Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans."

Thirty years ago today, March 30, 1981, I was sitting in algebra class at Northwest Jr. High. Mr. Young was a tough teacher - or at least that's how most students saw him - but I really liked him. He would review the problems over and over again and answer questions so that there was never any reason for a student to not understand. If you got it you started on your homework, and if not you needed to speak up. I don't remember exactly the details of how it happened but I remember him telling a stunned class that there had been an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

President Reagan was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton when six shots were fired at him and his staff. It took only 1.7 seconds for John Hinckley Jr. to unload all six explosive-tipped Devastator bullets. Three men – the President's press secretary, a Secret Service agent, and a Washington D.C. police officer – lay wounded as the President was rushed away. Initially, no one realized he had been hit as well, but when Special Agent Jerry Parr saw blood on Reagan's lips, he instructed the driver to head directly to George Washington University Hospital. His instincts saved the President's life.

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald ReaganDel Quentin Wilber has written a riveting account of the events that day in Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. It is not an exhaustive detailing of every fact surrounding the incident, but is a readable narrative that is as hard to put down as any engrossing novel. He includes the experiences of dozens of agents, officers, medical personnel, and those in the Reagan Administration in a real-time manner as it unfolded. It is both moving and terrifying to view the assassination attempt from the perspective of those who were there. It is highly inspiring to see the reaction of those around him – Jerry Parr’s automatic response in protecting Reagan, agent Tim McCarthy who used his body to block the bullets, and the medical personnel who cared for him. It is also chillingly interesting to see the motives behind John Hinckley’s actions that day. Most of all it was nice to read of the way Reagan handled himself, from insisting on walking into the hospital to the jokes and words he used to offer comfort to others. The White House was very careful not to cause a panic and assure the nation that everything was under control, so we didn't know it then but President Reagan came very close to death that day - the bullet stopped only an inch away from his heart.

My memories from 30 years ago were fuzzy and it was amazing to read of everything that occurred. I re-watched a video of the shooting online and was surprised to realize you could see the gun being fired and the wounded men going down - if they showed all that back then I certainly didn't remember it. I highly recommend this worthwhile book.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The nature of miracles

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I don't believe science and religion are as incompatible as some claim. It's an idea that comes up sometimes in books I read or online forums I've participated in. Just as some religious people can be very closed-minded about scientific discoveries, 'people of science,' for lack of a better term, can frequently be (dare I say?) religious in their condescending dismissals of religious faith, as if Science had conclusively disproven the existence of God. And as far as I'm concerned, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I have no interest in arguing about it.

I recently read The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder (which I received from Amazon Vine). It's about four men - William Whewell (pronounced "who-el"), John Hershel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones - who, in their school days at Cambridge, met Sunday mornings to discuss the state of science in the early 1800s, or "philosophy" as it was then called. All went on to become very influential and had a great impact on the direction of scientific research, making it more orderly and fact-based in its approach and less of a simple philosophical (or mental) exercise. The book was 'okay' but not as interesting or engaging as I had hoped. All four shared fairly similar religious beliefs and it discusses Whewell's argument for the existence of God and miracles, and it defines a "miracle" as something that is unexplainable by the known laws of science. It's a position that's always bothered me and I found the same argument in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

My problem with this line of thinking is that it's a definition that's too narrow. To me, science is our effort to understand the laws by which God operates - and it's a perfectly worthwhile endeavor. We should be reaching for a more perfect understanding and be open-minded even when "evidence" seem to contradict our prior understanding of things. The scriptures available to us don't contain the truth of ALL things, and maybe our understanding (or interpretation?) of them needs to be adjusted. But, just because we begin to understand something that was previously "miraculous" doesn't make it any less so.

I prefer to define miracles as "manifestations of divine or spiritual power" that are meant to teach us and increase our faith. They are a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrate His love for us and they usually occur in response to our faith. A couple of scriptural stories illustrate this well.

