The Parrot's Beak: A Viet Nam War NovelThe Parrot's Beak: A Viet Nam War Novel by David Allin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a war novel that stands out among several of this genre. One would think the Vietnam 'there I was' topic had been well and truly tapped. This novel is different; written very, very well, by someone who has clearly been there, done that, The Parrot's Beak reeks of realism. Allin's descriptions of ammunition, weapons, infantry tactics and command structure are impeccable. A reader could almost set up a Claymore, or clear a jam in a sixteen based on this text. Plus, it's a darn fine story filled with the crunch and crackle of combat, the smells, cursing and chatter of men at war and insights into how they think and act. I rarely grant five stars, but the story arc, factual detail, character development, dialogue and emotional intensity of this book give it 5-star distinction. A bit far-fetched that a small unit of Eleven-Bs would wander into Cambodia at the behest of a Chieu Hoi? Certainly, but Allin pulls it off, and we easily suspend disbelief. In fact, with a bit of embellishment, The Parrot's Beak could be a damn fine one-time TV tale.
One minor negative was the cover art. Though not a factor in the Kindle edition that I read, the book could benefit from a better, more evocative cover. Another very minor detail: Chieu Hoi means open hands, not open arms, but no biggie. Here's a Vietnam yarn well worth the reading.
Byron Edgington author of A Vietnam Anthem: A Vietnam Anthem: What The War Gave Me

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The Light of the WorldThe Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a memoir of loss, an elegiac rendering of a marriage that defines what ‘marriage’ ought to be, and what happens when that union is ripped apart by sudden, unexpected death. Readers might expect beautiful writing from a poet, and in 'The Light of the World' they will find that. This is Elizabeth Alexander at her finest, the words tender and loving on the page, so mellifluous and well crafted that we sense the depth and breadth of her love and regard for her lost husband. Plus, we get recipes for his renowned meals. The shrimp barka recipe is next on this reader’s agenda.

Ficre (Fee-Kray, if I have that right) arrived in America from Eritrea, by way of Italy, having fled his war-torn homeland. He set out to craft a new life, combining not only edible ingredients but cultural artifacts. Indeed, Ficre refers to himself as a ‘conscious syncretizer.’ A Renaissance painter/artist/chef of a higher order than most, he met Alexander and immediately, it appears, the two were inseparable. They married, sired two sons, made a life together, gathered friends and bonds. Then the unthinkable: Ficre collapsed and died in 2012, at the age of fifty. Ars longa; Vita brevis. This memoir could use that ancient bit of wisdom as its subtitle. Given his age, and his general state of health, Ficre’s death is inexplicable. He died while exercising on a treadmill at home, and aside from a cigarette habit he seemed unable to break he appeared to be in excellent health. Alexander speculates that Ficre’s past, and his early exposure to conflict and loss in Eritrea, (his brother and father died there) conspired to rob him of many years.

Alexander spends the second half of the book explaining what Ficre meant to her, who he was and why he still lingers in her memory, her ‘ghost of every bookstore.’
If the memoir has a flaw it is only that Alexander seems to get lost in the work. The only reference of her we are left with is (mostly) her sorrowing self. Toward the end of the work we see her moving on with her boys, uprooting to Brooklyn to return to her roots. But the union feels one-sided, almost dismissive of the poet’s presence and accomplishment. This is the woman, after all, chosen to recite her work at Barack Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. If the writing weren’t so pure the self-omission would be okay. Maybe I just wanted more of it. Also, the book is a bit difficult to follow because of its construction. Alexander is a poet, after all, so it makes sense that her work comes to us in stanzas.

Still...if the reader is searching for gorgeous writing, a tribute to a spouse, luscious recipes for exotic meals and a bit of African-American wisdom for dessert, this is it. ‘Every shut eye ain’t asleep; every goodbye ain’t gone.’ The memoir also provides a satisfying story of one man’s self-invention in his short, bright life. The title is from Derek Walcott, and it’s obvious from the first page that Alexander considered Ficre to be her ‘light of the world.’ Her beloved husband had many expressions. One of them was in Italian, a language he acquired during his emigration. ‘Casa dolce casa,’ he said upon entering the house. Home sweet home. With this short but elegant book his adoring poet wife has brought him there.
Byron Edgington, author ofThe Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind


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Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage EqualityLove Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality by Debbie Cenziper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a simple love story. Jim Obergefell loved his husband John Arthur. It was that simple. When John died of ALS in 2013, Jim wished to be listed on the death certificate as John’s spouse. Simple. Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati attorney thought so, too. As he said: “Every civil rights case begins with a story.” And in Mr. Obergefell’s case, it’s quite a story, simple, but containing many facets affecting many, many people, among them other eventual plaintiffs, other LGBT people who wanted only what heterosexual couples take for granted, the right to marry the person they love.

John Arthur’s last wish was ‘to die a married man.’ Jim made that happen. Flying John to Maryland, John’s Aunt Paulette married the two men in the cramped cabin of a LearJet. But landing back in Ohio, they were no longer recognized as legal spouses. Years before, when John was healthy, he and Jim had traveled the world together: Paris, Scandinavia, North Africa, Prague, The Netherlands, just like any other couple. In 1989, three years before he met John, Jim had witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall. Little did he realize then that he’d one day facilitate the collapse of another wall, one erected and maintained by his own country to deny him access to civil marriage. ‘Love Wins’ is the story of that wall’s demise.

Written with the exacting care by Debbie Cenziper, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter now with The Washington Post, and Jim Obergefell, named plaintiff in the high court’s case, ‘Love Wins’ follows the movement of activists among the LGBT community over several years, as they worked toward civil marriage equality. But the book is much more than that; as the subtitle says, it’s a story of lovers and lawyers determined to see that the law is followed. As Al Gerhardstein said: “Governments make laws; we must ensure that governments follow those laws.” ‘Love Wins’ also focuses on how the LGBT community rallies around one of their own, especially when challenges arise. The AIDS crisis, continual harassment, social restrictions too numerous to mention, all energize the LGBT community. It’s appropriate that Jim’s story takes place in Cincinnati. The city, and surrounding Hamilton County Ohio have a long, complicated history of anti-gay bias, then a rapid evolution toward inclusion. Indeed, Cincinnati emerges as another character in ‘Love Wins,’ a city that’s now one of the more LGBT friendly in the nation, with an openly gay city council member, Chris Seelbach, who is mentioned in the book.

“Love Wins” is a simple title, appropriately presented in present tense, as that enshrines the thought in continuity. The book is highly readable, avoiding arcane legal verbiage, and the jargon typically associated with technical, high-level court cases. It’s a human book, about real people, well paced, with deep personal insights into the lives and loves of the plaintiffs and others and the legal expertise that made civil marriage equality the law of the land in June 2015. Co-Author Jim Obergefell, AKA ‘sweater-vest guy,’ who met John Arthur in 1992, became the named plaintiff in the landmark 2015 SCOTUS ruling; Pam & Nicole Yorksmith brought the face of women and family to the court; Joe Vitale & Rob Talmas took their part as two dads raising a child; A funeral director agreed to be a plaintiff, based on his sensitivity to LGBT people, and his concern about a blank spot on their death certificates.

It was one of those blank spots on an official record that pushed Jim Obergefell to act. In a kind of convergence, Al Gerhardstein learned through friends and neighbors about John’s health, the marriage of the two men and the Cincinnati Enquirer article that had featured the story. He approached Jim and John, and the case against the state of Ohio took shape, culminating on June 26th 2015 at the U.S. Supreme court.

The story has all the elements of a novel, with rising emotion, crises for its protagonists, enhancement of that crisis, resolution and a gratifying conclusion and epilogue. But this is no novel; like Obergefell Vs Hodges, ‘Love Wins’ is about real people, and real families. It was this factor that produced the ‘win’ part of the book’s title, the love and family part that finally granted Jim Obergefell and many like him the right to marry in all fifty United States. If you believe American citizens do indeed enjoy ‘equality under law,’ if you’ve ever fallen in love and wished to marry, and if you applaud lovers when love wins, read this book.



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Byron's books

Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did To Us
5 of 5 stars
As a veteran of the Vietnam war, I found this book painfully hard to read, because it reflects the still elusive truth of 'what that war did to us,' as the subtitle says. Note that it doesn't say, 'what the war did to them.' That war sti...
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
4 of 5 stars
Despite her status as a journalist/ author, and perhaps lacking 'The Right Stuff' to partake of human space flight herself, Ms Dean may be the perfect author to take us into the space of this topic. Throughout Leaving Orbit, Dean bemoans...
Toscotti's War
5 of 5 stars
Here we have a terrific entry in the Huck and Jim go down the big river genre, a tale of two scofflaw buddies off on an excellent worldwide adventure, with little regard for any customary and/or traditional consequences. The big ‘why’ in...
The Outcast
4 of 5 stars
Here we have a novel about growing up hobbled by a dark, terrible secret, how that mysterious past holds its power over Lewis, the young boy and man, and the tragic detours such an emotional trauma makes him take. Lewis Aldridge leaves ...
Flying Naked: An American Pilot in the Amazon Jungle
3 of 5 stars
Here we have an aviation memoir/adventure tale that spins yarn after yarn about the author’s flying escapades in Central and South America. An Air Force pilot assigned to a squadron of C-27 aircraft, Bleriot relates what it’s like to cru...

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Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed AmericaShowdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America by Wil Haygood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a time capsule into the various elements of America's past, our painful, challenging story of race and its power in our daily lives. Just as Barack Obama's election to the presidency did, the elevation of Thurgood Marshall to a seat on the nation's most powerful judicial bench elicited the deepest fears—and the highest affirmations of this land. When President Johnson submitted Judge Marshall's name for consideration, all the prejudice, hatred, anxiety—and ultimately the best of all of us bubbled to the surface in our national discourse.
On the political side, where Showdown spends much of its literary time, Mr. Haygood shows with great effect the biases and blessings of prominent legislative leaders. Thurgood Marshall's nomination was particularly troubling for certain southerners—Sam Ervin, Strom Thurmond, James O Eastland among them—because one of their own had come forward with that nomination. Lyndon Johnson figures prominently in this story, as well he should. At the early going, he tells Mr. Marshall, with trenchant insight, "we're a lot alike." Both men understood their constituencies; both had risen to the peak of their chosen professions; both hailed from the south, Marshall from nearby but still southern Maryland, Johnson from deep in the heart of Texas.
Author of other well crafted biographies, Wil Haygood has found his subject in Thurgood Marshall. The research is deep and engaging, and the writing is flawless. It's just a darned good story, and a successful one, not because Marshall is confirmed by the Senate in the end, but because we already know that, and the story works anyway.
If Showdown has a shortcoming, it is a relative lack of the insight into womens' roles in Marshall's journey to the high bench. His mother is given a few lines here and there, his first wife, and his second as well. But strong women must have abetted and encouraged young Thurgood Marshall, and we'd like to know more about their interaction. Also, though not hagiography by any means, the book contains little negative detail on any of its protagonists. Marshall's colleagues come across as almost too good, too far above the sordid clash and clamor of that chaotic time in our history. Those men, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., even Marshall's family members stay on the page, never really rising into human terms. There are a few factual errors in the book. Franklin Roosevelt did not survive WW2, for example.
All in all, Showdown shines a well focused light on several days in the life of Thurgood Marshall, his expert navigation of the Senate's judiciary committee, where the actual showdown took place, and where several southern senators tried every trick they could muster to derail Thurgood Marshall's elevation as the first African American to the U.S. Supreme Court. We come away believing that, had those senators not been challenged by an equally crafty southerner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr. Marshall may not have been confirmed.

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Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American SpaceflightLeaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite her status as a journalist/ author, and perhaps lacking 'The Right Stuff' to partake of human space flight herself, Ms Dean may be the perfect author to take us into the space of this topic. Throughout Leaving Orbit, Dean bemoans the simple, indisputable fact that Americans no longer have a viable, workable craft in which to travel in space. The fact that this sad state of affairs has followed the monumental engineering and technical triumphs of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and a moon landing, not to mention Skylab, the ISS, numerous soft landers on distant planets etc. etc. is doubly sad. Dean takes readers along on her trek into the inner sanctum of the Space Shuttle program, documenting the final days and launches of the STS in vivid detail. She gains access to NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, the VAB in heavily acronym-ized NASA-speak, detailing the activity that prepares and launches each of three shuttles. But more than reporting on the inner, technical aspects of Shuttle, Dean exposes the human, the soft side of this daunting engineering feat that places a vehicle the size of a 737 on orbit around the earth and brings it back again. Like Robert Pirsig's 'Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,' or 'The Soul of the Machine,' Leaving Orbit haunts us with the understanding that the shuttles, despite their one million working parts, are/were much more than that sum. They represented the best of American aspiration. And now they are gone. Four stars only because this reader wanted more of the same, even though the story is done. Maybe this reader still can't quite believe that.

