Book Reviews

Book Review: Why England Slept

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Why England Slept
by John F. Kennedy
New York: Funk, July 1940.
Reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1981. ISBN 0313228744.

It is difficult to read Why England Slept without seeing the shadow of the future president hanging over every word.  Most prophetic indeed is Henry Luce's foreword, which notes on p. xiv:

In recent months there has been a certain amount of alarm concerning the "attitude" of the younger generation. If John Kennedy is characteristic of the younger generation—and I believe he is—many of us would be happy to have the destinies of this Republic handed over to his generation at once.

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Book review: Air Power

Air Power
The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Iraq
by Stephen Budiansky
Hardcover: New York: Viking, 2004. ISBN 0-670-03285-9
Paperback: New York: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 014303474X

This is a long book at 518 pages including notes and index, and it has a subtitle that’s almost as long: "The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II."  It is significant that the beginning and the end both refer to American developments.  Not only did two American brothers develop the first heavier-than-air craft, but American forces have enjoyed air superiority in every war since the First World War.  Budiansky presents most of the debates on air doctrine in an American or British context, and undoubtedly it helps that these records would be available in English.  But he clearly believes that they set the pace of world developments.  The role of other world powers was to react — for example, there is very little discussion of the Soviet air force.

The book focuses on the great debate between strategic and tactical air power.  Should airplanes be used to bring war to the enemy's homeland, or should they be used to win quickly and decisively on the battlefield?  It would simply overwhelm the reader if Budiansky had covered a century of flight from every nation's viewpoint.  But when important developments occur overseas, the book travels there — to Spain as the Luftwaffe tests out its doctrines in preparation for World War II, to the Japanese carrier fleet in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and to Israel as American air power wins overwhelming victories against Soviet technologies through the Arab-Israeli proxy wars.

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Book review: 1421

1421: The Year China Discovered America
by Gavin Menzies
Hardcover, US edition: New York: Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0-06-053763-9
Trade paperback, US edition, revised: New York: Perennial, 2004. ISBN 0-06-054094-X

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Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine captain, claims that four separate Chinese fleets under the overall aegis of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on great voyages of discovery about the year 1421.  During these voyages, they discovered the Americas, Antarctica, Oceania, various Pacific islands, and longitude — basically, every continent except Europe.  The Zhu Di emperor's death, however, put an end to the great voyages of discovery.  China turned her energies inwards, and records of the Zheng He voyages were destroyed.  Within a century, though, Europeans picked up the mantle of discovery. These great explorers thus bravely set forth into the (not-quite) unknown, ultimately handing Europe the mantle of world dominance on the back of Chinese maps.

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Book Review: Brothel

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
by Alexa Albert
New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50331-5

Nevada is the only state in the Union in which prostitution is legal, and as Alexa Albert makes clear in this book, the business of prostitution is just as complicated as any other legal enterprise.  It's a business with many rules and regulations.  Nevada state law allows local areas to regulate prostitution, county laws place restrictions on it, individual brothels have rules for customers and prostitutes, and each prostitute also sets her own rules.  Prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels pay taxes like any other employee; one of them hired an accountant who mulled the proper response for "Occupation" on her tax return.  Licenses can be procured at the local police station, and the brothel industry association spokesman is George Flint, a retired minister who also owns a wedding chapel business.

Albert first encountered the Nevada brothel industry when she was studying public health in college, when she wrote a research paper [...]

Book Review: I'd Rather be Right

I'd Rather Be Right
A Musical Revue
by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Hardcover: New York: Random House, 1937. 4 plates.
Well printed on acid-free paper, so should remain in good shape if properly stored. Music composed and written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, separately published.

I first discovered this musical after watching James Cagney perform the showstopper "Off the Record" song-and-dance routine in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  That biopic of songwriter and performer George M. Cohan is a fabulous film, using Hollywood’s best showmanship to string a bunch of songs together into a rousingly patriotic plot that was just the ticket in 1942.

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Book Review: The Perfect Store

The Perfect Store: Inside eBay
by Adam Cohen
Hardcover: Boston: Little Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-15048-7

"When the early history of the Web is contemplated centuries hence, Adam Cohen's detailed and thorough account of the founding and development of eBay will be among the books that people will turn to to truly understand one of the Internet's most important companies."
— Kara Swisher, Wall Street Journal columnist, as quoted on the back cover

Adam Cohen has written a very thorough company account, one that takes into account many diverse viewpoints.  Cohen is on the editorial board of The New York Times, and each section in the book seems to follows the inverted pyramid style of journalism.  There’s an eye-catching lead to pique the reader's interest, some background, quotes from sources, and finally, an analysis of  the topic’s significance.  One could imagine this book having been compiled from several articles in the Times.

