Category Archives: Book reviews

Lords of Chaos, a tabletop RPG by Randy Hayes

This time-tested fantasy RPG has come to market in e-form and hardcover. I was developmental editor.

Randy is a friend of nearly forty years going back to our college days. He’s an interesting guy. Many people talk about doing things; Randy goes out and does things. He wanted to be a successful financial advisor, and he became one. He wanted to play in a rock band, and he does. He wanted to learn SCA-style medieval combat, and he has done so. He wanted to be an officer in the Army, and he was.

He also wanted to play a fantasy role-playing game that was as realistic as one can be and still have profound supernatural mechanics. One always needs that qualifier for the obvious reason that “realistic” doesn’t normally imply magical fireballs and summoning ogres. For our purposes, realistic means that the physical movement and combat are plausible. Randy had done enough SCA fighting to see the fundamental problems with physical combat as presented in most RPGs and movies. And yes, there is a school of thought that says: “Hell with realism, it’s fantasy, I want to do epic things.” And to that I think Randy might say: ‘To each their own. But over the years my players have done quite a few epic things. Not every system is for everyone, and I get that.’

When we got back in touch in life after a long stretch of doing our own things, Randy showed an interest in building his writing skills. He wasn’t bad, but he could improve, and we worked on his fiction writing techniques. Some of the fiction involved stories from his RPG gaming world, tales played out by his merry band of tabletop players. That was fine, and Randy made rapid strides. While all of his group had made contributions and suggested refinements, two seemed most involved: Mike Cook, one of our old cronies from UW, and Keith Slawson. Keith was not well, but wanted with all his heart to assist with the layout and graphics. Here’s the kind of friend Randy is: He could have just punted and gone seeking those services elsewhere, but so long as a chance existed that Keith might be able to offer them when the rulebook was ready, Randy kept that hope alive for him. I had the pleasure of brief correspondence with Keith  before his passing in late 2020. Randy, of course, visited him to the very end.

As for Mike, he aspired to publish fiction based on the LoC world, and the same drive that once put colonel’s eagles on his shoulders was in refined evidence with his work. This resulted in Out of their Depth, an excellent hard fantasy novel I had the pleasure of midwifing. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a client improve as fast as Mike did, and his medieval vocabulary taught me some new words along the way.

It was a process. This might sound odd, but rulebook editing is technical editing. I do some tech editing here and there, and even though Randy’s project was a game guide, the mentality is similar. While humor and style matter, the heart of the project is how it organizes and presents information. I have done a lot of RPGing in my life, but have never played a moment of LoC, so in some ways I was the perfect guinea pig. Randy was very receptive to rules modifications and procedural clarifications. He laughed over my developmental editing style, which is to explain a problem, make a couple of sample corrections, then let the client hunt up and fix the rest. It would be sort of drill sergeanty on my part, except that I’m not raising my voice or pointing someone’s genetic shortcomings in an attempt to motivate them to do a proper about-face.

For Randy, the hardest part was something many authors experience on long-term projects: One cannot forget what one knows, nor easily put oneself in the place of not knowing. Let us imagine a fight scene in a novel. The author has worked on the novel off and on for twenty years. She has complete mental video memory of how the fight “happened.” She knows how she pictures her characters, how they maneuvered, what their voices sounded like. Her reader has none of the above, and knows only what he learns from her portrayal. Does it matter that the room has a table in the middle? Maybe; probably; depends. It’s probably an obstacle in the fight, in which case at least enough description is wanted to help the reader picture the scene. Does it matter that it’s oak or walnut? Probably not right then. Her challenge is to keep the readercam steady, furnish enough description that her reader can follow the action, and avoid overdescription. It’s difficult to strike the balance between too much description and not enough.

