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Paul’s Book Reviews: Science Fiction, Fiction, Nonfiction

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” — Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven


station elevenStation Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

There are so many post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, but few are this well executed. Station Eleven is on a level with A Canticle for Leibowitz and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy.

Set in a near future where most of humanity has been eradicated by a nightmare flu, the cities ruined and abandoned, the novel follows a small cast of survivors, all somehow related to, or touched by, a Canadian/American actor who died on stage just as the flu reached American shores. The narrative shifts between the present and the past, allowing the reader to gain a fuller understanding of things Emily Mandel hints at earlier in the novel, and this makes for a very satisfying experience.

I struggle when I write reviews of terrific books. I want people to read them, so i don’t want to say too much about plots and stories. Reviews of books I devoured tend to be far shorter than reviews of books I merely finished.

Often, when an author shifts the narrative from one character to another, or from the present to different times in the past, there are sections I read with less pleasure than others. That is not the case here: I hung on every word, every character, every aspect of the past and present. Every character is fully developed, man and woman alike, fully relatable. If you do not fall in love with Kirsten there is something deeply wrong with you.

Is there a villain, beyond the Georgia flu? Why, yes there is, and the tension he generates will have you squirming in your easy chair: I speak, of course, of The Prophet. But here I go with plots; I’ll force myself to stop.

I especially love books where the author ties things together. William Gibson is great at this; so is Emily Mandel. Every time Mandel explained the back story behind something she’d hinted at before — the paperweight, the limited edition comic book, the tattoos — I felt like the kid who finds the chocolate bunny hidden among the regular Easter eggs.

I loved this book.


this is howThis Is How It Really Sounds
by Stuart Archer Cohen

I read Stuart Archer Cohen’s The Army of the Republic a few years ago and was tremendously impressed, so when St. Martin’s Press offered me a pre-publication copy of his newest novel (set to release on April 21, 2015) in exchange for a review I was happy to accept.

Looking over my review of the earlier novel, I see I took special notice of how, as the story unfolded, Cohen tied the lives and actions of three quite different characters together. Cohen has a gift for this sort of thing and it’s on full display in This Is How It Really Sounds. Here, the three characters are men with similar names: Harry Harrington, an extreme skier; Pete Harrington, a rock star; and Peter Harrington, a Wall Street hedge fund billionaire. The relationship between the skier and the rock star is clear from the beginning; the connection between the hedge fund billionaire and the rock star becomes clear a few chapters in; later we learn of a tie between the skier and the hedge fund guy; later still … well, I’ll just say the novel’s conclusion goes in a direction I did not anticipate, one both profound and sublime, reminding me a bit of David Mitchell, the king of intertwined lives, and his masterpiece Cloud Atlas.

As with Cloud Atlas — and Cohen’s own The Army of the Republic — the stories of the individual characters and the events that bring them together are damned interesting, tense and suspenseful in many cases, all full of convincing detail. The characters, too, not just the three Harringtons but the men and women who play supporting roles, are intensely relatable (even the hedge fund asshole, whom we have every reason to hate yet come to like).

A theme repeats itself throughout the novel: a yearning for a simpler life, close to the land, enfolded within the love of a tight-knit family. A character will glimpse an isolated house: a farmhouse in a Pennsylvania field, a Chinese home of enclosed gardens in a quiet Shanghai neighborhood, a Swiss chalet in a mountain meadow, a mountain cabin in Alaska. The character will long for the life the house seems to promise. The character will feel the urge to approach the house and knock on the door. The character, eventually, will.

I found all this quite moving and finished this remarkable book on a high. I should explain that a 4.5 star rating is about as high as I go on the Goodreads scale. Call my star ratings idiosyncratic; I reserve 5 stars for the messiah of books. This one comes close.

Note: the e-version I was sent, which I converted to the Kindle file format with NetGalley, was formatted correctly and almost typo-free: the exception was a superfluous three-letter word, “lai,” randomly inserted into sentences here and there. I quickly learned to ignore it and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.


what it is likeWhat It is Like to Go to War
Karl Marlantes

A treatise on how soldiers act and feel during and after combat, covering territory familiar to anyone who studies war. Marlantes, however, pushes further, looking for ways to prepare young soldiers for the mental burdens of killing and seeing friends killed. He focuses on philosophy and spirituality, veering toward religion and a sort of God Is on Our Side/Submit to Authority prescription I could not swallow. This made great parts of the book hard reading, at least for me.

I picked this book up on the recommendation of a USAF friend I once flew with. We have both written about aerial warfare and the killing of innocent victims, whether through bombing or drone strikes, and frankly are looking for ways to justify what we did for our country. I didn’t find much help here, for the reason stated above.

