So *much* not-my-thing

Master and Commander by Patrick
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
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.)

The @BlueAngels aren’t books

No, they are pilots. Nevertheless, I’m a-gonna review them.
Since this here’s a book blog, we’re going to talk about the flight demonstration as though it were a book. (Books and Blue Angels. What more could a person want?)
Here goes:

Plot: While the flight demonstration has its own plotline, there is a back story to this particular airshow. This was the Blue Angels’ comeback show after a distressing thing that caused the cancellation of some previously scheduled appearances (one of which I had planned to attend—practice show and all; the fact that I was sadder for them than for me is a testimony to the depth of my adoration).
So there was some added drama to the thing because this was their first flight demonstration after the personnel change. Given that fact, and given that it’s still fairly early in the season, I was expecting the formations to be somewhat loose and the maneuvers perhaps a bit loose, also. But man, they looked darn good. There was only one maneuver in which my eye could spot a lack of symmetry. (Oh, it hurts me to say it, but there it was. They’re darn-near perfect, and what they’re doing is hard.)
Anyway, the plot of the flight demonstration itself leads us to the next topic…

Pacing: I’m really not sure how they do it, but it seems to me the Blue Angels just keep tightening up the show, so the time between maneuvers is very short indeed.

So what I’m saying here is: Fast-paced.
We got ourselves an event that just rages forward with a purpose. You shall not be bored. Even if some ingrate were tempted to tune out, the sneak pass would happen, and that’ll get their attention.
At this particular airshow, since the skies were severely overcast and the ceiling low, the Blue Angels did either the low show or the flat show, and I sure as the dickens wish I knew how to tell the difference between the two. So it seemed that we got to see the aircraft up-close a little more than you do when they perform the high show.

Character: It’s in this all-important category that I suffered a disappointment right there on a visit to my home state of Iowa. One of my most favorite things in all the world is to see the Blue Angels on the ground and in the air. And at this show, we didn’t get the full flight-line Blue Angels experience. They took off from another airport and flew in, which always bums me out.
I like to see the walkdown.
I like to see the ground crew.
I like to see the takeoffs.
I like to see the landings.
Doggone it, I like to see the pilots.
However, since my mood on airshow days (see “Tone/Mood” below) is positively altered by jet fumes and general elation, I focused on the characters I could see.
First off, you can, actually, see the pilots, sort of. Check out those gold helmets in those there jets.
That’s CAPT Greg McWherter upside down in #1, LCDR Jim Tomaszeski in #2, MAJ Brent Stevens in #3, and LT Rob Kurrle upside down in #4. The fellas are Double Farvel-ing there; I love it when they Double Farvel.
And here we got LT C.J. Simonsen flying #6 all up into the sky and LT Ben Walborn flying #5 straight and level so as to gain some serious airspeed.
Even if I can only see their helmets as they scream by, I’m still saying hello to them all by name.
And also, I could see the Narrator. On the ground. And that dude’s a pilot, even though he’s on talking duty for a year. He gets to fly the #7 jet, and he does the VIP flights.
(An aside: It is my fervent wish to somehow, someway, in this life, experience a flight in the #7 jet. I have this theory that my clarinet-playing school days have given me a ridiculously strong diaphragm muscle, which would keep me from passing out. Yes, I know I’m deluded. But really, “nearly-supersonic librarian” is a great concept, ain’t it?)
Anyway, so we got to see #7, LT Dave Tickle, the Narrator. And we got to see #8, LCDR Todd Royles, the Events Coordinator (and also a pilot). (That’s them there: LT Tickle on the left, LCDR Royles on the right.)
And the cool thing we saw is the way these two guys work together. I guess, since I’d never seen the Narrator during a show, I never thought about the fact that the guy has his back to the action, so of course he’d need someone to serve as his eyes. That’s #8’s job—he cues #7 when the jets approach, so he knows when to resume the narration (which he has full-on memorized, which is darn bookish; kind of makes me think of the Odyssey and the oral tradition).
Also—and I love this—#8 hands #7 a bottle of water (you can see the water bottles in the picture!) periodically throughout the show. And they do this in a way that you barely even notice—#8 placing the bottle in #7’s left hand, which is positioned behind #7’s back, and then removing it from#7’s hand after he’s taken a drink. (Which, I’m telling you, was necessary. It was about 90 degrees and Iowa-humid out there.)
So we got to see the teamwork, not only in the sky, but also on the ground, even though we missed seeing the ground show.
And it’s the teamwork that I love just as much as the actual glamour of the flight demonstration. The fact that the pilots don’t pre-flight their aircraft, because they trust their crew chief. (Even as a mere private pilot in my younger years, I know this is a huge leap of faith.) The way the ground crew is synchronized in their movements. The way the pilots lower the canopies on their aircraft at the same exact moment.

