The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

21 Books, Part I

Posted on | July 26, 2013 | 34 Comments

— by Wombat-socho
I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last Lion, so this is what you get for a book post. Originally published in various parts at my LiveJournal and in somewhat different form at Everything2.

If you’re looking for the Great Books, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Most of these books would probably make the average American Lit professor turn up his nose in scorn, but that’s okay; I’m not trying to impress anyone. These are the books that for one reason or another left their mark on me, changed my life in some subtle (or maybe not so subtle) way, and made me who I am.

The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately.
People who think they’re living in a repressive police state here in America need to STFU and read this book, because they obviously have no idea what a real police state looks like or how it functions. Solzhenitsyn’s classic work of history, assembled painstakingly under the noses of the KGB, recounts the history of the massive prison camp system, the secret police organizations that built, staffed, and often died in it, the perverted legal system that fed it, and the twisted political system that gave birth to it in the midst of the Revolution. Solzhenitsyn dispels the myth that the GULAG was born from Stalin’s madness; rather, he makes clear that a system of this sort was what Lenin had in mind all along. I first read this book in junior high school, and if I had ever had any doubts about Communism, Solzhenitsyn killed those doubts forever. Coming on the heels of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, it also determined my military career: I chose Russian over Chinese or Korean when I enlisted in the Army, because someday I wanted to read Arkhipelag’ GULag in the original Russian. It’s a tribute to the quality of instruction at the Defense Language Institute that I could do so without having to refer to my Smirnitsky Russian-English dictionary more than once every dozen pages.

Once An Eagle, Anton Myrer
So in the Libyan fable it is told- That once an eagle, stricken with a dart- Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft: ‘With our own feathers, not by others’ hands- Are we now smitten’.
I don’t think there’s another book out there quite like Myrer’s classic novel about Sad Sam Damon and his nemesis, Courtney Massengale, who rise through the ranks of the Army’s officer corps from quite disparate origins. Sam Damon leaves Nebraska to enlist in the Army during the Mexican Expedition, wins the Medal of Honor, a battlefield commission, and a wife in World War I, while Massengale comes from a down-at-heels upper-class New York family, goes to West Point, and spends World War One as a staff officer far behind the lines. Damon takes care of his troops and leads from the front, while Massengale exemplifies the overly political staff officer, ultimately maneuvering his way into a corps command under MacArthur in World War II despite never previously commanding troops at all. The book has become a cult classic for Army and Marine officers alike for its stark, often brutal portrayal of the horror of war, the men who fight in them, and the women those men love.

I came across Once An Eagle in high school and have since read several paperback copies to death. There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from the book, but it wouldn’t be half as popular as it is if it weren’t such a damn good story in its own right. There are dozens of memorable characters, all of them fully-rounded people with their own stories…”Paprika Ben” Krisler, “Porky” Bannerman, Reb Raebyrne, Joe Brand, Emily Massengale, Tommy Damon, and most of all the protagonists themselves. Sam Damon is no stainless hero, and Courtney Massengale isn’t totally evil; Myrer shows them to us at their best and their worst. I have a weakness for well-written soap operas, and this globe-spanning masterpiece depicting the agonies and ecstasies of an Army officer’s career that spans the World Wars is one of the best. I really ought to get a hardback or Kindle copy one of these days.

Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert Heinlein
We have a tradition of freedom, personal freedom, scientific freedom. That freedom isn’t kept alive by caution and unwillingness to take risks.
This is actually the proxy for the half-dozen Heinlein juveniles that somehow had wound up in the collection of my elementary school in Maryland, which the librarian wished she could give me when I left the 6th grade for junior high since nobody else ever read them. This book, along with Time for the Stars, Between Planets, Farmer in the Sky and Space Cadet, really got me into the habit of reading science fiction, which I hadn’t really developed yet in spite of reading Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time back in second grade and Ray Bradbury|Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in third. Heinlein’s first juvenile novel recounts the adventures of the “Galileo Rocketry, Marching & Chowder Society”, four young high-school friends who get involved in a retired atomic scientist’s plan to convert a surplus UN suborbital mail rocket into a fission-powered craft capable of reaching the Moon. This they then do, but they find on arrival that they’re not the first humans to reach the moon, and that’s when the real fun starts. The first of a dozen or so juvenile novels written by Heinlein for Scribners; the last, Starship Troopers is probably the most famous.

