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Charles S. Fisher RSS Feed (Woodacre, CA USA)

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In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Gore and Romance, June 29, 2016
I liked this book. I listened to it on tape while driving to and from a natural history field trip. The contrast between the extreme conditions the men of the USS Jeannette faced and the sun of northern CA with an occasional night near frost could not have been greater. But then again I am geriatric, of an age of dead men in the 1870s. Was there even a fifty year old on the voyage. Not likely. And what did they gain with 20/33rds of men aboard dying. As the author points out that when thee ship headed north a navel ship was coming south with the proof that the idea of a warm polar sea was nonsense. Yet in summing up the accomplishments he spaces on this and said that the voyage proved definitely that such did not exist. So they landed on two maybe three islands heretofore unvisited. Big deal. Lives spent for what: to prove that August Heinrich Petermann’s cockamamie ideas were wrong. Markham, the head of the Geographical Society, knew that as did the thousands of whalers who traveled. North. Yes remains of the expedition did eventuallyn make their way to Greenland, proving the direction of Arctic currents. That was important. What else?

It is claimed that British expeditions following the end of the Napoleonic wars were a way of creating a kind of national heroism. Sides says that the crew were trying to prove that they were worthy of their heroic fathers who fought in the civil war but was the nation, still bleeding from that battle and the violence of Reconstruction, thirsting for tragic endeavors. Or was it merely the yellow journalism (a term not yet coined) of Bennett of the Herald and a blood lusting populace fed by the trashy newspapers of the times which made the expedition the news that it became. After all there was plenty of heroism in the Indian wars and the cowboys of the West.

For the most part the author did a good job of setting the mini scene of the adventure, focusing on DeLong, Bennett and the members of the crew. With all of the Arctic exploration books I have read, I miss the kind of research which would really have covered the role of whalers in accumulating knowledge of the northern seas. But then it would take a specialized academic historian to dig out that information. Where I wearied and even skipped sections was the endless recitation of the gory details of DeLong’s travel in the open boat and then on land. Also the interspersions of his wife’s letter in his absence dragged. I kept thinking: get over it honey; the guy went off to be a hero and heroes die. But after he died she stepped up to the plate and assumed her role helping other wives and defending the voyage. I am sorry the author didn’t tell us what went on in the navel and congressional inquiries. Who attacked the expedition? And why. This is a good read with expeditious elisions.

Charlie Fisher

Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe
Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe
by Kevin J McNamara
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.32
79 used & new from $8.75

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The fawg of waw, June 2, 2016
If Trotsky had only been better informed that the Czech-Slovak prisoners of war only wanted to leave Russia, if the French and the British had had any notion of the impossibility of re-opening the Eastern front or been so callow in their concern for soldiers, if only….then this book would have hardly had anything to write about. Yes, a large part of the book supplied background material to the events along the Transiberian railway. It repeated such well known facts about WWI that I began to question what the book was actually about, but it also filled in material on the birth of the Czech independence movement that, for me, was informative. Masaryk and Benes are real heroes of the interwar period, the latter a tragic hero when the Soviets took over after WWII. So I was happy to learn more about them. But I wonder how much of the background material was really necessary to tell the story of the prisoners of war.

So here we have Czechoslovak captives of the Russians turning on their Austro-Hungarian master by joining their nationality’s legions of the Russian army. In fact very few did. Masaryk used their existence to begin to lay the foundation for claims of independence. The last thing he wanted was an Eastern cease fire that left Austro-Hungary intact. When the Russian government collapsed there were some 60-70,000 Czech-Slovak soldiers set adrift in central Russia. The best drama of the book describes their floating back and forth capturing the trans-Siberian RR from the Urals to the Pacific. They are clearly the best organized fighting force in that time of chaos and they become allied to the White and Socialist counter-revolutionary forces through no fault of their own. They remain almost self destructively neutral until Trotsky declares them the enemy. They fight to maintain their escape route. But they also give into the French and British desire to use them to defeat the Bolsheviks. This goes on for almost three years until the Czech-Slovak units are almost exhausted and will not fight any more. The Americans play a pretty decent role in all of this, not wanting really to take sides in the Russian Revolution. Meanwhile Masaryk uses their existence to argue for independence. Their heroic stands allows him to create a rationale for independence. After all Czechoslovakia had an army even if it was boxed up in Siberia.

