Thursday, October 27, 2016
The book spends quite a lot of time talking about Charlie Wilson, as well as other key figures such as Gust Avrakatos and Michael Vickers, who were deeply involved in making the Afghan operation the biggest and, arguably, the most successful operation to date in CIA history. Basically Afghan mujahideen, trained by Pakistani advisors and operating out of Pakistan, were armed and supplied by the United States, who provided half of the money, but half was also provided by Saudi Arabia. A significant number of the weapons and ammunition, which the CIA desired to be Soviet equipment to mask U.S. involvement, was purchased from Egypt or, somewhat surprisingly, Israel. This was a very multinational effort at keeping the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and thanks to the millions of dollars of arms and ammunition sent to the Afghans, the Soviets eventually were forced to retreat from Afghanistan.
Of course this would come back to haunt us about ten years later when it turned out Saudis operating out of Afghanistan were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which sparked interest in America's involvement in Afghanistan previously. The interesting thing is that Afghanistan wasn't very well covered by the media at the time, despite the fact that it made up roughly 50%, and later 70% of the CIA's entire operational budget. At the time people were far more interested in the Iran-Contra affair and the absolute scandal that turned out to be. Crile and others state that Iran-Contra actually provided a cover for Afghanistan, providing something for Congress to focus on while Afghanistan could continue to operate without being noticed. So many people are still taken by surprise by the fact that we armed and equipped some of the very people we ended up fighting a little over a decade later.
I have several problems with this book, and it's largely how very much pro-intervention this book takes. Obviously I have a slightly different opinion of the decision to intervene because my life experience has been largely the consequences of those decisions to intervene, rather than the apparent political necessity at the time. There seems to be an underlying assumption that it was inherently right for the United States to spend huge sums of money to kill Soviets in Afghanistan and try to topple the ''evil empire.'' I'm not saying the Soviet occupation was good. It was definitely far from that with reports of numerous atrocities. But the decision to arm religious extremists seems to be less than optimal in hindsight.
And it doesn't stop there. People openly admit in interviews that they were breaking the law and doing things extremely illegal, but they treat it like as an inconvenience. This was especially true of the CIA agents who saw laws and congressional oversight as little more than annoyances that got in the way of them doing their work. And the book seems, somewhat implicitly, to take their side in the argument. I found this very distressing, again because of my own lifetime experience which suggests there needs to be far more regulation and oversight of intelligence agencies and bad things happen when they're given a free hand.
Plus Charlie Wilson was a highly irresponsible individual, involved in sex, drugs, and alcohol and tripping from one scandal to another. He developed a reputation as ''Good Time Charlie'' and seemed to delight in scandalizing everyone at most opportunities. Now, perhaps I'm being somewhat puritanical, but it seems extremely unfortunate that a congressman would spend far more time partying and having a good time than actually governing and, once again, the book seems to take it as a little foible. Like he's little more than a rapscallion that we can just shake our heads at. This ignores, of course, his rampant alcoholism which almost killed him through heart failure in the 1980's. Charlie Wilson seems less a hero and more an irresponsible playboy who wants to be involved in a grand adventure.
And finally, which was most disappointing, was only a very brief comment on the failure of the United States to help Afghanistan after the war. After spending millions of dollars to send tons of weapons into Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets, the United States declined to spend significant amounts of money to repair the devastated infrastructure. Obviously the decision to abandon Afghanistan has had far-reaching consequences which are with us to this day.
I think this book, which is supposed to be on some level a cautionary tale, fails to be that. It seems to be more about how the United States managed to defeat the evil Soviets rather than the consequences of that decision. I personally would have preferred more information about the failures in Afghanistan after the war was over. Instead the book gets wrapped up in the romantic narrative of the United States pulling off a covert operation against the Soviets and winning, rather than the dangers inherent in the program. It's certainly informative to know how involved the U.S. was in the 1980's, and should be considered in future American foreign policy decisions, but this book hardly deals with those aspects.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
The plot focuses around Joy Wilkins, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA), who has been sent undercover to work at the Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic as a history lecturer. Joy's real reason for this assignment is to investigate two curious events that may be related. First, the college's previous history professor, Carla Drake, disappeared mysteriously and nobody's been able to turn up a trace of her. Second, the FBMA has evidence that suggests someone is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and using them in attacks referred to as Heartstoppers where the victims all drop into a state of not-quite-death. However there is quite a lot more than what initially appears to be going on at Gooseberry Bluff and Joy soon finds wheels within wheels.
