A true story and one of the very best books I’ve read this year.  During the COVID-19 “lock-downs”, my wife and I have tried to obey all of the rules; i.e. 1.) Stay in: grocery store, pharmacy, doctors’ appointments, etc., 2.) Wear masks at all times when you do go out, 3.) If ordering out, do curb-side ordering only.  You get the picture.  This is week number twelve (12) and cabin fever is really showing.  The state of Tennessee has relaxed the rules somewhat and we are in Phase 2 of the “getting back to normal” but it’s a new normal.  Social distancing is a must as well as wearing masks and sometimes gloves.  Of course, some people do not obey any rules and that’s their deal.  During this very strange period of time, I have read eight (8) books as well as doing a great deal of in-house work, primarily painting.   The last book read– Forty Autumns.

HISTORY:

First, let me mention that I have never read a book detailing the lives of those in East Berlin and East Germany after World War II.  As you know, after the war, the Allied Powers controlled West Germany and Russia controlled East Germany.  This of course includes Berlin.  After the Potsdam conference, Germany was divided into four occupied zones: Great Britain in the northwest, France in the southwest, the United States in the south and the Soviet Union in the east.  Berlin, the capital city situated in Soviet territory, was also divided into four occupied zones.  Sir Winston Churchill coined the phrase “The Iron Curtin” and this became the code words for east versus west.   The division of Germany into capitalist West and Communist East did not lead to the Cold War so much as it exacerbated existing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War was already well under way when Germany was divided up into East and West.

The Cold War was a long period of tension between the democracies of the Western World and the communist countries of Eastern Europe. The west was led by the United States and Eastern Europe was led by the Soviet Union. These two countries became known as superpowers and definitely caused world-wide tension between all nations.  During this period of time we saw the nuclear arms race, domestic turmoil, significant degradation of human rights for those behind the “iron Curtin”, the Cuban blockade, and the beginning of the “space race”.  It was a tumultuous time and the “doomsday clock” got very close to twelve midnight more than a couple of times. 

THE AUTHOR:

American-born Nina Willner was five (5) years old when she learned her maternal grandmother, Oma, lived “behind a curtain,” in East Germany. As mentioned previously, the Iron Curtain was an ideologically charged metaphor but also a harsh reality that divided many German families in the aftermath of World War II.

Willner’s rebellious mother, Hanna, successfully escaped East Germany at the young age of twenty (20), after three previous attempts. But she paid a steep, if predictable, emotional price: virtually complete separation, for decades, from her parents and eight siblings, including her youngest sister, Heidi, born after Hanna’s flight.

Like many East Germans, Hanna’s family struggled to come to terms with the regime’s totalitarian demands and to find some measure of satisfaction in their private lives. Meanwhile, only a couple of visits, a rare phone call and anodyne letters pierced the silence between Hanna and those she left behind. With even mail subject to the snooping — and often interdiction — of the ubiquitous secret police of the Stasi, it was perilous to express genuine emotions, let alone political complaints.

Ms. Willner is a former US Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. The book is very careful to detail why she joined the armed service after graduating from college.  She simply wanted to show her gratitude for living in a free country and felt the Army was the best way to give back.  Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes and the rule of law for the US Government, non-profit organizations and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Washington, DC and Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book and is a great testament to her parents, grandparents and great grandparents.  You can certainly tell her family is the uppermost thought in her life and desire to know them better takes over forty years.   A picture of Ms. Willner is show below.

THE STORY:

Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna, Nina’s mother, escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. She was definitely on her own initially and lived from day-to-day right after she came to west Berlin.  The first order of business was to find a job.  She had earlier been trained as a stenographer and being bi-lingual, found work as a translator.   After some years, Hanna moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.  Russian intelligence was overbearing to the citizens of east Germany and visitation was strictly monitored to the point of almost being impossible.  Only avowed Communists were allowed to travel. 

In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.

A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.

One great part of the book is all of the black and white photographs of Ms. Willner’s family behind the Iron Curtin.  A great indication that this is a “real” story—not fiction.  It really happened and there are today survivors of that cold war period of time.   I can definitely recommend to you this great book.  Buy it—read it, then be happy we live in a country that is basically free.


THE WORLD—A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

I have just completed reading the book mentioned above.  Mr.  Richard Haass does a marvelous job in giving the reader a very quick but extremely concise history lesson, both past and present.  He is NOT judgmental or condemning but informative and simply provides history in a factual manner.

