Thursday, February 21, 2008

Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
February 20, 2008

After going through a devastating divorce, Elizabeth Gilbert takes a year long trip to Italy, India, and Bali – and rebuilds herself emotionally and spiritually. I’d say this is a chick flick, er… chick book. Roughly two thirds of the reviews quoted on Gilbert’s web site are by women. The book is full of emotional and spiritual crises and enlightenments, along with a constant undercurrent of romance.

And I loved it! Every page! Gilbert is a great traveler, and she has a quality I’ve seen in other travelers – she makes friends with ease. I’m envious! Her writing style is totally open and frank, with a nice undercurrent of humor. And now I feel like a friend too. May I call you Liz?

It’s clear Liz needed to do something radical to rebuild her life, and it seems her travel adventures were just the ticket.

Off we go to Italy. What would you do and see for four months in Italy? Liz has the discipline to stick to two things – learn to speak Italian, and eat Italian food. The language is beautiful and the food is delicious. Being Liz, of course she meets a lot of interesting people, but she has sworn off any serious relationships for this year of travel. Will she actually do it? It’s not looking good – the first chapter starts off with “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”

And then there is the food. Liz couldn’t stay away from the local gelato shop in Rome. One day she visited a pizzeria that serves the best pizza in Naples, and Naples has the best pizza in Italy, and Italy has the best pizza in the world! She eats the whole pizza. And orders another. By the end of four months Liz has gained twenty-three pounds. Oh well, she was too skinny when she arrived in Italy. And she won’t be eating as well in India…

Four months of this pleasure have helped Liz partially patch her life back together. But there is more to patch, and we’re off to India. She had met a Guru in New York, and she now will spend four months at her Ashram. She is immediately immersed in a life of meditation, chanting, and scrubbing floors – a difficult change of pace, but the very challenging discipline leads to some moments of enlightenment. “Where can I find a small corner of stillness?... God resides in these pockets of silence.” Liz makes new friends, again, that help in her search. At the end of four months she has reached a more spiritual level of peace and is less stressed over her divorce.

On to Bali. Liz had earlier met a medicine man in the town of Ubud, and she goes there to learn from him – learning some new meditations. She makes a lot of friends, of course, including another healer. And she gets involved in their lives. And meets some attractive men. And relaxes into some enjoyable relationships. This is four months of relaxation and happiness. Does Liz keep her commitment to refrain from serious relationships for the entire year?

This is a beautiful book. I loved the travel. And it was inspiring to watch Liz grow from a devastated divorcee to a happy, whole, more spiritually centered woman. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Joseph Weisberg: An Ordinary Spy

An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg is unlike any spy novel I’ve ever read. Since I like spy stories, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But actually, in this case, it works out.

The story is an intertwining narrative of two CIA case officers operating in the same foreign city separated by a few years. The protagonist is Mark Ruttenburg, a struggling new CIA employee. His predecessor is Bobby Goldstein, who was a rising star. There is nothing exotic in their jobs. They shared a mentor named William who pops up in odd ways through the narrative.

Unlike most spy stories, there is nothing exciting or glamorous going on here. The job of a case officer is to recruit agents. It’s a grindingly dull process that can result in very unimportant information, but tragic consequences for an exposed agent.

We watch Mark grinding through his days, accomplishing very little, but ultimately gaining some useful information. Unfortunately he breaks an unbreakable rule in the process. We watch Bobby going through the same grind, with more positive results, demonstrating his star qualities. But he also runs afoul of fundamental rules. We think that William brings the two together after their respective downfalls, but aren’t really sure, and don’t know why.

Joseph Weisberg is a former CIA agent, and submitted the manuscript for review. The book is published with words, phrases, paragraphs, and even a whole page blacked out, presumably by CIA censers. Any reference to the city or country the events take place in, or the nationalities of recruited agents, is blacked out. The same is true of any descriptions of field-craft. So we are left with a pretty choppy story. In some ways it feels like a book written partly in a foreign language, where we choose not to look up the parts we don’t understand. Instead we just piece things together from the parts we do understand.

If we view An Ordinary Spy as a classic spy story, it is too choppy, too unresolved, and falls short. If we view it as a novel exploring Mark Ruttenberg’s struggle with right and wrong, and how to live a meaningful life, the redacted chunks don’t matter. So the book is not so much an entertaining story, as a meaningful read.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stef Penney: The Tenderness of Wolves

I find myself wondering what the difference is between literary fiction, historical fiction, and a murder mystery. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney seems to be all three. Two things we don’t see a lot of are tenderness and wolves.

