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Gabriela, Cravo e Canela
Jorge Amado
Progress: 157/358 pages
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)
T.E. Lawrence
Progress: 189/672 pages
The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve
G. Edward Griffin
Progress: 41/608 pages
Peter the Great
Robert K. Massie
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Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge
Charles B. MacDonald
Progress: 191/712 pages
The German Army 1933-1945
Matthew Cooper
Progress: 198/598 pages
Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918: The List Regiment
John F Williams
Progress: 22/238 pages
Years of Change (Upstairs Downstairs) - Mollie Hardwick

Before 'Downton Abbey', there was 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' This book, 'THE YEARS OF CHANGE', is based on an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs that takes the Bellamy Family and their servants at 165 Eaton Place from the spring of 1912 to August 1914. 

Once I began reading 'THE YEARS OF CHANGE' on the subway to work earlier this week, I didn't want to put it down. For all of its 239 pages, it was packed with some of the most lively, intense, and at turns joyous and tragic family drama that I've encountered in a novel for quite a while. The reader also gets full views of what the lives of both servants and their so-called 'betters' (i.e. the ones upstairs as represented by the Bellamy Family) were like in considerable detail. For instance, the Bellamy son, James, a rather restless, impatient and frustrated man who had left the Army (he had been an officer in India) to take up a job in London -with his father's help - with a trading company, had married a typist in haste after professing undying love to her. After the first few weeks of shows of passionate devotion and affection, the marriage settles into one of stultifying indolence. One couldn't help but feel sorry for Hazel, James' wife, who clearly deserved better. There is a scene at a hunting party in the countryside (to which James had been invited by one of his moneyed, propertied friends) in which all the invited couples had retired for the night after a day of hard riding and shooting. James was peeved at Hazel for having defied his edict that she not ride. But she had been urged on by Lady Diana Russell (who had fancied James for some time - but having been spurned by James when he was feverishly in love with Hazel, she settled for a marriage offer from another man of her class she didn't love) and several of her friends to join in the hunt. Besides, they assured Hazel they would have a placid-tempered horse for her to ride. Well, Hazel was given at the last minute a more spirited horse to ride, which gave her a fright and made her a spectacle before James and his conferes. Hazel suspected that James, having regretted married her, was awaiting his chance to steal away in the night to Lady Diana's room for some "horizontal refreshment." After all, under such circumstances, it was not at all unusual for the rich and privileged set in Britain to quietly swap partners overnight. So long as discretion was observed and maintained, there was no reason for complaint from an aggrieved husband, or cause for public scandal. 

"THE YEARS OF CHANGE" is packed with so much. I enjoyed becoming acquainted with the Bellamys, the young Lady Georgina Worsley (a distant relation of the elder Bellamy's newly arrived from a Swiss boarding school), the society in which they lived with all its complex social standards and rules, as well as the servants 'downstairs - Mr. Hudson, the head butler and manager of staff; Mrs. Bridges the cook; Edward, the footman; Daisy, the sweet assistant parlour maid he came to love; Rose, the head parlour maid; and Ruby, the loveable, well-meaning, and unassuming kitchen servant. This is a novel that, once you begin to read it, you'll probably find yourself staying up all night to reach the finish. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
 

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames - Kai Bird

"THE GOOD SPY: The Life and Death of Robert Ames" is a book with a dual character which tells a history of U.S. diplomatic and espionage activities in the Middle East during the Cold War. First, it is a story about a most remarkable CIA officer, Robert Ames, who devoted the whole of his 23 year career in the Middle East to helping develop and secure peace in that troubled region through engaging with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when the U.S. disavowed any contacts with it. And it is also a story of the evolution of U.S. Middle East policy between the 1960s and the early 1980s. 

