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Friday, October 29, 2021

Some Assembly Required - by Michael Strelow

Some Assembly Required

by Michael Strelow (Goodreads Author)

S. Barckmann's review Oct 27, 2021

Buy "Some Assembly Required" here!

also available on Amazon Kindle etc.

The history of madness in literature is ancient and long standing. The gift of prophecy was a form of madness. Cassandra could see into the future, but after spurning him sexually, she was cursed by Apollo to never be believed. When Cassandra warned the Trojans what was to come they didn’t believe her, and she ended up suffering worst of all.

From the majestic wailing of King Lear we learn what he saw that he could not see before he was blinded.

The delusions of Don Quixote give us a sad yet comic tour of the ridiculous side of medieval chivalry. Up until the 19th Century great writers saw tragic wisdom in those called mad by the world.

The Russians began to explore mental dissonance and existentialism crept into the story of madness.The tragic wisdom sometimes gave way to just plain crazy. Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” was a first person account of a minor Russian bureaucrat living in Czarist St Petersburg who slowly sinks into at first believable hallucinations and paranoia and ends up convinced he is the King of Spain. Dostoyevski wrote about madness a number of times, in fact much of his literary output focused on mental disturbance. “The Double” was a novella about a man convinced there was another man who looked exactly like himself and who is gradually replacing himself in his own social world. His stories “A Ridiculous Man”, “Notes from the Underground”, “The Gambler” and the great novel “Crime and Punishment” all deal with men who lose touch with what is commonly (if loosely) agreed is reality.

And in China, Lu Xun wrote a story, also called “Diary of a Madman” where mental illness is a result of oppressive economic and social conditions and barriers. The list of stories dealing with characters whose sense of reality is a transitive mental state goes on and on.

Michael Strelow’s “Some Assembly Required” is an original and very different look at the sources of madness, where the fruits of 21st century science are at the root of the horror. The narrator, Jake, is an erudite man who writes articles for science magazines. He says about himself, “I render the science into foundational English, maybe with a cute metaphor, a diagram, a piping of my own flute.”

He goes to a bio genetics conference and hears a Professor Sewell talk, (mumble actually) about his new experiment.

“He said, essentially, that he could, someone could, break down an animal into its component chemistry and register that recipe into zeroes and ones and then compress the whole set of instructions into storage and then later bring out (hash functions) the recipe and reassemble the critter.”

As Jake circles around Prof S trying to look for an angle for an article to write and sell, and he finds the “experiment” the Professor is hiding. It looks like a pile of spilt oatmeal. Jake comes to realize that the “oatmeal”, named “Rex”, is conscious and is talking to him telepathically.

Jake says, “This voices business. I learned later, of course, that this is a very old epistemological problem: what is there we can know? And how do we know it? It’s the next questions, though, that grabbed me by the ass very early on, earlier than if I had had no voices, I think. Who else knows what we know? And all the corollaries: who else knows stuff we can never know? That one has kept a circus of philosophers very busy.”

Jake is a well educated man who lives modestly with his wife in a middle class, mid-life kind of relationship. Jake slowly begins to see Rex flex his muscles and have an influence on everything. He sees Rex manipulate the universe as a self-learning tool, and plaything. Jake tells his wife what he is seeing and experiencing, and she believes him, sort of, and makes an effort to see what he is seeing. But there is always an alternate explanation to Rex’s seemingly material manifestations.

“I could have avoided it if I’d really made my voices go hide out in a cave. Not so easy a thing, it turns out. Rex, the voice of thunder, my Loki and coyote trickster is sitting on my shoulder, though I could deny and deny and deny.”

Jake explains to us, with detailed and humorous analysis, how Rex’s is affecting the environment. Jake’s manner is so dispassionate with seemingly clear minded self reflection that he begins to convince (this) reader that his view of things is cogent and part of the accepted common reality.

Rex talking - “… a fracture in the equilibrium that leads anywhere. The need I am speaking about is strongest in those who hear me now. The ones without the need are … well, just let me say that they are getting inklings and intimations without the logos—the word. They too yearn but insufficiently. They also yearn palely.”

