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Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

You Can’t Read That!

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


Photo © Ruth Orkin

YCRT! News

I mentioned this Arizona story in a previous YCRT! post. Conservative school board members and parents in Gilbert, a Phoenix-area suburb, decided to cut (literally, with scissors) pages mentioning abortion from an AP biology textbook. In the November elections the conservative school board members were given the boot, but since they remain in office until January 2015 there’s still a possibility they’ll carry out the snippage. No problem, said Rachel Maddow, we’ll put the pages in question on the MSNBC website for anyone to read. Go, Rachel, go.

In a refreshing change from the way these things usually go, Alaska parents are challenging four elementary school history textbooks they feel are too sugar-coated.

That said, “both sides do it” is such a cliché, isn’t it?

Peter Sellars says the United States is flirting with censorship. He should know: the opera he directed, The Death of Klinghoffer, was partially censored by the Met after widespread protests.

The race to the bottom: a high school principal has directed teachers to obtain signed permission slips from parents “… for all books that are being challenged by district parents, have been listed on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Book List in the last decade or have been flagged for parental permission by the district’s literary selection committee.”

A parent in Pennsylvania challenged Jodi Picoult’s Ninteteen Minutes as inappropriate reading for high school students. Instead of looking for the book’s title on the ALA’s Top 10 Challenged Book List and automatically banning it, school administrators reviewed the book, held a meeting with members of the public, and elected to keep it on the school’s reading list.

Peachtown Elementary School in Aurora, New York, issues a manifesto: American History Should Not Be Sanitized.

And speaking of unsanitized American history …

YCRT! Banned Book Review

peoples historyA People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn

Read a representative sample of comments on Goodreads or any book review site and you’ll appreciate how polarizing A People’s History of the United States is. Readers tend to fall into two exclusionary camps: lovers and haters.

Zinn’s history has been the target of censors and book banners from its publication in 1980 to the present day. The ongoing controversy over A People’s History is what motivated me to read it.

As a child I believed my country was exceptional. That’s what I was taught; that’s what the adults I looked up to believed. Victory in WWII was still fresh and the economy was booming under Eisenhower, at least for families like mine. When I was still very young my father joined the US Air Force and we began to move around the country. I was exposed to families who were not like the ones I saw on TV, families who experienced a different American reality from the one I was taught. At an age when I was politically aware enough to know segregation was wrong and could not last, my father was stationed in Virginia and I was sent to a whites-only school. Shortly afterward I gave up believing in fairy tales and god. I started reading on my own, a habit I never successfully broke. I protested our early involvement in Vietnam, packed clothes and food for the Freedom Riders, helped a friend obtain conscientious objector status, joined SNCC. American history, to me, had begun to look not all that different from the history of any other country.

Which is to explain that I knew at least some of the untaught history of the USA before I ever picked up Howard Zinn’s book. Nevertheless, the factual information collected here is shocking. Even for an old cynic like me, the accumulation of sordid details is depressing. On and on Howard Zinn goes, relentlessly rubbing our noses in American history as it was experienced by the Indians, indentured servants, black slaves and freemen, the poor, the landless, the unprivileged, women, child laborers, the bottom 50%. Zinn frankly admits this was his express purpose in researching and writing A People’s History; if you accept his premise — that it is just as important to study history from the point of view of the oppressed as it is from the point of view of the oppressors — then everything he relates in this book follows. But damn, it’s depressing to try to digest it all at once, even if you appreciate the importance of what Zinn was trying to accomplish.

So it’s no wonder to me why an entire political camp — the American right — rejects Zinn’s book. The history it recounts, starting with the very first chapter (Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress; a chapter that is so shocking and disturbing that I suspect many conservative readers never progress beyond it) is incompatible with a belief in American exceptionalism. Or fairies. Nor is it a wonder to me that many on the American right would attempt to suppress this book, purge it from schools and colleges, and call for it to be banned outright. The attack on Zinn and his book follows familiar lines: the author is an America-hater and a Marxist; A People’s History is praised by Hollywood celebrities, championed by leftists, and taught by subversives; Zinn’s interpretation of history is meant to weaken American minds and pave the way for implementation of United Nations Agenda 21.

In 2009 at North Safford High School in Virginia, A People’s History of the United States was challenged as “un-American, leftist propaganda,“ even though it was not the primary textbook in that school’s AP history class and was taught alongside an article titled Howard Zinn’s Disappointing History of the United States, critical of Zinn’s book.

When Howard Zinn died in 2010, Indiana’s then-Governor Mitch Daniels emailed the state’s top education official. “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he began. He went on to demand that A People’s History be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” In 2013, Daniels, now president of Purdue University, defended his earlier attempt to ban Zinn’s book from Indiana schools: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.”

In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District banned several books from local high schools. Prominent on the list of banned textbooks (still banned as I write this review) is A People’s History.