But boy can Marlantes write! His examples, drawn from his combat experience in Vietnam, are riveting. I now want to read his fictional accounting of fighting in Vietnam, Matterhorn.


Jennifer Foehner Wells

Except for the warm & fuzzy humanistic woo the alien ship’s navigator pitches to Dr. Jane Halloway, I thought this was a pretty solid science fiction novel. I particularly liked the strong, independent female characters, Varma and Jane, though I question whether NASA would ever contemplate putting a tag-along linguist in command of a first contact mission. To my more realistic mind, Walsh would be the commander no matter what sort of alien encounter might happen on the mysterious ship in the asteroid belt, and at least Jennifer Foehner Wells had the good sense to recognize this: although Jane Halloway was nominally in charge once contact with the alien was established, Walsh opposed her every step of the way.

The aforementioned woo may turn a lot of long-time science fiction readers off, and some may consider Wells’ first contact narrative too timid: in Fluency, the alien civilization we encounter is not all that different from what we’re used to. But the novel is well-plotted and suspenseful, and I for one could not put it down. Should I meet an adult reader who doesn’t know from science fiction but wants to give it a try, this would be one of the contemporary science fiction novels I’d recommend. Wells is pitching to the masses here, not elite science fiction connoisseurs, and I think she hits her intended market. I can definitely see Fluency turned into a screenplay.

Will I read the sequel? Yes, I will.


a colder warA Colder War
Charles Cumming

A Colder War is a workman-like spy novel focusing on “tradecraft.” The story is about a British intelligence operation undertaken to identify and neutralize a CIA mole suspected of passing critical information to the Russians. The action takes place in Greece, Syria, Turkey, and London; the primary characters are British MI5 agents. Charles Cumming has apparently written at least one other novel featuring the same characters; references to some of their previous operations are sprinkled throughout the book.

Cumming seems to be trying to emulate John le Carré, at least when it comes to professional frustrations and rivalries between his MI5 agents, personal problems with ex-wives and lovers, and thorny relationships with the “Cousins,” the CIA. His MI5 agents drink, suffer massive hangovers, destroy marriages, screw up and go into exile, agonize over missed opportunities. They are not as fully developed as le Carré’s characters, though, nor are they as sympathetic.

The story is long and complex, packed with detail: the bugging of cell phones and apartments, the surveillance of a suspect who employs his own professional tradecraft to defeat the trackers, multi-layered schemes to force the mole to expose himself, an elaborately-staged capture and rendition operation. As with le Carré’s plots, twists and betrayals are rife.

Cumming writes as an omniscient narrator but generally stays close to his main characters and their thoughts. Throughout the novel, though, he intersperses close narration with a distant one, backing off to provide the reader with a sort of god’s-eye summary of what’s really happening. This gets annoying after a while. We’re with Kell as he and his team of trackers follow the suspected mole through the busy streets of London; suddenly we’re reading a dry summary of how the operation unfolded, Kell and company reduced to names on a page, as in an after-action report. Sadly, Cumming ends the novel from this distant perspective, almost as if he’d lost interest in the lives of his characters.

Nor do I quite believe the operational surveillance details Cumming builds his story upon. Looking at the many failures of our own CIA, and what little I know of the British intelligence services and its successes and failures, is it even possible that MI5 would be able to mobilize, at a moment’s notice, dozens of highly-trained trackers to follow a suspected mole through subways, streets, and department stores, not just on the home front in London but in several foreign cities? What do these professional trackers do when they’re not chasing enemy spies? Do they draw a paycheck when they’re just sitting around between assignments? And how do they manage to stay so proficient? I don’t buy it. The surveillance/tracking team idea seems an overused spy novel convention … and a fantasy.

Cumming treads on le Carré territory, but he’s no le Carré, and I probably won’t bother to read the prequel to A Colder War. I cared about George Smiley. I didn’t really care about Tom Kell.


James Ellroy

I have a hard time getting into Ellroy novels. His writing reads like a string of staccato gossip rag headlines: brusque, abbreviated, slangy. It comes across as contrived and phony. No one talks like an Ellroy character; I’ll go out on a limb and say that no cop, in any historical era, ever uttered the word “jejune.”

So it’s always a rough start. Then, three or four chapters in, Ellroy’s stories take off and I forget to be irritated with the unreal dialog. In fact, the dialog starts to make sense, in a kind of alternate world, Roger Rabbit way … maybe there were, in the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 50s, cops and robbers who really did talk this way … but who cares, because oh my god did that just happen? And what’s going to happen next?

