Thursday, October 29, 2020

Educated by Tara Westover

 The Last Thursday Literary Illuminati and Associated West Coast Socialists gathered around the warm glow of their erstwhile bright forest green monitors to discuss Solicitor Simon's theory of Worm Creek water feeding into Elephant Butte and the lower Rio Grande Valley, and the benefits of educating the distaff outcasts of the family.  Prof. Genoni was outside scrapping during this time and thus was excused.     All of the Zoom participants, demonstrating an abundance of caution, wore heavy jackets, work boots and plastic face masks, woolen scarfs, safety helmets, thick glasses, and displayed as little flesh as possible as appropriate for a righteous individual in this day and age.   New members were requested to step up and introduce themselves, and explain why they would want to participate with such a group, and why their entry fee should therefore be waived accordingly.  Solicitor Simon took notes as to arguments and summaries on all sides and they and the resulting grades are provided herewith.  


Jack:  Tara Westover's Educated was difficult for me to read. I read it the first time over a year ago and couldn't finish it. I found it impossible to believe such an intelligent young woman would allow herself to be physically and emotionally abused again and again while at home for 17 years and even for years after she left home. In the second reading I paid closer attention to her struggle to maintain a relationship a daughter would hope to have with her parents and her siblings while faced with an unbelievably abusive environment at home. It appeared as if the conflict between her desire to learn about the world beyond Buck's Peak and her ties to a dysfunctional family that had cut itself off from the outside world could never be resolved and I'm not sure it was. She must continue to suffer psychologically. Westover is a good writer, which played a major role in keeping me interested in a very difficult story to read. I would grade it a C+ because I had to read it twice to get to what I thought was the heart of the story.

Mike:  is this a chic book?  "My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute.  It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."  I submit this is every child's story.

Chick lit or chick literature is genre fiction, which "consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists"


Thursday, September 24, 2020

DiMaggio: The Last American Knight by Joseph Durso

 Eight brave souls donned their masks and entered the 25 pristine acres of the New Mexico Veterans Memorial to discuss the life of The Yankee Clipper and how it was portrayed by Joe Durso, sportswriter.  There they were greeted to the strains of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and wafts of hot dogs, crackerjacks, soda pop, and kettle corn. The lovely Holly Golightly floated away and we were left with the legacy of Joltin' Joe, described by Keith as one of four Herculean Pillars of the Yankees during their 40 year domination of the sport:  The Babe (#3), The Iron Man (#4), The Yankee Clipper (#5), and The Mick (#7).  It didn't hurt to have the Big Apple Media Machine plus Yogi and some colorful managers.  We learned that although the dimensions of the baseball have not changed since 1888, some of the rules have. Not all the players were on the same page:


Mike:  Every book should start with a 'grabber' chapter, something to excite the senses and whet the reader's appetite for what is to come.  What Durso starts with is an ad agency exec wandering into the Bowery Bank and musing over how to give the place a spokesman.  Then he compounds his 'error' by scattering his writing with 3rd grade baseball metaphors:  they made an error; they had strike one; no home run; three strikes.  Great subject, mediocre portrayal, a half-hearted try for high drama that failed.  Joe Durso easily has the worst Wikipedia article I've ever witnessed; his on-line obituary has four times as much information.  Perhaps there is a reason.  B-

Dick J:  This book was good and not so good.  "The Last American Knight" = where did we learn how that title was earned?  I was frustrated with the writing in pages 46 to 67 about what happened after WWI.  This book was padded.  At times it was interesting, but seened to be written quickly.  I have read a negative article on DiMaggio, how he would go to a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas, eat expensive meals, but never paid.  And I don't give a flip about Marilyn Monroe.  I didn't learn much about baseball or Joe DiMaggio.  B

Rob Easterling (by phone via Karl): I had high hopes for this book. I've read and enjoyed several baseball books over the years. But, Chapter 1 in Durso's book discouraged me. It's all about how a NYC bank hired Joe D to shill for the bank. Not at all interesting. Why start with this? Chapter 2 about the DiMaggio family's emigration from Italy to San Francisco was more interesting and a more appropriate way to lead into a hero's life story. The book's subtitle, "The Last American Knight," irritated me more. England might justifiably celebrate knights, but Americans don't. Maybe Bobby Knight. 

The rest of the book was not very interesting. Neither the hitting streak or Marilyn Monroe stories stirred much enthusiasm in me. I've characterized many of the non-fiction books we've read as follows: The author collects a lot of factoids, then struggles to link them -- cut and paste -- . This book falls in that category. 

After I finished the book, I looked up the Amazon reviews, to see if I had missed something important. One reviewer wrote: "To write about Joe DiMaggio you have to write with love and passion for the man and the game. I just never got that feeling reading this book." My sentiment exactly. My Grade: C- 

P.S. This spring I read "Summer of '98," by Mike Lupica. That was the summer of the home run hitters, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Lupica wrote with love and passion for the men and the game, and even more, he shared that love and passion with his sons. I laughed, I cried, I wrote a review. 

