Since I despised the first Jack Reacher novel Killing Floor you may be wondering why I read this second entry in this series. It’s all Tom Cruise’s fa...moreSince I despised the first Jack Reacher novel Killing Floor you may be wondering why I read this second entry in this series. It’s all Tom Cruise’s fault.
Yeah, I know the Reacher fans were generally unhappy with Tiny Tom being cast as their hero who is supposed to be 6’5”, but I actually enjoyed the movie adaptation Jack Reacher quite a bit. Believe it or not a big chunk of the credit goes to Cruise who managed to convey the cocky arrogance needed while making it entertaining instead of over the top.* Plus, several people whose book judgment I trust have told me that the series got better over time so I figured I’d give Lee Child another shot. Besides, it could be another opportunity for me to be trolled by the hardcore Reacher fans, and who can resist that?
Jack Reacher is a former military policemen who is the baddest bad-ass who has ever bad-assed. Now retired he wanders around the country off the grid while making a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reacher is walking down a Chicago street when he sees a young woman with an injured leg struggling to deal with her cane and the dry cleaning she just picked up so he tries to help her out. Suddenly armed gunmen show up and force them into a car. Reacher has just gotten swept up into a kidnapping plot that has huge implications for the U.S. government. The cherry on top of that scene is that Reacher thinks that he wouldn't have any problems taking out the gunman one-handed because apparently he doesn't deem the problem worth dropping the dry cleaning he's holding, but he's worried about stray bullets going into a crowd of people behind him so he decides to play along.
I did like this one a lot more than Killing Floor. It helped that Reacher is thrown into a scenario more fitting of an action hero rather than splitting time trying to play detective. Switching from the first person narrative to third person here is also a big improvement s because rather than the main character telling us how awesome he is we get to either see it or have it relayed from an outsider’s perspective.
The plot still seems like something lifted from an action movie and doesn’t bear much scrutiny even though it gets the job done. I was questioning several points like (view spoiler)[how the U.S. president is so concerned with politics that he turns a blind eye to a group of murderous conspiracy nut jobs who have kidnapped the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I know this was written pre-9/11 shortly after the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, but it was also after the Oklahoma City bombing (Which is never mentioned.) so it seems crazily unrealistic to think that the government would just try to ignore these yahoos. (hide spoiler)]
As in the first book at one point Reacher makes an intuitive leap of logic that would make Sherlock Holmes say, “Damn! How’d you pull that out of your ass?” There’s also a sex scene that induces enough eye rolling to cause the reader to make an appointment with their optometrist. (view spoiler)[ Reacher and Holly apparently find being forced to pull the tortured remains of a crucified man off a couple of trees and burying him a tremendous turn-on. (hide spoiler)]
Still, the flaws here are the kinds of things you’d expect from the genre and not the pure stupidity of the first book. That makes me think that maybe this series is worth a read after all.
* I also give writer/director Christopher McQuarrie a lot of the credit for crafting an entertaining action/crime thriller. McQuarrie also had a hand in two crime movies I love. He wrote the screenplay for The Usual Suspects and wrote/directed The Way of the Gun, one of my favorite movies that almost no one has ever heard of.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It’s odd how you think your opinion of a bunch of murderous assholes couldn’t sink any lower, and then you read something like this that makes you rea...moreIt’s odd how you think your opinion of a bunch of murderous assholes couldn’t sink any lower, and then you read something like this that makes you realize that they were even worse than you thought. Nazis weren’t just xenophobic bullies who institutionalized mass murder, they were also thieves. They were probably lousy tippers, too.
During World War II a handful of art experts in the Allied military forces took on the challenge of trying to protect the cultural treasures of Europe. As the war raged, these guys did their best to save historical buildings and art from the general destruction going on around them. They also tried to track down and recover what the Nazis had stolen. Hitler and his pals took advantage of the war to pull the biggest art heist in history, and this included looting the culture of countries they invaded as well as stealing the private collections of people they killed or imprisoned.
This is one of those stories that I knew the basics of but hadn’t realized the scale of the crimes committed, and I knew nothing about the men who tried to mitigate the damage. The Nazis literally stole trainloads worth of art and stashed away so much that it required massive logistical efforts just to get it all recorded and returned after the war.
What’s more shocking than that is how few resources were initially dedicated to the preservation effort. Eisenhower issued a general order instructing his troops to avoid damaging anything of cultural significance unless there was a military necessity, but only a handful of Monuments Men were scattered around Europe and they had no official support staff or supply sources. Simply getting transportation was often difficult or impossible. One of the men was briefly arrested as a suspected German spy when a zealous MP soldier refused to believe that anyone carrying out such a large and important mission would be wandering around by himself.
Even though there weren’t many of them and they had to improvise constantly, the Monuments Men did manage to save countless pieces of art including helping to track down huge stolen stockpiles that the Nazis had stashed away in mines and other hidey-holes. It was dangerous work and a couple of them were killed in action while trying to carry out their mission.
It’s an interesting and important story that gave me a new appreciation of some of history’s forgotten heroes so why only 3 stars? I dunno. This is a weird one. I can’t point to anything of significance. The writing is fine, and the research seems solid. There’s enough detail pointed out about the people involved to give you a sense of their character and make you appreciate their struggles.