RICHARD HAASS:

Dr. Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent independent, nonpartisan organization in the United States dedicated to the study of American foreign policy. An experienced diplomat and policymaker, Dr. Haass was director of policy planning for the Department of State from 2001 until 2003, where he was a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell on a broad range of foreign policy concerns. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold the rank of ambassador, Dr. Haass served as U.S. coordinator for policy toward the future of Afghanistan and was the U.S. envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. He was also special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 1989 to 1993. A recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal, the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award, and the Tipperary International Peace Award, he is the author or editor of fifteen books, including the best-selling A World in Disarray. A Rhodes scholar, he holds a BA from Oberlin College and both master and doctor of philosophy degrees from Oxford University. He has received honorary degrees from Central College, Colgate University, Franklin & Marshall College, Georgetown University, Hamilton College, Miami Dade College, and Oberlin College.

THE BOOK:

The World—A Brief Introduction is designed to provide readers of any age and experience with the essential background and building blocks they need to make sense of this complicated and interconnected world. Mr. Haass indicates in the very first part of the book the very real fact that our schools seem to be failing at fully preparing students in history, both past and present.   This book will empower the reader in managing the flood of daily news. Readers will become more informed, discerning citizens, better able to arrive at sound, independent judgments. While it is impossible to predict what the next crisis will be or where it will originate, those who read The World will have what they need to understand its basics and the principal choices for how to respond.

In short, this book will make readers more globally literate and put them in a position to make sense of this era. Global literacy–knowing how the world works–is a must, as what goes on outside a country matters enormously to what happens inside. Although the United States is bordered by two oceans, those oceans are not moats. And the so-called Vegas rule–what happens there stays there–does not apply in today’s world to anyone anywhere. U.S. foreign policy is uniquely American, but the world Americans seek to shape is not. Globalization can be both good and bad, but it is not something that individuals or countries can opt out of. Even if we want to ignore the world, it will not ignore us. The choice we face is how to respond.

I would like now to give you several facts from Dr. Haass’s book that will indicate the level of detail presented and some flavor for the discourse:

  • A recent survey of over eleven hundred (1100) American colleges and universities found that only seventeen percent (17%) require students to take courses in U.S. government or history, while only three percent (3%) require them to take course work in economics.
  • One survey of the top American colleges and universities showed that less than one-third required history majors to take a single course in U.S. government.
  • Approximately one-third of Americans who graduate from high school do not attend any college and only forty percent (40%) do achieve a degree.
  • During WWI, as many as two hundred thousand (200,000) British forces were killed or wounded in a single campaign.  This was the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula.
  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact were structured to provide communication between countries and to preclude additional strife and war in Western and East Europe.
  • No religion claims a majority of the world’s people. Nearly one-third of the world’s population is Christian (close to two point three billion).  One point eight billion people are Muslims.  Just over one billion are Hindus, nearly five hundred thousand are Buddhists and approximately fifteen million are Jewish.  More than one billion claim no religion at all.
  • The Middle-East and North Africa have fifty-three percent (53%) of the world’s oil reserves.  The Middle-East and North Africa have forty-five percent (45%) of the world’s natural gas reserves.
  • Africa has four hundred and five million people living on less than two U.S. dollars per day. South Asia, two hundred and twelve million, East Asia forth-seven million, the Americas, twenty-six million, Middle East and North Africa, fifteen million, Central Asia, five million and Europe, four million.  Less than two dollars per day.
  • The Americas leads the world in homicides with sixteen point two (16.2) per 100,000 people.  These are 2017 statistics.
  • A significant number of terrorist attacks occurred in 2017 with Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines being the most troubled.
  • In looking at the stockpile of nuclear warheads: Russia has 4,330, the U.S. has 3,800, France has 300, the UK has 215.  There are five others with nuclear capabilities.
  • Over one percent (1%) of the world’s population has been displaced due to war, economic conditions, crime, and environmental conditions.
  • The U.S. dollar is the most widely held reserve currency.
  • In looking at the human development index considering 1.) Education, 2.) Income and 3.) Life expectancy, the United States is number thirteen on the list with Norway ranking at ninety-five point three (95.3%).
  • Over five hundred thousand (500,000) Syrians have lost their lives and a majority of the population have been made homeless as a result of the conflict in Syria.  The Syrian government has played a major role in that horrible number.

I could go on from there with many more examples from Dr. Haass’s book but you get the picture—now buy and read the book.  Dr. Haass has fifty-six pages of notes and sources he has consulted during research for this book.   He has the numbers.