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Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever WrittenLyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a political/social/psychological and personal (ized) biography of one of the more enigmatic men ever to occupy the Oval Office. Lyndon Baines Johnson became president of the United States on November 22nd 1963 and served for five tumultuous, disruptive, yet hopeful and progressive years until the war in Vietnam and his policies to win it defeated him. Much more than simple biography, Goodwin's book on LBJ doesn't just describe this president's hands, it shows what's under his fingernails. Where did Johnson come from? What was life like for him growing up in south Texas? Who were his mentors & detractors? Why did he opt for a life of public service? The most important question of all, and one that Goodwin fully explains is this: how did a man raised in the hot, divisive atmosphere of the south with all its fervid racial discrimination & intolerance come to champion the most far reaching and important civil rights legislation since the Civil War? But LBJ did that, not just to burnish the legacy of his slain predecessor, but to establish his own.
The book has only one flaw: Goodwin has been taken in by LBJ's monumental & legendary charm as a consummate politician. She resists Johnson's wiles with all the assiduous effort required of a pro journalist, but her admiration for her subject shines though despite the attempts at objectivity. While this is no hagiographic work, it fails to take LBJ to task for the very shortcomings Goodwin reveals: his self-defeating insecurity & scramble to be 'loved' by his constituents; his deeply held and complex ties to his mother and the disappointments that defined her life; his rigid belief system that would brook no opposition—nor allow alternatives. Also, as the author mentions, LBJ's spouse Lady Bird acted as his mainstay, his toughest & best ally, so how about more of that relationship? Or is that the next book?
LBJ & the American Dream is an intimate portrait of a troubled, ambitious, skillful and visionary man. In its description of Lyndon Johnson's ache to overreach it reminded this reader of the story of Icarus & Daedalus. And as a Vietnam veteran, it provided an insight into the man who sent me to that small country to fight a war that finally melted the wax on a lot of wings, plunging many of my brethren into the sea.
Still a good read. Five stars, just because Goodwin is an excellent practitioner.The Sky Behind Me: Extended Downwind

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When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a book written by a dead man. The late Dr. Paul Kalanithi has added to the ‘death with dignity’ canon by writing of his own demise, and guiding us as only a physician can, through the labyrinth that we all must one day navigate. The book reads as if the good doctor is addressing a patient, which just happens to be himself.

It would be easy to carve out a review of yet another ‘how-to-die-well book,’ but first this reader/author must address the writing. Kalanithi’s prose is stunning; his word choice, style, grammatical sense and writer’s voice render a dignity to the work I’ve found in no other books of the same genre. It will be the rare reader who uses more than one sitting to complete this marvelous work. And many readers will feel compelled to read it again. The prose is as fluid as the strokes of Kalanithi’s scalpel must have been, the revelations of his own denial, abger, bargaining and resignation are heartbreaking and his references to admired authors such as Wittgenstein and Eliot perfectly placed and appropriate.

Kalanithi’s unselfish, fearless descriptions of his cancer’s progress, and the resulting insights he draws from diagnosis, to his early recovery, then quickly to his rapid decline into mortality, are a precious road map for anyone desirous of a death with meaning. Never sentimental, nor lapsing into despair or self-pity, Kalanithi’s writing also avoids the dry, clinical doctor-speak we might expect from a book on dying of cancer. It is, instead, a physician’s courageous description of his own journey from doctor to patient, and the same journey once again, with priceless markers along the way. Indeed, since Kalanithi didn’t live to complete the book, these are messages literally from beyond the grave, of what living and dying should mean for us all. By finishing the work, and considering the style and warmth she exhibits, his spouse affirms the dignity and compassion her late husband held not only for her and for their young daughter, but for his patients as well.

His own physician advised him in treatment that he must decide what’s truly important to him, and then adjust his life around that going forward, recovery or not. If that’s not sound advice from a doctor, nothing is. Sparing no aspect of his journey through illness, Kalanithi even reveals his misdiagnosis, an event that many cancer victims will relate to. In addition, he fearlessly addresses his marital problems, the result of not only his illness, but of the all-consuming labor required by his intensely demanding profession. His spouse is also a physician, and that may be the reason their marriage endured, although the author states that it was, ironically, his terminal diagnosis that likely kept the marriage alive.

No one reading this book will avoid death. Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon with a wonderful future, a caring, sensitive doctor who could have added immeasurably to human understanding and compassion. In this book, his memento mori, perhaps his final prescription to us all, he reminds us that death need not be a tragedy. Indeed, our universal mortality offers a chance to live more fully, and to help others do the same.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: Extended Downwind|25824448]


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Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did To UsCharlie Company: What Vietnam Did To Us by Peter Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a veteran of the Vietnam war, I found this book painfully hard to read, because it reflects the still elusive truth of 'what that war did to us,' as the subtitle says. Note that it doesn't say, 'what the war did to them.' That war still echoes as a searing memory for those who served in it, but it does so even for those who did not.
'Charlie Company' is personal recollections taken from several members of an infantry unit in Vietnam's 3rd military region, near Lai Ke, not far from Saigon. These men, most of them draftees, were posted to Vietnam at the height of the war. They were immediately subjected to its cruelties, its horror and its purposeless insanity. As Kennish says later on in the book, "people ask me why I went, and what we were doing there, and I don't know."
The message delivered by 'Charlie Company' comes through the pages loud and clear: never go to war without a clear, immediately explicable reason, or the aftermath will haunt you. The men of C company returned to a country that dismissed their efforts in Vietnam, and misread who they'd become. Written in blood, this book should be required reading in all military training sites,and war colleges everywhere. After seeing what happened with Iraq however, I fear it has found a neglected spot on a dusty, forgotten shelf. Five stars.

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CairnCairn by James Thomas Fletcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a book of poetry that follows its title. A Cairn is something erected since ancient times as a landmark, a gathering of stones pointing the way through a wilderness. James Thomas Fletcher's latest offering, Cairn, marks the way through a wilderness of his past and in many ways of every readers' past. Disclaimer: I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. I could have been the pilot of Jim's aircraft in The Chopper Out, a relevant poem that illustrates one of those markers, the insouciance of youth: 'Not a mark on me,' the poet states, despite 'the bullet crease in my steel pot.' Been there; done that; recognize the marker.
Any poet, any writer worth a nickel is in love with words & phrases and Fletcher is no exception: Obsidian, Electricity, 'ever so Bambi-esque,' and two of my favorites, 'miasmic adverbial swamp' and 'poetry is where you don't see it.' In Dear Great Heart, Fletcher describes a singular lesson from childhood, 'I learn to zip myself before going out into the world.' Some things we take for granted that we've learned along the way, others we recognize by their Cairns, their markers, such as a sad commentary on thought in Swinging in the Breeze: 'It is difficult to think now, there's no place for it.' This is a cairn for how cacophonous our world has become, the poet reminding us that markers show the way through a wilderness, but they also mark the way back.
As with much of Fletcher's work, there are poems dedicated to people in his past: a certain Amanda, his father (and his signature cough), Ma Duncan whose cooking made her patrons 'lie down under a shade tree,' a certain Scarlet Lady who seems to have been born too soon to explore her 'firecracker soul,' and Patty, who shared the sounds of 'Whales & Nightingales.'
Mostly the poems in Cairn are markers of the human condition, not just Fletcher's but everyone's, as should be true of any poetry worth reading. My favorite? Perhaps The Waiting Game, a poem I recognize the drama of, revealing nothing about myself, and everything. The comment makes true another Fletcherism: 'The tinge of madness edges around many of my poems.' Also, Ohio State Dream, because, as an OSU alum, I read the threat implicit in the madness with 'Scarlet and gray everywhere.'
If madness is to be explored, Cairn shows us how to recognize it along our way. And that's what Cairns are supposed to do.
Byron Edgington author of A Vietnam Anthem. A Vietnam Anthem: What The War Gave Me

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a brilliant response to the typically dark and chilly Scandi-Noir novel, a raucous, hilarious romp of a story about a centenarian's personal finger wave to the world. The first sentence of the book tells the entire story of Allan Karllson: "You'd think he would have..." Well..., read on, because our title character fits no man's stereotype or expectation. This is a kind of Forrest Gump meets Marco Polo tale. Karllson's peripatetic nature takes him across the world, into adventure after adventure, meeting the prominent figures of a century of history, thieves, heroes, rascals and..elephants! He canoodles with Mao's third wife, plays cards with his pal Harry Truman and rubs shoulders with Kim Jong Il. It's a romp, and an extremely funny one at that.
Written with numerous flashbacks, but well done, the adventure never stops for breath. The only glitch this reader found in the string of events was Truman's divulging his knowledge of the A bomb prior to FDR's death in April '45. Truman learned of the Manhattan project only after assuming the presidency. Still, that's small potatoes. If you're looking for a fun, laugh out loud tale to chase away the getting old blues, this is your book.
Byron Edgington author of A Vietnam Anthem: A Vietnam Anthem: What The War Gave Me

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GUTS 'N GUNSHIPS: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in VietnamGUTS 'N GUNSHIPS: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam by Mark Garrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have the latest in a recent spate of Vietnam combat books, a sudden gush of novels/memoirs/autobiographies & literary recollecta that seem to signify a resurgent desire by those who participated in the war to etch its artifacts in the collective shrine of remembrance. This book is a good one, as these things go, not a great one, but highly readable, at times tendentious and so reasonably representative of the times in which its stories were gathered and even fun in places, when Garrison reveals his abrasive, confrontational side. Except for a few technical problems the book is pretty accurate. Disclaimer: this reviewer flew helicopters in the Vietnam War, so the glitches in Garrison’s book leapt off the page at me. They may not to other readers, so my comments should be taken with that in mind.
Following his journey from dead-broke college dropout in the late sixties, (Go Salukis!) to entering the Army after enlisting with flight school in mind, Garrison takes us on a path that deposits him, eventually, in Vietnam. He writes about Ft. Wolters Texas, the mecca of helicopter training during the war, touches on ‘Mother Rucker,’ the base at which pilots honed secondary flying skills prior to graduation, then on the Vietnam. Assigned to a Huey lift unit, Warrant Officer Garrison gets his initiation early and hard. After a few dustups with the enemy as a Peter Pilot, he’s given the opportunity to transfer into his unit’s gunship section and he takes it. From there the missions take over: Flying in support of slick pilots; laying down firepower in close proximity to grunts in contact; taking fire and taking hits from all manner of weaponry; cheating death in one form or another, including a white-knuckle flight in thick fog to return to home base, it’s all here. All these war stories arrive with the pathos of one who’s been there done that. As I say, this is a good, if not a great book, one that really does capture the way it was to fly a helicopter in Vietnam.
The book is quite well written, with an easy style and with few typos and/or grammatical boo-boos usually found in self-pubbed fare. As for glitches, there aren’t many, but the ones I found were distracting. It was not Mark Twain but GB Shaw who reminded us that ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ A gunship’s aiming mechanism utilizes a ‘pipper,’ not a piper. The Vietnamese national dish is called Nuoc Mam, not Nuc Bam. Also, the ‘turbofan jet engine’ the author refers to is simply a turbine engine. Turbofan jet engines are used on fixed wing aircraft. In one incident with a Charlie Model Huey’s hydraulics malfunction he doesn’t mention the accumulator system that allows hydraulic assist, but that’s a nit-picky detail.
As with any Vietnam book this one follows the inevitable path toward the political side of the war, its justification and autopsy even after fifty years. Garrison, like many if not most Vietnam vets, myself included, feels a need to justify his actions there, to find some rationale for what he found himself doing day in and day out. He settles on the fact that the flying he does ‘is saving Americans.’ And he does a lot of it. Numerous American troops lived to board the freedom bird and go back to the world thanks to guys like Mark Garrison who had their backs. So it appears that his reason for being in Vietnam was valid, even if he questions it now. If readers want to sit in the cockpit of a Huey gunship in Vietnam and see it, smell it and hear the popcorn crackle of AK fire, this is a good book to put you there.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind


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Lila (Gilead, #3)Lila by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have either a prequel or a sequel to ‘Home’ and ‘Gilead.’ It’s hard to tell which book arrives first in the trilogy, and it’s a tribute to the author of these three dazzling books, and her consummate skill as a writer, that it doesn’t matter. As Lila often says: “All right.” Our protagonist, Lila, has learned how to exist, if not to live fully. “...existence is pretty much the only thing she knew about.” From biblical texts we read, in Ezekiel, of Lila: “No eye pitied thee...to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born.” This is Lila’s lot, and she makes the best of it.
Rescued by Doll, sent to the marginal safety of a brothel in St. Louis and then escaping after involuntary servitude, Lila lands in Gilead a feral child/woman hiding in a coop. It’s here that we see her first interaction with widowed pastor John Ames who becomes much intrigued with the young woman. Lila senses his needs, as perhaps only a wild animal might, and begins making overtures to him by tending Ames’ dead wife’s gravesite. The book tends toward the Pygmalion story, but it is at times difficult to discern who is teaching whom.
Lila has learned her own truth: “What isn’t strange, when you think about it.” Instead of judging the willful young woman in her manger-like abode, pastor Ames affirms her, acknowledging Lila’s agency and dismissing the danger she seems to court: ‘There is no safety, no choice, either,” he says. “....because it’s in the nature of the child to walk.”
The book is filled with beautiful metaphors, and gritty, Iowa-ish wisdom. On the end of life: “The world don’t want you,” Lila says. “...as long as there’s any life in you at all.” On the eternal reward: “It would be a strange kind of heaven after all they’d been through.” Lila’s knife is the apparent objective correlative of the book’s central theme, wounding and forgiveness, and is something she clings to, her survival kit. On this object she places her own central philosophy: “A wound can’t scar a knife.” But it does allow her to live, and in the course of the book it becomes a tool for opening more than just items of sustenance, the knife becomes another tool for existence.

