Mike whom she met at Doug's shiva for Hailey, a source of much resentment. Then there is his dad who has just survived a personality-changing stroke.  Doug, a columnist, has begin writing a column which is becoming increasingly popular, called "How to Talk to a Widower."

Doug has become a self-imposed social outcast, spending his time throwing rocks (and cell phone) at the rabbits in his yard, saying the kinds of things I guess we all wish we had the guts to. "I lost something after Hailey died. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s the device that stops you from telling the truth when people ask you how you’re doing, that vital valve that keeps your deeper, truer emotions under lock and key. I don’t know exactly when I lost it, or how to get it back, but for now, when it comes to tact, civility, and discretion, I’m an accident waiting to happen, over and over again."  So you get marvelously delicious scenes like this one:

"... few weeks ago, a Jehovah’s Witness or a Jew for Jesus or some other freak on happy pills selling God in a pamphlet showed up at my door, smiling like a cartoon, and said, “Have you let God into your life?” “God can fuck himself.” He smiled beatifically at me, like I’d just complimented his crappy JCPenney suit. “I once felt the way you do, brother.” “You’re not my brother,” I hissed at him. “And you have never felt like this. If you’d ever felt like this, you would still feel like this, because it doesn’t go away."

And the scene where he goes out on a date with a divorcee who has two young children is priceless. Let's just say part of it involves him noting that he usually doesn't mop up vomit until the third date.

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Review of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness:

I just don't know what to make of this book. It's interesting and filled with all sorts of delectable detail, but as far as the major premise goes, I remain skeptical. The author's assumption is that because melancholy and depression change your focus on how you see the world and because Lincoln suffered from what seems to be perpetual gloom, that this enabled him to become the great man he became, moving through stages of fear and on to insight and creativity. Well, maybe.I have to admit that my crap detector went into overdrive on several occasions while reading this book.

Frankly, given the multiple tragedies in Lincoln's life he had every reason to be gloomy. Death was an ever present reality. (More on the barbaric medical practices of the time later.) Secondly, the 19th century seems to wallow in gloom. Just read some of Hawthorne, Poe, and others of the early 19th and you'll feel gloomy by osmosis.

Now for some of the really juicier and fun parts of this book. I laughed out loud at the passages on studies on depression and the realization that "happiness" is really a mental disorder: "Abramson and Alloy termed the benefit that depressed people showed in the experiment the "Depressive Realism" or the "Sadder but Wiser" effect. . . For example, one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality. . .But research shows that by this definition, happiness itself should be considered a mental disorder." (Priceless) "In fact,'much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events." The lesson? Get Gloomy, folks. Happiness psychologist Richard Bentall suggested (only half-facetiously) should be classified as a psychiatric disorder: "major affective disorder (pleasant type.)"

Lincoln's "hypochondriasis" as it was known was treated in his day according to Dr. Benjamin Rush's Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the stand text. This included "drastic interferences" with the body. Starting by bleeding (usually 12.5 pints in two months - we are really talking about a total flush here), then "blistering" by applying "small heated cups at the temples, behind the ears, and at the nape of the neck." Of course, leeches could also be used. Next, drugs were given to induce vomiting and diarrhea, all the while, requiring that the patients fast, Rush noting that elephant tamers make their charges more docile by starving them. Following this regimen was a diet of stimulants including quinine and black pepper in large doses. Mercury was used to purge the stomach (also arsenic and strychnine. Of course, mercury also causes depression, anxiety and irritability.) Green stools were a positive sign, indicating the "black bile" cause of the illness was leaving. Apparently the more the patient suffered the better as it was evidence the body was being cleaned out. Whether Lincoln underwent all of these treatments is unclear, although we know that Dr. Henry, his physician was an advocate of Rush's treatments.

Shenck appears to approve of Nietzsche's (and probably Frankel would approve, too) remark "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Well, maybe.

