Arts & Letters Book Recommender

‘War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944’

The United States suffered its biggest defeat of World War II in the Philippines. More American soldiers were captured there than in any other campaign in U.S. military history. The number of Filipino soldiers who surrendered dwarfed the U.S. totals. Despite that, after the surrender of U.S. forces, the war in the Philippines continued in a guerilla struggle.

“War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944,” by James Kelly Morningstar, documents that struggle. It is the first generally accessible attempt to compile the guerilla struggle in the Philippines into a single, coherent story.

Morningstar starts by describing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the conventional struggle that followed. He shows the difficulties faced by Allied forces in the Philippines, both U.S. and Filipino. He captures the tensions between the U.S. and Philippine governments. The Philippines were a reluctant colony of the United States but on a path to independence when Japan invaded. The nascent Philippine Army was still forming and unprepared. U.S. forces were underequipped, despite major commitments of aircraft.

Surprisingly, no preparations for guerrilla warfare were made before Allied conventional military forces collapsed. Morningstar shows how Washington exacerbated the collapse of conventional resistance. The resistance springing up after U.S. forces surrendered was spontaneous, a reaction to thuggish Japanese behavior and cruelty. In other cases, Morningstar shows that it was the result of soldiers, American and Filipino, refusing to surrender while still capable of fighting, or exploiting Japan’s inability to occupy all of the Philippines.

Morningstar traces how these disconnected movements began communicating with each other, fought each other, and eventually began merging into a coherent movement. Simply establishing communications with General Douglas MacArthur (then the supreme commander, Southwest Pacific Area) in Australia took months, and over a year passed before any supplies began flowing to the Philippine resistance.

Morningstar shows how the resistance denied Japan many of the resources the Philippines could have supplied. Its most important contribution was giving MacArthur the leverage needed to force Allied landings in the Philippines rather than Formosa.

The story was difficult to capture. The opening of the guerrilla war was chaotic and disorganized. Some guerrilla bands may have been snuffed out before having their actions recorded. Documentation was secondary to survival. Regardless, Morningstar does a good job. He manages to place the chaos into a larger picture, accurately capturing the outline of the struggle and its consequences. “War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944” offers fascinating reading about a difficult and dirty battle.

“War and Resistance in the Philippines, 19421944,” by James Kelly Morningstar, Naval Institute Press, 2021.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. His website is

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

Inside the Space Shuttle Mission Control

The space shuttle carried 2 to 8 people into space when it flew. Most of us don’t realize that a shuttle mission required a crew as large as that of a modern U.S. Navy cruiser. More than 300 flight controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston “flew” the mission from 20 stations in the Mission Control Building.

“Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992,” by Marianne J. Dyson, tells the story of those people and the Flight Control Room (FCR) at the heart of Mission Control.

The FCR was what the public thought of as Mission Control, the room televised during shuttle missions. It can be thought of as the ship’s bridge for shuttle missions. Dyson describes the FCR, its history, its layout, its role within Johnson Space Center, and how it worked.

The book’s real focus is the people running shuttle missions during the shuttle program’s early years. Dyson spends a chapter on each Mission Control station, describing what that station did, telling who the people at each station were and how they supported missions.

She starts with “the Trench,” at the front of the FCR. The bottom row of consoles, the Trench handled critical shuttle engineering activities: propulsion (fuel supply), data processing, guidance and rendezvous, trajectory and flight dynamics, and ground controller.

During Mission 51F (in July 1985), one of the shuttle’s three main engines shut down. A second was reported overheating. Dyson shows Flight Dynamics Officer Brian Perry, assisted by Jenny Howard at the booster console, making a split-second decision to press on, disregarding an errant temperature sensor—and their action saved the mission.

Author Marianne Dyson and her husband Thornton Dyson on the cover of the ebook for “Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992.” (Courtesy Marianne Dyson)

Dyson continues up the rows showing how the remaining stations played important roles, if not normally as time critical as Trench positions. They ranged from payloads to the flight director. Some are well known, such as the flight director, who “captains” the mission, and CAPCOM (capsule communicator), who talks to the orbiter crew.

Others, such as MMACS (mechanical, maintenance, arm and crew systems), are obscure but critical. MMACS such as Paul Dye were shuttle handymen, dealing with numerous mechanical glitches. Dye scrubbed one mission with five minutes to launch when a system threatened to fail. A tough call, but it proved correct.

Dyson, an award-winning author, was there. She was a flight activities officer; her husband, Thornton E. Dyson, was a guidance officer. Both were in the FCR on the shuttle’s first flight. “Shuttle Mission Control” is an intimate look at a remarkable team.

“Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992,” by Marianne J. Dyson, self-published by Marianne Dyson, 2021.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. He is a former Shuttle navigator. His website is

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

Norton Juster died in March 2021. He was an architect, as well as an author in his spare time. Despite an impressive career as an architect, he is best known as an author.

“The Phantom Tollbooth” was Juster’s best-known book. It appeared in 1961 and has been in print ever since.

Milo, a child, never knew what to do with himself. Nothing interested him. For Milo, everything seemed a waste of time. One day he comes home to find a surprise package. It contains a tollbooth kit, a map to the Lands Beyond, and coins for the trip.

Milo, with nothing better to do, builds the tollbooth and drives a long-unused electric car among his toys through it. Once through the booth, he discovers he’s no longer in his room. He is traveling on an unfamiliar country highway.

The Lands Beyond prove to be the Realm of Knowledge. The Kingdom of Wisdom has split into competing kingdoms run by the first king’s sons. Azaz the Unabridged is king of Dictiononopolis, the realm of words. The Mathemagician is the Ruler of Digitopolis, the realm of numbers.

Milo soon assumes a quest, rescuing the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, exiled by their uncles, Azaz and the Mathemagician. Without them, there is neither rhyme nor reason.

Milo encounters, is assisted by, and is opposed by fantastic characters. He is aided by Tock (a watchdog who ticks) and the Humbug. He has to get beyond Expectations and escape the Doldrums. Before freeing the princesses, he meets the Which, Faintly Macabre (in charge of using words wisely), and encounters the symphony of light and battles the demons of ignorance.

Juster never wrote a sequel. Readers, like Milo at the book’s end, realize another visit would have been superfluous.

“The Phantom Tollbooth” is seemingly a children’s book, but viewing it as only a children’s book is dismissive. It’s replete with puns, word plays, and double meanings. The book is an allegory that can be read on many levels. Some are best appreciated as an adult.

You may have read “The Phantom Tollbooth” as a child. You may have missed it. Regardless, it’s worth rereading or reading this year as an adult. Juster presented a world where the realm of knowledge was threatened by the demons of ignorance. As it is today, it was also threatened by the quarrels of those charged with preserving wisdom.

“The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster, Random House; 35th ed., 1989.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. His website is

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

An American Greatness—Willa Cather’s ‘O, Pioneers!’

Every once in a while, slow and steady wins the race.

One of America’s greatest literary regionalists, Nebraskan Willa Cather (1873–1947), has only slowly and gradually been gaining recognition over the past century as one of our country’s greatest novelists. Indeed, her first novel, “Alexander’s Bridge,” came out 109 years ago in serialized format in McClure’s Magazine. The following year, 1913, she published her first novel in full novel form, the stunning “O, Pioneers!”, which takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem.

For nearly a century, though, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have overshadowed this brilliant writer from the central Great Plains, and it didn’t help her that she was literarily a romantic, politically anti-Progressive and anti-war, and, by the 1930s, skeptical of the New Deal. As strong as her reputation had been in the ’10s and ’20s—with unadulterated praise from such formidable critics as H.L. Mencken—it began to crumble at the hands of the “literary realists” in the 1930s. To them, she insipidly took the worst of life and praised the heroic. Though a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1923, she never recovered her reputation in her lifetime, and her best friend burned her final, uncompleted manuscript, “Hard Punishments.” Since then, her reputation has risen and fallen over the years, but, today, thankfully, it is mostly rising. The state of Nebraska (culturally and politically) has wisely promoted Cather’s reputation as well.

Cather wrote “Alexander’s Bridge” as the kind of novel she thought New York critics would like. She wrote “O, Pioneers!” not only for family, friends, and neighbors, but also, most critically, for herself. “I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old.” She found the new novel “absorbing”—far more so than when writing “Alexander’s Bridge”—and she, to her own amazement, realized that with “O, Pioneers!”, “there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong.” As the book was written for her own benefit, Cather ignored all the things that she assumed the critics would demand. As such, she feared that no one would think much of the novel, with its “slow-moving story, without ‘action,’ without ‘humor,’ without a ‘hero’; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards—set in Nebraska, of all places!”