Just this year, in 2014, conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed sweeping changes to the AP history curriculum. I do not know if Zinn’s book, or parts of it, is being studied by AP history students in Jefferson County, but the statements of the conservative school board members make me think Zinn’s book is on their target list: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials, and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights,” reads the proposal, presented by conservative board member Julie Williams. “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Needless to say, I do not adhere to the conservative camp when it comes to the suppression of thought or the denial of historical fact. Zinn’s history helps fill in the gaps in our education and gives us a necessary insight on American exceptionalism as it was experienced by the people we’d just as soon forget. I think it makes the thoughtful student a better and more patriotic American, able to appreciate how much we have actually done to wrest control of our country, and our history, from the one percent who would otherwise be totally in charge. But that’s just me.

With all that said, Zinn’s history, though well-written and researched, is a tough one to read, and might overwhelm people reading about the less savory parts of our nation’s history for the first time. It’s hard not to say to yourself, once or twice per chapter, “Gee, Zinn, would you lighten up a little?”

For further study: a few links relevant to the banning and suppression of A People’s History of the United States:


Friday Bag o’ Regrets

bag of regretsCan I say I regret what’s going on with Bill Cosby without everyone interpreting it to mean I regret what’s happening to Bill Cosby?

What’s in it for the women coming forward with their accusations? At this late date they must know Bill Cosby isn’t going to be prosecuted. They must know there’s no chance of suing him successfully; any evidence is long gone and at this point it’s she said/he said. They must know there’s no possibility of financial recompense.

That, plus the sheer number of women coming forward and the consistency of detail in their allegations, is enough to convince me they’re telling the truth.

To conclude there’s nothing in it for Cosby’s accusers, though, is wrong. There’s justice in it. These women, who were not listened to before, are being listened to now. What Cosby almost certainly did to them can no longer be ignored or brushed over. Cosby’s punishment may be late, but it’s very real. His reputation, if not destroyed, is at least badly damaged. Not that he needs the money, but he’s going to have a hard time finding work in his last years. New comedy shows have been called off. Cable stations are dropping reruns, which will impact royalties. He’s probably down for the count.

What I regret is the extra-judicial manner in which justice is being done. Maybe a Twitter feeding frenzy was the only way to bring Bill Cosby to justice, but I’m torn. If you read my blog, you know what I think of Twitter witch hunts. There have been a lot of them, and they can be vicious. Just ask Michelle Shocked. Or those who have lost jobs or been hounded out of the public arena after the screaming banshees of Twitter turned against them.

Sure, there’s always been a court of public opinion. Once in a while, in the days before Twitter, the court would exact justice. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, but the court of public opinion held him guilty and he was under constant pressure and scrutiny as a result. Eventually it caught up to him and he’s in prison for an unrelated crime that might not have landed him there if it had not been for the court of public opinion and a near-universal sense that O.J. was part of this nation’s unfinished business.

Michael Jackson was tried by the court of public opinion, but his fan base stuck by him and he survived, unlike O.J. I wonder if Michael Jackson, were he still alive and sleeping with young boys, would survive a trial by Twitter.

Bill Cosby himself had a brush with the court of public opinion in the pre-Twitter days … the rape charges have been around a long time … but like Michael Jackson, he survived. Until Twitter, that is. Now he’s been charged, tried, and found guilty, and his remaining friends and backers are running scared.

Social media, and especially Twitter, has in my opinion supercharged the court of public opinion. There’s not much time for reflection or a sober consideration of the known facts these days; the administration of punishment is swift and merciless.

Who among us, I always ask. Who among us has lived a blameless life? Who among us could survive the kind of shit storm Bill Cosby is weathering now?

As I write, conservative operatives are no doubt beating the bushes, trying to flush out new Clinton accusers. Who still cares about Bill Clinton’s reputation? Well, people who want to stop Hillary sure care. If any women come forward, you can bet they’ll be extensively interviewed on Fox News, and social media campaigns might just shift the tide of public opinion against Clinton, who in spite of past accusations is still loved … but you could have said the same thing about Bill Cosby two weeks ago.

Who else, rightly or wrongly, will become the victim of a social media witch hunt?

Is this really the way we want to administer justice?


Tuesday Bag o’ Gotcha

gotcha bagDriving to the gym this morning another driver and I arrived at a four-way stop at the same time. Since I was to his right he waited for me to go first. The reason both of us knew what to do is because we were taught the rules about right of way.

Everyone knows the right of way rule that applies at four-way stops and uncontrolled intersections, yes? If two cars arrive at the same time, the driver on the left yields to the driver on the right. Easy peasy!

Not so fast.

Here in Arizona, state legislators thought they’d improve on the basic rule. They added a little embellishment: if you’re in a parking lot or at an uncontrolled T intersection, the driver going straight has the right of way over the driver who’s planning to turn.

This may have seemed a common-sense improvement to the lawmakers who passed it, but it takes a simple, easy-to-understand rule and opens it to interpretation, always a dangerous thing. Most Arizonans interpret this embellishment to mean that drivers on main streets have right of way over drivers on cross streets. Granted, normally there are yield or stop signs at intersections like that, so there’s no question over who goes first. But when the intersection is uncontrolled and two cars get there at the same time, who gets to decide which street is the main one and which is the lesser one? The more aggressive of the two drivers, usually.