Occasionally, I felt that the author might have done better to write a long journal article to make his point. Long digressions on the Missouri Compromise and other historical niceties while fascinating (and they were, I really enjoyed his lucid presentations of all sorts of historical facts) seemed unnecessary to his thesis. BUT, I really did enjoy the read and would recommend it.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The ACLU and Citizens United | American Civil Liberties Union

The ACLU and Citizens United | American Civil Liberties Union:

"We understand that the amount of money now being spent on political campaigns has created a growing skepticism in the integrity of our election system that raises serious concerns. We firmly believe, however, that the response to those concerns must be consistent with our constitutional commitment to freedom of speech and association. For that reason, the ACLU does not support campaign finance regulation premised on the notion that the answer to money in politics is to ban political speech."

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Left Right Matrix

Harvard University Law School sponsored a very interesting series of debates regarding a constitutional convention. They are all on Youtube and bear watching. ( One comment toward the end of the convention struck me as dead-on with regard to how we label ourselves and how sometimes we have counter-intuitive coalitions form to advocate or oppose policy issues. The Left/Right/Conservative/Liberal designations don't exist on a spectrum from left to right. Rather they reside in a matrix with a vertical axis representing Order at one end and Freedom at the other. So in the fight against McCain/Feingold and in support of Citizens United, you had the NRA (Freedom/Right) and the ACLU (Freedom/Left) coming together in a common cause. Those kinds of coalitions are quite common: Order/Right and Order/Left working together, etc. So the issue that we need to face is one of trans-partisan rather than bi-partisan.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review of Nice Weekend For A Murder

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Nice Weekend For A Murder:

This was my first Mallory series book by Max Allan Collins.  Mallory (we never learn any other name for him much like Parker and Nolan) is a crime writer invited to one of those murder weekends where they enact a fake murder, create suspects, and then have teams present rationale for who they think might have committed the murder.  It's no surprise that there's a real murder that requires Mallory to discover the real murderer.  The victim is a universally hated critic, Kirk Rath, who feels it's his job to lift murder mysteries from the muck of triviality and provide them a place in the pantheon of literary fiction. He ridicules and belittles everyone along the way so he had plenty of enemies, many of whom were at the event.

It's not a unique plot.  Others have done it better, but it was written several decades ago so I'll give him  pass on that.

This is an early Collins and it shows. The resolution, while explained, is little developed and I failed to get a "feel" for the surroundings.  The atmosphere was a little forced. Nevertheless, it held my interest and I'll read more in the series.

There is foreshadowing of some of the sardonic writing that has become de rigueur in P.I. novels. I rather like it.

Of course, just on general principles, I hate the Great Out-of-Doors. I grew up on a farm, and from my early childhood swore I would one day live in the city—Port City, as it turned out, but that counts, technically at least. Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like; I never milked a cow I liked. The last period of my life during which I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Great Out-of-Doors was a place called Vietnam, where roughing it meant something other than a Winnebago and a six-pack of Bud. Camping trips don’t appeal much to those of us whose boondockers got soggy in a rice paddy. I swore to myself if I ever got back on good old dry American soil I’d spend as much time as possible indoors. Or, as I like to put it, the Great Indoors."

I sympathize.  My idea of camping these days is Super 8.

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It's Been 951 Days Since the Senate Passed a Major New Law - Molly Ball - The Atlantic

It's Been 951 Days Since the Senate Passed a Major New Law - Molly Ball - The Atlantic:

 "Here's an impressive fact about life in today's Washington: The last time a major new piece of policy legislation passed the U.S. Senate was July 15, 2010."

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Rants Within the Undead God: The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism

Rants Within the Undead God: The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism:

" The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theist’s fallacies and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly matters of choice and artistry. I’ll show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christian’s sermon.

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Rants Within the Undead God: The Vileness of Guns and of Just Wars

Rants Within the Undead God: The Vileness of Guns and of Just Wars:

Good blog post.  Read the section on why guns are for sissies.

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Drone pilots to receive medals -

Drone pilots to receive medals -

In a decadent society, actual courage and other martial virtues mean less, because human life itself is trivialized by the population’s high-tech environment. People lose in their competition with machines. For example, many manufacturing jobs are currently being lost. And guns and drones kill more efficiently than swords. Assuming efficiency is your greatest concern, because you’re a postmodern liberal who’s lost faith in your Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and rationalist utopia, and so you’ve been reduced to a nihilistic, pragmatic systems manager, you’ll be in favour of winning wars regardless of the moral cost to your society. You’ll think less of old school martial virtues and you’ll scientistically assume that heroism can be measured. Because drone strikes are more precise, because they kill the enemy without endangering friendly soldiers, because drones are relatively cheap to produce--for those utilitarian, Philistine reasons, you’ll really think that drone pilots are heroic. Your notion of heroism will have thus been warped by the environment you’ve been stewing in. You’ll mistake decadence and mere usefulness for heroism. The cowardly act of killing with impunity, with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety, will be honoured with a medal as though the act were an “extraordinary achievement.” This is Orwellian and our first task should be to appreciate the dark humour in it.
[taken from: ]

