Slouching Towards Sparta


Title: How Everything Became The War And The Military Became Everything

Rating: 2 Stars

In my life, the United States military has changed tremendously. I came of age in the 1970s, during the worse of Vietnam and in its aftermath. I know that there are stories about people spitting on returning soldiers, calling them baby killers, etc. I was pretty young and it was a long time ago, so I don’t know how much truth there was to this and/or how common of a practice it really was.

Be that as it may, the image of the army by the end of the Vietnam War was an army of poor conscripts (the wealthy can always figure out how to get out of military service, from paying $300 to get out of the Civil War to getting medical deferments during the Vietnam War (how’s that heel spur, President Trump?)) composed of drug addicts that occasionally tried to frag their officers.

Of course, nowadays, it’s an all volunteer force (still comprised mostly of people of limited economic means, some things never change). Especially in the time of Reagan, in opposition to those flag burning liberals, Americans began to lionize military personnel. We now thank soldiers for their service and they are given great respect. Even the most flaming anti-war zealot will always make a point to say that they support the soldiers.

Lord help the politician who in any way seems to be weak on defense. In the year 2017, our defense budget is about $700 billion dollars, even though we have no real state enemies of any consequence, we have no border threats, and we are under absolutely no existential threat (I’m sorry, but the United States will not be handing over a ceremonial sword in surrender to ISIS anytime soon). Meanwhile, the State Department budget (you know, the guys that actually manage our affairs of state) is about $55 billion dollars.

How did we get here? That is the subject of the book.

First of all, we’ve been at war essentially non-stop for over fifteen years. That’s the problem with declaring a war on a noun (ie War on Terror). When does it end? Are we expecting Terror to surrender? If we quit fighting while acts of terror still occur (and let’s face it, they’re always going to be occurring, there is no other way to fight the world’s only superpower than asymmetrically), does that mean that we have given up and/or surrendered? What politician has the cojones to say that?

War itself has changed. In the olden times, two masses of men (yes, men) lined up and charged each other. Now, war can be economic. War can be cyber. War can be personalized (think of a predator drone hovering above a terrorist suspect, gathering enough information to provide a convincing case that he is indeed a terrorist, and then sending a missile to destroy only his house). Now, instead of making sure that we have the best ships, tanks, and planes, billions of dollars are invested in these traditionally non military activities.

We also now have the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN). This is basically a newer version of winning the hearts and minds. If we can figure out how to improve the standard of living of people that could nominally becomes our enemies, than maybe they will be less likely to become our enemies. Maybe they can even become a bulwark against those that truly are our enemies. So, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, more billions of dollars are spent building schools, hospitals, wells and the like, all done by the, you guessed it, military.

The final nail in the coffin is that budgets really are, to a certain extent, a zero sum game. It’s not completely true, but generally it’s true that every dollar that goes to defense means that someone else is losing a dollar.

The implication to this is that even if a function falls outside of the military normal duties, it devolves to the military because the normal department doesn’t have the money to do it any longer. The military has the budget and the manpower, so it, reluctantly, takes it on. For example, in some countries, it’s the military that runs a local radio station. From a COIN point of view, it’s a good tactic to have a medium to communicate locally. Historically, it’s the State Department that would perform this, but it has become so financially emasculated that the defense has picked up the function. Neither State nor Defense particularly like this, but it needs to be done and only the Defense Department has the capability to perform it.

What’s wrong with all of this, anyway? Well, the military is basically a hammer and to it, every problem looks like a nail. I’m not in any way knocking the troops (I support the troops! Thank you for your service!), but there are problems in the world that aren’t necessarily best solved by a strictly hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, gun toting group of men (OK, eighty-five percent men).

By constant war, scope creep, pouring funds to it while depriving others, the military has become the dominant government power in the United States. The impact that this has on a traditional Western democracy is something that should be and needs to be looked on with deep suspicion.

So, after all of this blather, why two stars? Well, there are five parts to this book. What I just described takes place in the first two. The author is a lawyer, and in the latter parts of the book, this shows. She goes on, at length, on the subject of the history of war and attempts made to wrap around it a legal framework. It was kind of interesting, but to me, not really all that germane to the urgent topic at hand. I felt that entire sections of the book were filler. It could have made a more powerful, cogent argument in half the length. Also, there was a bit of a travelogue element to it (Look, I went to Iraq! Look, I went to Afghanistan! Look, I went to Guantanamo!) that, again, detracted from the main argument.


