Saturday, December 31, 2016

Saddam and the Keystone Cops

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein – John Nixon (Blue Rider Press)

The United States, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was founded in 1947; since that time they have had a history dotted with major failures and misses. Things ranging from the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks are some of the highest profile fails.

So I guess I was wasn’t too surprised when reading former CIA analyst John Nixon’s account of his time questioning captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, that the CIA comes off like the Keystone Cops. Nixon details the internal squabbles, the ill-prepared nature of their questioning of Hussein and what amounts to an utter failure to gain much in the way of valuable insights from the tyrant.

Nixon spends much of his time point fingers at CIA director George Tenet, the George W. Bush administration and his take on ranging from the intel leading up to the war in Iraq, his belief the waterboarding and other stress based interrogation techniques don’t produce results and the high cost of the war. This from a so-called “Saddam expert” who was an analyst, not a field officer partaking in enhanced interrogations, who apparently didn’t have a prepared list of questions at the ready in the event of a Saddam capture.

An example of how unprepared Nixon and his cohorts where to interrogate Saddam was showcased when Nixon recounts how he was introduced by his boss (“Mr. Jack”) in Iraq as “Mr. Steve” but then during a later session Hussein spotted Nixon’s Coalition ID badge hanging around his neck and demanded “who are you?!” An amateur mistake at best.

Liberals will gravitate towards this book because in reinforces their beliefs about the wasted cost of the war and the George W Bush administration. Any clear headed examination however reveals this to be a jumbled mess of crossed timelines, ill-prepared career employees and a real indictment of how the Congress and it’s often ax grinding oversight has truly hamstrung and crippled the U.S. intelligence services since the mid-1970s when the so-called Church Committee, led by Senator Frank Church (D-ID) clamped down on the tools available to the CIA to actually do their job. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kitchen Consequential

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line – Eric Ripert - Read by Peter Ganim (Random House Audio Books)

Aside from the occasional Julia Child, My Life in France, it is rare for even a so-called “celebrity chef” to become known for their biography. Traditionally chef’s sold collections of recipes dubbed cookbooks. Then along came Anthony Bourdain and his book Kitchen Confidential, a mix of tell all and inside stories from the kitchen and the celebrity chef world was set on its collective ear and soon everybody wanted to serve up a chef bio.

One that fits that mode is the multi-award winning, executive chef at the renowned New York restaurant Le Bernadine, Eric Ripert and his bio 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line. Ripert delivers and emotional, tale of lonely childhood and memories of the role food played in his life to the transition to making food/cooking his life’s pursuit.

For this audiobook version of the book, read by Peter Ganim, the story remains and times raw and moving, but may lose a bit of its original impact by not being told in the author’s voice. In the like all great biographical books, it is the story that separates 32 Yolks from the rest of the chef bio pack; it is a truly engaging and entertaining tale that offers insight into not only the food world but into one it’s great masters

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Go To Guide to Life

Tools of Titans: the Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World Class Performers – Tim Ferriss (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

To put things in the proper perspective; while I am familiar with Tim Ferriss based on articles and reviews regarding his prior books and his podcast, I have not read his previous books and have never listened to the podcast. So you can say that I bring a different perspective to the table than the average raving fan or Ferriss-head when it comes to my thoughts on this book.

That being said and knowing I put a premium on usefulness when it comes to business and personal development books; I found Tools of Titans: the Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World Class Performers to be a highly engaging and useful toolbox of tactics and a collection of ideas that caused me to learn more about the people Ferriss interacts with on the podcast.

Folks familiar with Ferriss’ work may find this to be kind of like a greatest hits CD from a favorite band; familiar territory repackaged and re-released. I found it a great entry point for delving into his thoughts and it allowed me to wade into the podcast for areas that I was most interested in, rather than having to go at it in stops and starts, I could cut to the chase.

This is a true reference book; if you think by reading these brief segments that you will have all of the answers, or even some of the answers, you will be sadly disappointed. If you are looking for a starting point for a massive array of topics, this is a book for you; perfect to whet your appetite and build upon.

A great example is, I had read Jocko Willink’s book Extreme Ownership, and garnered some knowledge and insight into his approach, but with a brief piece from Ferriss, I became engaged enough to seek out not on his podcast with Willink, but moved over to Jocko podcast to delve even deeper. This is very useful stuff.