A couple of things are interesting. From the narrative it seems that losses over a long period of time were great, but they represented no more than 10% of the troops. Second in the negotiation for Independence the Czechs guaranteed autonomy for the Slovaks, Slovakia having been a province of Hungary. With independence they simply betrayed the Slovaks imposing upon them the kind of cultural imperialism that Austria had imposed on Bohemia and Moravia. The author doesn’t mention whether the Czechs did the same to the millions of Germans they inherited from Versailles and that, despite his bombast, Hitler had good reason to want part of Bohemia back.

Oh well, history seems to have no real heroes. I don’t know why the Czechs gave in so easily to the French commands that they advance back eastwards to try to connect with Archangel which they had previously failed to reach, and why anyone thought that less than a hundred thousand Czechoslovak soldiers could open an eastern front more than a thousand miles from their east most location, fighting in Russia that no longer wanted to pursue the war. Churchill was a bad guy wanting to defeat the Revolution, but he turned out to be right in the end if one ignores the fact that the Soviets really won WWII. Had Russia gone totalitarian White it would have collapsed in the face of Hitler as did the Tsar. So Churchill was wrong.

Interesting read for someone who wants to dot more I’s and cross more T’s of history.

Charlie Fisher author

Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley
Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley
Price: $17.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Why?, May 10, 2016
I read Ms Olmsted’s interesting book, “Right out of California,” which examined the birth of what she calls the modern right from the struggles in the fields of the 1930s. But that book was as much, if not more, about left wing organizers many of whom were communists. That led me to read a biography of Henry Wallace, a major actor, though from a distance, in the battle to organize farm workers. And from there to her biography of Elizabeth Bentley, communist spy, and fink extraordinaire of the McCarthy era. To revisit what I lived through as a young kid but only remember from the late 50s and through the lens of the New Left of the early 60s is a bit jarring. Buying the Daily Worker near Bughouse Square, Chicago in 1955 at age 17 and listening to the Wobblies debate woke in me the reality that things were not just the stifling narrow world I had lived in a suburban high school. But in the sixties the New Left’s reality was that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of the McCarthyism we were staring down. Of course, while McCarthyism was the Inquisition we thought it to be, some of its victims were not the innocents we imagined as the opening of the files in Moscow after Glasnost revealed, including Julius but maybe not Ethel.

Elizabeth Bentley was right in the middle of it all. Strange woman, but in some way absolutely fascinating. Her sex life after all was out of the 60s. Or maybe we never really understood the sexual liberation of the twenties and its left wing versions in the 30s. Post WWII was so staid. Even the word “divorce” was whispered in my household. Elizabeth must have had a good time. She found real love, but before she cleaned up her act in her fifties, her choice of men was pretty pathetic. So from loose lady in Fascist Italy to communist mistress, to a sad search for love she led an interesting life. But also interesting when she finked to the FBI because she thought the Soviets were going to kill her. This alcoholic depressive was adept at manipulating her new sponsors, had an unbreakable presence in governmental hearings and trials, went from truthful testimony to fabrication and, behind the scenes, would almost totally break down. In the end she cleaned up her act and lived in relative anonymity, apparently stable and a tea totaler. You got to hand it to her. And the author points out that her sexuality, her competence at running a business, her manipulation all challenged the stereotypes of women who were beginning to change in the aftermath of WWII when both many men and the right wing resisted those changes. That her breakdowns were attributed to menopause was a curious sexist myopia of the FBI which by then had become staffed with Catholics, who when they interviewed me, I would have guessed barely made it through Fordham law school. Because of her helpful testimonies J. Edgar even kept up a somewhat sympathetic correspondence with her

Although hardly a Red spy queen she did help blow apart what was really a Soviet spy ring. There were relative innocents who thought they were helping an ideal socialist ally during WWII but others were real spies. Many tried to hide both roles in the paranoid anti-communism after the war. Others turned on their former comrades. Some made a business of it but others must have been sincere in their conversions with respect to communism. Nonetheless it was a vicious circus: hard to distinguish the simply truthful from the mean intended. Elizabeth’s revelations led to the conviction and executions of the Rosenbergs. J. Edgar connived to destroy the Democrats. His alliance with Republicans was indeed evil and despite his competition with the CIA, he and Alan Dulles (see the new bio) were of a piece and acted unconstitutionally in their perverted patriotism. Blacks, Jews and communists were their favorite targets along with many Democrats.

