Since I'm into history and the publisher mailed me this book a while back, I've just finished Pulitzer-prize winner Kai Bird's The Good Spy: The Life...moreSince I'm into history and the publisher mailed me this book a while back, I've just finished Pulitzer-prize winner Kai Bird's The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. I'd never heard of Robert Ames before, but now I'll never forget him. I've made a very lengthy post at the nonfiction page of my online reading journal, so if you want the long of it, click through. Otherwise, you're just getting my impression of the book here.
Ames' life and work as a CIA agent and then Intelligence Officer in the Middle East, as well as the glimpses behind the scenes at politics and policymaking are all very well portrayed here, and there may be some small merit in the author's thesis that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, a sizeable chance for peace in the Middle East died along with him. He had the both the ear and the confidence of formidable players there, he worked tirelessly to help put out flames before they became raging fires, and gave up much of his family life in the interests of peace. A Good Spy is a most excellent read, and it is definitely a book that a)I'll never forget b) I urge everyone who has an interest in trying to understand the current situation in Middle East to get a copy of and c) has definitely spurred my interest in further reading.
I'm still in a little bit of shock after having finished this book. Well worth every second. (less)
A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and...moreA couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time. When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger. Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book. Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone. It's that good. And, with the exposure of the NSA's surveillance on ordinary American citizens that's been on people's minds lately, it's also appropriately timely.
It's not that J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same. However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again. Ms. Medsger starts her work from an entirely different place. Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door" of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI." It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized) that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures. These files revealed that
"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI. This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties in the context of a free and democratic society.
If you're at all interested, you can find the full thrust of what I have to say about this book here on the nonfiction page of my reading journal; if you don't want to read the long version, just hear me out on this point: it's a book that despite its nearly 600 pages, reads extremely quickly and packs a big wham!throughout. It's also one I HIGHLY recommend. (less)
If you are at all interested in women's history, the history of America's nuclear program, or Cold War history, The Girls of Atomic City should be one...moreIf you are at all interested in women's history, the history of America's nuclear program, or Cold War history, The Girls of Atomic City should be one of those books that gets added on to and then moved up to the top of your tbr pile. It is one of the most thought-provoking nonfiction books I've read in a long time. As always, you can read the shortened version here, or click through for the longer one.
In a nutshell, Girls of Atomic City explores some of the women who helped keep things going during the war in a project located in a facility in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one that was geared toward putting an end to the war,as well as a place that tens of thousands of people called home. The women were trained to do only very specific tasks without understanding the overall project that their labors helped to create. They were not allowed to talk about their work, nor were they allowed to question anything, and they never knew who might report them if they did. The project was so secret that wives couldn't talk to husbands about their work, dating couples couldn't discuss their jobs, workers couldn't talk to families or friends on the outside, and violations of that rule often ended up with people simply disappearing, never to be heard from or seen ever again. The women, along with the majority of men working at Oak Ridge, had no clue at all that everything they did helped to contribute to the production of the atomic bomb that was used first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki. It was only when the bombs were dropped that the news was released, and people finally realized what it was they'd been working on, with very mixed reactions. In The Girls of Atomic City, the author examines the personal and professional lives of some of the women who called Oak Ridge home for the duration. It can get a little boggy sometimes with too much detail, and in some cases doesn't seem to go far enough in terms of questions that imho weren't asked, but despite these flaws, an overall look at the big picture makes this a history well worth reading. It also made me wonder whether or not something like an Oak Ridge might be possible today in terms of the sheer amount of secrecy involved. The book is definitely thought provoking and also provides a look inside the America of the WWII years. Highly recommended. (less)
My thanks to the people at LT early reviewers and to Henry Holt for my copy of this book. Simply put, it's amazing.
If you've ever just sat for a mome...moreMy thanks to the people at LT early reviewers and to Henry Holt for my copy of this book. Simply put, it's amazing.