Marilynne Robinson dwells on biblical topics, of course, and ‘Lila’ is deeply enmeshed in them. As my recent review of ‘Gilead’ mentioned, perhaps a single flaw may be Pastor Ames’ ease with Lila, his facility with a worldly, lower-class former prostitute in such a small town, but this criticism ignores Ames’ resolutely even temperament, his dedication to another biblical admonition to forgive seventy times seven. In its usual non-chapter format, ‘Lila’ tends toward a stream of consciousness narrative, and is sometimes difficult to follow for those expecting an easy read. No matter; as with any biblical study, the book demands much discernment for its full enjoyment.
Lila senses that Ames is beyond intrigue with her. “That old man loves me I got to figure out what to do about it.” Both come to an understanding of what their future holds, and the inevitable comes quickly. “I guess you ought to marry me,” she tells the old pastor. One of the most beautiful lines in the book follows: “And what a look he gave her in the sorrow of his happiness.” In any particular order, Robinson’s trilogy from rural Iowa, ‘Gilead,’ ‘Lila,’ and ‘Home’ are as satisfying a biblical study cum literary masterpiece as we’re likely to find.
Byron Edgington author of The Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind

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The Greatest GenerationThe Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a tribute to the generation of men and women who were born before 1930, lived through the Depression, marched off to War after Pearl Harbor was attacked on ‘a date which will live in infamy,’ won the War and then built the America we know today. To many, this book is old news, the retelling of the lives and fortunes of individuals—not necessarily famous people, just folks who saw their duty, performed it admirably and returned to their mundane lives.
Brokaw grew up in one of the most mundane of places, of course, a little town in South Dakota and his recollections growing up are wrapped in stories just like these: those of guys like Gordon Larsen, John ‘Lefty’ Caulfield, Charles Briscoe and Joe Foss. Brokaw details their stories for us in a compendium of tales that elicits something beyond awe, more like an astonished reverence for the willingness of these simple people to see the glory of sacrifice and to aspire to it. It’s an attribute that seems in short supply today.
If the book has a shortcoming, it may be how close it comes at times to hagiography, but it’s hard to see how that kind of adoration can be avoided. One way might be to recognize that the generation of people Brokaw enshrines here may in fact be the second greatest. These people had parents who taught them the values they exhibited, earlier adults who demanded sacrifices from their children, forming the attributes that propelled them toward duty. Also, it’s hard to see what choice they were given? Any study of the history of that age reveals just how dangerous were the forces arrayed against us. This generation rose to meet the challenge, partly because they had no choice.
But that is perhaps too fine a critique; the point is that they did meet the aggressions and dangers of that age. Mr. Brokaw’s book is a necessary addition to the pantheon of WW2 history, and a must read for anyone wishing to understand where we came from, and to whom we owe the liberties and latitudes we take for granted. The world was truly a frightening place in mid-century America. The generation that met the summons to tame it did so with honor and without expectations of gratitude. They deserve the recognition they earned.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have what is possibly the ultimate American-grit and gristle can overcome grim reality in perilous times tale. Based on the true story of a rowing crew that sucked it up and won the gold in the 1936 Olympics, The Boys in the Boat will make a darned fine movie. It makes a better written story, especially during these turbulent times when Americans are navigating rough waters of political ineptitude, crashing breakers of change and a time when many are barely keeping their heads above water due to the surging tide of wealth inequality.
This may be Joe Rantz’s story writ large, but it is much more. Rantz was abandoned as a (very young) child, finagled his way into Washington and found himself on a rowing crew. George Pocock built fast boats. Al Ulbrickson coached fast teams. Joe Rantz and his teammates determined to avenge their life of neglect, shame and low expectations and make a name for themselves.
Joe Rantz’s Washington team had no chance to compete against the powerful, well-connected, highly supported and subsidized Ivy League boats in a sport second perhaps only to polo in its iconic status among the moneyed classes. Scruffy, working class kids from the wilds of Washington State were never meant to enter this sport, much less compete and egads to win! But the Washington team ignored all that puffery and Eastern snobbish dismissal. In doing so they first beat arch rival California, then all those Eastern boats one by one, hallowing out a name for themselves in rowing history.
Winning race after race, often by a nose or less, the team racked up victory after victory, winning a spot on another boat, an ocean liner taking them to Europe in the summer of 1936. At the Berlin Olympic venue they may have been ignored by the media focusing on Jesse Owens, the Ohio State University rebuttal to Hitler’s white supremacy claim, but if so the dismissal of their presence was just what they’d been accustomed to.
Written much like a novel, The Boys in the Boat is a mini-history of the 1930s, and with its character driven plot it takes readers racing, like the Washington boat in 1936, right up to the very end. I can’t wait for the film, but I’m guessing the book is better.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind


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Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have an epistolary novel, an entirely appropriate style considering the profession of the speaker/protagonist, a book that consists of a series of letters to a young son. John Ames is a pastor in fictitious Gilead Iowa, a man of much rectitude and long perspective who lost a wife and child years before. When Lila arrives in his dotage, becoming his second spouse and giving him the child he has missed these many decades, Ames, in ill health and mindful of his looming demise feels it necessary to scribble a few lines to the boy, to give him ‘the begats.’ The result is one of the better-crafted letters a father has ever bequeathed to a son, and a historical family diary of sorts as well. The book’s secondary purpose, it seems, is to warn the youngster about the wiles and perils of Reverend Ames’ very own godson and namesake, one John Ames (Jack) Boughton. Jack, the son of Ames’ childhood friend and fellow pastor, is Gilead’s bad boy, the youth who shamed his family every chance he got, but whose favor that family seeks at every turn. Ames loves and reveres ‘old Boughton,’ as he refers to his childhood friend. Ames says, quoting scripture, which he does a lot, “history could make a stone weep,” and ‘old Boughton’s clan’s history is up to the task with young son Jack. Readers must wonder, too, at the barely-concealed concern Ames displays when writing of Jack and his facility with Lila. The concern would seem ill-founded were it not for Lila’s ease with the young scalawag. The two do seem to share a colored past, and their shared history does include time in iniquitous St. Louis.
As with all Marilynne Robinson’s writing the Christian obsession with grace and its many disguises pervades the book. Ames says ‘grace has a grand laughter in it,’ and that remark may explain the good Reverend’s preternatural calm at not only his own frailty, but also his resignation at and acceptance of the often egregious moral failings of his flock. Gilead itself is much more than metaphor; the town is Ames’ touchstone, a place he says he ‘never left, because I was afraid I’d not come back.’ He’s been there his entire life. In one section he refers to another pastor who has ‘been here only twenty years.’
Gilead is interspersed with Ames family history as well. That history doubles back on itself when Jack Boughton runs headlong into ancient discrimination and prejudice, his marriage to a black woman adding to his life-long troubles. Speaking of obsessions, Robinson seems obsessed with St. Louis as a cauldron of human fault and sinfulness, the center not only of Jack Boughton’s moral traumas but of Lila’s past travails as well.
Readers must suspend disbelief in any novel, of course, and Gilead is no exception to this. Is it truly reasonable that a stable and attractive man such as John Ames might remain a widower/bachelor for forty years in small town Iowa? Is it realistic that a vehicle might be stolen then resold many times just for the clever story of it? Not to nit-pick, but in Home, a companion book, the Boughton family vehicle is a DeSoto. Where did the Plymouth come from?
No matter. Gilead is a gorgeous book, filled with astonishing prose, and the gentle, even-tempered insights one might expect from an older father in epistles to his very young son. It’s fun, too, something we might not expect from a book about rural Iowa pastors: ‘I wondered if he might be a Unitarian.’ ‘You can tell a Congregationalist by the lock on their shed door.’ And we thought only Lutherans were droll. John Ames is a pastor first, father second. He has no real worries, trusting his god and the onset of grace to see his youngster through, despite feeling his own ‘poverty of remarks.’ I’d state that Gilead will become a must read for fathers of any profession, and that fathers ought to write more to their sons but that may be the pulpit speaking.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me - Extended Downwind


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The Givenness of Things: EssaysThe Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of philosophical essays by one of our greatest living religious writers, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead, Home, Lila and many other works. In The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson has abandoned any effort at writing a highly-readable book for the masses, if she’d ever dabbled in one of those anyway. Here she delivers as serious a commentary as readers are likely to find outside a philosophy classroom. If you’re looking for a beach read, look elsewhere.
For example, in an early chapter titled ‘Humanism,’ Robinson writes about the humanities and the astonishing fact that they exist at all in today’s STEM obsessed academic realm, saying that by all metrics the Humanities '...don’t survive a Darwinian cost-benefit analysis.' She takes neuroscience to task for its dedication to explaining how our minds work, with the belief, in Robinson’s opinion, that those engaged in its pursuit dismiss the ephemeral, the soul centered possibility that has driven humans forward since we blinked our way from the caves. She goes on to address such obscure, yet oddly relevant themes as the effect on society of the printing press, and how it led to the proliferation and use of national languages, thus the decay and eventual discarding of Latin which had for millennia served as a common language and connector of the educated.
Robinson is an avowed Christian, and she matches that affiliation with the search for grace, the common thread that binds all these beautifully crafted essays.
The author says she wrote her Ph.D thesis on Shakespeare, and she spends a good deal of ink on Will’s captivating efforts at grace and its deliverance, with reference to several plays that end in forgiveness, an uncommon coda in those times. In ‘Givenness,’ she salutes those who ‘are scrupulous because they are tentative.’ In ‘Awakening’ she takes her own faith background to task, writing that in these contentious times, ‘Christian has become more a demographic than an ethic.’ Coming from a Christian, and one so insightful and smart, that comment ought to be heeded. In her objections to Christian zealots and their ‘going about their mad business,’ Robinson does include a necessary (and scrupulous) sidenote, a kind of forgiveness of those zealots, saying ‘the media doesn’t find reasonable people interesting.’ She refers to this nation’s ‘economic Katrina,’ the recession of ‘08 by saying that the rich and powerful went scot free, and as a Christian that is abhorrent to her. Indeed. She decries our modern assumption that the rich are assumed to be the righteous, and the poor otherwise. Robinson connects our treatment of the less fortunate to England’s poor laws, and her debtor prisons, an assumption being that we’re not far from that. She asks if it’s true that we’ve come to a point where we ‘demand drug tests for welfare recipients.’ She writes that ‘no society has ever been completely removed from moral catastrophe.’ Given the current level of righteousness and social shaming, some of it generated and encouraged by the political class, this is a timely citation, from a timely book.
If The Givenness of Things has a flaw, it could possibly be that it may leave readers unsure, after a first reading at least, what the author’s various points and conclusions are. This is, admittedly, a personal comment. The Givenness of Things is one of very few books I’ve had to reread to understand, and I still don’t quite get its finer points. That’s just me. But as an educator, and a serious scholar of our literary and social scavenging for what we’ve been 'given,' Robinson might better serve us using plain English. I should also mention that this is one of very few books that I’ve wanted to read again, and I recommend it. Just don’t take it to the beach.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: Extended Downwind


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The Dying PlaceThe Dying Place by David A. Maurer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a Vietnam book about a part of the war that took place mostly across the fence from Vietnam, in Laos. Disclosure: This reviewer flew helicopters in Vietnam and was involved in similar CCN missions described here. It's obvious that the author has been there; done that, because the writing takes readers into the heat and confusion of combat so well. Reading it, I felt the same stomach wrenching fear I felt forty odd years ago when the covey bird made his mark-mark, and I lowered the collective to put the CCN team on the ground. It's an extraordinary feeling, and Maurer's writing evokes it quite well.
There are a few glitches in the book, and I'll mention them later, but mostly The Dying Place tells it like it was. With a reasonably good story arc, well crafted narrative and good character development, including very human emotional reactions from Walden et al, the book keeps readers' attention throughout. One thing the book does very well is describe the tension that existed between the ground pounders who did the actual missions and the REMFs who stayed behind. Walden has no time or patience for these stay-behind types, 'flagpole boys' as he calls them, and this is exactly how it was. Certain phrases and sentence construction really hit the mark: Walden's 'stomach was behind his mouth', and 'dying was one thing; dying stupid was something else.' In fact, the latter could have been Maurer's subtitle, had he chosen to use one.
As for the glitches, there aren't many. One of of the biggies, for me, was that Walden fails to read Hoa's letter, the one he receives when she is already dead. This is a real oversight, and not believable. In addition, the marking smoke was always referred to as 'goofy grape,' not 'violet', Monkey Mountain is not 10 kilometers from DaNang, more like 2, just across the bay, and helicopters don't land with 'an engine stall.'
The biggest fault I had with The Dying Place was the ending. It was less than satisfying, needing a better thread instead of the angry tantrum that finalized the story. Even that could have worked with the right connection to the book's theme: 'To not die stupid.'
Byron Edgington author of A Vietnam Anthem: A Vietnam Anthem: What The War Gave Me

