Paul’s Thing

blogprofile The weblog of Paul Woodford, a veteran USAF F-15 pilot living in Tucson, Arizona
September 2015
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You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

south park banned book

YCRT! Mini-Rant

Here’s a Bookriot editorial on the overuse of scare phrases like “book banning.” Wait a minute! I use the phrase, but (I like to think) carefully and with intent. Here’s my rationale, paraphrased from earlier YCRT! posts:

I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every so often. My position is that any time someone tries to restrict access to a book in order to prevent people from reading it, that’s banning … even if the ban affects only one school, library, or bookstore, and the book can be found elsewhere.

The US Post Office once officially banned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. People would argue it wasn’t really banned, because you could always hop on an ocean liner, go to Paris, and buy a copy there.

We hear the same argument today. “So your teacher can’t assign Sherman Alexie’s The Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and it isn’t on the shelves in the school library? So what? You can still get a copy on Amazon, can’t you?”

The problem is school districts in several states have bowed to those who want to control what others read and taken books away to prevent students from reading them. This is book banning.

Merriam-Webster backs me up on my assertion that banning, however localized, is still banning. This is a usage example from M-W’s entry on the word ban: “The school banned that book for many years.”

I rest my case (until next year, when I’ll have to post this again).

YCRT! News Roundup:

sticker shock

Click image to link to story

An argument against the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a text in high school history classes. Here’s a YCRT! review of A People’s History, if you’re interested in my take.

Patriotic parents combat creeping sharia in Florida schools.

In an earlier post I mentioned a scary poll showing increasing public support for book banning. This article goes into more detail on the poll and its results.

South Carolina high school principal caves, pulls Courtney Summers’ Some Girls Are from a summer reading list after a single parental complaint, bypassing his district’s book review policy.

Another principal caves to parental complaints, pulling Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from a Tallahassee, Florida high school summer reading list, end-running school district policy. Here’s a more in-depth look at the banning of the book in Tallahassee and elsewhere.

This is a little different: residents of Pleasant Grove, Utah asked the city council to remove R-rated movies from the public library, but for now at least the council has decided not to interfere in library decisions. There are only eight R-rated movies in the library’s catalog, and patrons under the age of 18 can’t check them out anyway.

Every now and then I see a Facebook post that isn’t just a photo of someone’s cat:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 11.25.02 AM

It’s easy to scoff at the college campus trigger warning zealots, but what if administrators use student complaints as an excuse to fire tenured professors they don’t like but can’t get rid of by other means?

I’ve been keeping an eye on a book-banning organization called Safe Libraries, which in addition to attacking books frequently goes after public libraries and the American Library Association with trumped-up charges about librarians encouraging patrons to surf child porn sites on library computers. The charges are false, but Safe Libraries makes a lot of noise, even sending speakers out on the road to rile up communities with scary slide shows about the dangers of local libraries. I think (but admit I don’t know) that Safe Libraries is behind a recent attempt to shut down a public library in Orland Park, Illinois.

Some incoming Duke University freshmen refused to read a summer assignment, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, citing “deeply-held religious beliefs.” Fine with me, as long as they don’t insist other students can’t read it either. Their protest gives me an excuse to wrap up this installment of YCRT! with my previously-posted review of Fun Home.

YCRT! Banned Book Review

fun homeFun Home
Alison Bechdel

I’ll admit up front to a snobbish attitude toward graphic novels. I was raised to think they were for people who don’t like to read. Still, I’m willing to expand my horizons, and when I learned the theme of this year’s Banned Books Week (September 21-27, 2014) is to be graphic novels, I pressed members of my book club to pick one for our September selection. I went a step further and recommended Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. We have agreed to read a graphic novel that month; whether it’ll be Fun Home or another selection remains to be seen. I decided to read it anyway, and borrowed a copy from my local library.

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test for movies. To pass the test, a movie must have:

  1. At least two woman in it, who
  2. talk to each other about
  3. something besides a man

Yes, this is the same Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir of her childhood and college years. It’s about her family … her father, mother, and two brothers … and focuses most tightly on her relationship with her father, a troubled man, and her discovery of her own sexuality. This is no comic book; it’s a surprisingly literary and deep self-examination, filled with references and hints that drive you deeper into the text and illustrations. Although it’s a fast read, it’s also a demanding read, not at all what my inner snob was expecting.

Fun Home is touching and extememly personal … I was moved in places, particularly those sections where Bechdel revisits key interactions with her father, showing how her understanding of his complicated character grew as she herself got older. She seems to hold little back; her depiction of a distant relationship with her father doesn’t hide her love for him (I know that’s speculative on my part, but Alison Bechdel made me believe it).

I rarely feel as if I’ve truly shared an author’s humanity, especially not across gaps of gender and sexuality; given that I finished this book knowing only what Alison Bechdel wanted me to know, I was convinced she had shared most of herself with me. I felt connected, and it enriched my appreciation of this book.

When I gather material for new YCRT! columns, I search Google for news articles about book challenges and banning attempts. This is how I first learned of Fun Home, reading articles about attempts to ban or restrict it.