If you've ever just sat for a moment and wondered about why so much of the world hates us here in the US, this book will provide a few of the answers. It examines, among other things, how the brothers Dulles, Allen and John Foster (Foster), through their incredible political power and family/corporate/foreign connections, helped to shape our current world, paving the way for American policy abroad to best serve corporate interests. The overt and covert means they employed to protect American interests throughout the globe set into motion events that continue to have repercussions today and will probably continue on well into the future. As the author notes, "Fundamental assumptions that guide American foreign policy have not changed substantially" since the Dulles brothers were in power, and this book is a great place to learn exactly what encompassed American foreign policy during their time and why their "approach to the world" has had deleterious effects on our nation. He also examines the concept of "exceptionalism" as a guiding force in setting policy, a belief that is still held by many today, that somehow the US is more moral than other countries, so that as a nation, we have the right to "behave in ways that others should not." That belief encompasses another idea in which we should be able to take out governments "we" don't like or do other deeds to help shape the course of history.
Aside from examining exactly what the Dulles brothers did over the course of their respective and then combined careers, and how their policy led to such immense episodes of global upheaval, the author also delves into who these two brothers were, how they got their start in the combined areas of finance, multinationals, politics, foreign relations, and the murky world of US intelligence. Trust me, these are not people you will like; there is nothing redeeming about either of them -- they had zero empathy, no compassion and could care less about how many people were killed in the course of their operations.
The book is extremely well written, and is not at all difficult to read; you need no expertise in history, politics or foreign relations to understand it. It's important if you are at all curious about why our government does what it does or how we seem to involve ourselves in sticky quagmires all over the world and what the government is not telling us. It's also a must read, because as the author notes, even though the brothers' actions were products of their time, their story is also the "story of America," and tells us a lot about ourselves as Americans.
Frankly, I have to say that not much really catches me by surprise any more: the political front, the spins on global events, the media as the monkey to the big power players, the disregard for the common people and the Constitution, and this book just goes to show that while the players have changed, really, the same sort of stuff was going on during the heyday of the brothers' power and influence. But back then It was just kept more tightly under wraps and better concealed from the public. The Brothers is simply a stellar work -- and I recommend it highly. (less)
Super book about one of my ultimate favorite jazz musicians.
"What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot."
The ultimate rea...moreSuper book about one of my ultimate favorite jazz musicians.
"What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot."
The ultimate reading day for me includes the following: rain (which we get a lot of down here in the south), a cup or two or three of strong black coffee (no pods -- I love freshly ground) and most important, the jazz music playing in the background. One of my favorite musicians is Charlie Parker, about whom this book was written. I have been wanting to read a biography about Parker for a long time; when Kansas City Lightning was published last year, I scooped it up. But here's the thing: this is less of a biography than I thought it would be. At first I was disappointed, but I kept flipping back to the book cover with its subtitle "The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker," and came to terms with the fact that a standard biography was not the author's intention. I say that up front so that if you start reading and Parker disappears for long periods of book space, don't despair and keep going. The end product as a whole is informative and frankly, quite a ride, one not solely for the jazz lover. It also speaks to African-American culture of the time, and expands out into a look at blues, swing and jazz in the context of a wider American culture.
Starting out at New York's Savoy Ballroom, the "Madison Square Garden of the battles of the bands", the story takes you back in time to the Kansas City and the origins of Parker's eventual rise to fame. It was a place where musicians held court at 18th Street and Vine, where the blues morphed into a new form of jazz. The book is filled with the people, music, culture etc that influenced Parker, often related via interview by people who were there who had a connection with him. There are also times where the author goes off on serious but informative tangents and not just in the world of music: he spends time talking about the Buffalo Soldiers, the impact of D.W.Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," which portrayed African American men as the white man's worst enemies vis-a-vis white women; there is a also a brief history of minstrelsy which eventually serious African-American musicians refused to be a part of; the rise and downfall of boxer Jack Johnson and his later betrayal of Joe Louis among many others. But it's when he's into the music and the musicians that the writing shines; the descriptions of after-hours jam sessions where musicians were free to be themselves are amazing. Even though there are a number of gaps in Parker's personal life story here (as the author notes, it's largely because so much of his early years remain undocumented), the beauty of this book lies in the world surrounding Parker and how it influenced his near fanatic drive to create something new, something already inside him needing to come out.