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Poems from TerraPoems from Terra by James Thomas Fletcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of poems that emerge from ‘Below the Earth,’ ‘Upon the Earth,’ and ‘Beyond the Earth,’ all oriented to ‘The Earth,’ while issuing from the fevered, fanciful and often fun pen of a modern-day Byron-esque ‘child of clay.’ As Mr. Fletcher slouches toward his personal ‘clankless chain,’ death itself, he refers to our very human condition as inhabitants of the Terra we cannot escape. In his opening salvo at our human predilection toward self-importance, ‘Suicide Note,’ Fletcher chides a would be self-destructee to give it a rest, and instead, ‘write what you feel when your mother died.’ Note the seeming confusion in tenses: not ‘write what you felt...’ but write what you feel. The present is all we have; don’t piss it away.
In ‘My Room,’ we read of the skewering of a pet giraffe, the poor animal hoist on the petard of a ‘Spanish letter opener’ becoming, in the process a sort of logo for the work. This reader saw the killing as a warning to refrain from sticking our necks out. Perhaps that’s a stretch. In ‘In the whorl of voices,’ we read what’s apparently a snatch of the poet’s childhood history, a dead dog, seeing his mother naked, destroying a stolen toy and then facing his father’s wrath. The poet then ‘bends curiously to see what it is he has written.’
The only poems exhibiting a rhyme scheme are ‘To solitude’ with ABBA, and perhaps ‘Rue Git Le Coeur,’ ABAB (mostly) otherwise free verse reigns. This reviewer noted no missteps, unless ‘Celibation’ is a word, and I’m sure it’s what the author meant to use. Also, in ‘Storm,’ I’m quite sure he intended ‘by lasers of lightening.’ Call it poetic license.
Not uplifting, unless the reader seeks truth instead of simple uplift, these poems are beholden to Byron and his half dust/ half deity construct of humanity, Lord Gordon’s ‘low wants/ lofty will’ conundrum. Fletcher even has a certain Marnie, apparently his very own Astarte character who haunts his days and his poetry with her ‘optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism,’ until such time as she might reappear to piss on the Eiffel Tower, thus giving the poet new material. Personal favorite? ‘Don Quixote’ for its lament of past ‘quixotic’ ventures, and another Byronic reference to old men who ‘peer listless into the future and the light.’ In Manfred, Byron writes: ‘The night hath been to me a more familiar face than that of man.’ If we’re all seeking the ‘quiet grave’ that can only be found in the dark. Fletcher’s verses in Poems from Terra shed a bit of dark on that pursuit.
Byron Edgington, author of A Vietnam Anthem: A Vietnam Anthem: What The War Gave Me

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The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho BarnesThe Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes by Lauren Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a biography of a woman who was, arguably, one of the more colorful, outrageous and engaging characters of her time, or perhaps any time. Referring to Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes as an early feminist would be akin to calling Mary Shelley a good author, or Gloria Steinem a magazine editor. Pancho Barnes grew up immersed in monetary wealth, but she made a conscious decision early on to live her life free of the trappings (pun intended) of that wealth. Indeed, Ms Barnes’ most endearing, or perhaps most aggravating trait seemed to be her disdain for money, and her conscious effort to spend it faster than it arrived. Inheriting her carefree attitude from a beloved grandfather, she emulated the fellow all her life. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe made a name for himself as the first to fly a balloon in the Civil War. Grandpa Thaddeus adored young Florence, and the feeling was mutual. He told his darling granddaughter that she would fly one day, but Grampa Thaddeus had no idea just how far, and in what fashion the future Pancho Barnes would do so. She idolized her grandfather, and vowed to go well beyond his exploits,
Here’s how far. Pancho Barnes came by her name on one of her many daredevil adventures in Mexico, one of several forays she embarked on in her rush to escape the boredom of her staid, circumscribed life in moneyed California. She became one of the first women in America to fly her own airplane, married early and often, the first time to a preacher, then took several men as her lovers and married three others. She traveled the world looking for the next cure for her restlessness, refusing to submit to the conventions of her time, particularly those concerning female deportment.
The author has succeeded in painting a portrait of a life lived at the edges, and without regard to social approval. She’s written the book with care, and with a well developed sense of the journalist’s style, refusing to judge, leaving that to readers. Just the facts, ma’am, is the mantra here, and Kessler holds that line throughout. The writing is expositive without being breezy, informative without adulation and well researched in its insights and detail. This is a history book without meaning to be. Anyone curious about the background of aviation in America and/or womens’ place in it will latch onto this book and explore it cover to cover. Pancho Barnes wasn’t just present at the creation of womens’ aviation history she made a lot of it. In any scene at her club in the Mojave Desert, where icons of early aviation gathered, Pancho Barnes is close by, slapping backs, filling shot glasses, sharing flying yarns with the likes of Chuck Yeager, Jake Ridley, Ike Northrup and many other test pilots. She’d done her share of those exploits, and was accepted among those men as an equal. Why women don’t figure more prominently in aviation history is even more curious considering the activities of Pancho Barnes and women like her.
Rich man’s daughter & granddaughter, aviator, songwriter, lover of countless men, movie actor/stunt pilot, screenwriter, land speculator and creator of The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho Barnes crafted a life that never stopped until the day she died. Not exactly a positive role model for young women perhaps, but, maybe so... As the author has done, we leave that to readers. Five stars, and I don’t award those very often.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: Extended Downwind


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Toscotti's WarToscotti's War by Tony Marconi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a terrific entry in the Huck and Jim go down the big river genre, a tale of two scofflaw buddies off on an excellent worldwide adventure, with little regard for any customary and/or traditional consequences. The big ‘why’ in this romp of a tale is very simple: Tony Toscotti is at war with the Supreme Being. And why would that be? Because, as his best friend Randy’s soon to be wife Leslie says, Tony is ‘….an escape artist—always trying to get out of any situation that makes him vulnerable.’ The conundrum of this well written, artfully crafted and plotted work is that Tony Toscotti makes himself vulnerable every chance he gets, then friend Randy Chesterfield must bail him out, thus Leslie’s anxiety about the friendship. Randy does come to Toscotti’s rescue without fail, despite protestations from Leslie, the woman he loves even more than he does his attachment for Toscotti. It’s complicated.
The two partners in perilous pursuit race across several continents, get kicked out of college in Illinois, screw their brains out (or try to) with so many women this reader lost count, then get their asses Shanghaied into the U.S. Army as punishment for a little dustup at SIU Carbondale. (Go, Salukis!) But the monolithic United States Army can’t begin to contain the restless, horny, demon-driven Anthony Toscotti, even when the military sends him off to far away Thule Greenland to cool him off. Toscotti finds his way out of that frozen exile, along the way discovering long-lost artifacts from a nineteenth-century Arctic expedition. Apprehended again, he’s shipped to Fort Dix New Jersey where he becomes an embattled hero among Vietnam era college kids, and finds himself by way of a pardon attached to another cold-weather effort, this one in Antarctica. It’s there that Toscotti inadvertently discovers a fountain of youth type wonder-water that’s the key to his confrontation with god.
Very well written, with an ‘as told to’ format, using Randy Chesterfield as his omniscient third person narrator, Marconi takes the reader into a kind of interrogation room complete with tape recording device, where Randy defends his old friend Toscotti, sneering at his tormentors who’ve captured him (but not Toscotti), as the tale unwinds. If this is fiction masquerading as autobiography, Tony Marconi has had a hell of a life.
The book’s format fits the woven, intricate, flashback filled tale, each addition to it interrupted by a simple ‘click,’ marking a new entry, and a new scene in the story. Randy’s biggest contribution, besides being the tale’s narrator, is that his dreams predict the action. As cutesy and far-fetched as that sounds, the author pulls it off with aplomb. The dreams are woven into the story so well, with such nuance and subtlety that they lead with a fluidity into the story they’ve just predicted.
This is, of course, fiction, so readers are required to suspend disbelief, to allow the intricacy and plotlines to do their magic. If viewed through the lens of fantasy and fiction, however, any reader who loves good adventure well told will love this book.
There are a few glitches in the technical aspects of the book, but not many. Marconi puts a bit too much emphasis on the tail rotor in helicopter flight, but that’s no big deal. No Warrant Officer Candidate was ever awarded Army Aviator wings on departure from Fort Wolters, but that, too, is a small detail. Late in the book, Leslie is interrogated as to Randy’s whereabouts, and she tells her visitors she isn’t worried about her fiance’ taking another woman out for coffee ‘because he’s sixty-three.’ There are a number of dream sequences in the book, indeed they drive the plot along, but this reader was confused at that point. Sixty-three? The end of Leslie’s affiliation with boyfriend Hank was a bit abrupt, and the sex scenes may be a bit gratuitous and graphic, but these two characters are supposed to be young American males, after all, one named ‘Tony,’ the other, ‘Randy,’ and it didn’t frighten the horses, so we’ll allow it.
If you enjoyed Going After Cacciato, Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or early Tom Clancy novels, you’ll be glad you discovered Toscotti’s War. As an addendum, the war ends in a kind of truce. Mr. Toscotti doesn’t exactly vanish. Let’s say we should start looking for him and some resolution in, oh, about the year 2108. He should have thawed out by then.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: Extended Downwind


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The Woodcarver's Secret (Samantha Sweet Mysteries)The Woodcarver's Secret by Connie Shelton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a historical novel about three characters named Virtu, Facinor & Manichee, and their wonderful adventures through the crises, wars, social upheavals and human progress of five centuries. Of course no humans live through five centuries, but then these three characters aren’t human: they’re wood boxes carved from the same Alder tree by an Irishman named, what else, John Carver sometime prior to the Spanish Inquisition. Readers are given a not so subtle hint at the power these three boxes contain through their origin. John Carver acquires the wood for them after lightning shatters a certain tree. This atavistic, dendritic heritage carries through the remainder of the book, revealing itself even at the end through sophisticated scientific analysis. Each box has its own subtle powers: Virtu (from Latin for good) delivers good things; Facinor (from Latin Facere, to do evil) brings bad things; Manichee (Referring to a dualistic quasi-religious concept) acts as the chameleon-like reflector of the box owner’s intentions, either good or bad. Labeled so, each box launches on its own particular voyage doing what it does best. Virtu heals ailments and injuries; Facinor creates havoc; Manichee becomes an intermediary, a facilitator. The book takes us on a journey all over the world, each box coming into the hands of people who seem always to know just what power they hold.
‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ is an ambitious, well-researched, engaging novel that departs quite a bit from Connie Shelton’s usual fare. Not to say Ms Shelton’s past efforts have been unsatisfying, far from it, she writes very well, and clearly keeps her faithful readership awaiting the next Samantha Sweet or Charlie Parker mystery. But ‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ is a radical departure from those books. It marks a level of writing that may send Connie Shelton into a different plane, putting her books on a different shelf.
Reminiscent of Annie Proulx’ s ‘Accordion Crimes,’ or Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel ‘The Natural,’ ‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ traces objects from Ireland, to Inquisition Spain and its Conversos to a fellow named Rodrigo who spies for the Spanish king prior to the Armada invasion of England in 1588. From Seville the boxes separate, one vanishing into the Vatican, another off to Mexico and the third? It vanishes altogether for centuries.
Mixed in with the travels (and travails) attached to each box are the people who come in contact with them. Historical figures give readers a taste and a feel for the great events of history: the Spanish conquest of Mexico, ‘Texian’ Independence,’ the peripatetic life of a painter and his family—indeed of two painter’s families two oceans and two hundred years apart. One box finds its way into the hands of, gasp, Adolph Hitler! We even travel with one box by balloon over the Gulf of Mexico. This is a Connie Shelton book, after all, and it’s clever how she installed her balloon in the tale.
We gain insights into personal stories from the Panama Canal, World War 1, class struggle after the great war and on and on. We find satisfying, if possibly a bit precious, tie-ups for certain boxes. Bertha bequeaths Virtu to a woman named Samantha Sweet, a title character from other Shelton offerings. And Manichee hides behind a hastily built brick wall along with priceless wine belonging to a German family wishing to hide their product from the Nazis. Of course the youngster returns thirty years on to see the wall come down, a possible reference to the Berlin wall, and finds his beloved box still nestling there, along with the family heritage, several cases of Bernkasteler Kabinett which, by the way, is a real premium German wine. Ms Shelton has done her homework.
‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ is not without minor flaws. Yes, the chronology does become obvious, but establishing a start date would have been useful. The book dwells on Virtu, the ‘good box,’ somewhat to the exclusion of the other two, though this device may have been necessary in such an ambitious work. It’s not easy to keep track of the human characters, but many are peripheral, and the transience of humans may amplify the role of the main characters, the boxes.
The book comes to center on the historical struggle between science and superstition, between the Catholic Church and an agency called ‘The Vongraf Foundation’ dedicated to objective analysis of mysterious, inexplicable phenomena. Using the age-old struggle between religion and science, ‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ explores this challenge through its detective story framework, the book’s climax defined by the clash of these two entities.
After many years, all three boxes meet again, the mystery not quite solved but then that leaves room for sequels, of course. No secrets revealed in this review, you’ll have to read the book. If you enjoy well-crafted, well researched and well written historical fiction, ‘The Woodcarver’s Secret’ will capture your imagination.
Byron Edgington author of Waiting for Willie Pete.


