Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe *****

Economic Draft. Think about that. Economic Draft. The economic draft, prevalent during the Bush years, sent millions, yes millions, of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. If you do not know anyone personally who was deployed, it is because the "volunteers" tended to be those with few other economic opportunities, and evidently your friends had other opportunities. That is the economic draft.

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe tells the stories from three women of the Indiana National Guard. Michelle Fischer was young and single. Debbie Fischer was over 40. Desma had three small children. They all found the military to be the best opportunity open to them.

All three women were in Afghanistan together and they managed to have some fun amid the violence and boredom.

One time Desma tried to order a Clydesdale to go with a big party. She also requisitioned hamburgers, hot dogs, and ten kegs of beer. That didn't work: no Clydesdale or beer, but they got the hamburgers and hot dogs, and a funny story to tell.

Another time, when the guys were arguing as guys do, two women when back to their quarters and
got this big old dildo ... They came back and slammed that thing down on the table. "Mine's bigger than all of your, so shut the f*$k up."
But is was not all fun. I found especially moving the discussions the mental impacts of being in combat, which seem to be similar to symptoms of aging. For example, having to keep notes of things that once could be simply remembered. However, these women were in their 20s and 30s, not their 60s and 70s.

Their stories are the stories of all soldiers: death, elation, boredom, PSTD, isolation, and close friendships. Thrope brings their stories to life with no judgement of the women or the country that sent them to war. This is a terrific history of a period that many people know too little about. If you never considered volunteering for the economic draft, you should at least read this to better appreciate those who did.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Spell in the Country by Morgan Smith ****

 Keridwen's father raised her to know something about fighting and politics. This was a good thing because she really didn't want to marry some minor prince as would have been expected from someone in her position.

A Spell in the Country by Morgan Smith opens with Keridwen sent into battle as a Troop Captain instead of simple soldier. As we'll see, Keridwen's attitude, training, and luck regularly presents her with such beneficial opportunities.

Early on, Prince Tirais notices her, even though she is much below his station.
“She’s always right,” said Tirais. ... “It’s her most annoying habit. What’s she right about this time?”
Later, the important mage Cioren observes:
You really haven’t a particle of [magical] talent, yourself. By the rules, you should be an easy mark. But off the top of my head, I’d say it’s at least partly you yourself… You’re pretty hardheaded, and you focus on the essentials remarkably well. Perhaps magic can’t breach the walls of pure practicality so easily. ... Mind you, I’ve no facts for this, I’m simply guessing.
As time goes on, even Keridwen herself is baffled:
I was trying to figure out why, far from being punished for my sins, I was being rewarded.
Keridwen's adventure leads her through battles, life at an ancient outpost, palace intrigues in the capital city, and finally to the exciting climatic battle against magical forces of evil at an ancient ruins. Throughout it all, her astute observations of people and her quick thinking in the heat of battle combine to allow her to succeed beyond everyone's expectations.

In between the fight scenes, we see an fantastic vision of the lands of Keraine.

 I received a free review copy of this book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham *****

John Grisham has written many different types of novels ... all excellent. Early in his career he focused heavily on the legal process and its tendency to reach ambiguous compromises. Runaway Jury (about a tobacco case) was a good example. Later on he used his best-selling-author podium to advocate for causes. The Confession (a death penalty case) was a good example here.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham is in this second camp. This book is squarely targeted at the coal mining interests in Appalachia. Much of this terrific novel presents the crimes of the coal industry from environmental destruction, to black lung disease, to murder. While the coal companies take the brunt of the attack, much venom is saved for their lawyers.

This also represents another step in the evolution of John Grisham's novels. This one has a decidedly happy ending.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Discovery of the Germ by John Waller *****

The Discovery of the Germ by John Waller chronicles a period of extraordinary progress in medical science ... in the 19th century.
Until around the 1850s, most doctors had always assumed that each disease could be caused in a variety of different ways; people succumbed to exactly the same illnesses but for entirely different reasons. 
By 1888,
The germs responsible for anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis, leprosy, diphtheria and gangrene had ... been found. ... every year between 1879 and 1899, scientists unlocked the secret of another important infectious disease.
Any social/scientific change occurs for many reasons. One interesting reason for these remarkable changes in medical science was the French Revolution. Prior to the French Revolution. The power in society belonged to the aristocracy. Doctors were hired help who tended to see few patients and were not allowed to examine them. Women died with doctors never touching them or examining what might be happening beneath their petticoats.

Of the rest of society, everyone assumed their diseases were completely different from the aristocrats and caused by their low station, low morals, and low education. None of the power players saw any reason to change.

With the French Revolution. There was not only an extreme shortage of aristocrates, but there were also large public hospitals. Doctors now saw lots of patients, and these patients could be examined. The was the beginning of modern medical science, and one of the illuminating stories of the fantastic progress of medicine in the 19th century.

