Blog header 30-second book reviews Sep 7, 2018

30-SECOND BOOK REVIEWS

Updated Nov. 20, 2018, with these new books:

ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder (non-fiction)

FLY BY NIGHT (Jammer Davis Thriller Book 2), by Ward Larsen (thriller)

THE FIFTH RISK, by Michael Lewis (non-fiction)

If you’d like to suggest a book for review, use the “Contact Me” link in the menu above.                        John Pearce

ON TYRANNY, by Timothy Snyder (non-fiction)

When I was looking for background on Hungary for my latest novel, Finding Pegasus, I turned to Timothy D. Snyder, a Yale historian with the sort of sparkling resumé most academics can only aspire to.

He is a scholar of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. He can speak, write, or read eleven languages, and has been quoted as saying that if you can’t read Russian you can’t really do much research in that part of the world.

His works are not turgid academic volumes, especially the little book that is his most recent, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s more of a cookbook of ways to foil tyranny.

Here’s a sample, from his first rule: Do Not Obey In Advance:

  • “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

He recalls that when the Austrian chancellor gave in to Hitler, the local Nazis, acting on their own, took the steps that decided the fate of Austria’s Jews. “The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible,” he writes.

And from his Rule #5, Remember Professional Ethics:

  • “When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”

Please read the whole thing. It’s a little heavy on Hitler examples, but he was the mold for all modern authoritarians. The entire book is only 128 pages, so it won’t take long. You’ll have time to read it twice.

Recommended without reservation

Tim Duggan Books (Penguin Random House), 2017. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 15, 2018

FLY BY NIGHT, by Ward Larsen (thriller)

Fly by Night is my first Jammer Davis book, and won’t be my last. I found it on one of Amazon’s promotional emails (which almost always offer a wealth of good books) and read it in two evenings.

Frank (Jammer) Davis is an ex-F16 jock, now on leave of absence as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the government department that investigates transport accidents of all sorts but is most visible when an airplane goes down.

He’s a widower and his only daughter is spending several months with friends in Norway, so he’s receptive when his old boss Larry Green meets him after a rugby match and asks him to go check out a crash in Sudan. It’s not just any crash – it’s a highly secret CIA drone called Blackstar, which has disappeared somewhere in the desert near the Red Sea.

The CIA had decided it crashed into the sea, but recently got word that it was hidden in a hangar outside Khartoum. The hangar is owned by a sketchy charter airline that flies around Africa carrying cargo that may or may not be legal.

Jammer takes the job and hops a plane for Khartoum. Larsen does a nice job of developing a stable of interesting characters: a fellow fighter pilot he was instrumental in having cashiered from the Air Force; a mysterious imam connected somehow to the Sudanese military; various young men fluttering around the imam and Islam like moths around a flame; and Dr. Regina Antonelli, an Italian doctor volunteering in a desert clinic with whom Jammer comes close to having an affair.

No spoilers here, but the plot is plausible, which is important to me. A tinpot general with designs on becoming president of his country is willing to kill a bunch of people in a way that would cause maximum international political upheaval.

The depth of his aviation knowledge is impressive, no surprise since he’s done many of the jobs he has Jammer doing, including fly high-performance fighters and investigate air crashes.

Jammer comes through in the end, but Larsen misses no opportunity to write another cliffhanger. He knows how to do it.

Recommended.

Oceanview Publishing, 2018. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 19, 2018

THE FIFTH RISK, by Michael Lewis (non-fiction)

When Barack Obama was inaugurated, he and the thousands of new officials who came into government found that George Bush had gone out of his way to make their transition easier. They had prepared binder after binder of background information, set up desks for the Obama transition team, and generally worked to make everything go smoothly. Obama appreciated it and determined long before the election he would do at least as much for his successor, Democrat or Republican.

So on the morning after the election, Obama appointees sat ready for the advance guard of Trump appointees they were certain would arrive, asking questions, trying to learn the business, preparing themselves to run the country. The Obama transition team had sent thirty to forty people into the Energy Department alone, so that was the demand they planned for.

They waited, and they waited. At last some transition-team members appeared, but they showed an extraordinary resistance to learning anything from the old guard — Rick Perry spent less than an hour with Ernest Moniz, the outgoing Secretary of Energy. In a strange twist, he would up running the Energy Department after saying during the Republican primary debates that Energy was one of the three departments he would eliminate, except he couldn’t remember the name.

Lewis recounted the transition story in several departments, but he focused on Energy because, despite its pacific-sounding name, is one of the most important of the cabinet agencies. Half of its budget is devoted to the care and feeding of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In eight years its National Nuclear Security Administration collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs, Lewis writes.

“Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found,” Lewis writes. “The few places they did turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared.”

THE BOOK’S TITLE comes from an interview Lewis did with John MacWilliams, who ended his time at Energy as Chief Risk Officer. Lewis asked him to name the issues that, in his view, were the five most significant risks.

At the top, of course, is an accident with nuclear weapons. There have been close calls but no completely misplaced H-bombs.