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Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Grave Error

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Grave Error:

Having read and enjoyed several other titles in the Tanner series, I decided to read all of them in order. This is the first, and we learn what happened to Harry Spring early on. If you like Ross MacDonald you will very much like this series. I'm devouring all of them. The writing is good as are the plots as Tanner peels aware the layers of corruption hidden in family histories..

Roland Nelson, an extremely well-known consumer advocate, disappeared for a week, has begin smoking again, and is very nervous about something. His wife wants to know why and hires John Marshall Tanner to find out what's going on in this. Turns out his investigation crosses paths with that of Harry Spring, his friend and colleague, who had been hired by Nelson's daughter to locate her biological parents. Lots of surprises..

Good interview with the author at

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review of The Book of Joe

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Book of Joe:

BEWARE:  This book was originally published under the title of Bush Falls.

He's a prodigy of alienation. Now a successful writer, having written a book about his home town, Bush Falls, that savaged the place, Joe receives a call from his sister-in-law that his father has had a stroke (he was at the top of the key, had just released the ball, and came down unconscious. Basketball aficionados present noted the ball swished.)   Joe's brother, Brad, ex-sports star, and their father never had much time for Joe.  His mother had committed suicide, a manic depressive, for whom the piles of pills didn't work, so Joe wrote a book about his town, never dreaming it would be published which has made him personna non grata, but it made him rich. Now finds he is obligated to go back home for his father's illness.

So as with Tropper's other books, in the first few pages a similar scene is set:  death, sex, familial dysfunction, alienation.  Tropper's books all have similar themes and characters: a stepson/nephew/child. dying parent, dead parent, sibling, a main character alienated from his family.  That does not mean they are redundant;  each is different in its own way and each equally appealing and often funny and poignant.  I like them all.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review of Blood Type

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Blood Type:

Tom Crandall is a certified hero.  A medic who risked his life to save wounded soldiers during a firefight and at great risk pulled people from underneath a collapsed building following an earthquake, he spends his days on ambulance runs helping the dregs of San Francisco.  His wife, Clarissa, is a singer, worried about her career as she approaches forty.

Tom and Marsh are periodic drinking buddies at Guido's.  Tom sidles up to Marsh one evening distraught because his wife, Clarissa, is being pulled away from him by Richard Sands, a local millionaire who made his money in legal, but borderline ethical, leverage buyouts. It would appear he now wants to buyout Clarissa.  Not much Marsh can do except to try and provide some emotional support. Then Tom is found dead in an abandoned bus terminal. Ruled accidental or suicide or a mugging, Marsh suspected something else but has no evidence to the contrary, so he does what he knows and does best:  he talks to people, and, as is typical in P.I. novels in the style of MacDonald, he uncovers familial corruption.

Along the way, Marsh muses on the state of the world.  In the midst of the first Iraq war and a changing Supreme Court, he marvels at  "*this* brave new world, everyone's on his own and the Constitution is less a bill of rights than a bill of lading and the Court is as oblivious to misery as God.  Except that God can be oblivious and still be God, but humans can't and still be human."

I really like Greenleaf, but I'm downgrading this one a bit because I thought the end seemed a bit rushed and perhaps deliberately ambiguous. At times, his background explanations can also seem pedantic. Nevertheless, a great way to spend some time.

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Review of Blood Type

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Blood Type:

Tom Crandall is a certified hero.  A medic who risked his life to save wounded soldiers during a firefight and at great risk pulled people from underneath a collapsed building following an earthquake, he spends his days on ambulance runs helping the dregs of San Francisco.  His wife, Clarissa, is a singer, worried about her career as she approaches forty.

