Saturday, June 30, 2018

To End a Presidency by Laurence Tribe & Joshua Matz

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub May 15th 2018 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9781541644885

America is an advanced democracy. It is imperative we the citizenry recognize our responsibilities and make use of our rights. “Impeachment is neither a magic wand nor a doomsday device.” It won’t fix the problems that brought a failed real estate magnate and showman to power. Moreover, calling for impeachment may have deleterious consequences which serve to rally the tyrant’s support.

The best thing about this book for me is that it lowered my blood pressure. I am not going to deny I have been distressed for…more than a year now, and severely low in the past couple months. This book reminded me that there are smart, educated people thinking about how best to deal with a liar whose proclivities border on fascism. Impeachment, these authors argue, may not be the best way to address this threat.
“When our democracy is threatened from within, we must save it ourselves…We must draw together in defense of a constitutional system that binds our destinies and protects our freedoms.”
Calls for impeachment have been increasing over the past decades, but this pair of authors thinks that is a sign of the divisiveness of our politics rather than realistic means of addressing things we don’t like about the other party’s president. We reached a new low when, even before the last presidential election in 2016, promises were made by each side to impeach the winner.

The authors stress that loose talk of impeachment may become as desensitizing as crying wolf when even the public begins to mistrust the options for curbing bad behaviors in a sitting president. Our elected officials must think strategically about what they are planning to achieve especially when they do not control enough seats to initiate impeachment hearings. Hot air is not helpful in educating the public in a time of crisis because it inflames the citizenry’s baser instincts.

We must work together if we are going to govern. The authors quote Lincoln at a time our country was more divided than now:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
Yes, exactly. We clearly have not seen the existential threats coming down the road or we would be a lot more circumspect about calling hatred down on fellow citizens. Good grief. If we can’t work together despite living in the most resource-rich and abundant country on earth, we’re gonna lose it. But the people that made us this angry will all be dead and we and our children will have to deal with the problems that come. If everybody’s happy with that, let’s prepare well.
“In our experience, one of the main obstacles to an even-keeled analysis of impeachment under Trump is the fear and fury that he inspires in many of his political opponents.”
Don’t be a part of the problem. Educate yourself. It turns out that the most reliable way to deal with a pedant ideologue is to sideline them…in our case, by voting him and his supporters out. Not easy. But neither are any of the alternatives. This state of affairs was a long time developing into toxicity. It may take some time to rid ourselves of it.

This book is worthwhile. Time to take a deep breath and think before you speak.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Expected pub: Sept 6th 2018 by Transworld Publishers Ltd, ISBN13: 9780385618724

Not all of Kate Atkinson’s novels have been what she calls historical fiction, but the last couple have been. This novel may hew closest to the truth, though like she says in the Author’s Note at the end, she wrenched open history and stuffed it with imaginative reconstruction, at least one fantasy for each fact.

The author tells us afterward what her intentions were. This is particularly delicious, and I argue, respects the reader. We get to look into her construction and think. She answers questions we've formed, and instead of farming out possible answers to various reviewers, she’s blunt with us about elements we’d been wondering about. There is something comparable in theatre, when the actors takes off their masks for the final bow and we all celebrate together.

Atkinson returns to the Second World War, periodic releases from the National Archives of secrets from that time fueling her creative process. When she discovers [true fact] an ordinary-seeming bank clerk was a major cog in rounding up British supporters of Nazis, her story had a frame. When she discovered [true fact] hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts of conversations of dissident groups in London, her story had a heart.

What Kate Atkinson does is not necessarily unique (using historical documents to create fiction), but what she does with it is unique. Her style, tone, and characters are recognizably hers. She is funny: one knows there are people out there whose droll delivery of witty responses to ordinary questions is quintessentially British but we don’t come across it enough. Atkinson can do repartee.

By now Atkinson may be incapable now of writing fiction with a chronological timeline. This novel has only three time periods to work with and really only one central character, which simplifies the action enough that I only had to reread an earlier section once. This was partly due to my surprise, maybe a little exasperation, and finally willingness to be led out of the action at what seemed like a critical moment…again! I was burrowed in like a tick, and am yanked to a later, earlier, whatever time. (I didn't really mind...stretching out the experience of reading Atkinson again, luxuriously.) Atkinson manages to satisfy and confound a reader at the same time.