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Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War IIRadical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War II by Daniel Winunwe Rivers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here we have a definitive rendering of the struggle toward parenthood when the prospective parent’s sexual/gender identity threatens America’s social norms. Disclosure: As a straight, white, American male who attained adulthood in the middle nineteen-fifties, and parenthood in the seventies, this reviewer is in many ways unqualified to elucidate this book. That said, I encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in current LGBTQ rights, particularly the way those issues attend to the idea of parenthood, to read Radical Relations cover to cover. Take notes. Read it again. Daniel Rivers has written the seminal text of this struggle, the long, tortuous, complicated, heartrending (and unfinished) path to parenthood that our LGTBQ friends and neighbors have endured.
From the earliest days of the LGBTQ rights movement, and even before that struggle became public knowledge, lesbians and gays yearned to be parents. That simple fact flew in the face of American, Ozzie & Harriet, hetero-normative cultural bias, of course, thus those parental arrangements were ignored, dismissed, dismantled by court order and marginalized routinely. Rivers’ book addresses what Adrienne Rich labels the “compulsory heterosexuality” of the American family.
Carol Morton, Linda Lunden, Don Mager, Bonita Jeffries, Norma Jean Coleman, Mary Jo Risher, Jeanne Jullion, all these people have one thing in common with straights in America: they yearned to be parents. Indeed, this book is nothing if not a story of real people with real families struggling to get along in a society that systematically threatened to break them apart. It relates the heartbreaking story of bullied children of LGBTQ parents, the fear of coming out when a loss of one’s child is not a possibility but a certainty, the legal challenges to adoption, IVF, custody, childcare discrimination and such prosaic items as depictions in school texts that our hetero-normative society takes for granted.
Similar to the reaction during the AIDS crisis, the LGBTQ communities response to the ‘parenthood crisis’ forced people to take charge of their own destiny, and to challenge the system by organizing: Dykes & Tykes, Daughters of Bilitis, many gay fathers’ & mothers’ groups formed across the nation to band together against discrimination. Laws were challenged. In the Bowers Vs Hardwick case, sodomy laws were upheld, laws that took custody of children away from men and women. Lawrence Vs Texas removed this onerous legal ruling, but lesbians and gays continued to lose their children for one specious reason or another. Divorcing LGBTQ people routinely lost their kids because judges ruled them unfit.
The determined and politically astute leadership of the LGBTQ community found ways to break down legal constraints against parenthood, and met with much success. Donna Hitchens developed ‘The Lesbian Mother Litigation Manual.’ Once this organization became widespread and strong, cases began to be settled out court. Rhonda Rivera, law professor at Ohio State said in 1981 that ‘more (cases) probably were negotiated…’ The tide began to turn.
What seems to have propelled the struggle onward is the inevitability of civil marriage equality. Rivers’ book focuses on past struggles to address the assumption of straight-only parenthood, with so called gay marriage a peripheral theme. But he infers that equality for all in civil marriage will be the final arbiter of a long and colorful fight our LGBTQ friends have waged to call themselves parents.
Much more than a simple, linear depiction of one marginalized group’s fight to be seen and heard in American society, Radical Relations tells many stories, just like all families do. The history of the LGBTQ community is a story of the joy of parenthood, a history of the children of those families and an important insight to LGBTQ history itself.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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What It is Like to Go to WarWhat It is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a true warrior’s description of what war means to us, what it does to us as a society and as individuals, and why the author feels the wheels have come off in terms of our deployment of military assets. Marlantes is a former U.S. Marine officer with service in Vietnam, and his understanding of the military and warrior mentality (they’re not necessarily the same thing) is beyond question. Author of the acclaimed novel Matterhorn, Marlantes writes from deep, insightful, often painful experience. Matterhorn takes readers through the horrors and depredations of war. What It Is Like To Go To War is non-fiction, an exploration of our militarism and is, perhaps, more disturbing for its descriptions and conclusions.
Warriors throughout history have returned from battle to write about what they saw, heard, smelled, sensed and did. Marlantes does it better than most. Indeed, reading What It Is Like To Go To War takes a bit of courage even from readers, as the author uncovers parts of our modern mentality that has led to recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, our disregard for what wars do to the people who wage them.
Marlantes values the warrior code. He understands it, returns to it again and again, seeking the wisdom of the ancients who deferred to Mars and Ares in their quest for wisdom against their enemies. In this little book the author warns us that we’ve strayed from that ancient set of guidelines, and are paying the price in disillusioned citizens, damaged soldiers and enervated armies.
Marlantes is no pacifist. He understands that strong, decisive armed intervention is at times necessary when society is threatened, and he wants us to understand that, too. The bright line distinction he makes is that used unwisely, the power of our military is wasted, the warrior code broken. He points no fingers; names no names. This is not a political and/or social rant. It’s a voice from one who has been to war, and has returned to tell us what it is like. What it is truly like.


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An Astronaut's Guide to Life on EarthAn Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a book written by a fellow who has wanted to leave Earth since he was 9 years old, telling us how to live on Earth all our lives. That conundrum plays out all through this engaging, informative book. Hadfield is an accomplished man, no doubt about it: early dreamer, dismissive of the impossible, striver for the next rung on the ladder—and somehow always grabbing it—he parlays every opportunity, including a few major setbacks into progress toward his life-long dream. That dream is to be an astronaut. Hadfield becomes a true, steely-eyed missile man, as they call them, a test pilot, engineering astronaut with the right stuff bona fides needed to best more than 3,000 others in the competition toward astronaut wings. He succeeds beyond even his own expectations, becoming one of the most traveled members of a very elite group of human beings. And he manages to do all this despite being a Canadian, that is to say, without being an American citizen, which status, though not mandatory, would seem to offer an advantage at all events. And Hadfield doesn’t just succeed in the astronaut corps to operate the famous Canadaarm on the shuttle, or to play his now YouTube famous guitar rendition of David Bowie. Indeed, he never does interact with that piece of shuttle equipment, though he references it several times, and the guitar recital morphs into a plaudit for his son, the younger Hadfield apparently a tech geek who puts the music piece together, as dear old dad loops around the planet.
Hadfield’s attempt at space-writing as literature doesn’t quite rise to astronomical heights, yet as he writes over and over, it’s the attempt that often makes the difference, so he maintains his effort at a magisterial style throughout. His descriptions do lend a degree of inspiration to the work, and he is on every page a cheerleader for human space exploration, calling for bold efforts at attaining Mars and other possible space goals. His self-deprecating humor and dismissal of heroics are admirable, as they reinforce a main point of his work: that all space travel and research is highly collaborative and not given to individual honorific. He places special emphasis on the mentality of safety in space travel, the necessity to ‘sweat the small stuff,’ as he says, because astronauts must always be ‘looking for the next thing that will kill them’. Hyperbole aside, for the other seven billion plus of us humans who have no plans, intentions or hopes of traveling in space, Hadfield’s advice translates reasonably well to earth-bound efforts to make life happier and better, thus the subtitle of the book, ‘What going to space taught me about ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything. Indeed, Hadfield relates a number of seeming setbacks that turn out to be silver linings in disguise, and his recognition of those events never seems contrived, but honest, and real.
The writing is observant of those Earthlings Hadfield was forced to ignore on his scaling of the astronaut ladder, his devoted spouse Helene, his children and friends who helped him along the way. All in all, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth is a worthy title in the growing collection of spacefaring literature from an astronaut/author who has the bona fides to travel in space and also to write about it.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Chasing DaylightChasing Daylight by Gene O'Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a how-to book on dying. Mr. O’Kelly, who passed away in September 2005, has written down his précis on the art of leaving this mortal coil with dignity, with loose ends tied up and with attention paid to the things that really matter. O’Kelly, late CEO of accounting firm KPMG, matched his writing style with his corporate behavior. Like we’d expect the head of a 20,000 employee corporation to do, in his book on the final passage O’Kelly took charge of details, had a voracious appetite for information and metrics and worried about running out of time, even while trying to convince himself not to worry about anything and let go.
There is much to agree with in Chasing Daylight, a 175 page itemized list of instructions to the dying: how to accept a terminal diagnosis with grace and a certain amount of ease, how to stop looking backward when that never helps, how to determine the value of time spent and with whom, how to find ‘the perfect moment—hour—day—week’ which O’Kelly claims is the ultimate goal that any terminal human, in other words every one of us, ought to have, selecting the events and shared happiness with those we love and admire in order to not waste a precious moment.
O’Kelly claims that his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer was ‘a gift,’ that knowing the timeline of his remaining life forced him to focus on what mattered most. For the most part he seemed to have adhered to that statement and that plan. He maps out a precise checklist for ‘Chasing Daylight,’ so he could optimize every aspect of his days until the very short string of his truncated life ran out. (He died at age 53). With golf as metaphor throughout the book, O’Kelly shows how any of us may prioritize our passing and arrive at death by making the best shots we can, playing life’s fairway instead of its rough and playing through with head held high.
Certain parts of the book seemed to stretch the primary hypothesis a bit, and O’Kelly had his share of lapsed moments, as when he abandoned his previous resignation and promised a trip to Prague to his young daughter. Also, he never mentions authors, of similar books, writers and experts such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Roshi Joan Halifax or Ira Byock. The author’s lack of reference to those experts seemed purposeful, as if his path was the one he chose, and that path was available for others only if they wished. And that sentiment does come across, as O’Kelly refuses to preach or disparage other paths.
All in all, Chasing Daylight is a moving book about one man’s death and how he filled that signal event of his life with purpose, ‘good goodbyes,’ happy memories and easy transitions for his friends and family. The finale of the book was written by Corrine, the author’s spouse, and this, too is a fine and expected conclusion to a story filled with dignity and high expectation. For anyone facing a terminal condition—in other words all of us—Chasing Daylight contains words of profound wisdom.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Legends Can Be Murder (Charlie Parker Mysteries Book 15)Legends Can Be Murder by Connie Shelton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have the fifteenth book in the Charlie Parker mystery series, by writer Connie Shelton. In this tale, Charlie and husband Drake have taken a temporary assignment in Skagway Alaska to fly tourists to mountain cabins, and resupply those modern day gold diggers during their weeklong adventure. In no time at all a family discovers not one but two dead bodies in a cave adjacent to their cabin. The discovery turns Charlie and Drake’s sedate, working vacation helicopter assignment into something Charlie Parker knows even better than aviation: a murder case, and it’s circuitous resolution. In this case, the solution takes Charlie back through time, even to the gold rush of 1898 when a certain Joshua Farmer allegedly ‘discovered’ gold, and then inextricably vanished. Farmer’s disappearance in the late nineteenth century is just one mystery wrapped inside another mystery in this well crafted book. Another is the fact that the second body appears to be of much more recent vintage, from around 1975.
Shelton has really come into her own here. With masterful flashbacks, interwoven plot lines and fine use of characterizations, she’s wrought an intriguing and fast-paced murder tale that changes directions, twists into blind alleys and back again faster than miners in a cave. The voices are constant throughout, characters true to their inflections, clues and leads hang together and overall the story is well presented and rewarding. It’s obvious that Shelton has done her homework, as the names, dates, historical references and technical details make sense and fit. Even the atmosphere of Skagway Alaska comes across as chilly and forbidding, yet warm in human terms, and suffused with a certain charm that makes readers want to visit.
By way of disclaimer, this reviewer is a former helicopter pilot by trade, so some of the critiques are based on that. There are references to flying that might have garnered more attention, such as the effect of weather in that part of the world, and the actual operation, loading, handling and delicacy of the machines, but those are items common readers don’t need for the story to work. The romance between Chuey and Mina could have been explored a bit more, and Gerta’s lack of recall about Mike Ratcliff was a stretch,(especially considering their lusty romp) but that’s small potatoes. Drake and Charlie locate a gold horde in an unstable cave, and the collapse is a bit predictable, but the crisis is well presented and believable.
All in all, Legends Can Be Murder may well be Connie Shelton’s best effort yet. Readers of the Charlie Parker mystery series will find this book very rewarding.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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The Self-Publishing HandbookThe Self-Publishing Handbook by Brad Pauquette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a guide that happens to be a great how-to roadmap anyone can use if they're inclined toward let's call it 'non-traditional' publishing. Brad Pauquette is director/founder of the Columbus (Ohio) Creative Cooperative, and his knowledge of the publishing industry and its quirks, necessities and pitfalls is deep. It's indeed what prompted him to compile this well formatted, sensible, informative and well written guide on how to navigate the sometimes tangled and confusing universe of self-publishing. Pauquette is an author himself, with previous works such as 'Sejal: The Walk for Water,' 'Origins: An Anthology' and 'Overgrown: Tales of the Unexpected.' He has also collaborated with CCC authors on 'Triskaidekan: 13 Stories for 2013' and 'Across Town: Stories of Columbus.'
Full of valuable tips, and crafted with a logical, step-by-step format 'The Self-Publishing Handbook: Five Key Steps to Professionally Publish Your Book' breaks the self-publishing process down into five sections. It doesn't go off in the weeds like a lot of these guides do, but sticks to the basics. That said, the guide doesn't insult a writer's intelligence, either, but offers advice that every author must have before engaging the current book writing/marketing/promotional trade.
The guide covers such important fare as the acquisition of ASIN numbers, ISBNs, LCCNs, ASINs etc. It addresses formatting, and the speed bumps that authors of E-books find going from one platform to another. One area Pauquette's guide covers better than most, the business side of scribbling and selling books in the current environment. Yes, writing is a business, regardless of an author's belief in their (our) own lofty purposes in writing. The Self-Publishing Handbook tells it like it is; there's no hype or false pretense about the literary marketplace, but good, solid numbers any author must be familiar with regardless of their expectations. It covers costs, timelines, discounting, types of sales and their expected (projected?) outcomes. Unless one's name happens to be Grisham, Gladwell or Gillian Flynn, lowered expectations are a good thing among self-pubbed authors, and the guide states that out front. Read the numbers, and go from there.
That said, I would like to have seen a bit more about the artistic, right-brain part of the writer's craft, a nod to the creative vapors that every author breathes. Why do people write? What is Pauquette's experience working with writers? What are his projections about the industry? And what should authors expect of publishers, and publisher's of an author? For example, should a designer offer to read 25% or the first fifty pages of a book prior to creating cover art? Who does what, and for how long? What do a lot of self-pubbed authors take for granted that they should not?
'The Self-Publishing Handbook: Five Key Steps to Professionally Publish Your Book' is a handy, well crafted roadmap about getting your own self-published book out there and avoiding a lot of the headaches that other authors encounter.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It HappenedOn Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened by Lori Schafer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have an extended essay/memoir on surviving a parent’s psychosis, inventing a life and then learning of the death of the long-forgotten parent many years after her passing. It’s much too easy to compare such works as Ms Shafer’s to other neglected childhood fare: Jeannette Walls ‘Glass Castle,’ Christina Crawford’s ‘Mommy Dearest’ etc. Too easy, because the parents in those memoirs cannot be easily forgiven; they can only be easily explained. Their cruelty stems from ambition, neglect, the depredations of poor parenting skills. Ms Shafer’s mother, on the other hand, offers a much more subtle, we might say inexplicable source of her wanton neglect and cruel treatment: mental illness and its untreated ravages.
Lori Shafer is an accomplished writer at the apex of her craft. Her images and reflections shimmer on the page: “grilled cheese and tomato…butter-brown bread…’ including good alliteration and excellent use of sentence length variation, she keeps readers moving forward. “The sidewalks were empty. I was empty.” Beautiful stuff.
Transitions are well done, despite many flashbacks and oblique references. Only one time, at an end chapter, and a reference to ‘Lila’ did this reviewer lose the thread, but then it picked up again.
Shafer’s use of a fictional device inside her memoir is very well done. She writes as ‘Gloria,’ to explain the horrors of a childhood in crisis, while giving herself a bit of remove as the writer. It’s an excellent device, and it works very well. It’s also entirely understandable. Much like any child will have an invisible friend, or a security blanket, Shafer has Gloria.
The writer’s voice stays consistent throughout, shifting with subtlety between the teenage, angst-ridden Lori and the determined older Lori living in a car in Berkeley and making her own way. “I was learning,” she writes, scraping for bottles and cans in Berkeley “…like the poor man’s Santa Claus.”
There are a few loose threads: We’re never told what happened to ‘Sandra Johnson.’ Indeed, none of the siblings’ lives are explained. There’s a reference to Shafer’s own concern about being poisoned, a thinly-veiled worry that she might have acquired her mother’s mental illness, but this is not addressed or enlarged. We don’t hear about mom’s own family history, or what may have contributed to her instability, only that ‘Judy Green-Hair’ is a serial marrier. Just open a vein, as they say; readers want more details.
Indeed, one critique of this memoir may be that it’s too darned short, that readers want to know much more about who this writer is: how did that young woman survive all she did? What resources did she uncover in herself? How’s she doing now? Has she finally found ‘a safe place?’
Wordsworth wrote, ‘…the child is father to the man,’ and we must assume he meant mother to the woman as well. If so, at the end of her fine memoir, Lori Shafer pays tribute to that young mother of herself. This is a good, fulfilling memoir. I just wish it was longer, darn it. Four stars, only because it’s too short.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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The Unheralded King of Preston Plains MiddleThe Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle by Jedah Mayberry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a growing up tale of two brothers whose lives take very different paths. When one dies, the other loses sight of who he is, becoming defined through the book by what his dead brother might have been. ‘Langston’ is the older brother of ‘Trajan.’ Langston is also Trajan’s idol, “…my whole world,” the younger Hopkins boy says at one point. The older boy also seems to be the title character, though that assignation could be given to other roles in the book, as we shall see.
Langston, who as the author states “…entered the world fists balled” receives a debilitating head injury in a fight with school rival named Albert, the brother of Langston’s love interest, Angelica. After the fight and the head injury, Langston is left with a seizure disorder. He struggles to find his way, loses Angelica, cannot find a life purpose and lands in police custody. When he dies of a seizure under the stress of being arrested—on spurious charges it must be said—younger brother Trajan is bereft.
So is Langston’s mother Dottie, father Chester and grandfather Tuke. But it is Trajan who must now define himself without the role model he once had. Trajan’s father, Chester, leaves the family, mother Dottie retires to her bedroom, becoming a recluse and Trajan is left, at a young age, to strike out on his own.
Trajan maneuvers through school activities, a responsible work assignment, casual female friendships and sports. He falls in with a woman who idolized Langston, and who was a one time teacher to both Hopkins boys. Mrs. Quigley and Trajan become lovers, and the clandestine relationship ushers Trajan into adulthood in more ways than one.
returning home from the Quigley house through a snowstorm, Trajan stumbles upon a murder scene, in which a man is dead and a woman survives. The crime is the work of Luscious, a local drug kingpin. For inadvertently covering the criminal’s tracks in the snow, Luscious delivers Trajan home. The encounter sets up the climax of the book.
Mr. Mayberry has told quite a story here, a tale that barely masks itself as autobiography, it appears, but in a fictional way. This reader found not one typo, and the work is syntactically excellent and well edited. The writing is quite beautiful. For example: discussing the loss of Langston, Angelica was, “…losing him in a trillion tiny pieces, grains of him sliding past her with magnificent force.” Instead of birds and bees, Trajan learns about, “…butterflies and ladybugs.” Raucous music on a dance floor is like “…that of cats being pushed from high places.” A jock that Angelica clings to is, according to Trajan, “…a muscle on skates.”
However, the story contains so many subplots and peripheral themes it is almost unwieldy.
Indeed, that’s one of its only shortcomings. It’s a good tale, all in all, but the numerous trajectories and character detours subtract from an otherwise fine story. Is it necessary to include the Sessions family history? All the native American background? The Took family’s extensive history for that matter? Also, considering the subject matter, the emotional level seems a bit temperate. We don’t see Dottie’s grief when her older son dies, we only hear of it. We don’t feel the tension when Trajan and Mrs. Quigley are nearly discovered in their tryst. We sense the conflict when Luscious and EZ confront each other at the end, when Trajan is in jeopardy as well, but we don’t see it, don’t smell it, or feel it.
In the end, it is Trajan, the young man who survives the loss of his big brother, the depredations of a drug lord and the absence of a mother or father figure in a hostile world who is the true Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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War Is a Force That Gives Us MeaningWar Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a truly disturbing book about war, and human attraction to it. This book is not for the faint of heart. It’s for those who place any value on humanity, if for no other reason than to affirm why we hold those values so close, and what the alternative might mean if we allow them to unravel. Tennyson refers to ‘…nature, red in tooth and claw,’ and anyone reading Hedges’ book will find confirmation of that in ‘human’ nature. After a career in journalism, which involved intimate contact with war all over the globe, Chris Hedges has seen human depravity up close and personal. Hedges has been shot at, kidnapped, beaten and harassed for his coverage of war in many different and far-flung venues.
The book meanders a bit, roaming from one battleground to the next in order to make its point that war is indeed an addiction to us humans. From Kosova, to North Ireland, to Gaza and San Salvador, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and assorted other geographies of human conflict, Hedges takes readers inside the machine of warfare, showing readers why each conflict is ongoing, the history, cultural ingredient, religious and even linguistic determinants of each eruption.
Indeed, the religious factors of war appear to be Hedges’ only blind spot in this otherwise comprehensive book. Yes, there is mention of the religious sensibilities of certain combatants, the Muslims of Kosova and Gaza, the Judaism of Israelis, Catholic Vs Protestants in Derry. But Hedges seems to actively avoid linking religion to any of the eruptive tensions that have ripped societies apart. This is a shame. Viewing human history over the previous hundreds of years reveals religion as a primary cause of many wars and continuing conflicts. It seems to this reader that a journalist has an obligation to explore that aspect in any discussion of human activity involving mass killing. One hopes Mr. Hedges’ training as a divinity student has not interfered with his duty as a journalist in this regard.
All in all a disturbing yet oddly hopeful book insofar as it reveals truth. Truth, that is, about an aspect of human nature that is ingrained, durable, attractive and seemingly addictive. The rush to comfort and include each other when war descends on a community appears to be as natural as breathing. As the the title suggest, war does indeed give us meaning. Sad but true.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life


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Luano's Luckiest DayLuano's Luckiest Day by Chaunce Stanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a tale of a boy’s search for his mother, an uncle’s terrible secret, a love story between two mismatched but passionate people, a town’s missing church bells, honey tomatoes and...spiders. (Arachnophobes beware.)
Luano lives with Uncle Tabula. He helps in the Uncle’s shop, pines for Shelita Maria his mother and collects...spiders. Or do they collect him? Oh what a web we weave, as the saying goes, and Chaunce Stanton has woven a fine tale full of colorful people in a dusty, somewhere out there desert town where characters climb a web of lies that holds many of them together, and keeps many more apart. The youngster, Luano, with his pals Pietro and Pedro—two durable friends throughout the book—roam together doing boy stuff, playing in the street, visiting watering holes and sharing secrets, except when Luano veers off in search of his mother. Shelita Maria is hiding in plain sight, and her presence is concealed in spiderly fashion by the author, until she appears in front of her son. Woven in with the terrible secret are several sub-themes, including the depredations of an evil landlord, Tabula’s war injury and debility, ghosts in the town cemetery and more. Readers might get the idea that Luano’s Luckiest Day contains topics hidden in the web of its text to be revealed only after a second reading.
Like all of this author’s writing, the story is rich in imagery, delicately woven—yes, like a spider web—and very well told. Its surreal quality will appeal to readers who value fantasy fiction. In the intro, Stanton says the idea came to him in a dream, and it reads as if he didn’t wake up.
The interaction between Luano and Shelita Maria seemed a bit undeveloped, (The Black Widow theme?) and the turn may have been foreshadowed perhaps a bit too well. The ‘Luckiest Day’ needs more emphasis, or perhaps better definition. Nublado needs to be softened a bit, as he’s too evil by half. I read the digital version, and there are a few formatting and typographical errors, but very few. One necessity of any story is to give readers a character to cheer for, and Stanton has given us Luano. A well crafted, highly readable book by a master storyteller.
Byron Edgington, author of SkyWriting: Essays on the Art and Craft of Aviation Vol. #1

