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KOMET

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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
Progress: 472/934 pages
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

Sarah Vowell speaks at the 2016 National Book Festival in Washington, DC.

A FRIEND'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE LITERARY GREAT WHO WAS GORE VIDAL

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal - Michael Mewshaw

"Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal " is a book that takes the reader through the various stages of the relationship Michael Mewshaw had with the great writer, essayist, gadfly/wit, intellectual, and political polemicist who was Gore Vidal.

For me, as someone who once met Gore Vidal (albeit briefly) at a public event in which he was interviewed about his life and career and later signed copies of what proved to be his final novel, "THE GOLDEN AGE", I learned more about Gore Vidal on a personal level from reading "Sympathy for the Devil" than I had ever given thought to. Vidal had been my favorite living writer for close to 20 years, and in all that time, I gave little thought to his personal life. From reading his novel and hearing him expound on various themes on TV and radio, I became caught up in his persona. He was a very fascinating person. And though I never agreed with him on every matter he spoke about, Gore Vidal was never dull.

The following observation Mewshaw made about Vidal, made me sad, because it summed up the beginning of a slow and steady decline of a singularly unique figure on the literary and world stage: “In the space of time I had known him, Gore had become the kind of novelist he used to blister with disdain. Having mocked Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald as rummies and lampooned his contemporaries – Mailer, [Tennessee] Williams, and Capote – as lushes who squandered their talent, having described Irwin Shaw and James Jones in their last years on Long Island as looking like ‘a couple of mangy old lions’, he was now as bad as any of them, and nobody except Howard [Auster, who was Vidal’s longtime companion and protector] dared tell him to take a look in the mirror.”

For anyone who is either a Gore Vidal fan or simply curious about who he was, this is the book for you. I highly recommend it.

LIVING 2 LIVES CAN BE A DANGEROUS BALANCING ACT

Adèle - Leïla Slimani

Adèle Robinson seemingly has a good life. She lives in a fine apartment in Paris, where she works as a journalist, which affords her opportunities for travel. She is also married to Richard, a successful surgeon and they have a 4-year old son, Lucien. And yet, she is a restless, discontented soul, seeking sexual release from any roguish man who captures her fancy. According to the author, Adèle "wishes she were an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole. She wants fingers pinching her breasts, .... She wants to be a doll in an ogre's garden." 

Adèle lives 2 lives, and as result her world goes topsy-turvy, impacting on herself and the nature of the relationship she had had with Richard and their son. The reader should hold on tight while reading this book, because many unexpected things happen at a cinematic, frenetic pace. This is a story that is easily read over the course of a few hours or a couple of days (as it proved to be for me).

WIDENING AIR WAR OVER WESTERN EUROPE (1939-1944)

Alarmstart: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience in the Second World War - Patrick G. Eriksson

"ALARMSTART: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience in the Second World War" is the result of the past 30 years of research carried out by the author, in addition to his interviews with surviving Luftwaffe fighter pilots who had flown in the West (from September 1939 to June 6, 1944), as well as a few who had flown in the invasion of Poland and subsequently were assigned to the West. 

"Alarmstart" (Scramble!) constitutes what is likely to be one of the last books of its kind in which Luftwaffe veteran pilots are able to share their stories, because the ranks of surviving pilots is thinning out very quickly. Indeed, many of them are now dying off. It is a book that also benefits from containing photos never before released, as well as primary documents, diaries, and flight logs. For that reason, "Alarmstart" comes very highly recommended. 

GOODBYE PICCADILLY: EUROPE TURNED UPSIDE DOWN IN 1914

Goodbye Piccadilly (War at Home) - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

"GOODBYE PICCADILLY" is a novel centered around 2 families in Britain, spanning the period from July to December 1914. One family - the Hunters of The Elms, Northcote - is middle class. Mr. Edward Hunter is a banker - yet with enough wealth as to be able to have servants (one set of servants lived with the Hunters while the other set lived in their own respective residences). The other family - the Wroughtons - is representative of an aristocratic class that enjoys considerable influence, possesses immense wealth, and commands everyone's respect. 

