Archive for the ‘The book on my nightstand’ Category

My eyes better but not normal. These are books I read before my eye problems.

Two light readings of mystery novels, both continuations in a series I mentioned last time. Mary Connealy’s Pride and Pestilence [Thorndike Press, 2009], #2 iin Maxie the Mouse Mystery. The only thing harder to write than a popular first novel is a popular second novel,  especially in a series. This certainly isn’t the Great American Novel but I liked this better than the first in the series because there’s less emphasis on the silly mouse and more emphasis on a mystery.  I’m Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley [Thorndike Press] is a successful entry into a very difficult category of Christmas book in a popular series, typically a fun but forgettable book. That’s true here but it’s still a well-written novell with an interesting main character and an emphasis on science.

The Grain Brain Cookbook by David Perlmutter [Little, Brown and Company, 20144] is a cookbook to a book I didn’t read but this book has a summary of the current gluten-free obsession with modern wheat. I find their argument silly and ill-founded but I have a daughter that’s truly allergic to wheat since childhood and I’m trying to eat lower-carb so I still cruise the GF books. My daughter wasn’t impressed with the cookbook, finding the recipes typical, but she is also paleo and allergic to dairy, which I’m not. I liked the book because it’s use of dairy made it more do-able to my daily menu. Nice pics, always a plus in cookbooks.

From the Land of Silent People [Doubleday, 1942] by Robert St. John, a WWII correspondent for the Associated Press who witnessed the fall of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete. The most fascinating part of the book is that is was written immediately after his escape from the clutches of the Nazi’s, who weren’t fans of his writings. Thus, he didn’t know the outcome of the war and especially of the takeover of East Europe by the Soviet Union. It’s quite heartbreaking to read of the national pride of, say, Bulgaria, when you know the country will see be a satellite slave nation of the Communist empire or read of the beginning of the Yugoslav resistance when you know that Tito turned out to have cooperated with the Nazi’s while playing up his role of hero resister. I was also struck by the similar circumstances of his desperate escape through the treacherous mountains of Yugoslavia in cars that often slid off the roads into ravines or hung precariously over icy precipices. It was reminiscent of the charming Mrs Polifax series. Remember when she escaped from Albania over the Yugoslav mountains?

There’s no charm in this book, though. People were tortured and murdered and families were in despair to leave, but few were that fortunate.  The bombing by the Luftwaffe to soften up the area for infantry and tanks is chilling, as is the evacuation of Greece and Crete by the British, a sad chapter of the Brits, who tried to have an impact everywhere and by land, sea, and air, only to be  outplanned and outnumbered by the Nazi’s in the early phase of the war. Wee can never forget that not only did the United Kingdom fight alone against the Nazi’s for more than a year and fight for nearly two year with the weakest of allies of France , Poland and the Low Countries but when Hitler attacked Russia, that nation promptly demanded assistance from its pitifully overstretched former enemy, the UK. Stalin and his troops were allies of the Nazi’s, Mussolini’s Italy and Imperial Japan until the moment Hitler turned on Russia. How many British or members of the Commonwealth died because of the Russian-Nazi alliance There’s no way of knowing.

This is an excellent book by a brutally honest writer, well worth your time but it helps if you know some WWII history and geography.

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Extreme in the sense of extreme fun fluff and extreme dry academic. First the fun:

Of Mice … and Murder by Mary Connealy [Thorndike Press, 2008], the first in the Maxie the Mouse Mystery. A little romance, a little serious reflection, a little fun, a little mystery,  a lot of silliness but not offensive. An easy read and I’ll probably read another in the series by an author that makes no pretense of her fun goals.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley [Thorndike Press, 2009], the first in the Flavia de Luce mystery series. A little fun, quite a bit of wit, more mystery, more serious self-reflection, and an altogether better written novel at a higher level of required attention and intelligence. I’ll definitely read the second one soon.

Triumph in the Pacific, edited by E G Potter and Fleet Admiral Chester W Nimitz [Prentice-Hall, 1963], a book I couldn’t finish due to the yellowed pages messing with my asthma. The book has an excellent reputation and it’s another reminder – as if I needed one – that time passes on, not only for people but for books as well. I’ll try to get a better copy from another source but I’m seeing the situation of aging books as a problem more and more in WWII areas.