One line from the cover flap connects with Durso's book: "Joe DiMaggio talks as he watches the Yankees have the kind of year he always had." 

Karl Irons:  I thought that the point of a biography was to shed insight into the person being written about – insight that hadn’t previously come to light. Not only doesn’t this book do that, it even makes the claim, after 250+ pages that it doesn’t matter. What nonsense!

Not only doesn’t this book fulfill the primary objective of a biography, it is also poorly written in places.  There are too many pronouns, making it unclear at times who is actually being referenced. Thoughts or topics are raised, then not sufficiently explored. Throughout the book labels – adjectives – are applied to DiMaggio, many repeatedly, but in the end, I still don’t know which ones truly apply. That he was tremendously prideful is certain. That he was a great and revered all-around ball-player is also certain. Whether he was any or all of: noble, lonely, selfish, interesting, insecure, elegant, greedy, cheap, a hermit, arrogant, pampered, vain, self-assured, classy, boring, or a number of other labels attributed to him by the author or one or more of his acquaintances, is less certain.

The best parts of the book were the parts talking about baseball. Is there any other sport that has such great stories? Reading those, even the many that I already knew, was enjoyable. It probably wasn’t necessary to go through every single at bat during the 56-game hitting streak, but I did like reading about it. I especially liked reading the stories I hadn’t known, such as Casey Stengel releasing himself, firing himself, then resigning. Terrific stuff.

I haven’t yet decided whether I like and admire Joe DiMaggio the man, which I had hoped I would when I ordered the book. I had known that he played during a time when sportswriters made heroes of certain sportsman while protecting their image when faced with conflicting behaviors. That they made a hero of DiMaggio before he even played his first game in a Yankee uniform, I didn’t know. That Joe D delivered against all the hype is remarkable in that context. That he kept delivering is what earned him the reverential status he still enjoys today.

What I did admire about DiMaggio is that he took his position as role-model and professional sportsman very seriously. The book makes clear that he obviously went to great pains to hone and reinforce that image -- even if it was created by the press prior to him ever being a stand-out baseball star.

But, the paradoxes of the man bother me. How can someone claim not to want to be recognized walking down the street nor want to be surrounded by crowds drive around in a car with the vanity plate: “Joe D”? What did he talk about to his friends? What, if anything besides the sports pages, did he read? Why did he surround himself with friends so different than himself? Was it to divert attention, was it to remind him who he was not or was it something else? Maybe these things aren’t knowable, but after reading a biography, I expect to know whether or not I like the subject of the text. That I don’t, in this case, I see as a deficiency in the effort.  C

Bob S:  What Durso was doing was researching sportswriters comments on DiMaggio and the game.  Thus the book was a tribute to sportswriters.  Something positive:  Joe and Marilyn both came from modest means; thus they understood each other, having climbed to the top.  I felt the same about the book:  I watched TV with my father, an amateur baseball player, but never felt the passion.  I loved Dizzy Dean, Pee Wee Reese, yet overall found the sport rather boring.  A good bio must examine the context within which the subject lived his Life.  This book lacked that.  B-

Jack F:  My enjoyment of Durso's DiMaggio was influenced by the facts that I like baseball and Joe DiMaggio was one of my heroes when I was a kid in the late 40s and early 50s, even though he played for the Yankees and I was a Cleveland Indians fan. I learned quite a bit particularly about DiMaggio's life away from the ballpark. Durso's newspaper writing style was easy to read and I enjoyed his descriptions of specific games. It reminded me of listening to a game on the radio; however, he did seem to wander and repeat himself at times, leaving me to wonder about the chronology and how it fit into the current narrative. Fun read. Would recommend it to my Yankee friends, if I had any.  B

Tom GOn the rules changed to delineate the Modern Era:  in 1893, the distance from pitcher's mound


to home plate was changed from 50 ft to 60' 6" where it remains today.  Ballpark size was open; however new parks had to have 350' down the line and 400' to center.  

From the book, I learned that DiMaggio was painfully, horribly shy.  He did not know hot to handle people (and sports writers).  'The Last American Knight' refers to the last athlete that was poised and noble.  This largely had to do with the era in which he played.  In his era, sportswriters would fawn over these 'heroes.'  I learned a bit:  B

Charlie:  I was prejudiced in that I am not a sports fan.  My choice for a biography would be someone who used their noodle:  was incredibly smart, creative.  An athlete is more instinctive than cerebral.  Reminds me of a Monty Python skit where the sportswriter is interviewing the soccer star after the big game:  "You've won!  How did you do it?"  "I kicked the ball into the net."

I don't like the sportswriters style of writing - athletes are ordinary guys with extraordinary talents.  B

Keith:  the book had too much detail.  I played in two semi-pro games for $5 a game.   B+

Bob S:  I wish to share a baseball experience with you. As I mentioned, my Dad was a pitcher. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, There were only a couple of hundred Jewish families in his youth around 1920 but there was an amateur Jewish baseball team and he was their pitcher. 

