Thursday, May 12, 2016

Playing To The Edge by Michael Hayden

General Hayden is a past director of both the NSA and CIA while the country was undergoing changes in the intelligence community under presidents Bush 43 and Obama. In any self-written book by someone whose main occupation is not writing, there is apt to be a need for a good editor who truly understands the subject and who can guide the writer into satisfying revelations and stay away from minutiae.  This book is no exception.

His stated intent is to have a more open discussion about U.S. intelligence.  He was successful in talking more about our intelligence community than have some others in similar positions.  However,  nobody with any understanding of the dangers of a complete revelation of all things intelligence-related should ever get indepth when discussing methods and the general appropriately stayed on the safe side.  He also appeared to believe he was being fair in letting the chips fall where they may, yet some glaring omissions that a truly neutral author would have addressed (Cheney's outing of a CIA official as a vendetta for her husband telling the truth) and the politically-correct but technically incorrect taking of blame for the invasion of Iraq lessened the impact of some of his points.

In the end, the general did understand that there is a great distrust of our intelligence community and that is an unfair and unfortunate situation when that community is trying its best to defend the nation. The reason for that distrust is based partially on a lack of understanding of what they should do, a misunderstanding of what they actually do based on popular literary and media portrayals of agencies both real and imagined, and some past deeds that were truly wrong.  He does make suggestions on how to go forward to address how in a democracy an intelligence community can be both effective and still safely be guided by elected officials.  There probably is no perfect solution to this conundrum, but General Hayden addressed it enough near the end of the book to make it a worthwhile read for those interested in the subject.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Murakami novels have been in the blog before, but for those who've not read one, it's helpful to understand what underlies many of the stories.  Mr. Murakami approaches the question that most, if not all, religions try to answer about the existence of other dimensions for a soul (Heaven, Nirvana, Valhalla,  etc.) to reside and possible interactions between that place and our daily lives.

In Kafka On The Shore, a fifteen year old boy runs away from home, changes his surname to Kafka, and ends up in a distant town.  At the same time, an old man, who was greatly changed by a bizarre occurrence when he was a child, lives a simple life in the same town from which Kafka fled.  He is compelled by a spirit to murder, then make his way to the same town where Kafka fled.  They both encounter helpful people, other spirits, and Kafka gains a glimpse into another plane of existence.  As the story moves along, there are philosophical discussions about life, books, and music.  Oh, and since Kafka was cursed with a Oedipal prophecy, there's sex.

This book has been evaluated as being a good Murakami tale, but not his best.  Perhaps I've reached critical mass from reading his novels, but I think I got closer to understanding what the author is working through from his many visits to these multi-dimensional tales than from any of his other stories.  It's the kind of book where I'm kicking myself for not taking notes as I was reading.

If you like Murakami or similar authors who intertwine multiple lives, time frames and spiritual dimensions, then this one is worth your time.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

To Conquer The Air by James Tobin

Learned men right up to the early 1900's thought that powered flight was an unattainable goal.  That thinking did not stop some men from trying. The Wright brothers' achievement of the first powered flight was one of those groundbreaking events that is all the more remarkable when you understand the Wright brothers modest background and the high esteem of those with whom they competed. James Tobin does an excellent job of blending the people, their backgrounds, and the historical circumstances to present a riveting tale.

Beyond this interesting broad story is the recurring theme in similar stories of other breakthroughs. Men deemed the leaders of their field look back on history and accept the thoughts of those who came before as most of the basis for moving forward.  They invent often at their desks and less in the field.  Those like the Wright brother's achieve by also doing research but moving beyond the accepted truths when testing shows it's necessary. Through hard work, extensive testing and perseverance they made multiple breakthroughs in near obscurity. Even after multiple successful flights, it took years for the world to believe their claims, at least in part due to avoidance of the press and their desire for secrecy.

For those interested in the birth of manned flight and a tutorial on excellent engineering, this book is a must. If you just like an interesting bit of history very well told, you will love this book.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

 
Time travel stories can be fun.  Normally someone goes back in time once or more times and consequences often are revealed in the current version of the present.  Ms. North envisions an interesting variation on the theme by having some individuals return back to their birth after they die and remember all or much of what transpired in their previous lives.
   That is the case with Harry August, born into modest circumstances in post-WWI England.  Upon his first death, he returns to the same circumstances and believes he is going mad once he's old enough to remember the past but baffled by the memories. In subsequent lives he starts to understand and is eventually helped by others of his kind.  That's the foundation of the story.
   The story itself is an interesting speculation on what any of us might do if faced with the same situation.  It is saved from being endless variations on a theme when he meets one of his own kind who intends to break the rules and effect everyone and everything.  The remainder of the book is his interaction with that person and its consequences.
   Ms. North's writing is clean and her plot makes sense for the most part.  As expected with any scenario that has folks recycling like this, you can start to quibble that if this happened then that could not happen, but there's little of that and a pretty good adherence to the principles of existence as laid out by the author.
   Amanda gave me the book after having read it herself (thanks Amanda).  She liked it more in the earlier that the later section.  I've not discussed it with her but I liked it throughout but would have changed the ending just a little.  Why don't you read it and see what you think.  It's worth your time (at least once).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


