Book review: Dreamliner the Boeing 787, by Claude G. Luisada, Steven D. Kimmell, 2014

August 20, 2015


To those of us of a certain age [60+…] “The Jet Age” is or rather, was a wonder. For it ushered in a new world of speed, comfort, safety and elegance. I wrote a short review of our copy of “The jet age” several years ago. It was about the battle for dominance between The Boeing 707 and the De Havilland Comet. I neglected to mention that the 707 also destroyed Britain’s aircraft industry, crippled Lockheed and ruined McDonnell Douglas. Was this plane that good? Yes. It was.

Indeed the 707 was the symbol of American industrial dominance. That manifested itself in the universally recognised Air Force One, the 707 and then the 747. They were or rather are none too subtle reminders, albeit a blatant ones, but justified ones. In 1960 no-one had a 707, But, JFK did. WOW! But in 2015, times are different. Taylor Swift has an Airbus. As do many others.

Was there competition? The Soviet / Russian Tupolevs and Ilyushins were pale copies of American designs, when they flew, or more likely crashed. These were wisely avoided by any airline that could avoid them. Read the non-Soviet bloc airlines. The French Aviation Sud Caravelle, although a sturdy aircraft was too small for intercontinental use, yet it was popular and had the advantage of being not American as well as earning lots of money for Aviation Sud.

And so fifty years later when I heard of the introduction of a new world beater by Boeing, the 787 Dreamliner, I was quite excited by the prospects of this design. And make no mistake this is an important aircraft. So I expected a resounding fanfare. Instead, there was silence. For the world of 2014 was not the world of 1954.

We now have the “duopoly” of Boeing and Airbus. And I was surprised that seemingly only I was surprised at the indifference at the introduction of this passenger plane. Advantages? Long distance, extreme quite, improved fuel economy and much higher cabin pressure for ease of breathing and even larger windows. All this resulted in a collective yawn from the press and public. And even worse within a year Airbus had a copy of the 787, or at least, a modern version of an Airbus long range two engine wide-body, or the same thing, the A350 XWB. This brought forth yet another great yawn.

So what has happened? Is this a good book to read? Yes, it is interesting, well-illustrated and topical. I enjoyed it. Just bear in mind that the world is a much more modern place in 2015 than some of us thought it would be in 1960. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps this is a quiet thing. Perhaps the 787 will become ubiquitous as was the 707. That would be a victory indeed. Maybe that is as much as can be expected.

bill littlefield

Book review: Bernard Cornwell; Waterloo: the history of four days, three armies, and three battles.

August 20, 2015


Waterloo. Unless you are a military historian this word has little meaning today, except that it implies a certain finality to ones actions. And quite right too. This almost accidental battle brought the end to what has arguably been called the first world war. That it occurred one hundred and twenty years before the Great European War of 1914-1918 is no less the correct term.

This battle ended the hopes of a tyrant and ushered in a century of European, if not world peace, excepting, of course the Franco-Prussian war and Italian Unification. Even so, so resounding was the defeat of Napoleon that France was now almost fatally weakened and the great military powers in Europe were now Britain on the seas and Prussia, soon to be Imperial Germany on the land.

The bicentenary of this battle has been weighing on my mind since the beginning of the year. Those who know me will perhaps smile a bit at their schadenfreude. Yet, this book is about as good as it gets in one volume of an event two hundred years earlier. I recommend it highly.

Popular histories are tricky, some are mawkish, some maudlin, others are inaccurate and poorly researched. This mercifully is not one of those. It is extremely readable and indeed enjoyable. As we walk step by step and lose ourselves in the story of a race against time to stop yet another destabilizing act in an already three part European tragedy. The first part was of course naval, The Battle of
Trafalgar in October, 1805, which stymied Bonaparte’s naval plans forever. The second pat would have been the equally disastrous attempt by Bonaparte to invade Russia, resulting in the famous Battle and retreat from Moscow. Anyone recall the 1812 overture?? Act three of this trilogy being the Battle of Waterloo. And “Boney” lost them all. Waterloo ended in a clear cut English, Prussian and Dutch victory all the better for the USA, read you and me even today.

It can be, and has been argued that one man, Arthur Wellesely, created Field Marshal and 1st Duke of Wellington, then later British Prime Minister was just the right man to be in the right place at the right time in those days of June of 1815. And if it is true that Wellington was a brilliant army commander, he was a less than stellar PM. Still, one is inclined to overlook his innate conservatism in politics and lack of appreciation of modernity as it roared towards us in the form of the industrial revolution in the 1820’s to the late 1840’s since he was so brilliant on the field. And he remained undefeated in battle, unlike Bonaparte. If he was unloved, he was immensely also respected in life as well as death.

