Adrienne Rich RIP, Iceman as Twain, Harry Potter Digitized, and New Vonnegut

As noted over on my personal ranting blog, The Gecko’s Bark, I’ve spent the better part of March suffering and consequently recovering from A6, or Captain Trips, if you will. In keeping with the theme of this blog, of course, this is a literary reference to Steven King and the engineered flu in the The Stand.

I’m still angry about the literal deus ex machina ending of The Stand, 25 years after having read it the first time. But tha’ts neither here nor there, although I will add that I think King’s best works are his short stories; some of his non-horror short fiction is amazing.

Anyway, I’ve also been busy back at work teaching ESL full time, now that my recovery from a torn quadriceps tendon is such that I can walk unaided again. Between working and Captain Trips, I didn’t have much bandwidth for aught else, and that includes Barking Book Reviews among my other hobbies.

But there was so much going on in the world of books, that I feel compelled to play a little bit of catch up. So here’s more Random Book News, Volume XIVMXX what have you, in no particular order:

Poet Adrienne Rich: 5/16/29 – 3/27/2012

I don’t think anyone who has studied American literature at all in modern times hasn’t at least heard of Adrienne Rich and would at least recognize her name. I first encountered Rich’s poetry in a high school honors English class in the mid 1980s – the teacher conveniently skipped over the fact that Rich was a lesbian while discussing her poetry and feminism. I came across Rich again in college several times, in various English classes as well as a women’s studies class.

An aside: to be honest, I took the women’s studies course because of the times it met, more than anything else; I was taking 18 credit hours that quarter, trying to hurry and get my electives out of the way so I could start scheduling journalism classes. But it turned out to be a very interesting and rewarding class – and it turned out I was a bigger feminist, despite being a heterosexual dude, than most of the women in the class.

Anyway, Rich has had a long and enduring career, not to mention a colorful life. Many may remember her for telling the Clinton Administration and the U.S. federal government to take a flying leap when she refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997. Her primary objective in doing so, as I recall, was to protest cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts program, as well as other issues she had with Willie Clinton’s administration.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a lengthy obituary of Adrienne Rich; you can also find out more about Rich’s life at her rather extensive entry at Wikipedia.

New NonFiction: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

David Silbey's The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China (book cover)I will definitely be adding David Silbey’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China to my ever growing big pile o’ books to read. The subject alone is an interesting one; the time not so long ago when the imperial powers of the West, including America – which frankly should have known better, given our history and its related rhetoric – sought to open China to trade.

A further incentive is that Silbey is one of the authors of one of my favorite blogs, The Edge of the American West. It’s a blog written by several historians; as such it is about history. Silbey himself specializes in military history; his book about the Boxer Rebellion looks at the revolt that almost succeeded, and its relevance to what is taking place today in the Eastern Hemisphere.

I can’t point you to just one post he’s written at Edge of the American West, so here’s a post about writing a book about the Boxer Rebellion. I encourage you, however, if you are interested in this topic, to peruse this category at the Edge of the American West; you’ll learn much that your history teachers never told you.

Harry Potter Available in eBook Format

While they’ve been floating around torrent sites on the Internet for years – pirated copies having been physically scanned and converted to digital formats — the Harry Potter series books are now available in legitimate ebook format.

J. K. Rowling has resisted the ebook format for a long time, for whatever reason. I suppose I can understand the reluctance of authors to embrace ebooks, but how many people downloaded pirated copies of Harry Potter simply because there were no legitimate ebook versions available? People that would otherwise pay for a legitimate copy, one without the digital artifacts, layout problems and questionable editing that are common with pirate digital copies?

In any event, now they are available on Amazon and at Rowling’s Pottermore site, where the complete series is going for £38.64, or $61.40. That comes out to about $8.77 per book. That seems pretty reasonable, although some people would claim, and perhaps rightfully so, that given the fact that there are no material costs, that ebooks should be cheaper than they are.

It will be interesting to see how many digital copies of the Potter books the publishers can sell.

Authors Choose Favorite Literary Monsters

I first spied this on author Hal Duncan’s blog; Duncan was one of the authors to participate in Weird Fiction Review’s poll of various writers’ favorite monsters. Duncan, in his wonderfully erudite manner, explains why he chose to kick it old school, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

I have to go with a classic, Frankenstein’s monster, because Shelley’s creature doesn’t just exemplify monstrosity, it interrogates it. What makes it visually monstrous is not a matter of cheap gimmickry. Shelley doesn’t just snatch features from the animal world that naturally freak us out?—?mandibles, pincers, horns, tentacles, slime, so on?—?doesn’t just push buttons to disturb us with undercurrents of sex and power a la Stoker. I think it’s an awesome move to have the monster explicitly created from components that are all beautiful and right in and of themselves; they just don’t fit together *proportionally*. It founds monstrosity on almost a pure abstraction of Order Transgressed. Which cuts to the core of it for me.

Hard to argue with that. But there is a wide spectrum of answers from nearly 50 authors; as pompous as this sounds, some of them — both authors and monsters — I have not even heard of. Obviously my education has been neglected, as of late. Some of the answers are truly intriguing, some are obviously tongue in cheek and some are clearly phoned in as the author couldn’t be arsed (perhaps they are on deadline, which would admittedly be an excellent excuse).

Props to Karen Lord, author of the excellent Redemption in Indigo, though, for choosing a Bradbury creation:

My favourite monster (i.e. most horrifying) is the unnamed infection in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fever Dream’. It’s an intelligent plague that not only keeps its host alive but also sufficiently ‘normal’ to become an efficient vector for transmission to other unsuspecting hosts. If that sounds like pure fiction, look up Toxoplasma gondii. Truly horrific monsters always have a real-life counterpart to make you wonder … could it really happen?

Above all, I imagine the real Charles: blind, deaf, powerless, and silently screaming for help inside his own walking, talking, stolen body for the rest of his life. That’s horror.

Steven R. Boyett also has an interesting response. He chooses from Robert Matheson’s I Am Legend. But it’s not the monster you think it is.

Val Kilmer to Portray Mark Twain

Val Kilmer as Mark Twain; photo by (and all rights to) Neil JacobsIt seems like a right of passage for actors of a certain age, playing Mark Twain on stage. It also seems like it would be tough to beat The X-Files’ Deepthroat at portraying Twain – that would be actor Jerry Hardin, who first portrayed Twain in a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – and no I’m not making this up as a I go along. Hardin actually made an excellent and thoroughly convincing Twain, and he apparently so enjoyed portraying the author on TV that he went on to develop a successful and critically lauded one-man play in which he portrayed Twain.

Kilmer is apparently doing just that in preparation for a movie about Twain and one of his favorite boogeymen – er, boogeywomen – Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. Of course Kilmer will always be Madmartigan from Willow to me. But then to many women of a certain age I’ve dated, he’ll always be Iceman from Top Gun.

Squee! Previously Unpublished Vonnegut Novella Basic Training on Amazon

Kurt Vonnegut's previously unpublished novella, Basic Training (book cover)Apparently Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions author Kurt Vonnegut – actually, whenever I think of him, Cat’s Cradle is the first work to come to mind, as I read it at an impressionable age, and to say that my youthful self found it disturbing (in a good way) would be an understatement – left a lot of unpublished material when he died. Indy publisher and ebook pioneer RosettaBooks, apparently chosen by Vonnegut’s estate, has released Basic Training, written by the author nearly 60 years ago. It was never published, having been rejected by the Saturday Evening Post — d’oh! — in the years following WW II, long before Vonnegut became a notable literary figure.

RosettaBooks says Basic Training is a precursor to the author’s “trademark grand themes: the lunacy of kings, the improbability of existence, the yearling hero’s struggle with duty and love and the meaning of heroism.” In a sign of the times, the book is being released exclusively as an Amazon Kindle Single for $1.99.

 

Jeremy Lin, China and Basketball; Paypal and Indie Erotica

Brave Dragons by Jim Yardley - book cover By now everyone has heard of New York Knicks breakout star, Jeremy Lin — he even has seven books available on Amazon already. No, not as author, but as subject. In this brave new world of ebooks and instant publishing, Linsanity even reaches into the literary realm. That is, if we can call The Zen of Jeremy Lin: 17 Nuggets of Wisdom From Confucius to Jeremy Lin About Basketball and Life literature.

