Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

Any reader of spy history, especially the English agency MI6, has probably heard of Kim Philby.  Mr. Macintyre focuses on Philby's friendship with a close friend, Nicholas Elliott, to tell this story of almost unfathomable hubris on the part of the English spy community that allowed "one of their own" to operate as probably the most important Soviet spy ever.

In the '30's, the Soviet Union was envisioned within the elite English universities as the best hope of blunting the impact of Hitler on Europe and the world.  Communism was viewed as a viable governmental model, even as stories leaked out of the USSR of mass killings in the name of the people.  As the coming war loomed, the English intelligence community started recruiting likely candidates for intelligence work.  The vetting process mostly consisted of someone within MI6 knowing someone from college or family friends and asking if they wanted to do important work for the crown.  Open collegiate affiliation with Nazi-favorable organizations was far more likely to generate suspicion than similar affiliation with the Communist party.

In 1937, Kim Philby was a party member and, through university contacts, volunteered his services to the Soviet Union.  From that point forward, he was a loyal contributor to the Soviet cause until after retiring from spying decades later.  Since he rose to key positions within MI6, including the liaison with the CIA in the 1950's, he was able to inform the Soviets of every major effort to spy on the USSR from immediately after WWII into the 1960's, resulting in the deaths of probably 100s of agents and those who were innocent civilians who might have had an anti-Soviet leanings in post-war eastern Europe.  When Philby came under increased suspicion after two close friends defected, MI6 did everything in its power to protect Philby from various probes from the English equivalent of the FBI, MI5, and from U.S. inquiries, including the FBI.  When MI6 finally came to realize the allegations were probably true, it appears they let him defect rather than face an inquiry that would have brought discredit to MI6.

This is a fascinating account of an agency supposed to be one of the best in the world.  I found it depressing that the English class system had such a profound negative effect on decades of intelligence work.  This is a must read for followers of spy novels and intelligence history.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Swerve - How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and the book's title suggests a monumental story of the world's coming of age.  With those awards and that title, it's hard to begin a book like that without having great expectations. Those expectation were not met but it is a worthwhile and intersting read.

The story focuses on a Renaissance scribe who rises to the peak of his profession to become a key member of the papal nonsecular hierarchy.  One of the reasons for this rise is his excellent grasp of ancient Latin.  When he is no longer part of that heirarchy, he goes on a quest for rare pre-Christian books by famous Latin pagan thinkers.  He discovers a text that was alluded to by other writers and is so impressive that when it makes it into print in the post printing press era, it may have had a profound effect on the thinking of key scientists and philosophers for centuries to come.

The discovered text is "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius.  It is a dense, two hundred plus page poem that within lies a strikingly modern view of the world and a condemnation of superstition. The story of its discovery and impact is a tough one to tell because the time of discovery was so complex and connecting the text to modern outcomes is so nebulous..  Mr. Greenblatt does a very good job of focusing on the scribe, Poggio Bracciolini, and using his life to give understanding to the 15th century and how rooted in the past most of Europe was at the time, due in great deal to control of the church.  Think being burned at the stake for saying the earth is not the center of the universe.  However, going back to the creation of "On The Nature of Things" and proceeding all the way to Thomas Jefferson, "The Swerve" contains a lot of connections that boil down to they might have read the book or they might have said this and that.  With the lack of actual descriptions by those historical figures that provide that connection, these multiple suppositions may be true but take away from what  is an excellent piece of history and a revelation of the thinking of ancient thinkers.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Erik Larson has been in the blog before and his latest tale about the last voyage of the Lusitania is a welcome addition to his growing list of accessable historical accounts.  As he has done before, he relates the overall tale by sharing the stories of different participants.

For those not familiar with the Lusitania, it was an English ocean liner in the mold of the Titanic and was torpedoed by a German submarine in WWI.  That event was one of the tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war on the side of England and France.  Prior to that the U.S. was neutral and there was a strong sentiment in the country to stay that way.  Unlike FDR's desire for the U.S. to enter WWII much earlier than we did, President Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war.

Of the individuals in the book, the one's I found most interesting were the captains of both the Lusitania and the submarine, some of the passengers that both survived and parished, and the quiet dealings of the English government and military.  England knew the submarine was in the area, took steps to safeguard its naval vessels while providing confusing information to the steam ship line managment regardig the safest way for the Lusitania to proceed.  They also provided no escort at all for the ship, even though a number of destroyers were in the area.  A good case can be made that England would just as soon have a disaster like the sinking of the Lusitania to force the U.S. into the war and their actions and inactions were an effort to achieve that end.  Give it a read and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Sometimes a book from my men's book club makes it into the blog and more times than not, it doesn't.  There's only so many times you can read about WWII and the Civil War (ours, not any other country's).  However, we have members who like a lighter read and their nomination sometimes makes it through the voting.  This is one of those, and I'm glad it made the cut.

Bill Bryson is a good and prolific writer.  Previously he generated a best seller on his walk over a large portion of the Appalachian Trail called "A Walk In The Woods".  He generated this book in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Over the span of multiple visits, he experienced all the major Australian cities and quite a few road houses throughout the country to give a humorous and reasonably factual look at this large country (about the size of the U.S. lower 48) with somewhat fewer people than live in Canada.