Since its publication in June 2006, would-be censors have repeatedly tried to have Fun Home removed from libraries and school reading lists. The first challenge came just months after publication, in October 2006: residents of Marshall, Missouri tried to have the book removed from the public library. The book was removed but eventually reviewed and reinstated. In 2008 a University of Utah English professor added it to a class reading list. A student objected, and even though the professor gave the student an alternate reading assignment, the student contacted a local organization called “No More Pornography,” which started an online petition calling for the book to be removed from the syllabus (the university stood its ground). Most recently, Fun Home has been challenged in South Carolina, where it was included as a summer reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. Organized religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council became involved, and though the college also stood its ground, the South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee cut the college’s funding by $52,000 … the cost of the summer reading program … to punish it for selecting Fun Home.

What is it about Fun Home that attracts this kind of attention? The good citizens of Marshall, Missouri characterized it as pornography, expressed concern that it would be read by children, and worried that it would attract seedy elements to the library. Pornography was the label used against the book in Utah. Again in South Carolina, the book’s opponents called it pornography, accusing the book of promoting the “gay and lesbian lifestyle.” One of the state representatives who voted to penalize the college said “This book trampled on freedom of conservatives … teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.” In addition to the budgetary cuts, the legislature required the college to provide alternate books to any student who objects to a reading assignment because of a “religious, moral, or cultural belief.”

Alison Bechdel has described the attempted banning of her book as “a great honor,” describing attacks against it as “part of the whole evolution of the graphic-novel form.” As to claims her work is pornographic, Bechdel points out that pornography is designed to cause sexual arousal, which is not the purpose of her book. Bechdel’s supporters point out that Fun Home has been praised by professional book review journals and is the recipient of several literary awards. As noted, both the University of Utah and the College of Charleston stood by their decisions to retain Fun Home; the provost of the College of Charleston stating that its themes of identity are especially appropriate for college freshmen.

My own reaction? I agree with Bechdel and her defenders: this novel is not only literature but good literature, and while it explores adult themes and sexual identity is it absolutely not pornographic. Yes, Bechdel describes her realization, while in college, that she is lesbian. She describes her growing acceptance of her sexuality and even parts of her sexual life. This is guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable. As she revisits parts of her earlier life from this new perspective, she discovers her own father’s homosexual past, another potentially uncomfortable subject. And then there are the illustrations depicting Bechdel’s early lesbian experiences:


Some panels are even more graphic, and I can certainly understand why some parents would not want their kids to read this book. I have a hard time, though, seeing where college-aged adults need to be protected from it. Had the censorship attempts in Utah and South Carolina been triggered by the inclusion of Fun Home on a middle or high school reading list, I would not have been particularly surprised. But colleges and universities? Just how grown-up does one have to be to read a book about a lesbian?

I suspect lesbianism … the explicitly sexual drawings in particular … is key to conservative outrage over Fun Home. I thought Bechdel’s story important, especially in an era when we’re increasingly aware that some of our friends, relatives, co-workers, and fellow students are gay. I thought her illustrations frank but not titillating, an essential part of the story. Others, however, see in Bechdel’s story and illustrations an attempt to overturn morality and religion by “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

Significant numbers of people, and sadly many parents, believe homosexuality is a conscious choice. Accompanying that belief is the fear that exposing kids to sympathetic depictions of homosexuality, particularly kids who are just beginning to discover their own sexuality, might tempt them to experiment with, or even become, homosexual. Religious conservatives have always gone after books that depict or even mention sex, but books featuring happy, well-adjusted, sympathetic homosexual characters really bring out their wrath. Fun Home is obviously such a book, and we certainly haven’t heard the last about it.

Judy Blume, another author whose books have been banned and suppressed, has this to say to parents who worry about what their kids are reading:

A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading. A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives.

If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great. Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing.

They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.

I think Ms Blume is on to something. With regard to Fun Home, if the subject of sexual identity makes you uncomfortable, if it is an affront to your religious, moral, or cultural beliefs, don’t read it … just don’t assume your decision should apply to others.

Additional reading:


More Pound Cake? Thanks, Don’t Mind if I Do.

A friend forwards an item making the rightwing rounds:

YouTube Preview Image

The woman’s name is Peggy Hubbard, and she’s talking … eloquently and convincingly … about the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of two recent shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, during the continuing street protests there.

Peggy’s really good … hey, she got me all fired up … but she bases her argument on apocryphal stories and stereotypes. She says black protestors in Ferguson are ignoring the little black girl killed by a stray bullet and focusing BLM protests on a criminal who shot at the police and was shot dead in return.

That doesn’t ring true to me. Aren’t BLM protests about the lives of innocent black Americans killed by cops? The little girl this woman mentioned, the boy in Cleveland with the air gun, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, that poor guy who reached into his car for the drivers license the cop told him to show, the other poor schmoe who had his hands in the air when the cop shot him dead, and so many more, seemingly a new life taken every day by a cop somewhere in this country?

I can’t speak for black Americans, but these are the lives white sympathizers think of when we say black lives matter. I’m pretty sure the black protestors in Ferguson aren’t all that worked up about the justified police killing of a black man who was exchanging gunfire with the police. Of course, I could be wrong.

