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51cgEgMuAnL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a fortunate and powerful thing moment when a thinker trained for policy analysis finds his voice as a story-teller. That Ian Toll has lent that voice to narrating events in ‘the other war’ is a profound boon.

The persistent thread around which Toll weaves his story of the early war in the Pacific is the Alfred Thayer Bahan doctrine of concentration and battle wagons. The weaving is a subtle art in Toll’s hands, because the astonishingly brief moment between Pearl Harbor and Midway both debunked Bahan’s confidence in the battleship and proved that even Japan’s naval might was fallible when deployed without due concentration.

The author has delved deep into the minds of both Japanese and American warriors, from deck-swabbers and lowly engineers to admirals and their quirks. The result is a profoundly respectful telling, one that never allows the reader to forget that both strategy and humanity were as fully in play as it is possible to imagine.

Toll writes calmly, in fact the potency of his narrative may lie chiefly in the clear serenity of his pen. He wears his scholarship lightly, and so the reader’s attention is not distracted from the Real Thing, which in this case is the awful, unstoppable vengeance of an emerging global power whose butt had been shamefully kicked as Christmas, 1941, bore down on its complacent citizens. The world was at war, not us. Until suddenly, the war came knocking and the United States Pacific Fleet was a smoking ruins. Then we were all in, and fear flooded in where men had so recently slept.

The author tells us what is almost impossible now to conceive, except in the hands of a master teller: the deeply depressed American confusion after Pearl; the non-automatic nature of Roosevelt’s leadership; the barely drawn claws of the American isolationists; the stunningly improbable over-confidence of the post-Pearl Japanese; the can’t-shoot-straight incompetence of the American Navy in early 1942; the utter sacrifice of Wake, the Philippines, and other distant Pacific outposts as the U.S. marshaled its strength for what was possible; the unforeseeable success of a diverse pantheon of personalities and leadership styles among the American admiralty; and, above all, the stunning surprise that was the American victory at Midway.

So much of this should never have happened, could not have happened. Yet Toll’s patient prose, ever at the service of his story, shows us with nearly seventy-year-old surprise, how exactly it did happen.

An added bonus is the real insight that Toll provides into the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship and, more generally, into the prickly collaboration between a Britain wearied by war and expert in its dark arts and an America just now diving naively into its waters.

The news gets better: this is merely the first of three intended installments in Toll’s Pacific, violent story.

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Kate Fox’s 2008 (updated and revised, 2014) exercise in English national self-flagellation 51M4+GxPOkL._AC_UL872_QL65_is what we used to call a ‘sprawling’ work.

But that might be to suggest that a single gripping plot line traceable through the book’s 228 pages envelopes an unusually vast cast of characters or detours remarkably into literary tributaries, like one of those fat Russian novels that nonetheless retains its power to draw the reader through, page after page.

That is not the case here.

But hold on, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I mean this review to shed a positive light on a thoroughly enjoyable book of which I have already clocked two front-to-back readings.

In truth ‘sprawling’ might be a bit of (learned) English understatement of a deficiency when ‘unedited’ would express the thing with more candor.

If ever there were need for an editor with a savage glint in her eye, this book could serve as Exhibit A for the utility of that craft. Yet an editor might have spoiled half the fun, perhaps even turning Watching the English into the kind of book that Kate Fox would not be very good at writing.

As a Yank who in the 1990s spent four delightfully memorable years in England, I found myself asking at regular intervals as I read, ‘What exactly is this book?’

Is it a manual for technical consultation as occasion demands? Is it bathroom reading—I mean this in the very best sense, suspecting that the author would understand the compliment—for repeated consultation when a pinch of distracting hilarity is most to be appreciated? Is it a travel guide, to be read quickly in preparation for journeying among the English, with an eye that gleans rather than methodically harvesting of systematic truth?

I go for the bathroom reading option, though the book would easily prove its merits on any of the other counts.

But if you insist on reading the book front-to-back, here’s what you simply must do: Start at the back.

I’m not kidding.

The author’s twenty-three page conclusion, entitled ‘Defining Englishness’, succinctly—well, sort of—provides the piece that was missing for the two hundred page-turns before it. I’m convinced that it could serve as a reader’s orientation that would enhance the value of Fox’ rambling exploration of ‘the grammar of Englishness’.