Reading "THE GOOD SPY" rekindled some of my earliest memories of the Middle East from the 1970s. And for that reason, it was both refreshing and a much appreciated learning experience to receive from Kai Bird fuller accounts and analyses of events as diverse as the Black September murders in Munich during the 1972 Summer Olympics; the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975; the courage Egyptian President Anwar Sadat displayed in his attempts to make peace with Egypt's erstwhile enemy, Israel, which culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1979; and the 2 tragic events of 1983 in Lebanon which profoundly altered the U.S. approach in dealing with what is now (as was then) a seemingly intractable conundrum in the Middle East. 

"THE GOOD SPY" is a book I recommend to anyone who wants to understand why efforts to obtain peace in the Middle East have proved illusory since 1948. It also gives the reader insight into the sincere efforts of Bob Ames (he was one of the CIA's premiere Arabists who spoke fluent Arabic and loved the people of the Middle East and its varied cultures) to help provide a platform from which Israelis and Palestinians could establish ways of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation - and the realization of the 2-state solution and a lasting peace.
 

A VIEW OF WOMEN'S ROLES IN WWII GERMANY

World War II German Women's Auxiliary Services - Gordon Williamson

This book provides a comprehensive view of the varieties of uniforms and badges that were worn by German women who served in a variety of roles in the German Army, Navy, Luftwaffe (air force), SS, and civilian sectors during the Second World War.   

FLYING WITH THE FALCONS IN FRANCE IN 1918

Combat Report - Bill DFC Lambert

"COMBAT REPORT" is Bill Lambert's memoir detailing his combat experiences as a fighter pilot on the Western Front between March and August 1918. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lambert had had no inclination to write or talk with anyone about his WWI service. Several publishers in the intervening years had expressed interest in Lambert's story. But Lambert had no interest in revisiting that period of his life as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC)/Royal Air Force (RAF). It was only at the prompting of a friend 50 years after the war (a period which experienced a major resurgence in public interest in WWI aviation) that compelled Lambert to write this book. I'm glad he did, because - aside from Arthur Stanley Gould Lee's combat memoir "No Parachute" - "COMBAT REPORT" is one of the best memoirs on WWI air combat that I've yet read. 

Lambert was an American working in Canada when he joined the RFC in the spring of 1917. He received his initial flight training at a number of bases in Canada before being sent overseas to Britain in November of that year. (Aviation was something that had fascinated Lambert from the time that he saw a Wright Flyer in his State of Ohio in July 1910 at a fair. He relates to the reader his subsequent experience of meeting the pilot and later being treated to a short flight over the fairgrounds.)

 

While in Britain (where he received advanced flight training), Lambert became acquainted with the fighter plane he would later fly in combat, the S.E. 5A. From the moment he was given permission by the base commander one day to take the plane up for a flight, Lambert fell in love with the S.E. 5A, which boasted a Vickers machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller arc and a Lewis machine gun, set on a slender platform near the cockpit, which could be moved up and down by the pilot from the upper wing to the cockpit for reloading or clearing a stoppage. The S.E. 5A was also very fast, rugged, highly maneuverable, noted for its climbing ability, and its speed in a dive. 

By March 1918, Lambert had completed his training and was sent to France to serve with No. 24 Squadron, one of the first RFC fighter squadrons to arrive in France in early 1916. Lambert came to No. 24 Squadron at a very crucial stage of the war. The Germans had just launched the first of its major offensives (this one against the British) designed to ensure Germany victory before American forces could arrive in strength. Lambert's learning curve was steep. The squadron was short of experienced pilots and as a novice pilot, he was hard pressed to grasp all the essentials of air fighting he needed in order to survive. Thus, the first few weeks at the Front were highly stressful - learning how to sight enemy aircraft, dodging 'Archie' (i.e. German anti-aircraft fire), and engaging in hazardous low-level attacks on enemy installations and front-line trenches. As a reader, I felt I was very much a part of Lambert's life with No. 24 Squadron. 

There are 2 vivid sections in the book that were both revelatory and highly fascinating to read about. The first was Lambert's description of his activities while on a 2-week leave in Britain (spent both in London and in Northern England, where he and a pilot from No. 20 Squadron stayed with a family on their extensive country estate) in late July 1918. It was the first leave that Lambert was able to get after almost 5 months at the Front. (One thing I'll save for those soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were able to get leave to go to London - they sure knew how to PARTY!!!)