This also applies to such areas as RPG rules. Randy has developed the rules for so long he can hardly remember what it is like not knowing them, so my ignorance was a help. If an experienced RPGer with reasonable comprehension skills couldn’t figure out how something worked, this raised valid questions whether something had been left out, described ambiguously, and so on. We changed quite a bit of the basic terminology because I thought some of it created confusion, and added a Game Concepts section in the front so that players had a quick reference for the terms one must understand in order to play the system. Randy came up with a genius way to present descriptions of the character skills: He created a ne’er-do-well elf named Potlatch, assigned him one point in each skill, and had him walk through a (somewhat contrived but not entirely implausible) story in short installments that involved one skill at a time. It’s hilarious, especially with Randy’s wry style of infantryman humor. As with anything Randy cares about–which means most of what he spends his time on–he took the time to do a really good job.

Another example is how the game handles the common low-value loot that characters tend to accumulate in the course of adventuring (vanquished foes’ weapons, load-bearing equipment, doodads that don’t do anything special). Randy doesn’t think the game should be Lords of Bookkeeping. Therefore, the rules is that players are assumed to gather up and sell whatever useful when possible. In turn, players do not have to keep track of and replenish consumable supplies of arrows, bolts, rations, and so forth. The selling process is presumed to sustain the common consumables; anything special or valuable is not considered common, of course, and gets valued separately. What a fantastic idea, right? One abstraction kills off two annoyances that few players would miss.

One notable aspect of the game is the lack of character classes. A player may define their character as whatever, but the game doesn’t bless or curse that choice. If you’ve always felt shackled by class restrictions, this is the open road.

This rulebook process took maybe three years. It came into final form, with areas of confusion ironed out and graphics added. Things happened. A pandemic came and sort of went. We pimped it at two Orycons and got some minor interest. Keith passed. Mike published his book while giving important input. Artists flaked. Artists delivered. Now here we are.

Randy has a bunch of online playing aids that supplement the book. If you’ve been looking for an RPG system that is designed for plausible melee and missile combat, one well refined through decades of play and experimentation, this could be just what you’ve long been looking for.


Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

Recent read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

A tech editing client–an engineer who can write for real–said such good things about this book that I bought and read it. This vindicated his praise.

One might view the editing world as a stylistic continuum. Let us define the extreme left as accepting of nearly any stylistic oddness or grammatical perversity. The extreme right lives and dies by style manuals (AP, APA, Chicago, etc.), grammar guides, and archaic meanings. The extreme left is so fluid it has hardly any rules; the extreme right not only has them, but will follow them right off a cliff. (No direct political analogy is intended, though I won’t say none could reasonably be made.)

If you visit editors’ forums, most of the loudest voices are found on the moderate to far right. Agonized posts abound: “Hey, edi-buddies, I’m dying here. I have a sentence in which I can’t figure out where to put commas. It’s four in the morning and I’ve been mutilating my soul in an effort to solve the problem. Help!” I never bother pointing out the obvious, because no one is so strident as a far-right editor catching another editor in some tiny deviation from the strict orthodoxy of the First Church of Style Manual Orthodoxy. I can’t gain anything from fighting with them, and I don’t enjoy the debate nor do I care what they say. I just let them do their thing somewhere I am not.

What would the far left do? Not much. All the client must tell them is “that’s just my style,” and they’ll roll over. Book without upper case? Well, if that’s just your style… Book written in text-speak? Wouldn’t want to invalidate youth opinions. Street-speak? Dissent would be…racist! And so on, usually in the direction of rolling over and letting this or that demographic define its own language.

And what’s wrong with that? some might ask. Nothing, provided that demographic is the writer’s only audience, and therefore that it doesn’t give a damn about being intelligible or comfortable to anyone else. “Hi. I write like garbage but I require you to read and respect my material” is not a reasonable proposition. The reader always has the right to stop reading. Making demands of the reader rarely works. She just closes the book or browser window, flips a bird if she’s feeling annoyed, and does something else.

I find myself on the moderate left wing of this continuum, a little to Pinker’s right. He and I agree that “literally” must not be used as “figuratively,” for example. We need a word that means, well, the literal rather than metaphorical meaning of an expression. If you were literally floored, you were on the ground. If your head literally exploded or someone literally ripped your heart out, you weren’t alive to describe it. He’s a little more tolerant of beginning a sentence with a preposition, and he’s willing to see “to comprise” wander afield from its standard translation as “to consist of,” which I am not. Those are tiny shadings of degree.