When I was young, perhaps five or six we went to Lake Worth near Fort Worth where there was an amusement area with rides and games of chance. One of the games was one of those booths with a bulls eye about the size of home plate with a lever connected to a platform where a man sat over a glassed-in tub of water and every time you hit the bulls eye with a regulation baseball the lever would release the platform and drop the man into the water. I would guess the bulls eye was about 40 or 50 feet from the counter where the balls were held. 

Every time you hit the bulls eye you received three more balls. My dad gave the man a quarter and got three balls. I think he only hit the bulls eye once in the first three balls, but then he got the range and started hitting the bulls eye almost every time. After about twenty minutes the man refused to sit on the platform over the water any longer, because he was so waterlogged and dejected. At that point we left the game with about 50 balls left on the counter. 

My Dad had the best eye hand coordination of any one I ever met. I think I have mentioned that he was on the TCU golf team in the late 20's and an NCAA letterman. But his pitching was what I remembered from that evening at Lake Worth.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

 Nine former soldiers of fortune, two bedraggled Caddos, and a lonesome West Pointer zoomed into town on the Curative Waters around 2 pm mountain daylight (aka 3 pm in Guthrie, OK), complete with bullet holes.  Prof Palmer presented the news, including acquiring Hamilton for $7.50 from Disney+. and a promise of Tom Hanks as Capt. Kidd in December.  Prof Irons strung up the telegraph line, and the dime-ahs soon started filling the tin can.  Haina!  the old ones spoke as follows:


Tom:  Based on the comments today, I may be an outlier.  The story was great and the characters were well developed - but I did not like the prose style.  It was somewhat journalistic, and perhaps that was what she was trying for.  Overall, I enjoyed the read.  B+


Jack:  I thought it was well written and a tale well told.  It was a bit schmaltzy, reminding me of Bridges of Madison County and perhaps Plainsong.  There were some great scenes, which pushed it to a B+

Karl:  I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t exactly a “page-turner” but it also didn’t lag.  The writing was inobtrusive – meaning that I really didn’t notice it.  The book was an easy read.  I did find it odd that the conversations, few as they were, weren’t in quotes.  But once I understood the style it wasn’t bothersome.

The characters were well-defined.  The disorientation that Johanna must have experienced due to the upheaval of abruptly being extracted from a known culture to being thrust into an unknown one was dealt with very adroitly.  The growing tenderness of the relationship between the Captain and Johanna was handled well, I thought.

I found a slight disconnect between the abrupt ending in the penultimate chapter – really that last chapter, as the final chapter should have been titled “Epilogue” – and the wrap-up at the end.  It seemed that once the author completed her objective of allowing the Captain and Johanna to remain a team that she was done with the story.  Except that she had loose ends to tie-up.  The fate of the freighters, whether the Captain’s daughters would relocate to Texas, whether his family would ever reclaim their land, whether there would be a relationship with the woman he was attracted to, and how Johanna would fare once the Captain was gone needed to be addressed.  Hence the epilogue/Chapter 22.  It kind of seemed like a cheesy way to end the book, though.  B+

Bob Woods:  I did skim the first few chapters, but teen age grandkids took my month away.  NG

Rob:  I started the book, felt uneasy, and found it schmaltzy also.  I liked the story telling, and liked the way she handled the relationship between the 71-year old man and the 10-year old girl.  I got a lot out of the book, namely the importance of family and politics.  Neat idea to bring these subjects together.  B+

Mike:  If I were to create the ideal book for Charlie Palmer, it would be not much over 200 pages, have a great story, be about Texas, display a sense of humor, and have a great map.  This hit all the marks.

The great battle of Chapter 4 was a high point, even if done up a bit into the George Lucas cliffhanger style.  I loved the coins in the shotgun shells, but ... you gotta suspend a bit of reality for all of this to come together.  Heck, I relaxed and enjoyed it - especially Johanna's dance after the death of the enemy.

The Durand chapter (#14) was a winning microcosm of everything I loved about this book.  The curmudgeon captain:  "Can you read this flyer?  It says I'm going to saw a fat woman in half."  A

Bob SimonA little like Charlie:  I'm also from Texas, and the book portrayed a history of a time in Texas I am not familiar with.  Kidd was a true gentleman.  All of it had historical interest for me:  a solid A.

Charlie:  I liked it; I don't want too much tension, and then have horrible things happen.  This book had the potential for unhappy occurrences, but they did not occur.  I like the schmaltzy stuff.  I did not go through this book with a sense of dread - the author did not disappoint me, and she wrapped it up in a positive manner.  Solid A.


... and from the sorry Caddos who fell off the wagon:

Zoom will not let me back in because I was previously removed by the host. Here is my written evaluation: I really liked the book. I enjoyed it as much the second time as I did the first. It's a great story, well-written, interesting characters, and great description of the scenery. I would recommend it to others. Grade: A 

   -  Dick  J.