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There I Wuz! Adventures from 3 Decades in the Sky: Volume 1There I Wuz! Adventures from 3 Decades in the Sky: Volume 1 by Eric Auxier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of flying tales compiled by a fellow who says of himself that he’s, ‘a pilot by day, writer by night, kid by choice.’ This book proves the assertion on all counts. Not only does it contain flying stories by various aviator/writers that will prove the authors’ creds as pilots, they’ll curl the hair on your neck like a good late-night, Stephen-King-ish mystery, while solidifying the common belief that all pilots are just big kids in charge of very costly toys that leave the ground and (most often but not always) return to the earth again in usable condition.
Auxier is a left-seater, a Captain for ‘a major U.S. airline.’ The author’s other work includes two previous books: The Last Bush Pilots, and Code Name Dodger. This collection of tales from the cockpit includes gems with titles taken from pop culture: ‘Denali Mountain High’; ‘Zen and the Art of Aircraft Maintenance’; ‘The Loon is a Harsh Mistress,’ you get the idea. These are satisfying, instructive, often inspiring tales, all with an undercurrent of some kind. Most of the time that subtle theme lurking below the text concerns the vagaries of the aviation game, not the dangers of it that the public focuses on but the ‘flyin’ biz’ chatter that only a pilot can relate to, but the public ‘inquiring minds’ love to know. Indeed, one of the most telling essays in the book is titled ‘Top 10 downers of an airline pilot career.’ As a former commercial pilot, I found myself nodding in full agreement at all ten, from the restrictions to family time, to subsistence pay, to the reality of commercial aviation’s utter lack of job security. Yet, at the end of this particular piece, the childlike wonder remerges. Auxier—speaking for all pilots, at all times, everywhere—writes at the books beginning, “Ask any pilot how they started flying and you’ll hear a love story” and then he returns to this sentiment after itemizing ten reasons he hates it, with this: “You’re sitting in a chair...in the sky! And getting paid for it!”
The writing is strong, with many of the pieces taken from capnaux.com, Auxier’s flying blog, and articles of his written for NYCAviation.com and Airways Magazine. Some of the pieces in There I Wuz! lack any real flying advice and/or narrative, though the context is flying life and its blandishments. Certain essays reinforce certain stereotypes of pilots in various occupations who, it appears, have earned their reputations quite honestly. Alaskan bush pilots, for example, take chances and flout regulations that can only be read with a degree of awe that those pilots fly as they do, and live to retirement age, despite the exploits depicted herein.
All in all a fun, satisfying grouping of tales from the cockpit, some riveting—like Auxier’s own about the carriage home of a fallen hero—to the mundane if still enjoyable ‘Inflight Undercover Sting Op,’ by Brent Owens. If you like short, engaging flying tales, and enjoy reading insights and the human side of technical careers, you’ll like There I Wuz!
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life


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From Tragedy To Triumph: The Story of John TartaglioFrom Tragedy To Triumph: The Story of John Tartaglio by John Tartaglio
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a co-written account of one man’s tragic affliction, a bacterial infection that took both his legs, and that man’s eventual triumph far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in his care.
In 2004, at age 17, John Tartaglio had to have both his legs amputated at the hip, when necrotizing fasciitis invaded his body. Tartaglio also lost part of a bicep, the ability to walk, and his easy, carefree life. What he didn’t lose—indeed, what he found—was an astonishing reserve of determination and drive, a deep well of burning ambition that allowed him to not only walk and even run, but to participate in 5K, 10K, Ironman and Triathlon events. The apex of Tartaglio’s drive took him to the 2009 New York City Marathon, in which, after 13 grueling hours, he became the first ‘bilateral hip disarticulate’ person ever to finish.
Written in linear fashion, this ghostwritten account of Tartaglio’s ordeal traces his background as a typical, awkward teen in High School, to the onset of his illness when one diagnosis after another failed to reveal what his condition was, through the double amputation and on to the contact and interaction Tartaglio had with numerous physicians, nurses, technicians and prosthetists who worked to give him back his life. The undercurrent of the work is the attitude of determination Tartaglio brought to the table. It’s clear, from the text, choice of goals, refusal to discuss failure and the dismissal of suggestions that he had proven himself enough that John Tartaglio faced limited choices, and chose to expand them.
Co-authored by Andrew Chapin, the book’s writing is like a conversation, as if Tartaglio is dictating the words as he propels himself along on tailored prostheses during a long, cross-country race. Breathless and almost strident at times, the writing makes it clear that Tartaglio lunges at life, his early tragedy nipping at his heels. Readers must keep in mind that John Tartaglio is no Oscar Pistorius, another athlete who ran on artificial limbs. Not to take away from Mr. Pistorius, but he didn’t lose his lower legs at age 17; he lost them at age 11 months, and didn’t have to adapt—from the hips down—as Tartaglio did. Whole other deal, from a physical, emotional and prosthetic standpoint.
That said, the writing suffers a bit from passive constructions, and the use of ‘to be’ verbs instead of more active ones. For example, “Hours passed in that hospital bed…” “My world was unfolding…” There are a few misplaced modifiers: “Caught in a riptide-like fury, there was a frenzy of activity going on around me.” When Tartaglio signs up for the ASPIRE event, and fails due to a wrong turn in the race, the event marks a turning point in his ambition as well. There could have been more drama, more human emotion attached to that nexus of the work. The ASPIRE failure is arguably what propels Tartaglio to enter the New York City Marathon, the 26.2 miles that prove he’s conquered the tragedy that could have killed him.
All in all a deeply moving account of human endurance, perseverance in the face of crushing tragedy and a heartwarming motivational text. It’s also a love story, which item could (should?) have driven more of the book. Perhaps a sequel? In any case, for those who enjoy lemons into lemonade stories, works such as Richard Hoffman’s 'Half the House,' 'A Match to the Heart' by Gretel Ehrlich or Lucy Grealy’s 'Autobiography of a Face,' will get a lot of pleasure from reading Tartaglio/Chapin’s account of a comeback story almost beyond belief.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel TodayFull Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today by Mark Gerchick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have an expose’ of sorts, a book jam packed with uncomfortable yet strangely soothing truths about today’s air travel industry. Gerchick is a former FAA chief counsel and senior aviation policy official. With his credentials, he’s optimally qualified to write about a business that affects nearly a billion air passengers every year, a number that’s growing all the time. As a former commercial pilot, I can sympathize with certain aspects of the dilemma the airline industry faces: increasing passenger loads of travelers shopping around on-line; ever more expensive aircraft and servicing equipment; totally random fuel costs; cutthroat competition for every seat and customers convinced—with good reason—that airlines are in a race to the bottom for services, and not to enhance their customers’ experience. If a reader wonders why airline service seems like it’s shrunk of late, that customers—‘self-loading cargo,’ as industry wags have it—why that service seems so threadbare, that’s because it is. Long TSA lines, bare-feet and empty pockets, body scans, herding onto the plane, a handful of peanuts and maybe, perhaps, possibly if we have time a soda? It’s the new normal; get used to it, or take the train, as Gerchick claims. As for on-time arrivals? Good concept. Here’s what the FAA says: “Time to spare? Go by air.”
The soothing part? Commercial aviation has never been safer. Despite recent accidents (one of which, Malaysian flight 17, shot down by a Russian missile was no accident) the possibility of dying in an airline accident is infinitesimal. We’re a lot more likely to die getting hit by lightning.
According to Ask.com, which may or may not be a credible source, nearly 3 million people take to the skies every day worldwide. Somewhere on earth, a Boeing aircraft lands or takes off every 2 seconds. And that’s just one manufacturer. The upshot of all this takeoff and landing data is, of course, that many airplanes chasing every dollar, ruble, yen, rial, Euro and baht there is to gather, with an increasing disregard for those who hand over that money. Gerchick goes into detail about how airlines package their product, dispense it to the public and advertise it. That product, of course, being a seat on an airplane going from point A to point B, at a certain time, on a given day. Those seats are the most ephemeral commodity there is. If they remain empty, that ‘product’ can never be sold again. This book explains why airlines try every angle to sell those seats, even when it means fare schedules that make no sense, routings that make less sense and the diversity of charges often rendering every seat on the airplane with a different cost. Gerchick approaches his subject from a lawyerly standpoint—he is an attorney, after all—but his understanding of airline amortization and operation is thorough and balanced. Though he appears to be adversarial to the airlines at times, as a non-fiction author he merely relates what is, in fact, true, that today’s airline business, especially since 9/11, and the terrible beating the business took in 2008, demands that airlines scrap for every nickel.
This reviewer would like to have had more about individuals at the reins of the commercial aviation juggernaut, managers at airlines, tech reps from plane and engine OEMs, FAA personnel and NTSB reps, even a pilot/flight attendant perspective, but this is not that kind of book. This is a book for the road warrior/family traveler/once a year participant, the customer the airlines seem these days to take for granted, and for whom they make all those takeoffs and landings. If you’ve read and related to Attention All Passengers, or Cockpit Confidential, you’ll enjoy every page of this book. And you may take the train to that convention in Orlando. By the way, if you’re a pilot/customer? Keep it to yourself; cockpit crews get a real chuckle at your offer to ‘help if...you know...anything happens.” They just laugh, and laugh...
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Sweet Somethings (Samantha Sweet Mysteries Book 9)Sweet Somethings by Connie Shelton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have the ninth installment of Connie Shelton’s Samantha Sweet series. This book revolves around a Taos dessert and confection festival titled Sweet Somethings. In standard Shelton fashion, the event is overshadowed by a murder, in this case the killing of one of the more colorful and irritating characters in the book. Carinda Carter—a kind of Jekyll & Heidi woman— gets on everyone’s last nerve. Indeed, during her tenure as event coordinator and wearer of several hats—some of which are not her own—Ms Carter not only makes several enemies, she manages the seemingly impossible feat of turning Sweet Somethings into sour grapes, getting herself put on ice in the process. A mysterious box reappears in Sam’s life, a talismanic item that, like the chocolates on display at the festival, attracts intensely curious researchers willing to do almost anything in their hunger to solve its delectable secrets. This Dan Brown-ish device is not new, but a reappearance from previous books.
Shelton’s novels tend to be character driven, and Sweet Somethings is no exception. Carinda, Beau, Sam, daughter Kelly, Danielle and Farrel the fighting dessert purveyors, Isobel, Sarah and alleged nephew Marcus, all these folks enter and depart the various chapters, each leaving the reader wondering if they’re ‘the one.’ Without giving away the true culprits (s), suffice to say that, also like Shelton’s previous works, we never see it coming. “Lightning strikes once; makes three.” The code phrase is given to Sam, and when she hears it again, the resolution is near. Ms Carter, it turns out, is the heiress of a fortune almost sickening sweet in its dollar amount, thus a motive arises for her murder.
The writing is very strong, if a bit formulaic. Characters are developed well, and we can almost smell and taste the delicious, tangy, aromatic delights arrayed on event tables and in various display booths. In one of the more telling phrases, Shelton takes a swipe at her own profession when a character sees a plot line in a tragic outcome. “Writers,” he says. “Sheesh!”
Readers must suspend disbelief a bit. Nothing unusual there. This is fiction, after all. For one thing, husband Beau reveals details about Kaycee Archer, a suspect, not likely something a cop would divulge. It isn’t likely, either, that an event would proceed without a ripple when a brutal murder has happened right outside the door. Shelton likely has a command of Spanish, and her writing demonstrates that, but typical readers won’t be familiar with, for example, caranduera and abuela, terms which were not explained for us gringos. Another nit-picky item: even today fifty billion (with a ‘B’) dollars seems an excessive estate, especially arising as the inheritance supposedly did from an aviation concern, as Shelton likely appreciates.
As one reviewer writes, ‘Connie Shelton gets better with every book.’ Sweet Somethings is proof of that, and the proof is, of course, in the pudding. One last thing: this reviewer accessed the digital book, but it might have been a wonderful addition to read some of those scrumptious dessert recipes. Icing on the cake, one might say.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Elusive Little Sucker - My Entirely Too Long and Totally Circuitous Search for HappinessElusive Little Sucker - My Entirely Too Long and Totally Circuitous Search for Happiness by Anne Riley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a short but funny, insightful, trenchant memoir type anecdotally oriented travelogue-ish book that masquerades as a guide to happiness. Anne Riley is a funny, mischievous writer in the Erma Bombeck mode, a storyteller who reminds readers that even at a mere 130 pages, a book can be worth the effort, and very satisfying. Elusive Little Sucker is the nickname Riley attaches to happiness itself, as in, it took me a looooooong time to find the ELS. Riley grew up a Catholic kid, tenth of eleven, and her family position informs the writing. By way of disclosure, this reviewer was second of ten, so if my experience is any guide, Riley’s writing obsession likely stems from her spot on the family roster, and the attendant necessity to write, since speaking proved to be much too difficult in a sea of humanity. The religious sensibility implied adds an element of drive to the book as well. Riley grew up Roman Catholic— duh — and that background is what propels her from one career roller coaster after another. Good old Catholic guilt demands that she prove herself ‘worthy,’ whatever that means, in whatever endeavor she tackles.
The book is a bit short on plot, but that’s okay, since the very effort of finding happiness seems to be the goal. The writing is crisp, technically sound and engaging. Riley has a way of capturing readers’ imaginations, and leading them along, like the adventures she engaged in on the Sandhills as a child, stories and anecdotes flowing into one another seamlessly. Reading Riley’s prose is like listening to her talk, or at least it seems so.
Aside from a pretty rounded description of husband Tim, there’s little about Riley’s family in the book, even though she claims her kids and household are in fact the focus of her life. The aphoristic tidbits that cap each chapter seem a bit cutesy and redundant, but the self-help totems that litter other books grant Riley a pass for hers. If there’s one criticism to be found, it’s simply that the book is much too short. Riley’s writing is too good, her voice and quirky style too fresh and unique to limit the writing to such a short work.
All in all a fun, brave book about a woman who grew up in a demanding home, knowing success was out there but struggling to find it, then realizing success was not what she’d heard or thought and grasping what it is, however elusive that little sucker turned out to be. It’s not Lean In, perhaps more Lean Over and grab what’s right in front of you. Readers who enjoy recovering Catholic memoir or any kind of big family from hell, growing up surrounded by other flawed humans books, will enjoy Elusive Little Sucker.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life


