Saturday, March 31, 2012

Completed: Charlie Wilson's War


You can shoot down a helicopter with this sucker.
Well. I went down to the wire on this one! Lots of bookish activity for this month, so I'm just happy I was able to finish it. It helped that it was a great read.

Charlie Wilson's War is one of those books that proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. This story is set during the last dying gasps of the Cold War. The basic story can be summed up in one sentence: A Texas Congressman, powerful because of his seat on the all-important Appropriations Committee, manages to funnel millions and millions of dollars through the CIA to help fund Afghanistan's mujahideen as they fight off the Soviet Invasion. However, it's the political twists and turns that make the story so interesting. Charlie and a CIA counterpart, Gust Avrakotos, manage to strong arm the entire Congress and CIA into funding the war, what they continually liken to The USSR's own Vietnam.

The reason the book is so interesting, of course, is because of the way we are currently embroiled in Afghanistan. One of the hallmarks of Charlie's War was the the US insisted on keeping American influence as secret as possible. Everything---arms, training, food, medicine, etc---was funneled through Pakistan. The CIA spent billions of dollars funding the armed resistance of militant Islam, and most of the actual fighters never knew that Americans helped them. The book makes a very strongest case I've ever seen for the impact of unintended consequences: the very arms that we gleefully provided to Afghanistan in the 80s are the very weapons they are turning against us now.

I don't really feel like I can do much more justice to the plot, because it is so complex and convoluted. However, it is a fascinating and interesting look at the inner workings of both Congress and the CIA. The way in which Charlie and Gust manage to basically make war without anyone actually having much of an idea what they were up to? It's an amazing story. Honestly, if you knew a history or war buff, this book would make a great gift. If you're interested in the short version, I'd also recommend the film with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

My only complaint about the book is that it assumes that the reader has a great deal of background knowledge about the last 20 years of the Cold War. And, as we have previously discussed on at least a thousand occasions, we got super crappy history instruction. In other words, there's some gaps in my knowledge base. For example, I wish the author would have spent at least a page or two explaining why the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the first place. I mean, that seems sort of obvious, but I have no idea of what their basic objective even was. The book isn't a history of the war itself, but rather the incredible tale of Charlie and Gust, but it would have been nice to get a brief overview.

I wished I has stuck to my original plan, which was to read the books in roughly chronological order, because there was also lots of references to Vietnam. If I had followed my original sequence of books, I would have read The Best and the Brightest first, and maybe some of that would have made more sense. But the book is also continually referencing the Iran-Contra affair and the war in Nicaragua. I mean, outside of being vaguely able to pull the face of Oliver North into my brain...I've got NOTHING on those events. In other words, reading this has just made apparent new, unexplored areas of historical ignorance. Fantastic.

Finally, one last note about ebooks vs. pbooks. I read Charlie Wilson's War half on my Kindle (borrowed from the Kindle lending library for free!) and half in a paperback. I love reading on my Kindle, but I think it has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to non-fiction. The book has footnotes, at least a few in every chapter. I hate clicking down to the right line of text and then over to the footnote on a Kindle. When I was reading at home, I'd actually read with my Kindle and keep the book on my lap. When a footnote came up, I'd page forward to the footnote in the book while reading on my Kindle. That's ridiculous, I know, but it was easier and faster. Most damning is that the Kindle version doesn't have an index. This is a complex book, with lots of characters and places, many of those with confusing or similar names; complex references to specific branches of government; types of weapons and military terms. I can hardly believe this book didn't have a separate "cast of characters" list. But to not have an index? When I was reading, there were times I'd forget a specific term.  I guess I could have used the "Search this book" function, but again, it just seemed far more laborious than flipping to the index and finding it quickly. Not to mention an index will also break down a topic into subheadings. If I wanted to find something particular with reference to Pakistan's president, I could look up "Zia" in the index and scan through a list of subheadings. With the search this function, I'd be able to find every mention of his name in the text, but then I'd have to scroll through hundreds of references looking for the exact thing I wanted to find. I'm sure that the Kindle will make all this more seamless eventually, but I still prefer a pbook when reading this kind of complex non-fiction.

