Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review: The New Girl

The New Girl The New Girl by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with most spy thrillers, it is very hard to give a review without spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid any direct spoilers, but there are aspects that might be given away by what I say. So be warned.

The worst part about a Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novel is that it comes to an end. The New Girl is just as fun, exciting, moving, and thought-provoking as the previous 18. It’s hard to top the early novels, but this is up there.

I do so wish Gabriel Allon (GA) was real. Maybe there are people like him and they are so good at what they do, we don’t hear about them and the problems they prevent. But it’s also a bit like hoping Batman was real. No one person is capable of this – and even if they were it is probably not a good idea to have them doing these things in the way they are done in the stories. It works in Batman and GA because we know, because they are the protagonists of the story, that they are good guys. In real life, without an omniscient narrator, we cannot know that.

The best part about The New Girl was the relationship that develops between GA and Khalid. They are, understandably, skeptical and weary of each other at first, but through the events of the story they seem to learn to trust each other and develop what seems like it could be a deep and long friendship – though the way the story unfolds that may not turn out to be the case.

At this point, 19 books in, we don’t get a lot of character development from the main cast. And there is very little of that. Keller, Mihkail, Seymour, Gabriel are who they are. So you need the new characters to drive that aspect. Silva always does a great job at this, both with new protagonists and the antagonists. Sarah’s story arc is interesting – not so much specifically for the plot of The New Girl, but across the several books she has been in. I think there are some exciting things Silva could (and will) do with this character in future novels (which is part of why she was in The New Girl – as set up for the future).

Silva also usually does a great job of humanizing his antagonists. They are rarely mindless fanatics: they have motivations that might have started out reasonable enough, but have gone deeply astray. Part of what he does well with this is that it is not a matter of some hackneyed, lazy moral grayness, where the good guys are a little bad, and the bad guys are a bit good. It’s more that Silva shows us these are human beings that have a complex history and that they have made (often bad) choices that have brought them to this point. We don’t sympathize with them, but we understand them. They are not merely monsters. However, some of the main antagonists in the New Girl come off a bit shallow. They are either just the tools of some mostly off-stage actor directing them (I’m trying not to spoil things) or they are motivated in fairly basic ways (sex and/or power). Nevertheless, I suppose there is some truth in that—but it does take away slightly from the drama.

There are several surprising elements to this story—I can’t discuss them without spoiling them, but I will say Silva allows the story to unfold without introducing any dues ex machinas. I sort of expected a few or at least Silva to pull back. So I’m glad he had the storytelling integrity to go forward with it.

There were several moments in the story related specifically to Israel that, although they are not essential to plot, I found quite moving; even got choked up a bit.

I enjoy how Silva weaves in current real world events – though I do have to be careful not to confuse Silva’s world for the real one!

I am not sure what I think of the ending. It’ll take some time to process it. Partly, I’m not sure what precisely happened. Time will tell.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review: Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface, this concise book is a thrilling untold history of Israel’s first spies. It is in some ways a tale out of a Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon novel. As the title tells us, these were spies of no country: they become spies and operated before the state came into existence. Friedman focuses primarily on four men of the Arab Section. They were recruited to be spies because they could pass as Arabs: they knew the language, the customs, the way of life, in a way only a local could.

And this gets to the second layer. These four men were born and raised in the Arab world: they were from Syria, Yemen, and Jerusalem. They were not from Warsaw or Minsk. The Mizrahi, Jews of the Islamic world, were largely invisible in the early days of Israel and in the founding stories of Israel. Friedman’s book is telling the story of these four to help us see the Mizrahi and their importance to Israel; then and today. The title is, I suspect, also part of this layer: the Israel that they become spies for didn’t fully see them. They believed in and spied for the Land of Israel: but the state of Israel came into existence when they were already operating in Beirut and Damascus. By the time they returned to Israel, it was already a very different from the place they left. In this sense too, maybe, they were spies of no country.

Another layer of the book is the slipperiness and messiness of identity. This was a time of gigantic shifts and things got very messy, very quickly. The uneasy, yet relatively stable world in Europe was finally destroyed by WWII and now that was happening in the Middle East as new countries, including Israel, created themselves with new identities. This is given some measure of reality with the lives of these four spies. They were Jews born in the Arab world; they grew up speaking Arabic. As these shifts began, they left the Arab world to live among the Jewish, Hebrew speaking communities in what soon would be Israel. But then as spies, they are sent to live as Arabs among the Arabs. This is highlighted by this quote about the men as they were training to be spies: “But were they Arabs? They would have said no, and most Arabs would have said no. But they were native to the Arab world—as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arab nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really ‘becoming like Arabs’? Or were they already Arabs? Were they pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?” (58). It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis!