The story takes place in the 1860’s in the Canadian wilderness, north of Lake Huron. That’s a historical period. The protagonist, Mrs. Ross, finds the body of a local trader who had obviously been murdered. We don’t know who did it, so we’ve got a murder mystery. But the back-story of all the characters is introduced in a very piecemeal, out of sequence sort of way. It seems like an English professor would like that, so it must be literary. Overall, I’d say that we spend more time developing characters and their relationships than in spinning out the plot line. So I guess literary wins out. I suppose I could also have taken a hint from the fact that the book won a British literary award.

The book is written in first person singular when our protagonist, Mrs. Ross, is around. For the other main characters, we get a traditional third person narrative.

The book has everything it needs for a good plot. Francis Ross, the protagonist’s son is missing and wanted for questioning. William Parker, a half-breed trapper has been detained as a suspect, but ends up helping guide Mrs. Ross through the wilderness in search of her son. Donald Moody, an inexperienced clerk from the Company (Hudson Bay?), is also trekking through the wilderness with another guide trying to find Francis Ross. And an American trader with an anthropologic interest in the case is involved with another group trying to recapture William Parker. Then throw in the story of two girls who were captured by Indians years earlier, a religious commune deep in the wilderness, a missing treasure in furs, and a cold Canadian winter, and you have the makings of a really complicated story.

The Tenderness of Wolves is well written. The characters are well developed. The story ultimately pulls all its pieces together in a logically coherent way. But it’s not a fun spinning of the tale. Maybe it has too many pieces to just tell the story front to back. Maybe I just wasn’t feeling very sophisticated when I read it.

But probably the book isn’t about the story. It’s about a mother’s unconditional love. It’s about a confused teenager. It’s about a young man trying to prove himself in a new world. It’s about an older man trying to recapture lost honors. And it’s about a man trying to do what’s right, and to right past wrongs. There’s a good story in here, but Penney seems to have had a lot more important things to say.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Richard North Patterson: The Race

Richard North Patterson is known for his murder/lawyer stories with political overtones. I’ve always enjoyed them. In The Race he skips the murder and lawyers, sticking strictly to politics – a presidential election.

Corey Grace is a Republican Senator and war hero who tends toward the moderate wing of his party. He votes for what he believes is correct, regardless of what party leadership would prefer. To this point, that sounds like a current Republican candidate. But in this case, he is single and shakes up the Republican Right by dating a beautiful, liberal, African-American actress.

Half the principle opposition comes in the form of a more traditional Conservative Senator, Rob Marotta, who will say or do anything to get nominated. He is primarily pandering to the party right, and a Conservative media mogul. The other major candidate is the Evangelical Reverend Bob Christy. Finally throw in a few minor candidates collecting delegates for convention influence and things still sound a lot like our current election.

Campaign issues, and the story line, revolve around racism, the war on terror, abortion, gay rights, religion in politics, and media influence. Grace meets some level of success, largely because Marotta and Christy split the Conservative wing of the party. Marotta shows us how dirty politics can get, while Christy shows us how even philosophical opponents can treat one another with respect.

This is a novel, not a documentary, so some interesting things take place, with very dramatic timing. And Grace has some things in his past he would prefer to not talk about.

The Race is a good versus evil story, wrapped in a political cover. I like the characters, the intrigues, and the moral dilemmas. Patterson can tell a good story without killing anyone. Well, OK, without killing any main characters.

Monday, February 11, 2008

P.W. Atkins: The Periodic Kingdom

Anyone who assumes that a book about the periodic table of chemical elements would be boring seems pretty rational. But they also have probably not been exposed to The Science Masters Series.

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements by P.W. Atkins is from that series. It is a delightful little book (149 pages) written by an expert, for non-chemists. Not only does Atkins explain why the periodic table is arranged the way it is, he explains why the elements act with one another the way they do. And while he is at it, he describes some history of how different elements were discovered. We learn about electrical charges and sharing electrons. We learn why some elements join into useful molecules and others seem to avoid each other.

I recently re-read this book when my daughter started asking me some questions from her college chemistry class. Although I never took chemistry in college, I am after all, a father, and expected to know a multitude of things. Atkins helped me appear more knowledgeable than I really am. What more can you ask of an author?

So The Periodic Kingdom is an easy read, and can teach you something. I like that. In fact, I’ve enjoyed anything I’ve read from The Science Masters Series.