I don’t think I’ll be adding that one to the list. But Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Yardley’s Brave Dragons, A Chinese Basketball Team, An American Coach, And Two Cultures Clashing is already added. While eating breakfast this morning and getting caught up on my blog reading and whatnot, I listened to the podcast of a short book review over on NPR’s Fresh Air on Brave Dragons.

[Jeremy Lin] has since proved to everybody that athletic prejudice against Asians is Lincredibly stupid. Except, as journalist Jim Yardley points out in his new book on basketball fever in China, Chinese players and coaches happen to endorse that prejudice. One Chinese coach tells Yardley: “We know we Chinese players are different than African-American players. They are more physically gifted.” As Yardley comments at the end of this long, politically incorrect conversation: “No country on Earth believe[s] in Darwin more than China.”

Having spent some time in China traveling, and having lived for sometime here in Southeast Asia, that non-politically correct forthrightness sounds familiar.  NPR’s Maureen Corrigan continues with high praise in her book review of Brave Dragons. To wit: “Brave Dragons is to Chinese basketball what Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit was to Depression-era horse racing: Both books certainly do justice to their respective sports but also use them as tools to gain access to wholly different cultures.”

That is indeed high praise, as far as I’m concerned. I would have to say when push comes to shove that I’m ethically opposed to horse racing, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t love Seabiscuit. I picked it up in an airport bookstore — this was in the pre-Kindle era — when I found myself with a two-hour delay and no book to read. A quick perusal of the first chapter convinced me that there was much more there than “oooh, pretty horses! They love to run.” And tas Corrigan points out, indeed there is.

Paypal the Censor: Putting the Smackdown on Indie Erotic Book Sellers

Paypal — everyone seems to hate it, yet we all use it. But it sounds like some independent publishers and distributors of erotic fiction may have to stop using Paypal if they want to keep their titles. Noted erotic author and blogger Violet Blue — and former San Francisco Chronicle columnust — recently put the news out on her ZDNet blog, Pulp Tech:

On Saturday February 18, PayPal began threatening indie book publishers and distributors with immediate deactivation of the businesses’ accounts if they did not remove books containing certain sexual themes – namely, specific sexual fantasies that PayPal does not approve of.

PayPal told indie e-book publishers and retailers – such as AllRomance, Smashwords, Excessica and Bookstrand – that if they didn’t remove the offending literature from their catalogs within a few days of notification, PayPal would close their accounts.

Of course, the immediate termination of payment processing would devastate these businesses and all of their authors (not just the erotic writers) overnight.

In case you haven’t noticed, PayPal has a monopoly on the market of online payment processing. There are few alternatives, though none that are widely used by online shoppers.

PayPal Strong-Arms Indie Ebook Publishers Over Erotic Content – Violet Blue’s Pulp Tech.

 

Anthony Shadid’s Memoir, Truth vs. Fact and Life Imitates a William Gibson Novel

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been paying attention or because of some arcane aspect of the publishing cycle, but it seems as if there is all sorts of interesting news in the world of books these days. Of course much of what I’m blogging about here is particularly relevant to my interests, namely the books I like to read and subjects I’m interested in. So there you go.

Thus without further ado: Random Book News, Vol. V (or thereabouts):

Is There Room for Facts in Truth?

When I was perusing the New York Times ‘book section – online – last Sunday afternoon while feeding my coffee (shop) addiction, I clicked on a link by accident. Or was it fate? Because I discovered a book that I just have to read, one that I likely wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for that errant click.

On a side note, I absolutely loathe using the touchpad on a laptop, but the little mobile, carpal-tunnel mouse that followed me from Viet Nam to the United States and back to Viet Nam finally died recently, God rest it’s tiny little optical sensor. But in this instance it was perhaps fortuitous happenstance. But I digress.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a nonfiction account of a fact-checker at odds with a nonfiction writer, one who argues that art and truth trump facts – particularly when they inconveniently diverge from the author’s sense of timing and aesthetics.

I’ll let the Times’ review tell the story of The Lifespan of a Fact, and author John D’Agata’s head-butting with the diligent Jim Fingal (Fingal … apparently there is at least one of Tolkien’s Eldar that didn’t sail into the West). I will just add that as a writer and former journalist – some would argue that I’m not former, but we’ll save the semantics debate for some other time – truth vs. fact is a subject near and dear to my heart. On one hand, I understand where D’Agata is coming from, but on the other hand, I feel that we owe it to history to not subvert fact in favor of truth, as truth in this sense becomes subjective.

Part of my attitude undoubtedly comes from having worked as a professional journalist for 20-odd years (and some of them were quite odd years). There there was the time spent at the hardcore journalism school at Ohio University too (not enough money or grades for Columbia or Stanford) – an errant fact in a story was an automatic “F,” usually.

But on the other hand, when it comes to longer forms of nonfiction writing, there is room for art, truth and fact to coexist – at least there is in the hands of a skilled author. Don’t misunderstand me; in the eternal debate over whether or not writing (as distinct from journalism and news reporting), both fiction and non fiction, is art or craft, I tend to lean toward the former. But that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t require technical skill. A musician must know how harmony and melody work together; a painter must know how to hold a brush and how to use it. In the same way a writer must now how words go together – beyond grammar and punctuation.

Shadid’s Memoir Serves as an Epitaph

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (book cover)Speaking of journalism and the New York Times, it seems that esteemed foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack recently while covering the bloody civil strife in Syria, has published a memoir that was just released this week. Although Shadid died Feb. 16 at age 43 – the same age as yours truly – he accomplished more with his time than most, to be sure.

One would think that his memoir would be about his time covering wars all over the world; and if it had been, it no doubt would be a gripping read. Had that been the case it would be an account of winning Pulitzer prizes and getting shot while covering war and bloodshed, including in his ancestral home of Lebanon (Shadid is an American of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic fluently).

But Shadid left all of that at the office, so to speak, Rather, House of Stone is about a year spent restoring a family home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon, following the breakup of his marriage and family. This is framed by an historical account of his family’s flight from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to the United States.

But as Times’ reviewer, author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll notes, House of Stone is a far cry from This Old House: Lebanon.

House of Stone is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.

I think I’m going to have bump this one up to the top of my long, long list.

Amazon.com Bots: I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave

I don’t always agree with what Corey Doctorow has to say, and I’ve never read his fiction (although it’s on my list, as I’m curious). But he does tend to frequently post interesting book and publishing-related news on seminal blog Boing Boing.

Take for example this “damned weird story,” as he puts it:

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids’ book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon’s sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book.

Amazon.com’s many bots feud over book-prices

Apparently Bueno isn’t the only author finding that Amazon’s HAL 9000 is acting strangely.

Veteran author Jim C Hines offered some of his titles independently direct through Amazon’s Kindle store. He discovered that Amazon reserves the right to arbitrarily reprice his books — slashing the cover price of a $2.99 title to $0.99 — and pay royalties on the lower price.

Author discovers that Amazon can reprice his indie Kindle books however they want and cut his royalties

Kind of amazing, stunning even, to consider that the world of ebooks and ebook publishing is really only about five years old or so, and yet it’s come to this already. Perhaps HAL, the errant, sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t an apt metaphor so much as the Borg from Star Trek: The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation. We are Amazon. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Science Fiction Author Dave Marusek Gives It Away

The Wedding Album by Dave Marusek (book cover)I think I originally discovered this on Boing Boing as well. Author Dave Marusek is notably going about things backwards, or so it would seem. Marusek penned the successful novella The Wedding Album, which was originally published in Asimov’s and subsequently reprinted a number of times and translated into five different languages as well.

He recently published the novella as an ebook, along with My Morning Glory, a collection of three so-called flash science fiction stories that originally appeared in the scientific journal Science. What’s more, he gave them away for free, in both Kindle and Nook formats, for one week each. I’m not sure what format the Nook version was, but the Kindle version is in Amazon’s proprietary standard.