The continuing protests in Ferguson have all along been about Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson just over a year ago. I remember, when it first happened, reading media report after media report describing Brown as an innocent high schooler gunned down with his hands in the air while running away from a deranged racist cop who had jacked him up for no reason. A year later I read an article about Darren Wilson in the New Yorker, which laid out the basic facts of the incident. Brown stole some cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up the store clerk while he was doing it. Wilson, on patrol, had been alerted to be on the lookout for the suspect. When Wilson stopped Brown (who was walking down the middle of the street with the stolen cigarillos in his hand), Brown reached inside Wilson’s patrol car and scuffled with him, according to Wilson trying to grab his gun. Brown was not only facing Wilson when Wilson opened fire, but was advancing toward him. The story we hear today is substantially different from the story we heard at the time. And yet Michael Brown is one of many inspirations behind the BLM movement.

There are very real reasons for the Ferguson protests. The city and its police force are totally corrupt and there’s rampant racial discrimination at every level. And here’s the thing: the cops left Brown’s body lying on the road for hours afterward, like he was road kill slated for removal by the sanitation department … whenever they might get around to it, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. Fucking hell, they may as well have dragged his body through the streets as a message to a despised minority!

Anyway, Peggy Hubbard is basically giving an encore of Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech, which went over pretty damn well with a lot of black Americans, never mind whites who liked it for all the wrong reasons. We are reluctant today to acknowledge pathologies in cultures other than our own, because to do so is inherently racist. It would be almost unimaginable for a modern-day Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write a study titled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. Some black Americans are willing to acknowledge the kinds of problems Peggy Hubbard addresses, but her message will be rejected and ridiculed by many of those for whom it is meant, while being hailed and embraced by racist white rabble … again, for all the wrong reasons.

But I am beginning to rant, and my inner conservative is showing.


Air-Minded: the Curtiss Condor

I loved flying fighters and trainers in the US Air Force. Unlike many of my peers, though, I didn’t want to fly for the airlines afterward. I chose another post-USAF career path, training military pilots as a civilian contract ground instructor. Today, with the hassles of airport security and the budget bus line nature of air travel, I won’t get on a passenger plane unless it’s a matter of life or death, and even then I’d have to think about it.

That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in air travel. I’m a volunteer docent at the Pima Air & Space Museum here in Tucson. Most of our exhibits are former military aircraft, but we have a number of historic and modern airliners as well, and I often talk about them with visitors. I grew up reading books about flying, and still read them from time to time. I just finished a remarkably good memoir titled Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot, written by a British Airways Boeing 747 first officer named Mark Vanhoenaker. So I was thinking about airliners and history last week when I saw this old travel poster on an aviation nostalgia site:

I recognized the airplane in the poster right away, though most people today would not. It’s a Curtiss T-32 Condor II, introduced in 1933 and flown for a few years on domestic routes in the United States by Eastern Air Transport (later to become Eastern Air Lines) and American Airways (today’s American Airlines).

The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company built 45 Condors. Most were for Eastern and American, but a few went to the US military, and eight were made as bombers and sold overseas. After their service with Eastern and American, some Condors were purchased by airlines in Chile, China, the UK, and Switzerland.

curtiss condor II

American Airways Curtiss Condor II in 1933 (Sweezey Pictures/Ken Sweezey)

You probably couldn’t have picked a more economically-disadvantageous time than the early 1930s to introduce new airliners on domestic routes in the United States, but Europeans had enjoyed scheduled airline service for many years, and in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight from New York City to Paris in 1927, American pride demanded an air travel network too. And believe it or not, even during the worst years of the Great Depression, Eastern and American found plenty of eager customers for their new Condors (though they probably lost money on them, and if it hadn’t been for their lucrative federal air mail contracts, would have quickly gone broke).

The Condor replaced slower, shorter range aircraft like the Ford Trimotor and Stinson Airliner. It boasted a range in excess of 800 miles and a top speed of around 150 miles per hour (the airlines advertised 190 mph, but the Condor’s actual top speed was 176, and 150 was probably more like it). In spite of its longer range, the longest route segments were typically around 350 miles and followed existing air mail routes, marked by regularly-spaced concrete arrows on the ground and, at night, by co-located 5,000-candlepower light beacons.

You could fly coast to coast in 1930, but such a trip entailed a succession of short flights by day, overnight train rides, and occasional hotel stays when airline and train timetables didn’t mesh. Your “flight” from New York City to Los Angeles might take four to five days. With the introduction of the Condor in 1933, you could do it in two days and all by air — the Condor’s 12 sleeper berths meant you could fly around the clock. Of course only the wealthy, untouched by the Depression, could afford air travel of any kind.

Here’s a fabulous American Airways promotional film from 1933, featuring the Curtiss Condor and a cabin full of happy passengers bound from Chicago to New York City (I hope you’re not offended by casual racism, which apparently was a feature of everyday 1930s discourse):

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Here’s the thing, though. Aeronautical engineering and aircraft construction were advancing rapidly in the first half of the 1930s, and the Condor was a throwback even before its first flight in January, 1933. It was mostly made of wood and fabric (with bits of metal structure and skin), a biplane to boot with struts and wires to slow it down. It’s only “modern” feature was retractable landing gear. It was big, though, and there wasn’t anything else its size, at least in 1933. After watching the film and comparing the cabin shown there with the cabin shown on this 1934 American Airlines timetable,* I believe Curtiss must have offered the Condor in two configurations: an all-seating version for day routes, and a sleeper with facing seats that could be converted to upper and lower beds for overnight flights.

