Sunday, December 30, 2012

Quotations from this year

These quotes come from my reading this year. Obviously, they all interested or meant something to me, or I would not have bothered to copy them down?

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

This comment was made in a report by a British judge and renowned Persian, Latin and Greek expert then serving in India by the name of William Jones in 1786, back when America was still just a confederation of very independent states and Napoleon was a teenager. It is often hard to say when a particular field began, but this sentence was pretty clearly the very beginning of studies in what was later called the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, a hypothetical mother tongue for almost all of the European languages, Persian, Sanskrit and their many derivatives, plus many other ancient dead ones.  Not a single example of this conjectured proto-language exists, and there was probably not ever a letter or pictogram of it in written form. But, by comparing ancient words that have been discovered with each other and making predictions as to what might other words should also have existed if there was a common stem -- and then actually finding them, made the existence of some form of PIE a virtual certainty, though it not only no longer existed, as Jones thought, but probably hadn't for thousands of years. But, who were these people who spoke it, where did they come from and why did it spread so? Those are much tougher questions and probably unanswerable. Neverthelss, I read about developments from time to time. I took the quote from David W. Anthony's The Horse The Wheel and Language. He thinks he knows the answer (Southern Russian steppes) and gives a more answer than you probably want (more than I wanted anyway). I loved the book but I would only recommend it to someone who was already so interested, that they already knew about it. It is very scholarly, but also contains much unavoidable speculation.
For what can man conceive with regard to God unless He has rendered Himself visible? Much rather is He hidden. The mind fails in thinking of God for He is incomprehensible. The eye does not see Him because He is invisible. The ear hears Him not, nor ever has heard unless He spoke with a human voice. The hand does not touch Him because He is incorporeal, the tongue cannot declare Him for He is ineffable. No place can hold Him since He is not to be circumscribed. Time cannot measure Him because He is immeasurable. God transcends all things and exceeds all intellect and mind. There are those who think that only by negatives are we able to define God. If one reflects upon light or anything else known to us, one plainly observes that God is not light but above light, He is not essence but above essence, He is not spirit but above spirit, He is above anything that can be conceived. The true knowledge of God is that which teaches not what He is but that which He is not. No one knows God unless one knows the way in which God has made Himself manifest.

Compare these words by the 16th century heretic Michael Servetus, whose beliefs would not seem heretical at all to us, but who was eventually burned at the stake for them, with those of the legendary Lao Tze, usually thought to have lived (if he lived) circa 6th-4th century B.C. :
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

The Servetus quote was found in Ronald H. Bainton's Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus. The quote on the Tao is from a 1995 translation by Stephen Mitchell. You have to wonder if there was not some transmission of these ideas over the centuries from China to Europe, or if the concept of the Tao, in one form or the other, was repeatedly conceived, as pyramids, agriculture, pottery forms and other universal ideas seem to be.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

From  The Law by the 19th century French political economist, assemblyman and writer, Frédéric Bastiat, who was a libertarian in all but name and perhaps justifiably deemed by some the father of what is called the Austrian School of Economics.  There may be some historical truth to that, but his beliefs would be shared by almost no one today, even most libertarians, who are used to and comfortable with income taxation and larger, more powerful federal governments than those in the 19th century thought possible. Whether they are stable or not remains to be seen, but right now, it looks like they are only stable compared to totalitarian forms of government.
IT sometimes happens in a people among whom various opinions prevail that the balance of parties is lost and one of them obtains an irresistible preponderance, overpowers all obstacles, annihilates its opponents, and appropriates all the resources of society to its own use. The vanquished despair of success, hide their heads, and are silent. The nation seems to be governed by a single principle, universal stillness prevails, and the prevailing party assumes the credit of having restored peace and unanimity to the country. But under this apparent unanimity still exist profound differences of opinion, and real opposition.

From de Tocqueville's Democracy in America written in the 1830sWe still see this anytime one or the other party prevails - the certainty of the winners that it is all over for the losers. Only occasionally is it momentarily true - but then the vanquished become something else in name. 
Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

From Will and Ariel Durant's The Lessons of History. The idea of some natural equality in results, as opposed to equal rights and opportunity, is one of the major difference between the left, libertarians and the right. Though no one would mistake George W. Bush for a socialist, the idea that you can mandate a level of success is the reason that No Child Left Behind was doomed to failure. Equality of consequences cannot be legislated with good result, hard as they may try and with the best intentions. It will, in fact, lead to a bad end.  Durant was one of the great historians and I do not think anyone could do better than his and Ariel's 11 volume The Story of Civilization as a general summary. It seems to me unfair, if not ridiculous, that some describe him as a socialist, which he tinkered with in his youth, hardly uncommon, and then left behind as he matured and educated himself. This later work from which I quote, Lessons, is virtually an ode to capitalism. In fact, that seems to be the lesson. I have mentioned before that he was Ariel's school teacher. He fell in love with her when he was 26 and she was 13 and they married two years later back when it was not frowned up. Today he would possibly be called a pederast and jailed, but they had a run of some 68 years before they died weeks apart.
Yet the odd thing is that in spite, or perhaps by virtue, of his absurdities man moves steadily upwards ; the more we learn of his past history the more groundless does the old theory of his degeneracy prove to be. From false premises he often arrives at sound conclusions: from a chimerical theory he deduces a salutary practice. This discourse will have served a useful purpose if it illustrates a few of the ways in which folly mysteriously deviates into wisdom and good comes out of evil. It is a mere sketch of a vast subject.