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 13, 2008

I was browsing Nate’s blog a few weeks ago, and I came across his review of The Periodic Kingdom, by P. W. Atkins. In contrast to Nate, I did take chemistry, both in high school and college, but as with many other things in life, I don’t remember much of it. There is something about forming molecules with electron-related chemical bonds that works in a very rational way, but I couldn’t remember the details.

So I went out to Amazon and bought a used copy of The Periodic Kingdom for $0.33 plus shipping (no risk there!), and I put the book high on my read list – and now I’ve read it.

This book is all I hoped for! I now recall the Periodic Table of the Elements, I understand something about the shells of electrons around the atomic cores, I understand how incomplete shells leave atoms ready to acquire or give up a few electrons, and that leads to a rudimentary understanding of how molecules are formed. And the history of how we got to this understanding is interesting too.

Hmm. Am I being nerdy here or what? I really found it interesting to refresh my understanding of this basic foundation of chemistry. The book served its purpose well, but I do have a couple critiques.

Atkins, a well-respected chemistry author, builds the book around a simple analogy. The Periodic Table of the Elements is referred to, obviously, as a kingdom. The kingdom has many regions, each corresponding to an element. As the narrative unfolds the kingdom and regions are treated as geographical locales, with eastern and western shores and varying elevations. Using this imaginary physical world, Atkins maps out a number of atomic properties such as atomic number, atomic weight, and size of atoms, where increasing and decreasing trends are shown with varying elevations for the regions. However…

As I read the book I frequently wondered if the analogy was useful. Could I not learn just as easily if Atkins called “regions” “elements” and “kingdom” “table”? I don’t know, but I won’t complain much, after all I did learn what I hoped to learn.

My other critique comes in the latter part of the book. After giving us the needed background, Atkins proceeds to describe the allocation of increasing numbers of electrons to s-, p-, d-, and f-orbitals as the atomic number of an element increases, something that is influenced by certain quantum effects. But as we move up the table, the order of filling orbitals gets confusing. I think Atkins could have taken us a little deeper into the quantum mechanics controlling all this. On the other hand, it’s obvious that a short book is not going to introduce us to all the complexities of such an important concept as the periodic table. I accepted the orbital assignments as described and moved on to improve my understanding of chemical bonds.

This book worked well for me, a good (if nerdy) read!

Ken Follett: World Without End

Fourteenth century England is not a gentle time. The word of the master is absolute law. Corporal and capital punishment is routine for the smallest infractions. And failure to pay debts, especially to the local lord, is unforgivable. Dangers abound in lawlessness, accidents, and illness. Most health issues are fatal, because medicine is based in dogma, not science.

Ken Follett’s World Without End tells a wonderful story of the times. The story takes place in the same town, centered around the same cathedral that centered in his earlier novel, The Pillars of the Earth. Only we are two centuries later. But ultimately the theme is similar. Good people, dedicated to their dreams, honest in their dealings, can prevail against all odds and in terrible times. (Although I do need to re-read The Pillars of the Earth to remember and enjoy the details.)

We meet four children at the beginning, whose interwoven adult stories make up the rest of the book. Gwenda is the daughter of a poor family, just being launched on the dangerous career as a thief. But she also learns that there is a better path. Caris is the daughter of a leading wool merchant, and has dreams of being a doctor. But she learns that only men – clergy – are allowed to be doctors. Merthin, the son of a poor knight has dreams of martial glory, but although he is exceedingly smart, he is small. His bother Ralph on the other hand isn’t all that bright, but he is big and strong. Much to Merthin’s dismay, and Ralph’s delight, the local Lord, Earl Roland, takes Ralph on as a squire, and orders Merthin to be apprenticed to a builder. Merthin doesn’t know it, but anyone who has read The Pillars of the Earth knows that being a builder is the key to success in a medieval Follett novel.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to say that Merthin and Caris fall in love, but encounter countless obstacles to being together. Despite unjust treatment, Merthin perseveres to become a great builder. And also despite the obstacles, Caris becomes a great healer. Ralph becomes a brute, and Gwenda pursues an impossible love. Throw in war, plague, political intrigue, and economic disaster, and you get a sense of the context of the book.

World Without End really is a great read. The supporting cast is wonderful, full of loveable and despicable characters. The color of the time shines through. But overriding it all is the glory of the human spirit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Tony Hillerman: Skeleton Man

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
February 4, 2008

My wife Sue and I have enjoyed reading Tony Hillerman novels for years. I just now counted 15 of his books on our bookshelves. Skeleton Man continues Tony Hillerman’s genre of mysteries set in the desert southwest, although this time not on the Navaho reservation.

