Friday, January 6, 2017

At the Edge of the World (Jean-Vincent Blanchard)

At the Edge of the World by Jean-Vincent Blanchard documents the first century of the French Foreign Legion, from its founding in the 1830's under a French king to its use as a force helping the French Republic expand throughout North Africa in the years after World War I.  It circles largely around Louis Herbert Gonzalve Lyautey, who rose through the ranks of the French Army to command several missions for the Foreign Legion in various French colonial military campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A scholarly work, Blanchard spares little detail in the inner workings of the French Foreign Legion and how it's uniquely made up of both French citizens and foreigners who are willing to serve and fight for France in foreign lands.  The book as a whole, while solid and well-grounded from a historical standpoint, did not captivate me as much as other historical military books of the past have.  It comes across quite wonky and scholarly, lacking the ability to captivate this reader at several points.  

Blanchard also focuses much of the book on the French Foreign Legion’s impact in Morocco and Southeast Asia; this comes at the expense of covering its contributions and impact on World War I.  The author’s focus was clearly on French colonialism and the French Foreign Legion’s contribution to those efforts; however, skipping over a major global conflict seems inappropriate in telling the full story of this outfit of French fighters.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

How Will I Know You? (Jessica Treadway)

Jessica Treadway’s How Will I Know You? has a simple whodunit premise: a teenage girl has been murdered.  Joy was found close to a pond in the woods, presumed drowned but actually strangled.  Treadway succeeds in developing the suspense this type of book needs, until what really happened is finally revealed in the last few pages.

 The actual narrative is told through four different perspectives: Harper (Joy’s best friend), Susanne (her mother), Martin (the man accused of her murder who is also having an affair with Susanne), and Tom (a rescue diver and the son-in-law of the town’s police chief).  If done poorly, this style of storytelling can distract from the cohesiveness of the book, but Treadway does it very well.  She also effortlessly goes back and forth in time.  What happened before the murder to lead up to it, and what are the repercussions to everyone involved following the tragedy?

How Will I Know You? was definitely a solid 4 until the ending, which I found disappointing and unsurprising.  However, 95% of the story is very suspenseful, so I’m going to split the difference for a 3.5.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a memoir of the author's life as he rose from a broken home to become an Ivy League law graduate, largely overcoming the obstacles of his childhood and family. Vance argues that many of the struggles that he and his family faced were commonplace throughout the Rust Belt and Appalachia, where his family once lived before his grandparents moved to suburban Cincinnati several decades ago.

This book has risen to prominence in thought leader circles to help understand the struggles of the white working class in this country.  Vance points out that his hurdles, though different in specifics, are not markedly unlike those of other demographic groups in that much of what drives the struggles in health and education are also economically driven.  Vance’s own struggles emulate those of many we know near or within our own extended families, not just in the Rust Belt or in Appalachia, but in working class communities throughout the country that have fallen on or have remained downtrodden for many decades.

Given the vitriolic nature of the election, Hillbilly Elegy provides a refreshing and real take on what many are struggling with in this country; there is a large segment of the population that is frustrated at being left behind in a more globalized world.  While Vance does not argue for any specifics in fixing those problems, he does call upon the working class of this country to not blame Washington alone. More important, he argues that success starts with ensuring we take care of young children and making sure we provide opportunities for them, their mothers, and for their extended families -- to ensure that homes don’t fall apart completely and that families, even if they are markedly extended, somehow stay together for the sake of the next generation.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Night Film (Marisha Pessl)

I've been wanting to read Marisha Pessl's Night Film for a really long time, and I finally got to it on my list.  I'm usually reading 3 or 4 books at once, and to Pessl's credit, this was the one that I kept wanting to return to.  It's extremely well written and plays with the reader's mind immensely.  While I don't feel I can give it a 5 rating due to the final chapters (that ending again!), it came pretty darn close.

Ashley Cordova, daughter of legendary reclusive movie director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead.  Journalist Scott McGrath is absolutely driven to find out out what happened to her; in doing so, we're introduced to memorable characters and ingenious plot lines that all help to tell the story.  Pessl also intersperses newspaper articles and shocking photos that are just as important to the novel.