My governing principle is not complicated: Editorial judgments depend on context. Should we use fewer adverbs? Generally yes, when feasible. Is there a place for strange styles? I don’t know until you show it to me in context and we see whether it works. Should a book about inner-city gangs be written in gangland style? If it works well, perhaps, so let’s see it and determine whether it works. If not, maybe the fix can preserve much of its flavor.

Here’s what to like about Pinker. As a student and educator in the field of psycholinguistics, he’s deep in the ways our minds use language. When there’s a hitch in a sentence, I can usually say what needs to be done, but I can’t always articulate why. Pinker explains that and many other nuances of the English language. It’s not a grammar guide, but it does examine many aspects of language in light of the divide between Prescriptivists (the language standards’ right wing) and Descriptivists (the left wing). He isn’t intimidated by the Red Pen of Disapproval.

The language’s right wing seems to want the language frozen in time. To that group, for example, “ain’t” could never be a legitimate word. Whatever is considered correct today is treated as if it were correct for the millennium or so in which something like the English language has existed in discernibly different form from its Germanic extended family. Pinker demonstrates that language evolves whether editorial stuffed shirts like it or not, and that the Bemoaning of the Decline in Writing Standards has been with us for a very long time. Every generation does it. Put another way, the stuffed shirts of 1822 and 1922 would scowl at what the stuffed shirts of 2022 consider acceptable.

Every generation’s has the conceit of having lived in Big Important Times. Whatever it learned in childhood was The Right Way, with every later generation being selfish, lazy slobs with no respect. To this day most people sixty and over insist on two spaces after a period (and if they paid attention, the exclamation point and colon). Why? Because Mrs. Nitpickingham taught them two spaces in their typing class, and damn it, that makes it correct for all time and eternity. Never mind that Mrs. Nitpickingham (my own was a dotty but pleasant elderly lady who troweled on eyeshadow like iridescent purple bat wings extending from her eyelids) never used an electric typewriter and passed away before the advent of the IBM PC; she could not have envisioned self-publishing. Text-speak? Let’s be glad for her that she never saw it develop; same for my elderly high school English teacher, who looked like Groucho Marx and sounded a bit like Andy Rooney if he’d smoked all his life. In the meantime, every client over sixty argues with me about two spaces vs. one. I explain why the restriction no longer makes sense nor is the standard. Tough, most say, that’s what Mrs. Nitpickingham taught me and that’s what’s correct. It is the hill they choose to die on. It’s the wrong one.

It could be worse. My wife sometimes leaves three spaces, and she’s an excellent typist. I sometimes think she’s just messing with me.

If you want to see someone make a good case for the steady evolution of language and usage–someone doing so not because he doesn’t know the rules and won’t learn them, but because he knows them well enough to know when to bend or break them–Steven Pinker is your guy.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

Current read: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Provocative, eh? From my little editing perch with its industry perspective, I have to admire the marketing value of such a title. That’s how you throw a bomb. Love the book or hate it, I don’t see too much of Texas being neutral about it. Then again, I’ve only been to Texas a couple of times, and it’s probably one of the two or three states where I would least fit in. I do care about US history, though, and if California history is US history, so is that of Texas.

The book first sets forth to tell the history preceding and including the Texas Revolt, based on what the authors consider the best evidence and historical analysis. They do not reach the conclusion that has long been taught in Texas schools. They contend that black, Native American, and Hispanic participation has been written out or diminished, or at the very least oversimplified. This fortified a Heroic Anglo Narrative to which the remaining bits of the old mission compound in San Antonio represent the ultimate shrine.