The other section details one of the missions Lambert flew over the Front the following month in the wake of the Allied counter-offensive at Amiens (which eventually helped to break the back of the German Army once and for all). Here is some what Lambert relates to the reader about the mission -

"... The members of 'C' flight separate and so do the Germans. It is a question now of every man for himself. I see a D. VII, red nose, yellow-gold fuselage, light blue-green tail and top wing in that coloured lozenge design, going down on an S.E. 5. He is not far ahead of me but too far from the other S.E. to fire. Now is the time for 8395 [Lambert's plane] to do her stuff. Nose down and wing right to get behind that golden D. VII. He is leaving me. More throttle, nose down more and we close the gap. I try to fix him in my Aldis [gunsight] and push the stick farther forward. About 100 yards between us. I push the throttle full forward. We are closing; almost ready now. Another look through my sight. About 50 yards. Close enough. My thumb presses the button. Both guns fire and what they threw out was enough. The D. VII goes into the craziest manoeuvre, its nose well down with the tail waving up and down. ... he heads for the ground with tail still waving. Did my bullets cut his elevator shaft in two? We are down now to 5000 feet and have no time to watch him all the way to the ground. Another D. VII is about 200 yards behind, diving with nose alost vertically down. I throw 8395 to the right in a steep climbing turn, level out for a second then nose down for speed, back on the stick for a wide loop and half roll out. Where is that Fokker? For some unknown reason he is still going straight down and I watch him hit the ground and explode. 

"The others are 3000 or 4000 feet above me and scattered all around in a terrific fight with S.E.5s, Fokkers, Albatri and Hannoveraners in one mix-up mess. Twisting, rolling, looping and side-slipping; anything to dodge those bullets. ... I climb as fast as possible. Another S.E. 5 might need help up there. Going up, I noticed that old Halberstadt waddling across the sky, seemingly trying to get out of this mess and go home. Shall I go after him or continue on up? He is not bothering anyone so I let him go in peace. ... The Germans are everywhere, in some cases, two after one S.E. 5. I see a Fokker with green nose, red fuselage back to the tail surfaces which are blue with a white rudder. A wide white strip splits the side of the fuselage. This fellow is everywhere. He pounces on the tail of an S.E. but I come in from his right side and let go with everything I have from about 50 yards. Did I hit him? Anyway, he dives off left and gives up on the S.E.

"Something hits me from the rear. I turn in my seat and are looking at the red nose of an Albatros at about 100 yards. Down goes 8395 as I ram my throttle full front preparatory to pulling up for a climbing right turn to get above and behind him. He does the same but ends up off my tail and two other S.E. 5s are after him like hawks. On the ground I see heavy black smoke from burning aeroplanes. Any any of them ours? I do not know. Action is too fast and furious to check anything. In this sort of affair, one has no time to count noses. Every man fends for himself.

"A Hannover is busy with an E.E. 5 above and to the left front of him. I push my nose up to get above and to his right as the other S.E. dives from the top left with both guns flaming. The Hannover observer and his pilot are both concentrating on that S.E. and do not see me. I must take a chance on this deflection shot so bank to the left and find him in my sight, aiming possibly five or six yards ahead of his nose. The crew are still watching the S.E. 5. My range is about 30 yards; still okay in my sight. I press the button and fire about 50 rounds from each gun. The observer jerks up in his cockpit, drops his guns and falls down out of sight. The aircraft falls to the left in a side-slip for a few hundred feet then into a spin to the ground. It hits with a terrific burst of flame and smoke. A second later I see two sets of back crosses falling through the sky with heavy smoke trailing behind. They, too, hit the ground. Someone is going a good job! Time to look around. We are still spread over the sky from 5000 feet down to 1500 feet. Plenty of S.E.s but too widespread to count. The number of Germans has diminished. ...