If I had to describe this book in one word, I would describe it as overambitious. Schwartz sets up quite a few plotlines within this book and resolves a few while leaving others hanging, presumably for later development. The problem is it feels like Schwartz is trying to shove too many plots into one book and the result is none of them feel like they're properly developed. For sake of example, let me make a list of the different plotlines:
- Joy must discover what happened to Carla Drake.
- Joy must discover who is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and why.
- Zelda, the alchemy professor, is trying to remove an actual magical curse which makes her life a living hell.
- Ingrid, the conjuration professor, is trying to find a way to bring her sister, who was a victim of one of the Heartstopper attacks, back from her state of not-quite-death.
- Ken, yet another professor at the university, is engaged in a long-distance magical duel with a mysterious opponent, and seems to be losing.
- A shadowy war across dimensions between Chaos and Order.
Gooseberry Bluff, by contrast, is much shorter so it doesn't get enough time to develop its world or its plotlines quite as fully as I'd like. There are hints at an elaborate world and universe that Schwartz has developed, but I feel like we don't get to explore it as much as we really should to get a proper understanding of it. And with so many plots going on at once, the story ends up feeling rather rushed, in spite of the book being a little over four hundred pages. I'm just left with the overall impression that Schwartz had some very grand ambitions for this book and he just didn't quite get to where he needed to be.
Overall, the book's okay, I just feel like the book's reach exceeded its grasp and it suffered because of it. It's very hard to create a narrative with multiple plot lines running and Schwartz attempts to do that here. He doesn't bungle it horribly, it's actually competent, but it just doesn't feel as developed as I'd like. And that's really the emotion this book left me with. The book finishes open-endedly and we'll have to see if Schwartz takes these plots any further and develops them better.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Now, I haven't talked about it much on this blog, aside from that one time I reviewed Le Morte d'Arthur way, way back. But I'm like, a huge sucker for Arthurian legend. I have vivid memories of checking out every book I could find about Arthur from the library, as well as anything I could find about knights, castles, and medieval history in general. So when I was looking through the library and found a reinterpretation of Arthurian myth from an author who I've enjoyed before, I absolutely had to pick it up. And I had an absolute blast listening to this book. It was kind of confusing in the beginning as I was getting myself oriented within the framework of the story, but once the story got its feet under it it just goes and doesn't stop until the very end. And if you're a fan of Arthurian myth as much as I am, you're going to enjoy this story immensely.
Plot-wise the book follows the third and youngest Gwenhwyfar, who is the third of four daughters of one of King Arthur's sub-kings and begins following the path of the warrior in a very Boudica-esque fashion. The story also follows her perspective entirely and never shifts out, which I was kind of annoyed with at the beginning because it's hard to see how Gwen's life and warrior training tie into the larger story which you sense is going on ''out there'' somewhere. Which, as I said, makes the book kind of slow to start. But as the book progresses, I actually started liking the story more and more. There are a lot of things that happen that are obliquely referenced to or not fully explained, or you see snippets of what's going on. But if you're a fan of Arthurian legend and already know the story then you can fill in the details pretty easily. Eventually I came to actually enjoy the limited viewpoint since we were following just Gwen around. Largely because I knew things she didn't and could put things together because I knew the mythos so it became a sort of puzzle for me to put together. By the end, I actually found myself hoping that maybe the characters might be able to avoid the disaster at the very end of the book, with Arthur dying, Camelot falling, and Britain falling into chaos, which was pretty exciting for me.
Lackey also attempts to do a more ''historical'' interpretation of Arthur, you know, aside from all the magic floating around which I'm willing to give her a pass on. Of course, the fact that I'm the absolute worst person to look at any attempt to create a more ''historical'' Arthur came to the fore. I'm the guy who will quibble over whether or not the Romano-British, which is what the characters are supposed to be, would have used stirrups or not. Or even the use of the term castle. I get that picky. But for the most part I was able to put that aside and was able to enjoy the story. There are plenty of things that Lackey does that makes the story feel right to me. It all just really works and make the universe feel real.
Overall, I really loved this book. As I said, I've been a fan of the Arthurian mythos since forever so this book was an easy sell for me. There are some issues I had. The writing doesn't feel quite right in some places, and the book takes a while to get started, but it eventually builds up steam and then there's no stopping it. For a new interpretation of an old classic, with incorporation of elements both old and new, Gwenhwyfar is definitely worth it.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio
First, to provide some necessary historical context. Iran was a key strategic ally for the United States after World War II. First of all, they had oil, which both the British and Americans were happy to buy. Secondly, they were located in a key strategic area bordering both the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union, giving them immense geostrategic importance. As a result, the Americans were perfectly happy to prop up the corrupt and repressive regime of the shah in exchange for very friendly relationships with Iran. To the point that when the power of the shah was severely restricted in the 1950's, the CIA was deeply involved in restoring the shah's absolute power.
