This really was a story that told itself. I wasn't particularly fond of the way the book was structured, but the story was so fascinating that I could...moreThis really was a story that told itself. I wasn't particularly fond of the way the book was structured, but the story was so fascinating that I couldn't put it down.(less)
In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration broke with previous U.S. foreign policy to embrace the Reagan Doctrine and actively support anti-communi...moreIn the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration broke with previous U.S. foreign policy to embrace the Reagan Doctrine and actively support anti-communist resistance movements. In Central America, this took the form of backing the anti-Sandinista rebels, the Contras. The U.S. Congress had blocked funding of the Contra rebels, so the CIA turned to other money sources, one of which is alleged to have been the trafficking of narcotics from Colombia to the United States via Mexico. When the U.S. began covert operations to use drug money to fund anti-communist rebels, the organizations that controlled the drug routes into the U.S. gained a lot of influence and power and eventually developed into the cartels as we know them today. In Narcoland, Hernandez argues that the current Mexican Drug War is a direct result of those Reagan-era policies.
Hernandez traces the history of collusion between the drug cartels and government and police officials to expose the massive corruption that exists at virtually every level of Mexican business, politics, and law enforcement. The narcos had been around since the 1970s, and Hernandez describes the drug traffickers and the political and judicial systems then as being separate entities; the traffickers respected government authority, paid their “taxes,” and maintained a low profile, and government and police took their cut and turned a blind eye to the narcos’ activities. As the drug trade exploded in the shift from marijuana to cocaine and the profits rose exponentially, this separation began to fade, and no longer willing to simply turn a blind eye, politicians and law enforcement officials took an active role in drug trafficking. Rather than paying money into the system, the narcos were now buying favors directly from the individuals they worked with, and political campaigns were funded with drug money. Under Presidents Fox and Calderón, the author argues that the federal government chose sides, protecting the Sinaloa cartel in its struggle with the other cartels, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.
For someone who is not familiar with the history of the various cartels and their major players, the level of detail can be overwhelming. Names are sometimes given in the English tradition (father’s surname) but sometimes are given in the Mexican tradition (father’s surname, mother’s surname) and it can be a bit confusing. Also, the author uses a lot of acronyms and it’s easy to get lost. There is a list of acronyms and a list of names at the end of the book—many times I wished I were reading a physical copy of the book and could flip to the back for easy reference (this is personal preference: I don’t find glossaries, indices, etc. to be user-friendly in ebooks, for the most part). But these are relatively minor quibbles.
This is a very thoroughly researched and documented book, and because it goes into the history of drug trafficking in Mexico and how the cartels gained so much power instead of simply presenting the situation as it exists today, it doesn’t just expose the corruption, it provides an explanation of its roots and how and why it became so widespread. Understanding the reasons is essential to finding a solution and bringing about major change.
This book was originally published in Mexico in 2010 under the title Los Señores del Narco. It’s been updated to be current through the end of the Calderón presidency in November 2012. Apparently Hernandez has received death threats and is always accompanied by bodyguards; I’m not at all surprised—though obviously I’m saddened and dismayed—to hear that after reading this book.
This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Anjan Sundaram, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Yale, turned down a good, safe job offer and instead decided to spend a year in the Democrat...moreAnjan Sundaram, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Yale, turned down a good, safe job offer and instead decided to spend a year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a reporter, focusing on the 2006 presidential elections. An Indian national who grew up in Dubai, Sundaram has experience with being an outsider; even when he finds Indian enclaves in the Congo, he’s never quite able to fit in. But being an outsider—in particular, not being a white Westerner—serves Sundaram well in many ways, as he’s able to make connections and gain access that many others wouldn’t have. He’s also used to byzantine bureaucracy (meaning he knows what’s being said behind the words that are actually spoken) and analyzing situations from the outside, which makes him extremely effective as a reporter.