And what about out-of-state drivers who don’t know about our locally modified rule? Gotcha. I say don’t monkey around with basic traffic rules. The whole idea behind right of way laws is to keep them simple and universal so that we all know what to do when there’s a conflict. That’s not the case in Arizona, where what you think you know about right of way laws could put you in the wrong.


At the gym this morning the TVs, as always, were set to Fox News. The big deal this morning was a video clip of this Gruber fellow making a crack about the stupidity of American voters. Fox ran the clip three or four times during the hour I was at the gym. Most political insiders share Gruber’s view of American voters, in my experience. So do I, frankly, and I don’t exempt myself. Sure, you’re not supposed to come right out and say it, but doesn’t Fox News’ success depend on the stupidity of its viewers? Oh, well, it’s another gotcha moment for the right. They’ve had a string of them lately.


This is long, but that’s because as gotcha stories go it’s a complicated one. You may know some of the background, or you may not. I’ll try to summarize:

Early in 2013 ago a journalist named Caleb Hannan set out to write an article about a miracle putter that had been generating a lot of buzz on the pro golfing circuit. The inventor was an MIT-educated aeronautical physicist who had helped design the B-2 stealth bomber, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt (yes, one of the Vanderbilts), Dr. V for short.

Hannan asked for an interview. Dr. V’s emailed response should have been (and probably was) the tipoff that all was not as it seemed: it was written in the kind of stilted, thesarus-encrusted English uneducated people use when they want to sound educated. Nevertheless Hannan was impressed when he met her, describing Dr. V as “a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair.”

As a condition to her cooperation Dr. V insisted Hannan write only about the putter and the science behind it, not about her. But during his research certain things didn’t add up and he began to dig deeper. He discovered Dr. V had never attended the schools listed on her CV. She was not a PhD, not even a college graduate. She had never worked in the defense industry, let alone on the B-2. Nor was she a Vanderbilt; the name she was given at birth was Stephen Krol, and yes, she had until recently been a man (and was the father of two estranged children). She became Essay Anne Vanderbilt in 2003; since that date she had filed various lawsuits against former employers and had attempted suicide at least once, in 2008. People who had encountered her in the past, some knowing her as a man, some knowing her only as a woman, a few knowing her as both, described her as a con artist with a violent temper.

When Hannan confronted Dr. V with the information he had unearthed, she threatened to sue. In October 2013 he learned Dr. V had attempted suicide again, this time successfully. His article, Dr. V’s Magical Putter, was published in Grantland Magazine in January 2014.

The article was initially praised and widely linked. After a week, though, public opinion began to turn against Hannan and Grantland Magazine. The issue was the outing of a transexual who clearly didn’t want to be outed, and whether the threat of that outing was what drove her to kill herself.

There’s no debate over the other facts Hannan dug up, or whether he should have written about them: Dr. V was a fraud, and exposing fraud is in the highest tradition of journalism. But Dr. V’s sexual identity was irrelevant to the fraud, and moreover was her own, and Hannan should have left that part of the story alone when she asked him to.

Hannan’s article, and the controversy that erupted in its wake, was big news back in January. A lot of the criticism unfolded on Twitter, where Hannan was condemned and ostracized. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are writers and journalists, and to a person they strongly felt Hannan was wrong to expose Dr. V’s transsexuality, even posthumously.

When I read Hannan’s article, I got the impression he had not intended to write about Dr. V’s transsexual identity, but that after her suicide, fearing he may have contributed to it, it became an essential element in a far more personal story, which was why he … and Grantland Magazine … decided to run with it. I think I’d have run with it too. I’m absolutely certain any other magazine would have published it as well. But I’m not the arbiter of Caleb Hannan’s fate. That would be the witch hunters of Twitter, who love to play gotcha.

In October Rolling Stone ran a new article by Hannan, this one about college kids lured into multi-level marketing schemes. No one was outed in this article, but the same people who condemned Hannan on Twitter back in January started piling on again. I picked one representative of the community to highlight, the humorist and writer Mallory Ortberg, who posted a series of tweets earlier this month upon learning Caleb Hannan was still a working journalist:

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Look at the progression of her outrage: Caleb Hannan (whom we thought we’d run out of town on a rail) is back; he’s trying to slip back into journalism (as if he’d ever been ousted in the first place); until he writes an apology no magazine should have anything to do with him; he’s trying to sneak unnoticed through the back door (he never left the house, and has published other articles between January and October of this year); why are all you big-name journalists letting this guy slink back into your midst? Slip! Sneak! Slink!

I like Mallory’s smart and funny writing and follow her on Twitter. Other writers I admire were quick to pounce on Caleb Hannan as well. I apologize for singling Mallory out, but in this case she’s representative of a thriving gotcha community on social media, quick to turn on fellow writers and journalists who fail to toe the party line.

Would Mallory have sat on the Dr. V story if it were hers? What magazine would not have published such a fascinating story? And what is a working journalist, who sells stories for a living, supposed to do when the forces of self-righteousness on social media rise against him? Quit writing and get a job at Burger King?