For that is what this anthropological participant-observer among her own tribe—there’s an oxymoron waiting for scrutiny, which in fact the author provides along the way—has sought to place into our hands: a grammar of Englishness, a sort of root-level exploration of why the entire world of English quirks and agonies hangs together in a system that makes sense and can be described. She wants to trace the unwritten and invisible rules that stand behind the life and behavio(u)r of these very strange people of hers. In this admittedly Anglophile readers eye’s, she has done a pretty good job succeeding at a complex task. ‘Animals’, she reminds us, ‘just do these things; humans make an almighty song and dance about it. This is known as “civilisation”.’

It’s possible, even if you have no particular opinion of the English, that reading this book on a sunny day—should you step outside your bathroom to do so—could cause you to like them quite a lot. For this American reader, Fox’ rambling ethnography brought frequent smiles of appreciation and a not infrequent series of ‘Oh, so that’s what was happening that time when …’.

A few unscientifically chosen samples of Foxian paragraphs may provide a sense for where she will take you when you read Watching the English.

On ‘Emerging Talk-Rules’:

The mobile phone has, I believe, become the modern equivalent of the garden fence or village green. The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to recreate the more natural and human communications patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities and enjoyed frequent ‘grooming-talk’ with a tightly integrated social network of family and friends.

On ‘The Moat-and-Drawbridge Rule’:

But an Englishman’s home is more than just his castle, the embodiment of his privacy rules, it is also his identity, his main status-indicator and his prime obsession. And the same goes for English women. This is why a house is not just something that you passively ‘have’, it is something that you ‘do’, something that you ‘work on’.

On ‘Humour Rules’:

‘If, as someone once said, ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time’, it would seem that the time required for the English to turn tragedy not humor is about a nanosecond.

On ‘Post-mortem rules’ among the horsey set:

The unwritten rules governing such conversations express the tacit understanding that a horse very rarely loses a race because it is not fast enough. If you eavesdrop on a few post-mortem conversations (a most amusing pastime, I recommend it), you will soon find that horses lose races because they get a bad draw, get upset in the stalls, miss the break, get boxed in, get bumped, can’t act on the going, fail to settle, lose their action on a sharp bend, run wide, need the race, have got jaded from too much racing, should have gone for the gap, should have taken the outside, saw daylight too soon, didn’t get a run until too late, might try him over a mile, might try him in blinkers and got bags of stamina and sure to improve next time out and ran a great race, really, considering … You may have some difficulty keeping a straight face, but what you must not do, ever, is even to hint that an owner’s horse might possibly have been beaten by twenty lengths and come fourteenth because it was up against thirteen better horses.

On ‘Ambivalence Rules’ when food is in question:

‘Loveless marriage’ is not an entirely unfair description of the English relationship with food, although marriage is perhaps to strong a word: our relationship with food and cooking is more like a sort of uneasy, uncommitted cohabitation. It is ambivalent, often discordant, and highly fickle. There are moments of affection, and even passion, but on the whole it is fair to say that we do not have the deep-seated, enduring inborn love of food that is to be found among our European neighbors, and ended in most other cultures … Among the English, such an intense interest in food is regarded by the majority as at best rather odd, and at worst somehow morally suspect—not quite proper, not quite right.

Further, English males are subject to cultural legislation entitled the ‘English males, animation and the three-emotions rule’. It allows them ‘surprise, providing it is conveyed by expletives; anger, generally communicated in the same manner; and elation/triumph, which again often involves shouting and swearing’. The supremely important ‘Grooming-Talk’ is ‘the verbal equivalent of picking fleas off each other or mutual back-scratching.’ On ‘The Embarrassment Rule’, ‘In fact, the only rule one can identify with any certainty in all this confusion over introductions and greetings s that, to be impeccably English, one must perform these rituals badly. One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward and, above all, embarrassed. Smoothness, glibness and confidence are inappropriate and un-English … If you are socially skilled, or come from a country where these matters are handled in a more reasonable, straightforward manner (such as anywhere else on the planet), you may need a bit of practice to achieve the required degree of embarrassed, stilted, in competence.’

Although Fox claims she is writing for the ‘intelligent layman’ and not for fellow academics—she is an anthropologist, in case that previously mentioned detail has escaped us along the way—she labors ‘manfully’ in her introduction to show that she has thought through the ethical and methodological quandaries of pulling off just this kind of participant observation among her very own people.

