Book Review: Tap Code by Carlyle S. Harris and Sara W. Berry (Five Stars)


Book Review: Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything by Carlyle S. Harris and Sara W. Berry

(Five Stars)

“I am convinced that there is a reason for all of this. Whatever the reason, I am sure we can use this time to become emotionally and spiritually stronger.” Excerpted from Smitty’s first letter to reach Louise, Sep 1965.

Ruminations on the nature of integrity and struggle. Starting with the moment “Smitty” Harris was shot down on April 5, 1965, he and his wife Louise take the reader moment by moment through eight years of combat of a different sort than either imagines they would fight. Treated as criminals instead of prisoners of war, Harris and hundreds of other POWs (including Vietnamese and Thais) suffered starvation, deprivation, and intense psychological and physical abuse, though their captors tried to not inflict obvious wounds.

“If Smitty can do what he is doing right now, I can do this.” Louise

A compelling and well-told history. Told in a conversation voice. Folded timeline confuses. Digressions inside digressions. Needed on more Continue reading

Book Review: Elegant Etiquette of the Nineteenth Century by Mallory James (Three Stars)


Book Review: Elegant Etiquette of the Nineteenth Century by Mallory James

(Three Stars)

“The interest is in politeness, not pretension.”

Well-researched and written overview of the standards and changes in etiquette in nineteenth century England. Exhaustive survey not only of etiquette itself but what it tells us about social change and the people of that century.

“Behaving with perfect propriety and civility required no small amount of effort.”

Fortunately, brief as readers will quickly tire of detailed recitations of which authority declaimed which standard and how they might disagree.

“The paying of calls and the leaving of cards can be viewed as a ritual which kept social interaction turning.”

Why would a twenty-first century American read such a book? To ground on in the mores of a society about which mountains of literature and popular media still appear. From Jane Austin to Charles Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle, appreciating authors of that century expands as one understands the milieu in which their fiction was set.

“When it comes to the behavior of ladies and gentlemen in the nineteenth century, we have to take into account that people were simply people.”

Book Review: Edward III: The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer (Four Stars)


Book Review: Edward III: The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer

(Four Stars)

“’The perfect king’ is not what Edward III was: it is what he tried to be. He was a prince who knew his job and did it.”

Better-than-average history. Mortimer goes behind battles and treaties to explore the personal, cultural and religious background of the high tide of the middle ages. Edward’s life is examined, warts and all, a feat in itself as reliable records are spotty.

“Edward III’s experiences are so extraordinary that the period 1326-50 reads at times like a fairy tale with footnotes.”

Beginning with Edward’s deliverance from his mother’s tyranny, Mortimer weaves this biography from the warp and weft of Continue reading

Book Review: Honorable Treachery by G. J. A. O’Toole (Three Stars)


Book Review: Honorable Treachery: A History of U. S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA by G. J. A. O’Toole

(Three Stars)

Encyclopedic but mind-numbing. To cover the topic O’Toole set out for himself necessarily demands an encyclopedic effort. On a technical level he succeeds.

“We find by fatal experience, the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets.” John Jay, 1790

Reads like a history book, footnotes and all. Too many biographical personal details about the people and too little about what they did. Published in 1991.

“We failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones.” “The president’s chief intelligence office, the one person in the government responsible for national intelligence, had not even been told of Continue reading

Book Review: Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley (Four Stars)


Book Review: Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

(Four Stars)

“Mrs. Lincoln may have been imprudent, but since here intentions were good, she should be judged more kindly than she has been.”

An extraordinary primary source of the 1860s. Elizabeth Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia, managed to buy her freedom by her skill as a seamstress and the help of friends white and black. She set up business in Washington, D. C., and eventually become modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars.”

“The Republican politicians must pay my debts. Hundreds of them are immensely rich off the patronage of my husband, and it is but fair that they should help me out of my embarrassment.” Mary Todd Lincoln

That Mary Todd Lincoln was the source and embodiment of her own troubles is not denied. Rather Keckley draws attention to those who tried to help the trouble woman, and those who did not.

“I believe that I could then have forgiven everything for the sake of one kind word. But the kind word was not proffered.”

A mirror of an age. Some of her revelations are unexpected. Notice the apparent contradiction between the previous and following quotations.

“You do not know the Southern people as well as I do—how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

Keckley visited her former owners after the war, in apparent harmony.

“Even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, “Peace! You have suffered! Go in peace.”

