COVID Reviews #5: Star Trekkin’ Across the Universe

This week I’ve been finishing the Vanguard series, set in the Original Series timeline and unfolding concurrently with the first three seasons of Star Trek. The first novel opened with the Enterprise enroute to its “Where No Man Has Gone Before” mission, and the third ends with the Enterprise taking part in the final battle, shortly after Defiant is attacked by the Tholians and disappears — into the mirror universe. The “real” Vanguard finale is Storming Heaven, but Dayton Ward — Mack’s partner in the Vanguard series — also provides an epilogue of sorts, In Tempest’s Wake, that focuses on Enterprise’s role in the finale. It’s told as a flashback, with a grizzled reporter visiting a captain-in-exile and trying to put together the pieces of what happened. As you may recall from previous previews, the Vanguard series is one of scientific mystery and interstellar politics; the Federation and the Klingons are competing to exploit the knowledge and tech of a long-vanquished civilization, the Shedai, and the nearby Tholians who regard the Shedai’s territory with dread and fear are working to make sure that the inferior Warms don’t reawaken the beast. In Storming Heaven, we have solid character drama, as civilian scientists and Starfleet argue over the morality of their actions in the Vanguard project, as they are throwing ancient power around recklessly; this sets the stage nicely for Carol Marcus’ deep distrust of Starfleet in TWOK, and the fact that an entire solar system went kablooey as a result of experiments (and was then covered up by Starfleet) also feeds into TWOK, by explaining why no one expected to find Khan on Ceti Alpha 5. Although I’ve grown gradually disinterested in the storyline, reading more for the characters, Storming Heaven was a solid finale. In Tempest’s Wake was more of an epilogue, telling the story from the Enterprise’s POV. Everything ends in a Big Ol’ Battle, as the Tholians assemble a massive fleet to stop Starfleet from unleashing unfathomable power.

I’m sorry, but this is an awful cover.

Fast-forwarding into the 24th century, Enigma Tales borrows its title from a traditional Cardassian literary format, murder mysteries in which everyone is guilty, to explore the theme of societal guilt. We find a Cardassian a decade removed from its ruination at the end of the Dominion war, and growing into a flourishing democracy. But a previously unnoticed data file threatens to throw a dark light on the icon of Cardassian democracy, Professor Natima Lang, and some suspect that Castellan Garak (yeah, plain simple Garak is an interstellar head of state now) is trying to ruin her for his own ends. Enter Kate Pulaski, who promptly starts an incident. The Cardassians are my favorite Trek species, largely because we saw such a variety of them on DS9 — we saw dissidents, scientists, and artists — that challenged the “Japan with grey scales” stereotype they were originally developed as. The Cardassians are very…human, unlike the perpetually smug Vulcans and the eternal soccer hooligans of the Klingons. I was especially impressed by Garak’s ongoing moral battle: despite his past as a member of the Obsidian Order, who undoubtedly committed many murders and performed much mischief, he wants desperately to believe that both he and Cardassia can be redeemed. I’m an absolute sucker for that kind of story.

We come in peace! (Shoot to kill, men.)

During quarantine I’ve been alternating between reading books and watching Star Trek. To date I’ve watched all of my favorite episodes from TNG and VOY, and am currently plowing through the Dominion War story in DS9. This starts in season 2 and continues until the end of the series (season 7), so it’s a lot. I’ve just started season 7, skipping the episode where Jadzia Dax is randomly killed by Gul Dukat, who for some reason became the Antichrist. I really don’t like what they did with him at the end of that series!

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Wisdom Wednesday: The gift of now

This WW is taken from a Star Trek novel, Storming Heaven by David Mack

“Be glad for all the places you get to be, and everyone you meet along the way. It’s human nature to focus on beginnings or endings, and that’s why we often lose sight of where we are and what we’re doing, in the moment. But the present moment—the ever-present now—is all we ever really have. Our past is already lost, gone forever. Our future might never come. And as you get older and time feels like it’s speeding up, you even start to feel the now slipping away. And that’s when you realize just how quickly things can end—when you’re busy thinking about what was or what’ll never be.”

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Any Approaching Enemy

France roils in revolution, its armies are opposed to most of Europe, and on the seas the Royal Navy is hunting its prey. A large French fleet is out and about — doing what, no one is sure. But they’re French, so it’s probably nothing good. A severe storm has scattered Admiral Nelson’s fleet hither and yon, and three of his frigates are in search of both their admiral and their quarry. The Louisa, under the command of Captain Charles Edgemont, is dispatched to Toulon in hopes of finding the admiral. Lord Nelson isn’t there, but he was — and so were the French. Following tips from Neapolitan fisher-folk, Edgement sails across the Med, in defiance of orders and in pursuit of answers. He will find them, and by his daring push the Royal Navy into one of its most astonishing naval victories ever.