The Only Thing Wrong With Black People Is…


Title: Stamped From The Beginning

Rating: 5 Stars

When men oppress their fellowmen, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.

That line is from Frederick Douglass. That one sentence manages to sum up the history of racism.

Before I go any further, I should say that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. I read a lot of history and since I lean in a progressive direction, I do read a lot of history that exposes other sides to history to that which is conventionally mainstream. However, the point of view that Kendi took shook all of my foundations. The closest that I can come to how I felt reading it was when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States over twenty years ago. Clearly, I’d never read a history written from the standpoint of such an ardent anti-racist. It has changed (hopefully permanently) the way that I think and feel about our world.

Stamped From The Beginning is an encyclopedic treatment of  racism in America. In fact, it goes even further back and talks about the slave trade of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal during the 15th century (the first slaves from Africa were brought to Europe in 1444).

The primary emphasis is on the United States. The primary thesis of this work is that the history of racism can be broken up into three camps: racist, assimilationist, and anti-racist.

The racist line is probably pretty obvious. At a basic level, racists believe that blacks are fundamentally unequal to whites and our culture reflects that, as it should.

The assimilationists believe that whites and blacks are equal, but that the blacks are lagging behind. This could because of the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, some fundamental problem with the black family, and/or other similar ‘cultural’ reasons. If the black people just worked a little harder or behaved just a little better, than some wonderful day in the future, all inequalities will fade away.

The anti-racists reject all of this. There is no difference, at a human level, between whites and blacks. If black people suffer from a higher rate of poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, or similar such ills, then it must be that there is something systemic in place that is actively defeating them. Equality at a social level can never be achieved without knocking down all of the barriers that hold people back.

Kendi breaks the history up into five sections, with each section centered around a significant figure of that period. The five figures that he chose were:

Cotton Mather: A key religious figure of the Puritans, he grappled with the notion of slavery and humanity. Ultimately, he decided / taught that slaves do have souls, but they are degraded and it is the white man’s responsibility to raise them up and teach them Christianity.

Thomas Jefferson: A key figure of the Enlightenment, he understood the basic immorality of slavery but could never divorce himself from the economics of it, and like men of that age, he bemoaned the curse of miscegenation but also partook of it.  The only slaves that he freed in his lifetime were the ones that he fathered with Sally Hemings. At his death, some 130 slaves from Monticello were sold to pay off his debts.

William Lloyd Garrison: The man that essentially started the white abolitionist movement. He labored at it for over 30 years. He lived to see the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Thinking that his mission was accomplished, he shut down his organization. In hindsight, perhaps a tad premature…

W.E.B. Du Bois: One of the great intellectuals of his time. In his very long life (he lived and was still active into his mid 90s), you can chart the progression of his views. In the early 1900s, you can see him start off as an assimilationist, advocating for the gradual advancement of blacks and bemoaning the segments of the black community that makes the Talented Tenth look bad. By the end of his life, he has become a full anti-racist.

Angela Davis: She was an anti-racist from the start and has been unequivocal in her fight to recognize the equal rights of blacks. During her era, the rights of the LGBTQ community has blended in to create truly a civil rights philosophy for all.

The book closes with a epilogue that is a stirring call to action. It is time for all of us to throw off all of the excuses of the racists and the assimilationists. The answer is not for black people to work harder. The answer is not to educate white people on why racism is bad. The answer is not for black people to act white.

The answer is to take action to explicitly put into place anti-racist policies at every level.

To quote from the final paragraph in the epilogue:

There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people.


A Failed Exercise Book


Title: The Trespasser

Rating: 5 Stars

In case you haven’t noticed, you can group the books that I read into a couple of categories. I read ‘serious’ literature, whatever that means. I read classic fiction. I read non-fiction / history. And I read genre action/mystery/thriller.

Which one is not like the others?

There actually is a reason for this. I exercise most days of the week. I usually try to play racquetball twice a week. I do weights twice a week. I try to do some other form of aerobic activity twice a week.

The non-racquetball aerobic activity that I used to do was primarily running on a treadmill. However, over the last year or so, I’ve been fighting off plantar fasciitis in both feet, which makes running for any sustained period of time painful. Therefore, I’m now riding a recumbent bike.