Out of the Depths by Edgar Harrell, [Bethany House, 2005,2014] an addition to the information on the last voyage and terrible tragedy of the stalwart and much-loved USS Indianapolis, torpedoed on July 30, 1945 right before Japan surrendered. The story of the doomed shop is fraught with numerous other ironies, including that the last mission was to successfully deliver top-secret atomic-grade plutonium to the island of Tinian for the atomic bomb soon to be dropped. Out of 1,196 men aboard, only 317 survived, some killed by the six torpedoes, some by drowning, some by dehydration, some from injuries, and some by shark attacks because the ship’s mission was so secret no one knew it’s route or where and when it was expected to turn up anywhere so no one searched for the men in the critical first days. This book has a definite Christian overtone and shares the opinion of most survivors that the Navy screwed up by leaving them there and especially in his scapegoating of their Captain McVay. The book is written by a survivor and is taut, touching, tragic but ultimately uplifting.

Bible and Sword by Barbara W Tuchman [NYU Press, 1956], a book I’ve long intended to read. If you know anything about this Pulitzer-Prize winning author, you know this book is academic, dry with a few notes by the author, well-researched and thorough. It records the history of Britain in Palestine from the 600’s to the Balfour Declaration and touches upon the creation of Israel. Although this book does occasionally show bits of Western Christian bias, it is an important book of history and equably exposes the hypocrisies, mistakes and ugliness of that Western Christian culture that contributed to the mess of the Israel-Palestine problem today. It’s a difficult read, I’d advise it only for those sincerely interested in the history of that area but if you are interested, it’s a must-read. A caution: t takes a long time to get to 20th  century conflicts so if that is your main interest, you may first want to go to some of her other books.

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Growing up as a child in Northeast Kentucky, the influence of writer Jesse Stuart was far-reaching. Oddly enough, the influence was not necessarily positive toward Stuart. My family attended the dedication of the Jesse Stuart Statue at the county courthouse, and I vividly remember my dad and others remarking that “some” people thought he made the area look “bad” by writing about his poor childhood in a heavy Appalachian/East KY accent. My parents weren’t offended, though. In school, especially grade school, one of my teachers was a sister-in-law to Stuart and pushed his works while another teachers obviously disliked him and mocked the slightest idiom or accent of the area.

Those views seem extreme to me now, especially the rather snobbish one denying our heritage. I don’t usually speak with a strong accent but I find all accents interesting without finding one superior or inferior. Most of my relatives had strong accents and I miss that. I especially miss hearing all the wonderful idioms or watching the expressive folk gestures. I reread 2 Stuart works with that feeling of a loss; one work left me with the same reaction from several decades ago but the other work surprised me.

Foretaste of Glory [E P Dutton, 1946] is a collection of vignettes based upon a real and rare occurrence, the appearance of an Aurora Borealis, which caused great consternation among the overwhelming majority of area residents. This book was never a favorite of mine, and the rereading produce the same result. I see why many locals didn’t like the book since most of the characterizations are mocking and unflattering. Stuart provides a keen eye with insight in amusing stories but I felt that I already knew every person in the book and was a little underwhelmed. These are essentially relationships I grew up with and I was a little bored.

On the other hand, I was bored long ago when I read Hold April [McGraw Hill, 1962], but I was delighted and touched rereading this book of poetry. Poignant realizations of love with its changes and similarities while growing old together. I also enjoyed Our Heritage, a tribute to our eternal and beloved his Eastern Kentucky hills, and a poem that reminds me of another lovely poem Our Prisoning Hills by James Still. I’m a tremendous admire of Still, who attended Lincoln Memorial University with Stuart and whose initial friendship turned sour when Stuart accused Still of copying an unpublished he had asked Still to critique work. An embittered Still never forgave Stuart – who was undoubtedly mistaken –  and I’ve heard Still say that he refused to read another’s unpublished work after that. I’d met Stills several times before this death -lamented by Bob Edwards on NPR – and don’t understand how anyone could mistake works of the two Appalachian authors. Similar subjects, indeed, since they shared similar experiences but very different writings. I think the accusation damaged Stuart’s legacy among later Appalachian authors but that’s conjecture. Both authors now dead, both authors left libraries of valuable works and both left admirers. Most are like me, respectful of both authors and grateful for both.

