Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Reviews-The State of Jones, Point of Impact, Bugs Bloodsuckers Bacteria

The State of Jones
by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer
This is probably the best book I've read this year. I like to think of myself as a well read, historically knowledgeable man. But I was surprised and embarrassed that I had never heard of this story's hero, one Mr. Newton Knight. Well there's no shame in being ignorant but there is shame in staying so.
Newton Knight should be as well known as John Brown, perhaps even more so because unlike Brown he was from the South. Knight stood up and did the right thing at great personal risk. He led an anti-Confederacy insurrection in Mississippi for over two years. He was constantly hunted and nearly killed many times. But at the high point of his guerrilla war, his home of Jones County Mississippi was a very dangerous, virtual no-go area for Confederate soldiers, and especially for Confederate tax collectors. Knight maintained two families, one black and one white and had both blacks and whites fighting and working under his leadership. This was quite scandalous. For many Northerners the Civil War's goal was to preserve the Union. Ending slavery was a secondary consideration. For many Southerners keeping slavery and white supremacy were the war's principal aims. What's often overlooked is the story of Southerners who neither owned or wanted slaves and certainly didn't see the point of starting a war to defend slavery. Newton Knight was such a man. Although his grandfather and other relatives owned slaves neither Newton nor his father ever did. Before the war Newton and his parents were known for holding strong religious beliefs on the equality of all men. This was in Mississippi. As you might expect this didn't make Newton's immediate family too popular at secessionist barbecues. Nevertheless in Jones County, secession was a minority viewpoint. Until he died, Newton always claimed that Jones County had never technically seceded because the voters had selected a Union supporting candidate. But that delegate was either intimidated or bought off. He voted for secession.

Newton Knight
At war's start Newton Knight resisted enlistment.  He finally volunteered with other residents from Jones County because by doing so they could serve together. His well known anti-slavery stance probably caused Confederate partisans to burn his home down. Getting a temporary discharge Knight went home where he killed his younger sister's abusive husband, a strongly pro-Confederate man. Returning to the army he ran increasingly afoul of harsh discipline. He despaired of the starvation rations (for enlisted men) and reports from home of violent and corrupt Confederate soldiers/tax officials. He finally deserted for good. He hid in the swamps and woods of Jones County, assisted by runaway slaves and various other desperadoes. By 1863 Knight had become the leader of Jones County "insurrectionists", mostly white men who swore Union allegiance. Armed only with shotguns, older muskets and terrain knowledge, they launched a pro-Union revolt. Eventually they received supplies from and shared intelligence with the Union Army. By war's end this force had become interracial. Knight also embarked upon a relationship with Rachel Knight, a woman previously owned by his extended family. Rachel Knight provided the group with food, medicine and most importantly information. She became Knight's common law wife, despite the fact that he was already married to a white woman, Serena Knight.
Rachel Knight
The book details a funny story of Confederate soldiers harassing a deserter's mother to tell them where her son and Knight were. They threatened her until she said "I told you I don't know where he is. But I can find out." With that she marched into her house and blew a warning on her horn. Within a minute the woods were alive with answering calls from other horns. The soldiers decided that discretion might be the better part of valor.
After the war Knight became a deputy US Marshal. He was able to requisition food and other supplies for his neighbors. For a brief shining moment he was a hero to almost everyone in Jones County. He was known to be a "fighting fool afeard of no man". For those slave owners who tried to keep blacks enslaved after the war, a grim word from Newton Knight was often enough to convince them otherwise. Knight had put a lot of men in the ground. At 6'4" and lightning quick with his hands, axe, knife or gun he was not a fellow to be taken lightly. Unfortunately times changed. Many of Knight's white neighbors and fellow soldiers, although they had been happy enough to take his food and protection during the war, now looked askance at his default (interracial) bigamy and stubborn insistence on black political, social and economic rights. For example Knight provided the capital and much of his own labor to build a school for the county's children. But when the school opened Knight's black children by Rachel were turned away while his white children with Serena were accepted. Shortly afterwards the school was burned down and I'll give you one guess as to who did it.
This book rips apart the persistent lie that the South fought for state's rights or against tariffs or anything else like that. The primary consideration was white or as the era's newspapers put it "Anglo-Saxon" supremacy. The Southern political leadership considered it an intolerable insult that blacks were voting, serving in office, attending theaters, and going to school. A persistent resistance to equality sprang up. It became more and more violent. After the horrific "compromise" of 1877 and the removal of federal troops from the South this brutality increased exponentially. Independent minded Blacks and any white supporters were often assassinated, chased out of Mississippi and in several instances lynched or massacred. Neither the black legislator nor the black couple trying to walk down the street were safe from the ugliest violence. Mississippi became a terror state and would remain so for the next nine decades.

Knight's bloody reputation meant that he was, with a few tragic exceptions, able to protect himself and his families. Knight was rejected by some of his white children. Any racial issues they may have had were no doubt intermingled with their anger about Knight's domestic situation. Knight withdrew from society and was rarely seen outside, even in his advanced years, without a shotgun or revolver.
Nevertheless some of Rachel's children from other men married some of Knight's children with Serena. Knight became so closely identified with blacks that a census described him as black. We don't know if that's what he told the census. We do know that some of his children with Rachel moved elsewhere and passed as white. This caused lawsuits in later years when jealous romantic rivals unearthed the grand children's past. Other of Rachel's children married black. Later their children and grandchildren were curious about the identity of the white man in family pictures. People lived hard back then. Folks would often remove their shoes and walk barefoot to church or school in order to avoid getting their shoes dirty. And stealing a man's horse or cow was grounds for a serious beating if not killing. Of course being Mississippi, just about everything was grounds for a killing. I haven't described half of the events here. If you're looking for a story of derring do, secret love, feuds, wars, close calls, tragedies, and political upheaval, please read this. It's just as interesting as any fantasy or sci-fi saga. But it's all true. 

