“Crime is Contagious”:

I am presently reading Enemies: A History of the FBI, and encountered this insightful comment by Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, in the Olmstead vs. US (1928) decision.

“The greatest dangers to liberty lie in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding. [….] Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means — to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal — would bring terrible retribution.” – Associate Justice Louis Brandeis

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Captain’s Oath

Captain’s Oath
© 2019 Christopher L Bennett
323 pages

Captain Jim Kirk has just taken command of the USS Enterprise, and already he has a tricky situation on his hands. It should be simple: pick up a team of archaeologists who were investigating a site prior to an extensive terraforming project removing any possibility of exploring the ruins of a destroyed civilization. Three comets are within range of the system, and with a little manipulation they can serve to start making the planet habitable again. The lead archaeologist is a former Starfleet officer, one who served as Kirk’s science officer on his first command, but her intransigence is complicating a delicate timeline. To achieve a solution that satisfies both parties, Kirk must draw on his past experiences and accumulated wisdom, balancing passion and prudence. Bennett incorporates Kirk’s entire command experience into the story, jumping from past to present in succeeding chapters to explore the bond Kirk has with his crew, and the effect they and his previous challenges have had in molding his character. Bennett provides his customary winning mix of solid characterization, Trek adventure, and scientific plausibility.

Captain’s Oath welds together two episodes of Kirk’s earlier history as a captain, fusing them with his unexpected dilemma on the Enterprise’s first voyage under his command. As the interlaced stories develop, so to does the familiar character of Kirk: the reader witnesses him becoming the man we know from the original series. The original show had a perfect trio in Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, as the captain balanced the emotional and dispassionate forces of his two best friends and ablest advisors, but young Kirk had to strike different balances — and was, in fact, the serious, focused one among his early bridge crews! The trials that Kirk endures in his first two commands, which Bennett explores here, do not have perfect resolutions; fate always seems to extract its pound of flesh. They sharpen and season young Kirk, though, giving him better judgment, more confidence in his instincts, more willingness to act beyond the rules and regulations and fulfill the spirit of Starfleet’s orders if not their letter. Kirk’s personableness remains an important part of his character and the book, as his bonds those he’s served with — even those who have left the service — push him to be the best he can be, to never fail in the face of obstacles or frustrations.

Definitely a good one for TOS & Kirk fans, and especially for those interested in the Kirk-Mitchell friendship. Michael Jan Friedman did a trilogy based on Kirk & Mitchell called My Brother’s Keeper.

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Of blowholes, blowhards, and blowing money

I’ve been studying for the CompTia A+ certification and entertaining a new lady friend in recent weeks, so my reading and reviewing has gotten a bit…torpid, shall we say. I haven’t been totally absorbed in specs and dates, though:

Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley parodies the Trump administration, being a memoir of a former hotelier tapped as Trump’s chief of staff, there to serve until being arrested for…well, no spoilers. It’s classic Buckley, a mix of vulgarity and farce — fairly appropriate for the Trump years, I suppose, but aside from some mild interest in the plot (involving a rogue AI program sabotaging the Russian elections), the inanity didn’t make for an enjoyable story.

More interesting was Spying on Whales, which didn’t quite live up to its premise despite the promise of the subject. Although the author delves a little into whale behavior and the origins of these magnificent creatures, a lot of the content recorded his paleontology fieldwork, and I found myself just dragging along.

Broke USA: How the Working Poor Became Big Business examines the rise of check-cashing firms, pay-day & title loan joints, tax return loans, and the like — as well as the efforts of those who have checked their growth in places like Ohio. One of the more depressing aspects of managing a computer lab used by the public is witnessing people getting into debt spirals by applying for these things: I’ve tried to run interference over the years by casually pointing out how much they’ll actually be paying at those interest rates, but many people just…plug ahead. Although the book is largely critical of what the author calls “Poverty, Inc”, he does attempt to give some of the proprietors their fair shake, because much of their business does fill holes in the market overlooked by traditional banks — so much so that traditional banks have started getting into this business, and even closing down conventional branches to allow their shadier subsidiaries to move in with the title loans and such. Pleasingly, the book also covers the growth of an alternative-financing credit union that fills that same need without the predatory fees and aggressive collection racket. The book has a faint connection to the subprime collapse of ’07-08.

Speaking of which, I also read Russ Roberts’ Gambling with Other People’s Money, a 2010 analysis of the subprime collapse and the resulting recession. Although the complexities of high finance are still beyond me, Roberts’ essential argument — that corporations’ recklessness was spurred not only by lack of oversight, but because of DC’s track record of continually bailing out banks who made reckless investments –is one I’ve been convinced to over the years. If those who act irresponsibly are sheltered from the consequences, they will continue acting irresponsibly. It’s as true for corporations as for teenagers.