From J. G. Frazer's Psyche's Task. So many writers in so many places and generation seem to disagree with this premise. I notice that many of my favorite political or scientific authors seem to agree with him.
Bathtubs are a menace to ex-Presidents for as you may recall a bathtub rose up and fractured my vertebrae when I was in Venezuela on your world famine mission in 1946. My warmest sympathy and best wishes for your speedy recovery.

Ex-president Hoover to ex-president Truman in 1964 after Truman fell in his bathroom, fracturing ribs. There is no point here. It just tickled me.
(spelling as is)
I fear you have been imprudent. You have no doubt a right to enjoy your own oppinion but I Query whether your Duty calls you to divulge your Sentiments curcomstanced as you are. While the spirit of the People runs so high, you cannot imagine what trouble these Storys have given me. I cannot bear to think that my cousins amiable disposition and great abillities should be effaced by arbitrary principles. I had rather think that he understands Divinity better than Politicks. The management of our publick affairs is in very good hands, and all that is requi'd of you is your Prayers and exhortations for a general reformation. It is not my province to enter into politicks, but sure I am that it is not your Duty to do or say any thing that shall tend to distroy your usefulness. You will not only hurt your self but you will injure your fahter in his business, for it will be said and I know it has been said "If the son is a Tory the father is so to be sure." You will grieve your mother beyond discripition, and if I know you I think you would not willingly wound such tender parents.

This was Bostonian Mary Smith Cranch writing to her cousin, Isaac Smith Jr., in 1774. We still have letters from them mostly due to their relation to Abigail Smith Adams, wife of John Adams.  As she understood, her cousin was, in fact, a loyalist (who eventually went to England), but I include these excerpts from her and his following letter because of the sentiments he expressed in response for her request to be orthodox.  Regardless of his politics, I can't help but agree with the following sentiment made in reply, in general:
"Orthodoxy in politics is," I am sensible, "full as necessary a qualification for the ministry" at this day as ever was orthodoxy in divinity." If I am reputed an heretic in either, I cannot help it. It is my misfortune; it may be my fault. I hate enthusiasm and bigotry, in whatever form they appear, but am willing to submit to censure. The greatest friends of their country and of mankind, that ever lived, have frequently met with the same hard fate. I am not indifferent to the good opinion of those around me, but I cannot, in complaisance to others, even to those for whose understanding I have a much higher veneration, than for my own--I cannot give up the independance of my own mind.

"You fear, I have been imprudent." I do not mean entirely to deny the charge. It is very possible, this may have been the case with me, in particular instances. But not so much so, perhaps, as you inagine. Into what times are we fallen, when the least degree of moderation, the least inclination to peace and order , the remotest apprehension for the public welfare and security is accounted a crime? Or what sort of cause is that, which dreads the smallest inquisition?
And, speaking of Mr. John Adams . . .

These Bickerings of opposite Parties, and their mutual Reproaches, their Declamations, their Sing Song, their Triumphs and Defyances, their Dismals, and Prophecies, are all Delusion.
We seldom hear any solid Reasoning. I wish always to discuss the Question, without all Painting, Pathos, Rhetoric, or Flourish of every Kind.

Imagine his frustration. Same as ours today, of course.
Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition – that which lies between instinct and reason – for him to learn. This tradition, in turn, originated not from a capacity rationally to interpret observed facts but from habits of responding. It told man primarily what he ought or ought not to do under certain conditions rather than what he must expect to happen.

From Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. Few read anything by him today other than The Road to Serfdom (and not too many that), but he wrote a number of great books, the one quoted from and The Constitution of Liberty being, in my mind, two of the best.  Tradition we know can be destructive as well as creative and positive and Hayek did not assert anything different. But, he did maintain that only those countries with certain traditions (such as that allowed competition and markets) thrived and the others failed. The title to his book concerns the conceit that with reason, we can create a utopian or better society than we have, wisely fix prices and so on. That conceit we see every day in our politicians and many revered thinkers. We should read very cynically, even those we cherish, and I do not agree with all of Hayek's points and observations. Some have proven simply untrue. But, I have found that he and his friend, Karl Popper, both Austrian ex-pats, better express my own views on most political and economic matters than any other writers/thinkers in the 20th century and I believe I have learned more from them on certain topics than anyone else.
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as Sibylline books. It falls into that long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Churchill did not stand alone in his approach to Nazism, but close to it, and he was, willingly, the focal point in opposition to his own party's handling of the situation. This is why the country turned to him when there were no other rational choices and appeasement proved a failure. He could often be much more optimistic about mankind and just as eloquently. But, the world was headed for a black time and it must have been hard to have been optimistic at all, as he later was in asserting that the New World would rise up and rescue the Old. The above quote is from a 1936 speech in The House of Commons I came across in William Manchester's The Last Lion.
I have often been amused at the vain efforts made to define the rights and responsibilities of immortal beings as men and women. No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman Is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet. Confusion, uncertainty and great inconsistencies, must exist on this point, so long as woman is regarded in the least degree inferior to man; but place where her Maker placed her, on the same high level of human rights with man, side by side with him, and difficulties vanish, the mountains of perplexity flow down at the presence of the grand equalizing principle. Measure her rights and duties by the unerring standard of moral being, not by the false weights and measures of a mere circumstance of her human existence, and then the truth will be self-evident, that whatever it is morally right for a woman to do. I recognize no rights but human rights—I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female.

