Basic economics in one volume

Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, now in it’s 5th edition, is one of my favorite economics texts for the lay reader.

This book gives you the equivalent of a college-level Economics 101 course. (And I should know: Economics was my undergraduate major.)

I will warn you: This book is long (about 700 pages) and parts of it are a little dry. But it is well worth the effort, if you want a basic understanding of how modern economies work.


You can learn a lot from a rock star

I am old enough to remember when KISS lunch boxes were all the rage among the elementary school crowd.

The music of the rock band KISS is admittedly an acquired taste. So, arguably, is the personality of KISS bassist Gene Simmons.

Simmons is outspoken and politically incorrect. He has never been hampered by a lack of self-confidence.

But Simmons also has an inspiring life story–from early childhood poverty in Israel, to mega-riches and fame in the United States. His is literally a rags-to-riches story.

Wouldn’t you like to know how he did it? I sure did–which is why I bought and devoured his book, Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business


My guiltiest book pleasure

And no, it isn’t pornography.

I don’t ordinarily go in for “chick lit”; but I have to admit that Emily Giffin sure tells a good story, even if her books don’t contain any car chases or shootouts.

I am presently enjoying her latest novel, All We Ever Wanted.

I’ll gladly give you this recommendation. Just don’t tell any of my male friends about this, okay? And certainly not the guys at the gym…

 


The dark side of the American Revolution

I have been enjoying Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock.

While by no means disrespectful to the American tradition, this book fills in an often overlooked side of the American Revolution: It was a violent event, with atrocities committed on all sides.


Amazon releases a new Kindle

This one has some interesting new features, too:

Amazon has recently released a new version of its cheapest Kindle yet and it’s gotten slimmer compared to previous versions.

For only £69.99 in the United Kingdom or about $89.99, Kindle now has a better screen and front light as well as higher contrast and better touch screen, which were previously only available to more expensive Kindle versions.

This was also the first Kindle under £100 or $130 with a built-in adjustable front light, according to Eric Saarnio, head of the Amazon devices in Europe.

The article also reports the demand for e-reader devices has been down since 2015.

I don’t think this is because people have suddenly stopped e-reading. They are still reading ebooks. But now they’re reading them on their phones.

You may have noticed that smartphones seem to have hypnotic powers, transfixing people for long periods when they should be driving, stepping forward in line at the bank, or generally paying attention to what is going on around them.

Stairway to Heaven: the ‘Heart’ version

I was poking around on YouTube and I found this cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ by Heart–a band I remember fondly from the 1980s.

I’ll admit when I clicked on this, I had my doubts: I mean, Heart…’Stairway to Heaven’?…Really?

To my surprise, however, Heart might actually have improved on the original. (Yes, I know this will seem like pure blasphemy to some of you. But give it a listen before you judge.)

The meaning…if there is one…of the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ have been debated for years. I won’t delve into the occult controversy for now. Suffice it to say that the lyrics of this song sounded a lot more profound to me thirty-five years ago, when I heard them at the age of fifteen.  But a lot of things aren’t as good or as deep as we remember them, thirty or forty years later.

‘Stairway to Heaven’ is still a great song, part of the soundtrack of my (and many other people’s) youth. I’ll always like it.

Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 16




My bedroom was a small, cramped affair, very typical of secondary bedrooms in postwar tract homes. There was barely enough room for a bed, a desk, a dresser, and a chest of drawers. The one selling point of the bedroom was the window over the bed. It afforded me a view of the big maple tree in the front yard, when I felt like looking at it.

I lay down on my bed and opened Spooky American Tales. I briefly considered reading about the Nevada silver mine or the Confederate cemetery in Georgia.

Instead I flipped back to page 84, to Harry Bailey’s article about the Headless Horseman.

After the opening paragraphs, Harry Bailey explained the historical background behind the legend of the Headless Horseman. While most everyone knew that the Headless Horseman was associated with the American Revolution, not everyone knew the particulars:

“Is the Headless Horseman a mere tale—a figment of fevered imaginations? Or is there some truth in the legend? Did the ghastly Horseman truly exist?

“And more to the point of our present concerns: Does the Horseman exist even now?

“I’ll leave those final judgments to you, my friends. 

“What is known for certain is that on October 28, 1776, around three thousand troops of the Continental Army met British and Hessian elements near White Plains, New York, on the field of battle. 

