War? Pretty much hell

Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins

3 words: unflinching, immediate, direct

I seriously love a conversational first-person narrator. So when we were visiting Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and I saw Sam Watkins quoted all over the museum and then saw his book blurbed as one of the most compelling memoirs of the Civil War… I was there.

I nearly bought a copy right there in the gift shop.

But then I thought: audiobook.

And, in retrospect, that might’ve been a mistake. The thing is this: Watkins is a Southerner. And the narrator of the audiobook? Pure Yankee. It created kind of a strange disconnect.

But that’s my only quibble with this book.

Watkins wrote one doozy of a narrative.

Although he wrote this memoir a couple of decades after the war, his story feels fresh and honest and unflinching.

And there are moments that’ll rip your heart out. Moments like when he describes the horrible death of a fellow soldier in vivid detail, then states simply, “I loved him. He was my friend.”

And then he picks up the narrative as the army marches on.

There were moments I halted what I was doing, to just pause and feel all the feels.

Watkins doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. He lets us know how horrible that war was. He unsparingly describes the fury and the horror at the Dead Angle at Kennesaw.

(When we saw that place during our visit, I stood and gaped. It was hard to believe that soldiers mounted an attack on that ground. Sobering stuff, my friends.)

And call me weird, but I find it strangely comforting when someone speaks the full truth about something horrible. So I found Watkins’s memoir both moving and  refreshing.

 Anyone else like the full honest truth in their books?

 

Hamilton read-along

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
3 words: enthusiastic, light, informative
Like 60% of the free world, I’ve been sucked into the Hamilton vortex, and each day a different song from the soundtrack accompanies me in my brain. (Here’s the one that makes me laugh every time I listen to it.)

But let’s listen to a Lafayette song, because we’re focusing on that guy here today.
(photo credit: By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21104068)

He’s a big old important secondary character in the Hamilton story, but in Vowell’s book, he’s at center stage.

And… Dude.
The dude was only 19 years old when he sailed over here from France to take on the British at Washington’s side.
And this is how we know the story’s true, because it’s too unbelievable to be fiction.
Sarah Vowell is a confirmed history nerd, and she’s one of my favorite writers of popular history.  
The woman is enthusiastic, and I’m all about that.
And she’s also hilarious.
Besides filling in the Lafayette story with a great deal of her own panache, Vowell gives us the most perfect vignettes of his allies and foes.
Take this:
“A patchwork of amateur militias made up of barely trained farmers, lawyers, shopkeepers, and artisans who, thanks to a hometown book nerd’s folkloric stunt, drove some of earth’s most experienced professional warriors out of a long-suffering city.
So, the moral of that story, other than never underestimate an independent bookseller, was that the Continental Army and its commander in chief had a soft spot for Chief Artillery Officer Henry Knox.” (pp. 84-86)
That line about independent booksellers full-on delighted me.
The whole book carries on this way, with fascinating anecdotes that bring historical figures to life, and it’s the most fun way (short of a musical) to catch up on the history we either didn’t learn or completely forgot. 

OK. All you Hamilton freaks… I know you’re out there. What’re you reading to go along with the soundtrack?


Huge buzz, decent book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of
the Lusitania
by
Erik Larson
3 words:
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
I’ve
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
If
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
the war.”
Yeah,
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
So this
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
Here
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
But the
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
Larson
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
Now,
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania
But I find that this book is enough. And I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m not
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me. 
This is
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
love it.

Battle of the books

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters

3 words: classic, honest, human

So
much for my Top 10 list.
This
book has shoved The Killer Angels right
off the pile. I thought it couldn’t be done.
The
Dear Man’s dear dad gave me a copy of this book when he learned that I was a
Gettysburg fanatic.
When I
saw the Booklist blurb on the cover
that said, “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels,” I was like, yeah, right.
Then I
read it.
And
the gritty realism of this novel makes the Civil War seem nearer than anything
I’ve ever read or seen. It made me want to revisit Gettysburg with new eyes.
The
thing I loved about The Killer Angels is
the way it portrayed the soldiers and generals as actual human beings. The
writing isn’t half bad, either. But its focus is on the people, not the
landmarks or the ammunition or the strategy.
The
same is true with this book, only more so. The people are more flawed and
realistic. Peters puts blood in their veins, and he puts blood on the
battlefield.
(photo by Alexander Gardner; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During
the battle scenes (oh, the battle scenes! I could read them only in sort
spurts—they were overwhelming to experience otherwise) I felt like I could see
and hear and smell and feel what was happening. There were moments when I
moaned out loud at something a soldier experienced. 

I was reading with my mouth
open in wonder.