In February 1933, just one month after the Condor’s inaugural flight, Boeing began test flying it’s new Model 247, an all-metal monoplane with retractable gear and deicing boots on the wings. It could carry only ten passengers, but its range was nearly equal to the Condor’s, and it was faster (top speed 200 mph, cruise 188 mph). By May of the same year, the Boeing 247 was in service with Boeing Air Transport (later United Air Lines), Western Airlines, and Pennsylvania Central Airlines.

boeing 247

Boeing 247 (photo: Radek Oneksiak)

A year later, in May 1934, Douglas introduced the DC-2, an all-metal monoplane with a passenger capacity of 14, a top speed of 210 mph, and a range in excess of 1,000 miles.

douglas dc-2

Douglas DC-2 (photo: Matthew Wallman)

Douglas sold 198 DC-2s. Transcontinental & Western Air (later Trans World Airlines) was the DC-2’s first domestic customer, and it wasn’t long before Eastern and American began replacing their Condors with DC-2s. By 1936, with the introduction of the Douglas DST and DC-3 on domestic routes, passengers could fly coast to coast in 18 hours with only two refueling stops along the way, and it was all over for the old-fashioned Curtiss Condor.

Interestingly, it was American’s own president, C.R. Smith, who in 1935 worked with Donald Douglas to design a larger version of the DC-2, which like the Condor would come in two versions: the DST (Douglas Sleeper Transport), which could carry 24 passengers during the day and 12 at night in sleeper berths; and the better-known DC-3, a 21-passenger day airliner. Both versions could cruise at over 200 mph, with a range of more than 1,500 miles.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the DC-3. It revolutionized air travel in the United States and around the world, relegating the Curtiss Condor and Boeing 247 to footnote status. For the first time an airline could turn a profit from passenger revenue alone, independent of airmail contracts. Douglas made over 600 DSTs and DC-3s; later, during and after WWII, it built over 10,000 C-47s and C-53s, military versions of the DC-3. The Japanese built almost 500 DC-3s under license, a source of confusion to Allied pilots a few years later. Fortunately for us, the Soviet Union was on our side during WWII, so we didn’t have to make shoot/don’t shoot decisions when we encountered Russian DC-3s — they too built the airplane under license, manufacturing almost 5,000 of them. I don’t know about the Japanese and Russian planes, but plenty of US-built C-47s, and even some original DC-3s, are still flying today.

By contrast, the Condors are gone. There aren’t even any in museums, but according to a few sources the wreckage of an American Airways Condor lost in a snowstorm in upstate New York is currently in private hands in Utah, awaiting restoration, and there may be parts of one of the bomber versions in Honduras. Four Boeing 247s remain (only one in flyable condition, probably the one in the photo above).

I mentioned how much nicer it was to fly coast to coast in a DC-3 as opposed to a Curtiss Condor, but apart from how much time it took, there really wasn’t a lot of difference. None of these early airliners were pressurized, so they had to stay below 10,000 feet lest the passengers succumb to hypoxia. Your ears would be constantly popping on the way up, and approaching destination airports the stewardess would pass out chewing gum so you could work your jaws and clear your ears during descent. At those low altitudes, of course, rising thermals and sudden downdrafts are rife, so you’d have a bumpy ride to say the least. We’ve all examined those curious airsickness bags in the seat pockets ahead of us, but few of us have ever had to use one. It wasn’t like that in the old days. Every flight was a series of physiological incidents, and stewardesses stayed busy collecting full bags and handing out empties. On the Condor, I’m told they didn’t bother with single-use bags; passengers passed a galvanized bucket around instead.** American Airlines didn’t show that part in the promotional film!

I’m used to airplanes having names in addition to alpha/numeric designations. That’s because I flew for the military, where almost every plane has an official name and several unofficial nicknames as well. In civilian usage, names are somewhat less common. The Curtiss T-32 was called the Condor, but neither the Boeing nor the Douglas aircraft had names. The military version of the DC-3, of course, had lots of names: Skytrain, Dakota, Gooney Bird. Personally, I think the coolest thing about the Curtiss Condor was its name and the high-flying image that name brings to mind. Even if it wasn’t in fact a very high-flying airplane, and even if a more accurate image would have been a galvanized bucket!

* American Airways was renamed American Airlines in 1934.

** You know I’m just kidding about the bucket, don’t you?


Thursday Bag o’ Anchor Babies

anchor baby bagI was hoping the mean-spirited and loaded phrase “anchor baby” had gone the way of the dodo but then Trump (who else?) had to say it and of course the media too, and now it’s stinking up the whole place again.

Second- and third-tier Republican candidates are tripping over microphone cables to announce their own plans to overturn the 14th Amendment, and liberal and conservative pundits are talking of nothing else. Anchor babies here, anchor babies there, here an anchor, there an anchor, take their rights away.