Point of Impact
by Stephen Hunter
This book was made into a passable movie, Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. But I thought the book was much better. It's much more complex. It combines action with mystery and intrigue. The author has an excellent knowledge of guns, gun culture and how bureaucracies work. I am only going to give a short review because there are just tons of spoilers I don't wish to discuss. 

Bob Lee Swagger is an Arkansas native and Vietnam vet. He was the military's second best sniper. He comes across as a good old boy stereotype but he's a LOT smarter than he lets people know. Wounded in Vietnam and rather disgusted with the war, the lies and the killing, he lives alone after his divorce and doesn't take kindly to visitors. 

But there's a secret organization that has plans for Bob Lee. They entice him with shared military backgrounds and the promise of patriotic actions that need his help to bring to fruition. From what Bob can tell they seem on the up and up, except for one man who he doesn't like. This group has evidence that there's going to be an assassination attempt on the President. But the best people at Secret Service and CIA can't seem to determine where the attack will come from. They need Swagger, one of the world's best snipers, to help them anticipate how an assassin would do it and arrange countermeasures. They lure Swagger in with the hint that they know the sniper who wounded Swagger in Vietnam and killed his best friend.
Of course the organization is not what it seems. In short time Swagger is accused of attempting to murder the President. All hands are raised against him. He's wounded and hunted across the US. His dog is killed. But as Bob Lee's ex-wife says  "If Bob Lee Swagger took it in his mind to fire a bullet at the President of the United States, then the President of the United States would be a dead man, and not no Salvadoran archbishop. You're telling me Bob Swagger aimed at a man and missed and killed another man? Bob Lee Swagger never missed nothing he aimed at his whole life and that's the Pure-D truth".

Conspiracies unfold and retribution on a Biblical level follows. It's one thing to lie, set a man up for murder and try to kill him. But you kill his dog, you are asking for it. I loved this book. It's a murder mystery combined with revenge, action packed last stands and a detective procedural. It's also about a man who learns to let go of the past and love again. This book was long at just under 600 pages but it was definitely a page turner. You can't wait to see what happens next. This is first in a series.

Bugs, Bloodsuckers and Bacteria
by Peter Brookesmith
You definitely don't want to read this book if you have OCD or give it to someone who has OCD or otherwise suffers from serious contamination fears. Because as this book cheerfully makes abundantly and occasionally disgustingly clear, every human being on this planet is host to a number of other living creatures both inside us and on us. Most of these creatures mean us no harm. Some of them are even necessary for our existence. Others are irritating, malignant or even lethal in the right circumstances. I was amazed at the pictures here of the human body and the creatures which inhabit it. A few of the creatures I would have rather not known about to be honest. The pictures were all taken via electron microscope and magnified immensely so that we could get a good look.

The book is not just concerned with human parasites or bacteria but takes a rather too close (ha-ha) look at many of the other entities which reside on human pets such as cats or dogs or in even odder environments. After reading this book I swear that I wanted to throw out all of my bedding and carpet and start living in a hazmat suit but that wouldn't have any effect on things that live inside me of course. This is the human condition, good bad or ugly. And there's a reason we have immune systems and soap.

Almost unavoidably this book is not just about the entities that share our bodies with us but also about our bodies and the history of our planet. Bacteria were the first living things on this planet and remained so for almost 2 billion years. "Our" mitochondria are not us. They have their own RNA, DNA and reproduce differently. They appear to have descended from bacteria. And yet without them we could neither eat not breathe. Other bacteria are just fine in specific areas of the body. But if they should somehow get elsewhere, or God forbid into the bloodstream, the human so afflicted will have some deadly problems indeed. Examples include S. Aureus, Ent. faecalis,  and of course E.coli. Other bacteria are briefly discussed, including the infamous Cl. botulinum, which is so horribly deadly that just two teaspoons would kill about 6 billion people. This bacteria can be found in soil or in improperly canned food.

Did you wash your pillows and bedding this week? I hope so. That's how you can keep your personal menagerie of dust mites, Dermatophagoides pteronyssimus, under control. They consume the dead skin that your body is constantly flaking off. They are especially active at night and love your pillow. Your head is the source of their heat and moisture. Even a frequently washed pillow may contain 10,000 of the little buggers and their eggs and droppings. I suppose that someone watching you through a microscope at night would see your body and head covered in a swarm of mites. Each of us is a real life horror movie every time we sleep. I learn new things every day.

Many of the more dangerous parasites or bacteria can be avoided by adhering religiously to high standards of personal hygiene and ensuring the provisions of clean food, clean drinking water and working sewage systems. This is definitely an area where there is a right way and wrong way of doing things. Some cultures get this right. Others, not so much. These creatures will always be with us. If a bacterium could express a point of view it might remind us that it was here first and may well be here after humans are gone. This was a fascinating if occasionally disturbing book. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go throw out my bedding and take a bleach shower...
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