Monday, August 20, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

A treasure. So much so that I am not releasing it (through bookcrossing) but instead keeping it in my permanent collection.

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City I expected to read about the excesses in the "green zone" in Iraq, and those are certainly discussed here. But more than that this book takes us from the end of the original attack on Iraq to the end of Bremer's reign, introducing the characters heading up different parts of the occupation and describing what they tried to do and what they actually accomplished.

This book could have been called "How it all went so horribly wrong". There were times, when I was reading it, when I didn't want to turn another page, I didn't want to know where the lack of planning and direction took each leader in turn. The results were, without exception, awful.

Chandraskekaran, a NY Times editor now, was a middle east correspondent at the time he was working on this book. He was on the ground, talking to the players, and outside the green zone, observing Iraqi activity as well. I don't think you could say he provides a completely neutral view. It's impossible to be faced with obvious failure and not draw a few conclusions. But he does maintain an understated approach that is remarkably evenhanded. In addition to the overall impression that this occupation was poorly planned and insensibly carried out, the book gave me the sense that many of those working in the green zone honestly were trying to do right. Even Bremer, as micromanaging and despotic as he could be, wanted to "save" Iraq. Unfortunately, he failed to take the time to find out what really needed to be done, not just what would make a good media bite. He didn't listen well and he was as tunnel-visioned as Bush in his pursuit of his own version of victory.

Others were not so arrogant, but many were as uninformed and uninterested in learning anything about the Iraqi people. It was inevitable that no good could come of this effort under those circumstances.

There were a few leaders who actually got things done, but they tended to do so in spite of the provisional government and Bremer rather than because of them. I cannot sufficiently summarize how the administration of the occupation blocked one plan after another that would actually have gotten the electricity flowing again, people working again, roads functioning again. How the wrong decision was made again and again. I can't spell it out here but Chandraskekaran does an amazing job of it, detail by detail.

Immensely readable, well-researched, an incredible and important book.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

After reading The Great Influenza I became newly interested in the way diseases are spread. That book details not only the lives of the many persons involved in research and public health responses to the influenza of 1918, but also details the lives of the virus itself. I was interested in another outbreak, this time of cholera, in London in 1854. Specifically, I was interested in The Ghost Map.

The cholera outbreak lasted just about a week, the worst of it anyway, but it was horrifying in its proportions. It also was hardly the first or last time the disease devastated a city. This time, according to Steven Johnson's uncomplicated telling, science ultimately got the better of it.

The two principals responsible for discovering and alerting the health boards and the population to how the disease is transmitted were John Snow, physician, and Henry Whitehead, cleric. Both were young at the time and both observant and given to a questioning state of mind. They ultimately clashed with the popular theory at the time that diseases such as cholera are spread by "miasma" - smells in the air. The worse the smell, the more saturated is the air with disease. Snow suspected, instead, that water carried the disease, even though at the time there was no germ theory and he had no idea what form it took. Whitehead used his social skills and observant mind to bring together the closest to absolute proof that Snow was right.

The story doesn't end with this discovery. All do not live happily ever after.

The public health response was less than ideal, and it was several years before Snow's theory was accepted and acted upon. The response was remarkable, though. A major sanitary sewer project was undertaken that is still in use today. When it was complete the citizens were no longer drinking each other's bodily waste. And cholera could no longer get a foothold.

The real thesis of The Ghost Map is not the telling of this story. It is the implications for urban life today and in the future. Before Snow burst on the scene cities were reaching such proportions that residents lived in daily fear for their lives. It was commonly assumed that large cities would reach some critical mass when the numbers could no longer sustain themselves, spelling the death of the metropolis. Dealing with the daily waste of large numbers of persons appeared an impossible task that would ultimately limit the viability of the city itself. Snow's discovery and the construction of a workable sewer system changed all that. Which is why Johnson's position is that science can conquer almost everything.

It is only in the epilogue that Johnson's short, readable book that this thesis comes to life, rather like an indomitable puppy dog, expecting only the best. He expounds briefly on how viruses and bacteria mutate rapidly (within a day a virus can go through thousands of variations) and then blithely states that our masses of scientists, with our modern technology, can surely keep ahead of this curve.

Even if it were true that scientists are even now creating every possible variation on a virus and finding a vaccine for each, he ignores another significant element: the public health response. We have seen in this book that public health officials held the old-line views on miasma and hindered rather than helped the response in 1854. Similarly during the Katrina hurricane response we found that although the science was there it was not in use.