While the middle and upper classes often dealt with one another formally and in business matters (Edward Hunter acted as a financial adviser to Earl Wroughton, the family head), the upper class seldom mingled socially with their middle class contemporaries, regarding them as their inferiors.  Notwithstanding that, Charles Wroughton (Earl Wroughton's eldest son, who is destined to inherit the family estate and all that it entailed) espies Edward Hunter's eldest daughter Diana one day while on an outing and takes a fancy to her. Diana is 19, very beautiful, and longs for marriage. She has her eyes set on Charles - who is rather shy and ill-at-ease in most social situations. The odds are clearly against them both. For the Wroughtons would never countenance a marriage of their eldest son to - God forbid! - a banker's daughter. 

What makes "PICCADILLY SUMMER" such a delight to read is the way Cynthia Harrod-Eagles brings forth a variety of fascinating characters across the classes who become so immediately human and real to the reader. Northcote goes from being a tranquil village to a community caught up in the initial excitement, demands, and stresses created by the outbreak of war in August 1914. By year's end, "Northcote reels under an influx of khaki volunteers, wounded soldiers and Belgian refugees."

 

The war itself which began as 'something remote' by virtue of being waged across the Channel in France and Belgium, was, at its outset, regarded by most people in Britain as a short-lived conflict that would result in an Allied victory by Christmas. But by Christmas, it is becoming clear in the public consciousness that the war is much more dangerous than previously thought with no end in sight. Casualties are much higher than anyone could have foreseen. And all the while, life in Northcote is changing under wartime pressures for everybody. What those changes will lead to remain to be revealed. (I can't wait to read the next novel in this 6-novel series.) 

FIRE IN THE SKY: From Formosa to the Land of the Rising Sun, 1944-45

HELLCAT vs SHIDEN/SHIDEN-KAI: Pacific Theater 1944-45 - Tony Holmes

"Hellcat vs Shiden/Shiden-Kai: Pacific Theater 1944–45" provides the reader with a comprehensive analysis of the relative merits (and histories) of both fighters. 

From October 1944 --- when the U.S. Navy's F6F Hellcat first sparred with the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force's sturdy and rugged Shiden fighter in the skies over Formosa --- to July 1945, when both fighters last fought each other in the Battle of Bungo Strait, both planes represented the zenith of American and Japanese fighter design in the Pacific War. But for the Shiden and Shiden-Kai fighter, it was a matter of too little, too late because both types had been plagued with initial design and performance flaws which delayed the aircraft's production. Consequently, the Shiden/Shiden-Kai was placed in significant numbers with a fighter unit in Japan (in early 1945) made up of some of Japan's veteran fighter pilots, who showed what a formidable fighter it could be when skillfully flown. Boasting of four 20mm cannons (2 in each wing), a powerful engine, and excellent maneuverability, this was a fighter capable of taking on the Hellcat on more or less equal terms. Alas, for Japan, the Shiden/Shiden-Kai represented a last gasp and could not stave off defeat

CAPTAIN EDDIE: A NATIONAL HERO WITH WINGS & FEET OF CLAY

Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed - John F. Ross

"ENDURING COURAGE" brings vividly to the reader the essence of the man who was Eddie Rickenbacker (1890-1973). Pioneer race car driver, mechanic, World War I fighter ace and squadron leader, national hero, airline executive, and controversial figure. Rickenbacker looked death in the eye many times, both in war and peace, and miraculously survived each time. No-one who knew Rickenbacker ever forgot the experience, for he endeared himself to as many people as well as those he alienated through his brusque, hard-nosed manner.

My only fault with the book was the author's tendency to sometimes resort to hyperbolic, overblown prose. Otherwise,"ENDURING COURAGE: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed" made for engrossing reading.
 

