Book Review: Grace and the Guitless by Erin Johnson

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Click on the image for link to buy on Amazon.com

Opening abruptly with the death of Grace Milton’s entire family at the hands of the Guiltless Gang, Erin Johnson weaves a tale of a gun-slinging, gritty western that hurtles the reader from the dusty streets of Tombstone where young Grace tries to find justice for her family’s death from the town Sheriff to the Ndeh tribe who comes to adopt her. When the U.S. Cavalry invades the Ndeh village, Grace puts her newfound skills to the test in order to save her adopted family. Instead of realizing that her new home is with the people she fought beside and grieved with, Grace’s heart only hardens more as she become determined to exact her revenge on the Guiltless Gang.

This is a well-written book with a near frenetic pace that only slows briefly. Grace is a strong-willed heroine, almost to a fault. There were times when Grace comes off as arrogant and juvenile, and her mantra of justice felt somewhat repetitive. However, Erin Johnson’s debut novel evolves Grace from a foolhardy innocent into a gritty, driven woman. I had planned to read this with my 9-year-old son, but I’m glad I hadn’t due to some fairly graphic violence. All in all, a nice start to what will become a series called Wanted.

This review originally appeared in Historical Novels Review Feb. 2016.

The Dirty Dozen: Top 13 Barrier Walls in History

One of America’s greatest political minds, Benjamin Franklin, wrote, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” It would seem today that the notion of a hedge against our neighbors is not a lost thought. As rhetoric becomes more bellicose regarding a robust wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, FTKC looks back of some of the most famous or significant walls throughout history. For this list we will be looking at physical barrier walls–either of mud, wood, stone, wire fence, concrete, or a combination of these–that were used for defensive or restrictive purposes. Because of this, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall or France’s Maginot Line do not make the list as they are not true walls in the sense of the word. We’ll leave off the U.S./Mexico border since it inspires this list. And, sorry Pink Floyd you don’t make the cut, either.

#13 Frontier Closed Area (Hong Kong)

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Built in 1951 at the height of Cold War tensions during the Korean War, the Frontier Closed Area now straddles two of the largest metropolises in the world–Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Established as a buffer zone between communist China and colonial Hong Kong, the Frontier Closed Area was an U.N. embargo tool against China’s actions in Korea and was designed to keep out illegal immigrants, smugglers, and spies. Now, with Hong Kong part of China again, it is a 10 square mile relic of wetlands and isolated hamlets; a swath of untouched green earth in a concrete and metal urban sprawl. Slowly, the government of Hong Kong is opening the Frontier Closed Area to limited development, finally reintegrating Hong Kong into mainland China.

#12 Great Wall of Gorgan (Iran)

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Also known as the “Red Snake” because of the red clay bricks used in its construction, the Great Wall of Gorgan is the second longest defensive wall in history and at least a 1000 years older than the Great Wall of China. Though the time of its construction is not well known, recent work by archaeologists in Iran and from the Universities of Edinburgh and Durham believe the Great Wall of Gorgan to have been construction in the 5th, or possibly 6th, century CE by the Sasanian Persians to keep out the White Huns invading from Central Asia. The wall is a complex collection of over 30 military forts that housed 30,000 troops and aqueducts and other water channels stretching from the Caspian Sea over 120 miles inland.

#11 Servian Walls (Rome, Italy)

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Every major city in antiquity was surrounded by walls. Lugo, Spain has probably the best preserved Roman walls in western Europe and they are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But, they are in Lugo, Spain. What sets our #11 pick apart from these other walled cities is the city that the walls protected: Rome–the city at the heart of one of history’s most significant empires. Constructed in the early 4th century BCE of tufa, a type of volcanic rock, the walls were enough of a deterrent that they repelled an attack of Rome by Hannibal after he famously crossed the Alps with elephants during the Second Punic War. Eventually, Romans would outgrow the walls; they spread their city well beyond its security under the ever-present protection of the mighty Roman military and the Pax Romana.