I was planning on seeing the movie version, but then came the ‘meh’ reviews for it so that killed my interest in the film and may have dampened my enthusiasm for the book. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, and I don’t regret learning the story, but for some reason it never hit that next level where I couldn’t wait to read more while I was in the middle of it. (less)
It’d be a bad idea to challenge Tim O’Brien to a round of Truth-Or-Dare because he’d find a way to pick Truth, launch into a story, recant it, then ma...moreIt’d be a bad idea to challenge Tim O’Brien to a round of Truth-Or-Dare because he’d find a way to pick Truth, launch into a story, recant it, then make you think he really chose Dare, but in the end, you’ll be pretty sure he actually told you the Truth after all. Maybe…
That’s kind of the point about this account of his time Vietnam as an infantry soldier that warns us that war stories are tricky. The ones that sound true are probably lies and the ones that seem outlandish probably have a healthy dose of truth in them. By telling us some fact and some fiction, then revealing which is which (Allegedly.), O’Brien shows that sometimes a well told lie based on fact has more power than a real story accurately told.
Taken together, O’Brien’s stories make it clear that he spent the decades after the war mulling over the various things he took away from it. This isn’t the memoir of a guy who obtained some kind of closure by writing it, it’s the story of the fear, doubt and confusion he still wrestled with decades later. In order to convey that experience, he had to tell the reader some war stories and let us decide just how true they were. (less)
It’s probably a bad idea for the US military to allow the troops overseas to get the news from back home. I have this fear that someday the service me...moreIt’s probably a bad idea for the US military to allow the troops overseas to get the news from back home. I have this fear that someday the service men and women in places like Iraq and Afghanistan will finally snap after seeing the people they’ve pledged to defend are less interested in what they’re doing than TV reality shows and celebrity gossip. If the military ever decides that the pack of assholes back in America isn’t worth fighting and dying for, we could find all that hardware aiming back at us someday. I really wouldn’t blame them.
Billy Lynn is a young soldier who was serving in Iraq with Bravo squad. After Bravo got into a hellacious firefight with a band of insurgents that was captured on camera by an embedded Fox News crew, the members of Bravo become national heroes. To capitalize on their popularity, the Bush administration has Bravo brought back to the US and sent them on a ‘Victory Tour’ (Which just so happens to run through critical electoral states for the next election.) to drum up support for the war.
The Victory Tour culminates at a Thanksgiving Day pro football game at Texas Stadium in which Bravo is supposed to play a part in the half-time show. While Billy and the other Bravo members have been enjoying some of the perks of being heroes on tour, it also means putting up with the people who want to prove their support of the troops by fawning over them as well as being used as PR props by anyone with an agenda like the owner of the Cowboys.* Bravo would also like to sign a film deal before they have to deploy back to Iraq in a few days so they can at least get a nice payday for their efforts, but the producer they’re working with is having problems getting Hollywood interested in a war movie set in Iraq.
(*Ben Fountain avoids a lawsuit by creating a fictional asshole owner of the Cowboys instead of naming Jerry Jones, the actual asshole owner of the Cowboys.)
I started noting passages I wanted to quote in this review, but I hit a point where I was finding something on every page so I gave up on that plan. There was so much about this one that I loved, that I don’t really know where to start.
Young Billy Lynn is one of the best and most sympathetic characters I’ve read in a long while. He’s a 19-year-old virgin who can’t legally drink, but he’s gone to war and had more experience with death than most would have in a lifetime. Billy is nervous when dealing with the older wealthier good old boys who want to glad hand Bravo at the game, and he has a somewhat naive belief that there is someone wiser than him that can explain all the feelings that combat and the aftermath have stirred in him. However, he also has a grunt's hyper-awareness of hypocrisy and bullshit.
As Bravo endures a long day of being used as props for photo ops and a half-time show, Billy’s musings and observations about the people and events in the stadium showcase a society that will spend billions on sports but pays it’s soldiers a pittance while patting themselves on the back for the way they support the troops by offering them applause and trinkets before sending them back to war.
That’s a powerful point, but what makes this so great is that the message is delivered so deftly and without the heavy handed political left or right wing political manifesto that is part of almost any writing done about these kinds of subjects. It’s also funny and absolutely nails many things that are great and ridiculous about America.
It’s only March, but I think I may have an early winner for Best Book I Read This Year.(less)
On September 10, 2001, I was on an American Airlines flight to Puerto Rico for work. Flying home several days later was a vastly different experience...moreOn September 10, 2001, I was on an American Airlines flight to Puerto Rico for work. Flying home several days later was a vastly different experience from the plane ride there. I had a bunch of paperbacks I’d bought for the trip, and I finished one and got another one out of my bag. It was Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. I didn’t much feel like reading about the deaths of American soldiers at that moment so I picked another one and only read that book months later. So there was a certain grim satisfaction and symmetry for me in reading Bowden’s account of the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Those who read Black Hawk Down and expecting a blow by blow account of the manhunt and the military operation are probably going to be disappointed because the classified nature of it only gives Bowden enough material for summaries that aren’t much deeper then the media accounts. Instead, Bowden focuses on how a decade of war had honed the US’s tactics to find and target al Qaeda’s leadership, and how President Obama came to the decision to use those abilities.