"... My petrol is very low. Time to go home. All the E.A. [enemy aircraft] have now gone. Hazell pulls away with me alongside, to round up the remaining S.Es. Are we all here? Within a few minutes we find out. Twelve S.E. 5s are circling in a bunch. Hazell heads northwest with the rest of us trailing behind."

Lambert pulls no punches in sharing with the reader the perils and hazards, as well as pleasure of combat flying. Yes, pleasure, for flying is a skill requiring all of one's senses. When done well, flying spells pure excitement for the pilot and a deep sense of accomplishment in mastering something that few people manage to do. It is not for the faint of heart, especially under wartime conditions. 

"COMBAT REPORT" is an ideal book for anyone curious to learn about the life of one remarkable pilot amid the madness of the final months of World War I.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

A NEW YORK NOVEL FOR THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION

Why We Came to the City: A Novel - Kristopher Jansma

"WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY" is a story for the millennial generation with its focus on 4 people (George, Sara, Jacob, and Irene) whose familial bonds as friends were forged at university in the late 1990s and reaffirmed at an annual holiday party at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan in late December 2008 in the immediate wake of the financial crisis. I don't usually read fiction that is contemporary or close enough to the present because the genre doesn't interest me very much. But I leafed through a few pages of this novel one day in a local independent bookstore and my curiosity was whetted. So, I dug into my wallet and made the purchase. 

Kristopher Jansma has crafted a well-written, funny, wry, sad, and reflective novel of a generation poised to fully assume its place in the world much as previous generations have done. (He is a writer to be watched.) What makes the novel especially poignant is that within this circle of 4, tragedy would strike it a cruel blow that would both cast a shadow and a light upon the preciousness and fragility of life and relationships. 

EXAMINING THE ROLE OF "LAS BRIGADAS INTERNATIONALES" IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR

International Brigades in Spain 1936-39 - Ken Bradley

Here is a highly informative book that offers a broad sweep of the history of the international brigades and the roles they played in aiding the Spanish Republican government in its struggle against the Nationalists (and their foreign cadres) during the Spanish Civil War. There are also plenty of photos and illustrations to give the reader a basic understanding of the military units organized by the Comintern which proved under fire to be a 'corps d'elite', seeing action in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. This is a good book for anyone who wants a basic understanding of one of the 20th century's most significant conflicts.

AN ODE TO THE VIETNAM WAR (1964)

The Only War We've Got - Daniel Ford

"THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is taken from the dispatches the author had been contracted to write for a national magazine in the U.S., based on his experiences as a journalist on attachment with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam between May and July 1964. At the time Ford was in-country, "there was a grand total of forty foreign reporters in the country - full-time and part-time, and of all nationalities, not just American." 

Ford had written his observations and reflections of all the people he met in South Vietnam --- soldiers, airmen, and civilians alike --- from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, to further north in the Central Highlands near the Laotian border, and eastward to the shores of the Gulf of Tonkin. 

Ford returned home before the end of the summer and within a few months, the Vietnam War would take on a greater urgency with the landing of U.S. combat troops on March 8, 1965. The chapters he had written and then sent home were never published after all. Indeed, it would be another 36 years before Ford would re-read those chapters. According to Ford, "[t]hey were a revelation: about the country and the sort of war we were fighting in those early days, and likewise about the young reporter who'd flown to Saigon with an innocence as grassy-green as the American involvement itself." 

I was inspired to read this book because of the PBS TV documentary series on the Vietnam War that has been broadcast both last week and this week. I was born the same year Ford went to South Vietnam and have no memories of most of the events associated with that war. I was simply too young to take all that in. But my earliest memories of Vietnam are from 1973, when I watched on TV the arrival in the U.S. of freed American POWs. I grew up with the feeling as the '70s proceeded apace that most Americans simply wanted to put Vietnam as far behind them as possible, and just get on with their lives. Thus, Vietnam became for me a vague abstraction. The Second World War, by contrast, for me was very real because my Dad had fought as a GI in Europe during 1944-45 and several other relatives had also served in the U.S. military during that time. It has only been in the last 20 years (when I read David Halberstam's book 'The Best and the Brightest', a history of the Vietnam War as it passed from being a French war of reconquest in Indochina to an American war) through a slow, gradual process that I began to want to know more about the Vietnam War. 