JACK REACHER

May 25, 2020


Last year a good friend of mine introduced me to the writer Lee Child.   Mr. Child created the character Jack Reacher who is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and interesting individuals in literature.  He is not quite a shining hero and has numerous flaws but he gets the job done.

JACK REACHER—THE CHARACTER

Reacher left home at eighteen (18), graduated from West Point. Performed thirteen (13) years of Army service, demoted from Major to Captain in 1990, mustered out with the rank of Major in 1997. Born on an Army base in Germany. His father chose his name; it read “Jack-none-Reacher” on the birth certificate faxed to the Berlin Embassy. They called his brother Joe, but nobody ever called Jack by his first name. How it came about, no one knows but Jack was always called Reacher.

His father was career military so as kids, Jack and his brother moved so much that spending a full school year in any one place felt weird. “Our friends just kept disappearing. Some unit would be shipped out somewhere and a bunch of kids would be gone. Sometimes we saw them again in a different place. Plenty of them we never saw again. Nobody ever said hello or goodbye. You were just either there or not there.”

If we look at his service awards, we see the following:

Top row: Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit
Second row: Soldier’s Medal, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart
Bottom row: “Junk awards” (Or so he calls them.)

“Medals?” we ask?  And he answered:


“Dozens of the damn things,” he said. “You know how it is. Theater medals, of course, plus a Silver Star, two Bronzes, Purple Heart from Beirut, campaign things from Panama and Grenada and Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”


“A Silver Star?” we asked. “What for?”
“Beirut,” he said. “Pulled some guys out of the bunker.”


“And you got wounded doing that?”  “That’s how you got the scar and the Purple Heart?”
“I was already wounded,” he said. “Got wounded before I went in. I think that was what impressed them.”

What he doesn’t have: A driver’s license, Federal benefits (doesn’t want them), tax returns (doesn’t do them; he hasn’t filed taxes since he left the Army).  Major, US Army retired, travels from place to place taking nothing with him but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush.  He is definitely a wondering star which is why he is so unique.  He wears his clothes until needing new ones, trashes the ones he has, and starts out again. 

The stories that I love are basically about the knight-errant, the mysterious stranger. And the reason why people think that’s an essentially American paradigm is the Westerns. The Westerns were absolutely rock solid with that stuff. You know, the mysterious rider comes in off the range, sorts out the problem, and rides off into the sunset. It is just such a total paradigm, but not invented in America. That was imported from the medieval tales of Europe. The knight-errant: literally a knight, somehow banished and forced to wander the land doing good deeds. It’s part of storytelling in every culture. Japan has it with the ronin myth; every culture has this Robin Hood idea. So really, that character was forced out of Europe as Europe became more densely populated and more civilized. That character no longer had stories in Europe; it had to migrate to where the frontier was still open and dangerous, which was America, essentially. So, the character, I think, is actually universal and historic, most recently, normally represented in America. I think the Westerns saw it firmly adopted by America, so yeah, right now, we think of this as a completely American character, but really, it’s more historic than that. But I’m very happy to have that reference made.

LEE CHILD

James Dover Grant CBE (born 29 October 1954), is primarily known by his pen name Lee Child. He is a British author who writes fiction “thriller” novels, and is best known for his Jack Reacher novel series. … His first novel, Killing Floor (1997), won both the Anthony Award, and the Barry Award for Best First Novel.

As mentioned, Mr. Child was born in 1954 in Coventry, England, but spent his formative years in the nearby city of Birmingham. By coincidence he won a scholarship to the same high school that JRR Tolkien had attended. He went to law school in Sheffield, England, and after part-time work in the theater he joined Granada Television in Manchester for what turned out to be an eighteen-year career as a presentation director during British TV’s “golden age.” During his tenure his company made Brideshead RevisitedThe Jewel in the CrownPrime Suspect, and Cracker. But he was fired in 1995 at the age of 40 as a result of corporate restructuring. Always a voracious reader, he decided to see an opportunity where others might have seen a crisis and bought six dollars’ worth of paper and pencils and sat down to write a book, Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series.