Atkinson’s characters always have the ‘ghost of Jackson Brodie’ about them. This is a very good thing, considering how much we liked Brodie and wouldn’t mind having him resurrected. We could make the case that the main character in this novel, Juliet Armstrong, is a female Jackson Brodie—honest and therefore vulnerable, she doesn’t have so high an opinion of herself that she is insufferable. In the end she is well able to take care of herself. She’s smart, and a very good liar, and keeps herself a little distant. After all, who can one trust?

At eighteen, Juliet is parentless: "her mother's death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief." Young and alone, Juliet was not, however, callow. She lied like crazy through a job interview with a flippant and overly-inquisitive young man who interviewed her for a job, which she was surprised she got. Later she learned he'd known every lie, and appreciated the ease with which she misled him.

This book is about spies, spies working in the service of the British government, or so we believe. What is special is that we see what is British about them—what is ordinary, patriotic, courageous, honorable. But we also see a nation at war and we see duplicity, hunger, ambition, pettiness. Then we lay over that the work of the other nations at war, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and a few exceptional people emerge alive, not unscathed, but breathing at the end. The tension comes when we are not sure who will remain standing.

Atkinson writes about the middle of the twentieth century, but she could be talking about the twenty-first:
Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones, Perry said.”)


Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.
One always senses the intelligence in Atkinson’s work. She not only writes a good story--which means getting the humanity right--she makes us think while we read. She’s unpredictable. And frankly, I like her politics. It’s always a pleasure to enjoy another of her books.

This novel is due out September 25th in the U.S., published by Little Brown; it looks like it will be out September 6th in Britain by Transworld. Preorder now!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Oriana Fallaci by Cristina de Stefano, translated by Marina Harss

Hardcover, 282 pgs, Pub Oct 17th 2017 by Other Press (NY) (first published October 30th 2013) ISBN13: 9781590517864

This book has only recently been translated into English and published in the United States by Other Press of New York. It is five years old already, not that it particularly matters. In fact, one could argue it has come out at precisely the right time. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929 and lived her life uncompromisingly, doing what she wanted, where she wanted, when she wanted. She hated the way women were treated but she did not hate men. She loved men, and she was loved by them in turn, for her feminine nature, her intelligence, her courage. Fallaci died in 2006 in Florence.

Oriana never wanted a biographer…or an opera, or a movie made of her life. All these things are what one images when we read of her life. This biography does exactly what a biography should: makes us thirst for the woman herself, her writing, her thinking. De Stefano helps us by picking out those things Fallaci’s audience are curious about, like sources of her outspokenness and critical thinking, her major works and the circumstances in which she wrote them, the places she went, the places she vacationed.

Seeing early photographs of the diminutive Oriana navigating post-WWII Italian newspaper world don’t make her look hard and accomplished, but more vulnerable. She gradually developed a style of interviewing subjects that included herself in the story. She never pretended to be objective, but would ask difficult questions of the subject, a result of her deep knowledge of them from extensive research.

Fallaci originally started coming to the United States to report on Hollywood and the actors and celebrities who lived there. She learned English on the job. Gradually she found actors shallow and uninteresting, unworthy of the attention she was lavishing on them and began reporting instead on astronauts. She was so attracted to the team planning a trip to the moon because they were disciplined, brave, and willing to sacrifice. In every other way they were the opposite of her…
“They live in neat little houses lined up next to the other, like cells in a convent. Each has a wife, kids, short hair, clear ideas. She meets with seven of them…to her they seem almost like clones. It takes all her talent to find a distinctive quality in each of them. But as with every subject she writes about, this is what fascinates her most: the human element.”
Oriana will go on to become fast friends with the astronauts; they will carry her photo with them to the moon, and tell her they wish she could come along for the ride. They recognize her courageous spirit and her unflinching intelligence and willingness to look truth in the face.