I personally find riding a recumbent bike mind-numbingly boring. To mitigate that, I read while riding. I tried reading other types of books, but since I ride pretty hard and I only ride once, at most twice, a week, I found that I was getting lost and distracted pretty easily and losing the thread of the work.

Genre fiction is actually nice for this. They usually follow a pretty linear plot. The characters are usually well defined and manageable in number. For most action/mystery/thriller, I can read for 35 to 40 minutes once or twice a week without losing track of where I am.

Note that I’m not knocking genre fiction. I think it’s great and a perfectly respectable form of literature. It’s just that its form lends itself to my exercise.

Every now and then, an author fails me. I’ll start reading a novel while riding the bike for a couple of sessions, but ultimately the work just draws me in and I can’t help myself. I can’t wait until my next ride to read. I have to sit down and finish it.

Tana French always does this to me. Usually before I’m even halfway through it, I am staying up late at night or burning a couple of hours on the weekend to finish it.

She failed me yet again with The Trespasser. I don’t think I even got halfway through it before I gave up and sat down to finish it.

Her plots are interesting but I really think it’s the characters that draw me in. All of her novels are set in the Murder Squad in Dublin. Her novels (she’s on number six now) are at best loosely connected but can be read independently. Each novel is a first person narrative told from a different person’s perspective.

This time its Antoinette Conway’s turn. She’s a relatively young but hard and brittle detective. She thinks the squad is against her and she is absolutely determined not to let them get the upper hand. Her partner, Steve Moran, is a people pleaser that wants to get along with everyone, but Antoinette feels that her bad karma will also inevitably bring him down as well.

They’re assigned what appears to be a simple domestic murder, but as they investigate it, it seems to be escalating into something much larger. The big question is, are the detectives themselves making it larger because they are sick of getting assigned the boring, easy murder cases, or is there something else at work? And, if so, what is it? Who can they trust? Can they trust each other?

The whole troubled lead brilliant detective is obviously a trope. French’s characters are so deeply drawn that she rises above it. Yes, Conway clearly has some emotional problems, but these problems are somehow integrated into her larger character so that you’re not just rolling your eyes at the poor tortured-soul detective.

The interplay between the detectives and the suspects are richly drawn. She spends time on each character so that, even though at some times they are used just to advance the plot, you find yourself interested and caring for them.

The ending is spot on. I personally find the ending of most novels to be problematic, regardless of genre. The ending of many mysteries have a tendency to peter out because once the case is solved, usually there is some wrap-up / closure that takes place that kills the excitement of the solve. Here she ends it perfectly. I’ve found myself re-reading the last several pages several times just for the sheer enjoyment of a well executed novel.

In short, I think that all of Tana French’s novels, but especially The Trespasser, are absolutely brilliant examples of mystery fiction. She could very well be the best mystery writer active today.


Movie Images Put To Words


Title: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

Rating: 3 Stars

This is an odd book to rate. On the surface, it’s basic action genre. There is a top secret organization (The Regional Office) that has a team of female action heroes with extraordinary gifts taking on world threatening organizations and/or extra-dimensional beings that the rest of the world is blithely unaware of. At the beginning of the book, an attack is being launched against The Regional Office. The story is told from the point of view of both an attacker as well as a defender.

What makes this odd is that this is clearly inspired by / blatantly steals from any number of movies.

  • There is an air duct scene straight out of Die Hard.
  • Rose, one of the attackers of The Regional Office, is first introduced as kind of a malcontent young woman that is then recruited and trained to become an assassin (ala La Femme Nikita).
  • The mission of The Regional Office resembles nothing more than the Men In Black.
  • Sarah, defending The Regional Office, is equipped with an all powerful artificial arm. Over time, her arm takes over more of her body, and she ends up growing mechanical arms and legs. Ultimately, she becomes truly a cyborg, in my head resembling something like the Terminator or, more likely, Robocop.
  • The Oracles, who form the predictive arm of The Regional Office, are three women, heads shaved, permanently kept in a plastic pool of water, which is pretty much exactly from Minority Report.
  • The team of female assassin agents seem much like the original team from Kill Bill.

It’s written in the breezy style of David Wong’s book, John Dies at the End. Amazing things happen that are treated with something like nonchalance.

So, basically it’s a movie that is transposed to literature. Why? Is Gonzales trying to make some connection between popular entertainment and literature? Maybe I’m going down this path because I’ve just finished re-reading David Foster Wallace’s essay, E Unibus Pluram.