Oh, well, at least he didn’t wear a shirt with pinup girls on it, or point his finger at a black man.


Bicycling in Tucson: Love Mostly, Still Some Hate

Donna and I took our bicycles for a spin yesterday: not the typical Sunday jaunt through our eastside neighborhood, but a paper chase on wheels, riding a hilly and tricky trail with the Pedalfiles Bicycle Hash House Harriers.

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Pedalfiles Bashers after a grueling trail

You can read about the ride here, if you wish, or merely marvel at the misfit band of bicycle hashers … bashers, we call ‘em … in the photo.

The ride was fun: a good workout, plenty of great scenery, camaraderie with bashers we don’t get to see often enough, good times later at a local hangout. Here it is a day later and I’m still up on riding, so I clicked on a link to Bicycle Tucson, a local website, where the first thing I saw was this:

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Click the image to read the full article at Bicycle Tucson

Déjà vu, anyone? Yes, it’s a repeat of the Brad Gorman Memorial Bike Trailhead in our neighborhood, shot down late in the planning stages by asshole neighbors and chickenshit politicians. The article is skimpy on details, but I’m willing to bet the people planning to build this bicycle ranch had submitted all the proper paperwork to the county and had their plans approved before the neighbors and politicians ruined everything. I’m also willing to bet they paid hefty fees they’ll never get back.

I wrote three blog posts about the Brad Gorman Bike Trailhead fiasco; as far as I know there have been no new developments since my last post on the subject. Here are links to those three posts, oldest to newest:

I’ve mellowed a bit since writing those posts, as the title of this post indicates. There really is a lot of love for bicyclists and bicycling in Tucson, and I raise a glass to the city and county for all they’ve done.

When I moved here in 1997, there were a few unconnected bicycle paths along some of the dry riverbeds running through town, none more than a few miles in length. There were striped bicycle lanes near the University of Arizona and in newer suburban neighborhoods, but most major streets were unsafe for bicyclists. Today there are hundreds of miles of bike lanes in the city and county; a 60-some-mile bike path loop around Tucson that will soon be twice that long, complete with functioning tool and tire pump stations every few miles; protected bike streets in parts of town; bicycle racks on buses and streetcars; and at least two major mountain bike trail areas. I think there’s even a Citibike-style bike share program in the works. And it gets better all the time.

But there’s still some hate, as indicated by the Bicycle Tucson article. We have our share of NIMBY neighbors, craven politicians, hostile drivers, and even vandals who throw tacks from moving cars onto bicycle lanes. I don’t suppose the “roads are for cars” mentality will ever go away, but we’ve come a long way. There aren’t many streets in Tucson I’d be uncomfortable riding on, and I love the loop: a good portion of yesterday’s trail was on the part of the loop running alongside the Santa Cruz riverbed.

Although Donna and I are still riding, our little riding group, the Old Spanish Trail Trash, has been moribund since last winter. I think it’s time we leaned on our friends and got it going again.


‘Ello, ‘Ello

So now I’m on Ello too. And my wife says I’m not social. Let’s see: there’s Facebook, my own blogs (which number three, not counting the embroidery blog I set up for Donna), the Daily Kos diary page, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, and a Tumblr. I think at one point I had a LiveJournal account … oh, yeah, and I was on Diaspora briefly before it went tits up.

Spread too thin, or spreading out to connect with others who share my interests? One shouldn’t stereotype people who gravitate toward Twitter, say, or Tumblr, but I think it’s fair to say different forms of social media offer different kinds of social experiences and attract different types of people, and who knows where in the darkness my ironic point of light will find an affirming flame?


Paul’s Book Reviews

“There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling.” — David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

invitation to a beheadingInvitation to a Beheading
Vladimir Nabokov

If you’re the type who worries about “spoilers” and won’t read a book if you know how it’s going to end, you can skip this review (p.s. when I think of people like you, I picture a fussy eater).

My book club selected this short novel in the “lesser known works by famous authors” category. I was excited to read it because it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Nabokov, and though Invitation to a Beheading was nothing like what I had expected, reading it was as rewarding as I’d hoped it would be. Turns out I was the only member of our book club to appreciate this short novel.

Invitation to a Beheading has an old-fashioned, early 20th century literary feel; it’s unlike much of anything being written today. Many say it’s reminiscent of Kafka; Nabokov always said he was unfamiliar with Kafka’s writing at the time he wrote it, and I believe him. It’s Nabokov, all the way: interior, insightful, absurd, comic, human. Once I was past the first few pages and had adjusted my receptors, recently dulled by airport novels, the sense that I was reading something written long ago vanished.

Some interpret Cincinnatus’ mental diary of his experiences in prison as allegory; I took the diary at face value, with obvious allowances for dreamlike mental excursions. The prison director, the jailer, the executioner, the wife and her numerous family, the director’s little girl … these characters were as real to me as they were to Cincinnatus. The execution scene … well, I still do not know what to make of that. Was Nabokov a religious man? Or was he trying to say something else?