#10 The Green line (Cyprus)

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It is hard to imagine an island the size of Cyprus being nearly cut in two, but it is a reality for Greek Cypriots on the southern side and Turkish Cypriots in the north. Following Cyprus’ independence from Britain in 1960, tensions between the two communities festered. This animosity culminated when a 1974 coup by Greek National Guards, who favored a union with Greece, was met with troops supported by Turkey. The northern and southern lines of this 110 mile long scar across Cyprus are the lines where the belligerents stood in the ceasefire of 1974. Now patrolled by the U.N., the Green line has become a greenbelt of nature in a quickly modernizing nation. It is also known as the Nicosia line because it cuts through the center of the city of Nicosia where “new” cars from the 1970’s sit derelict in a car dealership garage.

#9 Great Wall of Tlaxcala (Mexico)

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What do you do when your neighbors are fierce warriors who take captives to become human sacrifices at their temples? You build a wall. And you make it big. That’s exactly what the Tlaxcalan people of Mexico did. Though both the Tlaxcalan and Mexica people belonged to the Aztec culture, they were, at heart, bitter enemies. For over 200 years, the Tlaxcalan people lived in the shadows of the Aztec empire. By 1325, the Mexica had formed a powerful army and began subduing their neighbors. Expect for the Tlaxcalans. To help resist their hostile neighbors, the Tlaxcalans encircled their empire in a wall. By 1519, when Cortez arrives in Mexico, the Tlaxcalans were a completely isolated enclave deep in the heart of Aztec land. Cortez remarked that the walls surrounding Tlaxcalan territory were “about one and a half times the height of a man,” twenty paces wide, and stretched beyond what the eye could see. Unfortunately, the walls were no match for Cortez.

#8 Hadrian’s Wall (Scotland)

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The second Roman wall to make our list, Hadrian’s Wall is the longest wall in Europe stretching across England from the River Tyne on the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. Built by Emperor Hadrian in 122 CE, the wall’s 73 mile length represented the furthest north boundary of the Roman Empire. Boundless theory’s exist as to why Hadrian constructed the wall but the most common idea is that the wall represented Roman power (it is thought the wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed so it would radiate in the sun) and Hadrian’s personal desire of defense of the empire rather than expansion of it. Another possibility was that it was a tax collecting and anti-immigration/smuggling tool: As people traveled across England they’d pass through the wall and pay tribute to the Roman empire, and the closely built towers could keep out enemies of the Empire and regulate immigration.

#7 Korean Wall/Demilitarized Zone (North/South Korea)

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The #7 entry is one of the most famous border’s in the world because it is the demarcation line between two countries technically still at war. Despite the cease-fire agreed to in 1953, soldiers on both sides of the fence wake each morning and prepare for a war that probably will not break out, but there’s always that haunting chance. And yet, less than 35 miles to the south, the bright lights of Seoul burn through the night. Despite its name, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world with some 640,000 South Korean troops at the ready with 2.4 million in reserve backed by almost 30,000 American soldiers. Since 1953, over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 American have died along the 160 mile long, 2.5 miles wide fortified border. In 1977, the DPRK claimed that South Korea and the U.S. had begun constructing a concrete wall along the DMZ. This claim was repeated in 1999, and both times the U.S. and South Korean denied the existence of a physical, concrete wall.

#6 Line of Control (India-Pakistan)

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It would be a gross understatement to say that India’s borders are hostile places. Aside from the Line of Actual Control separating India and China and the Indian/Bangladesh border, the contentious border between India and Pakistan in the former princely states of Jammu and Kashmir were considered by Bill Clinton to be the most dangerous border in the world. In 2003, India began constructing a 340 mile long fence along 460 miles of the disputed Line of Control established in 1972. It was built by the Indian government to prevent smuggling of arms, insurgents and terrorists across the border into disputed Indian territory. There are enough spotlights and floodlights illuminating the line that it is the only man-made border that can be seen from space. Since conflict began along the border in 1947, an estimated 100,000 people have died in the Kashmir region alone. Today, the border is an ever-present cause for the escalation of military power. Pakistan, with the world’s 7th largest military, recently announced that they had developed a miniature nuclear warhead designed to destroy tanks and even has identified targets across the disputed border in India ramping up tension in a region that is a tempest already.