Marusek explains why he’s ebpublishing an already successful print book in an lengthy and interesting post on his blog:

Not to make too big a deal about it, but this is more than just a book launch. It’s also the launching of my new role as e-publisher. The synergistic, skill-extension effect of the personal computer and the Internet has finally caught up with authorship, and all hell is breaking loose. With the introduction of the Kindle only three years ago, the traditional barriers to book manufacture and distribution have been battered down. Tens of thousands of aspiring authors have rushed in where only traditional publishers used to tread. Now, literally, anyone who’s ever wanted to publish a real book (in both digital and POD editions) and sell it around the world can do so at minimal cost and fuss. (Grammer, speling & punctuation is optional; )

Suddenly there are channels to put books into the hands of the reading public that do not involve traditional publishing. Trailblazing authors have already racked up digital bestsellers without NYC’s input. Traditional publishing is reeling with the changes and trying to adapt, and someday it may figure out a new business model (transmedia novels, anyone?). In the meantime, we mid-list authors of the old regime are scrambling to stay afloat in the new. One thing many authors are doing, now that we’ve been given the tools, is to bring out our backlists in ebook format. I’m giving that a try; in my case I only own the ebook rights to my short stories, and I’m only planning on e-publishing these few. (You can already buy “MMG” and “TWA” along with 8 other stories in my Del Rey collection, Getting to Know You.) If all goes well, I may self-pub my next novel, Camp Tribulation, (partly because I’m doubtful any legacy publisher will touch it–it’s that good!–or, maybe it’s no good at all; I don’t know; still too early to tell; it’s about two years away from completion).

One may wonder why I am e-publishing “TWA.” After all, it’s been reprinted about a dozen times and translated into five foreign languages and is easily found on pirate sites. Hasn’t everyone already read it who’s going to read it? I hope not. The fact that it has done so well for so long suggests that, given a little nudge, it might have the right stuff to find new readers on its own who may become new fans.

I may be one of those new fans. I’ll let you know before too long; I took advantage of the giveaway and downloaded both. But as someone who has been through the violent crash of print journalism and the Internet – literally at ground zero, in Silicon Valley – I can sympathize with the Marusek’s of the world and the a changin’ times. Believe me.

Grove Press’ Barney Rosset Dies

I’m only passingly familiar with Grove Press, having read a few well-thumbed volumes published by this imprint back in my university days, Beckett, Burroughs and whatnot – the kind of books that I wanted to read in college, but never really seemed to get around to reading. Yes, a bit cliché, I know.

Anyway, Grove Press’ founder Barney Rosset died last week at age 89.

Download the Universe: Niche Reviews for eBook Niche

As Carl Zimmer notes on the inuagural blog post of Download the Universe, science books have been around for about as long there have been books – and important books at that. Look at all the trouble Darwin’s Origin of the Species has caused.

Download the Universe is a new book review blog dedicated to science ebooks – not the print ones, but specifically the electronic ones. As Zimmer says:

Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.

But there’s something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.

Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books.

Among the editors – many of whom are authors themselves – listed on the site, I spied some familiar names (to me, at least, being the nerd that I am). Among them are: Annalee Newitz, whose byline has been popping up in alternative pubs for some time and who is currently editor-in-chief at Io9; Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger (Cocktail Party Physics, anyone?); and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who I’m familiar with from her work on Boing Boing.

An interesting and worthy endeavor, Download the Universe is. Among the reviews there already is an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: The state of the eBook, early 2012, by John Trimmer. It’s a nice overview of where the market and the technology stands at the moment. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to believe that the ebook market has only been around for five years, and the Kindle for three.

Living in the future is cool.

J.K. Rowling to Pen Adult Novel

I’m sure a lot of copy editors initially wrote headlines like this when the news first broke a few weeks ago that Harry Potter author Rowling has a new book in the works, this one aimed at big boys and girls. Then said editors paused and thought “wait, no, that sounds like she’s writing a pornographic novel.” And then they opted for headlines that were perhaps more clear.

To wit, this new book is to be for an adult audience, in that it’s not going to be written for children – not, ostensibly, an adult book in the sense that Anne Desclos’ The Story of O is a decidedly prurient adult novel.

Not that prurience is necessarily a bad thing. And judging by some of the freaky, twisted Harry Potter fanfic out there, there would be a market should Rowling decide to turn to erotica. Just think: The Story of H. As in Hermione’s erotic awakening at the hands of a dashing, elder professor at Hogwarts — we know she has a penchant for dashing professors, after all.

Moving on …

“Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series. … ” Rowling said in a statement – statement meaning that this was her marketing-and-PR-approved quote composed by some poor sap at Little, Brown and Company’s PR firm, and not words that she actually said in front of a journalist (God, as a former journalist I have always wanted to write that. Now I have). “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.”

Anyway, there apparently aren’t any more details out there beyond that. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. merely announced that it acquired the rights to Rowling’s next novel; there is no word on when Rowling’s next effort will appear in bookstores.

Having said that, I will I say that I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I reread all the books while on a recent vacation and can say that they stood up to the scrutiny of a second reading, for the most part, particularly the earlier works. They are not without minor faults here and there, but then most published works rarely are, and it’s to Rowling’s credit that she was able to maintain the quality of her writing across the seven works. So many sequels to initially successful popular fiction books today are clearly half-assed attempts to cash in on said success; it’s often painfully clear when an author is phoning it in and subsequently cashing in.

On the other hand, Deathly Hallows could have used some editorial pruning. But then given Rowling’s rock-star status and the tendency toward bloat in popular fiction today, I suppose that’s no surprise. In any event, it will certainly be interesting to see where Rowling’s muse leads her post Potter.

Life Imitates Art: Gawker Editor Lives William Gibson Novel Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (book_cover)This is a strange post-modern tale, if there ever was one. Someone sets out to discover the creator of a Clickbank ebook seller website – ostensibly just one plot in an entire Clickbank content farm. Why would someone do this? Well it seems that creator of said horse-related ebook site, in order to get around Twitter’s spam bot filters, has set up an automatic scrape of random books and websites, publishing them out of context as tweets several times a day, ostensibly to pad the obvious spam bot tweets.

This random text has apparently developed a genuine cult following.

About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: “Worms – oh my god WORMS,” and “I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid.”

The feed’s strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.

Being one of the obsessives, Gawker editor Adrian Chen — quoted above — set out to find out who was behind Horse_ebooks. But it seems that some among the community were afraid this revelation might dispell the magic, prompting threats.

Seriously, this is straight out of William Gibson. Chen actually manages to discover the identify of this person, after doggedly pursuing his identity through the WhoIs information of his many websites – he’s a Russian web developer, but of course – and confirming it through a Facebook page, where there was a link to the developer’s personal portfolio website.

Ah brave new world, that has such webpages in it.

Now this is only tangentially related to books and book reviews. But if you’ve read Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, then you can see the parallels between this work of fiction and Chen’s story are downright eery – so much so, that I just had to comment on it.

Life imitates art — specifically that of William Gibson. As he himself has observed, he no longer has to write about the future; the present has gotten plenty weird as it is.

¡Ay Caramba! Bring the Sci Fi and Fantasy

Back to Back Heavy Duty Nonfiction Calls for Dose of Not-Reality

Super Information Hijinks: Reality Check! An English (!) language sci fi mangaSo, I just finished In the Garden of Beasts after finishing Area 51: An Uncensored History. One is a book about World War II, specifically the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of an American ambassador in Berlin and his daughter. The other is about the rise of black ops, covert surveillance programs, nuclear testing in the Nevada desert that began in the years following WW II.

Oof. That’s a heavy dose of  historical reality. Historical reality check? More like Reality body slam. Bring on the science fiction and fantasy. I’m ready for a break. Next up: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis, the duology that won this the 2010 Nebula Award for science fiction novel. Then Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord; Redemption in Indigo is up for a Mythopoeic Society award.

No more reality for awhile, thank you.

 

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

A U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany Provide’s a Unique Perspective on Hitler’s Rise to Power In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.Perhaps for many who look back at World War II, the one that happened after the War to End All Wars, the most obvious lingering question is how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and how the regime was able to do the terrible things it did, namely the holocaust.

The rise of imperial Japan may seem relatively straightforward, but when we look back on the atrocities of the Third Reich, it begs the question, how? How did we let that happen? Particularly when we consider than only two decades before most of the Western world was swept up in a war dominated by German empire and militarism?

How did we, we being the Allied powers, let that happen?

Erik Larson attempts to answer this question, at least in part, with his book In the Garden of Beasts. Some might find that the book isn’t satisfying, or at least not satisfying enough, as it is limited in its scope. It inevitably touches on these large questions, but Larson doesn’t set out to rewrite William L. Shirer’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

So this isn’t necessarily a flaw or a problem with the book per se, but it does leave one hungry to learn more, to delve into the answer to this question more deeply. This is to the book’s credit, however.