Lee Child has written twenty-two (22) Reacher books and has numerous short stories to his credit.   I have read eight (8) Reacher novels and what I find very interesting is there are no two plots remotely similar—same Reacher style but differing in outcome and story line.    Always interesting twists in each and generally a surprise ending awaits the reader.  Also, very interesting and somewhat challenging;

there is a great diversity of characters in each Reacher book.   Mr. Child takes great care in developing each character, thus giving the reader enough background information to keep our undivided attention.  Another thing, most of the characters are really evil, mean and contemptuous scum.  The worst of the worst.  Keeps things really interesting as to how Reacher overcomes all adversaries to achieve an eventual successful outcome.  The good guy always wins in the Lee Child books.

Now, one “bone to pick”, Tom Cruise played Jack Reacher in two movies and Mr. Cruise was not quite the fit needed relative to the character in Lee Child’s books.  Reacher is six foot five inches tall.  Cruise is five foot seven.  Reacher is two hundred and fifty pounds, Cruise probably, one hundred and seventy-five at the most.  Don’t get me wrong, Cruise is a very good actor but that was a real flaw in casting.

I think you will certainly enjoy Reacher the character and all of the Child books.  Mr. Child is a “word-smith” in the truest since of the word and can certainly weave a great mystery novel. 

THE BONE TREE

May 11, 2020


The Bone Tree was written by Mr. Greg Iles, who is, in my opinion, a fabulous writer.  Let’s look at a very quick biography of Mr. Iles right now.

GREG ILES:

Greg Iles was born in Germany in 1960.  His father ran the US Embassy Medical Clinic during the height of the Cold War. Mr. Iles spent all of his younger years in Natchez, Mississippi, and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1983.  Demonstrating his artistic abilities in another manner, he spent several years playing music in the band “Frankly Scarlet.” The year after he was married, he gigged on the road for fifty (50) weeks out of fifty-two (52), and realized that this lifestyle was simply not sustainable with a family. He quit the band and began working eighteen hours a day on his first novel, Spandau Phoenix. Spandau Phoenix is a thriller about the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess.  When Greg sold this manuscript, he left the music business altogether to complete the book. Spandau Phoenix was published in 1993 and became the first of eight (8) New York Times bestsellers.

Over the course of the next few years, he broke the formula adhered to by most commercial novelists in writing a variety of genres. Perhaps surprisingly, each found a place on the bestseller list, and today, readers look forward to discovering what new subject Greg has explored in his latest novel.

The novels of Mr. Iles have been translated into more than a dozen (12) languages and published in more than twenty (20) countries worldwide.  At the present time, 11 May 2020, he has sixteen (16) published books to his credit.   Greg currently lives in Natchez, Mississippi, with his wife and their two children.

THE BONE TREE:  Clinic during the height of the Cold War.  Iles spent his youth in Natchez, Mississippi, and graduated from the University of The Bone Tree is an incredible followup to Natchez Burning.  One of the best middle installments of a trilogy I have ever come across. At the very heart of Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree books is family – not just one family – several. The deceit and lies they tell and the lengths they will go to love and protect their own is outstanding. They absolutely pull no punches in protecting each other.

The Cage family (one that has been prominent in several books written by Mr. Iles), is revered by most in Natchez – even when their choices are not understood; while the Knox family incites fear in women and men alike. Good does not just battle evil in the Bone Tree. It is not a place that most can find. And is not a place you want to visit. For most do not escape.

Hard choices are made daily and evil wins out… most of the time. But champions like Dr. Tom Cage, Penn Cage and Caitlin Masters take up the cause to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, like Viola Turner and Henry Sexton. Dr. Tom Cage, having suffered more than most will stop at nothing to protect what he holds dear. Caitlin Masters works tirelessly to try and discover the mysteries of the Bone Tree. She finds it and discovers the true evil that lurk there.  

The themes in this book are riveting and heartbreaking: the roots of racism/modern-day racism in the south; and a conspiracy theory regarding the death of JFK (and the deaths of RFK and MLK).  It is these themes interwoven with the beloved characters of Tom and Penn Cage that make this book impossible to put down.  Now, one caution, The Bone Tree is a whopping eight hundred and four (804) pages long.  The reason for that length—meticulous descriptions of each character AND the situations the characters experience as they travel their way trying to find the truth.  If you choose to read this book, you will find the very root of evil.  The Knox family is truly one of the most disgusting families found in literature.  They are, to a person, evil personified.   Their evil is counterbalanced with several people tirelessly working to discover the truth.  And with that, you have a truly fascinating book.  I have no idea as to why Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree have not been made into a motion picture. 

Hope you enjoy the read.