#5 Walls of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)

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Protecting one of the greatest cities in all of history are two walls–Wall of Constantine and Theodosian Walls–that combine to make up the formidable Walls of Constantinople. Constantinople stood at the epicenter of the world in the 7th century CE. It served as the bridge between Asia and Europe; traders from three continents converged on its markets. And behind its massive walls–which withstood over 15 different sieges over a millennium–Constantinople thrived. Far from a deterrent, the Walls of Constantinople lured invaders in with a song of wealth and power. Probably the most significant stand by Constantinople came in 674-677, and again in 717-718, when Arab armies marched northward after conquering much of the Byzantine empire and all of Persia. Both times Constantinople stood fast. The walls kept in check the spread of Islam into a fractured and chaotic Europe. One can only imagine the outcome for Europe had Constantinople fallen.

#4 Belfast Peace Line (Belfast, Northern Ireland)

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Meant to separate predominantly Catholic–self-identifying Irish–and Protestant–self-identifying Unionist/British–neighborhoods, the Irish Peace Lines of Belfast,  Ireland stand as a legacy to mutual mistrust and loathing. The first walls went up in 1969 shortly after “the Troubles” when British soldiers were sent in to Belfast and uncoiled barbed wire to separate the warring factions. The commander in charge, Lt. Gen. Ian Freeland, said, “The peace lines will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.” Nearly 50 years later, the walls not only remain, but get taller, longer, and new ones are built, as recently as 2008. Despite calls for the walls to come down, nearly 70% of people living near them fear for their safety should they come down and 58% do not believe the police can contain the violence that may occur should the walls go away. None the less, plans are in the works to see the walls torn down by 2023.

#3 Israeli West Bank Barrier (Israel)

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Begun in 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada and costing Israel an average of $260 million per year in maintenance, the Israeli West Bank Barrier is as controversial as it is massive. For Israelis, the wall is a security measure; when completed it will represent 430 miles of razor wire and anti-vehicle trenches, and in some places a twenty-six foot high concrete walls and massive watch towers, of anti-terrorism protection for the many Jewish settlements near the West Bank. To Palestinians living in the West Bank, the wall is seen as a political tool for Israel to encroach into Palestinian lands. Though it was to follow the Green Line–the 1967 boundary that separated Israel from the West Bank–some sections go as far as twelve miles beyond the Green Line often cutting off Palestinian villages from their farming lands. Israel argues that the wall is a necessity and that since its inception terrorism and bombings against Israel have dropped from 73 attacks between 2000-2003 (the start of construction) to 12 from 2003-2006.

#2 Berlin Wall (Germany)

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The Berlin Wall was the physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain. Original plans for a wall were rejected by Moscow in 1953, but as defections to the West increased to over 1,000 per day by the summer of 1961, Khrushchev relented. Erected 1961, the East German government claimed that the “Antifascist Bulwark” was not to keep East Berliners in, but to keep West Germans and their fascists, spies and otherwise treasonous people out. The wall most people know was really only one side to two walls separated by a 160 yard wide “death strip” protected by guard dog runs, minefields, and watchtowers. Despite having stood at the Berlin Wall and proclaimed his solidarity with West Berliners, John F. Kennedy was actually happy that the wall was constructed. When he heard that Khrushchev was constructing the wall, he said, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war. This is the end of the Berlin crisis.”

Honorable Mentions

Walls of Jericho

Aurelian Walls (Rome)

Antonine Wall (Scotland)

#1 The Great Wall (China)

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The Great Wall of China, in its entirety measuring over 13,000 miles, has become one of the most well known symbols of China to the rest of the world–a physical representation of China’s strength and its long history of isolation. Originally begun by Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BCE, it was conceived as a means to prevent future incursions by barbarian nomads into Chinese lands. The more famous portions of the wall were built between the 14th and 17th centuries CE by the Ming Dynasty. The main purpose of the wall was as a deterrent to invasion, but it also served as a tool to control immigration and emigration, a means to collect duties and taxes along the Silk Road, and as a way to regulate trade within the empire. That the wall can be seen from space is a myth–even at low orbit, NASA has found that it has to be under near perfect conditions, but even then it is not clearly discernible from other objects nearby.