As Larson himself says at the beginning of the book:

There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know — now — to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.

Even those with a casual interest in history will find In the Garden of Beasts a worthy and interesting read. Students of World War II history will no doubt find it compelling reading.

U.S. diplomat William Dodd's family upon their arrival in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Daughter Martha is on the left.A journalist by trade before he began authoring nonfiction books, In the Garden of Beasts looks at the early years of Nazi Germany, specifically 1933 and 1934, through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha – Larson’s two innocents abroad. True to his roots as a journalist, Larson sticks largely to first person accounts – journals and diaries, personal letters, diplomatic communiques and the like – as his source material; anyone quoted in the book is quoted from material that they actually wrote at the time.

So what Larson elaborates is a view of the Third Reich just having come to power with Adolf Hitler as chancellor; at the time Dodd arrives in Berlin Hitler and his allies are moving to consolidate his power and authority over the country. This culminates in the infamous Night of the Long Knives – the bloody purge of the paramilitary Stormtroopers – followed shortly by the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who represented the last obstacle between Hitler and absolute control over Germany.

We see these events from the two disparate perspectives – disparate initially, although converging in the end – of Dodd, who was 63 at the time of his appointment in June of 1933, and Martha, who was 25 at the time she first arrived in Berlin.

Dodd perhaps has a unique perspective on events; he certainly was an unusual choice on the part of President Roosevelt as U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd was a well-respected professor of history by trade, who happened to have earned a PhD at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1900 – he spoke German and professed a fondness for the Germany of his youth. Although he was active politically – he was good friend of President Woodrow Wilson and described himself as a Jeffersonian democrat – he had never been involved with the U.S. foreign service or its diplomatic corps.

While Dodd was well-to-do by the standards of much of America in the early 1930s – the early years of the Great Depression – having a small farm in Virginia and a residence in Chicago, as well as his own automobile, he was a man of modest means compared to the good-old-boys club of the U.S. diplomatic corps. The fact that he wasn’t part of this so called “Pretty Good Club,” and approached his diplomatic post as an historian with a sober and no-nonsense attitude caused almost immediate conflict with those in the otherwise rarefied world of international diplomacy, including his colleagues in the U.S. State Department.

As Larson notes, Dodd himself suggests before he leaves for his post in Berlin “that his temperament was ill suited to ‘high diplomacy’ and playing the liar on bended knee.” But then this is what makes Dodd’s story compelling; he was much closer to Middle America than what we would perhaps describe now as a beltway insider.

And it is this that brings us to what is so tragic about Hitler’s rise to power: there were people in Germany in the early 1930s that saw what was happening – the consolidation of power, the brutal repression of dissent and civil rights, the subjugation of Jews, the military buildup – and tried to warn the outside world. Dodd was among them.

But as it happened, Dodd’s major task as determined by Roosevelt and his advisers wasn’t necessarily to try and provide a moderating influence on the fascist regime. No, his job was to convince Germany to repay its debts to American business interests. The president did instruct Dodd to provide an example of American ideals while in Berlin in hopes that this might provide some positive influence, but the primary goal was to convince German business to repay that considerable sum.

But it is through Dodd – and Larson – that we begin to see how the world let Hitler happen, so to speak. In a civilized world still weary from the previous World War and in the depths of the Great Depression, it was hard for many to conceive of what was happening in Germany and where it could lead. Dodd was no different. As Larson tells us, “ever a student of history, Dodd had come to believe in the inherent rationality of men and that reason and persuasion would prevail, particularly with regard to halting Nazi persecution of Jews.”

Even when confronted with damning first-hand reports, Dodd doesn’t truly grasp the German situation at first. George Messersmith, the head of the American Consulate in Germany at the time of Dodd’s appointment as ambassador, had already been sending numerous warnings back home to Washington. These communiqués were Dodd’s first real clue about what was happening to Germany under the Third Reich.

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship.

William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, at his desk in the U.S. embassy in Berlin, 1933.I would describe myself as probably having a somewhat more avid interest in history than the average person – call me a casual history buff and would-be scholar. But I must admit that I wasn’t aware that by 1933 there were already concentration camps, and the repression of Jews and other groups was commonplace and out in the open, as Larson establishes In the Garden of Beasts. In fact no less than Hitler himself suggests to Dodd that Jews have to be removed from Germany by one means or another.

So it is all the more astonishing in retrospect that nothing was done until it was too late and German troops were sweeping across Europe.

But even after Dodd has been in Germany for some months and saw for himself the brutal repression taking place in the streets – American travelers in Germany were no safer than anyone else, and attacks on foreign travelers by brown-shirted Stormtroopers was not uncommon – his belief in a rational world won’t let him fathom that this sort of behavior could persist for very long. He felt that the Hitler regime would surely either have to moderate its stance or be removed from power; it was apparently a common belief throughout Europe and the Americas.

As Larson elaborates:

Messersmith met with Dodd and asked whether the time had come for the State Department to issue a definitive warning against travel in Germany. Such a warning, both men knew, would have a devastating effect on Nazi prestige. Dodd favored restraint. From the perspective of his role as ambassador, he found these attacks more nuisance than dire emergency and in fact tried whenever possible to limit press attention. He claimed in his diary that he had managed to keep several attacks against Americans out of the newspapers altogether and had “otherwise tried to prevent unfriendly demonstrations.”

Dodd meets with Hitler himself and sees his manic personality first hand – but even Hitler’s evident hysteria isn’t quite enough, unbelievable as it is.

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.

But as Larson documents, within a year Dodd realizes that Messersmith and others, namely Jews that had already escaped Germany and the foreign press corps stationed there, are right: Hitler and his ilk are madmen, madmen with a firm grip on the German nation. And that they are madmen preparing for war; any declarations of peaceful intent were simply diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

Later, Dodd wrote a description of Hitler in his diary. “He is romantic-minded and half-informed about great historical events and men in Germany.” He had a “semi-criminal” record. “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent.”

How, then, could one reconcile this with Hitler’s many declarations of peaceful intent? As before, Dodd believed Hitler was “perfectly sincere” about wanting peace. Now, however, the ambassador had realized, as had Messersmith before him, that Hitler’s real purpose was to buy time to allow Germany to rearm. Hitler wanted peace only to prepare for war. “In the back of his mind,” Dodd wrote, “is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.”

Casual Racism and Perception of the Jewish Problem

In contrast to Dodd we have his daugher, Martha. A Jazz-Age child, Martha is perhaps more representative of the outside world’s attitude toward the warnings coming out of Germany. As Larson shows us early in the book, Hitler is viewed by many as a joke, this silly little man with a goofy mustache – how can he be a threat?

For her, however, the prospect of the adventure ahead soon pushed aside her anxiety. She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously. She was ambivalent about the Jewish situation.

She clarifies that ambivalence herself:

“I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as Gentiles and were less socially desirable.” She also found herself absorbing a view that Jews, while generally brilliant, were rich and pushy.

In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States;” another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

Indeed, that’s another astonishing thing for us to discover here in 2011 – the casual racism toward the Jews. Not that it existed – that’s hardly surprising; racism must surely rank with prostitution in terms of age and human history. Rather, it’s just astonishing how open and accepting people were about it, including politicians, career politicians that would document their racist views, surely knowing that they would be published. Here in the information age when considerably smaller faux pas can ruin a political career nearly instantly, it is almost unbelievable.

For example, William Phillips was U.S. under secretary of state under Roosevelt at the time of Dodd’s appointment. As Larson notes, Phillips made no effort to hide his racist beliefs:

Phillips loved visiting Atlantic City, but in another diary entry he wrote, “The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight – very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.”

Apparently Jews on the beach in Atlantic City was a big issue for prejudicial folks back then. As Larson notes, Wilbur J. Carr, assistant secretary of state at the time, declared in a memo (!) about his issue with Jews on the boardwalk, among other places:

In a memorandum on Russian and Polish immigrants he wrote, “They are filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews.” He too complained of the Jewish presence in Atlantic City. He and his wife spent three days there one February, and for each of the days he made an entry in his diary that disparaged Jews. “In all our day’s journey along the Boardwalk we saw but few Gentiles,” he wrote on the first day. “Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind.”

