Category Archives: Book reviews

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

Provocative, eh? 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.

Current read: Traveling with People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann

Travel is one of my favorite genres. That said, travel writers don’t often get me so amped that I start describing the book to the ‘Lancer’s faithful before I even finish it.

Jen Mann has aggregated a life of travel mishaps, awkwardnesses, and random events into a fantastic, well-written volume. Because part of my work is to help people improve and repair their English usage, I’m Selfy McSelfishton when it comes to my leisure reading time and material. I have rejected quite a few books covering content I was otherwise eager to read, simply because the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ demonstrated to me that the author’s writing was not bearable. Jen can write.

What’s more, she has the gift of letting the humor in the situation speak for herself. That holds true even when, as often is the case, the joke’s on her. Here’s one good example, from a para about trying to fit into a too-small robe. Jen is in Singapore, and has a Western woman’s body but has been issued an Asian women’s robe:

I took the robe and ducked into the stall. i shucked my clothes and grabbed the robe off the hanger, but as soon as I put my arms in, I knew there was going to be a problem. I managed to get my shoulders wedged into the robe, but I couldn’t close it completely over my ample bosom. It was like putting twenty pounds of dog food into a ten-pound bag.

Who has the guts to say that in a book? Jen Mann.

I want more, and I’ll have it. She has about half a dozen other books out, and I suspect I will end up with them all.

Recent read: The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brodie

Having spent our Pageant of Democracy at the coast (in Oregon, that’s how we say “the beach”), I needed a good read. If I had been doing the ideal thing, I’d have finished reading the book about marketing editing services. Instead I brought along this book, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Introductions are in order. Brodie was a UCLA history professor who wrote several biographies, notably one of Joseph Smith. I had read that one and thought it rather good, though the LDS Church doesn’t seem to have shared my opinion. In my estimation, she is credible. As for Burton, he was an 1800s English philologist, foreign service officer, explorer, and researcher of human sexuality. Some called him a cad, but no one called him dull.

Burton had a great natural flair for learning languages, eventually mastering about twenty-five with another fifteen dialects. He spoke Arabic well enough to infiltrate Mecca despite not being a Muslim, which would have gotten him a messy punishment in case of discovery. He quarreled with the British Foreign Office, fellow explorers, other researchers, and anyone who tried to boss him around. He visited Utah in the early 1860s, and Brodie (a native of Ogden) calls his book on the LDS community the best study of its time. I’d think she should know.

As for human sexuality, Burton picked an unreceptive time and place to discuss it. Wherever he went, he studied sexual practices and beliefs. Much of his work in that area scandalized much of his home country (in which he lived very little of his actual life), and much of it we will never see, because his fanatically religious wife incinerated a large amount of his unpublished work and diaries after his death. The effect was to attach to Burton an air of amorality, but his real sin was not to study sexuality and publish his findings. His real sin was not to appear properly ashamed and embarrassed about doing so. For that, the court of public opinion crucified him.

Brodie didn’t write nearly as many biographies as I wish she would have, probably thanks to her thoroughness and urgent need for a passionate interest in her subject. This one’s a winner. Recommended.

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

lighting a financial candle rather than cursing the financial darkness

Now and then, I have to give credit to a complete idiot.

Dirty laundry: I sometimes have trouble coming up with good topics to maintain a twice-monthly blog posting schedule. In this case, a friend’s friend said something so blithering that I had to contradict. Not harshly, of course. You never know when it’s someone’s wonderful Aunt Edna who, while dumber than a bag of wet nickels, has devoted her whole life to helping her nephew and about two hundred other kids from broken homes. I’d rather not find out the hard way. But the facts, at least, needed a saying.

This brought me to the realization that I have a substantial financial reading list, if I would but share it, to help people self-educate. Self-education is good. Why take my word for this stuff? Better to read people who know more about it than I do. And another of my beliefs is the old saying about lighting candles and cursing darkness. If I don’t feel good, I try to make myself do things that will make me feel more positive.

Before I go into the reading list, I ought to disclose my basic investing outlook and methods. I am not a fan of corporate America. I begin with the presumption that it is impossible to find a publicly traded American company not operated by criminals, at least as I define the term. The harder a company puts on the PR to tell me how wonderful it is, the more I assume the reality is opposite.

I am more an income investor than a growth investor. I don’t like CEO promises and predictions; my basic outlook is “Fuck you; pay up.” I like income because they can’t take it back. I own very few separate issue stocks. I go mostly for index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and closed-end bond funds (CEFs). I can wring 2-5% payouts from the bond index ETFs, 12-15% from the CEFs (with capital loss potential), and results from the stock ETFs vary but are more volatile than most of the market (this works to my advantage). My primary objective, naturally, is to make money. The secondary objective, which leads to the primary but has to come first, is to keep emotion out of my investing.