Topping out at over 700 pages, some may find this book a bit overwhelming and the fluid approach to organization may throw some off, but I liked the ability to bounce around and be selective in what interested me most and then move on from there. Ferriss also does an nice job of trying to draw together similarities and ties between the thought processes of many of the folks profiled in the book. This one is HIGHLY useful and certainly can find a place on your go to shelf.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Setting the Table for the Second Act

The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act – Alex Prud’Homme (Author/Reader)(Random House Audiobooks)

Author and reader Alex Prud’homme is the great-nephew of Julia Child and co-authored her book, My Life in France and is now back with the follow up installment of her life story, The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act.

It is clear from the writing that Prud’homme has an intimate first-hand knowledge of the subject matter and has spent hours interviewing Child and combing through her voluminous notes, writing, correspondence and other ephemera.

While I tend to lean more towards reading book books rather than biographies of chefs, it is hard not to be attracted to Child’s story which has been well chronicled on a number of occasions and in a variety of formats. Prud’homme does a nice job of delivering that story for the audiobook form of this story.

Clearly the relationship and familial ties lend themselves well to this intimate and intriguing look at Child’s later years until her passing. 

Ramble On

18 and Life on Skid Row – Sebastian Bach (Dey Street Books)

To borrow a popular internet headline…These Facts about Sebastian Bach will Shock You!
  •      As sold over 20 million albums as the lead singer of Skid Row and as a solo artist. 
  •     Skid Row was the first hard rock band to have an album (Slave to the Grind) debut at Number 1 on the Billboard Top 200.
  •     He starred on Broadway in productions of Jekyll & Hyde, Jesus Christ Superstar and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Thumbing through the pages of Bach’s new autobiography 18 and Life on Skid Row you will pick up on these facts in the midst of seemingly endless tales of debauchery and excess, which is not a shocking turn of events in the average rock star bio.

It’s easy to write Bach as long-haired pretty boy, but there seems to be something that you can pick up on if not in the lines of the book then between the lines. If you’re paying attention you will pick up on Bach’s seemingly single-minded purpose and desire to be successful. It becomes pretty clear that this guy was driven to become a star and truly focused his boundless energy in that direction.

While he is focused on success, I can’t say the same about his writing. 18 and Life on Skid Row reads like a rambling, disjointed meander through Bach’s life. At times it causes the stories to roll into one another and leave you wondering where one begins and the other ends.

While I tend to gravitate towards rock bios, even for bands/artists I don’t necessarily listen too, like Skid Row, I think this one is better suited to those who are fans of Bach and the band.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Block Squared

Sinner Man – Hard Case Crime Series – Lawrence Block (Titan Books)

Lawrence Block is easily one of the most prolific writers of his generation cranking out not only a mountain of words but in the process creating some of fictions more memorable characters like; PI Matthew Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and hit man Keller among many others.

When he was first stringing together words for a living Block penned a hard boiled crime novel featuring a mild mannered insurance salesman who accidentally offs in wife when he slaps her one night and she dies after crackling her skull. Panicked and trying to avoid a run in with the cops the guy stashes her body and sets out to reinvent himself. A quick train ride to Buffalo and said insurance man goes through the motions of setting himself up to be a gangster, quickly garnering the attention of the local mob.

That book, dubbed by Block as Sinner Man made the rounds with publishers who uniformly professed to like the writing, just not enough to publish the work. Block continued his journey into writing a few years later, it seems the book did get sold, he just never could remember seeing it in print. A few years back a publisher mentioned the seemingly long lost novel and encouraged Block to try to track it down so it could be re-packaged and re-released. That journey garnered some interest, but never proved fruitful in tracking down a published copy of the book, until an innocent Facebook post by a fan cross-referenced the details of the story with a book Block had self-published for wannabe writers.

Block tracked down a copy of the book which had been published under another title and brought it to Titan Books, publishers of the Hard Case Crime series of hard boiled fiction. Sinner Man is a perfect fit for the series and for this fellow Buffalo-nian (Block was born in the Queen City) the references to actual and strikingly familiar “fictional” landmarks make the book extra fun.

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper – Edited by Lawrence Block (Pegasus Books)

Growing up in an era way before the explosion of video games, the kids in my neighborhood actually spent lots of time outdoors running around playing sports, riding our bikes and generally getting into mischief. When Mother Nature threw us a curve ball and it rained we headed into the subterranean world known as the basement and pulled out a stack of board games. These games called for a mix of skill, reasoning and a bit of luck. One of my all-time favorite games was Masterpiece, which featured auctions for the works of the great masters and the challenge of which “paintings” were real and which were fakes.

