Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gore Vidal: Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
November 23, 2008

Over the years I’ve been attracted to books on the formation of our nation and biographies of the leaders who did it. I’ve been intriqued by that period in our history when a few dedicated people were able to do such apparently great things. Given what I’ve seen of national-level leaders and politicians over the last few decades, it seems almost miraculous that a group of intelligent and well-intentioned men were available at the time our budding nation most needed them. So when I saw Inventing a Nation on the table at Costco a few years ago, I had to take it home. It looked like a book I’d want to read.

The book sat on my to-be-read shelf for a while, and eventually I started it. I got through 75 pages and found myself confused and bored. Perhaps it’s because I often read myself to sleep at night, and this book is too highbrow to be read that way. So I lost interest and set the book aside…until I picked it up again a couple weeks ago, this time committed to finishing it. I started over on page one.

Well, this is not a history book, at least not what I expected. It’s a 189 page rambling essay on our founding fathers, focused on the presidencies of Washington and Adams. It describes the aspirations and relationships of a dozen or so prominent men of that period, including Hamilton, Madison, and Marshall. Through the narrative we learn of their conflicting convictions, which led to the formation of political parties—concurrent with the birth of our constitutional government. The Federalists (led by Hamilton) wanted an expansive central government and were pretty much ready for war with whoever seemed aggressive at the moment—France, England, Spain. (You can always make more heroes and money during a time of war.) The Republicans (led by Jefferson) focused more on holding the central government to the constraints of the Constitution and protecting citizens’ rights. A key conflict arose after the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by the Federalists. The Republicans saw that as violating the first amendment right of free speech, and they fought to overturn it.

This was indeed a period of exploring and inventing. How does the chief executive relate to the houses of Congress? How does the Supreme Court relate to the other two branches? The Constitution says who declares wars, but how does it really work? Vidal gives us a view into the personalities and relationships of the men feeling their way into a new realm. For the most part I found his descriptions to be not very complimentary, although he was more forgiving of Washington’s faults.

Throughout the book Vidal injects comparisons to government and politics in the twenty-first century. Today’s Republicans are sort of like the Federalists, and today’s Democrats like the early Republicans. Our founding fathers seemed to be working to their own agendas, gathering support behind the scenes, and sometimes acting duplicitously. Hamilton, for example, tried to lead President Adams’ cabinet to war with France, while Adams found other means to thwart Hamilton. Vidal implies things haven’t changed much today.

Inventing a Nation was a little hard for me to read, even when I was wide-awake. Vidal rambles a lot, although he sticks more or less to the timeline of the first twelve years of our Constitution-based government. There are a lot of backwards references to what I had read already, but maybe forgot. And I needed to have (but didn’t) a dictionary by my side as I read the book.

Did I get what I expected out of Inventing a Nation? Vidal portrays our earliest politicians as not a lot different than today’s leaders. Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years. Perhaps the true success was the work of a few truly altruistic leaders—Jefferson, Franklin, others—who set the stage for the Constitution and our new government. But that’s not what this book was about. It was the story of a bunch of very human men figuring out how to get our nation rolling. I guess they succeeded.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alan Siporin: Fire's Edge

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
November 16, 2008

Hannah is a middle-aged white school teacher, who happens to be Jewish. Fil is some sort of investigative researcher, who happens to be black. Billy (“The Kid”) is a teenager, a Nazi skinhead who hates everyone, including his friends. These three meet by chance in a Portland, Oregon courthouse, and the encounter would have led to violence if there weren’t so many police around. The story line, such as it is, develops in Portland and moves to the Cascade foothills of southern Oregon. But Fire’s Edge is less a story than a book about hate crime and its perpetrators and victims.

And that made it hard to read. Every time I turned a page, I was worried something awful was going to happen. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.

The book paints an ugly picture of the living conditions and attitudes of a class of people who have very little in life beyond an automatic hatred for everyone who isn’t just like themselves. Animosity and violence could erupt from any encounter—no matter how trivial and innocent. Billy is one scary kid, with no ability to control his emotions, and with a street fighting capacity greater than most of the tough adults in his world.

Hannah, on the other hand, is a good middle class citizen, a good schoolteacher, and a lover of the outdoors. Oregon suits her. Fil is a Eugene counter-culture sort of guy who is investigating Nazi hate groups and their activities. These are nice people, but how will they fare as the story line moves to rural Oregon?

Well, things happen, good and bad. I’m not sure what Siporin had in mind with his choice of “Fire’s Edge” for a title, but to me it fits. These people and their friends are unintentionally living on an edge. Some are leading comfortable and constructive lives, and some are leading pretty bad lives, but things can change for any of them without much warning. That edge tension made this book unsettling and hard for me to read.

Why, then, did I read it? Alan Siporin is another of the authors I met a year ago at the Eugene Library Authors and Artists benefit fair. We chatted about the problems of hate crime in the Pacific Northwest, and I bought the book. I felt I should learn more about this aspect of the community I live in. Thank goodness it doesn’t seem to come too close to home. We have quite a variety of types of neighbors in our rural Oregon locale, but every one of them seems pretty friendly. I’m not too worried. But I’m not black, Jewish, gay, disabled, female, elderly, or foreign in any way. And I’ve got a shotgun, assault rifle, and three handguns stashed around the house. (At least that’s what I hope the bad guys think.)