 

What do you think about this list? Feel we missed something? Leave a comment below and tell us. And be sure to follow From The Kitchen Cabinet to get more Dirty Dozen lists and other historical perspectives.

Sad days when we have to remind parents to be… well, a parent

This was the message from my son’s school district following yesterday’s snow day here in Denver:

All Schools OPEN on Wednesday, Dec. 16

(Wednesday, Dec. 16, 4 a.m.) All schools are open Wednesday, Dec. 16.

 

Please remember to dress your students warmly for the weather and to allow extra time to make your way to school as conditions may still cause some delays.

Really? We need to tell people that, gee, it is winter. Dress warm. There’s snow on the ground, drive safe. Act like a responsible parent.

I suppose this note came from the district’s legal department which is sadder. Because of the cold weather and slushy, icy streets, if they didn’t post this note, some parent could sue the district because they got in an accident on the way to their child’s school or their child got sick because the parents didn’t think “to dress [their] students warmly.”

What a world!

Book Review: BACK CHANNEL by Stephen L. Carter

back channelOriginally published in Historical Novels Review.

Set against the looming Cuban Missile Crisis, Back Channel follows an alternative history that pits a nineteen-year-old, black, female college student, Margo Jensen, against the spies of both the United States and the Soviet Union, who are dead set to make sure that she is unable to relay vital information between Khrushchev and Kennedy. Her experience takes her from the Ukraine—along the side of Bobby Fischer—to fake dalliances with the President where she relays Khrushchev’s messages.

First things first: I found the choice of Margo as the chosen back channel a bit preposterous. That an inexperienced nineteen-year-old college sophomore with no training other than a few counseled words as she signed confidentiality papers could outwit the KBG, CIA, FBI, and others seemed almost surreal. However, I must admit that Stephen Carter handles this with a deftness that made me laugh at the insanity of this proposal and want to know what happens next. Carter maintains a fast pace typical of a political thriller, but there were sections in the middle that tended to muddle—an edit of 50 or so pages wouldn’t have hurt. The ExComm history trends to accurate, especially the fiery conferences held during those dangerous thirteen days in October. There are some creative liberties taken along the historical timeline, but these are forgivable as they help to make sense of the plot given. Not the strongest historical/political thriller available now, but a good read nonetheless.

Is the issue guns or are we a hateful society

Matt Wuerker, editorial cartoonist with Politico, just put out this piece:

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It is an interesting cartoon that is sure to cause quite a bit of discussion, which is great, and not quite the type of discussion that I’m used to writing about, but I thought I’d take a moment to put in my two cents.

In this piece, there are two key words that I’m certain were carefully chosen.

Nut.

Gun.

Today, guns are bad. I get the mantra. Guns are bad. Repeat. Guns are bad. Bad, bad, baddy, bad bad!

People with guns are nuts. Nutty, nut nuts.

Ok. Maybe I’m going a bit far with this, and, in my opinion, that’s the fun of discourse. Take things to an extreme and then find a common middle.

Guns aren’t baddy bad bad.

People with guns aren’t nutty nut nuts.

Now for the middle. Is it really the gun? There are a number of reports on the number of mass murders committed with guns, and those numbers are also up for debate. Here’s a CNBC article that attempts to sort through the facts from fiction.

There are people who say we need to curb guns ownership, either via background checks or limiting types, to prevent future killings. The other side argues that there are millions of registered guns and not millions of mass killings.

I fall in the middle. Sure, no one needs to hunt an elk with a rifle designed to put large caliber rounds through the side of a heavily armored tank so why the need to own such a weapon? But a 9mm handgun can hold 15+ rounds and would have caused the same amount of damage as happened in San Bernardino. (Yes, people on social media, there are two “Rs” in the word!) So if we want to prevent mass killings–usually defined as 4 or more dead, or dead and wounded depending on the counting source–we’d have to get rid of nearly every gun.

Great! Guns are gone. Paradise has enveloped the land. Liberals and Conservatives live in harmony and peace feeding grapes to one another lounging in their pajamas while harpists, no longer fearing social ridicule, play gentle songs.

