29 April 2010

36. The Ghost War

The Ghost War - Alex Berenson

This was a decent espionage story that spanned from North Korea, to Afghanistan, to China, to Iran, and of course, America.

We have our super-hero CIA agent. We have the typical problems in his life. We have the typical inner turmoil over being a killer for his country. Yada yada yada.

I don't know. The book was OK. Not really a story that grabbed me. Not really a character that thrilled me. Not really bad guys that repulsed me.

It was a mediocre political/military/espionage thriller. That's about it.

28 April 2010

35. Stormin' Norman

Stormin' Norman - Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta

This is the life story of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. This book though, is not what I thought it was going to be. I figured these two authors, investigative reporters, would have at some point interviewed the subject himself. I can find no evidence of that at all.

What it looks like to me is that the authors searched the internet for anything and everything concerning the life of Norman Schwarzkopf, maybe made a few phone calls to folks who knew him, and than wrote a book with the stories and anecdotes they had gathered.

It would be pretty easy with much of the story. It was very public. Half the book is about the period where General Schwarzkopf was the Commander in Chief of Central Command. He is most famous for this time. He was the guy who ran the whole Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations that ended up getting Iraq out of Kuwait in the early 1990s.

Some of the information about where the General grew up and the things he did were told by his sister and friends. The stories of Vietnam were told by other people that knew him. Were these stories actually told to the authors? I think they were more likely told to some other third party and published. Once the story was published then these guys used the info in a larger story about the man. That is how this book felt to me. It is like it was just written by a few guys that gathered info in order to capitalize on the fleeting fame of a popular character of the moment.

That does not mean the book was bad. It was fun to read and interesting how the General's career progressed. The facts, I am sure, are there. The events that unfolded were true. The reasons for things happening that were given in the book were most likely absolutely factual.

My biggest problem is that there was no insight from the man himself. He did not explain how he was feeling. He did not explain his thinking process. He did not explain anything at all. The writers did say why this happened or why that happened. They ever related the General's feelings by using quotes from his friends and other officers. The problem was that the quotes were not coming from the General himself.

So, I liked the book, but I will now be looking for a better story on this man. The book "It Doesn't Take A Hero" should be more like what I wanted. The General wrote this one WITH someone else. That should give his perspective on what was happening during all the events spoken of in the "Stormin' Norman" book

23 April 2010

34. Darkness At Noon

Darkness at Noon - Arthur Koestler

This book is definitely not for everyone. It is very political. It is very psychological. It is very philosophical. It is unlike any book I have read in the past.

From the opening line the narration is gloomy and dark. What could be cheerful about a man who has spent his life supporting a revolution which has now turned against him? The very first line in the book sets the tone for the entire 216 pages. "THE CELL DOOR SLAMMED BEHIND RUBASHOV." It was written all in caps for some reason that I failed to grasp.

The entire story is actually the interrogation and trial of a man named Rubashov. He has spent his life promoting and loving the post revolutionary political system of Communist Russia. I do not specifically recall them saying it was Russia or communist, but that is quite obviously the scenario. They even have a leader who is definitely Stalin, but he is never named and is only called “Number 1” throughout the book.

The story almost entirely takes place in the prison cell and interrogation rooms where Rubashov discusses his beliefs and convictions as he works through his current dilemma and how it fits in with his past.

The book is full of political theory, ideology, and what should be considered socially moral. Rubashov is forced to use his own beliefs against himself. He has spent his life making logical arguments concerning the greater good of society outweighing the needs of an individual. He is lead to come to the “logical” conclusion that he should confess to numerous crimes for which he is not-guilty in order for the Party to maintain it’s prominence.

Though it is never plainly stated that we are discussing Marxism or socialism, it is that type of society being described. Rubashov had lead the revolution in order to free the people in order to pursue a utopian society and has conflicts within himself about whether that society being lead by a dictator that forcefully suppresses any opposition is acceptable. Do the “ends justify the means”? Is the ultimate socialist goal worth accepting a brutal totalitarian leader?

I think the most fascinating part of this book is near the end. After Rubashov confesses and the trial is over he is waiting in his cell. He is waiting for his own execution. He has spent his time in this cell contemplating his life and occasionally having “conversations” with is neighbors using the “tap” system of communication. When he is in his cell at this point he taps a single word. He taps this on a wall where he knows he has no neighbor. The one word is “I”. He types “I” twice. That is all.