It’s a very dated essay (1993), but still thought provoking. In it, he examines the fact that television has completely taken over entertainment (like, I said, it’s dated). One of the essay’s interesting conclusions is that previously the purpose of art was to expose hypocrisy via the employment of irony. That is, the value of art was in describing the distance between what one expects to be true and what is actually perceived to be true. The challenge to art is that television has been, since at least the 1980’s or so, hugely self aware and ironic. Since television is so ubiquitous, that means that Americans (if not the world) has been so immersed in irony that we have become inured to it.

If everyone’s first language is irony, what fresh perspective can art truly bring?

Is this what’s going on here? Is Gonzales bombarding us with images that we already know as some kind of short hand for some deeper purpose?

I don’t know, and honestly, I kind of lost a bit of interest. The first third or so of the book was fun, exciting, and innovative. However, at a certain point, it just kind of seemed to lose narrative steam and seemed to chug to its inevitable conclusion.

It had a lot of promise and I think that Gonzales was, to his credit, swinging for the fences in trying to do something truly innovative, but at the end of the day, even with big, smart, new ideas, you still have to tell a story that keeps me engaged all of the way to its end.

A Melange of Terror


Title: The Terror Years

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a series of independent essays highlighting various aspects of life in the Middle East. If you’ve already read The Looming Tower, then a couple of essays will seem familiar to you, but I still found them valuable because each was focused on a pretty narrow topic.

The two that were most redundant to The Looming Tower where the essays on Ayman Zawahiri and John O’Neill. In history the two might always have some kind of weird symbiotic relationship. Zawahari is the master terrorist that inspired bin Laden to look beyond Saudi Arabia towards the United States, and O’Neill was laser focused on stopping terrorist attacks on American soil. Wright does well here looking beyond their life’s work and focusing on the nuances and contradictions that exist in them. This is true especially of O’Neill, who is clearly a slightly fallen hero who was gently pushed out of the FBI and became head of the twin towers about a month before they fell. There is a complexity to a man who, despite his single minded focus on stopping terrorism, also found time to have multiple affairs, propose to women while he was still married, and live a lifestyle that left him constantly hounded by debtors.

Speaking of 9/11, there is another affecting essay concerning another FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who was recruited by O’Neill and became another passionate defender against terrorism. He led the investigation into the suicide bombing of the USS Cole. Working under difficult circumstances, it was his hard work that started making the connections to a larger conspiracy being directed by al-Qaeda. There is a heartbreaking turn here in this essay as it exposes the paranoia and distrust between the FBI and the CIA pre 9/11. The FBI was predominately concerned with prosecuting cases while the CIA was focused on using assets (criminals that were prosecutable) to gather intelligence. Therefore, the CIA was loathe to share intelligence with the FBI. Almost immediately after 9/11, it was discovered that nearly fifty CIA personnel knew that al-Qaeda agents were in the United States but none of them informed the FBI, despite the fact that there were working groups designed explicitly to share such information. Upon learning this, Soufan immediately runs into a bathroom to throw up. History is a great teacher, but sometimes the tuition is a bitch.

Most of the essays focus on topics beyond 9/11. The essay that struck me the most was the one on Saudi Arabia (The Kingdom of Silence). Wright embedded himself in the kingdom for several months working for a Saudi newspaper. This essay was striking for many reasons and highlighted how little I know about Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis are highly educated but there are actually very few jobs for educated Saudis. The education that many get has little practical purpose. Men want to marry but few of them have the means to do so. There is a tremendous amount of money but it is tightly controlled by the very large royal family, so the average Saudi is actually struggling. Corruption is endemic but must never be spoken of. By the end of the piece, you are thinking that this is a country that, behind its apparent static, stable appearance, could within a generation suffer revolution.

Beyond these essays were ones on the state of culture in Syria under the Assad regime (spoiler alert: not great), a look at how invasive (and how blithe the government leaders seem about it) America’s intelligence agencies are getting domestically, an interesting essay on some Islamic terrorists that are actually renouncing violence (thus disproving that Islamic terrorists are this monolithic force), and an absolutely heartbreaking article on five Americans that were kidnapped by terrorists, the government’s seeming disinterest in them, and the private efforts made to try to save them.

The bottom line is that you are looking for some grand, unifying theory of the state of terrorism today, this is not your thing. If you are interested in some essays on the subject by a skilled writer deeply experienced in it, then you should find this extremely valuable.