There
are short paragraphs that build suspense to an almost unbearable level,
accomplishing this effect with a severe economy of words.
“The
Confederate barrage slackened, then stopped abruptly. Freshly arrived Union
batteries sent their shells into the smoke, but the Rebel gunners resisted the
urge to reply.
Meade
understood. They were coming. Then he heard a distant Rebel yell.” (p. 257)
Peters
hits all the bases here: North and South, rank-and-file and generals, the noble
and the cowardly, the old guard and recent immigrants, the righteous and the
profane, the wise and the foolhardy, the young and the old.
Peters
is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, so he knows military matters. But the guy
also can write with the best of them. For years now he’s been writing the Abel
Jones Civil War mystery series under the pseudonym Owen Parry, but this novel
feels like it’s the book he was born to write.
And
the best thing is this: When I was sad to turn the last page of the epilogue, I
found these words in the Author’s Note: “The
Killer Angels
will remain the most beloved Gettysburg novel. Michael
Shaara’s skillful writing, mythic portraits, and romantic view of the battle
make it incomparable.” (p. 425) He goes on to describe how Shaara’s book was
perfectly matched to the mid-1970s, when it was necessary to restore regard for
the military.
But,
he goes on, “It demeans the heroes of Gettysburg to depict them as flawless
saints. Not one was cut from marble in the womb. Imperfect men fought an
imperfect battle and so preserved ‘a more perfect union’ or all. Heroes are men
who overcome themselves.” (p. 426)
The
grace with which he credits The Killer Angels
and also explains his own novel’s approach makes me happy that Peters took
up his pen when he put down his sword. He’s given us a new masterpiece, and
he’s done so while upholding the dignity of its predecessor. 
This is the real
deal here, guys.

Fighter/writer pilot

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by
Dan Hampton
If you’re all about adrenaline
and testosterone in your reading (which sometimes I am), this book will make
you very happy indeed.  
Hampton, a (now-retired) Air
Force Lieutenant Colonel, flew an F-16 as a Wild Weasel, which means that his
job was to intentionally draw enemy fire in order to locate the enemy and
destroy them. So: nervy flying.
And his book is filled with some
of the best fighter pilot writing I’ve ever read. He puts you right there with
him, and that’s a pretty spectacular feat.
Dude flew on 9/11 (scrambled and
told to take down any unidentified aircraft), in the Iraq war, and before that in the
Gulf. And some of the stories are just plain stunning. At one point, I gasped,
“No!” and nearly dropped the book into the bathtub. (Don’t worry: his wingman
didn’t actually die. It just looked really bad there for a few.)
And he gives a solid sense of
what life is like for would-be fighter pilots—the endless training and
opportunities to wash out. It’s really kind of a miracle anyone survives it and
then goes on to survive the kind of flying they do.
And this section, near the end
of the book, made me further look in awe upon their work:
     “Attacking a target in a modern fighter is
a bit like playing several musical instruments at the same time. My left hand
constantly adjusted the throttle. My left fingers worked the radar, fanned the
speed brakes, and managed my electronic countermeasures. I also changed radio
frequencies and accessed any of the hundred different functions of the up-front
control head with my left hand.
     I flew with my right hand. The F-16 has a
side stick mounted on the right side of the cockpit, not coming up from the
floor like older fighters. My right fingers danced along the Digital Management
and Target Management switches while I flew. I also dropped bombs, launched
missiles, and shot the cannon with my right hand. I really never needed to take
my hands off the controls to do anything. It was a very well-designed cockpit.
It had to be, for one pilot to keep up with five or six types of weapons, fly,
navigate, and fight.” (pp. 268-269)
Guys, all I can say is: Dang.
It’s hard enough to fly a
Cessna, for pete’s sake.
This guy? Not only can he fly,
but he can write.
Here’s the book trailer, delivered by the man himself:

Hellish heavens

Hell Above Earth:
The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot
Ordered to Kill Him
by Stephen Frater

OK, this story is nothing short of amazing. And the fact that it’s
true is just flipping me out.

Here’s the deal: #2 Nazi Hermann Goring’s nephew was an American
B-17 pilot. The young fellow was named Werner Goering, and he was born in the
States to parents who’d emigrated from Germany shortly before his birth.
(And the dude was a Mormon, which I think is also a little bit unexpected.)

So… the U.S.
government was a little bit weirded out about what would happen if:

– Young Werner’s plane went down and he got captured by the Nazis,
thus creating a huge p.r. coup for the bad guys, or
– Young Werner decided to join his uncle Hermann’s cause, mid-war,
in his highly valuable B-17.

So the government found a guy who’d agree to shoot Werner if
either thing were to happen. And this guy—Jack Rencher—became Werner’s best
friend.

Holy crap. That’s all
I’m saying.

So that whole story is downright unbelievable (except it’s true).

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

And then add to the mix the B-17 lore the author tosses in for
good measure.