Another layer is the ambiguity of founding stories and myths. This not unique to Israel. Americans face this too in trying somehow to make sense of the intellectual and practical achievements of liberty by men such as Jefferson and Washington with the horrors and evils of slavery in which they partook. Friedman’s book highlights the seeming paradox that Israel born out of the ideas in 19th century Europe is peopled by a population half of whom have grandparents from places like Iraq rather than Poland. Friedman’s spies come from and teach us something about this half of the population. Largely invisible for the first part half of Israel’s existence, they are becoming more and more a prominent part of the country’s culture and politics. Understanding the future of Israel means, in part, understanding this invisible past.

Friedman’s book is an opening, an invitation to this past.

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Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: College Teaching At Its Best

College Teaching At Its Best College Teaching At Its Best by Chris Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are several useful and helpful tips in Palmer's book. But overall, I didn't get a lot out of it. I've been teaching for nearly twenty years, so maybe I'm not the target audience. Some of this quite basic. It does seem geared a bit more towards a new college teacher, and it that regard it could be a good resource. Even with that caveat, the advice is a bit limited. It struck me as much more applicable to one who is a teaching at a more competitive or elite school with classes of 25-30 relatively well-prepared students. There is a chapter on teaching large lecture classes and there is some helpful items here. But this brings me to my other concern: much of this is overly idealistic. The techniques and advice often require a lot of time, effort, and resources from the instructor to implement, manage, and maintain. (Here's a simple example: he suggests meeting with all your students within the first two weeks of the semester. But with several hundred students each semester that's not realistic.)

The problem is not the extra effort(this is our job after all); the problem is that it ignores the reality that many if not most teachers at the college level are teaching 3 to 4 sections of large classes with little TA help, so they are already stretched thin. And there is little external incentive from the administration to do these things--and in some cases, the implicit incentives are to do less, not more. Most university's give a lot of lip service to academic excellence but do little to actually support it (and some of the policies undermine it). The book doesn't seem to acknowledge this reality of teaching.

Another huge problem is that there is nothing in the book about online or even hybrid teaching. This gaping lack is egregious as most universities have more and more teaching online--where the challenges are different and much of the advice in this book is irrelevant.

On the plus side, the book is clear and concisely written. It is easy to read over a weekend, so if you are teacher and want to improve(or are new), I'd cautiously recommend it. Some of the tidbits might speak to you and help you out. I certainly picked up a few things that I'll add to my repertoire.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

Review: North of Boston

North of Boston North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was perusing one of the local used book stores and saw this book. Being from the Boston area, I'm attracted to all things Boston, so I picked it up. The flap sounded interesting so I bought it. I'm so glad I did! I immediately got into the story and the main character, Pirio Kasparov. She is intelligent, a smart-ass, and has a solid moral base. She gets sucked into the mystery in a classic sort of way (the author has one of the characters quote Sam Spade's line about your partner getting killed and how you are supposed to do something. That might have been a little too on the nose, but I loved it). Pirio is not cut from a standard issue thriller/mystery female lead mold. There are classic elements, but Elo creates a unique and memorable character in Pirio.

Many of the other characters are interesting and well-drawn, if sometimes stereotypical. The plot is well done; there were elements laid down early on that you knew where going to play a role later but it wasn't obvious how it would play out. It's not perfect, and there are some obvious "twists" but overall still original and enjoyable.

I would definitely read more Pirio novels if Elo writes them and I hope she does. I recommend this to other fans of thrillers/mysteries.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I enjoyed the book, it's a bit cursory. I would have liked more detail, more depth. Owens and his story are important and I wanted more: more about the man, more about his relationships, in particular with other runners.

It wasn't always clear what Schaap's goal was: was this a biography of Owens? A story just focused on the Owens at the Olympics? A story about the politics and nationalism that threatened to swallow the Olympics? It feels at times a little of all these, and not enough of any one of them.

I didn't like the way the book handled the footnotes, especially on kindle, it was very hard to see what the sources were for conversations and stories Schaap is relating. It wasn't obvious when Schaap was quoting a direct source for the dialogue or 'recreating' it. (This is part of the problem when a journalist writes history.)

Still, the writing is crisp and the narrative style is clear (part of the benefit of having a journalist write history!). If you know nothing of Jesse Owens and or the 36 Olympics, it's a good place to start. (Though I am not sure how much of this qualifies the eponymous "untold story").

