The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, Random House, 2006

I discovered the prize-winning novel that is the subject of this review at the Friends of the Wake Forest (North Carolina) Library annual book sale a few years ago. The book is historical fiction, a tale about a town called Commonwealth, whose citizens voted to keep outsiders from coming in and insiders from going out during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. (That I am just getting around to reading it and publishing this review is a subject for another day…..)

What happens when a cold and hungry soldier appears on the town’s only road in and pleads with rifle-toting town guards to let him come in for food and rest begins the story and proceeds to test the town’s values. Patriotism, loyalty, family – all these and more are on display andup for discussion as the citizens of Commonwealth struggle to maintain their quarantine.

Two main purposes spring to mind by way of explaining why this novel has had an effect on me that goes beyond entertainment from a good read.

First, there is so little written about the great flu pandemic. Mr. Mullen surmises that because it took place while World War I was raging the war was more interesting to writers of the time; the deadly flu could not compete for their talented minds. There is also the argument that the war presented the world with a complete set of villains to conquer,whereas the flu chose its victims randomly and quickly and there was no explanation for it, no one to blame.

Second, there are memories to unearth. Mention the flu pandemic to most anyone over the age of fifty and you are just as likely to run into what the author calls a“wall of silence” as you are to hear about a lost grandfather or uncle or cousin. In the 1910’s, he observes, people were inclined to greet great tragedy with a stoic reaction as opposed to today’s daily confessions to social media, television and radio talk shows.

Miscellaneous information from the novel and various sources on the Internet:

– Many more Americans died of this flu than in combat in World War I.

– The pandemic lasted over two years, from March of 1918 to June of 1920,

– 50 million people died of the flu and 500 million were infected (world population at the time was 1.6 billion, so almost a third of the world population was infected).

– Flu patients were mostly young, healthy adults, as opposed to most influenza outbreaks that affect juveniles, the elderly, and patients who are weak to begin with.

– A Wikipedia article has a list of “notable” victims of the 1918 flu, including Frederick Drumpf, Grandfather of Donald Trump.

If you love a good story that both entertains and educates, this book is for you!

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December 6, Martin Cruz Smith, Simon &; Schuster, 2002 – A Review

Note: I wrote this about 12 years ago and forgot to publish it.  Came across it while attempting to clean up my laptop and delete files I no longer use.  What a coincidence to find it 2 days before the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

From time to time a book by a favorite author has ducked around some imaginary corner just as I have finished separating the twelve pounds of ads from the rest of the newspaper and located the new releases and best sellers sections. Such is the case with December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 2002 and plucked from the bookshelf at a book store in Wake Forest, NC, eight years later (a year or two before Page 158 opened). Surely the announcement of any new novel by the author of Gorky Park,Stallion Gate, Polar Star and Havana Bay was there for me to seize upon,but…better late than not at all.

Shades of James Clavell and Shogun and Noble House and his other wonderful novels about an English pilot (navigator) marooned in Japan when ships were powered with sails only. December 6 is the story of Harry Niles, son of missionaries, born and raised in Tokyo’s Asakusa section, “…a Japanese boy who pretended to bean American son when his parents visited….”

The reader holds on for a ride that takes him from Harry’s childhood to his ownership of a pub and dance hall, with his Japanese mistress as the disc jockey playing Benny Goodman and other American musicians, all the way to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Along the way you are treated to glimpses of Tokyo and Japan in 1922 and 1941 that only fictional characters could furnish. Harry must get out of Japan before he is discovered as an American who, while he loves Japan, hates the self destructive and brutal directions the Japanese military are determined to take.

Here in closing are a few short paragraphs that could have been written this morning with updated names and places. Ishigami, a Japanese Army Colonel back inTokyo after a few years of slaughtering Chinese, and Harry Niles, in fear of Ishigami’s revenge, have the following exchange:

“The emperor,” Harry prompted Ishigami, “when you saw him, did he say anything?”

