Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

The elephants steal the show in this book - as the author intended. Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called, Thula Thula in South Africa. One day he unexpectedly gets a call asking if he'd accept nine rogue elephants.  He's told that if he doesn't accept in two months, they will be shot and killed. He's dealing with other issues such as poachers on his land who are threatened by the prospect of elephants. They cannot poach with those big creatures and they sabotage Anthony's efforts to build a fence. When his workers get shot at the situation gets dangerous and Anthony is forced to solve the problem. The nonstop action and issues make this story sound like it is from the Wild West, not the 1990s. When Anthony finally gets the elephants they are so angry he risks his life to save them. Not only do the elephants respond to him, they visit his home after his death of a heart attack in 2012. They return every year on the day of his death to pay their respects. These are amazing animals and this story is a fascinating look into not only running a game reserve, but what local Zulu culture was like, and how humans can communicate with intelligent animals. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Unlike most readers that seemed to love this book, I could not get into it. The character development and lack of internal monologues, made me feel like I was reading historical facts rather than sweeping me into a good story. Even though the facts were interesting and had the author's own twist - enough to keep me going - I know I'll forget this one in the long haul. Every time I thought the character's arc was becoming interesting, there'd be a jarring narrative by a minor character or when I started to actually get into the story, the plot veered in a direction that was predictable because of a forced showdown with the villain. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Give this a go if you like speculative fiction and history, just don't expect much character development.

Cora is abandoned by her mother on a Georgia cotton plantation where she has to survive on her own. When the owner dies and the twin son takes over the plantation, he tortures, beats, and uses the slaves for his own degenerate entertainment and lusts.  Violence and fear reign, instilling terror in the slaves to deter escapes and keep them oppressed. But Cora can't be subdued. Her early survival training course from when her mom took off has created a strong woman. When another slave approaches Cora about escaping, she puts him off until she feels her life is threatened. The two seek out the underground railroad and the reader discovers it is a real railroad that is literally dug underground. I wondered if the novel was going to be a steampunk fantasy at that point, but the author doesn't head in that direction, instead the railroad is a symbol of blacks fighting for freedoms and their vital contributions to building this country into what it is today.

The next alternate historical account is regarding doctors who are practicing eugenics on unsuspecting black women sterilizing them. When some find out what has happened, they go insane. Irony abounds as Cora gets a job working for a living museum where the only live people or actors are the three black women. They live out history as it is falsely told in some of the scenes. Colson Whitehead is reminding readers with his speculations that an alternate history is relevant today. The reader has to make his or her own connections. As Cora says, the U.S. has "stolen bodies working stolen land." He pounds home the message that the U.S. is not one group of peoples' land. Manifest Destiny was a way for white people to conquer and oppress those in the way. It was not justified. The author points to the Trail of Tears and creates his own horrific Freedom Trail where the bodies of blacks are hung from trees mutilated and tortured mile-after-mile.

The strength of Whitehead's novel is how he shows different versions of the past and how literary or historical narration influences the authenticity of history. When Cora reflects on the Bible and the Hebrew slaves she comments how people got things wrong by "accident" and "on purpose." She's watching a minstrel show as she questions history. The white men dressed up as blacks are mocking her culture and ancestry, trying to change the facts. They lie to create a truth that justifies their inhumane actions. The narration is bent to fit the group that is dominant in the society. To acknowledge blacks are human beings that helped build the country is a narration that will not happen in Cora's lifetime. Later when the blacks form a community or safe-haven in which education, freedom, food, and politics flourish, Cora is forced to see that it is a delusion as it is destroyed by threatened white people in town.

The klunky transitions between chapters were jarring and the third person narration pulled me even more out of the storyline. The bounty hunter was interesting but when he isn't killed in one section of the book it was obvious that he'd show up again. Here the plot is forced and lost steam for me. While I see why many liked the uniqueness through the author's use of speculative fiction, the weak character development left me wanting more.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen

I listened to the audiobook while traveling 32 hours (door-to-door) from Africa to the U.S. The audio, narrated by the author, was over 18 hours and never failed to put me to sleep. Bulging with fascinating details, it lulled me to sleep with all its names and acronyms at times, but kept me awake other times. The beginning is an amazing account of the hydrogen bomb that mades me wonder about the after-effects in the islands decades later.

