Friday, July 31, 2009

William Blake

From William Blake's Proverbs from Hell.
What is now proved was once only imagin'd.

See Joan Aiken's comment
"Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It's a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that's better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Jan Morris A Writer's House in Wales

A collection of Welsh tidbits from Jan Morris' A Writer's House in Wales.
Wherever Welsh people have gone in the world, the image of the cup of tea has gone with them. Even now, in the days of universal junk food, Welsh women like to live up to their reputation. The Olde Welsh Tea Shoppe may have petered out but the old Welsh cup of tea, sweet and strong, is still universally on offer. When Wittgenstein the philosopher stayed in the house of a Welsh preacher the minister's wife urged her hospitality upon him with some diffidence - "Would you like a cup of tea, now, Dr. Wittgenstein? Would you like bread? Would you care for a nice piece of cake? Sonorously from the next room came the voice of the clergyman himself: "Don't ask the gentleman! Give!"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mad as the Mist and Snow by W.B. Yeats

One of the pleasures of reading Yeats, at least for me, is that I don't have a huge capacity to read much of his work at a sitting. I much prefer to savour a poem or two for a while and then come back to the bar for some more. Consequently, there is always more Yeats to discover and enjoy. A lifelong treat.
Mad as the Mist and Snow
by W.B. Yeats

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully's open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?

You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow.

Dave Barry on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

From Ronald Shwartz's For the Love of Books which includes an essay by humorist and author Dave Barry about his favorite readings.
Another book, which everyone was reading in the seventies, was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I remember reading it and thinking "This explains everything, the whole universe, or at least where human beings fit in and how you should live your life." But I could only remember it for about two days. I remember thinking "Boy, I could go take apart a transmission and put it back together and it would work." But I never did it. So, I'm not sure sometimes whether books change your life so much as, every now and then, one comes along that perfectly reinforces the way you already think. That was an example of a book that I thought was going to change my life, and I still think it was a wonderfully written book, but I can't for the life of me remember what the point of it was. I don't really retain what I read, I just love the process of reading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The First Heroes by Craig Nelson

A thrilling, moving story and well written. It has been a while since I had a story that caused me to reprioritize my work so that I could go ahead and finish the book.

The shock of Pearl Harbor and the unexpected condition of being at war is still fresh. The Japanese Empire has racked up victory after victory without pause. The Philippines have fallen, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, et al. Australia is threatened. Two mighty British warships, the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse have both been sunk, eviscerating Britain's naval presence in the Pacific.

With the US shocked by the unremitting success of the enemy, a plan is hatched at the highest levels of government to strike back, even if it is simply a gesture. Morale needs boosting. The public need to be shown that the enemy is not invincible. The airforce asks for volunteers to undertake a mission to an unnamed location, under unidentified circumstances, with a high probability of not returning. The only thing promised was a chance to strike back. With that proposition, the ranks were more than filled.

The plan is to launch sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers from an aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. Such large planes have never been launched from a carrier before. All the practice take-offs and landings are done on land. The planes are to launch some five hundred miles from Tokyo from the carriers, drop their bombs (without their Norden bombsights which are too sophisticated and secret to risk losing over Tokyo) and then fly on several hundred miles to allied held bases in mainland China. The distance is so great that the planes are stripped of anything disposable (including some of their defensive machine guns) in order to add extra fuel tanks.

Murphy was sailing with the Task Group. As the Task Group approaches Japan they sail into a massive storm. They are then spotted by Japanese fishing boats some seven hundred miles from shore and in the early hours of the morning and Tokyo is alerted. The planes, already operating at the extremities of their range, will now have to fly an extra two hundred miles. Their arrival over Tokyo will now be in the middle of the day, optimizing Japan's defenses. All planes are launched, to the amazement of everyone, but the storm precludes them from flying in formation. They encounter a head-wind for part of the journey and which consumes yet more fuel. The extra fuel tanks turn out to be leaking, some badly.