Jake says - “…I thanked my genetic stars that I got a set of amusing, even soothing, voices. I knew, after a little research, that there were much worse versions.”...“I spent the afternoon shifting around the park asking myself Thoreau-like questions: what does the thin layer of the natural world mean to tell us about being alive in it? What does the next layer deeper want to give us as metaphor? And then, once again, the Tina Turner question: what’s love got to do with it?”

Through Jake, Strelow gives us a vaulted tour through the conundrums and bad dreams of scientists working on all levels of problems from physics, linguistics, biology, nano-technology, mathematics and chemistry. In the end Jake and his wife (who copilots his journey into the abyss), are enveloped with a placid and bucolic backdrop while being drawn into a dark drama of a shifting reality that seems inescapable.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Book Reviews Previously Posted on Various Other Sites

Taming the Dragon

by Dan Armstrong 

Oct 11, 2019



Dan Armstrong's "Taming the Dragon" is a very good read. It tells the tale of an engineering consultant who is assigned to look at the Three Gorges Dam for some German investors back just before the huge dam was completed. It is really about the Chang Jiang (长江) or as it is often called in English, the Yangtze River. The Yangtze drains the slopes of the Himalayas, rushes passed Sichuan province through the heart of China's rice belt finally draining into the Pacific near Shanghai. Armstrong takes us up the river into the heart of China literally and figuratively. It is a great story about fixation and desire for both the narrator and China itself. It was set 30 years ago, so much of the story might seem dated because China doesn't need foreign investors to complete its mega engineering projects anymore. But still, there is a universal theme to the story. Like W. H. Hudson's "Green Mansions" also a story about a trip up a river, it shows what happens when we come face to face with our illusions and discover that ordinary reality is really much more enticing.




Portland Zionists Unite! and Other Stories by Eric Flamm

September 2, 2019 

Eric Flamm’s collection of short stories contains a powerful, informative, artfully intelligent story titled “Mauser Karabinder”. It reminded me of different aspects of two of Tolstoy’s masterpieces of short fiction, “The Cossacks”, and “The Death of Ivan IIyich”. Flamm's writing style in this story is slightly melancholic, yet accessible (in that Tolstoyian manner) that adds up to an encompassing 360-degree view of his subjects that leaves the reader stunned and in awe of the depth of the reading experience. It really is that good.

The other stories were excellent and very different from one another and serve as a nice supporting structure around “Mauser Karabinder”. All of the stories are longer, (30-40 pages), and deeply explore the experience of American Jews coming to terms with their Hebrew heritage. I am not Jewish myself, and I found myself engrossed in all of them.

The American Jewish relationship with Israel is present in all of the stories, and if you have ever thought about the American-Israeli political relationship in a casually critical sense, be prepared to get out of the kiddie pool and be thrust into deep water. Every aspect, from every point of view, finds a home with some character, (or in the main characters, many conflicting views, fighting for control in their own consciousness.)

The Portland stories, “The Mount”, and “Portland Zionists Unite!” are fun reads because I live just outside the Rose City and sorta, kinda, know the “types” he is talking about. “The Mount” is set in tony Northwest Portland, and revolves around young, well-off Jews who grew up in Orthodox or at least very conservative homes, that from the outside seemed cut-off from “normal” American society, but from the inside you see the struggle to be “normal” and the desire to escape from that lifestyle. The main characters, for the most part, all men, felt they were rebelling against Orthodoxy, while still fighting within themselves to maintain their identity. “The Mount” is an upscale Portland Synagogue, and the story gives an unsentimental look at the struggle within the community to define itself in the face of the new authoritarian reality of Netanyahu’s Israeli, and the response American Jews should have to it.

“Portland Zionists Unite!” is about a Millennial kid, Gary, whose mother “told him he was a Jew”, but who otherwise has little consciousness of his Jewish identity. Flamm catches the rhythm of Gen-Y dialog really well and is able to pump life into a believable portrayal. Gary manages a rental unit and encounters a struggling semi-Jewish couple who rent the duplex next door. It is a very believable story of the struggles, and relationships of youth in this current age of so much uncertainty.