Mike..Got knocked off ZOOM,couldn't re-enter. Happens often..Maybe all the cyber-schooling in the hood  [UNM, CNM, APS, ..]. 

Graded on 5 pt. [1=5]..

  1. First impression: 2-Bad title,cover..

  2.Story line:4,, great..Kidd took on daunting task,and he's a truly nice guy..

  3.Writing: 5-lyrical writing engaged all 5 senses..

  4. Best chapter:4..Shootout with "dime" bullets..

  5. Worst chapter 3..Ending too curt, indeed "Let's end this book pronto"...

My average: 3.6, a B+    

               ..keith


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

They shouldn't sleep.  "Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals,” Vladimir Nabokov writes in “Speak Memory.” He goes on, “It is a mental torture I find debasing … I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.” 

Nine bedraggled Russian expats struggled out of a deep slumber to consider the colors and tones of a by-gone childhood.  A tenth arrived and they all boarded the late train to Biarritz. They jostled and pushed their way to the train window and observed these thin wires, rising and falling, in passing:

Rob E:  I loved the discussion; I learned a lot.  I appreciated the insights, and I also share the sentiments expressed:  some chapters were not interesting to me.  Nabokov has quite the mind. B
   I'm still glad I picked the book, even though I didn't rate it highly.  I liked the analogy of how people react to art and literature in similar, but different ways.  I don't feel like it was another Bluefeather Fellini shame sandwich for me. It was very interesting to hear everyone's take on the book -- and enlightening.

Mike:  Thanks for choosing this book.  I have begun to read it several times before, with a severe lack of self-discipline, but I always remember one of the great opening lines in the English language: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."
  Charlie mentioned that paintings can be abstract, they don't have to show a subject, but books should tell a story.  I submit some writers are a hybrid of poetry and prose creators:  they paint with words, they do things with language that affect you, that get a reaction from your soul.  Conrad, McCarthy, Nabokov have such power with the English language.  Jonathan Yardley says Speak, Memory can be picked up and read at random to provide this pleasure, this language painting. Yet I will admit I wish Chapter 3 had been painted over, or provided as primer in an Appendix.  A-

Tom:  I will append Yardley's comments, except he said he had no idea how many times he had read Speak, Memory.  I have read it three times.  A.

Dick J:  It's time to bring down the average grade. I did not enjoy it and I would not recommend it.  C

Ken:  I was frustrated by there being no translation, plus overall it was tedious, boring.  B-

"They accused me of not conforming to my surroundings; of "showing off" (mainly by peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms, which came naturally to me); ..."
Chapter Nine, page 185.

Charlie:  I am negative too.  B-, borderline C.  Boring, arrogant, although the last 50 pages of the book were good.  I wish I had never read two-thirds of it.

Keith:  A staccato; Nabokov is the Beethoven of writers; he used many pencils with no erasers.  He spent 50 years in exile from surrealistic imagery.  Too much family; I would have enjoyed more philosophy.  Samples he provided:  "Enjoy life - but not too much."  "One is always at home in one's past."  [this drove me to many bottles of wine].  "Sleep is moronic, a nightly betrayal of genius."
  I suggest get rid of the other 98% of the book, as this could be a great 50 page book.  This book is a dismal failure; memory is closest to a fixed star in a rude world.
  I enjoyed (50 pages):  B-

Bob Woods:  I have been a Nabokov fan ever since Pale Fire; beyond that, not much in English is available.  I found it very interesting and give it an A

Bob Simon:  I found the flashbacks disconcerting.  I would never recommend this book, and I would never read it again.  B-

Karl:  Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the book.  I took it as a collection of essays, which gave me a satisfying frame of reference:  A-

This Nabokov guy can write!

  Normally, I have little interest in biographies, especially autobiographies. This book being touted as the latter didn’t exactly engender much enthusiasm in me to read it. Not reading it would have been a mistake though, as I enjoyed it very much. Classifying Speak, Memory as an autobiography is, I believe, a bit of a mischaracterization. It’s really a collection of snapshots from the first 40 or so years of the author’s life.
  In that regard, the book is very effective – up to a point -- in showing the reader what youth and education was like for Nabokov. That he started out “privileged” is an understatement. That he subsequently endured a series of tragedies – the loss of his family’s wealth and status, exile, the assassination of his father, the starvation death of his brother in a concentration camp – didn’t seem to have affected him nearly as much as the lack of closure from his relationships with, first Colette, then Mademoiselle O, finally with Tamara. But who knows? Maybe he just downplayed their impact on his life. Either way, I’m still left with the impression that I don’t really know who Vladimir Nabokov, the man and author, is. That’s okay, but speaks to why characterizing the book as an autobiography is misleading.
  While the fifteen essays are put together in an orderly, chronological fashion, I’m fascinated that they were written out of order, over many years, and in many very different locations. Not surprisingly, there is some unevenness to the 15 chapters of the book, which is a minor criticism.
  What I really appreciated about the narrative is that not only was the author able to recollect these snippets of his earlier life with amazing detail – both sensual and factual -- but that he was simultaneously able to evaluate and objectify his role in those snippets, often with some self-deprecating humor. Absolutely remarkable! 