The next part of the book, about half, details the making of the legend. It’s been what, 185 years since Santa Anna finally had it with his Texian subjects (and illegal US aliens who refused to abide by Mexican law) and marched in to subdue them? If you guess that people have spent the entire time arguing over the story itself, if and how it should be preserved, and who has the say in its future, you can don your coonskin cap in celebration. The story of the story of the Alamo is almost as interesting as the story of the Alamo, and is as germane to US history. Given the key role in advocacy and preservation (and in some cases, turf warring and neglect) played by women’s groups, it is also women’s history. (Not all of women’s history is automatically admirable. Time and again, they’ve proven they deserve to be remembered for their successes and failures, just like men.)

I don’t think any objective, educated reader of history doubts that there are some unverifiable “facts” that most people believe about the Alamo because those people want to believe them. That is normal about most history; why not this one?  I do think that any such reader realizes that minority contributions to the story have been minimized or bent into strange shapes. The error would be in somehow imagining the Alamo story as unique in this regard because it has been told–insisted upon–with such strident passion. I deprecate the idea that the loudest voice must be considered the victor. The louder they yell, the more suspicious I get.

Put simply, incomplete or exaggerated history happens everywhere. We just pay more attention to this one because people make so much noise about it, almost defying the world to contradict them. Well, yeah. If I sit in my living room, where no one can hear me, and say something provocative based on false premises, I’m probably not getting much hate mail over it. If it put it on an airplane banner, that’s another story.

The greatest thing about the book is the writing itself. I used to love Molly Ivins’s style, affectionate toward her homeland even when critical of it, like when her employing newspaper folded and she commented that she’d never had a newspaper shot out from under her before. It was always fun and often funny. This book is a history, and the history of the making of a history, told in just such a relaxed style. I can almost hear a gentle drawl as I read it. I believe she would have loved it and its message.

I find the authors’ historical study credible. To me, the amount of pushback they have gotten tells me that the detractors have long known there were ugly realities about the story, did not want to explore those ugly realities, and would defend this old mission compound’s ruins as a key bastion in the culture wars. Put it this way: If the authors were full of shit, and everyone had good reason to believe that, no one would feel threatened–just annoyed. It’s like that political fringe nut who thinks the queen of England is a drug dealer. The suggestion is not credible enough for the monarchy, or its defenders, to take seriously.

This book was very much worth my time.

Current read: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen

I learned of this book from one of its primary subjects: Leonard Peltier himself. The full title continues: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement.

While I’m nearly always sympathetic to Native American causes, I don’t swallow  without question every cause put before me. I knew of Peltier, and of the killings on Pine Ridge, but few of the details. I’d generally assumed that justice had not been done, since Native Americans rarely get justice from the US legal system. This is especially so in states where anti-Indian bigotry is the social norm for whites. When the deck begins stacked against a group, I stop offering default faith in those who stack it. The burden of proof and honesty falls upon the stackers, and until they satisfy me, I assume that they will lie and cheat.

In this case, the legal system was the BIA-supported tribal police, the local law in South Dakota and other states, and the FBI. For me, that begins as oh-for-three in terms of fundamental trust.

A few years back, not much later in the year than this, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for an auto services company to put the studs on Deb’s car for the winter. At a nearby table sat a Native American man, older than me, wearing a shirt or jacket advocating freedom for Leonard Peltier. I nodded and complimented the shirt, a standard icebreaker for talking to strangers, and he invited me to sit down. While I do not remember our entire conversation, and definitely could not identify him now, we had a pleasant and informative talk. We talked about the dry sense of gallows humor often seen in Native-specific situations, such as when they seized Alcatraz on the grounds that its complete lack of resources and facilities made it the perfect Indian reservation. We spoke about Leonard, and the man expressed his firm conviction that Leonard Peltier had killed no one.

The killings in question occurred in 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation, during a series of armed confrontations in which one Native and two FBI agents died. The latter were wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then executed. All police have visceral reactions to deaths of their own, which is understandable enough; the problem here is that there was and is no reliable proof of who killed the agents. Eventually four Native Americans were charged with the murders; three were indicted; two were acquitted. Having fled to Canada and been extradited, Peltier was the last to stand trial. One might reasonably suspect that, this being the last chance to make sure some Indian paid for the agents’ deaths, the government forces were taking no chances with a fair trial. In my opinion, based upon a review of the government witnesses’ credibility and much evidence suppression, no fair trial occurred.