Regardless, the final pages where the prison cell, then the prison, then the entire fortress crumble as Cincinnatus is led out to his execution; where the crowd in the town square begins to be revealed as a painted backdrop, are as powerful as anything I’ve read in a long time, and will stay with me the rest of my life. No, definitely not Kafka. This is Nabokov … and he only got stronger from here.

waiting for the barbariansWaiting for the Barbarians
J.M. Coetzee

It was interesting to read this novel back-to-back with Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. My book club selected the Nabokov novel for October and the Coetzee for November. Both feature narrators who are different from, and disconnected from, the day-to-day life of humanity; both detail the sordid punishments humanity inflicts upon the different; both are told from an interior point of view with uncomfortably intimate detail; both deal with the absurd and inevitable (despite Nabokov’s protests, in a manner reminiscent of Kafka). Where Invitation to a Beheading was dream-like, Waiting for the Barbarians is immediate and gritty, more on the order of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It is also the more overtly political of the two novels.

I’m going to talk about the story now, so, once again, go away if you’re worried about spoilers. God I hate that word, spoilers, but it serves as shorthand for discussing what happens in a novel.

We don’t know the name of the remote outpost administered by the magistrate, the narrator of Coetzee’s story, nor do we know the name of the empire the outpost represents. What we do know is that the magistrate, who has administered this outpost for decades, has established a working relationship with the small bands of nomads who inhabit the desert surrounding the outpost, a relationship that is upended by the arrival of another representative of the empire, an army colonel who captures, tortures, and kills some captives in an attempt to discover whether the “barbarians” pose a threat to the empire. The colonel destroys the tranquil relations between the nomads and the people of the outpost, and of course he comes back later with an army in order to administer a final solution.

Between the colonel’s appearances, the magistrate tries to atone for the empire’s excesses by taking in a young nomad girl who had been left lamed, blinded and orphaned by the colonel. He gradually becomes intimate with her, though it is not a relationship either of them want, and this is the most intensely agonizing part of the novel, reminiscent of a similar relationship in yet another Nabokov novel, Lolita … minus any joy, that is.

After some months of an uneasy relationship with the girl, the magistrate ventures with her into the desert to return her to her people, and to try to apologize for the colonel’s earlier actions. The journey is long and deadly, and though the girl is returned, the nomads refuse the magistrate’s attempts at reconciliation. When he returns from the journey, nearly dead, he finds the colonel has returned with his army. The magistrate is arrested for consorting with the enemy and is kept in the garrison in humiliating circumstances.

In the end the magistrate, unlike the narrator of Invitation to a Beheading, escapes execution. He even resumes his administrative duties, but the settlement has been decimated after the colonel’s failed war against the barbarians, and the future is entirely uncertain.

The narrative is gripping and immediate throughout, even though it is left up to us to put these events into a time and place. Me, I chose our unfocused war on terror, with the foolish colonel standing in for our elected leaders in the wake of 9/11. The magistrate is our better, more rational selves, albeit human and prone to failure himself. I could have chosen Vietnam or the Indian wars. I’m sure Coetzee had something more South African in mind, but the themes and lessons here are universal, without being universal in tone. The magistrate is a very real man; the nomad girl equally so. You can read this novel on many levels, and it will stay with you a long time.

last magazineThe Last Magazine: A Novel
Michael Hastings

Pretty good sendup of the head-in-the-sand news magazine industry during the emergence of the online news and gossip industry that would soon displace it. Along the way Hastings lampoons corporate cowardice, careerism, ass-covering, moral compromise, envy, sloth, greed, gluttony, etc. Heavy-duty satire, reminiscent of Catch-22.

For a draft (it was found on Mr. Hasting’s PC after his death) it’s fairly well along; I like to think Hastings wouldn’t have objected to its posthumous publication. In any case, The Last Magazine is more satisfying than many posthumous works I’ve read.

One of the central characters, the journalist A.E. Peoria, is unsympathetic and hard to take. If reading explicit male masturbatory fantasy is not your cup of tea, you will cringe through some of the A.E. Peoria chapters. But really, everyone here, including the magazine intern who stands in for Mr. Hastings, is just awful. The fictional newsmagazine of the title (it’s no accident the jacket design resembles a Newsweek cover) is truly a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Hastings is probably at his best when he describes the incredibly rapid escalation of media scandals (think Don Imus and his on-air “nappy-headed hos” remark) and the hysteria that follows as everyone remotely touched by it turns on his or her colleagues and runs for cover. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this novel.

The Last Magazine is well-written and a quick read. It conveys a ring of truth only a news industry insider could deliver. I was cynical before I read it; now I’m more cynical than ever. I think Michael Hastings scored the bullseye he was aiming at with this novel, and we should probably be glad he didn’t have more time to work on it, because he might have softened it down.

authorityAuthority (Southern Reach Trilogy #2)
by Jeff VanderMeer

I gave Annihilation, the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, a four-star rating. Authority, every bit as spooky and fascinating as Annihilation, is a wee bit draggier, thus the slightly lower rating.

