Friday, July 25, 2014

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

Hard Choices Clinton sets herself up to be compared with Dean Acheson by recalling his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the outset. But her title echoes Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State during the Carter administration. What she is doing is tracing the thread of American foreign policy through the administrations of Democratic presidents to show the continuity of political thinking and foreign involvment. One must remember that Acheson wrote at a time when faith in government was at an all-time high, and many folks read his book before criticizing it. I am not at all sure the same could be said for Clinton’s comprehensive memoir about her four-year (2009-2013) term as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration.

I come away thinking there is perhaps no person with better credentials to be president. She could handle the job, certainly. But we would have to decide if she is the person we want to lead our country and the world into the future. She would be an activist president for sure, clearly convinced that American leadership is all we should or could consider. Clinton blasts critics who proclaimed Obama “led from behind” on Libya, and said his leadership was in fact critical to the success of that international involvement.

Clinton’s time as senator from New York was good preparation for the prodding, jockeying, and cajoling that is done in international forums with government heads of state. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense while Clinton was Secretary of State, expressed a vast admiration for Clinton’s intelligence, experience, restraint, and pragmatism in his own memoir, Duty. Both longtime Washington insiders, Clinton and Gates shared a sense of service, a clear-eyed realism, and a healthy skepticism. I believe they also shared a mutual distrust of Vladimir Putin and both sought to marginalize, where possible, his inputs.

A lot happens in four years when the world is the stage, as Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary reminds us. Clinton logged nearly a million miles in her role as Chief Diplomat, though like all managers, she spends more time dealing with and talking about trouble areas than about countries whose troubles were not catastrophic.

Most revealing and interesting for me were her discussions about Syria, Iran, Gaza, Libya, Russia, and Afghanistan, including the Bin Laden raid and Benghazi. She was remarkably open about the steps that led to backdoor talks with Iran, and the calculations she had to make when considering deteriorating situations in Syria, Libya, and Gaza.

The Syria section reveals the calculus around the support for rebels. The Iran talks were equally revealing—Clinton is remarkably frank about her assessment of country rulers and their personal ‘styles.’ It almost reads like a Wikileaks cache in this section and perhaps she is willing to talk about it because of those leaks. When it comes to Gaza, Clinton hauls out the (surely tattered by now) “strong support for Israel” that we have come to expect, but tempers it with unenthusiastic observations about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political history, party backing, and current positions. She managed to avoid the wider invasion of Gaza that we are experiencing now, but consistently reiterated the increasingly critical need and strong support for a two-state solution.

The Edward Snowdon leaks in May 2013 came after Clinton resigned in February 2013. Clinton must have been aware of and not in opposition to the information collected during her tenure…perhaps even using it in fact. It would have been interesting to hear what she would say to Angela Merkel about the taps on Merkel’s personal phone, when Clinton makes the observation that she and Merkel are often considered two of a kind and expresses admiration for what Merkel has been able to do while she has been in office.

Clinton had areas of concern that she championed wherever she went: women’s rights and human rights. She is a tough negotiator and gave plenty of government leaders some restless nights with those “hard choices” she talks about. Clinton recognized and harnessed the power of the connected world, and the tendency of the world to shrink as telecommunications, cell phone connection, and social media improved. Fortunately, she is not afraid of changes in the status of women, LGBT citizens, and minority voices, and instead welcomes them.

She recognizes that all talent will be needed in a 21st Century world facing climate change, shifts in energy dependencies, and the economic upheavals that will bring. We cannot afford to shun anyone with a good idea and had better take advantage of all the skills our citizens can bring. It’s a question of making sure they are all able to grasp opportunity when it presents itself. I like this concept a lot, and think her insistence on human and economic and political rights for all citizens may be her longest legacy.

Clinton felt so strongly about energy policy, economics, and the interdependencies of trade that her role as a wide-view activist Secretary of State surely encroached on the roles of other cabinet-level officials. In her memoir she sounds positively Presidential in making decisions, deciding directions, and in the scope and definition of her role. Obama had much on his plate in handling domestic intransigence so he was probably pleased to have someone with Clinton’s understanding, reach, and clout. She says they worked well together, and I’m sure it worked about as well as any team with high stakes and powerful players.

