World Without End, Ken Follet

World Without End

The dis-oriented author rarely reviews fiction books. I read a lot of fiction but only the very best make it into my reviews. I just finished reading Ken Follet’s World Without End, and it definitely deserves a review.

This is a big book, over a thousand pages — I could not put it down.

Most people know Ken Follet as a suspense/mystery writer. I put him in the same category with two of my favorite authors; Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth. In 1989, Follet broke out of the genre with Pillars of the Earth, a story about the building of a medieval cathedral. Pillars of the Earth is set in the fictional 12th century village of Knightsbridge. The book turned out to be Follets best-selling title. Oprah even selected it for her book club in 2007.

World Without End is the sequal to Pillars of the Earth. The book also takes place in Knightsbridge but the setting is a century later and the story covers the time of the Black Death in England. Many of the characters are descendents of the characters in Pillars.

In these books, Follet does a great job acclimating  the reader to the period in question.  His characters are well developed and  your soon fin yourself rooting for some and awaiting the ultimate demise of others. The book  takes a variety of twists and turns and  I found it compelling.

In both of these books, Follet develops extremely strong female characters. They are every bit the equal of the men around them. Pulling of this literary feat in  the context of 13th century England is certainly noteworthy.

World Without End gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 , Marcus Luttrell

The Few

The dis-oriented author has two sons on active duty in the United States military. I read a great deal of history and military history. So when I heard Marcus Luttrell being interviewed on the radio — I knew I had to buy his book.

Luttrell is a US Navy Seal, his book Lone Survivor is about his four man reconnaissance team and the ill-fated Operation Redwing in Afghanistan. Lutrell and his team ended up in a firefight with over one hundred Taliban fighters. As the title suggest, Luttrell was the lone survivor. This is Luttrel’s story, why he became a Seal, what the training entails, the operation it self and how he managed to survive. But even more so, this is the story of 4 brave US Nave Seals, three of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice for their county.

This is the most compelling books I have read in a long time — I could not put it down.

Navy Seals are among the finest warriors on the face of the earth. According to Luttrell only the British SAS come anywhere close. Luttrell and his team were highly trained highly motivated warriors tasked with capturing a senior Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan.

While doing covert reconnaissance, Luttrell’s team was discovered by a couple of Afghan goatherds. The team decides to release them rather than kill them. Luttrell cast the deciding vote. One of the key conflicts in the story is whether to let them go. According to the rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions, the goatherds are non-combatants. From a purely tactical point of view, they could very easily inform the Taliban where the team is.

Luttrell notes that the team was concerned about how their actions would be perceived if they killed the goatherds. The Arab press and the liberal media in the US would certainly pounce on it and the SEALs would likely find themselves facing murder charges in a US court.

Luttrell states that if he had it to do over again, he would not hesitate to kill the goatherds. While I do not agree with every conclusion Luttrell makes, his story is worth listening to.

Lone Survivior gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, Gordon S. Wood

The Few

The dis-oriented author is a student of history. I have, through my recent reading, been exploring the pantheon of the founding fathers. Gordon S. Woods’ Revolutionary Characters is a book made up of essays about eight of these extraordinary men. I have read biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, FranklinHamilton and Burr. The eighth founder in Woods’ list is Thomas Paine.

Woods’ book provided some fascinating insight into the fathers.

I found this book interesting on several different levels. First, Woods choice of founders. When I think of the founders, my list is usually (in no particular order):

  • Washington
  • Franklin
  • Adams
  • Hamilton
  • Madison
  • Jefferson

I would not have included Burr in the mix. I read Nancy Isenberg’s Burr biography, Fallen Founder, and I remain unconvinced. Burr had the potential but I would argue that he does not belong in this list.

The other oddity is the inclusion of Paine. I have not read a full Paine biography but his pamphlet Common Sense was circulated widely through the colonies and helped to light the fire of revolution among the people. So Paine’s influence was clearly great. On the other hand, Paine was an itinerant revolutionary, a citizen of the world — not an American at all. He was probably just as influential in the French Revolution with his publication The Rights of Man. Paine didn’t stay and contribute to the actual founding of the country he was already gone.

Woods’ insights added to what I have learned from other sources. Woods has a lot to say about class relationships in the early days of the country.

I learned a lot reading this book, what more could you ask for?

