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Monday Book – My Song is my Weapon

My Song is my Weapon – Robbie Lieberman (1995)

Reviewed by Jack Beck

Once upon a time (actually about eighteen years ago) Wendy and I were booked to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival off the north coast of Scotland. The festival took place in various venues in Stromness and we were accommodated in a lovely old hotel overlooking the harbor. Not surprisingly the hotel bar was a favorite gathering place late at night after the official concerts and ceilidhs were finished.

stromness-hotel

One night we found ourselves chatting to a young American lassie who said she had published a book we might find interesting! I immediately bought a copy and have now read it for maybe the fifth time –

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was developing my left of center political views as well as a strong interest in folk songs. So I was well aware of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, the connections to Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

What I didn’t know was what had preceded this in the US and where all these people had in their turn served their apprenticeship, both politically and musically.

my song is

Lieberman’s book was a revelation to me in many ways –

First of all I had no idea how large and popular the US Communist Party was in the 1930s and how well accepted that generally was. Then again, I knew nothing about the ‘popular front’ and was fascinated to see how that had helped generate the ‘folk revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There was much that was familiar too – the ‘redscare’, McCarthyism, the blacklist and so on.

I have to admit that on first reading I found the book pretty dense and hard going. However each time I’ve re-read it I’ve found it not just easier but more enlightening. Each time I find more gems I’d missed before!

I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in 1930s US politics, the roots and routes of the 1950s folk revival or all three!

 

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The Monday Book – The Trumpet Unblown

THE TRUMPET UNBLOWN (Doubleday,1955) by William Henry Hoffman

Reviewed by Phyllis Wilson Moore

trumpet

 

Winners Do Not Take All

 

The World War II era novel THE TRUMPET UNBLOWN (Doubleday,1955), by Charleston, West Virginia, native William Henry Hoffman echoes every war. It  is not an easy novel to read and dismiss. It has clout.

Published in 1955, twenty-five long years before Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became an official diagnosis, it could serve as a template for understanding the condition. Reading it might help families understand why some veteran have difficulty articulating their distress and might help counselors assist veterans in putting the pieces of their lives back together.

It is the story of idealistic eighteen year old, Tyree Jefferson Shelby, III, and his stint in a World War II Medical Corps at war’s end.

Like many high school seniors of the day, Shelby, eager to prove his loyalty and manhood,volunteers to risk his life at the Front defending the United States against Germany and Japan.

A leader and top notch new graduate of a private military high school, Shelby feels prepared for war. After all, he was a cadet officer and many of his ancestors served nobly in previous wars.  A teenager, he eagerly enlists, leaving his proud, religious and wealthy family, his virginal girlfriend, and his plans for college behind. In a few months he is in England, the youngest man in a medical hospital unit waiting for what we now know as the Normandy Invasion.

Being a “third”, and obviously from an affluent family, he is immediately at odds with some of the older more seasoned veterans. He does things by the book. He likes to keep clean and neat, no easy feat with cold water and no soap. He doesn’t drink. He is a virgin and plans to remain one. When his girl’s country club poolside photograph is stolen he finds it soiled and hanging on a support beam in a room the Corps shares. He fights for it and loses.

As they wait for their orders, Shelby goes with the other men as they make the rounds of the bars and brothels. He is goaded into paying a prostitute but can’t perform.

Once in France he learns to hurry up and wait. Disgruntled fellow soldiers and an ineffective commanding officer make matters worse. Setting up the field hospital is grinding work but once  it is done, they wait. No battles ensue. Members of his unit begin to explore the area and visit neighboring villages. From the supply tent they steal canned food, cigarettes, drugs, and army supplies to barter for alcohol, sex, and fresh vegetables.

Finally a major battle occurs and the hospital staff is overwhelmed.The mind boggling carnage and chaos troubles him but he does his job of carrying the wounded to and from the operating arena.

Between battles they wait. Sometimes they tear down the camp hospital and move closer to the action and the carnage begins again.

Each day the Corps proves the opposite of what he expected. He is not fighting the Germans or the Japanese; he is being bullied.

When another young soldier offers two villagers a ride and then rapes the girl, Shelby, in the jeep’s front seat, does and says nothing. He listens as the struggling girl and her now restrained boyfriend beg someone to intercede. Finally,the couple is thrown from the jeep more dead than alive.

Back in camp, Shelby begins to steal from the supply tent. He joins the drinkers in their search for prostitutes and more alcohol. He finds a prostitute and pays her with drugs he steals from the medical supply ten

Eventually, he and his buddies are suspected of pilfering and selling the belongings of their own wounded. When military investigators arrive there is no proof. The Corps reputation, bad to begin with, is further tarnished.

At war’s end his Corps is tangled in a major SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled up). It receives no orders to return from the field and prepare for a return to the United States. Other units do. As the rains set in camp morale plummets and bad behavior goes unchecked. Finally they are given busy work. The useless task of hauling rocks to create an unnecessary road to nowhere only to watch as each day’s rocks sink into the mud.