So the author’s mentioning all those names, which I remember but whose significance I don’t recall, was a wake up to the past. It reminds me that there exists an evil part of our country whose claim to democracy is undermined by the shadow government of security and official unlawful manipulation which goes back maybe all the way to the start. Certainly the farm workers of the 1930s suffered from it as did many during the McCarthy era. Now we see how people are kept from voting, money is given legal status as power, drones, NSA, and homeland security threaten individual liberty. Donald Trump stirs up genuine fears into a kind of undemocratic hysteria, one which Plato warned against in the Republic.

I am glad I read this book. It reminds me of how much worse it has been and how similar elements are still present. Thank you.

Charlie Fisher

Imam Cimiucia: Our Changing Sea
Imam Cimiucia: Our Changing Sea
by Anne K. Salomon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $39.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a beautiful book, May 10, 2016
How complicated it is to tease apart the causes of environmental collapse.

I watch a fly get away from a spider whose web is on my window. The spider hesitated and the web seems to have no stick because the fly walked out easily. My house is replete with spiders most of whom must starve. Now there are deer in my driveway nibbling on the leaves of the feral plum tree that grows there and competing with a squirrel for the unripened plums which fawns, not yet born, can not chew. The deer may carry Lyme’s disease ticks.

For thousands of years indigenous people of the west coast of America north of Mexico seemed to live off marine resources without severally impacting them. The natives of the Columbia river may have sustainably taken two million salmon a year. Of course, we have little idea how things changed over time. Local resources may have been exhausted and people moved on. Anne Salomon gave a talk on clam benches, stone linings in coves which the natives of BC’s middle coast built in order to encourage more clam production. These came about when migratory people settled into villages. It is my guess that villages contributed to the diminishing of some local resources. That certainly was the case in many locales around the world particularly when agriculture was introduced. The Polynesians did a good job on New Zealand.

So in this book the authors create a “WE” which is the collective view of the indigenous residents and scientists who try to understand what is happening. They have a mutual interest in understanding change and preserving resources on which locals have traditionally lived. The complexity of the biology and the impacts of both use and larger environmental changes are at issue. The book travels back and forth between traditional and modern concerns and the science which is both social and natural. Literarily that is a challenge. The title of the book and the foreword are confusing. I assume the title is the native expression for the subtitle. But in what language? And it took several pages to find out the bidarkis mentioned in the Foreword is the Russian word for kayak, a bidarka, which the First Nations’ people call one species of chiton.

I love the idea which underlays the authors’ perspectives. It is a real challenge to figure out how a world of hunting and gathering can fit into modern civilization. A joint outlook of those who participate in that relying on years of experience and the “civilized” is crucial. Mushroom gathering has become a foodie obsession. Luckily there are few traditional people with whom to compete. But that is not the case with salmon or even coastal marine edibles. There are hints of this conflict in the book.

The book is concerned with overall marine environment and the irony of how sea otter revival as so promoted by environmentalists has impacted coastal resources. It is a real dilemma because the impact is complicated, involving seaweed, urchins, mollusks, crabs, fish, etc. Before the sea otter was almost extirpated families were assigned to keep them away from local marine resources. Endangered species protection no longer allows that practice. Biological interconnections mentioned in the book so remind me of Darwin’s description of how the success of wild pansies and red clover in England is correlated the number of bumble bee pollinators which are preyed on by field mice whose nemesis are cats kept by town dwellers or how the population of feral animals in Paraguay is reduced by navel flies which are preyed on by other insects which are eaten by birds whose success depends on vegetation, “and so onward in ever-increasing circles of complexity. ...Throw up a handful of feathers, and all fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is [this] problem...compared to that of the action and reaction of innumerable plants and animals....”

So the reader is taken through history and current problems and given insight how the locals view things and its intersection with the scientists struggle to understand. I found it an interesting adventure. I have the advantage of having lived of off of the ocean in a kayak on the west coast of the Haida Gwai when it was still called the Queen Charlottes. Among the three of us traveling together I alone liked to eat chitons. I wish I had known how to prepare them because I had thought that the Haida had not used them as a food source except in times of hunger when raging seas kept them from gathering or fishing. I don’t know whether it would make sense to allow me to gather them now because of the impact on them of environmental change and traditional needs which reasonably have priority.

