Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen

The U.S. military leadership seconded Lt. Col. David Kilcullen of the Australian Army to work with them on devising and testing a new counterinsurgency strategy that might allow the U.S. Army to extricate themselves from their "kinetic" engagements around the world. Things weren't going real well in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, and our military commitments were breaking the bank. Kilcullen calls himself a professional soldier, but he is also an anthropologist. This book is Kilcullen's attempt to explain his thinking on the worldwide Islamic insurgency and the best methods for the U.S. to try and counter it successfully. Kilcullen thought the U.S. intervention in Iraq was an extremely serious strategic error, but tried, as assistant to General Petraeus in 2007, to devise a method to stabilize the Iraqi population, reduce violence, and establish governance so that U.S. troops could effectively withdraw and leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

Kilcullen thinks globalization and anti-globilization, and overwhelming U.S. military dominance are drivers to conflict in the 21st century—that citizens of countries around the world become involved in conflicts not of their making when warring groups enter their “space.” They choose the least foreign “side” and fight for their group. In this book, Kilcullen first introduces successful attempts to reduce violence and increase local participation in governance and stabilization in Afghanistan, then sheds light on the conflicts in Iraq, and then discusses East Timor, where he earned his credentials as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the 1999. He then discusses Thailand, Europe and Pakistan. Trying to understand an ongoing conflict is extraordinarily difficult, but Kilcullen draws on his experience, research, and natural bent to establish a framework he insists can, will, and is working in various conflict theatres around the world.

I instinctively like what Kilcullen is saying and have an affinity for his natural respect for cultures living out their lives in remote areas of the world. He and I would agree that globalization and U.S. cultural dominance is not only unappealing to much of the world, it is central to many conflicts we become involved in. He suggests that American military power is so out of proportion to every other nations’ military expenditures and capabilities that an American military presence creates its own weather: it creates resistance and backlash because it gets in the face of other groups, cultures, nationalities. He suggests there may be times when we might even eschew overt military retaliation to a direct attack when the target is difficult to eliminate without killing innocents or involves a massive military presence, which would increase local distaste, distrust, and hatred. He instead suggests relying on generous aid and assistance, developing a relationship of trust and cooperation, working through local tribal leaders, deferring to local customs and keeping a small footprint so as not to create a larger backlash than necessary.

This line of thought is already central to our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has proponents, and detractors. In important ways, it needs to be discussed and tested over and over because each conflict and set of objective circumstances is so different, and results may vary widely depending on the locale and circumstances. But it is a remarkable change of mindset for military men and women, and places value and weight on different skill sets than have traditionally been recognized in our bureaucratic corps. It almost seems as though I can actually see a generational changing of the guard with the ascendancy of Kilcullen’s theories on counterinsurgency. Perhaps we are actually evolving as a species.

That having been said, the following quote is from a Time Magazine article dated April 11, 2011:
All told, U.S. military spending in 2011 will exceed $700 billion — the most since World War II. That amounts to more than half of all government discretionary spending. It represents 35% of total military spending on the planet. And yet it's doubtful that the idea of substantially reducing the defense budget was raised by either side during last week's [Congressional budget] negotiations.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

This is a mind-bending walk through The Art of the Con as practiced by con-master John Drewe, simultaneously and serially known as John Cockett, a different Mr. Cockett, Mr. Sussman, Mr. Green, Mr. Atwood, Mr. Martin, Mr. Bayard, and Mr. Coverdale.

John Drewe and the skilled painter John Myatt together perpetrated one of the longest-running and most extensive art frauds of the late 20th century, extending from London to America and the European continent, and from there around the world. Breathtaking high-wire stunts of impersonation and art forgery, archive-diving and modification, provenance creation and solicitation all came to a halt nearly a decade after it had begun when a few of the more than two hundred paintings Myatt had forged and sold came to the attention of New Scotland Yard’s chief of The Art and Antiques Squad, Dick Ellis.

The description of John Drewe and his fraud holds one kind of fascination; the gathering of evidence and the actual trial hold different thrills. John Drewe was undoubtedly one of the finest liar-performers ever uncovered, and in fact, the con has become known as John Drewe's long "performance piece" by insiders and investigators. Drewe kept such an enormous cache of personae in the air at the same time, and convinced so many of his rectitude, that one would simply love to see him act, as long as his mental acuity was not aimed at one’s life savings, nor one’s unprotected heart.