FINDING YOUR WAY BACK HOME IN A SLEEK JET FIGHTER ON A FOGGY CHRISTMAS EVE IN 1957

The Shepherd - Frederick Forsyth

This is an intensely dramatic and wonderfully told short story about a young Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilot's struggle to make it home to the UK from West Germany in his DeHavilland Vampire jet fighter on the night of Christmas Eve 1957. Frederick Forsyth - one of my favorite writers - was himself at 20 the youngest fighter pilot in the RAF little more than 60 years ago - and his evocation of the sensation and perils of flight in a sleek and swift, single-engine jet fighter, puts the reader both in the pilot's head as well as the cockpit.

Why "THE SHEPHERD" has not been adapted for the TV screen (to the best of my knowledge) escapes me.
  

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THE INCREDIBLE JOSEPHINE BAKER

Josephine Baker's Last Dance - Sherry  Jones

Josephine Baker is someone I had known about since my elementary school days in the mid-1970s, when I first saw her profile in a calendar celebrating what was then Black History Month. I was fascinated to learn that she had gone to Paris in 1925 and made herself into a superstar in France and across the world. 

"JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" was given to me last month as a Christmas gift. The essence of the novel has as a centerpiece, what was Josephine Baker's last great stage performance in Paris in April 1975. The author uses it as a springboard to take the reader back to Josephine's early years in St. Louis, where she was born in poverty in 1906. I very much enjoyed seeing Josephine as she grew and matured. Hers was not an easy life. There is much in the novel that conveys the struggles and abuse that she endured. America was then an unwelcoming and at times, brutal and dispiriting place for its black citizens. Baker gets into vaudeville as a dancer in her mid-teens and eventually, the gateway to stardom opens and Josephine arrives in Paris with La Revue Nègre . 

The only part of the novel I found fault was its description of Josephine Baker's service in World War II as an intelligence agent and member of the French Resistance. The time sequences which covered the early war years seemed at times nebulous and compressed. If the reader had little or no knowledge of how the French defeat to Nazi Germany impacted the country in June 1940, he/she would be led to think that the resistance movement to the Germans developed overnight. That was not true at all. There was, initially disillusionment and fear when the Germans entered Paris - which had been declared an open city by the French government - on June 14, 1940 - and compelled the French to sign an armistice 8 days later. It would be several months to a year before an incipient resistance movement began to take shape in France as the Germans solidified their power and authority there. 

There was also a mention in the novel which indicated that Josephine Baker made the acquaintance of the courageous British spy Krystna Skarbek, a Pole (aka 'Christine Granville') during the early days of the German Occupation. That is simply untrue. (I read a book in 2015 about Krystyna Skabek's wartime service --- 'Christine: SOE Agent & Churchill's Favourite Spy'. Krystyna Shabek did not get to France until the summer of 1944. Earlier, she had been engaged in espionage work since late 1939 in German-occupied Poland, the Balkans, and Egypt.) That is why I am taking away 1 star and giving "JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" 3 stars.  Outside of that glaring, historical inaccuracy, it is a very good novel which brought out the real Josephine Baker in so many interesting ways.

ELIZABETH WARREN: THE PEOPLE'S ADVOCATE & CHAMPION

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. - Antonia Felix

This is a biography of one of the most remarkable political leaders in the United States to emerge in the past decade.

 

Elizabeth Warren, born into a working class family in Oklahoma, is the embodiment of what has come to be known as the American Dream. By dint of sheer hard work and scholarship, she earned a university degree and a law degree, all while raising a family. She went on to teach law at Rutgers University, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1995 was offered a position to teach law at Harvard, where she went on to become a tenured professor.

I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren in 2011 when her work in the establishment of what became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was highlighted by President Obama's naming of Richard Cordray to head that bureau. I was impressed with her knowledge of consumer and economic issues and when she decided to challenge in 2012 the Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) for the Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, my interest in her began to grow. 