It’s not that this proves Peltier innocent; it’s that it does not, to my satisfaction, prove his guilt. And if he were white, I do not believe he would have been indicted, much less convicted.

Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated ever since. He is 77, in poor health, and there is good reason to believe he is currently being denied medical care.

Until I studied the Rosenberg case some years back, I would have begun with more faith in (or at least, less distrust of) Federal agents’ and courts’ integrity. That case made it abundantly clear to me that when a case touches certain issues–a Red Scare, for example, or a Native American movement painted in public pronouncements with the potential for foreign subversion assistance–the government will cheat. In short, Julius was guilty enough (no real argument there), but Ethel’s indictment was flimsy. Julius had the option to plead out and inform on others to save his wife, whose indictment rested mainly on her brother’s suborned perjury, and the government expected him to accept. He maintained his innocence and refused to help the Federal agents bust others, so the government carried out its threat. The trial proceedings represent a craven failure of justice, with even defense counsel at great pains to distance themselves from any hint of being soft on the Red Menace. They shamed this country and its system of justice.

Based upon my conversation with my tablemate in the waiting lounge, I determined to look into the Peltier case. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m enough of a Kansas boy to have a good sense of bullshit when I smell it. My review satisfied me that Leonard had not received a fair trial, and that the case against him should have been rejected by jury nullification based upon the suppression of evidence and vindictive reactions to the agents’ deaths. I came to believe that this elderly man should have his conviction vacated; at the least, that he should receive executive clemency. I had thought that Il Douche might have pardoned him just to piss off the FBI, which he resented for not doing his bidding, but it did not happen. Biden won’t, unless it’s in the last days of his administration (by which time Leonard might no longer be with us). The Federal government has long memories, extensive files, and unchecked power. For half a century, a virtual secret police chief led the FBI, and the country got used to the idea that the Feds had dirt on everyone. I can see where that might intimidate even a sitting chief executive, though I don’t see where it absolves them.

Not so long ago, I was wondering what I could do that might mean something. Evidently Leonard is kept in solitary confinement, but can receive letters. If I were in solitary, I would want letters, so I wrote to him. My first mailing came back; the prison had rejected it for using an address label on the envelope. I repackaged it, handwrote my return address, and sent it again. (Those fuckers owe me a 55-cent stamp.) I did not expect to hear back, but I did, a handwritten two-page letter from Leonard himself. His writing and outlook were consistent with what I had come to know about him: a man perhaps willing to fight if provoked, otherwise peaceable, but who would never cease to struggle for Native rights. The tribes get bullied any time a corporation learns that it can make money by stealing their resources, or whenever they try to assert treaty rights.

Like Kathryn Janeway, I don’t like bullies. Many of my interactions with our judicial apparatus and its various arms have shown me that bully culture is at the heart of our national character, and that government’s tendency to bully represents the soul of the nation. It’s just what they do; what we do. It disgusts me, and I’ll call it what it is.

Leonard recommended I read this book, and I have. I find it persuasive, honest in its basic bias (I trust that more than I trust anyone calling him or herself objective), and well researched. Matthiessen hit some brick walls, but mostly on the governmental side. I believe that his Native sources were in the main truthful, with the caveat that they wouldn’t tell him anything that might get any of their own in trouble. I respect that. I wouldn’t either. Matthiessen eventually met someone, name not provided nor known to him, who accepted responsibility for the agents’ killings. The account reads credible, and the man was not Leonard Peltier.

The most telling aspect of the episode that led to Leonard’s show trial and railroading, to my mind, is the degree to which the American Indian Movement was portrayed as a domestic terror movement with backing from overseas Commies. If you believed the government, this might be the next Cuban- or Soviet-sponsored insurgency, and we should all be Very Afraid. In 1976, at 13 and very much indoctrinated in the toxic nationalism that has now consumed (and will ultimately ruin) my country, I might have bought that. Now I don’t. All my life, there have been demon words used to whip up hatred and fear against those we are ordered to rejected. I don’t take those orders well; I prefer to decide for myself who deserves those emotions of me. Native Americans insisting upon their rights, and resenting/resisting abrogation and violation of those rights, do not deserve my hostility. This country will never heal until we do them justice. I will not live to see it, but I hope later generations will. Maybe then we will cease to be Bully Nation.