Tom and Marsh are periodic drinking buddies at Guido's.  Tom sidles up to Marsh one evening distraught because his wife, Clarissa, is being pulled away from him by Richard Sands, a local millionaire who made his money in legal, but borderline ethical, leverage buyouts. It would appear he now wants to buyout Clarissa.  Not much Marsh can do except to try and provide some emotional support. Then Tom is found dead in an abandoned bus terminal. Ruled accidental or suicide or a mugging, Marsh suspected something else but has no evidence to the contrary, so he does what he knows and does best:  he talks to people, and, as is typical in P.I. novels in the style of MacDonald, he uncovers familial corruption.

Along the way, Marsh muses on the state of the world.  In the midst of the first Iraq war and a changing Supreme Court, he marvels at  "*this* brave new world, everyone's on his own and the Constitution is less a bill of rights than a bill of lading and the Court is as oblivious to misery as God.  Except that God can be oblivious and still be God, but humans can't and still be human."

I really like Greenleaf, but I'm downgrading this one a bit because I thought the end seemed a bit rushed and perhaps deliberately ambiguous. At times, his background explanations can also seem pedantic. Nevertheless, a great way to spend some time.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

‘After the Music Stopped,’ by Alan S. Blinder -

‘After the Music Stopped,’ by Alan S. Blinder - "

Starting in the late 1990s and continuing through 2007, he writes, Americans had “built a fragile house of financial cards” that was just waiting to be toppled: “The intricate but precarious construction was based on asset-price bubbles, exaggerated by irresponsible leverage, encouraged by crazy compensation schemes and excessive complexity, and aided and abetted by embarrassingly bad underwriting standards, dismal performances by the statistical rating agencies and lax financial regulation.”

“He calls the former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, and the Clinton-era Treasury secretaries, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers, to account for their antiregulatory stances, which laid the groundwork for the market excesses and snowballing fiscal disasters that would explode in 2008.”

“He identifies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — with their low-income and subprime mortgage portfolios — as being only “supporting actors” in the debacle. And he calls the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15, 2008, the “watershed event of the entire financial crisis” and the government’s decision “to allow it to fail” as “the watershed decision.” “It is a measure of the Obama administration’s ineptitude in communication,” Mr. Blinder notes, “that the public came to see Geithner, Summers, & Company as tools of Wall Street while at the same time the bankers who were saved from oblivion came to hate the administration for vilifying and scapegoating them. Acquiring one of those two images was excusable, maybe even unavoidable. Acquiring both at the same time amounted to gross political negligence.”

“What of “the specter of trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits” and the partisan dysfunction in today’s Congress? Mr. Blinder says: “America’s budget mess is starting to look Kafkaesque because the outline of a solution is so clear: We need modest fiscal stimulus today coupled with massive deficit reduction for the future. Some of that will take the form of higher taxes — sorry, Republicans. Most of it will be lower spending — sorry, Democrats.”

Review of Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky:

I have always been fascinated by the more bizarre (to us) religious practices.  What motivates people to do things outsiders would consider to be dangerous if not ridiculous? "This is my blood, this is my body," transubstantiation, drinking strychnine, burning oneself, I mean really.  I'm sure non-Catholics regard Catholic doctrinal beliefs as a bizarre form of cannibalism when viewed from a different cultural perspective, so it behooves us to consider other religious practices with a certain amount of equanimity.  I've always enjoyed learning about subcultures --"Swamp People" being a favorite show -- so naturally this book appealed to me especially having read The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith. (

David Kimbrough, having grown up in Appalachia, understood the regional dialects, often difficult for outsiders to understand, * and he had a real empathy for the members of the snake handling churches.  He participated in the services and astounded the members by handling snakes as part of the service himself.  (Not too bright, but who am I to judge?)

Memory is fragile, and he soon discovered that accounts would differ.  Teasing out the actual sequence of events often required many interviews.  Memory is also selective,  and he found it "puzzling that in a group which uses the Bible as its rule book and which tradition and belief are ingrained, allowing little room for change, there have been many changes in belief ritual, and life histories concerning the early church leaders.  For example, George W. Hensley was married four times.  But most church members see divorce and remarriage (being double-married) as sinful, so they blotted out recollections of Hensley's marital and extramarital activities."