I can't buy Johnson's cheery prognosis. He ignores the far more complicated science of these disease elements that is described in great detail in that other book, The Great Influenza. He largely ignores the ignorance of the public at large and its alarming attachment to the supernatural. Most importantly, he ignores the political animal.

This book is an engaging story of one outbreak. It is well-written and informative and it includes genuine heroes. Read it for that story. For any theory of the future it would be better to read a more thorough discourse on public health issues, including The Great Influenza.

book rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Summons, by John Grisham

Surprisingly lean for Grisham, The Summons is a fairly straightforward tale that asks us what's ethical in a situation where you know the legal answer but may not know the right answer.

Frankly, I knew the right answer from the start, but I suspect many others will not be so certain (not that that's a bad thing!).Our hero, who, like many Grisham characters, has his share of flaws, is faced with different choices when he travels to meet with his father for a discussion of his father's wishes for his estate. At first, everything seems direct and simple, but then Ray discovers something that sends him on a hunt for an answer. But it does more than that, and that is the core of the question.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Most Famous Man in America, by Debbie Applegate

The Most Famous Man in America: the biography of Henry Ward Beecher, is a comprehensive, exhaustive story of Beecher's life, written almost like a novel. The book introduces us to a vaguely familiar figure in American history and brings him to sparkling life, complete with a look at his famous family and the scandal that later almost destroyed him.

Henry Ward Beecher was one of Lyman Beecher's children, and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Lyman became well-known as a preacher in his time, as a strict Calvinist, a believer in the old testament way of seeing God: vengeful, punishing. He was known for following his own strict code of ethics, but at home he was a loving, forgiving father.

Unlike many evangelical Christians today, he also believed strongly in education and questioning, encouraging all of his children to learn all they could. He wanted all of his sons to follow him into the ministry. Eventually, hesitantly, Henry did just that.

From childhood, though, Henry did not resemble his father. He was easy-going, optimistic, playful. He made others laugh. He developed a vague sense that Lyman's view of God didn't mesh with Lyman's own actions, and he puzzled over the twisted logic needed to follow Calvinist tenets.

Over time, as much for self-acceptance as for any other reason, he strayed from the Calvinist and developed a view focused more on Jesus and on love. At first he took little steps away from his childhood teachings but eventually just threw the whole thing away, embracing not only love and forgiveness but even finding a way to meld the Bible's teachings with the early concepts of evolution.

Henry was a terrific orator. He discovered this talent early in school and eventually this is what made him most famous. What really drew them in, though, was his warmth. Over the years, as crisis followed scandal, he tended to emerge with his head above water mostly because of this capacity. People liked him.

Henry's unique brand of religion was more palatable than the old-style version. People liked to hear that there was hope for them, that when they sinned they were just human. Above all, Henry believed and taught that it is "more important to do good than to be good."

It's clear from his life in this book that much of what he preached is what he wanted to hear himself. He was far from a saint. He overspent, went into debt constantly, enjoyed riches and good clothes, loved being with women. Later in life he even took up drinking (he did continue the church's teachings against drink, gambling,and prostitution throughout his life). Eventually his relationships with a few women led to a major scandal, bringing all of the pundits of the day well out in the open, destroying friendships, and sobering his effervescent personality.

Overshadowed by his large presence was sharp, questioning intellect. Beecher became friends with several of the so-called transcendentalists, and in fact brought much of that high-minded philosophy down to earth, where he himself practiced it. He was passionately interested in science and in the origin of man as a biological being.

It was his radical approach to religion that earns him his place in history, however. Most modern churches follow his practice, so much so that we forget Christianity has not always preached love and forgiveness.

The biography is a sympathetic yet not sycophantic telling of the story. It's clear that Applegate likes what she knows of Beecher (and she knows a lot: she started this book as a thesis at Amherst,where Beecher went to college, and the librarians there led her to thousands of treasures about and by Beecher) but she does not let it cloud her vision. She tells it as it is, careful to specify what is known absolutely and what is not.

As a bonus,the story encompasses a wade swath of early American history. A significant portion of the book tells the tale of slavery and abolition. It is easy, sometimes, from the distance of time, to imagine that it was a simple situation: slavery is bad and therefore must go. But of course it was not simple. Lincoln himself famously said that he was for the union and if that meant slavery had to stay then it would; if that meant slavery had to go it would. In other words, political expediency outflanked moral obligations then as well as now.