And then someone gets angry. Really angry. But there are no guns, you might argue. We are safe!

Just Google: How to make a molotov cocktail. I did in preparing for this article, and now I’m probably on some watch list. But, there it is for anyone to see. How to make a nice little piece of destruction. There are even videos. I didn’t watch; I figured I’m in enough trouble just googling that as it is.

But, it is just a glass bottle with other stuff in it (yeah, not giving you the directions, either. No accomplice to the fact for me!).

Well, this from the news today (12/4/2015). Molotov Cocktails kill 16 in Cairo: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-violence-idUSKBN0TN0JT20151204

For those of you who like to keep a body count, that is two more dead than the attack in San Bernardino (yeah, that missing “R” bugs me), and those two “nuts” had four guns and over 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Plus a few bombs.

And, if you are old enough to remember McGyver you might remember he taught us all how to make a bomb with fertilizer, some chlorine, and strips of newspaper. Again, not going into detail, I like life outside of jail. To put that into perspective, those are the same basic ingredients that Tim McVeigh used to demolish the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma city.

Add glass bottles, fertilizer, chlorine, and all the other things we need for either of these homemade devices of terror to the list of things we cannot own. Guns being number one, of course.

Angry people will still find ways to kill. We can legislate ourselves backwards through all the advances in weaponry until we are back at bashing each other over the heads with stones, but the fact remains, people will still kill.

And there’s the middle ground.

People will kill. We are a very violent society. Even in places where you’d not expect it. Fifth graders were recently arrested for wanting to cause damage to a high school with explosives. Message boards and comment sections for articles are rife with vitriol. If you are new to FTKC, you should know I love to read comment and message boards, but I really shouldn’t since they get me so thoroughly worked up. But time after time, there are perfect strangers threatening others with death because of something they typed. Be gone with you. To the trash, or the grave. We are a disposable society.

In someways that’s good. For most Americans it is easier to throw something away than it is to fix it. We’ve even made that a feel good idea by calling it “recycling.” But have we gotten so good at just tossing aside things that we’ve now brought that into our psyche? Relationships, marriages, even friendships are easily disposed of today. Sadly, often via a heartless text message. The people we loved are easily tossed aside because, like my iPhone, a better, sleeker, flashier model just arrived. Why fix it? Why bother to try to amend a relationship, to repair a broken marriage? Just recycle.

And that’s how we look at other people. Disposable. Their ideas, their opinions, their thoughts. Just listen to debates among groups of people with differing ideas. I don’t have to listen to you, you don’t think the way I do. And because of this, we are also becoming less empathetic. Why should we learn empathy? Everyone should feel the same. Or at least feel the same way I feel?

When you don’t? I’ll dispose of you.

For most of us, that just means “unfriending” the person on Facebook, or deleting their contact on our phones, but for some, they take it to a dangerous level. In our society, there are more and more of those people out there; people willing to dispose of others by terminating their right to live. We laugh when we watch Bernadette on the Big Bang Theory threaten people because her character is cute and adorable and sweet, but does anyone take a moment to ask ourselves: “Whoa? Did she really say that? Did my evening comedy show advocate the death of someone else because they were driving too slowly?” Or are we too numb to it all, too willing to accept the violence in our culture, to care?

The problem isn’t the gun. Or the molotov cocktail. Or McGyver. Well, okay, maybe McGyver, that was a pretty silly show. Do those help? Yes. I’d be a fool to discount the tool used. But, the problem is us. We need to start to find empathy again. We need to start fostering comradery as a society, as a community, as a people. We need to teach our children that not everyone is going to win a ribbon, and if you don’t win you don’t need to beat the crap out of the kid who did to get yours. (Parent punches ref because kid lost football game 10/5/15). We need to start respecting life, valuing others, their opinions, and, most importantly, their right to live. We need to stop glorifying violence; literally singing its praises. Does that mean we have to abolish violence in media? I sure hope not; I like a good political thriller where the good guy chases the bad guy. We just need to teach people there is a line. And that line is reality vs. make-believe. That line is respect for other people’s lives and their right to live it.

If we don’t, it will not matter how many guns we make nearly impossible to own. Angry people will find a way to vent their anger.