It follows, therefore, that I don’t much believe in ethical investing. If you want to get all ethical, buy Satan Inc.’s stock (DEVL), donate the dividends to their enemies, and vote against all management’s recommendations. That is the action on your part that they fear most–but don’t confuse it with investing for gain.

I do believe that financial innumeracy is one of the leading causes of youth poverty in this country. The schools and parents didn’t teach them. The young made the naive assumption that opportunities would be the same for them as they were for their parents, a myth their parents knew was bullshit, but did not puncture. The parents should have.

With that, I offer you a list of excellent reads about money management, investing behaviors, strategies, and suchlike. I hope it will help you beat the rigged game that is our market, even if your method doesn’t even involve buying any stocks.

  • Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere; Don’t Be One of Them, by Jason Kelly. You’ll be seeing his name a couple more times, for good reason: Jason combines a very readable style with an iconoclastic, no-bullshit approach. We’re friends, but I was a fan of his writing years before we became personally acquainted. If adulting classes existed, this could be the textbook. If you’re in your twenties and you have debt and/or no savings, start here. It’s the icewater bath you need.
  • Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, and Why You Should, Too, by Louann Lofton. It turns out that women have investing tendencies that work to their advantage, and Lofton has taken time to observe and quantify these. It’s an excellent read, and likely to promote confidence on the part of women navigating what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Bottom line: if you’re beating their numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you do it through newsletter picks, tarot, Sacred Vagina Meditations, research, or free association. It means you’re better.
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide, by David & Tom Gardner. While I’m out of the business of researching and picking separate issue securities (that would include common stocks), others might not be. Either way, this is a fun read full of helpful education.
  • Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), by William Poundstone. Poundstone is the guy you have never read that you should be reading: author of the Secrets books, who then turned to studies of human psychology. Distilled essence: marketers use our instincts to lead us to decisions that work to their advantage and against ours. Understanding this is worth your while.
  • The 3% Signal: The Investing Technique that will Change Your Life, by Jason Kelly. Jason publishes The Kelly Letter, an outstanding investment newsletter. He used to pick stocks. He stopped, and his life got better. This book tells what he does now, and how anyone with an investment account can do the same. Five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
  • Your Money & Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, by Jason Zweig. Another good entry in the field of investing and money psychology. I don’t believe you can go too far wrong applying critical thinking to an understanding of how our minds work.
  • The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, by Jason Kelly. There is some overlap here between more recent versions of this book and The 3% Signal. That said, if you want to go stock hunting, I’d take this book in addition to the Gardners’ treatise.

Because I feel in a sharing mode, I’m going to make a number of statements that I wish more people could absorb:

  • Any stock index report that goes by points rather than percentage change just makes you dumber.
  • Any person reporting a stock index result that reports points rather than percentage is either too uneducated to know how dumb this is, or is deliberately using the big number to draw attention.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds are usually a bad deal. They’re great investments for 1975, if you’re currently living then.
  • About 90-95% of investors should just buy and accumulate index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
  • Financial media suck. You get stupider every time you watch or read them.
  • Bonds don’t automatically mean you get your money back. Bond funds especially don’t mean this.
  • If investing a very small amount, you can afford to shoot high. Only when you pile up a big heap o’ money do you have to think about holding onto it.
  • Emotion is your investing enemy.
  • You don’t know who you are as an investor until you see a crash. Who you are is what you do during and after that crash. A fern could make money in a bull market.
  • The Dow is worse than useless; it is distortive. Any time someone cites it as meaningful, my opinion of that person’s investing savvy drops.
  • It follows, from the above and previous commentary, that any time anyone says “Dow drops 300 [or whatever number],” without including the percentage change, I conclude that the individual doesn’t understand the markets at all. I may heart them big time, but they said a dumb thing.
  • Most people throw away about half their lifetime returns just by playing with themselves all through their twenties, only getting serious come their thirties.
  • If you buy an investment you don’t understand, you do a stupid thing.
  • Any time someone starts by saying “If you had bought XX back in X month, year Y,” this person is sharing irrelevancy. Why? Because you didn’t. You wouldn’t. Next time, you won’t either. If only that defensive end had gotten to the passer on that third down play in the first quarter, the whole game would have been different–but he did not.
  • Always buy the stocks my wife says to buy. Unless, of course, I helped pick them, in which case they’ll tank.
  • The choice of a traditional vs. Roth IRA comes down to the tax benefit. If you don’t make enough money to need the writeoff, the Roth is probably more advantageous. However, the Roth means trusting the government to honor a promise years in the future. I never have. Your call.
  • Rich traders get to cheat in ways you and I do not.
  • For IPOs, if they’re worth getting into, you probably aren’t getting in unless you’re with a big full-commission brokerage. That’s one advantage for full-commission brokers, set against an ocean of disadvantages.