Anchor baby must have been cooked up in some political think tank. It’s genetically engineered to evoke an unthinking emotional response, to keep us from having an intelligent, mature discussion. Anchor babies? Chuck ’em out!

I thought the phrase had seen its day in the sun. Then Trump brought it back, and it’s like it never went away. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you might have noticed death panels making an encore appearance. Yesterday I heard a guest on NPR mention the death tax, another golden oldie. How long before Trump reaches back for that Reagan-era favorite, welfare queen?

Tell you what, here’s a golden oldie I’d like to see Trump bring back into the spotlight: draft dodger. That one I can get behind!

Ohhh, my inner conservative is stirring. Time to drive the Prius down to Starbucks for a skim milk latte.

Speaking of Starbucks, I saw this on Twitter today:

one cup

My god, hasn’t Starbucks ever heard of One Girl, One Cup? I think I just gave up coffee. For life.


Cable News

maddow and trumpMy problem is I still think of the primetime MSNBC news shows … All In with Chris Hayes, the Rachel Maddow Show, the Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell … as news shows. Chris Hayes, I’ll give him this, covers a lot of news (his recent series on water use in the American Southwest was exceptionally good), but Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell have become so focused on presidential politics that’s about all they talk about.

MSNBC’s political coverage is goosed to the point where, if you were a Martian listening in from outer space, with no on-the-ground sources of your own, you’d think the things Ted Cruz and Donald Trump say actually mean something, and that America is on the verge of starting a land war with Mexico. Or worse.

I’m guessing (no I’m not) that the political commentary on Fox News and CNN is even more pumped up and frenetic than MSNBC’s. It has even normally level-headed journalists and bloggers all worked up:

So with Jeb! a far, far thing from a lock for the top spot, what does that leave us? I’m thinking maybe Scott Walker? Marco Rubio? One of those guys. And what happens if Hillary falls and breaks a hip, or finds a lump in her breast, or is otherwise incapacitated? President Scott Walker. Think on that for a minute. And shudder.

This is the state of our politics right now. It’s rather terrifying.

It’s too soon for that. Too soon to assume it’s all over for Hillary, too soon to speculate on who the Republican nominee will be, too soon for breathless coverage of any kind. As the comedian John Oliver observes, “There will be actual babies born on Election Day 2016 whose parents haven’t even met yet.”

Damn, though, hard news is hard to find these days. You can pretty much write television off, with the possible exception of Al Jazeera, which I keep meaning to check out but never seem to get around to. Online newspapers have paywalls, and free online news services are infested with intrusive ads, sometimes to the point where you have to click your way through two or three popups before you get to the article you want to read, and that’s if you can ignore the loud audio from the auto-playing video you didn’t ask to see.

Even if I could afford an ad-free subscription to a mainstream news outlet, how could I trust what I read there? The New York Times regularly runs hit pieces on Hillary Clinton, fed to them by Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, chair of a nakedly political commission dedicated to damaging Clinton’s prospects in the 2016 election. It’s not news. It’s stenography.

Well, now I’m being as apocalyptic as cable news, and shame on me for getting carried away. It’s not like we’re North Koreans. If you have any kind of bullshit filter at all, it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff on social media, and enough actual news squeezes through on mainstream media that anyone who pays attention can keep up with what’s going on in the world. It just takes a little work, but then again it probably always did.


Paul’s Book Reviews: Science Fiction, Fiction, Cop Stories, an Iffy Spy Novel

There were stories in sweat.

The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-­year-­old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.

Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.

—Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife

the water knifeThe Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi

I get lost in Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction tales of worlds gone awry, ruined by our own greed. Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, The Windup Girl: novels of grim but plausible future worlds, populated by desperate survivors, each centered around a few memorable characters looking for a way out, a better life. The Water Knife is such a novel, but the near future presented here is not that far off; it is the American Southwest, finally out of water.

I imagine Bacigalupi’s inner editor urging him to move the setting and timeline of The Water Knife ever closer to the present day and to tighten up the narrative, narrowing the human story down to just a few characters, then tightening up the story some more. What I’m saying is that this is a hell of a read. Gripping, immediate, real. I don’t mean it’s his best to date; I mean it’s his most commercial, written to appeal to a wider audience than his earlier novels (and I don’t mean anything bad by that).

Quibble: I don’t know why Bacigalupi sets The Water Knife in real cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix while fictionalizing other locations (he creates an amalgam of Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and calls it Carver City). Some obscure legal reason? I found that detail jarring; it made me think of authors like Michener (who invented a fictional state to represent Florida in his novel Space) and Ed McBain (whose Isola represents Manhattan). Why?

Otherwise, total love for The Water Knife, and great respect to the author for reminding us to re-read Cadillac Desert, an important and very readable nonfiction book about water and the American Southwest, clearly the inspiration behind much of Bacigalupi’s work.