Letter to Catharine Beecher from Angelina Grimké. That Beecher was the less famous sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame and, obviously, a member of the famous 19th century Beecher family. She was best known as an innovative educator (big on kindergarten, it seems, which doesn't seem so innovative to us).  Angelina Grimké and her sister, Sarah, also came from a very accomplished, if less well known family. They were abolitionists and feminists, and they have not been heard enough from in our history books. Passionate and almost fearless. On the other hand, hard for me to understand the use of "immortal" instead of "mortal." I have read the whole letter and had she used it once, I would have been fairly sure me meant immoral beings. But, she uses it twice. She was very religious and was probably, my guess, using it in the sense of immortal soul.  I have not yet studied her thoroughly (someday, I hope) and perhaps the phrase was frequently used by her and had some special meaning. Anyway, that is just a trivial matter and it was her sense of equal rights that I find interesting, however taken for granted it might seem now. For even in abolitionist circles, women were quite often thought of as second class citizens.  Not content with just slaves being free, she and some others dared believe that women should be liberated too and were willing to pay a price for it.
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Benjamin Franklin. I came across the quote in J. W. Allen's A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, a book I am exceedingly fond of but wouldn't think of giving or recommending to anyone I know. The following is also from Mr. Allen, but in his own words. I think I quoted the same words recently, but it obviously resonates with me and can't be said enough. People often cannot be content when someone disagrees with them just to have stated their own opinion, but are often sure that there must also be either lack of reason or some evil motive behind the difference:
It has to be remembered, also, that there of course existed, on all sides, the constant tendency of the human mind to resent disagreement and to regard those who differ from ourselves as foolish or perverse or wicked. . . Men have to learn not to resent contradiction; and when the proposition in question is one that seems of the utmost import, the lesson is hard to learn. That which has convinced me, ought, it seems, to convince all others, or, alternatively, it ought not to have convinced me. The alternative may seem intolerable.
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

That was Justice Robert Jackson from U.S. v. Barnette, a case involving a forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I have a little personal experience with being coerced to say the Pledge. Barnette was decided long before my birth during WWII.  But, I was subject to a subtler coercive method -- intense glaring. In high school, I was drowsy most of the time I wasn't with friends or playing a sport from lack of sleep. In home room, the first thing I would do would be lay down on the radiator and withdraw into an almost sleep mode.  When they recited the Pledge of Allegiance to begin the day, I refused to stand or recite, but not just because I was too tired. I also deeply resented being asked to make a public statement of patriotism (and more so, one that affected a belief in a deity). If there is anything I cannot abide and see as useless, however much it works others, it is public expressions of belief or loyalty. It seemed to me like something they would do in Russia or China, but should not in America.  Anyway, I do recall the teacher in the next room, glaring right through the windows at where I was sitting or laying day after day. I was reminded of him once when I was watching the one episode of The Sopranos I ever saw, where Tony Soprano's head nearly spins off in anger at a young man who was wearing a hat inside a restaurant. Since an adult I do stand during the Pledge or The Star Spangled Banner for the same reason that Tucker Carlson stopped wearing a bow tie. Some battles just are not worth fighting, even if, in a perfect world, we should (he was challenged to a fight in an airport with his kids at his side over the tie - that was enough). But, I do not recite.
Philosophical in the highest degree is the question I propose to discuss, namely whether the Inspired Reason is supreme ruler over the passions; and to the philosophy of it I would seriously entreat your earnest attention.

I bring this quote up only because it is the opening to the Fourth Book of Maccabees, which, ironically, has nothing to do with the Maccabees at all, but is rather a work about stoicism.  I came across it recently in Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy, which is second in its field only to Durant's effort (The Story of Philosophy). The book is not in most Bibles, but some groups do include it. Russell quoted it in a chapter about the Jews. He explored there the transmission of ethics from the Jews (or others) to Christ and the Gospels themselves. One passage he recites is from a book by a priest named John Hyrcanus, which is not not canonical, but written about a century before Christ was born, known as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs:
Love ye one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peaceably to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he repent and confess, forgive him. But if he deny it, do not get into a passion with him, lest catching the poison from thee he takes to swearing, and so then doubly. . . . And if he be shameless and persist in wrong-doing, even so forgive him from the heart, and leave to God the avenging.