Bowden lays out how the US military and intelligence agencies had developed hardware like drones to gather data and then linked that sophisticated databases that make it seem like The Machine in the TV show Person of Interest isn’t that far fetched. Bowden credits this evolving system with the eventual decrease in insurgency attacks in Iraq as well as being a key tool that has severely hurt al Qaeda.
Perhaps what will surprise most readers is how willing President Obama has been to use these methods. Anyone who thinks that he’s some kind egghead liberal peacenik should probably reevaluate that stance because he’s personally authorized the use of this system to target and kill al Qaeda’s leadership at a rate four times that of President Bush. One gets the distinct impression that you don't want Obama deciding that you're a clear and present danger to the United States.
The story of how this process developed is interesting and fairly scary. (After reading Kill Decision and this, I’m worried that the evil robot apocalypse will soon be upon us.) Bowden does a nice job of laying out how the changing US tactics and increases in the use of highly experienced special forces groups like SEAL Team Six contributed to the decision to risk going into Pakistan after bin Laden when the intelligence that he was actually there was not certain.
However, while this story is intriguing, it also feels a bit like filler because Bowden didn’t have enough declassified material about the manhunt and final raid to fill out an entire book. There’s a telling lapse in which the courier who was the final link to bin Laden is discovered. Bowden describes how that courier’s alias had come up several times in various interrogations over the years, but he doesn’t know how the US ultimately tracked him down. Bowden notes that one analyst told him that story would make a book in itself so it’s frustrating to be left hanging. Plus, it seems entirely possible that bin Laden was actually discovered by someone ratting him out for the $25 million reward and that this talk of tracking the courier is a story to cover for whoever dropped a dime on him.
The story of the attack itself as Obama and several of his key advisors watched in real time via drone cameras is a vivid account, but again, there’s nothing there that hasn’t been reported already. Plus, since SEAL Team Six couldn't be identified or interviewed, Bowden has to stick with bland descriptions instead of sketching out some background to give us an idea of who they are or what they were thinking during the attack.*
*My library copy of the book included a loose card with a note from Bowden noting that a member of the SEAL team released a different account of bin Laden’s final moments after his book went to press, and that he’ll research and note it in later editions.
There’s some fascinating stuff here like how the US has adapted its methods over the course of the war on terror, and there’s a very nice account of how the plan came together as well as how President Obama arrived at the decision to risk the raid. We also get some insight into how bin Laden spent his last years isolated in hiding and increasingly seeming like Hitler in the bunker ordering phantom armies into battle. Still, this feels like a good magazine feature article that’s had a fair amount of filler added to pad it out since there weren’t enough classified details released yet to make it a thorough and definitive telling of the death of bin Laden.(less)
As with the first two volumes, there's much fun to be had with this collection of stories and articles that pay tribute and satirize the manly men’s a...moreAs with the first two volumes, there's much fun to be had with this collection of stories and articles that pay tribute and satirize the manly men’s adventure stories of the 1970s-’80s. There’s lots of good stuff in here including stories featuring a martial arts fight where sex toys are used for weapons, a chemist who tries to take down a drug infested town with items he literally pulls out of his ass and an ocean battle against sharks and Mayan Nazi Vampires.
But the best part of this one is a review for a book called Doomsday Warrior #9 - America’s Zero Hour. What makes it so great? That’s easy. I wrote it.*
So if you want to hear my witty thoughts regarding a book that has post-apocalyptic American patriots using throwing stars in a fight with a tribe of cannibal Sasquatch, download it for a buck. Or you could read it for free on the website, but then I might come around with my beggar’s cup asking for spare change, and it’ll be awkward for both of us….
* Seriously. I contributed an unpaid review to this issue.(less)
I have said it before, and I'll say it again: The jungles of the earth must be DESTROYED. *
* Before you break your fingers on your keyboard in your ha...moreI have said it before, and I'll say it again: The jungles of the earth must be DESTROYED. *
* Before you break your fingers on your keyboard in your haste to flame me for that comment, take a moment to ask yourself if I might be joking.
In the last months of World War II as America worked its way towards Japan, a plane load of military personnel took off for a sight seeing tour of a remote valley in New Guinea that had been dubbed Shangri-La. Previous flights had noted tribes of natives numbering in the thousands, but the terrain prevented visits and viewing them from the air had become a treat for bored service men and women.
Unfotunately, this trip turned deadly when the plane crashed, killing almost all the passengers. The survivors had serious injuries and were trapped in a thick mountain jungle. They were also surrounded by natives who had never met anyone outside their valley and had a culture based on constantly warring on each other.
After the survivors were spotted by rescue planes, the immediate problem of treating their injuries and protecting them from potentially hostile natives became the priority. A squad of gung-ho Filipino paratroopers led by a frustrated American captain volunteered to parachute down to deal with the immediate problems with no idea of how they’d be getting back out. After they drop in, weeks pass in Shangri-La as the crash survivors are treated and guarded by the paratroopers.
Resupplied by air and in radio contact with the overhead planes, the survivors and the paratroopers become instant celebrities, especially a pretty WAC named Margaret Hastings who gets dubbed the ‘Queen of Shangri-La’ by the press. As the world watched, the army tried to figure out a way to get them out of the incredibly inaccessible valley. What they came up with for a rescue plan was so bat-shit crazy that it defies belief.