The first is the young man who was stricken with a palsy (Mark 2: 1-12). His friends brought him to be healed of Jesus but couldn't get close enough to the house because of the crowd. But their faith was so strong that they climbed on the roof and made a hole to lower him through, and the way Jesus responded is very interesting. He first forgives the man of his sins, and perceiving that some scoffed at such presumptuousness, he then heals the man of his infirmities (interesting that it was done in that order, and maybe a lesson for us?). Second is when he raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:22-43). Jairus was a ruler in the synagogue but had the faith to seek out Jesus to save his beloved daughter. Can you imagine how worried this father must have been? And yet Jesus doesn't seem to hurry enough. At one point, he even stops to ask who touched him (when there's a crowd pressing around him, no less!). Of course, it was an old woman who had such great faith that if she could only "touch but his clothes" she would be healed (v. 25-34). By the time Jesus finally reaches the home of Jairus his little daughter has died, but Jesus reassures him to "be not afraid, only believe" (v. 36). And after he raises her from the dead, he counsels them to keep it to themselves (perhaps it was a caution against pride on the part of Jairus?). (And thanks to my friend Kurt for some valuable insights.)

So, I remind myself that others haven't had the same experiences I have, and don't understand the reason for my faith. I don't know how exactly Adam and Eve were created or how much of Darwin's Theory of Evolution is correct or how the Flood happened or (etc. etc. etc.)..., but I believe there is an explanation for it all that will make sense from both a religious and a scientific viewpoint. I hope to understand it all someday.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What if the Queen became a bookworm?

I'm a bookworm - it says so in the web address for my blog. I always have a long list of books I plan to read and usually have a pile of them waiting. I don't spend much time online and seldom watch television either - there's little that interests me and it feels so wasteful, anyway - so I read instead. But what if somebody like the Queen of England became a bookworm? That's the premise behind The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

The Uncommon Reader: A NovellaWhile on a walk with the dogs, the Queen stumbles upon a Bookmobile parked outside the Windsor kitchens, the only occupants being the driver and a kitchen servant. So as not to seem rude, Her Royal Majesty borrows a book intending to send it back the following week. And while she reads the book and finds it dry, she borrows another and begins an obsession with books. Previously enjoyable activities become a chore as they keep her away from her current reading. It makes her late for opening Parliament, and she perfects the practice of waving from the carriage while keeping her attention on the book hidden out of sight in her lap. She deviates from the usual conversation with the locals; instead of talking about the traffic, she asks what they're reading - often with uncomfortable consequences. Even the Prime Minister and foreign heads of state are not immune from her questions and suggestions on books to read. Her staff gets quite rattled with these changes, even stooping to undermine her habit, and her formerly impeccable attire suffers.

This is an easy to read novella which I finished in just a couple of hours. Once I started I couldn't put it down, and found myself laughing at the situations Her Majesty finds herself in. I'm not familiar with the author or other contemporary English literature, so I'm afraid that some of it passed over my head, but I couldn't help but sense plenty of subtle wittiness in it's pages. But anyone who's found themselves obsessed with reading will feel a sense of familiarity in the story and relate to the lengths she goes to indulge her habit, and some may even relate to her conclusions at the end. I found the writing to be very intelligent, and was forced to consult a dictionary several times with unfamiliar English words, and the style to be subtly humorous on multiple levels. You just might relate to it if you've ever found yourself unable to put a book down.  (And if you like this, you'll LOVE the Flavia de Luce mysteries!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

What if...? The mistakes of the Cold War

I don't usually post book reviews on my blog unless I really like them, but I have mixed feelings about The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Robert Dallek which I received from Amazon Vine. It's actually very well-written and I was constantly grabbing a red pen to underline passages I found particularly interesting and insightful. At least, that was my reason for underlining for more than half of the book. At some point I found myself underlining statements that were so unbelievable I wondered what on earth the author was thinking?!?

(THE LOST PEACE) Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Dallek, Robert(Author)Hardcover{The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953} on01-Nov-2010The Second World War was destruction on a scale not previously seen in history. Was it possible that, given such a frenzy of brutality and atrocity, mankind might have turned from its warlike ways and sought a true end to all wars? Alas, it's a moot point as we know the history that followed.  Although no global conflicts on a similar scale have occurred since, the respite has hardly been peaceful.

