Note from the Blogger

These mini-reviews are intended to be short recommendations, not full blown literary reviews. Please feel free to add your own comments. To get an email alert when a new review is posted, enter your Email address in the box on the right. -- Tim Drake

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ugly American (1958) By William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Movie (1963) Starring Marlon Brando

The war in Afghanistan has now entered its third American presidency, a bi-partisan commitment to … to … to what?  U.S. troops – uniformed and not -- are on the ground and/or dropping bombs in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, The Sudan, and now apparently Niger, and who knows where all else.  Did I point out none of these countries have been mentioned in a declaration of war by the Congress, the only body authorized by the constitution to make such a declaration?  Yet … soldiers die in the thousands and civilians die in the tens of thousands.  

At home, people question whether a call to console gets made, yet nobody ever seems to question the call to arms. Isn’t it time for a rethinking of American foreign policy?

One could begin with a history book or two, though one must wonder if the current, temporary occupant of the White House has ever read a history book.  His ignorance of all things involving governing is a problem, but in all fairness American foreign policy was a mess even before he was foolishly entrusted with it.

The books don’t even have to be “history,” they could be fiction, and The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick would make a good starting point.  If a president doesn’t have sufficient attention span for a book, he could perhaps watch the movie.

Published in 1958, The Ugly American is set in Southeast Asia as the French are being driven out of "French" Indo-China, which would soon become the United States’ nightmare in Vietnam.  The country the book is about is Sarkhan, fictional, yet familiar.  In the book, Americans have gone to Vietnam to try and understand how the Communists are so successfully dislodging the French in the hope of preventing that from repeating itself in Sarkhan. In the movie, the action begins in Sarkhan, with the domino theory the overriding policy concern.

The American foreign service (State Department) is savaged in the book as incompetent, practitioners of imperialism at its worst, and arrogance at its most blatant.  The protagonist in the book, Homer, an American farmer, serves as a role model for what the authors believe America’s role in the world should be. Today we would recognize Homer’s strategy as the Peace Corps, created by Executive Order by President Kennedy just a few years after the book was published. The movie adaptation of The Ugly American was released six months before the Kennedy assassination.

The timing of the book is important – the year after its publication, the revolution in Cuba succeeded in deposing the puppet government and founding the first communist government in the western hemisphere (Cuba is not mentioned in the 1958 book but is mentioned as an example of policy failure in the 1963 movie). At the time, and with puppet governments and colonial “protectorates” all over the globe, the West was fearing the loss of “its” possessions, and the rise of Soviet and Chinese dominance. That sphere of influence debate continues today.  

As always, my preference is that people read the book, however I will qualify that this time by advising that the movie, starring Marlon Brando as the U.S. Ambassador to Sarkhan, is also important.

In the final scene, with Sarkhan in revolt, the Ambassador makes a press statement. A few sentences into his statement at the embassy, the movie cuts away to an American living room where his press conference is being viewed on a black and white television set. The viewer listens for a few brief moments then, just as the Ambassador is beginning to acknowledge U.S. foreign policy errors, picks up and glances at a TV Guide, then switches channels. “The End” displays on the television screen.  

Recommendation: Should be required reading for candidates for President.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Gatekeeper (2016) By Kathryn Smith

I would venture to guess that there have been thousands of books written about Franklin D. Roosevelt, if not tens of thousands.  In each of these books Missy LeHand, FDR’s personal secretary, is recognized with a paragraph, more often with merely a footnote.  With The Gatekeeper by Kathryn Smith, Missy is given her much deserved place in history. 

Prior to Dwight Eisenhower there was no such title as a Chief of Staff at the White House, though there was always someone around to administer the administration, as it was administering the nation.  This person wielded an immense amount of power, none more important than being the gatekeeper who controlled access to the President. To no surprise the person filling this position was always a man; that is until Franklin Roosevelt entrusted Marguerite LeHand with the authority.  She was appointed his personal secretary, and though she kept that title, she quickly absorbed the role we would today call Chief of Staff. 

Her standing in the Roosevelt administrations came about because FDR trusted her personal integrity, her loyalty to him, her analytic intelligence, and her ability to get things done.  He also knew she’d tell him what he needed to hear, whether he wanted to hear it or not. That he did this at a point in history when women’s empowerment was a new concept, but not yet a goal, speaks volumes.   

Much is made of two other women in the Roosevelt era.  One of course was FDR’s wife, the larger than life Eleanor Roosevelt who remade the role of First Lady, and earned herself a place in history quite independent of his.  She shared his political agenda, and had one of her own with no qualms about battling for it, even when that meant battling him. Yet, history will always also remember “the other woman,” Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, with whom FDR had a long-term affair.  Though common knowledge the affair wasn’t publicly discussed in an era when the personal life of a President was considered off limits to the press. This subject, fodder for so many of the books on FDR, is touched upon in The Gatekeeper only in that Missy, who was loved by both Eleanor and Franklin, and treated as though a member of the family, often served as a go between husband and wife, a role far afield from her official role in the administration.