Words like ‘long’ and ‘tedious’ recur in reviews of Watching the English, never a promising advertisement of a popular work. I suspect these result from a mistaken judgment about the book’s genre. Fox has given us toilet reading of a brilliant and insightful kind. Depending on your constitution, it may take you years to get through it, but it’ll prove faithful in some very tender moments.

Start at the back.

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517a4WwQTZL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_When a book like Lynn Vincent’s and Sara Vladic’s Indianapolis lies open on lap or desk, a reader sometimes forces himself from page to page. This one does, at any rate.

This slow march signals no deficiency in the book itself. In fact, this latest entry on the U.S. Navy’s single worst disaster is fluid, witty, somber, and smart. The book ought to be a page-turner.

It’s the story that hurts, the awful, aching tale of seawater, sharks, men driven to lunacy, a breathtakingly inept response to the disappearance of one of the era’s most storied (heavy) cruisers, and then the arguable scapegoating of the ship’s captain for failing to avoid the Japanese submarine he could never have known was there.

This new work on Indy is a terrible tale, finely told. Particularly after the recent discovery of the Indianapolis deep on the floor of the Pacific where it came to rest days before the end of hostilities with Japan, it is a story that must be read.

Others have told Indy’s story. Vincent’s and Vladic’s new edition adds to that legacy in two ways. First, the authors have found their way into the embrace of the fast-diminishing Indy survivor family and so have heard many versions of Indy’s loss that had not been told heretofore. Secondly, they have meticulously pieced together the unlikely events that led to the posthumous rehabilitation of Captain Charles B. McVay, III, the man at Indy’s helm in the summer of ’45. This part of the ongoing drama of Indy has never, to my knowledge, been told in such detail.

My mother lost an adoptive cousin when the Indy went down. By appearances, he perished in the initial submarine assault and Indy’s subsequent plunge to the bottom. Perhaps some measure of blessing accrues to not having had to face the sharks and the oil-drenched seas during the terrible days that followed. He would have been a kind of uncle to this reader, had he not too young become known only to God and the sea.

There appear, in Vincent’s and Vladic’s difficult pages, both heroism and shame, and then everything that falls between those somewhat artificial extremes. The writers have worked hard not to reduce the story to one or the other, a task that is always difficult when the passage of decades has blurred memory of the large middle place.

Indy will soon be forgotten, except by those who force themselves from one page to another of works like these, a latter-day tragedy that is perhaps unavoidable but no less sad for the inevitability of it. For a while, though, this new telling of the U.S.S. Indianapolis’ deeply moving story will keep memory alive, honoring men like Dougald Bruce McLean, EM3, known only to God.

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As it happens, just as I’m finishing Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, I am 816gxLNLlwL._AC_UL872_QL65_deep into two volumes on World War II history, a pair of explanations of Colombia’s unending cycles of political violence (I live in Colombia), and the occasionally disturbing adventure by the late Robert Pirsig so memorably titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Yet none of these volumes that dwell or touch upon topics as dark as world war, civil war, philosophical derangement, and mental illness keeps me up at night the way Reinke’s offering does.

Reinke could have written a jeremiad, could have shouted that our technology will kill us, that we and our mobiles are going to hell in a hand basket. He could have shouted ‘Run away!, Run away!’ from the rooftops. It would have made for easier reading.

Instead, the author of 12 Ways holds our feet firmly and just a little gently to the fire as he walks us through why life-giving deployment of our little hand-helds requires a kind of reflective and self-aware consideration of what we are about. Indeed, the use of our phones requires a kind of spiritual discipline that few (alas) will be prepared to exercise.

I wonder, uncomfortably, if I am among them, thus my erratic bouts of insomnia as I read 12 Ways once, then again.

Reinke has done us an immense service. He has dared to engage theologically with a habit as quotidian and omnipresent as checking our phones. He has seen what it can do to us, how dead it can slowly but relentlessly render us, how alone we can become among our thousands of ‘friends’.

He has named the dragons.

Yet Reinke is not a pessimist, somewhat to my surprise. He actually likes his technology, uses it virtually all the time, and thinks it can do us real good. 
But the risks are high and everywhere.

We need more theological reflection of this kind on everyday habits and matters and choices. We need to be kept awake by what our stuff can make of us.

Then, with Reinke, careful steps towards life-giving steps, community-enhancing steps, sane steps amid the mad stomping all around might just become possible.

Stay awake and read 12 Ways.