Another early sign of progress involved women dying in childbirth. This oft-recounted struggled involved many doctors across Europe (this is a history of science in Europe) campaigning for more sanitary conditions during childbirth. The progress was slow, but the story is one of heroics and drama.

This small book tells the fascinating story of how theories that had been in place essentially unchanged since Hippocrates were suddenly replaced, and doctors could cure and prevent diseases for the first time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson ****

Public punishments (stocks, pillory, whipping post) were abolished almost 200 years ago, except for Delaware which waited until 1952. The reasoning behind abolition seemed to be that public humiliation, a.k.a. shaming, was felt to be the cruelest punishment, worse than death some said.

Recently, thanks to social media, this type of punishment has returned. So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson is a encyclopedic study of the subject, from history to current examples, both on social media and in the criminal justice system. Ronson has included self-help advice for anyone who might encounter this archaic social punishment, and an attempted analysis for this mob behavior.

One the the scariest things about our current round of public shamings is that they are extra-judicial, essential mob run, so the punishment can be arbitrary in target and intensity. The book includes two examples of what were jokes gone bad that destroyed the jokers lives. These cautionary tales lead to the conclusion
this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
(note: to avoid giving a longer life to these unfortunate incidents, I do not repeat the details here.)

I found one of the most interest sections to be about a service that, for a 6-figure fee, will move the Google results for your transgression from page one to page two. One interesting observation was that an individual's transgression not only follows them, but also everyone else with a similar name since
different spelling didn't seem to matter to Google Images
 All in all this book provides a broad coverage on the subject enjoyable to anyone with interest in gossip and stories of people in trouble, and helpful for anyone who has been caught in the Internet net.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Mind Change by Susan Greenfield **

Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains by Susan Greenfield promised to elucidate the fundamental changes of our brains caused by social media, computer games, and Internet surfing - Facebook, Blizzard, and Google. With a title explicitly meant to echo Climate Change, I was expecting great science and conclusive research.

It seems the science is not ready to "establish a causal link," and most of the reviewed science was modified by: jury is out, linked, would seem, suggests, potential, could, at least one instance, perhaps, maybe, possibly, and the strong "often causes." This equivocal language led to wish I was reading one the many book referenced instead of the survey in my hands.

I was disappointed.

[end of review - rant follows - my apologies]

And could anyone have predicted ... six of the seven billion people in the world would have access to a mobile phone, while only four and a half billion have access to a working toilet?
I am reminded that indoor plumbing and sewers were invented in response to the crowded conditions caused by urbanization. Early accommodations can be seen at Pompeii and Knossos. We should not be surprised there are still places where plumbing and sewers are not required, but that these rural folk might still want cell phones.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Rancho Cucamonga by Esther Black ***

"Rancho Cucamonga?" I imagine you're asking yourself. Today Rancho Cucamonga is a bedroom community in the San Gabriel Valley. In the 19th century, the period covered by Rancho Cucamonga and Dona Merced by Esther Boulton Black, the area was the an important way point between San Bernardino and Los Angeles. It was also important agriculturally important because it had water from Cucamonga Creek. Then as now, southern California is perfect for agriculture ... if water can be located. Water is the key resources.

This local history is much more than a chronology of the families that lived on Rancho Cucamonga, it is a microcosm of southern California and maybe the United States. As with the present time, popular cultures often starts in California.

After the Mexican War where the US conquered California, the los Californios were forced to share their land with...
[Texas Rangers who] seemed to pride themselves on behavior that was far from restrained... Yet this violent streak, this hardness about life and death, carried these men across the Southwestern desert in good shape and fast time.
Many of the gringos were typical of the stereotype of the Forty-Niners... They were boisterous, proud winners of the Mexican war; distrustful of people a shade darker in color and apt to equate crude behavior with manliness.
This disdain for the invaders was reciprocated.
...their land could produce everything; but they did not have the comforts of a Massachusetts farmer among the rocky hills. I could not but think what a different spectacle these fertile valleys would present were they peopled by some of our sturdy, industrious eastern farmers, and I recurred...that providence knew where to locate the lazy men and the industrious ones.
Thus over 150 years ago, California laid the groundwork of prejudices and stereotypes still prevalent today. More than that, while to the Spanish system the
aboriginal race [native Americans] was an economic asset and as such was to be conserved,
 the Americans followed
a war of be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinguished.
Interestingly, the Californios had general acceptance of children born out of wedlock and those of mixed racial background. They also provided more rights to women. All of this went away as the state became dominated by Americans.

While this is a history of a small rancho outside Los Angeles, it is interesting in the broader context of Mexican-American history which is playing out throughout the United States today.