David Baldacci: Divine Justice

I started David Baldacci’s Divine Justice, and six pages into it I felt like I was missing important background. Well, duh! It picks it seconds after Stone Cold ends. We literally start with the first breath Oliver Stone takes following the end of the last book. So it’s going to be hard to say very much without spoiling the last book. I went back and re-read the whole series from the beginning.

I think it is fair to say that Oliver Stone has problems – perhaps more than even he can handle. But he does not want to drag his friends down with him, so he leaves the Camel Club behind and goes on the run by himself. Ultimately he ends up in the small coal-mining town of Divine, Virginia. (Hence the title of the book.) He gets involved with some interesting characters in Divine, and discovers that something sinister seems to be going on. He is drawn into the mystery and the corresponding dangers.

Baldacci excels at intertwining multiple story lines. So we meet Joe Knox, an expert at finding people for the government. He is tasked to find Oliver, but is pretty sure that when he does, General Macklin Hayes will send in a new team that will not bring Oliver to trial. And Hayes is so ruthless, Knox is more afraid of him than he is of the man he is tracking.

Oliver’s friends in the Camel Club are determined to help, regardless of his wishes. They don’t know how to find him, so instead they start to follow Joe Knox. Annabelle pulls off some delightful little scams, Reuben is his normal big, intimidating self, and Caleb shows some surprising talent as a wheel man. Everyone is pretty sure that Oliver has committed some serious crimes. Most of his friends don’t care, but Alex Ford is torn between his friendship and his sworn duties as a law officer (Secret Service).

As always, Baldacci’s multiple story lines mesh well. His new characters are either good fits with the Camel Club, or really nasty folks. His returning characters continue to develop in rational and satisfying ways.

Divine Justice is a delightful continuation (maybe conclusion) of the Oliver Stone series. I just loved it. Baldacci has done a really good job ending each volume at a clean and satisfying point. So you can stop reading at any point. (Why would you want to?) But the books do not start cleanly. So for heaven’s sakes, start at the beginning! Otherwise you will never really know who all these people are, and what’s going on.

David Baldacci: Stone Cold - Again

I read (and reviewed - Stone Cold by David Baldacci when it first came out. I enjoyed it, but I can’t believe I read it without first re-reading The Collectors. Big mistake! Stone Cold picks up a few days after The Collectors leaves off.

We meet Harry Finn, a really fascinating character. He is a doting father and husband who tries to never miss a school or sports event with his kids. His career involves elaborate, and successful penetration tests on contract to Homeland Security. And in the rest of his free time he is killing former CIA operatives.

Carter Gray was a pretty unsavory character in The Camel Club, but Oliver Stone dealt with him. Gray sees an opportunity to salvage his political/power career in this third book. In doing so, he makes life difficult for Oliver and his friends.

As I said in my first review Annabelle Conroy is back with her nemesis on her trail. Baldacci does a good job intertwining her problems with Oliver’s. In doing so, he brings the Secret Service agent, Alex Ford back into the story.

I think I may have enjoyed Stone Cold on the re-read more than the first read. I’m sure that’s because I had the continuing story clearly in mind.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

David Baldacci: The Collectors

The Collectors by David Baldacci is the second Oliver Stone novel. He is still the leader of the Camel Club, a group of conspiracy theorists. And they are all still about as quirky as before. This book includes memories back to the first book, The Camel Club. Those memories add richness to the characters, but are not critical to the plot. So it would be OK to read this book without first reading The Camel Club. On the other hand, why not start at the beginning?

In The Collectors we get to know Caleb Shaw much better. A lot of the plot takes place at the Library of Congress, where Caleb works in the Rare Books reading room. Jonathon DeHaven is (or was) the Director of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, and Caleb’s boss. Caleb finds his body in one of the vaults, and the story is on. As a book lover, I enjoy seeing the Library of Congress worked into a thriller. As the son of a librarian, I’m pleased to say that no rare books are seriously damaged in the development of the plot.

A parallel story line introduces a new character, Annabelle Conroy. She is an expert con artist setting up “two shorts and a long”. We watch as she recruits a team, and runs two short cons to raise funds for a big score. The target of the long con is Jerry Bagger, the extremely dangerous and nasty owner of an Atlantic City casino. Annabelle is trying to take Bagger for enough money to hurt. But what she really wants is revenge for Bagger’s killing her mother years ago.

The con artist story is a great story. Then it gets better as Baldacci draws Annabelle into the Oliver Stone story, as US secrets are being sold, and bodies are dropping. It is interesting to see how much Annabelle and Oliver have in common, one as a con artist, one as a former government operative. They keep impressing one another, but are also reluctant to reveal their pasts.

Alex Ford, Oliver’s Secret Service friend comes back for a small, but critical role in this story. Baldacci spins a complex plot for Oliver and his friends to navigate, or perhaps more accurately, to try to survive.