The rise of snake handling coincided with  rapid changes in society and the shift from subsistence farming to capital requirements meant that preachers like Hensley, considered the major evangelizers of the belief, had fertile ground for  expanding  their congregations.  Emotionalism predominated and Holiness preachers often were given credit for having performed miracles.  Snake handling was another way of impressing  the faithful and giving the preachers credibility.

All religious groups require external antagonism to solidify and consolidate their members, encouraging them to separate from general society and several deaths from snake handling,  providing  legislative opportunities to ban the practice, helped to build their feeling of specialness and of being anointed.

He begins the book with a description of a typical church service.  One interesting feature was that children who become caught up in the emotion of the moment (there is no question that the combination of music and group  delirium creates a heightened emotional state that is quite contagious) and move toward the front of the church where the snake handling is always conducted are immediately stopped.   The church is gender segregated but men kiss on the lips as a greeting (they cite scripture to explain this, "Greet one another with an holy kiss, interpreted to mean same gender only since kissing the opposite sex is reserved for spouses,)  even while condemning homosexuality.

The practice is controversial even in the Pentecostal Church, but the snake handlers response is simply that those who are opposed are simply not  "full-gospel."  Interestingly, the snake-handling churches have doctrinal splits similar to mainstream Christian churches, especially with regard to the Trinity, the Trinitarians believing  in the separateness of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Oneness faction insisting on the integral nature of the three.  Just do a quick Google search on Trinity to see the vitriol present in the debates.   (See When Jesus Became God -– and some of Bart Ehrman's work for more detail in the historical genesis of the argument.)  also  The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith & the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman (

There is a fascinating chapter on the Saylor family's origins in eastern Kentucky.  Families provided the communal backbone in a subsistence environment. Anything produced that was extra was traded or bartered, everyone worked, especially the women who were expected to stay pregnant and work in the fields, prepare the food, etc., etc. in what must have seemed to be a never-ending job.  Settlers were sparse, neighbors mostly members of the family, and anything extra was traded or bartered among the clan since markets were ridiculously far away.  Philadelphia was hundreds of miles by bridle path. Rivers could only be used during parts of the year and then were subject to  flooding. Education was virtually non-existent; medicine  consisted of home remedies and/or prayer when they didn't work.  As late as 1899, their existence was described as like Rip Van Winkle-ish.  Things just hadn't changed for 100 years.  Churches, preachers,  any kind of formal religious practices  were virtually non-existent except for circuit riders and their Scotch Presbyterian heritage, although the Methodists with their less formal and less intellectual sermons were making inroads by the mid-19th century.  Simplicity, superstition, and  reading the Bible literally thrived.  Ill luck and health were attributed to Satan.

The gradual industrialization of eastern Kentucky had profound effects on the religious practices of the formerly independent and communal families. They had always been subsistence farmers but industrialization and the influx of capital required labor.  These people  worked on a cycle determined by the natural growing cycle of the seasons rather than the arbitrary work rhythms of the mills and coal mines. In addition, the capitalists had purchased the mineral rights to the land which often resulted in roads being built through fields and land being torn up to retrieve coal.   The missionaries became tools of the new industrial class: " In 1909, H. Paul Douglass of the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church published a book titled Christian Reconstruction in the South. Two chapters, “The Old Men of the Mountains” and “The Passing of the Mountaineer,” called for the mountaineers to be evicted from their traditional homelands. The Home Missions endorsed a change in the legal control of land and undermined a self-sufficient mountain society, while making its members into a property-less wage-earning class. It was the Home Missions goal to convey the culture of the capitalists to the mountaineers."  

Politicians joined forces with the missionaries and industrialists for a variety of reasons. The loser was always the local farmer. "The capitalists used every means possible to gain a total grip on mountain society. Toward that end, missionaries and educators played a particularly important role. Their function was “to make legitimate the exploitation, to eliminate some of the worst abuses, and to educate and change values so that the people would accept the new ways.” Schools, churches, movie theaters, ballparks, and other recreational facilities were built by the mine owners as disguised means of achieving these ends. They were critical in restructuring local communities and the lives of mountaineers. Company preachers and teachers were used to harness any destabilizing factors that threatened the interests of the mine owners and to mediate the process of proletarianization. "

