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