... and from far outside of the childhood mansion:

We'll be heading home on Thursday from a camping trip to Cloudcroft, so we may not be home in time to join in the Zoom meeting. My comments on your selection follow: I found Speak, Memory interesting, but at times mind-numbing. Whenever he lapsed into hunting butterflies or composing chess problems, I lost interest, but then I'm neither a lepidopterist nor a chess master. Sadly, the beauty of his language could not overcome my boredom in those instances. In spite of Nabokov's contention in the "Foreword" that the work was "a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections," I had difficulty sometimes following his system. One certainly cannot criticize his knowledge of the English language and his skill in using it. I thoroughly enjoyed the power and beauty of the words he chose. B
  - Jack 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Spy and The Traitor by Ben Macintyre

Nine well-meaning English agents struggled through various disguises and meeting signals to join up electronically via a Verizon cell tower in Southwest London.  Their clandestine voices could be heard over the double-decker buses in the vicinity:

Ken – The author MacIntyre descended from royalty: 14th King’s Hussars and his grandmother was a daughter of a Viscount. He attended King’s College – Cambridge and graduated in 1988.
  Why write another version when Oleg published the original history (Next Step – Execution) in 1995? This was Oleg’s second book. He published his first in 1994. It appears MacIntyre had access to MI-6 files

Tom – MacIntyre over-dramatized several things. For example, How could the Russians believe the West was planning to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike?

Jack- I served 20 years in intelligence. SAC -1983 before Able Archer We intercepted lots of chatter in military channels regarding concerns about provocation and intentions.

Dick – I noticed how Dick – I noticed how many times Oleg mentioned the corruption, ineptitude and incompetence by Soviet spies.

Jack – I was amazed how many British politicians were Soviet spies and sympathizers

Tom:  I liked the book, It was a page turner and well written, especially for a nonfiction book.

Dick:  I was bothered by the overkill on information and troubling diversion from the plot. It put me to sleep.

Charlie:  I liked that he stuck to the facts and did not introduce any perceived thoughts of others.

Bob Woods:  I have a Moscow story. I stayed in a hotel in Moscow in a room that a prior guest thought was bugged. He tore apart the room looking for bugging devices. When he removed a brass plate on the floor, the chandelier in the room below his fell down.

Dick:  His research was very impressive. I have done research and his was very competent.

Charlie:  the book relied upon interviews and Oleg’s published book. There was not access to files.

Jack:  He had 100 hours of interviews with Oleg. It was not until the 1970’s that the British admitted the existence of MI-6.

Bob Simon:   I thought the two wives were heroines. Changing the baby and offering the dogs crisps that threw the dogs off Oleg’s scent was brilliant.

Tom:  I was amazed that they used all the normal spy techniques one reads about in spy books, such as chewing gum on a lamp post, strolling eating a Mars bar with a Harrod’s shopping bag.

Dick:  Did MacIntyre over-glorify Gordievsky?

Ken:   He was an important spy. I am amazed it took from 1995 to now for this book to be published.

Charlie:  He was the right guy at the right time. It was the end of the Soviet era, the emergence of Gorbachev.

Jack:  Oleg was also a hero because he was motivated by idealism and not money. The book was just as suspenseful as fiction. I was amazed he hitched to a bar at the Russian border to get a beer while waiting for the escape team. The Brits have avoided publishing his name. I looked for recent articles on Gordiesky and found only one.

Bob Simon:  Ken sent an article on three Russian traitor spies from the Smithsonian that describes Gordievsky’s defiltration from Russia.

Ken:  I was amazed that the British modified the drive shaft of a Land Rover to pass through the door so the hump could be made into a compartment to hide a person.

Bob Simon:   The article also suggests that there are other moles because the events that led to Gordievsky’s defiltration and the other Russian mole’s apprehension occurred in the timeline between Aldrich Ames' first contact with the Russians in April and his big document dump in May. Western intelligence is not sure the Russians got the incriminating evidence from Ames. The article speculates that there may be other American or British moles.

Jack:  There are other issues besides moles. For example, the NSA contracts for lots of services and that creates concerns about motivations, like Snowden’s disclosures.

Charlie:  ... or with electronic surveillance How do you know how information is obtained?

Jack:  I retired from intelligence 37 years ago at the age of 42. In the signal corps we did not mix with Embassy staff.

Bob Woods:  This was a manual for espionage, very detailed.

Karl:  What a story! The level of detail and the clarity of the writing are impressive. I’d wondered whether the amount of detail was necessary to convincingly tell the story of Gordievsky and the relevant snippets on Ames or whether the tale could have been told more crisply by leaving some of them out. After some thought, I’d decided that, while maybe it could, the book is just fine as written. The writing is clear and not overly descriptive. The flow and pacing are good. The story is laid out in a logical manner and not at all confusing.