Revolutionary Characters gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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The Few, The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything To Fight In The Battle of Britain, Alex Kershaw

The Few

The dis-oriented author has been reading a lot of World War II books. I knew that there were Americans in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, but I didn’t know anything about them. Alex Kershaw’s The Few, is the story of the American pilots who joined the Royal Air Force in the simmer of 1940.

They were among those whom Winston Churchill described as the few in his famous speech. Churchill said of the RAF pilots:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. . . .

Kershaw tells the story of the Americans among those few.

It has been said that for most people, history begins the day they were born. While I cannot confirm the veracity of that statement, I know that for most Americans, the Second World War began on December 7th, 1941.

In reality, the anschluss in Austria took place in early 1938, and in 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. In May of 1940, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and finally France. Two weeks later the British Expeditionary Force was backed up against the channel and faced certain annihilation or surrender — until the miracle of Dunkirk took place.

Finally, beginning in mid- July and ending in September, three months before Pearl Harbor— The Battle of Britain was waged. The Luftwaffe began a campaign of systematic bombing of British mainland targets that started with British airfields and moved on to the terror bombing of London known as the Blitz. In those dark days, Britain and the (Royal Air Force) RAF stood alone against Hitler. The stakes were incredibly high, losing the air battle would certainly mean the invasion of Britain. HThe war would have been over before the United States even joined.

In 1936-39 the United States passed the Neutrality Acts which made it a crime for a US Citizen to join the armed forces of any belligerent nation. In the summer of 1940 eight Americans violated the Neutrality Acts, risked arrest and forfeiture of their citizenship to fight the Germans. Some originally went to fight with the French but they arrived in France as the government was about to fall. They made it to Britain and were eventually allowed to join the RAF.

These young men were a varied lot. They included an Olympic Gold Medalist with ties to British aristocracy, a corporate pilot from MGM, a white Russian from the East coast and a youngster from Minnesota. Their reasons for going to war were as different as their backgrounds. Some understood the threat of Nazism and saw this fight as a fight to save civilization. Others thought it would be an adventure, a chance to fly the amazing Spitfire fighter. All agreed after spending time in Britain and getting to know the people, that it was a fight they had to be in.

Many more Americans joined the RAF after that summer and early fall. Eventually of course, the US joined the war as a nation. Of those eight young men who wore RAF blue and took on the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain that late summer, seven paid with their lives.

This is an excellent book on a very small piece of history, I could not put it down.

The Few gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Amnesty Will Not Die

The dis-oriented author is a first-generation American. I still oppose amnesty for illegal aliens. My father was a British subject who later became a Jamaican citizen and spent over 50 years in the US as a permanent resident alien. My mother is from Guam, she is a US Citizen by the Organic Act. The act, passed by congress in 1950, made the people  of Guam, citizens of the United States.

Earlier this year, Congress defeated the Bush Amnesty bill. The president and Congress seemed surprised by groundswell of opposition to this bill. Amnesty just will not die. This week, there are three amnesty related amendments that supporters are trying to attach to the Defense Re-Authorization Act. By sneaking these amendments into the Defense Bill, the hope is that even conservatives cannot vote against defense.

If these amendments survive, our conservative congressman need to kill the defense bill.

The worst of these proposals is the so-called Dream Act. The Dream Act, S.A. 2237 calls for granting legal resident status to illegals who came to the country before their 16th birthday and either graduated from a US high school or spent two years in a US college or the military.

The fact that illegals have access to our high schools, colleges and the military is a symbol of what is wrong with out immigration laws. How is it that illegals are even allowed to attend high school or college or even enlist in the military. This program rewards those who have come here in defiance of our laws. By so doing, we prove once again that we are not serious about immigration. This also encourages others to enter the country illegally, because they are likely to benefit from some future amnesty program.

I was at a Republican political convention last year and I talked to some amnesty supporters. They asked me whether I thought it was OK to deny illegals access to service, to keep them out of public schools and not pay them minimum wage. In essence they asked whether I thought that illegals should be a permanent underclass.

Well, my short answer is no. I do not want illegals to be a permanent underclass. Rather, I would like to see them become a temporary underclass. I would like to take away all of the incentives to stay or even enter the United States.

Call your senators, they need to defeat this amendment.


Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer

Paul Revers's Ride

The dis-oriented author is a history buff. I of course knew many of the lines from Henry Wordswoth Longfellow’s famous poem. David Hacket Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride transformed my image for Paul Revere from a 2-dimensional caricature to a 3-dimensional figure who played an important role in the founding of our nation.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Like most Americans my knowledge of Paul Revere comes mostly from the famous Longfellow poem:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
    Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
    Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
. . .

I know that the Longfellow poem paints an overly romanticized view of Paul Revere and the events of that day. The poem was written in 1860 to stir up patriotism in a country on the verge of civil war. The poem pictures Revere as a lone rider awakening the countryside and single handedly bringing the militia to the field at Lexington and Concord. Longfellow gives  Revere both too much and too little credit.

Fischer’s book describes Paul Revere and the world in which he lived. As everyone knows Revere was a  silversmith, he was not an educated man of letters. He was however, well connected with the various societies and guilds in British Boston.

Revere’s midnight ride was not the first time he carried a revolutionary message. He had made several rides to carry messages to the various Committees of Correspondence in the other colonies.

While Revere was not one of the philosophers of the Revolution, he was one of the actors. There was a midnight ride. Revere was one of the riders. And while he did not do it alone, he was instrumental in setting up the network that brought out the militias to the battles at Lexington and Concord.

The British governor, General Gage was a whig and concerned with the rule of law. He refused to arrest the leaders of the revolutionary movement in Boston. Fischer notes that among those he considered leaders of the nascent revolutionary movement were Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.

This book covers the battles of Lexington and Concord in great detail. Fisher describes the British retreat to Boston. The book continues through the British withdrawal from Boston after Henry Knox’s expedition to capture the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

This is an important book for any student of American history.

Paul Revere’s Ride gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Fallen Founder — The Life of Aaron Burr, Nancy Isenberg

Fallen Founder

The dis-oriented author is a history buff. I have been slowly working my way through the pantheon of the Founding Fathers. I have read biographies of George Washington, Jon Adams, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Aaron Burr shows up in most of as a character in most of them Therefore, when my local library got a copy of Nancy Isenberg’s  Fallen Founder, I had to check it out.

In most of my reading, Aaron Burr has been portrayed as a scoundrel. An opportunist best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Isenberg’s book is an attempt to make a place for Burr among the Founding Fathers.

Anytime an historian she has a unique insight into a subject that contradicts what the vast majority of historians believe, I am skeptical.

Not too long ago, I read Ron Chernow’s excellent Alexander Hamilton. As a Hamilton biographer, Chernow’s book painted a very unflattering picture of Burr. If you believe Chernow, Burr was ambitious, unscrupulous, and utterly without honor. Isenberg says that Chernow is wrong. In fact in her last chapter, she calls out Chernow (and several other authors) by name.

Isenberg, paints a picture of Burr as a man of his times. A scholar who rejected the religious heritage of his famous grandfather, Jonathan Edwards — the preacher of the Great Awakening.

Burr served with some distinction in the Revolutionary War. He was certainly influential in New York Republican politics and rose to national prominence as Jefferson’s first vice president.

He was also a man of the enlightenment, a land speculator, an adventurer and a sexual libertine. Isenberg does an admirable job painting Burr as a man of his times, that is suggesting that his behavior was not much different than that of his contemporaries.

Burr did not participate in the Continental Congress that approved the Constitution. He was initially not even a supporter. As vice president, he was not in a position to shape policy. His later adventures brought him into conflict with Jefferson but failed in their efforts to expand American influence in Spanish territory.

Aaron Burr was a gifted man with tremendous potential — for whatever reason, he never lived up to it.

Fallen Founder gets 4 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-(

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Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue, Robert Drury and Tom Clavin

Halsey's  Typhoon

The dis-oriented author has been through a Pacific Typhoon. Of course I weathered the typhoon in a building made of concrete block with metal shutters. So I was naturally curious when I saw Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s  Halsey’s Typhoon, in the bookstore.

The story takes place after the Battle of Leyte Gulf. I had recently read James D Hornfischer’s Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. In which Halsey is notable for abandoning Task Force 3 made up of smaller escort ships while he chased after the Japanese carriers to the north.  In the end it was a Japanese ruse and the men of Task Force  3 faced the battlewagons and heavy cruisers of the  Japanese fleet. They acquitted themselves well that day in what has become known as the Navy’s Alamo.