While sometimes the writing meanders, when he's ready to bring Parker back into the scene, he's in tight control. Some of these parts are reimagined, while others are based on personal memories and research. At the same time, he lets the reader know when discrepancies arise -- for example, stories told by Parker's first wife Rebecca don't always mesh with the eyewitness accounts of her sister. But while in places the writing might strike an off-key note (for me there were a few, especially when he equates "Charlie's curiosity about narcotics" to his affection for Sherlock Holmes mysteries) taken as a whole, the book has a cool flow to it, filled with vivid jargon in a style that is truly his own.
Reader response has been generally favorable toward this book; after perusing several professional reviews, the same is true on that level as well. I also discovered that Kansas City Lightning is just one of a two-volume set, so I'll sit tight and eagerly anticipate the next book. In the meantime, I can very highly recommend this book, especially to fans of jazz and of Charlie Parker, but also to anyone who is into African-American history. A definite no-miss. (less)
I have been forever fascinated with the Vietnam War -- most especially with...morethis is the short discussion; if you want a longer one, click on through.
I have been forever fascinated with the Vietnam War -- most especially with the politics and behind-the-scene machinations behind America's involvement, but also with the growth and outright explosion of US opposition to the war, and the aftermath, as the soldiers came home, or did not. But what really gets to me are the compelling stories of the people who were actually there. The Boys of '67 briefly but powerfully examines the lives of a group of men from Charlie Company in the US Army's 9th Infantry Division -- from the time they received their greetings from Uncle Sam through their individual returns home and beyond. It is a fine addition to the already-existing collection of personal histories of the war, focusing largely on the special bonds forged between these former strangers throughout their year in Vietnam.
The book is the result of author interviews with several surviving members of Charlie Company, as well as their families and the families of some of those who went to Vietnam and never returned.
The personal accounts of these men or their surviving families -- the letters, the interviews, etc., -- are what make this book. The author presents these people not only as the fine soldiers they were, but also as human beings who suffered from serious psychological trauma both in Vietnam and afterwards. While highly personal, there is also insight into just what types of situations these men faced there via several accounts of the battles they fought, complete with tactical maps that give the reader a harrowing visual perspective on what these soldiers faced during their missions.
The Boys of '67 is emotionally powerful and if you're at all interested in the Vietnam war and its personal aftermath from the points of view of the soldiers who were there, this would be a great reading choice. Definitely recommended. (less)
Interesting, like a 3.45 rating, mostly due to the sloggy bits.
Amy Reading's account of con victim J. Frank Norfleet would make a really good movie. B...moreInteresting, like a 3.45 rating, mostly due to the sloggy bits.
Amy Reading's account of con victim J. Frank Norfleet would make a really good movie. Back in 1919, 54 year-old Norfleet, a rancher from Texas, was the victim of a large-scale con run by a crook named Joe Furey that ended up with Norfleet losing about $45,000 and landing him twice that amount in debt. Norfleet, as it turns out, never had a chance. He was the perfect mark, and although he didn't know it, he had just entered onto the set of a perfectly-tuned, nine-act theater production, a routine so perfectly honed that the con men knew what exactly what lines Norfleet was going to say when. This routine works so well, and is so perfectly staged that it is nearly impossible for the mark to know that he's actually being swindled until it's too late. In the aftermath, unlike some victims, Norfleet wasn't so much embarrassed about his own gullibility or worried about others' contempt; on the contrary, he was very public: he contacted the police, went to the newspapers, and told his wife what had happened to him. In his autobiography he tried to explain why he was so gullible:
"With us of the Plains country, a man's word was his bond. Our cattle deals, our land sales -- transactions running into many thousands, frequently -- were often completed 'sight unseen,' the whole agreements being based on verbal representations and verbal understandings...If I was gullible, I was simply following the reasoning habits I had acquired in my lifetime of experience."
Not to mention, Reading continues, that if these understandings didn't work out, shooting or hanging were likely end results.
As the author notes, "Joe Furey didn't know whom he was dealing with when he fingered J. Frank Norfleet." He probably also didn't figure on Frank deciding to take matters into his own hands to go after the five people responsible for fleecing him. Frank's quest is a wild story, and using some of the techniques employed by the con men, involves his own brand of theatrics and disguises, some cloak-and-dagger moments and even a wild chase or two. Reading's research is based on several sources including police files, newspapers, court records, and Norfleet's two autobiographies (1924, 1927). Yet the author poses the question of whether or not it's Norfleet's readers who are being conned, and ultimately the readers of her book in regards to Frank's years in pursuit of vengeance. Setting her other sources against his own writings, she points out a number of inconsistencies between the man who reportedly lived by the "cowboy code of honor," and what may have really happened during his long years of journeying for justice.