Tone/Mood: Since they’re complete professionals, the Blue Angels (the ones we could see on the ground, and the ones up there in the sky) don’t allow a person a sense of whether they’re having a wonderful or a terrible day. You gotta love ’em for that. My guess is that they were relieved to be back on the circuit, but perhaps still adjusting after the recent shake-up. But frankly, I ain’t got a clue.
For myself, I get weirdly calm and freakishly positive (“I know it won’t rain”—and guys, it didn’t) on Blue Angels days, so I recovered from the no-ground-show disappointment almost immediately. It helps to have 6 blue jets roaring above in all their splendor.

Language: The Narrator is pretty amazing. The guy’s got 3 different shows memorized, plus different intros, depending on whether there’s a ground show or whether the 6 jets appear out of the clear blue sky (or the cloudy gray sky, in this case). His cadence is distinctive, but it’s also the same cadence from year to year, even though the Narrator changes annually—as last year’s #7 (Narrator) becomes #6 (Opposing Solo) this year, and then becomes #5 (Lead Solo) the following year.
In Summary: If this were a book, I could read it again and again and again. Two days in a row just wasn’t enough.
So, if you, too, just need more, here’s what to do next:
1. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Inside the Demo.” It’s freakin’ amazing what you can see and hear there.
2. Visit YouTube and look up “Blue Angels.” Clear your schedule, because you’ll be at it for several weeks.
3. Watch the fabulous DVD Blue Angels: A Year in the Life.

4. Read Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight by Nicholas A. Veronica and Marga B. Fritze (reviewed last year by yours truly).
5. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Show Information” and get yourself to an airshow. (This is the only item on this list that will give you the thrill of having the insides of your ears vibrate.)

In my world, it’s always air show season

Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight by Nicholas A. Veronica and Marga B. Fritze
(Photo credit: Blue Angels)
What I really, really want is a behind-the-scenes book about the Blue Angels.

This fine book, which has more history than insider stuff, is the closest thing I could find in book form (especially the glorious chapter 9: “Behind the Scenes with the Blue Angels,” which is like candy to a baby).
The thing is: There is no shortage of videos about the Blue Angels, and that makes perfect sense. The drama is really in the visual. And I’ll be the first to confess that I saw every last one of those DVDs that I could get my hands on, before ever thinking to seek out a book.
In fact, let’s pause—shall we?—for a brief video interruption:

OK. More words now.
The thing is, I really love learning how organizations actually operate (and, yes, the unusual things only insiders usually know), and while the DVDs (particularly Blue Angels: A Year in the Life, which I had to buy as a random midsummer gift to myself) provide some of that stuff, I really crave a book that tells the whole story, including all the weird little unexpected things.
Stuff like this (which I picked up from a video made for children!): Each Blue Angels pilot has his own hand signal that he does to the other members of the crew while taxiing out. (I love this!)
For a look at this sort of action, check out minutes 1:00 – 2:44 in this video of the 2009 team:
(And here’s another example, from the 2007 team. And another here, at 0:16-0:18. And here, at 0:22-0:24.
Not that I spend hours trolling for this stuff on YouTube or anything. Not when I really should be weeding the garden or varnishing the door. Not that at all.)
So here’s the stuff I want to know: When do the pilots eat? What do they eat? What are the actual weight-lifting exercises they do to compensate for not wearing a g suit? When they fly back to Pensacola after a show, does Boss take off first? Do they fly miles—or feet—apart when they’re traveling to and from an air show? How do the two solo pilots communicate during a show? I want details!!
All of that aside… This book beautifully does exactly what it says it will do: it covers the first 50 years of the Blue Angels, including the aircraft they’ve flown over the years, and the changes in the air show due to changes in the capabilities of the aircraft. It also includes recollections, in their own words, by previous Blue Angels pilots.
This book also provides some fabulous details from the pilots about flying in tight formation, including this, from Cdr. Ed Holley (Boss, 1957-1958), about flying the F11F Tiger in the #1 position: “When the fourth plane comes into the slot, he pushes your nose over requiring you to trim back to hold him in position. Then the wingmen are moving in and holding tight formation. It is a locked formation.” (p. 57)
OK. So now don’t you just want to hum?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the credo for the Blue Angels as stated by their legendary first Flight Leader, Lcdr. Butch Voris, can be seen in their demonstrations even today: “Get it up, get it on, get it down.” (Meaning: do a fast, tight show, without any maneuvers repeated; and leave them wanting more)
I want more.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
There’s something about Tim O’Brien’s books that makes me feel a very strong urge to re-read immediately. I think it’s all the ambiguity.
Plus, I believe him to be worthy of one of them MacArthur genius grants.
His books rock my world.
This is a book I’ve been avoiding for a very long time. I knew someday I’d read it… when I Was Ready. (Similarly, I once dodged Margaret Atwood for about a half-decade, until I determined I Was Ready.)
I’ve been thinking about Vietnam lately, for some reason—and my recent reading of War and viewing of Restrepo have had me thinking about war and soldiers—and so I figured now’s the time. I had the book already checked out from the library when I saw Sophisticated Dorkiness’s online book discussion announced, and I opened the book.
And, dear heaven, this book. This book.
This is a desert island book. It’s the kind of book a person can read and re-read and ponder and discuss and then return to it again.
Just reading the first chapter, also titled “The Things They Carried,” is enough to stop a person’s heart.
And “On the Rainy River” made me weep—the story of how the narrator nearly went to Canada to evade the draft, how he was helped by a stoic older man near the border who feigned ignorance of the younger man’s situation, and why he returned to his home so that he could be sent to war. The silence of those men. It gets me.
Then, the chapters “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes” stunned me so much I had to put the book down so I could let them sink in. (I just wandered around the house in a daze.) The first of those chapters seems like a gently melancholy soldier-returned-home story, and the latter pulls the rug out from under you. But in the fairest possible way. (Not all authors do that action fairly. This guy does.)
This book feels true. Even though I don’t know jack about war. But I trust O’Brien when he writes, even though he tells us that some of the stories are not precisely true—that they’re versions made more true by tweaking some of the details. And I get that. I do.
There are so many reasons this book is on track to be a classic.
But don’t listen to me. Here’s Julia Keller, who can actually tell it.
I swear to God, just reading her article about this book made me get weepy.
O’Brien’s book not only made me weepy, but it made me stand still and stare. I don’t do that so very often.


