Monday, February 20, 2017

Drain the Swamp

Leviathan – a thing that is very large.
Our government has become a leviathan; large, unwieldy, and wholly out of the control of the people it was designed to serve. It is partly the fault of we the people; as we look to the government to solve all of our problems where once we fended for ourselves. The other part of the problem is the self-serving nature of the people we have selected to represent us who have in turn chosen to represent and benefit only themselves. Two new books take on different sides of the same issue and offer a glimpse inside the beast and at some potential solutions.

Clean House: Exposing Our Government’s Secrets and Lies – Tom Fitton (Threshold Editions)

For nearly 20 years Tom Fitton has been at the helm of the government watchdog group Judicial Watch, easily one of the most successful and effective organizations with that charge. Fitton uses laser like focus as he recaps a wide array of cases and challenges that Judicial Watch has brought to bear on the Obama administration and it’s minions over their eight years in office.

Wielding the power of the legal brief, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the power of the judiciary branch, Fitton and company have almost singlehandedly unraveled the secret, hidden dealings of the Obama administration in the process they pried lose documents regarding; Benghazi, Obamacare, the IRS targeting conservative groups and perhaps most importantly Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Judicial Watch is responsible for digging out a veritable treasure trove of smoking guns that Congressional investigator and the mainstream media either missed or flat out refused to even look for. Fitton makes the straight forward case that that corruption was a way of life in the Obama White House.

Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It – Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman – (Bloomsbury)

The old clich√© is you “can’t judge a book by the cover” but full disclosure I will admit that I didn’t quite know what to expect when I delved into Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It by Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman. Given the pair’s bonafides which include the Huffington Post and something called the Center for Media and Democracy, along with the mention of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision I half expected a rambling liberal screed.

What I got was a cogent and detailed overview of how both sides of the aisle have let down the American people and almost without exception enriched themselves on the backs of us all. They focus on what they describe as the marriage of great wealth and greater power that leaves the country in the dust. While I agree with the high court’s decision in Citizens United and I think people should and do have the right to participate in the process of political campaigns, I have also witnessed the ridiculous power that has been accumulated by lobbying groups and organizations that defy not only the American public, but often common sense.

Potter and Penniman lay out the issues and in turn offer their suggestions for solutions to the problem. While they should be lauded for their efforts, I think that in many instances they fall a bit short of the mark of delivering on workable fixes. Nation on the Take is certainly a great starting point synopsis of the issues we face and acknowledging the problem is the starting point of finding a solution.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hide In Plain Sight

Winterlong: A Carter Blake Thriller – Mason Cross – (Pegasus Books)

Carter Blake had a pact with his former employer, borrowing a piece straight out to the Cold War and forming a bit of mutual assured destruction. Blake had the goods on them, in the form of electronic black book and to keep them secreted away, all they had to do was leave him alone.

Unfortunately for Blake the man he struck a deal with is no more and there is a new sheriff in town and the hunt/race is on. Winterlong the latest installment in Mason Cross’ Carter Blake series is one hellacious ride that tests every single one of Blake’s very particular set of skills.

The amazing thing is that while Blake has spent the last five years since departing the employ of Winterlong, basically off the grid, behind a new alias, but really in plain sight. He uses his skills as a tracker and a hunter to full effect as he races across country, dragging along his latest skip trace and trying hard not to get the guy he captured or himself killed in the process.

Working his wits to the end and making things up on the fly, Blake manages to find his way back to the “black book” a jump drive just chock full of secrets and dismantle more than a handful of his former co-corkers along the way. While I hate to make comparisons, Blake is a fine mix of Jack Reacher, the Equalizer, and Taken’s Bryan Mills. Cross continues to rachet things up to a new level with each outing.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Battle Now and Then

A trio of newly release books do an astounding job of capturing the intensity of war time action and the stories of the people in the battle. These books offering insight into the folks who believe in honor, duty and country and paint a vivid portrait of warriors in battle, now and then.