Fallaci became a worldwide phenomenon during her time reporting on the Vietnam War. She interviewed General Giáp, head of Vietcong forces, and Henry Kissinger, whose carefully modulated voice finally responded candidly to a difficult and insistent question by calling himself a cowboy:
“The main point is that I’ve always acted alone,” he says. “Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else.”
Fallaci isn’t afraid to paint unattractive portraits of the people she interviews, but uses her questions and instincts to uncover examples of deception and its reverse: a respect where she didn’t expect to find it, with Ayatollah Khomeini for instance. Fallaci for the most part did not like people in power; that is, she did not like what power did to people. She wanted to interview Pope John Paul II but he refused her request. Apparently the notes Fallaci made in preparation for that interview included questions like, “Why is the Church so obsessed with sex?” and “Why do you expect a lack of political engagement by Latin American priests but not of Polish priests?”

Fallaci had grown up with her fellow Italians in the resistance to love Americans, who they were and what they stood for. But over time, even though she chooses to live out much of her life when she is settled or when she is old in New York City, the war in Vietnam breaks her love affair with America.
“America has disappointed me…It’s like when you’re completely in love with a person, and you get married, and then day after day, you realize that the person isn’t as exceptional, as extraordinary or marvelous or good, or intelligent, as you thought. The U.S. has been like a bad husband. It betrays me every day.” “But you like Americans,” her colleague insists. “Yes, of course, I love children,” she answers.
There is more. The read is utterly compelling, no matter that Fallaci did not want anyone representing her while she was alive. De Stefano gives us a great deal of insight into Fallaci’s character, who she loved, the miscarriages which ended up breaking her heart. She did not suffer fools but she loved life. She called it an adventure.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Brother Moochie by Issac J. Bailey

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub May 29th 2018 by Other Press (NY)

This book will challenge you. I agree with Bailey on his notions about ‘remembered trauma’ and how it seeps into the soul of individuals. Recent studies have shown that trauma can actually change the DNA of the traumatized person so that it affects generations. A trauma can be passed on. The implications of this just changes everything, particularly when discussing generations of American black families.

Bailey writes exceptionally well, and he forms an argument so that you can acknowledge points you would surely have argued against. Bailey raises the hard issues. Everything we have talked about to now about mass incarceration and the over-representation of black men in American jails is brought under discussion here. But Bailey is tough. We’re not talking about the wrongly-accused or set-up arrests.

Bailey’s brothers, several of them, were the scourges of his small South Carolina town and spent time—a long time—in prison. One brother, Moochie, was the eldest and was responsible for taking care of the family. The father was a serial abuser and alcoholic, traumatizing the children. When Moochie, defender of the family, was taken away in handcuffs when Issac was nine, Issac’s stress reaction developed into a severe stutter that has lasted his entire life.

Moochie killed a man. He came home one night calling to his brothers to bring him fresh clothes which he changed into. He didn’t get far before he was picked up. Naturally for the place and the time, he was questioned before he was given counsel. Eventually, he admitted his guilt. The whole case was shrouded in secrecy from both the family and the town, the wildest rumors about how the event went down still circulating nearly forty years later.

Moochie’s brother Issac Bailey makes the case that his youngest brothers and Moochie’s own son, a toddler, suffered even more psychological impacts. His three youngest brothers and Moochie’s son have all been in conflict with the law since high school, which none of them actually finished.

There is some research showing these very early insults to one’s psyche make long-lasting effects throughout one’s life and cause early deaths among sufferers, should they live so long. Issac Bailey wants us to consider these factors when assigning blame to young black men. He thinks we should acknowledge what we as a country have done to the families of black Americans; change the circumstances so these insults no longer negatively impact self-worth; add our knowledge of black lives to calculations of right and wrong, death or life.

Issac did not really defend Moochie while he was growing up, and in fact, did not frequently visit him in prison. Early on he’d dreamed that Moochie was innocent and was heartbroken to learn that, no, he was guilty. Once he, too, became a man, Issac believes that Moochie was guilty of youth, stupidity, and wishful thinking rather than a pathological need to murder someone. The situation in which Moochie found himself offered an opportunity to use the knife he carried. No matter how Issac explains it, it is difficult to excuse it.

But Issac is not asking us to excuse it. He is asking us to acknowledge the damage we have done to generations of black Americans and then ask ourselves what we expected the result would be. And this is where I am with him, shoulder to shoulder. White Americans are still displaying dominant aggression to black Americans, even now, after all we know about the real indistinguishability of genes among human beings, and how differences among us are attitudinal and cultural only.