As for the masterpiece of the collection, “Mauser Karabinder”, I am going to only say it is about an American Jew who enlists in the IDF and is doing occupation duty on the west bank in Hebron, protecting a tiny group of Orthodox settlers, surrounded by a sea of Palestinians. If you have seen the recent HBO series “Our Boys”, about retaliatory ethnic murders and the Israeli response to them, you will quickly get the picture of the setting. The story will blow you away.

Eric Flamm is a talented writer, and this collection is worthy of his talent. 


The War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War

by Chaim Herzog, Michael Herzog 

Jul 08, 2021


This account of the 1973 Arab Israeli war is full of facts and vignettes that were not previously discussed in the popular press. Chaim Herzog has a very interesting bio, which I urge you to look up on Wikipedia. But to summarize he was a prominent member of the founding generation of Israeli leaders, as a general, politician, and prominent Labour Party Leader. He was President of Israel for a period.


The account of the war is an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, dispassionate story of the two week long war. It was fought on two fronts, in the north against Syria, and the south against Egypt. In many ways it was a proxy fight between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the weaponry and strategies of the two sides being tested out.


For Israel it was a life or death struggle. The first three days could have gone either way. It was in the middle of the Yom Kippur holiday, and it took Israel by surprise. Herzog points out all of the blunders of the Israeli intelligence establishment, of the political leadership, as well as its tactical and strategic shortcomings that led to the near disaster. He also praises the Arab strategy from a military point of view.


It also points out the sacrifice, and heroism that saved Israel. He explains the reasons for the superiority of Israeli pilots and tankers. He also says that dependence on tanks and airpower, while relatively playing down the importance of infantry and artillery was a serious mistake. It was also interesting to see his disdain for Ariel Sharon, a rising political rival at the time and of course eventual Prime Minister of the country. He points out that Sharon’s "primadonna" behavior led to some indecision as well as other problems on the battlefield initially, but in the end gives Sharon his due as a brilliant and fearless tactical general.

If you are interested in modern military history, this is a very good read.


The Oppenheimer Alternative 

By Robert J. Sawyer

September 20,2020


I like books that both entertain and inform and this Speculative fiction novel works on both levels. It is an excellent "biography" of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. It is real history mixed with some very intriguing and imaginative speculation. The novel drills into exactly what caused "Oppie's" loss of security clearance in the Red Scare days. We get penetrating and entertaining portraits of the great scientists with whom he worked, including Teller, Einstein, Richard Feynman, and many others. The novel tells the story straight - with one wrinkle. Oppenheimer was a great physics theorist in addition to being the greatest "science project" administrator ever. His work related to the nuclear processes in stars, and (here is the wrinkle) in 1938 it was discovered, (using his theories) that - something bad was going to happen, a strong likelihood that the earth is doomed and soon, very soon.  The novel is a story of how all of the superstar physicists  of the Manhattan project worked to overcome their disagreements and come up with a plan to prevent the bad thing from happening.

The story is told in a non-sensational way, and this was its strength and perhaps its tiny weakness. It stays true to the plodding nature of the way real science actually works, and the manner that real history happens, and sometimes as a reader you want it "sexed up' a little. But I recommend the book highly because it will keep you engaged, and will teach anyone (whether they are experts in science or in history, or both) something profound and interesting. Sawyer proves again why he is a master.




Squeeze Me (Skink #8)

by Carl Hiaasen

Sep 20, 2020



Hiassen finally turns Skink loose on the White (House) Whale. You knew it was coming, and it is a great and satisfying read. Melania is getting boned by a couple of Secret Service guys while the biggest Scumbag in American History is porking a local pole dancer over in a strip mall in West Palm. The old Palm Beach widows and divorcees plot to get invited to the Winter White House. There is a catch though - one of those rich bitches gets eaten by a python, and if the news gets out it will ruin the coming party season.

It says it right there in the title - Skink #8. If you love Hiassen when he is on the hunt for scumbags - environmental rapists, scam artists, hucksters, corrupt Florida pols and other lowlife frauds who plague the Sunshine State, you will like Squeeze Me. Skink - not the burrowing lizard, but the former Florida Governor,Clinton Tyree, former war hero, and highly popular Florida native. Tyree was run out of the Governor’s Mansion back in the 80s,  by the real estate lobbyists who didn't like him blocking their development projects. He retreated to the Everglades and pursued a career of unrelenting vengeance on the human trash who have been working to make Florida into America's trashiest combination amusement park and nursing home. This is the 8th novel Skink/Tyree  has appeared in and every one of them will give your spirit a lift, even if it is only fiction. It's a hilarious peek at life down in North America's infected appendix, where life after death comes early. Hiassen is a national treasure.