What made Harriet's book (Uncle Tom's Cabin) so famous is that she made slaves human. This had not been done before. Critics now can easily rail against her sentimental writing and characters but those critics weren't there then. She wasn't a great writer but she said what others did not.

Henry, too, leaned toward abolition. But he wavered again and again, primarily for his own political reasons. He was no sturdy oak of principle. He would sacrifice principles and people to protect himself. Yet still people loved him.

There was more to this extreme man than can possibly meet the eye today. This book helps us realize that and gives us an excellent picture of the times.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

The Amateur Marriage is the story of two people with very different personalities who are flung together during World War II and decide to make a life together.

Pauline is an energetic, attractive, talkative young woman, who likes to enjoy herself. Michael is quiet and reserved and likes to stay home.

Michael rather impetuously proposes to Pauline, remembering how she looked, how she ran toward him to say goodby when he was leaving for the war, her red coat flying behind her. At various times in his later life he remembers that moment and reaffirms his love for her.

The marriage has a rocky beginning. Pauline is expected to move into a tiny apartment above Michael's mother's store, and to live with Michael's mother. She manages to adjust to it but has her eye on a more suburban type life, which she ultimately obtains.

The two don't understand each other and it appears that neither knows quite what to do about it. The rocky beginning starts to spread into the middle and further out into Pauline and Michael's time as grandparents. For this novel takes us through the entire marriage, including significant portions related to their children.

I felt that the descriptions of Pauline in particular are almost mocking, almost parody. Little episodes from their lives as it spans decades are drawn lightly and similarly with almost a smirk, mocking the age and the sensibilities of the time, and the nature of this woman. She isn't particularly likeable.

Michael is drawn with a little more affection, yet his stiffness is always apparent and often irritating.

Tyler seems to like looking back at the fifties and sixties in particular, and she has an ear for how it sounded, how people talked and thought then. Even though I felt the sets were accurate, I would have preferred more inside work, more of Pauline and Michael inside than out. In general, I like Anne Tyler's work but feel that it touches me lightly rather than deeply. It makes me think a little but does not linger.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is my new hero. In The Blind Watchmaker he has outlined, in detail, the many aspects of evolution, and in particular "natural selection", so that it is no longer a foggy theory but instead the only answer to our existence that covers the bases and makes sense.

Dawkins is not confrontational or strident, but nevertheless committed to his position. He is careful, as all scientists should be, not to claim anything that has not been substantiated, and when that substantiation is incomplete he says so. Thus, one can believe that if he were presented with evidence of an entirely different version of the beginnings of life on earth, and if that evidence were compelling, he would be open to looking at it and even moving to that position.

However, he has, in this book, exhausted all current theories and concluded that what is now called "neo-Darwinism" is the answer, and the only one that fits all known facts.

I always thought I understood Darwin, but Dawkins provides the details I didn't even know I was missing, and which many people have misunderstood from the first day The Origin of Species was published. Those misunderstandings have led to many attacks on natural selection that turn out to be simply grounded in ignorance.

Not only does this book explain, to my satisfaction (it is not written for fellow scientists, although many would benefit from reading it), the workings of natural selection, but it also calls into question, peripherally, the reliance many of us have on some kind of mystical existence in the universe. For example, I long held a sense that "fate" governed my life. I was "meant" to meet this person or to get lost in this location.

I no longer feel that way. Facing life as a truly free event, in which nothing is guaranteed other than that the laws of physics and biology will be followed, has opened my eyes, taken me to a different place. It isn't a dark and lonely place but rather the opposite.

I can't help but wonder about the obsession with some kind of higher being, particularly in this country but really in our entire world. Is it because of the promise of an afterlife? I know that's part of the reason people will want to "believe". But why DO they believe? It isn't Dawkins' job here to answer questions like this but it raised them for me, and I am glad others are seeking the answers (Sam Harris, for example).

Interestingly, from what I've read, Darwin believed in a god. One that began it all - I think he may have had some trouble working up the very first life form in his head - but he did not believe that this "creator" had any part in people's or other animals' lives afterwards. To hold a view like this at a time like that was unthinkable, of course. As it still is today. Whatever your position on the origins of life on earth, you'd do well to read this book.

