A very frustrating account of the early American occupation in Iraq. Setting aside the question of whether there should have been an invasion in the fA very frustrating account of the early American occupation in Iraq. Setting aside the question of whether there should have been an invasion in the first place (although it's not hard to guess his opinion), the author details how the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) came into Iraq with grand ideas and little knowledge or experience.
The dream was to create a mini-America in the Middle East; one that would spread democracy and a firm belief in the power of free markets. The reality was, not surprisingly, that the Iraqis were more interested in basic necessities like jobs and electricity than radical societal changes. This divide led the CPA to pursue disastrous policies, such as disbanding the Iraqi Army, and to set inappropriate priorities, such as opening the stock market before opening factories that employed thousands. The result: the Iraqis, who were, at best, indifferent towards the American occupation, became disaffected and began to fight their self-proclaimed liberators.
Rather than recognize reality and adjust its strategies, the CPA continued trying to force round pegs into square holes. They withdrew into the Green Zone - the "Emerald City" of the book's title - and lived in mostly blissful ignorance as Iraq collapsed all around them. And why so much ignorance? Because anyone who worked for the CPA was vetted for their dedication to Republican political principles above any other qualification, meaning that recent undergraduates with the right Republican names on their resumes filled CPA positions in lieu of qualified apolitical State Department veterans.
The entire book is a long list of the missed opportunities and misunderstandings that created the aftermath to the invasion of Iraq. I'd like to believe there is one silver lining in all this; that Iraq may at least serve as a cautionary tale against such national adventuring in the future. But I'm not that optimistic. ...more
A quick fun read. The story briskly alternates between the modern indignities of a very old man in a nursing home, and his memories of a Depression-erA quick fun read. The story briskly alternates between the modern indignities of a very old man in a nursing home, and his memories of a Depression-era stint as the veterinarian in a third-rate traveling circus. Both parts are compelling.
The circus sequences are full of entertaining characters, from the alcoholic workman who introduces the narrator to the lingo and traditions of the occupation, to the crooked ringmaster who scavenges failed circuses in his vain attempt to compete with the Ringling Bros. The sequences also describe how circuses invaded small towns, stirred up customers, and fleeced them for every available nickel in those hard times. The author, in the afterward, claims that many of the book's more ridiculous details - such as the elephants' love of whiskey - were drawn from American circus history. If true, most of us missed out on a great show.
More terrifying is the description of the narrator's life in the nursing home. The narrator sees himself in the mirror but doesn't recognize the old man looking back at him. He can no longer remember names, or determine the exact relationship between himself and the family who dutifully visits him. He's tortured by his own mortality, and scared of becoming like his more vegetative neighbors. It's a creepy, but probably accurate, portrait of growing old.
On the whole, the book is thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended....more
Woody Allen's first short story collection in a few decades is a fun read. The best stories are the ones that use actual New York Times stories - say,Woody Allen's first short story collection in a few decades is a fun read. The best stories are the ones that use actual New York Times stories - say, a Bollywood star kidnapped by an Indian outlaw - as a jumping off point. Others are clever, such as the one inspired by String Theory Several were surprisingly funny given their subject ...more
A scholarly but lightly-written book on late 12th Century European politics, as told through the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor comes across asA scholarly but lightly-written book on late 12th Century European politics, as told through the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor comes across as a remarkable woman, extremely strong-willed and independent. She originally married the King of France, and even joined him on a Crusade, then abandoned him for the King of England. Later, through her sons - Richard the Lionheart was her favorite - she fostered rebellions against the English King in his French territories. When the rebellions ended in failure, she spent several years imprisoned by her husband, until he died and Richard restored her as an honored and trusted elder stateswoman. She died quietly in France at a ripe old age after leading a life of extraordinary power and influence.
The book does an excellent job of investigating contemporary sources to parse out the truth from the romantic legend and the anti-Eleanor propaganda. Many conventional stories are debunked (Eleanor poisoned her husband's mistresses!) and others are endorsed (Eleanor had an affair with the King of England's father!) based on the available records. The one knock against the book, and this is hardly the author's fault, is that there are long periods of Eleanor's life when the contemporary sources felt no need to record her activities. This was, after all, an era in which the value of a woman was calculated by how many sons she produced. As a result, the book frequently reads more like a biography of Eleanor's husbands and sons than a biography of Eleanor herself. Nevertheless, a great read....more
I don't understand the appeal of this book. It wasn't especially clever or insightful. It talked about the firebombing of Dresden, but that's been covI don't understand the appeal of this book. It wasn't especially clever or insightful. It talked about the firebombing of Dresden, but that's been covered better elsewhere. It broke up the narrative timeline, but that's been covered better elsewhere. And it had a ridiculous sci-fi plot, but that's been covered better elsewhere. So basically, the three aspects of the book that were even remotely interesting have all been written more compellingly by other authors. And God help me, if I read "so it goes" one more time, someone was going to get hit.
