Travels with George

Travels with George: In Search of Washington and his Legacy
© 2021 Nathaniel Philbrick
400 pages

Travels with George couldn’t help but be interesting, what with its premise of the author following George Washington’s footsteps in an reenactment of his tour of the  united States during his first term in office.   Its promising mix of history and travel is marred (to what degree may be determined by the reader’s taste) by the author’s frequent inclusion of irrelevant stories about himself, and even more chronic infusion of contemporary politics with the text.    As a work of history,  I was not impressed in the least by the text, but it was frequently interesting, comparable to Sarah Vowell’s history tourism but with her dry humor replaced by constant fretting ruminations on slavery and American history. 

Washington is the American Demigod.  His stature dwarves all others, and countless places in the United States are named in his honor – including a certain city along the Potomac which hasn’t deserved the honor in decades.   Philbrick took this journey in hopes of meeting the human Washington, however, the traveler who would be grappling with storms, delays, and bad taverns, not necessarily questions of national consequence.  Washington’s role as President and Father of his Country sat on him regardless of travel demands, though, for as the Constitution was still being ratified by two last holdhouts, the new polity’s nature was his to imbue with authority and legitimacy.  His ‘journey’, or rather journeys, were practical in that Washington had to travel to the moving capital – first to New York, then to Philadelphia, and then to a site upon the Potomac that would be called the Federal City in its first decades    Although the author is ostensibly focused on covering Washington’s horse-and-carriage tour of the nation, a lot of other revolutionary and other history is woven in,  some of it connected to Washington and some not. (The author keeps trying to work in Henry and Bess Truman, as well as John Steinbeck, into the text,  when he’s not sharing his own travel experiences, few of which are interesting except for his sailboat encounter with a tornado while sailing to Newport.)  

Despite its flaws, I mostly enjoyed Travels with George, largely because of its premise and the strength of the central subject, who I count  as one of the most admirable men in history.  I found it deeply flawed, though, both by Philbrick’s inability to stay on topic and by his very-Whig history approach to the national story.  Most odiously, he dismissed all critics of the early Constitution as southern slaveholders, as though Sam Adams and Luther Martin didn’t exist, and that no motives could possibly exist for opposing the centralization of power aside from the self-interest of an economic minority.  (Author is also apparently oblivious to the existence of southerners besides the slave-holding patricians,   as are most people. Vanishingly few books have been written about southern yeomen or poor whites.)     While I don’t necessarily recommend the book,  it’s enjoyable enough, and there are numerous drinking games which could be fabricated from the author’s frequent mentions of his dog, irrelevent sidelines, and political lectures.  

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When Harry Became Sally

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement
© 2018 Ryan Anderson
251 pages

In the summer of 2015, a former non-issue affecting an extreme minority became, seemingly overnight, a mainstream talking point. All manner of individuals suddenly began announcing they were lopping off body parts and bombarding themselves with chemicals to change their sex, and instead of this being treated like a previously ignored mental issue, it was instead exhalted to the heights — it became a civil rights matter, with strongarm action by the Obama-driven state to boot. When people began getting hit with fines for refusing to use proper pronouns, I realized: we’re deeper in the abyss than I realized. Attempting to make sense of all this is When Harry Became Sally, a criticism of trans-activism which is compassionate, but pointed – so much so  that Amazon pulled it from stores, throwing down the memoryhole. No independent thoughts for you, peasant!  Watch our latest sex-and-violence filled show, instead. 

When Harry Met Sally is not a condemnation of those individuals who experience or claim to experience gender dysphoria;  Anderson draws from interviews with people in transition, and frequently reminders readers to be respectful and considerate of people’s pain. His target is the inappropriate medical and governmental response to the issue of dysphoria, which often prevent afflicted individuals from potentially overcoming their distress, while permanently marring victims’ bodies and forcing  all of society to pretend A is not A, and that a man in a dress is not a man, but in fact a woman — often under penalty of fines or being condemned as a bigot. (Pro tip:   to avoid caring about such judgment, identify as a straight white male. You will then be written off so often as a racist, a sexist, a chauvinist, a –phobe of varying prefixes, that clatter of condemnation will simply fade into the background as irrelevant noise, like traffic.)  