Shelby, the intelligent, religious, well mannered boy, breaks and is sent to a military psychiatric hospital. Instead of feeling relief he feels shame The physicians have no treatment plan (tranquilizer and mood stabilizers were not invented until 1953) for him except to discharge him. He does not want to go home.

Eventually, he is forced to return home. Home  to his waiting girlfriend, his worried and adoring family, and a world he can’t imagine re-entering. Apathetic, he wants nothing. He finds pleasure in nothing. There is no way he can recount his military experiences around the dinner table. College does not interest him. Invitations to parties or dinners are ignored. He is offered business positions but refused them.

To everyone’s amazement, he avoids his sweetheart. He will not say why. How can he explain his bout of Gonorrhea to his parents or his girl? How can he kiss her? How can he marry her?

In his own home, he is daily unnerved by the wall of military portraits showing his heroic ancestors. When relatives visit to hear of his war exploits he makes himself scarce. What he would like to do is go away, be alone, and sleep.

The book is chilling in its ability to show war at its worst and the effects of what was then referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” (General Patton called it malingering).  For me, this work explains PTSD better than anything I’ve read on the subject. This haunting novel is relevant today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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The Monday Book: THE GATE KEEPER by Charles Todd

THE GATE KEEPER                                            

by Charles Todd

(Feb. 2018, Harper Collins/Wm Morrow)

320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0062678713

 

 

 

 

 

            When Stephen Wentworth climbs down from his motorcar to talk to the person standing in the country road that leads to the village of Wolf Pit, he has no idea that he is not going to see Christmas 1920.  Nor does his companion, Miss McRae, expect to see him shot through the heart at close range.  Scotland Yard Detective Ian Rutledge, whose sister Frances has just been married, takes leave from Scotland Yard to sort his feelings. Restless, he decides to take a drive (longer than he expects) and discovers he is on his way to Ipswich.  He shrugs it off and continues until he has to put on the brakes to avoid the car in the road and the woman with bloodied hands standing over a man’s lifeless body.  The deceased is a well-liked bookstore owner, and Rutledge tells the Yard he’s on the case.

And what a case it is!  Rutledge finds there is nothing routine about the murder, and no real suspect emerges as he digs into the Wentworth family’s cold treatment of the victim. The villagers and monied residents alike have no dark tales to tell, and when a second murder victim is discovered, the sinister mystery intensifies.  Rutledge has to piece the puzzle together by investigating people who appear to be strangers or mere acquaintances.  A third murder in Sussex gets his attention, and even though Stevenson is on that case, he tracks down a man who started the catastrophic events in Wolf Pit.  The problem is, he’s been murdered as well.  Even so, Rutledge has enough to go on, so when he returns to Wolf Pit, he works his detection to a solution that stuns the reader to no end.

It is fortunate Rutledge was driving to Ipswich that night.  The murder victims would have been buried after inquests that stated the murderer was unknown.  This novel has the reader speculating from the start, and as usual with any Todd novel, the reader is taken aback by all the interwoven plot elements that are tied together in the end.  concerned will never be the same.  Certainly not Ian Rutledge’s life as he confronts another difficult case.

 

 

About the Reviewer:

Liz Phillips is a middle school educator and writer living in Southwest Virginia, a forgotten place in the Appalachian Mountains. Contact her at lizphillips.author@gmail.com.

 

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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The Beat Goes On – –

Once again Jack scrapes in under the wire –
Back when I was on the teaching staff at Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week outside Asheville NC, one of the students who always attended my classes was Stefni. She sang in a choir in Pittsburgh that specialized in Eastern European music and she made their costumes. The last year I taught there Stefni didn’t show up and I wondered why. A few months later I received an email from her husband explaining she had died of a rare lung disease. That was very sad, but then he told us she had left her music and book library to us in her will! We were astonished and drove up there a few months later.
Sorting through her stuff was difficult and we came to an agreement to sell anything we didn’t want and split the proceeds. But that still left us with lots of stuff that never got put anywhere easily accessible.
Following our recent house move I’ve been sorting through the LPs and CDs from her collection that had never been properly stashed and I’ve been discovering amazing things. Mostly very rare English, Scottish and Irish recordings in excellent condition. It’s clear from the stickers on them that she was an avid collector and appreciated what she was finding.
So my upcoming radio shows will feature much from Stefni’s collection and keep her very clearly in my mind.
There’s no room here to list all the stuff, but it ranges from everything Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ever recorded to very obscure albums by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.
Of course the books included full first editions of Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, Bronson’s ‘Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads’, and Sharp’s ‘English Folk-songs from the Southern Appalachians’.
I hope dear Stefni Agin is looking down approvingly at the continuing life of her amazing collection as I try to do justice to it.

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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