The obvious answer, if we want different outcomes in incarceration and achievement and attitudes, is to change the culture. Our culture. It is so obvious as to appear elementary. And if you think that is hard, try continuing down this road of helplessness and hopelessness a little longer and throw other methods at the problem. Then tell me we don’t need to change the culture. Issac is completely right about the ridiculous statues of dead Confederate generals still around. What on earth is the message that is intended to send? Can we please do the barest minimum to treat black Americans like they are honored citizens of our country?

In the last pages of this memoir, when Issac is a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, two big things happen to him personally. One is that he discovers he has a rare chronic life-threatening medical condition (he is only in his fifties), and the other is that Moochie finally is granted parole. It is in these circumstances that Issac raises the question surrounding the award withdrawn from convicted murderer Michelle Jones for a scholarship to attend Harvard University. He uses her case to illustrate what he’d been talking about throughout his memoir: one can’t simple equate Michelle Jones’ circumstance with any other. One simply has to consider her case in the context of her life.

This book will challenge you. It is brilliantly argued. Read it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Manhood: How to be a Better Man--or Just Live with One by Terry Crews

Hardcover, 281 pgs, Pub May 20th 2014 by Zinc Ink, ISBN13: 9780804178051

This wasn’t the book I thought it would be when I sought it out after watching Trevor Noah interview Terry Crews about the cancellation and subsequent surprise pick-up of further episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I hadn’t seen that TV series, either, but I was so impressed with what Crews said in the interview about masculinity, and how it really never was all that good for men, either. And then there was, in my opinion, the funniest man on late night saying over and over how funny Crews was…well, I knew I had to find out what I’d missed.

Crews grew up in Flint, Michigan in an abusive household. His father was a foreman in a GM plant. Terry and his brother as youngsters were fearful of their physical safety. Terry dreamed of getting out of Flint, and like many boys of a certain age, he hoped an athletic scholarship would provide that opportunity. He got his chance, and this look at college athletics is exactly what we’ve been learning over the past couple of years from journalistic sources. Extremely exploitative and oftentimes racist, these school programs exist, not to further the career opportunities of teens, but to pull in money for the school with very little accountability either to the administration or to the students.

Crews’ scholarship was constantly being withheld or given back, not allowing him to plan his education path, while the amount of time required to play on the team meant there was no time or energy for anything else while he was in college, giving him less education than he needed and few opportunities to grow into the well-rounded, responsible person we expect of college graduates. From there he jumped from the frying pan into the fire, accepting a bid from an NFL team.

Here the exploitation of the players was greater by several degrees of magnitude. Unless one is a first-string player, there is precious little money considering the physical risks, much of the expense of which the player himself has to front in advance while ‘practice’ is taking place. We learn also that players are not intended to sign contracts offered them should they prove capable enough to win games, but are expected to work for half the contract value or less so that wage prices are kept low. One begins to understand why an NFL franchise is such a lucrative business opportunity, and why someone like Donald Trump would have loved to get his hands on such a opportunity to scam the tax authorities, players, fans, etc. It’s a virtual mint, if one doesn’t mind the slave-owner aspect.

Crews shares examples of bad experiences he’d had with coaches, teachers, or pastors which reminded him of how constrained his opportunities were. Somewhere he’d developed a sense of his own worth, and grew weary of “being threatened by people he did not respect.” He found a woman he did respect while still in college, and tied her fortunes to his early on. He seemed to have the right instincts because she has been his rock during extremely trying financial times in the NFL and after, when he was trying to break into show business—not as an actor, but as a producer, writer, animator.

Crews, right from the opening paragraphs of his memoir shows his extraordinariness, and makes the ordinariness of the people around him all the more apparent. A black man in those days was just another expendable person, and the fact his college coaches did not put him in a position which would show his skill Crews suggests was due to racism. Once in the NFL, it seems was more a lack of mentorship and a culture of exploitation that did not allow him to shine, making us feel even more sorry for the men who actually made the team and stayed on it. Money doesn’t make up for everything, no matter what they say.