Night Film is a lengthy read and starts to feel that way toward the end.  I had an idea about where this novel was going to go; I'm not saying it was predictable by any stretch, but when my idea didn't happen, I was a little disappointed by the shock-free ending.  However, the journey is what's important here, and Night Film takes you on one heck of a ride.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Democracy for Hire (Dennis W. Johnson)

Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting is a candid look into the world of consulting in political campaigns.  Dennis W. Johnson’s work details the rise of political consultants, pollsters, and campaign operatives, and how political campaigns and politicians have been transformed because of their impact.  The author provides tremendous insight into all of the facets of a campaign that many of us claim to hate: negative commercials, direct mail, and campaign calling.  He also discusses how campaigns have utilized more and more of our consumer data to help craft advertising and approaches geared toward demographics, neighborhoods, and even preferred Pandora stations.

When I was through, I felt like I needed to take a shower simply from learning more about the inside working of politics at a level that will make many stomachs turn and simply leave many others exasperated with the political process.  However, politics in this country is big business; over $6 billion (with a B) was spent on the 2012 elections and a higher amount is likely to have been spent on this most recent election once all is said and done.  There are third world and tropical countries with lower gross domestic products than our electioneering process.  Johnson argues that business is continuing to boom for campaigns and politicians, fueled in large part by money pouring in from mega-wealthy interests that will wage issue-oriented campaigns or set up organizations that are for or against candidates.

After trying to wash the stench of political consultancy off, I looked for glimmers of reform and hoped that Johnson could come up with some salient suggestions on how to bring some sanity to the spending.  The author advises caution and vigilance on our part to avoid falling into the "faux news trap" (his words, as opposed to the more viral “fake news” term that’s trending now) and wishing we would see through the noise to select the best possible candidates.  Those are good places to start, but they won’t change the reality that elections are becoming ever less substantive and
ever more divisive, and consultants are making a boatload in the process through their roles in shaping that reality.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dogs of Babel (Carolyn Parkhurst)

Many people with pets have often wondered what happens inside their little brains.  What are they thinking?  What do they do when we’re not around?  What do they wish they could tell us if they could form words?  Carolyn Parkhurst plays around with that scenario in The Dogs of Babel in a believable, often heartbreaking, way.

One day, Paul gets a tragic call about his wife, Lexi.  She has fallen out of a tree in their yard and died.  The only witness was their dog, Lorelei, so Paul in his grief goes about trying to teach the canine to speak.  As readers, we know that Paul is most likely going down a rabbit hole and will have no success, but we’re still rooting for him all the way.  This, however, is only the secondary storyline; Parkhurst takes us back and forth between the present and past, from the very beginning of Lexi and Paul’s relationship to the time right before the day Lexi died.  Doing that makes it very clear that things were not always what they seemed to be on the surface.

This is one of those books that I need to give the dreaded half rating to  It wasn’t quite good enough to be a 4, but not average enough for a 3.  I found myself loving The Dogs of Babel at the beginning, but parts toward the end dragged.  All in all though, this is a unique story that befits Paul and Lexi’s unique marriage.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Kingdom of Their Own (Joshua Partlow)

Joshua Partlow’s A Kingdom of Their Own recaps the Karzai family’s grip on power in Afghanistan in the years following the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001.  American leadership placed their hopes for Afghanistan’s democratic success on Hamid Karzai, and Partlow tracks the complicated relationship between Hamid and the United States, as well as Hamid and his own family over the time of his leadership in Afghanistan.

Kingdom goes through great lengths to retell the story of American involvement in Afghanistan after the installation of Hamid as leader. American commitment included military support and financial resources, as well as business interests that "helped" to rebuild Afghanistan after years of destruction brought upon it by war, Soviet control in the 80’s, and Taliban control in the late 90’s.  Those business interests involved a few of Hamid’s brothers, who relocated back to Afghanistan after living in the United States for a time to help in the rebuilding process, as well as others who lined their own pockets for financial and political gain.  Partlow asserts that the United States was fighting not just insurgent terrorists but wayward and unethical Afghans and then began to fight with the Karzai administration over how to manage the various conflicts in Afghanistan.  In time, the Karzai-US relationship deteriorated to the point where the Americans were essentially persona non grata.

Partlow briefly touches on Afghanistan’s complicated tribal history to help preface the geopolitical environment in the country, adding additional meat to a thorough entrĂ©e of discussion on the billions of dollars spent propping up Hamid and (by proxy) his brothers during a bit more than a decade.  All in all, A Kingdom of Their Own  is a technical, at times wonky, book.  Nonetheless, Partlow’s well-researched work provides a critical and needed perspective on the War on Terror’s lesser known front and how both sides made many mistakes along the way.