As a longtime fan of Horatio Hornblower, I was delighted to discover another scribbler of Napoleonic tales — and largely won over by this story of adventure at sea, although it has some social peculiarities. The good captain is married to a Quaker, who somehow tracks him down and joins him at sea. This has the happy effect of allowing him to explain sea terminology to us through his conversations with his wife, although her arrival is implausible, to say the least. The bulk of the story follows Edgemont’s attempts to find either the French or his admiral, while at the same time dodging pirates and trying to keep his useless ex-first lieutenant from doing something foolish like challenging his replacement to a duel. Edgemont is a thoroughly likable character, and I appreciated the consistent humor that Worrall worked into the story. There were plot oddities — the improbable arrival of Mrs. Edgemont, and a few equally strange changes in the command structures of various ships — but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this and will be trying another of Worrall’s novels.

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COVID Reviews #4: Persians, Nukes, and Bugs

On Wednesday I will have my COVID retest, annnnd I hope to have an answer by Thursday or Friday if I am fit for public consumption. I hope so: being in quarantine is a bit like being in a nursing home. You can’t leave, no one comes to visit, and that toddle out to the mailbox followed by lunch is as exciting as the day gets. At least I have books!

First up, The Persian Puzzle, a history of Iranian-American relations from a CIA insider. The author’s connection to DC’s mischief-makers gave me some pause, but I’ve read a history like this from an Iranian insider, so it’s only fair. Pollack opens with a history of Iranian history, with a particular focus on its abuse by the Brits & Russians, who parceled the country between themselves: at first it was valuable for its closeness to India, but after the Great War began, its petroleum resources made it a valuable tug-of-war object. The United States entered the picture in earnest after WW2, out of concern than that the Iranian king would in his attempts to play one side against the other, make Iran a Soviet satellite. That led to DC joining Britain in trying to manage Iranian politics. What follows is a history of familiar ground — though, not surprisingly, Pollack downplays the US role in the shah’s abuses. Instead, he argues that Pahlavi was largely empowered and driven by the oil economy, to the point that DC had little real influence on him after he was fixed in power in the 1950s. Pollack also argues that DC was largely dragged into Iranian politics thereafter, placing much of the blame on Khomeini’s aggressive foreign policy, in which he intended to export the revolution across the middle east and ‘redeem’ Baghdad and Jerusalem. Had I not just read Black Flag, in which a Lebanese author supported that contention from her own perspective, my well-earned contempt for the CIA might have had me looking more askance at Pollack’s view. Persian Puzzle is a useful perspective to pair with others, and I was intrigued to see that in 2004 he promoted the same view that Obama would adopt, a dual-track engagement and containment policy that worked to isolate Iran diplomatically while offering a way forward.

Next up, Command and Control, a history of the growth of nuclear arms in DC and Russia, juxtaposed with a two-day history of a deadly accident at a Titan 2 base in Damascus, Arkansas. I’d never heard of the Damascus accident, so I was particularly caught up in the blow-by-blow history of that sad affair, and alarmed to learn how many nuclear accidents there have been over the years. As Schlosser notes, regardless of the training and the mechanical fail-safes, the sheer amount of nuclear arms coupled with human fallibility means that the odds of an accident happening are not insignificant. The Damascus incident was kicked off by a technician dropping a socket wrench — which made an improbable bounce and kicked off a chain of events that saw the entire site closed. Considering how many are known, it’s impressive that nothing more deadly has happened: Schlosser shares stories of plane crashes and accidental bomb-drops that left me shaking my head in disbelief. The other track of the book, covering the slow-at-first- and then astonishingly quick growth of nuclear arms, along with the changes in pop culture and government strategy, is also of great interest.

Last was The Secret Life of Backyard Bugs, which is a photo-heavy survey of various bugs, insects, and spiders and their life cycles. The authors have their preferences — a third of the book is devoted to butterflies and moths — but they include useful tables on what things to plant to promote greater insect biodiversity.

To follow this week: a post that’s alllllllll about Germans.

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COVID Reviews #3: Romans, Dogs, and Saudis

I don’t know if anyone misses my usual chatty, sometimes florid reviews, but they’re impossible to do on a phone. More mini-reviews it is!

Continuing my onslaught of the TBR pile, I finished Lives of Famous Romans, by Olivia Coolridge. This was a library discard, and contains twelve mini-biographies of various Roman leaders, chiefly political figures like Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian. There are some surprises in here, however: Cicero, Horace, and Virgil are the non-rulers among their ranks. I greatly enjoyed the tenor of the sketches, though I was familiar with most of the subjects already, save Horace.