The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan – Gregg Zoroya – (Da Capo Press)

For those without a military background, a company is comprised of two platoons which you can break down into the number of squads and from there sections, but suffice to say it generally amounts to somewhere above 100 but below 250 military personnel.

That small number puts into perspective the story that award winning journalist Gregg Zoroya tells about - C Company, or Chosen Company, of the 2nd Battalion – “the Rock” – 503rd Parachute Infantry regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sky Soldiers Paratroopers; or simply the Chosen Few. Zoroya recounts the story of this band of brothers, who fought and died, side by side in the mountains of Afghanistan, in his new book, The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan.

Historians and journalist have penned many books about what Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation” those men who came from simple lives to the battlefields of World War II and left a sense that those kinds of men no longer walk among us. Zoroya makes the case that that assumption is entirely incorrect, that we indeed have a new generation of heroic men who fight to overcome the overwhelming odds that are thrown against them.

Is it the men or the situation they find themselves in the forge these heroes in the fire of battle? One cursory look at many of these guys would likely leave you doubtful, but when faced with the insurmountable odds of war they rise to the challenge for both themselves and the brother warriors at their sides.

At just seventeen, Ryan Pitts needed his mother’s signature to enlist in the Army, using the ploy of being a Forward Observer rather than being an infantryman to gain her approval. A few short years later, Pitts was on his second deployment in Afghanistan with the Chosen Few. Zoroya describes in chilling detail as Pitts, unable to walk, laced with shrapnel wounds to his arms and legs continued to fight as his position at a FOB (forward operating base) was overrun with a hoard of Taliban fighters. Pitts, propped up against a wall, convinced this would be his last stand continued to lob grenades and radio details back to his command. Zoroya describes the hopeless position, with no help forthcoming, as Pitts fought on. Finally with a pair of rescuers on the way, Pitts valiantly fought on.

As the Navy SEALs are fond of saying, there were no easy days for the Chosen Few as they faced nearly non-stop, daily battles; only to come out the other side as one of the most decorated military units in history, including; two medal of honor winners, Pitts being one.

The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Massacred in World War II – Denise George and Robert Child – (Caliber/NAL)

Given the current state of what is being called patriotic; a bunch of misfit protesters breaking windows and wearing stupid pink hats, it good to be reminded of what real patriots look like. That is the underlying, almost forgotten story, of a group of soldiers dubbed the Wereth Eleven.

Their story takes place during World War II and is recounted in The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Massacred in World War II, by Denise George and Robert Child. The Eleven, members of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, offering crucial support to Allied Forces at the Siege of Bastogne.

In the heat of battle, they managed to escape the devastation a sought refuge in the small Belgium village of Wereth. Taken in by an Allied sympathizer, a farmer who offered them shelter and food as the tried to recover from the ravages.

Later, ratted out by the farmer’s neighbor, these brave fighters were tortured and executed in a nearby field. Their murder was left out of the post tribunals that documented war crimes. It wasn’t until 7 decades after the war that files documenting their story were finally unsealed and their heroism was recognized.

Their stories are stitched together from interviews with family members and those files and the common thread was their willingness to serve, to protect this country even in the face of Jim Crow laws that limited or prevented them from enjoying all of the freedoms Americans enjoy. It is a sacrifice of the highest order, that deserves this long overdue recognition.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat – Giles Milton - (Picador)

So much has been written and filmed about the impact that Sir Winston Churchill has had during his tenure as Britain’s prime minister and his leadership during World War II and the ultimate defeat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, that it seems no stone was left unturned.

In what perhaps will be the last great story about Churchill and World War II comes Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat, by Giles Milton. Again the contrast then and now is absolutely striking. We live in a world in disarray, where our warriors are expected to live and fight within a set of rules of engagement when they take on sworn enemies bent on their destruction. It seems more than a little absurd to even say that.