Cornwell’s book is his first nonfiction work. I saw an interview of him a month or so ago wherein he, Cornwell, spoke of the extreme difficulty of compressing all the events into one volume. It must also be mentioned that the book is beautifully illustrated with numerous exquisite larger than life oil paintings. This is as it should be. This was as has been said a brilliant victory. And if it is true that Wellington’s view of himself increased with time as the battle faded into the past, it is also true that he did it. He won it. Waterloo, is available at the Wiggin Memorial Library for you to enjoy.

bill littlefield

Dead Wake by Eric Larson and Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diane Preston

August 13, 2015


One hundred years ago today, 7 May, 1915, there occurred off the coast of Ireland a mind numbingly horrible event. It was the 9/11 of its day. A small German submarine, the U-20, shot one torpedo at the thirty thousand ton [and almost eight hundred feet long] Cunard passenger liner, Lusitania, putting the ship out of control and sinking the ship in eighteen minutes.

There was a huge loss of life, 1,198 of the 1,962 on board died including 127 “neutral” Americans. To put into perspective, just three years before, the famously fated White Star Line’s Titanic took almost three hours to sink after glancing an iceberg and taking 1,523 out of 2,228 aboard to a watery grave in the frigid North Atlantic. This was an appallingly rapid event. All the more so as many more life boats had been added to passenger ships since the loss of Titanic, and at least some attempt at life saving have been undertaken. Even so the popular belief was that such a huge ship with all the water tight compartments would take some six or eight hours to sink. Not eighteen minutes!

We have recently acquired Dead Wake by Eric Larson, published this year and we have had Lusitania: an epic tragedy, by Diane Preston published in 2002. Both are excellent, but for different reasons. Larson’s book deals mainly with the human side of the tragedy, the loss of loved ones, the lives shattered and changed forever and lifelong heartache. Preston deals with the technical and strategic aspects of the development of the submarine as well as the political aspects and ramifications of this and other attacks by German submarines on naval as well as merchant shipping during the First World War.

We now know that during the first eight months of the war Imperial Germany had failed miserably with their brilliant Von Schlieffen Plan to smash France, Britain and Russia and that the land war had stagnated into static trench warfare, much more of the amazing war plan can be read online.

For our purposes we are less interested in the land campaign and much more in naval strategy and thus the policy of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. Indeed one hundred and one years later the USA and its allies, now including Federal Germany and Republican Italy will admit that the Germany of 1910-1918 had a fatally flawed and paranoid strategy. Which was this; Germany and its comic operetta ally, Austria, did not have the men, material, resources and money to defeat the Allies let alone the Allies with the USA. Both books deal with this horrible act of “Frightfulness”, or today, terrorism.

President Woodrow Wilson was quite correct in fearing in 1915 that if America went to war in Europe it would militarise the United States and change it forever. I believe President Wilson was right and that America has not been the same since. We are no longer “The Great Neutral” we are now the “Worlds Policeman”. Thus a century later the violent loss of a passenger liner is as relevant as it was on that horrible day in May, 1915.

bill littlefield

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann

August 10, 2015


Each character in this novel about recent history (World War II to present) is so distinctly drawn that I felt immersed in their lives and stories. We get points of view from all of the main characters and it becomes clear how their differences define their actions and reactions. This is my kind of “beach” book – perfect for summer. It isn’t light but keeps you reading. It is a story very well told about a family with all of their faults, strengths, and even crimes on display for the reader.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

August 10, 2015

[Lesley] I have intended to read David Mitchell’s most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, for ages. I always get intimidated before starting and end up putting it back to wait for another day. Having heard nothing really about his new book The Bone Clocks, I dove in without hesitation. Wow. This is sci fi in one of my favorite guises — as if it isn’t sci fi at all. Our main character Holly Sykes, is pulled into a strange and hidden war after a fight with her mother over a boyfriend. This war is so hidden that it is hidden from Holly herself throughout her life, despite the presence of consequences. The horologists (people who don’t ever really die, but are reincarnated in new bodies) have fought the Anchorites (people who live forever by stealing and sacrificing the souls of Bone Clocks – that’s us, by the way) for millennia and sometimes psychic-sensitive bone clocks like Holly get caught in the middle.

Thisbone-clocks book isn’t completely successful. Some of the first-person sections were too long (I’m looking at you Crispin Hershey and Marinus) and the actual battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites was almost silly in some ways. The ending however more than makes up for any weaknesses in the middle. “Haunting” was how one person described it to me and I agree. Mitchell’s stories and writing are so smart that they will definitely stay with me.

Two Books, Briefly

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] As I’m catching up on reviewing some of the things that I’ve liked recently, I want to include two brief reviews for books that you’ve probably never heard of: Off Course, by Michelle Huneven and The Kept, by James Scott. We don’t have either in the library’s print collection but Off Course is available through interlibrary loan and her other book, Blame, is available on audio from OverDrive. The Kept is available on audio and ebook formats from OverDrive — that’s how I listened to it.

Off Course is another book about a small community of locals and summer visitors and also has a daughter returning to the place as a refuge while she figures out what to do next in her life. The relationships in this book are the focus and they are complicated. I picked this book up because of its cover (gasp!) and it delivered. One of the things I liked best was the honest way the book ended which felt just right for the story.