If that doesn't remind you of love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek, I don't know what could.  How long the idea was floating around before Jesus, we don't know, but obviously more than a century. Nor do we know whether he was was familiar with it. But we do know that some early Christians used the The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs themselves and that some recognized that the stoics had described much the same morality before Christ existed. There is truly nothing new under the sun.
When any one asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly forty years at sea I merely say uneventful. Of course, there have been Winter gales and storms and fog and the like, but in all my experience I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea, a brig, the crew of which was taken off in a small boat in charge of my third officer. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

The words of Captain E. J. Smith, a few years before he captained a ship you may have heard of -- the RMS Titanic. An excerpted version of this was quoted in Nicholas Taleb's Black Swans to the point of whatever happened in the past doesn't tell you what is going to happen in the future. Taleb either did not do enough research or cheated a bit in not mentioning that The Titanic was not his first accident (and thus not a Black Swan). Smith was also in one in The Titanic's sister ship The Olympic the year before the big one.

Good place to end - with a disaster. Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is the first Holiday Spectacular I have actually written in advance. First, a best of list. Then, the traditional best comment awards. I'll try and make it Christmassy. If not the text coloring will have to do.

Best Steve Martin movies

The Jerk

Best Frank Sinatra song

You make me feel brand new

Best all-time NBA forward

Larry Bird

Best Nero Wolfe novel

The Doorbell Rang

Best Dashiell Hammett novel

The Glass Key

Best film action hero

James Bond

Best James Bond film

From Russia with Love
Best James Bond books

Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice

Best James Bond film Chase Scene
For Your Eyes Only

Best James Bond villain

Odd Job
Best article of the year

Megan McCardle's There's little we can do to prevent another massacre.

Best Christmas Eve sexual position

No, I'm just kidding. Not going there.

Best  full length Christmasstory

A Christmas Carol, hands down.

Best short Christmas story

Gift of the Magi, O. Henry
Best ancient epic

The Iliad and The Odyssey. Then, The Nibelungenlied and then Gilgamesh.
Best Christmas songs

I have to spend a little time on this, because, you know, Christmas. 

All I want for Christmas is you-Mariah Carey. I'm also very fond of a lot of her Christmas stuff though her hip hop stuff does zero for me.  There is also a beautiful Christmas song of the same name recorded by Vince Vance & the Valiants too derived from a Bobby Vinton song from the 60s. Wikipedia says it is the number one Christmas song on country radio.

Let it Snow-Dean Martin version. Lots of others have tried including the original no. 1 hit by Vaughn Monroe, Sinatra almost a decade before Martin, Smokey Robinson, Doris Day, Andy Williams, Chicago, Carly Simon, Aaron Neville, Kylie Minogue, blah, blah, blah.

Baby, it's cold outside-I have always thought the version I loved best, like most everyone else,  was recorded by Bing Crosby and Doris Day, but it might actually be Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting (1949). Most websites still say it was Crosby and Day (not Wikipedia, though), but there are tantalizing clues - like why is there no date for a Crosby/Day recording? Anyway, listen to Mercer and Whiting.  That's the song, right? But, I'm still not sure as you can find the same youtube video under Bing and Doris's names. Neither video has any actual footage, just montages. Frank Loesser (Guys & Dolls) wrote the song to sing with his wife at Christmas parties and she was so possessive of it that she was angry when he sold it to MGM for the first film version sung by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams in Neptune's Daughter. The Zooey Deschanel/Leon Redbone version from the movie Elf is pretty good too. Probably my second favorite.

Joy to the World-the Whitney Houston version. If there was a better modern pop singer than Mariah it was Whitney. Her Joy to the World was more than just great as was her moving rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Is it a true Christmas song? I'm counting it.

Best non-heavyweight boxer last half-century

Sugar Ray Leonard (particularly because he beat Duran, Benitez,  Hearns and Hagler and lost only once to Duran, though I thought he won).

Best Heavyweight boxer last half-century

I'm not even dignifying that with an answer.  You all know.

Best Professional Wrestler

Bruno Sammartino

Best Dunkin Donuts donut

Boston Creme

Best women's perfume


Best men's cologne

None. Men should not wear cologne.

Best 18th century president

George Washington

Best 19th century president

Lincoln, Monroe, Grant.  

Best 20th century president

I want to say TR, but the more I learn and break free of hero worship from my youth, he becomes more attractive as a character and less attractive as a policy maker.  Maybe Coolidge is a better choice, as he is much more interesting than is made out. Known as Silent Cal, he wrote a lot and also gave relatively long speeches for a president. It was at social occasions he could be quiet.

Best 21st century president

No contenders yet.

Best 16th century British writer (literature)

Best 17th century British writer (literature)

Best 18th century British writer (literature)

William Blake
Best 19th century British writer (literature)

Dickens, Wilde (I know, Irish, but at the time he was alive, that still meant British)
Best 20th century British writer (literature)

Best 21st century British writer (literature)

I really don't know. I don't read much fiction these days. I'd like to say George MacDonald Fraser and John LeCarré, but their best work was clearly in the 20th century. The answer is probably Hillary Mantel, but I have not gotten around to reading her yet. I tried once (Bear lent Wolf Hall to me) but just wasn't in the mood.
Best historical tyrant

Ghengis Khan
Best men's boots

Best NFL running back

Gale Sayers followed by Barry Sanders
Best candy

Candy Corn, Nestle's Crunch Bar

Best cheese

Best computer company

Best 16th century theologian
Jacob Acontius, Sébastian Castellion

Best 17th century theologian
Roger Williams

Best Eric Clapton song
Lay Down Sally

Best dwarf

Andvari, Dopey

Best Superhero (D.C.)