For all its 163 pages, "THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is a very engaging story replete with many of the B&W photos Ford himself took during his sojourn in South Vietnam. One passage that stands out for me concerns the meeting Ford had with a civilian aide worker who had 20 years' experience of work in underdeveloped countries. It is as follows ~

'I asked USOM Man [the name Ford gave to this civilian aide, because he didn't want to name him, for fear of possibly costing the aide his job] what better solution he had in mind. He said we should cut our military advisory group to its 1962 level - five or six thousand - put most of our money and energy into educating the people, training them to use modern agricultural techniques, and providing them with health care. "The people, " he said mournfully in his almost-German accent. "We need men and women who will work with the people, not more and more military advisors. Pah! What do military men know about the people?" It was a fair question and I decided to find out.'

THE WONDERS & PERILS OF BEING A 'NIGHT HAWK' IN WARTIME EUROPE

Enemy in the Dark: The Story of a Luftwaffe Night-fighter Pilot (Fortunes of War) - Peter Spoden

Here, in his own words, Peter Spoden, shares with the reader his experiences as a Luftwaffe night-fighter pilot with the Fifth & Sixth Night Fighter Wings (NJG 5 & NJG 6) in the West between the Spring of 1943 and the end of the war in May 1945. Spoden survived a number of close-calls in his battles against British bombers attacking the Reich and emerged from the war with 24 victories to his credit. 

"ENEMY IN THE DARK" is a sobering memoir of both the wonders and perils of wartime combat flying by night.

TRACING THE LIFE ARC OF AN HONEST, FORTHRIGHT MAN IN WAR & PEACE

Camel Combat Ace: The Great War Flying Career of Edwin Swale CBE OBE DFC* - Barry M Marsden

"CAMEL COMBAT ACE" is a fine, well-written book about a singularly remarkable man, Edwin Swale. Hailing from a middle-class background in Northern England, Swale joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in October 1917. He completed his flight and gunnery training by early March 1918. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped to France and was assigned to No. 10 Squadron, RNAS, which soon became caught up in trying to stem the German offensive. 

Later that spring, with the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the amalgamation of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), No. 10 Squadron RNAS - now redesignated No. 210 Squadron RAF - was very active along the front. Swale was involved in a lot of dangerous, low level attack missions against German troops in the field and other military installations behind the lines. The book provides considerable detail on Swale's combat service, which - aside from one spell of leave in Britain - lasted through October 1918, by which time he had shot down 17 German planes in aerial combat, survived a number of close calls, and had been promoted to Captain and placed in command of a flight of Sopwith Camels. 

After the war, Swale would marry, have a family, and assume responsibility for the family business. The book shows, with the insertion of some excerpts from Swale's autobiography, that he was a restless man with considerable energies and interests. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he rejoined the RAF and spent the war working in intelligence. 

This book was both interesting and easy to read. Plus it has lots of photos showing Swale (at various periods of his life) and his family.
 

'A LIFE WELL LIVED' = A NICE BOOK TO READ

A Life Well Lived - Ralph Sausmarez Carey

As stated on the back cover, "[t]his book is a wonderful compilation of memories, stories, letters, newspaper articles and" [photos] about the life of Ralph Sausmarez Carey (1898-1976). 

Carey, a Canadian from Winnipeg, joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in November 1917 and received pilot training in Canada, the U.S., and Britain. He went on to serve as a fighter pilot in France with No. 73 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), flying Sopwith Camel fighters over the Western Front in the latter stages of the First World War in 1918. Upon returning to Canada in May 1919, he studied at the University of Manitoba, where he earned a B.A. degree. He then went on to earn a law degree and briefly practiced law in the 1920s. 

The bulk of Carey's career would be with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a major retail establishment where he worked his way into the upper ranks of management. Aside from his service with the Canadian Army as an administrative officer in Ottawa during the Second World War, he spent 36 years with HBC, retiring in 1965. 