Despite all this, all planes make it to their targets and drop their bombs. All planes, despite being fired at and damaged by anti-aircraft guns as well as being attacked by Japanese fighters, are able to head towards China. Because of the continuing storm, the navigators are unable to take any celestial readings and so they fly by dead reckoning with a high margin of error. It is night by the time the planes arrive over what they estimate to be China. Some planes can't quite make it and ditch in the ocean in the dark. Others fly until they are on fumes, desperately trying to make out where they might be. Most bail out into the dark as their planes gasp out a few last miles.

And then the real tribulations begin as the crewmen seek to make contact with the Chinese, avoid the Japanese and make it back to allied lines. Amazingly, eighty-three of the crewmen sooner or later make it home, most early enough in the war to continue serving in the Pacific or in Europe. Eight are captured, of whom three are executed and one is starved to death. Five land their plane in the Soviet Union and are interned for most the war. Two members of the raid are killed when their planes crash land in the water. Another is killed when his parachute fails to open.

A small handful are dreadfully injured in their crashes or parachute jumps but most suffer only minor injuries. They receive enormous support from the local Chinese who have suffered several years of Japanese occupation and brutal repression. Indeed, the Chinese are to suffer yet further as the Japanese launch a campaign to recover the allied airmen, a campaign in which a further 250,000 Chinese are killed.

Nelson does a magnificent job of weaving many strands of the story together and yet keeps it moving and doesn't let the narrative get bogged down in detail. He makes many connections that might be less than obvious. For example, how the head of the Japanese Navy (and original opponent of the war) Yamamoto, was so incensed by the raid and the danger that it posed to the Emperor that it became part of his motivation for bringing about the clash at Midway with the US Navy, intended to be the decisive engagement in which the five Japanese carriers would destroy the three remaining American carriers in the Pacific and effectively bring the war to a close. Midway was decisive, but not in the fashion Yamamoto sought. The American victory was the decisive turning point of the war with the Japanese on the defensive for the remaining three years.

Nelson also has a wealth of obscure facts and insights that also add to the interest of the book. One of the pilots, Davey Jones, escapes and eventually ends up in the European Theater. There he flies numerous missions before being shot down and captured by the Germans, taken to Stalag III where he is one of the participants in the Great Escape, helping digging the tunnels. At the last minute, before the escape, he is moved to a different camp. A move that likely saved his life as fifty of the seventy-three who were recaptured were executed. The Great Escape is another magnificent World War II story suitable for 12 to 18 year olds.

Other tidbits - The fatality rate of allied prisoners of war in Germany and Italy was 4%, that of allied POWs held by the Japanese, 27%. Jake DeShazer found religion while being held captive by the Japanese and returned to Japan after the war as a Christian missionary. Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the naval air planes in the attack on Pearl Harbor also found religion, became a Christian, a conversion in which DeShazer was instrumental through his missionary work and his pamphlet accounts of his imprisonment. Fuchida eventually migrated to the US and became a US citizen.

Ultimately, though, Nelson's story is not about war, though he does do a good job of setting the context and the history. It is instead the story of eighty brave young men, serving their country as best they knew how, under remarkable circumstances and with astonishing repercussions. This is explicitly a tribute to these men whose accomplishments might otherwise easily disappear into the recesses of our collective memory. This book will keep their tale shining bright for that much longer.

This is a good complement to Ted Lawson's (one of the pilots who was severely injured) book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was written during the war and was a huge hit. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a tremendous read and is excellent for good independent readers, say 8-12 years old, whereas The First Heroes would really be for YA or adults.

I would give The First Heroes a Recommended rating.

Humanity in war

From Craig Nelson's The First Heroes.

The story of the selection, training, flight and escape of the eighty American volunteers in Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid on Tokyo, April 18, 1942, just four and a half months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Review to follow but these three passages caught my eye and I found touching. As you read of the flyers' escapes through rural and occupied China, you begin to recall just how recently, how remote much of the world was.