Anderson begins by presenting and evaluating the claims of trans activists, an extremely vocal minority whose opinions do not represent most of those allege dysphoria. He then features  interviews from people who have de-transitioned, or tried to —   medical and surgical alterations in this case are usually irreversible to some degree, as surgically removed parts won’t grow back, synthetic parts are limited,  and broken voice boxes or sabotaged testes do not self repair.  In his final section, Anderson covers the legal changes sought for or obtained by the previously mentioned minority, and comments on the ramifications – -the increased exposure of women to sexual violence, for instance, and the disappearance of man/woman as meaningful language.  (The results of that are sometimes as amusing as they are exasperating – witness the sudden invasion of women’s sports by men in drag.  How’s that for progress, ladies?)  Anderson draws from a wide spectrum of individuals, none of whom could be conceivably connected to social conservatism by any stretch of the imagination.  

There are several criticisms of trans-activism developed within the book, but I’ll share only a few.   Anderson attacks the goals of activists as well the results. No one has ever ‘transitioned’ from male to female, or the reverse; at best,  what has been achieved is the masculization or the feminization of one’s appearance.  Biological sex is fundamental to the development of a human being, and is oriented with a purpose; male and female are not random variations like darker or lighter skin, or attached versus free earlobes,  but  instead are critical for reproduction. There is no generic human being; we are inherently formed by our sex. There are cultural and individual variations as to how masculinity or femininity are expressed, but the core nature is there.  Anderson then  examines how treatment of dysphoria is severely distorted:  intervention in the form of chemical treatments begins almost immediately, after one or two meetings with a psychiatrist, despite the fact that dysphoria often has psychological roots which individuals can recover from on their own, or in therapy. Many of the women interviewed here discovered that their dysphoria was really self-hatred or internalized misogyny, for instance. (Not mentioned, but of interest: Ted Kaczynski once began the sex change process, but backed off after realizing a misplaced desire for feminine connection had created the desire.)  This potential for recovery is derailed by aggressive use of hormones to masculinize or feminize one’s appearance, reinforcing the dysphoria rather than abating it.   The fact that intervention does little to help dysphoria is sadly evidenced in the tragically high suicide rate among transitioners.  Despite all this,   political forces seem hell-bent on making gender fluidity  sacrosanct, beyond question – like the efficacy of surgical masks against viruses, another new dogma which our new tech-overlords will purge you for questioning.  

For those seeking to learn more about the claims of the activists, or to understand what actually happens to those in transition, and what a mess is being made of language and civil liberties in the name of justice, When Harry Became Sally recommends itself. It could have easily been a screed, pointing the finger at those suffering from confusion and demanding reaction. It was not, and the author goes out of his way to appeal to our better angels, not our worse ones, despite that the positions advocated by some activists amount to theft, political persecution, and child abuse. After reading it, I cannot fathom why Amazon would bar it from shelves, but such is the state of current mass society. The ideals of the American republic have been forgotten and thrown away, not only by DC but by Americans themselves, who seem just as eager to devour one another in ideological hatred as the Chinese of the cultural revolution.

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October 2021

“October should be a fun month,” I said. Hah! It certainly went a different way than I expected, but I didn’t let a little ol’ thing like medical incarceration keep me down. Despite or perhaps because of my near-two week stint locked up from my computer, I was able to make solid progress on the Classics Club, Mount Doom, and even did a couple of bonus science reads. I’d say I have excellent chances of meeting my hoped-for goal of reading 25 of 50 classics in year one of the Classics Club Strikes Back, making it much easier to do the full course in three years as intended.