Over a period of about twenty years, many Iranians grew increasingly resentful of the repressive regime of the shah, as well as American and British support of the regime. This resulted in a revolution in 1979 which finally ousted the shah for good and created the heavily religious government which Iran is still influenced by today. However, the revolution reached a new level of crisis when the American embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranians and some fifty-odd American diplomats were taken hostage. This crisis is widely cited as one of several reasons why Jimmy Carter would go on to lose the 1980 election. However, six members of the embassy staff managed to escape. One member of the staff had his office across the street and was able to take refuge in the Swedish embassy. Another five worked at a consular visa office not part of the main embassy compound and managed to slip into the streets of Tehran, first taking refuge at a British compound, then various houses, before finally finding more permanent refuge with Canadian diplomats.
Although they were safe for the time being, if the six diplomats remained in Iran too long the chances of them being discovered only increased. And since they had escaped the day the embassy was stormed, it was very likely the Iranians would assume they were spies and execute them. The CIA and the Canadian government worked together and eventually created a plan which allowed the six diplomats to leave Iran on a commercial flight, disguised as Hollywood movie executives.
And that's basically the story. I hate to say it, but the operation actually went so smoothly it was kind of boring. Which is a good thing considering six diplomats that could have been executed were successfully retrieved from a hostile country. But it lacks a certain amount of panache. And I feel like Mendez was vaguely aware of this fact because he spends a considerable amount of time talking about things like his childhood in Nevada and his eventual recruitment to the CIA, which is the more memoir bits which I didn't enjoy as much.
Most of the book is used in setting up context, going over necessary contextual bits of spycraft, and going into the amount of detail Mendez spent on making sure the identities they would be using for the six diplomats were fully ''backstopped'', which means that there was an actual movie office staffed with an actual secretary so if someone decided to call the number on one of the business cards of the ''movie executives'' they would have gotten enough information to confirm their identity. As Mendez says, the level of backstopping they did for the movie crew aliases wasn't so much for the Iranians, although it would have been extremely helpful if the Iranians had been more interested. It was mostly for the diplomats themselves, a group of people utterly untrained in spycraft who needed to be convinced an idea that was frankly rather ridiculous would actually work.
Overall the book is okay. Mendez's opinions slip into the work from time to time and it gave me some doubts. As I said, the book is mostly set up for the operation which actually went rather smoothly, all things considered. I'm a little curious about if there are any other resources on Operation Argo but, since it was a classified operation after all, that seems rather unlikely.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
The plot for this revolves around the Summer and Winter Courts of the fairies. The Summer Knight, a human champion of the Summer Court imbued with a significant amount of magical power has been killed. More importantly his power, which should have reverted to one of the three queens of the Summer Court, has gone missing. This has created a difference in the balance of power between the two courts and almost certainly war will follow.
Further complicating matters, the war between the White Council and the Red Court of the vampires is heating up and starting to go very badly for the wizards. The wizards, who cannot rely on modern forms of transportation, have asked both the Summer and Winter Queens for permission to use pathways through their realms in the Nevernever to safely attack or retreat from the Red Court. The Summer Court has declared strict neutrality, but the Winter Queen has said she will grant the White Council safe passage if Harry Dresden completes a task for her. And since Lea has sold the debt Harry owes her to the Winter Queen, Harry doesn't have terribly much choice in the matter.
I really liked this book and I think a big part of that was because, as I said above, this book does less introduction than the previous three books and instead builds on existing material. I especially like that the events tied back to the war between the White Council and Red Court which is shaping up to be a multi-book storyline. I also liked that Dresden was actually pretty clever during the book and went into situations fairly prepared. Again, he got three kinds of hell beaten out of him by the end of the book but he seemed...more prepared than in previous books which I take as a sign of him learning. Although to be fair he still benefitted from a lot of help elsewhere. Also Dresden's becoming more willing to call on allies like Murphy and Billy and the Alphas which is helping him a lot. He's realizing he doesn't have to go it alone, which is making him much more effective as a wizard.
This isn't to say there weren't some things that didn't bother me about the book. First and foremost was the use of the word ''Injun'' for a character's name in the book. Like, I understand that the character who's saying it is a 300 plus year old backwoods Missouri hillbilly but this book came out in 2002. It feels grossly inappropriate to have any character referred to as such. Like...to the point I'm not sure if I should be using that word on my blog or not because it's clearly a slur. It just doesn't feel okay for it to be in the book.