Page 200, the escape of pilot Davey Jones. The mission had been conducted in complete secrecy, they landed in remote rural China (elsewhere in the book it is described how lacking in basic infrastructure the area was). No electricty, no real roads, just railroads to connect the people into the modern world. And yet . . .
"At first light it wasn't raining, just misty. I started west," remembered plane five pilot Davey Jones. "I had the musette bag I had held onto, with cigarettes and a pistol and a pint of whiskey. It was Old Overholt, I'll never forget that, and by golly I still have the label.

"By noon I heard bells, and saw cattle and some people. The first group I saw just smiled at me and at each other. I very cleverly got out my little notebook and drew a map of China. They obviously hadn't the vaguest idea what I meant. And then I got very smart and I drew a little locomotive and then I went choo-choo-choo, and I got a good response; I got lots of smiles. I offered them cigarettes. They all took cigarettes. So I just left and went down the trail until I found a railroad. And after a quarter of a mile, I found a small stationhouse.

"There was one young man there, and he could print a little English, and I could print in our language 'Yushan,' the name of the town we were supposed to go to. My copilot Hoss Wilder walked in about that time. This young Chinese man had a handcar, and he pumped us up the road about three miles to another station, where there was a locomotive and a boxcar, with about twenty or thirty soldiers in khaki-type uniforms. We ascertained they were Chinese, not Japanese, thankfully. So Hoss and I got on the boxcar and we went up the road about fifteen miles, and came to this town, Yushan, and pulled into the railroad yard.

"The doors of the boxcar were opened, and we were standing there, facing this huge crowd. There must have been ten thousand people if there was one. The streets were hung in banners which said: WELCOME BRAVE HEROES! YOU'VE STRUCK A BLOW FOR US. A gentleman in Western clothes came up to the car and said, "Hi. I'm Dani-Yang. I'm the mayor of Yushan, and these people are going to welcome you.'

"This is five o'clock in the afternoon on the nineteenth in the middle of nowhere in China, a little over twenty-four hours after we'd bombed Tokyo, and they knew all about it! Isn't that something?"

Other bomber crews had similar receptions. From page 206:
They arrived on the outskirts of town late in the afternoon. Again, Wong told them to wait, and for more than an hour, they just sat there without any explanation. Then, from far off in the distance, came a noise, which grew louder, and closer, until the Americans found themselves in the middle of a glorious and enthusiastic parade, led by an eight-piece marching band. "There was this Chinese band who'd stayed up all night long, learning to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" said Bob Bourgeois. "There was an American flag, and I tell you, there were five guys from crew thirteen, listening to them play "The Star-Spangled Banner,' well we had tears running down our faces."

And on page 211 there is this touching testament to the Chinese peasants, who in primitive and dangerous circumstances, set a high bar for simple humanity. The experience of the crew from plane fifteen:
They arrived at a small house, with a covered pen for goats. As they approached, the light was extinguished. The men knocked on the door, yelling the Chinese phrases they'd been taught on Hornet, but there was no answer. Finally giving up, they decided to spend the night with the goats. It was shelter from the rain, even though the floor was covered in dung.

As they were trying to figure out how to get some sleep, the light came back on, the door opened, and the man of the house stepped out. He peered at them, swinging a lantern, ignored their attempts at Chinese, and ushered them inside. The family had started a smoky fire, from straw. The men dried themselves and tried to keep from suffocating as the farmer's wife and mother gave them hot rice, with bits of vegetable and some kind of meat. Doc White: "I'm sure he had never seen a white man before. I'd like to think that if I were called out in the middle of the night and met four giants (we were two feet taller than he was) in strange uniforms, speaking a strange language, and obviously in trouble, I'd like to think I would have the courage to ask them into my house. That's what that little man did."

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Greenland Fishery

I have known this ballad for many years as a folksong but this is the first time I have come across it in a poetry anthology, in this case in Arthur Quiller-Couch's The Oxford Book of Ballads.

The Greenland Fishery

In seventeen hundred and ninety-four,
On March the twentieth day;
We hoist our colours to the mast,
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys
And for Greenland bore away.