The Kept is sort of a western (though it takes place in NY State), sort of a mystery, sort of historical, and sort of a thriller. It’s hard to get western-style stories right, and I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that was as successful in tone and in its other aspects at the same time. Describing the story won’t do it justice – the circumstances are so far-fetched or unheard of – but the tone, the setting, and the writing pull you in from the beginning. As various things unfold and get revealed the tangle is deliciously ominous. I listened to this on audio and the reader was very good. If you aren’t into downloading books, we could definitely get it through interlibrary loan as well.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] I loved this book. It’s a short, quirky novel in which we get to know 3 people and a coyote through their memories, letters, and the actions they take in the present. Mostly set in a small Saskatchewan village (and the land surrounding), these are quiet lives from the outside but hold unexpected worlds within. Etta seems to be losing her memory and decides she must set off to walk to the water, leaving her husband Otto at home with neighbor and long-time friend Russell to wonder what to do while she is gone and when (or even if) she will be back. Otto and Russell each discover a new way of living and Etta becomes a reluctant celebrity and symbol of something – independence? toughness? triumph over age? But, she also develops a relationship with a coyote who travels with her, helping to keep her safe and alive.  The flashbacks to Otto’s childhood on his family’s farm, Russell’s semi-adoption by that family, and both of them meeting Etta when she arrives to be the teacher at the one-room schoolhouse shortly before most of the town’s young men go off to war (Otto does, Russell doesn’t), are some of the most compelling and beautiful parts of the book.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

July 24, 2015

[Lesley] This is the first book I’ve read by Sue Miller even though she’s been on my radar for a long time. I listened to this as a downloaded audiobook (from the library’s OverDrive collection – and it was read by the author. I loved hearing Miller’s take on each of the characters in the way her voice changed for each person. The story itself is interesting with many subplots. The story is set in a small town in New Hampshire made up of year-round locals and a regular summer home population. That in itself is two worlds dependent on each other but also somewhat at odds. Frankie, the oldest daughter of a summer family has come back to the house where her parents now live after retiring. She has worked her whole career for a NGO that worked on hunger in Africa. Now, she is unsure whether she will return to that life and is seeking refuge and time to think and reassess. Her parents have retired, it turns out, in part because of Alfie’s progressing memory loss. Sylvia, whose family owned the summer home for generations, hasn’t told anyone about Alfie’s condition yet but is trying to adjust to their new lives and her new role. Bud, a former Washington D.C. journalist and political insider, owns and runs the local weekly newspaper. He has chosen this quiet town as a place to settle down and make a difference in a different way. He straddles being a year-round local (owns a house, runs the newspaper, is involved in one way or another in everything that goes on) and being an outsider (as a newcomer and an observer). All of these individual stories and stories of how people relate to each other are set against the backdrop of a series of arsons happening in town.

I was invested in the characters and cared about the life of this small town, like so many in NH. The arson and mystery surrounding it adds a tension that keeps the story suspenseful. There is a lot at stake in this book — family relationships, love, identity, memory, community, pride, independence, and property that is valuable in monetary and personal ways. Miller handles all of it deftly in her well-written and narrative prose. The ending isn’t at all neatly sewn up even though some things are resolved. It all feels very true to real life and I will definitely be reading more of this author’s books.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

May 5, 2015

[Lesley] From the beginning, I loved the voice of Aristotle Mendez. Much of this book is the interior landscape and monologue of this young Mexican American boy who is coming-of-age. His life is complicated in the usual and unusual ways: his parents drive him crazy (his dad is a Vietnam War veteran who doesn’t talk much and not at all about the war), he doesn’t have a lot of friends (but he is also a bit of a loner who doesn’t wish for lots of friends), he isn’t close to his siblings (twin sisters who are much older and a brother who is in jail and whom no one talks about). Ari meets Dante and through their friendship all the characters seem to come of age – including the adults. At one point, I wondered who the audience for this book was… would many teenage boys see themselves in thoughtful, inquisitive Ari? But, I decided that it didn’t really matter. I have known kids who would have loved this book and even if they are the minority, they are the kids I’ll never forget. I loved this book, loved the characters, and learned things about myself through reading it. I listened to it on audio and the reader added a lot to the authenticity and charm of the voice.

The Opposite of Spoiled, by Ron Lieber

May 5, 2015

[Lesley] This is a straightforward look at talking with your kids about money. Lieber includes some practical examples of how to deal with allowance, saving, family decisions, etc. but the real value I found was the discussion about the need to talk honestly with kids about all kinds of topics relating to money: what we make, how and why we make decisions about what to buy when, giving, delayed gratification… His approach to allowance wasn’t new to me (don’t use allowance as a reward for chores that kids should be doing as contributing family members) but his thoughtful explanation of why he thinks that way and what consequences result from different methods was illuminating. Not everything in the book felt applicable to me but I appreciated his approach and have been more conscious of how I talk about money with my daughter.


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