This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones, Bill James
The minor leagues as they exist today are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.
Like Rocket Ship Galileo, this is a stand-in for all the Baseball Abstracts and Baseball Books I dug into when I was falling back into love with baseball in the winter of 1989-1990. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Bill James changed the way a lot of fans looked at baseball; he coined the word “sabermetrics” and over the course of his twenty-plus years of writing has begun to have an effect on the way some front offices work. The thing is, most people assume that he’s a “figger filbert”, some kind of mad statistician who thinks everything can be explained by the numbers, when in fact he’s gone to a great deal of trouble explaining why that attitude is pure bullshit. What Bill James is, really, is a scientist who has turned the scientific method on baseball. What are the facts, and what do they mean? This is the question he constantly asks in all his books, and when you get right down to it, it’s the reason he’s working for the Red Sox now, because John Henry don’t want to hear no jockstrap bullshit, he wants to know what the facts are and what they mean, and between Bill James and his disciple Eddie Epstein, I don’t think there’s two better guys for coming up with the answers to those questions.
Bill James is responsible, along with the fellow who wrote the article in Smithsonian magazine on the League of Nations rotisserie baseball league, for restoring my love for baseball after Bob Short killed it in 1972. I got interested in Rotisserie baseball, then involved in a Pursue the Pennant league, began scoring for STATS, Inc. during the horrible summer that was the 1990 Minnesota Twins|Twins season, and wound up reading (and buying) a metric buttload of baseball books. Not too surprisingly, a lot of them (The Politics of Glory, to name but one of many) were written by Bill James, but I would recommend this one as a good starting point. It’s out of print, but there are plenty of used copies out there; maybe one of these days some savvy publisher will get James to polish it up so they can offer a second edition.

Sharpe’s Rifles, Bernard Cornwell
” What the hell is this bloody army coming to? He’s a jumped-up sergeant, Johnny! He isn’t even a real officer! And in the Rifles, too!”
This is one of several books I went looking for after seeing the TV or movie adaptations, although since I hadn’t seen the credits to the show I thought I was looking for Rifleman Dodd by C.S. Forester. Fortunately, the folks at the now-defunct Baxter’s Books were able to get me pointed in the right direction, and so I began a long hunt through the libraries and bookstores for more books about the scarred, ill-starred officer of the 95th Rifles. Unlike Forester’s books, these are not stories suitable for children: there’s enough gory death and violent sex (to say nothing of rape) to earn these books an R rating at the very least, if they were ever faithfully brought to the big screen. They do have the virtue of being accurate, though; Bernard Cornwell|Cornwell has unquestionably done his homework – which is more than one can say for the idiot who cast Daragh O’Malley as the hulking Sergeant Harper in the TV series. On the other hand, casting Sean Bean as Sharpe was pure genius, so I guess overall it’s a wash.
The Sharpe novels are historical novels at their best: they give you an unflinching look at life in the period when they take place, and England during the Napoleonic Wars was a damned interesting place. One sees both the extreme poverty of the London rookeries and the often-corrupt but quite stylish Court society, sometimes all in the same novel (Sharpe’s Regiment) while other novels delve into the shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage in which even strong men like Richard Sharpe are just pawns in the hands of the game masters. (Sharpe’s Sword). Some people draw parallels between Cornwell’s Sharpe and Fleming’s Bond; this isn’t fair to Sharpe, who isn’t the sociopath that Bond rather obviously is. Sharpe loves his men and his wives in a way that Bond never could, and I would argue that leading men from the front in the Napoleonic Wars takes a sight more courage than facing off against SPECTRE or SMERSH, if only because Sharpe knew he couldn’t rely on H.M. Government to take care of him if things went sideways. Excellent, excellent fiction and a worthy complement to our next book…