Fire handling arose concomitant with snake handling, again with Biblical justification.  Between 1914 and 1920 it even surpassed snake handing in frequency during services.   The participants believe themselves to have been anointed by the Holy Spirit making them immune from poison, fire and venom. Gradually, anti-snake-handling became a cause celebre, pitting the righteous and religious freedom against the law.  Deaths from snake bite were becoming more common and as "non-believer" bystanders congregated around their religious services, the risk of someone else being killed increased. Georgia went so far as to make snake-handling that resulted in a death a capital crime for the one who brought the snake. ("Section 3 of the legislation stated, "In the event, however, that death is caused to a person on account of the violation of this Act by some other person, the prisoner shall be sentenced to death, unless the jury trying the case shall recommend mercy")

Killer snakes, i.e. those whose bite had resulted in a death, were in high demand since the "faith" required to handle such snakes was proportional to the danger. Ironically, believers interpreted a death as either the handler having too much faith or, conversely, not enough, or the handler wasn't sufficiently "anointed", or God just wanted to bring them home. Convenient.  As is typical of non-mainstream belief systems, pressure and harassment from law enforcement merely solidified their belief.  Ironically, handling was very hard on the snakes who often died after repeated handling.  This was often seen as evidence of the devil being driven out by the anointed.

In his conclusion, the author notes: "The sociologist Emile Durkheim created a “nonobvious theory of religion, in which the key to religion is not its beliefs but the social rituals that its members perform. Religion is a key to social solidarity, and religious beliefs are important, not in their own right, but as symbols of social groups.” Thus, religion becomes sociologically and culturally important, playing a significant role in the social life of Holiness worshipers. Except for his use of the loaded term “cult," J. Wayne Flynt described the snake handlers perfectly: “The cult was an enigma, a classic confrontation between cultures. Snake handling occurred most frequently not in the most isolated regions of Appalachia, but in peripheral areas undergoing change from subsistence agriculture to industry. The cult helped its members cope with the humiliation attendant to being poor and hillbilly. One way to adjust to threatening new values was to reject them, and the snake-handling group demonstrated the tension of people torn from decades of isolation and thrust into the modern world.”

The author, who holds a PhD. in history, remains dispassionate throughout, a remarkable feat, given he is a snake handler himself.  My only regret is that he should have spent more time on the “drinking poisons” such as strychnine more.  His belief in snake handling (there are pictures of him handling snakes at a service) provided unparalleled access.  A riveting history of the origins and practice of a fascinating religious belief system.

Excellent documentary at

Other recommended titles:  Seedtime on the Cumberland ( ) and Flowering of the Cumberland ( ) by Arnow.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Review of Ships' Bilge Pumps: A History of Their Development, 1500-1900

Review of Ships' Bilge Pumps: A History of Their Development, 1500-1900:

Texas A&M has a department of nautical archaeology (be still my beating heart -,) and they publish a journal Studies in Nautical Archaeology which in turn prints small monographs on assorted areas of interest. This small book is number 2 in that series.

Here's a piece of useful physics: "The proportional rate of water flow varies as the square root of the depth of the hole below the waterline [in a ship:]" so a hole 16 feet below the waterline will admit water 4 times faster than a hole 1 foot below the waterline. And when the water in the hold reaches the waterline, sometimes an equilibrium is reached and the ship can continue to float indefinitely, especially if the water being pumped out (and it becomes easier as the water approaches the waterline) becomes equal in volume to the amount of water entering the ship. That's why every ship had to have a bilge pump of some kind.

There is all sorts of material available about ships' rigging, naval tactics, etc., yet little research into the one item on board that might mean the difference between swimming or staying afloat. Obviously the effectiveness of the pump was crucial and constantly being refined. Leaks were common in wooden ships and the location of a leak could often be learned by placing an object (empty pot, for example) against the hull and listening for the telltale rumbling of a leak and then moving the pot until the sound was loudest. Often leaks could be repaired or slowed (and often had to be) during the voyage. Apparently, the properties of salt beef after residing in a cask for several months made quite a good caulking material (better for that than the sailors' stomachs, as well, I suspect.)

The smell of bilge water could also tell of the ship's soundness. If it really, really, stank, there was probably little leakage. When the water was relatively "clear and sweet" you've got a problem. The pumps often made the difference between life and death.