This was entertaining and exciting pop history about a story that was huge in its time but had been forgotten as the end of WWII overshadowed it. Zuckoff does a good job of telling a compelling tale and relaying the history of the people involved to make you care what happened to them. He also gives an interesting anthropological account of the native tribes as well as tracking down some who were still living to get their version of how the strange incident played out. (less)
I never realized this before but when the machines finally become self-aware and Skynet launches its attack on humanity, I’ve got the perfect place to...moreI never realized this before but when the machines finally become self-aware and Skynet launches its attack on humanity, I’ve got the perfect place to hole up nearby. So while you all are being enslaved by robots, I’ll be safe in SubTropolis with a lifetime supply of liquor and books. Don’t bother knocking. I won’t let you in, and I’ll just turn up the music to drown out your screams.
I knew from Daniel Suarez’s previous books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), that he gives good techno-thriller with some very cool ideas, and he continues that in this story where America’s use of remote controlled drones comes back to bite us in the ass when someone develops their own private air force of pilot-less aircraft and starts using them against targets on U.S. soil. Even scarier, these aren’t just remote controlled killing machines, someone is starting to use software and tech to allow them to act autonomously.
A shadowy special forces operative who leads a covert team and has a pair of trained ravens saves a female scientist who studies behavior patterns in ants when she’s targeted by the mysterious enemy. (Just go with it.) As they desperately try to track the increasingly sophisticated drones back to their source, a campaign is being mounted to scare the American public into drastic measures.
This could have been just sci-fi with a Tom Clancy twist, but Suarez does an exceptionally nice job of looking at what’s possible with today’s technology and then comes up with some terrifyingly plausible thoughts on what comes next. I also liked a sub-plot involving a couple of PR experts who use a variety of methods involving both mass and social media to herd the public into the direction they want it to go. (Enjoy this election year, my fellow cattle!)
While the characters are pretty much thriller archetypes, they’re relatable enough, and the action is fast and furious. If you’re looking for something that will make you think while getting your pulse rate up, this will fill the bill nicely.(less)
James Cameron and John Scalzi Share An Awkward Elevator Ride
James Cameron: Could you hit the button for the top floor, please?
John Scalzi: Sure. Say,...moreJames Cameron and John Scalzi Share An Awkward Elevator Ride
James Cameron: Could you hit the button for the top floor, please?
John Scalzi: Sure. Say, aren’t you James Cameron?
JC: That’s right. My friends call me King of the World! Ha Ha! Just kidding.
JC: You look kind of familiar. Have we met?
JS: Met? No. Maybe you recognize me from my author’s photo on my books. I’m John Scalzi.
JC: Uh……No, sorry. I don’t think I’ve read your books.
JS: Really? You haven’t read Old Man’s War or The Ghost Brigades?
JS: You should check them out. I think you’d like them. The story revolves around soldiers having their consciousnesses downloaded into genetically enhanced bodies so they can fight wars on distant planets. I use that to bring up questions about the ethics of colonization.
JC: Uh…. Well, that does sound pretty good. I’ll check them out sometime.
JS: Now that I think about it, that sounds kind of similar to your movie Avatar.
JC: Huh.. Yeah, I guess there’s a few minor similarities there.
JS: Of course, my genetically enhanced bodies are green and yours were blue so I guess that makes all the difference, right?
JS: You’re sure you never read them? They came out a few years before you filmed Avatar. Probably about the time you were brainstorming ideas for the movie. Maybe even writing the script?
JC: OK, look. I guess it’s possible that I did read your books. Maybe….just maybe… I did and adapted a few of your ideas. You know how it is. Everything you’ve read or seen before gets mashed up in your head and you start combining that stuff with your own story ideas. Sometimes you may end up using a tiny aspect of someone else’s story. Hell, Tarantino has made a whole career out of that.
JS: Oh, so now you think you did read my books?
JC: It’s possible. But even if I.. uh…borrowed an idea or two from you. And I’m not saying I did! But if I accidentally incorporated some stuff of yours into Avatar, I’m sure you see all the differences in it. Like your book didn’t have flying mountains, right? And it wasn’t in hi-def 3D, was it?
JS: No, my book was not in written in hi-def 3D.
JC: There you go. Besides, other than whole idea of downloading people into genetically enhanced bodies, my overall story was about a man realizing that his own kind were corrupt and that he should join the other side to find peace and happiness. You didn’t have anything like that.
JS: True. I think you got that from Dances With Wolves.
JC: That’s right…Hey!
JS: Forget it. I’m not going to sue you or punch you. I just couldn’t help but wonder if maybe you hadn’t read my books and influenced your movie.
JC: Obviously, for legal purposes, I can’t admit anything.
JC: This is the longest elevator ride off my life.
JS: Oh, I never hit the button for your floor. I’ve just been leaning against the Door Closed button.
JC: Can I go now, please?
JS: Can I have a job writing your next movie?
JS: Pleasure doing business with you, King of the World.(less)
Getting old sucks but as the old joke says, it‘s better than the alternative. However, what if there was a way to get to be young again? The catch is...moreGetting old sucks but as the old joke says, it‘s better than the alternative. However, what if there was a way to get to be young again? The catch is that if you do it, you’ll probably die in some horribly bloody and spectacular fashion at the hands of aliens on a distant world. Any volunteers?