Yet, what Cather did, was create an American myth, the difficult—slow but steady—story of a pioneer, a Swedish woman named Alexandra (no relation to Alexander in her first novel, but absolutely connected to that half-god conqueror of the ancient world, known as “The Great”) who yearns to love the land and succeeds in doing so. After all, when the story opens, Cather introduces us to Hanover (Red Cloud), Nebraska, which is doing everything in its power not to be blown across the prairie in a gust of winter fury. The town, it seems, felt the ferocity of the plain’s wind below as well as around it. But when Alexandra looks upon the local area known as the Great Divide, it succumbs to her will. It is worth quoting Cather, here, at length, in all of her myth-making glory:

“When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to find a passage in American literature that better captures the spirit of American individualism and the frontier, the spirit of romantic longing and of temperate embracing. Cather, to be sure, captures all of the essence of Americanness in this passage. Contrary to critics who see nothing but the erasure of Native Americans, Cather’s point is about human love for the particular harsh Plains landscape, a love that is perhaps unique to farmers who understand every inch of a region’s rises and drops.

“O, Pioneers!”, not surprisingly, follows the story of Alexandra Bergson and her neighbors, Bohemian, French, Norwegian, and Swedish. Though not Roman Catholic herself, Cather writes so lovingly of the Catholic Church and the Catholic immigrants to Nebraska that she—as Notre Dame philosopher Ralph McInerny once said—might as well have been a Catholic in all that she did. It is, after all, in the Catholic Church that Cather finds the will to defy death and sin, nihilism and shame.

In her own understanding of art, which she often made explicit, Cather claimed that the true poet is immune to the drives of the marketplace. “Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin,” she wrote, but “economics and art are strangers.” Almost certainly, thinking about the Progressives and the New Dealers, Cather meant that economists are the materialists and utilitarians who view the world as nothing more than a set of choices based on costs and benefits. Regardless, the Nebraskan continued, the poetry of a poet is “his individuality [and] the themes of true poetry, of great poetry, will be the same until all the values of human life have changed and all the strongest emotional responses have become different—which can hardly occur until the physical body itself has fundamentally changed.”

“O, Pioneers!” turned out to be the first of Cather’s several books on the frontier, and her next novels—especially “My Antonia” and “Death Comes for the Archbishop”—are not only superior, but, arguably, the greatest novels written in the American experience. Yes, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, step aside! Contrary to their wallowing nihilisms, Cather’s work is always humane and gracious.

In her 1913 novel, Cather wrote: “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.” Amen, Willa, amen. The same is as true of a writer as it is of a magazine as it is of a critic. And it’s just as true in 2021 as it was in 1913.

Slow and steady …

Brad Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk chair in American studies at Hillsdale College. He would like to thank Liberty Fund for sponsoring a conference on Cather and Rose Wilder Lane, March 10–11, 2021, and for Anne Fortier’s comment on Alexandra as a conqueror.

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

Looking for Signs of Life: ‘The Disappearance of Rituals’

We may be communicating with one another daily, but are we relating? This significant question has been asked in our society in recent years, and it needs to be addressed. Byung-Chul Han’s new book, “The Disappearance of Rituals,” makes useful and necessary philosophical distinctions that allow the reader to further contemplate man’s place in a chaotic world and possibly change not only the way we perceive the world but also to encourage creation rather than destruction.

“Rituals stabilize life,” writes Han. The repetition of rituals leads to a meaningful reflection on the events that we experience. In addition, Han notes that “every religious practice is an exercise in attention,” thus we have to find ways to take care of our souls. One of the ways to move beyond an empty state of being is to not only be aware of the spiritual problems our society is facing but also to learn again how to “linger,” or to be, mindfully, in the present moment. There are many objects that have become part of our lives (such as smartphones) that negate lingering, but it is always within our own power to choose a different path.

This path involves a firm recognition of the necessity of community, as opposed to the collective. We acknowledge our own personhood by rejecting any form of one-size-fits-all ideology, and thus humanize not only ourselves, but others as well. If society is rooted in rituals that imply permanence, then it would follow that each individual would contribute to the stability of the society as opposed to the cruel destabilization of immutable ideas that make us human. As Han writes, “We must defend an ethics of beautiful forms” against the “formless morality.”

According to Han, “rituals are symbolic acts,” and because of the dismissal of the symbols (including rituals) that hold society together, we have been engaging only in production and consumption. Han includes religion, festivals, and morality that recognize beauty and other values among rituals. Symbols rely on the recognition of something higher than ourselves, and “symbolic perception … is a perception of the permanent,” which then, in turn, stabilizes our lives. Today’s perception and use of time “lacks solid structure.”

“It is not a house but an erratic stream. It disintegrates into a mere sequence of point-like presences; it rushes off,” but symbolic rituals can make us feel as if we have found home, he writes.