I love the pictures in the book. They alone tell a compelling story. I thank the authors and the First Nations people who co-created the book. It is truly a WE and that WE can extend to all of us in the world now, not because of competing demands but because of the terrible importance of preservation of that which is in the process of being destroyed and which WE all need to survive.

Charlie Fisher, emeritus prof. and author.

The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832
The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832
by Alan Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.41
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.", March 11, 2016
Jeffersonian Democracy: what a con! Alan Taylor, in his almost matter a fact history of the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay, leaves a deep impression of how superficial our understanding of our democracy really is. Jeffersonian Democracy: with absolutist terrorizing brutal enslavement at its core, embraced by drunken, sadistic, cowards who brought the country to war with delusions of the conquest of Canada, the economic ruination of their Federalist opponents, and above all the maintenance of their individual slave ownership. Republicans, hah! The bigoted nativism that now dominates the contemporary Republican Party rhetoric is a lineal descendent of the militias who would hang escaped slaves, sell them south, and yet fled from small British raiding parties, leaving their guns and trying to hustled their slaves further inland chaining them to trees until the threat of British emancipation receded. Slave owners rhetoric was outspoken until the civil war, remerged in the destruction of Reconstruction, was hidden in Bryan’s populism, brazen in the lynchings of the 1930s and is having its last significant political gasp at the hands of a Trump, Cruz or Rubio while the Republican establishment who embraced it in Nixon’s turn to the South washes its hand of the nasty rhetoric while relying on it as a political strategy for fifty years now. Madisonian Virginia Republicans had little patriotic fervor when it came to serving their country in malaria infested Norfolk or reporting for duty any distance from their precious slave holdings. They would gladly beat Federalists on the streets of Baltimore who opposed the war but they deserted Washington DC to the torches of the British who generously only burned federal buildings and not the whole town. Even Madison fled urging the solders he would not bodily support to stay while he sought safety.

I was kind of bored with Taylor’s excessive historiography and details at the beginning of the book. But as I got further into the text I realized that, almost tongue in cheek he demonstrated how respectful and conscientious the British were in contrast to the loud mouth Americans whose bravado was rarely matched by other than cowardly action. Sure the British had a chip on their collective shoulders from their defeat in the Revolutionary War and they did commit crimes against civilians but on the whole they behaved themselves honourably. And with respect to emancipations they were paragons of virtue. I am not whether they had discovered it during the 1776 civil war but they found freed slaves, intelligent, and brave soldiers. And in anticipation of Lincoln’s freeing of slaves as a strategic and economic necessity which contributed greatly to winning the Civil War, the British used blacks not only as guides through the countryside (which slaves owned at night) but as solders maybe even more effective than British recruits whom officers worried might slip across the line to the freedom of an empty America. The British commanders who oversaw the whole operation acted with respect for the Black Colonial Marines and where faithful to their liberation at the end of the War when London might easily have abandoned them.

Contrast that to owners who tried to woo back their slaves with worn out shibboleths of the peculiar institution’s paternalism. The fear of slave uprising is what motivated most of the slave owners self serving rhetoric. They projected their actual behavior toward slaves onto what they feared slaves would do to them. The uprising in Santo Domingo served as an obsession behind much of their actions. Murdered in their beds by house servants, white women raped by blacks not much better than animals, etc. Aside from the fact they deserved such revenge because this is how they treated their slaves. No wonder they were afraid. And, of course, it is interesting how little revenge slaves actually took. For the most part they wanted their freedom and their families. It was the latter that led the few who returned to slavery to do so. But most liberated slaves even under the harsh conditions of the prejudice and poor soils of Nova Scotia valued their freedom much more than any pretend caretaking their former masters might offer.

Looking back over the civil war of 1776 and the civil war of 1812, I can not but wonder whether a real American defeat might have been much better for this continent than American victory. Had the British really emancipated the slaves before that peculiar institution became the extensive tyranny that it did in the US between 1815 and 1860 maybe all Americans would have been better off. And that includes Native Americans who got a better deal from the British empire than colonists ever gave them. What would America look like today if the blacks of Virginia and southward had even become as economically as withdrawn as were the freed salves of the British Caribbean Islands after their liberation in 1823. Their might have been a hell of lot more mutual understanding and cooperation between the pellagra uplands whites and blacks on subsistence plots of land. Of course, tenant farming may have been the lots of both peoples but not the nativistic racism that the plantation owners fostered over the years to keep the ed necks on their side. Who knows?