OMG! No way! as the kids say today. Again, in this day in age, it’s unbelievable that a politician would write this in a memo – a public document. The overt racism is difficult enough to comprehend, even if we admit that racism is more common today than we might like to admit (easy to say when you’re a white guy, of course). But can you imagine what would happen if someone working for Hilary Clinton, in the Obama administration, were to put such sentiments in a state department memorandum? The public outcry would be immediate and that person would be forced to resign just as quickly.

But as Larson illustrates In the Garden of Beasts as well as in interviews, such as the one with NPR’s Fresh Air, overt racism was much more commonplace in Dodd’s time. Even Dodd himself, while not exhibiting the venomous attitude of Carr and Phillips, had his own prejudices when it came to Jews.

While he is clearly mortified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as a diplomat he does his best to try and sympathize in hopes of providing a moderating influence. In a discussion with Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, the German foreign minister at the time Dodd was ambassador to Germany, Dodd discusses the Jewish “problem:”

Dodd pressed on, now venturing into even more charged territory: the Jewish “problem,” as Dodd and Neurath both termed it. Neurath asked Dodd whether the United States “did not have a Jewish problem” of its own. “You know, of course,” Dodd said, “that we have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life.” He added that some of his peers in Washington had told him confidentially that “they appreciated the difficulties of the Germans in this respect but that they did not for a moment agree with the method of solving the problem which so often ran into utter ruthlessness.”

But for daughter Martha, sympathy for the Nazi’s became more about rebellion than a matter of racism or support for German fascism.

On a personal level, however, Dodd found such [attacks on Jews] repugnant, utterly alien to what his experience as a student in Leipzig had led him to expect [of Germany]. During family meals he condemned the attacks, but if he hoped for a sympathetic expression of outrage from his daughter, he failed to get it.

Martha remained inclined to think the best of the new Germany, partly, as she conceded later, out of the simple perverseness of a daughter trying to define herself. “I was trying to find excuses for their excesses, and my father would look at me a bit stonily if tolerantly, and both in private and in public gently label me a young Nazi,” she wrote. “That put me on the defensive for some time and I became temporarily an ardent defender of everything going on.”

After a year in Germany, however, even Martha comes to realize what is happening in. This is in spite of, or perhaps in some respects, because of, the fact that Martha socializes with high-ranking members of the Nazi regime and the Gestapo. At one point Ernst Hanfstaengl, head of the Nazi’s foreign press bureau in Berlin and a personal associate of Hitlers, even tries to fix up Martha with no less than the Führer himself.

In person, the cult of personality that surrounds Hitler becomes more understandable; he comes across as anything but a clown to Martha.

She walked to Hitler’s table and stood there a moment as Hitler rose to greet her. He took her hand and kissed it and spoke a few quiet words in German. She got a close look at him now: “a weak, soft face, with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure.” At this vantage, she wrote, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures – in fact, I scarcely noticed it.”

What she did notice were his eyes. She had heard elsewhere that there was something piercing and intense about his gaze, and now, immediately, she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

While Dodd’s book doesn’t directly address the larger questions that may plague us about World War II, the insights offered by the first-hand experiences of Dodd and his daughter are undoubtedly invaluable, not to mention fascinating.

But What Happens in the End?

If there is anything that In the Garden of Beasts might be criticized for, it might be that Larson seemingly spends an inordinate amount of time on the first year of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin, and little on the three that come after. Indeed, for the casual reader the details of Dodd and Martha’s lives at times might become a bit much. But then, after the Night of the Long Knives, there really isn’t much left to tell.

By the summer of 1934, with the bloody purge and the death of Hindenburg, what comes next is the inevitable stuff of history. The only things that might stand in the way of Hitler and the Nazis are powers outside of Germany’s borders, and we already know at this point that the warnings emanating from Berlin have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Indeed, after Hitler’s purge swept across Germany in June of that year, Dodd considered stepping down.

For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd’s friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead.

Nothing in Dodd’s past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more acuity than ever his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador. If he could not, what then was the point of remaining in Berlin, when his great love, his Old South, languished on his desk?

Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in the Germany city of Nürnberg, 1935.His Old South was a definitive written history of the southern United States; prior to becoming ambassador, that was Dodd’s primary goal for the remaining years of his life, to complete this grand, scholarly historical work. Ultimately he remained in Germany at his diplomatic post until the end of 1937, having been forced to resign – his enemies, the good old boys of the State Department, finally got their way in the end, as did Hitler and the Nazis, in the short term.

So were Dodd’s efforts in vain? This effort took a huge toll on both him and his wife’s health; she died in May of 1938; he died less than two years later. He never finished his beloved Old South.

I suppose I should leave the answer to that to the reader to discover. While there are perhaps no spoilers in terms of the larger story that serves as a backdrop to In the Garden of Beasts – we know who won World War II, after all, and what happened to Hitler (more or less). But there is still much to learn and much that history can tell us, as Larson’s book illustrates.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s perhaps as important lesson today as it ever was, given not only the geopolitical climate at large today, but the political climate here in the United States. Here in this post 9/11 America, people who tend to get upset about things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, torture and the holding of suspects indefinitely without due process of law, are often countered by the argument “it can’t happen here.”

The Germans said the same thing.

Get Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts here. 

Review: Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History

Claims of the Russians Being Behind Roswell Overshadows an Important Work on U.S. Black Ops and Espionage

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseSometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is not. Of course this hinges upon knowing what the truth is and what the fiction is – where the facts end and the fiction begins. And such is the problem with Area 51.

In one small but significant way, it’s also the problem with Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by journalist Annie Jacobsen. One small foray beyond the realm of established fact threatens to overwhelm potential reader’s perception of an exhaustively researched history of covert U.S. military and other government programs, based on interviews with people directly involved and an apparent trove declassified documents – the stuff of journalism and truth.

This isn’t so much a problem with the book itself – although I question this one small foray’s inclusion at all – as it is with word-of-mouth and the knee-jerk Internet culture in which we live. Perhaps our culture – maybe humans in general – has always been a knee-jerk, reactionary one, but it is seemingly amplified a thousandfold here in the immediate information age.

It’s a shame because Area 51: An Uncensored History is a valuable piece of research and history – military, scientific, cultural, U.S. and human history. After all, one of the things the book illustrates so wonderfully is that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and September 11, 2001 is seemingly a case in point.

The Military and CIA Territorial Hissy Fits: Aren’t You Guys All on The Same Team?

The U.S. Government’s various intelligence agencies and the military all have territorial approaches to spying/espionage and protection of the country; this has lead to lapses in critical intelligence and analysis – sometimes catastrophic. Without those lapses, with an integrated approach to espionage, intelligence and analysis, 9/11 could have been prevented – in hindsight all of the intelligence we needed to do so was there in front of us. It’s particularly sad in a dramatic, Shakespearean-flaw kind of way when one considers that the military and the various spy agencies are all on the same side.

One would hope that these things have been addressed a decade later. But given what Jacobsen shows us in her in-depth history of Area 51 and the corresponding CIA, Department of Energy and military installations deep in the Nevada desert, one wonders if it truly has. This divisiveness and territoriality among U.S. espionage agencies and the military goes back to at least World War II, and time and time again it has caused problems at critical junctures in modern history.

It is fascinating reading, these experiences of the pilots, security guards and government and military leaders directly involved with the creation of Area 51 and its environs, including the Nevada testing range, and the many programs that took place there. Some of these have already been made public in recent years, such as F117 Nighthhawk stealth fighter and some of its forerunners in stealth. One of those of course is Project Oxcart.

Oxcart, incidentally, was the original second-generation stealthy reconnaissance aircraft created at the behest of the CIA; the SR-71 Blackbird variations are follow-on craft based on the Oxcart designs built at the behest of the U.S. Air Force – because the USAF has never been comfortable with the CIA flying manned aircraft, as Jacobsen so deftly documents.

Of course, one could make the case that Oxcart was a third-generation stealth plane, if we include the experimental craft designed and built by Nazi aircraft designers and brothers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers figure in the tale of Area 51; we’ll come back to them later.

Jacobsen details other notable black operations in the Nevada desert in and around Area 51; she also delves into just how U.S. black ops came about – black ops being projects that officially don’t exist and don’t have an official budget (but of course they actually do, and usually big ones), and are managed on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, so much so that the U.S. President and members of Congress frequently don’t know about them. Of course U.S. black ops trace their history – at least in the modern era, at any rate – to the Manhattan Project.

So much so that apparently in the world of black ops, need-to-know is a noun – one that most of us don’t have.