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

April 11, 2020


This COVID-19 lock down has given me time to read, write, paint, rearrange furniture, seed and fertilize my front and back yard, etc etc.  You get the picture.  Also, my wife and I are streaming video from On Demand and Net Flicks:  Homeland, Outlander, Eco in the Canyon, Seal Team, Manifest etc.  You get the picture.  I just completed one of the VERY best books I have ever read— “A Gentleman in Moscow.”  This great book was written by Amor Towles.   Let me give you a little data on the book itself.

AuthorAmor Towles
PublisherViking
Publication dateSeptember 6, 2016
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)  

THE MAIN CHARACTERS:

  • The Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. The Count is the protagonist and titular character of A Gentleman in Moscow. …
  • Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich (Mishka) The Count’s best friend, whom he met at school and who keeps him company at the hotel. …
  • Anna Urbanova. …
  • Nina Kulikova. …
  • Sofia. …
  • The Bishop. …
  • Andrey Duras. …
  • Emile Zhukovsky.

I am NOT going to spoil it for you by giving any details relative to the characters in this book but suffice it to say, Mr. Towles goes to great length to develop each character to the fullest and how those characters interact with Count Rostov.  There is a very surprising ending.  In other words, I did NOT see that coming.

STORYLINE

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.  Prior to reading the book, I thought how on Earth could a guy stuck in a hotel for life but that entertaining.  Boy was I wrong about this one.  Mr. Towles displays an ability to develop the characters and situations that are fascinating.   The detail is absolutely grand and the people he meets during his stay are truly interesting and have their own story to tell.

Towles has certainly woven a sophisticated and powerful literary achievement. But what makes this novel so winning is not the generous prose, or the impeccable pace, or the characterization or even the gorgeously realized setting—as eruditely rendered as they are. It’s the author’s voice. The arched eyebrow, the conspiratorial wink, the sly, confiding tone. The piercing irony and the craftiness with which he always seems to know the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound or to outrage most.  The quality of the writing is truly Shakespearian in nature.

In conclusion: You REALLY need to read this book !!!!!!!!

JASON MATTHEWS

January 26, 2020


If you have read any of my posts you know I believe that every writer MUST be a voracious reader.  I truly believe that.  Becoming an effective writer, and I’m admittedly far from that rarified position, necessitates one becoming obsessed with examining the work of proficient writers.  I believe it’s a must.  With that in mind, I have found an incredible “wordsmith” in Jason Matthews.  I have read all three of his books: “Red Sparrow”, “Palace of Treason” and “The Kremlin’s Candidate”.  All three marvelous reads.

Jason Matthews is a retired spy but doesn’t look like one. He more nearly resembles a high school principal: calm, patient, a little bland. The only clues to his former occupation — thirty-three (33) years with the C.I.A. — are his uncanny peripheral vision and his occasional use of terms like “ops” and “intel.”

Mr. Matthews, who is sixty-three (63) years old, is also a novelist, one in a long line of real-life spies who have written spy thrillers. The tradition goes back at least to Erskine Childers, the Irish nationalist and gun smuggler who wrote the 1903 thriller “The Riddle of the Sands,” and includes Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Stella Rimington, Charles McCarry and even E. Howard Hunt, more famous for Watergate, who all reaped great fictional dividends from the Cold War.

Mr. Matthews said he got into novel writing as “therapy.” “Being in the Agency is a very experiential career, like being a policeman or a fireman or a jet pilot, and when it stops, it really stops,” he said. “There are retiree groups that get together, mostly in Washington, and sit around and swap war stories, but I was living in California, and it was either write something or go fishing.”

He was not a trained writer, he said, but he went to journalism school before being hired by the C.I.A., and a great deal of his work there consisted of writing cables and reports. He added: “A lot of new thrillers are written by people who have not lived the life, and a lot of them seem to be about a bipolar Agency guy, helped by his bipolar girlfriend, trying to chase a bipolar terrorist who has a briefcase nuke, and there’s twelve (12) hours left to go. My book is all fiction, but it’s an amalgam of people I’ve known, of things I’ve done, of stuff I’ve lived.”

Talking about the old-fashioned kind of tradecraft in “Palace of Treason,” he said, “I guess it’s a reflection of my age and my generation in the Agency, and a reaffirmation that in spite of all the gadgets, it’s still about two people. It’s called humint for a reason — it’s human intelligence — and the only thing that can do humint is humans.”