Beat to Quarters, C. S. Forester
During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.
Unlike the previous two books, I discovered the shy, solitary captain of the Lydia one winter when I was a child, sick abed and plowing through a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for Children. I’m a sucker for a complex, sympathetic character, and Horatio Hornblower certainly is one; also, I was a sucker for a heroic fight against long odds, and Hornblower’s cruise was definitely one of those after another, even without the romantic subplot involving Lady Barbara Wellesley. (Oh, my! #^_^#) Like Sharpe’s Rifles, this book sent me off on a hunt for the other books in the (quite extensive) Hornblower saga, which I someday hope to sit down and read IN ORDER for the first time.
What can I really say about the Hornblower novels that hasn’t already been said a million times? C.S. Forester’s lonely captain has been the inspiration for dozens of others, including one starship captain from Riverside, Iowa and another whose career was less spectacular but arguably more colorful. Oh, yes, there’s the Salamander as well. Still, Forester’s novels deserve to be read for their own sake and not as some literary archetype. They’re great sea tales and wonderful stories. Read them, and read them to your kids.

365 Days, Ronald Glasser
And so it goes, and the gooks know it. They will drop the point, trying not to kill him but to wound him, to get him screaming so they can get the medic too. He’ll come. They know he will.
Ronald J. Glasser was a pediatrician assigned to the Army station hospital in Camp Zama, Japan, during the Vietnam War. Times being what they were, he found himself working on a lot of the wounded who had been medevac’d from the war zone, and eventually writing about the experience. 365 Days isn’t Glasser’s story; it isn’t even a coherent narrative. What it is, is a collection of vignettes about Americans in Vietnam, pretty much as Glasser says in the foreword that I quoted at the beginning of this. Some of them are gripping. Some are sad. Some are extremely creepy (“Gentlemen, It Works” in particular) while others are grimly amusing (“No Fucken Cornflakes”) – and some will leave scars. You’ll know them when you find them.
There have been a lot of books written about Vietnam, and I probably read far too many of them when I was in high school. I’m pretty sure it affected how I viewed the Army, and not for the better; all the more so since the Army of the 1980s in Europe was not what it had been during Vietnam. So much the worse for me. This book, though, I couldn’t stay away from. I must have checked out every copy from the county library and the local base libraries at least half a dozen times, reading and re-reading it from cover to cover. I’ve long since worn out my first copy, and the second one’s spine is starting to go. I don’t know if I can really call it one of my favorite books, but it’s a part of who I am, and it would bother me not to have a copy on hand.


34 Responses to “21 Books, Part I”

  1. CHideout
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    21 Books, Part I: – by Wombat-socho I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last…

  2. MrEvilMatt
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    21 Books, Part I: – by Wombat-socho I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last…

  3. jwbrown1969
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    21 Books, Part I: – by Wombat-socho I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last…

  4. Lockestep1776
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    21 Books, Part I: – by Wombat-socho I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last…

  5. Citzcom
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    21 Books, Part I: – by Wombat-socho I’ve been somewhat pressed for time this week, and mostly reading The Last…

  6. preciseBlogs
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

    21 #Books, Part I #news #conservative

  7. TenquidOk
    July 26th, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    21 Books, Part I

  8. K-Bob
    July 26th, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    I read Gulag back when it was apparently newly published here, and all the lefties were trying to get it banned. The funny thing was, I only saw a few reviews of it that didn’t make this conflict clear, and I thought when I bought it that it was in fact the usual fodder from the left. I only wanted to see what sort of books the “intellectuals” went for. Took me many years after that to learn that lefties were *not* the ones who were warning about the dangers of statism.

    I think I’ll revisit that title.

    I also have read most of the Heinlein collection, but not any of the juveniles. Back in those days (like third grade) I had discovered Andre Norton and read every book of hers in the school and public library. However, Heinlein definitely made an impact later. I think the first thing of his that I read was Stranger in A Strange Land. So I went backwards from there to discover Lazaras Long and other assorted characters.