Other not-so well known black ops at the Nevada test site outside of Areas 51 involve various flavors of nuclear testing. In general the knowledge that nuke tests have take place there is well known – it’s kind of hard to hide a nuclear blast when the ground shakes and windows rattle as far away as Las Vegas. But some of the particular programs and specific details have just come to light in recent years, as documents and programs have become declassified years later; Jacobsen does a thorough job of chronicling many of these programs in Area 51: An Uncensored History.

She also explores the lack of oversight that is inherent in the nature of black ops, and how this can sometimes lead to questionable decisions and corresponding actions. Sometimes these might be questionable from a moral or ethical standpoint; other times just from the standpoint of common sense, i.e. they’re just plain stupid.

An excellent example of the latter is Project 57, originally conducted at Area 13, one of the various secret areas adjacent to or nearby Area 51 and Groom Lake. In the late 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy and the progenitor of many of the covert programs that were and are taking place in the Nevada desert) and its partners decided it needed to study what would happen if an airplane laden with nuclear bombs crashed and nuclear material were released – similar to what would happen if someone detonated a dirty bomb.

As Jacobsen notes, by this time there had been so much nuclear research and atmospheric and underground testing that the results were a foregone conclusion. But the test proceeded anyway, and the one true benefit to be gained from such a test, gathering data on how to clean up such an irradiated mess, never took place – the site wasn’t even cleaned up at all until 1998, in fact.

Why simulate an accident with foregone results, and then not clean it up? The answer to that seems lost to history; ostensibly the Atomic Energy Commission and its partners had other things to worry about at the height of the Cold War. Such is the nature of black ops.

Other interesting projects Jacobsen sheds light on are the various programs involving a nuclear-powered rocket – no, I didn’t learn about this one in school, either. Project Orion was originally conceived in 1958 and was in development for several years, basically until the limited test ban treaty of 1963. Then there was NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application); it was in development until it was canceled in 1972; at the time plans were on the table to build an actual NERVA prototype rocket.

You only get one guess as to where the test bed for this nuclear rocket engine was located and frequently tested.

Pilot Kevin Arnold with a drawing of one of the UFO's he reported seeing in 1947.Little Green Russkies: Was Stalin Behind Roswell and the 1947 UFO Flap?

Back to the Horten brothers. But first, let’s talk about that one small foray beyond the realm of established fact that Area 51: An Uncensored History takes. By now if you’re reading this you probably know what I’m talking about. All of the press involved around the book’s release has centered around this one thing, regardless of its merits as a work of nonfiction and investigative journalism.

That thing is Jacobsen’s allegation that a saucer actually did crash outside Roswell in 1947, perhaps more than one. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft and its occupants to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, to be reverse engineered. So far this is the stuff of standard UFO/conspiracy theory folklore. But Jacobsen provides an interesting twist to the standard tale.

The craft wasn’t of alien origin, but built by the Soviet Union, she claims; it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children altered through some medical means to look as if they were aliens. This was allegedly all part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Well’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938.

The idea behind this is that a flurry of reported sightings would overwhelm America’s air defense and military communications infrastructure, even if most of the sightings were bogus. Jacobsen further alleges that Stalin actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalike and that the vehicles involved were based on aircraft designs by the Horten brothers, if not directly designed by them.

This is far fetched, to say the least. Jacobsen bases these assertions on the words of an EG&G engineer, now elderly, who was intimately involved in the project to reverse engineer the craft. But not only the craft – the alien-looking children were “reverse engineered” as well, because the U.S. government wanted to pursue it’s own similar black ops propaganda program. This last allegation is supposedly why the operation has been black and strictly need-to-know, rather than using the revelation of its existence to call out Stalin out and embarrass the Soviet Union at the time.

EG&G traces its roots as a company back to the Manhattan project, and is even today involved with covert programs based in the desert in Nevada. Still, this is all very hard to swallow, and the fact that this source remains anonymous – the only anonymous source Jacobsen relies on in the entire book – doesn’t exactly help it go down.

In fact it would be rather easy to discount it as the efforts of an intelligent but lonely old man to keep the interest of Jacobsen. As a reader and as a journalist I’m tempted to discount the story altogether, despite the fact that Jacobsen states that as far as she is concerned, there is not doubt as to the veracity of this man’s story, as she elaborates in the Area 51 epilogue. Tempted, that is, but for one thing, and a fact, at that.

The Horten brothers were taken into Allied custody in 1945, shortly before the end of the war in the European theater. Many Nazi scientists were given amnesty in exchange for being brought to America to work for us – Jacobsen elaborates much on this aspect of Project Paperclip, as many of these scientists figure prominently in the black ops at Area 51 and elsewhere. The Horten brothers were soon released, however, and were never part of the Paperclip op, even though some of their experimental aircraft were brought back to the United States. Allied intelligence officials apparently didn’t deem the brothers in the same class as Werner Von Braun, et al.

However, in 1947, as Jacobsen documents, there was a sudden interest in the U.S. intelligence and military community in the Horten brothers. So much interest that there was a large U.S. intelligence operation in Europe to find them once again and question them further – just two years after they had been let go. The Horten brothers themselves were living in plain site by this time, one remaining in Germany and the other in Argentina.

Why the sudden interest? Did it have to do with the crash at Roswell? The UFO flap of 1947?

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.A look at a drawing of the craft that pilot Kenneth Arnold claims he saw in 1947 – the report that seemingly ushered in the rash of UFO sitings at that time – is striking. Not in and of itself, but because it looks very similar in shape to aircraft that the Horten brothers were actually building in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. In fact the aircraft pictured here in a hangar, the Horton Ho 229, was actually in the air at the end of the war in 1945, but not yet in military service.

Furthermore, this aircraft was an early and arguably the first attempt at incorporating stealth technology and design into an aircraft — to lessen its radar signature. Was this the reason behind the interest in the Hortens in 1947?

Unfortunately there is much still classified about this operation to find and interrogate the Horten brothers in 1947, including the question of why. The Horten brothers themselves never elaborated on it prior to their deaths; they refused to discuss it in interviews, although they acknowledged that they were indeed questioned by U.S. Intelligence operatives in 1947. This, of course, makes it all the more interesting.

In any event, the timing of the intelligence operation to find the Hortens certainly had some interesting timing, to say the least. With regard to the claim that the Soviet Union was behind the Roswell incident, this interest in the Horten brothers gives one pause for thought. Jacobsen further documents that in the 1950s, U.S. Intelligence officials including CIA director General Walter Bedell Smith, were genuinely concerned that a War of the Worlds broadcast scenario could in fact be used as a cover for a Soviet attack on the Continental U.S. Hmmm …

But Does Area 51 Shoot Itself in the Proverbial Foot?

As for Jacobsen and her EG&G engineer’s allegations about what really happened outside Roswell in 1947, she herself acknowledges in the book and interviews that she’s putting her own credibility on the line by using this anonymous source. This is in spite of the fact that the rest of the book relies on solid information — interviews with dozens of people and reams of government documents, for example. She felt this was important though, that the truth this black ops program involving children and medical experiments for propaganda and espionage purposes needs to be known.

As she herself documents, while it’s a matter of record that what is now the Department of Energy has conducted tests on humans in the past – sometimes unknown to the participants themselves – much of the information about these programs is still classified, still black. In fact there are some six hundred million pages of documents related to the postwar use of Nazi scientists expertise alone that remains classified.

Do we know what we don’t know?

Of course if it is true that the U.S. Government has conducted secret medical tests or something similarly horrific, then it’s almost impossible from a moral standpoint to disagree with her goal of shedding light on something so reprehensible. On the other hand, I think as a journalist I would have been tempted to keep this information to myself and attempt to research if further, not publishing it until I had some sort of corroboration on the record.

Area 51: An Uncensored History easily stands on its own merits without this anonymous assertion. In some ways I’m sure it’s served to drum up interest in the book that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But so many people have keyed in on this one aspect of the book and summarily judged it without actually having read it, I can’t help but think that, true or not, it ultimately does a disservice to what is otherwise a fascinating, important  and exhaustively researched work.

Postscript: I should further note that conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs who aren’t in the skeptics camp will likely be disappointed by Area 51. Aside from the aforementioned explanation for the Roswell incident, Jacobsen doesn’t uncover any little green men or other UFO-related phenomena. As for the claims that the government and NASA faked the moon landing at Area 51, believers in this conspiracy theory will also be disappointed and perhaps even insulted; it’s clear that Jacobsen didn’t find anything in her research to lend this idea any credence.