Why is this so interesting to me? Rubashov has spent his entire life promoting the Party. He has said the individual is insignificant compared to society. Yet, when it came to the end what was important. Was it a realization that the individual is all he really has? Something along those lines anyway. I just found it interesting that he tapped that word.

SAT Word Alert:
SCROFULOUS: morally degenerate; corrupt

AGUE: a fit of fever or shivering or shaking chills, accompanied by malaise, pains in the bones and joints, etc.; chill.

PERFIDY: deliberate breach of faith or trust; faithlessness; treachery

QUIXOTISM: An idea or act that is caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.

I enjoyed this book, but it took me a while to finish it. I guess life happened. Spring came and I went outside. The yard looks better. The vegetable garden is planted. The chickens are happy. We went on vacation to the beach for a few days. All that stuff happened and I did not read. Whatever. It isn’t like I broke the law or anything. I just took a while to finish this book. Why would I even think that it matters? Maybe I am crazy. 

20 April 2010

33. Austerlitz

Austerlitz - W. G. Sebald

This is an interesting story written in a very unique style. It was originally published in German in 2001.

The narrator throughout the book relates the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian he meets at a train station in Antwerp, Belgium. They first meet in the 1960's. The story unfolds through a series of meetings over the following four decades at which Austerlitz reveals a bit more of the story to the narrator, who in turn tells us.

The story is about Jacques, who until he was 15 years old thought he was Dafyyd Elias, the son of a Calvinist preacher living in Wales. At fifteen his parents have both died and his school tells him his real name is Jacques Austerlitz, but they no nothing more.

This school has a history teacher who is a Napoleon buff and one day is relating the story of his battle at Austerlitz. Jacques then has a direction to begin his search for where he is from and who he really is.

Over the following decades the two fellows meet at railway stations, libraries, museums and numerous other historical places in Germany, England, Paris and Prague. Jacques relays his findings as he discovers he was sent to Wales on a Kindertransport from Prague before the Nazis took over the city. He then went to Prague where he searched archives for people with his name in hopes of finding a trail to follow. He ends up discovering a woman who knew him as a child and was close friends with his mother and father.

He finds out they were never married and went separate directions during the war. His mother was taken to a Jewish Ghetto community in Germany. His father went to Paris.

He follows these leads and eventually finds that his mother died in a concentration camp during the holocaust and that his father left Paris after the war headed to the Pyrennes mountains. Nobody knows where is has gone from there and he is never found.

The story itself is good. The reason I liked this book so much was the way it was written. It is probably the most descriptive book I have ever read. While reading, I kept thinking this author was painting with words. It was that clear a picture that I got as he described a room or a building or a bird or a woman's hat or a seemingly endless array of details. Normally this type of descriptiveness just annoys me. It is just wordy and unnecessary. Sebald makes it beautiful somehow and not dull or repetitive. I kept thinking about Walden while reading this book. Thoreau was very descriptive. Sometimes too descriptive. Sebald reminded me of that level of writing without being annoying.

This is an amazing book well worth the read.

14 April 2010

32. Sweeny Todd and the String of Pearls

Sweeny Todd and the String of Pearls - Yuri Rasovsky

This was an aduio book of a play performed by The Hollywood Theater of the Ear. It says it is "an audio melodrama in three despicable acts".

It is the story of the same barber that has been portrayed in many different versions of this story. This one is a little different than what I remember. Sweeny is a bit more insidious than I recalled. He robs and kills hundreds of customers in his barber shop and then carries them into underground tunnels which connect to his accomplices business. Mrs. lovett owns a bakery a few blocks away. The two businesses are connected through these caverns.

Mrs. lovett's bakery makes the best meat pies in the entire city. Customers are always raving about the flavor and coming back for more.

They have no idea that the secret to her recipe is that she grinds up the cadavers supplied by Sweeny Todd and uses them as stuffing for her pies.

This was an interesting story that I enjoyed listening to. Partly because the actors portraying the parts were excellent. The writer, Yuri Rasovsky, used the original "penny dreadful" version of this story when writing the play, which makes it closer to the original than many of the more famous of contemporary versions.

08 April 2010

31. Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season

Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season - Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King

I loved this book. To qualify that statement I will say that I am biased. I am a life long Red Sox fan. Have been since listening to the games with my grandfather on an AM radio when I was a little kid. I am a huge baseball fan.

The Sox broke my heart many times over the years. 1986 was especially bad. Stinkin' Mets.

