On the Night Stand: February 2020

Welcome to On the Nightstand, where I report on the books that are, well, on my nightstand.  I rate books on bedside lamp watts. A 100 watt book will keep me awake deep into the night.  A 20 watt book puts me right to sleep.  And, since it is still winter, a lot of the books on my nightstand have had to do with dark, cold, and very icy places.   So, without more ado, here is this edition On the Nightstand.


Alice and I, in our homeless state, went to Antarctica, and were fascinated.  Glaciers.  Icebergs. Penguins. Very long nights.  It is where, more than one hundred years ago, Scott raced to be the first to reach the South Pole, a quest that cost him his life, and where Shackleton sailed six hundred storm-tossed miles in a 22 foot open boat to save the lives of his crew after their ship broke up.  Antarctica is as pristine and vacant today as it was one hundred years ago.  And, it is the site of one of the two best books I read this year:  The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.  One of Scott’s crew, in 1912 Cherry was sent in the dead of an Antarctic winter, on foot, with two others across forty miles of ice, crevasses, and blinding winds to retrieve eggs from an Emperor penguin colony on Cape Crozier, a scientific quest based on the hypothesis that the eggs would provide the missing link between modern birds and prehistoric reptilian scaled birds.  The temperatures were between -54 and -79 degrees F. The wind made pulling sleds so hard that progress was no more than a mile and a half per day.  Their sweat froze to their skins in the sleeping bags, then dropped as ice pellets into their clothes when they awoke. On arrival, the penguin colony was separated from them by a huge vertical ice barrier and only by finding a crevasse tunnel did they reach the penguins.  They all survived but Scott chose the two others to join him on the final leg of the trek to the South Pole, and there they died.  The Worst Journey is riveting, a 100 watt book if ever there was one, even one hundred years on.

Wanting more, I went on to read more antipodean stuff.  South Georgia is a booklet about the island that Shackleton reached (as did we).  Shackleton’s Boat Journey was written by F.A.Worsley, one of the crew who sailed across the Weddell Sea with Shackleton, recounting the horrid venture, the crossing on foot of mountains and glaciers of South Georgia (Alice and I walked the last two or so miles of Shackleton’s final trek and stopped at the base of the waterfall), and the expeditions to find another ship to return for the men they had left behind. These are lesser works, 70 to 75 watt reads, but well worth the time. 

And last, not least, is Cherry, by Sara Wheeler, a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard that details the life and service of the man who wrote the Worst Journey in the World and who descended into depression, self-doubt, and loneliness after Scott and his friends perished.  It is a solid 90 watts.

The other best book of the year is These Truths by Jill Lepore, which is better written than The Worst Journey, every bit as gripping, and which constitutes one long look in the mirror.  The title is taken from the American Declaration of Independence, the phrase that declares that all men are created equal and that all have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Except, as Lepore makes clear, no one believed it, not even Jefferson, whose pursuit of happiness involved a lengthy sexual affair with one of his slaves, who did not have liberty and whose life and pursuit of happiness was dubious at best.  The intellectual dishonesty about blacks and indigenous people began when Columbus, writing to the king and queen of Spain, advised that he needed only 50 men to subjugate all the people he had discovered in the New World.  He enforced his claim by working to death all of those who did not die of disease, prompting Spanish and Portuguese development of the African slave trade to replace the dead Caribs.  Lepore continues her dissection of Anglo-European racial dishonesty to the present where, she observes, repeal of the Fairness Doctrine law enabled the rise of cable networks dedicated to one-sided dishonesty in broadcasting that could, and does, influence the masses with fearmongering and disingenuity.  100 watts.  Read it.

The best of the rest non-fiction:

Sea Stories, by William H. McRaven, an autobiography by the navy seal team commander who led the raid to find and, ultimately, to kill Osama Bin Laden and to rescue from Samali pirates Captain Philips and his crew of the Maersk Alabama.  A gripping book that goes from one modern crisis to another.  95 watts.

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, by Keith Dockery.  This is an academic read for my work at Oxford, a hard-ish slog through the Wars of the Roses.   Good read for me but, in truth, probably not for most of the human race.  This was an 80 watt book for me, but if you are not riveted by the minutiae of a weak-bred introvert devolving into mental illness and being deposed in the 15th century just think of how it will help you sleep.

