The Lieutenants (Brotherhood of War series)

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The Brotherhood of War Series (or, part of it)

I doubt there is an author about whom I feel more conflicted than I feel about W.E.B. Griffin. And, of his many series, I doubt there is one that I like more — or feel more frustrated by — than the Brotherhood of War series.

Officially, this is a review just of The Lieutenants, the first book in the series, but unofficially, I have read through this series at least a half dozen times. I love these books, and I’m occasionally frustrated by that fact.

What’s wrong with these books

Aside from the fact that just about every character in the books would be considered a knuckle-dragging neanderthal by modern standards, I can get really frustrated by the way W.E.B. Griffin’s millionaire characters (and there’s at least one in each series) play the “I have money and influence” cards to get past seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Sure, a character who has a private airplane can be all over the country and take part in a lot of the action. I get that, and I don’t resent it. In fact, I wish all rich people were like Craig Lowell of the series.

On the other hand, at least once per book, there’s some problem that only gets solved because of the money and influence that Craig Lowell weilds. When so many other characters are working at overcoming actual obstacles, to have a character who seems to be the deus ex machina of the series can seem cheap.

Possibly worse than the role that money plays in the series, I genuinely resent how much of the plot is recapitulated in each subsequent book. By the time you’re three or four books into the series, it can feel like all you’re doing is re-reading things you just read. (I tend to binge these series.) If W.E.B. Griffen had decided to do without all of that, he’d have so many more pages in which things could actually happen. And I’d like that.

Why I keep coming back to these books

These books are like old friends to me. When I’m sick, or down, or just at loose ends, I like to return to them. Because even the playboy millionaire is the kind of person you like to return to. W.E.B. Griffin writes series the way record companies cast boybands: there’s the beautiful one, the unlikely warrior, the legit war hero, the starchy by-the-book one, the honorable German WWII veteran who was part of a plot against Hitler.

No matter how formulaic it sounds written down (and, considering it’s just about the exact same cast, but with different names, as you’ll find in his Honor Bound series, it’s clearly formulaic), Griffin does such a good job of writing the characters that it’s a genuine joy to spend time with them, to watch them overcome obstacles. (And to mourne when more than one of them is surprisingly killed.)

Even more than that, these books are much more about the brotherhood than about the war.

When my wife sees I’ve got the books back out again, I think she imagines me reading about soldiers jumping out of firing positions and overwhelming the enemy. There is remarkably little of that in the book. (In fact, what little combat there is — from post-WWII Greece to Korea and Vietnam — is almost incidental to the story.)

Instead, there is a group of officers struggling against ‘the system,’ whether it’s because someone who is too chickenshit (too literal with rules and regulations) wants them out, or whether it’s because they’re the inspired ones who can see the way things are going and they want to influence the development of the Army (and, in this series, of Army aviation, in particular).

As a middle child and life-long outsider, I can relate to the ones who feel themselves to be ‘outside’ the traditional system (here, the ‘ring knockers’ of West Point, also called the WPPA for West Point Protective Association). And, because this is fiction, the characters who you learn to like have a better than average chance of success.

That, more than anything else, is what keeps me coming back.

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The Hidden Life of Trees

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A book in its natural habitat

The serious tree scientists I know warned me off from reading this. “It’s unscientific,” they said. “He talks about trees wanting things and thinking. He has no way of knowing what they want or if they think.”

And, for a while, I didn’t read it.

Instead, I enjoyed the brief section on ‘how trees work’ in Hugh Johnson’s “Trees.” But it wasn’t enough and, eventually, I picked up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees.

Is it unscientific?

I don’t rightly know. There is talk of trees smelling and tasting, but then he explains exactly what he means and it’s clear that he’s using human-centered language to communicate with humans. I never felt he passed anything off as fact that wasn’t, and always clearly labeled speculation.

His level of anthropomorphizing trees can be seen in the way he talks about beech and oak trees ‘competing.’ That’s not a shocking use of the word in biology. (At least, not for us armchair biologists.)

Is it good?

Yes. An unqualified yes.

So much so that I thought it presented enough information, easily absorbed, for me to have the framework for my A Year in the Woods project. So, that’s great.

Now, though, a week or two after I’ve finished reading it, I have to say that I didn’t retain a ton of the information. Sure, there are things I learned: the younger trees leaf out first, because the ground warms up before the air, and spring ephemerals are dormant for ten months of the year and are a sign that a forest is at least 150 years old.

But, there’s a lot that I read and it blew my mind… and then I didn’t have any other information to connect it to in my head and it’s gone again.

So, it’s a great book and heartily recommended to anyone who likes trees or the forest, but it may be hard to absorb everything in one go. (If you’re like me.)