All in all, a great read. Remember that line from The Princess Bride: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." Well, reading this book sure helps to explain why! Also, I think I want to know more about the CIA. Wonder where that will take me?

Monday, March 19, 2012

TBP2: Alameda (Postcard History Series)

[Note: I did finish this book in February (and even started writing this post then!) but have just gotten around to taking the "Now" photos below. Cross country moving is kind of putting a damper on my free time!]

Dear Jenny,

This one off the TBP list was a quick one, which is good because February was both short and hectic. As I went through this book, I was constantly seeking out places I knew, and there were plenty.

Reading this book, I discovered that City Hall used to have a tower. Here it is in 1906:

But it was removed in 1937 due to "instabilities." Here it is today:

This church:

Looks almost exactly the same, except for the streetlight out front and a bit more folliage:

One of my favorite non-Victorian Alameda homes was featured. Here it is in 1934:

My photo today doesn't do it justice... mostly because I felt creepy spending too much time hanging around in front of someone's house, taking photos. But it's a really lovely house, sitting on a pretty cool piece of property:

And, of course, the Alameda Theatre -- this photo was taken in 1933:

When I moved here in 2000, it looked like the photo above and the theatre was not open. They have since restored it, tacked a multiplex on the side, and re-opened.

They did a pretty good job of the architecture of the mulitplex -- it blends in well, and does not obscure the original structure. You cannot see much of it here, but it's in the left portion of this photo (taken today):

Here's a random cute Victorian -- I wish I had set up my "now" shot better, but it was another one of those awkward moments where I did not want to spend too much time taking a photograph of someone else's house. Here it is in 1910:

According to the caption in the book, it's still around today "minus some of the front porch gingerbread and the cat on the roof." Love the reference to the cat -- I might have missed him otherwise. I drove by today and snapped this shot (sneakily, out the window of my car...):

I think a large part of Alameda's present-day charm is its connection to its past and reading this book really reminded me of that. Here is a photo of the Elks' Club from 1911:

Over 100 years later, here's the photo I took today:

Here's a close up of the front doors from 1910:

And the 2012 shot:

Kind of cool, right?

There was some interesting information surrounding a lot of the cards, and sometimes there were humorous editorial asides, which I didn't mind in a little history/postcard book. I particularly liked reading the text of some of the post cards -- perhaps that's the allure of reading someone else's mail?

I wish I hadn't felt like such a creeper taking these photos -- I would love to see an "Alameda Then and Now" book that really lined up some of these shots better than I did on the fly.

Just for funsies, here's a photo I took of our house when I finished this book last month. I'll miss it. (sniff!)

We do have another book around here that shows the original owners with the house, circa 1890s. Need to dig that up!

For March, I'm going to stick with California while I'm still here and hit the Bechtle book. It was between that and East Bay Then and Now, but I'm a little worn out on "New vs. Old" photos right now.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Tournament of Books preview, Part 2


The TOB is just as awesome as I was hoping. I love reading the decisions, but probably the bickering back and forth with other readers is my favorite part.

One of the things that I'm noticing as I write about the books is that *almost all of them* have what I would consider failed, or at least highly problematic endings. Why can't authors pull off the satisfyingly good ending anymore?

State of Wonder vs. The Sisters Brothers
Now this is an interesting match-up and feels like the closest call of the TOB. Although I didn't expect to like either of these books, I was pleasantly surprised by both of them. State of Wonder is well-plotted and fast-paced. Marina is a doctor and scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. She is instructed by her boss and lover (Ridiculously, she refers to him as Mr. Fox. It's silly.) to travel to the company's research station in the Amazon to discover two things: the truth about the death of colleague, and the progress being made on a miracle fertility drug.

What the book does well is explore just how perilous this place is for Marina. She must find her old mentor and professor, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson was Marina's attending physician the night a c-section went horribly wrong, and Marina is wary of seeing her again. The strangeness only escalates when Marina arrives at the research station and starts to understand the complicated medical trials and amazing rituals of the local villagers.