Things like collateral damage and protecting lives were never the goals when Churchill stitched together a disparate collection of folks from a wide range of backgrounds and experience to build what amounts to a brain trust whose sole purpose for existence was the ungentlemanly arts of mayhem, destruction and death. I found myself smiling as Milton recounts the story of this rag tag band of folks who developed, honed and executed the dismantling of Hitler’s forces brick by brick and body by body.

While so many moving parts went into the eventual defeat of the Nazi forces, it cannot be underestimated the impact these mavericks and their contribution to the cause had in Hitler’s eventual downfall. Much like the Monuments Men, brought to the big screen the efforts of soldiers charged with recovering art and treasure plundered by the Nazis, I can see this tale making for a big screen epic.  


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Moving On…

Disaster Falls – A Family Story – Stephane Gerson (Crown Books)

Lines like “no parent should ever have to bury/mourn a child” have become clich√© when parents, all too often, lose a child. Much like the life of a child there is no instruction manual that comes with how to deal with losing a child.

While Stephane Gerson’s Disaster Falls certainly is not that instruction manual, it is a moving, raw testament of one family, the author’s family struggles with that difficult question. What would I do? What would you do? That is a question that is a natural response has you sift through the pages of this book. It is a question that I can honestly say I cannot answer and quite frankly don’t want to address, let alone think about.

Gerson works his way through how the family processed the grief, the varying perspectives; his own, his wife, his older son as the struggled with the loss of eight year old Owen due a a rafting accident on a family trip.

The story is introspective and at times profound as Gerson works through the layers of the family’s reaction to this tragic loss. He adds to that by working through his relationship with his own father. He offers up an interesting take on how we view death; his father’s passing as relief and his son’s as tragic.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Point of Purchase

The Underground Culinary Tour: How the New Metrics of Today’s Top Restaurants Are Transforming How America Eats – Damian Mogavero and Joseph D’Agnese (Crown Business)

While I didn’t research the hard statistics, anecdotally we know that there is a fairly high failure rate for new businesses and a multitude of reasons at the heart of those failures. We also know that whatever the failure rate for business is, restaurant failure rates are even higher.

As someone who has toyed with the idea of a restaurant and quickly thought better of it, I have always wondered what magic it was that made some succeed where others failed. Damian Mogavero a restaurant point of purchase software developer tries to offer some insight into what separates the winners from the losers in the restaurant game in his new book, The Underground Culinary Tour: How the New Metrics of Today’s Top Restaurants Are Transforming How America Eats.

While the restaurant game was a late adopter when it came to business metrics, Magavero offers up some insight into the impact these kinds of statistics can offer to improve outcomes. While the title implies that there are some much deeper tips and tricks of the trade offered up, but keep in mind this is a business book, not a restaurant book, so don’t expect successful chefs to offer up trade secrets.

The Underground Culinary Tour, had the kernel of a good idea, unfortunately it falls short and ends up reading like a sales pitch for Magavero’s software.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Winter Fiction Wows!

It seems that for me, fiction tends to run hot and cold; I run through streaks where I can’t seem to find anything to catch my attention and then I will hit a spate of books that have me working my way through a whole pile of books all at the same time. The way this winter season is going right now, it seems I have a book I am working through in just about every room in the house!

The Dry: A Novel – Jane Harper (Flatiron Books)

Before launching her career as a fiction writer Jane Harper spent more than a decade as a print journalist in the UK and Australia and it is the land down under that is the setting for Harper’s debut novel The Dry. Set in a small, rural, farming, town, it is a story that like many of its characters comes chalk full of baggage and storylines that crisscross the present with the past.

Kiewarra finds itself in the grip of the worst dry spell in decades and for a town whose main occupations involve some form of farming, tensions are ratcheted up to new highs when three members of a local family turn up dead. Murder/suicide? Certainly has the look and feel of it, but there is so much more to the story than meets the eye.

As the drought taken its toll in the form of bodies or is it all part of an unsolved mystery from the town’s past? Harper does a masterful job of weaving together the storyline that will keep you guessing, searching for answers to the final pages. 