 All of his novels are set in contemporary Russia, where a pajama-clad Vladimir Putin even turns up in a character’s bedroom, but like the earlier novel, it’s old school. While there are a couple of James Bondian touches, like a pistol that looks like a tube of lipstick, the main characters — Dominika Egorova, a Russian agent secretly working for the United States, and Nate Nash, her C.I.A. lover and handler — depend mostly on traditional tradecraft. They spend a lot of time walking around and trying to avoid being followed. 

I found all three books to be extremely engaging.  Matthews is apparently at home in Paris, Rome, Moscow, Helsinki, Istanbul, London, Rio, Khartoum, and other cities an ex-spy might frequent or serve in.  He seems to have great knowledge of weapons and weapon systems used by the CIA and the “spooks” in the Russia. 

One thing that became apparent very quickly—Russia is not our friend and has never been considered by the CIA to have been our friend.  President Putin is portrayed as being a cold-blooded cutthroat out to enrich himself and above all, protect mother Russia.   I have a feeling this is an accurate assessment of Putin.

I can strongly recommend you take look at Mr. Matthew’s books starting with “Red Sparrow”.  That’s the firs in the trilogy and the one you need to set the pace for number two and number 3.

RED SPARROW

January 5, 2020


If you LOVE spy vs spy, you will absolutely love Red Sparrow.  A book written by Jason Matthews.  Jason Matthews is a retired officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in a clandestine collection of national security intelli­gence, specializing in denied-area operations. Matthews conducted recruitment operations against Soviet–East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets. As Chief in various CIA Stations, he collaborated with foreign partners in counterproliferation and counterterrorism operations. He is the author of Red SparrowPalace of Treason, and The Kremlin’s Candidate. He lives in Southern California. In other words, Mr. Matthews know whereof he speaks. 

The heroin of the book is a Russian young lady named Dominika Egorova.  Ms. Egorova is driven by her anger at the unjustness of the Russian system to become a double agent working for the CIA.  She yearned to be seen as an intelligent person with capabilities beyond her beauty and physical attractiveness. Dominika believed the Americans saw her worth and would treat her fairly where the Russians had not. Feeling used as a pawn by the Americans in a plan to replace a long-time double agent and rejected by her handler and lover Nathaniel “Nate” Nash, Dominika considered leaving her life as a spy. A violent twist at the end of the novel demonstrated the Russians’ lack of loyalty and trustworthiness and leaves the reader wondering if Dominika will reconsider her claim that she will cut ties with the Americans.

One very interesting fact—Ms. Egorova was diagnosed with synesthesia, a condition in which she could see music, words and even people’s emotions and intentions as colors. Dominika had a promising career in ballet. Her condition allowed her to follow the colors produced by the music as she danced. Shortly before an audition for the Bolshoi troupe, a jealous classmate arranged for Dominika to be injured in an accident. Dominika’s foot was broken and her career as a dancer ended. Shortly afterward, Dominika’s father died from a stroke. It was at her father’s funeral that her uncle, Vanya Egorova, proposed that she do a job for him for Russia’s secret service. He promised to take care of her mother if she cooperated.  Her mother was living in housing providing by the Russian government.  Dominika had no choice but to comply with her uncle’s wishes if she wanted to keep her widowed mother in government housing.  This leverage was used throughout the book. 

When Dominika suggested that she be sent to the SVR academy, it was deemed the perfect solution. Dominika finished her courses at the top of her class and was looking forward to a distinguished career as an officer, but her uncle instead informed her she would be going to Sparrow School. The school taught women how to seduce men in order to arrest them or elicit information from them. From that point forward, Dominika was seen by the men in the department only as a tool that could be used to seduce and draw in the men they hoped to recruit. One team leader even ruined a recruitment on which Dominika was working because she insisted she could recruit the man without the use of sex.

I absolutely loved the book.  It’s fast-moving with twists and turns that a non-CIA guy like myself certainly appreciate.  I do NOT feel it is predictable in the least although there were points in the book that were somewhat slower than others.  There are no car chases, plane crashes, mass murders, etc.  I would have liked more descriptive information relative to the incarceration Dominika experienced while in the hands of her Russian captors, the people sworn to protect her.  The Russian “spooks” really come off as terrible people interested only in advancing their own careers and providing information relative to CIA activities.   Dominika is frequently torn between hatred of the system and contributing to “mother Russia”.  

You are going to love this book, which is the first in the trilogy.  Red Sparrow, Place of Treason, and The Kremlin’s Candidate are the books in the series.  Great read. 