We were twelve gallant men aboard,
And to the North did steer:
Old England left we in our wake-
We sailors knew no fear, brave boys!
We sailors knew no fear.

Our boatswain to the mast-head went,
Wi' a spy glass in his hand;
He cries, 'A whale! a whale doth blow,
She blows at every span, brave boys!
She blows at every span.'

Our Captain on the master deck
(A very good man was he),
'Overhaul! overhaul! let the boat tackle fall,
And launch your boat to sea, brave boys!
And launch your boat to sea.'

Our boat being launch'd, and all hands in,
The whale was full in view;
Resolved was then each seaman bold
To steer where the whale-fish blew, brave boys!
To steer where the whale-fish blew.

The whale was struck, and the line paid out,
She gave a flash with her tail;
The boat capsized, and we lost four men,
And we never caught that whale, brave boys!
And we never caught that whale.

Bad news we to the Captain brought,
The loss of four men true.
A sorrowful man was our Captain then,
And the colours down he drew, brave boys!
And the colours down he drew.

'The losing of this whale,' said he,
'Doth grieve my heart full sore;
But the losing of four gallant men
Doth hurt me ten times more, brave boys!
Doth hurt me ten times more.

'The winter star doth now appear,
So, boys, the anchor weigh;
'Tis time to leave this cold country,
And for England bear away, brave boys!
And for England bear away.

'For Greenland is a barren place,
A land where grows no green,
But ice and snow, and the whale-fish blow,
And the daylight 's seldom seen, brave boys!
And the daylight 's seldom seen!'

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ultima Thule by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ultima Thule: Dedication to G. W. G.
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

With favoring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mapping Human History

I finished Steve Olson's Mapping Human History a couple of weeks ago and have spent that time figuring out my reaction to the book. I am very interested in the whole field of archaeogenetics: using DNA to reconstruct macro aspects of human history: when did we emerge from Africa, what was the pathway to populating the continents, who got where when, etc. I commented on this in my review of Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn.

I guess it is best just said that I would recommend Before the Dawn over Mapping Human History.

Mapping Human History is fine in terms of interesting information. The more I read though, the more irritated I became with the author. The root of the issue is that Olson is mortally afraid that someone will read his book and come away with a strong sense that there are material genetic differences between the races and ethnicities across the globe. His belief, and which I share, is that differences in material prosperity between ethnic groups are much a function of individual variance and cultural values and that there is no basis to believe that the genetic differences between groups accounts for any perceived differences in history or prosperity.

Despite agreeing with him, I found it irritating to constantly being protected from coming to the wrong conclusion. Olson works so hard to hide differences that he undermines his own position and disrespects his reader at the same time. Overall, an informative book on an interesting topic but with a flaw in the writing style that subverts its overall narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Books and their readers

Which way does causation flow - do books make the reader or does the reader make the book?

I think most of us instinctively feel that a book is a causative event. We can remember how specific books affected us at some critical point in our lives or changed how we thought of something. And I think that is true - specific books can be transformative for individuals at specific times under particular circumstances.

But the lurking book-banner siezes on this position to then justify banning or discouraging certain books from being read because they are deemed to be pejorative or insensitive to some group based on race or religion or ethnicity or class or some other attribute. The guise is always partly about protecting feelings and partly about how it might influence a reader. These latent totalitarians feel justified in turning the proposition that books are important and transformative into the proposition that books are dangerous.

One list serv to which I belong, and which is heavily populated by librarians and academicians, routinely (and to me astonishingly) has a running spat about which books ought to be sanctioned and they usually include long time favorites that most reading Americans have at one time enjoyed such as Little House on the Prairie, Caddie Woodlawn, and of course that long reviled classic, Little Black Sambo featuring a clever, self-reliant and resilient Indian boy from the sub-continent.

I think what gets lost is that it is the particularity of the experience that makes the difference. Not all books affect all people in anything remotely the same way. The reader does bring as much to the table as the author. The context in which a book is read and the contribution of the reader is a counterforce to whatever the author has penned. What is nominally judged pejorative by some narrow segment of academia is properly seen by most people as a non-issue. Terms once used that are no longer appropriate are glossed over. Prejudices of former years can be discussed and set in context. The simple act of reading does not irredeemably stain a young mind as seems to be the implication by the banners.