What gives this book a special place in the espionage archives of the cold war is the inclusion of the implications of the information provided by Gordievsky, not just the information itself. Absolutely fascinating story that should most definitely have been told. And it is told well. The impact that Oleg Gordievsky had on helping the world through the Cold War period should be better known. Thanks to this book, it can be.  A flat out terrific A

Sidebar:  I started reading The Spy and the Traitor about three or four days after finishing The Man who Played with Fire by Jan Stocklassa. That book is about the investigation of the 1986 street corner assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme -- a case that was just officially closed last week after 34+ years with no conclusion. By comparison, that book is poorly constructed, confusing in places and not well crafted. Of course, it was written in Swedish and translated to English. So, while Macintyre's book is way better, the Stocklassa book is just as fascinating. Ollie North, Bill Casey, and P W Botha make small cameo appearances. There's also Apartheid, Iran Contra, Kurdish separatists, and number of right wing nuts, a movie star, gun runners, an ammunition manufacturer. a German car dealer, and more. There's the extensive notes of Illustrator/ journalist/author Stieg Larsson (of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame). And, the story takes place in Sweden, England, Northern Cyprus, South Africa, the US, and more. For club members who enjoyed this month's book and are willing to read another fascinating tale, though not one that's especially well written, it's a candidate. I'm not going to use if for my December choice because I can already hear the complaints about there being too many characters, holes in the logic, and two somewhat conflicting objectives of the author -- all of which would be legitimate -- but it's worth a mention, nevertheless, just because the story is so interesting.

Jack:  An incredible, fascinating and well written story. I found it fairly easy to follow in spite of the long list of players and their interrelationships. It was a real page turner for me. I give it an A

Charlie:  Excellent, perfect non-fiction, well researched.  A

Dick:  Grade:  A-.

Tom:  Incredible story. Verging on unbelievable. What was the sequence of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Strategic arms programs. SDI and neutral particle beam weapons This story is part of a bigger story.  A great story, adequately written.  Grade:  A

Keith: was unable to obtain the book from the library so did not grade the book.

Bob Woods:  Fascinating, well organized, good chronological order, good pictures of how intel works. A personal story – I worked with a team on a top secret project that made a breakthrough that the Soviets copied in one year. Grade:  A

Bob Simon:  I like its authenticity. Grade: A

Ken:  this was a page turner for me both from history and spying Grade:  solid A

Rob: See attached review Grade:   A-



...and from far outside the Central Committee:
I look forward to Ken’s report on how Ben Macintyre got into this project. Since Oleg had already written his story, one would think there was not much more to relate. What inspired Macintyre to essentially start over – and was his book wildly more successful than Oleg’s?

 I had numerous thoughts while reading this book. One recurring ‘vision’ was “Spy vs Spy” in the old Mad comic books. Another was, “Hey, the author is giving away all the tricks – now it will be so much harder for our next exfiltration to succeed. Shouldn’t this account remain classified?”

 I don’t know if I would have ever known the name Oleg Gordievsky if Ken had not selected this book. I’m sure it must have been in the news at one time; but I mainly only remember Aldrich Ames (never heard him referred to as “Rick”) as being a turncoat who accounted for the deaths of many of ‘our’ agents in Russia.  Until this book I never realized how cold-blooded Ames did it just for the money.

This is another of those true stories that I always wonder if it would be told at all if it were not successful, if it did not have a happy ending. Say, for example, when Oleg was called back to Moscow that he just disappeared, never to be heard from again – would this book have been written anyway?

 I was most impressed with the way Macintyre told the story – it was well crafted. I didn’t know PIMLICO was going to be used until it was – in fact, when Oleg was assigned to the London KGB group, I thought, “Well, now it will be easy to get him ‘out’.” And I was never sure until it happened if the kids and Leila were going along or not.

There were many Russian names, many characters, but this did not hinder me from following the story or appreciating the action. I was amazed at the intricacy of signals such as an orange peel left under a park bench. Wow, I will never look at litter the same way again! Perhaps I will clean up the trash outside to help foil some devious Russian plot in Four Hills Village.

I will always want to hear how Oleg’s life is going – is he depressed? Lonely?  Lady friends? Keeping busy with lectures? Is he on Facebook? Any second thoughts? I wonder if his story provides some of those follow-on details, at least as far as 2015. Good job of telling a complex, amazing story: A
                       -  Mike

Mike, your comments sent me to the Web to try and figure out why Macyntyre needed to write his book. Although Oleg’s book, titled “Next Step Execution: The Autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky”, was first published in 1995 and had decent Amazon reviews, it only had 168 reader reviews whereas Macintyre’s 2018 book had 2413 reader reviews in a much shorter lifetime so Oleg’s book was not much of a commercial success.