State of Wonder is very much about Western medicine vs. native ways of life. It was compelling without being too "preachy." Don't get me wrong, the whole book is some ways feels like an argument against Western idealism in the face of the world's realities. The plot gets tied up a little too neatly if you ask me, but there were at least a few lingering questions (although those seem so heavily hinted/foreshadowed that they don't seem all that mysterious). Although it's a good story and a solid read, I wouldn't call it revelatory. Nothing truly surprised or delighted me, but does that matter? Sometimes I'm just grateful for a "good read" and State of Wonder definitely qualified.

Another surprise was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. Eli and Charlie Sisters are a duo of killers kicking around in the American West in the mid 1800s. Eli is the narrator, and seems to be the more gentle and thoughtful of the two. The first half of the book was just okay: the writing is nice, and there's an amusing bit about Eli adopting a toothbrush and loving the feeling of clean teeth, a metaphor for wanting to clean up his life?  The chapters are short and elegiac, with Eli tiring of their life of crime and murder. Yet the brothers have a job to do, and they head to San Francisco where they are to kill a man named Herman Warm by their boss, The Commander. I found myself liking the book much more once they actually arrived in San Francisco. There are some amusing descriptions of San Franciscans at that time. {I will add some of the quotes when I get home later. I actually marked the pages, thinking you would also enjoy it.}

But it's once they find Warm and figure out what he's up to, pledging to help him rather than kill him that I found myself truly interested. In other words, it got better. It was sort of a weird ending, and I'm perhaps thinking it was a dream? Or an afterlife? But overall I enjoyed it. Also, this is one of the books that I never would have picked it up on my own had it not been in the TOB. Finally, I thought it had a fantastic cover.

Either way, now that I've written about it at length: I think State of Wonder should--and will--advance. 

Swamplandia! vs. The Cat’s Table 
I hated Swamplandia!, so I'm hoping The Cat's Table will advance. I'm going to try and read it before the match up on Thursday. It could happen. Although the only other book I've read by Ondaatje is The English Patient, a book I loved but that was also a "slow" read for me.

The Marriage Plot vs. Green Girl 
Look, it's going to shock the hell out of me and everyone else if The Marriage Plot doesn't win handily here. Whatever its weaknesses, The Marriage Plot is a solidly good novel with a lot going for it. Green Girl wasn't bad, it just wasn't really a novel, and felt more experimental than anything else. And for me personally, there just weren't a lot of entry points to lure me in. It was almost perfectly designed to repel me, as a matter of fact. Wishy-washy and weak female characters just aren't my thing. I guess if they were, I'd be a Republican. Heh.

Looking back, there's one observation about Green Girl that I keep puzzling over. As previously discussed, it has the trendy-no-quotation-mark thing going on with it's dialogue. But, EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER of that book, and some are only a page or two long, is prefaced with an epigraph. That is, a lengthy QUOTE from someone else that sets the mood for that chapter. Honestly, I don't usually read epigraphs all that carefully, but I found myself doing so with Green Girl. If it weren't for those quotes, I'm not sure I would have understood what the author was going for. It was sort of weird, actually, why let another author horn in and state your themes more clearly than you can? I'm sure it's just some sort of clever way to show us, once again, that the main character doesn't have a real self, and is a construct of her surroundings, yada, yada. It doesn't work, though. Propping up Green Girl with all those other authors just made it seem like it didn't have much to say on its own.

Also, as a general rule, let's just agree RIGHT NOW that any ending that has someone joining in a Hare Krishna parade is not going to work. Jeez, I found Madeline's "do-over" ending more believable. And I thought that ending was ridiculous.

The Art of Fielding vs. Open City
I wrote about Open City earlier this year. Like 1Q84, it's pretty plotless, but it was also a lot more compact and I enjoyed it. I didn't like the ending, but I'm quite curious to see the commentary on the book. I think it bears some discussion. Either way, you're probably sensing a theme, here, with the bad endings. I'm going to try to get to The Art of Fielding next weekend if I can. This feels like a crowd pleaser and everyone loves it, so I'm going to predict that it beats Open City. Plus, I think the judge of this match is a sports writer. I don't want to judge the judges, but hard to believe a beloved novel about baseball wouldn't be more appealing that a guy wandering around thinking about his life. Also, on sheer principle, I refuse to vote for books without quotation marks.