War by Sebastian Junger
Oh, this is not an easy book. It is every bit as dreary, frightening, and depressing as I thought it would be.
Yet, still, I am glad I read it. Even though it will haunt me.
But doggone it, we’re a nation at war; why the hell shouldn’t an American feel haunted?
Between June 2007 and June 2008, Junger (yes, the same guy who wrote The Perfect Storm and who writes for Vanity Fair) was an embedded reporter who lived with Army troops who were on the front lines in Afghanistan.
So he got as close to living their experience as anyone can, and thank goodness he’s one heck of a writer, because he makes it real to those of us who are reading in our comfy armchairs and living our cushy lives.
For even more of this reality, you can check out the documentary Restrepo, which Junger and Tim Hetherington co-directed and co-produced. The film’s web site also has photos of the soldiers who appear in the book.

As one would expect, there’s plenty of suffering in this book. Soldiers die, and soldiers are injured. And then the survivors wait around in a start of tense boredom, yearning for it all to start up again. That sentiment seems unfathomable, but Junger makes it make sense.

He writes that war (the big picture) is different from combat (what happens on the ground/air/sea), and that many of the soldiers grow to love combat. But, he says, for them, a love of combat does not equal a love of killing. Instead, combat comes to mean protecting, defending the tribe—which quickly becomes addictive.
The entire third section of the book, titled “Love” is a remarkable thing I’ll not soon forget.
And listen to this, from the section titled “Killing”:
“Society can give its young men almost any job and they’ll figure out how to do it. They’ll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for.” (p. 154)
Anyone else just feeling like weeping?

Legal Thriller with President (sort of)

Marine One by James W. Huston

So legal thrillers are new to me. I read Presumed Innocent back when I was in college, but that’s as far as she goes. So this was a bit of a stretch, and I have to say it turned out well. Mr. Huston can spin a suspenseful tale, and throughout the book he had me wondering how things would pan out. So far, so good.

I actually saw the title of this book and got all excited, thinking it would be about a fictional president and a pilot of Marine One—both titillating topics. And those two guys appear here, but they both die on page 1. (I actually put the book down at this point, thinking it would be painful to read more. But I persevered. What strength of character! Give this woman a cupcake.)

The hero here is a lawyer—and former Marine pilot—named Mike Nolan. He’s a barracuda of a lawyer, but he’s likeable anyway because he’s on the right side of things. The interesting thing here is that Nolan is an attorney for the helicopter manufacturer, which is being made out to be the big bad foreign company whose malfunctioning helicopter killed the president. You almost have to dislike the corporate attorney who’s opposing the attorneys for the widows. I mean, really.

But of course Nolan, who narrates the story, is the good guy and we know it from the start. There were some things here that surprise the reader: for example, the way Nolan holds back key evidence from everyone until the very end of the trial. It felt rather Perry-Mason-contrived to me, I have to confess. But I also was turning the pages like a mad fiend, so the author was doing something right.