Death Comes For The Poet


Title: Pale Fire

Rating: 5 Stars

The plot is actually relatively straightforward (kind of). Buckle your seat belts.

There’s a beloved king of the small country of Zembla. Plotters overthrow him and he barely escapes. He ends up in America, posing as a professor (Charles Kinbote).

At the university that he teaches at, he befriends a poet, John Shade, that he not so secretly worships. They form a close friendship and they take long walks together. While walking, hoping to inspire Shade to write an epic heroic poem, Kinbote repeats tales of the great king of Zembla. Seemingly inspired, Shade commences to write a poem, but refuses to share it with Kinbote.

Just as he almost finishes it, an assassin that has tracked down the wayward king tries to shoot Kinbote. However, he misses and shoots Shade dead.

Shade happens to have the manuscript with him. Kinbote grabs it and immediately heads off to a remote location so that he can annotate what he is sure is the great last work of a great poet, featuring the adventures that he’s so gloriously narrated to Shade on their walks.

Pale Fire is the fruit of this work. It contains a foreword, the poem itself, and Kinbote’s commentary.

What’s the problem? Well, for starters, Shade’s poem has nothing to do with the king of Zembla. It is actually a touching, highly personal poem regarding the pain and search for meaning in the suicide of Shade’s daughter.

This is about as far from Zembla as you can get. However, Kinbote is undeterred. In his commentary, he scrapes for every scrap of evidence, every insinuation, every hint of Zembla and her king in this poem about the pain of loss and the search for meaning.

As Kinbote’s commentary continues, many times he just gets frustrated and tells the king’s stories in the commentary itself, at times barely even trying to connect it to the poem that he’s supposedly commenting upon. In fact, as you increasingly read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that Shade not only did not consider Kinbote to be his bosom buddy but at times actively tried to avoid him. It’s pretty clear that Kinbote was an active nuisance, overbearing busybody, pretty close to a stalker of Shade that Shade simply tolerated.

Over time, more and more of what is real becomes questioned. Is Kinbote really an exiled king? Was the assassin (Gradus) actually trying to kill Shade? Kinbote definitely seems somewhat unhinged. How much of the narrative is the madness of Kinbote?

If you do any literary research on Pale Fire, you’ll see even more interesting theories. Perhaps Shade invented Kinbote as a vehicle for his work? Or maybe Kinbote invented Shade and actually wrote the poem himself? Or possibly the ghost of Shade’s suicidal daughter inspired Kinbote’s efforts (and no, I’m not making that up).

As you can tell, we are entering post modern territory. Clearly Kinbote is an unreliable narrator. The structure of the book is itself an ironic statement on poems and the commentary that takes place on them. The fact that you posit the fact that some of these characters themselves might be characters that are products of other characters within the book is also a postmodern landmark to be on the lookout for.

Another interesting aspect to this work is that it is a very early prototype of hyperlinking. Notes point to other notes which point to parts of the poem. You can read it, if you so choose, as a kind of choose your adventure story. Since this was published, in 1962, nearly thirty years before the development of the web browser, this is truly innovative. This could potentially yield slightly different reading experiences every time that you re-read it.

There are interesting connections between Pale Fire and Lolita. In both cases, you have a failing European man (Humbert Humbert in Lolita) emigrating from Europe to America and trying (and failing) to integrate in it. They are both men of maturity with predilections for much younger partners (young girls for Humbert and young men for Kinbote). Written in the decades immediately following WW2, is this the hunger of a faded people for the fresh new world? The sophisticated past being overthrown by the guileless future?

Technically, Pale Fire is brilliant. Nabokov is simply a magician with words. Like Cormac McCarthy, he finds rare or obsolete words and uses them to perfection. I came across a word (ombrioles) and when I googled it, the entire first page of results pointed back to Pale Fire.  He essentially invents a new language so that Kinbote can quote Zemblan sayings in their mother tongue.

As you can see, there is a lot to unpack here and I barely scratched the surface. I’m sure that with a carefully annotated version, I could have easily spent weeks reading / appreciating  it.

It is justifiably considered one of the great works of the twentieth century.

Killing To See His Daughter


Title: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Rating: 2 Stars

I’ve read several of Steven Hamilton’s works. The Alex McKnight series is OK. I enjoyed the first in the series, A Cold Day in Paradise. I read one or two more in the series, but they quickly devolved into a predictable formula. The Lock Artist, which is a one off, was actually pretty awesome. The protagonist was a mute dedicated to a life of crime whose skill was to be able to break any lock. Having a quiet person at the heart of an action story was novel and affecting.