We meet again the “legendary” Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, now retired, and the younger Sergeant Jim Chee, still not married. As usual, Joe can’t sit back and act retired, and he gets involved in this mystery, although pretty much as an observer on the sidelines. And Jim has almost as many doubts about marrying his current girlfriend, Bernie Manuelito, as he has had over his other girlfriends in the earlier novels.

The story builds from the crash of two airliners over the Grand Canyon 50 years ago, in which all die, including John Clarke, the father of yet-to-be-born Joanna Craig. Apparently John was carrying a case of diamonds, and 50 years later a local Hopi named Billy Tuve shows up with a valuable diamond. This stirs up a lot of interest with local law enforcement, and it also brings Joanna to the area, as well as Bradford Chandler, a shady guy from back east. Joanna doesn’t care much about the diamonds, but she desperately wants to find remains of her father. Chandler has an assignment to keep Joanna from succeeding, but actually he’s a lot more interested in the diamonds.

The story starts off introducing all the characters and setting up their relationships. Eventually, when the action starts, all the characters head for the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the mystery reaches its climax.

As in all Tony Hillerman’s novels, it’s interesting to learn about the culture and geography of the locale. In this book we get a nice trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Many of Hillerman’s novels reach the climax of the mystery in synchronization with a major weather event. This book is no exception, and a thunderstorm plays a key role in the action.

I think Hillerman’s mysteries follow a common formula a bit too closely. Joe Leaphorn always applies his deductive reasoning skills to get some good insights into the case, although he didn’t shine quite so much this time. Jim Chee has less imagination, but he does the hard legwork and stays in the center of the adventure. And he always agonizes over his relationship with his current girlfriend. Will he actually marry Bernie this time? Meanwhile, the bad guys are always greedy, and that generally leads to their downfall as the story comes to its climax.

In summary, Skeleton Man is a fun read, but it’s not my favorite of Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee novels. The characters didn’t develop or evolve as much as sometimes. And I got a little confused about how they all ended up at the bottom of the Grand Canyon without seeing each other on the way down. But I had fun reading it aloud to Sue over several evenings. (I wish I could do Native American accents better!)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rick Atkinson: The Day of Battle

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943 - 1944 by Rick Atkinson is the second volume in the Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army at Dawn dealt with the North Africa campaign. This volume covers the invasions of Sicily and Italy, through the capture of Rome.

The book starts with the strategic discussions of what to do with all these troops that just finished conquering North Africa. The Americans were all for invading France across the channel, while the British were wanting to keep the war in the Mediterranean. The Americans suspected that the British placed higher priority on protecting their worldwide empire than on defeating Hitler. And American leaders were not interested in expending American lives to protect the empire.

The invasion of Sicily in July, 1943 was very poorly executed. Only the greater incompetence of the Italian troops gave the Allies their chance to establish themselves. As German troops reached the front the battle of Allied egos became dominant. Hard as it is to imagine, the British Bernard Montgomery may have had a larger ego than the American George Patton. Military decisions seemed to be made more on the basis of who would get the credit than on how to best defeat the Germans. Patton on the other hand had the greater ruthlessness – with less regard for the welfare of his troops – and so won the race to Messina.

A seldom told story from the invasion of Sicily is that of the paratroopers from the 82d Airborne trying to reinforce the beachhead on the 3rd day. At this point there was no need for a night drop, but that was the plan so that’s what they did. But no one got the word out to the navy or the shore anti-aircraft batteries. When the planes showed up, the Allies opened fire. Formations scattered with some making it back to Africa with their loads intact. Twenty-four of 144 transport plans were shot down. Many more troops were machine gunned as the descended in their parachutes. The Americans lost 410 of the 2,300 troops that set out. All in a mission that was not needed. I always heard that sticking to a plan when conditions have changed was worse than not planning at all. This incident is a case study of that point.

Montgomery’s troops crossed to the toe of the Italian boot and started taking their time moving North. With no apparent progress or sense of urgency from Montgomery, the allies decided on another amphibious assault. In September, 1943 they picked Salerno because it was as far north as they could go and still have air cover from Sicily. They got lucky with a relatively unopposed landing. The Allied success was aided by the negotiated Italian withdrawal from the war just before the invasion. The Germans had not fully redeployed to oppose the landings.