Classics Club Strikes Back:
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (mostly — to be finished)

Climbing Mount Doom:
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, Randolph Nesse
Erasing Death, Sam Parnia
For all the Tea in China, Sarah Rose
The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillian

Southern History and Literature
Natchez Burning, Greg Iles
The Five Capitals of Alabama, Tom Bailey

October theme: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Germans
Star Trek: The Enterprise War, John Jackson Miller
Star Trek Picard: The Dark Veil, James Swallow
Natchez Burning, Greg Iles

Didn’t Quite Make It:
I’d hoped to read Hitler’s Monsters and The Vampire Economy in time for the end of October — a perfect mix of German history and supernatural references — but I’m still working on one and haven’t even begun the first one properly. I’d also planned to read The Metamorphosis for Halloween, but wound up trying to watch The Little Shop of Horrors instead. I’ve yet to finish it because I fall asleep before “Audrey Jr” has been dispatched….or eaten everyone in the shop. Taking a day-long road trip to northern Alabama (nearly to the TN border) in search of autumn colors also consumed some reading time. The big loss was how little of my theme I was able to visit. I’d planned to hit my SF classics, plus add some videogame-themed novels, and add perhaps a book about the Sopranoes. The hospital sojourn, though, meant I mostly worked from my TBR stack and added some library books.

Noped Out
Mortal Fear, Greg Iles. A serial killer who sexually mutilates his victims. One chapter was enough of that.

Marian and I will be doing a buddy read of The Great Gatesby in the first two weeks; it’s a re-read for both of us, but I haven’t read it since 2004 or so I don’t remember a thing. In the fourth week of November I intend to do a “Week with Jack” theme with three C.S. Lewis-related titles slotted, I’d meant to do that last year, but the only thing I read then was A Grief Observed.

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For all the Tea in China

For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Made History
© 2010 Sarah Rose
272 pages

A love of tea is one of the great English stereotypes, at least in the United States, so I thought it might be fun to look at how that connection got started. For all the Tea in China is a popular history focused on the travels of Robert Fortune, an English botanist who was hired by the East India Company to penetrate China and discover the origins of Chinese tea and its manufacture.  His journey was fraught with peril; not only were westerners not allowed into the Chinese interior, well away from the open port cities, but China’s social order was tenuous. Rebellion against the outside Qing dynasty growing, and pirates and brigands often plagued people. Adopting Chinese dress and even bracing the queue-and-tonsure mandated  by the Qing government,  Fortune and his hired Chinese staff made their way deep into the forbidden country,  posing as a mandarin from a province ‘beyond the Great Wall’.  

Tea had already become an English passion by the time Fortune sought his name in his Chinese journeys, but much about it was a mystery. Did green and black tea come from different plants altogether? How were they prepared? Was it at all possible to transplant  seeds or young plants and transport them abroad, like to the East India Company’s plantations in India?   Although English naturalists had begun to develop methods for preserving plants for overseas travel, the tea plant was particularly fragile, its seeds almost always arriving  dead from their voyages.  Fortune’s first attempt to send seeds and seedlings to India and England, for example, was a comprehensive failure: only a dismal few of the thousands of plants survived.  His travels in China are divided into two sections, as Fortune first studied the green tea industry, followed by the black tea industry.  He learned that the two products came from the same plant, and were processed differently. Green tea intended for export, he was horrified to learn, was given heavy and potentially poisonous additives to amplify its color.  In addition to plants, Fortune also took notes on how leaves were prepared and turned into commercial tea product, and secured the tools the Company would need to begin processing in the Chinese fashion.  

For all the Tea in China is an interesting mix of science, adventure, and commercial ambition. Fortune cuts a fine figure despite his initial dismissal of the Chinese, given his methodical documentation,  careful searching, and inventiveness.  Not only did Fortune improve upon existing methods for preserving and transporting seeds and plants for long-distance travel, finally allowing for English oaks to propagate worldwide and for Darjeeling tea to become a thing,  but when intercepted by a pirate flotilla, he  improvised a way to spook the maritime ne’er do wells into withdrawing.  Rose supplements the main narrative with some interesting asides on the Indian Mutiny, which  finished off the East India Company’s rule in India, and the attempt by DC to create a tea industry in the South.   The South’s bid for independence and the war which followed put an end to that, as labor first disappeared and then became far too expensive to be a self-sustaining concern.    This was a fascinating little jaunt into the early days of a global economy, at a China that was being opened to the world whether she wanted to  or not.  