NATCHEZ BURNING

August 30, 2018


This is the first book I have read from Greg Iles and I can certainly state that he is an excellent writer—a marvelous word-smith.   In looking at the product details, you can see that this is a HUGE book.  Eight hundred (800) pages of detailed, descriptive material with many fascinating characters and multiple story plots. This translates to approximately two hundred thousand (200,000) words.   I had to really concentrate to get into this book and follow at least half a dozen story lines that travel back in time then move forward.  You will see from several reviews below, this is not a book always enjoyed by every reader.  A compilation of scores may be seen as follows:

PRODUCT DETAILS

  • Series:Penn Cage Novels (Book 4)
  • Hardcover:800 pages
  • Publisher:William Morrow; First Edition (April 29, 2014)
  • Language:English
  • ISBN-10:0062311077
  • ISBN-13:978-0062311078
  • Average Customer Review:4 out of 5 stars   3,939 customer reviews
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank:#429,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

I always like to know something about the author feeling it helps me understand his purpose in writing and specifically writing the book I’m discussing.  Mr. Ille’s very brief biography is given as follows:

BIOGRAPHY:

Greg Iles was born in 1960 in Germany where his father ran the US Embassy medical clinic during the height of the Cold War. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1983 he performed for several years with the rock band Frankly Scarlet and is currently member of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders. His first novel, Spandau Phoenix, a thriller about war criminal Rudolf Hess, was published in 1993 and became a New York Times bestseller. Iles went on to write ten bestselling novels, including Third Degree, True Evil, Turning Angel, Blood Memory, The Footprints of God, and 24 Hours (released by Sony Pictures as Trapped, with full screenwriting credit for Iles). He lives in Natchez, Mississippi.

STORY LINE:

Penn Cage is shocked to learn that his father, Dr. Tom Cage, is about to be charged with murder in the death of a local woman, a nurse who worked with Dr. Cage back in the 1960s. Stymied by his father’s refusal to discuss the case, Penn digs into the past to uncover the truth and discovers long-buried secrets about his community and his own family. Natchez Burning (the title is surely a nod to the infamous “Mississippi Burning” murder case of the 1960s, and others like it) is the first of a planned trilogy. The story ends in mid-stride, leaving us on the edge of our seats, but that’s not a criticism. This beautifully written novel represents some of the author’s finest work, with sharper characterizations and a story of especially deep emotional resonance, and we eagerly await volume two. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Several of Iles’ thrillers have found their way to best-seller lists, but his new publisher is touting this one (his first novel in five years) as a breakout book and seems ready to put marketing dollars behind that claim.

When reviewing a book I have just read, I like to indicate comments from other readers.  A few of these are as follows:

REVIEWS:

CONCLUSIONS:

I can certainly recommend the book but you really need time for completion.  Also, the ending carries a big big surprise.   GO FOR IT.

THINKING FAST AND SLOW

June 13, 2017


Thinking Fast and Slow is a remarkably well-written book by Dr. Daniel Kahneman. Then again why would it not be?  Dr. Kahneman is a Nobel Laureate in Economics. Dr. Kahneman takes the reader on a tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think.   System One (1) is fast, intuitive, and emotional.  System Two (2) is considerably slower, more deliberative, and more logical.   He engages the reader in a very lively conversation about how we think and reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we tap into the benefits of slow thinking.  One great thing about the book is how he offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both the corporate world and our personal lives.  He provides different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble.  He uses multiple examples in each chapter that demonstrate principles of System One and System Two.  This greatly improves the readability of the book and makes understanding much more possible.

Human irrationality is Kahneman’s great theme. There are essentially three phases to his career.  First, he and he coworker Amos Tversky devised a series of ingenious experiments revealing twenty plus “cognitive biases” — unconscious errors of reasoning that distort our judgment of the world. Typical of these is the “anchoring effect”: our tendency to be influenced by irrelevant numbers that we happen to be exposed to.  (In one experiment, for instance, experienced German judges were inclined to give a shoplifter a longer sentence if they just rolled a pair of dice loaded to give a high number.) In the second phase, Kahneman and Tversky showed that people making decisions under uncertain conditions do not behave in the way that economic models have traditionally assumed; they do not “maximize utility.” Both researchers then developed an alternative account of decision making, one more faithful to human psychology, which they called “prospect theory.” (It was for this achievement that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel.) In the third phase of his career, mainly after the death of Tversky, Kahneman delved into “hedonic psychology”: the science of happiness, its nature and its causes. His findings in this area have proven disquieting.   One finding because one of the key experiments involved a deliberately prolonged colonoscopy.  (Very interesting chapter.)