It looks like Nick Mason is going to be another series, so I thought that I’d give him another shot. Nick Mason was a career criminal in Boston. He’d been a thief for about ten years. He then got married, had a child, and walked the straight and narrow. In true crime fiction fashion, he’s convinced to do one more job, which of course goes completely haywire, a cop is killed, and he’s sentenced to twenty years in prison.

While there, he meets an organized crime leader (Darius Cole) that’s serving multiple life sentences. Darius takes a liking to Nick and sees potential in him. He makes a deal with Nick. He will get Nick out of prison but in exchange, while Nick is out, he must do whatever Darius orders.

Desperate to see his daughter, Nick agrees. In short order, a detective on Nick’s original case recants his testimony and Nick walks free.

However, the devil always gets his due. Almost immediately, Darius orders him to kill a man. Reluctant to do so, he takes the gun and hesitantly goes to the hotel room where the man is at. His victim attacks him first and in the ensuing fight, Nick kills him.

Darius now assumes that he’s a stone cold killer and continues to order him out for additional hits, all of which Nick, in one form or another, manages to accomplish.

And this brings us to the essential problem here. Are we supposed to believe that a semi-reformed thief with no history of violence decides to go out and become a stone cold assassin just because he wants to see his daughter? And this is the protagonist. Are we supposed to be rooting for him as he does the killing for a crime lord?

It’d be one thing if his character morphed from a general nice guy to a remorseless killer (think Breaking Bad), but here, we’re supposed to be seeing him as this basic nice guy trying to make a relationship work while at the same time has preternatural skills killing people.

I don’t know. Even for crime fiction, the premise seems incredulous if not actually ridiculous, and as the novel progressed, I just couldn’t find myself to feel any empathy for the character and I found his motivation completely unbelievable. I seriously doubt whether there’s any person that’d willingly become a highly efficient hit man just so that he can catch an occasional glance at his daughter as she’s playing soccer.

War Between The Desert States


Title: The Water Knife

Rating: 4 Stars

I’m guessing that this book will not be featured prominently on Fox News anytime soon. It’s the story of a near future dystopia where Arizona, Nevada, and California are nearly in a state of war over water rights. Climate change deniers be forewarned.

At the start of the novel, Texas is essentially a wasteland. Cities such as San Antonio and Dallas have collapsed. In desperation, the Texans have migrated northward into Arizona, where they are universally despised as worthless immigrants. Meanwhile, Phoenix itself is on the verge of collapse. It is in a rather desperate struggle with Las Vegas to maintain access to a water supply. Above all of this is California, which with its wealth and size is a fearsome force to be reckoned with.

Inside this dystopian tale are three main characters. There is Angel, a Las Vegas mercenary trying to track down a mystery regarding water rights in Phoenix. There is Maria, a native Texan that has immigrated to Phoenix, desperately poor, just trying to survive. Finally, there is Lucy, an intrepid reporter, also living in Phoenix, on the track of a big scoop as the body count ratchets up. Their paths collide as the three states battle to recover a document that describes the original water rights.

A book that is heavily referenced here is Cadillac Desert (a real book) that describes how the federal government took an area of what was essentially arid desert, and through sophisticated water management, helped to create thriving cities. The book posits that as the growth continues and the climate dries up, inevitably cities will collapse and states will desperately fight each other for access to the dwindling water supplies.

This is an interesting subject. Water has played an out sized role in these parched states. If you’re interested, read about the California Water Wars, which describes how Los Angeles basically screwed over a bunch of farmers to get water rights, thus creating a thriving, growing Los Angeles and the death of farming in Owens Valley (basically the plot of the movie Chinatown).

Around that same time, a preposterous idea promulgated was the concept that rain follows the plow. The idea was that somehow human cultivation naturally led to the formation of clouds and the increase of rain (something about the dirt being kicked up by the plow). This actually passed as science at one point. The government actively encouraged farmers to inhabit arid lands and try to farm them, thinking that it would increase rain supply. This coincidentally seemed to work for a while due to a natural wet cycle but ultimately farmers starved, died, and abandoned farms during the Great American Dust Bowl (read The Worst Hard Time).