“The emperor asked the aides how long a Pacific war would take. They said three months. He reminded them that the army had told him four years ago that a war in China would take three months. The problem is, we have won decisive battle after decisive battle, and nothing is decided. There are just more Chinese. Now we would lose too much face to leave. It would be better to lose to anyone other than China.”

“There’s always the option of sanity, declaring yourself winners and coming home.”

“It would be defeat. From then on, the hands of America and England would be around our neck. They could cut off our oil anytime, and we would be beggars. Better a truly decisive stroke than slow strangulation, don’t you agree?”

The “decisive stroke” was, of course, Pearl Harbor.

An instructor in creative writing once told me that often the only way to tell the truth is with fiction…..

Fantasyland: Transforming Belief Into Truth

A review of Fantastyland – How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen, Random House, 2017.

Where to begin and end? As a pal in my book club put it, this book is “so rich” with content we may need two meetings to discuss it.

From 1517 to the present time, the author relentlessly exposes how and why Americans tend to believe what we want to believe, regardless of the facts. Americans, free and independent, have built a nation in many ways on a foundation of fantasy – Fantasyland.

The author doesn’t conclude that all beliefs, conspiracy theories and dreams are irrational, just the ones that go “…overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts.”

From beliefs in recent trips to and from Heaven to government conspirators hiding all manner of truths and conspiracies from us; from Satan on Earth today to real estate prices that would always increase; from believing risky debt isn’t risky to extraterrestials among us; from the dangers of vaccines to life’s creation several thousand years ago; from the phony moon landing to the government’s 9/11 plot; from hoarding firearms to thwart thugs and terrorists to the origins of AIDS; from pretending we’re soldiers “…or elves or zombies….” to sitting at our personal computers to engage in virtual battles; from believing the vapor contrails formed by aircraft at altitude are really secret gasses emitted to control us to believing Satan recruited Indians from Asia to North America to impede Christianity – in Fantastyland many have believed all this and more, and in some cases still believe, therefore it’s true.

In a footnote on page 7 the author discloses the source of survey data that tell us only a third of us believe emissions from cars and factories are causing global warming; only a third of us don’t think telepathy and ghost are real; a fourth of us believe Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016; a third of us believe the government is keeping natural cures for cancer a secret so “Big Pharma” can make more money – the list goes on.

We have facts and access to facts in America, but in many aspects of our lives we are exposed to misrepresentations, made-up stuff, spins, alternative facts, misdirection, and outright lies, and we’ve had all of it in varying degrees since the first “settlers” arrived.

In its 462 pages, including an index, this book offers an opportunity to discover how the differences between opinion, belief, and fact all got blurred in America from the very beginning of the country, and how by now have all but disappeared.

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan

10 Weeks a Russian – Addendum 1

A few messages have arrived telling me the photos didn’t come through well or didn’t come through at all. I’ll try to fix that, but if I can’t get the job done on WordPress and you’d still like to see the photos, send me an email (ejb240@gmail.com) and I’ll send them to you.

Some have asked for a few more interesting things that happened on the trip and about whether my family and friends had a lot of questions.

For a few weeks I was invited to make presentations to a few service clubs (Rotary, Optimist, Kiwanis); my 15 minutes of fame. As for family, they seemed happy that I’d managed to return home. My Lew Wallace H.S. Russian language students in Gary, Indiana, were very energetic with their questions and interest in the souveniers I brought home.

One of the best in my souvenier collection was a set of copies of a book titled “Kartinny Slovar,” Cartoon Dictionary, which contained what the title suggests: lots of drawings of different situations with captions in Russian. For example, a drawing of a youngster asking a policeman for directions. In that example, the caption contained a brief conversation between the two. Seeing “lessons” in a form that was almost a comic book was no small attraction for high school students.

As for other interesting things, imagine seeing former Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev walking by the displays from the World Fair held in Moscow when Nixon was President. He was by himself, without any entourage, smiling and waving to everybody; just another Muscovite out for a stroll on a pleasant August afternoon.