    I really liked the Sharpe’s Rifles production on BBC/PBS. I should pick up a few of those for my Kindle.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. Quartermaster
    July 26th, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    USAREUR was not the same Army in the late 70s as compared to the late 60s. I went to Flight School at Rucker in ’76, and had come from the Civ world after I had been sepaarated from the Navy and goe to college. There was a black spiritual pall over Rucker when I arrived and was almost glad, at the time, I washed medically when some ligaments were trying to pull loose around my right knee. The Army was not a good place to be in the late 70s during Carter’s malaise.

    I agree with you on the Police State judgment, but we need to be aware that the stuff that allows Police states to function is being put into place and all it needs for the wrong guy to get in to office. Some Police forces are already militarized as was the NKVD and The Gestapo. It is especially troubling on the Federal level.

    I agree on the Hornblower series. The A&E adaptations are quite good and worth watching.

    I have the entire Sharpe’s series and just need the time to sit down and watch it. I can’t agree with you on the courage part. Both activities require a great deal of courage, just of a different sort. The kind Bond requires is generally found on sociopaths. I’ve seen few sociopaths in the military simply because such people don’t fit in well in military units.

    Our taste in books is quite similar. We just don’t agree on that nasty Ranch stuff.

  10. Wombat_socho
    July 26th, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

    If you liked the BBC version, you’re going to love the original novels. Also, pretty much anything William Manchester wrote is awesome.

  11. Wombat_socho
    July 26th, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

    Speaking of Rucker, one of the books I read in junior high was a thing called Orders to Vietnam by W. E. Butterworth, who went on to co-write a bunch of M*A*S*H novels before adopting the nom de plume W.E.B. Griffith. “And now you know…the rest of the story!” [/Paul Harvey]

  12. badanov
    July 26th, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    I see your 100 books and raise you 200 Motels

  13. Quartermaster
    July 26th, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    Thanx! Didn’t know that W.E.B Griffith was a nom de plume. I haven’t read any of his stuff, though. I have spent too much time working a regular job, adjunct teaching and keeping up professionally to do as much recreational reading as I like.

  14. Good Stuff
    July 26th, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

    The Sharpe novels were staples in my younger years

    If you’re as big a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, you’ll want to have Mark Adkin’s great companion to the series. You’ll find Adkin devotes a chapter to each of the Sharpe books. There’s a glossary of characters, both real and imagined. Adkin also provides invaluable maps of every battle and skirmish in the Sharpe series.

  15. JackOkie
    July 26th, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

    Well, Amazon is now richer to the tune of 4 books thanks to your recommendations (Sharpe’s Rifles, The Last Lion, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and Dead Six). Your mention of 365 days prompted the memory of The Other Side of Time: A Combat Surgeon in World War II, by Brendan Phipps. Hard to categorize, but very affecting – highly recommended.

  16. Steve Skubinna
    July 26th, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    Yeah, I was silly enough to enlist in ’75. And the story really is silly – after high school I went to Pepperdine for a year. That was all I could afford – I had a few grants and a student loan, and the money ran out.

    So back home, wondering what to do, saw an Army recruiting ad in the paper and thought “Why not?”

    The Army in the second half of the seventies was not a happy place. The best way I have to describe it was besieged. Everyone, even the non hard left, knew we were rootless half educated baby killers. The ones that did not hate us pitied us, they thought we had been dealt a bad hand and were trying hard to make our loser lives mean something.

  17. Steve Skubinna
    July 26th, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    I’d recommend Ann Applebaum’s Gulag to the pile. Her account is obviously not as personal as Solzhenitsyn’s, but it takes the longer view. She analyzes the foundation and growth of the system, and makes clear that people were rounded up and sent off due to quotas established by Stalin himself. Local party organizations received orders to provide a specified number of bodies to the Gulag, and so they went out and gathered them up.

    Applebaum also illustrates a chilling aspect of the system. One reason Stalin kept it in operation was that he was convinced he received a huge economic benefit from all the “free” industrial labor it provided. In fact, the Gulag consumed more economic resources than it gave.

    It provides a disturbing insight into the manner in which progressives think, their utter contempt for individual humans as they proclaim their deep love for humanity.