It is good to look back on what Taylor has shown us the real America is like. You may have to be a history buff to work your way through his text, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor and a real eye opener. Good work.

Charlie Fisher emeritus Prof.

The Origins of Larvae
The Origins of Larvae
Price: $189.05

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I like it., February 23, 2016
I am probably over my head here. The book retails for $199 so I better be careful with it until I return it to interlibrary loan. Thank you the University of Nevada, Reno for purchasing it. Lynn Margulis wrote hints that larval stages might be a result of symbiogenesis before she died. So when I came across reference to this book, in what I think was the WSJ book review section, I sought it out. Although some of the material on embryology was over my head I could make sense of the author’s thesis but when he kept saying that blastulas may have had the same origins, I got confused because then how did pre symbiotic adult ancestors’ embryos develop or where they also the result of symbiogenesis? That sounded like endless recurrence. So I sought out reviews. The only one I could find was in Crustaceana Vol. 81, No. 2, Feb., 2008 by J. Carel von Vaupel Klein. And the one page of the review on JSTOR I had access to seemed favorable. But then I search further Wikipedia led me to critical articles in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (47) where a Williamson article on butterflies appeared. And also the purported scandal of Lynn Margulis having Williamson’s article published which apparently as a member of the Academy she had a right to do. Well Lynn is dead and Williamson died last month and von Vaupel Klein is retired so I guess the field now belongs to the geneticists who claim the sizes of the genomes needed to bring about the symbiogenesis are precluded by the sizes of the genome of the parties involved. That is beyond me.

I still don’t know what Williamson meant when he included blastulas in his argument as the result of symbiogenesis but for larvae it makes sense. Why similar larvae and different adults or similar adults and very different larvae? I don’t know but the hypothesis leaves something to think about.

Charlie Fisher, prof. emeritus and author of “Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World” with a foreword by Lynn Magulis.

White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
by Stephen R. Bown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.66
129 used & new from $4.47

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings, January 30, 2016
Now approaching 80, forty six years ago I spent only weeks traveling by canoe in the Canadian Barren Grounds. Yet, I am still fascinated by people who lived or traveled across remote Arctic stretches and explorers of the other antipode. Among the many books about the Arctic I have read or taught from, I wondered why Rasmussen was so often mentioned but little was written solely about him. I knew of him but haven’t read his works. Neither have the several friends of mine interested in colder climes pointed me towards his work. There are what I would consider definitive biographies of Nansen, Diamond Jenness, and others and many good books about Samuel Hearne, Hornby the Hermit, John Rae, Shackelton, Amundsen and Scott. Yet, as the author points out nothing of that scale about Rasmussen. So I appreciate this book. But something about it makes me uncomfortable. I would like to explore that here.

It may just be the author’s breezy style where I would have liked something more serious. Rasmussen, like Nansen, had a youth of travel and middle age of worldly endeavors. Nansen became a diplomat, but Rasmussen continued to focus his concerns on his beloved Eskimo peoples. While the author made much of Rasmussen’s ability to charm and befriend his Inuit subjects, I found the title a bit of an overstatement. It may be that the Inuit did regard him as a white Eskimo, but his childhood and his genealogy made him in many ways more Eskimo than white. So maybe the title should have been “Eskimo White Man”. Of course there were others who are sometimes mentioned who were real Eskimo white men. I would have liked Rasmussen viewed in that context rather than being reminded time and time how unique his connection with Eskimos was for a white man. It is this kind of literary romanticism that puts me off. I should emphasize that this is my particular bug a boo, not one that I image a general reader would be aware of. It has a lot to do with the kind of adjectives an author chooses. It inflates the hero, who might really be worthy, but I would like that worthiness explored without the superlatives.

What else. In the early parts of the book the reader is told that Rasmussen is a prince among men. Other than his youthful awkwardnesses, he knows how to charm and endear himself to people. In some circumstances he is outspoken. As the book goes on, I get the sense that Rasmussen had a rather less pleasant side to him. He makes fun of people. He is dictatorial, He fathers a child with apparent indifference. He is what, one might call, an emotionally abusive father and husband, by omission as much as adulterous commission. In that he may have just been living Eskimo morality. But he defends Eskimo emotional attachment moderated by the necessities of survival. He counters people who say Eskimos repress emotion. His treatment of Eskimo women with whom he had sexual and living relationships may have been acceptable to them and Eskimo Society. But his marriage and liaisons with European women had much to be desired. The author doesn’t explore this to my satisfaction.