What brings this to mind is the recent publication of Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W. Ryback. Peter Lewis reviewed the book in the July issue of the UK's Oldie magazine. Hitler was a bibliophile with an extensive personal library, some portion of which survived the war. Ryback has gone back to see what Hitler read and observed his personal marginalia in the books to try and capture some of his thinking. Lewis has a couple of interesting observations on Hitler the reader.
What is interesting is the breadth of his reading. He listed Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels and Uncle Tom's Cabin as great classics of literature, and prized Shakespeare above Goethe and Schiller. . . .

Does this study of his favorites help us understand Hitler better? Perhaps as much as a session with Parsifal or Gotterdammerung. You may conclude that Hitler read mainly to confirm his prejudices.

As so often happens, the observer sees what they want to see. There is prejudice and stereotype of some nature and to some degree in any one of these books but it is always some minor element to the larger themes and message. These elements are only important to the degree that you make them important. It is the reader that creates the context and the interpretation. It is the reader that is potentially dangerous and not the book.

Lewis has a further comment which I find interesting.
But Ryback's whole picture makes him (Hitler) seem more like a human being than the usual monster. You could have talked books with Hitler. And the nicely-observed snapshots of his private life in which books played so big a part make this biblio-biography far more interesting than it looked when I picked it up.

I think this is important. As the gulf of time widens between ourselves and the events of World War II, there seems to be a greater and greater tendency to dismiss Hitler as a phenomenon of evil, something unique and apart from us. A freak of nature. I think this is a mistake. The degree to which we distance ourselves from Hitler and his actions, the more we relieve ourselves of the obligation of eternal vigilance against totalitarians in whatever guise. Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan tell us that the spirit of Hitler lives today, that we all, as human beings, and under the right circumstances, have the capacity of great evil and that it remains our obligation to master our own natures and to stand alert to evil wherever it might manifest itself. Hitler was a human being, not some caricature. He was one of us, a book reader. We may not like it but it should keep us alert.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Loganberry Books

I just spent a couple of days up in Cleveland visiting Case Western Reserve with my oldest son. College is approaching and he is interested in computer science and robotics and they have a very cool robotics degree.

We stayed in a bed and breakfast in the adjacent neighborhood of Shaker Square. Late the evening of our arrival, as we drove around to find a place to eat dinner, I saw within a block or so of where we were staying, a bookstore, Loganberry Books. Bells went off. "I know that bookstore. They're the ones with Stump the Bookseller. We have to carve out some time tomorrow to see this place before we leave. You'll love it."

Well, we had a great day at CWRU, the highlight being the last tour of the robotics lab where we were introduced to the various permutations of their robotic cockroach. The tour wrapped up such that we had just a half hour before we needed to head to the airport. With a combination of fast but careful driving, we were able to get back over to Loganberry Books. And it was worth it. My son, Price, was clearly indulging his father with that patient forbearing expression only a teenager can adopt. But it was wiped away as we stepped into this wonderful book sanctum, to be replaced with a look of wondrous delight. All he said, and it was more than enough, was "Oh, wow!"



Stretching before us, cavernous room after cavernous room like something out of Xanadu, filled with books in handsome dark wood shelves, oriental rugs covering waxed hardwood floors, the requisite bookstore cat, paintings, illustrations, patrons quietly turning the leaves of books, sanctum shuffling temple officiaries moving books from one place to another, was a book lover's heaven.

Their prices are a bit above what this scrounging book hound likes to pay but their selection is broad and deep, in beautiful condition and well worth the price you do pay. I came away with a beautiful Heritage Press edition of Ambrose Bierce, Tales of Soldiers & Civilians, illustrated with wood-engravings by Paul Landacre as well as Shipwrecks of the Lakes by Dana Thomas Bowen.