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Book Review: Spycatcher

Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer
by Peter Wright, Former Assistant Director of MI5, with Paul Greengrass
Hardcover: New York, Viking Penguin, 1987. ISBN 0-670-82055-5

From the jacket:

"Uncensored, remarkably candid, and enormously revealing about the real spy business that most of us know principally from fiction ... as Britain's principal liaison with American intelligence officials ... Wright's insights about the CIA and the FBI ... is riveting stuff ...American interest ought to be especially aroused by Peter Wright's charge that there was a conspiracy within MI5 to overthrow then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, and that it was instigated from within the CIA ... But the most important aspect of this book is that it offers a rare inside glimpse of the real day-by-day goings-on within the intelligence world over a long period of time from a very high-level, authoritative voice."

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The heart of the book is on Wright's work in counterintelligence.  As operations kept going wrong, and pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, Wright focuses on Roger Hollins as a suspected Soviet agent.  He would be the Fifth Man, the only man remaining at-large from a busted five-person Soviet spy ring that had placed men at high levels of British government.  But since Hollis was the Director of MI5, Wright was never able to prove his allegation.  The identity of the Fifth Man remains unknown today.  In the world of double-agents and barium meals (disinformation), colleagues turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends (most notably in the CIA), and the truth only becomes murkier once the subject goes to the grave.

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Book Review: Sailing through China

Sailing Through China
by Paul Theroux
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984


Paul Theroux has authored dozens of travelogues, many of which have made The New York Times bestseller list.  He has traveled extensively by rail on all continents, including lines in Africa and South America that have long since fallen victim to civil wars or economic downturns.  These are journeys that you can now experience only through travelogues from decades past.

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Book Review: Booked on the Morning Train

Booked on the Morning Train: A Journey Through America.
by George F. Scheer III
Hardcover: Chapel Hill, Algonquin, 1991. ISBN 0-945575-40-8

This is the last of three Amtrak travelogue book reviews. The first two were on Zephyr and Making Tracks.

Here is another book which takes you around the country, but it is much more of a personal story than the previous two travelogues.  Scheer does not seem to be a railfan, and most tidbits on locomotives or the route network comes from railfans or Amtrak personnel that he he chats with.  After giving a brief history of Amtrak in the introduction, the book launches right into the journey.  In a way, we experience the same disorientation that Scheer himself experienced when he boarded a train in the middle of the night.  The pattern of the book only becomes clear on p.66:

"I was out simply to see what travel by train was like in our time in this country, where trains have been, admittedly, so much debased recently and are so often vilified.  (Paul Theroux has called Amtrak the worst railroad in the world, and he should know.)  My plan was to see just what sort of journey one could have by train these days, provided only that he could pay the fare, had a few dollars left over to arrange for shelter and food, and remained open to whatever fortune, good or bad, turned up.  Friends at every stop are not part of the bargain ... and I made exceptions.  I also counted it in their favor if they had a washing machine."

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Book Review: Making Tracks

Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey
by Terry Pindell
Hardcover: New York: Grode Weidenfeld, 1990. ISBN 0-8021-1279-X
Softcover: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

This is the second of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The first book review is of Zephyr, and the third is of Booked on the Morning Train.

Unlike Zephyr, this book approaches the subject strictly from the passenger’s point of view.  After experiencing his father’s death, along with a failed run for mayor, Terry Pindell decided to take to the rails.  He crisscrosses the country from his starting station of Springfield, Massachusetts, the closest major station to his home in Keene, New Hampshire.  He rides on at least a portion of every Amtrak route, and he ends up only a few hundred miles short of riding the entire Amtrak system.  His ambition was:

"travel the entire country without ever eating in a fast-food restaurant, spending money in a mall, driving on an interstate, or waiting in an airport ... I wasn't looking for: the people who travel by train ... the decision to take the extra time to travel by train implies a certain set of worldviews and priorities ... here are two stories: one of the historical American landscape defined by the passenger rail routes that shaped it; the other of the people who travel these lines today."

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