Around Norfleet's story, the author examines how the "confidence-man" became a regular fixture in America, as well as how the industry of con artistry developed alongside rapid economic US expansion since the 19th century. The swindling business not only tried to keep up with what was happening as the economy became stronger, but always looking for opportunity, sought to "fill in the uncharted terrain that opens up when business innovation gallops ahead of legislation." Speculation and even counterfeiting, she notes, actually helped the American economy to grow; corruption in the policing agencies and turning a blind eye here and there allowed the illegal activities to continue. She also notes that we as Americans are people used to being conned, and often pay for the privilege, citing the crowds of people who thronged to see P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" for example.
While Norfleet's story is captivating in its own right, around that wild ride the book gets a bit bogged down in detail that is frankly, a bit boring. So many parts of the narrative could have been presented in more of an encapsulated summary format rather than going on and on with lengthy exposition that has to be sifted through slowly. But these "skimworthy" parts are offset by glimpses of American life as the country's economy began to boom.
Overall, this book does have a great deal of appeal -- there's the big con, the quest for revenge, and the moments of payback that make it especially readable and interesting. For the most part, it managed to capture my attention, despite the s-l-o-w and periodically sloggy details. With people still reeling from events like the Bernie Madoff fraud case, and opening their emails daily to a number of potential con scams, the book is a timely read. It is a bit more detail oriented with a lot of historical interest; it's not really a book club kind of read or something that might attract the attention of the casual nonfiction reader. I liked it, and would say that if anyone is at all interested in the history of fraud and con artistry in the US, Reading's book offers its readers an interesting perspective on the topic. (less)
as usual, this is a short review; for a somewhat longer post click here.
My many thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book. It is an ey...moreas usual, this is a short review; for a somewhat longer post click here.
My many thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book. It is an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed history of the FBI in its role as a "secret intelligence service." The book examines how the Bureau has long been operating outside of the rule of law -- "the foundation on which America was built", and offers its readers a look at the ongoing struggle between national security and civil liberty. It also details the relationships the FBI directors (especially J. Edgar Hoover) have had with American presidents since the Bureau's inception. Although I may not personally agree with the author's final conclusion, it's still a very well-written book.
Enemies is incredibly interesting, fleshing out bits and pieces of history with which I'm somewhat familiar, and it offers anyone remotely interested in the topics he covers a great deal of fodder for further reading. It's very reader friendly, and despite some reviews I've read about it being snooze material, it will grab the attention of anyone who's interested. What you won't find here are any juicy pieces of speculation about Hoover and his sex life, which is just as well -- it's all hearsay anyway and it's also irrelevant. I think, though, that Weiner might be looking through his rose-colored glasses -- an FBI manual of operations is all well and good, but time and again, and he shows it himself, when push comes to shove in a matter of national security, the government can exercise greater powers that don't always mesh with our constitutional rights. (less)
In this book, the author has compiled and analyzed a vast amount of research to make the case that racist practices toward African-American people fro...moreIn this book, the author has compiled and analyzed a vast amount of research to make the case that racist practices toward African-American people from slavery onward, in the name of science and medicine, have created an atmosphere of distrust among African-Americans toward the medical profession. As a result of this distrust, and often fear, this group of people may not be getting proper medical care when necessary.
I won't go into a major discussion here, but I thought the author did a fine job in terms of research and presentation. I'm not a scientist, nor am I conversant enough in the topic to judge her research, but this book really opened my eyes to some less than professional and less than ethical practices. I must say that I'm not surprised -- earlier I read the book "Bad Blood" about the syphillis experiments at Tuskeegee -- but that was probably the extent of my knowledge on the topic. Washington's book makes that study seem like only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I have to say that sometimes she was a bit repetitive, but not enough to distract from the main points of her work.
I truly hope her work does some good. I'd recommend it to people who are interested in the topic, especially people like myself who have only a limited knowledge, or to people who want to add yet another dimension to their understanding of African-American history.(less)