What struck me as I listened to Clinton’s memoir is the number of times familiar names were recycled again and again in different jobs, some from much earlier administrations, as though they are the only ones who could handle the work. I suppose it is true that experience counts, but isn’t that one reason Obama was elected to office…that he actually didn’t have all the experience (and all the baggage)? Foreign countries trying to keep tabs on who is doing what in the American government must be pleased they don't have to research the background of anyone new. There simply has to be some transfer of responsibilities to new players: a requirement of top-level posts should be finding and training their own replacements. Sometimes it just sounded like a closed system though I can appreciate the time constraints in finding someone able to handle a task effectively and with grace. If anyone is interested in trying to solve the intractable problems involved with government work, they should make their wishes known, and be known, because it is who you know that counts.

I do not think there is any certainty about Hillary Clinton taking on another campaign for President, though there is probably no person better equipped to handle her activist agenda, despite her age. She is both revered and feared at home and abroad. Enormously motivated, she believes she has and can still make a difference in people’s lives. I feel confident that this seasoned political actor wants to see what American voters decide in November 2014. [Biden says he is doing the same.] If the attitudes and will of the American people were to significantly change the balance of power in the Congress in favor of Republicans, she may be swayed one way or the other. On the other side of the equation, the Democrats must find and field another credible candidate for Clinton to relax her sense of responsibility. In many ways, we'd be lucky to have her--she is a dogged American proponent. She can't be the only person able to take this on, though we have seen what lack of leadership has done for other countries, the Middle East in particular. That wouldn't happen on Clinton's watch.

Readers who lived through this period may feel they’ve “heard all that” Clinton has to say, but I don’t think anyone can say they’ve heard it all until they hear it from the woman who did the driving. It was a tumultuous period in world history and it was completely enlightening to hear what our Chief Diplomat had to say about it. Hillary Clinton remains something of a marvel.

Clinton only narrated the introduction and the epilogue, but Kathleen Chalfant had a voice that recreated Clinton’s accents and speaking style so completely, I was unsure sometimes who was narrating. Chalfant did a fantastic job with the place and personal names and the pacing. Simon & Schuster Audio provided a copy of this to me for review.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Shake Off by Mischa Hiller

Shake Off The main character of Mischa Hiller’s novel Shake Off is Michel, a survivor of the Sabra Massacre in Lebanon in 1982. A child at the time, he is taken under the wing of Abu Leila and gradually trained in languages and spy tradecraft with the idea that eventually he would be able to aid a resurgence of Palestinian power. He has a lonely, secret life apart from the intimacy of others.

What I found most interesting about this novel was the Palestinian viewpoint. Until about fifteen years ago when I began investigating the subject in earnest, I was, like many Americans, likely to equate Palestinian with terrorist. My knowledge is refined now, however. I have eyes and judgment enough to see the players, as well as failures of leadership.

Nancy O’s review of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird shows how even an apolitical observer of Middle East history places the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila as a defining moment for radicalization of Arabs, Muslims, Lebanese, and Palestinians.

The story Hiller tells in this novel captures the confusion and uncertainty and despair of a young orphan in a refugee camp, and later his willingness, indeed his craving, to believe in kindness and love. It is crafted so that we cannot see the outcome, though the seeds are there if one reexamines the start of the novel.

The love interest of the young man, Helen of London, fascinates me. It seems obvious to me that she is an operative of some sort, but for whom and why, we never learn. With the long-legged Helen (Michel is clearly a leg man), Michel loses his learned restraints and becomes an ordinary man, the kind that cannot help but think with his genitals. I can forgive him that, I suppose, though I don’t think his enemies will. It turns out he is altogether too gullible in general, having come from an area of the world where disagreements often end in bloodshed.

This novel is the second of Hiller’s, the first being Sabra Zoo. Another, called Disengaged, is in the works, due out January 2015 in the UK. The writing is clear, the viewpoint unique, and the subject positively deadly. Watch for it.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon

The Trout Opera Grand in scope, filled with human yearning, arrogance, and development, this 2007 novel captures the long stretch of 100 years in the history of Australia, 1900 to 2000, beginning with the Snowy River flowing free and ending with the staging of the Sydney Olympics.

The boy Wilfred Lampe, the eponymous trout in his scaffolding of wood and wire and his skin of hessian and tin, opens the novel, stumbling about the streets of Dalgety in costume on his way to stage The Trout Opera. The opera never comes off; only later do we realize this is foreshadowing for what is to come to the Snowy River and its ecosystem.¹

“The world’s a stage” for Wilfred as the story progresses, and indeed he is asked to the world stage for the 2000 Olympic Games as the Old Man from Snowy River, a nod to the poem (Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson) that many think represents Australian values and attitudes (e.g., talent, skill, grit, and determination).

But while Wilfred lived his entire life by the Snowy River in the house where he was born in a landscape some considered little changed in one hundred years, the rest of Australia changed unimaginably in that same time. We have glimpses of the lives of others through the voices and experiences of his grand-niece who had so little connection with her family that she felt cast adrift.

In an interview, Condon says that he wrote the book after meeting an eighty-year-old man, Ray Reid, who remembered the great Snowy before the dams were built, which reduced river flow to 1% of its earlier strength. Condon found himself contrasting the beauty of the land with the urban and suburban lives of modern Australians.

The Trout Opera is Condon’s first novel, and he started it without all the skills he needed to finish it. But that very lack of expertise leaves readers with something rare: a story large in scope, size, and heart which encompasses his imaginings about the nature of family, the importance of wealth, indeed, the meaning of life…with Australia and the Snowy Mountains as backdrop. It gives readers glimpses into the national dialogue, the place of Australia in the world, and finally, an understanding of the rich heritage they have to preserve.

One prominent and unforgettable character is Graham Featherstone, nighttime radio host, who listened to the dreams and failures of countless sleepless folks who want to hear the voice of another in the night. Featherstone lets loose one night with his own despair and preoccupations about the state of civility and the loss of a national character, using all the woes he has heard and felt over the years to deliver one long rant. His cynicism and smarts is noted by his listeners, and he is asked to play another role as investigative journalist into the abduction of Old Man Snowy.

That is how he comes to be in the mountains at the source of Snowy, refreshed and relaxed, when the stupendous opening ceremony of the Sydney Games commences. The story has no ending, and indeed, ends with a word that signifies no ending. Life will go on, and it is up to each of us to search for those places and people that make our lives meaningful, wherever we may find them.

¹The Australian Alps in south-eastern Australia, with peaks exceeding 6,600 feet, and are comprised of the Snowy Mountains and the Victoria Alps, and are the only bioregion of Australia where snow falls annually. With the effects of global warming, lower regions are experiencing a change in snowfall. The original damming project began in 1949 and ended in 1974, and decreased flows to the Snowy River by 99%, as measured at Jindabyne. Only later did political opposition and environmental awareness force a reassessment, to increase flows to a target 15% by 2009, and 21% by 2012.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee Nelle Harper Lee only ever published one book, the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently she never wrote another, and rarely appeared in public, though in 2007 she traveled to Washington, D.C, to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush. When Marja Mills went to Monroeville, Alabama in hopes she could score an interview with the reclusive Ms. Lee, she had little idea that they would become friends and neighbors in years to come.

Nelle in 2007
Harper Lee--The Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony in 2007

Marja Mills was working at the Chicago Sun Times when she first approached Harper Lee by letter in 2001. At the time, “Nelle” as her friends called her, was worried that an unauthorized biography of her would destroy her privacy and reputation so she consented to Mills interviewing her friends and neighbors. The resulting 2002 article gives insight into what Nelle and her sister Alice had been doing since Nelle Harper Lee’s first and only novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize.

Harper Lee in the 1960's
Harper Lee in the 1960's in Alabama

Alice Finch Lee was ninety years old in 2001, and was still practicing law in Monroeville. Nelle Harper Lee was 76. Both sisters were unmarried and had been living together since at least 1964 when Nelle stopped giving interviews. “I would not go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money,” she told the close friend Reverend Thomas Butts. Acerbic of tongue and sharp of wit, Harper Lee no longer wrote books for publication, though she continued to write on a manual typewriter right up until 2007 when she suffered a serious stroke.

Mills’ early article became the kernel of this much longer book due out just as the PBS documentary Freedom Summer airs to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mills, herself suffering from a debilitating Lupus diagnosis, moved into the neighboring house of the Lees’ and shared their stories and their lives for a year and a half in the first decade of the 21st century. She wrote at a "glacially slow" pace due to her illness, and perhaps to preserve the sisters' privacy a little longer. Mills now shares with us her experience living beside the woman who wrote the “Best Book of the 20th Century,” according to Library Journal.

This book does not pretend to be a biography in the full sense of the word. Mills never did get an on-the-record interview with Harper Lee. She was able to interview Alice and Nelle’s friends extensively over a period of years and used that material to compile this book about Nelle’s habits (catfish and laundry), interests (reading and talking), and personality (“hell and pepper”). The pace of the book is Southern slow and languid, and what I learned about the great author made me sad. The celebrity of her first and only novel was so overwhelming, insistent, and enduring that she never wanted to do it again. Think J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, and others whose first success became their cross to bear.

Harper Lee remained an avid reader particularly of histories, Lord Macaulay Thomas Babington Macaulay in particular. Jane Austen was a favorite novelist. Her tastes in film were a little more pedestrian, with Mills recounting the Nelle’s Netflix rental of a Wallace and Gromit animated film. Lee spent part of every year in New York and this reader is pleased her anonymity allowed her to enjoy the common pleasures to be found there. She kept her lifelong friendship with Gregory Peck and his family, and she is quoted elsewhere as saying he was part of the best film adaptation of a book ever made.

I needed to be reminded that Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee, and she went with him to research his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood in Holcomb, Kansas. Earlier, they’d ended up living in the same apartment building in New York City, where the 20-something Harper Lee began writing.

Harper lee & Truman Capote
Harper Lee and Truman Capote

There must have been “something in the water” down there in Monroeville for two writers of such stature to come to the nation’s consciousness about the same time. One might almost think the imagination and talent of each infected and spurred the other to greater achievement. Joshua Wolf Shenk has a book coming out in August 2014 called Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) which makes the case for creativity often coming from pairs…and not singly. Though the two did not cooperate on their work generally, their friendship may been a spur to a competitive talent that made both their work great.

Mills was careful to preserve the privacy of Harper Lee and her book begins slowly, but eventually we get a clear picture of the woman and her life. Mills herself anguished at times that such a talent couldn’t be persuaded to publish again, but we can only hope that there are still manuscripts to be discovered among her papers. Now in assisted living care, Nelle Harper Lee has finally signed a contract to allow her American classic to be published as an eBook, and an audiofile of the book has just been released by, narrated by Sissy Spacek.

This is a remarkable document that will have to serve as the memorial to a woman so desperate to preserve her privacy that she withdrew from the public. Her sister Alice raised the point that once Nelle had reached the pinnacle of art with her first book, she may have been dissatisfied with everything that she later wrote. In any case, she left us a lasting legacy that we can enjoy forever. We wish her well.

Many thanks to Random House for the advance audio production of this title, read by Amy Lee Stewart.
Feb 3, 2015 I was just notified that Harper Lee will have a second book published in her lifetime. News of the new book is discussed here.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs It is sometimes difficult when writing a review of a memoir or biography to separate the writing from its subject. Isaacson did a good job of handling the detritus of a life—there is just so much to examine in the life of Steve Jobs that the biographer must pick out the pieces that seem to make sense of or make sense in a narrative of that life. Isaacson does that. What I found myself missing was the same thing I felt missing in Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends which describes the infamous “charm” of Kim Philby: audio/video of the man himself. Fortunately, there are plenty of clips of Jobs online, though what we’d really like to see are unscripted moments rather than product launches.

Isaacson writes that the theme of Jobs’ life was that he always felt “special” or “chosen” and that the normal rules didn’t apply to him. It began, perhaps, when his mother told him he was not adopted because he was abandoned by his birth parents, but because he was chosen by his adopted parents. But he lived his whole life as someone who made his own judgments about the world and its rules. He was not a gentle man, but he had a creativity that he cultivated in himself and others. That was one of his special gifts.

My takeaway has to be that it takes all kinds to build successful products. Obviously a room full of Jobs-like folks wouldn’t work, and Jobs himself admitted that “without Apple and its engineers, I am nothing.” But it also took folks who were willing to work with him on everything else—component deliveries at Apple, music sales for iTunes, filmmaking at Pixar. He was persuasive--the “reality distortion field” was applied to the way he turned one’s head about decisions--and that was another of his special gifts.

A different person could have been successful in the personal computer market, maybe even more successful. Gates was such a person. After all, Jobs and Gates entered an empty market and made a mark. That was be another great gift of his: to see what was needed. That is something not all of us can do. That takes hutzpa and vision. Jobs wasn’t universally successful with all his products: think about NeXT, where he gave himself leeway to build a product the way he wanted but which no one else liked enough to buy. But the architecture of the product Jobs built at NeXT was used later when he returned to Apple.

After some practice Jobs got much, much better at launching products that made a lot of sense and that broke open the way we communicate. To do that, he had to attract the right folks to help him, to cooperate, and to lead. That was another great skill: he could lead.

Finally, he had style. I admit to appreciating his concept of wearing a “uniform.” I appreciate his restraint when it came to consumption and money, even food. He could earn endlessly, but he seemed to realize money was not the point, as it appears to be for some folks. The point was to do what you loved, to be in love. Love was the point.

In a perfect world, an eBook would have video clips of the man in action at strategic moments in his life (e.g., the 2007 Walt Mossberg interview of Gates and Jobs and the Stanford 2005 graduation address)…we wouldn’t have to watch a three-hour product launch, but just clips of the highlights. It is difficult to imagine the force of his personality without seeing him in action.

Because of Jobs’ central role in the personal computing market, his history could be read as a history of the industry. I found it fascinating. Whether Steve Jobs was a perfect man or a flawed man is not really the point, I think. He was a man, as he liked to point out, at the crossroads of science and art. He changed the way we communicate and at least makes us think about the way we do business. He was after excellence in product design and function, and he hoped to create a great company.

I listened to the audio production of this book produced by Recorded Books for Simon & Schuster Audio, narrated by Dylan Baker. I highly recommend it for everyone’s library. I wonder if we would have been as tolerant of the young Jobs as Atari executives were when he arrived on their doorstep with the announcement that he wouldn’t leave until he was hired.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Herbie's Game by Tim Hallinan

Herbie's Game (Junior Bender #4) Junior Bender is a burglar. That’s a fact. What keeps it from being a hard, cold fact is Bender’s heart. Bender has a set of codes by which he lives and a set of rules given him by his mentor, Herbie, by which he works. One of those rules “was to delay as long as possible the moment the mark realizes his stuff has been boosted.” That means not taking everything, nor making a mess. Another rule is not to take anything the mark can’t live without.

When Bender finds himself holding a matching set of brooches that prove to be irreplaceable, their pricelessness makes him less pleased than uneasy. And Herbie his mentor is dead--not just dead, but tortured. Bender wants to know why, and who was responsible.

Los Angeles is central to the action in this series, and Hallinan goes right for the nub of a characterization, be it cities or people. When entering a house, for instance, he might toss off a comment about the front lawn looking recently replaced:
“Judging from the eye-ringing emerald hue of the lawn, the grass had never endured a dry minute since it was planted, about forty-five minutes ago. There are two schools of thought associated with good lawns: the British approach, which says you simply plant it and roll it for several centuries, and the Los Angeles nouveau-riche view, which says you just put in a new one whenever the old one gets a little ratty.”
And this:
"I went into the kitchen and filled a very nice Baccarat glass with ice water and carried it into the big living room, with its art deco windows that faced east toward downtown. The window framed only a fragment of the usual view, since the top floors of our relatively small collection of skyscrapers disappeared abruptly into a line of yellow-brown smog as hard and sharp as the stripe on a shirt.”

Hallinan has a real knack for and sensitivity in portraying girls and women as whole beings. In this novel he has two new fourteen-year-old computer savants who already have a productive history of online theft from various state coffers. Bender recruits them to assist him in his search for Herbie’s killer, though he has twinges of conscience about it. One senses his deep compassion…for himself, but also for the girls. When one of them throws her popsicle stick out the window of his moving vehicle, he has to talk himself out of stopping to pick it up. He imagines becoming their mentor, now that his own has passed. It’s actually kind of frightening, though of all the mentors these girls could possibly meet, Junior Bender might be considered the finest still breathing.

Hallinan has an instinctive ability to dots his i’s and cross his t’s (important in mystery and thriller-writing) and still move the action along in character-revealing scenes. His creation of the lovely Ting Ting, a slim-waisted martial arts bisexual that captures the hearts of bruisers and wasters, is not just an aside to the action…I argue it is the action. These characters have their basis in life, though perhaps not in lives we often encounter. Either Hallinan runs into folks like these on a regular basis, or they are all running around his head...pretty wild, even for southern California.

In his Afterword, Hallinan admits that he “had to kill off a few” characters he’d created earlier in the series because they were cluttering up the scenery, such that readers wanted them in every installment. Imagine creating such rich characterizations that we feel peripheral characters are neglected when we don’t see them.

Hallinan has a fluency born of long and deep reading, and constant writing. His other series featuring Poke Rafferty are set in Thailand, which is where I first discovered his unerring eye for what I call “the tell”: uncovering the (sometimes laughable, sometimes painful) characteristic of a place or a person that may define it, and that we recognize in our heart-of-hearts as true. My use of heart-of-hearts is not cliché. Hallinan has more “heart” than any other thriller/mystery writer I know. He and his characters seem to actively practice the Zen Buddhist (?) No Asshole Rule. And characters call each other on transgressions.

Reading Hallinan is just fun and because of that, it reminds me of the Don Winslow mystery series about surfing. I mean, really, can crime be more fun than hanging out with these guys? Junior Bender is such a softie, we don’t like to think of him actually killing people, though he does in this one. He carries a gun after all. It’s not just for show.

I received an advance copy of this title through Netgalley from Soho Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Good Morning, Mr. Mandela by Zelda la Grange

Good Morning, Mr. Mandela: A MemoirA couple of weeks ago I hosted a giveaway of this title here on my blog. The chosen recipient, Maria Grazia, has agreed to write a short review of the book, which I am publishing here. After her comments, I have added my own. You have two reviews, therefore, to help you decide to read this lovely paean to Nelson Mandela, often called by his tribal name Madiba.
------------------Maria Grazia's review---------------------------------
I’m the surprised recipient of the copy of the Zelda la Grande’s memoir that Viking has made available through this blog. Like many other works in this genre, this memoir is not an example of high literary achievement. Nevertheless I’ve really enjoyed reading it and learned more about one of the most inspiring figure of our time. In “Good Morning, Mr. Mandela”, Zelda la Grande gives us an intimate portrait of this great humanitarian and political figure - the driver of her transformation from a conservative, young Afrikaner to a woman who devoted almost twenty years of her life to serve a man whom she had been brought up to consider as an enemy and whom instead she came to love. As you read through la Grande’s sincere account of her personal journey, you get to know more about “Khulu” or “Grandfather” as she used to call South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. Nelson Mandela comes across as a gentle individual who was sincere in expressing his feelings and in his interaction with others - who else would greet the Queen of England using her first name? But we are also shown he was frank and intolerant of disloyalty. His smile radiates across the pages of this memoir and you can understand how the young la Grande could not remain immune to his charisma. Throughout her interaction with Mandela, first timid on her part and then characterized by mutual respect and affection, la Grande shows us how she shed her racial prejudices and became an anti-apartheid supporter. It is sad to see how this great man who treated all those around him with such a great respect, at the end of his life and when he could no longer defend himself, had his feelings trashed and became a pawn in the hands of others who did not have his best interest in mind.
------------------------------My Review----------------------------
This very unusual and intimate portrait of Zelda la Grange’s time with Nelson Mandela as his personal secretary is as heartbreaking as it is memorable. Zeldina, as Madiba chose to call her, was applying for a typist job in the new ANC government in 1994 when word came that the President’s office needed a typist. A white Afrikaner, Zelda became the youngest of the rainbow staff that served the President. In time, she grew to manage his schedule and to accompany him on trips abroad.

This book does tell us about Mandela, what he was like in person, and what he liked. But it is mostly about Zelda and how she managed Mandela’s hectic schedule during and after his presidency. She seems an exceptional person: focused, persistent, caring. Mandela came to rely on her to organize his life and to cater for his needs. It is nice to know there was someone willing and able to take that role for a man who had given so much to the world. “Professional co-dependency” is the phrase la Grange uses to describe their relationship.

Mandela comes across as a disciplined but gentle man, nevertheless with strong opinions and beliefs. Some lessons Mandela imparted to those he worked with I hope stay with me: “Remember, the way you approach someone will determine how that person reacts to you” and “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” Willing to acknowledge his own errors, he forgave them in others, but he was also able and willing to cut off from his life those whom he felt did not have his interests at heart. Zelda comes across as a well-meaning, capable administrator and caregiver who had an immersive, full-on style. Madiba was her life and work.

One thing that has stayed with me long after reading this book is that la Grange often felt it necessary to explain to people what her job was--what she did all day. It was not hard for me to imagine the amount of energy, drive, intelligence, hutzpa, charm, and brazen bullishness it would require to make a famous person feel their international travel experiences were as seamless, smooth, and productive as possible. Her job is a perfect example of what I would use to demonstrate the incongruity of wage disparity in a country like the United States. The head of a corporation (or country, in this case) is only as good as the secretary organizing his schedule, travel plans, and obligations. Let's face it, we'd all look pretty good with a Zelda at our backs. But we're no Mandela.

La Grange was circumspect with what she revealed, but we do get a sense of great division and confusion at the end of Mandela’s life, for which we feel sorry. Despite his ‘great man’ status, Mandela could only keep the divisions among races and personalities in his sphere manageable while he was well and circulating regularly. As he became older, it sounds as though his lessons about forgiveness and generosity of spirit were lost on those he hoped to influence. Mandela was kind. Let’s hope his legacy is not completely lost for all time.

Viking Penguin offered me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel
This fictional story recounts the immigrant experience of a vast array of Latinos on the eastern central coast of America, in Delaware. It moves in for close-ups of two families in particular, one Panamanian and one Mexican. Both families are legal immigrants, one coming to the United States for medical care, the other for opportunity.

Christina Henriquez manages to make the experiences of these two families ring true and universal. Especially interesting was the voice of Mayor Toro, teenager and younger brother to a high school soccer star. He had a lot to live up to, and his vulnerability was everywhere apparent. His interest in a beautiful but brain-damaged young woman, Maribel, in a nearby apartment led to unforeseen and tragic consequences. The chain of events had a kind of logic to them that began in ignorance and fear, and were sustained by the well-known uncommunicativeness of teenagers.

Henriquez’ use of first-person narration, changing the ‘voice’ from one chapter to another, gave the piece immediacy and truthfulness. Often we can hear an individual thinking and speaking; the overlapping points of view give the story tension and the listener can see a crisis foreshadowed long before the conclusion is revealed. The final chapter is given finally to the father of Mexican family who reveals his pleasure in the struggle they have undergone, despite its many disappointments.

The language Henriquez uses for each voice in her narrative is distinctive and reveals cultural underpinnings. The reading of the novel by an array of narrators gives the work an authenticity to which all listeners can relate. We may not have made the same decisions, but we can understand the circumstances of arriving in a land where everything is confusing and in which language is a barrier.

I listened to the audio of this book produced by Random House Audio. I was offered this title by Random House in exchange for an honest review.

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Steve Jobs' Life by Design by George Beahm

Steve Jobs' Life By Design: Lessons to be Learned from His Last Lecture
George Beahm is an unabashed fan of Steve Jobs and has written a previous book called I, Steve: Steve Jobs In His Own Words. Beahm takes publically available information and quotes from Jobs and gives them depth and context. It is painstaking work, and Beahm treats Jobs more like an oracle than a man. But the book does what good nonfiction should do: it whets ones appetite for more information.

Just to be clear, we never actually get the text of Jobs’ only graduation address to Stanford University students in 2005, though we get a web link to it. Beahm “builds on what Steve Jobs said in his address and sheds light on its explicit and implicit themes.” He picks out the threads of that short speech and shows us how those themes played out in Jobs’ life. Beahm calls it “Connecting the Dots” as Jobs does in his commencement speech. “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Jobs told his audience in 2005.

Jobs speech was a good one. It told his audience that although he is lauded today as a success, he did experience failure. He tells them if they have something they love to do, failure is just part of the process, and necessary. And he says love is central to the meaning in our lives.

Finally, Jobs tells us Memento mori: Remember that you will die. You don’t have long on earth, so take advantage of your time and don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Be daring.

In the bibliography, Beahm cites Walter Isaacson’s biography called Steve Jobs as the standard against which all other works will be judged. I am most interested to start that as soon as possible. Beahm’s book reminds us that a man of great creativity was once among us, and impels us to glean lessons from his life.

I received an advance of this title from in exchange for an honest review.

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