One of my favorite paintings in the game was the Edward Hopper classic Nighthawks featuring a handful of folks in a lonely diner on a darkened street. I can’t say for sure what about the painting it was that appealed to me, but one look and you had to wonder what the story was behind these folks hanging out in the diner.

It is those folks and their stories that are at the root of the new short story collection In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper edited by Lawrence Block and featuring 17 new short stories by the likes of Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver. Each writer was given a work by Hopper to base their story on.

The result is an amazing, diverse collection of stories that are equal to the masterful strokes of Hopper’s brush. No two of these stories take the same approach which makes them really stand up as they stand alone. Match these stories with beautifully printed renditions of the Hopper paintings and you get the perfect mix of art and words and it makes for a great gift for fans of either genre.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Art of Prediction

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction – Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner (Broadway Books)

If the 2016 presidential election proved anything it proved that the game of prediction is hard…very hard.

Liberal polling and predicting guru Nate Silver and his website often hailed as the go to source had Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning the presidency pegged at 71% to Donald Tump’s 28%. stated that “forecasters predict solid Clinton victory. Going against the whitewater rush of predictions going in Hilary Clinton’s direction was the professor who utilized a primary turnout model to factor his presidential pick, Donald Trump. Of course the professor faced an equal onslaught of criticism from those who ready to anoint Clinton.

So what was the root cause of this MASSIVE failure on the part of forecasters? The answer is a simple one. In Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, authors Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner offer prescient insight with their straight forward and handy Ten Commandments of Superforecasting, which turns out to be 11 commandments long. The simple answer comes in the form of number 2, “unpack problems to expose assumptions, catch mistakes and correct for biases.”

BINGO! It was the assumptions and biases that tripped up all of these so-called experts when it came to the presidential election. I found Tetlock and Gardner’s  Ten Commandments to be the most useful part of the book, which I think focused much more on the forecasters than it did on forecasting.

A Life Forged in the Heat of Battle

All The Gallant Men – An American Sailor’s First Hand Account of Pearl Harbor- Donald Stratton with Ken Gire (William Morrow)

With the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor upon us; as I read the story of Seaman 1st Class Donald Stratton’s miraculous tale of survival and heroism and later his comeback to fight another day, I couldn’t help but be struck by the uncommon valor that is this fin man’s hallmark.

Tom Brokaw labeled them the “greatest generation” and no better evidence exists than by comparing 19 year old Stratton to today’s perfect snowflake 19 year olds who need safe rooms, crying towels and Playdoh because Donald Trump won the election. It was at the ripe old age of 19 that Stratton raced to man his battle station on the U. S. S. Arizona amid a hail of machine gun fire and dropping bombs.

In All the Gallant Men – An American Sailor’s First Hand Account of Pearl Harbor, Stratton and co-author Ken Gire chillingly describe the chaos that was the Arizona on that infamous day, as a 1760 pound armor-piercing bomb hit the ship, detonating a million pounds of munitions and igniting 180,000 gallons of aviation fuel that was onboard the craft. So powerful was the explosion that the massive warship was actually lifted out of the water, buckling the deck in an inferno of death and destruction.

Stratton and his gunnery team suffered horrific injuries and burns, yet somehow managed to muster the strength to traverse a rope stretched over forty five seemingly endless feet over a burning slick of oil to the relative safety of the U.S.S. Vestal. That day Stratton counted himself among 334 survivors of the Arizona, and at this writing he is 1 of 5 survivors alive today.

That in and of itself would have been an amazing story, but Stratton was just getting started. Severely burned over 2/3 of his body, Stratton spent an arduous year recovering from those injuries. His recovery included refusing a surgeon’s advice to have his legs amputated and learning to walk again. If that wasn’t enough, following a medical discharge, Stratton continued his recovery with the goal of reenlisting and reentering the fight.

The Navy, unsure of his ability and fitness for battle, made Stratton go through basic training a second time and in the summer of 1944 he cruised through the challenge and was assigned to the U.S.S. Stark. Who among us ordinary people could say they would climb aboard another ship, let alone return to battle following what Stratton endured?

Stratton and the Stark would count themselves among some of the war in the Pacific’s most crucial battles including that War’s final battle on Okinawa. Stratton’s is a truly amazing story and one that should be required reading for millennial in need of a firm grip on reality.