In this terrific novel, humanity has spread out to the stars only to find that they’re competing with several types of aliens for habitable planets. The Colonial Defense Force has been waging those wars and gathering advanced technologies in the process. Needing volunteers, the CDF has a recruiting pitch that’s hard to top. They’ll take senior citizens from Earth and somehow make them young again. Survive the ten year enlistment, and the reward is getting set up on one of the colonized planets.
John Perry is a widower who joins the CDF on his seventy-fifth birthday. He quickly learns how the CDF makes good on their promise to make soldier young again, and also finds out that the war they’ll be fighting is incredibly brutal and that most won’t survive their enlistments.
The idea of humans fighting wars out in space with advanced technology is nothing new, but Scalzi did a great job of taking fresh approaches to this concept. The idea of an army made up of senior citizens is unique in itself, and the weapons and tech he came up with are also clever and inventive. It’s filed with rip-roaring battle scenes, and the alien opponents he created are also several notches above what you usually get in these space war type books.
But the real hook is here the outstanding job that Scalzi did with the characters, and the sense of humor that he weaves into the story. There’s a lot of very funny stuff in this book amidst the interstellar war, and that’s something that many sci-fi writers forget to include. I particularly loved how Scalzi took the standard war story scenes of the gruff old drill sergeant training the recruits and gave it a twist.
I’ll be checking out the sequels as soon as I can get my hands on them.(less)
I was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for another...moreI was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for another serving to make them worth saving so I dumped them in the sink, but just as I was about to turn on the garbage disposal, I realized that to the POWs described in Unbroken those few green beans I was about to mulch would have been a feast they would have risked torture and beatings for. I was disgusted with myself for the rest of the night. You know the book you’re reading is hitting you hard when you feel that much shame for letting a tiny bit of food go to waste.
Louie Zamperini is one of those guys who definitely earned that Greatest Generation label. The son of Italian immigrant parents, Louie was a rebellious kid who was constantly into one form of mischief or another, but when he finally channeled his energy into running, he became a high school track star in California. Louie was so good that he made the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the age of 19, and even though he didn’t medal, he ran one lap of a race so quickly that he electrified the crowd and even caught Hitler’s attention.
As a college runner, Louie held several national records and many thought that he’d be the man to eventually break the four minute mile. He was poised to do well in the 1940 Olympics, but then World War II cancelled the games. Louie left college and ended up in the air corps even though he was scared of planes. He became a bombardier and went to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Louie survived several missions, including one where their B-24 barely made it back with over 500 holes in it.
While on a search and rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashed in the ocean, and only he and two others survived. With few supplies on two tiny life rafts, they’d endure exposure, starvation, thirst and sharks.
However, after finally reaching an island and being captured by the Japanese, Louie’s hellish experience as a POW would make him miss the raft and the sharks. Starved, beaten, tortured and degraded, Louie also faces extra punishment at the hands of a brutally sadistic guard who singled him out. Louie and the other prisoners desperately try to hang on long enough for America to win the war and free them.
I didn’t care anything about race horses, but found Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit an incredibly interesting read. She’s surpassed that book here with this well researched story. Hillenbrand creates vivid descriptions of Louie’s childhood, the Berlin Olympics, the life of an air man in the Pacific, and a Japanese POW camp while also telling the stories of the people around Louie.
She also does a superior job of describing a phase of World War II that tends to get overlooked, Japanese war crimes against prisoners. The number of prisoners killed by the Japanese through starvation, beatings and forced labor are staggering, but Hillenbrand also shines a light on the Japanese policy of killing all POWs if that area was about to be invaded. Per her research, they were preparing to begin slaughtering prisoners in Japan in late August and September of 1945, but the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of the emperor probably saved those POWs lives. If the war would have carried on or a conventional invasion done, then mostly likely those prisoners would have been killed.*
*(Do not take this as my personal feelings about whether nuclear weapons should have been used or not. I’m just relaying a part of the book here, and Hillenbrand makes no argument as to whether dropping the bombs was justified. She writes that many of the POWs believed that the bombings probably saved their lives and leaves it at that. And if you feel like trying to start a comment fight about it, I’m just going to delete it so don’t bother. I left my sword and shield at home today and don’t feel like battling trolls.)
Ultimately, while this is a book about people enduring incredible hardship and cruelty during war, it's a hopeful book, not a depressing one. Great writing and the care that Hillenbrand took with the people and places make this compelling reading. (less)
Courtland Gentry was once a top operative for the CIA, but they issued a burn notice and shoot-on-sight order about him for unknown reasons. A burn no...moreCourtland Gentry was once a top operative for the CIA, but they issued a burn notice and shoot-on-sight order about him for unknown reasons. A burn notice? I wonder if Court gets to hang around Bruce Campbell drinking beers like other burned spies?
Court went underground and became a legendary contract killer known as the Gray Man in certain circles, but things aren’t going well. Circumstances have forced him to start working with a sleazy Russian gangster, and he’s picked up a prescription drug habit while recovering from injuries suffered in the last book.
The Russian has a contract for Court to assassinate the president of Sudan, but the Gray Man doesn’t trust the Russian and wants nothing to do with it. However, Court’s old CIA team leader shows up with an offer. He wants Court to pretend to take the Russian contract, and the Americans will piggy back their own covert operation into Sudan on it. In return, the CIA will drop the kill order and even let Court work for them again.