  18. Richard McEnroe
    July 26th, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    I did not know he was the same guy,. I had all the Butterworths which were written off a license of Richard Hooker’s two originals, M*A*S*H and M*A*S*H Goes to Maine.

  19. Patrick Carroll
    July 26th, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

    I have”Once an Eagle” stored in my car, in case I am ever in one of those horrifying-rollover-lost-in-a-ditch-for-a-week scenarios.

    Of course, I have also read it about 10 times. If worst comes to worst, I’ll simply remember it.

  20. Richard McEnroe
    July 27th, 2013 @ 12:10 am

    The sequel to Dead Six is available as an E Book from now.

  21. rmnixondeceased
    July 27th, 2013 @ 12:36 am

    I have Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in my car for the same purpose …

  22. RMNixonDeceased
    July 27th, 2013 @ 12:36 am

    “I’d recommend Ann Applebaum’s Gulag to the pile. Her account is obviously not as personal as…” — Steve Skubinna

  23. rmnixondeceased
    July 27th, 2013 @ 12:40 am


  24. RMNixonDeceased
    July 27th, 2013 @ 12:40 am

    “If you liked the BBC version, you’re going to love the original novels. Also, pretty much anything…” — Wombat_socho

  25. Wombat_socho
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:15 am

    I was cursed/blessed with the skill of speed reading at an early age, so I tend to blow through books at an appalling rate. Even when I am working.

  26. Wombat_socho
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    I didn’t either, until I plugged “Butterworth” into Wikipedia and “Griffith” came out.

  27. Wombat_socho
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    I hated it. Owned it for a few months and sold it on eBay; it was about as interesting a read as most of the Army’s official histories of World War II thanks to the minutiae. Your mileage clearly varied.

  28. Wombat_socho
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    Applebaum’s book is also very good.

  29. Patrick Carroll
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:28 am

    Shirer, right?

    I have that book somewhere in my stacks. I’ll have to add it to my car.

  30. Patrick Carroll
    July 27th, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    I also have Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on my Kindle.

    That’ll keep anyone going for a while.

  31. Douglas Chandler
    July 27th, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    I remember “Once an Eagle” being serialized in the old “Saturday Evening Post.”
    Back in the early 1980’s I remember talking to a member of the Army National Guard. He said when he was a regular during the Carter years, that the plan among the Lifers was that if your unit got sent into combat you’d shoot the drug using loser next to you as soon as possible to keep him from getting you killed. He further stated it took time for the Army to adapt to not having what he called “The Shadow Staff” they were the really smart draftee’s who figured out that if they did there job well they’d have more time for themselves and other perks. The smart NCO’s and Officers would use the shadow staff to “get things done.”

  32. Quartermaster
    July 27th, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    I read fast, but not the level of “speed reading.” Much of what I have to read is complex engineery stuff so I can comply with ever changing enviroweenie junk that does nothing for the “snail darters making love” thingy. Still have to comply, however, as the Biologists who became such so they can make a difference in the world are the people making the rules, alas.

  33. Quartermaster
    July 27th, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    When I went to Rucker it seemed the Army had lost confidence in itself. To great extent that was true. The Post Vietnam draw down saw many of the best and brightest leave, and the careerists rose to positions if influence. The only exception I saw was Gen Depuy who was TRADOC at the time, and was lucky enough to find himself in a position of influence and could have a great deal to say as to the direction of the Army. The Army would not have made the gains it did under Reagan without a Depuy, as the training regime was already on the right track.

    Don’t get me wrong however. I would have been thrilled to have gotten rated and spent the next 30 years in the service as a military aviator, but that was not to be. I knew what the Army could be, and felt sure the Army would find itself again as the country was not going to tolerate the malaise that Carter inflicted on us forever.

  34. Steynian 483nd | Free Canuckistan!
    July 31st, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    […] or another left their mark on me, changed my life in some subtle (or maybe not so subtle) way, and made me who I am; Armageddon, U.S.A.: Because Nobody Cares About ‘Social Issues’ Anymore; Mediocrity Celebrated, […]