After that, McWilliams said, would come North Korea. Iran would be in the top five, as would the national electrical grid, the outdated system that distributes electricity around the country.

The fifth risk? Project management. In other words, failure to run the department — and by extension the entire U.S. government — correctly.

 

This is one of the clearest outlines of why the government had the problems it had in the early days, and still struggles with Puerto Rico in the hurricane’s aftermath. It’s worth reading if for no other reason than to be reminded that when an important organization has poor leadership it will have poor results, and when its role is mission-critical, the side effects of those results are likely to be serious for a lot of people.

 

Highly recommended.

W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 19, 2018

 

 

TAILSPIN, by Steven Brill (nonfiction)

Steven Brill launches his monumental work Tailspin with a question that goes to the core of Americans’ self-regard: Is the world’s greatest democracy and economy broken. But the metrics we normally depend on to measure the health of the body politic all seem to point in the wrong direction. Public engagement, satisfaction, confidence, voter turnout and the touchstone of the future, parents’ confidence that their children’s lives will be better than theirs — none of them is on the uptick. What went wrong?

A lot of things, but the one Brill holds most responsible is the broad move of the 1960s and later to consciously widen the base of the American upper class. Not the historic upper class based on inherited money or social rank, but the new upper class based on merit. Even now, when we see the results of our efforts to seek out and educate the smartest of our young citizens, we seldom (until now) hear the downside. The new rich are confident they got that way on their own, and they have very little interest in passing the fruits of their success on to those less fortunate. They have risen to the top and pulled up the ladder.

Brill, who points out willingly that he is one of the beneficiaries of the merit system, spends 400 pages detailing what happened, who did it, and offering his prescriptions for correcting the situation.

This is a must-read book.

BROWN LORD OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Walter Macken (novel)

One of the great duties of literature is to hold a mirror up to change, whether it is change in the characters, change in the land, change in society as it is wrenched out of one epoch into the next. This book does that, and held my interest from the night Donn Donnshleibhe left the mountain, bailing out of his own wedding feast to escape his guiltless but pregnant bride, his domineering and merciless father, and most of all, to escape the Mountain, the village on the West Coast of Ireland where 1939 could just as well have been 1839.

He returned sixteen years later to find nothing changed, except the beautiful teen-aged girl he met weaving daisy chains on the side of the road, and learned in short order that she had the mind of a young child and was the daughter he had never met. He returned to stand briefly at his father’s death bed and to meet the wife he’d abandoned to go off to war, from which he returned with a pocketful of medals and the scars of a machine-gun bullet and a knife on his chest.

Young Donn, now no longer young, found a village of abandoned cottages, which the people he’d known had left for America. Against his will, he took up his father’s mantle as Lord of the Mountain and brought electricity and running water, against the resistance of the old-timers, and dances to entertain and keep the young, against the resistance of the priests.

The story is a complex look at a society hangs together, but just barely, always at the risk of crumbling when the strong central figure faces his own personal tragedy and may not be able to overcome it. Read the book and figure out whether Donn succeeded.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (nonfiction)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been a force in American journalism for almost twenty years, gaining exposure steadily with his articles in well-known journals, but he jumped instantly into the front ranks with his long 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” From that time on he became more than just another good journalist translating one segment of American to another, but in my view the preeminent interpreter of what it’s like to be black in the country today. That issue has taken on considerably more heft since November 2016.

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I put off starting it mainly because epistolary family stories are low on my priorities list, but I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago and found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a short book, a 155-page letter from an anguished black father to his young son, so I finished it in one night. I missed something importat by waiting so long.

If you are concerned about the direction race relations are taking in the United States, when there are “some very fine people on both sides” — and those on one side are showing the swastika and its predecessor, the Othala Rune, plus many versions of the Stars and Bars — then I suggest you read this book. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it will help you understand the unfortunate and continuing fallout of America’s original sin.

CENTENNIAL, by James Michener (novel)

I have been a fan of James Michener for as long as I can remember. He of the long, graceful sentences, the deep and wide historical perspective — and the long, long books, of which Centennial is one, at 1,100 pages. And the Kindle edition I bought last month throws in a preview of Hawaii for good measure. My iPad’s Kindle app estimates the reading time at 14 hours. It didn’t take me that long, but reading Michener, or even re-reading it after a couple of decades, is nobody’s one-day job.

This is a novel, as Michener points out in the author’s note, but it reads like history. But some of it goes back before the days of written records, and much of it presents Michener’s research, which led him to characters like Lame Beaver, the Arapaho warrior he invented to illustrate the state of constant war among the tribes. Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome makes an appearance, as do Fort Laramie and the South Platte River, both important parts of the development of the western territories.

Centennial is a fictional Colorado town, but it will seem familiar to anyone who grew up in the Western United States at a certain time in the Twentieth Century. Read the book. Enjoy it. And plan on a review soon of Caravans, Michener’s timeless story of timeless Afghanistan, a topic of considerable current interest these days. I thought it was even more interesting than Centennial, but that may be because I knew less about Afghanistan than the development of the American West.

If you’re a fan of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone novels you’ll have a special interest in reading Berry’s introduction.

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