Best Superhero (Marvel)
Spider Man

Best Chinese Food
Won ton soup (by a margin too thin to measure by mortal men)

Best Italian Food

Best pizza topping
Buffalo chicken

Best Greek Food
Baklava (I hope that's Greek. I know they sell it at Turkish restaurants too.)

Best main character on Seinfeld

Best guest character on Seinfeld
Soup Nazi

Best poster of model/actress
Cheryl Tiegs (1978)

Best city for art
Firenze, Italy

Best work of art in Italy

David (Michaelangelo)

Best friend(s) on Friends

Best fad dance

Best minor churches in Britain
St. Martin in the Fields, The Temple Church

Best Church in Italy not in the Vatican
Il Duomo, Firenze

Best painting of Jesus dead
Andrea Mantegna's Dead Christ

Best painting of Living Jesus
El Greco's Christ driving the traders from the temple

Best scenes in The Hobbit (the book)
Gandalf outwitting the trolls, battle at Lake-town, negotiations with Thorin before the Battle of the Five Armies, Beorn's meeting the dwarves and Bilbo

Best current detective show on tv
The Mentalist. Outwardly, the hero has the yawn - typical almost superhuman detective skills shared by other tv characters like Columbo, Monk, Shawn Spencer (Psych)Castle, etc., but I enjoy his juvenile and sometimes cruel antics, but more so the ensemble cast and the Red John (Serial killer) story line.

Best fast food restaurant
McDonald's, hands down. I don't really care to hear other opinions on it either.

Best seemingly mixed up animal


Best condiment

Best traditional ice cream flavor


Best new fangled ice cream flavor

Cherry Garcia. Really this entry should have been in red.
Best Christmas novel

Obviously, A Christmas Carol, Dickens (so, it's a novella -- sue me).

Best Christmas short story

The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry

Best Holiday Spectacular admission

Until recently I thought O. Henry's name was spelled O'Henry.

Best Fantasy novel not by Tolkien
T. H. White's The Once and Future King

Best Arnold Schwarzenegger movies
True Lies, The Terminator, Predator

Best scene in the King James Bible
Ecclesiastes 3.1-11 ("To ever thing there is a season . . . .)

Best Seuss book
Horton Hatches the Egg

Best looking food

Red velvet cake, candied cherries and coffee beans, in that order.

So much for that. How easy it is to tell my obsessions from this post. Okay, time for the best comments of the year awards.

3. "I could go on for a long time about these tests because they fascinate me." Really How does it feel to  be a committee of ONE? I would say COULD and DID, my boy. Holy mother of pearl, I haven't read such lively paragraphs since my last Henry James novel. Hurricane Andrew didn't have enough wind to  blow life into this one. Last rites administered, let us move on. Next week will be better. I'm sure.

Bear from The Joy of Priming (6/25/2012)

2. Let's review:

    David on the economy: "The sky is falling, the sky is falling!!!!"
    David on the election: "I think Obama is going to win."
    You may skip the remaining 30,000 lines that are as boring as 'Being John Malkovich'and get  
    on with the rest of your lives. . . . .

Bear from Political update for September, 2012 (September 17, 2012)

1. A gazillion word post about how it all sucks, followed by wow, gosh, golly, what a   
    great debate I wasn't bored for a second. You waffle worse than Aunt Jemima and John Kerry.
    From Quickie Debate Summary (October 3, 2012)
I have noticed a disturbing recent pattern with his comments and issue a fair warning. Merely summarizing what I wrote in a sentence or so and then mocking it as being simplistic or obvious will not win next year even if they are funny. Move along, now.

Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. All that stuff.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More about books

In October, replying to a comment from Bear, I did a search on my blog and found this draft I think I never published, but I'm honestly not sure (such are my technological abilities). I said I would post it the following week, and then immediately forgot. More about books, but I can't help myself. I love them so. Anyway, with very little fiddling, like the introduction, here it is:


If you haven't read my profile for this blog (to tell the truth, I wouldn't even know where to tell you to look for it on the page, but I know I wrote one), I love books. When I moved from New York to Virginia I brought 32 cartons of them with me, after giving away hundreds, and have added substantially since (and hauled them all back to New York). When I go on trips and lock up my house, it is with the idea in my head that the almost the only thing I am leaving that I really care about in it if the house burns down while I'm gone (Why do I expect this, you ask? Probably my habit of forgetting if I turned the stove off) are my books.

At first, I was intending to just list all my books in this post. Don't think that's crazy. There are actually websites where people do just that. Instead, I decided to do another version of top ten lists, based on books I own or read. As I have also spent a lot of time in libraries reading, and I'm including that as well. As with all top ten lists, of course you are going to disagree. You will be wrong (almost certainly), but that is the point of top ten lists. And, I may have already done one of these lists already, but seriously, do you expect me to remember everything I write here? I treat multi-volume works as either single or multiple, depending on my needs of the moment and if cheat a bit with the whole top ten thingee.

Top Ten WWII histories

This one is really rough for me. So many to choose from.