A statement on the back of the book calls it "a striking reinterpretation of the postwar years." I wondered, did "reinterpretation" mean "revisionist," which has become just another byword for those who blame the United States for all the woes of the world? I was encouraged by the Preface in which Mr. Dallek says: "While I highlight the failings of the notable men who dominated the scene during this time, I am not intent on denying them their due, or in the case of the greatest villains of the day, revising their reputations for wrongdoing" (pg xi). And indeed, he seems blunt in his vilification of the duplicitous dealings of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt (while they were allegedly allies), concluding he had little intention of keeping his word when signing treaties. His assessment of the situation in China is interesting - suggesting it might have been better opening a dialog with Mao Tse-tung, who was very reluctant to join the Soviet orbit and made overtures to the U.S., than clinging to the corrupt and unpopular regime of Chiang Kai-shek. His description of the atmosphere in America is likewise insightful, saying those on the left were naïve in their faith in communist benevolence, while decrying the provoking militancy of the right. Such uncompromising ideologues as Joseph McCarthy left few political options for American leaders who had to be mindful of public opinion.

Like I said, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking book, but it went from insightful to straining the limits of credibility. Perhaps in an effort to appear balanced, Dallek is highly critical of Western leaders for reacting to Stalin and Mao with "knee-jerk anticommunism." He is hard on comments by Western leaders but soft on Soviet and Chinese rhetoric. He justifies Stalin's paranoia as "Russian fear of invasion from the West" (pg 246) and dismisses Soviet espionage and foreign manipulations as "the greatly exaggerated threat of Communist subversion" (pg 269). Even while he explains Western needs to avoid the kind of appeasement that enabled Hitler’s murderous spree, he suggests Truman should have met with Stalin and "candidly explained America's reluctance to build weapons of such destructive power and invited the Soviets to join him in a shared effort to ban" them (pg 297) - which sounds a lot like appeasement. He downplays Soviet involvement in instigating the Korean conflict and blames it on "America's inattentiveness" (pg 314). And for all his lamentations over atomic weapons, he credits them with being an ironic deterrent to further large-scale conflict (pg 364-5).

He is also embarrassingly fawning over George Kennan, a diplomat who - according to Dallek - had the best understanding of Soviet thinking. Yet he quotes Kennan as dismissing the "Czech coup and the Berlin blockade [by the Soviets] as 'just the predictable baring of the fangs'" (pg 263) as though such events were harmless and inconsequential. His acknowledgements that Stalin and Mao "didn't hesitate to sacrifice lives for the sake of communism and [their] personal rule" (pg 327) and were responsible for the deaths and brutal oppression of many millions (!!!) of their own people seem lost in the jumble of so much history, almost dismissed as unimportant.

And yet... Dallek's study can be intriguing - and it's certainly well-written. He is mindful that his analysis has the benefit of historical hindsight, but that’s the point and he claims the historian's responsibility to render judgments and offer alternatives - a not unreasonable premise. But while I admire much he had to say, I was deeply troubled by his uneven judgments and minimizing the threat of Soviet communism. To suggest that Stalin might have been neutralized (or “rehabilitated”?) with plain and simple honesty is disturbing and seems the pinnacle of naïveté. Still, it's probably a worthwhile read if you're interested in Cold War history and the mistakes of leadership that led to it. Just don’t take everything at face value and don't make it the only book on the subject you read.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Today is St. Patrick's Day - are you lucky? Jamie has this idea that I'm a "lucky" person - and that I should buy lottery tickets. (Personally, I think my chances of winning the lottery are the same whether I buy a ticket or not.) But she thinks this because of a few instances where I seemed to have gotten lucky:
  • When we were engaged I won a wedding dress. She had to work at a bridal fair in the mall and told me to go enter all the raffles, especially one for a dress by a famous "Jessica somebody or other." I certainly wasn't popular when they called my name and I went up on stage to claim my dress - some of those women even booed me!
  • We used to travel between Salt Lake and Los Angeles a lot visiting family. Once we were nearly out of gas and found a dusty little town in Nevada to fill up. Jamie wanted me to go inside and try the slot machine - after all, I'm lucky. And on the first quarter I won $10. You should have seen all the crusty looks I got from the local crowd at the lunch counter as a bunch of quarters dropped loudly out of the machine.
  • Several years (and children) later on another trip between SLC and LA we spent the night in Mesquite, NV (which is a fairly decent and inexpensive midpoint). The next morning while enjoying the breakfast buffet the kids kept pestering me to "win some money." Finally, on the way out as the pestering reached a fevered pitch, I decided to show them what a waste gambling was. Of course, I won. Again, not much but it totally sunk my lesson.
  • I've sometimes won other small things, like tickets or gift cards, although the most recent one wasn't very useful. In fact, everyone at work thought it was really funny - the guy who doesn't drink coffee wins the Starbucks gift card.
  • And, of course, I was invited to participate in Amazon Vine. I love reading and now Amazon gives me more free books than I can keep up with (as well as the occasional cool electronics item or software).
So, yeah I guess I've won a few small things over the last 19 years but it's nothing extraordinary. Still, I do feel very lucky but for different reasons. I still wonder how on earth I got so lucky to be married to my beautiful and wonderful wife. It's not like I'm handsome or charming or anything. I might be a nice guy but nice doesn't often get you anywhere in the world. And it's not like she didn't have a LOT of other choices - every single guy at work was asking her out and most of them at church as well. For the life of me I still can't imagine what she ever saw in me, but I'm glad she saw something. And now, in addition to her I've also got four of the best kids a dad could ever want!