The first novel, wherein the biologist directly confronts the incomprehensible alienness of Area X, felt Lovecraftian. This one, at least the long chapters describing Control’s frustrating and unsatisfactory career, self, and family, felt more like Kafka. Lovecraft comes back with a vengeance toward the end, however, when things start to happen inside and outside Area X.

Several intriguing developments are introduced in Authority. Some of these answer questions raised in Annihilation; others will perhaps be answered in Acceptance, the last novel of the trilogy. I am particularly intrigued by the local connections of some of the main characters, who appear to have been born and raised near … or actually inside … what was to become Area X. And then there is the director’s cell phone (dum dum dum).

It is also interesting to see the first book’s main character, the biologist, viewed through Control’s eyes, the main character of the second novel.

Apart from the somewhat draggy descriptions of Control’s thoughts and frustrations, I remain in awe of Jeff VanderMeer’s storytelling abilities. Much of what I initially perceived to be dragginess in the middle chapters turned out to be loaded with clues and hints, some resolved here but many not, and I am as eager to tackle the third novel as I was the second.

midnight in europeMidnight in Europe
Alan Furst

Alan Furst has a formula for his Night Soldiers novels, and he sticks to it. Some may object to that; I don’t. I like his formula. I like these tales of average but courageous men and women working against the rising tide of fascism in Europe in the years leading up to WWII. I like these tales of small-scale sabotage against Hitler’s war machine, carried out at great personal risk by soon-to-be-forgotten loners. The tales are fiction, but solidly based in history: men and women across Europe did these things in the 1930s and 40s; most of them died horribly, alone and forgotten; their spirits have been brought back to life by Alan Furst.

Midnight in Europe is not the best of the Night Soldiers novels, but it stands with the others. It deals with the Spanish Civil War, a war I know little about save for the involvement, on the Republican side, of many of my favorite authors of the era. I suspect parts of this novel will be hard going for American readers, because it’s not directly about more familiar villains like Hitler … though he looms large in the background.

I finished this novel wanting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. For most American readers, I suspect, fascism is something that rose in the 1930s and was stamped out by VE Day in 1945. Not for the Spanish: Franco became Spain’s fascist dictator at the end of the Civil War in 1939 and stayed in power until his death in 1975.

The lead character in Midnight in Europe, Cristián Ferrar, is very much in the mold of Furst’s other behind-the-scenes characters. Once Ferrar starts to help other exiled Spanish patriots supply the Republican Army with arms and ammunition, he sinks neck deep into a pan-European network of gangsters and thieves, and I don’t doubt the actual people who procured arms for the Spanish resistance had similar adventures back in the day.

Midnight in Europe, like all of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers novels, swept me along. I liked the story; I liked the background; I liked the characters; I liked learning something about the Spanish Civil War.

the bone clocksThe Bone Clocks
David Mitchell

If I were new to David Mitchell, I would have liked this novel less. It’s a mess, but I so enjoy Mitchell’s other novels (and had so much looked forward to this one) I’m in a forgiving mood. Hence my relatively high 3-star rating, which reflects a love/hate reaction slewed a bit to the left.

There are plenty of self-referential commonalities between Mitchell’s novels; that’s part of the fun of reading him. When I initially recognized characters and themes from previous novels in The Bone Clocks, I took it as Mitchell being playful. By the time I finished the novel, though, the heavy borrowing from earlier work seemed more like a lack of fresh ideas.

What soured me, as it apparently soured other readers and Mitchell fans, was the long fantasy chapter beginning around page 450. Even though in the chapters leading up to this one there had been several hints of a coming battle between supernatural forces, the actual battle felt grafted on, even gratuitous.

As I waded through the climactic battle, my imagination failed me: I couldn’t picture the fortress in the air they were fighting in; I kept mistaking horologists for anchorites; I lost track of what the two sides were trying to accomplish. Mitchell’s bullshit psychovoltaic suasion mumbo-jumbo put me off; the fight in the fortress devolved, movie style, into one contrived cliffhanger after another; the whole thing may as well have been lifted from a Harry Potter movie script. And not only that: the ultimate result of the supernatural battle didn’t mean anything. Apart for a deus ex machina event affecting the main character, Holly Sykes, at the very end of the novel, none of the fantasy stuff seemed to have any impact on other characters or humanity in general.

I think the entire fantasy chapter could have been cut out. Snip or modify a few references to the fantasy stuff in other parts of the novel, and we might have had another memorable David Mitchell novel, one that resembled both Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and could stand with them.

I will say this: my love for Holly Sykes grew with every chapter (save the one), especially the final chapter, set in a chillingly plausible near future. David Mitchell is one of our very best storytellers. I only wish this novel hadn’t veered off in to the fantastic.

Books I Didn’t Finish

to rise againTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Joshua Ferris

I was going to move this one from the “currently reading” to the “reading episodically” shelf, but honestly, I’m probably not going to pick it up again, so it goes on the “did not finish” shelf. My irritation with the main character, Paul (and Paul’s inner voice, endlessly obsessing over the same anxieties, underscoring what a dilatory asshole Paul is) grew page by page until I was a quarter of the way through the novel, at which point my own inner voice said it had had enough.