I also just don't understand Morgan's hatred for Harry. For those who might not remember, Morgan is a Warden, sort of the police force for the White Council who usually summarily execute anyone found violating the laws of magic. Morgan was Harry's...probation officer of sorts until the events of the first book Storm Front. But Morgan's back with a vengeance and he basically can't wait to find an opportunity to cut Harry's head off. And I honestly just don't get it. Maybe it's because Morgan has had a hate-on for Harry for years now, but it feels really weird to me and I just don't understand it. Maybe it'll get explored in later books but we'll just have to see.
Overall I liked this book. It gives me a good feeling for where the series is going and, hopefully, the series will continue to build on the existing plotline which promises to be pretty interesting.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
So how does humanity survive? Well most of the main characters are either survivalists, Ren folk, or other forms of historical enthusiasts who have at least some of the skills such as hunting, farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, brewing, or any of the other thousand skills humans needed to survive without the help of machinery. The story focuses largely on the Clan Mackenzie, originally a Wiccan coven who takes in survivors and eventually grows to be a force in their own right, and the Bearkillers, originally the Larsen family and their bush pilot who are stranded in Idaho and start trekking back to Oregon.
One of the things that bothered me early on with the book was how convenient things seemed to work out for the characters in the book. This feels especially true for the Larsen/Bearkiller group. They crash-land in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, and manage to make it back to the highway. Once there, they conveniently meet up with a ranching family that has a train of horses with them and wants to travel as a group. And the father of the group just conveniently happens to be an amateur blacksmith. Later on they come to another patch of nowhere, Idaho and conveniently find a veterinarian who also knows how to fight with sabre and targe, someone who knows how to make bows, and a former combat engineer. The book even makes light of this, with the main characters commenting how lucky they are, which only drew my attention more to it.
The Mackenzies I was slightly less bothered by, since they started out as a pagan coven and you can't really go to a Renaissance festival without tripping over half a dozen pagans so it makes at least some sort of sense for them to have skills and resources. But things also work out especially convenient for them later on too. They just conveniently manage to find a retired SAS trooper who's also an amateur boyer, who uses a convenient stock of yew to make a bunch of longbows. I mean, obviously, if things didn't go the characters way and they died it would be a pretty uninteresting book, but it seems to go too well for them at times and the book drawing attention to the fact only seems to make it worse.
In addition to the main characters, the book sets up the antagonist for what I presume will be the rest of the series, the Lord Protector of Portland, a former medieval history professor who uses his knowledge of the era to start building up a kingdom and has eyes on good chunks of Oregon. What bothered me the most was that the Mackenzies and the Bearkillers opposed him on the grounds he's trying to reestablish feudalism, and that's not right! He wants to take a third of everyone's crops and make them work his lands one day in three! That's not fair at all! And they're right.
Except the Bearkillers then turn around and establish their own feudal state in Oregon, with knights being granted fiefs to administer and support them and additional bands of fighters to help protect against incursions from the Protector. (The Mackenzies meanwhile adopt the styles of a highlander clan as their own solution.) Now, on some level I have to agree that yes, you're going to have a great deal of localization necessary if the fastest means of communication is back down to horses and feudalism was one approach to solving that problem. Plus, if you want to create an army of lancers or even really good soldiers you need to have people who can focus on being soldiers full time rather than spending part of their time doing stuff like farming. But I feel like your heroes can't go fighting someone on the grounds he doesn't respect human beings and wants to establish feudalism, only for them to turn around and create their own feudal state.
I also feel like the book tries a little too hard to make the argument of Ren folk saving the day, and that's really down to making gunpowder mysteriously not work anymore. I do have to give Stirling some credit for taking away steam power in addition to electricity because if you just take away electricity it really only knocks us back to about 1880, so steampunk future! But if you take away steam power that eliminates most of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and takes us further back to about 1750 in terms of what's possible technology-wise. Removing gunpowder is what really pushes this back into knights and castles, but that's just military technology. So I feel like Stirling was kind of going out of his way to make it specifically Ren folk rather than other historical enthusiasts.
Overall, I'm kind of mixed on my opinion of the book. While it's interesting to explore what sort of cultures and systems of government might pop up after the technological gains of the past 250 years are gone overnight, I didn't connect with most of the main characters. The Bearkillers seem to appeal to force too much and don't seem much terribly different from the Protector. I honestly would expect them to become the bullies if they weren't designated heroes. The Mackinzies are better, but I have some reservations about them as well. I probably won't be following this series any further.