Get Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History here. 

Area 51: A Preview on the Review

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseI literally just finished Area 51: An Uncensored History about an hour ago, and plan on having a review up tomorrow – well, later today, as it is the wee hours as I write this – Friday at the latest.

But I felt compelled to put down some initial thoughts, as there is a lot of buzz about this book, buzz driven by a relatively small part: the claim that the Roswell UFO crash of 1947 was actually part of a Soviet Russian “black operation.” This claim is actually only one small part of Area 51: An Uncensored History, discussed at the very beginning and very end of the book. But since the Fresh Air interview with author Annie Jacobsen last week, I’ve seen posts on Boing Boing and Io9, among many other sites, about the book and the one thing everybody focuses on is the book’s claims about Roswell and its ties to black ops.

Jacobsen, a journalist, says that the craft recovered at Roswell was actually a craft of Russian build based on designs by Nazi aircraft designers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers – this part is a matter of historical record, by the way – were experimenting with stealth technology and unorthodox jet aircraft designs at the end of World War II. She further states that the bodies of aliens that witnesses claimed to have seen at the crash site were actually disfigured human children, the result of medical procedures or research either performed by or at least based on the work of Josef Mengele on behalf of the Russians.

The goal of this Soviet black op was twofold, according to Jacobsen. First off, the whole thing was designed as part of a psychological warfare effort designed to instill panic in an American civilian populace already jittery about UFOs, communism, nukes and the Cold War, Jacobsen’s source tells her. The military benefit of this was that if the United State’s air defenses and early warning systems were overwhelmed with reports of UFOs, real or imagined, it would provide a window – or cover – for an actual Soviet attack.

Why cover this up? Because American military leaders and scientists wanted not only to reverse engineer the advanced technology found in this craft – something more advanced than jet propulsion. They also wanted to pursue human experiments of their own, ostensibly to reproduce people with a similar alien appearance as the unfortunate Russian child pilots, for our own American black ops.

Sounds pretty far fetched, doesn’t it? Almost as much as the idea that a real extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in Roswell.

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.I will say this: Jacobsen offers up a lot of tangential and circumstantial evidence to back up her claim; she actually makes, if not a compelling case, certainly enough of one to give the reader pause for thought. Furthermore, she separates out this dubious claim from the rest of Area 51: An Uncensored History, which is actually exhaustively researched and documented – some 20 percent of the book is taken up by footnoted source citations. Another big chunk, some 10 percent of the total text, is taken up with acknowledgments, most of which are concerned with the people she interviewed for the book, on the record – many of whom were actually directly involved with the programs at Area 51 in the 1950s through the 1970s, and discuss their work publicly for the first time.

There is a lot of information here that has only recently been declassified and Jacobsen connects the dots and fills in the gaps – some of which would yawn quite large, otherwise. Even students of history will find much that is new to them (I certainly did). In cases where information on former need-to-know black ops have been declassified for some years – or even well known historical events, such as the Cuban missile crisis – Jacobsen has still managed to uncover previously unknown facts and bring them to light.

All of this makes me think that perhaps it was a shame to include the claim about Roswell, as interesting as it may be, regardless of its veracity. There are a lot of revelations here about Area 51, the history of U.S. nuclear testing and the development of overhead surveillance for espionage purposes. This book would be of interest to everyone who has an interest in not just military history, but politics and U.S. history in general.

I’ll save the rest for my review. Let it suffice to say that there is lot more worthy information in Area 51: An Uncensored History, than the fantastic Roswell claim; to judge it solely on this doesn’t do it justice.

On Io9: Reissue of Anno Dracula, What to Read While Starving Better

Kim Howard's Anno Dracula is being re-released by Titan Books. A couple of interesting posts up on Io9 today, discovered while perusing my usual RSS feeds this “morning.” First off, Nick Mamatas has a new book out called Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. On Io9 he discusses why he wrote the book and has some suggestions for underground reading. Then there is another really interesting essay by prolific author and alternate history specialist Kim Newman marking the re-release of his 1992 novel, Anno Dracula.

While I’ve heard of Newman’s book, I confess I’ve never actually read it. This is surprising, because in 1992 I was on the verge of my short-lived goth phase, which consisted mainly of hanging out at The Warehouse in Cincinnati — and later The Phantasy in Cleveland — or reading lots of vampire-themed fiction and nonfiction.  This is partly why hubub around the Twilight franchise and  paranormal romance subgenre ilk amuses me (in a sad way); craptastic popular culture moves in a never-ending circle.

Anyway, as I recall I had Anno Dracula on reserve at the Cleveland library at one point, but somehow never actually ended up getting it; no doubt someone purloined it. I’ll have to add it to the always-expanding books-to-read pile.

As for the Io9 essay by Newman, it’s actually rather illuminating. The central conceit at the core of Anno Dracula is that Van Helsing and Harker, et al, don’t defeat Dracula, but rather Dracula manages to overcome them and goes on to found a society in Great Britain where vampires are the ruling elite. In his essay Newman discusses at length not only his impetus and influences behind his conception of Anno Dracula and its writing, but how he came to be interested in horror and fantasy in the first place.

See what happens when you let your kid stay up late and watch horror movies? Couple this with a college courses on Victorian era literature and we eventually arrive at Newman’s alternate Stoker opus. There’s more to it than that, of course, but you can find out the rest at Io9.

How to Not Get Rich Quick with Your Host, Nick Mamantas

Nick Mamantas writing guide, Starve Better -- think of it is the Anti Writers Digest.I’m kind of wary of books for writers, particularly those by writers that tell other writers how to write — maybe that’s my problem., heh. But I believe that writing fiction is more than a technical craft; it is an art, as opposed to strictly craft work — craft implying a corollary of science. Sure you must master elements of the craft in order to make art (usually) — a painter must learn how to draw figures and hold a brush before he becomes an artist (we can’t all be Gauguin).

This goes back to the magazine fiction writing course I took in college — magazine journalism was actually my major — where we learned from someone who was well versed in the business of  publishing short fiction in magazines. We learned how it important it was to know a magazine’s specific audience and to write for said audience, as well as the other mundane (but nevertheless important) aspects of selling short fiction, such as writing query letters.

I remember feeling more than a little nonplussed early on in this class, and at the time really couldn’t elaborate as to why. It was only later on that I realized that this simply wasn’t what I wanted to hear — or learn. I didn’t want to write for other people, I wanted to write for me. I wanted to follow my muse — I wanted to make ART.

Yes, in capital letters, dammit.

Naive, I know — but I was a young man then, and earnest in the way that only youth can be. I wanted to learn the elements of the craft I needed to tell the stories whirling around in my head — plotting, dialogue, characterization, first- and -third person and when and when not to use them, etc. I didn’t want to learn how to sell some piece that a dowdy housewife will read in Redbook.

Nick Mamantas’ Starve Better doesn’t sound like your usual writers’ manual however; if nothing else, it sounds entertaining at the least. As he explains at the beginning of his essay on Io9:

I’ve just published a book for starving writers called Starve Better (Apex Publications), based on a decade of experience trying to make the rent writing strange articles for third-tier magazines, non-generic genre fiction, and anything else I was allowed to. It covers writing tips, finding venues for publication, and how to use one’s skills as a writer outside of traditional markets.

He talks a little about what motivated him early on to write in the subjects that he has — notably it seems he followed his muse, rather than what he learned in Magazine Fiction Writing 471, which probably explains his familiarity with starvation. As he says:

Then I branched out into fiction — mostly the sort of science fiction and horror that makes SF and horror fans complain, “This isn’t science fiction! You call this horror?” and readers of literary fiction slit their eyes and say, “Wait a minute…is this supposed to be scifi or horror or something?”

He goes on to discuss “some books and magazines and people you should be following, if you’re into the fringes of the genre.” And it’s worth checking out. For example, he lists Requires Only That You Hate among his list. This is a self-described geek-rageaholic’s science fiction and fantasy review blog.

Apparently it’s only been around for a few months, but the reviewer, one pyrofennec, is as  prolific as the paperback tripe so effectively skewered at Requires Hate. Go check it out for yourself; as for me, pyrofennec had me at “subliterate hack” and “bugfuck boat has beached.” Don’t worry; there is actually plenty of thoughtful criticism on race, gender and the usual literary topics amidst the rage. Even when there isn’t, clever hyperbole to illustrate a point is always amusing.