Court takes the offer, but things almost immediately start going off the rails in Sudan. His first headache involves an incredibly naïve and very annoying Canadian woman working for the International Criminal Court regarding violations in Darfur. Despite Court saving her ass a couple of times, she insists on busting his balls over how he’s dealt with a gang of genocidal thugs. (Here’s something that seems like a bad idea: If you wind up alone in the desert with a highly trained killer, threaten to have him arrested as soon as he leads you back to civilization.) For some reason, Court doesn’t just pop her head off, but the problems with the operation have just started.
The first book featuring Court, The Gray Man, was over-the-top action fun with a Jason Bourne-style manhunt across Europe. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first one. Since Court is dealing with his old boss and a CIA paramilitary team for a lot of this one, there’s a lot of G.I. Joe stuff and combat-talk like “Contact right!” or “Sierra 6 to Sierra 1.” Plus, Court doesn’t seem nearly the legendary bad ass in this one that he’s supposed to be. Granted, he’s fighting a pill habit, but he doesn’t seem nearly as fearsome.
It still had a lot of good crazy action scenes, and the plot did zigzag in surprising directions I didn’t see coming. But having Court as part of a team and having to follow other people’s orders isn’t nearly as much fun as Court on his own and leaving mayhem in his wake. (less)
After watching the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats, I figured that there must be a kernel of truth to it coated with several layers of Hol...moreAfter watching the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats, I figured that there must be a kernel of truth to it coated with several layers of Hollywood bullshit so I read the book to get an idea of what the real story was. I thought I’d get a funny story about some stupid things the military did once upon a time. Instead, the book turns into a template for starting conspiracy theories that really pissed me off.
Oddly enough, the really weird stuff that happened in the film version is the stuff that probably actually happened, but I understand why Hollywood had to wrap that in a fictional storyline because the book wanders around and becomes just a series of odd anecdotes and wild speculation about weird things that the U.S. military and intelligence communities may or may not have done.
An army officer named Jim Channon went to Vietnam and realized that most soldiers really don’t want to kill anyone. On returning home after the war, he somehow talked the army into financing a research project where he experimented with several new age movements and techniques. He wrote a manual based on his experience calling for a new type of unit, the First Earth Battalion.
Channon’s manual called for incorporating several flower child ideas into the army. For example, when approaching natives in occupied territory the soldiers would have speakers hanging around their necks that played peaceful music, and hold flowers and small animals to show good intentions. Channon also theorized that the FEB could become a class of Warrior Monks, complete with psychic powers like remote viewing, walking through walls, and invisibility.
Amazingly, Channon was taken somewhat seriously and offered a small command to implement his ideas. Channon refused because he now claims that he didn’t actual believe any of the psychic power ideas were really possible, that he was just trying to get the army to open its collective mind to some new ways of doing business. (I think that Channon may have conned the army into funding an extended vacation and then turned in something he never dreamed would be taken seriously.)
However, the FEB manual eventually found it’s way into the hands of General Stubbelbine, the head of army intelligence in the early 80’s and a believer in the paranormal. Stubbelbine was a proponent of it and tried to interest the Special Forces in it, but they were already aware of it and trying to adapt some of the techniques without all the hippie crap. One of their big experiments was trying to stop the hearts of goats by staring at them. Stubbelbine had to settle for setting up a small office with several soldiers trying to develop remote viewing and other psychic powers.
The author interviewed Channon, Stubbelbine and several other folks who participated in several programs related to the FEB manual, and all of them freely admit that this happened and provided a lot of the material in the early chapters. That’s a pretty amusing story, but it comes across that these were just some loopy ideas that the military tried on a very small scale but were eventually phased out.
Where the book goes off the rails is when the author tries to say that Channon’s FEB ideas were possibly more widely adopted and in use today. That’s where it turns into a collection of oddball stories related by a variety of unreliable sources, with no other research done that is documented in the book.
The author gets obsessed with the notion that Channon’s idea of using music as part of the FEB was modified and used as torture techniques in Iraq on prisoners by playing songs from the Barney kids show over and over at high levels or that the military/intelligence community is experimenting with subliminal messaging. He also notes how the government has used loud music at other times to try and drive people out of siege situations and ties that back to the FEB. Then he theorizes that the FBI bombarded the Branch Davidians in Waco with subliminal messages based on pure speculation.
First, I don’t think that the idea of playing really loud music is an offshoot of the original FEB manual. I think the military and government, like most of us, realize that playing annoying music at really loud levels makes people crazy. You just have to live in an apartment with thin walls and have a heavy metal fan for a neighbor to figure that one out. And I’m more than willing to believe that the government has fooled around with subliminal messaging, but saying that it was used at Waco without a shred of proof is the kind of reckless speculation that starts a lot of the conspiracy theory nonsense that floats around today.
It isn’t the only things in the book that seem like blue-sky bullshitting. There’s a section where the author outlines how one of the former recruits in Stubbelbine psychic program started going on the Art Bell show after retirement, blabbed about the whole thing and then became a regular guest by making a series of wild predictions about the end of the world.