Disaster Put Back to Rights

Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but:

arai-signet-q-helmet-linerFor my birthday, our son gave me a stereo helmet headset. It looked like it’d be super-easy to install, so I pulled the cheek pads out of the expensive Arai helmet … the one helmet that fits me perfectly … and put them in. The padding on the earpieces was too thick, though, and when I put the helmet on they pressed into my ears in a very uncomfortable way. I took the helmet apart again and cut the padding off the earpieces, but they still hurt my ears. The Arai’s snug-but-perfect fit doesn’t leave room for earpieces, so I decided to put the headset in my second-best Nolan.

I wasn’t done with the Arai, though. For some reason the cheek pads wouldn’t snap back in place, no matter what I tried. I worked on that helmet for more than an hour, and finally gave up in frustration. There’s a place in town that installs audio and Bluetooth communications in motorcycle helmets, and I resigned myself to taking the messed up Arai there and paying to have it put back together correctly.

Next I tried to tackle the Nolan. When I popped the cheek pads out I was relieved to see recessed areas in the helmet’s inner lining, perfectly sized for the earpieces. No matter what I did, though, the earpieces wouldn’t stay in the recesses once the cheek pads were back in. Out came the headset. This time, at least, I was able to reassemble the inner padding of the helmet.

Well, crap, I told myself, I can’t do anything right. Which brings me to the set of rear speakers I bought to install on the Goldwing (while my son was birthday shopping on Amazon, so was I). The Goldwing came new with front speakers, but the speaker pods behind the passenger pillion were empty: rear speakers were optional equipment.

After the disaster with the helmets, I was afraid to mess with the speakers on my own, since a lot of plastic pieces inside the trunk had to be removed first, so I called my friend and motorcycle maintenance guru Ed to ask if we could make a play date in his garage. Sure, he said, come on over. As an afterthought, almost, I decided to bring the helmets and headset along.

Ed and I installed the speakers and they work perfectly. There were only two screws left over, and wherever the hell they were supposed to go, their presence doesn’t seem to be critical. After we put the speakers in Ed figured out how to secure the earpieces in the Nolan helmet (two-sided tape, the one thing I didn’t have at home), and once I put the cheekpads and headliner back in my second-best helmet was wired for sound. It works great too.

Then, on my own, I took one last stab at putting the Arai back together, and with the better light in Ed’s garage saw how the earpieces were meant to snap into place, so now the Arai is good as new. Disaster has been put back to rights, and all is well with the world.

We’re all different, of course, but maybe you share with me feelings of depression and restlessness when things are broken, or even not quite right … especially when you’re the one who screwed things up. Is this what comedian Jerry Seinfeld meant the other day when he said he thinks he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum? I’ve never thought about that before, but maybe I am a bit autistic. That would explain a lot! Just ask my wife!

At least I fixed my shit for now, and things are looking up.


Air-Minded: US Military Aircraft Insignia (Updated & Corrected)

This all started when I posted a cool photo on Facebook:


F-84F Thunderstreak air show low pass (photo: unknown)

When I posted that photo I didn’t bother to identify the nationality of the jet, but some of my friends wondered about it. Good question … what are those colors? I used to know those markings pretty well: the answer is Belgium.

Then, two or three days later, a visitor at the Pima Air & Space Museum asked me about the stars & bars markings on American military aircraft. He knew they’d changed several times over the years and wanted to know if I had details. I didn’t, but I vowed to learn more about the subject in case anyone asks me again.

So this is about the different kinds of insignia US military aircraft have used over the years, and why we changed them when we did. I might do something on other nations’ insignia one day, but not now … this post is about American roundels and fin flashes.

Photo set #1: early days

red star

Pre-WWI red star insignia on a Curtiss JN-3 (photo: Wikipedia)


British WWI roundel & fin flash on an SE-5A (photo: Bernard Zee)


US squadron insignia/French colors on a Spad (photo: Roundels of the World)

Ryan PT-22 Recruit

WWI-1942 roundel on a PT-22 Recruit trainer (photo: Paul Woodford)

This set takes us back to the beginning. The first photo shows a couple of US Army Signal Corps aircraft used in the 1915 expedition against Pancho Villa. Our national insignia then was a simple red star, the symbol adopted by the Soviet Union a few years later. When we started flying in WWI we switched over to British- and French-style roundels and fin flashes to better integrate with allied air forces. Our roundels and fin flashes were red, white, and blue, of course, but other than that they weren’t exactly standardized.

As shown on the SE-5 in the second photo of this set, the American British roundel was blue on the outside, then white, then red in the middle. The fin flash led with blue. But check out the roundel and fin flash on the Spad in the third photo. On American aircraft (photo #3) the order of colors on the roundel and fin flash is reversed. I’ve read that the first version was supposed to be for combat while the second was supposed to be for training, but I’ve seen photos of both versions on what appear to be combat aircraft. It must have been confusing for the French.