While all of this completely absorbing story holds interest for the reader, I especially loved the graceful way it ended. We learn of the take-down, the trials, the sentencing, and the after-trial outcomes. This is a marvelously-told story with lessons for all of us. I can absolutely recommend the audiobook narrated by Marty Peterson, though I did listen to it on slow speed. At normal speed I was getting so much info I couldn’t keep track of names and places.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn

This history does what every nonfiction title aspires to do: makes the reader want to run out and read as much as they can on the subject. That is exactly what I found myself doing today--looking in my public library for more. The Last Stand doesn't so much slake your thirst as inflame it. When I looked over the books on similar subject matter, I can see why. It was clear Philbrick used primary sources, but also built on what had come before: he consolidated information and didn't impede the forward momentum of the story. He added maps in the right places to clarify movements, and included photos which flesh out the characters.

This book is about the last stand of the Indians in America. Although the Battle of Little Bighorn was ostensibly a rout of the uniformed troops sent by the American government to move the Lakota off their given land to make way for gold rush settlers, it also marked the end of Lakota’s way of life and was the last concerted attempt to save it. The history is mired in myth, due to the death of all in Custer’s party, though there were other battalions there led by surviving commanders. Due to the personalities involved, and the necessarily self-serving nature of their reports, these “truths” can be difficult to reconcile, one with the other. At the same time, the American government in Washington also had reason to interpret the facts so as to preserve the notion of manifest destiny, westward expansion, and the heroics (rather than the possible disgrace) of their fighting force. Surviving warriors from the Indians tribes were interviewed extensively in the years following the Battle, and much richness of detail (and contradiction with evidentiary evidence) can be gleaned from their accounts.

What does come clear from the story as told by Philbrick is the great-man nature of Chief Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader and warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. Many wise words are attributed to the man from reports at the time, and Sitting Bull’s attention always seemed to focus on the safety and welfare of his people, rather than on revenge or rage at betrayals. Later, after the battle recounted in such detail here, we learn that Sitting Bull did finally lay down his arms, and was shuttled to a reservation, where he was killed in 1890 by a Lakota policeman.

The apparently first-hand testimonies of survivors of The Battle of Little Bighorn do not paint complimentary portraitures of their commanding officers. The sound, smell, heat, and intensity of the battlefield come to life in this account, and we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge of the end even as we begin reading. Learning the details of any military engagement brings its own horrors, but the facts of this devastation is particularly poignant when realizing that troops were being led by one commander deranged with drink, and another who felt no sense of urgency. All fought bravely in the end, to the end.

One last thing for the publishers: I borrowed this as an ebook from my library and subsequently learned that the book has photographs, both black and white and color. I am disappointed with how often photographs are not included in efiles with the text and wonder why it is so. I know it is technically possible to include them, since so many of the eCookbooks I get have full color. But even were I to read on a black-and-white ereader the black and white photos would add much to the enjoyment of this book. I would also suggest you save the map pdfs in a slightly larger size because they are so cramped as to be difficult to read.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Simply Great Breads by Daniel Leader with Lauren Chattman

Simply Great Breads: Sweet and Savory Yeasted Treats from America's Premier Artisan Baker

I wrote a review in a post before I tried the Yeasted Pancakes. Now I'm just going to rave about these: I have NEVER have I tasted anything to rival the creamy lightness of these pancakes. In fact, it is laughable that they are even called pancakes. They should have another name--like crepes have a different name because they have a different texture, these are a different class altogether. Maybe something like a pan-fried doughnut, but far more elegant and without the greasy overtones 'doughnut' implies. It has a melt-in-your-mouth not-too-sweet airy perfection that will take any added fruit, fruit sauce, or drizzle of maple syrup and make your family/guests swoon with pleasure. Best of all, you make the batter the night before and have a coffee before you do anything more strenuous than take the batter out of the frig.

At first I thought this a collection for entertaining. It has a marvelous set of breakfast breads, rolls, and specialties that one would probably not make every week for oneself, especially if one had a busy schedule, but may want to do as a special treat for family or if a guest were coming. Or perhaps if one had a tea shop, one could offer specials each day. The yeasted tarts and schiacciata, or flatbreads something like focaccia, make me think of brunches, afternoon teas, cool and sweetly delicious white wines, and casually elegant lunches for delighted and delightful friends. But you know what? I really like this collection so much I would probably use it to fill in all week when I run out of something--and to treat myself.

The array of flatbreads must be tried: Mana’eesh is a Middle Eastern olive oil-rich bread topped with dried thyme, sesame, and sumac. This was screamingly good in taste and texture. (Use some lemon peel if you have no sumac on hand.) But not only are secrets of the bread revealed (e.g., how to make the bread rise--or not--since it is intended to be flat), but the secret of the spice mixture, and the cooking of chicken topping that can adorn it, if one eats meat. In addition there are fry breads and donuts, bagels and bialys. The bialys were so much better than store-bought that I shall probably never buy another. I have yet to try to try the bagels, but look forward to it. (I have tried making bagels several times previously from variously sourced-recipes and all have been vaguely disappointing.)