At the EAA Museum in Oshkosh,
there’s a B-17 you can walk through (actually: crouch through) and I
can tell you, those are some seriously tight quarters. Not only that, but they
were flying at 30,000 feet, and it was hella cold up there. And then they’d get
shot at, and lots of them went down in flames. Not great.

Those were some tough fellas.

So the book doesn’t stay on course, because the author deviates
plenty to tell all kinds of great B-17 stories. And for me, that really worked.
But if you’re wanting just the narrative of Werner and Jack and the rest of the
crew, you just might frustrated by the other tales that accompany their strange
story.

But if you’ve got the aviation bug, you’ll just marvel at the ways
people can survive (and the valiant way others died to save their buddies).

Of course, in the end, we learn that some of the story was indeed
too good to be true.

But still. I’m stunned by this book.

(If this sounds intriguing, you can cruise on over to Macmillan, where there’s an excerpt available.)

More good guys, please

SEAL Target
Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission
to Kill Osama Bin Laden
by Chuck Pfarrer
Sometimes I do really weird reader behavior things. Example: When
I picked up this book, I opened it up to a random page, and I went
(internally), “Eee-ooooo.” I was doing the not-so-happy sound in my mind
because I didn’t like… the page margins.* That’s dumb, right?
But I’m telling you, those narrow margins made me think these two
things:
1. This might just be an academic book, and if so, I’m outta here.
2. Probably the writing’s going to be deadly.
But it turned out OK. I actually started reading the book, and I
discovered that the author, a former Navy SEAL himself, writes quite well. And
the book was smart but not scholarly (sometimes scholarly can be agonizing—sad but
true). Thank all goodness.
So, on to the book itself. I’m no bloodthirsty killer (aren’t you
relieved?) but when it comes to the really, really bad guys (we’re talking
Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden—that ilk), I feel a quiet sense of relief when those
dudes die.
And I like it when the good guys win.
So the one thing I didn’t like
about this book was that there sure was a whole lot about Osama bin Laden. And
I don’t want to read about Osama bin
Laden (the Bad Guy). I want to read about Navy SEALs (the Good Guys). So while,
yes, I realize some back story about bin Laden was important, it seemed to me
like there was Too Much of It.
The SEALs stuff, though, was pretty amazing to read.
Here’re my favorite few sentences, which describe their launch out
of the helicopter onto the roof of bin Laden’s compound: “He jumped, and his
SEALs followed him, throwing themselves into a lime-colored void. They landed
on the roof with a series of heavy thumps. Under the weight of their gear,
several of the assaulters landed hard. They crawled to the edge of the roof and
dropped onto the third-floor patio.” (p. 187)
I mean, seriously. It just makes my eyes go wide and my heart
pound. (“Holy crap!” is this reader’s response. [I’m very genteel like that in my head when I’m reading.])
So, yeah, my favorite parts of this book were the chapters about
the SEALs and their operations, which were completely fascinating. The other stuff? I’ll confess: I skimmed. 
More good guys, please. 
* Judge a book by its cover? Not me. No, I go for the page layout.

Wise warrior

What It Is Like to
Go to War
by Karl Marlantes
He’s tough, and he’s also smart as hell.
Karl Marlantes was a Marine who served in Vietnam—a
combat veteran who earned the Navy Cross and lots of other commendations. Also
graduated from Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. No schlump, this guy.
So he’s tough, he’s smart, and he’s also unblinkingly honest
and—that rarest of things—wise. He’s been figuring things about for the past 40
years about his own experience, and the experience of other warriors. And the
result is this remarkable book, which I want to thrust into people’s hands
everywhere I go. I especially want to hand out copies the next time I’m on
Capitol Hill. Those people need to read Marlantes’ words and take them to
heart. Hell, we all do.
It’s only 256 pages in length, but it’s packed with ideas, and
they’re thoughtful and hard-won truths. This book demands to be read with care,
not because the writing is difficult (it’s not), but because the content is so
damn important. Also, it’s sobering, and often it’s just plain sad-making to
read this book. But people—all kinds of people, and lots of people—really, really, really should read it. It’s the
stuff we need to know before we send people to war. It’s the stuff we need to
know when they return.
Listen to this:
“There is a correct way to welcome your warriors back…  Cheering is inappropriate and immature.
Combat veterans, more than anyone else, know how much pain and evil have been
wrought. To cheer them for what they’ve just done would be like cheering the
surgeon when he amputates a leg to save someone’s life. It’s childish, and it’s
demeaning to those who have fallen on both sides. A quiet grateful handshake is
what you give the surgeon, while you mourn the lost leg. There should be
parades, but they should be solemn processionals, rifles upside down, symbol of
the sword sheathed once again. They should be conducted with all the dignity of
a military funeral, mourning for those lost on both sides, giving thanks for
those returned.” (p. 195)
So, yes, he is sad, but he’s also frank about the ecstasy he
experienced during battle. And then the horrible aftermath of killing.
He tells it true.
It’s an extraordinary book.
And perhaps the best doggone book I’ve read all year. Definitely
the most important.
(Considered writing Karl Marlantes a thank you letter. Probably
should do that. [Note: I don’t write fan mail to authors, so this is a weird inclination on my part.])
For a preview of the book, here’s a half-hour interview
with the author that aired on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” 
And here’s an interview that aired on C-SPAN:

But good as these interviews are, the book’s The Thing.