Next up, and most appropriate considering I’m taking care of 4 dogs and 4 cats in quarantine, was Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside a Dog, a thoughtful consideration of what it’s like to be a dog. Horowitz invites us to step into a dog’s umwelt, to consider what it’s like to perceive the world from their angle — largely through the nose. Although that might sound a little silly, Horowitz offers serious food for thought by reviewing the natural history of canine evolution, noting that dogs are animals with an asterisk; they are truly domesticated in that their natural habitat is among humans: left to themselves, they are sloppy hunters, having exchanged strong pack dynamics and a wolf’s keen intelligence for social intelligence, instead…a special kind of social intelligence, the kind that allows them to read human behavior better than even our closest primate relatives. Horowitz asks her readers to try to understand dog behavior according to a dog’s nature — to consider the importance of smell to their existence, for instance, and to not be so eager to try to make them furry little humans, constantly plunged into paths and closed off from the world through little canine shoes. As a lifelong dog lover, I was delighted by this one — as was the dog lover who recommended it to me in the first place.

Most recently, I finished the thoroughly depressing Black Wave, a history of how Saudi and Iranian rivalry for influence as global leaders of Islam has sown chaos throughout the middle east. Ghattas opens in the fateful year of 1979, when cross-ideological revolution against the Shah resulted in victory in the streets for religious reactionaries. At the same time, extremists in Saudi-controlled Arbia committed an act of terrorism and sacrilege by taking over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, turning it into a battleground and humiliating the spawn of Saud. Having only recently taken over the country, the Saud family were roundly condemned for having failed to better protect the central sites of Islam. Already dependent on religious zealotry to provide support of their regime, the Saudis doubled down on it and began promoting a narrow view of Islam across the middle east, just as the new powers in Iran were also trying to export their revolution into places like Pakistan and Egypt. Although their primary noxious influence came from petrodollars, the Saudis were also able to exercise influence through economic prowess: as people flocked to the Gulf to take advantage of the growing oil-driven economy, they absorbed Saudi standards and took them home. Culture throughout the middle east became increasingly vitriolic, hostile, and puritanical, as people tried to fit themselves into ever-smaller groups and attacking with ever-great ferocity those outside the groups. People who grew up in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iran before 1979 were astonished at how rapidly their countries changed around them, turning into warzones filled with acrimony. This is a thoroughly depressing book, though Gattas gamely tries to offer the reader hope: not only is there constant, rising resistance, but people are tired of fighting. She also believes that some countries like Iran have too strong a culture to be defeated by a few narrow-minded old men.

Coming next week…English history, German history, ancient Mesopotamian history? We’ll see…

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Scaling Mount Doom: September 2019

Beginning last month, I decided to start doing a monthly ‘face-the-verdict’ post  to help me stay focused on my TBR takedown, and the related goal of further minimizing my book collection. This month bears witness to the fact that I’m in COVID quarantine…

TBR Books Read in September (Previous month: 8 titles)

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Purchased in 2019.
The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. Purchased in 2019.
The School Revolution, Ron Paul. Gift from a friend in 2018.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini.  Acquired from library booksale in 2019.
Star Trek Vanguard: What Judgments Come, Dayton Ward &  Kevin Dilmore. Purchased March 2018.
And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini
Enemy at the Gate: Hapsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe, Roger Crowley. Purchased September 2017.
How Alexander Hamilton Screwed up America, Brion McClanahan
Lives of Famous Romans, Olivia Coolridge
The Demon’s Brood: A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty, Desmond Seward

TBR Books Scheduled for October:

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War 1, Alexander Watson. 
The German War: A Nation under Arms
 , Nicholas Stargardt. Purchased September 2017.

Reward Books Purchased:
Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz

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COVID Reviews #2: Afghans and Turks and Austrians, oh my!

Khaled Hosseini’s third book is also his most unusual. His previous two books followed friendships which which were forged, broken, and tested over the years as Afghanistan reeled from one chaotic event to another. And the Mountains Echoed is more about family relationships, and instead of following a couple of characters, we are introduced to a larger ensemble, introduced in a series of interlaced stories, with an overall structure reminiscent of an onion, if that’s not too much of a cliche. Each story at first appears to stand on its own, but characters introduced in one story will appear more prominently in another, and the more one reads the more interconnections appear, building a larger tale — one told across the world, from Afghanistan to France and the United States. Although there is tragedy here, Mountains Echoed is practically G-rated compared to all the brutality and heartache of Hosseini’s previous works. (I say “practically” — yes, there’s a brother and sister tragically separated, and stories of depression, suicide, and unrequited love, but there’s also lots of self-sacrifice and nobility and such, and not a trace of rape or beatings.)