(This was a Read of England acquisition that has lingered on Mount Doom for most of this year. Progress!)

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Something’s coming, something good

I love West Side Story. I was exposed to the “Tonight” quartet in high school music appreciation, and after checking out a VHS tape from the library, I promptly watched it five times in two weeks and began looking for the music online. I’ve watched it periodically over the years, and until Groundhog Day and The Philadelphia Story, it was my favorite movie, period. The last time I watched a film in theaters was the Aladdin remake, so I’m absolutely excited about this. (I would have watched The Many Sons of Newark, the Sopranoes prequel, but apparently missed my window while I was imprisoned by medical authorities…)

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The War that Made the Roman Empire

The War that Made the Roman Empire: Anthony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium
© 2022 Bary Strauss
368 pages

Rome, at the death of Julius Caesar, was no stranger to internal war.  A functioning, healthy republic had long vanished,  torn in pieces by the rivaling ambition of men like Sulla and Marius.   Caesar was part of that destructive tradition, having sparred with Pompey, and for his part in corrupting the Republic into a dictatorship he was justly killed.  In the aftermath, another pair of men took up arms against the other – but this time, the conflict would end in a lasting, if not eternal, peace.   In The War that Made the Roman Empire,   author Barry Strauss invites readers to consider the political manipulations and military campaigns that followed when two of Caesar’s own,  his nephew Octavian and the late dictator’s longtime lieutenant Mark Anthony, rivaled for power.    

How did a young man with so little experience as Octavian overcome a seasoned and often victorious military leader like Mark Anthony,  who had the resources of wealthy Egypt at his disposal, and the political cunning of Cleopatra herself, the wife of one Caesar and the mother of another, who seemed destined to become the Queen of a Mediterranean empire?   Strauss suggests that while a relative stranger to the arena of military operations,  Octavian’s political instincts allowed him to turn Cleopatra’s alliance with  Mark Anthony into a liability; this, coupled with Anthony’s own  indecisiveness on the battlefield,  led to total triumph for the young Caesar, and death for Anthony, Cleopatra, and little Caesarion – the last of the Pharaohs.   Octavian carefully presented his war not as a political struggle against Mark Anthony, but a war against a foreign power – namely, Egypt, whose decadent queen had aspirations for  further aggrandizing herself through usurpation Rome.  Perhaps more importantly, however, was Octavian’s ready use of  Marcus Agrippa,  one of Caesar’s veterans who would be to Octavian more valuable than a right hand. Agrippa was equally accomplished on land and sea, and forced Mark Anthony to pay dearly for every misstep.    

The decisive battle was fought off the western shores of Greece, but the story would not end until Octavian had arrived in Alexandria, confronting the royal couple who pretended at being deities. Strauss suggests that the Roman Empire was born there, in Alexander’s city on the Nile delta.  The War that Made the Roman Empire succeeds both as story and history; as story, it could scarcely fail to keep a reader’s attention, given the towering personalities here and  the stakes of their context. The political wrangling was a little wearisome, but the careful analysis of the battle was far more compelling.   Strauss’s careful use of multiple sources to figure out the truth as best he can – readily admitting when things are too cloudy,  or too reliant on a biased source like Octavian’s own memoir – and presenting multiple possibilities when there’s no clear idea of the truth. We know nothing of how Octavian and Agrippa took the city of Menthone in Anthony’s rear, for instance, a pivotal strike that interrupted the logical flow from Egypt and  forced Anthony’s army into starvation; we only know that the city was taken.  Strauss details several possible strategies Agrippa and Octavian might have pursued.   This is as comprehensive a look at one of the pivotal battles of western history as can be imagined, and recommends itself to students of Roman history.

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Top Ten Tuesday Freebie: Frightfully Good Reads

Today is a freebie, and I’m going with Halloween-appropriate books because ’tis the season.

Spook, Mary Roach.  A playful examination of scientific attempts to discover our fate after death.

Night of the Living Trekkies,  David Anderson.  Easily the funniest zombie book I’ve ever read, this follows security guard Jim Pike’s attempt to restore order after a zombie apocalpyse unfolds at a Star Trek convention.  

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks. A fascinating ‘novel’, this one is rendered as a nonfiction account, collecting testimonies from across the world when a scientifically-based zombie outbreak harrows the world.

Sphere, Michael Crichton. One of the creepiest SF titles I’ve ever read, taking place deep under the ocean.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen and Seth Graham. Silly, creepy, and hilarious.  

Christine, Stephen King. One of my favorite King novels. Christine is especially uncanny because of the ambiguous nature of the car’s evil. 

Daemon, Daniel Suarez.  My favorite techno-thriller ever, Daemon depicts a machine intelligence waking up and recruiting human agents to rebuild the world.

The Fear Index, Robert Harris. Harris’ rare book that isn’t a historical fiction thriller;  The Fear Index  involves machine intelligence and the global financial marketplace.

The Grid, Phillip Kerr. Probably one of my favorite premises ever: a skyscraper that’s embedded with the 1990s  conception of an internet of things or smart architecture…..starts killing its tenants.  

The Stand, Stephen King. I had The Andromeda Strain in this spot, but then I realized: I can’t not mention The Stand. It was the first Stephen King novel I ever tried, an epic post-apocalyptic novel about a world remade by a pandemic few understand.

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For mudpuddle

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Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning
© 2015 Greg Iles
816 pages

If a man lived long enough, his past would always overtake him, no matter how fast he ran or how morally he tried to live subsequently. And how men dealt with that law ultimately revealed their true natures.

When the choice is your father or the truth,  who could choose the truth?  Penn Cage has always idolized his father Tom.  A dedicated physician from the 1950s-on,  the senior Cage developed a reputation as a devoted and impartial servant to the sick,  taking on black patients when such a thing was regarded as inappropriate, and adjusting his charges so that the poor were not locked out from receiving proper care.  One of his former nurses has returned to Natchez and died, and when her anguished son accuses Cage of euthanizing the nurse and fathering him decades ago,   Cage’s attempts to defend his father – as a son and a lawyer —  unearth one of the darkest, most violent chapters in Natchez’ history.    

It’s been years since I read Greg Iles, not because I have tired of him as an author, but because like Phillip Kerr his works tend to be far darker than I can handle on a regular basis. The Devil’s Punchbowl, my last Iles read, was  brutal enough to put me off him for eleven years,  and Natchez Burning does its best to equal that ugly tale of crime, animal abuse, and serial murderer.  The engine of horror here is a Klan offshoot that formed in response to the heavy FBI infiltration of the mainstream Klan organizations in the 1950s and 60s;  a small crew designated themselves the “Double Eagles”,  and dedicated themselves to strategic, not propagandic, violence. Funded by a local millionaire whose willingness to commit violence was rivaled only by his lust for power, the Double Eagles were responsible for a series of brutal murders in the sixties, stopped only by the accidental death of their leader.  Tom Cage’s nurse Viola left town in connection to those murders, and Penn’s attempts to figure out the truth of her death threaten to bring down the wrath of the still-living, still-vicious men and their sons on the city. Still worse: Cage’s old enemy, a failed mayoral candidate whose political relevancy relies on race-baiting, is trying to connect Tom to the Eagles.   That this could even be a possibility threatens to undermine everything Cage believes. 

This title is eight hundred pages; I read it in two days. Admittedly, I was in the hospital with nothing else to do, but this is a thriller like few others, absorbing and often horrific. Its story is partially set in the 1960s, and partially in 2005, and Iles’ implementation of historic details is as fulsome as Stephen King’s in 11/22/63.   The star, though, is the sheer drama –Cage’s attempt to get the truth out of his father, who is burying it for reasons unknown to him.  Most interestingly,  no one in the book really knows the full truth of  the nurse’s story, save Viola, save herself, and passions for everyone run high.  Ultimately, despite the viciousness that runs as broad as the Mississippi through this story – including torture and rape —  there is something of redemption in its ending.  The story, however, is not finished…and continues in The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood, 1600 more pages of terror, blood, and buried history.   I’ll definitely try reading the next one, but I almost hope the tenor changes a bit.  

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