Thursday, October 6, 2016
This book contains three novellas which follow our heroes as they wander across Westeros. Martin claims to be planning several other stories with Dunk and Egg, but only time will tell how many we actually end up seeing. For now, though, I rather enjoyed these stories and I highly recommend them to other people. I will say that while they're independent of the Song of Ice and Fire storyline, I think it's highly beneficial to have read the other books because they provide much more information about the setting's backstory, locations, and other details which Martin doesn't really go into in these stories. I think someone who hasn't read Song of Ice and Fire would be able to read these stories all right, but I think they'd be somewhat confused by the references characters make. If you know the setting, though, then you'll be just fine.
The thing I really liked about these stories is they feel a lot like stories from the Arthurian mythos. If I haven't mentioned this before, I am a huge fan of Arthurian legend and I am an absolute sucker for stories about knight errants seeking for quests. These stories have a far earthier tone, though, compared to the old chivalric romances and that's something Martin does very, very well. We may be in a setting with dragons and magic, but Martin manages to make the world feel very realistic and he shows what life for people at the bottom of the heap is like as well. There's just something about Martin's writing that makes the world feel incredibly realistic.
Another thing that I liked was the inclusion of illustrations within the book by Gary Gianni. Although they're just black and white illustrations, I think a few of them are downright gorgeous and they really add an extra visual quality to the story. Even if these are stories for grown-ups, the illustrations are an excellent bonus.
Overall, I think these stories were very enjoyable, but as I said, it's a genre that I really enjoy and Martin creates a rich and very believable world. At the end of this book, as with a lot of Martin's other books, I'm left wanting more, and it truly is an enjoyable universe. But ultimately we'll see what happens with the series as time goes on.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
From about 1952 to 1959 several of the major players in the organized crime syndicates in the United States, collectively referred to as the mob, owned casino hotels in the town of Havana. They also paid extensive bribes to the political leaders of Cuba which allowed them to do basically whatever they wanted, which had been the goal of the mob since the 1920's. As their operations expanded from bootlegging to prostitution, narcotics, and most important of all gambling, gangsters began looking for an offshore location to launder profits while making more money to launch further enterprises.
Cuba was in many ways a perfect match for the mobsters. It was close to the United States, but independent which put mobsters beyond the reach of federal lawmen. The country had a long history of corruption and Havana had a long history as a vice location for American tourists. Alcohol, gambling, drugs, and sex were all available for purchase and in boom years Americans spent millions of dollars in Havana. The gangsters were right at home and for several years they ran Havana as their own personal fiefdom.
A story which I've heard is Americans pondering why the Cubans banded behind Fidel Castro and revolted, eventually kicking the Americans out of Cuba and leading to the strange state of affairs which is tentatively thawing today, but that remains to be seen. If Cubans had made so much money off of American tourism, why would they want American tourists to stop coming? Well the answer is simply that the money stayed concentrated in Havana. So while Havana, especially the political and military elites in Havana, enjoyed bribes, kickbacks, and ordinary profits from the tourism industry, the rest of the country was trapped in deep, crippling poverty dominated by American corporations like United Fruit. So when the majority of the country isn't benefitting from all the money coming into the country, it's easy to see why a revolution would take root.
I am left with some concerns about this book, namely its sources. The first problem is that I listened to this book as an audio book rather than reading it so I didn't have a collection of sources to consult. This is made more concerning with some of the assertions that English makes. For example, towards the end of the book English suggests that the mob was somehow connected with the assassination of John F. Kennedy based off of an offhand comment made by a gangster several years later. This seems rather unlikely and English doesn't pursue the subject any further. English also asserts that while the mob owned the the casinos and hotels, they were not involved in the narcotics trade or prostitution in Cuba and there's no evidence at all that they were. Honestly, I feel like this is a case of English protesting too much. Yes, the mob was trying to clean up their image and become ''respectable businessmen'', but I find it unlikely that they wouldn't dabble in areas other than gambling.
English also isn't very broad in his detailing of the mob connections in Cuba. I can understand this to an extent because, this being a criminal activity, they weren't exactly the type to keep records. But it's a very general overview rather than a detailed account. Rather than talking about conditions outside of Havana, we're basically told they're just bad. We're told about the bribery and corruption, but he doesn't get into the nitty gritty. There are plenty of details about the more titillating details such as the thriving sex show industry in Havana, but it seems more for entertainment than actual research.
Overall, while it's interesting to know, I feel like this book falls short in quite a few ways from a historical research perspective. I would like to check up on English's sources for more information, but his inclusion of a conspiracy theory is somewhat concerning on the whole work.