Antonia Felix has done a wonderful job through this biography in making real the manner of person Elizabeth Warren is. Unlike a significant number of politicians on Capitol Hill today who came into elective office (many of them from privileged backgrounds) to derive some benefits for themselves by currying favor with the corporate lobbies that have an inordinate and excessive influence in the shaping of legislation relating to policies and practices in the marketplace, Elizabeth Warren won election in 2012 to the Senate as an outsider willing to work on the inside for the public interest. She has proven to be the real deal. She's got grit, spunk, compassion, and saavy to get things done. And now that she has declared herself a candidate from the Democratic Party for President of the United States in 2020, I am hopeful that Elizabeth Warren will prevail against her detractors and critics, while inspiring millions across the nation to support her campaign and make it successful.

AN OLD AMERICAN EAGLE FROM WORLD WAR I RELATES HIS STORY

Sopwith Camel Fighter Ace - Robert M. (Bob) Todd

I first became aware of Robert M. Todd, one of America's World War I fighter aces, in January 1988 when I read his obituary in a local newspaper. As someone with a fascination for World War I aviation, I became curious to know about more him. Thankfully, I chanced upon this book a short time ago.

"SOPWITH CAMEL FIGHTER ACE" was originally published a decade before Todd's death at age 90. In it, Todd shares with the reader excerpts from letters he had written to his family and friends, which detailed some of his experiences during flight training and overseas in Europe. Todd also consulted some of the records from the squadron in which he served at the Front during June to August 1918 (the 17th Aero Squadron) to also provide further details of his military service. 

Todd had his "crowded hour" in the 2 months he served in France, flying Sopwith Camels (one of the war's best known aircraft, which by war's end was credited with shooting down 1,294 enemy aircraft) on a variety of missions, from close-support ground attacks against German frontline and rear area installations, bomber escort, and offensive patrols far behind German lines, where Todd and his squadron engaged in frenetic aerial combat with some of the most experienced German Jastas (fighter squadrons). On one of those missions, Todd was brought down behind the lines, spending the rest of the war as a POW in Germany. 

The book also details Todd's postwar experiences. All in all, "SOPWITH CAME FIGHTER ACE" is a valuable book for anyone in search of books detailing first-hand experiences from World War I pilots of their combat service.

'WHO I AM' According to Charlotte Rampling

Who I Am - Charlotte Rampling, Christophe Bataille

Charlotte Rampling is an actress who has intrigued me since the movie "Orca" - in which she starred with Richard Harris - came out in 1977. Her eyes are both mesmeric and feline. In the intervening years, I've seen a few of her movies and have learned a bit about her life. 

So, when I learned about this terse memoir from a radio interview I heard Charlotte Rampling give about it, I decided to buy it. It is a book full of reminisces and asides, as well as varied photos of Charlotte Rampling, her family, and some of the places in England and France that figured prominently for the Ramplings. 

"WHO I AM" is a book that can be easily read and enjoyed in a few hours.

A VIEW OF THE U.S. ARMY'S FIRST HEAVIER-THAN-AIR COMBAT UNIT

A Preliminary to War: The 1st Aero Squadron and the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 - Roger Miller

This book offers an interesting, concise history of the U.S. Army's first heavier-than-air aviation unit (the 1st Aero Squadron) whose 8 Curtiss JN-3 biplanes - under the command of Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, one of the Army's earliest pilots - accompanied the Army's Punitive Expedition into Mexico during 1916 to pursue the Mexican bandit and revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa, in response to a raid his force of brigands had carried out on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. 