The earliest bilge pumps were made of straight lengths of trees, usually elm which survives well in a wet environment, which were then bored out using a series of drills and augurs. Leonardo was know to have designed a machines that would bore these holes. The tubes for use in a ship would normally be of one piece and about 25 feet long. There were several techniques used to pull the water up, often requiring six-ten men pulling at the end of the rope. One was a leather device that opened out against the sides of tube, pulling and pushing water up above it, much like an umbrella, and then collapsing toward the center as it was lowered back down to the bottom. As metal use became more common, a lead, hub-like, circle with holes was covered with a piece of leather attached in the center to a pole. The leather wold be forced up on the way down and collapsed back against the lead by the force of the water as it was drawn up out of the bilge.

Bronze and copper and steel soon replaced wood and developments in the steam engine had their effect on improvements in the pump. As the need to make closer and closer tolerances for the piston and cylinder in a steam engine were required, improvements in general pump technology inevitably followed. By 1798, double piston pumps were in use, although there is some evidence that two single piston pumps were preferred because if one broke down the other would remain in operation, whereas the double-piston pump was more complicated and if something broke, pumping stopped.

The Chinese had very clever chain pumps that removed the water far more efficiently, Juan Gonzales de Mendoza wrote in 1585: The pumps which they have in their ships are much differing from ours, and are far better. They make them of many pieces, with a wheel to draw water, which wheel is set on the ships sides within, wherewith they do easily cleanse their ships, for that one man alone going at the wheel doth in a quarter of an hour cleanse a great ship although she leak very much. There is evidence the Romans used chain pumps but their technology had been lost until reintroduced in Italy during the middle ages for use in mines. By 1768, a new chain pump had been introduced on an English naval vessel that was extremely efficient, removing 1 ton of water in 40 seconds using only four men. The only drawback was a tendency of the chain to break and the necessity of replacing the leathers often. The United States was slow to adopt the chain pump until the 1830's. In fact, captured British warships had their chain pumps removed and replaced by the older common pump even though a seaman at a common pump could usually work only for 200 strokes, or about 5 minutes, whereas on a chain pump for thirty minute . By the mid-nineteenth century, industrial production of pumps was common and the classic hand well pump we are all familiar with at parks became common.

The book has lots of wonderful photographs, illustrations, schematics and woodcuts to help visualize the written descriptions.

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Review of The King's Coat

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The King's Coat:

In The King's Coat first in the series, Lewrie is forcibly introduced to the navy. Nicknamed "the little bastard" by his father, he was the product of an early premarital and pre-war fling of Sir Hugh, his father, adopted, pampered and rather spoiled. Alan, at age eighteen, enjoys the ladies, but even he is surprised when his half-sister, Belinda, propositions him. They are busy having a grand old time in bed, thinking the house is empty, when much to their, or Alan's, consternation, they are surprised by the local priest, Alan's father, the butler, and Sir Hugh's father. Alan springs out of bed wearing only a silk sheath condom — "he was only fairly sure of her latest amours," — she cries rape, and Alan decides it's time to run. Unable to escape their clutches, he is given a choice of joining the navy as a midshipman or facing the local magistrate, where the penalty for rape is the gallows. Not being a fool, Alan chooses the former, where, the reader learns, Sir Hugh hopes he will be killed. There is the matter of an estate that Alan might inherit but of which he knows nothing. With him out of the way, Belinda and Sir Hugh, get the goods. Alan has his suspicions, but no evidence. I like Lambdin, and he may become my favorite after O'Brian. He's much more blatant and shameless than Forester or Kent. After putting to sea in the Ariadne, new hands typically had difficulty getting their sea legs. "Those with touchy stomachs were being dragged to the lee rails to 'cast their accounts' into the Channel, and those who could not wait were being ordered to clean up their spew." Our hero at first appears immune, but before long he begs to die. "He honestly could not have choked anything down that could possibly have scratched on the way back up." The designation of all the lines at first stumps him and he often becomes confused. When asked to "baggy-wrinkle" on old lines, Lewrie thinks to himself, "Shit, new words again. Baggy-wrinkle? Sounds like my scrotum about now." All turns out well, and following numerous close escapes and lucky turns, at first appalled by the conditions of the service, he discovers to his surprise that not only is he good at it, but he likes his new trade as well. Only twelve more volumes to go.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Releasing Old Nonfiction Books When Facts Have Changed -

Releasing Old Nonfiction Books When Facts Have Changed -

 "Journalism is meant to be the first draft of history, and newspaper articles fit that mold nicely, fading into the archives. But books are not so neat."