Maybe I am lucky after all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A peculiarly British obsession

I'll admit it - I'm not the most adventuresome person around. I like to be comfortable as opposed to doing things like snow camping with the Boy Scouts. Even my hobbies, like reading and gardening, aren't anything close to "living on the edge." About the nearest I come to doing something really adventurous is backpacking, which I've done the last two summers (but even then, my friend makes it relatively easy for the rest of us). Nonetheless, I can admire the great adventurers of history, like Lewis & Clark, who've set out into the unknown. But I don't need to copy their adventures - I'm perfectly content to read about them.

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest PassageIn The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage, Anthony Brandt tells a surprisingly interesting story of the British search for the Northwest Passage - a long-sought route to the Far East by going around the Americas to the north. While he briefly covers early efforts, the core of the book focuses on the first half of the 1800s and men like John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross (nephew to the elder Ross), and John Franklin - the man who literally ate his boots to avoid starvation.

"Risk is the essence of exploration" (pg 140), but the search turned out to be a fool's errand. Yes, there is a Northwest Passage (several, in fact), but it's frozen and impassable nearly year round and includes some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Ships became trapped in the ice that sometimes towered over them and men died of starvation, scurvy, and exposure to subzero temperatures (as much as 70 below) as well as the occasionally hostile local tribe. And yet the British saw this exploration as their duty and a matter of national pride, and persisted. It's unfortunate they didn't have enough humility to adopt some of the practices of the local Inuit tribes, who successfully live in such harsh conditions.

Brandt makes this period of history come alive with vivid descriptions of the elements, the explorers and the expeditions. He places the motivations in perspective, and makes it all more interesting than I had anticipated. The book is detailed and might be more information than some readers will want (nearly 400 fairly dense pages in the advance copy I received from Amazon Vine), and suffers from repetition sometimes but is highly readable. It started kind of slowly for me but really picked up, and I finished the last 60-70 pages at a run. It's the kind of book that can best be enjoyed from the seat of a nice comfortable chair, especially if you've got a plate of snacks handy that don't taste like shoe leather.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Spying on the neighbors

What would you do if you were laid up for eight weeks with a broken leg and couldn't go anywhere? Why, spy on the neighbors, of course!

Rear Window (Collector's Edition)In Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Rear Window," Jimmy Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a dashing photographer who usually spends his time out in the field getting the most exciting and difficult shots. Unfortunately, while he got a fantastic photo of a crashing race car, he also got a busted leg and is laid up in his second floor apartment in a cast. For seven weeks he's had nothing to do but watch the neighbors whose apartment windows all surround the same courtyard. But very late one night he hears a scream and notices one neighbor (a salesman) making repeated trips out into the rain with a large samples case. Even more troubling is that the man's nagging wife has disappeared. Jeffries becomes convinced the man killed her.

The entire movie is shown from the point of view from Jeffries' apartment, and is a perfect example of Hitchcock's movie-making genius. Has a murder really been committed? He tells the story by what he shows you with the camera, by what Jeffries and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) say and do, and by what you see of the neighbors. Hitchcock interjects subtle humor through Jeffries and the various neighbors, such as "Miss Lonelyheart" or "The Newlyweds," but when he decides to turn on the suspense, he turns it on all the way.