There is another issue that stands out for me. I like the way the author matter-of-factly reports on the treatment of Eskimo dogs. If I remember correctly Scott was hesitant to use dogs because of British sentimentality, a la “man’s best friend.” Amundsen had no trouble consuming dogs on the way home. So Rasmussen reports the feeding dogs to dogs as needed for food especially when they could no longer pull . The most gruesome scene is of a female pupping and other dogs eating the young as they emerged, the mother finishing the last one. I recently watched a cartoon in the house of a computer graphic artist. In it a cute little dog greedily eats all sort of junk food. It took me a long time to even understand what the film was about. After about the third engorgement, I realized, “oh yes,” an imitation of a human junk food eater. I found the cartoon, strange, even a bit obscene. I was tempted to related some of Rasmussen’s story, but realized how inappropriate that would have been.

While the author goes into detail about the four early Thule Expeditions I feel he gave short shrift to the Fifth. Yes Rasmussen was very interested in the ethnology of the Eskimo groups he met. But I would have like to know much more about the subtle differences among them and also more about the challenges of travel and what he found along the way. That reflects my particular interest in the Canadian Arctic.

In any case this is written for a general audience and I am asking for a definitive biography including how his anthropology came out of who he was. So some of my comments are unfair. As a general biography, the author has done a very good job. He keeps the reader interested, even on the edge of his/her seat. He is a good writer. For those who want to know about Greenlanders and the north I can recommend the book. After reading it go on to read Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven to get sense of how the changes Rasmussen encouraged undermined traditional Eskimo culture. Rasmussen also made money bringing about those changes. I wonder how much his heirs made when the Americans built Thule Air Force base during WWII? The author notes the irony of Rasmussen’s desire to preserve Eskimo culture museum-like while feeling that Eskimos needed to enter the modern world.

Charlie Fisher, emeritus prof. and author

Slaughterhouse: Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made
Slaughterhouse: Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made
by Dominic A. Pacyga
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.35
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good history, January 13, 2016
There are three ways I can look at this book, personally, as narrative history and as a conjecture about the formation of the modern world. 47th and Ada is where the Independent Casing Co. stood in 1954 when I worked on the “floor” at age fifteen or sixteen pushing barrels in and out of coolers shipped from Iraq filled with salted sheep intestines or hauled out salted hog guts for liver sausage casings. The company made what kept the hot dog inside. Occasionally I stood at the water tables with the Polish ladies scraping off gore, cutting off anus hairs, searching for holes, measuring and tying the sheep casings into hanks. The Packinghouse Workers Union run by Ralph Hellstein had to struggle with the Polish women who wouldn’t share bathrooms with black women. the Union must have become increasing non-white because, as the author points out, they were a majority by 1958. Somewhere in the middle of his book the author mentions that during the anti-trust hearings and prosecutions in the early 1900s there was testimony that casing profits alone covered the cost of slaughtering. That was a wakeup for me. Because it was the casing business which supported my father from the mid 1920s on and then our family from the mid thirties. My father and two other upper employees bought the company from its previous owner in the late 1930s. Two surviving partners sold the company to Hygrade Foods of Detroit around 1959, by which time I was on my way to becoming a scientist.

Outside of the front windows of Independent Casing you could see the wall of the Union Stockyards across 47th St. We attended the annual Stock Show and probably ate in the Steak and Sirloin Club. I certainly remember the men’s clothing store where my father must have bought his Stetsons. At the University of Chicago in the late 1950s you could still get wafts of the Stockyards when the wind blew from the west.