That being said, this is not a book about the Congo or the war or even the elections; it is a book about the development of a journalist in perhaps the largest war zone since World War II—which many would argue has gone largely unnmentioned in the mainstream Western media. The big-picture events are very much in the background—the focus is on daily life, both urban and rural, and on the people Sundaram encounters during his stay; and also on his transition from naïve cub reporter to cynical journalist who realizes that long after he’s gone, life in Congo will stay the same—the difference being nobody will be there to report it.
The quality of the writing is what sets this book apart. When I first saw the comparisons to Naipaul I was skeptical, but Sundaram has earned them. He’s able to convey so much emotion in his writing, and honesty: he’s writing about the real Congo, the struggles of everyday Congolese with whom he’s lived and worked. This is a story about humanity. Yes, Sundaram is still an outsider—he makes no claims to the contrary—but I was fascinated by his account. While I wish there had been more completeness to the story, I think maybe that was the point: in a society where nothing really changes other than the person in charge, can the big questions (such as how to end these conflicts) really ever be answered? I definitely recommend this book.
This ARC was provided via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. (less)
This book is a little different. It’s a collection of articles written by English and spans almost two decades (the first story was published in 1991 in Playboy, the last in 2012 in the New York Times). As with his books, English focuses on organized crime in his articles—not so much the Mafia, which is what most Americans think of when they hear the words “organized crime,” but on Irish gangs and on the newer movers and shakers of the underworld: the Chinese, Vietnamese, Latin American, and Jamaican gangs, whose violence and ruthlessness are untempered by the Mafia’s code of honor.
English describes his method of writing, which is “to approach a subject with a wide lens and then zoom in on a particular storyline, to reveal the big picture and then focus on details within the big picture.” Each article in Whitey’s Payback follows that structure: he paints the background and then fills in the details via case studies, the experiences of individuals that bring the story to life.
His earlier work tends to focus on the changing face of organized crime—the impact of RICO on the Italian and Irish crime families, and the groups that replaced them—but the newer articles focus more on policies, often flawed if not outright failures, and their impact on organized crime and the innocent, vulnerable people who are forced by economic circumstance to live in high-crime areas. The “war on drugs” gets special focus in articles about the narcotraficantes in Juárez, Mexico, and about rogue DEA agents in the American Midwest.
All of the threads come together in the book’s final section, which is a compilation of articles about Whitey Bulger. These incorporate themes from the preceding articles: an indictment of the FBI’s use of informants; the demise of “traditional” organized crime; the failure of American law-enforcement policies, and the lengths people will go to to gain and consolidate power.
Overall this was a good introduction to English’s body of work. Having read most of his books, I was familiar with some of the people featured in the articles, and because some articles were written on similar subjects for different publications, there’s obviously some repetition. However, that doesn’t detract from the collection, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in organized crime beyond the Italian Mafia.
This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.(less)
From the afterword, “The Writing of Midnight in Peking”: I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography…a footnote made reference to Edgar’s wife Helen...moreFrom the afterword, “The Writing of Midnight in Peking”: I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography…a footnote made reference to Edgar’s wife Helen feeling nervous after Pamela’s mutilated body was found not far from the Snows’ house in Peking…the footnote also mentioned fox spirits, a “love cult,” the fact that Pamela’s father had once been a British consul in China, and that the murder was never solved.
Inspired by that footnote, French began the research that resulted in Midnight in Peking. While the book focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner, French places that event into context: the lead-up to the Sino-Japanese war, which resulted in the occupation of parts of northern China by the Japanese during World War II. The murder investigation was complicated by the ever-changing political and social situation in the city and was essentially abandoned after the Japanese invasion, with no real attempt to identify the killer.
Pamela’s father, however, was unwilling to accept that his daughter’s murderer could not be found, and he conducted his own private investigation, sending updates to the British government in the hopes they would take action. During his research, French uncovered many of those updates and the responses, which seem to indicate that the British authorities not only failed to conduct a proper investigation into Pamela’s murder, but in fact engaged in a cover-up: among the participants French identifies in his “reconstruction” of the murder was a well-known Western expat.