The author ties some of the comments that this guy made to comments that other guests made regarding the Hale-Bopp comet that were then linked to the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. Uh….why? Just because one nutjob who used to be in a military program went on a radio show hosted by a nutjob who interviewed some other nutjobs that might have influenced some other nutjobs isn’t really a link to anything. It’s ironic that the author mocks Art Bell and then uses Art Bell methodology for the rest of the book.
There’s a lot of this kind of crap with various people making claims about how some of the old psychic spy programs are still being used, but again, there isn’t a shred of proof. The only thing close to a fact is that he notes how much Bush increased the intelligence budget. Duh. I’m not a Bush fan but a country that suffered a devastating terror attack and then got into two wars is going to increase its intelligence budget. It doesn’t mean the money is going to psychic spy programs.
Adding to the conspiracy theory vibe, there’s a long story at the end of the book that tries to tie the documented MK-ULTRA program the CIA ran where it doped unsuspecting people with LSD in 1950-60s to even darker claims about murder and potential torture techniques used by the military/intelligence community today. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, but again, there’s no real proof presented, just interviews and theories of a couple of people who claim to have researched it.
This whole book left me baffled. I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. does look into using new age or psychic spy ideas in military or intelligence programs today, but trying to tie it all back to the FEB is a stretch. Especially since he doesn't prove that anything like it does actually exist today. Here you’ve got a story about the military doing something kind of crazy, but then the author went off on these even crazier and unsubstantiated tangents that make trying to kill goats by staring at them seem rational by comparison. (less)
The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previo...moreTreasure of the Rubbermaids 7: The Forever War
The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.
I picture Dr. Richard Hornberger sometimes turning on the television and catching the movie or TV version of MASH and shaking his head in wonderment at how the short novel he wrote based on his experiences as a surgeon in Korea became an icon of American pop culture. The real Korean War lasted three years, but the TV show ran for eleven seasons over twenty years later. I gotta think that had to be mildly disconcerting to the good doctor.
While the Robert Altman movie and the Alan Alda TV version ultimately were considered anti-establishment and anti-war statements, that's really not what’s going on in the book. Hornberger (writing as Richard Hooker) wrote a brief forward where he noted the hard and emotionally draining work in bad conditions led some to blow off steam by acting batshit insane.
At the 4077th MASH in 1951, Colonel Henry Blake requests two new surgeons and gets Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest. Hawkeye and Duke have decided that if they work their asses off when they’re needed, that they’ll be able to do what they want in their off hours, and they’ll be too valuable for anyone for anyone to punish. They’re right. Soon they’re joined by another surgeon, Trapper John, and the three alternate trying to save the lives of wounded soldiers with heavy drinking and outrageous stunts including trying to raise money by selling autographed pictures of Jesus and giving their camp dentist a bizarre form of shock therapy to snap him out of a suicidal depression.
There are really no overt political or anti-war statements in the book. (And there’s nothing like the liberal attitude that would later be incorporated into the show.) The antics of the doctors aren’t meant to be seen as ideological. They just have very demanding jobs, and their only means of relieving stress and boredom comes from heavy drinking and fucking with people that irritate them.
Aside from the bitching common to all soldiers, they don’t spend time raging against the military or the war. They work, they drink, they bullshit and come up with bizarre things to do to amuse themselves and that’s about it. Aside from one brief phase where the guys fall into funks after a particularly hellish couple of weeks following a major battle, none of it seems to get to them too much. There’s also a moving chapter where their former Korean houseboy is drafted and brought back to them as a patient, but while the guys get very serious about saving him, it doesn’t last long.
One of the more interesting points of the book is the descriptions of the surgery that the doctors perform. The quick and concise accounts of the fast paced and often brutal operations should seem out of place in a book that is primarily going for laughs, but it helps to establish the idea that after spending hours up to their elbows in blood-n-guts without a break, that Hawkeye and his friends would need a laugh by any means necessary.
This probably seemed a lot more shocking and outrageous back in 1968 when it was published then it does today, but it’s still amusing. While an offbeat and funny book, I can’t imagine that anyone who read it back then could imagine what it’d become on film and TV. There are a couple of bad sequels to this, and a whole string of bad MASH books ghost written by someone else after the show became popular. None of them have the goofy charm of this one.
Reading this is kind of like going into the local VFW and sitting down next to an old guy with a couple of drinks in him and listening to his funny stories about his days in the service. (less)
Set in the early '70's as the Vietnam War was winding down, Converse (a guy, not a shoe)is supposedly a journalist, but in reality has gone to Vietnam...moreSet in the early '70's as the Vietnam War was winding down, Converse (a guy, not a shoe)is supposedly a journalist, but in reality has gone to Vietnam mostly as a tourist. As he gets ready to return home, he gets involved with a deal to smuggle a large quantity of almost pure heroin back into the states, and he has reason to think that the CIA is covertly sponsoring the plan.
Converse recruits a former soldier, Hicks, to get the dope back into the States and hand it off to his wife, Marge. Marge is supposed to hand it off to others per arrangments Converse has made. However, once the drugs are in the states, things go wrong, and Hicks and Marge end up on the run from a couple of thugs and a government agent. Converse returns home to find the deal is blown and is soon in desperate trouble himself.
Even though most of this book is set in the U.S., it's really about the effect that Vietnam had on America. Once your government has unleashed large scale death and destruction on another country for murky reasons, keeping your own moral compass seems naive. Get what you can, do what you want, and don't worry about the consequences. It explains most of the 1970s.