What makes this book truly engaging to the reader are: a transcription of Carey's First World War experiences (which he had recorded on tape; his wife preserved it for their children); the personal recollections of Carey's children, former colleagues, relatives, and friends which bring a wider human dimension to the man that was Ralph Sausmarez Carey; and --- Chapter 5, which contains Carey's background and the backgrounds of his parents and siblings. 

All in all, "A LIFE WELL LIVED" is a nice book to read.
 

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS

The Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

I struggled with this book for months. At times, I was loathe to continue with it, and would put the book aside for weeks at a time. But I persisted, if only because I had read about 30 years ago another work of Joseph Conrad whose setting was the Dutch East Indies. And for me, Joseph Conrad (a Pole by birth who didn't learn English til late in life) held a certain fascination because of his previous life as a merchant seaman. 

"THE HEART OF DARKNESS", which is set in the Belgian Congo at the time it was being cruelly exploited by King Leopold, reminded me in many respects of the movie 'Apocalypse Now' with the shady, mysterious character Kurtz the ivory trader bringing to mind Colonel Kurtz who abandoned civilization and his Army career to become fully assimilated into the ways of the hinterland. The overriding themes are of desolation, horror, fear, and exploitation. I felt in reading this story that it was the land itself that brought to the surface the greedy appetites of people from outside (i.e., Europe) who came to the land to both conquer and exploit the land and its indigenous peoples. Knowing that was enough to make me want to know how the story was played out.

"BLACKOUT" - A WITNESS TO THE UPS & DOWNS OF FM RADIO AND THE MUSIC INDUSTRY OVER 40 YEARS

BLACKOUT: My 40 Years in the Music Business - Paul Porter

Several nights ago, I was channel surfing when I stopped at CSPAN and watched a portion of the book reading and Q&A session with Paul Porter. The more I listened to what Porter was saying about the business of radio and the state of the entertainment (music) industry (based on his 40 year experience in both worlds), the more I wanted to read his story. So, I bought this book. 

Porter spares no punches. He names names and takes the reader through the ups and downs he experienced as one of the top DJs in the business, first in Washington DC with WKYS-FM and WMMJ-FM during the 1980s and later in New York (the No. 1 media market in the country) with WBLS-FM, HOT 97, and KISS-FM in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Along the way, Porter also worked in TV with BET and performed a variety of other roles (e.g. Program Manager) in radio. 


As someone who grew up during the late 1960s and into the 1980s with a deep, abiding love and reverence for R&B music and radio, Porter really opened my eyes to the "dark side" of radio and the music industry and how, over the past 30 years, money and ratings increasingly became the sole metrics by which success and longevity in FM radio were measured. Porter for a time, played into some of this aspect of the business, achieving considerable success in terms of wealth and recognition among his peers until he received one day a note from a little girl in which she complained about a popular song that was receiving a lot of airplay in which the rapper proclaimed "I beat that b--- with a bat (Say what?!)" In the words of the little girl: "They keep playing that song on the radio." "... You just don't understand, Mr. Paul. My mom is in the hospital. My father beat her with a bat, and all the kids are teasing me." Porter later met with the girl at her school in Queens, NY and began to put his career in a completely different direction: to promote positive music in radio while at the same time, fighting against the stream of rap music and music videos promoting violence, misogyny, and negativity. 