The 1st Aero Squadron was tasked with providing intelligence (through aerial reconnaissance) and serving as a means of communication for General John J. Pershing, who commanded the Punitive Expedition. It was not an easy undertaking for the squadron whose aircraft were underpowered and bedeviled with a host of problems that were both mind-boggling and frustrating. The U.S. had few aircraft companies at the time and Curtiss Aircraft, which was one of the largest aircraft companies in the country and had provided the 1st Aero Squadron with its aircraft, had serious quality control issues that hampered the squadron's efficiency in carrying out its mission. Indeed, many times, trained squadron personnel (with some assistance from Curtiss) had to take it upon themselves to fashion needed components to keep its surviving aircraft flyable. So, it is all the more remarkable that the 1st Aero Squadron was able to serve a useful role during its time in Mexico, where the effects of climate and terrain were often harsh on their aircraft . 

What is more: the achievements of the 1st Aero Squadron helped to spur national interest in developing a modern aviation industry in the United States, as well as laying the foundation for a well organized, trained, and supplied U.S. Army Air Service which saw action in France after the U.S. had entered World War I in April 1917. Anyone with an interest in aviation history will enjoy reading this book.

TRUTH CAN BE STRANGER THAN FICTION

The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life - Charles Higham

"THE DUCHESS OF WINDSOR: The Secret Life" reads as both a biography of Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne in December 1936, as well as a fully fleshed-out story of the life she and Edward (aka the Duke of Windsor) had together from their marriage in France in June 1937 til the Duke's death in May 1972. 

This book is also replete with revelatory information about both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that makes plain their fascist leanings in the 1930s, their admiration of Adolf Hitler, and various other indiscretions. I won't say more because it would be better for anyone with an interest in the lives of both Edward and Wallis Simpson to read this book and arrive at his/her own conclusions about them. What's more: the book is well-researched and footnoted and generally well-written.

POEMS THAT SPEAK TO YOU AND ME - AND HUMANITY

Born Palestinian, Born Black - Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad is someone who crossed my path quite by accident in a bookstore in the mid-1990s. There I espied her book of poems, "Born Palestinian, Born Black." I glanced at some of the poems and liked their content. 

Then several years elapsed before Suheir Hammad came to the fore of consciousness again. And that was when I saw her on CSPAN as part of a forum. Now that I've just finished reading this book of poems, I feel that I have been witness to a conscious and prophetic voice speaking in clear and at times raw language of the struggles of oppressed peoples both here in the U.S. and in the Middle East. What Hammad expresses in this book, everyone needs to read and strive to understand. 

There is one poem, in particular, in this book that deeply resonated with me. Its title is "Manifest Destiny", a term I first learned of as a child more than 40 years ago. (But did not come to fully comprehend til I began seriously studying American history in high school. It is a title that defines the vision the U.S. had of itself in the 19th century as a nation with a messianic mission to establish itself as a continental nation spanning both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. "From sea to shining sea.") 

Without further ado, here are the words from 'Manifest Destiny' that left their mark on me a short time ago:

"in a state of police
        cops act as pigs treat men as dogs
        mothers as whores
the bold youth of a nation hungry and cold
an entire nation of youth            behind bars grown old
the mace and blood did not blind             we
witness and demand a return to humanity

"we      braid resistance through our hair
            pierce justice through our ears
            tattoo freedom onto our breasts

"we be political prisoners walking round semi-free
our very breath is a threat
to those we rather we not read
and think     analyze         watch out            and fight back
and be human beings the way we need to be"

Seldom were truer words spoken, given the state of the world today on New Year's Day, 2019. 

"BORN PALESTINIAN, BORN BLACK: The Gaza Suite" should be read and re-read by anyone concerned --- both in the mind and in praxis --- with the ongoing issues of life, justice, education, and freedom who believe that the world can be made better by humanity for the benefit of all life now and in the future. 

ISABEL ALLENDE'S JOURNEY INTO SELF & CHILE

My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile - Isabel Allende

In "My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile", Isabel Allende takes the reader to her native land Chile and treats said reader to a fascinating discussion on Chilean history, culture, her own life, and the various idiosyncrasies of her own family across the generations. Reading this book was both an educational and entertaining experience for me.