Lest Camelot Fall

by Danny Adams

Dec 11, 2015


Danny Adams has written a strong historical novel about what happened after King Arthur died in battle and Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake. It is interesting because it attempts to fuse what (little) we know from solid historical sources, while maintaining faith with the legend. The story puts a real context to characters whose only existence is confirmed by stories written some 700 years after the fact.


It takes place in the decade of 530-540. We know that at that time, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian was attempting to reconquer Italy, which had been overrun by various Germanic tribes over the previous century. We have a good deal of knowledge about the events and people in the Mediterranean area, but little about Britain. We know the Saxons have invaded to stay and have settled in the Wessex region of south central Britain but they are not really secure. Other Germans tribes are also on the scene, as well as the native Celts and the Romans who stayed after the Western Empire withdrew its troops.


Adams has a historical eye on all of this, but what I think the reader wants to know is what about the characters of Camelot? At this point Adams has to use his imagination to tell us their histories. Who was Merlin? How did he live so long? Who was the real Lady of the Lake? What was Arthur's parentage and who were his descendants in history? What were the ultimate fates of Guinevere and Lancelot?


Adams takes the myths of Camelot and blends it into what we do know of history and he does a very good job at it. He has altered my own internal map of that part of the world at that time. I think his vision is very sound.


His main character is a nephew of Arthur's, Lucian Flavius Aurelianus, whose ancestry is part Roman, part Celt. He tells the story as he journeys back and forth across southern Britain. First person narratives have the obvious strength of being immediate and camera-eyed on the action. The disadvantage of first person is you only see and know what the character knows. So all that history that Adams offers up must be told through the eyes of a Dark Age Royal Prince, who has his own issues that often blind him to the motives of the people around him. He is a young man with many insecurities.  These issues get in the way of him seeing clearly what his final place in the world will be. Lucian is petulant, quick to anger and full of self-doubt and guilt over his own hates, lusts and desires. So when he tells how a Saxon Camp is laid out, or discusses the religious squabbles of Pagan Celts and Christian Camelot, or explains new weaponry such as the crossbow brought in by agents of Justinian, this information-rich discussion causes the story to wait. As a serious history buff, I don't mind, but maybe other readers might lose the thread. Shifting that focus without the all knowing omniscient narrator is tricky.


But never mind that. It is a meaty book and I enjoyed it all. In addition to Arthurian lore and Dark Age history, Adams throws in lots and lots of allusions to Tolkien and Beowulf and probably much more that I missed. It is a work of a sound scholar and a good fiction writer. Well done.




Havana Bay (Arkady Renko, #4)

by Martin Cruz Smith

Oct 26, 2015 


 Havana Bay is about tramping the streets of Havana and I suspect that it will be a resource to understand the Cuba that is soon to disappear now that we Yanks are invading as tourists. Arkady has lost some of his fire I think - he is suicidal in the beginning, (over a horrible lose that will hit hard on long time readers of the series) and then seems to accept what comes afterward. It makes sense character-wise but it is like he is sleepwalking. There is a lack of tension in the story compared to some of the past Renko novels. But it is a wonderful story of the Havana streets and if you are going, this is the book to read to create your own adventure. Smith delivers the scene better than any of his contemporaries - after you read it you can see and smell the city. He did the same thing for Chernobyl in Wolves eat Dogs.



The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

by Max Boot

Jun 30, 2021  


Edward Lansdale has an outsized reputation that has inspired conspiracy mongers for the last 60 years. Max Boot has written a somewhat pedestrian biography of the American “dirty tricks” empresario of our anti communist wars in the Philippines and Vietnam.