One of the things that struck us in touring around Case Western was how the city appears to have tucked all its civic treasures right next to the campus; the orchestra, the art museum, the botanical gardens, the natural history museum, etc. And this is one more nearly civic institution; Loganberry Books. A tribute to taste and refinement, and ideas and a love of books. A treasure that so few other cities are still able to muster. One would hope that every citizen of Cleveland would find reason and pride to visit Loganberry at least once a month and buy a book. It is these kind of places that delight readers and booklovers, and which take the edge off of and brighten city living.

If you find yourself in the Cleveland area or up by Shaker Square or Case Western, give yourself a treat and visit Loganberry Books.

For an interview with founder and owner, Harriett Logan, visit this article.

The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.


Took Merlin for his walk early this morning to avoid the heat and humidity of a Georgia July day. Even at 7am though, there was humidity, heat and mosquitoes and the promise of more to come. Walking through the woods, he kept stopping, looking longingly back towards the house and coolness.

Strolling along by the stream, we came up upon a beautiful little box turtle, not much larger than my hand, plonked in the middle of the path, head out, curious. Merlin and I stopped and both parties stared at one another. Merlin advanced a cautious step or two to sniff, causing the turtle to pull in. Even without his beautiful black beady eyes staring at us, he was a pleasure to see with a fresh and strongly marked carapace.

I lifted him up and put him off to the edge of the path three or four feet, under the shade of some bushes. A privilege to start the day with a small service to such a handsome creature.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On Such a Night by Thomas Johnston

I never heard of this poem or of this poet but what a beautiful discovery.

On Such a Night
by Thomas Johnston

On such a night as this the ships of Rome
Sailed out and out on such a darkling sea,
And many a Roman sailor dreamed of home -
Of love and life in far-off Italy.
On such a night, my dear, some Portuguese
Has leaned his sunburned shoulders on the rail,
Has heard the soothing rustle of the breeze,
Looked up, and seen, above the soft-curved sail,
The pointed mast trace missives in the sky;
Then, humming low in liquid latin tone,
Enchanted by the world's tranquility,
Has thought of one who lived for him alone.
The sky above so deep, the stars so bright!
Oh for my love, close-held, on such a night.

Monday, July 6, 2009

That Al Capone was at the center of a lot of things

From Rick Beyer's The Greatest War Stories Never Told. I love it when a writer puts together two pieces of information you already knew independently but didn't realize were connected.
Butch O'Hare was America's first flying ace of World War II. On February 20, 1942, he spotted a formation of Japanese bombers preparing to attack the carrier USS Lexington in the waters off New Guinea. Diving into their midst, he shot down six of them single-handedly, saving the ship and the lives of thousands aboard. This action won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Butch died in combat the following year. In 1949 the citizens of Chicago honored Butch O'Hare by naming their airport after him.

That's not all there is to the story, however.

Butch's father was a lawyer and racetrack owner named Eddie O'Hare. "Artful Eddie," as he was known, got involved with Chicago mob boss Al Capone in the 1920s. That connection made him a ton of money, but he was worried about the impact on his teenage son. O'Hare was dead set on his Butch getting into the U.S. Naval Academy, and he figured he would have to break away from Capone before that could happen.

So "Artful Eddie" cut a deal with the feds. For the sake of his son's future, he volunteered to risk his life and inform on Capone. He detailed the mobster's operations for IRS agents, and led them to a bookkeeper who could testify about Capone's illegal income. As a result, prosecutors were able to convict Capone on charges of tax evasion and send him to prison in 1931. Butch O'Hare got an appointment to the Navy Academy a year later.

So while O'Hare airport bears the name of a World War II hero, it also commemorates a father willing to do anything for his son, and the man who helped prosecutors win their war against Al Capone.

And then there is the further connection I mentioned sometime ago between children's author Evaline Ness and Al Capone, here.

The Virtual Reunification Of Codex Sinaiticus

Pretty cool. The Daily Mail of the UK has an article announcing the British Museum's digital reuniting of the surviving elements of the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's oldest bible and one of the key documents marking the transition from papyrus scripts to bound volumes of books as we know them.