2004 was one of the greatest moments of my Red Sox fandom. It is the year they broke The Curse of the Bambino (which was BS anyway). When the team came back from a 3 games to none defecit in the American League Championship series against the New York Yankees I knew it was meant to be. No team had ever come back from being 3 games down to win in any championship series. These guys did it.

The World Series itself was a bit anti-climactic that year. Getting past the Yankees was huge. Then they played the Saint Louis Cardinals and swept them in four games. The Cards never really showed up for the Series.

This book started at Spring Training. Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King decided to write a book as they followed the team throughout the year. It is written in kind of a diary format. Each day the guys would write about their observations, their feelings and their expectations for the team and it's performance. It was not all pretty. The Sox looked pretty awful for a while and were 10.5 games behind New York in the AL East.

Some of this book was written in email exchanges between the two authors as they discussed the games and players. That was pretty interesting to read. They did not always agree.

I guess to enjoy this book you would have to first of all be a baseball fan. It spends a lot of time covering each game and the events that unfolded. If you don't like the game, that stuff would drag on and on and on.

Next, I would also only recommend it for Red Sox fans. It covers some other teams as the Sox play against them, but it is definately about the Sox side of the story. It does speak of the Yankees a lot, but that is required. Red Sox without Yankees would be like Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader. You need the evil empire.

I got to relive some pretty cool memories with this book. Not only did it remind me of the hope and dreams that Red Sox fans put into the club every year, but it had some specific events that are fond memories from that year.

Who could forget when Jason Varitek shoved Alex Rodriguez in his face and trashed the super hero? Or later when A-Rod tried to swat the ball out of a glove while running to first and was called out for unsportsmanlike conduct? Or how about all the taunts going back and forth? "Who's your Daddy?"

I loved this book for sentimental reasons.

05 April 2010

30. The Prison

The Prison - R, Patrick Gates

A prison, the New Rome Correctional Institution, is in Massachusetts. It used to be a mental asylum. That was thirty years ago. Something went wrong there. Many people died and the buildings lay dormant for decades. Now the prison has been built using the land and buildings of the old asylum...and "things" are beginning to get weird again.

So, there is this ancient being called a Windigo living in the tunnels beneath the buildings that preys on the loneliness and despair of men. What better place than an asylum and a prison. It has a field day. (The author took liberties with the real native american Windigo legends)

The events have been happening for a long time. Weird dreams and visions by the guards that go unreported because they would be called lunatics. One guard freaks out and then disappears. One commits suicide. One gets killed doing some autoerotic-asphyxiation stuff at work (so they think). But, when a new recruit arrives things pick up quickly.

Coincidentally, this recruit just happens to be the love child of the doctor from the night shift at the asylum and a crazy patient he fell in love with. These two worked together at first to control the powers of the thing in the tunnels. She realized it was evil and refused to assist any more. He continued and she fought him. The asylum was burned and many people died...and now the son is returning to the grounds.

Dad, the Doc, is still there, though not exactly physically there. He kind if shifts between alternate worlds trying to bring people from one to the other. He controls many inmates through a second reality where he allows them to enter and fulfill fantasies while they are sleeping in the "real" world. By the way...they are prisoners for a reason. Thier fantasies are quite nasty and many are very erotic.

So, the Doc, the Son, and the head guard (who happens to be a distant cousin of them both) end up sparring and what-not while people die and do mean and nasty things everywhere.

Oh, and one of the prisoners just happens to be the grandson of a Native-American Shaman who told him all kinds of legends and stories. This guy just happens to put the whole thing together and is able to explain to the son (the guard) what is happening and what the entity is that he must fight. How nice to have such a knowledge bank sitting around just when you need the answers.

It is an OK story, but I can't say it was scary at all. Gross sometimes? Sure. Was it going to keep me awake at night? Not at all. It was also very predictable. I figured out who was who, which was supposed to surprise the reader, very early on in the book.

I would also like to know if it is possible to write a novel set in a prison without writing about the sodomy which takes place between the inmates? Is it possible to leave out the sexually obsessive guy who was raped by his uncle as a child and now makes friends though sexual favors in the bathroom? I guess it makes things more offensive and disturbing, but it may have been seriously overdone in this book.

02 April 2010

29. Burn this Book

Burn This Book - edited by Toni Morrison

A thin book, but it is very heavy.

Contained within are eleven essays written by famous writers from around the world. John Updike, Salmon Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Russel Banks, and more.

Each essay is about a central theme. That being censorship.

The writing is excellent and very thought provoking.

This can be read in a matter of hours, but it will take a much longer time to process what was just encountered.