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Review: How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pigliucci does a good job summarizing and reviewing key ideas of Stoic thought. He focuses on his own experience applying the ideas to his life as a way of providing advice on applying it to one's own life. He uses a nice frame of talking with Epictetus as the central way of communicating the Stoic ideas. Their 'conversation' provides a way for Epictetus' text to speak to contemporary concerns.

Do not expect detailed philosophical analysis of the Stoic ideas. That's not Pigliucci's goal here; though I would have liked more of that. There is an appendix which discusses more of the historical connections.

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Review: Chasing Darkness

Chasing Darkness Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another good Cole story: lots of twists and turns. Some of them you will see coming, others you may not. Well-paced, good dialogue. Less humor than earlier Cole novels; but still has his characteristic wit.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariely is an entertaining writer and does a good job of explaining, in laymen's terms, the experiments and ideas of behavior economics. This is a trade book and doesn't, for good or for ill, get into the nit and gritty of the science beyond the experiments. I think it is a book worth reading to get a better understanding some of the patterns of thought or circumstances that influence our decisions and actions.

I would say on the negative side, however, that I think Ariely oversells the results of the experiments and tends to straw man traditional economic thinking. The experiments are nonetheless interesting with surprising results-but he tends to draw much broader conclusions from these than is warranted (at least in terms of the explanations in the text). And some of the criticism of the traditional economic explanations hit the mark, but too often his presentations of the traditional ideas are way too broad, simplistic, or caricatured.

Still, there is value in this book, and at worst, the discussion and results of the experiments are interesting.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The audio performance of this novel was beautiful and enchanting. The characters really come alive and you can experience the rhythm of the work. I can't recommend Ruby Dee's reading highly enough.

Janie's transformation into womanhood, her strength, her demand for life are an inspiration. Although it comes close at times, she is not beaten down by the average, mundane-ness of life, she doesn't give up in the face of tragedy. Though entirely devoted to Teacake, she is her own woman. But she has to become this. Teacake helps her to become her full self--mainly by just not keeping her down the way Logan and Joe did; but it is her own achievement.

This is classic work that should be more widely read and appreciated. Not just as a novel of a particular time and place, but as important piece of American literature: a beautiful coming of age story, a story about finding one's passions and following them, a story about having the strength and integrity to be an individual-regardless of the categories society tries to put on you.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Allitt is great as always. The course covers a broad swath of American history all from the perspective of what the western frontier was, what it meant, and how it moved over time. Allitt discusses the important role of geography as well as the history of the West before it came in to US possession. His presentation of the interaction of whites and native Americans is well done: it neither ignores the disgraceful and shameful treatment by whites of native Americans nor romanticizes the native Americans as a monolithic, idyllic people. I'm sure there are details that are missing, inaccurate, or somewhat fudged over: this is not an in-depth rigorous history. But it does a great job of telling the story of the West.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author does a great job of maintaining suspense even though we know, broadly, how the story must end. Vader and the Emperor battle against the Free Ryloth movement which is engaged in open rebellion against the Empire. Since this is years before the events of A New Hope, they and their Empire obviously survive. Yet, the author creates enough tension that you almost begin to believe that Cham and his allies might succeed.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Vader. There a lot of Vader’s inner monologue. He remembers moments from the past; the pain and anger that drive him. He chafes somewhat under the Palpatine’s commands. Just as when he was Anakin and commanded by the Jedi Council, Vader is impatient and independent and doesn’t take to being told what to do that well. Well, at least inwardly. Outwardly, Vader still obeys Palpatine without flaw. This look into the inner life of Vader is disturbing and insightful. The anger and pain that has consumed Anakin is everywhere. Vader fights to suppress his memories and his past but at the same time he is both incapable of doing so and still needs this to fuel the anger that is his connection to the power of the dark side. There are many allusions to past events in Anakin’s life and foreshadowing of events we know come to past later.

Vader is the most fascinating character of Star Wars—maybe even of contemporary culture. He is evil; a murdering, unstoppable machine. And yet…and yet, he is redeemed. Unlike Palpatine and many of the imperial flunkies, Vader is not driven by a hunger for power, rapaciousness, or sadism. He wants to impose order; he wants power to make sure things work (and we see this in Anakin very early). He murders without any qualms, but he doesn’t take pleasure in it nor does he do so wantonly. We see this throughout the canon with Vader, including here in a few important scenes. It sometimes comes across almost like mercy. Almost, but not quite. It is more about what serves the imposition of order and his connection to the Force. The conflicts that Vader has in his inner monologue in Lords of the Sith shows us this. The novel shows Vader continuing to commit himself to the Emperor and the dark side primarily because he can so no other way to achieve order and serve the force. And this partly sets the stage for his redemption in Return of the Jedi.