   A neighbor recommended this book, saying it was a word-of-mouth best seller in Europe.  It took a while for me to get the book and then a couple of chapters to get into it, but it did turn out to be a good read.
   Ove is an incredibly rigid and, at least in the beginning, a fairly unlike-able Swedish man who just wants everyone to follow the rules and leave him alone. It turns out he may be even more tired of living with his fellow man, but that's for later in the book.
   While on patrol in his neighborhood he meets an interesting pregnant emigre from Iran, her inept but friendly husband and their charming daughters.  It is that relationship that draws Ove kicking and screaming into positively reacting to an ever-widening circle of friends and neighbors.  There's also a good deal of humor sprinkled with some pathos that keeps the story moving right along.
   This is a good read, but my Ove-like reaction to treacle was kicked into high gear by the epilogue where every single person at the end had the best possible out come, thanks to Ove.  Really?  Can't someone have broken a leg or something?  Still, it's a nice pallet cleanser from some recent heavier fare and worth greeting Spring with some optimism. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.” 
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

So I should start this post by stating a fact: I love Elizabeth Gilbert's writing. If you don't love Elizabeth Gilbert's writing, you'll dislike this book. But also, if you hate Elizabeth Gilbert's writing, maybe you just hate wonderful writing? Is my guess.

I've read four books by Gilbert, all that I'd rate above-average; this one is no exception. And I think I read it at the exact perfect time in my life, because I've been pretty all-consumed over the last 7 months or so with this little smiley being that we created last year. Which is wonderful. But lack of sleep and time does not, I've found, lend itself well to feeling creatively fulfilled. And I, for one, am someone who sort of needs to be creatively fulfilled, even if it's in the form of just writing my silly blog a few times per week.

So, one of my goals for the coming months is to find a space for this again. HOWEVER, if you're like "oh my God, gag me. This sounds way to drippy and creative-y for my taste" then DON'T STOP READING. Because it's not. Gilbert has a beautiful way of eloquently putting into words what most people cannot (including me, apparently, judging by this review so far) and then giving it to you straight and being like "Quit complaining and blaming everything else for why you're not the creative person you know yourself to be. And just go be that person already, whiner." (I'm paraphrasing). Or, to put it into someone else's words entirely:

“Big Magic is a celebration of a creative life…Gilbert’s love of creativity is infectious, and there’s a lot of great advice in this sunny book…Gilbert doesn’t just call for aspiring artists to speak their truth, however daffy that may appear to others; she is showing them how.” —Washington Post

And no, I don't think of myself as an aspiring artist, though Gilbert would likely word-slap me for saying so - I'm just...someone who likes to create, feels better when I'm creating something, small or large, and loves to feel inspired about it again! I actually think everyone in the family will like this book. With the watercolor classes, woodblock classes, and various writing ventures, I think it may resonate with all of you!














Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

 
 Richard Flanagan has been in the blog once before in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." That Man Booker Prize winning book contained graphic and intimate scenes of a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in WWII.  "Gould's Book of Fish" is an earlier novel set mostly in an Australian prison run by the colonial English in the first part of the 19th century.  It too is a prize winning effort (Commonwealth Prize) but one that almost defies description.
   The main character is a petty thief and forger who moves out of England to America and ultimately to Australia, where his latest run-in with the law gets him to an island prison off the coast of Australia.  In one way the story runs mostly in a straight line from getting on the island to his end (death?).  In another way, so many parts are so surreal, what with his name changes combined with the bizarre behavior of the prison staff, that you come away wondering how much is real and how much is in his head.  Since a novel by definition is a fabricated story, you may wonder what is the point of asking what is real.
   Well, a story can seem more real than true events or sometimes be almost dream-like yet get at some other truth.  I believe the latter is Mr. Flanagan's intent. It is an extremely ambitious attempt at story telling on multiple levels that succeeds in an astounding fashion.  Among the truths are the capricious nature and brutality of the English penal system of the time, the many forms of love, art is in the eye of the beholder, the strong write history, and much more.
   Normally citing someone else's book blurb just isn't done, but the Glasgow Herald nailed it "When we put it down, we'll either feel exposed to one of the greatest literary hoaxes in history or that we've just read what some are already describing as the first great book of the twenty-first century.  Or who knows? Maybe both?"
 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red Notice by Bill Browder

 
The author comes from a communist heritage (grandpa ran for the U.S. Presidency as the head of the Communist Party in 1936) but became wealthy by plunging into the wide-open stocks available in Eastern Europe and Russia after the disintegration of the USSR.  When one of the oligarchs, who snatched up the properties that were government- owned industries, manipulated the market to decrease the value of Mr Browder's holding, Mr. Putin stepped in on the side of Mr. Browder.  Mr. Browder figured Mr. Putin would make Russia a nation of laws. Sound like the guy we know?
   Soon Mr. Browder's holdings were under attack by what appeared to be government-backed actions and his company eventually had to get out of Russia. One of his associates stayed (he thought the legal system was fair), was arrested, tortured, and eventually died.
   If it sounds like the plot has been revealed and what's the reason for reading, this description doesn't do it justice.  The suspense and plot twists and turns are worth the reading. It is an interesting story, not just for the actions but also for the author's increased focus away from his business and toward justice for his brave associate.  A story we all should know.