1) The Second World War, Winston Churchill, particulary the first two volumes, The Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hour. First, Churchill was a great writer. Second, he is one of the main characters in the greatest story of our last century. There were things he couldn't talk about (see no. 3, below) and things he wasn't real clear about. But, there was no one quite like him and it is largely just wonderful.

2) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. I've written here a number of times that I think this is the best single volume history I've ever read. I might reverse it with Churchill's multi-volume work mentioned above and give it first prize, but I will give the P.M. the nod as a matter of respect. I do warn people, it is not light reading, but it never lagged in interest for me. Science, adventure, spies, escapes, geniuses, and so on ad infinitum. And, you will almost, but not quite, learn how to make a nuclear bomb. It is on my nightstand and reading it again very slowly.

3) The Ultra Secret, F. W. Wintherbotham. The story of how we broke the secret German Enigma machine codes, long kept a secret after the war.

4) The Liberation Trilogy., Rick Atkinson. An Army at Dawn is the story of the American invasion of North Africa in 1942 and 1943. It could be credibly subtitled - how the Americans learned to fight. The second volume, The Day of Battle, which covers the invasion of Italy and Sicily, was great too. Some might say even better. Atkinson is a great writer who knows his history and how to tell a story. I don't know if there is a title for the scheduled third volume, which should be out next year.

5) The Rising Sun, John Toland. The story of Japan before during and after the war, told mostly from their point of view.

6) Telford Taylor's Munich is an impressive display of scholarship and real history. The title is just the linchpin as it covers many years in leading up to WWII. After Churchill's own effort covering a shorter period of time in a more personal, but less comprehensive way, it is the best of the bunch, and that includes other brilliant efforts, including Donald Cameron Watt's impressive How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War and A.J.P. Taylor's shorter and more controversial The Origins of the Second World War, which I also own and treasure.

7) The Desert Fox, John Irving. This book is about Irwin Rommel, the great tank commander, and like all of Irving's books, very readable, almost like a novel, and often including previously unpublished memoirs, etc.. John Keegan, one of the dean's of historians, ranks Irving very highly. But, Irving's career has been essentially destroyed by others who believe he has falsified history, and I think maybe unfairly. I've never gotten around to reading the libel trial transcript and doubt I will, but, if I ever do fully research it, I will post my thoughts. I also loved his Churchill's War and Hitler's War.

8) The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940. Learned things here about the man of the century I did not know, particularly about his private life. Writing it must have been fun because the author got to pick and choose from Churchill's parliamentary speeches, which is like reading inspirational poetry.

9) Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer. Speer was Hitler's architect, then armaments man and probably as close to a friend as Hitler could have. He was spared death because of his heroic behavior at the end of the war to save the Germans and his mea culpas at the trial. But, he participated in using slave labor and knew more than he pretended about what the Reich was doing. Yet, starting in prison, he wrote wonderfull best sellers that in part explore the why Hitler stuff that fascinates me. I'll cheat here and lump in with this book Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His battle with Truth, which discusses precisely that. An unusual and riveting biography.

10) The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, William L. Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist who was there for the whole rise of the Nazis. Groundbreaking work, if a little hyperbolic at times. It was one of my first.

11) A Man Called Intrepid. William Stevenson. Oddly, this book about William Stephenson, the British Intelligence representative to America, is written by William Stevenson, no relation. According to Ian Fleming, Stephenson was the real James Bond. Other historians find him much less important. I tend to stand closer to Fleming and Stevenson, as he was knighted by Britain (he was Canadian) right after the war. The following year he became the first non-American to receive our Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest U.S. civilian medal and much later on, a Companion of the Order of Canada. The CIA has publicly acknowledged he played a key role in its creation. Only 2 years ago, he became only the third non-American to be made an honorary member of the U.S. Army Intelligence Corp. Somehow, I don't think that would all be done for the made up creation of one author. But anything is possible in politics.

Runner ups: First, two short books. A Thread of Deceit, Nigel West and Piercing the Reich, Joseph E. Persico, both on intelligence aspects of the war. How War Came - speaking of Keegan, I read this one on his recommendation. Hitler and Stalin, Alan Bullock. A dual biography which has led me to masses of new material. Also Watt's book mentioned above. There are so many more books you could choose from, of course, but, since it is a top ten list, I can only cheat so much.

Top ten fantasy novels

I can't explain why I do not really like the fantasy genre very much. I can barely read anything in it. But, for some reason, my favorite fantasy books are among my favorite books period. Go figure.

1) The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. No explanation necessary.

2) The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien. Ditto.

3) The Once and Future King, T. H. White (""TOFK"). TOFK is first book of White's Arthurian cycle, but the next two volumes are wonderful as well. To read TOFK get it as a single volume as for some reason the collection leaves out a great chapter in it so that the chapter before it seems incomplete. But, do NOT read the fifth volume - The Book of Merlin, published posthumously. It was horrible, just HORRIBLE.

4) The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison. This is a great fantasy novel in the sword and sorcery vein, lyrically bejewelled and intricately plotted at the same time. The first thirty pages or so are really boring, as it is just the way we get to the planet Mercury where the action takes place. A good editor would have just cut it out. You can skim that part without missing a thing. Even Tolkien thought Eddison a great lyricist, and he was very hard to please.