Perhaps what I like most is that many of these breads can be most successfully made by preparing the biga or proofing dough the day before, which has the effect of lessening the work aspect of bread creation on the day of a big event, strengthening the texture, and enhancing the flavor. I prefer to make my breads this way now, since the flavor is so clearly impacted (I’m terribly spoiled) and I detest wasting an entire day to rising, kneading, shaping, etc. It has to fit in the schedule if it is going to be a part of my life.

I think this is a valuable addition to the library of even an occasional bread-maker because the flatbreads are nearly infallible, and this author uses a standing mixer to knead, which can take some of the mystery out of bread-making, but also gives access to many aspiring bakers. However I note the author, in his preface, suggests this is for the "serious baker with holes in their repertoire." I concede that one may take for granted the necessary oven stones and peels, brioche pans and experience of texture and stages of doneness, but this is too good not to share with everyone. Enjoy!

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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

Hartley has taken my breath away with the sweep of his story and the majesty of his writing. This book was published when he was fifty-eight, in 1953, and evokes England before the wars "quickly, simply, effortlessly" (Tóibín, Intro p. x). Hartley, in an interview, wrote:
"I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all's well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War...The Boer War was a local affair, and so I was able to set my little private tragedy against a general background of security and happiness."
Ostensibly this is a story about a thirteen-year-old private-school boy, Leo, at the turn of the twentieth century spending a month in the summer at the house of a wealthier school chum, Marcus. It is told from the perspective of that same boy, years later remembering back, and he hints at some dark and irremediable end that casts a shadow through the warm and carefree beginnings of that seminal summer.

This is a slow slide, told through innumerable details, into the deep end of the pool, but we hardly even struggle as the dim end comes. We are watching the process, the progress of our descent. Our boy Leo got a new set of clothes, fell helplessly in love with distant Marian, the older sister of Marcus, and had days of discovery on his own when Marcus came down sick and had to stay in bed. Leo never does get to wear his new swim suit, though I waited for that moment almost as anxiously as I did the larger dénouement that loomed on the horizon that steamy summer. Somehow I thought that nakedness and bathing and water and the thrill of danger would be intertwined with the finish, but that was just another beautifully executed feint where ordinary things take on the weight of portent.

The gentle, teasing story of that languid summer is that moment in a life when mysteries are revealed, truths are uncovered, futures are altered, and no one is ever the same again. The miracle is that Hartley captured it so completely, the sensual detail caught with the enthusiasm and wonder of a boy's eye: the rippling muscle of the farmer, the shock of cold steel and weight of the gun stock, the smell of Marian's perfume and the rustle of her satins as her white arms stretched over recalcitrant piano keys...

But the best, the very best, is the way Hartley brings his story to a close. We hold on through the summer with stomach clenched: when the crisis comes, we are ready, but Hartley teases us on with another suspense, and then another, until we are slowly sated, satisfied, and feel older, wiser, wistful. I adored character Marian at the end, while I hated her throughout much of the story. It was the older man's eyes and her own words that make this transformation, but it made her life and his a celebration, rather than a tragedy. Only time and distance bestows that grace, and Hartley was wise enough to tweek our emotions that one last time. This is the cusp of manhood story that school children should read, but aspiring authors could do worse than study how Hartley did this.

A final word: Hartley was a book reviewer foremost, and "often read as many as five novels a week and reckoned that in all he must have read well over six thousand books."(Tóibín, Intro p. vi). Would that our man were alive and writing today, we would be ever the richer.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Kraken by Wendy Williams

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

Absolutely suited for would-be scientists of any age, this book is a great introduction to cephalopods. Lest you think you are not interested, consider this: as ocean temperatures rise and salinity changes, giant Humboldt squid are being found in huge numbers much farther north than ever before. Humboldt squid can reach up to 6 feet in length and weigh up to 100 pounds, and have a dangerous reputation for eating men alive, were one to fall from a boat into schooling squid. While "eating men alive" is probably untrue, their tentacles have teeth and barbs, and some divers find their wet suits punctured and blood drawn. The brain of squid is extremely complex and distributed in their arms: their tentacles operate with lightening-fast speed & independently of each other.