Many classify Bacigalupi as a young adult author. Two of his dystopian novels, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, wear the YA label: in those novels the main characters are teenagers. The Water Knife and The Windup Girl are classified as adult science fiction. The characters in these novels are adults, although in this novel Maria, a Texan refugee scrabbling for a living on the streets of Phoenix, turns out (as the story advances) to be a young teenager, and a virgin to boot, someone who would have been right at home in Bacigalupi’s YA novels. But in all four novels the main characters, teens and grownups alike, experience horrific hardships, as dark as anything in adult fiction.

What’s the difference between Bacigalupi’s YA and adult fiction, then? Sex, I think. The kids think about it but aren’t quite ready to engage; the adults are, well, adults. That seems to be the sliding scale. To me, all of Bacigalupi’s dystopian science fiction is solidly adult, never mind the labels. It’s also the kind of adult fiction I’d encourage any teenager to read. Why? Because Bacigalupi has important things to say about what we’re doing to our world and the price we’re going to pay for our greed. And because he’s a damn fine writer.

As a side note, Bacigalupi has written two short novels explicitly aimed at child readers: The Doubt Factory and Zombie Baseball Beatdown. These are not to be confused with his adult (but sometimes labeled YA) fiction. Both are ham-handed and relentlessly didactic morality tales. When I read them I had a hard time believing they’d been written by the same Paolo Bacigalupi I admire.

the diamond ageThe Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
Neal Stephenson

I unreservedly loved the first half of this big science fiction novel. The alternate future, populated by phyles and tribes, is fascinating; the societies of Stephenson’s world in The Diamond Age are logical and internally consistent. Once you get going, everything clicks into place. The characters, Nell and Hackworth and Doctor X and Judge Fang and Miranda and Carl Hollywood, seem quite real, and you can’t help getting wrapped up in their fates.

The second half of the novel, after Hackworth emerges from a decade with the Drummers beneath the waters of Puget Sound. well … there were parts of it I didn’t get. Big sections of the second half felt forced, with characters making long speeches to explain things that could have been shown instead, and toward the end Stephenson makes a mad dash to the finish line. If I had not been as engaged with the story of Nell and her primer and her real and imaginary adventures, I might have had a harder time with the second half.

The strength of the first half is what carried me through the second half, and I’m still so impressed with the first half I think the entire novel deserves a four-star rating. Other readers may not be as forgiving.

Nell Zink

I bought the Kindle version after reading an enthusiastic review of Nell Zink in the New Yorker, a review that made much of her friendship with Jonathan Franzen, a writer I quite like. That part of the review must have lodged somewhere in my brain, because I kept thinking how Franzen-like are Zink’s descriptions of characters. Which, in turn, I quite liked.

But Mislaid is a rather thin novel. Not necessarily in page count, but in nourishment and staying power. The well-described characters are more allegorical than real, the things they do unrealistic, their successes not of this world.

How interesting, though, that I start reading a novel about a white woman passing for black just days before news broke about Rachel Dolezal … a real white woman passing for black.

Mislaid is an entertaining novel with literary heft and a happy ending, but it’s pretty fluffy. If you want more meat on your novels, go with Franzen.

Neal Stephenson

Here’s my review of an earlier hard-SF novel by Neal Stephenson, Anathem:

“It’s been years since I’ve read a science fiction epic of this scope, one that creates an entire cosmology from the ground up. Stephenson has vision—a complex vision, though, one that requires much explanation, and I’ll fault Stephenson as a writer for overindulging himself in its explication, most often with long, tedious passages of dialog between the philosophical clock-winders of the concent (yes, there’s also an extensive new vocabulary to learn). Even though Stephenson’s vision is complex, it is comprehensible to anyone well-read in science fiction, and he could have written a tighter book by cutting back on his characters’ academic discussions. Still. It was fascinating to see his world unfold, and there was plenty of space opera action to keep me entertained. Honestly, I didn’t know anyone was still writing science fiction like this—not since Asimov died. If you’re serious about sci-fi, this one needs to be in your library.”

Seveneves, like Anathem, is a hard-SF novel of grand concepts, ideas, and hardware, with a good bit of space opera and an optimistic view of humanity thrown in, reminiscent once again of Asimov. This time around, though, Stephenson dispenses with explication via dialog and instead steps in as third-person cosmic encyclopedia, offering page after page (after page, after page …) of background and explanation whenever he introduces a new idea or bit of space hardware. The novel is 75% encyclopedic background, 25% action. Stephenson seems to be well aware of his compulsive need to explain everything, because late in the novel he introduces a character nicknamed Cyc (real name Sonar Taxlaw), a living encyclopedia, thereby (I think) poking fun at himself.

You know what, though? I didn’t resent the explication, any more than I resented it when Asimov did it. The ideas Stephenson presents, both here and in Anathem, are fascinating in their own rights, and I was never tempted to skip ahead. I did resent a bit of repetition on Stephenson’s part, explaining things twice when once would have done, and I think his opinion of humanity is far too rosy, but in the presence of so many grand ideas and concepts these are minor irritations at best.

Stephenson is becoming the Ayn Rand of hard science fiction devotees. I don’t in any way mean to compare his personality or ideas with Rand’s; what I mean is that Stephenson has the potential to become an influence on futurists, if he isn’t already, and undoubtedly has a cadre of fans at least as obnoxious as Rand’s. I guess I’m one of them!

best from tor 2011Some of the Best from 2011 Edition
Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor

This is one of three free Tor SF anthologies available for Nook or Kindle download. The anthologies are dated 2011, 2012, and 2013.