I'm not much of a film buff but since reading a biography about Hitchcock I've been trying to watch all of his films - many of which are absolutely amazing, and way better than much of today's movies. Few knew how to tell a story as well as Hitchcock, especially before the computerized special effects we have now. Pay attention to the opening sequence, where he sets up the whole story simply by panning around the room. And watch for Hitchcock's cameo appearance - he often put himself in his movies in clever ways. The version I watched also had an entertaining documentary with extras that talked about some of the challenges, like filming in such a small space. An excellent movie - and well worth your time!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sometimes difficult, but never a monster

As a kid, I always liked hearing a story my dad told of when he saw The Birds in the theater. He said a young man strutted in with two girls, one under each arm, and sat in front of him and my uncle (Uncle Dean, I think). At one tense point in the movie the hero picks up a rock, intending to throw it at some birds. But the cool young man with the two girls suddenly lost his cool and leapt up yelling "Don't do it!" while the two girls - now very embarrassed! - shrank as low as possible in their seats. We would laugh at that as kids, that a grownup would get so caught up in a movie. But after I watched The Birds with my kids a couple years ago I could see how easy it was to be pulled into the frightening world of the Master of Suspense, and my kids still talk of how much fun it was to watch that movie.

But while I'd enjoyed plenty of Hitchcock's scary stories (he didn't write them, they were collections with his name on them) and the whole Three Investigators series as a kid (rereading them several times, in fact), I'd never bothered to watch any of his movies and didn't know anything about him. But in addition to war histories, I also like biographies about some of the greats of Hollywood. (After all, who's had a greater impact on our culture than Hollywood?) So I bought Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and LightAlfred Hitchcock started in the era of silent movies. He once lamented the advent of talking pictures, saying it ruined a good story. But he was always innovating and challenging himself, whether it was through intricate camera shots or complex plot twists. He had a fascination for the dark and macabre, and appreciated stories that shocked and surprised. Such themes filled his movies, usually with a touch of his English wit and humor. And yet, there was another side to the man who frightened so many. He was a loving husband and father, was generous with friends and relatives, and loved watching plays and films including anything by Walt Disney. And he had a soft spot for animals. (Who'd have thought the Master of Suspense liked animals and Disney films?!?)

There are a number of biographies about Alfred Hitchcock, but I thought McGilligan's was outstanding. He provides a balanced portrayal of the famous director, often pointing out inaccuracies in Donald Spoto's Dark Side of Genius. But he doesn't shy away from showing Hitchcock's crude side, from the dirty jokes he often told to his penchant for pushing the limits of censorship. He tells how difficult and demanding he could be to work with, as well as the admiration and awe held by many in the business - a long list that is a veritable "who's who" of the Hollywood elite. It is a story told largely through the lens of the director's camera, and chronicles the films he made. And it's a long story, too - 750 pages before the notes - but worth it.

And since reading this book I've tracked down quite a few of his movies and I'm very impressed. They may not have the flashy special effects we've become accustomed to seeing now (although a few had impressive effects for the time), but they're usually far superior in telling a suspenseful story. And when you notice some of his unique touches and realize how skilled he was, it gives you a greater appreciation for such classics. (And I'll post some reviews on some of those movies in the future.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Happiness is... not very funny

We always took the newspaper when I was growing up, and I was the most faithful one to read it - sometimes for the sports but always for the comics. I had mentally divided the comics into 3 categories:
  1. the truly great ones that I couldn't miss (Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Far Side, Bloom County)
  2. the ones to avoid (usually serious stuff like Rex Morgan, M.D. or Prince Valiant)
  3. the rest - those which weren't as consistent, but funny often enough that I would usually read them.
Peanuts was one that seemed to have been around forever. I not only read it in the paper but there were books of the older strips and always the holiday specials on TV. I've still got a bunch of little paperbacks which my kids love to read, and I remember trying to draw Snoopy pretending to be a vulture in a tree - not so easy it turned out (I think I ended up tracing it). Personally, I always sympathized most with Charlie Brown - unfortunately, I probably even looked like him as a kid. But I never would have guessed at the creator's general unhappiness.