After that humiliation Halsey was not about to let a typhoon prevent him from being on station to cover MacArthur.

Halsey’s Typhoon is about a Typhoon Cobra, the first named storm in the Pacific. Cobra hit Halsey’s fleet as they were getting ready to meet with their oilers and refuel. At the time there was very little weather information available to the fleet or headquarters back in Pearl harbor. The science of meteorology  was in its infancy and to further complicate things most ship and shore stations maintained strict radio silence.

When the storm cleared almost 800 lives were lost. Three destroyers, USS Hull, USS Spence, and USS Monaghan, capsized and sank outright. Several other ships were severely damaged and aircraft blew off carier decks or skidded across hangers starting fires and explosions.

The book looks at the events of those days as well as the inquiry into Halsey’s actions as commander  regarding the safety of his fleet. The book also has stories of heroism including that of the USS Tabberer whose captain and crew picked up most of the survivors.

We were at war with Japan but for a short time we were also at war with the sea.

Halsey’s Typhoon gets 4 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-(

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The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History, Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman

The Spy Next Door

The dis-oriented author has always been interested in national security issues. I remember distinctly when FBI agent Robert Hanssen was exposed as a spy. So when I saw Shannon and Blackman’s The Spy Next Door on the library’s new book shelf, I knew I had to check it out.

To me, Hanssen  doesn’t seem to fit the mold of ‘spy’. Hannsen is married and the father of six children. He is a devout conservative Catholic. And as a spy for the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Republic) he did more damage and cost more live than perhaps any other spy in U.S. history.

Robert Hanssen was a technical guy, perhaps a geek in an FBI agent’s world. In the end, his position in FBI counter intelligence was the ideal posting for a spy. 

Hanssen was a man full of contradictions. On the exterior he seemed a devoted family man. He was a devout Catholic choosing to worship in a church that still celebrated the Latin Mass. He became involved with the Catholic organization Opus Dei. He attended mass daily for years yet he entered into a platonic relationship with a stripper. He used the monetary rewards of his spying to shower her with gifts. He shared explicit videos of his wife with a friend and wrote about his sexual fantasies on an Internet site.

As a spy, Hanssen worked out an arrangement so that his KGB handlers probably didn’t even know his identity. Hanssen never seemed to demand much of the KGB.  His information had to be nearly priceless yet he asked for very little money.

The information he provided resulted in the deaths of several spies working for the United States. Thanks to a plea bargain, Hanssen is serving a life sentence in a federal facility and his wife receives his $38,000 a year FBI pension.

The Spy Next Door gets 4 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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The First World War, John Keegan

The First World War

The dis-oriented author has done a great deal of reading about World War II. I know that in order to really understand World War II one must understand World War I and its aftermath. Therefore when I found a copy of John Keegan’s The First World War, in a used bookstore — I bought it.

Some time ago, I read Barbara Tuchmann’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book focused on the opening month of the Great War. I had also read  Keegan’s book The Second World War. Most of my World War II reading has been stories of individual battles or campaigns. I have also read a variety of biographies, like William Manchester’s excellent MacArthur biography — American Caesar. What Keegan’s bok did for me was fill in the gaps, provide an overview of not just the battles but the war on all fronts — military and political.

Keegan’s The First World War really helped me to get the big picture of the Great War and its aftermath.

The First World War is the event that shaped the modern world. As Keegan describes it it was a war that should never have happened. Europe was enjoying a golden age  that would soon be destroyed perhaps never to be regained. The war saw the end of two great empires, the seeds of the end of a third and the beginning of Soviet communism. By the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires would be no more and the British empire would begin to crumble though her final demise would come in World War II, really a continuation of World War I.

Keegan sets the stage for the war well. He goes into detail about the various alliances that dragged almost the entire world into the inferno. He also does a good job of describing the pressures on the home front. The Russian government fell to internal revolution during the war and the French and British government also experienced major shake ups.

If this war shaped the modern era, it is also the first modern war. Keegan is a military historian and he does an excellent job describing the military action at both a tactical and strategic level. Before reading this book; Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli, Ypres and even Jutland were just names to me. After reading Keegan I can close my eyes and see the places and events in my mind.

This is a powerful book with powerful lessons.

Halsey’s Typhoon gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-(

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