Update (11/10/14):  Prior to America’s official entry into WWII, American volunteer pilots flew with the French, flying aircraft wearing French colors but with American squadron insignia. The Spad in the third photo is sporting French roundels and fin flash, along with what was to become the American roundel on the wheels, and an American squadron insignia on the fuselage. The roundel that survived WWI and stayed with us up to WWII is the last one, also displayed on the wings of the trainer in the fourth photo.

Photo set #2: fin flashes

Sikorski S-43

WWI-style fin flash on an S-43 “Baby Clipper” (photo: Paul Woodford)


1927-style fin flash on an AT-6B Texan trainer (photo: Roundels of the World)

The two photos in this set show US military fin flash schemes used during and after WWI. The fin flash in the first photo is the same one used during WWI. The fin flash in the second photo was adopted in 1927. Both types were used in the years leading up to WWII, but were eliminated after 1942.

Photo set #3: WWII to the present

Douglas B-18B Bolo

Post-Pearl Harbor roundel on a B-18 Bolo bomber (photo: Paul Woodford)

Curtiss O-52 Owl

Early 1943 roundel w/side bars & red border on a Curtiss O-52 Owl (photo: Paul Woodford)

Early P-80 Shooting Star

Later 1943 roundel w/side bars & blue border on a P-80 Shooting Star (photo: Wikipedia)

FJ-4B Fury

1947-present roundel on a Navy FJ-4B Fury (photo: Paul Woodford)

This set of photos takes us through WWII to the present day. After Pearl Harbor, we eliminated the red circle in the middle of the roundel lest it be mistaken for the Japanese rising sun symbol. The new roundel, visible on the Bolo bomber in the first photo, was a dark blue circle with a white star in the middle. At the same time, however, studies were demonstrating that shape was more important than color in making out aircraft markings from a distance, so in 1943 we added bars to each side of the roundel, as shown in the second and third photos, first with a red border (introduced in May 1943) but later with a blue border (introduced in September 1943).

In 1947 we added a red stripe inside the bars on either side of the roundel, returning to the red, white, and blue color scheme. This roundel, shown on a Navy fighter in the fourth photo of the set, is the one we still use today, typically with a blue border but sometimes a black one.

Photo set #4: gratuitous F-15 photos & low-visibility markings


1947-present roundel on F-15A Eagles (photo: McDonnell-Douglas)


Low visibility roundel on an F-15C (photo: unknown)

When I started flying the F-15 Eagle in 1978, it wore the same roundel introduced in 1947. The bright colors of the roundel, which you can see on the Eagles in the first photo … that’s me on the wing, by the way … were in marked contrast to the Eagle’s subdued gray paint scheme. Sometime in the late 1980s American combat aircraft began to be repainted with low-visibility markings, as on the F-15 in the second photo.


The roundel, and the fin flashes we used to use, identify American military aircraft, so they were and are common to all the services. Since some expert is sure to bring it up, yes, there were some (unimportant) exceptions in the past; USMC and Coast Guard aircraft once used unique service symbols in addition to the standard roundel. Borders of different colors, or no borders at all, have surrounded roundels, mainly depending on the color of the aircraft itself (the Navy, for example, used to paint all its aircraft blue, so there was no reason to use the standard blue border).

As the military was beginning to learn in WWII, recognizing the national insignia of aircraft is pretty difficult. Colors are hard to make out from a distance, and I don’t know that shapes are all that much easier. Generally, in a conflict, you rely on aircraft recognition: you learn the shapes of all the different aircraft you’re likely to see, friendly and enemy alike, so that you can ID them at a distance. Of course in a geographical area where different nations fly the same types of aircraft, you have to learn the national markings. In NATO, for example, the Brits and Germans flew the same F-4s we did; if you didn’t have radio communication with them, you had to get close enough to see the colors and markings before you knew who they were.

During the Cold War all Warsaw Pact nations flew Soviet aircraft. It was not inconceivable that in some future conflict we might be allowed to engage aircraft of one Warsaw Pact air force but not another; the only way to tell an East German Flogger from a Yugoslavian one was to get close enough to recognize the national markings.

When I flew in NATO at the height of the Cold War we had to know the roundels and fin flashes of all allied and Warsaw Pact nations. We memorized them and were tested a couple of times a year. When I flew in the Pacific a decade later, however, it wasn’t an issue. Sure, we knew the North Korean markings, but no one ever tested us on them, nor on the markings of any of the dozens of other air forces in our area of operations.

Today, with the prevalence of low visibility markings (since Desert Storm nearly all nations use them on combat aircraft), you have to close to within 1,000 feet of an unidentified military aircraft before you can make out the insignia. This is perhaps why we didn’t have to study national markings when I flew in the Pacific, because it was during and after Desert Storm when everyone went to subdued markings. Aircraft recognition and classified technical means are the way to identify nationality these days.

Some of the photos shown above are my own, taken at the Pima Air & Space Museum. The volunteers who restore these aircraft always make sure they get period markings correct, as they do at any good aviation museum, so visiting an exhibit like ours is a great way to study the evolution of military insignia.