But Humboldts have nothing on the colossal squid, which can reach 40-50 feet in length and have eyeballs as big as a human head. Fishermen of old used to tell stories of squid swallowing whole ships, or trying to. While the stories are discounted as mere tales, there is no denying the sheer brainpower and extraordinary abilities of cephalopods operating in water. Wendy Williams briefly introduces us to famous octopi who have lived in some aquariums and talks a little about cuttlefish, which have a bone structure so light and yet so strong that materials scientists are using the principles learned from cuttlefish to build land structures.

Until recently colossal squid have not been photographed in their environment because of their extraordinary speed, evasion techniques, and the depth of their dives. But a Japanese scientist made headline news with his film of a colossal squid feeding in 2005. Photos and links are included in the book to view landmarks in our understanding of these mysterious and ingenious creatures.

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Three Seconds by Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström

Three Seconds (Grens & Sundkvist #5)

An undercover agent is sent to jail to burn a crime ring from the inside, only to find that he is suspected by both the regular police and the crime ring he has gone to infiltrate. Devilishly clever, this novel showcases a truly unique plan by an inmate to elude his pursuers. This was my first time to realize a connection between tulips and drug-smuggling, which had the result of completely unfettering my imagination.

Stockholm has a group of mystery writers that clearly exploit some real or imagined public mistrust of public security. The cover copy on this title claims Anders Roslund,and Börge Hellström are heirs-apparent to Steig Larsson: because all three take on public corruption, one might place the thrillers in the same category. Certainly Roslund and Hellstrom have created a unique and unusual character in Piet Hoffman, just as Larsson did with Lisbeth Salander. But while one admires what Piet Hoffman does to prepare for his stint in the clink, one stands at a remove while evaluating his situation. In contrast, Lizbeth Salander inspires loyalty, perhaps even fealty, in those who meet her. Clearly wronged by a justice system gone amok, both protagonists fight their way to freedom, though not without damage.

This novel took place in a matter of weeks, though there were times when time slowed so completely that every second was recorded. This collapse of time was effective in highlighting the keen attention to detail that was required for the escape plan to succeed in the final, nail-biting seconds. Roslund and Hellstrom have a successful thriller here, though I listened to the audiobook and was not enamored of the reading by Christopher Lane. I found myself wondering more than once if I would like the main investigator, Detective Inspector Ewert Grens, more if I had read the book myself. As it was, none of the characters was particularly sympathetic, and as a result, one scarcely cares whether or not they succeed. I believe the voice inflection could have been responsible for this spin on the material.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir

I had this book in my library and, without reading it myself, lent it to a family member to help her through a difficult surgery. She never returned it, but when I read Dawn Rennert’s review of her pilgrimage to Sharon Springs on her blog called She is Too Fond of Books, I went to get it back that very day. I'm so glad I did. It would have been perfect for the sick family member, had she read it, but she didn't and I did. It was perfect for me, too. What a wonderful, funny, painful, knowing memoir of a pair of busy city executives finding a “weekend retreat” in upstate New York (Sharon Springs) that turns into a full-time job and lifestyle change. Not ordinary executives, not an ordinary town…and not an ordinary house.

By now, many of you will have heard already of the Beekman Boys on Planet Green’s Reality TV show, but I hadn’t until now. The truth is that this memoir is so hilarious and yet so real, in a you-and-me-and-a-drag-queen sort of way, that I couldn’t put the darn thing down. It is a lovely fairy tale about the wonders of country living. I’ve been guilty of dreams of domestic bliss and the homemade life more than once myself, but these guys do it bigger and better than I would or could. It’s no wonder the town embraced them and their 88 goats.

Without a doubt, highlights of the story include a Martha Stewart Peony Party at her homestead near New York City, the fare reduction ad campaign that was created in less than five minutes, and the first time a crew went to the Beekman house to shoot a reality show. Now there really is a TV show, but it was not at all obvious that this would be the case when the idea was first explored:
"At some point during the morning, I realized that the most exciting moment of our potential reality show would be the copyright notice in the credits. To compensate, I came to the conclusion that if I ran everywhere—physically moved my body faster—the film might seem more engaging. I galloped out the end of the drive to get the mail. I trotted to the garage to grab a trowel…For even more” sizzle,” instead of simply leading the goats out to graze as we usually did, I raced out in front of them, hollering an improvisational goat call that made me sound like a yodeling hillbilly. I turned back toward the barn and saw that the goats had stayed back, huddled together in fear in the barn doorway. They obviously preferred to skip dinner rather than get too close to the retarded scarecrow suffering a grand mal seizure.”

Do yourselves a favor and don’t wait for major surgery to take the chance to read this book. It’s funny, heartwarming, recognizable, and real. You’ll be glad there are folks like this around, and you’ll wish they lived nearby. And check out their website.

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