But the book is a cautionary tale about this view. It says that if you go this route, beware. You've bought into the law of the jungle, and there are a lot of predators out there. Just because you think you're ready to live outside the law because you saw some bad shit and think you've jettisoned the conscience that comes with your place in society, that doesn't mean you're ready to deal with the people who never had one to begin with.
A terrific book that proves you don't have to write 700 or 800 pages to have real depth. I'm fascinated by how Benioff managed to describe the charact...moreA terrific book that proves you don't have to write 700 or 800 pages to have real depth. I'm fascinated by how Benioff managed to describe the characters enduring terrible hardship and the worst of one of the most brutal battles in history, but the book doesn't read as grim or overly depressing. That's not to say that there isn't real drama, horror and sadness, but the natural humor of characters keep it from being just another book about the horrors of war. (less)
This month marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg which we all know is the fight that took place when Abraham Lincoln wanted to make...moreThis month marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg which we all know is the fight that took place when Abraham Lincoln wanted to make a speech at that address and then one of the neighbors got mad and challenged him. Or something like that.
Ah, but seriously folks…. Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War in which the Union forces defeated Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate troops, but this isn’t a non-fiction book about the battle. Instead it’s a historical fiction in which author Michael Shaara used research and literary license to put us into the minds of several key figures so that readers experience the fight through their eyes.
For this re-read, I listened to the audible version, and it featured an interesting introduction from Shaara’s son, Jeff. (Who has followed his late father’s formula to write several other books about American history.) The younger Shaara tells of how his father’s book was rejected over a dozen times, was a commercial flop but won a Pulitzer Prize only to see no increase in its profile following the award. Michael died in 1988 thinking that the book would not be remembered. In an twist of fate, the movie adaptation Gettysburg that came out five years later would put the book on the best seller list almost twenty years after it was originally published.
On the Confederate side, an ailing and weary Robert E. Lee has pinned his hopes to end the war on the idea of attacking and destroying the Union army on it’s own ground, but his top general, James Longstreet, was against the invasion since he believes the South’s military success has come from a defensive style of warfare. As they advance into Pennsylvania, they’ve been left with a dangerous lack of information about Union movements because cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart has been failing to provide them with reports from his scouting mission.
Both sides begin to converge on the small town of Gettysburg which has a valuable crossroads nearby, but Union cavalry officer John Buford is there first and immediately realizes that the hills and slopes outside of the town will give a huge advantage to the army that holds them. With the Confederate forces closing in fast, Buford occupies and tries to hold the good ground while urging the Union army to rush in and reinforce him. As troops pour into the area from both sides, they find themselves fighting in a battle no one had counted on. The Union troops manage to occupy the better positions as Longstreet desperately tries to convince Lee that attacking would be a major mistake, but Lee believes that his army can destroy the Union forces once and for all.
This book and the subsequent film version would do a lot to make people reevaluate Longstreet’s reputation. He’d been scapegoated by other Confederate officers after the war for the defeat at Gettysburg, but Shaara’s version of events based on letters and diaries of those involved makes a convincing argument that it was Lee whose stubborn refusal to disengage and pick a better spot for a fight was the main culprit for the Confederate failure.
Shaara also credits the forgotten Buford with being a major reason as to why the Union was able to seize the high ground. He also tells the story of another officer forgotten by mainstream American history as one of the true heroes of the battle. Joshua Chamberlain was a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College when the war broke out, but he showed a knack for military command that eventually put him in charge of a regiment at the end of the Union line on a hill called Little Round Top. As the extreme left position of the Union forces, Chamberlain and his men had to hold back repeated efforts to flank them by Longstreet’s troops, and then they found themselves in the thick of the fighting again on the last day during Pickett’s Charge.
Chamberlain would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, and he would continue to serve with distinction for the rest of the war. Eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Ulysses Grant chose Chamberlain to command the Union troops at the surrender ceremony. After the war, he would win multiple terms as Maine’s governor as well as eventually becoming president of his old college. (Feeling like a slacker yet?) The book and a great performance by Jeff Daniels in the movie version would make Chamberlain remembered once again.
The prose gets a bit flowery at times, but Shaara’s preface notes that he actually toned down the verbose style of the time. There’s also a bit too much repetition on a couple of points like Chamberlain’s horror at himself that he ordered his brother to fill a gap in the line during the fight on Little Round Top without a second thought or Confederate General Armistead’s constant references to his friend Win Hancock as he frets that he’ll have to face his buddy on the battle field.
Those are minor gripes about a book that found a new and fresh way to tell a story that every American school kid has heard. Shaara also does a nice job of pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of the Confederates who claim to be fighting for their rights while not mentioning that what they want is the freedom to keep owning slaves. That point gets overlooked a lot when the South gets romanticized in mainstream works of fiction, and it’s refreshing that Shaara called bullshit on it.
Random trivia: Joss Whedon’s television show Firefly was partially inspired by his reading of this book.
This definately falls in the category of truth being stranger than fiction because this story is so unlikely that no one would believe it if it hadn't...moreThis definately falls in the category of truth being stranger than fiction because this story is so unlikely that no one would believe it if it hadn't happened. Not only is there much more detail and depth than the movie even hinted at, it's also a great inside look at how the American government and intelligence community actually work.(less)