In advance of October, I read Enemy at the Gate, a history of the Turks’ last attempt to invade Europe. Andrew Wheatcroft opens by reviewing the history of Ottoman expansion, and the divergent evolution of its military to those of the Austrian empire’s. Although Ottoman forces were formidable, technical advances in the west, combined with the tighter control and organization of western forces, meant that the much larger Ottoman force had in Vienna a tough nut to crack. Its attack was reduced to a prolonged siege, one Wheatcroft compares to Stalingrad, until at least the Poles attacked and relieved the Austrians. The history then follows the allied ‘reconquest’ of Hungary, and the attempt to drive the Turks out of Europe entirely. That proved impossible even after the Ottomans fell apart after WW1. The book is more about the war in general, and less about the siege specifically. It’s fine reading, but I’d expected more detail about the battle itself.

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Top Ten Favorite Quotes

Top ten favorite quotations from books is a…daunting challenge,  to say the least. I’ve been reading purposefully since 2006,  and have encountering a great many challenging or insightful words since then. I am sorry that these all run together,   but WordPress has proven….obstinate.

  1. “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to is lowest terms.”  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  2. “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” – Spinoza, as quoted in Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer
  3. “One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’
    “So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”  – Kurt Vonnegut
  4. “It’s always so easy to avoid other people’s vices, isn’t it?” – Star Wars: Yoda, Dark Rendezvous. Laugh at the source, but the insight is undeniable.   The same thought appears in the New Testament.
  5. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  6. “No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be one.” – Marcus Aurelius,  The Meditations.
  7. “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden
  8. “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There’s not one of them which won’t make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it isn’t. If you leave out justice you’ll find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”  – C.S. Lewis,  Mere Christianity.
  9. Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
    The proper study of Mankind is Man.[8]
    Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
    With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
    With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
    He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
    In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
    In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
    Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
    Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
    Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
    Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
    Still by himself, abus’d, or disabus’d;
    Created half to rise, and half to fall;
    Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
    Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:
    The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
    –  Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”. Quoted in The Ascent of Science,  Brian Silver.  One of  the first bits of verse I ever memorized.
  10. “He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends. the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.” – The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
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Of Putin, Hamilton, wars, and corona

I entered quarantine on Tuesday, immediately after having my COVID test done. Since then my physical condition has improved (coughing is minimal, energy levels are much better) although until I test negative I’m still locked away from the public. I’ve been reading nonstop since I entered quarantine, and have knocked a few titles off my list. If I come out of quarantine on October 10th as I hope, I may have done serious damage to my TBR in the meantime! A couple of titles will get independent reviews

First up was How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, which is a history of how Hamilton, Judge Marshall, and a few others’ linked policies greatly strengthened the power of the central state over any meaningful opposition. Truth be told, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on legal cases when I was still reeling from the news that I was COVID positive, so I didn’t take a lot of this book beyond what I already knew. I may revisit it in future.

More interesting was The Putin Diaries, one of my reward books from August. The book consists of interview transcripts between Oliver Stone and Vladimir Putin, who has governed Russia since 1999, either as president or as a force behind the ‘official’ president. I must confess that I find Putin darkly fascinating; while his contemporaries in the United States and Europe stumble around getting themselves stuck in decades-long wars and debt traps, Putin has been steadily and consistently solidifying his own power and Russia’s foreign influence nearly every year he’s been in office. This quiet, details-oriented professional stands in stark contrast to DC’s celebrity-kings. I don’t like him, but I admire his competence, just as I do Otto von Bismarck’s. I bought this volume to perhaps learn more about what makes him tick. Oliver Stone is a curious interviewer, one whose hostility toward DC is such that Putin regards him warily — not wanting to be dragged into “anti-Americanism”. Putin communicates his disappointment that regardless of the noises various presidents make about Russian resets, the DC establishment has a Russian fixation that derails any hint at progress. Even when Russia was helping DC in the aftermath of 9/11 to move into Afghanistan, Putin claims that DC also treacherously began promoting terrorist organization ins Chechnya. I was impressed by Putin’s repeated observation that DC’s bureaucracy is far more powerful than its presidents, and his opinion that changing the president has little real effect. This is something I wish more Americans understood — the DC machine has inertia of its own. There’s a lot for an American audience to consider in a book like this, though I was not impressed by Stone as an interviewer: he’s candid to the point of vulgarity, and almost seemed childish.

Other reviews will follow this week for Enemy at the Gates as well as And the Mountains Echoed.

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Corona diary with extra corona

This update is a bit different because I’m typing on my phone. I’m making arrangements now for a 2 week quarantine. Unfortunately, I have the plague. It’s a mild thing — I would not have thought to test for it did I not work in a public place. But a cough on Monday and extreme fatigue were enough to worry my coworkers. I never had fever or any “flu like symptoms ” My cough has now subsided but the tiredness is still with me. This may be good news for the TBR, as I have lots of books to read while not working. It just remains to be seen if I can concentrate…I’ve been taking lots of naps! Be well, everyone.

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