And we get a glimpse of the NFL culture and what it is like to socialize with other NFL players on the constantly on-the-move circuit of games away from home. It sounds perfectly dreadful, the forced camaraderie among the displaced. Crews recounts once getting on a plane after he'd been cut from one team and was being called to another across the country. He did not have enough money to fly to the new team. Because he’d paid with hastily-borrowed cash, airport security assumed he was a drug dealer and pulled him off the plane. Cripes. Can you imagine any one of any other race willing to put up with that kind of bull? He was plenty pissed off, but needed to get where he was going so didn’t scream the house down.

Well, it is kind of a miracle this man survived as long as he did, and accomplished as much as he has. While he is apologizing for his anger management issues and resentments, I’m thinking…wait. You mean we don’t have the right to be royally pissed off when we are jerked around? He’d say that it does us no good, and we need to look at the issue differently so that it doesn’t trip us up on our way to a goal. Now that I’ve seen him talk online about his experience with sexual abuse by a talent agent, I’m thinking he is the hottest property around.

Crews does talk at the end of this memoir that manhood used to mean being right and in control. Now it is more about getting along with others and allowing everyone to live their best lives. He relies on the talents and goodwill of his long-time wife Rebecca and isn’t afraid to acknowledge the part she plays in holding up his world. He is inclined to talk about compassion for our own, and other's, failings is a good way to heal a rift. He suggests starting with oneself, rather than expecting someone else to take on that challenge. He really is a role model, and doesn’t just talk the talk.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Dawn of the New Everything by Jaron Lanier

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub Nov 28th 2017 by Henry Holt and Co., ISBN13: 9781627794091

The ideas in this book are so refreshing, thrilling, amusing, enlightening, and sad that they had me eagerly looking forward to another session with it whenever I got a chance. I found myself fearing what was to come as I read the final chapters. If I say I wish it had turned out differently, it wouldn’t make much difference. I am just so relieved & reassured that such people exist. We share a sensibility. I suppose such people forever be shunted aside by more talky types, louder but not more capable. Anyway, this kind of talent shares a bounty that accrues to all of us.

Everyone knows Lanier was exceptional for his ideas about Virtual Reality. He created, with others, an industry through the force of his imagination. What many may not recognize was that amid the multiple dimensions that made his work so special was his insistence on keeping the humanity—the imperfection, the uncertainty…the godliness, if you will—central in any technological project. It turns out that slightly less capable people could grasp the technology but not the humanity in his work, the humanity being the harder part by orders of magnitude.

It was amusing, hearing such a bright light discuss ‘the scene’ that surrounded his spectacular ideas and work in the 1980s and ‘90s, the people who contributed, the people who brought their wonder and their needs. He gives readers some concept of what VR is, how complicated it is, what it may accomplish, but he never loses sight of the beauty and amazing reality we can enjoy each and every day that is only enhanced by VR. Much will be accomplished by VR in years to come, he is sure, but whether those benefits accrue to all society or merely to a select few may be an open question.

While ethnic diversity is greater now in Silicon Valley than it was when Lanier went there in the 1980s, Lanier fears it has less cognitive diversity. And while the Valley has retained some of its lefty-progressive origins, many younger techies have swung libertarian. Lanier thinks the internet had some of those left-right choices early on its development, when he and John Perry Barlow had a parting of ways about how cyberspace should be organized. It is with some regret that we look back at those earlier arguments and admit that though Barlow “won,” Lanier may have been right.

Lanier was always on the side of a kind of limited freedom, i.e., the freedom to link to and acknowledge where one’s ideas originated and who we pass them to; the freedom not to be anonymous; or dispensing with the notion that ideas and work are “free” to anyone wishing to access it. he acknowledges that there were, even then, “a mythical dimension of masculine success…that [contains] a faint echo of military culture…” Lanier tells us of “a few young technical people, all male, who have done harm to themselves stressing about” the number of alien civilizations and the possibility of a virtual world containing within it other virtual worlds. He suggests the antidote to this kind of circular thinking is to engage in and feel the “luscious texture of actual, real reality.”

