Friday, January 6th, 2006
3:20 pm - One Damned Book After Another...  
I haven't actually talked about any of the books I've read since before Thanksgiving, so here goes.

One Damned Island After Another, by Clive Howard and Joe Whitley, was the first adult book I ever tried to read, although mostly I just looked at the pictures. It belonged to my father, and it's an official history of the US Seventh Air Force during World War II published just after the war. There are lots and lots of photos. I remember my dad sitting with me, showing me the pictures, and explaining about them, sometimes in gruesome detail. (Really. Most of the photos were snapshots of day to day life in the units, but one was of a B-24 that had just had its wing shot off, and my father detailed exactly what was happening to the men inside. Thus do fathers and sons bond.) I was constantly looking at the pictures in the book, something that's obvious if you look at the condition it's in now. The binding is a mess, and there are torn pages here and there. When I tried reading it back then, I only read three of the chapters. This is the first time I've ever read the entire book cover to cover.

The Seventh started out as the Hawaii Air Department, so it had the distinction of firing the first aerial shots of the war, as well as some of the last. It was charged with carrying out air operations in the central Pacific, which means the men and planes moved from one little patch of coral to the next, building airbases, attacking the next batch of islands in line, then moving up into that next batch once it was (mostly) subdued. Lather, rinse, repeat. The conditions were deplorable, and missions grueling. An average flight could be as much as 2400 miles each way, and entirely over water. London to Berlin, by comparison, is only 600 miles. No GPS back then, either. The book alternates chapters of very dry facts, i.e., which targets were hit during each campaign, how many bombs were dropped, who flew what planes (with middle initials specified for everyone), etc., with chapters of anecdotes from the men in the various units. There's even the odd bad poem or filk (and it's amazing how tenacious some of those snippets of rhyme are in my memory).

The anecdotes are drawn from all aspects of the Seventh, from the aircrews to the pencil pushers to the grunts who shoveled coral to build the airstrips. They run the gamut from funny to horrific, and sometimes both. There's one story about a Japanese soldier on Saipan who used to sneak in from wherever he was hiding in the jungle to take up a position a a hill overlooking the makeshift ball field the Americans had set up. He'd watch the games with interest, and was very vocal in his cheering, once even throwing a chunk of coral at an umpire who'd made a bad call. The authors report he was later cornered and killed by some Marines. (After finishing the book, I found out that Joe DiMaggio and several other ball players served in the Seventh, but they played their ball in Hawaii.) Another story is about a crew who found themselves in the middle of a school of sharks after ditching their bomber.

The emergency equipment aboard the rafts included a pamphlet on sea lore which said sea sharks could be frightened away by a sharp blow on the snout with a paddle. But these sharks, it developed, hadn't read the book.

"Bopping them on the nose just made them mad," Sergeant Howell, who did the bopping, said. "After the first few bops, when they began to come closer, we just left them alone and prayed."


The book opens with a couple of chapters about the attack on Pearl Harbor from the Air Force point of view, when most of the Hawaii Air Department was destroyed on the ground. I'd read those chapters several times. I think the reason I never went any farther was because the following chapter is mostly about the problems associated with building air strips on coral atolls. I find that fascinating reading now, but I can see why my eight year-old self would've nodded off. I was much more interested in heroics back then.

So I'd flip through the pictures until I came to this one, part of a chapter I'd read over and over that had heroics aplenty. It was about the crashlanding of a B-24 named the Chambermaid. The plane and several members of its crew were badly shot up during a raid on Iwo Jima, and they had to limp back to their base on Saipan, a five hour flight. They managed it, despite having no hydraulic system, and an engine that kept bursting into flames every hour or so. They even ran into a tropical storm. There was one image that always stuck with me. One of the crew had to carry a wounded man across a foot-wide, slick with hydraulic fluid catwalk over the bomb bay. If the men fell, the bomb bay doors might not hold them. (In my youthful imagination, this was something right out of Indiana Jones, with the long, impossibly narrow metal path suspended high over the cavernous hold. I've been in an actual B-24 since, and the reality is somewhat less daunting. The catwalk is actually at the bottom of the aircraft, and is sort of enclosed by the bomb racks. My main thought when I saw it was how cramped it was inside what was at the time one of the largest bombers around.)