“This engagement is known in historical record as the Battle of White Plains. The Continentals were outnumbered nearly two to one. George Washington’s boys retreated, but not before they had inflicted an equal number of casualties on their British and Hessian enemies…”

By this point in my educational career, I had taken several American history courses. I knew who the Hessians were.

The Hessians were often referred to as mercenaries, and there was an element of truth in that. But they weren’t mercenaries, exactly, in the modern usage of that word.

In the 1700s, the country now known as Germany was still the Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of many small, semiautonomous states. In these pre-democratic times, the German states were ruled by princes.

Many of these states had standing professional armies, elite by the standards of the day. The German princes would sometimes lease out their armies to other European powers in order to replenish their royal coffers.

When the American Revolution began, the British government resorted to leased German troops to supplement the overburdened British military presence in North America. Most of the German troops who fought in the American Revolutionary War on the British side came from two German states: Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. The Americans would remember them all as Hessians.

The Hessians had a reputation for brutality. It was said that no Continental soldier wanted to be taken prisoner by the German troops. The Continentals loathed and feared the Hessians even more than the British redcoats.

I supposed that Harry Bailey would have known more about the Hessians than I did, from my basic public school history courses. But Harry Bailey wasn’t writing an article for a history magazine. The readers of Spooky American Tales would be more interested in the ghostly details:

“That much, my dear readers, is indisputable historical record. Journey to the town of White Plains, New York, today, and you will find monuments that commemorate the battle.

“But here is where history takes a decidedly macabre turn, and where believers part ranks with the skeptics. For according to the old legends, one of the enemy dead at the Battle of White Plains would become that hideous ghoul—the Headless Horseman. 

“A lone Hessian artillery officer was struck, in the thick of battle, by a Continental cannonball. Horrific as it may be to imagine, that American cannonball struck the unlucky Hessian square in the head, thereby decapitating him. 

“What an affront, from the perspective of a proud German military man! To have one’s life taken and one’s body mutilated in such a way!

“So great was the rage of the dead Hessian, that he would not rest in his grave! He rose from his eternal sleep to take revenge on the young American republic after the conclusion of the American Revolution.

“This is the gist of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The tale is set in the rural New York village of Sleepy Hollow, around the year 1790. 

“But we have reason to believe that ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ was not the last chapter in the story of the Headless Horseman. For according to some eyewitness accounts, that fiendish ghoul has returned again from the depths of hell. 

“Read on, my friends, for the details!”

Lying there on my bed reading, I rolled my eyes at Harry Bailey’s florid prose. He was really laying it on thick. But then, I supposed, that was what the readers of a magazine called Spooky American Tales would require.

Then I noticed that the hairs on my arms were standing on end.

My gooseflesh hadn’t been caused by the article in Spooky American Tales—at least, I didn’t think so. I hadn’t yet bought into the notion that the legend of the Headless Horseman might be anything more than an old folktale.

Nor was the temperature in my bedroom excessively cold. Three years ago, my parents had invested in a central air conditioning system for the house. They used the air conditioning, but sparingly. It sometimes seemed as if they were afraid that they might break the air conditioning unit if they kept the temperature in the house below 75°F. With the door closed, it was downright stuffy in my bedroom.

I had an unwanted awareness of that bedroom door, and what might be on the other side of it.

The shape I had seen in the hallway.

Then I told myself that I was being foolish.

It was a bright, sunny June day. The walls were thin, and the door of my bedroom was thin. I could hear the muffled murmurs of the television in the living room.

It wasn’t as if I was alone in some haunted house from Gothic literature. I was lying atop my own bed, in my own bedroom, in the house where I’d grown up. My parents—both of them—were only a few yards away.

There is nothing out there in the hall, I affirmed.

With that affirmation in mind, I continued reading.

 

Chapter 17

Table of contents

Book break: ‘To the Last Man’, by Jeff Shaara

I am enjoying Jeff Shaara’s novel of World War I, To the Last Man.

This novel features famous characters, like General “Blackjack” Pershing, and Manfred von Richthofen (otherwise known as “the Red Baron”). There are also some lesser known characters who participated in the Great War.

This is perhaps the third or fourth Jeff Shaara novel I’ve read. His novels are so detailed, so meticulously researched, that they are somewhat akin to docudramas (especially the chapters written from the POV of the historical figures).

The result is that his books are bit dense, compared to the latest potboiler from James Patterson, or the most recent legal thriller from John Grisham. Shaara clearly writes to inform as well as to entertain.