French is able to incorporate a lot of detail into the book without letting it bog down the story. He gives just enough political and social history of Peking to allow the reader to understand how the murder of a white girl—the daughter of a former British consul, no less—could be shocking, yet not a priority for the British or Chinese police after the initial investigation.
The one major flaw in this book is the lack of a good map. There are so many references to Peking’s streets and major landmarks, and having a visual reference would have been extremely helpful. An antique map (I think; couldn’t get a good look at it) appeared on the endpaper, but as with many hardcover library books, was obscured by the book jacket, library labels, etc. and was unusable as a reader reference. (less)
I’ve always been interested in history, but at university my focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, so while I studied World War II, it was usually...moreI’ve always been interested in history, but at university my focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, so while I studied World War II, it was usually in the context of what came after—the Cold War—and I never really studied the Allied side of things. I’ll be honest, much of what I know about D-Day comes from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. While I find the politics and the machinations and the analysis of war fascinating, I have a hard time reading about the battles themselves. This book, which focused on the machinations and the analysis, was riveting.
This is the first book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre, and I was impressed with the sheer volume of information he includes without being bogged down in academic-sounding prose. He tells the overall story by focusing on the individuals involved, which both draws the reader in and heightens the drama.
The Double Cross System came into being in June 1943, when the British realized they actually controlled every single German spy on British soil, and came up with the idea of using this network not just to learn what the Germans were up to but to actively engage in the dissemination of false intelligence. The spies themselves are an unlikely group—philanderers, gamblers, good-time girls, bit-part actors, “substandard” homing pigeons (I am not making this up)—who confounded their handlers and yet managed to fool the entire German intelligence network (who surely must have been more competent than the book makes them appear).
Over the course of a year, the Double Cross agents built up a network of nonexistent spies and fed their German handlers carefully crafted misinformation about the upcoming invasion. Having broken the Enigma code early on, British intelligence were able to keep tabs on how German intelligence were using the information being fed to them. It was a masterful operation, and one that played a large role in the success of the Normandy invasion:
D-Day was the reason for the Double Cross system, the grand finale to every preceding deception was a foretaste. The men who fought that day have become lasting symbols of courage and skill. But while they battled their way up the bloody dunes, an unseen force fought alongside them, from many miles away, not with guns, bullets and bombs, but with subterfuge and stealth, to whittle away German strength and confidence, to confuse, surprise and mislead, and shield the invaders with lies. (p. 320)
I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II or wartime espionage. (less)
This is English's first book, and it shows. It's fascinating and worth reading, but it's a bit repetitive. Also, while I'm pretty sure the speech/dial...moreThis is English's first book, and it shows. It's fascinating and worth reading, but it's a bit repetitive. Also, while I'm pretty sure the speech/dialogue came from recordings of the conversations, reading the English as spoken by the Vietnamese got annoying after a while (missing verbs, articles, etc.).
English's later books are better written, thus the three-star rating here.(less)
I loved Lois Duncan's books when I was in junior high. I was surprised to see she had written a true crime book, and decided to read it.
The book is ab...moreI loved Lois Duncan's books when I was in junior high. I was surprised to see she had written a true crime book, and decided to read it.
The book is about the murder of Duncan's teenage daughter. It's a well-written portrayal of the grief of a horrible loss, plus the increasing frustration and anger of parents watching as the investigation is handled badly and then dropped altogether.
The reason for the two stars is that the book is not written solely by Duncan. She includes very long passages of text that were written by psychics who helped her investigate her daughter's murder. One of these psychics types page after page in the future perfect (she will have been thinking, this will have happened), and it's extremely difficult to read. Because so much of Duncan's narrative draws on these psychic readings, what could have been an easily readable, compelling story is heavily bogged down in unreadable language that made me flip back and forth in an attempt to connect Duncan's conclusions to the psychic's statements. I understand why she included these readings in their entirety, but from a reader's perspective, it would have been much better if she'd paraphrased them to make them more intelligible.(less)