Whew! Let's see how I do!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tournament of Books Preview, Part 1.


As you can imagine, I'm getting pretty excited for the start of the Tournament of Books this week. There's clearly some organizational changes afoot, and I feel a little confused and discombobulated about the structure of this year's tournament. One huge improvement, as I've already discussed, was that they released the 16 finalists already in brackets. This has been fantastic because I have been targeted in my reading knowing which books were paired up.

However, in previous years, the schedule and pace of the whole Tournament was different...maybe? Last year, the entire Tournament was completed in 4 weeks + 1 agonizing weekend. The tournament started on a Monday with that first day being an overview of the 16 choices. The first 8 match ups then took place, one per weekday, until the following Thursday. Then, the 2nd Friday was a first round recap. In other words, it took a full 2 weeks to complete the first round. In the 3rd week of the Tournament, there were the quarterfinals, winnowing 8 down to 4. The last full week took us down to 2, but then added back in 2 reader favorites, or zombies. It wasn't until the following Monday that the winner was revealed. It was so deliciously time-consuming! Although I really wanted to see which books would advance, I also enjoyed the recap and review days that were just chatter about books and the progress of the Tournament so far. I am so "into" it and I loved every morning of that month. I literally could not wait to see what each day brought. (I realize that I sound unbearably geeky here, but it's all true.) The other advantage to the long schedule is that I could still be actively reading books during the Tournament, especially since the last 2 weeks of March are always my Spring Break.

This year, the Tournament starts on a Wednesday, March 7th, and ends on Friday March 30th. My guess is they are just cutting out some of the recap days, but I am curious. It's also weird because the site apparently won't go live until March 7th. Every other year, they would put up the books, brackets, dates, and judges in advance. I am quite curious to see what's going on there. There are two guys who are like the announcers and hosts for the whole thing, maybe they were just tired of all that extra stuff? I guess one could argue that the thing is entirely too meta: let's not only do this thing, but let's spend a lot of time talking this thing to death. I, however, would argue that it's the meta that makes it great.

Either way, it starts on Wednesday, and I've so far completed 11 of the 16. I'm about 1/3 of the way through 1Q84. Even though I've never read Moby Dick, it's starting to feel like my own personal white whale. Here's my picks for the first half of Round 1. (I was going to do them all, but it's getting ridiculously long, and I really should be writing grade reports.) Keep in mind this is completely unscientific, sometimes I pick what I think *will* win, and sometimes I choose what I think *should* win.

The Sense of an Ending vs.  The Devil All the Time
I've read both of these, and I think it will go the The Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed here.

The Devil All the Time isn't for everyone, and that's what will probably doom it to an early exit from the Tournament. It's a bleak look at the violent world inhabited by people of a small southern Ohio town. This book is unrelenting: a team of serial killers works the country, looking for victims; a preacher molests teenage girls in his flock, convinced of his righteousness; a man builds of shrine to sacrifice animals, praying to cure his wife's cancer. The hero, if you could call it that, is a boy named Arvin. It's his mother that dies of cancer and his father that drags him into the local woods to pray. As a man, Arvin has to live knowing that he has the capacity for both gentleness and brutality. It's his story that grounds the book and gives it heart: without him it's hell without a speck of redemption. The book is both beautifully written and disgustingly repellent. I don't know how to describe the act of reading it: everything in it is so physically raw, it was like choking down a steak that's too rare. I'm not sure I enjoyed it, but it's unusual for a book to have such a visceral impact on me.

Lightning Rods vs. Salvage the Bones
I'd like to see Salvage the Bones win this round. I genuinely think it's a better book in every way (see my review here), but it will completely depend on the judge. Also, this has to be the most bizarre match-up of the Tournament. These two books have literally nothing in common with which to base a comparison.