There are also several interesting elements of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham, who fans will know from the animated series, has an important role to play here. The beginning of Cham’s transformation from a principled freedom-fighter for Ryloth to a more full-fledge Rebel is one of the sub-themes of the novel.

The execution of these thematic elements in the book was inconsistent. Not every “note” was hit as well as it should have been. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read and fleshes out important aspects of the Star Wars universe.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

People who know me, know that I love coffee. So this book was a natural. But, ultimately, I was disappointed. It is not bad, and there are a lot of interesting bits in the book. However, it gets bogged down at too many places. In particular, there is far too much focus on the intricacies of coffee businesses and international markets. Obviously, these are important aspects of coffee and its impact, but Pendergrast focuses a lot on the details that often just don't seem all that relevant.

More to the point, I was looking for much more of the ways that coffee transformed the world more broadly, per the subtitle. What the book is, is more of a history of the markets in coffee. That's fine, but not what the book is billed as. There is a lot of discussion, in general, of how these markets impacted the coffee growing countries. But even here, it veers too much to the "one damned thing after another" telling of history or makes broad generalizations about economics that, frankly, I am skeptical of. (why? they are rather general and conventional, and the author is not a trained economist). Now certainly the coffee market could be used to explore many themes (as suggested by the book description). But the book just doesn't pull this off well.

The author knows (and loves) coffee and there is some good stuff here. But the book doesn't live up to what it could be.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of the book, I felt so deeply connected to Joe Rantz and his teammates that I cried as I listened to the epilogue. An incredible story, too unbelievable to be fiction--no publisher would buy it as a novel. The things that individually and as a team, the Washington Crew had to overcome to make it to the Olympics and then win them was just ridiculous. Time and time again, everything was stacked against them and it looked like their tale was over. Time and time again, they found each other and prevailed.

The story primarily follows Joe Rantz from his childhood up through the winning of Olympic Gold. I am not sure why his story was the focal point rather any of the other boys. Maybe because his circumstances were from the start the most tragic, that he had the most to overcome. (More practically, it was probably because the author was able to interview him the most before Rantz passed away in 2010).

The first third or so of the book is a little slow and less interesting. This is largely about the travails of Joe's childhood. Once he is at the University of Washington and on the team, the story gets much more compelling.

The author does a good job of keeping the story on task. There is a lot going on the 30s that could have sidetracked things. While the story has to deal with the Depression and the rise of Hitler--the author does so only so much as necessary for the story.

I would have liked even more of George Pocock, the man who designed and built the racing shells for University of Washington (and many other teams). Each chapter starts off with an epigraph quotation from Pocock and he comes across as the 'Yoda' of the crew.

Edward Hermann does a masterful job, as always, with the reading.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been on my to-read list for a long time (originally it came out in 2010). I enjoy Ridley’s work, and this fits in well. There are few surprises for those who have read Ridley or similar books. Essentially: forget the day-to-day news cycle, look at the big historical picture and the data, and human life in general has been getting better and better; and there’s every reason to think it will continue to do so. But what about….Ridley probably discusses it and has an answer. Technology, wealth, ingenuity have and will continue to help us find ways to deal with problems and (and the new problems that arise from those solutions).

What makes Rational Optimist somewhat unique is Ridley’s basic argument for why humans are able to succeed: where the technology, wealth, and ingenuity comes from. Combining, as he says Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, Ridley argues that what makes the human species unique and able to prosper so well is the sex of ideas. That is, the human propensity to exchange goods also leads to exchange of ideas. This, he argues, is the root of the existence of and expansion of cultural and collective knowledge. Ideas evolve (Darwin) through interaction (Smith). Through specialization, trade, and the evolution of ideas, humans are able to adapt and achieve ever higher standards of living.

It is a fascinating thesis, and Ridley explains it in detail, going through history and pre-history to find evidence for it. The audiobook is well-produced and keeps your attention. I tend to lose focus somewhat with numbers and statistics, so the print version would be good if that is important.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Without Fail

Without Fail Without Fail by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, it’s about what you expect from Child and Reacher. It’s not the best one, but it is a good read. It is slow to start, Child spends a lot of time building up one of the characters and Reacher’s relationship to her, and that ultimately makes sense. Nevertheless, the story takes a bit to get some traction. And I’m also not that comfortable with the ending. It works within the story, but it’s a bit cold-blooded for me.

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