The result is a fun read that is worthwhile even if you never visit Australia.  Having gone there once and seen just a little of what he writes about, he captures the essence of the country nicely.  His description of their maddening little flys is just right.  His description of all the snakes, spiders, plants, aquatic animals and who knows what else that can kill you in an instant is right on target.  When Jackie and I visited a remote park with a sign of all the dangerous denizens within, we could encounter not only something called a Death Adder, but a different snake called a Common Death Adder. Somehow knowing something with death in the name is that common was a bit off-putting.  Bryson has many stories giving Australia its due as a country to be respected and admired, and you'll probably laugh out loud a number of times while reading them.  A good summer read.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Road to Character by David Brooks

The New York Times columnist David Brooks has tackled a thorny subject by discussing character but has done a good job of getting the reader to understand what has characterized the term from antiquity to now. It has varied with time, yet those individuals he has highlighted have some commonalities, most notably a dawning awareness of personal shortcomings that must be addressed in order to live a better life.

Since none of us are fully self aware and "a better life" does not have the same meaning for everyone, Mr Brooks can not give us the approved solution for arriving at the goal.  He does give you some wonderful personal life stories of soldiers, philosophers, government and social workers and more that help him construct a possible path to a better character.  You might not like some of them, agree with their politics or philosophies, or find some of their choices to arrive at what they considered their better selves to be right for you, but the sum of the stories does support the idea that having good character requires an understanding of what you've been given (not earned), a humility that comes from that understanding and a decision to focus on others more that yourself.  Although he did not say it this way, it helps to try to always be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I liked the book and intend to go back and copy down some of the observations for future reflection.  They are that good.  As a side note, I learned about some historical characters I've heard of but only knew a sentence or two about them. In those cases, they made me want to learn more. In the case of St. Augustine, I read some of his writings and wish I could have just read Mr Brooks description and skipped the rest.  The book is not too long and well worth your time.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

There was a boy, youngest in a large family that lived on the edge in a poor territory of rural Australia, who loved reading.  That love earned him a scholarship away from home and the life that he knew.  Each achievement drew him further away to a life as a young surgeon moving in the upper echelons of pre-WWII society. He had a woman from that society who wanted to be his wife and, assuming he survived his officer assignment in the coming war, a promising future.

However, the rhythm of his life was not quite right.  He earned all that he had but felt he was not the person people thought he was.  He loved a woman full of life but unattainable and his fate eventually placed him in a slave labor camp with hundreds of other POWs building the rail line from the movie "Bridge On The River Kwai."  He and some of the others survived and returned to their old lives but were marked by the horrors of the camp.  These are the bare bones of the story of Dorrigi Evans and the people in his life.

This is a subtle, horrific, deftly layered and deeply moving story.  It is one of the most beautifully and skillfully written books I have ever encountered.  Life lived daily seems linear and fairly predictable. When viewed over time, it is beyond comprehension, with words like God, love, good and bad being too deep to fully grasp.  Mr. Flanagan does as good a job of tackling life in an engaging story as you are likely to find.  The book was awarded the Man Booker prize.  Beyond that, it transcends the category of being a good read to that of being a great book such as those described in literature classes as achieving the height of the art.  This review doesn't come close to what you will find in the book.  Over time you will find it indescribable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

11/22/63 (The CB Version) by Stephen King

I was never what would be considered a voracious reader, but by the time I got into high school I found that I enjoyed reading certain genres and authors. I found characters such as Holden Caulfield relateable and entertaining… minus the mental breakdown and psychotherapy, of course. And I found  that I was particularly drawn to sci-fi thrillers. Enter: Stephen King. 

A good, scary book was always an easy read and for years I read anything I could get my hands on my Stephen King. That being said, I read The Shining for the first time at 18 years old and didn’t touch another King book for  at least 6 months. That book made the movie look like a Disney cartoon.  

Over the years I made my way through a number of his classics, all better than the movie remakes, but I started to find his newer material a little more “out there”. Now, I understand that the man is out there to begin with, but he went from writing scary thrillers to drafting stories and plot lines that were just plain weird. I’ll give credit where credit is due: I became more of a reader because of King, but over time I branched out and found my nightstand littered with other authors. I felt that maybe Mr. King had spent a little bit too much time off the grid, up in Maine. Then, this past Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me 11/22/63. While I probably hadn’t read anything by him in almost ten years, I was excited to see if it would rekindle my appreciation for his ability or if he had ceased to be the same author. I was not disappointed.


He demonstrated what drew me to his work originally. He had recaptured the art of storytelling… the depth of characters both noble and repulsive, settings so vividly described they were tangible, and, most importantly, knowing how to tie up a seemingly impossible ending. In addition to all of these wonderful traits, the utterly make-believe story was woven together with plenty of historical accuracy. I not only enjoyed the break from reality that the story provided, but was fascinated by the history lesson I received in reading it. I understand that much of what was written was done so with creative license (much like the CB character that exists on a certain blog), but he did his homework and, in some regards, I learned more details about the life and times of Dallas in 1963 than I had from any history class or discussion I’ve had regarding President Kennedy’s assassination. The combination of factual events intertwined with a well crafted story about time travel made for one the most enjoyable books I’ve come across in a long time. 

Thank you, Mr. King. It’s good to have you back.