Today I expect to finish Captain’s Oath, by Christopher L. Bennett, a look at the early Captain Kirk. I’m enjoying it tremendously, as it includes a look at Kirk’s formative friendship with Gary Mitchell.

I’ve mostly abandoned/DNFed Devolution, which is supposedly a World War Z type thing about Bigfoot. It’s more of a conventional novel and the beginning was so filled with self-satisfied elites preening over their uber-green eco-village that I just don’t care. I may take another pass it it in October for Halloween-type reading. I’ll also be investigating She Comes by it Natural, a work related to Dolly Parton and the women she inspired.

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A Gathering of Old Men

A Gathering of Old Men
© 1983 Ernest Gaines
213 pages

There’s a white man dead in the quarter, and by sundown there may be another body swinging from the trees. Most of the people in the quarter don’t know why Beau Bauton is lying shot on the ground, but they know there will be reprisal — rage-filled and wrathful violence, blood shed for blood. In a scurry of shouting and running, a plan forms….and when Sheriff Mapes arrives to investigate the murder, he finds a crowd of old men, each carrying a 12 gauge shotgun with an empty #5 shell. The unique standoff draws on decades of warped relationships between white and black, rich and poor, law and community, to turn a day-long staring contest into a short novel riven in tension.

I’ve read three of Gaines’ works before, and each has been a unique experience. A Gathering of Old Men hops from character to character with each chapter, building a full experience of the day through different perspectives: the confusion and terror of a child who doesn’t know what’s going on, but knows it’s bad, and the steady resolve of old men who have been frightened, but who aren’t any more. Every man who gathers there has his own motives for standing: two men fishing are there because they’re ashamed to have never resisted before; another has burned in quiet indignation ever since he came home from the war and was abused for wearing the uniform, as if he was bragging that he’d once killed white men. Others are there because they’d be thought less of if they weren’t. Regardless of their motives, this simple act of solidarity and resistance changes the old script, and a sheriff who wants to be done with this nonsense and go fishing is put into a difficult place. If he brings in the man he ‘knows’ shot Beau, the rest will follow, and there will be a race riot in Bayonne. If he doesn’t do anything, though, the man’s family will come and exercise vengeance. Either way, it’s not a good look for law and order.

For all its brevity, the world of Gathering of Old Men is a complex one. There’s history in the relationships, more than the reader has time to untangle, connections that the story doesn’t dwell but which are important for how the characters respond to one another. Mapes and his suspect Mathu, for instance, have a history together: they’re both looked down on by the Cajuns, and while Mapes may throw his weight around and abuse the other blacks, he knows Mathu to be a man who stand up for himself, and even admires him and enjoys his company. This history, and learning it through witnessing individual interactions, makes it hard for the reader to write off characters: even the dreaded Fix, the churlish master of the Bauton clan who could turn Marshall into a nighmare with a word, proves to be more complicated when we meet him in turn. Having come to Gaines through Wendell Berry, I saw in this novel a lot of resonance with Berry’s own work, with a common theme of the collapse of traditional communities: one of the grievances the black community at the Marshall plantation has with the Bautons (who are new to the area) is that they’ve been steadily buying up parts of the plantation holdings, modernizing them, and pushing out the tenants who worked that land for centuries. The march of the tractor is plowing over them, and removing their history from the land: even their graves are not safe.

With each novel, Gaines surprises me. A Gathering of Old Men is easily my favorite of the three I’ve yet experienced, because he packs such tension and complex background goings-on into a shorter story. His characters, black and white, are moving in their moral quandaries, and unforgettable in the stands they take. Superb.

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May the Fourth be with You: Star Wars Lit

Today’s TT coincides with May the Fourth, so I’m highlighting some Star Wars books!

The Darth Bane trilogy, Drew Karpyshyn

“Always two there are. No more, no less.” This trilogy is set in the Old Republic — really old Republic, before the Sith order we know is even a thing — and follows a young miner’s growth in the force, embracing the Sith and then brutally transforming the order to make it better obtain its purpose. Although Bane is a villain character, the creator of Star War’s bad-guy-brigade, Karpyshyn nevertheless succeeds in making him sympathetic and his rise to malicious greatness worth reading.

Yoda: Dark Rendezvous

This book features a meeting between Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus and Yoda, during the Clone Wars. I don’t remember much abou the plot, other than the general interest Dooku inherently adds, but one quote from it has lodged in my head for twelve years: “It’s always so easy to avoid other people’s vices, isn’t it?” To me, it’s remained an important reminder to stay mindful of one’s own limits, and not to be self-satisfied because we’re all flawed in different ways.

The Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn

The original Thrawn books, I hasten to add, the ones that spurred the entire Star Wars extended universe that Disney has thrown out like yesterday’s trash despite the fact that there’s more craft in a chapter of one of Zahn’s books than in Disney’s entire maligiant deposit of ersatz Star Wars. Zahn introduced us to Grand Admiral Thrawn, leading a remnant of Imperial forces after the destruction of the Emperor. Not only is he one of the most interesting villains ever — someone who can interpret the psychology of a people through their art, for instance — but he’s not ‘evil’ despite being on the ‘bad guy side’, and his leadership of the Imperial remnant borders on admirable. Compare that to the odiously superficial ‘first order’, who just exist to sneer and twitch their mustaches. (I have…issues with DisneyWars and stopped watching it in disgust.)

Revenge of the Sith, Matt Stover

A novelization of the third movie doesn’t sound all that promising, but Stover delivered, adding and expanding scenes and characterization which made up for the film’s weaknesses and made it far more sensible.

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Darth Plagueis, James Luceno

Did you ever hear the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise? ….well, then read it. The novel is more about the rise of Palpatine, but that’s an argument in its favor rather than against it.

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Hiking grandmas, irreligious hombres, and unjacking from the Matrix

As an avid hiker I couldn’t help but be hooked by the story of Emma Gatewood, who in 1955 became the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. She did so with a minimum of preparation, without much of the gear we’d regard as essential today. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk mixes a history of her exploration of the AT with personal biography, showing how a this tough-minded woman rose from being a victim of domestic abuse into an an inspiration for millions. Although she faced obstacle after obstacle — broken glasses, weary knees, multiple hurricanes, etc — through her own resources, the kindness of strangers, and dogged determination, she made it through.

On a more serious note was The Church Impotent, which seeks to address the question: why is there such a huge gender disparity between religious participation in western Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, like Judaism and Islam? The problem is much older than most recognize, though it’s easy enough to point to a quick falling-away of men in the church since the 1960s. Podle argues that the problem first appeared in Catholicism in the 1400s, where it continued and grew more pronounced, especially in Catholicism’s protestant offspring. The problem is distinctly western, moreover, since Eastern Orthodoxy enjoys heavy participation from its men. Podle attributes this to two events of the middle ages; a newfound heavy emphasis on individual church members as brides of Christ (rather than the Church itself, congregationally, as The Bride), and the divisive role of Scholasticism, which split piety from theology: men’s focus shifted to increasingly skeptical theology, leaving women to make a much larger mark on faith-practices. Although I was disappointed by the book as a whole, in part because there was no exploration of Islam, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodoxy’s masculine attractions, Podle’s work proved absolutely fascinating merely for his initial treatment of masculinity. As it turned out, I’d encountered him before, being quoted in Leaving Boyhood Behind. Podle takes the view that because men begin from a female biological template, the entire masculine raison d’être is to further define and maintain that separation from femininity — necessitating often painful rites of passage in traditional societies, and the contempt boys and men throw at anything which is ‘girly’. Podles suggests that men, not being nourished by an approach to religion that emphasizes passivity and ‘bridehood’, have instead religionized masculinity itself, leading down dark roads like fascism and nihilistic self-destruction.

Switching back to something a little less dire, The Tech-Wise Family is one couple’s sharing of how they attempt to raise their children and themselves to have a healthy relationship with technology, rather than allowing it to dominate their lives. They begin with priorities: emphasizing that the role of the family is to nurture its members into greater characters, and then actively shaping their environment, physically and its schedules, to contribute to that goal rather than detract from it. Our tools frequently ‘nudge’ us in the direction of greater use and consumption: those who wish to live more mindfully must be active about creating our own ‘nudges’ in other directions. Taking a cue from the Amish, they scrutinize what effects habits & tools have on their family culture.I have attended so many family & friend gatherings that consisted of nothing but a group of people staring at their phones in unision that these days it’s hardly worth commenting on. Against that comes the Crouches’ vision of familial flourishing: they create numerous periods throughout the day to practice presence, from dinner to car rides, and focus on creativity and production instead of consumption. Their living room is not dominated by a television, but musical instruments and crafts tables: they sing together, rather than letting everyone slip into private spotify trances. This is important, they write, because human presence nurtures us in ways digital presence never can: those who see us every day, in moments of weakness and strength alike, can through their input and encouragement force us to grow — unlike the internet companion, who only ever sees the curated self, and who can be avoided and ignored with the click of a button. As a Kindle Unlimited title, I wasn’t expecting too much of this, but was happily surprised. It’s artfully written and draws on serious work, like Sherry Turkle’s own bibliography.

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April 2021

April was an unusual month, as I hit ‘pause’ on a few of my themes to focus on English history & literature. Several holds came in this month, though, prompting me to stray a bit from the theme. In the works presently is Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and there will be at least one more English history title coming up in May that I didn’t get to this month.