To the Last Man is not a quick read, but it’s a rewarding one. If you like historical fiction and military themes, this is one you shouldn’t miss.


Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 15

“Did he want money again?” I asked.

Of course Jack would have wanted money. That was the only reason my brother ever bothered to drop by the house.

“Let us worry about Jack,” my father said.

“It’s probably better if you let us handle it,” my mother added.

Her words were clipped—not angry, exactly, but peremptory.

They didn’t want to discuss Jack with me. They never did. Nor did my World War II hero father, or my world-hardened mother, seem capable of standing up to their elder son.

I was about to say something else, when my words were choked off in my throat.

 



From where I was standing in the living room, I had a clear view down the main hall of the house, where the bedrooms were located. (As I’ve mentioned, it was a small house.)

Right outside my bedroom, I saw a grayish, human-sized shape move in the hallway.

It was there, one second; and the next—it was gone. Vanished into thin air.

Or maybe it had been nothing more than a trick of the light. The hallway was filled with sunlight from the windows of the surrounding bedrooms. There were trees outside most of the windows, and they could be easily stirred by the wind. This created shifting patterns of light and shadows. The shadows played on the painted walls and carpeted floor of the hallway, sometimes producing brief optical illusions.

Perhaps that vaguely human shape I had seen had been another one of those shifting patterns.

But it had looked more substantial. For a second, anyway.

My parents both noticed my startled reaction.

“What’s the matter son?” my mother asked. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

A ghost, I thought…

“You did turn pale, all of a sudden,” my father agreed. “Are you okay?”

The conversation, I realized, had just been turned around. We weren’t talking about Jack anymore. We were talking about me. About what might be wrong with…me.

“I—I think I’ll go to my room now,” I said. “Do some reading.”

Suddenly, I was in no state to make further queries about Jack.

“I see you bought a copy of Car and Driver,” my dad said approvingly.

The two magazines I’d purchased were tucked underneath one arm. The Car and Driver was on top, facing outward.

I wondered: Had that order of placement been deliberate? My parents were regular churchgoers, but they had little interest in—or tolerance for—anything with a New Age or occult vibe. They would probably share Leslie’s opinion about Spooky American Tales: “campfire ghost stories”.

“That’s right,” I said, composing myself.

I still had plenty of questions about what my brother was up to; but now I also had questions about what I might have seen in the hallway.

Right outside my bedroom.

A ghost, my own mother had suggested, her distaste for the occult notwithstanding.

Chapter 16

Table of contents

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Poetry worth reading: Richard Wilbur

No one reads poetry anymore; this is more or less uncontested.

We shouldn’t be surprised. During the mid-twentieth century, a group of influential poets and academics decided that poetry, in order to be “good”, had to be inaccessible to the mass-market reader. (Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for an example of what I mean; and it gets worse from there.)

As a result, poetry gradually became a cloistered, onanistic activity for literary types.

I certainly would not recommend much of the poetry published in recent decades. But there is a notable exception: the poetry of Richard Wilbur (1921-2017).

Wilbur wrote in a modern style, but he didn’t go out of his way to be avant-garde or inaccessible.

He also wrote about modern subject matter. There are no odes to Grecian urns among his work.

(Consider one of his best-loved poems, “On the Eyes of an SS Officer”.)

A personal note: I met Richard Wilbur–very briefly– in 1987, when he gave a reading at Northern Kentucky University, where I was a student at the time.

He was a gracious man, and I enjoyed his reading. I still enjoy reading his poems from time-to-time.


Book break: ‘Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead’



I like historical fiction, especially if there’s some action in it. I was therefore drawn to S. Thomas Russell’s Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead (2015)

The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when Jacobins and royalists were fighting for the future soul of France, and “republican” referred to those who were in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution.

As the novel opens, Royal Navy Captain Charles Hayden is sailing the HMS Themis into the Caribbean–waters filled with hostile Frenchmen, Spaniards, and slavers.

Not long after the story opens, the crew of the Themis picks up two Spanish castaways. They seem to be harboring a secret. This secret becomes the basis for much of the story that follows.

Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead is part of a series, but I had little difficulty jumping in late in the game.

On the positive side, I liked the character of Charles Hayden. I also enjoyed the mystery embedded in the tale.

On the minus side, there was a lot of time spent on repetitive sea maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that didn’t seem to advance the plot much. I could have used more human action, less naval action. (But this novel seems to be written with maritime enthusiasts in mind.)