5) The Face in the Frost, John Bellairs. A small story about magic and two kingdoms. I can't even tell you what I liked so much about it, but in a nutshell, it brought you into a magical little world. Bellairs is a children's author and I could not recommend anything else by him.

6) Silverthorn. John Myers Myers was a historian and novelist who wrote some of my favorite books. This is a rollicking, incredibly fast paced fantasy which flits through innumerable literary characters Myers weaved into his story, usually only hinting at who they are. The ending didn't really satisfy me, but is consistent with the nature of the book.

7) The Arthurian Saga, Mary Stewart. Another King Arthur story, but originally and wonderfully told. How many times can it be redone? I read The Chrystal Cave as a young man and still remember the haunting first chapter.

8) People of the Mist, Henry Rider Haggard. I often mess up his name, but this time I double checked. People is merely my favorite of his novels. She, King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quartermain and many others are also as much fun as a sword fight between Basil Rathbone and anyone else. However, I might have chosen his faux-Icelandic saga, Eric Brighteyes, which includes all the good stuff about that genre and leaves out all the bad. In 30 years, I have finally read a Haggard novel I do not like this year about the Greek hero, Odysseus in Egypt. Won't even tell you the name as chances of you reading it are really slim.

9) Damiano trilogy, R. A. MacAvoy. Three slender fantasies by an otherwise ordinary writer are about a young wizard tutored by the Archangel Raphael on the lute and were especially original and fun. I could not find another book by her that I wanted to read after trying a couple including her well known Tea with a black dragon. Not for me.

10) Glory Road, Robert A. Heinlein. This king of sci-fi writers also wrote this fun sword and sorcery bit.

Runner up: The entire Conan corpus. Robert Howard died young, but created an ancient world almost as rich as Tolkien's without a tenth of his learning. I also love Howard's Road to Azrael.

Top Ten Civil War histories

Another topic that is almost too hard to pick winners. But, like the great Chief Dan George said in character in my favorite Western film, The Outlaw Josie Wales, I shall endeavor to perservere:

1) Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, I and II, Everyman's Library. This great collection includes everything he wrote of importance. Bear bought me the entire 11 volume collection and I thumb through that too all the time lookin for gems, but, if you aren't a compulsive history reader, you'll do better with the 2 volumes, which include all of the Lincoln Douglas debates.

2) The Eloquent President, Ronald C. White. A simply ground breaking scholarly analysis of Lincoln's writing. I've read so much on Lincoln it is hard for me to find new information I haven't read before, but he taught me a lot. I was very excited to read, but in the end, not as impressed by his one volume biography, A. Lincoln.

3) The Civil War, A History, Harry Hansen. This one volume history of the war may not be the most famous, but it is my favorite.

4) Army of the Potomac trilogy, Bruce Catton. Maybe the best multi-volume work on the subject although Shelby Foote fans will argue the case. A Stillness at Appomattox is my and probably everyone else's favorite.

5) With Malice Towards None, Stephen B. Oates. I am not sure why, but this was my favorite Lincoln biography, although some criticize it, I think unfairly.

6) Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills. Wills is simply one of the greatest living historians. I've learned more from him about American history than probably any other author. Talk about groundbreaking - this book startled everyone with his analysis of the greatest speech in American history (though some, like White, would quarrel). I could see this as high as no. 3.

7) Lincoln's Herndon, David Donald. One of the great Lincoln scholars, this little book went into the life of Lincoln's enigmatic law partner, who was not a great man, but knew one real well. Still, deciphering fact from fiction was Donald's mission, and perhaps you couldn't do it better. I know that Bear will complain here that he likes Donald's Lincoln, and, he may be correct, but I prefer his Herndon.

8) Fighting for the Confederacy, Edward Porter Alexander. General Alexander was just all over the Civil War, including playing a major role at Gettysburg. His memoirs make it sound like he really enjoyed it. I've written about his memoirs in depth before if you look in the archives. It is, in my opinon, the best Civil War memoir period, putting Grant's more famous work to shame.

9) American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman. Kauffman is one of those guys who is not a professional historian at all, but obsessed with a topic. He took up Booth and set the Civil War author's world on fire. He might not be right about everything, although it is not as radical as he likes to think, but he is very worth reading.

10) The Real Lincoln, Thomas J. DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo just despises Lincoln. I don't. I revere him. But, you can't dispute the evidence DiLorenzo marshalls and he does it well. Other historians would rather dismiss DiLorenzo than deal with his arguments, but that isn't fair.

Runner up: Grant by Jean Edward Smith. Smith was a leader in literally re-writing Grant's history, and shows how his successful presidency (two terms), was undercut by generations of southern authors.

Notes: I am not as big a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals as many others are. It was a terrific book in a lot of ways, and I am not knocking it, but it was not really original and I didn't learn much. Still, very readable and perhaps a good introduction for those who haven't read a zillion Lincoln or Civil War books already. Obviously, from this list, I admit I like reading about Lincoln and that leaves out a whole lot of great books that don't focus on him. Still, he was the key.
Afternote: Some will complain I left out James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. I know I read it once, right at the beginning of my American history phase starting in the late 80s, but I just can't remember anything about it, so it doesn't make the list.