Schulz and Peanuts: A BiographyCharles "Sparky" Shultz always wanted to be a cartoonist, and he drew the Peanuts comic strip for nearly 50 years, turning it into a marketing bonanza and its characters into cultural icons. But for all the happiness he brought to so many others, he was himself a rather unhappy person. Raised in Minnesota, the only child of German and Norwegian parents who weren't particularly affectionate, he grew up very shy and insecure. His mother's death as he left to serve in WWII compounded his sense of aloneness, and he drew upon these feelings in his comic strip, creating characters with real anxieties and fears that millions related to. In Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis tells the ups and downs of Sparky's life as seen through his comics - and the book is loaded with them, illustrating the feelings and experiences he harnessed to make others laugh.

Initially, I thought that Michaelis was reaching too much, trying to draw conclusions and observations about Shultz's upbringing from comics that didn't necessarily prove his point. But the further I got into the book the clearer the pattern emerged and seemed to fit. I've heard the Schultz family wasn't entirely pleased with the finished book - which is certainly understandable - but it seemed to me to be thoroughly researched. It's disappointing to learn that someone who so frequently brought a smile to my face didn't always have one for himself, but it's also inspiring to know he succeeded in spite of his challenges. I found this a very compelling and enjoyable book. I highly recommend it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Star struck and snowed on

Last weekend we went down to Hollywood to see some stars.  It was Oscars weekend but we weren't there to see a bunch of movie stars tripping along the red carpet.  We were after much bigger stars so we went to yet another one of those famous places in Los Angeles that we hadn't seen yet: the Griffith Observatory.

The view from up there is great!

She's afraid of being left behind and can hardly stand to pose for a picture. Yep, that's the Hollywood sign back there.

Maddie will always pose for a picture, even if there's an alien behind her.

Pluto's no longer a planet but there's still a display for it with a tiny little ball.

Did I mention there's a great view from up there?

And, as evidence of the cold and wet winter we've been having this year it was predicted it might even snow - right here in Los Angeles.  The weatherman said elevations as low as 500 feet might see some of the white stuff, and our house is at about 800 according to the GPS.  But while we didn't get any at home we were snowed on while driving through Studio City (right by Universal Studios) on our way to the observatory.  It was kind of rain mixed with snow, but there was definitely snow on the windshield and the freeway got a little slushy.  I was busy driving but I wish I'd thought to have one of the kids grab the camera for a picture of it. (And you'll notice from the pictures above that once we got to the south side of the mountains the sky was pretty clear.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Disrespecting America

Surely you've heard of The War of 1812? Maybe, although it's a good bet few people could tell you anything meaningful about it. ("Um yeah... it happened in 1812, right?") And that's unfortunate because it's some pretty fascinating history.

Even though the United States had won independence thirty years earlier, Great Britain hadn't really gotten the message. They still thought of - and treated - Americans as delinquent and troublesome subjects of the Crown. And when they intercepted merchant ships on the seas they frequently forced American seamen to serve aboard British ships - a practice called "impressment" - claiming they were British citizens.

Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815The War of 1812 (a name not decided upon until the 1850s) actually lasted 3 years and sprang from this continual bullying. And while there were a number of stirring victories, there were also many ignominious defeats. The US was not a naval power, and certainly no match for the large and seemingly invincible British fleet, but their strategy of harassing the commerce of the enemy paid off in the end. It would be difficult to claim America won the war in any quantitative way, but they achieved their aims indirectly - and gained a measure of respect from Europe.

Stephen Budiansky brings it to life in a human and compelling way with stirring accounts of the ship to ship conflicts in his new book Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. The focus here is primarily on the naval aspects of the war, although he briefly touches on some of the land battles. He provides detail on the Barbary Wars when America first began to awaken to the value of a navy, but the real value here is in the background history: the political and commercial reasons behind the war, the life of sailors aboard different vessels or being a prisoner of the enemy, and the various personalities who commanded the ships. And the illustrations are very helpful as well, not always simple maps of the engagements but also diagrams of nautical practices and armaments used. I think it's not quite as good as Ian Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which gives a somewhat broader view, but certainly a fun historical account of a forgotten time when America had to earn respect from the old world powers.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)