Links to info on  the very talented and prolific Stuart: http://www.kentuckymonthly.com/culture/people/jesse-stuart/ and the Jesse Stuart Foundation, which also has a FB account. http://www.jsfbooks.com/#sthash.7MuvGrdo.dpbs


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I’m trying to get my library books back before the weather turns uglier but here’s a quick wrap of my readings of the past 2 week checkout period.

A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer by Nina Burleigh [Bantam Books, 1998]. I didn’t end up caring a lot for this woman, although I do recall the murder when it happened – barely. What was fascinating to me was the juxtaposition of 2 1960’s movements and how one likely stymied the solving of this crime. Meyer is presented as that woman of the 1960’s that bores me to tears anymore; affluent, well-educated, bright, beautiful, well-married and we’re supposed to pity and/or admire her forays into serial adultery, drugs, lefty politics, and lefty art because she was, you know, oppressed by her dull drone of a husband. Cry me a river. In this case, the husband was a CIA official and Burleigh loosely tries to allude there might be something suspicious there but it remains loose enough to fly off. The juxtaposition was the emerging civil rights movement which was ready to explode with DC rights. It seems quite clear she was murdered by a troubled black man with a criminal record. He was seen following her in the isolated canal area, seen standing over with a gun, ran away, lied about his alibi, hid incriminating clothing and more but got off by a black lawyer making a name for herself by drawing the contrast between the 2 worlds of the not-so-smart deprived black man and the sassy elite white woman. The man got off the murder charge and went on to numerous other assaults against women, black and white, plus robberies.

Assault in Norway by Thomas Gallagher [Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1975] was an exciting true story of the 1942 commando raid on the Nazi heavy water facility in Norway. I knew the story well from other books and a movie, but this day-by-day version to slow the Nazi nuclear bomb is thrilling, short and a top recommendation from me.

Since I’m part Dutch, I thought I would enjoy The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto [Doubleday, 2004] more but his drum-pounding central thesis that the early liberal, diverse, multicultural Dutch settlement of Manhattan accounts for the initial success of the island as a world trade spot and to its liberal, diverse, multicultural society becamd boring and ended up as much a political diatribe as anything else. The history, including rare illustrations and pics, is genuine so if you can ignore the political prejudice of the author – it begins on page one – and focus on the history, you’ll appreciate this book.

Politics also got in the way of Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History by Deborah R Weiner [University of Illinois Press, 2006]. I was an undergrad sociology major for 3 years and even though I was a liberal college student back then, the lack of scholarly discipline and frankly, the lack of moral discipline among the university faculty and students of this area of study, was apparent and disturbing even to me then. I didn’t end up respecting the area and I still don’t. This book reminded me of so many of those sociology publications. This “might be” “could reflect” “may represent” ‘some said” and the heartfelt accounts, all in the context of invented phrases to add to the sociology academic knowledge base, left me cold. In the end, I will credit Weiner with the study of a subject – Appalachian Jews –  that is important and little studied. . There were some excellent pics, but they weren’t rare or of major importance, mostly family pics.

The book Disinformation by Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald J Rychlak [WND Books, 2013] hit me across the face. The story of a Communist spy chief [Romanian] who defected to the US was a stunner. How complete was the Russian whitewashing of history but also the actual writing of history not just in the Communist countries but in the Western world, was staggering. This book is easier to comprehend by someone my age, who recalls the propaganda of the USSR but especially the Eastern European satellites. It’s incredible what the Berlin Wall hid I recognize that WND is a very conservative book publisher and I intend to buy this book, reread it, and explore other views to this one but I was appalled that as a liberal college student and liberal Dem for most of my life, I believed virtually all he deems Communist propaganda carefully fed to Westerners like me through Western media. Terrifying.