The Girl Before – J P Delaney (Ballantine Books)

What is it about books with the word girl in the title? Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, certainly captured the attention of a lot of readers and later movie goers. Now we can add The Girl Before, to that list and this on serves up a double dose of mystery; not only is a great read, but the author, J P Delaney is a pseudonym for “a bestselling author of fiction under other names.” Hmm, names?!

Whoever is behind this psychological thriller and the nom de plume, has done a fantastic job of weaving the “now” and “then” storylines of women seeking new digs in the face of tragic circumstances. These women are confronted by a far from standard landlord lease questionnaire. More psychological profile, than a list of references from prior landlords. And oh what a landlord! The architect/owner is a mysterious character with an equally mysterious past.

The central character in this story is One Folgate Street, a minimalist architectural masterpiece, living here is supposed to change your life and oh boy does it. This one moves at a blistering pace, so fasten your seatbelt and hang on for the ride. It’s easy to see why Ron Howard was in early on buying the rights for this one for the big screen.

The Dark Room – Jonathan Moore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It is somehow satisfying and fitting that the word dark is in the title of Jonathan Moore’s latest outing, The Dark Room. There is an almost noir-like quality to the storyline of blackmail and betrayal that is at the heart of this storyline.
Moore uses a craftsman’s eye to building the story that has a throwback quality interwoven with a thoroughly modern setting. I can easily see Gavin Cain, the homicide detective sporting a wide lapeled suit with a loud necktie straight out of a fifties detective novel.

Moore opens with a casket being exhumed and that quickly becomes a metaphor for someone digging around in the deepest and darkest of long buried secrets trying to get to the bottom of not only blackmail but of the mystery surrounding it.

This one will also have you working hard to avoid paper cuts as you breeze through the pages.

Dying for Christmas – Tammy Cohen (Pegasus Books)

I admit it…I have always had a soft spot for Christmas based fiction. I thought Grisham’s Skipping Christmas was fun and Mary Higgins Clark’s shelf full of Christmas based mysteries were mostly entertaining. So I was predisposed to liking Tammy Cohen’s Dying for Christmas.

But I can’t say that I got exactly what I was looking for in this stocking full of twistedness. This one has more nuts than the proverbial Christmas fruitcake! Jessica Gold is a woman who has an oversized sack full of her own issues. Out to finish up Christmas shopping, Jessica falls prey to a charming stranger while stopping for a coffee break. From there it’s off to the full blown bacchanalia of the twelve days of twisted Christmas.

Cohen slips you a steady, heady dose of discomfort and no joy. There is something about great fiction that makes the reader feel just a little bit uncomfortable and in that Dying for Christmas does its job well. It’s got enough twists and turns that you won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Encyclopedia Bowie

The Complete David Bowie (Revised and Updated 2016) – Nicholas Pegg (Titan Books)

When you are a die-hard fan, you know the type, the ones with the desire to know everything there is to know about an artist, there is a completest need to know every single detail no matter how minute. If you have ever spent hours combing through liner notes or CD jackets looking for the odd stray fact, then you can probably relate.

If you are that kind of a fan of David Bowie, then can I recommend that you pick up a copy of Nicholas Pegg’s exhaustive, The Complete David Bowie. This revised and updated edition offers an encyclopedic history of everything Bowie. Pegg runs down not only the discography, albums, songs, etc, but also tackles Bowie’s live shows with a set-list from every Bowie show and goes so far as to detail the Thin White Duke’s acting career, his videos, his art and his internet presence.

One of my favorite stories from the book is Bowie’s interactions with Mott the Hoople, a band poised for destruction that Bowie offered a song which they passed on. Facing termination of their record deal, Bowie revisited Mott, got them signed with his manager and offered up All the Young Dudes, and the rest as they say is history.

Topping out at 800 pages(!)The Complete David Bowie, is information overload for any true Bowie fan. This doorstop of a book resists the urge to load up on graphics for such a visual artist, instead relying on detail after detail to tell the Bowie story.