Furthermore, this person must be commended for toughing out books most of us (well, the smart few, at any rate) we would put down after a chapter or two — that is if we got past the cover blurb in the first place. Plus pyrofennec apparently wades into fan forums. Yikes! Pyrofennec, you are a braver man than I, regardless of what is between your legs.

And while we’re on the subject, not having a gender neutral singular pronoun is a pain in the ass. I know the accepted convention is to use “he” and that’s fine,  but as I say, as a journalist I hate to assume, because I don’t know. The fact is, I don’t know. Purely from an etymological standpoint, it has always bugged me, not because it’s politically correct but it’s not necessarily correct, period. Plus words are powerful things, as powerful as gender.

In any event, I’ve added Requires Only That You Hate to my RSS feed, and have added Starve Better to the possibly maybe book pile. The ebook edition is only $3.99  so I’ll most likely pick it up one of these days.

Terri Gross Interviews Area 51 Author Annie Jacobsen on Fresh Air

Little Green Aliens Russkies?

Is truth stranger than fiction? And is Area 51: An Uncensored History truth?

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseWhen I was a child, I went through a years long phase where I read everything I could on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFOs. This period commenced in second or third grade not long after the school nurse figured out I was blind as a bat and I got my first pair of glasses; I subsequently discovered the world at large – a world only vaguely, blurrily hinted at before.

I was able to see the board in the class room for the first time, as well, and academic things suddenly began falling into mental place. I went from being in the lowest reading level group to the highest in a matter of weeks. The world of books opened up for me as well.

Anyway, this interest in the paranormal, modern myths, mass hysteria, cryptozoology, complete and utter bullshit – please take your pick of your own preferential term, here – lasted well into adolescence. In fact it never really ended, it just became sublimated to a large degree by other things, namely cars, girls and computers. Needless to say that when the X-Files debuted, I was there glued to the television, and was pretty much every week during the season for the next eight years.

I drifted away to some extent once David Duchovny got too big for Mulder’s britches – but was and am still solidly in the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade. Did you see her in Last King of Scotland? Did you SEE? Oh. My. Various. Gods. Hurt me. So it’s perhaps also needless to say – in my roundabout sort of way – that when I listened to Terri Gross’ Fresh Air interview with journalist Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base – I knew I would have to read this book.

(I’m in Terri Gross’ brigade too, just like Gene Simmons, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Documentation and Research Overshadowed by OMG Little Gray Russians Revelation

In fact I just listened to the podcast in the wee hours this morning while out for a walk before bed – I’m completely nocturnal these days – and promptly downloaded the book from Amazon when I got home. I read the first several chapters before I drifted off to sleep.

If you have any interest in this sort of thing at all – and by “thing” I don’t so much mean UFOs and little green men and conspiracy theories, although that’s all wrapped up in this, but rather U.S. military history – then this book is probably worth a read. I’ll be able to address the “probably” in the days ahead once I finish the book, naturally. Incidentally I find myself for the first time since college reading two non-fiction books concurrently, so it may take a few days.

In any event, you’ll want to check out the Fresh Air interview; you can read excerpts of both it and Jacobsen’s Area 51 at NPR as well.

My first impression of the book, based on the first few chapters, is that it does seem to be deeply researched and documented, although the style in which it is written I’m finding to be mildly problematic (more on this in the full review). Jacobsen is a professional journalist by trade, a contributing writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine covering national security issues, so she has a vested professional interest in publishing an accurate book.

That being said, the use of anonymous sources can be tricky when it comes to credibility; I’ve been in that boat myself, although that only involved the misuse of public funds in the Sedona (Ariz.) Fire District – not alleged early Cold War-era Russian subterfuge and espionage programs and rival U.S. government-sanctioned programs, both of which involved children – allegedly, I stress.

You can read more about this if you follow the link above to the NPR/Fresh Air interview. Much of what Jacobsen and her sources say – many of whom are on the record – seems quite plausible and indeed is documented: that Area 51 and nearby facilities have been used for nuclear bomb and even nuclear rocket tests, as well as overhead surveillance programs and the development of related aircraft. Some of this, of course, is actually already known, such as the U2 spyplane, the stealth fighter, and Project Oxcart.

So it’s unfortunate that the one thing that everyone in the media is going to focus on almost exclusively will be the tidbit in the back of the book, in which Jacobsen alleges that a saucer actually did crash in Roswell in 1947. And that the military covered it up, eventually taking the craft to what would become known as Area 51 a few years later, after it was initially taken to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And that it wasn’t aliens that piloted the craft but children “altered” to look as if they were aliens. That this was part of a Cold War plot on behalf of Stalin and the Russians to incite American panic similar to that which followed Orson Welle’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. That Stalin had actually recruited Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele to create these alien lookalikes.

This admittedly seems farfetched, particularly the Mengele aspect. If being a journalist teaches you nothing else, it teaches one to have a healthy bullshit detector and to believe in Occam’s Razor. You don’t last long without the former; real-life experience leads you to follow the latter intuitively, if not scientifically. Either way, I’m sure that most of my fellow people in the Fourth Estate would agree that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation or answer to a question is usually the correct one.

On the other hand, Jacobsen says she has faith in her source, that she worked closely with him for nearly two years. That she is able to verify the veracity of everything else he has told her, that she has checked and verified his medical, personal and military records – so she personally takes him at his word on this admittedly difficult to believe claim.

He allegedly was one of the engineers called in to reverse engineer the Russian craft that crashed at Roswell and also saw the bodies of the child pilots. Of course, it might be different if we knew the identity of this person, and thus is the slippery slope of anonymous sources – we have to trust the journalist on this one. And she’s going out on a pretty big limb – if it were to come out somehow that this source isn’t reliable or deliberately mislead her – or worse, that she herself has made this up – her career as a journalist is over (although there will still be the talk-show circuit).

I want to believe, but I'm skeptical of the final claim in Jacobsen's Area 51.In any case, the whole Mengele aspect of the story is particularly hard to swallow; his movements at the end of and in the years immediately after the War are seemingly well documented. If he was working with the Russians he was apparently doing so clandestinely and remotely. And the idea that the technology existed in the 1947s to surgically or otherwise alter a human’s appearance to the point that they looked truly alien – like a so-called gray – is, well, admittedly ridiculous.

It’s notable that this revelation comes at the end of the book in an epilogue, although Jacobsen refers to it in an early chapter of the book. I’ll reserve any further comment until I finish the book, but again she addresses these issues following questions from Terri Gross in the NPR interview, so you can read/hear for yourself.

As for me, like Mulder, I Want to Believe. But like Scully, I’m pretty skeptical – at least as far as this Roswell revelation that comes at the end of Jacobsen’s Area 51.

In the Garden of Beasts on Fresh Air

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.National Public Radio’s Fresh Air had an interesting interview this week with journalist turned author Erik Larson; his book In the Garden of Beasts hit bookstores this week as well. In the Garden of Beasts examines early Nazi Germany, years before World War II began in earnest in the European theater. What makes the book interesting – if Teri Gross’ interview with Larson is any indication – is that it examines Nazi Germany through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, who was assigned to Berlin in the early 1930s.

Dodd, an historian and professor by trade and friends with both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually resigned his post after several years, having clashed repeatedly with both Nazi officials and the U.S. State Department. During his tenure he not only had a first hand look at how the Nazi Party consolidated its grip on power within Germany, but saw the beginnings of Hitler’s Final Solution – in one interview with Dodd Hitler even angrily suggested that Germany would have to “put an end” to the so-called Jewish problem, according to Larson.

Even beyond the subject manner – evil and the understanding thereof may not be easy, but it’s certainly never boring — this Fresh Air episode is worth a listen; it provides an interesting look into the process of writing history and nonfiction as well. It sounds as if Larson has exhaustively researched Dodd and the period for In the Garden of Beasts.

In addition to excerpts from the interview, NPR’s site also has an excerpt from the book. I think I’m going to have to add this to my ever-growing pile of books to read. Reading nonfiction, particularly history, can be painfully dry, but Larson’s books have many more good reviews than not, so I’ll soon see if I agree.

Besides, I have to help support a fellow ex-journalist who has turned to writing what he wants for a living, don’t I? You can find out more about Erik Larson at his website; and then there is Larson’s Wikipedia page.