I tried to find what Macintyre added to the story and, according to interviews, Macintyre said he had substantially more access to the case workers and important players in the CIA, MI-6 and KGB. Because these sources all had signed Official Secrets Acts and similar documents, he said that talking to him was illegal and they shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps it was easier to get them to talk since more than 20 years had passed since Oleg’s book was published.

Oleg wrote a second book in 1994 titled Comrade Kryuchkoy’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975-1985. It elicited even fewer reader reviews (4) on Amazon and therefore wasn’t a big seller.
       -  Ken

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Nine old hunters warmed their hands as they gathered around their monitors for the second ever Last Thursday virtual Book Club meeting. Two hunters were swept down the river and never regained solid footing, and one skinner left camp early.  Our host Dick Jensen reminded us that Butcher's Crossing was the first of three great novels that John Williams wrote.  [Stoner (1965) and Augustus (1972) also were award-winning].  As they gathered around the electronic campfire, they told their stories:


Jack:  I enjoyed Butcher's Crossing. The story line certainly kept my interest. It was hard not to pay attention to Miller and hard not to anticipate a tragic end and you all know the Irish in me loves a tragic ballad. I liked John Williams' writing style--straightforward and very descriptive. I did not find it an easy read, however, a la Max Evans or Louis L'Amour. Williams' emphasis on the harshness of life in the west was more akin to Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion. I would certainly recommend it to my friends who enjoy western fiction. A

Karl:  I didn’t really enjoy this book. I didn’t hate it; but I didn’t like it much either.

The problem for me started with the Introduction. It gave away almost the entire story. Unfortunately, my impression after reading it was that I didn’t want to read the book – exactly the opposite of what it was probably intended to do.

Though, read it, I did. It annoys me that I didn’t understand Will Andrews at all – not from the beginning; not during the buffalo hunt ordeal; and certainly not afterwards. What I did find extremely interesting is the perspective from which the story was told. Technically, it was written in the third person. However, it was really written from Andrew’s perspective as not a single shred of insight into the thinking of the other five characters was evidenced and all descriptions of them were from Andrews’ point of view. What was interesting is that even though the story was told from Andrews’ perspective, I learned very little of his motivations for wanting to participate in a buffalo hunt and what he thought about the experience during and after it. Unless I missed it, there was precious little regarding the “coming of age” lessons and insights that the introduction promised that Andrews took away from his experiences.

I must say that I did like how the characters: Miller, Schneider, and Hoge were drawn and revealed. I didn’t get much of a feel for McDonald and Francine, but that wasn’t troublesome as their roles were minor. My impression is that John Williams is a good writer – but that he had flawed judgment in how he decided to let the reader come to know his protagonist, Will Andrews. Aside from that, his descriptive skills, pacing, clarity, conversations (limited though they were), and realism were all topnotch. Sadly, they didn’t save the book for me.

 I like the title of the book, but after having read it, think that it is inappropriate as very little of the book takes place in the town of Butcher’s Crossing.

Finally, the senselessness of massive buffalo hunts was deftly highlighted by the huntsmen losing their entire load and learning of the worthlessness of their remaining cache. But I already knew of the senselessness of massive buffalo slaughter, so in the end I learned nothing new.

I didn't like the book, but I like how it was structured.  I would not recommend it.  B-

Ken:  I really enjoyed this book.  Reminded me of my youth.  A-

Tom:  I liked this book too.  Reminded me of the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948, Bogart] when the gold ended up floating away on the river.  I also thought the term 'hunt' was not applicable - the author showed us how horrific it was  B+

Bob Simon:  I have mixed feelings.  The book captures that span of time well; it also captures the sadness.  The sadness of destroying the buffalo and the Indian cultures.  The part I loved:  they knew how to meet the problems encountered in the wild.  They had survival skills.  This could be a case study for any Boy Scout.  As I think back over the book:  Will Andrews and his succumbing in the hardships.  He was a Lost Soul in my mind.  What I found most interesting:  the change of fashion back East from buffalo hides was a big surprise.  The Ending was crude:  Miller burning the hides was cruel and unjust.  A-

Charlie:  Grade B.  I didn't really care for it.  I tired of the description of the geography and the plants.  It struck me as not well constructed.  The character flaws were evident:  Miller needed to kill all the buffalo.  The story was too long - things got worse and worse.  I did not want something depressing.

Mike:  Charlie had confessed to me earlier in the quarantine period that he had difficulty getting into a book, that he would rather recline on the couch and watch a good movie.  I had that feeling as well, especially as I staggered into Butcher's Crossing.  But I fashioned some mental snowshoes and trudged on, and as I made progress, I enjoyed the telling of this clash of macho personalities more and more.  I learned you had best listen to Miller - however, one of three big surprises to me:  Schneider survived the blizzard snowfall on his own.

Like Prof. Genoni, I couldn't help but picture this as a movie.  I wanted to cast The Duke as Miller - not the young John Wayne, but the Rooster Cogburn edition.  Maybe Gene Hackman as Schneider - as Tom says, he was practical, his arguments made sense from a "let's make sure we survive" view.