In one of his later chapters, Lanier shares Advice for VR Designers and Artists, a list containing the wisdom of years of experimenting and learning. His last point is to remind everyone not to necessarily agree with him or anyone else. “Think for yourself.” This lesson is one which requires many more steps preceding it, so that we know how to do this, and why it is so critical to trust one’s own judgment. There is room for abuse in a virtual system. “The more intense a communication technology is, the more intensely it can be used to lie.”

But what sticks with me about the virtual experience that Lanier describes is how integral the human is to it. It is the interaction with the virtual that is so exciting, not our watching of it. Our senses all come into play, not just and not necessarily ideally, our eyes. When asked if VR ought to be accomplished instead by direct brain stimulation, bypassing the senses, Lanier’s answer illuminates the nature of VR:
“Remember, the eyes aren’t USB cameras plugged into a Mr. Potato Head brain; they are portals on a spy submarine exploring an unknown universe. Exploration is perception.”
If that quote doesn’t compute by reading it in the middle of a review, pick up the book. By the time he comes to it, it may just be the light you needed to see further into the meaning of technology.

Lanier is not technical in this book. He knows he would lose most of us quickly. He talks instead about his own upbringing: you do not want to miss his personal history growing up in New Mexico and his infamous Dodge Dart. He talks also about going east (MIT, Columbia) and returning west (USC, Stanford), finding people to work with and inspiring others. He shares plenty of great stories and personal observations about some well-known figures in technology and music, and he divulges the devastating story of his first marriage and subsequent divorce. He talks about limerence, and how the horrible marriage might have been worth it simply because he understood something new about the world that otherwise he may not have known.

All I know is that this was a truly generous and spectacular sharing of the early days of VR. It was endlessly engaging, informative, and full of worldly wisdom from someone who has just about seen it all. I am so grateful. This was easily the most intellectually exciting and enjoyable read I've read this year, a perfect summer read.

Here is a link to a conversation with Jaron Lanier conducted by Ezra Klein for his podcast The Ezra Klein Show, available on iTunes or Stitcher.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Facts & Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence by James Clapper

Hardcover, 432 pgs, Pub May 22nd 2018 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780525558644

James Clapper has had a very long career in intelligence collection and he goes through it all for us here. He’s had practically every job out there in leadership in this field, capping his career as Director of National Intelligence. The DNI serves as head of the now seventeen U.S. intelligence collection agencies, and advises the National Security Council which advises the president. Listening to Mark Bramhall narrate the audio of this autobiography, it is easy to see why Clapper had such a long and successful career in government. He gets along well with others.

Most others. Clapper freely disagrees with Congressional Republicans who used government policy or intelligence outcomes to lash out politically at their opponents (Democrats in office), and he spares no pity for Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald in their pursuit of borderless-ness in secrets uncovered during surveillance.

Which led me to a queer insight: Greenwald as a journalist does as much spying on government as it does on him. Both want the other side’s secrets uncovered and their own preserved…(“only I can preserve individual liberty…”) Snowden was most outspoken about individual rights, and therefore on the far right of America’s political spectrum, and yet he chose a far-left journalist to reveal his secrets to. Strange bedfellows. I was never completely onboard with Snowden or Greenwald but I think Clapper does himself and his agency a disservice by not acknowledging that these folks provided a corrective to potentially invasive intelligence collection, a fact he does in fact concede near the end of this very long book.

I picked up this book because I read a couple of interesting conclusions he’d come to in his nearly sixty years in office. An intelligence chief is an unlikely one to write a tell-all. By the end of his career Clapper acknowledges that the secret aspect of intelligence doesn't have as much cache as it used to, and agrees that it is probably for the best that their activities are out in the open. If you don't mind my saying, this is a result of those men and women who forced this information to be revealed, and yes, it probably is for the better in some ways. Clapper doesn’t seem to hold back on describing the reporting responsibilities and personalities in the agencies he headed, which should save foreign governments time trying to work it all out.

Clapper claims one reason he wrote this book is to want to encourage interested young people to join the intelligence community. The other reason would undoubtedly be countering the criticism he has gotten for major intelligence successes and failures of the past forty years. His last posting as Director of the Office of National Intelligence sounds kind of a bum job: no power but lots of responsibility to make sure all intelligence departments are singing off the same sheet of music. That’s the kind of job they give you if you last long enough in a sea of sharks. Big enough to blame, old enough to bury.

