Category Archives: Reading

A personal insight into modern military history

Coley Tyler grew up in Western North Carolina and decided at a very young age to pursue a career in the military. He writes about that in his new book “Ghosts of Fallujah” — but I already knew that part.

I grew up with Coley, and while I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, we all know what Coley would be doing: He was going to go to West Point, and he was going to serve his country. We knew it just like we knew that picking the stop-sign pizza in the cafeteria was a pretty good idea, that getting on Mr. Shields’ bad side was a very bad idea and that the cross country team was probably going to win state every year. It was just part of our collective local knowledge. It was known.

The part of the book that was news to me was just what he was doing after West Point. And let me tell you: He’s done a lot.

Coley served with the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, in the Second Battle of Fallujah, which was the largest engagement of the Iraq War. His recounting of the battle itself and the days leading up to it give the reader a clear understanding of what a complex undertaking a U.S. military operation is and what the personal cost of it can be.

Coley’s respect for the military at large and for his battalion, commanders and fellow soldiers specifically is obvious throughout the book. I would recommend “Ghosts of Fallujah” to anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of modern military history.

Some thoughts about some books: Goats and taxes, Han Solo’s origin story, and a life of danger

“Flat Broke with Two Goats” by Jennifer McGaha

I stumbled on this one via the Big Library Read. “Flat Broke with Two Goats” was purported to be a charming memoir about a life in Appalachia that doesn’t go as planned. The author is surprised to learn that they owe a large amount of back taxes to the government, so McGaha and her husband let their house go into foreclosure and wind up living in a “rustic” three-story cabin at the base of a waterfall, where they proceed to make a series of even more questionable financial decisions. I didn’t find the story all that charming.

“The Paradise Snare” by AC Crispin

I don’t think I’ve read a paperback sci-fi yarn since high school, when I found out that Rockford liked “Dune” so I decided to read it so I’d have something to talk to him about (and then before I knew it I’d read the whole series and was looking for all the sci-fi to consume). But then awhile ago someone on Twitter was talking about AC Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, and it sounded intriguing. I requested a copy of “The Paradise Snare” from a library in a galaxy far, far away, and once it finally got here I read it in just a couple of days. I love Han Solo, and I enjoyed this origin story enough to read the next one. “The Hutt Gambit” should be arriving any day now. I’ll be curious to see whether “Solo” takes any cues from Crispin’s stories.

“I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death” by Maggie O’Farrell

I think I originally read about “I Am, I Am, I Am” in the New York Times Book Review. I was expecting to be moved, to cry and to emerge with a greater appreciation for life and all its frailty. But the essays really just left me a little more paranoid than usual about life and all its frailty. This shouldn’t have surprised me, knowing me as I do.

If you’re interested in seeing everything I’ve read this year — and why wouldn’t you be? — you can check out my 2018 Reading Challenge at Goodreads.

In which Nichole learns about Martin Van Buren, idioms and party politics

Let’s talk for a bit about the eighth president of these United States of America.

I don’t recall learning much of anything about Van Buren in school. Other than a goofy turn on Seinfeld and an Ezra Pound canto, we don’t see a whole lot of him in pop culture, either. So I was surprised to read that he actually had a huge influence on our current political system. He basically pulled together a ragtag group of politicians who more or less believed the same thing and said “Hey guys, let’s form a nationwide system of connections and influence and call it the Democratic Party!” But here’s the funny thing: Nobody knows exactly how he did it. He was a very behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, and because he seemed to get things done through slight-of-hand (and he was short), people called him “The Little Magician.”

I had a hard time finding a biography of Van Buren, which seems to be the start of a trend from MVB through Buchanan. If anyone has a Franklin Pierce bio they’d like to part ways with, I will take it. Anyway, I ended up with “Martin Van Buren” by Ted Widmer. It’s part of the American Presidents series, and I enjoyed it well enough that I’m hoping to find the rest of the books in the series.

So here’s a bit of what I learned about Martin Van Buren.

You too can pledge your allegiance to MVB for the low, low price of $19.99. Click on the graphic to buy the T-shirt. This is not an advertisement, nor will I make any money off the sale.

Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born in the newly independent United States of America. He grew up poor in Kinderhook, New York, where his parents owned a tavern that just happened to be frequented by one Aaron Burr. Martin left school at age 13 and was sent to live and work in New York City with an influential rich guy from Kinderhook named William Van Ness, who was a pal of Burr’s. Burr took Martin under his wing, and a scurrilous rumor started going around that MVB was actually his son! Scandal!

Martin eventually became a lawyer — which was more of an apprentice situation than a law-and-lots-of-debt thing in those days — and in 1812 he won a seat in the state senate where, as Widmer puts it, “power began to flow to Van Buren.”

In 1821 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. John C. Calhoun was the first person to greet him in DC, and they were card-playing buddies before they became mortal enemies. Ain’t that always the way? Their falling out had more to do with Van Buren befriending and backing Andrew Jackson for the presidency than it did with whist or whatever they were playing, though. And listen to this dirty bit of business from Calhoun! So Jackson sent Van Buren to England to serve as minister to England. Van Buren gets there, drinks a lot of ale with Washington Irving and hangs out with the royals a bit, only to find out that the Senate voted against his appointment. And guess who cast the deciding vote? John Crabapple Calhoun.

But then later Jackson let everyone know he wanted Van Buren to be the next president, and even though:

  • a lot of political cartoonists made fun of his colorful, flamboyant fashion sense (I did not see that coming) and his stature;
  • some old-school power brokers hated the two-party system he’d helped foster;
  • some people thought he was too Northern;
  • but other people thought it was pro-slavery
    he won the election. At the time, he was the youngest guy ever elected president.

    And then everything went sideways.

    MVB became president in 1837, when the country was kind of entering its adolescence. The Panic of 1837 put a bit of a damper on Americans’ enthusiasm for all things America, and people were starting to get the sense that maybe America had some faults.

    The Panic got its start because there was unregulated growth and loose credit and an unfavorable trade agreement with England, and when Ireland and England wanted their money and America couldn’t pay? The Panic of 1837 turned out to be the worst financial catastrophe in the United States until the crash of 1929! Bad news for pretty much everyone, but one Cornelius Roosevelt — aka Teddy’s Granddad — managed to scoop up lots of property on the cheap and get good and filthy rich in the process. So without The Panic, we might not have had the Presidents Roosevelt. We might have missed out on “Moby Dick,” too, since author Herman Melville took to the seas after his brother lost his business.

    Another tidbit I found interesting was the way a wealthy guy in New York described groups of people protesting the high price of flour. He called them “a convention of loafers from all quarters of the world.” I’m hearing definite echoes of the “These punks wouldn’t have time to protest if they had jobs” sentiments that I see frequently on Facebook. The more things change, huh?

    After the Panic of 1837, Americans started asking just what sort of place they wanted their country to be. The one big glaring issue was slavery, a topic on which Martin Van Buren had never been forthcoming. He seems to have tried to maintain a centrist position, which is gross in retrospect. It didn’t go over well then, either, because as he was trying to hold to the center, the country was pulling farther and farther apart and everyone found more and more reasons to be angry at Van Buren. And when the opposition’s new nationwide propaganda machine — modeled after Van Buren’s own Democratic Party network — put William Henry Harrison forth as their champion (complete with a totally fabricated poor-kid back story and a lot of catchy tunes!), Martin Van Buren lost in a big way.

    (The folks campaigning for him called him “Ol’ Kinderhook,” and his supporters shortened that to “OK.” And that idiom has never left us.

    Even if I forget everything else about Martin Van Buren, I hope I remember that he ushered “OK” into our vernacular.)

    So former President Martin Van Buren went back home to Kinderhook. He did some traveling, he started writing his biography, he had a wildly unsuccessful run for the presidency with the Free Soil Party, and he had one of the first indoor, flush toilets in the area installed.

    When Van Buren’s ancestor left the Netherlands for the new world, he didn’t even have a last name. And then his great-great-great-etc-grandson ended up becoming president and having a state-of-the-art toilet. A true Drake-ian tale.

    Those who have wrought great changes in the world never succeeded by gaining over chiefs, but always by exciting the multitude. This first is the resource of intrigue and produces only secondary results; the second is the resort of geniuses and transforms the universe.

    — Martin Van Buren