His biographer here, Max Boot,  immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was a young child, went to Yale, studied history, and is now a regular opinion correspondent for the Washington Post. He has had an interesting ideological journey, moving from staunch supporter of our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, to a harsh critic of Trumpism. He has been described as a “neocon”, a label he rejects. He has (of late) developed more liberal views on most domestic issues and is a strong supporter of the military and our recent wars. He recently recanted his support for the Bush-Cheney Iraq war debacle.


His biography of Lansdale is a fairly blatant attempt to revive the liberal/conservative American view of the “Third Way”, toward moving what were once called “emerging nations” away from Marxist insurgencies toward American style democracy. Lansdale, a former advertising executive, stuck in a somewhat loveless marriage, stayed in the Air Force after World War II and joined the precursor organization of the CIA and was stationed in the Philippines, a recently independent former American colony. The Philippines were ruled by landed families, but were beset by the growing threat of the Hukbalahap Rebellion (Huks) which began as resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War II and continued into the post war era of American predominance.


Landsdale met a Filipina woman during his tour of duty and fell in love. She remained his lover whenever he could see her during the next decades, even though he never got divorced from his American wife. She was a member of the elite class on the islands and through her he met many of the leaders of the landowning class, which was afraid of the Huks. Lansdale also met Ramon Magsaysay, a war hero during the fight against the Japanese, and an auto mechanic by trade. Even though the upper class didn’t like Magsaysay, Lansdale saw his charismatic open personality had the best chance to succeed in Philippine politics and they became great friends. Lansdale used this friendship to barter his way into a powerful position within the American intelligence community and Magsaysay became President of the Philippines. This “coup” launched Lansdale’s career.


The big story about Lansdale is of course in Vietnam. Lansdale was the supposed model for Graham Greene’s popular novel “The Quiet American”, and he also was allegedly portrayed positively in book and later movie “The Ugly American”. As the war got hotter and larger, Lansdale was stationed in Saigon and tried to use the same technique of playing the friend and power behind the throne to President Ngô Đình Diệm. And for a while it seemed to be working. But Diem was not nearly as charismatic as Magsaysay, and in spite of Lansdale’s efforts to popularize him among his own people, the effort failed. Diem and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu were overthrown and executed in a coup in November 1963, with the tacit approval of President Kennedy. From then on Lansdale’s influence waned.


The thrust of Boot’s biography of Lansdale was that he was not the sinister figure that he has been made out to be in popular myth: That he was an open, friendly Californian with a salesman’s personality and a belief in the decency of American intentions. He was no intellectual but possessed a “can-do” attitude, and while he was complicit in some murderous treachery in jungle battles in the Philippines and did approve of assassinations during the Phoenix operations in Vietnam, his record was not nearly as murderous as it has been thought by some writers and conspiracy minded leftists. Boot goes out of his way to “prove” that Lansdale had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination as has been alleged by some.


Boot’s political motive for writing about Lansdale’s (and he clearly has one, which really is a no-no for a serious biographer) appears to me to attempt to justify (or at least explain in the best possible light) American post-war anti-communist behavior in the developing world. He is trying to counter the prevailing left view that much of our problems today stem from our ignoring the popular will in other countries (like Iran, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, etc) and imposing our will through force and connivance wherever we could. Lansdale, in popular culture, was a symbol of that post war American aggression and while Boot seems to show his warts, (such as his adultery), he really paints a pretty benign picture of Lansdale.


I learned a great deal from the book, especially about how Lansdale came to the forefront of American counter insurgency, and while it didn’t change my mind about the folly of much of American post-war foreign policy, it did disabuse me of some of what I thought about Lansdale.


I will say that for all his intellectual diligence, Boot is not nearly as self-reflective as he should be. He was a front and center cheerleader for our most recent misadventure in Mesopotamia that ended in disaster much as the Vietnam war did. Both wars not only killed vast numbers of people and destroyed much of their society, but they had a profound negative effect on our own country. Boot seems to hate Trump, as I do, but he doesn’t seem to realize that if we had never invaded Iraq we likely never would have had Trump. Bush-Cheney’s historic blunder is the most important factor in the fragmenting of our social and political cohesion as a nation and opinion molders like Boot still have a good deal of explaining to do. I appreciate Max Boot’s conversion but until I see a bit more contrition, (a’la Robert McNamara) I am not going to take him that seriously as a journalist or a biographer.