In every business, there is good and bad. And Porter lays it all out across 133 pages. "BLACKOUT" I couldn't put down. Besides rock and pop music from the likes of Zeppelin, Cream, The Doors, Peter Frampton, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, the Steve Miller Band ("Jet Airliner" is one of my fav songs), the Eagles, Heart, Hall & Oates, Pablo Cruz, Todd Rundgren, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, et. al, I was also especially attuned - via FM radio - to the romantic and positive, uplifting, and inspirational R&B music from the likes of The Ohio Players, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Main Ingredient, The Stylistics, The Dramatics, The Delfonics, The Mighty O'Jays, The Spinners (with Philippe Wynne), Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan & Rufus, Heatwave, The Brothers Johnson, STEVIE WONDER, Chic, LTD (with Jeffrey Osborne), Newbirth, The Whispers, PHYLLIS HYMAN, Blue Magic, Shalamar (their music was part of the soundtrack of my high school years, which ended with my graduation in June 1982), Sister Sledge, and The Jacksons (and Michael, whose "Off The Wall" album from 1979 is one of my top 5 favorites). As well as the funky and highly innovative music from Parliament Funkadelic, Rick James, the Bar Kays, Patrice Rushen, Cameo, the GAP Band, Steely Dan, and PRINCE. All of that wonderful music helped to shape me on so many levels from childhood to young adulthood. But these days, I don't listen to FM radio anymore. Ever since the early 1990s, I have become largely disenchanted with R&B and rap music on the airwaves. So much so, that I stopped listening to R&B (and rap) music on FM radio about 15 years ago. 

Thank you, Paul Porter, for this book. Anyone who has a love for music and radio should read it and share it widely. 

The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II - Don Brown, Capt. Jerry Yellin

"THE LAST FIGHTER PILOT: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II" is centered mainly on the combat service of Army Captain Jerry Yellin of the 78th Fighter Squadron (15th Fighter Group, United States Army Air Force [USAAF]) in the Pacific between March and August 15, 1945 (the end of the war). Yellin was part of a unique group of U.S. Army fighter pilots tasked with protecting B-29 bombers on their extended, oceanic missions against Japan in the final months of the war. 

Based on Iwo Jima, Yellin and his fellow pilots flew Very Long Range (VLR) P-51D Mustangs on missions over the Japanese home islands that often lasted up to 8 hours. These were very challenging missions, not simply because of the long distances involved - a situation similar to that faced by their counterparts flying P-51 Mustangs with the 8th Air Force in Europe on deep penetration bomber escort missions over Germany. There was also the vagaries of the weather, which cost the lives of some of Yellin's fellow pilots. 

The book also serves as a tribute to the sacrifices made by several of Yellin's close friends in the 78th Fighter Squadron who did not survive the war. One of them, in particular, deserves special mention: First Lieutenant Phil Schlamberg of New York City, age 19, who, as Yellin's wingman, was lost on the last combat mission of the war on August 15, 1945.  (A distant relative of First Lieutenant Schlamberg is the actress Scarlett Johansson.)

A TRIBUTE TO A REMARKABLE WOMAN WHOSE CONTRIBUTIONS TO U.S. HISTORY HAVE BEEN UNSUNG FOR FAR TOO LONG

The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency - Kathryn Smith

"THE GATEKEEPER" is a book that brings back to life a singularly remarkable woman whose vital contributions to the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) - both professional and private - deserve to be more widely known. 

Marguerite "Missy" LeHand came from humble origins in Massachusetts to work for FDR in August 1920 as his private secretary. At that time, he was the vice presidential running mate of Ohio Governor James Cox, who was running for the Presidency against the Republican candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Though the Cox-Roosevelt ticket went down resoundingly to defeat in November 1920, "Missy" would go on to work faithfully for FDR for the next 20 years, helping him (along with those persons - e.g. Louis Howe, a highly skilled political strategist who had been a supporter of FDR from the time he won election to the NY State Senate in 1910, and FDR's wife Eleanor, who would later form FDR's inner circle in the White House) thru the personal crisis caused by the polio that left him unable to walk for the rest of his life, to the slow and steady upward path to a political resurrection that led to FDR being elected Governor of New York in 1928, and 4 years later, elected President of the United States. 

Though Missy LeHand's official position in the Roosevelt White House was personal secretary, she was much more than that. In many respects, she can be considered as the first woman presidential chief of staff. Indeed, Missy enjoyed FDR's complete trust and commanded his respect. She had a room in the White House near the President and played a vital role in the shaping of many of FDR's policies and initiatives. So much so that "if you wanted access to Franklin, you had to go through Missy." By virtue of their deeply close personal relationship (exactly how close is unclear to this day), "[a]s one of his most trusted advisors, Missy had a unique perspective on the president that no one else could claim, and she was deeply admired and respected by Eleanor and the Roosevelt children." 