We didn't talk about it, but there was a strong environmental message throughout, climaxing with the author's writing at the end.  Unlike Karl, I did learn something new:  give me a horse and a couple of sharp knives, and I'll show you how to skin a buffalo.  A

Bob W:   I learned quite a lot from this book. A number of technical details were clarified in the text without being pedantic. I assume that the remarks about The Sharps Rifle are accurate. Also, the next time I have to actually skin a bison I will be spared the embarrassment of starting on the wrong end. The style of narration was excellent and well suited to the subject. I would give this one an A minus.

Rob E:  Sorry I didn't join in on Bob Simon's connection.  I heard the discussion, though, through Karl's connection with my phone.

I liked the book and was most impressed by how much detail the author got into the story.  It read like he could have observed a Buffalo hunt in Colorado.  He created all that imagery out of his head!  Thus, A from me.

I'll need some help zooming next month's book discussion.  Tom is our Mr. Nabokov.  He can probably provide a lot of background, etc.

Dick J:  I like this book.  I'll give it an A.  I have (finally) 7:30 am surgery - send some good vibrations toward Central and I-25.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

It was electric.  The eight ersatz Zulu warriors congregated virtually just outside Soweto.  They learned that Trevor Noah was born in 1984, and is just 36 yrs of age today.
The Amended Immorality Act of 1985 related to his mother's marriage and thus his birth.  In 2011, he relocated to the United States, and in December 2014 he was contributing to The Daily Show on Comedy Central (cable TV). He is currently under a 5 yr (until 2022) extension contract on The Daily Show.  He wrote this book in 2016, and in 2018, his second book was The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library.  The electronic attendees had much to say:

Jack:  I enjoyed the book, learned a lot about Trevor Noah and Apartheid as viewed from his perspective.  I enjoyed his stories, but as Karl said, it was a collection of his stories, rather than a chronological coming-of-age bio.  I had some trouble with his bouncing around from 9 yrs old then 15 then 9.  A-

Kenny G:  I agree with the comments we've heard.  Fascinating, with how close he came to being thrown in jail; I learned a lot.  A-

Charlie:  I enjoyed it for the reasons mentioned.  A-  Made me more sensitive to Apartheid.  The author is a very clever fellow who describes a dismal life as funny.  I would recommend it.

Karl:  A very worthwhile read. The book – a collection of short stories, really – is well-written, well laid-out, logical in its order -- which is more or less chronological, and completely interesting. When Amazon delivered my copy, I was in the middle of another book. I opened the package and started to look through the book. Thirty pages later, I realized that I had gotten sucked into it immediately. Then I alternated between the two books until I’d finished the first one.

Born a Crime tells a story of a South African growing up during the end of Apartheid from the perspective of someone of mixed race. What impressed me most about the book is that the stories are told without a shred of bitterness. Given the circumstances and conditions at the time, that seems remarkable to me. I’d never heard of the author, nor had I read any of the book reviews before I finished the book, so I had no preconceptions. (I’ve since looked him up on You Tube and read the blurbs.)

 I came away with at least partial understanding of the South African situation that prior to reading the book had been completely unknown to me other than at the most aggregate level. I have tremendous respect for Noah’s mother. What an amazing woman. For the author himself, I have a less positive opinion, though still a favorable one, though I freely admit that I am seeing him as an old, white, American that has never been oppressed in any way, not as someone who has lived through what he has.

Without hesitation, I’d recommend this book.  A-

Bob Simon:  Also an A-  I noticed re "right from wrong" their tribal conflicts in South Africa.  It can label you as an enemy of a tribal group when he interacted with, say Zulu.  A wonderful book - I would recommend it.

Mike:  This was a love story to  the author's mother.  As I am writing my book of family stories, I was interested in how he introduced each collection of stories with a segment in a different font, and in boldface.  My final grade is an A-, which shows the influence of my colleagues here:  Having watched the first few Trevor Noah shows following the departure of Jon Steward on The Daily Show, I had preconceptions before I read the book.  I had come to this virtual meeting with a solid B+ but I am convinced by the segments discussed that it was better than that.

Bob Woods:  I will follow the herd:  A-   He captured what Life was like for him, but the book was almost too polished.  His English and his grammar were very Western.

Ron B:  A lot of information, I liked the book.  A


He virtually existed for only 15 minutes, but he left his imprint:

I had heard about Born a Crime by Trevor Noah several times. I always thought it would be interesting to read but I never did. So, I was pleased when Ron chose the book as the book for April.

I enjoyed reading the book a lot. It is an interesting story about an interesting individual growing up in South Africa. I have read quite a bit about South Africa over the years and am always interested in learning more. Noah's book gave me insight into the life of a colored person growing up in South Africa.

The book is full of interesting stories that were told in an interesting manner. The book is quite well written. The only real criticism I have is that the book does not seem to be organized in a logical manner. I would give the book an A
    Dick