Highly recommended.



Dogs. They are amazing.

The Dogs of War: The
Courage, Love, and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs
by Lisa
Rogak
In the dog person/cat person question, I’m unquestionably a dog
person. Seeing a dog hanging out of a car window, grinning, slays me every
time. They’re made happy so easily, it almost breaks my heart. (Note: No, there
are no dogs at Casa Unruly. I’m still trying to keep houseplants from
perishing. [mixed results there]  I have my limits.)
Normally I have a “no dog books” rule, because dog books almost
always make me cry. (Or, in the case of Marley
and Me
, hurl.) The dogs are always dying in those books, and why would anyone read such a thing?!
But when I saw the ARC of this book available at NetGalley from
Macmillan (thanks, guys!) I thought, That’s a dog book I could handle. Probably
I’ll end up emotionally overwhelmed by the very goodness of dogs—especially
dogs as heroes during wartime—but that’s the way it goes.
Yes, that’s how it went.
And this thing starts out with a serious bang. The first section
was so darn riveting I read it three times. And I just keep thinking about it.
That first section’s about the dog that took part in the Navy
SEALs raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Holy
Toledo!

OK, so that’s crazy-amazing. The parts that get me are that the
dog wore specially-made night-vision goggles and a flak jacket, had a camera
mounted on his back, and had an earbud that allowed his handler to communicate
with him. 
I just can’t get over the fact that there was a dog on that mission.
Anyway.
The rest of the book describes the unique relationship between military
dogs and their handlers. The dogs are given a military rank, and they actually
outrank their handler. (This makes me smile.)
Now, there was one part of me that thought: Those poor puppies,
being thrown into harm’s way and not knowing the risks. (Kind of like how I
used to feel sorry for sled dogs, who had to pull all that weight through the
snow.) But then I thought: The dogs they’re choosing to train for these missions
are dogs that are suited to do this work. They’re not training up lapdogs, for
pete’s sake. And clearly, the dogs often are treated better than the humans.
The best part of this book is the quotes from the dog handlers,
whose words clearly show the bond they’ve developed with their dog. Here’s
Robert Moore, whose Weimaraner partner, Wisky, served with him in Iraq:
“‘You talk to them just like anybody else. It’s just like if you’re with
somebody every day, like your squad mates or people who are on your team that
you’ve worked with for a whole year, it’s a very strong bond.’” (p. 180 of the
ARC eBook)
The eBook numbers 268 pages, which makes it feel a little too long
for what I’m about to say: This book feels like it could be read by younger
readers (maybe middle school on up). The subject matter is high-interest stuff,
and the writing doesn’t seem like it would be too complex for younger readers. 
But it works for grown-ups, too. I, for one, found it fascinating. 

So *much* not-my-thing

Master and Commander by Patrick
O’Brian
I honestly don’t recall the last time a book made me this darn
annoyed. (Every time I looked at it, I was tempted to snarl. Eventually, I gave
in; this was not pretty.) 
I was railing so much about having to read it that
finally someone said that maybe I could find a summary online
and just stop reading it. I tell you, I was sorely tempted.
The only reason I persevered (sort of) was that this book was
assigned for a genre study. And I agree that it’s the right book to represent
this military/adventure subgenre of historical fiction.
But damn, I hated it.
(hated it, hated it, hated it!!)
And I’m telling you, I’m just plain flummoxed. I have talked with
readers over the years who positively love this book and this series. For
Pete’s sake, Keith Richards loves
this series!
I could barely even read it.
I shall now open the book to a random page and type the first two
sentences upon which my eyes land:
“Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance
concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working
through, and the main is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it
deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere
character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to
this character. James Dillon was a delightful being.” (p. 181)
See?! This is what I’m talking about!
(There are those out there who survived two separate episodes of “I’m now going
to open this book to a random page and read aloud…”)
I tried to skim it, and it’s impossible to skim. But it’s also
impossible to read. (See two-sentence excerpt above.)
In this book, I think there were some battles. And for some reason, at the end,
Jack Aubrey appears to be getting court-martialed, and I have no earthly idea why.
(I know why I don’t know why: because I was skimming
the unskimmable!
)
Patrick O’Brian, we are not going to be spending any more time
together. 
Goodbye, Aubrey and Maturin.
Go and do your thing.
I’m going to go and do mine. (Probably it will involve reading
something plain, stark, and pure. I’m sorely in need of an antidote.)