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Neil Armstrong: A Life of FlightNeil Armstrong: A Life of Flight by Jay Barbree
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a biography of the first human being to step onto another celestial body. This bio of Neil Armstrong arrives on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, which Armstrong commanded. Barbree was (and is) a correspondent for NBC TV, NBCnews.com and and a co-writer with Armstrong, Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard of the New York Times bestseller Moon Shot. Avoiding the standard cradle to grave timeline, Barbree’s book covers Armstrong’s aviation career, beginning with his posting to Korea, where the young “...rare bird, a midshipman with wings” flew the F-9F Panther from the carrier Essex to engage targets in North Korea. In an incident that foreshadows much about Armstrong’s flying career, one mission found the twenty-one year old pilot fighting to control his aircraft after losing a good portion of a wing. Armstrong wrestled his Panther back over friendly territory, finally ejecting from the plane into a rice paddy. It would not be the last time Neil Armstrong wrestled an aircraft into submission and saved his own hide in the process. As Barbree writes it, Neil Armstrong learned to be the consummate aviator largely by his exposure to the vicissitudes of flight, meeting those challenges and thus learning the poise and self-confidence the lessons provided. That poise served him well, saving his life during the Gemini 8 mission with Dave Scott, when their Gemini capsule tumbled out of control on orbit, and again during a similar scenario while flying the LLTV ‘Flying Bedstead’ moon-lander simulator. Those previous encounters with near disaster gave Armstrong the calm and focus needed to maneuver to a suitable landing spot on the Sea of Tranquility with mere seconds of fuel remaining on July 20th 1969.
As Barbree also explains, those lessons also gave Neil Armstrong a healthy dose of reserve when faced with the fame and media glare following the Apollo 11 mission. Barbree is at his best explaining his subject’s allergy to the blandishments of fame, and the cultural demands of self-promotion. Armstrong shunned the limelight, rejecting any and all efforts to cash in on his Apollo acquired cachet. As the author writes, there would be “…..no Armstrong moon-burgers.” In essence, Neil Armstrong was a modern day Cincinnatus, conquering possibly mankind’s greatest adversary the overwhelming vastness of space, then retiring to a life of obscurity in, where else, Cincinnati Ohio.
Jay Barbree is a writer, but he’s also a journalist and the writing reflects that avocation. It is often terse, scripted and a bit exclamatory for affect, almost headline-ish. “It did!” It follows the inverted pyramid style good journalists often use, and the book provides unique insights to Neil Armstrong’s life unavailable to other writers. As any good journalistic endeavor should, for open minded readers at least, it also debunks certain myths that have arisen concerning its subject. For one example, the still extant, and seemingly indelible despite being idiotic myth that the moon landings were faked. Barbree also puts to rest a long-standing Neil Armstrong myth that has him wishing a certain ‘Mr. Gorsky’ good luck with his sex life as he reenters the LM.
All things considered, Barbree’s book is a great bio of Neil Armstrong, the late commander of humankind’s first ever mission to contact another celestial body. It humanizes a man who found himself at the center of the greatest adventure in human history, yet refused to take personal applause or gain from that effort. In a culture awash with strident self-promotion, we might all learn a lesson from Armstrong’s life, as we wrestle with our own out of control craft.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Hangar FlyingHangar Flying by Alfred J. D'Amario
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of flying tales from a long-time Air Force pilot whose career spanned the post WW2 era, the conflict in Korea, where he flew a fighter jet, and where many of these tales take place and through the cold war. A retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, ‘Joe’ D’Amario writes his adventure tales with the panache of a memoirist, and with the precision of the fighter pilot that he once was.
'Hangar Flying' is pretty standard American boy sees airplane and dreams of flying stuff. Born in 1930, D’Amario’s dream is to enter the Army Air Corps. His wish is not fulfilled, but only because that Corps becomes the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Joe’s entry into flight school, his solo, taking ‘The Yellow Peril’ T-6 Texan flight trainer into the skies, and indeed all his subsequent tales from the cockpit will satisfy the most exacting reader of aviation non-fiction. D’Amario delivers his stories in the easy to read fashion of a good yarn-spinner, but without the usual bravado and opaque jargon usually associated with military missives.
Some of the stories border on the fantastic. His ‘Right, left, left again’ focuses on the aviator’s sixth sense, and how it delivers them from evil, or even antiaircraft fire. In his fantastical story ‘A Strnge Fuel Emergency.’ (Typo noted) the author explains how in Korea he was forced to fire his sidearm at his own external fuel tank to drain its gas, so he could land his F-80 Shooting Star. In Requiem for Triple Nickel, he fulfills every pilot’s obligation of mourning a favorite airplane. D’Amario’s career was not without blemish or tragedy. As a crewmember on a B-52, flying a so called ‘Chrome Dome’ mission in 1952, D’Amario’s plane caught fire, forcing the crew to eject over frozen Greenland. One of the crew died in the incident, and that tale, coming toward the end of 'Hangar Flying,' pretty much concludes the book.
'Hangar Flying' is a very enjoyable read, regardless of one’s affiliation with aviation, or lack of it. Indeed, it’s a rare inside look at the missions that took place, and the people who flew them, during a time in world history when no massive wars raged, only small, but very critical ones, conflicts that produced a buildup of arms and forces that quite possibly kept the big wars at bay. Those times also produced much of the aviation hardware and know-how that drives modern commercial aviation. It also produced fine aviation personnel, some of whom, like Joe D’Amario, returned from the skies with some gripping, informative, fun and satisfying 'Hangar Flying' to write about. Read Joe D’Amario’s 'Hangar Flying,' and you’ll feel one man’s passion for aviation, and his gratitude at a dream fulfilled.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Anatomy of a PoetAnatomy of a Poet by C.J. Heck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of poems by a woman who writes from the heart, a once wounded, recovered, then possibly wounded once more heart. A woman who seems to have found inner peace after much tragedy and soul searching. Disclaimer #1: This reviewer has not written a previous poetic review. Disclaimer #2: This reviewer is a Vietnam veteran, and the war in SE Asia figures in this collection rather prominently.
CJ Heck may be fond of children’s books. Indeed, her mantra could well be that children are speakers of truth. Her poetry reflects this view. It is often painfully expository, almost unashamed in its revelation and language. Heck’s poems travel the range of human emotion and lifespan, sometimes in a single poem, such as in ‘Little People,’ which explores the spattery messiness of childhood, and the ache of a grandparent to have that mess back again. Some of the work leaves little to the adult readers’ imagination: “Breathless loving in between, was breathless at its best.” Some of the works evoke past pain that lingers: ‘Taps for My Soldier’ is one such, an elegiac poem to the author’s dead husband. “A lone bugle taps, twenty-four notes.” Readers will see that white-gloved bugler sending his shivery taps, “Each note slow as a tear.”
Much of the work may benefit from just the childlike imprecision that Heck revels in. That is, many poems in the collection strain a bit for a rhyme scheme. ‘Secret Room’ is one example, going from ABAB to ABCA, than finishing with a third stanza of ABCD. Indeed, many of the better poems are stronger and better rendered in free verse. ‘Adonis in Passing’ is one such poem that shines just the way it’s written. Even the ellipsis in line 16 seems perfectly placed. “But give me ten more years…”
Personal ratings: #1 would have to be ‘The Song,’ a beautifully crafted piece filled with longing. #2 is right next door. ‘The Nearness of You (For Robert) reveals a relationship everyone deserves. #3 is ‘We Need to Get Away,’ a kind of quirky but relatable paean to older people and the way it used to be, before real life took over. The best line in that poem is “Have I told you how good you smell when the shower spits you out.” That’s fun stuff.
The headline poem, ‘Anatomy of a Poet’ fulfills the writerly code to go into scary places or don’t go at all. “The poet, the woman, the me.” completes the poem, throwing back the covers in a heated final exposure. Heck’s reference in her signature poem is good advice for any aspiring poet: “swirling eddies, some without rhyme,” often come across better than stylized word searching or stretching for rhyme ever could.
‘Anatomy of a Poet’ may have been written by a children’s book author, but it’s poetry for grownups.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1 by Brad Pauquette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here we have a collection of evocative, timely, engaging and memorable short stories from the Columbus (Ohio) Creative Cooperative. Though not all writers of the featured fiction offerings are Ohioans, all these stories fulfill the requirement of a good short: they’re readable in one sitting, they’ll grab you and they’ll change the way you view the world.
Mark Baumgartner’s 'Besancon’,' a tale of separation and tragedy in France sums up a standard trope: ‘there is no place in this great wide world you can’t be found.’ Maria Hummer’s 'Open House' is a tale of a real estate transaction that includes more than just a house. Freshly-minted couple ‘Amy and Todd’ take over Joe and Melanie’s lives—their entire lives—so that couple can move on to something else. Scott Geisel’s 'Cinderbox Road' is that rare story successfully told in second person, a long missive from a man to his wife forgiving her for losing ‘his son.’ Joseph Downing’s 'A Day in the Sun,' puts father and ‘son’ on a Mexican beach, reminiscing about the mother, and the tension between father and son’s conflicting visions of her. Brenda Layman’s 'Late Date' casts a young woman with an older man, driving into a storm that causes a horrific accident which shows the effete, aloof academic becoming ‘a human being for once’ in his life. Sara Ross Witt’s 'Monsters' gets inside the head of a young girl whose father has forsaken her to make another life. Kevin Duffy’s 'Saint Vinny and the Devil’s Brother' resonates with contemporary insight, and jargon from the wolves of Wall Street, with a satisfying comeuppance. Heather Sinclair Shaw’s 'Chrysalis' takes readers north of Wall Street, to another part of Manhattan, an airy-fairy store called The Whole Shebang where ‘David’ ‘spews enlightenment like a leaky faucet.’ S.E. White’s 'Fallen Timbers' makes the metaphor of trees as fathers do a lot of hard work, a heartrending tale of rape and family implosion, but from whole different perspective. Lin Rice brings us 'Off The Record,' a Sci-Fi/ alien abduction tale rendered with chilling detail that will raise the tiny hairs on any reader’s neck. Guaranteed. Anna Scotti’s 'Faster Than I Could Follow' shows just how deeply and quickly a seven-year old girl can fall in love, regardless of who her object of adoration happens to be. Brad Pauquette’s 'On Wilson' takes his character, an otherwise model human being, on a violent rampage. It’s a place many of us know we’re capable of going, and that knowledge should be chilling, let’s hope. Kelsey Lynn’s 'Resetting' explores the anger and humiliation we feel when someone dies, and the upset caused when people stop dying. David Armstrong’s 'Let Me Know' takes readers inside the mind of frightened and newly pregnant girl with a scheduled abortion, and the inner dialogue she begins with her potential child. Anna Brimacombe Elliot’s 'Harvest' is a contrast between city and domestic life, and country ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as Tennyson said. Justin Hanson’s 'Twilight of the Revolution' tracks the progress and flavor of the LGBT rights movement from the perspective of ‘Herb,’ a sixty-year old gay man who has lived through the years of discrimination, AIDS, halting progress, and recent elevation of the civil rights issue of our time. Brooks Rexroat’s 'Blood Off Rusted Steel' uses a recent Ohio event, the killing of a man’s wild animals, who have recently killed him, to explore small town ennui, and the sometimes bestial nature of people who find themselves caged in those small towns. Alice G. Otto’s 'A Test of Faith' is the Mary and Joseph ‘no room at the inn’ story with a fascinating twist. Call it Rosemary’s Baby in rural Kentucky.
These eighteen stories have something for everyone—family drama, science fiction, contemporary issues, fresh perspectives and memorable characters.
This reviewer wondered why writers who live elsewhere are included in The Best Of Ohio, but geography seems not to have been a factor in the selections. The editing is first rate, though it seems in the Kentucky tale that there should have been snow ‘drifts’ not ‘drafts,’ and the ending of Off The Record did seem a bit predictable.
All in all a highly readable, well assembled collection of truly well crafted short stories.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

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