My guess is that the book caught people's attention, initially, because it discussed the firebombing of Dresden. I don't think much was publicly known about Dresden until the last decade or so, so it was notable that someone who had survived the disaster had written a book that nominally addressed it. However, since much has been written about Dresden in the interim, and "Slaughterhouse Five" isn't really all that good, I wonder if anyone will bother reading it a generation from now. ...more
This book is more a series of portraits than a biography. It doesn't tell Jefferson's story in one long arc, but rather captures him at significant peThis book is more a series of portraits than a biography. It doesn't tell Jefferson's story in one long arc, but rather captures him at significant periods of his life. This method works well for Ellis (see: Founding Brothers), probably because the broader view allows him to write more lyrically than a stick-to-the-facts biography would allow.
What emerges from Jefferson's portraits is a man with extraordinary powers of self-delusion. These powers enabled him to bemoan slavery while owning slaves, deny ambition while pursuing high office, and defame contemporaries while protesting his innocence and friendship. Jefferson's hypocrisies are known to most people, but this book really drives them home.
Ellis doesn't focus solely on Jefferson's flaws, though, Which is not to say that Jefferson was wholly Ultimately though, whatever his glaring personal flaws, his words and ideas retain a powerful ability to inspire people. Without the Declaration there is probably no Bill of Rights, no French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and no United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. ...more
A nice collection of post-1789 historical anecdotes. Most people will probably be familiar with these stories - Hamilton vs. Burr, Washington's FareweA nice collection of post-1789 historical anecdotes. Most people will probably be familiar with these stories - Hamilton vs. Burr, Washington's Farewell Address, the late-life correspondence between Adams and Jefferson - but the author writes in a very compelling style and tries to explain in some detail how and why the Revolutionary Generation built the institutions of the early Republic. Highly recommended for the armchair historian....more
I was deathly afraid that this book would be smug and self-congratulatory. Look how many graduates go to Ivy League schools! Look how many win nationaI was deathly afraid that this book would be smug and self-congratulatory. Look how many graduates go to Ivy League schools! Look how many win national awards! The building has escalators and a pool! All of these things may be true, but the school was more than just a list of accomplishments.
Klein captured the spirit really well: the ridiculous yearly SING! competition (each class writes and produces its own musical every year) that did more to unite students than anything, the excitement of a really well-run classroom, the way different cliques congregated on different floors (your influence was directly related to your proximity to the second-floor entrance), "traditions" that seemed eternal at the time and then died after a couple classes graduated, and the way the entrance exam fostered a weird kind of diversity.
Klein also didn't shy away from the more problematic aspects of Stuyvesant. The same entrance exam that made it possible for dedicated immigrants and first-generation Americans to attend in high numbers was also responsible for the shamefully low number of minority students. Many of the teachers, as in other schools across the City, were more interested in marking time until retirement than in challenging the students. And, perhaps most importantly, the extremely high-pressure environment really warped many students (cheating is rampant).
In the end, Klein's message is less about trumpeting achievements, and more about conveying that Stuyvesant is a pretty remarkable place. It's not necessarily the greatest place, or the only place worth going to high school, but it's pretty remarkable. ...more
I really enjoyed this book. I bought it with some wariness, figuring it would be a self-congratulatory political memoir, but while that's an element oI really enjoyed this book. I bought it with some wariness, figuring it would be a self-congratulatory political memoir, but while that's an element of the book it's not the dominant element. The dominant element is the evolution of the New York City Council from "The Forty Thieves" into a real municipal legislature over the course of Peter Vallone's tenure, which covered the 1970s bankruptcy crisis through the first days after 9/11 when term limits forced him from his Astoria,Queens-based seat.
Vallone takes the lion's share of the credit for this transformation - and it sounds as though he deserves most of it it - but he's also generous in passing credit around to others. He spoke very highly of Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani, characterizing their battles as more business than personal, and even had kind words for Donald Manes, the corrupt Queens Borough President who took his life when newspapers uncovered his corruption.