The narrative history of the yards is straight forward. I liked the way the author wrote about publicity, the physical plant of the yards, the formation of the companies and the growth and decline of the business. The fact that slaughtering of animals would be such a tourist attraction is something as the author points out, which would offend current sensibilities. PETA would be shocked that hundreds of thousands of Americans thought nothing of seeing cows, pigs and sheep stuck. And Temple Grandin would improve the way slaughter had been done in The Yards because it diminished the quality of the meat not that we kill animals to eat them. Despite the volume of animals processed by the packinghouses surrounding the Yards, the place seemed to be more of a transit point than an end point. Refrigeration made the Yards became what it did and then undermined it. As an exchange it rerouted animals all around the country. But that was more expensive because much of what was not immediately used need not have been shipped. Then refrigeration made it possible to send only the meat whose refrigerated life was about two weeks, and by-product could be treated so only the end products need be shipped. The invariable logic was, “why ship the animals at all,” and so from the 1920s on meat processing moved closer and closer to its source, eventually leading to the demise of the Stock Yards. This all leads me to wonder where that high profit casing business ended up. Artificial casings came in the early fifties, and tennis rackets and sutures no longer needed to made from animals. So are casing only now used for high end sausage? I have to find out.

Where I have questions for the author comes from his use of the word modern. I think I know what he wants to convey with it but I have reservations and it could have been explored more by him. First of all, I would have liked to have some more of the contemporary history of Chicago included in his book. He explores a bit of the ethnicity of the workers, but not of the owners. We get a sense of how the Yards related to the University but I would have liked to have at least a bit more about University Settlement House and the Back of the Yards organization. I know that was not the author’s main interest but I missed hearing more of its role. The Yards was certainly an ethnic mix master.

So “modern?” Did the production lines in the packinghouses really beco me the model for Henry Ford’s? But the issue of what is modern about industrialization is a complicated one. Sydney Mintz would have the first factories the slave operated sugar plantations of the Knights of Malta. Here cutting, grinding, and distilling of refined sugar was done by one the plantation. So that is one sense of modern. Marx on the other hand would see the machine as the key ingredient of manufacturing. His paradigm was the textile mill. Here work which had been done by hand in various stages in cottages was done by steam driven machines operated by or simply cared for by laborers. The assembling of textiles needed few hands actually manipulating the material. The disassembling of animals seems different. It isn’t so much machines that took the animals apart (that came later) but division of labor where workers handling tools repeated over and over again smaller parts of the job. Instead of one or several persons doing the whole job (and takes a lot of work doing many different things to dress even a chicken) the jobs is broken down. Pictures of lines men with meat saws cutting through the same bones of many animals are illustrative. And there isn’t even a moving production line. So humans with tools remained important. But I wonder how this changed over time. I would have liked to heard more about this from the author. So it was “modern” because the raw material was moved around the Yards more efficiently and in vast numbers and the raw a materials were disassembled and processed in an increasing division of labor by workers with hand tools. Volume here seems important to the modern as it was, of course, in the case of the Knights of Malta. It was modern also because of labor revolts, but they too happened in slave and serf society. Until the UPWA really won its battles in the 1940s, besides some moves toward corporate paternalism, a modern worker/owner relationship wasn’t really in effect. And modern seemed to have happned early on in the Yards because of the careful accountability of raw materials and public knowledge of flow and price. So modern presents us with a problem. Busting up big meat companies seemed harder than big oil, because it was not only business combination that was involved but also labor which had not yet become organizationally big. The 1920s were a terrible setback for packinghouse workers which only the end of the new deal seemed to have remedied. And who knows now with illegal immigrant labor in places like Iowa and Nebraska.

I enjoyed reading this book. I had very special interests but it covers an important part of American history and the subject sits in the memory of us older folk who were residents of the Windy City. Thank you.

California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide
California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide
by Michael G. Wood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $38.10
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, October 29, 2015
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For a California mycophile Professor Desjardin has laid a treasure in my lap. Now after three years of drought I need rain to put it to use. In Marin county last year I probably managed to find about 20 species of mushroom over the entire season while my buddy Bob Stewart up in Arcata approached 200. If I had a coffee table I would but “California Mushrooms” on it. Because, despite the seasonally-so-far lack of shrooms, I pick it up and read through one section after another. I wonder whether the older standard reference book we all know will fade. (I lobby its author to bring it up to date.) Of course our professor author needs not resort to humor as his predecessor did, but I would have like a little more help with synonyms. That is what us old guys, who learned taxonomy a while ago, now use as an excuse to use older claudistics which can be applied in the field to identify species. This is not a problem in this book. But more synonyms by way of common names and confused scientific names would have been useful.

The pictures in the book are excellent. It doesn’t quite match the weight of “Lichens of North America,” but maybe equals Jespson’s flora for which people had handy cloth carrying cases. I wonder if the publisher will reduce it too a handbook to carry in the field. This book is a must for shroomers in California.