And the books; everywhere books. Book stores, book kiosks, sellers pushing carts loaded with books; everywhere books, and everywhere people reading books. All in Russian, of course, and all remarkably inexpensive. At a time when a hard cover book in the US was priced around ten dollars, a similar book in the USSR was two or three dollars.

And the omnipresent “babushkas,” middle aged to elderly Soviet women, who admonished anyone who threw away anything any place other than in a proper trash container and gave other directions and motherly advice without hesitation; for example, telling me it was too chilly to be without a sweater one morning.

And the streetcars, buses, and subways, where one got on board and placed the correct amount of money in the proper container without any involvement or supervision from the drivers and other staff. The Soviet public transportation Honor System. And if you didn’t have the money, no one said a word, not even the babushkas.

And the vending machines on the sidewalks dispensing “gazirovnaya voda,” the Soviet equivalent of a carbonated soft drink. There was one glass. You turned the glass upside down over a shelf in the front, pressed a button, and a spray of water rinsed the glass. You turned the glass over, inserted the coin, and a drink was dispensed. You drank it, repeated the rinsing, and replaced the glass for the next person. The waste water ran down the sidewalk to the street. It truly was 1965.

And when we checked out of a hotel and boarded our bus, the bus didn’t move until someone from the hotel appeared and gave the driver approval to depart. Our supervising professor from Indiana University (IU) told us the bus didn’t leave until the rooms were checked to make sure we didn’t take anything we shouldn’t have taken. Fortunately our IU advisors had also warned us about taking hotel souveniers and our bus always got the go-ahead sign.

If I remember any more, I’ll peck out another addendum…..

George Washington on Political Parties

From President George Washington’s Farewell Address, referring to political parties:

“However combinations or associations of the above description (of political parties) may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Those Colonial graduates sure knew how to use the English language, and predict the possible dangers inherent in our political system…..

Study the Past….

	A postal inspector in Baltimore noticed fluid leaking from a package addressed to a 
federal judge.  Then he noticed that the fluid had burned a hole in the package.  The 
Baltimore Police Bomb Squad was summoned and the U.S. Department of Justice was 
contacted.
	At the end of the day thirty-four bombs were discovered, addressed to people in 
government and industry whose work involved immigration.
	This all happened almost a hundred years ago, right after World War I, also called 
“The Great War” and “The War To End All Wars,” was over. The U.S. was rife with 
discontent, often violent, aimed at Germans, Russians, Bolsheviks (called “Bolshies”), 
anarchists, people of color – in short, anybody who didn't look or act like “an American” or speak English.
	One of the tragic results of the hatred so rampant in those days was a police strike in Boston.  Two books to read if you'd like to learn more and quite possibly once again 
realize change is never easy or quick: Dennis Lehane's novel “The Given Day” and 
Francis Russel's (non-fiction) “A City In Terror,” both readily available on Amazon 
(e-book or traditional form).
	Compare what is described in those books with what today's “angry voters” have to say. 
	The stone work at the left and right sides at the entrance to our National Archives 
building in Washington read: “Study the Past” and “The Past is Prologue.”

Learning Windows 10 DIY

Whew! What a relief! My copy of “Windows 10 FOR DUMMIES” arrived in yesterday’s Amazon package.

But wait! It weighs a little less than a 5-pound bag of sugar and sports a beefy read of 952 pages, counting the index. At my age, I’m certain it would not fit under my feet if I jumped as high as possible.

I deserve this punishment. I’ve had Windows 10 for a month and am still using the new laptop it came with – wait – it’s the other way around: the new laptop came with Windows 10. Anyway, I’m still using the new laptop as though it were my old laptop; namely, using the Windows 10 features that let you use it without using Windows 10. I’m hoping that last sentence was actually a sentence.

On to the first chapter. Sometime in April of 2016 I’ll be finished with the book and achieve entry-level capability. At my age, and I am not able to emphasize how I hate using that phrase so often, the learning curve is steep. By May of 2016 I will try to let you know how it went.