But with this novel, my initial irritation returned in the second half. Every character sounds the same. Apart from Parker’s alcoholism, every character’s mental processes are the same. Yes, it’as interesting to encounter characters from other Ellroy novels (Dudly Smith and Kay Lake, for example) in other times and settings, but that only carries one so far.

The plot, which centers around the internment of Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor and the start of WWII, is certainly of historical interest, and this too is typical of an Ellroy novel. I felt at times as if Ellroy was inventing parts of his history, but I’ll defer to his vision. It made for an interesting backdrop, whether the details were historically correct or not.

The last third of the novel felt unnecessarily repetitive and dragged out. The Japanese-American detective ponders the evidence to date and draws certain conclusions. Then Bill Parker, the alcoholic, jumps through the exact same mental hoops and draws the same conclusions. Then it’s Kay Lake’s turn, then Dudley’s. You read the same plot development four times in a row. If the character’s mental dialog was unique to that character, this might be interesting. But they all think in the same brusque, abbreviated, slangy way.

This is perhaps my least favorite Ellroy novel to date. Honestly, parts of it felt phoned in.


Books I Didn’t Finish


girl who savedThe Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
Jonas Jonassen

Bought the Kindle version for book club but gave up on it about a quarter of the way in. It’s engagingly written, but too unserious for my taste: the characters are archetypes acting out a moralizing script meant to make us Better People: clever, self-taught black South African girl triumphs over all barriers erected in her path, etc. Right now I have better books to read, and it isn’t like half the book club membership doesn’t show up not having even opened assigned books, now, is it? My turn.


Air-Minded: Letting the Team Down

I don’t have any brilliant thoughts or insights about Germanwings Flight 9525, where the co-pilot is suspected of committing mass murder by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain in the Swiss Alps. I’m sad and shocked, of course, that any pilot would do such a thing.

I’ve always considered military and commercial flying a profession; i.e., a paid occupation involving prolonged training and a formal process of qualification and certification. We expect professionals to live up to high standards. Well, maybe not all professionals — insert lawyer joke here — but for sure doctors and airline pilots. We trust them with our lives. We have to.

We all know there are unprofessional doctors, but their numbers are minuscule and as a society we don’t get overwrought about the occasional medical horror story. The same goes for airline pilots. Pilots have deliberately crashed packed airliners before, but it’s very rare and I don’t recall much hullabaloo over earlier incidents, at least in the West. I attribute this to the fact that earlier intentional crashes occurred in Namibia, Egypt, and Indonesia, the victims mostly black and brown.

This time the victims are white. This time the airline is a First World carrier. Now we’re discussing the phenomenon of pilots committing mass murder almost as if we anticipate a rash of such incidents from here on out. Now we’re talking about mandatory mental health testing and monitoring. Now we’re talking about rules requiring the presence of two pilots on the flight deck at all times, which could mandate the presence of three pilots on every flight (because even professionals have to go potty sometimes). Pretty soon we might even be talking about increasing flight hour requirements for air transport pilot certification, upping airline pilot hiring standards to the point where only former military pilots with long records can get a foot in the door, maybe even increasing aircrew pay after years of cutting salaries and busting pilot unions.

I’m all for increasing hiring standards, bringing back the third crewmember requirement (it used to be standard, for those of you who’ve forgotten), and upping compensation. Treating professionals as professionals bolsters and encourages professionalism IMHO. Perhaps we’ll modify crew resource management training to include teaching techniques for spotting signs of depression or other mental problems in fellow pilots — this is all squishy stuff and may not work, but perhaps it’s worth a try. I’ll just note that the captain of the Germanwings flight apparently didn’t suspect a thing when he left his co-pilot alone in the cockpit on that fateful day.

I’ll also note that depression affects people in all walks of life and professions. Most victims learn to live with it and function as well as anyone else. But there are some professions where, if you suffer from depression, you have to keep it hidden: among these are the military, law enforcement, and commercial flying. Airline pilots who suffer from depression believe — with good reason — the FAA will ground them if it finds out. Pilots who seek medical treatment for depression do it under cover and outside normal channels. Some won’t seek medical treatment at all, regarding the risk of exposure as too high. This latest incident will only drive such pilots deeper under cover.

I struggle with the notion of someone bent on suicide deliberately taking innocent lives along with his or her own. Murdering innocent people while taking your own life isn’t suicide, it’s terrorism. Was the Germanwings co-pilot a terrorist? If he deliberately crashed that plane, yes he was, no matter his motive. Someone on Twitter last night claimed the Germanwings co-pilot was a convert to Islam. When I Google “Germanwings copilot converted to Islam” the links that come up all lead to right-wing hate sites, so for now I’m discounting it as a malicious rumor. If it turns out to be true, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be a Muslim living in a Western country!

Another Twitterer, a serious journalist who writes about aviation for the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that pilot suicide/mass murder — in other words, a deliberate act of terrorism committed by a crewmember — has always been one of the possibilities in the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, although I’ve resigned myself to the thought that we’ll never find the wreckage and never learn what actually happened.


You Can’t Read That!

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 7.32.45 AM

Poor guy can’t catch a break. Tintin’s in Dutch again, this time in Canada, where, as in the USA and other countries, there’s a misguided push to pull racially-dated books, written during the days when stereotypes were more widely accepted, from library shelves. (See what I did there with “Tintin’s in Dutch again”? Huh? Huh?)

Just for fun: The 10 Most Bizarre Cases of Film Censorship.

Well, at least Heather’s mummies are married now, so we’ll hear no more about banning that book, right?

In anticipation of your objections, I think this is related to censorship and book-banning, in that it’s about public pressure on schools and school teachers to conform to conservative social and political expectations: What’s Wrong with Saying the Pledge in Arabic?

Oh his last day in office, Arizona’s ousted superintendent of education tried once again to ban ethnic studies and associated textbooks in Tucson high schools.

… this latest Republican-led assault on the intelligence of young people is anti-American. If you believe in American exceptionalism, then empower students with critical thinking skills so they can defend it. Don’t give them a Bible lesson. That’s for church.” What’s behind the current push to ban advanced placement history classes from high schools in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, and Tennessee? In Oklahoma, at least, it can be traced to organized evangelicals trying to halt “the de-Christianizing of America.”

So what’s going on in Kansas? Well, for one thing, the state senate passed a bill that would allow criminal prosecution of teachers and school administrators who expose children to “harmful material.” Apologists for the bill promise, should it become law, it “will not be used to interfere with teaching works of literary or scientific value.” But right on the heels of those assurances, one of those state senators described the novels of Toni Morrison as pornographic.

Jay Asher’s YA book 13 Reasons Why survives a parental challenge in Richmond, Virginia.

Connecticut school superintendent reverses school board decision, unilaterally removes James Dickey’s Deliverance from high school English class reading list.

From the University of Arizona’s Daily Wildcat: “While parents always have the right to say that their child as an individual should not read a particular book, they don’t have the right to say no one can read it.” Anyone in a position to make decisions about what should or should not be on public or school library shelves should have to stand at a chalkboard and write this statement 500 times.

Of course you do have the right to oversee what your own children are reading, especially when it comes to e-books, and wouldn’t you know, there’s an app for that! Before you buy it, though, you should know that some readers and writers have test-driven it and found it wanting. Others object in even stronger terms.

When all hell broke loose two years ago over the yanking of Persepolis from the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Emanuel’s press handlers wrote it off as a misunderstanding. They said some bureaucrat in the bowels of the central office misunderstood what he or she had been directed to do and things got out of control.” Nope. As is so often the case when underlings are blamed, it turns out the direction to remove Persepolis from Chicago school libraries came from the very top.

Should libraries put any and all donated books on the shelves? When it comes to religious or racist tracts and self-published conspiracy theory pamphlets, surely not. But then there’s that gray area occupied by partisan political writing aimed at children, such as Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.

Speaking of banned books, this project, the creation of a documentary about the banning of a famous children’s book, seems worthy of support:


Saturday Bag o’ Nuts

Nut Tree Sign RemovalThe Nut Tree was a landmark of my younger days in California. In my last year of high school and first year of college, my friends and I expressed our newly-found independence and adulthood by driving from Sacramento to San Francisco on weekends. The Nut Tree, just off the freeway south of Sacramento, was a mandatory coffee stop.

That was in 1964 and 1965. Somewhere in there I met Donna, and she started making San Francisco runs with us. When Donna and I, now married, returned from Germany in 1967, we continued to stop at the Nut Tree whenever we drove down to the City.

Apparently the Nut Tree itself closed sometime in the late 1990s. I didn’t know it was out of business until earlier this week, when I learned they’ve dismantled the last remaining part of it, the iconic sign alongside Interstate 80.

Surprisingly, I find myself moved by the news. Other institutions of our younger days have come and gone, and who cares? This one, though, tugs at me, probably because I always associated stopping at the Nut Tree with adulthood and freedom. The freedom to hop in a car with friends for a drive to the City, to hang around the City Lights Bookstore and try to pass as sophisticates.

Remember this?

“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain told a supporter at a town hall meeting in Minnesota who said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency and of who the Democrat would appoint to the Supreme Court.

That happened in 2008, during McCain’s run for the presidency. Last week potential Republican 2016 candidate Rick Santorum encountered a similar wacko, who stood up during the Q&A period and addressed him as Senator Santorum. She went on to say a few words about President Obama:

Why is the Congress rolling over and lettin’ this communist dictator destroy my country? Y’all know what he is and I know what he is. I want him out of the White House. He’s not a citizen. He could’ve been removed a long time ago.

. . . .

Obama tried to blow up a nuke in Charleston a few months ago and the three Admirals and Generals. He has totally destroyed our military. He has fired all the Generals and all the Admirals who said they wouldn’t fire on the American people if they ask ‘em to do so if he wanted to take the guns away from ‘em.

And what did Santorum say in response? He corrected the wacko by pointing out that he was no longer a sitting senator. He said not one word about her crazy accusations. In fact, he seemed to go along with them, agreeing with her that President Obama is a “tyrant.”

Santorum is considered one of the mainstream candidates vying for his party’s nomination.

BTW, this nuking Charleston thing? I hadn’t heard of it before, but apparently it’s a popular right-wing conspiracy theory. How can you even work with people who are willing to believe shit like that? I can barely accept the fact that I share the planet with them.

I blocked another Facebook acquaintance last week. She’d always been anti-Obama, but recently she started sharing Facebook posts from fringe right-wing “news” organizations. Posts with headlines like this: “Welfare Queen Learns She Can’t Get Change with Her EBT Card … It Doesn’t End Well,” each post accompanied by hundreds of vile comments.

I could see where this was heading, so I dropped her before she got around to asking why we don’t have a White History Month. Because that’s always what’s next with those folks.

Speaking of assholes, we had a miserable drive from Tucson to Phoenix last week for our secret squirrel ski trip. Approaching Casa Grande from the south, we passed an overhead electronic sign warning of a crash and heavy traffic ahead. Sure enough, a mile or two later a wall of brake lights blocked all lanes of I-10. We spent the next hour and a half alternately sitting still and crawling along in car-length increments. Drivers were getting out and climbing on top of their cars to see ahead. Other drivers tried to cut the line by driving on the shoulder … until the shoulder became jammed too.

An hour and a half later, we finally passed the cause of the massive traffic jam: a single car, not badly damaged, parked in the median of the freeway. It looked as if it had been rear-ended at a relatively low speed, since all the damage was to the rear bumper. Traffic started to flow again, and a minute later we were once again cruising at 75 mph.

In Phoenix, another overhead electronic sign, another crash ahead, this one supposedly blocking the HOV lane. We always use HOV lanes when we drive through Phoenix and other large cities. HOV lanes are kind of an oasis of calm on otherwise hectic freeways, separated as they are from other lanes by double white lines. Drivers who constantly weave between lanes tend not to weave in and out of HOV lanes, at least in our experience.

Traffic was crawling along in the HOV lane at the same rate as the other lanes, so we stayed put. The second blockage didn’t last as long as the earlier one, maybe 40 minutes, and when we got to the choke point drivers in the other lanes were allowing HOV lane traffic to squeeze over to the right in a civilized and orderly manner (thank you, Phoenix drivers, for not behaving like Phoenix drivers for once). The crash was more serious than the first one … two substantially damaged cars, cops and emergency vehicles pulled up alongside … so at least the ensuing traffic jam was justified. Once again, as soon as we passed the crash traffic started to move again.

During all this sitting and crawling I kept thinking of aircraft carriers, how when one airplane crashes on deck and other airplanes, low on fuel, are lined up on approach, there’s no question of closing the deck for an investigation: they fire up the Black Maria, shove the wreckage off the deck and into the ocean, and reset the arresting cables for the next plane. Why don’t we do that with freeway wrecks? Is it really necessary to take all those photos, measure skid marks, and put out those little yellow flags? We all know what happened: someone drove like an inconsiderate asshole and fucked things up for everyone else.

Truly, when it comes to driving, we are at the mercy of the lowest common denominator, the very crappiest driver, the one who’s always causing wrecks through inattentiveness, incompetence, or drunkenness.

It’s enough to make a sane person question the necessity of traveling anywhere, at any time, for any reason.

I wrote a short story about the experience:

Hours after the freeway comes to a standstill, as dusk turns to night, people realize traffic isn’t going to move before morning. We sleep in our cars. We try to find out about the blockage with our cell phones, but there’s no news, nothing on the radio either. A week goes by. We’re all out of gas now: no more air conditioning, no recharging cell phone batteries. Cell phones are useless now anyway; no one has had any dots for days. Gangs of dads and teenaged sons form, raiding stalled RVs and travel trailers for water, food. Resisters are shot, their bodies pulled off the shoulders of the road, where makeshift toilet trenches have been dug. During the second week helicopters appear, bringing emergency provisions. The pilots quickly learn not to land, instead dumping pallets from a low hover. Two weeks later the helos quit coming. The day after the last helicopter drop our eyes begin to sting and we smell smoke. That night enormous pyres are visible in the distance. We realize the cities are burning.

After worldwide protests, mostly in social media, the homeless-repelling water system in the doorways of Saint Mary’s Cathedral has been turned off, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco has apologized.

Few people read more than the headlines, and if that’s all you read, here’s what you probably know: to keep homeless people from sleeping in the alcoves formed by the covered doorways of the cathedral, church officials installed sprinklers to periodically pour water on them and drive them away. It hardly seems the sort of thing Jesus would do.

But there’s more to the story, as there always is. St. Mary’s Cathedral in fact does a lot for San Francisco’s homeless population, offering them shelter and food, even opening up the church for them to sleep in during holiday periods. The issue was the alcoves, where homeless people who refuse to use the shelter the church provides go to shit, piss, and shoot up.

It seems to me the warm-hearted people who are upset by this story have not spent much time around the homeless, far too many of whom are alcoholics and drug abusers by choice: feral, filthy, dangerous, out of control. They’ve driven us out of downtown Tucson; after being repeatedly accosted by ranting and threatening homeless men during our Monday evening walks downtown, we no longer go.

There has to be a better way. The segment of the homeless population I’m talking about here, the crazy urban drunken drug-addled ones who threaten regular people, the ones who shit in doorways and steal anything you’re not prepared to defend with your life, cannot mix with normal people. Yes, we need to feed and house them; I don’t dispute that. But I don’t want to share my city, my parks, or my neighborhood with them, and neither would you if you spent any time around them.

I blame Reagan, of course. He’s the one who closed all the mental institutions.

Come to think of it, if anyone was going to nuke a big American city, it would have been the Gipper, not Obama. And Republicans, naturally, would have been totally okay with it.


Shangri La

If I have the story right, when Franklin Roosevelt first told the American people about the Doolittle Raid, information on how we got our bombers close enough to Japan to attack some of its major cities was still classified, so he reported that the planes had launched from “Shangri La.”

Details of this week’s road trip were similarly classified. I couldn’t name our destination without giving the game away, but we’re back now and the trip has passed its declassify OADR date.* We went to join our children and grandchildren for a ski vacation at a cabin in Brian Head, Utah.

Why the secrecy? We didn’t want our daughter Polly to find out ahead of time: the trip was a surprise birthday present to her from us and her brother (our son Gregory knows the people who own the cabin: having a family get-together there was his idea). When Donna and Gregory started planning all this secret squirrel stuff I grumpily asked why we were making such a big deal of Polly’s birthday, her being a grown woman and all. “Because she’s turning 40,” Donna said. “Ah. Say no more,” said I.

Polly lives with her boyfriend David, who is in the Border Patrol, in Ajo, Arizona. David went along with the scheme by concocting a cover story about a short-notice trip to Flagstaff and dragging Polly with him on Saturday. Donna and I drove there from Tucson the same day, spent the night at a motel, and walked in on them Sunday morning while they were having breakfast at a coffee shop. It all came as a complete surprise to Polly, judging by the expression on her face when we walked in. Half an hour later, the four of us were driving through the Navaho Nation to Utah and Brian Head.


David & Polly in Flagstaff

It turned out we weren’t the only ones keeping secrets: when we arrived at the cabin Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t just Gregory, Beth, and Quentin waiting for us … our granddaughter Taylor was there too, a welcome surprise for us (she lives and works in the Seattle area, so we rarely get to see her).

There we all were, our entire family: parents, kids, grandkids, our daughter in law, Polly’s boyfriend. Oh, and three dogs. Good thing it was a big cabin!


The cabin at Brian Head


Life is hell, ain’t it?

Both our kids have March birthdays: Polly’s is the 16th, which fell during our trip; Gregory’s is the 10th (he turned 49). While we could surprise Polly with the trip, we could hardly surprise Gregory since he was essential to the elaborate plot, picking the dates and arranging to borrow the cabin. So as a present to both kids, and, what the hell, our grandkids too, Donna and I popped for the ski rentals and lift tickets.

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Skiers & snowboarders: Taylor, Polly, Gregory, Quentin

Good thing I brought the good camera and tripod, because with Taylor there I was finally able to update our family photo. We’ll probably be using this one for years to come:


L to R: Gregory, Taylor, Beth, Quentin, Polly, Donna, David, Paul

I don’t care what anyone says, I think Donna and I have been blessed to have such a photogenic family!

By the way, Beth and Donna packed in all the drinks and food. The cabin has a full kitchen, so with the exception of one night out at the ski lodge restaurant, we had home-cooked meals, including a Saint Patrick’s Day feast of corned beef and cabbage.

The dogs, by the way, took a dim view of pooping in the snow. I agree, nothing quite ruins a pristine snowscape than piles of doggie doo! Our fastidious girls did their business on the gravel driveway like good ‘uns, and they were just great in the car, going and coming.

Shangri La. I like that. And that’s how I’ll refer to this long-overdue vacation from now on!


*OADR date=”on or after data release date,” an acronym familiar to anyone with a government or military background.


Friday Bag o’ Rant

Donna and I leave tomorrow on a road trip to a for-now classified destination. If we don’t have internet access where we’re going, you’ll hear from us later next week, when we get back. Meanwhile, those of you who suffer my rants on Facebook will enjoy a few days of peace.

I try not to rant on Facebook, but every now and then something makes me see red and I lose it. As I did yesterday:

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 8.40.09 AM

Yes, I meant it, every word. But to lose your temper is to show weakness. I don’t want everyone to know what sets me off, because none of us ever get very far beyond high school, not really, and now I’ve invited everyone to poke me in order to get a rise out of me.

Well, fuck the Republicans anyway, and fuck the media too.


During my last years in the Air Force, and for the ten or so years I worked as a defense contractor afterward, email became a primary means of communication. Even so, it was always considered an informal form of communication. It wasn’t to be used for anything actionable: new rules, policies, final decisions, or the like. Oh, you might hear about new rules and policies via email, but the actual rule or policy was always formally set down upon paper. After all, people can say they never got the email, right? You can’t use that excuse with a formal written directive or regulation.

I don’t think voters care much one way or the other about Hillary Clinton’s emails. She says she’s turned over all the State Department-related emails she sent during her tenure as Secretary of State, and I believe her. Political opponents from both sides, and of course the media (which has always had a hard-on for the Clintons), now want to root around in her personal email archives. Well of course they do. I’d like to root around in the personal email archives of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. And the Koch Brothers. Where does this all end?

Honestly, if you want to know what Hillary Clinton did while she was Secretary of State, and what the State Department did under her leadership, look at the public record. Look at what they did. Look at the policies and decisions that were made during Clinton’s tenure. Look at the diplomatic initiatives that were taken. Look at personnel transfers, state visits, sanctions imposed on recalcitrant regimes, foreign aid programs, cooperative ventures, trade agreements … look at the formal rules, policies, and final decisions that were set down upon paper.

What they’re trying to get at, by demanding to see Clinton’s personal email archives, is not to learn what Clinton or other high level officials did … that is already known … but to learn what she was thinking. Since when did anyone have the right to know what government officials are thinking? You can know what they did. You cannot know what they thought if they don’t choose to share that information with you.


Me, on the other hand … if anything I share too much. But isn’t that what blogs are for? See you in a few.


Air-Minded: “I’ve Never Seen the Knife More Dull”

Institutionally, the military services have never forgotten the crippling constraints imposed upon the conduct of the air war in Vietnam:

Target lists were reviewed at the White House in the informal atmosphere of the Tuesday lunch, attended principally by President Johnson, his press secretary, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the President’s special assistant for national security affairs. (Although the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the senior military adviser to the President and General Earle G. Wheeler was one of the few military men Johnson liked, Wheeler attended an average of three Tuesday luncheons per quarter during the course of Rolling Thunder.) After dining, the target list for the coming week was discussed. Each proposed target had been reduced to a single sheet of paper and categorized on four bases (as revised by ASD/ISA): the military advantage for striking the target; the risk to U.S. aircraft and pilots; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals. Each luncheon attendee individually graded each target on the basis of his appraisal of the four standards. Their grades were then combined and averaged. President Johnson reviewed the averaged grades, then personally selected the targets for attack. Parameters of attack were determined. These included the number of aircraft authorized for strike of the target, date/time of attack, routes of ingress or egress, weapons authorized or prohibited, and restrike authority.

Today, a letter from an anonymous USAF A-10 pilot is making the rounds of current and former fighter jocks. What the letter writer says about the “lessons learned in Vietnam” is close to the heart of any military aviator; in the wake of that disastrous war generations of mid-level officers and tacticians … with the help of a few leaders willing to risk their careers … fought to improve combat effectiveness by decentralizing control and delegating decision-making to those closest to the action. And we got there. Desert Storm was the high point. Now, it appears, we’re sliding back to the bad old days. Here’s the letter:

The squadron is doing fine. Everybody is happy to be here and we are doing some good work. The A-10s are holding up well and the technology we have have on the jets now (targeting pods, GPS guided bombs, Laser Guided bombs, Laser guided missiles, tactical data link, satellite comms), and of course the gun, make the A-10 ideal for this conflict. We are killing off as many ISIS as we can, mostly in ones and twos, working with the hand we are dealt. I’ve never been more convinced in my career that we are facing an enemy that needs to be eradicated.

With that being said…I’ve never been more frustrated in my career. After 13 years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours, staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS shitheads perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs built up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.

Be assured that the Hawg drivers are doing their best.

Another military blogger read the letter and wrote about its implications. Here’s part of what he had to say:

We did this well in Operation Desert Storm. Decisions were made at the tactical level – targets were hit when discovered. We also designated areas in which pilots were free to engage targets as they appeared. One of the tactics was to delineate “kill boxes” in which no friendly forces were present. Anything that appeared to be military was engaged – it had a devastating effect on the Iraqis.

We have regressed. I am not sure why, but we seem to be operating in a zero-defect environment. That is political-speak for not killing any innocent people in the conduct of military operations.

How much of this institutional aversion to risk and collateral damage comes directly from President Obama I cannot say, but surely the SecDef, service chiefs, and JCS follow his lead and do his bidding.

Generals and admirals are notorious careerists. In my day you could say the same of nine out of ten colonels. It’s probably worse today. If it surprises you to hear an A-10 pilot say he can’t engage a target until a general officer, safely hunkered down in a command post hundreds or even thousands of miles away, authorizes the attack, it shouldn’t … decision-making authority, these days, has crept back up to the very top level of command.

Well, hello, Vietnam … we meet again! I wonder how long it’ll be before President Obama and Secretary of Defense Carter convene a Tuesday luncheon.


Air-Minded: Propellers of the Stars

I am the Nancy Grace of celebrity plane wrecks.

When I saw the first photos of actor Harrison Ford’s crashed airplane on the golf course in Santa Monica, I immediately zeroed in on the propeller. Probably only someone trained as an aircraft accident investigator would do that. I am such a someone, and that is what I did.


Left side, undamaged propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)


harrison ford_2

Right side, snapped propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)

Propellers can give you essential clues right off the bat: was the prop producing thrust at impact, merely spinning in the wind, or stopped altogether? The prop, in turn, tells you what the engine was doing.

Metal prop blades are an easy tell: they bend. If the engine and prop are running and producing thrust at impact, the blades bend forward. If the engine and prop are merely windmilling, producing no thrust, the blades bend back.

prop bend

Forward bend, power on (photo credit: unknown)


Backward bend, power off (photo:

Wooden and carbon fiber prop blades snap or shatter, so they’re not reliable indicators of whether the engine and prop was running and producing thrust at impact. But if all the blades are snapped, you at least know the prop was spinning at impact; if one blade is snapped off and the other blade or blades are okay, the prop wasn’t moving at impact.


Messerschmitt with wooden prop (photo: Ekstrabladet)

carbon fiber blade

Carbon fiber prop (photo credit: unknown)

In the photos of Ford’s vintage Ryan PT-22 trainer at the top of this post, you can see it has a wooden propeller, so there’s no bending. One propeller blade, the one in the top photo, is whole and undamaged. In the second photo, taken from the other side of the airplane, you can see the snapped blade. From this I believe the prop wasn’t spinning at impact — the down blade snapped on impact; the up blade never hit the ground.

If the prop wasn’t spinning, the engine was stopped or seized, and that’s consistent with initial reports that Ford experienced an engine failure shortly after takeoff. By all accounts, he performed a textbook engine-off glide and landing; it’s too bad he didn’t have enough altitude to glide all the way back to the runway.

Astute observers might look at the photo of the crashed WWII Messerschmitt fighter in the farmer’s field and wonder why, if Ford flew such a good engine-off glide and landing, his airplane is so horribly damaged when the Messerschmitt isn’t. Here’s why:


Ford’s PT-22 in September 2013 (photo: London Ent/Splash News)

Belly landings are best done on a smooth, flat belly. The Messerschmitt’s retractable landing gear were up and locked when its pilot was forced to land in that field. Ford’s Ryan PT-22 has fixed landing gear: the wheels and struts most likely dug into the soft ground of the golf course on landing, flipping the airplane onto its nose before it came to rest as we see it in the photos. Frankly, I’m surprised there wasn’t more damage.

The Nancy Grace of celebrity plane wrecks is happy Mr. Ford knew what he was doing and wasn’t seriously hurt. She’s heartbroken there’s one less vintage Ryan PT-22 in the world, but hopes that perhaps, if the structural damage isn’t too severe, the loss will be a temporary one.