Sadly, after this was published in 1868, Mrs. Lincoln suffered more tragedy, with the death of her youngest son, Tad, in 1871. She never recovered.

“What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.”

Book Review: Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (Four Stars)


Book Review: Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas

(Four Stars)

“It is remarkable how little concern men seem to have for logic, statistics, and even, indeed, survival: we live by emotion, prejudice, and pride.” DDE

Another timely correction to the popular and scholarly evaluation of the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower. For years both the media and academia have repeated a false, sometimes willfully so, image of our 34th president.

“The hatchet job was one of the most lasting and effective in political history.”

Thorough research and clear prose undergird Thomas’s work. Unlike what we read at the time and since, he reveals Continue reading

Book Review: The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Quantum Magician (The Quantum Evolution Book 1) by Derek Künsken

(Four Stars)

“The world has its own mysteries. We only begin to understand what they are after they’ve already passed.” “That’s a very quantum thing to say.”

The blurb talks about a con. Sure, there’s a sting–several of them–but expect much more. Excellent specie building, good inner voice, plenty of team building–and team breaking. Space opera action leavened with introspective musings.

“I’ll provide you moral and spiritual guidance.” “That sounds pointless, as I don’t have a soul. I’m simply trying to help you achieve your goals.” “You have a soul. I’ve been watching you for years. Your problem is your soul is torn in two.”

What an ensemble cast, including a saint! If I tell you, it spoils the fun. Not all homo sapiens, but very well drawn.

“You were giving me a line in my chapel, about this being fated. You meant to con me, but you were telling the truth.” “I said it because it was meaningful to you, like my nonexistent soul. Just because neither exists to me doesn’t mean they don’t exist for you. I’m homo quantus; I live in an observer-dependent world where very important things can exist and not exist at the same time.” “Somethings exist whether you believe them or not, including meaning.”

Hooray a science fiction author who takes gravity seriously.

“The book form has more explicit swearing that the Analog Magazine editor and I cleaned up for the serialization because Analog circulates in some high schools,” Künsken wrote on I’m with the editor; too much gratuitous swearing. Cost him a star.

“Are we going to get killed?” she whispered.  “Saint Matthew is piloting. They’ll know what we did, probably in less than an hour. By then, we’ll have vanished.” “Like a magician?” He smiled. “A little bit.”

Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee by Clifford Dowdey (Four Stars)


Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee and the Dawn of a Legend by Clifford Dowdey

(Four Stars)

“McClellan was in fact the most modern of generals then active: he was an executive. His talents were m [sic] organization and administration. But, as a general, McClellan hated to go near a battlefield.”

Most students of history know that George McClellan almost won the Civil War in the spring of 1862. This book explains why … and why not. A monumental effort, involving tracking every major unit of both armies, often with biographies of commanders down to the brigade level. Weather, ordnance and rations are detailed.

“The next day the guns in the unfinished fort at Drewey’s Bluff, turned back the James River fleet of the U. S. Navy, nowhere in the war did so few accomplish so much in significance of the course of the war followed.” (Did you know? I didn’t, but Continue reading

Book Review: The Dead and Those About to Die: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach by John C. McManus (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Dead and Those About to Die: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach by John C. McManus

(Four Stars)

“Only two kinds of people are going to be on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now get moving!” Col. George Taylor, lead assault regiment commander

D-Day up close and personal. A significant addition to the record of the sacrifice made by thousands of Americans to free Europe from the tyranny of Adolph Hitler. Closely researched and described to put the reader right among the soldiers dying in the water, on the sand, and on the slopes of Fortress Europa.

“All the beauty of the world was gone. Nothing mattered now except this brutal moment, and survival.”

The only way to make sense out of the senseless mess Continue reading

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

(Three Stars)

“The story of an American soldier whose involvement in making the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable–and yet at the same time wretchedly sad.”

The engaging tale of how William C. Minor, an American doctor, came to be imprisoned for most of his adult life in an English insane asylum, yet from those confines became a major contributor to one of the greatest works of scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrained on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships.”

With hardly more material than might make a good periodical article, Winchester inflates the story with details extraneous, untrue (and he tells why they’re untrue) and extensive excerpts from the OED itself–fortunately, not at length.

“No one had a clue what they were up against: they were marching blindfolded through molasses.”

Along the way, the reader is entertained by the naiveté and persistence of the editors, especially James Murray, in producing this monumental undertaking.

“There is a cruel irony in this–that if he had been so treated [psychologically], he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. In a sense doing all these dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy.”