There is no doubt that Clapper had a congenial personality and was able to hold his own among those who did not self-destruct over the years. Anyone’s career that lasted sixty years is worth listening to, I reckon. In my opinion, he gave himself more credit than he should have for allowing gay and trans individuals to serve in the military and intelligence services--after all, this was a very long time coming and too late anyhow. It was a real shock to most Americans not directly attached to the military to discover how many individuals had been undergoing sex-change treatment before Chelsea Manning put a spotlight on the fact.

This book is necessary for anyone interested in intelligence as a career, or anyone who wants to know how we got from there to here. I listened to the audio, read by Mark Bramhall and produced by Penguin Audio. Viking produced the hardcover.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub May 8th 2018 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525521198

What a beautiful book this is, and how it reminds us how many people go before us, unsung, unremarked, unremembered. A teenaged boy and his slightly older sister find themselves attending separate but proximate boarding schools rather suddenly one year while their parents have taken off for Singapore. The schools are not happy matches and the kids meet up and decide to run away. They return home where a curious bachelor holds fort in their absence. The teens begin a whole new type of education.

The central mysteries in the novel unfold gradually, some we are never privy to. One cannot but thrill to the fascinating similarity between this story and John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, about an impressionable boy and an incorrigible teacher.

The boy and his sister find their way among an oddball group of scammers and outsiders, none of whom want the wider world to know what they are doing. When the teens find their mother's trunk--the one she packed for Singapore-- hidden in the basement, much confusion and uncertainty ensues.

I listened to the audio, beautifully produced by Penguin Random House and read by Steve West. Audio is a wonderful way to enjoy this title, though truthfully, the Alfred A. Knopf hardcover is small, beautifully printed, and self-sufficient. This is a great choice for summer reading, as it is short, terrifically atmospheric, and full of mystery. The action is not so fast the reader doesn't have time to think while reading.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Paperback, 288 pgs, Pub Jan 23rd 2018 by Penguin Books (first published March 2013, ISBN13: 9780143128793, Lit Awards: الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية (أي باف) / International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) (2014), Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2018)

It won’t come as any surprise to anyone that this novel is about the war in Baghdad, the one which has gone on relentlessly since 2003. Saadawi won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for this work about the people trying to—literally—piece their lives together amidst endless bombings and heavy doses of despair.

The diversity of Iraqi culture is one highlight in this novel, the first people we see in any depth being one of the large numbers of Christians, not Shi’ite, Sunni, Yazidis, Ahl-e Haqq, Mandeans, Shabak, and Bahá’í, or any other of the many religions that were commonly found in Baghdad before the war.
"I’ll tell you something. I don’t think my family were originally Arabs…I think [we] were Sabean who converted to Islam,” said Mahmoud.
Mahmoud is a journalist in a struggling newspaper. The owner doesn’t seem to care enough about news and is instead, like the rest of the city, looking for opportunities to make money. The city’s population has a large contingent of people who no longer trust in their god but have revived an interest in the astrology of their forbears.

Mahmoud gets a scoop, a digital audio archive of the man thought to be terrorizing the city’s citizens. The man, called Whatsitsname, had been created by a grieving junk man, Hadi, from the bits of people left after bombings. Whatsitsname was meant to be memorial to all the people who died but who have no bodies to bury. Hadi had meant no disrespect, and certainly never anticipated Whatsisname would come to life in the midst of a terrible electrical storm…

Lightly told, the story’s humor saves it from a reality too terrible to contemplate. Originally composed of body parts from ‘innocents,’ Whatsitsname gradually found himself replacing bits and pieces of those people he’d already avenged, eventually using parts from terrorists themselves, or criminals and crooks. This made his psychic paybacks much more fraught and complicated.
“…who’s to say how criminal someone is? That’s a question the Magician raised one day. ‘Each of us has a measure of criminality…’”
More importantly, we begin to question what it means to share destinies with others, some we do not like or do not trust, and even some people we barely know. If the coarse and criminal ‘get the girls,’ what does it mean to be chaste? As for the Frankenstein, Whatsitsname, “they have turned me into a criminal and a monster, equating me with those I seek to exact revenge on.” But he continues to exist, changing features and nature, reflecting those whose parts he attaches.