Most interesting for me was reading about what an enormous hassle it is to run the City of New York. You not only have to keep city politicians in line, no small task on its own, you have to battle State politicians as well. Vallone's harshest words come in discussing how the State bleeds the City dry but offers little but kind words in return. He would like for the City to declare its independence from the State and operate more like Hong Kong or Singapore, and you have to wonder if maybe he's right after reading his account of how the State cheated the City out of its commuter tax. An excellent and thoughtful read from an unusually excellent and thoughtful politician....more
There is really only one lesson to take away from this book: the Chairman was not a very nice man. If the authors are to be believed, he completely laThere is really only one lesson to take away from this book: the Chairman was not a very nice man. If the authors are to be believed, he completely lacked any shred of human decency or compassion. He never visited his dying father. He let the Nationalists execute one of his wives, and let another one waste away from insanity in Moscow. To say Mao was an absent father is putting it mildly. Oh, and there were also the millions of people he killed, either directly, on his orders, or indirectly, with his policies. All in all, a bad dude.
The one knock on the book is that it never really makes clear why Mao had no compassion for anyone. I'm on board with the idea that Mao was a self-centered egomaniac, but even self-centered egomaniacs have to love someone or something beyond themselves. The authors do mention that Mao loved his mother deeply, but that's really about it. I just can't believe that anyone, even Mao, was all bad. Still, an excellent and compelling book that no one in China will probably be allowed to read. ...more
The basic premise of the book is "How do lawyers view the law?" The author, an attorney and law professor, sought out different kinds of New York lawyThe basic premise of the book is "How do lawyers view the law?" The author, an attorney and law professor, sought out different kinds of New York lawyers - prosecutors, plaintiff's attorneys, corporate attorneys, defense attorneys, professors, etc. - and asked them. The answer? With a mixture of awe and contempt. They all recognized how the law can (and does) screw people, but they all seemed equally impressed that the legal system operates as fairly and efficiently as it does. ...more
From the author of "The Kite Runner", another book about how awful everything has been in Afghanistan from the early 1970s until today. I thought it wFrom the author of "The Kite Runner", another book about how awful everything has been in Afghanistan from the early 1970s until today. I thought it would be hard to top the juvenile rape scene from the first book, but Hosseini seems to have a bottomless store of horrors, torture and death; almost to the point where it becomes funny. The worst part is that it's probably a more accurate portrayal of life in Afghanistan than I'd like to acknowledge. Without giving too much away, I'll just close by saying that you shouldn't get too attached to any of the characters....more
The book weaves together two dramatically different tales: the creation of the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago & the exploits of a seriThe book weaves together two dramatically different tales: the creation of the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago & the exploits of a serial killer who lived in Chicago during the Expo. I dunno what possessed Erik Larson to combine them, but they mesh into a really excellent book.
The Expo itself must have been magnificent: a series of enormous wooden, neo-classical, whitewashed buildings in the midst of a landscape designed by the primary architect of Central Park. The Expo gave us the Ferris Wheel, the ice cream sundae, and awarded Pabst the blue ribbon that now appears on its can. It sounds like it was a damn good time.
Unless, of course, you happened to stay at the Chicago hotel owned and operated by the serial killer. This guy built the hotel with enough secret trapdoors, furnaces, and gas chambers to impress a Nazi, and he managed to kill a few dozen people before anyone noticed.
Great book, reads more like a novel than non-fiction, and highly recommended....more
There are 10,000 scholarly articles on the merits of Joyce and "Dubliners" so I'll just write what I liked about it.
I thought the stories did a greatThere are 10,000 scholarly articles on the merits of Joyce and "Dubliners" so I'll just write what I liked about it.
I thought the stories did a great job of capturing little flashes of human nature that anyone who pays attention to the world around them could recognize. Two of them stood out to me:
1. The one about the guy who lives entirely in his own head and keeps the rest of the world at arm's length. He finally takes up with a woman - he convinces himself he appreciates her intellect and nothing more - and then panics when she has the gall to touch his hand to her face. He kicks her out, she becomes an alcoholic, and he loses track of her until he finds her obituary in the paper - she was hit by a train while on a bender. I felt bad for the guy as he started to realize he had really missed his chance with this woman, and that his life was really pretty empty.
2. The one about the guy who spends all day getting beaten down by his job and by his friends; then goes home and beats his son because it's the only way to vent his frustration. Who doesn't know someone like this? They're extremely discontented with life, but can't (or won't) act out against anyone but those who are weaker than themselves. It's an ugly trait, and captured with tragic accuracy in the story.
Great book, and probably even better with a rudimentary knowledge of Dublin. Highly recommended....more