This is the context in which the novel is written. Its dystopian future, with desperate refugees from American states, with American citizens lynching fellow citizens trying to sneak into their states, with Phoenix constantly beset by dust storms, and Chinese corporations lurking in the background looking to pick at the carcass of the fading American economy, are all clearly drawn in a grim manner. Knowing what little that I do know about the formation of the Southwest, it’s not entirely an impossible narrative.

My only complaint is that the characters are pretty stock. You just know that Angel, the brutal mercenary, really has a heart of gold. You know that Lucy, the reporter, is going to be full of pluck and will relentlessly pursue the story. You know that Maria, the immigrant, will be given a whole series of hard knocks but will ultimately prevail.

This is clearly a book with an agenda and a political conscience. In no way does it hide it. Even given that, I still found it not only to be provoking but also an entertaining read.

Something New…White People Behaving Badly


Title: Killers of the Flower Moon

Rating: 3 Stars

As a practice, I try to write my thoughts on a book within a day or two of reading it. For the last week, I’ve been on vacation where I did not have time to write, so I’ll have to make an exception here. I actually read this book early last week. We’ll see how it goes.

Grann’s book explores yet another dark chapter in the history of white people doing bad things to indigenous people. The Osage once populated a large chunk of the Midwest. Over time, they were forced onto reservations. Ultimately, they ended up in a pretty forsaken part of Oklahoma. Early in the twentieth century, oil was discovered on their land. They’d previously negotiated to keep their mineral rights. By doing so, the Osage, which owned the land communally, became extremely wealthy extremely quickly.

The government could not leave well enough alone. They decided that the Osage did not have the mental ability to manage their money themselves, so they appointed white caretakers to manage their money for them. Even though they were all wealthy, they had to go to a white man to ask them for even the smallest amount of money.

And then, even more mysteriously, the Osage began to die prematurely. Some of them were found shot. While they were sleeping, a couple’s house was destroyed by an explosion. Several other Osage simply wasted away and died.

In vain, they appealed to the local authorities for help. Either through neglect or incompetence, nothing was done to solve the murders or to prevent additional murders. Ultimately, the Osage appealed to the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation for help.

At that time, the FBI was full of bright young Hoover approved college students that knew nothing about crime fighting and a bunch of rugged old cowboys (formerly Texas Rangers) that did not fit the mold of an FBI agent but actually knew how to solve crimes. Hoover bowed to the inevitable and sent off one of the cowboys to Oklahoma.

Despite local opposition, ultimately, the FBI was able to prove that one of the local leaders, William Hale, had persuaded his nephew to marry one of the local Osage women. Hale then arranged for two of the woman’s sisters and her mother to be murdered so that his nephew, via his marriage, would have control of a significant share of the Osage wealth. Ultimately, the nephew confessed and Hale was convicted of the crime.

The notoriety of the case and its successful conclusion first brought the FBI into the limelight.

However, Grann does not stop there. The murders of the Osage did not stop at Hale. Looking at records, it appears that as many as sixty Osage could have been murdered. Even today, the remnants of the Osage Nation keep boxes of records in the hope that they can be used to prove the murder of their ancestors.

So, why only three stars? Well, I’m beginning to suspect that I just like Grann’s long form articles more than his book length work. I remember only being moderately enthused by the Lost City of Z. However, his long form collection, the Devil & Sherlock Holmes, is a brilliant set of articles on a broad range of subjects.

Here, as with the Lost City of Z, I was only moderately entertained. I did appreciate the amount of research and the story of the FBI agents hunting down Hale. Even though I enjoyed it, it still didn’t seem all that compelling. These were not exactly master criminals. It was a lot of trouble to convict Hale, but that was mostly because of the prejudice in Oklahoma, not to any diabolical genius on Hale’s part.

To me, if you want to read about how the FBI truly hit the national spotlight and made its reputation, check out Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies. This was a great telling of how the FBI went from inexperienced bumblers to efficient crime fighters.

My other beef with this was the last part of the work where Grann tried to connect the dots of the larger conspiracy. I have no doubt that there was a conspiracy, but there is no documentation smoking gun. There is a lot of doubt and suspicion, but that’s it. Perhaps trying to get to the truth of a matter from a distance of 100 years will inevitably lead to this lack of certainty, but to end the book in this matter seems at best anticlimactic.

Iraq Through a Prism


Title: Redeployment

Rating: 4 Stars

Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.

Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.

O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.

Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.

Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.

Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically

Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.

The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.

I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.