I recommend the book over an audiobook unless you have a good memory for details. I don't. I am going to get the book and skim it again. An ambitious look at a little-known, yet powerful agency, started in the 1950's to win wars. Annie Jacobsen does a good job dramatizing historical events and remaining objective letting the reader decide whether DARPA crosses the line or defends the country in its mission. I can see why this was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize nominee for history.

The arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States meant the belief in "mutually assured destruction" - nations attacking each other with nuclear weapons would destroy themselves in the process. The U.S. decided to develop DARPA in 1958 to stay ahead of the Soviets in new arms and technology, and prevent a nuclear strike. The department developed cutting-edge technological, biological, psychological and scientific warfare. They developed ARPANET, the pre-cursor to today's Intenet, and Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used in the Vietnam War. Sophisticated rifles, drones, and global positioning systems (GPS) make this read like a spy novel at times.

One reviewer, Richard Easton, claims that the information on GPS is incorrect. He's quite detailed in what he considers egregious errors. I would have to do more research in this area to see if I agree or not. I do not agree that the entire book is a wasted effort if that is true as he implies. The GPS is a small portion as the author is covering the entire DARPA history. However, if Jacobsen is wrong, I hope it is corrected in new printings. I hope her book leads to more work on the topic. She wrote it by interviewing 71 former DARPA scientists and reading newly declassified documents from 1958 to the present. It is quite fascinating and original.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

Young readers will like the spy novel subplot. Many have this book on their Newbery contender lists and I thought the beginning unfolded in a weird and engaging way, but I had issues with the crafting of plot and development of characters. Noah Keller is picked up from school one day only to find his world turned upside down as his parents take him to the airport to live in East Germany for six months while his mom finishes her PhD in studying children with speech impediments. Noah has no warning. The sudden flight is suspicious and mysterious. Noah doesn't know what to think when he arrives behind the Wall in a world lacking freedom and full of fear. He makes friends with a neighbor girl that causes all sorts of problems with authorities.

The book lacked authenticity for me.  I've lived in three different countries and every time I move I struggle with some form of culture shock. While I think children can handle it fairly well compared to adults as they are immersed in school, Noah doesn't even struggle with it. Compare it to the book, "Inside Out and Back Again," where the character moves to the U.S. from Vietnam. In that plot the anger and struggles with communicating in a new country using a second language are much more authentic. Noah also learns the language in isolation too quickly. The author gives him a photographic memory to try and justify his gift with learning languages, but he would have needed to be immersed in the culture in some form to become that fluent and have that high of a vocabulary in only three months. But he isn't in a local school. He's at home waiting for approval from the government to go to school.

Noah has a stuttering problem; however, little depth of understanding to the problem. It is a token disability; not like the character in "Paperboy," by Vince Vawter who works on breathing techniques to try and communicate. Also, how could Noah be understood in German when no one could understood him in English except his parents? Noah becomes friends with an East German girl talking to her in his second language fluently.

I didn't think the author captured life in East Germany in a well-rounded way. As a reader, I felt like an outsider looking through a stereotyped Western window or view of behind the iron curtain. Again, it didn't feel well-rounded or authentic, but more from textbooks. Maybe that was because of the way the author chose to explain facts in popup "Secret Files" boxes. I think it is really hard as an outsider trying to understand another culture and capture the sounds, smells, and  uniqueness of what it is like living as an expat. While the suspense is well-done, this fell short for me.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick

My extended essay students are writing papers on terrorism and I know little on the subject. This book gives excellent background knowledge on the rise of modern terrorism in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein's reign ended in Iraq, it created unique opportunities for terrorists. Through various misfortunes and missteps by the Western governments, the beginning of modern terrorism took root in Iraq with the brilliant strategist and thug, leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who took advantage of opportunities that began in Jordan. This book dramatically unfolds the complexities of tribal cultures, interpretations of Islam, and differences among clans that gave rise to terrorism in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq, later ISIS, and its relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front. 