I almost don't know what to say about Lightning Rods, it was just that bizarre. I guess the easiest way to describe it is as a satire about sex in the workplace, or about the state of sex in 21st century America. The main character, Joe, devises a system to relieve sexual harassment in the workplace. It's long, complicated, and purposefully absurd, but what it boils down to is certain preselected, anonymous women (the lightning rods) backing their asses up to a hole in the wall, while a male coworker takes care of business from the other side. Why anyone would agree to this is the whole business of the novel, but the running gag seems to be that using the right sales pitch and corporate double-speak, you can sell just about anything to anyone. Obviously, as satire, it it meant to be over the top and unbearably clever. It's not that I disliked it, exactly. It was certainly uncomfortable to read, which means it was successful on some level, but maybe I just didn't "get it." Let's just say that I am very much looking forward to the commentary on this one; some books I just need to talk about, and this is one of them.

1Q84 vs. The Last Brother
This match up is completely impossible to call. My gut tells me that it will go to 1Q84, because who wants to be the guy to knock that one out?

I'm enjoying 1Q84, but it's just very slow going. I feel like I've been reading it forever and I'm only on page 330! What's impeding my progress is the long-winded exposition. I love the writing, but how many pages can there be with Aomame or Tengo doing nothing but have protracted, involved conversations of background information? Much to my dismay, the answer seems to be >330.  I would like something to happen. And, as God as my witness, I cannot take any more moments of Tengo wondering about his childhood memory of another man at his mother's breasts. Ugh!

The Last Brother was wonderful. It probably would have been a good match up with The Sense of an Ending, because both of these books are short (under 200 pages) novels about old men looking back at some formative childhood event. I think that the reason it got matched up with 1Q84 instead is because they are both books in translation.

The narrator, Raj, is a man in his 70s, looking back on a strange incident from his youth. He was a young boy of 10 during World War II, growing up on the Pacific island of Mauritius. Raj and his parents move away from their village after a family tragedy. His father gets a job at the local jail, and Raj is determined to find out why there are strange white people imprisoned there. After landing in the jail's infirmary (the island has no hospital), Raj makes friends with a boy, David. Raj's memory of their friendship is incredibly moving. I just loved this little book. The writing is lovely, the story is simple but touching, and Raj's feelings of regret and loss are very human. It's feeling like this year's Bloodroot: the unexpected "find" of reading a book that otherwise would have never been on my radar.

The Stranger’s Child vs. The Tiger’s Wife
I'm going with The Tiger's Wife in this round. The Stranger's Child is at the bottom of the ToB-TBR pile. At least a few people I know gave it the thumbs down. I'll probably only read it if it advances.

Some people loved The Tiger's Wife, and although it wasn't perfect by any means, I didn't hate it. Interestingly, my reader friends at work felt the same ambivalence about it that I did, but I don't see that being a deal breaker. There are too many good things about it to see it go down in Round One.

Whew! I will finish up Part 2 of this in a few days...after finishing report cards!

Jenny's Book 3.12: Charlie Wilson's War


I've decided to read Charlie Wilson's War this month. If you'll remember, my plan this year is to tackle a non-fiction title every other month. This works out perfectly for March, because last year after gulping down all the Tournament books, I really needed a non-fiction palate cleanser.

I originally picked up this book at the neighborhood Powell's. I bought it new at the used bookstore for $4.95! Erik, a trustworthy source for non-fiction recommendations, was sure I would like it, so I was excited to find it for such a good price. And then it languished on the shelf for years. Even better---if I get tired of lugging around the actual book*,  I was able to borrow it from the Kindle lending library for free. I bet I read a lot of it on my Kindle--I really miss it. With the Subtext trials (1Q84 with you, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair with my friend Barb, and various books with kids), I'm sort of worn out with reading on my iPad.

I actually started to read Charlie Wilson's War just to make sure it would work, and it's the best kind of non-fiction: highly interesting and well-written. I think it will be a "fast" read once I really get into it. Even though it's long, I have 2 weeks of Spring Break at the end of the month, so I feel sure I will be able to finish it.

Have you seen the movie? I enjoyed it, it's a few years old now and stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. I'm already familiar with the story, and that always helps.


*What are we supposed to do these days to distinguish between actual, paper book items and their electronic counterparts. Ebook is so nice and easy.