Challenge Progress:

Science Survey:

Nothing this month because of Read of England. 5/12 categories filled.



Classics Club Strikes Back:

3 new, bringing us to 8/50 in total.

Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling
Black Beauty, Anna Seward
Traveller, Richard Adams



Climbing Mount Doom:

Sword and Serpent, Taylor Marshall



Southern History/Literature:

Traveller, Richard Adams. (Sort of?)

The Unreviewed

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, Kai Strittmatter.
The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch.
The Church Impotent : The Feminization of Christianity, Leon Podles. More interesting than I’d anticipated.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, Ben Montgomery. The story of the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in ’56.

I’ll be posting reviews or comments for these within the next few days: I’ve been holding off because of RoE.

The Newly Bought:

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe. Thrift store buy.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Thrift store buy, and considerably cheaper than everything else. Paradise Lost will be a CCSB entry.
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. Thrift store buy. I’m thinking of doing a SF sweep in October.
Star Trek: How Much for Just the Planet? Thrift store buy.
Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard. Amazon, on sale for $4.
Dr. Johnson’s London, Liza Picard. Amazon, on sale for $4.

May Goals

To read nothing but books I already own. Fingers crossed!

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Re-tooling tech: a reading

From The Tech-Wise Family:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were in middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess.

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From the horses’ mouth: Black Beauty and Traveller

This past week I’ve read two novels which feature a horse as the narrator, and I thought it might be fun to consider them together.

The first, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, is something of a re-read for me: I read a Great Illustrated Classics edition of this several times as a child, finding the historical details I had to puzzle over just as interesting as imagining what it was like to be a horse. Beauty is a horse’s autobiography, from his foaling years to a happy retirement, with years of hardship and comfort in between. Growing up I didn’t know a blessed thing about horses or the care thereof, so this was an extremely educational story for me. Beauty passes from master to master, and some are ignorant to the point of cruelty. In every chapter the reader learns about the proper care and treatment of horses, but as this is a book written to edify youths, there are also more general moral lessons. When one character tries to excuse the damage done to two horses disabled by a reckless groom on the account of ignorance, another harrumphs that ignorance is just as good as wickedness.

Next was a new-to-me title in Richard Adams’ Traveller. I recognized the name of General Lee’s horse, of course – -what self-respecting Civil War buff wouldn’t? — and was so amused by the premise that I had to read it. Traveller is a memoir of the Civil War through the viewpoint of a horse, who Lee adopts early during the conflict. Traveller speaks in an obvious southern dialect, and provides a unique if limited perspective on the war; the memoir is delivered in musing memories to the barn cat that keeps Traveller company while Marse Robert is attending to his duties as a college president after the war. He doesn’t understand what the War thing is, or why men were so excited to attend it, and as a rule he prefers being well away from the bangs and booms. He endures them, though, because he loves General Lee, a man who he regards as being part horse: Marse Robert must be, to understand them so well. Traveller’s thoughts on the war are informed by what he overhears from men and horses talking; the book is peopled with an abundance of other equines, many reflecting their masters’ own personality. Speaking of, Traveller has his own dramatis personae, referring to Lee’s generals not by their names, but by the horse’s private name for them: Ol’ Pete, Cap-in-the-eyes, Jine-the-Cavalry. Although Adams occasionally inserts narrative at large milestones, the reader had better have some general idea as to the main battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, or he will be a bit confused. Traveller is only a horse and can’t tell you he’s just witnessed the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the moderately informed reader can figure out the when-and-where, and anticipate what is about to happen — as we do when “Cap-in-the-eyes” rides off into the dark, never to be seen alive again, at least not by Traveller. For the Civil War reader, this is a unique story, one especially of interest to those who cherish the memory of Lee and enjoy seeing his human side — the quiet man struggling with heart issues, faced with fighting an industrial army several times his size with enthusiastic but ragged country peasants, with little support from his own government, run as it is by feckless, self-absorbed patricians.

Taken together, I have to confess to liking Traveller a bit more, given its novelty and gregarious subject.

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Life is Suffering

“God, there’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die — you, too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way. Lots of it’s going to be unfair. No wonder you’re resentful — but you act it out and make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.There’s this idea that Hell is a bottomless pit. That’s because no matter how bad it is, some stupid SOB like you can find a way to make it worse. Life is suffering. What do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together. You know how to do that. You know what’s wrong with you. Don’t be a damn ‘victim’.”

A few months back I discovered a channel on youtube that does various remixes, including bits from Jordan Peterson‘s lectures and speeches. The more I listen and read Peterson the more invigorating I find him — he’s a welcome repast from the a culture that encourages us to be perpetual toddlers. There’s obvious links between some of his thinking and the ideas of both Stoicism and Buddhism.

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