The engrossing narrative is depressing and fascinating as it reveals the desire for ISIS to establish an Islamic state led by a caliph. The first  caliphs, viewed as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, ruled from Damascus and Bagdad. The Ottoman caliphate replaced them in Istanbul expanding the Islamic Empire. The Turkish conquerors allowed the Sharif of Mecca or a Hashemite Emir (descendant of the Prophet Mohammad) to control Holy sites in Mecca for hundreds of years. Jordan's King Hussein's great-grandfather, Emir, teamed with Britain and Western Allies to successfully drive out the collapsing Turkish empire in 1916, and create an independent Arab-Islamic nation called, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Enemies of the new state were the nomadic Ikhwan tribesmen who invaded Jordan in the 1920's and Palestinian militants that attacked in the 1960's. The latter militants were driven out into Syria and Libya. Eighteen times King Hussein's enemies tried to assassinate him. The Jordan intelligence community worked to contain militant threats and the government worked with moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain stability in the country and keep extremists at bay. 

When King Hussein died of natural causes, his son came to power in 1999 and allowed the tradition of granting amnesty to political and nonviolent criminals in prison. The practice ensured loyalty from those in Parliment such as moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. It was under these circumstances that Jordan released Zarqawi and other extremists taking advantage of Abdullah, the inexperienced new king. Zarqawi interpreted jihad in a whole new way and introduced Internet violence, brilliantly exploiting tribal differences between Sunnis, Shiites, and other tribes. While he had initial support, his brutality against innocent people eventually isolated him. 
The book reveals Jordan's secret service and how it worked differently than US intelligence being more effective because of its cultural understandings and connections. As an expat, I've made so many cultural mistakes by filtering the world through my culture's perspective. The US showed an arrogance due to not listening to those that new tribal cultures better than them. The few voices that tried to be heard and had wise advice were ignored by those in power. This book is a good reminder of qualities that make a wise leader and how difficult it is to make decisions in complex situations. Another part of the book shows how the US and Arab prisons that held extremists actually helped unite different terrorist groups in the quest for a caliphate by bringing them all together in one location. 

When  ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, it conquered the second largest city. ISIS raided Mosul's government treasuries giving the rebels millions of dollars to fund their operations of expanding to other territories. The rebels had superior technology with more machine guns and explosives as compared to Iraq's army allowing for a quick downfall of Mosul. Their leader, Baghdadi, is a religious scholar who declared himself caliph. The Muslim world questions this claim as his violence is even more extreme than Zarqawi's. The partnerships formed by Arab and Western governments to fight ISIS shows that most Muslim's do not recognize ISIS.  While I'm just a newbie on this topic, this is a great start to gaining some knowledge and understanding on the issue. 

5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

A dense, award-winning book that relentlessly satires cultural identity, politics, philosophy, pop culture, etc. Paul Beatty goes all-out in a rapid-fire funny and tragic riff; an improvised verbal flood of words on race - at times incomprehensible to this white reader, and other times fascinating. I say, white reader, because much of the slang and cultural references went "Whoosh," over my head. Not that this matters. There is plenty for everyone to eat. Can't say I loved it or hated it. I did admire it. It is a weird mix of comedy, tragedy, and existential absurdity that reflects the current breakdown of gender and racial roles in society and the waffling identity of people trying to figure out their meaning in the world whether black, Muslim, female, transgender, etc.  Behind the laughter is a slashing anger that addresses loss, failure, and flawed institutions on all levels. The serious side is masked by riffs and an absurd, subjective plot. This novel doesn't use familiar literary structures or conventions so if you looking for an alternative read, I recommend it.

The story begins with an African-American nicknamed, Bonbon, being charged by the U.S. Supreme Court for owning a slave and implementing segregation in the community. Bonbon's father was shot by the Los Angeles police and Bonbon received a settlement of two million dollars. He used the money to start a farm mainly growing watermelons and weed. Hominy, a depressed and retired actor who worked on films portrayed in racist scenes on the defunct TV series, The Little Rascals,  has lost his cultural identity and attempts suicide. Bonbon takes him on as his slave and Hominy no longer has an identity crisis. He knows his place in the world once again. 