A few months before Pearl Harbor, Missy suffered a stroke that left her unable to return to work.  For one who had been one of FDR’s closest confidants and operatives during his career as Governor of New York, at his side during the Depression when as President he was a-force-of-nature enactng the New Deal, at his side as a personal friend during the challenging and at times painful polio treatments; she now would be unable to serve during his war-time Presidency. The impact of that change in fortune was devastating to her. 
While history seems to have lost Missy, FDR knew her place in it.  The statement the White House issued at her death was:

“Memories of more than a score of years of devoted service enhance the sense of personal loss which Miss LeHand’s passing brings.  Faithful and painstaking, with a charm of manner inspired by tact and kindness of heart, she was utterly selfless in her devotion to duty.  Hers was a quiet efficiency which made her a real genius in getting things done.  Her memory will be held in affectionate remembrance and appreciation, not only by all members of our family, but the wide circle of those whose duties brought them into contact with her.”

By the time of Missy’s death, FDR’s health was also rapidly fading.  He would follow her in death a few months later. 

Recommendation:  Not just for history buffs, this is a fascinating book.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Los Alamos (1997) By Joseph Kanon

The literary formula of writing a fictional story on top of a historical event while risky is not uncommon, though seldom does it work as well as it does in Joseph Kanon’s book Los Alamos.

In his book, the plot centers on solving a murder, your standard detective story. Yet, the victim wasn’t just any victim, he was a security operative at Los Alamos, New Mexico -- the top secret location of the Manhattan Project, one of if not the most significant historical events of the 20th Century. The first successful detonation of an atomic bomb takes places at its Trinity test site in the final chapters of the book.

At Los Alamos, many of the biggest names in science worked under Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, often called the “father of the atomic bomb” to develop a weapon that could bring World War II to an end.  Many of the scientists were immigrants and refugees, many of them were also Jewish, working collectively against time to end the holocaust in Europe that many/most Americans were still blind to at the time. Determined as they were, all of the scientists were also aware that they were creating one evil, to address another. In the end, the war in Europe came to an end before the bomb was complete.  It's first and second military deployment would be on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the war in the Pacific theater, not on Germany.
To-date, there hasn’t been a third combat drop of an atomic weapon, which makes the moral debate in the nonfiction part of this story still relevant today, with nuclear aspirations in Iran and North Korea, and an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-science, and bellicose administration temporarily in command in the United States.

Returning to fiction, in Chapter 1 of the book the Project's military command limited the feared concern about the crime being viewed as espionage by internally dismissing it as a “homosexual murder,” an obsession of 1940’s and 1950’s America, when “pinko, commie, fag” was a favorite catchall condemnation, and telling everyone else that it was a botched robbery. They don't dismiss the investigation however, bringing in a non-military investigator from Washington to quietly discover what really happened. The gay stereotypes deployed throughout are infuriating, but an accurate reflection of the times.  Significant to the story is that because the murder is categorized as “homosexual” everyone is more than willing to sweep it under the rug, no one wants to talk about it, no one wants to risk coming forward.  That the initial categorization turns out wrong gets acknowledged towards the end of the book, but never corrected by any of the official record – such is history, infuriating or not.

This is the second novel by Joseph Kanon that I’ve read.  A few years ago, I reviewed his book Istanbul Passage, about the transition taking place in espionage after the Cold War.  While I liked the book, I had a geography problem. I believe Kanon failed to capture the essence of Istanbul (which in my mind has the romanticism personified by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk), and faulted him for even trying.  Having never been to Los Alamos, I had no concerns about this title; except it ends up that I should have.  I’ve been to many of the surrounding communities in New Mexico where action in the book takes place, including nearby Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the very remote Chaco Canyon, which is captured perfectly in the book, all-the-way down to the rattle snake’s rattle.

Recommendation:  You bet, completely engrossing.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Skinny Dip (2004) By Carl Hiaasen

Am I the only person in the known world who had never read a Carl Hiaasen book? He clearly is quite the prolific author, with multiple best-sellers and a huge following. Recently my friend Daniel sent me Hiaasen’s book Skinny Dip, it was a great read, actually fun might be a better term.  The genre would be "a summer read." 

Skinny Dip  is a page-turner, sort of a cross between Gone Girl and Mad Magazine.  It’s also one of those books where you really can’t say a lot about the book without giving a spoiler alert.  I’ll give you some limited information: it is set in the Florida Keys and the Everglades; it’s a detective-like story; and it has sharks, alligators, cobras and seniors as bit players.  Submerged way deep in the story is a serious subplot about pollution. 

It also has a least one hearty, irreverent, laugh per page.  Oh, and if you were planning a cruise for your anniversary, you might want to reconsider, wait until after you read this book. 

Recommendation:  Fun book, make a margarita and pull up a deck chair.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World (2001) By Margaret MacMillan

Near the end of 1918 an armistice was signed ending the main hostilities of what was then known as the Great War. During the first six months of 1919, the victors met in Paris to draft the terms and conditions of “the peace” which culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, and several separate treaties.  History soon changed the narrative, marking the Treaty as the beginning of the next war, and changing the war’s name from the “Great War” to World War I, initiating a sad but convenient numbering system. 

Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan, is a scholarly, though readable, detailed documentation of what happened at that peace conference. The book neither sets the blame for World War II on the top negotiators, nor does it let them off the hook. In fact, it goes to great length to underscore that top negotiators – U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and to a lesser extent Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando -- knew that their grand plans were flawed documents, acknowledging that the hype of a lasting peace guaranteed by a League of Nations sounded nice, but had little relevance to the facts on the ground. These men basically redrew the maps of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of East Asia, at times not even knowing where the countries in question were, rather on what their inhabitant's thoughts on self-determination might be.

One cannot argue that “we, the world” paid a steep price for many of these decisions, we have.  Name a 21st century international “trouble spot” and you can trace it to Paris 1919.

For a history buff, this book is full of details with MacMillan expertly dividing it between the personalities involved, and the geographic regions being cut up.  The personalities involved, directly or indirectly, goes well beyond the primary Allied negotiators, including the likes of: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Herbert Hoover early in their political careers, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell, (to-be-King) Feisal, Chaim Weizmann, James Balfour, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, Lu Zhengxiang, Prince Saionji, Benito Mussolini, and viewing from the sidelines a young man named Adolph Hitler; and many more – there were well over 1,000 official delegates at the conference, all leaders, or leaders-in-the-making. That MacMillan was able to connect the dots in an understandable formula, was no small undertaking. 

Recommendation:  Yes, for history buffs, and required for history majors.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Immense Journey (1957) By Loren Eiseley

Literature is not what one expects when tackling a book by an anthropologist, yet great literature is what one unearths when reading The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley.

The book is Part I of the Library of America’s publication titled Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature and the Cosmos, Volume One, edited by William Cronon. The Library of America (LOA) is my favorite source of reading material.  It is a non-profit publisher dedicated to keeping in print important writings by American writers, preserving the availability of classics of literature that have passed their commercial appeal, but not their importance.  Their books are available individually, or via subscription – I’m not sure when I started my subscription, but my personal library now includes 182 volumes from LOA.

Eiseley (1907 – 1977) was a scientist, an anthropologist & paleontologist, who became an educator, crossing over to writer … and a very good writer.  You can call him an "off-spring" of Henry David Thoreau, credit him as the literary father of Carl Sagan, and rank him as a “kissing cousin” contemporary of Ray Bradbury.  

The Immense Journey was his first book, collecting 13 of his essays that had been printed in magazines or as academic papers.  It was published in 1957, when I was four years old.  That date is important when reading his work because in 1957 carbon-dating was a new technology, and DNA sequencing merely a somewhat bizarre theory. Yet, his essays are as on target in 2017 as they were then.

While a scientist, Eiseley was also decidedly a naturalist.  My favorite selection in the book is The Judgement of the Birds.  It needs to be required reading for humanity, of all species.

The opening essay, The Slit, is a captivating short story about descending into (and out of) a mountain crevice, and taking account of the anthropologic passage of time while doing so. How Flowers Changed the World is an important exposition on Darwin.  And, Little Men and Flying Saucers is one of two humorous essays on scientific fraud – science as P.T. Barnum would have it.

Recommendation:  All in all a completly interesting collection that has left me eager to read more of Eiseley’s work.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Audubon: On the Wings of the World (2016) By Fabien Grolleau & Jeremie Royer

Perhaps your name has to be Timmy to appreciate this story: The first “book report” I ever wrote was on Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight, when I was around 8 or 9 years old.  The report was part of a letter I mailed to my late grandmother, who we called Nanny, when she spent a month or so vacationing in Monterrey, Mexico.  She got me the book before she left on her trip; I’ve been reading, and often “reporting,” ever since.  Note: in the book the kid’s name was Joe, when it was made into a television series is when his name was switched to Timmy. Lassie, a collie, will eternally be Lassie.

With that tale as a preface, one of my neighbors has an 8 year-old daughter. I’m always buying her books, trying to get her hooked on reading.  My campaign got off to a slow start though; she was decidedly unimpressed with Lassie (she has a cat). However, I have discovered that she’s totally into graphic books.  This is not my genre, but at this point I believe getting her to be excited about reading is way more important than what she reads.  And, I seem to have hit the jackpot with these graphic books, especially those by author Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, and Smile).  I always read the books before I give them to her, and then verbally test her when she’s finished reading them.  She scores well on my interrogations.  I’m excited (latent teacher syndrome).

Okay, sorry for that long winded introduction.  I recently gave her the graphic book Audubon: On the Wings of the World, a biography of John J. Audubon (her grandmother is into bird watching). She loves it, even though parts of the narrative/graphics are rather dark, like when Audubon slips into hallucinations during a long bout with “the fever.”  The illustrations are impressive -- a must considering the topic -- and the narrative is on target.  And did I mention that I loved the book? 

Recommendation:  When next you are looking for a gift for an 8 or 9 year old child, or for an old guy going through his second (third, fourth) childhood – it’s a winner.