I recommend Matthiessen’s book. I thank Leonard for recommending it to me.

Newly released: Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed: Volume I. Starting University, by Markham Shaw Pyle

A new release by an outstanding writer and friend.

Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed:Volume I. Starting University. The first in a new series … in which Uncle Grumpy—me: the historian, critic, publisher, and retired attorney Markham Shaw Pyle—explains the purpose of a university; its pitfalls; how not to let it turn into a mere trade school for you; what tools to pick up […]

Newly released…. — Markham Shaw Pyle, author & historian

Recent read: Ottoman Odyssey, by Alev Scott

The basic concept of this book was creative: After finding herself barred from Turkey, Scott (of English and Turkish parentage) decided to travel and write about the former Ottoman dominions. Most were lost to the former Sultanate just about a century ago, post-World War I.

After reading her first book, Turkish Awakening, another volume by Scott offered considerable appeal. The Erdogan government evidently wasn’t too thrilled with what she wrote. Turkey can be very sensitive about critics, enough that it has a law against “insulting Turkishness.” That includes, for example, referring to the Armenian genocide as genocidal. Formerly a somewhat authoritarian but determinedly secular republic, Turkey of late has shown significant drift toward theocracy. It once ruled much of the region, and that has left not only lingering grudges but lingering allegiances. Not everyone regrets the Turks’ absence.

D and I have been to Turkey, but only briefly. We liked what we saw, realizing our sample size was too limited for any generalization, and we liked the people we encountered. We felt safe and well treated. But that was over ten years back, and I am not sure we would return in the current climate. I’m not pointing a finger over the rise of theocratic hyper-nationalism; no American reasonably can. But I can also see why tourists were avoiding my country after 2016.

As Scott traveled about the former Ottoman lands (the Balkans, the Levant, Iraq, etc., she saw that Turkish support for local Islamic education and places of worship was on the rise. A century after its dismantlement, at least in the United States where historical understanding is atrocious, only history majors even know that “Ottoman” can mean anything other than a place to rest one’s feet.

All right. At its height, the Ottoman Empire included all the modern Balkan countries as far north as part of Hungary and some of Ukraine; the entire Black Sea coast; the Caucasus and Iraq; most of the Arabian peninsula; the north African coast from Egypt to Algeria. Its western boundaries somewhat curled around Italy. That’s big. This was a powerful, sophisticated, diverse imperium in which Muslims enjoyed preference (lower taxes, for example) but which, to be blunt, treated non-Muslims much better than western Europe treated non-Christians most of the time in most places. Jews, Greeks, Turks, Slavs, Arabs, Armenians, mostly lived and worked in amicable proximity. Western Europe took the Ottomans very seriously, especially when the Turks tried to expand into the Balkans.

Over the 1800s, the Ottoman grip grew flaccid, its member regions declaring independence or being seized by other powers. By 1900, the Ottoman Empire had a glass jaw. Siding with the Central Powers in World War I sealed its fate. When the outcome was settled, there was no more Ottoman Empire. Turks controlled only the area bounded by modern Turkey (minus Antakya, better known in the west as Antioch, which they reabsorbed in 1938-39). They had learned a thing about European wars, and they sat out the one immediately arriving. Not a single Turkish soldier died in World War II.

Postwar Turkey became a staunch NATO ally, in spite of periodic conflicts with fellow NATO member Greece, and to all external appearances was the farthest thing from seeking a new empire. Its troubles mainly involved a large Kurdish minority deeply resentful of its overlords. From the US standpoint, that’s long been the biggest problem for US support to the Kurds: such support would alienate Turkey, one of the most strategic positions in the world and a key US ally.