I cannot review Monty: The Making of a General by Nigel Hamilton [McGraw-Hill, 1981], the definitive biography of a legendary British Field Marshall by a renowned biographer. It would take several posts and more time than I can allow. Let me say that I had the common American distaste and puzzlement over this distinctly British hero and I now believe my thoughts were prejudiced by that American viewpoint. Bernard Montgomery comes across poorly both personally and professionally in this book but began to see that he was a genius trainer and planner and in both personal and professional respects – such as his profound ego – he was no worse than other military figures. This book finishes with the Alamein campaign and its desperately-needed win and includes great depth of material including the original and altered operation plans [the book is 871 pages] and left me wanting to find out more. I highly recommend this brilliant book.

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The book on my nightstand

Lots of wind, snow and ice makes for excellent book reading time.

I read my first Kate Shackleton British Mystery, Murder in the Afternoon [Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 2011]by Frances Brody. Quite good, easy read but not too predictable so I intend to check out more in the series. Sigh. After all this time, I confess I still go by the Tony Hillerman collection and shake my head in sorrow. How I miss him.

I’m not much of a Biography genre reader unless it’s a WWII figure and I especially deign the light celebrity biographies. Be in a tv series for a year and write your biography? What about Barack Obama writing 2 biographies at a time when his highest achievement was getting elected to the Illinois state senate? I picked up the Bob Hope biography Hope [Simon & Schuster, 2014] by Richard Zoglin because a few glimpsed pages convinced me it was well written and well researched. Also, I remember Hope very well and what a giant figure he was in America. It’s an interesting and easy read. My only complaint is that is was seemingly written as a number of chapters loosely tied together into a book. Quite a bit of repetition and a few discrepancies in approach, e.g. in one chapter he refers to Hope losing his draw power at the box office and laments a certain film. In the next chapter, Zoglin discusses Hope’s eldest [adopted] daughter and her late role as a working partner with her dad in production and happily touts the same film as an impressive achievement.

Zoglin goes on to discuss the actor’s role in conservative politics and it’s quite even-handed but when he draws attention to the radicalized 1975 Oscars and the acceptance speech for the antiwar movie Hearts and Minds, I think the author paints Hope and Sinatra as out of touch old conservatives in contrast with the younger cooler likes of Shirley MacLaine and brother Warren Beatty. Not so sure about that. That acceptance speech by Bert Schneider sending regards from the VietCong and thanking the antiwar protestors was regarded by most Americans as disgusting, improper and radical, and recall that this time in history was the election and reelection of Richard Nixon. Most people thought Beatty was a pretty playboy and MacLaine was a nut. Pretty interesting for me to relive the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with Bob Hope in this book.

The most interesting book was Escape Room [Doubleday, 1970] by Airey Neave. When I think of Neave, it’s mostly in connection as a trusted advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but every book on WWII escapes from Nazi prisons and concentration camps treats Neave as a real hero for his successful [third try] escape from the unescapable Colditz prison. What I didn’t know was Neave’s work back in Britain as an intelligence officer distinct but similar to the SOE. The SOE sent spies to Axis countries to glean information or assist various underground resistance groups in sabotage. Neave’s much smaller group – the London address was Room 900, War Room, thus the book title – was a much smaller but vital mission of helping grounded pilots, prison escapees or other valuable persons get out of Western Europe through lines established between Room 900 and various people in those occupied countries. Very dangerous work and under constant threat from traitors and Nazi tracking. I’d already read some of the books put out by different people engaged in different vantage points in different countries – the Belgian Dedee, e.g., and her Comet Line became very famous – but it was still interesting to hear from someone on the British end who was in charge of certain phases. The courage and sacrifice of these people taking Allies through the lines to Spain or Switzerland, usually was incredible. So many of them were tortured and killed but these people hated the Nazis; the number of Allies funneled through their lines was staggering.

One aspect of the D-Day landings I’d never heard of was the sheltering of hundreds of Allies – mostly downed airmen – hidden in forests with the organization of Room 900, who couldn’t get them out of the country with all the D-Day activities and struggled to keep them safe from the Nazi’s and  ensure the Allied invasion force – who were unaware of the hidden airmen – didn’t inadvertently bomb them. Some of the forests, such as Foret de Freteval, were in France and housed hundreds but others were in Belgium. Operation Sherwood, as it was called, was the brainchild of Neave and he sneaked into France to aid the safe clearing of the forests. It made for an exciting read.