The Collectors comes to a solid, satisfying conclusion to the main plot lines. In other words, we are not left dangling waiting for the next volume. So the book can stand on it’s own. But there is still an unresolved issue. As it turns out, it is prominent in the next book, Stone Cold.

I had planned to take a break from Oliver and his friends by reading new ones from Le Carré and Silva, but I can’t.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

David Baldacci: The Camel Club

I got six pages into David Baldacci’s latest Oliver Stone novel – Divine Justice. But I just felt that I was missing something. It seemed to be assuming that I should remember information from the previous episode (Stone Cold). So I backed off and decided to reread from the start.

Oliver Stone and his friends are introduced in The Camel Club. They are four friends who believe in government conspiracies, and believe that citizen vigilance can make a difference, and joined together as the Camel Club to watch. Oliver Stone has a permanent protest permit, and has maintained a tent in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. He has been there long enough for the Secret Service to consider him essentially harmless. Agent Alex Ford has even gone so far as to enjoy playing chess with him.

Oliver has a hidden past under a different name. In that past he was very good at things he no longer believes in. That past help fuel his distrust of the government.

The basic premise of the book is that even conspiracy theorists can occasionally stumble across a real conspiracy. In this case, The Camel Club accidentally witnesses a murder that is intended to look like a suicide. Unfortunately for them, the killers know they’ve been seen. All the members of the club are quirky, and realize no one will believe them – except of course the killers that are now searching for them. Oliver leads them on the aggressive path of trying to uncover the killers, rather than simply trying to hide.

The dead man had a loose connection to the Secret Service, so Alex Ford gets involved in the investigation, although he is inclined to believe the suicide findings. Oliver gets him wondering if there is more.

As the story unfolds the murder leads to a much larger conspiracy involving high levels of America’s anti-terrorism forces. And we learn more about Oliver’s past. His old skills become critical in unraveling the conspiracy, and in keeping the club members alive.

Some books with the same characters are unabashed sequels in a series – like Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle or John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy. Others can be pretty stand-alone, like Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories. But others, like Rowling’s Harry Potter books, depend on the characters and backgrounds evolving across the volumes. The Oliver Stone books fall into thins last category. I like any of these approaches, but I do not like picking up a book when I never knew, or have forgotten the back story.

I like Baldacci’s stories and characters well enough that I do not object to his continuing the story line. But that’s largely because I have read them from the beginning. And as I’ve just confirmed with The Camel Club, I still like them on the re-read.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Katherine Neville: The Fire

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Fire by Katherine Neville since hearing that she was writing a sequel to The Eight. In preparation, I re-read The Eight ( ), and I think I’m glad I did. In the sequel we don’t get a lot of background on the Montglane Service or The Game, but both are important to the story. Again we have two intertwined narratives, taking place in 2003 and the 1820s.

It’s hard to say too much about The Fire without revealing tidbits from The Eight. I’ll try to limit the damage, but some points are too fundamental to the sequel. So, if you have not read The Eight and plan to ---- STOP!

Alexadra Solarin is the daughter of Catherine Velis and Alexander Solarin, key players from the first book. (And you now know they get together by the end of the first book.) Alexandra is invited to her mother’s birthday party, along with a surprising list of other characters. All seem to have a role in a new awakening of The Game. Most surprising is having a party at all. Catherine Velis’ birthdate figured prominently in her participation in The Game, and so she has refused to acknowledge it in any way. Anther surprise is that when Alexandra and the guests arrive, Cathering Velis has disappeared.

Back to 1822, Kauri and Haidée are entrusted with smuggling one of the chess pieces out of Albania, just before Ali Pasha is crushed by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Just how this piece came to be in Islamic hands after being hidden in Monglane Abbey for a thousand years is unclear. Kauri and Haidée are captured by corsairs before they can deliver the piece to Haidée’s natural father, the British Poet, Lord Byron. Charlot (Mireille’s son from The Eight) joins the adventure in rescuing Haidée and the chess piece.

Meanwhile, back in the twentieth century, Alexandra returns to her job tending fire at a fancy restaurant in Washington, DC. Suddenly, it appears that her boss, the Basque nationalist, Rodo, is also involved in the maneuverings. It turns out to by significant that Monglane Abbey, located in the Pyrenees, was located in the French portion of the Basque homeland.

In The Eight we sometimes had trouble telling who was on the White team, and who was on the Black team. But White was bad, and Black was good. In The Fire, we still have trouble telling who is White and who is Black, but good guys and bad guys seem to be intermingled between the teams. What’s that all about?

The Eight bounced between the 1790s and the 1970s. But by the end of the book, there did not appear to be any secrets from the 1790s that were not know to Catherine Velis in the 1970s. But The Fire introduces information from the 1820s that is only resolved in 2003. I kept feeling that the 1820s information really should have been included in the resolution of The Eight. It just felt inconsistent to me.

It took three readings of The Eight before I finally started feeling that everything made some sense. After one reading, I do not feel that everything makes sense in The Fire. I was actually disappointed. I didn’t think the pieces fit together well, and I did not think the conclusion concluded well.