It has been, at least. Nowadays that alliance stands shaken and uncertain, with both sides thinking they never really knew one another. Maybe they didn’t.

If not, Scott’s book is a help in understanding the various undercurrents of that relationship. I look forward to more from her.

New re-release: Frenchy’s Whore, by Verne E. Brewer II

This tale of the Vietnam War has quite a history. I provided general editing input and line editing. Note well: the Amazon blurb is copied from my original review, thus dating back nine years. It does not reflect current impressions of the book. I believe this is destined to be fixed.

I came to know Verne some nine years ago when we were playing Castle Age, a Facebook game. He was friends with a friend. Somehow–I don’t recall exactly how–I came to learn that he had published a book based upon his experiences in Vietnam with the 173d Airborne Brigade.

Since I like stories based in authentic experience, I decided to give Verne a boost. At that time, I still had enough review weight on Amazon that I could make a difference; plus, not only did the Vietnam vets receive shameful mistreatment, but my father-in-law had been one of those vets, and I felt like it would do his memory respect to give another old jumper (them, not me, just to be clear) a boost. I ordered the book, read it, and wrote an honest review. The story was excellent, textured, with significant descriptive talent on display and that authentic feel that you can only get by being there.

Problem: It did not reflect the benefits of competent editing. This was painful. I decided mentally to give the storytelling five stars, weighted for the descriptive talent that a capable editor would have brought out, but two for the actual prose. Net, four–maybe a 3.6, but there are no fractional stars. Normally I’ll just put down a book where it’s hard to get through the writing, but I had decided to see this through and tell the truth. My review did so.

I never heard much from Verne about it at the time, and I wasn’t sure how he felt about my review, but I felt good that I’d given his book a little bump. Most people arguably wouldn’t be as affected by editing and proofreading problems as a professional editor would be. Better to have a great story with writing problems than an eloquently written yawnfest. Writing problems are repairable; well-written dullness can only be de-dulled by adding better story characteristics.

I was still in touch with Verne here and there over the years, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t pissed him off. In 2020, he got in touch to tell me a story that astonished me.

Turns out that Verne’s reaction to my review was a combination of delight with my observations and disappointment with his publisher, which had committed to provide him with some editing and proofreading support. He told me of sitting through book signings feeling embarrassed, but he saw my review as having seen through to the essence of the book, and over the years he had felt good about that. Flaws aside, the book had remained in some demand over the years, copies still selling for a significant premium on the secondary market. Now, Verne told me, he had reacquired the rights and he wanted me to help him make a new release of Frenchy’s Whore the book it always should have been.

Careful what you write in reviews, right? Someone might say: ‘Okay. I agree with everything you said. You’re on. Let’s see what you’ve got, and let’s see this book reach that potential you talked about.’

That sounded like an enjoyable assignment, though. It’s not every day you hear something about stuff you wrote nine years back. Verne wanted to make a few minor storyline corrections, extend the tale a bit longer, and then we’d be ready for a line edit. Our first hurdle was that he didn’t have an electronic copy, just a box of the remaining copies from his former publisher. This forced me to confront a question I hadn’t dealt with: How does one scan a printed book back to an electronic format? While a capable transcriber could retype the whole thing, surely there had to be a more time- and cost-efficient way. I dug around and found a service that would do it for a basic amount of $14 plus six cents a page. While I had no idea how it would go, I asked Verne if he would be willing to risk about $20-25 plus a sacrificed print copy on a chance to jump straight to electronic copy. Boy howdy he would.

While the scanned version had the expected issues, we could work with it. We discussed the prognosis and Verne decided to get moving with some rewriting and recharacterization. That process hit a few bumps, such as when Verne got hurt pretty badly in a motorcycle accident, and times when the material was difficult for him to face. I can relate to this through my own trauma experiences, which I rarely discuss here but do understand how they can play back old mental tapes. There was nothing for it but to be patient with my client’s process and life situations, which is something editors must always be ready to do. If we are not, then when we have our own life situations, we can’t expect any understanding at all.