The idea of home must be, in some way, related to a larger tradition. Drawing on Jewish tradition, Han notes that “Sabbath consecrates the work of creation. It is not mere idleness. Rather, it is an essential part of creation.” There is a sense of historical continuity when people are engaged in such rituals. Quoting Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, Han makes the case that the Sabbath is a “‘holiday of resting and of closely reflecting,’ a ‘holiday of completion.’” Han implies that there is a sense of creative inwardness, a reflection on our inherent dignity and humanity.

By contrast, Han notes that “festivals such as Easter, Whitsun, and Christmas are key narrative moments within an overall narrative which provides meaning and orientation.” While a ritual such as a Sabbath is exemplified by sacred silence and human interiority, a festival such as Easter is an experience of sacred utterance and human exteriority. Both, however, deal with a relationship between a singular person and a community.

Cover for The Disappearance of Rituals
Book cover for “The Disappearance of Rituals” by Byung-Chul Han. (Courtesy of Polity Press)

Han’s book is not simply a short philosophical treatise on the loss of spiritual and embodied life. Rather, by diagnosing the ills, Han creates a space of perception and thought that might take us to a better path. By pointing out the depth and gravity of the problem, Han is not offering a prescriptive and fast solution, which would defeat the purpose and depth of rituals themselves. Rather, his incredible thoughtfulness on the interior and exterior life of an individual and a community is leading us to consider the absurdity of today’s existential entrapment.

In many ways, Han’s message is simple: We must see each other face to face again. If the human face is removed from the very notion of what it means to be a human being, then how can we expect to leave the hamster wheel of joylessness? If the human face is “canceled,” then our relationships are fundamentally changed. A free and flourishing society functions properly only when human dignity is affirmed.

One of the most important aspects of Han’s book is a simple acknowledgment that human beings are not ciphers or bits of data. Rather, to be human is to have an interior life and a soul that, like any life form, needs tending and care. Rituals—be they festivals, or of a religious nature, or simply sitting down with family and friends and sharing a meal—are a way to not only connect but to relate. Every time we engage in a ritual, we affirm that human beings are relational and that our relationships transcend the chaotic impositions of the current times.

“The Disappearance of Rituals” by Byung-Chul Han. Translated from German by Daniel Steuer. Polity Press, 2020.

Emina Melonic writes about books, films, and culture. Her work has been published in The New Criterion, Claremont Review of Books, Law and Liberty, and Splice Today, among others.

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

‘Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill’

As 1920 ended, Winston Churchill seemed headed for obscurity. The British failure at Gallipoli brought his political career to collapse in 1916. While partially restored before the Great War ended, he was stalemated in a dead-end cabinet position as 1921 opened. His judgment was widely questioned. He was experiencing financial difficulties.

When 1921 ended, everything seemed changed. His political star was rising again, and his finances were secure. Far from heading to insignificance, Churchill was again heading to a destiny of leadership.

“Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill,” by David Stafford, tells the story of Churchill’s transformative year. It was a year of great opportunity and great tragedy for Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s professional fortunes reach a nadir as the year opens. His anti-Bolshevik policies against Soviet Russia collapse. Churchill then becomes colonial secretary and leads the Cairo Conference that reshapes the Middle East. As colonial secretary, Churchill becomes deeply involved in negotiating a settlement in Ireland. He would see this through to a successful conclusion. In turn, his efforts lead to a positive reevaluation of his judgment. Churchill also closes the year inking a lucrative book contract, sealing his reputation as an author as well as a politician.

(Book cover image courtesy of Yale University Press)

Stafford shows the role of family and heritage in Churchill’s life during this tumultuous year. Churchill gained stability from his marriage to Clementine and his circle of family and friends. An inheritance unexpected that year provided Churchill financial independence. Churchill’s Irish roots helped seal the Irish deal. Yet family also offered disruption. A beloved cousin made common cause with the Soviets that year, sculpting Lenin. His brother-in-law committed suicide. Churchill’s mother died in July, his youngest daughter in August. Stafford shows how Churchill soldiered on despite tragedies.

Stafford breaks his story into seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn, providing an arc to the story. A cold, barren winter leads to a spring in which the seeds in Churchill’s future success are planted. A fruitful summer follows, and Churchill harvests the fruits of his endeavors in the autumn.

“Oblivion or Glory” is a story about the value of perseverance in the face of disappointment. It shows the importance of patience and the necessity for seizing opportunity when it appears. It offers fascinating insights into Churchill’s character using an almost-forgotten year from his life. It was a year that rescued Churchill from oblivion and set him on a path to glory.

“Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill,” by David Stafford, Yale University Press, 2021, 288 pages.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. His website is