Charlie Fisher, author of “Meditation in the Wild” and “Dismantling Discontent.”

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Pacific War Trilogy)
The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Pacific War Trilogy)
by Ian W. Toll
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.60
87 used & new from $13.04

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well told tale, October 29, 2015
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Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942
by Ian W. Toll
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.83

66 used & new from $4.97

4.0 out of 5 stars A well written tale, October 29, 2015

This review is from: Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Hardcover)
From the TV serial “Victory at Sea” in the 1950’s and Churchill’s self justifying volumes which sat in my father’s library, how many books have I read on WWII? So when I pick up a new volume it often feels like I have heard it all before and I am ready to jump on sloppiness, weak generalizations, and missing political or economic elements. But this book manages to tell an exciting story and hits most of the really important points. The narrative flowed easily and I found myself interested in what would come next.

I have a few questions more about tone and style than anything else. Since this is the second book of a trilogy and I haven’t read the first I may be jumping the gun. The first may have portrayed the expected outcome of the war in the Pacific more grimly than this: I don’t know. The superiority of Zeroes, the greater experience of Japanese pilots, soldiers and navel forces all may have been portrayed as leaving the outcome in doubt. In the movie “Pearl Harbor” the actor playing Admiral Yamamoto gravely says something like, “We have woken a sleeping giant and we will live to regret it.” But there seems to be absolutely no doubt after Guadalcanal that America’s vastly greater industrial capacity, larger population, superior air and radar technology and tactical abilities would win the war. I wondered whether the narrative tilt in this direction was a little overdone. The author is saying that Japanese bonzai mentality, abuse of recruits, inability or unwillingness to withdraw troops, lack of emphasis on rescuing downed pilots, poor onboard ship firefighting ability made the Japanese inevitable losers. Once American fighter planes could out perform the Japanese and the pilots had better training, the air war was essentially over. Zeroes flimsy construction made them particularly vulnerable. And the Japanese did not bring back experienced pilots to train the newbies. They were worn out or killed. Guadalcanal was again the tipping point. Night attacks by Zero’s and both air and sea delivered torpedoes were a real threat. But that receded as American fighters could take more abuse and both ship and airborne radar improved. Ack-ack could put up an almost impenetrable barrier and submarines had less chance of getting through protective attack ships.

One of the main points that the author is making is that both strategically and tactically Japanese culture made their warring abilities inferior to the Americans. Bonzai attacks were suicide. On Guadalcanal it lead to the destruction of land based defenders. And with the notion of winning one great sea battle the Admirals lost the war. The idea that a great victory after Pearl Harbor would bring the US to a negotiated peace seems absurd. The same arrogance that was embedded in seppuku for failure blinded the Japanese as to whom their enemy really was. Once Guam was taken and the homeland was exposed to direst bombing the war was over. The Japanese model of western fighting abilities was built upon their defeat of the Russians in the 1894 war and the great defeat of their fleet at Tsushima. But they didn’t seem to take in their own defeat in against the Soviet Union in Mongolia in 1939. Some people argue it was this stalemate which led the Japanese to turn southward.

I don’t understand what role MacArthur played. From volume two it seems like Nimitz won the war. Why not just skip over New Guinea, The Netherland East Indies and the Philippines. Once the homeland was defeated these could either have been defeated one by one or they would have surrendered on orders from Hirohito. (And by the by he is portrayed as really a bad guy—egging his generals on when they knew they were losing.) But then this is volume two and I have yet to read volume one and three hasn’t been written.

So where the Japanese were really fearsome was on the beach and in the hills and the jungle. Casualty rates were two to one, but mortality rates were more like ten to one, because the Japanese didn’t surrender. I have always wondered about the special hatred of soldiers toward the Japanese. Was it worse than toward the Germans? It seems so. To go from pillbox to cave with a flame thrower must have been a terrible thing to do. I think the author says that Marines and soldiers eventually got used to it. I wonder.

If I have one complaint about the book it was the mentioning of so many of the officers. This reader could not hold all those names in mind, so references became hard to follow. The tale could probably have been told without half the specific references. (And of course better maps.) Still, if the book kept me interested after all my reading on the subject, then it is a good book. I recommend it.

Charlie Fisher, author of "Meditation in the Wild" and "Dismantling Discontent."

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