Without hydraulics, the plane had no brakes, so they rigged parachutes to three of the gun positions to try to slow it. They also had to crank down the landing gear manually. They managed to get two of the three wheels down, but when they tried to crank down the third, the cable snapped. When they landed, the wing dug into the ground, slewing the plane around so that it plowed diagonally across the strip, crashing through vehicles until it finally skidded to a stop a couple hundred yards later. Despite it all, everyone on board survived. The crew and plane were famous for awhile, thanks to a story written up for the New Yorker by one Sgt. Roger Angell, of all people. (I've tried to find Angell's version of the story, but none of the libraries in RI carry the magazine back that far.)

All in all, it's an interesting book, despite all the dry details. It is very much a product of its time, which can be jarring on occasion. The Japanese are routinely refered to as "Japs" or "Nips." It's pretty clear that the Japanese mindset was totally alien to the Americans who fought the war. The word "crazy" appears a lot, and there is a general lack of respect for Japanese ability throughout. But there are a lot of things in here that don't show up in the usual historical accounts, like that chapter on the difficulties of building all those air strips that I couldn't get through when I was eight. It's a very good look at what is was like to live in those times, and to serve in that part of the world.

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While I was reading that, I also grabbed my copy of another book I used to look at with my father, The Sad Sack, by Sgt. George Baker. It's a book of cartoons Baker did for Yank magazine about life in the Army during the war. I thought they were funny then, and now that I understand some of the more adult jokes, I think they're even funnier. It's also the first place I ever saw the word "spam."

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The Much Too Loved Quilt, by Rachel Waterstone, is a children's book about why children shouldn't be allowed to have nice things, although I'm pretty sure that's not the message the author intended. I bought the book because my good friend Marnie, she of the fabulous chocolate chip cookies, did the illustrations.

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Time magazine recently listed Alan Moore's Watchmen among the 100 best English language novels since 1923. I wasn't that impressed. It's better than a lot of comics I've read, but Powers covers a lot of the same ground, and does it better for the most part.


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I have often wished that Ken Burns's Baseball documentary had featured more, you know, baseball. It relied far too much on boring talking heads talking about the game rather than the people who actually played it talking about the game. In my mind it's no accident that the person everyone most remembers from the series was Buck O'Neil. Reading George Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball makes me suspect that had my wish been granted I would've been just as dissatisfied. It's not the people you talk to, but how you assemble the information.

The book's premise is that baseball is a craft, and the managers, coaches, and players are all artisans of that craft. Will splits that game into four parts, and selects one gifted practitioner of each, Tony LaRussa for managing, Orel Hershiser for pitching, Tony Gwynn for hitting, and Cal Ripken, Jr., for fielding, to discuss that particular aspect of the game. He thens adds input from interviews with others, along with quotes from past practitioners. In theory this should work, but Will bobbles the ball.

There's a lot of good content here, and certainly more than enough to prove the premise, but if there's any organization within the sections, I can't see it. Will skips from source to source, and wanders back and forth in time. Most of the interviews were conducted over a two year period (1988-89), which would be fine except that the context of what he's trying to relate keeps changing as he shifts his dates. It's especially noticeable in the Tony LaRussa section, where I found myself constantly distracted because I had to keep realigning my thoughts to take the date the conversation took place into account. It's all very confusing. The pitching section is a bit better, but Roger Kahn did a much better job of getting the point across on the exact same subject in The Head Game. Since I was getting bored, and the library due date was fast approaching, I skipped over the sections on hitting and fielding to the concluding chapter, which was sort of short on conclusions.

Part of the problem is that being familiar with Will's voice, I could hear him droning his words in my mind. He also tells his stories in high PBS style. He has a full quiver of four-dollar words, and he's not afraid to use them. Reading about the de jure versus the de facto strike zone gets to be a bit much. He comes off very much like someone desperate to convince an audience of intellectuals that his fandom is worthy of appreciation.

 
 
 
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