Meanwhile, Bonbon's town of Dickens has disappeared; eaten whole by the LA suburbs and erased from the maps. Bonbon resurrects the town by instituting segregation. It reminds people of the past and how far (or not) they have come in the world from slavery. Bonbon asks repeatedly, "Who am I? And how can I be that person?" and "Who am I? And how can I become myself?" Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists  have been asking this question for a long time as it establishes a sense of identity. Karen Coates, in "Keywords for Children's Literature," explains how a modernist culture sees identification as a composite whole versus a postmodern culture that emphasizes not a continuous identity but one that continually changes. The characters represent this notion of identity in a vague and multilayered way with no direct answers. 

Beatty masks what side of the argument he stands for with humor. I found it difficult figuring out what his point was at times or if his point was to not have a point. In the last chapter, Bonbon is at a club listening to a black comedian who rips into a white couple sitting in the first row. Bonbon describes the white people as trying to understand the black comedy but obviously not getting it. When the comedian says, "'This shit ain't for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!'" Bonbon responds by wishing he'd stood up to the man and asking, "'So what exactly is our thing?" At first, I thought maybe the author was making a point that he doesn't want assimilation between races, but this didn't follow the themes Beatty points to throughout the story. Instead, I think it ties in with the theme of identity and Bonbons constant "Who am I?" question. The scene shows how the white couple is not aware of their actions nor are they sensitive to the culture they've stepped into in the club. They choose the center row where they are most visible and they laugh at all the wrong jokes at the wrong times. Beatty cynically seems to be implying that things really don't change, a recurring theme that has a steady beat from beginning to end.

The slim plot piles ridiculous situations upon even more ridiculous situations reminding me of my University of Minnesota class on the Theater of the Absurd. Bonbon's existential look at an individual's place and meaning in the world are humorously approached in absurd scenes that make the reader laugh but belie the tragic seriousness of many explosive issues. I'm not sure if Beatty means to shock the audience into action or just become more self-aware of their identity regardless of race and color, but either way that is the effect it had on me. 

The characters are often dealing with losses and failures in life where they seem to have a moment of clarity only for it to disappear in a poof of inaction or incapability to articulate the battle. Bonbon takes offense at guest-speaker, Jon McJone's, nonsense about an African child in slavery being better off having two parents as opposed to today's one parent home. Bonbon thinks to himself that McJones doesn't talk about how people were forced to marry each other during slavery times, how divorce wasn't an option, and how kids were sold off at the whim of the masters. When he tells McJones he's full of crap, Colin Powell says "Like you wouldn't rather be born here than in Africa." Bonbon takes offense at this nativist view that unfairly makes light of the suffering the original slaves went through; however, King Cuz stands up and does the fighting for him. Bonbon, nicknamed "The Sellout", just walks away in the middle of the argument. Oftentimes when Bonbon speaks up it falls on deaf ears. He appears to fail and takes drastic measures to make a point. 

While Bonbon is compared to a cupcake, he is not soft and his actions usually go in the opposite direction of how another would approach these issues. He is questioning the identity of black people by reinstating the past. When Hominy asks to be his slave, Bonbon recognizes that Hominy needs his past identity to find stability in himself. It also reminds people of the need for freedom of choice. Bonbon raises segregation on a bus which reminds people of all they fought for in the Civil Rights Movement to get to the present. When he segregates education it is the white people that want to get into the black school, not the other way around. Loss of freedoms. Loss of identity. Loss of respect for each other. Ultimately Bonbon's losses and failure climax at the Supreme Court where he is charged with violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. He does act in the end and he does make a point and finding himself and meaning in the world. 

Having read "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates and "The Sellout", I find that they both have this underlying anger toward institutionalized racism, except Beatty's book moves beyond the black issue and picks up what it means to be human. The question regarding the meaning of life gives the theme of identity a universalness that applies to more than just the black race; plus, Beatty's emphasis on self-awareness is one that suggests people can move forward. Coates does not offer any hope in his book. At least I felt more like an outsider looking at the back experience versus Beatty's look at racism in general. If you don't give a dickens to whether or not the characters are underdeveloped and the plot is ghostly, but want political incorrectness, laughter, and a mix of intellectual and vulgar street talk then give this a go. It is definitely an original.