But the advance stalled in the mountains south of Rome. Rather than a war of maneuver that is so characteristic of World War II, the armies settled into a dug in World War I style fight of attrition. Casualties were horrible on both sides, again to virtually no purpose.

With the stalemate in the mountains, the Allies again decided on an amphibious assault, this time at Anzio in January, 1944. By this point planning and buildup for the Normandy invasion were well underway. So the Anzio invasion was sized by what was available, not by what was necessary. Again, pride and arrogance seemed to weigh more than military judgment. One more time the Allies were lucky in the landing, as the Germans were not expecting them. But planned advances stalled. The beachhead was unable to expand southward to hook up with the Allied forces stalled in the mountains.

Finally in May, 1944 the Allies won the war of attrition and broke through German lines both in the mountains and at Anzio. But in a final demonstration of pride versus strategy, the American General Mark Clark violated orders and swung his forces to capture Rome rather than cut off the German retreat. He reaped the glory, but maintains a controversial reputation for allowing the Germans to escape. Of course there is a good chance the Germans would have escaped anyway. But capturing Rome had no effect on the outcome of the war. An certainly the question of whether British or American forces entered the city first was irrelevant to the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Rick Atkinson paints a picture of an unnecessary and costly campaign in Sicily and Italy. I think it would be easy to argue that the capture of Sicily relieved pressure on Allied shipping through the Mediterranean, perhaps helping the war effort. And perhaps the Allies learned enough from three more amphibious assaults in Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio to contribute to the success of the Normandy invasion. But it is hard to see any true justification for the cost in lives and material of the campaign to capture Rome.

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
February 1, 2008

“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, all one thousand one hundred and sixty eight pages of it. It was quite an experience.

Ayn Rand has a very strong and comprehensive philosophy that describes the perfect man and how he operates in an industrial society, and this book exemplifies her philosophy through its characters and their actions. These characters fall into three categories, set in American industry in the 1940s and 1950s. There are the competent industrialists, who build factories, face problems, and solve every problem with their own brains and initiative. Then there are the rest of the industrialists, who build factories, try to run them, and blame all their failures on someone else. (I called them the whiners as I was reading the book.) And finally, there are the government officials, who think the only way to solve problems is to institute more regulations and controls—generally to the pleasure of the incompetents and the horror of the competent industrialists.

The book portrays the changes in American industrial society as the three factions play out their roles. Over time the government exerts increasing control, the industrialists are increasingly frustrated and forced to react, and the population begins to suffer.

Well that’s the story, but Atlas Shrugged is really about the characters, their philosophies and anxieties, and how they gradually come around to the “right” (Ayn Rand’s) way of thinking about their roles in society. A key character is Dagny Taggart, who runs the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad with her brother James. Dagny overcomes all obstacles—many of them put in place by government edicts—to keep the railroad running. She faces a dilemma: As she overcomes the obstacles, her success helps society, which gives more power to the government, and the government can then install more obstacles. It comes down to a values trade-off between government altruism (supporting the needy) and corporate selfishness (rewarding the successful).

I will hold off getting any deeper into Ayn Rand’s philosophy, since the philosophy and story line unfold together through the dialogs and thinking of the characters. I found these character developments to be quite tedious at first, but as I gradually grew into Ayn Rand’s world, I learned to enjoy it. (I have to admit, though, that I had some trouble making it through a sixty-one page speech near the end of the book, in which the entire philosophy was laid out in detail.) Following is a randomly selected excerpt (p. 144):

“Moving aimlessly through the crowd, Dagny wondered why she had accepted the invitation to this party. The answer astonished her: it was because she had wanted to see Hank Rearden. Watching him in the crowd, she realized the contrast for the first time. The faces of the others looked like aggregates of interchangeable features, every face oozing to blend into the anonymity of resembling all, and all looking as if they were melting. Rearden’s face, with the sharp planes, the pale blue eyes, the ash-blond hair, had the firmness of ice; the uncompromising clarity of its lines made it look, among the others, as if he were moving through a fog, hit by a ray of light.”

Needless to say, Rearden is one of the good guys, the men with strong goals and the ability to achieve them. The rest of the book is like this passage. No action takes place without detailed introspective analysis by the characters involved.

Atlas Shrugged was sometimes difficult to read, and it strongly espouses philosophies that only a Libertarian might be comfortable with (and they tried but couldn’t get along with Ayn Rand). The book challenged all of my existing thoughts about industry and politics, giving me a lot to ponder. It was well worth reading.