But, it would seem to me that both journalism and books, which, one might argue are a third or fourth draft of history, have an obligation to the "truth" or at least a set of verifiable facts. I suggest the publishers really need to make an effort to revise an earlier book's material based on new evidence and not to do so is merely succumbing to monetary gain at the expense of accuracy.

To suggest that Rosenthal would have thought otherwise is specious and self-serving.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Ellipsis

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Ellipsis:

The 14th in the Tanner series. It's very good. Tanner is hired to bodyguard (something he rarely does) a wildly successful, but very bitchy, author. Someone wants her dead. I'm already in trouble with the spoiler police so I'll leave it at that.

I'm all screwed up. I decided to read the whole series, they are that good, but now I've read three totally out of order and it would appear this is the last one Greenleaf wrote (will write) in the series, a shame. Bring Tanner back. Now I'm back to the first and will proceed in order.

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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Review of State's Evidence

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of State's Evidence:

Many people have compare Greenleaf to Ross MacDonald and I can see why. There is the same undercurrent of corruption and complicated familial relationships suffering from events that occurred many years before. Greenleaf has been much under-appreciated and that's a shame.  I recently ordered a bunch of his Tanner novels and will be vegging out on them over the next few days.

In this one Tanner is asked by the Deputy DA Tolson of El Gordo to help find a missing witness.  Mrs. Blair reportedly had seen a local thug hit-and-run a pedestrian.  Tolson wants to put this guy away.  Teresa Blair has disappeared, even while being under police protection.  For his own reasons her husband, James, also wants her found. The local Chief of Detectives, Grinder, has his own reasons for wanting Tanner to report to him instead of Tolson and  a neighbor , Kathie, fears for Teresa's life thinking James wanted to do her harm. Then there is Wayne, the neighbor's husband, who, having found religion had been booted out of the house, but is stalking his son.  And we won't even mention the feds who have their own interest in not wanting Tanner's involvement.

Everything comes together in an ending I just didn't see coming.

It's pretty hard not to like a book that indulges in the use of words like crepuscular and preterlogical and has paragraphs like this one: "I started to say something, then stopped. Fluto had built a life out of that warped rationalization of benevolence and it would take a better sophist than I to knock it out of him. That’s why people like Fluto are both dangerous and ineradicable. They become criminals not out of need or desperation but out of conviction, out of a premeditated, preterlogical, almost genetic determination that crime is the only honorable mode of existence, the only way to retaliate against a government and a society they assume to be alien and oppressive. The mob rises out of that psychology, but Christianity and Nazism have their roots in alienation, too. Doctrine and ritual are the sanctuaries of the outcast, and I had encountered a lot of proof of that in this case."

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Review of The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest:

I love reading about mountain climbing even though wanting to be the one-thousandth person to climb and having fixed ropes and ladders laid out by underpaid third-world sherpas hardly seems like a valid way to spend $70,000. Now Mallory's attempt is something else entirely. (I'm reading Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.)I read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster and very much liked it.

This book was presented by some as an alternative, or rebuttal, to Krakauer's account. I have no experience climbing anything larger than small stone and so I have no way to judge the authenticity of either story, but common sense would seem to dictate that both could be right since they are both very personal stories told by the participants, all of whom were under an enormous amount of stress and whose perspective will naturally have been shaped by their very limited personal view of events. Krakauer was sent specifically to record events of that year's climb and was taking notes, so I would tend to give his account the edge. When it comes right down to it, I don't remember any substantial discrepancies between the two books and suspect that much of the controversy is manufactured for PR purposes. Much of that comes from the co-author DeWitt who tells Boukareev's story. In both versions he is portrayed as a hero; DeWitt's account just feels a bit manufactured. Of course, he wasn't there.

Boukreev's account is more measured and reasoned; Krakauer's has an underlying passion that drives it and helps to make it such a wonderful read. Read both of them.
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