Sadly, this unique working relationship between FDR and Missy LeHand was not to last. The reasons for that I leave for the reader of this review to discover by reading this fantastic, well-written and researched book.
 

The Sleeping Dictionary - Sujata Massey

"THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY" is one of the best novels I've had the pleasure of reading this year. Sujata Massey, also known for her Rei Shimura mystery novels, is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. This is a rich, multi-layered, intense, thrilling story centered on the life of a young woman from West Bengal during the latter days of the British Raj. She began her life as Pom in a small village that was wiped out by an ocean wave, leaving her to cling to life on the highest rung of a lowly tree til she manages to draw the attention of a small rowing boat, which takes her to shore.

 

As a 10 year old orphan in 1930, Pom ends up in a British boarding school, where she (renamed Sarah) works as a servant and discovers she has a gift for languages. She learns to read and develops a passion for books and a remarkable facility in the English language, so much so that she can speak it like any well-heeled Briton. While at the boarding school, Sarah strikes up a friendship with Bidushi, an Indian girl of similar age from a well-to-do Brahmin family who struggles to learn English. Sarah helps Bidushi with her studies, and over time, their friendship grows, making them deeply bonded to one another.

 

Bidushi's family has made arrangements for her to marry Pankai, a fellow Brahmin who is studying law in London. The family encourages both Bidushi and Pankaj to maintain a correspondence. Bidushi shares Pankaj's letters with Sarah, and asks her help in writing letters in response to him. As a result, Sarah learns a great deal about Pankaj (who is among those Indians determined to achieve independence for their country from the British), and this proves to figure prominently in Sarah's later life. A life full of twists and turns that sees her forced out of the boarding school before she could complete her studies, and find refuge in Kharagpur. There she faces many challenges and experiences the darker, more sinister side of life before again, she finds she must flee. From Kharagpur, Sarah moves on to Calcutta in the late 1930s. There Sarah takes on a new identity, friends, work, and a deep, abiding commitment to the growing independence movement. The novel never flags. One you pick it up and read a few chapters, you're hooked.

 

I highly recommend "THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY" to everyone. It has an English/Hindi/Bengali reference guide that will further enrich your reading experience. And for those readers with a love for Indian cuisine, a few recipes are provided at novel's end under the title "A Taste of Old Calcutta."

BOHEMIAN LONDON, 1994-95

The Lesser Barbarians - Eimear McBride

Last year, I first learned about "THE LESSER BOHEMIANS" through a radio interview the author had given BBC Radio London. My curiosity was piqued so much that I ordered the paperback edition from a UK-based website. But when I began reading the novel, it was a struggle trying to keep up with the stream-of-consciousness rhythm for the first 30 to 40 pages. I was very frustrated because to get a real, firm grasp of the story itself, told largely from the vantage point of Eily, an 18 year old acting student from Ireland who had come to London in 1994 to pursue a dream -- and along the way, finds love with Stephen, an established actor 20 years her senior --- wasn't an easy process. This was a demanding book, one that I came close to abandoning out of frustration. But then, somehow, the maddening struggle to keep apace of the stream-of-consciousness rush of words on the page faded away and I found that I could now easily follow the storyline. That helped to change my attitude towards the book.

As the saying goes, 'the course of true love never did run smooth'. Eily and Stephen had a very rocky path to get through, because like most people in new, budding relationships, each of them had longstanding issues in their pasts that made it difficult for both to trust themselves and each other. And the way the author uses words like a pointillist painter gave me a kind of visceral sensation at times that this roiling drama was happening in real time, not the early 1990s. 

"THE LITTLE BOHEMIANS" may not be a book for readers leery or unreceptive to stream-of-consciousness prose. But if you are willing to be challenged as a reader, the journey itself will be well-worth the time taken to immerse yourself in it.