I’m commenting on the anthology itself, not the short SF stories contained within (although I will say many of shorter stories struck me as filler). I was annoyed to find the page count heavily padded: each story starts with a title page, then a page with a one-paragraph note on the author, then a page with a one-paragraph editor’s comment on the story to follow, then the story itself (some of which are only two to three pages long), then an end page listing other works by that author. It’s like network TV, where the commercial to content ratio is almost 1:1.

A few of the longer stories, the ones by better-known authors, are worth the read.

I will plow through the 2012 and 2013 editions, looking for the good stories, this time skipping over the filler.

the jobThe Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop
Steve Osborne

As with Mislaid (reviewed above), an enthusiastic New Yorker review led me to buy a copy of Steve Osborne’s collection of cop stories. Note to self: be more skeptical of New Yorker reviews.

I gather that many of Osborne’s stories were originally oral presentations, and perhaps they worked better that way. In print, they’re repetitive, long-winded, and shallow. A few stories conveyed some of what it is to be a big city cop; most, though, were more about protecting said cop’s ego.

These stories leave a lot out. Osborne doesn’t address even a single one of the many issues we’re all talking about these days: bad cops, corruption, racism, quotas, falsification of evidence, brutality. In his stories, the cops are all good guys and everyone else—especially minorities—is a perp. Anyone who hates cops is a “liberal.”

Apart from admitting that he loved his wife’s little dog and that being a cop put a strain on his marriage, Osborne is remarkably unreflective. There are no lessons here, and not much honesty. I was disappointed.

One I Didn’t Finish

november echoNovember Echo
James Houston Turner

A reviewer on Goodreads mentioned an iffy start. I’ll say—I couldn’t get past the second chapter. Everything to that point consisted of long, repetitive arguments over logistics and tactics between two Soviet agents being sent to Spain to intercept and return a defector. They argue in Moscow, argue some more in Spain. Page after page of this stuff, all to show us that the young KGB colonel is brilliant and daring, the sexy woman agent a stick-in-the-mud (but one who, you know, will come around).

Can we get to the story, please? All this stage-setting could have been accomplished through plot and action, rather than explication. In the end, I decided waiting for the story wasn’t worth the irritation.


Air-Minded: Escaping the Fall of Saigon

One of the volunteers I work with at the Pima Air & Space Museum is a young University of Arizona aeronautical engineering student. His family is originally Vietnamese and I have the impression his father or maybe grandfather immigrated to the USA after the communist takeover. I’m sure there’s a fascinating story behind that, and I’ll have to ask him about it some day.

Earlier today he posted a photo of a famous airplane to Facebook, along with the story of how that airplane came to be on the USS Midway, the former US Navy carrier that is now a floating museum in San Diego. With his permission, I’m cross-posting the story here.


Cessna O-1 Bird Dog aboard USS Midway (photo: Loc Ho)

I remember the chaos of the last days of the American presence in South Vietnam, and reading about this and similar dangerous, hair’s-breadth rescues. I vividly remember TV news footage of helicopters being pushed over the side of an aircraft carrier. It turns out that memory is part of this story. Rather than reconstruct the story myself, I’ll quote Loc Ho’s Facebook post:

Visited the USS Midway yesterday and was surprised to see this aircraft. From the 29th to the 30th of April, 1975, the US military (I believe it was predominantly the Navy and Marines), seeing the approach of communist soldiers to the South Vietnamese capital of Sài Gòn, launched Operation Frequent Wind to evacuate any South Vietnamese nationals that worked with the US and would be in danger of political prosecution. The US military evacuated large numbers of people by airlift, the Vietnamese military helped, and many people attempted to evacuate themselves too. The Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) flew themselves, their family members, and others out to safety.

Among the VNAF aircraft to fly out that day was this O-1 Bird Dog. This aircraft somehow found its way out to the ocean and to the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier. The Midway considered having the aircraft ditch in the ocean and have US helicopters fish them out. The crew members soon saw that the aircraft had at least four people onboard and that ditching was unfeasible. After circling around a few times, the pilot dropped a note onto the ship, revealing that the aircraft had him, his wife, and their five children on board and requesting that the Midway move a few of their helicopters aside to make room for him to land. The crew of the Midway quickly went into action and shoved $10 million worth of helicopters overboard.

With the deck clear for him to land, the pilot came in and touched his craft onto the deck, bounced once, and then rolled to a stop, with space to spare. The captain of the Midway offered to give the aircraft to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, and they enthusiastically added the aircraft to their collection.

Some time in the past few years, after the USS Midway became a museum ship, the aircraft was reunited with the ship it landed on that fateful day and now has a wonderful display as a memorial to the pilot’s airmanship and to the humanistic actions of the crew of the Midway.

I was very happy to see the airplane, as I had read the story many times before and really wanted to see it.