As an examination of the fragmentation that has taken place in a diverse but harmonious society when death is sown recklessly and nonsensically, this novel is a window. As a novel in the Western tradition, it manages to convey a complex psychological portrait of a city, not merely of individuals. Were it a painting, it would feature a lot of red and black. It is definitely an indication that life has not been extinguished yet, that confusion sowed is being digested, and the city may rise again.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

Hardcover, 392 pgs, Pub Apr 24th 2018 by W. W. Norton Company, ISBN13: 9780393652109

Who could have known Ronan Farrow would develop into such a remarkable thinker? He credits his mother, of whom he speaks with genuine awe in his voice. Not only has 30-year-old Ronan Farrow been a diplomat, in his early twenties working closely with Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the midst of American’s longest war, but just last year he broke the story published in The New Yorker which set America on a new trajectory for gender relations.

War on Peace is an examination of American foreign policy in the last two decades, though Farrow occasionally wanders further afield to highlight a trend or to stress a break in continuity. Did we have a foreign service in the past two decades that was not consumed by military matters? Believe it or not, we had a robust diplomatic core who was toiling away unsung, trying to wrest decision-making from generals focused on anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Richard Holbrooke was one of these.

Holbrooke wasn’t well-liked in Washington, but was effective in his role in the Bosnia peace talks. He was hard-headed, obsessive, egotistical. He’d wanted to be Secretary of State during President Clinton’s administration but the job went to Madeleine Albright. He was Secretary of State Clinton’s choice for envoy to the Afghanistan war zone. It was a bum job, but Holbrooke was happy to get it. Ronan knew Holbrooke as a family friend and was invited onto Holbrooke’s team. We get a view of Holbrooke from someone who knew his gifts and his faults.

Ronan has a disarmingly frank manner. For this book he interviewed on the record every living Secretary of State, and just about every other Washingtonian who had anything to do with international work. What he charts herein is the militarization of the diplomatic corps, starting way back in Bill Clinton’s presidency through Bush and Obama, neither of whom did anything to slow or halt the trend. Farrow does talk about the current president, but only to highlight how diplomacy has become a dirty word in D.C.

Most interesting for me was the access that Farrow had in talking about American foreign policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how we never seemed to actually get anywhere. In Pakistan especially we never seemed able to take advantage of cooperation with the people who could bridge the trust gap. Farrow makes it sound like we were so close to better, more cooperative relations but the ship of state is hard to steer. Our relationships with other countries tended to impact our relations in Pakistan, to say nothing of the assassination of Bhutto, the misuse of aid funds, and bin Laden living in hiding there.

Farrow gives some idea how DJT is playing in Europe at the moment, as if we didn’t know. He quotes Merkel's dry and damning statements about "we really should all be trying harder to work out problems with our allies..." But when this 30-yr-old says we must stay engaged in the leadership of the world because if we don’t, someone else will, we understand and we believe him. When Clinton said this during the campaign, actually answering a question I’d posed about America’s role in the world, I was resistant. I am still working through disappointment that she couldn’t manage to make even her countrymen want her to be that leader.

Our dysfunctional relationship with Colombia is spelled out in painful detail. How stupid and disrespectful has America ever been in South America? America’s war on drugs became a sordid saga of the U.S. training drug runners. Towards the end of Farrow’s book, this story is just so sobering and souring. Perhaps we come off looking like the buffoons we are because of the unending corruption in every single South American country. It is just exhausting and hard to believe an honest person cannot rise to the top anywhere in South America. But we just keep playing out the worst examples of bad behavior, on both sides of the border.

In the end this book is an impassioned call to young people to create the change they want to see. Farrow is trying to gin up some enthusiasm for a diplomatic corps who can think, talk, and make treaties around the world rather than militarize our relationships. It is obviously true that if you start with a gun in your hand you are going to have a very different mindset about solving disagreements. Diplomacy is long, frustrating, and often useless seeming…until it isn’t.

Great book. The inside scoop on how the Department of State functions is worth the price of admission. I listened to the audio of this, read by Farrow himself and it was terrific. Produced by Audible.