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” spans all three of these phases. It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching, especially when Kahneman is recounting his collaboration with Tversky. (“The pleasure we found in working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored.”).  So, impressive is its vision of flawed human reason that the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that Kahneman and Tversky’s work “will be remembered hundreds of years from now,” and that it is “a crucial pivot point in the way we see ourselves.” They are, Brooks said, “like the Lewis and Clark of the mind.”

One of the marvelous things about the book is how he captures multiple references.  Page after page of references are used in formulating the text.  To his credit—he has definitely done his homework and years of research into the subject matter propels this text as one of the most foremost in the field of decision making.

This book was the winner of the National Academy of Sciences Best Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  It also was selected by the New York Times Review as one of the ten (10) best books of 2011.

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:

Daniel Kahneman is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, and a fellow of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his pioneering work integrating insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty. Much of this work was carried out collaboratively with Amos Tversky.

In addition to the Nobel prize, Kahneman has been the recipient of many other awards, among them the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (1982) and the Grawemeyer Prize (2002), both jointly with Amos Tversky, the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1995), the Hilgard Award for Career Contributions to General Psychology (1995), and the Lifetime Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (2007).

Professor Kahneman was born in Tel Aviv but spent his childhood years in Paris, France, before returning to Palestine in 1946. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology (with a minor in mathematics) from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and in 1954 he was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, serving principally in its psychology branch.  In 1958, he came to the United States and earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1961.

During the past several years, the primary focus of Professor Kahneman’s research has been the study of various aspects of experienced utility (that is, the utility of outcomes as people actually live them).

CONCLUSIONS: 

This is one book I can definitely recommend to you but one caution—it is a lengthy book and at times tedious.  His examples are very detailed but contain subject matter that we all can relate to.  The decision-making process for matters confronting everyone on an everyday are brought to life with pros and cons being the focus.  You can certainly tell he relies upon probability theory in explaining the choices chosen by individuals and how those choices may be proper or improper.  THIS IS ONE TO READ.

UNBROKEN

September 16, 2012


I just finished a marvelous book called “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.   Published by Random House with copyright date of 2001.  Ms. Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit, another terrific book which became a movie three or four years ago .  Unbroken is about the life of Louis Zamperini from high school years until his death.  The primary chapters of the book concern his capture and incarceration in Japanese prison camps during the Second World War.    In 1942, Zamperini served in the Army Air Force (AAF) as a bombardier aboard a B-24 “Liberator”, also known as the “flying brick”.   His plane was named Super Man.   He was a member of flight crew number 8 in the nine-crew   372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, Seventh Air Force.  The first duty station for Zamperini and his crew was Hickam Field, Oahu were the war  had begun for Americans eleven months earlier.   The major portion of the book begins with the plane he was in , not Super Man,  ditching in the South Pacific and the flight crew’s remarkable survival at sea.  Shot down in the Pacific Theater,  Hillenbrand explains their situation as follows: “Slumped alongside him (Zamperini ) was a sergeant and one of his plane’s gunners while on a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another  crewman, a gash zigzagging across  his forehead.  Their bodies burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had withered down to skeletons.  Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.”  The rafts had floated at least 1,000 miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters.  They were picked up by passing Japanese fishing boat.  While the crew had hoped for deliverance instead, they were turned over to Japanese captors who held them in various prison camps for the duration of the war.  After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were liberated by US forces.  The POWs were beaten mercilessly by their captors and many were judged and sentenced by military tribunals after the war for inhuman treatment to prisoners.   Imprisonment took a definite physical toll on Zamperini but also a significant mental toll; showing up only after he returned to the United States.  Hillenbrand details the demons Louis had to conquer to overcome aberrant behavior and a quick temper.     Daily nightmares were commonplace and the only way Louis fought back was by drowning  the inevitable  “visitors” in alcohol.  He became an alcoholic.  His marriage suffered, his children suffered and family kept away because his actions were so unpredictable.   An equally remarkable part of the story is how Zamperini overcame  his mental problems and how he spent the remainder of  his life after restoration to normal.

I can highly recommend this book to you.   The book is not fiction.  Many pictures of Zamperini, his flight crew and his family are given in the pages with supporting text indicating their importance.  It details the life of an Olympic runner, war hero, husband, father and most of all, a survivor who remained unbroken.

 

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