The pilot’s name is Bung Ly. If you follow any of the supplemental links below you’ll see his name spelled in a variety of ways, but here’s what Loc Ho says about the spelling:

The thing I find quite strange is that people can’t seem to decide how to spell his name. I’ve seen Buang Lee, Bung Ly, Buang Li … I think Bung Ly is most likely the correct spelling because Lee and Li aren’t Vietnamese last names (though Le is …), because the note says Bung and because a few people online claiming to work with him in the US spelled out Bung Ly.

The note Loc Ho refers to is the note Bung Ly, his radio either not working or unable to broadcast and receive on the correct frequency, was forced to write in midair, stuff into the barrel of his pistol, and drop onto the carrier’s deck from a low pass. The note is on display alongside Bung Ly’s Bird Dog on the USS Midway.

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Photo: US Navy

It reads “Can you move these helicopter to the other side. I can land on your runway. I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me. – Major Bung wife and 5 child”

The Midway’s skipper, Captain Larry Chambers, ordered the helicopters moved.


Huey going over the side of the USS Midway (photo: US Navy)

The deck cleared, Bung Ly landed.

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We forget so many details of past wars. The details, brought back into the light, are harrowing.

Happily, here’s a more recent photo of Bung Ly with Commander Vern Jumper, the Midway’s air boss on that day in 1975. The photo was taken at a 2010 reunion on the USS Midway in San Diego Harbor.


Click to link to story (photo: Orange County Register)

Supplemental links:


Sunday Update

I’m going to put a few freeway miles on the new truck this morning. The one-year-old but new-to-us truck, that is. The original tires didn’t have a lot of tread left so we had new ones put on. Before the new tires, the alignment seemed off: there was a very slight pull to the right. There’s no pull now, but I’ve only driven 10 miles on the new rubber, that on city streets. I’m going to drive to Benson for breakfast, a 60-mile round trip on I-10. That should tell me whether we need an alignment. I want everything perfect before we leave on our Pacific Northwest road trip later this month.

Our contractor, Luis, finished the RV gate:


Our neighborhood association has rules about keeping things out of sight. Things like garbage cans, utility trailers, and wood piles, all of which we keep on the dirt driveway alongside the house. Yes, rules are a pain in the ass, but we don’t want to live in a nabe where people park old cars in their front yards. We’ll play along to get along. Sure, it’s a silly gate. You can walk right around one end of it. You can even see through it. But it’ll make the neighbors happy.

I’m officiating at a memorial service in two weeks and have started to put some words together. The service will be in honor of a woman who took her life, and her friends, mostly members of the Hash House Harriers club we belong to, want to give her a good sendoff. The woman’s family was originally going to fly out for the service but I’m told they’re not coming now, so I shouldn’t have to worry too much about people’s sensitivities, suicide being one of those subjects we tend to tiptoe around.

The way I’m leaning now, though, I may not even mention suicide. Originally I was going to say a few words about looking out for one another and being ready to offer support, but the more I learn about depression and suicide, the more I wonder whether those words are even worth saying. Her friends knew she was depressed, and they did offer support, but she kept her demons to herself and once she made the decision to kill herself there was probably nothing anyone could have done to stop her.

Speaking of depression, we have a 40-year-old alcoholic daughter living at home. She’d been living with her boyfriend in a border town a hundred miles from here, but the boyfriend kicked her out and she had no place to go but home. She’s been with us for a month, and although she obeyed house rules and stayed sober for three weeks she’s started drinking again. Yesterday we had a come-to-Jesus and told her to get her ass to AA. She found a group that meets nearby and Donna took her to her first meeting this morning. She’ll have to go every day from now on. AA has meetings all around the clock so people can schedule around their jobs. Having a job is the big plus here, or at least we hope it’ll be. Polly got her old job back, a job she loved, and she starts tomorrow.

Donna will be horrified to find I’m writing about this. Family secrets, etc. But if I’m to write, I have to write honestly. Every family has problems. Our daughter, a brilliant woman, is an alcoholic. It is what it is, and we have to find a way to deal with it.

Meanwhile, my face is a scabby mess. Thursday, the dermatologist burned several pre-cancerous spots on my nose, temples, and cheeks. I really ought to stay home for a few days, but I have to get out. At least I don’t have air museum duty this week. The public will be spared!

Speaking of the air museum, I say enough already with HDR aviation photos! I work with old airplanes, write about them, and post photos of my own to Flickr and my blogs. I like to compare my work to that of others, so I follow aviation photography groups on Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter. Too many photographers over-manipulate their work. Take this HDR photo of a PBY Catalina, for example:

Please. Please take it and make it go away. No doubt the photographer thinks his enhancements are striking and beautiful, but to me this looks like something you’d see at the onset of a migraine attack. It hurts! I don’t want to see the world through alien eyes. I want to see what things really look like.

Yes, I manipulate some of my photos, but not like this. Sometimes what you see and what you photograph are not the same. Our eyes compensate for lightness and shadow but our cameras do not. If the subject is hidden in shadow I use photo editing software to bring it out. If the color is washed out and flat, I nudge exposure or saturation up a notch. I crop. But I don’t do HDR and don’t want to. Ten years from now HDR photos will be a forgotten curiosity. I’d like to speed that along.