I was on high alert for puke-y female characters, and there were none. There was just one moment when the hard-nosed female attorney, a former Navy officer, confesses to her colleague that she’s aching to have a baby. For the love of Mike (no pun intended). As if she would talk about that at the office. We didn’t hear Nolan saying that he wished he could spend more time with his kids, did we? (I didn’t even realize he had any until near the end, when there was a mention of the wife seeing them off to school.) OK, rant over.

Overall, this was darn good entertainment. I’ll give it a thumbs-up.

Before He Was President

Eisenhower by John F. Wukovits

Given that this book is part of the “Great Generals” series, it focuses on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s life in the Army. I found it immediately interesting that Eisenhower did not feel a “calling” to serve in the military. As a young man entering West Point, the main draw seemed to be that he could play football on their team, and that it was a free path to higher education. His hardcore devotion to the Army came later. It was also interesting that Ike did not particularly stand out at West Point— but when he was participating in practical training later in his career, he rose to the top of his class. He excelled at the practical rather than the theoretical. Thank goodness for that. Another bit of information that was new to me: Eisenhower was not sent to Europe during WWI, much to his dismay. So WWII was his first entry into battle. It’s pretty astonishing.

I listened to this book on CD, and the audiobook was OK. The writing is a bit bland, and some of the sentences made me want to argue with their patness. Since I was enjoying learning about Ike, I let it slide, but there were moments when I made a stinkface as I was listening.

On the plus side, the author excels at giving a clear impression of the challenges Eisenhower faced while serving as supreme commander of the Allied forces— particularly the difficulties of dealing with other generals whose enormous egos created some issues. The author also gives us a look at Ike’s leadership style. Eisenhower believed the troops would perform best if they knew the reasons behind the orders they were given, and he made a point to visit the men and to talk with and listen to them. It seems that this type of interaction benefited both the soldiers and their commander, who said he was inspired and encouraged by his men. When the D-Day invasion was successful, he gave all the credit to the troops; in the press release he prepared in case the invasion did not succeed, he took full personal responsibility for its failure. It makes perfect sense to me that this man would later give the famous “Cross of Iron” speech and that he would conclude his presidency by warning us of the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

The terrific singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey wrote a song called
“Abilene (The Eisenhower Waltz),” which begins with the line “God bless you, Dwight D. Eisenhower…” Yes, indeed.

I Read an Adventure Novel

Call to Arms by W.E.B. Griffin

I have prescribed some adventure books for myself. I read Call to Arms (book 2 of The Corps series) so I’d be starting near the beginning of the series, at the point where Griffin hits his stride with the series. So I started in, and here’s what I found: quite a good story, especially for those who read for plot. As a person who reads for character, I confess to feeling a bit underwhelmed, particularly by the female characters, who struck me as rather predictable and pliant. But I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail Griffin provided about the various main male characters’ lives. Griffin is also masterful in moving smoothly among the various storylines, in a way that kept me hooked. I’d expected lots of war scenes, but much of the story here revolved around training and the political wrangling involved in setting up the short-lived Marine Raiders force during WWII. I was aware of the Raiders’ existence, but had no idea about their background or the concerns their presence caused within the larger Corps. (If the Raiders were successful, would it mean the end of the Marine Corps as they knew it?) If I had fewer other unread books on my bookshelf, I’d probably read book 3 in the series.

Heroes of the Space Race

The Right Stuff: A Novel by Tom Wolfe

Is it fact? Is it fiction? Look out, folks – it’s… a nonfiction novel. I kept wondering how much was made up, but then I got over it and just read, realizing that “New Journalism” works for me. What a whopping good book. The grand old men of the space race feature here… back when they were quite young men, and ready to take on the moon and stars. This is where I first fell for John Glenn. The other original Mercury astronauts are here, plus Chuck Yeager; all are young, frightfully fearless, and could land any aircraft anywhere with their eyes shut. Wolfe’s writing about the lives (and deaths) of test pilots will stay will stay with me always, as will his description of the scene where Annie Glenn had a stand-off with Lyndon B. Johnson. (Truth: stranger – and more wondrous – than fiction!) Wolfe evokes the intense patriotism and hero worship that Americans felt about these men. There’s a neat edition of the book called The Right Stuff: Illustrated, which, as one might expect, contains oodles of photos. It’s terrific, except that I found it difficult to read because of the format of the pages. So my recommendation is to read the un-illustrated version, then check out the illustrated edition from the library just for the photos.

Fighter Pilot. Astronaut. Senator.

John Glenn: A Memoir by John Glenn and Nick Taylor

When I think of John Glenn, the first word that comes to mind is: honorable. He’s one of a dying breed, I fear. I was first impressed by the account I read of him in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. He’s a man who takes duty seriously, and I respect that enormously. And when I read his memoir, I liked him even more. A good, decent man who has achieved greatness.