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41EjOxKJC8LBecause my wife and I work as cross-cultural missional servants in Colombia, I was immediately responsive when a dear reading friend recommended this novel, set as it is in our adoptive South American country. It felt a little bit like the reading version of a blind date.

Yet, truth be told, ‘missionary fiction’ is not a genre that guarantees to quicken the pulse. Often it is wooden, moralistic, and—at times—condescending.

Against such modest expectations, I’m pleasantly surprised by this worthy read. I found Flying Blind to be something of a page-turner.

The story moves along quickly and well. The characters are developed in a way that rings true to certain missionary profiles that persist in spite of all efforts not to caricature because certain kinds of people do indeed end up in this work. Usually, they have a soft heart that’s worth discovering, as do most of the missionary folk who populate Dave Jackson’s pages.

In short, I enjoyed the book and became somewhat wound up in the romantic thread that holds it together.

Yet I have two concerns to register, one historical and the other … well … deeply felt even if I fail to find the right word to describe it.

First, Colombia is (one hopes) finding its way to the end of fifty years of civil war, five decades that have themselves been nourished by persistent political violence since even before this nation and its founders found their way free from Spain’s self-serving yoke. In this context, Colombia’s Army has not often played the protective and positive role that is assigned to it in this novel, even though the author does make a concession to reality in the form of some basic indifference and incompetence on the part of Colombia’s men in uniform. It seems to me that the more positive view of the ‘official’ armed forces in North America (here there are many armed forces) has been mapped onto the very different context in which Jackson sets his story.

Call it a quibble. But reader beware.

My second objection goes deeper. The Spanish that appears in this novel is, well, atrocious. Now it would be unfair to expect a Chicago-based English-speaking author to speak or write Spanish of any kind, let alone to attain a high standard at the craft. But how much would it take for a book like this (and, alas, so many others) to be submitted to the careful eye of a fully bilingual editor before it is allowed the light of day?

The correct answer is: ‘Not much’. Treating people’s language well, even when we do not know them, even when the space we assign to them is the pages of a missionary-themed novel, is one of the ways we respect them. Or fail to.

It simply needs to be done. Lest this seem an unfair criticism, turn it on its head and imagine we find ourselves reading a Latin American novelist’s work in which everybody from the USA speaks really bad English. Ugly, no?

But let me talk myself down from the ledge, at least long enough to reiterate that I thoroughly enjoyed Dave Jackson’s Flying Blind and, with some other reviewers, find it easy to imagine a sequel. One where everybody speaks his or her language well.

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John Dunlop brings to this most excruciating mile of the road informed science, the 41Ur4z3Us6Lgentlest spirit, and a deep conviction that God’s care does not flee the human person who finds himself or herself afflicted with dementia. Nor does mercy abandon those who care for the dementia sufferer. I imagine this last group accounts for most readers of this very fine and wisely titled guidebook for one of life’s darker passages.

The author has skin in this game, if such words can be used without offense in this context. His medical specialization brings him into the care of just such patients and of those who love them. And his family history makes it likely that Dunlop himself will one day sense the fog beginning to thicken.

The result is an exceedingly caring book.

I bought this not because my family had been touched, strictly speaking, by dementia. Rather, my late father’s decline in two nursing homes gradually tightened the horizons of his life and altered the man he had been in ways that are proximate enough to dementia to have made this book a prudent choice.

I ended up buying additional copies and giving them away. You may, too.

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51cRtWtxFpL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The most astonishing thing about this very good Vietnam novel is that a man who has been a Marine Corps officer, a United States senator (Virginia), and Secretary of the Navy could write it. Seldom in my reading has someone who has both heard the snap of bullets and served in the political apparatus that decides and executes war written a version of events that is so searingly realistic about everything it touches.

Webb’s characters find, in the course of his narrative, full form. They live and die in the An Hoa Basin as a senseless war—one that with deepest irony some of Webb’s grunts come to discover is their only home—whirls around them and devours those whom fate or choice have thrown into into its teeth. 

No whiff of martial romance finds its way into Webb’s pages. Yet one comes to respect the terms on which each of his Marines negotiates his fiercely counted days in country. Vietnam in 1969 offered up to the likes of Webb’s Marines several ways to die, some facedown in the mud, some while returning upright to a country that had no idea. 

Through his fictionalized characters, Webb recounts most of them. That some lived is its own kind of miracle.

Required reading for the planners and deciders of war? That would be the day.

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