The Wars of the Roses, by David Grummit, a history of that particular English dynastic war.  After a bit I began to realize that it could be summarized as follows:  a mildly demented king named Henry (see above) was the first in  a series of kings to be overthrown by a series of people named Edward, who usually murdered the overthow-ee, and who were themselves invariably prodded onward by women named Margaret or Elizabeth, resulting in the deaths of the princes in the Tower (one of whom actually was a boy king named, guess it, Edward), leading to the battle of Bosworth and the death of the last Richard (the IIId one) at the hands of the 7th Henry, and the ultimate reward of waiting five hundred years to dig that Richard up out of a car park in Leicester, England. I had a good75 watt time but I suspect it will cause a good night’s sleep for everyone else.

The View from the Ground: the Peacetime Dispatches of Martha Gellhorn.   To ward off your asking ‘Who?’ may I remind you that she was a war correspondent from the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s third wife, who divorced him when he stole her press credentials to get on a ship to France on D-Day (she in turn stole a nurse’s uniform and smuggled herself across the Channel, where she was waiting when Hemingway waded ashore and punched him in the face), and the first and perhaps the only white blonde woman to traverse Africa alone, from west to east, during the late colonial period.  This is a fine collection of her news dispatches from war-torn Europe to war-torn Vietnam and all points in between.   Some of the dispatches are even better than others, none bad, and overall a solid 90 watt read.

Evolution of a State, by Noah Smithwick.  This was first published in 1900 when Smithwick, by then blind, dictated his memoirs to his daughter, and memoirs they were indeed.  He migrated to Texas as a teenager, learned blacksmithing and gunsmithing, and became a soldier in the Texas rebellion of 1835 and 1836. He passed himself off as a doctor on the frontier of Mexico and as a diplomat who was sent out to live with Comanche Indians when Texas became independent.  He ran a flour mill, freed a friend from jail and was run out of Austin’s colony for doing so, and gave an incredibly detailed account of daily life in Texas from the 1820’s to the period of the American civil war, when he was forced to flee as an opponent of secession.   90 watts.


My friend Sue Preston referred to reading fiction as a guilty pleasure.  She is quite right in some respects: we read two of the same books and had the same reaction.

The Wall, by John Lanchester.   I was introduced to John Lanchester by another St. Cerean, my dear friend Gem Stafford.  I have sought his books out at every bookstore and book list.  He wrote Capital and A Debt to Pleasure, both of which I gave 100 watts.   But The Wall is a well written failure.  It describes a post-apocalyptic world in which national service is performed in two-year shifts of standing guard on a wall around England, an intriguing premise in Trumpian America.  The book falters when two of the guards are punished for not preventing outsiders from breaching the wall; their punishment is to be banished outside the wall themselves, then hunted down.  Lanchester seemed to not know how to end it….  I do.  20 watts.

Love is Blind by William Boyd, an author brought to me by Louis Charalambous.  A Scottish piano tuner becomes employed by a renowned pianist to tour with him in capitals across Europe, a profitable arrangement that disguises that said tuner does so solely to continue an intense affair with the pianist’s own lover.  I found it to be very William Boyd through to the ending, a deep dive into piano tuning and a bit of a shallow dive in the workings of people obsessed.  Love is indeed blind.  85 watts.

Milkman, by Anna Burns. Up front: I loved it, despite or perhaps because of the absence of names.  A teenager in an unnamed Irish city during The Troubles is beset by dangerous gossip when Milkman jogs up alongside her one morning on her daily run; Milkman is, unfortunately for her, an IRA assassin known to everyone in the city.  It is a city where people don’t use names; her family is First, Second, and Third Sister, her in-laws are Second Sister’s Husband, the women who defy the IRA are the Women with Issues, and her own boyfriend is simply ‘Boyfriend.’  Because Milkman is very public in his pursuit of her, the entire city that is not part of the Enemy From Across the Water believes she is having an affair with Milkman and The Enemy from Across the Water’s agents believe from their spy photographs that she can lead them to Milkman.  It is the best novel of the year, a solid 100 watts.

Henning Mankell, The Man Who Smiled, is a Swedish noir novel of existential detective Kurt Wallander.  He investigates the inexplicable deaths of a retiring lawyer and his son, men without an enemy anywhere in the world.  90 watts.

Three really guilty pleasures:

1356, Bernard Cornwall, a novel of the Hundred Years War in France, with prominent roles to English archers, evil prelates, damsels in distress, and lots of medieval combat.  It is as badly written as most Cornwall books, such as Azincourt, the Sharpe’s Rifle series, and the Last Kingdom series (“I am Uhtred son of Uhtred….”)  He writes page-long paragraphs about the differences between obscure spears and swords, lengthy escapes with the help of disaffected nuns, and awful dialogue, but the books are just swords-and-castles fun.   85 watts.

Under Occupation, Alan Furst. Novelist Paul Ricard is handed a set of stolen torpedo drawings by a man being chased by the Gestapo.  Furst writes in the vein of Patrick O’Brian in that his stories don’t really have a beginning or an ending, but instead are like studying a very long river by peering at one section half-way between its source and its emptying into the ocean. In this installment, Furst takes us deep into Paris, a torpedo factory in Kiel, and the German submarine pens of Brittany, with the Gestapo breathing down Ricard’s neck at every turn.  85 watts.

Us Against You, Fredrik Backman, the author of the brilliant A Man Named Ove.  A working class town pulls together through the triumphs and tribulations of its ice hockey team until its star player is accused of raping the coach’s daughter.  “A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him.”  

Then what does the community do?  90 watts

And, on the nightstand

I am reading This is the Dawning by Mindy Reed, a novel of Woodstock; The Home, a coming of age story set in the early 1950s in which a boy too young to fend for himself is relegated to a home for homeless boys;  Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, the story of a 12 year old slave in the Caribbean who escapes with his master’s brother, only to find himself hunted down in Virginia; Patrick Melrose by Edward  St. Aubyn, a dark comedy of the wealthy and privileged; and Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen, a biography of Audrey Hepburn in Holland in World War II.


PS:  What became of the penguin eggs?  Cherry-Garrard hoarded them all the way back to England and took them to the inquiring scientists, who had forgotten all about it.  He hounded them for years and eventually was told that they had no scientific value.  No wonder he went crazy.

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Author Jack London featured by PR by the Book

Recently, author Jack London was featured by PR by the Book for the new book, Children of the Good War. The article includes information on Jack’s upcoming trip to the Meuse Argonne American Military Cemetery on Veteran’s Day, as well as in depth description of Jack’s latest book. To read the full piece, click here.

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On the Nightstand: Spring 2018 Hors catégorie

In writing, as in bicycle races, there are mountains to climb.  In bicycle races they are rated on how hard the mountain is.  The steepest and hardest are called hors catégorie because are almost impossible to finish.   Writing is a lot like those mountain climbs, unexpectedly difficult, very lonely, and rarely ending with the hoped-for success.  Within the community of writers the hors catégories are the authors who work for years, don’t attract a big publisher, and yet have written a very fine book that only needs readers.  This month I bring you some of them to you.

I usually rank the books in On the Nightstand by the number of watts a book generates in my bedside light, but this month I review books that are written by independent authors whose work is beyond category:  great books, not published by the big publishers, and not well known, that deserve an audience.  All are available from Amazon, in both e-reader and print editions, and worthy of your time and support. Without more, here for the Spring 2018 edition of On the Nightstand are my hors catégorie reviews:

The Dragon Soldier’s Good Fortune, by Robert Goswitz, is a classic tale of a man in combat who slowly comes to realize that the enemy is rarely the real enemy.  With wonderful storytelling, the novel hooks you from the first page as Ed Lansky, one of the last men drafted and sent to Vietnam and utterly ignorant of what he was getting into, is busted for smoking pot on his first night in country and is tagged as a troublemaker.  When he is shuffled off to one of the last American infantry units still walking combat patrols, the reader becomes a part of Ed’s platoon, where Ed soon learns that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those immersed in the terror of combat, and everyone else. Ed survives with the help of an unexpected visitor as he and the platoon struggle through inexperienced officers, disintegrating NCO’s, racial disgruntlement, a hatred for lifers, and the kind of laziness that gets men killed.  Find and be a part of this engrossing story of men whose real battle was to stay alive long enough to come home.

A Mass for the Dead, The Faerie Hills, and The Study of Murder by Susan McDuffie are three medieval murder mysteries about Muirteach MacPhee, a scribe in the service of John MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles.  Muirteach first is tasked with finding who killed his father, the local prior, an investigation made more difficult because the victim was a villain with a long list of priests, lovers, and others who wished him dead.  The second novel is an investigation to unearth the truth behind the disappearance of a lad last seen around the fairy hills, believed by all to have been taken by the fairies.  In both these novels Muirteach is helped, and frustrated, by the wickedly clever Mariota, a physician’s daughter who becomes his forensic examiner – and his love.  Muirteach and Mariota traipse all Colonsay, Jura, and Islay to find out the murderers.  In the third book Muirteach and Mariota are sent away to Oxford as guardians of the Lord’s reluctantly scholastic son, an adventure that sharpens when Oxford’s girls begin to disappear.  Author McDuffie is a lineal descendant of the scribes of the Lord of the Isles so these are fictional family history that she writes with great joy and detail.  And why did I mention all three titles?  Because I binge read them.

Poet under a Soldier’s Hat, by E.P. Rose.   This is an edited memoir of a gentleman rogue of the lost generation.  Hugh Rose was too young to fight in World War I but gained a place in the military academy soon after, only to find himself sent to a frontier unit in then-India, which included what we know as Pakistan, Waziristan, Kashmir and other remote outposts.  For the next two decades, Rose was in his majesty’s service as either a soldier in India, a diplomat in Yemen and Iran, or as a major in command of troops in England’s desperate fight against Germany in the Egyptian desert or in Cyprus.  He marched, hiked, skied the Himalayas, ducked sniper bullets in the very places where the Taliban and ISIS are shooting people today, and led both Indian and British troops into places whose names seem to have come from Scheherazade.  He was roguish in part because of a never-ending quest for the next girl and a quirky manner that infuriated half his commanding officers and endeared the other half, building unapproved hand-dug gardens and pools in the desert and mapping impossible snow-bound passes high in the Hopi, disobeying direct orders in some cases and in others chasing enemies of the Empire before his superiors knew of them.   As with many children of the empire, Rose lived an exciting life that was tinged with false friends and unfaithful wives, but he is one of only a very few of whom it can be said he drank from the Brahmapurra and flew in an open cockpit Wapiti airplane across the sands of Mukulla.  What a story!

Homeland Burning, by Brinn Colenda plays out a frantic cat-and-mouse quest to stop a shadowy foe from setting America on fire.  When Tom Callahan practices a touch-and-go landing near Chesapeake Bay, he stumbles onto the trail of a terrorist believed to be dead but who not only is alive, is on his own path to set fire to the forests of the American homeland, to kill its leaders, and to get his own revenge against Callahan.    Homeland Burning is written with pace and detail reminiscent of Gayle Lynds’ The Assassins and with the complexity of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, a page-turning thriller to read deep into the night.

Air Safety Investigators, by Alan E. Diehl, shares some of the most gripping stories that affect each of us daily, usually without our knowing them.    While the number of humans hurtling through the air in scheduled flights multiplies daily, the number of crashes that take some of our lives has declined in the last decades, largely due to the thankless and painstaking work of those who reconstruct air crashes and then undertake to set up protocols to prevent them.  Dr. Diehl, an air safety investigator who was along-time member of the NTSB go teams sent to the scenes of air crashes, has reported not only the explanations for such famous crashes as the Sioux City DC-10 that lost an engine during flight and John Kennedy Jr’s crash off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, but also less familiar military and foreign crashes that involved mid-air collisions, missed maintenance failures, and a failure to understand crew resource management.  It is not the crashes that he reports but the lessons learned from them that make his book a valuable read – it is those lessons that keep all of us safe in the air.  And, if your interest is purely because of a bent toward the tragic, this book is a veritable catalogue of lost chances that led to lost lives.   I enjoyed it very, very much.

All the Wild and Holy, A Life of Eunice Williams, 1696-1785, by Gayle Lauradunn, is a free-verse poem written from the view of Eunice Williams, a victim of the Deerfield, Massachusetts Indian raid of 1704.  Unlike most survivors, Eunice chose to remain with the Mohawk tribe and, ultimately, her husband, although she had a good deal of contact with her family and others from Deerfield and Albany.  All the Wild and Holy is a phenomenal work, describing from the captive’s view the experience of being kidnapped and watching some of her family killed, yet accepting the things she is taught, to build a fire, to make clothing, and ultimately to be a part of the society of women who make not only their own decisions but all the critical decisions of the tribe.  Written in the three stages of Eunice’s life, her abduction, her marriage, and her visits with her English family and friends in later life, the book lovingly tells her story not as a prisoner nor even much as a captive but as a woman who perceives that always there are choices and makes her own, choices that reflect her sense of the dignity of life rather than of the clutter of owned possessions and canted scriptures.  It is a wonderful book.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look under the tent into a world of fine books that should be on the Times and USA Today lists.  Please look them up, buy some of them, and let others know what you think.

Oh, what else is on my nightstand?  I’m currently reading:

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, the memoir of a WW1 Oxford student who joined the army nurse corps, only to lose her fiancé, her two best friends, her brother, and much of her generation to the war that did not end all wars.  It is a classic work, published in the 1930’s, and painfully intimate.

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides is ostensibly the biography of Kit Carson but is more precisely the history of American westward land grabbing, and native American Indian-killing, particularly in New Mexico, in the middle 1800’s.

Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda, is the fictionalized memoir of a boy who really was born in Russia to Polish Jewish parents after a meeting of a communist cell voted that Comrade Rapaport would not terminate her pregnancy.

Paris at War, by David Drake, is a remarkable, thorough history of what happened after the Germans marched in.

The History of the Republic of Texas From the Discovery of the Country to the Present Time:  And the Cause of Her Separation from the Republic of Mexico, by Doran Maillard, is a breath of stinky air into the myth of Texas heroism.

The Corfu Trilogy, by Gerald Durell, the memoir of the literary Durrell family’s experimental escape from expensive rainy England to inexpensive sunny Greece in the 1930’s.

And, a final note:  Are you subscribed to First Draft?  It is my newsletter in which I report what I’m writing, where I’m speaking, some of my research and, for last year and this, a column on what was happening 100 years ago when America entered World War 1.  I mention this because each edition of First Draft includes a chapter of a serialized novel that I am writing.

It began with The (very brief) War Diary of Bart Sullivan and continues with Footprints in the Sand, a story about a sailor lucky enough to wash up on a tropical island, unlucky enough for it to be an island inhabited by cannibals, a Komodo dragon, and a fiercely independent woman who wants to trap himto barter with the Japanese who run the prisoner of war camp….

Heads up:  if you’ve been saving your chapters to read all at once, now is a good time to collect them and begin to read, because the next chapter will be the last chapter of Footprints that I will serialize.   And, if you aren’t subscribed, send me an email and I’ll be happy to get you started on both First Draft and on Footprints.  Send me a note at jack@jackwlondon.com; I’ll get right back to you.

Until then,

Jack Woodville London





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A noval approach

One author speaking with another, offering fabulous advice in a delightful read. — Dan Poynter, author of SUCCESSFUL NONFICTION, IS THERE A BOOK INSIDE YOU?

I’ve written and published four books and working on a fifth (book). I WISH I’D RUN ACROSS THIS BOOK A LONG, LONG TIME AGO!  Jack’s understanding of writing, his easy manner of sharing his knowledge, and the value of his creative writing insights is worth much more than the low cost of his book.  Brian Utermahlen



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Autumn 2017

My Autumn is filling up.  Here is where I’m scheduled to speak and to give classes and presentations during Autumn, 2017:

September 7, 2017:  Writing Your Story, a one day program for veterans who want to learn to write a book, at the Audie Murphy VA Center in San Antonio, Texas, with my friends Don Helin and Valerie Ormond

September 8, 2017:  Writing the Serialized Novel, MWSA Annual Meeting, Menger Hotel, San Antonio, Texas

September 9, 2017: Writing about the War that Didn’t End all Wars, a panel on the stories, research, and legacy of the United States in World War I. MWSA Annual Meeting, Menger Hotel, San Antonio, Texas

September 22-23, 2017: ‘Writing Bygonese:’ Techniques to write historical fiction that makes the reader feel he or she is there.  Historical Writers of America Convention, Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort, Bernalillo, New Mexico.

Among the other participants are Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, and George RR Martin, author of the Song of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones) novels.

November 2: Life after Law:  My Literary Life, State Bar of Texas, Austin, Texas.

I do hope you’ll join us. It will be nice to see you and catch up.  – Jack


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On the Nightstand: Summer 2017, and the living is easy.

Nothing says summer like a fish camp on the river, or an American flag on the 4th of July, or curling up with a good book.

Welcome to On the Nightstand, where I mention a few of the books on my nightstand.  I review those I’ve finished and rate them by the watts they generate in my reading lamp – a 100 watt book keeps me awake all night but a 20 watt book puts me to sleep faster than, well, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a house on the Pearl River.  I also mention what I’m reading right now and, of course, the books that are, on my nightstand.  I hope you enjoy my reviews and find something to keep you up reading all night.  Here we go.

Just finished:

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, author of A Perfect Storm and director of the Afghan war film RestrepoTribe lays out the sense of belonging that a tribal society builds for its members, from the best hunter-gather-warrior to the least captive white woman who prefers to not be rescued back to a society that values possessions and passes judgments.  Junger contends that modern soldiers suffer more and longer PTSD from returning to a country that does not embrace them with jobs and care than they would by staying with their platoon, his tribe.  A willingness to die for one another isn’t compensated by the hollow words of strangers who say ‘Thank you for your service.’ 90 watts.

1066, by Andrew Bridgeford, a study of the Bayeux Tapestry with the view that its enigmatic cartoons of swords and shields and boats bearing William the Conqueror to invade England was really created as a series of hidden iconic messages that tell those who knew how to read them that William was not the fair winner.  Good history, uncertain evidence.  80 watts.

A Change of Climate, by Hillary Mantel before she was Hillary Mantel of Wolfe Hall, is the story of Anna and Ralph, British missionaries to South Africa whose child was abducted and sold for body parts.  A painful, tragic story, it is the biography of a family that unravels in the soul-less aftermath of such a loss.  It also is a foretaste of what a great story-teller Hillary Mantel will become.  90 watts

Birth of a Nation, by Julian Rathbone, is one of the funniest books I have ever read, the memoirs of a somewhat deformed man who stows away on Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos, petty thieves his way into Santa Ana’s army at the Alamo, then into Sam Houston’s army at San Jacinto, flees justice on a Mississippi riverboat, becomes part of an Indian tribe, and goes on to witness both the treasonous takeover of California by American settlers and the somewhat more human scale of takeover of fellow travelers by the Donner party cannibals, and….  100 watts.  Seriously.

Blitzed, Norman Ohler, is a fascinating history of Pervitin, a wonder drug discovered by the Third Reich pharmaceutical industry and tested first on housewives, then on soldiers, then on doctors, and became the wonder drug of Hitler’s war effort.  We know it as methamphetamine, or speed.  It ambitiously explains why soldiers could stay awake for days on end to blitz Holland and Russia, how Hitler depended on it personally to keep him working around the clock and, perhaps, why they lost the war.  80 watts.

The Keys of Redemption, Mark Bowlin, is the fifth in what started out as a trilogy of the 36th Infantry Division in World War II, a series of novels that follows two Texas cousins through the horrific grinds of Salerno, Naples, the Rapido River, and in this book, Anzio.  If I find myself stranded on a desert island, I want all of five of books in the box that floats up to me.  Bowlin has created a cast of soldiers, Italians, a few Germans, and occasional Irish priests, spies, and café dwellers that draw you in and keep you awake. 100 watts.

Reading Now:

The Undefeated, George Horvath, memoir  of a Hungarian who fled when the Nazis invaded but who  nevertheless was imprisoned by the Stalinist government after the war.

The Birthday Boys, Beryl Bainbridge, a novel written as the tales of the men who went on Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole in 1910.

Where my Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks, the novel of a lonely British psychiatrist who receives an invitation from a stranger, a French doctor, to join him because the Frenchman supposedly served with his father, who died in World War I.

 And, what’s On the Nightstand:

A Fable, William Faulkner

Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

A Hero in France, Alan Furst

The Corfu Trilogy, Gerald Durrell

Summer is just too short.  So much to read, so little time….

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Spring Bookstand Cleaning

It’s Spring again.

My roses are growing up into the oak branches and the irises have blossomed for the season.  Our lawn is (temporarily) green and …

the sounds of hammers and saws and boomboxes pound in my ears, the smell of paint fumes fills my study, and there is chaos in every corner.  We have chosen to live through the renovation of our home.  Even reading is hard, with more books in my queue than on my nightstand.  Let’s review one or two of them.

If this is your first On the Nightstand, I rate the books I review on watts:  a 100 watt book keeps me awake all night, a 20 watt book puts me to sleep right away, and there are lots of watts in between.  So, here’s what has kept me up nights:

William Boyd, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, a woman who was born while her father was away at the war.  Amory becomes fascinated with photography and documents the world that unfolded around her – Hitler’s Blackshirts, France during the war, American fashion, and Vietnam.  It is a solid 100 watt read.

Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral and The Hundred Days, are the stories of sailor Jack Aubrey and his friend, spy-surgeon Stephen Maturin, extraordinary men who can sail a worn out three-masted ship around the world and spy out Napoleon’s double agents but who also are utterly incapable of caring for their homes and families.  Aubrey wins his war but loses his deck in the first novel; Maturin foils Napoleon’s spies but loses his wife in the second.  Intimate, detailed, and brilliant 100 watt novels of the period.

But, David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas, let me down with Slade House.   It is the supposedly-scary story of people who disappear in a haunted house that disappears for years at a time until, every ninth October, its ghouls need to replenish themselves with fresh souls.  Sigh…. 60 watts, tops.

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars, is a different history of World War I, of the people who opposed the war and tried to bring world leaders to a peace table before they destroyed civilization.  They were rewarded with isolation, imprisonment, and even the firing squad yet, in the end, the leaders they had tried to persuade came to accept that they were right.  90 watts.

In the Queue:

I’m excited that my friend Mark Bowlin now has the fourth book out in the Texas Gun Club series.  The Keys of Redemption should arrive any day, and I can’t wait to read it.  I’m also gearing up to read Blitzed, by Norman Ohler, the role that the German pharmaceutical industry played in WW2 medical experimentation and its ancestry to modern drug companies.

I’m returning to Oxford in July to resume work under Professor Miles; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson will be my source for course work in creative writing, setting out the fine line novelists follow in separating facts from making things up.  And, in the meantime, I’m reading Birth of a Nation by Julian Rathbone, the story of an … unusually hairy… man who might be the Duke of Wellington’s bastard, or the child of a Spanish priest, or of a French camp follower, or…

And, neither last nor least is A Fable, by William Faulkner, winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

My nightstand is full, and what a great problem to have.

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A Year for Travel……

December, 2016:

2016 was a year of travel. It took me to Maine and Colorado and Montana but most of my best travels were on my nightstand.

If this is your first On the Nightstand, I review and rate my reads on watts – a 100-watt book keeps my night light on while a 20-watt book puts me right to sleep. This is my year-end list so I won’t watt the books here, but none would be here if I didn’t enjoy them and if I didn’t think you would as well. So, where did I go in 2016? Let’s start with Binge Fiction.

Elena Ferrante took me to Italy. In My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, she led me through gritty Naples, fashionable Naples, factory Naples, and side trips to artful Florence and upper crust Genoa.


Sometimes breathtaking, sometimes infuriating, and never put down, these four novels take us through post-war Italy in the company of two little girls and their friends and family: the mafia, the poor, the elite, and the miserable. These are my Books of the Year. Literally, I could not put them down. Read these books, then give them to someone and make a friend.

Hilary MantelWolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies brought me to Tudor England. She writes with lyric grace, humanizing a villain, villainizing Anne Boleyn, taking the gloss from Sir Thomas More’s bonfires of Protestants and unfolding the intrigue by which a blacksmith’s son despised by nearly everyone conducted the affairs of Henry VIII. Superb!

Patrick O’Brian sailed me across the seven seas during the wars between Napoleon and England. Just this year I’ve read Master and Commander, (Mediterranean), Post Captain, (France and Sussex), HMS Surprise, (the Indian subcontinent), The Mauritius Command, (South Africa and the Indian Ocean), The Ionian Mission, (Greece and the Aegean), The Reverse of the Medal (London), and The Wine Dark Sea, (Chile and Peru). Engrossing!

There are thrillas  on my nightstand as well. In The Assassins, Gayle Lynds takes us into Washington and Maryland and by private jet to North Africa and Baghdad to track down who is killing whom to get their hands on Saddam’s lost treasure, while in Dark Angel Don Helin races through the Pentagon, a suburban DC hospital, and a sleepy beach town to find out who is murdering soldiers – and who is trying to hack into a drone. In An Event In Autumn, Henning Mankell (Wallender series) digs up a body in a Swedish farmhouse near the Baltic Sea, while in Marina Carlos Ruiz Zafon, (Shadow of the Wind) creeps with me through a gothic mansion and an abandoned cemetery looking for spirits in BarcelonaPaula Hawkins took me for a ride in London’s suburbs with The Girl on the Train, who sees a murder in a backyard as her train rolls by (or does she?). And, in this wonderful cross-over fiction, Alana White walked me through medieval Florence in her Renaissance fiction The Sign of the Weeping Angel, where Guid’Antonio Vespucci must find a killer, a kidnapper, and a priest who is making a painting of the Virgin Mary seem to cry, all just to save the Florentine Republic from the clutches of conniving pope Sixtus IV.

Non-Fiction: In A Week at the Airport, Alain de Boton leads us into parts of airports we never see. We learn why there are airport chapels (installed back when planes routinely dropped out of the sky), meet bookshop employees who don’t read books, bask in luxury lounges that ordinary us can never enter, and commiserate with exhausted employees who can’t find lost bags or lost children or who have mental breakdowns when telling families that the plane they are waiting on has crashed. If you fly, you MUST read this book.

My favorite non-fiction author is Norman Lewis, who discovered that he was assigned to the British intelligence corps in WWII solely because he had blue eyes. In A Tomb in Seville, he walks us through Spain to look for the lost grave of an in-law, just before the civil war. And, also in Spain, Adam Hochschild gives us Spain in our Hearts, a history of the mostly-American Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish civil war and of the mostly-American expats who volunteered for that dress rehearsal for WW2. It is a chilling prelude to World War II and a good look into the souls of a hardy band of Americans who wanted to defeat fascism eighty-odd years ago.

And, my non-fiction book of the year: The General vs. the President, by H.W. Brands. When the swaggering elitist MacArthur wanted to use nuclear bombs in the Korean War, and the soft-spoken president Truman refused, the stage was set for the greatest clash of wills the American public could envision. Dr. Brands is a brilliant writer. His history of the Korean War, of the early Cold War, and of carefully guarded secrets that kept a third world war from erupting in the atomic age is a gripping book, very well-written. Given that current President-Elect doesn’t want to read intelligence briefings, it also is very timely.


I hope these help you with your reading list.

See you in April.



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From Tet to Tet in Vietnam: March 10-11, 1968



The last North Vietnamese attack of the January Tet offensive began on March 10, 1968, when NVA soldiers scaled a cliff at Phou Pha Thi, Laos, to destroy an American radar site that directed airstrikes on North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Lima Site 85 was manned by the Air Force 1st Combat Evaluation Group. They were ordered to continue operations despite intelligence that said an assault was imminent.After an artillery bombardment and commando assault on the radar transmitters, more than 3000 North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao overran the site. Facing impossible odds, the Americans displayed unimaginable courage to destroy their equipment rather than evacuate; almost every one of them died. The only American survivors were one forward air controller, five technicians, and two CIA personnel.

The destruction of this site made freedom of movement on the Ho Chi Minh trail much easier and enabled North Vietnam to organize a second offensive, called Tet II, that struck all over South Vietnam, beginning in May.
While the Tet offensive was a brutal military defeat for the communist forces, Tet had unintended consequences. Rather than agree to begin peace negotiations, the North rejected diplomacy because of a perceived weakness in the American public’s support of the war. And, more immediately, American combat units wanted revenge.
On March 16, this story of revenge, titled Courage, and Hope, will be published for subscribers to First Draft. If you don’t already subscribe to First Draft, sign up here or send me an email at jack@jackwlondon.com and I’ll make sure you get it.  – Jack

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