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Over the holidays I read some light fiction, e.g., M C Beaton’s The Blood of an Englishman, a disappointing formulaic addition to her sometimes delightful Agatha Raisin series. This was promoted as the 25th book in the series and had that tinge of rushed, PR-touted offering, undistinguished from any other book in the series. A shame.

I also read Alexander McCall Smith’s Handsome Man Café in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series and it was much more satisfying. There’s always growth in the characters and lovely descriptions of their Botswana locale. Oddly enough, this is the only Smith series I like, I find his other books tedious, self-conscious and preening.

I read a couple of meaningful WWII books, Escape from Colditz by P R Reid and Flying Fortress: The Illustrated Biography of the B-17 and the Men Who Flew Them by Edward Jablonski. Both Reid and Jablonski were remarkable heroes and remarkable writers, an appealing combination.

Escape from Colditz includes both Reid books, The Colditz Story and Men of Colditz in one volume. The volume is exciting and often tense, frequently disturbing because there’s not always a happy ending for these men. Colditz was for officers, and was a largely-ignored postwar story for a time since immediately after the war, it was a part of the geo-political East Germany, controlled by the USSR. An interesting question brought up by the book: Should so many Allied POW’s try to escape when increasing numbers of Allied airmen were crashing into enemy lands? Did it help the airmen by tying up German troops, SS and local police? Did it hinder the airmen by galvanizing so many locals into organized units that became proficient at finding Allies? Reid proffers it didn’t much matter. The men at Colditz, the supposedly unescapable prison for inveterate escapees and troublemakers, were men who would rather die in uncomfortable freedom for a moment than safely live in the relative comfort of prison. A fascinating book by a Brit writing mostly about Brits, French, Polish, Dutch and a few Americans and Belgians.

The B-17 fascinated me even though it contained a lot of technical info that I didn’t understand. Personal stories combined with an air warfare vision of the war and day by day, sortie by sortie successes and failures, background history of the air forces and the men behind their expanding role. A lot of history in one book.

The 2 books that have stayed in my mind, weighing me down with questions and sometimes sadness, are Code Talker by Chester Nez and Meat Eater by Steven Rinella. They surprised me because I intended to read the short books and move on to ahem, “meatier” books but I still think about them.

I’ve read other books about the fascinating Code Talkers but Nez has the most modest, understated way of saying the most incredible things. I loved his beginnings, a lovely heartfelt account of his Navajo upbringing and his extended family, their love of their livestock as near-family. I winced through his accounts of forced boarding school by Christian missionaries where, ironically, he learned the English that made him a reluctant bilingual but enabled him to be in the elite Code Talker group, really special ops of WWII. He loyally credits his fellow Code Talkers or anyone connected with the program and he relates his later hardships of dying children, divorce and health handicaps with calm acceptance. What made me sad, though, was the silence imposed on the Code Talkers for so many years after the war. Their slowly evolving recognition came too late for some of the Code Talkers or their families and late for them to be viewed as heroes by the patriotic Indian community, a community that desperately needed heroes and success. Incredibly no Code Talker ever broke the Army injunction of  postwar silence, enjoined  in case the code was ever needed again. More incredible was the main theme of this book: Nez never sees himself as a victim, ever, no matter what.

Lastly,  Steven Rinella and his book that frankly, I only read because my SIL encouraged me. I’m glad he did because it’s one of those quiet books that hits you in the face, making you question accepted beliefs and points of view. Although I grew up with hunters, I’m not a hunter and was a vegetarian for many years. I’m now trying to eat meat and reduce my intake of processed carbs, such as soy products. Surprisingly, Rinella has helped me eat more meat by viewing it as a natural act, one that made our ancestors smarter and stronger by way of better protein.

I’ve been watching his MeatEater tv shows and it helps that Rinella is so darn likable. He reminds  me of my brother and other young men who grew up outdoors, playing sports in any empty lot they found, passed newspapers for spending money, doted on their Moms, did daily chores inside the house and out, bought used bicycles and fixed them up and later bought used cars and fixed them up.. They always broke the rules some, going farther outside the yard and playing tricks with their bikes and always with the wise cracks. Then they were all asked or told by their country to fight a war that wasn’t a war in Vietnam, only to hear the American media insult them and their war and came home to calls of “Babykillers” and being spat upon while walking Main Street.