The line editing process faced some hiccups, such as material shifts (requiring changes in introduction points, for example, with careful scrutiny) and integration of new information that gave clarity to the story. I ended up over budget, which is uncommon but can happen in spite of my best efforts. A client has the right to make late changes, of course, and I need to accommodate them.

Late in the project, it occurred to me that I could offer a contribution. My own PTSD, while not arising from anything like the Vietnam experience, has been part of my life since my teens. It had always helped me to empathize with the impact of PTSD on veterans and others, even before I understood that this was what we had in common. I offered Verne a piece for the book’s front matter regarding why Vietnam matters, and he accepted. I hope it will help readers gain increased context. Context is everything.

The biggest dilemma came with names: real names, pseudonyms, and incomplete conversions of either. Verne had the advantage of actually having known all these people; I did not. Thus, was this guy really this guy, or is this another instance of that guy? On the third pass, this drove me absolutely nuts, frustrated, furious, and excruciating. Part of that was because I wasn’t charging for it, because I was fixing my own bad judgment. At the very outset, I should have asked for a complete table of real names, pseudonyms, and jobs. While my intent had been not to make this harder on Verne than I could help–these were real people and painful memories–it was a false economy.

After about twenty hours of uncompensated floundering work, I finally put my foot down. I told Verne I needed a complete list of all the real names, any fake names, and which he intended to be used. While I tried to be non-confrontational, realizing that my anger should be taken out on myself for having not required this at the start, I was prepared to insist. When he sent me the name list and told me it was so freaking confusing, that was the first time I’d smiled about this since I’d stopped work to await the list. If it confused the author who actually knew the real people, I was hardly losing it to be so confused myself. It confirmed for me that I’d finally done exactly the correct thing.

Took me long enough.

Besides the fact that his rewriting had shown a lot of growth, Verne’s goodwill, coachability, and gratitude stood out throughout the project. He always treated me like a valued colleague, considered my guidance, and appreciated me as though I were somehow doing him a big favor (rather than planning to be paid for services rendered). In fact, I was honored my words had impacted and encouraged him so much, and more honored to be asked to participate.

This time, I feel confident that Verne’s story retains all of the original’s texture but with more consistency and polish. I believe you will agree.

Current read: Out of Their League, Dave Meggysey

While this book first saw the light of day in 1970, it amazes me how relevant it remains today.

Meggysey, one of a large family born to Hungarian immigrants, grew up in Ohio and one might say found his way into professional football without ever having seriously dreamed of playing at the highest level. From high school to Syracuse to the end of his NFL career with the Cardinals, a part of him always knew that football culture was exploitative and racist. What would have been a dream for many young American men was a career from which he was eager to move on.

Moving on was simple enough. As the sixties moved on, all he had to do was become active in anti-war and anti-racist activities. That would get him shown the door if he didn’t retire first, which he did. He moved on to a career in education and activism.

The striking thing about Meggysey’s story is that our progress in fifty years has been modest and incremental at best. He tells freely of the ways and amounts in which Syracuse players were paid, a process that goes on today though less openly. (Whenever I see a college program rocket from mehness to top-ten recruiting classes, my first assumption is that they decided to go the bagman route.) He believes American football has a toxic culture. While I still like the college game, and I do not regret my high school playing days, I also think he is right–especially in places where football is the primary religious preference.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Dave Meggysey, like me, would be proud to kneel with Colin Kaepernick. I don’t have much use for mass nationalistic rallies prior to sporting events. I see them as manipulative and indoctrinary. One major change since his playing days involves the demographics of college and professional football, which are now very heavily black and Polynesian. You’d think it would be impossible to have racist issues in football coaching at any level above high school, and yet we keep hearing of them.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers; perhaps in the past fifty years Meggysey has found some. My biggest takeaway from this book was a better understanding of the game’s dynamics during its unsettled sixties, and the understanding that its troubles are nothing new.

Why I had never heard of him, I have no idea. I’ve normally heard of most conspicuous nonconformists in sports I follow, including those mostly before my time. I am glad I found him now, and I hope I get to meet him someday.