5 Smileys

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Hammer of Thor (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #2) by Rick Riordan

Norsk myth is not as vast as Greek or Roman myth when it comes to the gods. The fragmented Skaldic poetry is difficult to decipher with its kennings and the narrative framework is skeletal at times. However, they are rich in meaning showing pre-Christian beliefs and practices in a dramatic narrative. A good storyteller retells the myths in new versions that are their own but also represent the originals. Rick Riordan does just that crafting heroes, gods, goddesses, and giants from myths that are a twist on the original tales with contemporary conflicts and pop culture adding humor and unique characters. Take Heimdall, the god that guards the Rainbow Bridge; he loves to take selfies on his phablet and checks out the world only through those selfies. He's bored and no longer doing his job particularly well which is to listen to threats in the world. The heroes of the story have to coax him back into doing his job.

Riordan layers his characters with themes presenting them as entertaining stock characters or contemporary ones giving depth to the story. Thor is presented as an egocentric dork that loves to stream movies and take the credit for everything along with his wife, Sif, who is vain; yet, both come through when needed by the heroes. Thor was the most popular god for the average person in ancient times. In the Icelandic Sagas by Snorri Sturluson, the adventure he tells of Thor and Loki where Thor poses as a woman marrying Utgard-Loki is full of humor and loss of face for Thor. Riordan weaves this story brilliantly into his plot so that the humans have to face the similar issues, but with the help of the gods are able to outwit the giants.

Riordan also peppers his stories with strong females. The Utgard-Loki marriage shows the female giant is the brains of the operation. The children of Loki are gender fluid characters, Alex and Sam. They are complex, strong, and vulnerable as they search for their identities. Alex can't control her gender changes and has suffered prejudice from others her whole life. It makes her or him aloof and temperamental, but Alex embraces his or her identity and is more confident than Sam, her sister. Sam is gender fluid as well but has never changed into a boy. She is a devote Muslim that works for the gods and while her religious identity is solid her personal identity is shaken as Loki can control her.  Alex says it is because she has not embraced her gender fluid side. Her character arc is not finished and it will be interesting to see what happens in the sequels.

The Viking myths, according to Kevin Crossley-Holland in "Norse Myths," relied on the family unit as they were stronger as one versus individually. They were fiercely loyal to friends and family and they strongly believed in Fate; however, Fate didn't give them a negative outlook - instead they admired those who laughed or endured a noble death. Riordan captures this in his books. The overarching message is that the protagonist, Magnus, values family whether they are blood relatives or not. His adventures carry the strong theme of courage, loyalty to friends, and embracing diversity in each other.

Skaldic poems contain myths, eulogies, and elegies that celebrate people or gods during the 9th to 13th century. They are difficult to understand because of their metaphorical references to contemporary people. The word, "gold," might mean "Freya's tears," and a modern-day reader would have to know the story of Loki tricking Freya by cutting off her hair and replacing it with gold to understand the poetic line. Riordan pokes fun at kennings making up his own or using some originals. My favorite made-up line is directed at Thor, who is referred to as, "Bright Crack" and Alex making a wisecrack about a "Plumber's Crack". Actually, Thor's hall is called, "Lightning Crack" or "Bright Crack" or "Bilskirnir".  Other metaphors difficult  to interpret are: "Bane of wood", that means, "fire"; or "bloodworm", that means "sword." Riordan adds much humor using irony and play-on-words.

The story of the cursed ring  is cleverly worked into the plot (I guess if I had to make up a kenning I'd call it, "Andvari's tears"). It takes the original Norsk tale and places it in a realistic portrayal of a deaf elf whose father has rejected him and blamed him for the deaths of his son and mother - a universal theme that readers can relate to today as much as in ancient times. The ring corrupts the bearer in both the original and here, and the reader will have to wait for the sequel to see what happens to the elf's father. Between Sam's unfinished business and the deaf elf, I'll be picking up book three.

4 Smileys