Rinella is, IOW, the quintessential American young man with boy next door good lucks looks but not handsome, fun to be with but not witty, an average student who isn’t brilliant but possesses a native intelligence yet doesn’t drop trivia or NYT quotes but down deep learns what he needs or wants to know. I think he writes and quotes literature/poetry for the time-honored reason that he has to. I don’t know Rinella’s politics but in the American future of Obama Pajama Boy and Princeton Check Your Privilege Blame America First Boy/Man, Steve Rinella gives me hope.

Here’s a bit of his Thomas K Whipple quote:

All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.

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Since I was so busy with more intense caregiving duties this summer, I mostly read light mysteries or other books that can be easily set down and picked up without losing concentration.

I did read Hitler’s Spies by David Kahn [Macmillan, 1978], which was a highly detailed and fascinating account of German intelligence-gathering history leading up to and focusing on WWII. The book is quite daunting. I read a lot of WWII non-fiction and it would be quite difficult to comprehend much of this book without a knowledge of Nazi personnel. There were many references to not only the Abwehr, the SS and the Gestapo but to Navy intelligence as well. Some of the technical details of radio use left me out in the cold but there were accounts of Nazi’s I knew but with added information I didn’t know. For example, I knew Reinhard Heydrich as a cold-blooded murderer and sadist but Kahn’s account is even more  terrifying. The intimate accounts of the spies themselves were the most interesting, of course. Kahn basically concludes that much of the spying was ineffectual but little bits of info did aid the Nazi military in strategy and was occasionally powerful, as in the devastating theft of the American invention of the highly advanced Norden bomb sight for planes, which ended up not only American airplanes but in some Nazi airplanes as well. All in all, the book is a very good source of WW II history.

I accidently stumbled onto the ‘old strains’ when I decided to reread yet again the Dorothy Gilman Mrs Pollifax series. They’re enjoyable but worthy of a little mystery tension, and always occur on foreign lands, written with respect by an author open to other cultures and experiences. I began my reread quest with the first of the series, The Unexpected Mrs Pollifax, which spoke of the beauty of Albania from the perspective of a proud native patriot. Kosovo and the Serbs are mentioned in passing, a sad reminder of life before the carnage of war and ethnic cleansing. The villains were the Chinese and the Soviets, showing that leaders may be purged and nations may experience great upheavals but our relationships with them are essentially the same, Reset and Smart Diplomacy be damned.

In Mrs Pollifax Unveiled [Ballantine Books, 2000], a fictional pre-911 State Dept. diplomat observed of Syria: “Before Assad worked his way to the top, there were something like twenty coups” [….] Without him, Assad’s secular government could be taken over by Islamic radicals -which would alarm us very much – or Syria could be invaded by neighboring countries – which could alarm us even more. You’ll find the people themselves very friendly but never forget it’s a police state and completely under Assad’s control. ”

In Mrs Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha [Doubleday, 1985], the thesis centered on Nationalists Day, celebrated in October – wonder if those young Hong Kong protesters knew that – and the response of some Hong Kong residents that the British were negotiating with the Chinese mainland, not Taiwan, for the 1997 return. As a character notes, ” I daresay it could make for a bit of rage, seeing Hong Kong – the capitalist center of the Orient – being turned over to a country of communes and communism.”  Spot on.

I reread Peace Kills by P J O’Rouke [Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004] for a few laughs but found it quite depressing, not only because of his views on Iraq but because of his sections on DC demonstrations, which cover lots of inane and inane topics were harbingers of today’s pro-Palestinians anti-Israel hatred. His observations on Egyptian Coptic Christians are especially poignant since they’re being wiped out – along with Jews and other Christians – all over the Middle East and Africa. Here’s an apt and funny quote to leave you on an upbeat note.

The United Nations Security Council offered a weak and vacillating response to Iraqi provocations. This timidity undermined the power and prestige of the UN – to  the profound relief of all thinking people. A potent and esteemed United Nations would be in danger of evolving into a true world government.

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