Bait and Switch, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch follows on the heels of Nickel and Dimed. It's been out for a while now but I only recently got a copy.

Ehrenreich, a journalist, has a way of transforming personal experiences into much bigger themes, while avoiding any obvious attempts at generalizing. Her writing is simple, straightforward, free of jargon and full of humor. In Bait and Switch, as in Nickel and Dimed, she goes undercover, but this time in the world of middle- and upper-management.

She describes her efforts to present herself to the corporate world as an out-of-work PR person, so that she can see first-hand what the laid-off white-collar worker faces. She changes her name legally and gives herself ten months, with the goal of spending the first four to six seeking work and the remaining time actually working. What she finds goes beyond the general confines of her quest.

I could read a thick scholarly book, full of citations (Ehrenreich does sprinkle her text with many footnotes) and reports of major studies, and learn just about exactly what Ehrenreich learns first-hand. True, her own experiences are not statistically meaningful, but she reinforces them with her background reading. So we get a highly-readable, funny, thought-provoking book that we can zip through in one or two days that summarizes the theses of several others in the process. It's compact reading. And if we want to pursue any of these themes in greater detail, the references are there. I have already put a few on my wish list.

In her quest, Ehrenreich comes face-to-face with career counselors, networking sessions, job fairs, career workshops, online connections, and very few actual corporate representatives. She learns how easy it is to waste thousands of dollars and have nothing to show for it except a different "look" and echoes of the constant exhortation that she must be upbeat and positive at all times.

She learns that everyone is selling the same thing: the idea that you, and you alone, are responsible for how well you do. By the end, she begs to differ.

Ehrenreich ends the book with a conclusion that brings it all together and suggests how out-of-work white collar workers might focus on making a bigger change in their world, one that might bring some sanity back to the corporate workplace.

Collected Stories, by Peter Carey

Peter Carey's Collected Stories is an amazing collection of strange short stories by one of the best.

I first found Peter Carey when I happened upon My Life as a Fake, an elaborate tale that interweaved reality, fiction, and fantasy in an absorbing and fascinating way. I am not a fan of fantasy in general, but in the hands of masters like Carey and Garcia Marquez it becomes true literature.

This collection of short stories is at times really ugly, at others redeeming. Carey isn't afraid to spell out what some guts look like, and it just isn't pretty. The stories range all over the place, some of them ironic, horrifying, others flat-out funny. All contain bits of the impossible.

Consider, for example, the tale of the person who discovers that the map makers are drawing land that has simply disappeared into thin air, in an effort to convince the public that nothing is wrong. When the observer starts to see people thinning out...well, you really have to read it.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Company, by Robert Littell

Littell is one of the best spy story writers, in part because he weaves so much real history into his stories and in part because he doesn't get carried away with demonizing one side or another.

The Company is a massive spy story that takes us from the end of WWII through the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet states. In other words, it traces the history of the cold war.The cold war is seen through the eyes of several characters, most prominently Jack McAuliffe.

Jack is fresh out of Yale at the start of the story, and is ending his career with the CIA at the end. He joins the CIA with other close friends while a Russian roomie (Yale) takes up spying for the Soviet Union. We follow each of these characters, along with a few significant others, though the bad times and the good. We learn how "The Company" thinks, how convoluted plans and thinking can become. We also gain some insight into the KGB through a few of its operators.

Different readers are going to take away different messages from this book. It can be seen simply as a "good read" and be done. It is well written and carries the reader along literally for days. It can also be seen as a recognition that "good" is often indistinguishable from "bad" if you can get out of the way of the intent of the perpetrators. There are some scenes in which the Soviets are portrayed simplistically, as badasses blindly following a leader. Fortunately, there are many others that feature complex Soviet characters just as capable of good as of evil. In the end, it is the fundamental theory that "the ends justify the means" that gives me greatest pause.

If one were to count bodies chances are as many would lie at the feet of the CIA as the KGB. There is a distinction in this book that United States laws prevent us from torturing and killing those we suspect of being spies, while the KGB has no such compunction. I don't know if this was true then. It certainly isn't true now. Similarly, operations like the Bay of Pigs fiasco suggest that when we plan operations rather than simply gather intelligence we can go badly awry, and the cost of those mistakes is many lives not American. Throughout the book it appears that one of the prime aims of the CIA is to keep itself in business. Yet more than once I wondered how much good it has actually done. On balance.