It is interesting that the same technology of digitizing books that is causing fretful mutterings about the threat to reading culture is also preserving and making more widely available those earliest books that we do have.

Take a look at this 1,600 year old bible at Codex Sinaiticus. Even though it is virtual, even though it is in places fragmentary, even though it is in an ancient language, you can't help but feel a shiver of excitement and connection as you gaze on the neat script of this ancient survivor and amabassador from a distant age.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ideas and Life are complements not substitutes

From my friend Henry Wessells' blog, The Endless Bookshelf, there is this reference.
. . . He disliked the way they seemed to him to use literature as an insulation against life rather than an intensification of it.

He liked books but they were to him a kind of psychic food that should convert to energy for living.

William McIlvanney
The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983; Pantheon Books paperback, [1984])

Saturday, July 4, 2009

AC Doyle and Suspicion

It is quite remarkable that a short story written one hundred and eighteen years ago should capture succinctly the conundrum so many governments and organizations still navigate. In an article in The American Interest Online, The Strange Case of Florence Hartmann by Ruth Wedgwod she notes the following.

But this also shows why the judges might wish to reread Arthur Conan Doyle's tale of the purloined letter. A judicial ruling whose logic is made public may provoke disagreement. But a ruling whose existence and logic are kept secret is likely to provoke suspicion.

The article is about a somewhat interesting but complex case of clumsily constructed governmental entities trying to achieve an important end but stepping all over expectations of normal procedure in the process.

My point, though, is not about the particular case but rather the fact that Doyle and his writing still has the currency to illuminate by allusion.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The maker of trash, the barbarian, is less careful to be just.

From John Gardner's Moral Fiction.

To maintain that true art is moral one need not call up theory; one need only think of the fictions that have lasted: The Iliad and The Odyssey; the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; Virgil's Aeneid; Dante's Commedia; the plays of Shakespeare and Racine; the novels of Tolstoy, Melville, Thomas Mann, James Joyce. Such works - all true works of art - can exert their civilizing influence century after century, long after the cultures that produced them have decayed. Yet it is clearly not true that the morality of art takes care of itself, the good, like gravity, inevitably prevailing. Good art is always in competition with bad, and though the long-run odds for good art are high, since cultures that survive almost by definition take pleasure in the good, even the good in a foreign tongue, the short-term odds are discouraging. The glories of Greece and Rome are now bones on old hills. Civilized virtue, in states or individuals, can easily become too complex for self-defense, can be forced simply to abdicate like those few late Roman emperors not murdered on the street. And like a civilized Roman, the creator of good art - the civilized artist - can easily fall into a position of disadvantage, since he can recognize virtues in the kind of art he prefers not to make, can think up excuses and justifications for even the cheapest pornography - to say nothing of more formidable, more "serious" false art - while the maker of trash, the barbarian, is less careful to be just. It is a fact of life that noble ideas, noble examples of human behavior, can drop out of fashion though they remain as real and applicable as ever - can simply come to be forgotten, plowed under by "progress."

I would not claim that even the worst art should be outlawed, since morality by compulsion is a fool's morality and since, moreover, I agree with Tolstoy that the highest purpose of art is to make people good by choice. But I do think bad art should be revealed for what it is whenever it dares to stick its head up, and I think the arguments for the best kind of art should be mentioned from time to time, because our appreciation of the arts is not wholly instinctive. If it were, our stock of bad books, paintings, and compositions would be somewhat less abundant.

Department of Trivia

Dr Jekyll's first name is Henry.
-- The Book of Useless Information by Noel Botham

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Some Parochial Group's Manners

From John Gardner's Moral Fiction.

Too often we find in contemporary fiction not true morality, which requires sympathy and responsible judgment, but some fierce ethic which, under closer inspection, turns out ot be some parochial group's manners and habitual prejudices elevated to the status of ethical imperatives, axioms for which bigotry or hate, not love, is the premise.