Top ten books on the founding generation

1) The Adams-Jefferson Letters. For at least two years I slowly hand copied excerpts from the two junior lions of the revolution (Washington and Franklin being the seniors). Friends, then enemies, then pen pals at last, their last 14 years of letters, really more Adams than Jefferson, was just wonderful as their topics ranged everywhere and were revealing, interesting. It was also written for us to read, no doubt about it.

2) The Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Really newspaper articles supporting ratification of the Constitution, they are must reads if you are serious about this stuff. But, don't read them unless that describes you. However, it is the great constitutional reference book. Just ask the Supreme Court.

3) Bolt of Fate, Tom Tucker. I have read almost every recent (20 years plus a few oldies?) biography of Franklin, but I think I like this very focused specialty work on whether Franklin really sailed the kite with the key. Read it and it is very hard not to conclude that Tucker is right on the mark. It probably never happened.

4) The First American, H. W. Brands. I haven't found anything else by Brands I really love, but this is my favorite of all the modern Franklin bios.

5) Alexander Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton. I'm cheating again. One is by Williard Sterne Randall, who has written some great books on the founders, including this one on Hamilton, but can't really crack the top ranks of historians, and the other by Ron Chernow, whose more recent and comprehensive work, was better in some ways, but probably overkill. Randall may have sensationalized some things, but then again, maybe not.

6) The Origins of the American Party System, Joseph Charles. Loved and learned a lot from this hard to find but terrific review of . . . read the title.

7) The Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Fleming. Fleming is another writer who is not quite in the top ranks, but probably should be. His works are fun, iconoclastic, interesting and creative. This was my favorite so far.

8) The First Emancipator, Andrew Levy. Kudos to Mr. Levy for bringing to light this founding generation gazillionaire, peer of Washington and Jefferson, who was far richer, had more slaves than them put together and was even more dependent on his slaves - but freed them all!

9) The Negro President and Inventing America, both by Garry Wills on Jefferson. Wills loves Jefferson, but tells the truth about him.

10) The History of the American Revolution, David Ramsay. This book is incomplete and sometimes in error. But, Ramsay had an excuse. This was published in 1789. Let me say it once more. 1789. A magnificent achievement for an early American historian. I admit that it makes my lists for those reasons, rather than what I learned from it.

Top Ten Noir/Pulp Novels

1) The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett. Why did I love this one more than all the others of the genre? I can't say. But, it was my favorite.

2) Killer in the Rain, Raymond Chandler. I never read a word of Chandler that did not transport me into an earlier, darker, seedier and haunting world.

3) Anything by Jim Thompson. No particular book here. I love Thompson. He is the godfather of them all. After Dark my Sweet, The Criminal, The Killer Inside Me. All great. Don't miss his short stories either. They may even be better than the novels. There's one, and I just can't remember the title, that opens with the protaganist tied to a bed, his legs spread open, with a snarling pit bull in between. Yikes!

4) The Maltese Falcon, Hammet. You've seen the movie (maybe). The book is just as good or better.

5) The Doorbell Rang, Rex Stout. I have read (long ago) every Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novel and have a few favorites. This, where Archie and Nero take on the FBI, is number 1. Some Buried Caesar (the first), A Family Affair, which really makes you feel like your own family has been affected and The Black Mountain, where we get more than hints of Nero's past are up there. But, not one I didn't love. I have turned a few readers on to him. Try it. You will never feel the same about 34th Street in Manhattan.

6) Anything by Damon Runyon. I don't think I can like you if you can read any Damon Runyon short story and not find it charming. The man who wrote the story that was made into Guys and Dolls had a fascinating life too. But, you can argue it is too comic to be pulp and I won't fight you.

7) Flood, Andrew Vachss. Vachss' Burke series is about as pulpish as you can get, but they are fairly recent. Vachss is really a fascinating guy and I admire him a lot. The first five or six books of this series were great. After that it got a little too sad and painful for me. But highly recommend you try him. Quite creative. Do not read his stab at Batman. Nooooo.

8) The Buddha Book, Abraham Rodriguez. I've written about this remarkable and virtually unknown book before too. What promise this guy had. Unlike anything else I ever read. He may have only written one more, but it doesn't look so hot.

9) Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. Mosley's Easy Rawlin's novels were to the modern detective novel what adrenalin is to a good workout. Dark, colorful (no pun intended). It is almost impossible to not like and root for Easy (Ezekiel) and even his crazy, murderous friend Mouse.

10) Out on the Cutting Edge, Lawrence Block. One of the many Matthew Scudder novels. Is he original? No. Scudder is a reformed alcoholic, an unlicensed private eye and his girlfriend is a prostitute. All that has been done before. It's just that Block is a great writer. I'm pretty sure I've read everything he has ever written that isn't for the internet only and was only one book I didn't like (A Small Town). Too much icky sex in it. Scudder is the dark New York City version of Robert Parker's Spencer (who I'm sure some think I should have included, but, he is too light hearted to be considered pulp or noirish by me - still, great stuff). Out on the Cutting Edge introduces Mick Ballou, a great character - one of those bad/good guys.

As usual, this has gotten way too long, and I'll have to continue this theme another day.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .